Nick Zanca Steps Back to Move Forward

Photos by Nolan Andrea

It’s always interesting to me when someone steps away from a project or moniker, especially if it’s got a decent-sized following and a fair bit of history. I might be alone in this, but whatever immediately follows that decision is something I want to investigate. Nick Zanca dropped his Mister Lies moniker and comes in heavy with his first release under his own name, Cacerolazo. It’s an evocative album built around field recordings he made in Turkey and the overwhelming personal nature of how it coalesces puts a spotlight on that decision and it makes sense. The more I engage with the album, the deeper my connection with it becomes and, even more, the greater my appreciation and affection for all of Zanca’s ideas and trajectories grow. 

We did this interview throughout September and I purposefully moved the questions away from music and into his other interests after talking a bit about the record because those personal stories and interests are an important undercurrent to this music. I was even more excited when he included a recipe (read to the end!) without me even asking. Let’s hope that becomes a trend.

Cacerolazo is out on October 8 via Full Spectrum. Pre-order it HERE.

So this is maybe an obvious first question, but why the decision to retire the Mister Lies moniker and start using your own name for your work?

I could cite a handful of reasons that led me to the reset button—there was that urge to evade the ‘chill’-adjacent producer culture of the early 2010s which I initially came up in, with all its hedonist aesthetics and malegaze imagery, but there were also a few professional endings that ultimately steered me here. I was halfway through my freshman year of college when the project first took off, and opportunities had presented themselves within a matter of months that usually take years for artists to reach. At 19, blind spots were still wide and closet doors were still closed—as soon as I was set up with management and a booking agent, both of whom eventually convinced me to leave school to tour full-time, careerism quickly usurped any coming of age. There was plenty of outside pressure to assume a particular creative identity, both in terms of production and presentation, and the symptomatic tunnel vision and alienation became more than I could bear. 

It wasn’t until I moved to New York and parted ways with my team that I gave myself room to be human and let life happen. I took a five-year break between albums two and three, and in that time I formed a band, finished a degree, moved in with my longtime boyfriend, and got closer to family. I started to take on productions for others and got more and more invested in improvisation and experimental form. I ended up releasing a self-titled record myself, which I now consider the conscious conclusion of the project. At the start of 2020, after a few bicoastal shows, I was actively making plans to tour that record when it dawned on me that I no longer wanted to bifurcate my work and life with an invented identity. I pulled out of those plans in February, and COVID hit North America a few weeks later. I haven’t looked back ever since.

The new record is built around recordings you made of the Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey in 2013 while you were on tour. First, what was it like experiencing the protests as someone there from the outside?

The tour in question was a European showcase of young laptop performers, most of them from the States, who inhabited the same musical microcosm elevated by SoundCloud—lots of train travel, bad RyanAir flights, and hostel stays involved. This was during the Obama years, preceding the events of Ferguson or Orlando, when the music industry largely still operated in blissful neoliberal oblivion. Of course we knew nothing of the context of the urban development plans and the protest beyond the images of police brutality and tear-gassing the local promoter shared with us. He very generously took us around the town the night of our canceled Istanbul date, which was to be held at a venue near the park. Eventually, we found ourselves walking around the Asiatic side of the city overlooking the Marmara Sea, where we arrived at the block where the recording at the end of track three takes place; people were on the street but also making noise from their windows. I remembered very little of that tour before starting production on this record, but that night was perhaps the sole exception. After weeks of non-stop travel, we were coming into contact with a humanitarian conflict that was so much bigger than us, and for that matter, anything we had witnessed on that tour before or since. 

Sonically, what is it about the recordings that you find so compelling?

To me, the protest document practically bursts at the seams with life; there’s a distorted sense of urgency in it that exceeds its fidelity. When it came to assembling the rest of the archive, I was essentially playing a guessing game with myself in terms of identifying both cities and people that I chose to record. Beyond the other guys in the touring party I traveled with every day, I struggled at first to recollect the source of the voices. There’s a Walter Benjamin passage I’ve been rolling around in my head recently about the work of memory collapsing time—in retrospect, I see this whole production process as a direct reflection of those notions.

How did you end up finding the recordings again, after thinking they were lost? I have been there so many times… there’s still a pile of specific recordings I can’t find on any of my hard drives and it’s driving me mad. Anyway…

At the end of last year, as the next wave of the pandemic was starting to surface, I was in the middle of a deep clean of our apartment and I found an SD card under a pile of hard drives that contained all the unlabeled files. I’d been sitting with the idea of centering a body of work around the Istanbul recording for a few years, and promised myself that the day I came across it again would be the day I’d start production. I don’t think I ever finished cleaning that day. 

What was your process like with approaching these recordings to use for your own work? Did you have specific ideas you wanted to do with them or was the process more organic than that?

This whole endeavor was a two-part process: it began with assembling the archive from memory, as I mentioned, and after that, I started a daily practice of recorded improvisation in my studio that would vary day-to-day—one day, I’d set up a generative Max patch; the next, I might set up my drum kit or run my Wurlitzer or one of my synths through specific processing. The recordings were always in the back of my mind, but beyond that, there was really no rhyme or reason in terms of how these performances would be pieced together. The triptych that forms side A largely emerged from the latter recordings; Boy Abroad began with sequencing the most fruitful sections of the tour archive and establishing a form before working the music in. My guiding lights were composers like Alvin Curran and Luc Ferrari who are concerned with similar dualities—essentially, electroacoustic music with a heavy sense of place.

One thing that really got me about this work is the range of emotions throughout, which I think has an interesting parallel to experiences I’ve had at protests and demonstrations. Obviously, I can’t compare it to the Gezi Park demonstrations, but there are some pieces here that feel tense and apprehensive whereas others, like “Cacerolazo III,” have an almost joyous undercurrent to them. I’m curious where you were mentally when composing these pieces and how you went about using these recordings as inspiration for threading all these emotions in this work?

