Week in Pop: Confident Hitmakers, Lulu Lewis, Nihilist Cheerleader

Sjimon Gompers

Dylan Hundley of NYC's own underground rock institution Lulu Lewis; photograph courtesy of Ilegalia Records & Pictures.

Quiet Friend

Quiet Friend, from left, Steven Rogers & Nick Zanca; photographed by Daniel Dorsa.

One of the year’s must hear records is the debut album from Quiet Friend. Comprised of Steven Rogers & Nick Zanca (fka Mister Lies); the Alex Thompson-produced self-titled is something of an electro-baroque oddysey for the soul that operates with a style of sophistication that keeps all the emotive-expressionism sincere that entertains the audience’s faculties of feeling & thought.

The opener “Bath” feels like the opening of a popcorn-coated tearjerker that sends strings sailing overhead as the record sets out on a course of exploration & self-examination. The progressions heard on the opener are further illustrate & underscored in the beauty of “Basements” that moves the orchestral elements slowly & dearly onto an underground dance floor. Songs of risks & securities are heard in the contrasts & compromises of “Safe”, to the whispers & melodic shouts on the orchestral-electronic odyssey of “Breathplay” (that sounds like it could double as the theme from a popular JRPG digital adventure). Quiet Friend creates an entire utopia of their own design on “Name All the Animals”, right before wowing with the expansive atmospheres of “Thorn From Paw”, experimenting with some swift-synth rhythm progressions on the playful 80s styled pop jungle-gyms of “Playgrounds”. The album draws to a close with the surprisingly organic “Seance” (that emulates a session of the track’s namesake), right before setting off all the big-bright fireworks that Nick & Steven saved for last on “Avalanche” that truly is a snow-slide of sound that will leave you with sense bliss & delight.

We had the chance to catch up with Quiet Friend’s own Nick Zanca for a candid look behind the making of their self-titled album:

Describe the trails & passage-ways that lead to the founding of Quiet Friend.

I suppose the origin story here begins with the last LP I made under the Mister Lies moniker, Shadow. After a few years on and off the road and becoming tired of the monotony and alienation of playing laptop-controller sets, I decided I wanted to write the next record under that name with the intent of performing it with a band. I would put that record out with Orchid Tapes shortly after moving to New York, and I took to Craigslist to form the band to tour it with. That’s how Steven and I met, and we have been creatively conjoined ever since. We developed the live show for that record together and after a short tour, we began piecing together the material that would eventually make up this record with Alex Thompson, who co-produced and engineered it. Over the following years, a handful of friends contributed to several studio sessions, and we finally wrapped it up and put the final mixes to tape around this time last year the night before Alex moved to LA.

From various sound sketches created at various apartments to working at Harvestworks in Manhattan & Brooklyn’s Rose Studios—describe what this prudential era between 2014 & 2017 was like for you all in the creative process of the debut Quiet Friend album.

Before we started working on this record, I was used to dropping everything to make albums. My family has a place on a lake in Vermont, and I would always go up there alone to work—the process was almost monastic and I would quickly become a bit stir-crazy if the vibe wasn’t right, it often wasn’t. This time since the three of us were based in the city and had day jobs and other preoccupations; we had no other choice but to let life happen. In the end the writing process only benefited from working that way. “Name All The Animals” is probably the best example—that song was one of the first batch of demos we put together and the lyrics were initially inspired by the honeymoon phase of the relationship I had just gotten into. When I moved in with him the next year, the lyrics were heavily re-written to set a cozier, more domestic scene. In a weird way, these songs grew up alongside us.

Pop’s new cult of Quiet Friend, from left, Steven Rogers & Nick Zanca; photographed by Daniel Dorsa.

What sorts of personal & creative breakthroughs did you two discover from this three-plus stretch of years?

