Nick Zanca’s kept busy. Since moving to Chicago in 2011, he’s fallen in with underground label/collective Svengali, signed to Lefse Records, embarked on his first headlining tour, and opened for Jessie Ware at Tomorrow Never Knows — all while taking classes as an undergrad at Columbia College. Just weeks after the release of his debut full-length, Mister Lies – named after an imaginary character from Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America — will be heading down to Austin to play his first SXSW.
A marked departure from Zanca’s first round of singles and EPs, Mowgli churns pitch-shifted samples, minor-key arpeggios, and seasick beats into an eerie sonic jungle. Consequence of Sound got the chance to sit down with Zanca and discuss the new record, his literary inspirations, and how he’s still learning at every step.
Congratulations on the new album. It’s great stuff, a lot toothier than your older work. Can you talk about what prompted that shift?
The Internet. You hear the word “chill” enough times, or “chillstep,” or “I want to smoke weed to this music,” and the automatic reaction is just, “I need to change this immediately.” When I lived in Connecticut, I was doing the exact opposite of the kind of music that I do now. I was in a pop-punk band, and I did some noise music here and there. The tenacity there and the energy with this project are two completely different things. I didn’t know what I was doing when I made the first record. After I signed with Lefse, they were like, “Do you have enough songs to come out with a record?” I was just starting to produce electronic music that was acceptable at the time. So, the answer was no. I was still in the process of putting all my ducks in a row.
That summer, I started out in Connecticut, but there were things going on with my social life that were totally interfering with the whole recording process, so I went up to my parents’ cabin in Vermont to record. I was alone for most of it. I collaborated with a lot of people via email. That was a good time to stop listening to electronic music. I had to stop listening to my peers for a bit. Whenever I’m listening to music that’s kind of similar to what I make, I’m like, “Well, that’s what I’m doing wrong.”
You definitely seem to have carved out your own niche among your peers.
I don’t think so.
I’m still trying to find my sound. This doesn’t feel like a debut album. It’s an experiment for me. I always wanted to get some sort of music out there, but I didn’t think it would happen like this. I’m grateful that it did, but I have to take two steps back and be like, “Okay, so I make electronic music now. How do I do this?”
This album is basically me trying to figure that out. I have a feeling that the next release I put out is going to be much more of a process and a journey than this was. I did this record in six months because the label asked me if I had enough songs to do it, and I didn’t. So, I can see where people come from by saying there’s a “Mister Lies sound,” but I don’t think I’ve fully found it yet.
A lot of electronic music doesn’t make me uncomfortable, but this album really did. In a good way.
I’m really glad. I didn’t want to make something that relaxes people. That was all I was hearing after the first EP. It didn’t necessarily piss me off at first, because a compliment’s a compliment. But you hear that to excess, and you say to yourself, “It’s time to change.” I’m happy with it, but I see this record as a stepping stone towards other things.
You’ve mentioned that you’d like to take your music in a happier direction in the future. Is that still true?
Yeah. I was talking to a friend recently about the record, and we were just kind of noticing that all my music is in a very minor key. It’s very brooding. I came back from tour a couple weeks ago, and I met a lot of people, and it was a great experience for me, but it was my first headliner tour. When I got back and it was time for school again, I got this feeling that all my friends only cared about my well-being because of my music, which is kind of depressing. And I know that’s not true. I was on the phone with a really close friend of mine from Connecticut; she actually did the voice-over on “Canaan”. I was feeling really down and out, and she called me and told me the best piece of advice. She said, “Your music is not you.” Then I started realizing I need to stop making depressing stuff, because it’s only going to bring me down more. It can be cathartic, but it can only be cathartic for so long.
You’re a producer, but you’re also a playwright. Do those two modes of expression exist in the same world, or do you keep them separate?
