My Story of Prime: Coffee with Conveyor's T.J. Masters

Nicholas Milanes

“Not to put you in a tough place, but I dread these kinds of things.”

This is the disclaimer T.J. Masters, the vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter of Conveyor, gives me before we start our conversation. His voice is audible, but level with the clamor of the Upper West Side coffee shop where we meet. During a lull my attention is yanked by a complaining woman (“…and so he sent me the LONGEST EMAIL…”) and then rattled by a hissing milk steamer. T.J. finishes an unfinished thought. His voice is calmer than most of the people I've interviewed, though he is noticably anxious. I watch him slowly crack his knuckles and scratch his collar bone shortly after we sit down.

“I've had nothing but consistent disappointment reading interviews that are later written up, and going, 'Oh, that's not what I meant. I see that you're quoting me, but that's not even what I said…' But…” he says before pausing. Then he admits: “You have a tough job.” We both do. He, as the rising musician whose reputation rides on the tide of the blogosphere, and me, as one of the many people contributing to the ebb and flow. Probably to his chagrin, I came in with a motive. “There are two main things I want to talk about today,” I tell him. “…the new album, Prime, and your experiences in Gainesville and Brooklyn.” Things quickly branch out beyond those two topics, leaving me with no box to put the record——or T.J., or Conveyor—in. So I suppose I am in a bit of a tough place.

The story of Prime, as far as its background, is this: The double album originated from an original soundtrack to the film THX 1138, composed by Conveyor and performed at two midnight screenings of the movie at Williamsburg's Nitehawk Cinema. Following the screenings, the band performed and recorded the score live at the Silent Barn.

But T.J. would prefer that the album had no story. “While I think that the story of us doing this movie soundtrack and coming up with this music is a worthwhile story,” he says, “I'm not personally convinced that it has very much importance to the record as an object. To Prime.” That's a phrase that came up often in our conversation: “the record as an object.” The physical album contains an artist's statement encouraging the listener to simply have an experience with the record, free of any preconceived associations. What began as something straightforward—an original, live movie score—became something else.

“I have a relationship with this record that shouldn't mean anything to anyone else,” he says. “That doesn't mean I don't want you to hear the record and take it in, but I feel compelled to not provide a foundation or a bias that can be then jumped off of. Like, 'You're on your own'… So many people read about music before hearing a single note.” In other words, the story of Prime is your story. I dig it.

My story of Prime is as follows: Conveyor's discography—their sunny debut, the chaotic single “Mammal Food”, and the brooding, blooming Primeaptly soundtracks my migration from Florida to New York City, my growing fatigue with Brooklyn, the burgeoning burden of technology and modernism, the strife and solitude of life in densely packed metropolis, the catharsis of escape. An admittedly large part of me wants to bundle up those feelings and present them to T.J. like a messy bouquet, rather than conduct a professional interview.

So when I asked T.J. about his experiences in Brooklyn and Gainesville, the band's hometown, I was surprised to learn that I hadn't been projecting quite as much as I thought. “I feel like I was in Gainesville at a really great time,” he says. “I was there from 2007 to 2010. It's always had a reputation—like, 'Oh, that's where Tom Petty is from, and Sister Hazel.' When I was there, the music climate was so warm and welcoming and familial. And incestual, in a good way. Everyone was [playing music] with everyone.”

T.J. and his bandmates moved to Brooklyn in 2010, “sight unseen,” after he had been accepted into a graduate program for psychology. After moving to Bed-Stuy from Gainesville, he then moved to Greenpoint, and then to Astoria, all while supporting Conveyor, doing freelance sound design, and working on his graduate degree. In describing the Brooklyn vibe, T.J. sounds fatigued.

“There’s a lot of distance,” he says. “One-upsmanship. Competitiveness. Not just in bands that are playing in Brooklyn, but in people that are there to watch bands. We've come from amazing shows, out of town, where nobody knows us—people are just there to experience the music and have a good time. And then we come to New York for a homecoming show, and no matter how many people are there, they're all just there to stand there with their arms folded.”

