Mister Lies’ Mowgli record on Lefse was an expressive beat record, it bore the mark of a debut and perhaps we only feel it now given his commentary and our glimpses into Shadow, but that debut scar translated as limitation. With the move to Orchid Tapes, Shadow is an emotive record that Mister Lies, born Nick Zanca, has described as getting closer to achieving the sounds he hears in his head.
He’s working beyond the egomania of a boy with Ableton and a dream that dominated his life post-Mowgli, and Shadow is a collaborative effort at every turn, whether it be guest vocalists, guest cellists, or simply having someone by his side to help see his vision through. It took travel and it took escape, both little and larger departures. In those moments, Zanca retreated to the songs he placed on his mix for our series, “802s and Windbreaks”. He explains the process below:
I record a vast majority of my music by a lake near Vermont ski country. Whenever I get tunnel vision in the studio, I go out for a drive to clear the head. I most likely have songs by the artists on this mix on blast during those drives. Consider this collection a love letter to the foliage seen on those roads.
Read on for a brief Q&A with Nick Zanca and the “802s & Windbreaks Mix” tracklisting.
A lot has changed with you in terms of habitat (Chicago to New York), label (Lefse to Orchid), and performance crew (solo to band), but when it came to the physical act and mentality that went to Mowgli and Shadow… what had changed?
The principal goal with Shadow was to make the composition process, and subsequently live performance, much more immersive. I often talk about how bored I got while touring Mowgli; that being the boy with the laptop and controller who fakes his way though a set wasn’t for me. The craving of spontaneity during shows and that notion of family you get when on the road with a band was the foundation off which I built this thing. I was a little nervous going into writing this material because I hadn’t been in a band, let alone written songs traditionally, since I was 17, and in the five years that had passed I had become a bit of a megalomaniac. Once I got cracking though, things manifested themselves much better than I’d imagined they would. After putting Mowgli out and traveling I quickly went from “nothing to write lyrics about” to “too many ideas.”
The three or four songs that I recorded at my place in Vermont that made the final cut of the album were the product of a little over a year of work. I’ll be damned if I spend that much time working on single songs like that again before they become hyper-existential. The other half of the record, however, was finished in a quick two-week session with my close friend Malcom [Lacey] (he makes music as Arrange, also an Orchid Tapes project) at his home outside of Portland. Working with him and concomitantly seeing friends in the area made me realize that collaboration, while sometimes uneasy, is an incredibly vital part of my process; something I plan on channeling more of in the future. It’s good to do the Justin Vernon lone-wolf retreat thing at least once, but you can’t stay alienated forever.
In a recent interview with BYT, you said you wanted to make music that appeals to a younger version of yourself. What was a younger Nick Zanca into and how did that influence Shadow?
For as long as I have been making music actively, I have found myself attached to music that shifts around melodically, harmonically and structurally in the context of “pop”. I think that’s pretty evident in the mix I made for y’all. Nowadays I’m totally obsessed with Prefab Sprout, Alexander O’Neal, The Blue Nile… but going back to when I was 13, an older brother figure introduced me to all the nocturnally-inclined trip-hop records under the sun. When he showed me Portishead via their Roseland Ballroom live album, that completely fucked me up. Their live arrangements are impeccable and I still don’t understand how Beth Gibbons can write melodies that enticing and lyrics that androgynous. To this day it’s still my favorite live recording of all time.
When I started writing Shadow, I revisited that record, or Kid A, Loveless, even records by Brand New or Say Anything, all the commonplace “masterpieces” that I listened to back when I was around that age and started really diving into “good music” for the first time, but I also began examining the mathematics behind it, so to speak, as opposed to just letting sound wash over me. Music that influences that many people is organized very particularly, almost unexplainably so. Without completely understanding what I was doing, I tried to convey that as best I could, even going as far as borrowing the structure of certain songs. I’ve skimmed SoundCloud comments on the new singles and have seen people namedrop Massive Attack or Thom Yorke, so I guess I must be doing something right?