I kind of come from a theater background. I did theater for a little bit, because my sister dragged me into it. I was originally a fiction writing major at Columbia. Actually, I was a music major first. I had a huge falling out with the music department, and then I left and became a writing major. Right after I switched from music to fiction, I started Mister Lies. Then I took a playwriting class, and I just decided I’m better at this than writing short stories. I can write dialogue better than anything else. After Hidden Neighbors, I started working on that EP with Different Sleep and a bunch of different singles, and I came to find that I was using my music as an escape from my writing and my writing as an escape from my music. That was the perfect balance. Nowadays, the thing I want to escape to becomes the thing I want to escape from. So I’m spending a lot more time writing. The extent of what I’m doing now musically is remixes and mixes for blogs, and things like that. I’m taking a bit of a break from actually making original songs. I’m focusing on playwriting more than anything else. And playing live shows.
I was listening to the mix you did for HRSDVRS. You open with a Coldplay B-side, and you move into a Steve Reich track. It seems like your work also exists at the intersection of the popular and the esoteric. Is that intentional?
My buddies in Svengali, when we get tunnel vision in the studio, we bond over early 2000s R&B videos on YouTube. We’re all huge Justin Bieber fans. Everyone is super surprised when people like Grimes are like, “I love Taylor Swift,” or “I love Justin Bieber.” But the thing is, when you’re in the part of the industry that we’re in and you listen to enough pretentious things, you need a break. You want to hear top 40 shit. You want to hear LMFAO.
I’ve always been huge on minimalism. I love avant-garde music from the 20th century. Steve Reich is like my Elvis. The way he pays attention to rhythm. All the atmosphere that I put in my tracks, I do it for him. He’s probably my biggest influence there. As far as the Coldplay track goes, I discovered that two or three years ago. That was one of the first releases they did, before Parachutes. That track is just so beautiful. It goes places that they don’t go to anymore. Even the singles from that first record… like, “Yellow” is genius. There’s a lot of personal stuff in that mix. A lot of field recordings from trips up to Vermont that I’ve taken with my friends. I try to make my mixes a little autobiographical.
You also sample dialogue from Angels in America. That’s obviously been a big influence on you.
Right, my name. Tony Kushner is definitely one of my favorite playwrights, as far as influences go. There’s so much subtext in that play. Not necessarily about sexual orientation or race, but just about people. It’s a really beautiful piece. The subplot that I enjoyed the most was Harper’s, this Mormon housewife tripping balls on Valium. She doesn’t know her husband’s gay, and then the Mister Lies character is this imaginary friend, a travel agent dressed up like a jazz musician. I read it for the first time in high school, and then I had to read it again for class. That was around the same time that I picked the name, when I got to that first scene where that subplot is introduced. I was just like, “This is beautiful. This is a very beautiful scene.” I put a lot of the dialogue in [my music] every chance I get, kind of how producers get producer tags. J Dilla has his air horn; I have quotes from Angels in America.
It’s so funny… every time people find out that I’m a playwright, their automatic first question is, “Are you going to write a musical?” No. It’s so different. I gravitate towards experimental theater a lot more. When I make music, it’s all about what I’m reading or what movies I’m watching. Obviously, I was reading Rudyard Kipling at the time I was making this record. Right now, I’m reading a lot of Samuel Beckett. His stuff is very dark. A lot of people hate him, but if you crack into it, there’s a lot of really awesome stuff going on.
You draw a lot of inspiration from literature, which is interesting because your music barely contains any language. How do you bridge those worlds? Do you feel like you’re translating from what you’re reading, or do you just try to inhabit the mood of these books?
It’s not so much the mood. I don’t want to say Mowgli is a concept album. I think the thing I find so fascinating about Kipling’s work is that I really, really identify with Mowgli. I feel like a lot of people do, although not necessarily on the surface. This kid was raised in an environment he obviously didn’t belong in, and then he realizes where he truly belongs, and that lightbulb goes off in his head. And he’s like, fuck, this is what I’ve been missing. That’s kind of the theme of this record.
You have a really effective relationship with illustrator Brad Rohloff. How did you start working with him?
