Name: Nick Zanca fka Mister Lies
Occupation: Producer, composer, sound artist
Current release: Nick Zanca's new album Cacerolazo is out October 8th on Full Spectrum.
Recommendations: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book Dictee; Kirsten Johnson’s film Cameraperson
If you enjoyed this interview with Nick Zanca and would like to find out more about his work, visit his minimalistic personal homepage. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and / or sound that drew you to it?
Two early watershed moments come to mind:
The first was my folks taking me to an IMAX theatre in a mall close to where I grew up in Connecticut to see Fantasia 2000 when I was seven years old.
Something about the pairing of immersive animated narratives with hearing Stravinsky and Shostakovich deployed in surround sound struck a gigantic chord; more than anything, it was a way to tell a story I had never encountered before.
Before too long, they signed me up for Suzuki method violin lessons, which then became guitar lessons, which then became making radio plays for school assignments and primitive mash-ups in a demo version of Sound Forge on my dad’s desktop computer. The timeline and the can of worms would only open up further from there.
The other was when I was ten or eleven: an older brother figure who was my sitter at the time introduced me to several albums, including Kid A.
At the risk of a cliche, that particular record—its sequencing, its performances, its fused breadth of organic and synthetic sources—completely shattered my world when I sat with it on my own, and eventually led me to discover the wellspring of experimental and electronic music beyond what influenced Radiohead at far too young of an age to fully comprehend. It was hook, line and sinker from that point on—I would think, and breathe, through the medium of recorded music.
I was in a few punk bands up until I graduated high school, one of which made an EP I produced, but I didn’t come to take recordmaking seriously until I was eighteen and moved to Chicago to start at Columbia College, at which point I fell in with a group of budding producers who revered UK dubstep, footwork, and various other strains of club music. I learned Ableton in a hotboxed dorm room by looking over their shoulders; I released the first batch of Mister Lies music shortly after that.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I’d say the fundamental difference between my work as Mister Lies and what I’m doing now is outside influence.
Experimental music has been my lifeblood for far longer than I’ve inhabited it, but in the former context of the “chill”-adjacent scene in which I came up, the creative direction was always a compromise between my personal vision of where I wanted the music to go and the expectations of its targeted audience. Those questions are no longer a concern anymore because I’m now producing the work on my own terms regardless of who hears it.
It took nearly a decade to get to this point. Not only have I developed a voice I can call my own, but I’ve also reached the other side having been exposed to the vampirical nature of the industry to the point that I now know what to avoid and can look out for my friends in music on similar paths. In that sense, that time in my life was not wasted.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Being queer and neuroatypical, I find the medium of sound, particularly in the realms of improvisation and collage, to be the most direct and ideal conduit for the expression of any anxiety or fixation I have—which is to say it allows for desires and subjectivities to emerge that would otherwise remain unexpressed.
More candidly: I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome as a child in the early 2000s, which was a time when the clinical categorization and pedagogical strategy with regard to kids on the spectrum was still nascent and approached rather haphazardly. Though symptoms lessened and became more manageable as I entered adulthood—the diagnostic was eventually removed from the DSM a few years ago—I still find myself holding onto a sense of autistic confidence that dictates the decisions I make sonically, and informs my work as a whole.
In the early years of my career, my sexuality and brain difference were the biggest skeletons in my closet; I long avoided mentioning both publicly for fear of being misunderstood. I am relieved to have made it past that point by now; perhaps it’s the shift in musical idiom that has allowed me to utilize both as a creative fuel—if we can’t grant ourselves the permission to express ourselves unabashedly in the context of our craft, then what’s the point?
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
It was a simultaneous blessing and curse how rapidly Mister Lies got off the ground.
Barely a month after I released the first EP, I signed my first deal with a label, received an overwhelming amount of press from barely twenty minutes of music, and started working with a manager and booking agent—things that take time for most artists to happen upon.
I was flying out almost every weekend at school to open up shows in big rooms like The Troubadour in LA, which did a number on my GPA before I eventually left school at the behest of my team to tour full time. It was a privilege but it was also terrifying; it was as if I acquired an audience before a sense of self, creatively or personally—any chance to learn and develop craft was secondary to riding the wave as far as one could.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York in 2014 and took a five-year break from the project to form a band and focus on letting my life outside music happen that I was able to trade in megalomania for the collaborative mode that is now my default.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Other than the aforementioned early experiments in Sound Forge, one of the first pieces of hardware I used when I was first writing songs as a kid was a Tascam four-track alongside Garageband before upgrading to Logic—this was in the emo heyday of MySpace and Purevolume, both of which I uploaded to and utilized pretty frequently.
It wasn’t until I started Mister Lies that I switched to Ableton, which remains my DAW of choice to this day—it still feels more affable and musician-oriented than most.
Where hardware is concerned, I’ve gone through far too many phases of studio arrangement and Craigslist gear trades to name. Earlier this year, I sold all the keyboards in my studio except my Wurlitzer on a whim, replaced them with their rackmount equivalents, and bought a fully weighted keyboard—I must say, it’s been an absolute gamechanger, not only in terms of freeing up room in my studio space, but also in terms of mobility.
My current approach to studiokeeping is all about feng shui and economy, and I’m trying to keep it that way.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Ableton’s integration of the Max/MSP environment has allowed strong sound design principles to be closer in reach than ever—it’s what has enabled me to take a deeper plunge into programming. There is something to be said both for making choices entirely based on feel, within what one knows, and to also study something deeply if you don’t know how it works. Presently I find myself fluctuating between the two. The fact of the matter is that the Max For Live community is criminally undersung—if people are going out of their way to make these devices, why not utilize them?
I also acquired a fretless bass this year, which has profoundly changed me, but in different ways which I’ll save for another time.