When it came to guest vocalists and contributors to the record, what was that process like? Did they bring their own lyrics to the tracks, was it collaborative, or was it more you had something you needed sung and their voice offered the proper accompaniment?
The process, as per usual, changed depending on who I was working with. In terms of production, Malcom played a bigger role than I think he’s willing to admit. We’d would start most mornings driving around with his husband, getting breakfast and listening to music and deciding what to rip off.
Going back to borrowing structure, “Pill” was basically designed to be an ape of SWV’s “You’re Always On My Mind”. That rolling bassline at the beginning was totally his idea. When it came to contributing his vocals and lyrics, Malcom wouldn’t let me in the room. That’s a private process for him, I trust him enough to whip up something on his own.
Harrison Lipton, who I worked on “High” with, is an old friend I used to play shows with at all-ages spaces while growing up in Connecticut. With the exception of background vocals, his role was pretty much solely instrumental. We wrote the melody and the original sketch together in 2012, but I rewrote the lyrics and the framework of the track during the final stretch of recording.
Another really important person who played a role in making Shadow happen was Ansel [Cohen], the cellist who plays on the first half. He’s a beast. Rather than writing parts out, I would just sing them to him and he’d embellish it in the most idiosyncratic way. He just joined us for my band’s first show at Brooklyn Night Bazaar [recently] and he was so killing.
When it comes to Mister Lies as a project, do you impose limitations on it or believe in such a thing so that a listener/fan has a distinct understanding of your sound or is it something you view as more prone to metamorphosis?
The idea that the concept of “too much experimentation” exists is so, so dumb. It’s working fine for Scott Walker, and as far as I am concerned, I can’t stay in one place for too long no matter how much people are waiting for another “Cleam”.
The thing that sets musicians apart from other artists is that sonic maturity never really stops, or rather, it only stops when you want it to. That isn’t to say that sort of thing doesn’t exist in other creative fields, but take a look at Talk Talk’s trajectory—even Kanye. I hear a song like “We Don’t Care”—hip-hop at its most elementary—and it’s baffling to think he could’ve been making something as brooding as “Say You Will” five years after, or as brash and in-your-face as “On Sight” five years after that.
I’m still young as hell—I’ll be turning 22 next month. While I’d like to think otherwise, I have no jurisdiction over where my music will go when I am 25 or 30. Quite frankly, I don’t even want to guess. I’m just going to keep creating and stay ready to roll with the tides. I’ve only just started to break out of the cocoon.
As you get closer to having the skills to make “the music you hear in your head” as you’ve put it, what do you feel needs to come next for Mister Lies? Are there collaborations or additions to the project you envision that will help you obtain the vision and unlock in internal symphony?
The live band is certainly a great place to start. At this point, I wouldn’t have the live presentation any other way. It’s definitely not a dictatorship, which I love. I can talk about how much I want to work with Willow Smith or whatever but I have goals for myself in the future that involve collaborations with artists in other mediums.
I recently scored a totally brutal short film for a friend that will be out in a couple of months. Considering that atmosphere is the part most valuable to my modus operandi, I would love to take more gigs like that. Also, another friend and I are in the early stages of an experimental theatre piece to which I will be contributing music—I nerd out on Samuel Beckett and Robert Wilson so that’s perfect for me. If something ever becomes boring, I’ll do everything in my power to make it not. The vision is always unfolding and I’ll always be hungry for new opportunities.
01 Quindon Tarver, “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)”
02 Alexander O’Neal, “Sunshine”
03 Scritti Politti, “Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Loverboy)”
04 INOJ, “Precious Love”
05 Camille, “Pour Que L’Amour Me Quitte”
06 Thomas, “He’s A Little Church”
07 Torn Hawk, “Blindsided”
08 Ryan Power, “Identity Picks”
09 Julia Holter, “He’s Running Through My Eyes”
10 Peter Gabriel, “Games Without Frontiers (Massive Attack Remix)”
11 Ryuichi Sakamoto, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”
Mister Lies’ Shadow is out October 28 on Orchid Tapes.