When I started production, we were nearing the one-year mark of the pandemic and the consequential collective stalling of performance. This record was completed in less than two months, which is the shortest time I’ve spent on a record—in that sense, it felt a lot like automatic writing. By virtue of this essentially being a tour travelogue, there was plenty of rumination on the past, particularly with regard to questions of travel and contact. Of course there was that sense of underlying worldly fatigue that we’d all become acquainted with, but layered on top of that was this strong sense of gratitude to have happened upon the source material when I did. It quickly became the vehicle through which I could process and exorcise all of the accumulated thoughts 2020 had wrought, not limited to protest and plague. 

Let’s get away from music, sort of, and talk about interests outside of that. I heard that visual art and literature are two of your other big interests. To start, what are you reading right now?

Earlier in the summer when it became clear that the pandemic’s end was further away than initially thought, I began the works of Proust and set a ridiculous, completely arbitrary goal to finish all seven books before I turn 30 next year. I am baffled that I am already halfway through—totally dizzying but fully worth the hype. There is so much to gather there about family dynamics, queer libido, and artistic trajectory; all of Marcel’s neuroses and fixations are deployed at such a glacial pace to the point that it eventually leads you to ruminate on your own. 

In Search Of Lost Time also definitely warrants breaks between books, so I try to come up for air with a few shorter texts—I’ve been spending that time with Aimé Cesaire, who was a Martinican poet and theorist who packed a postcolonial punch with impressive brevity; I’ve also been re-reading a lot of Thomas Bernard and Clarice Lispector’s shorter works, who are the two writers I’d call my ride-or-dies and consider myself a completist for. 

I’m not going to ask when you started reading because, well… but was there a particular moment or book where things clicked and it set you off?

As far as theory goes, I encountered essays by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag early on while I was still attending classes in Chicago—their writings on photography were particularly resonant, but diving even further with both would be the first encounter with criticism that encouraged me to do the homework and read beyond the text. I don’t think I’ve reached that avant-garde musician cliche where you can just whip out Deleuze and Guattari with blind confidence, though I think reading above one’s default comprehension level can be occasionally rewarding. 

I’ll go on record and say that my favorite fiction writer of all time, and someone who led me to a lot of other writers I now revere, is the Hungarian master Laszlo Krasznahorkai—film buffs might know him for Satantango and a handful of other novels that Bela Tarr adapted. He writes this slow, surgically-precise apocalyptic prose without any paragraphs; his sentences typically last for pages at a time at least. He is probably the closest thing the literary world has to an improvising musician; keeping with the metaphor, he’s probably the Cecil Taylor of contemporary literature. There’s this one set of connected stories about disparate creative practices called Seiobo There Below that was particularly earth-shattering—that right there is a book that I’d recommend as a starting point, and to any artist regardless of discipline.

Is there a particular type or period of literature that you are especially drawn to and how has that changed and shifted over time?

I touch and go between a few different literary movements and eras, which would take all day to describe—but what I find myself drawn to the most are the exophonics, in other words, writers who evade their native language in favor of a foreign one. I mentioned Clarice Lispector, who was a Brazilian writer of Ukrainian origin, but I’m also thinking about Samuel Beckett, who wrote his best stretch of plays and prose in French; the ways in which Vladimir Nabokov or Joseph Conrad played with the English language also comes to mind. 

How does whatever you’re reading impact your music and creative practice, and do you find the symbiosis to be more of a subconscious thing vs. something more purposeful?

There’s definitely a general symbiosis between what I create and what I consume, but I’d go a step further and say I try to choose books that will allow me to work through, and perhaps process, certain periods of life—for example, I read Death In Venice and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann back-to-back in the thick of lockdown last winter, which both concern social isolation and illness; going back to Barthes, sitting with his Mourning Diary became a means of working through recent family grief of my own. 

Have you ever thought about trying to combine this interest with your music, i.e. creating a “soundtrack” for something you’ve read or written? I keep finding myself drawn to releases where the physical ‘object’ isn’t a tape or record, but a book or a ‘zine or something, and there’s a download with it.

I wasn’t planning on revealing this but a section of Cacerolazo is actually modeled around a favorite passage of Krasznahorkai. I won’t say where or what it is—I’d rather keep that a mystery—but I do love a good text piece. Also, included in the physical edition of Cacerolazo is an essay I wrote about the production of the album and the tour in question. I like to think of the text and the audio as complementary. 

And what about your interest in visual art – how does that combine with your other creative practices? Coming back to the record, I find the cover art to be really evocative and find myself spacing out, staring at it while I have the album on. It feels like there’s this really purposeful connection between the visual and sonic elements there…

So glad you’re asking about the cover! It’s a charcoal painting by my partner, Hunter Adams. We’ve been together for most of our twenties—among other things, he paints and takes photos and is currently a museum worker in the city. He’s rarely on social media because he’s a better human being than all of us, but he’s generously handled the art for a handful of releases of mine, including the last Mister Lies album and the first Asemix release on Bandcamp. I think of this one as a sort of elevated Hanna-Barbera cartoon fight—we initially submitted it as single artwork for the third cut, but the image grew on both of us and it became the cover. I trust him and no one else with visual presentation not just because he lives with the music I make but because he possesses the most powerful eyes I know. We have our own separate reasons for inhabiting abstraction but they blend together seamlessly; what we do together is a labor of love that way. He may roll his eyes when he reads this, and I may be talking way above our league, but I like to think of us like Robert Wyatt and Alfie Benge.

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