words & interview by tom johnson
As Mister Lies, Nick Zanca released two full-length albums and a handful of stand-alone singles and EPs, through the likes of Orchid Tapes and Lefse, all of which offered glowing, meticulous electronic-pop compositions. Returning this year, Zanca has teamed up with guitarist and synthesist Steven Rogers to from Quiet Friend, a captivating pop project which examines everything from the small lives in a big city, to the complexities of queer culture and the idiosyncrasies of such a thing. The pair will release their full debut record on March 9th, via the new and flourishing Elestial Sound label.
Said to be driven by “an environmental specificity – a palpable shift between indoor and outdoor worlds, between intimacy and claustrophobia, and the ongoing balancing act between private and public selves” the project is a beautiful debut offering, flitting between genres, tones, and textures almost at will while always sounding beautifully in tune with itself; a definitive leap in to someone else’s world, where the colours and shapes might not make immediate sense but one in which you feel immediately captivated by.
Unveiled below today, new track Breathplay is one of the more expansive and buoyant moments on the record, a shimmering, glowing five-minutes, and one that was inspired by the “sexual candidness” of Janet Jackson and Babyface, as the pair tell us below in a new interview, published today to coincide with the release. Check out the track – and its alluring new video – right here, and scroll down to read the full, sprawling conversation where the pair talk about the origins of Quiet Friend, their chosen collaborations, and the striking balance of their wonderful new LP.
Firstly, can you tell us a little about the origins of the Quiet Friend project?
Nick: This all began with the last Mister Lies album (Shadow), which was a record I had written with the intention of performing with a band – this was after a few years on and off the road getting weary of laptop/controller sets and feeling alienated from the crowds I was playing to. At the same time though, it was touring with other bands and seeing the group effort manifest itself both on and offstage that made me chase working with others as opposed to solo. I craved communal spontaneity and I didn’t want to hide behind a laptop screen anymore.
I was moving to New York as I was getting ready to put out that record with Orchid Tapes, and since most of my friends were preoccupied with their own projects, I took to Craigslist to form the touring band. I put out an ad and got a few responses from sketchy, middle-aged Jack Black types before I finally got a message from Steven.
Steven: I think it was a total shot in the dark for both of us. I was a disillusioned 22 year old with a jazz degree living at home wondering what the hell I was going to do with myself. I had no plans to move to NYC but an opportunity opened up for me to move into a college friend’s apartment; I figured the city would force my hand in one way or another so I decided to do it. Before either of us moved here I started looking through Craigslist just out of curiosity when I saw Nick’s post. We started talking, I sent him a video of some weird ambient guitar pedal driven improvisation, he sent me his record and we hit it off pretty quickly after that. I still feel very lucky to have fallen into the opportunity to link up with Nick. I was pretty burnt out from music school and I think this was an important step in my development as a musician.
Nick: The third “hidden” core member of Quiet Friend is the album’s co-producer Alex Thompson, who was largely responsible for its sound. I had met him through my friends from college who had grown up with him in San Diego. We first corresponded through Facebook sending each other work-in-progress demos, which eventually evolved into making tracks for fun at his apartment when I relocated to New York. He was finishing up school at NYU at the time and working as an engineer at Harvestworks, a non-profit studio in lower Manhattan. After a show of ours, Alex proposed that we do some sessions at Harvestworks when our next batch of music was ready. Probably about 80% of the music on the record was recorded there – what started off as a few sessions became two nights a week for the next two years.
While Steven and I handled arrangements, Alex oversaw the overall sound design. I’ve never met anyone who is more at home in the studio. His uncle is Michael Andrews, who scored Donnie Darko and a handful of Judd Apatow comedies – his processes have had a huge impact on Alex and were a strong influence on both the recording and mixing stages. When we had an EP’s worth of music, we began testing the music out at shows at DIY spaces in Brooklyn like The Silent Barn or Palisades – I played synths, Steven played guitar and Alex joined us on bass. For a while it felt like there was no end in sight – we kept writing, revising, editing and re-recording like monkeys at typewriters until the start of 2017, when Alex got a call from Mike who offered him to move out to LA to assist him at his studio. We wrapped up the record about a month later and put the premasters to tape the night before he left for California. Had we not been given that deadline, we probably would have never finished the record!
How did you go about choosing who to collaborate with, and how much influence did each collaborator have on their tracks? Was that an important aspect of the work?
Nick: It’s kind of been an unwritten rule from the beginning that the people we work with emphasize atmosphere and texture over everything else.
Steven: Yeah, atmosphere and texture are a huge part of this project and a big reason why I’m a part of it in the first place. When I came on to work on the Shadow live set I really got to explore my burgeoning interest in sound design, which is not something I really got to do before. I was pretty much given free reign with incorporating guitar parts into the set and now when we bring on other musicians to collaborate, we like to keep an open mind to see what they can bring to the table. Sometimes we’ll have a rough idea of what we want someone to contribute but a lot of the time we’ll just see what happens.
Nick: On top of that, many of this record’s contributors have joined us on stage or in the studio in the past. You hear Abbi Press’s voice all over the record – she produces hypnotic and ethereal electronic music and contributed vocals to the record early on. Tyler Dickerson, who contributed drum programming to a few tracks, handled electronics and played bass for us when we were touring Shadow. Ansel Cohen is a brilliant young cellist and sound artist who also joined us on stage for almost every Mister Lies band set – he actually assembled the string quartet that you hear on the record, particularly on “Basements” and “Name All The Animals”. We stuffed them into a small, sweaty iso booth for two hours and multi-tracked them several times to give off the impression of a Hollywood-style string section – I’ll never forget playing that back for the first time. For years I had felt most comfortable working alone, but with this record I learned that keeping collaborators around can only act as further fuel for the music – a track could take a complete left turn between someone entering and exiting the studio. Symbiosis is everything.