Personally, this record has taught me that collaboration is everything. I would highly recommend that any solo artist facing the unbreakable block or dealing with tunnel-vision form a band. When you allow other people’s input to enter the picture, not only does the process becomes more spiritually fulfilling but it also destroys any megalomania you might have had working alone. We could have made significant process on a song, but in between any one of our collaborators entering and exiting the studio, that same track could have taken a complete left turn. It might not make things happen faster, but the end result will always be more fruitful.

What sorts of methodologies were at work in the way you all stitch & tether emotional & evocative qualities into the audio mix?

It’s hard to explain how we make sure emotions seep into the production and performance, because more often than not it is felt in the moment rather than deliberated over. That said, the emphasis of atmosphere and texture on our music is vital to the project–the process of building those atmospheres from song-to-song was often handled separately from the actual songwriting. When we work with others, we try to give musicians as little direction and as much freedom to improvise as possible—the first thought is often the best thought, and it’s not until we hit the mixing stage that we figure out how to work those elements into a track.

Also interested in hearing how Quiet Friend swiftly adapts the elemental marriage of the baroque with the components of electronic composition.

We listened to a lot of music that juxtaposed organic elements with artifice and plasticity–that aspect of the record was totally deliberate. We were particularly inspired by the sonic palette of The Blue Nile’s Hats, which combines surgically precise, almost cold-sounding production with untrained, vulnerable vocal performances and Hollywood-style string arrangements. When those disparate elements are placed together that way, they bring the best out of each other–the synths sound like they’re breathing, the voices feel sculpted. It’s almost the sonic equivalent of the uncanny valley–it’s a wild combination.

Artists & activists that have inspired you all in NYC lately?

Everyone should have their eyes and ears on Taja Cheek, who released last year’s fiercest debut album under her nom de plume L’Rain. She’s one of hardest-working people we know here–during the day, she works as curatorial assistant at MoMA PS1 where she organizes the Warm Up series during the summer. On top of all that, she also happens to play bass in our band. Her music stirs something indescribable and we are very lucky to call her part of our family.

Brian Sweeny’s Ambient Church concert series around Brooklyn has also brought much-needed respite and solace amidst the political pressures of the past few years. Their team has put on some of the most memorable shows we’ve attended here–they had Weyes Blood headline a few nights after the election. I could not think of a more cathartic show if I tried.

Catching up with Quiet Friend’s Steven Rogers & Nick Zanca; photographed by Daniel Dorsa.

Artists & activists outside of NYC that have caught your collective attention?

Our LA-based friends Genevieve Artadi and Louis Cole who make music together as KNOWER. Halfway through the making of our record, they invited us on a few dates on the East Coast–we used that opportunity to test out the material in front of an audience for the first time. Although they’ve been a DIY act since day one, they’ve managed to consistently make inventive, almost-unclassifiable pop music free of restraint. They opened for Red Hot Chili Peppers last year, which I’ll never get over. Louis is putting out his next solo record later this year–watch out. It’s going to be gigantic.

Wisdom for living better & brighter this spring, summer through fall & beyond?

Leave the house without your headphones once in a while and let the sounds around you become the music. Practice listening to things free of distraction–when you put something on, close your eyes instead of looking at your screens.

Insights on what to expect for the future of Quiet Friend?

As many shows as possible in as many places as possible. When we play out, it’s my hope that we create a space where the act of listening is as collaborative as the music itself. Once we’re ready—we think that will be soon—we’ll lock ourselves in a studio again with another set of collaborators and hopefully walk out of it with another record.

Parting thoughts, post-scripts, et al.

If you haven’t heard our record yet, listen to it with a good pair of headphones front-to-back in a dark room. Listen to it like you’d look at a page from an I Spy book—focus on a different detail every time you hear it. If you connect with what you hear, please consider supporting us directly and buying it on Bandcamp.

Quiet Friend cover self-titled artwork; courtesy of Brian Vu with Rafael Cronin.

Quiet Friend’s self-titled is available now via Bandcamp & everywhere.

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