“It’s frustrating,” he continues, “because as a musician, at least at this point in my personal life, I’m done trying to prove anything to anyone, and make a statement that is anything other than personal, a statement to myself. We’re there to share music with you guys, you guys being the audience, and… there’s just no sympathy for that in New York.” I question whether most bands in Brooklyn are playing for his hypothetical audience, or for the press. “I don’t know, it’s probably both,” he says. “I mean, a writeup on Brooklyn Vegan, or anything, is what people are going for up here. Just to be noticed by somebody.” He interrupts himself. “I definitely identify with that! As somebody making music, you wanna be noticed by somebody. But I think I’m… done trying to be noticed by anybody.”

A little over a year ago, I went went with a friend to see Animal Collective play Terminal 5. They were touring for Centipede Hz, which, as some have noted, critics were less than thrilled with, but seemed reluctant to criticize. It was a sold-out show, so the floor was packed—more so than necessary because of a barricade that held the crowd a few feet away from the stage. I wondered, as we waited for the band to come on, why it was there. When they finally did appear, so did a swarm of photographers and videographers, beyond the barricade. I’d thought mosh pits were the only pits, till I saw my first press pit that night.

With a band as hyped as Animal Collective, it’s easy to distinguish the press from the general public. But for smaller bands, the eyes of the blogosphere are everywhere. At every venue in the city—from Saint Vitus, to PIANOS, to Goodbye Blue Monday—you can bet at least half the crowd blogs, follows blogs, or gets their music from friends who follow blogs. “On blogs, there’s a story, or an image,” T.J. says, “like, ‘You’ve gotta see this band because…’ It’s never ‘You’ve gotta see this band because of the music.’”

Conveyor live

Nine times out of ten, a band’s story precedes it. It’s a tough place, indeed, to be a blogger covering an artist who’s acutely aware of that. This is partly the case, now, with Conveyor’s former neighbors, Hundred Waters, whose biggest writeup to date—on VICE—was led with a diatribe slamming Gainesville. “That was a big to-do,” says T.J. “I don’t have Facebook, but we’re friends with Hundred Waters folks, and my bandmates were seeing all this stuff on their walls, people rising up to shit on Vice and protect Gainseville. The reaction that it caused was insane. And then Hundred Waters was in the middle of all that, not wanting to offend anybody… it’s tricky.”

There’s more to my convoluted interpretation of Conveyor’s discography, and it’s appropriate here. For T.J.’s sake, I reiterate that this reading is all my own. Conveyor’s debut album wove digital sounds with earthy vocal harmonies and vitalistic rhythms in a way that echoes technology’s ability to amplify the human experience. On Prime, digital textures either drone ominously or assault the ears, while live instrumentation rebels against it.

“We live in a really quick world,” T.J. muses. “We expect things to happen instantaneously. It’s a touchy subject because it has a lot to do with technology, with the supercomputers that are in our pockets right now. People expect to have things downloaded to their brains. It’s not sympathetic to an album like Prime.” And indeed, releasing a mostly instrumental double album in this landscape is—well, ballsy. It’s generally accepted that artists can only release double albums when they have a certain amount of tenure to back it up. Double albums are either masterworks or bloated, nothing in between.

But Prime is meant to embody the in between. Its source material originated as a student film by George Lucas—you know, George Lucas, as in Star Wars. “It’s a movie that’s flawed, but has potential,” says T.J. Look through any number of forums and you’ll find he’s not alone. “You’re watching it, and you’re like, George, you could’ve done something right there…” he continues. “It’s a great snapshot of someone who’s learning their art. Which is not something that I think is recognized a lot in our culture. I think we expect, as consumers, for something to be fully realized when given to us. The reality is that nothing is fully realized. Nothing is perfect.”

It’s staggering to think how much time an artist must spend on an album, compared to how much time the average listener will spend on it. “You hear [the album] so many times when it’s being made, and even when your role is done, and it’s off to be mastered, you have to listened to the master drafts—you listen to things with such an analytical ear that it’s hard to do it any other way,” T.J. says.

Detachment: an unfortunate byproduct of both too much and too little time. The modern status quo. A symptomatic monument to our all-or-nothing binge culture.

“Unless,” T.J. admits, “you get really stoned and listen to it, which, once it’s finally done, that’s like, my moment of release. Just put it on and take it all in.”

I jokingly ask him if that was on record, and we share a laugh.

“Sure, man. Whatever.”

Conveyor's Prime is out July 15 on Gold Robot.

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