Steven: When we were working on “Avalanche,” I remember setting Ansel up with a mic and just leaving him in a room with his cello to play a few takes of whatever he felt might be appropriate. Half an hour later we have some amazing material to work with. One incredible thing about being a musician in NYC is that you have an enormous web of other musicians to work with just by proximity. Meeting and working with one person will inevitably lead to another introduction.
Nick: Though they don’t appear on the album, the two other members of our current live band – bassist/keyboardist Taja Cheek (of L’Rain) and drummer Jake St. John have helped us breathe new life into these songs that we’ve been sitting on for a few years. As eternally stressful as living in New York can be, it’s a huge blessing that being here has led us to musicians who speak our language and speak it fluently. We played our first show the other weekend to a packed basement in Bed-Stuy, and for the first time it felt like all the jigsaw pieces were finally falling into place. It feels as electric now as it had felt when we started writing.
Steven: Taja and Jake have been amazing. As Nick said we’d been working and sitting on these tracks in the studio for several years and it’s been extremely rewarding to have those two on board help us to translate everything so well to a live setting.
Prefab Sprout and The Blue Nile are cited as key influences on the record – what is it about those two bands in particular that you enjoy?
Nick: I’ve tried and failed to turn people onto a band like Prefab Sprout because on a basic level it feels like cheesy easy listening. It’s only when you listen more deeply that you realize how cinematic, dreamlike and surgically precise the production is – it employs a heavy amount of early MIDI programming and as a result, the studio seems to be acting as a canvas. With a record like The Blue Nile’s “Hats”, the juxtaposition between sparse, icy production and the vulnerability of the vocal resonated with us immediately – both elements seem to be working in tandem and simultaneously playing against each other, which is so difficult to pull off. The less the music does, the more you hear – nothing sounds rushed or accidental.
Lyrically the album is both bold and intricate – at what point in the process did they come about and were you working towards a theme?
Nick: The lyrics were constantly tweaked until the final month of recording. The big aha moment came once we had a rough tracklist and realized that the songs constantly jumped between indoor and outdoor worlds. A claustrophobic moment was followed by something intimate and cozy. Once that door opened, my partner Hunter and I worked the entire album around that push and pull, that balancing act between one’s public and private selves. Much like the music, the words are entirely dictated by atmosphere and environmental specificity – you’re either on the streets or in the sheets.
There’s a distinct balance to the record, and even though it flits between genres, and showcases many difference tones and textures, it all seems to come together as one whole piece. How do you make sure that happens? Is it worked upon or is it something that just happens?
Nick: In the past, I obsessed over cohesion when it came to making records – down to transitions and track lengths. The process of making a record was almost monastic. I would go somewhere bucolic like my folks lake house in Vermont by myself, Justin Vernon style, and spend weeks on getting one particular section of a track right. You can only do that for so long before it does a number on your mental health. The secret this time was not only encouraging collaboration but letting life happen.
Over the months it took to complete this record, the three of us went through romantic partners, apartments, jobs – but this music remained the constant. It’s difficult to restrain yourself when others are uploading something to their Bandcamp every month. I admire that level of prolificacy but I truly believe we only benefitted from working at a snail’s pace. I don’t know if I want to make a record like that again for a while – in the future, we hope to take a more live, “first-thought-best-thought” approach – but this record simply wouldn’t sound the way it does had we not gone slow and steady.
Steven: This record evolved a lot since the beginning and I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out. There are definitely a lot of different things going on in this record but I think it ended up balancing out really well. But yeah, that said, I think Nick and I are going to try to take a different approach to writing in the future and work on creating something in a more linear fashion, rather than over the course of several years and then piecing it together.
We’re sharing “Breathplay” today – what can you tell us about that song and how it fits in with the rest of the record?
Nick: That song was one of the first batch of tracks we put together for this record – we were listening to a lot of Janet Jackson and Babyface and wanted to make something that exuded the same kind of sexual candidness. Lyrically, it’s a meditation on queer hookup culture and all of its idiosyncrasies. In the earlier drafts of the lyrics, I imagined an encounter between a young queer and a “daddy” figure to illustrate the generational gap between swiping through torsos on an app and cruising in public and putting your body on the line. That narrative is still somewhat there, but it transformed into a broader narrative about the false personas we put on when we coax strangers into our homes. When we sing “where has your body been?”, it’s meant to showcase the intrusive curiosity that reveals itself when two strangers in a big city share a connection that they’ll probably never have again. Our friend Austin Johnson put together a stunning visual for the song that we shot one afternoon in the apartment that I share with Hunter – I think it does a beautiful job of capturing the essence of the track. I’ll let it speak for itself.
What’s your personal favourite track on the record?
Nick: Playgrounds. We only started it a few months before wrapping up recording, but I’m still really excited about that one. We’re shooting a video for it this weekend. It’s going to be nuts.
Steven: Bath – I think it’s a track you need a good pair of headphones or speakers to really appreciate, but I think it’s a perfect introduction to the record and primer for this band.
‘Quiet Friend’ LP is released on March 9th, via Elestial Sound