He’s another guy I met through Tyler Anderre [of Flashlight Tag]. He designed the logo for Tyler’s label, Absent Fever, and he designed some album releases for a couple buzz acts like Rickyeatacid and Galapagos. I just saw his work, and it clicked. Everything that I’m trying to speak to with my music… not necessarily what I’m trying to say, because I have no idea what the fuck I’m trying to say… everything that I’m feeling through my music, the audio and the visuals clicked. They were married immediately. I just hit him up on Facebook and said, “We’re in the same city, and I love your work. Let’s work together, please.” And he was so enthusiastic, like he is about everything he works on. He’s just super, super passionate.
I almost cried when I first saw the Mowgli cover. I had a huge emotional reaction to it. It’s gorgeous. It just fits so well. I don’t really want to work with any other artist. I hope to have the relationship with him that Stanley Donwood has with Radiohead. I suppose you could call him the visual half of Mister Lies. The visual half is really him and Theodore Darst, who does all of my projections and videos.
It seems you’ve really built a family of like-minded artists both here in Chicago and online.
Yeah. I see this music that people are making, and I have a lot of faith in it. I hear these people, and I’m like, damn, this is innovative. The whole thing started when Peter, Svengali, started his collective. He invited Rafa [Different Sleep], and then Rafa came down to Columbia to start school, and invited Nolan [Soleman], and me. Those dudes are like brothers to me. There’s an aesthetic, and we all help each other out. I learned Ableton through them. I learned by watching them, and then I started doing it myself. That’s how Mister Lies came about. I really mean it when I say I’d be nowhere without them. They help me so much. They’re some of my best friends in the world. They’re just really good people.
Would you say that the group is representative of the Chicago music scene? Do you feel like a part of the fabric of the city?
I think they feel like part of it. I’ve never felt like I really belonged to any particular scene. I don’t know how long I’m going to stay here. I get worried when the advertisement for the State of the Union address has dubstep music in the background. There are moments like that when I’m like, I want to move to Europe. But I love Chicago. The way I think about it, Los Angeles is really hype-oriented. Everyone’s on a shit-ton of psychedelics. If there’s a representative of that, it would probably be Ariel Pink. In New York, it’s really grounded. Really business-oriented. Maybe The National is a good representative of what’s going on in New York. And in Chicago, it’s straight-up work. There’s some really fucked up ideas here, but it’s also grounded. That would probably be Wilco. They’re out there, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is super grounding. That’s what I love about this city. But I can’t stay in one place for too long.
What’s been your most fruitful mistake?
This record. I started Mister Lies with the intention that I was going to sing on my tracks. I consider myself much more of a songwriter than anything else. I’ve always been a huge fan of producers that use their voice even if they don’t have a particularly good voice. I feel like it becomes that much more personal. I’ll do that on my next record.
What’s one thing you want listeners to know about your music?
I don’t want people to spend too much time trying to find a name for what my music sounds like. I can see how genre helps people, but I don’t really want people to be bogged down by it when listening to my record. I’m just making this music, and I want the listener to hear it as music. I don’t want you to hear it as chillwave; I don’t want you to hear it as EDM; I don’t want you to hear it as this college kid trying to make music. I just want you to hear it. Anything else doesn’t matter. Fuck genre. It’s not important. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I’m not interested in who I sound like. The best compliment I’ve ever received about my music was, “You helped me get through a really difficult time.” I try not to emote too much when I’m performing live, but the best is when people get an emotional reaction.
One publication wrote something that really, truly offended me. It said, “He’s experimenting too much.” Don’t say that. Never say that. Music at its best is experimentation. It’s finding what you want. You should never take what anybody says and live by it. My playwriting teacher, who’s kind of my mentor, has this mantra: “Nothing is gospel. Everything is useful.” That’s how I feel about this whole industry. Opinions help, certainly, but that’s my advice for anyone that’s trying to produce. Just make art. Nothing is gospel. Everything is useful.