When local electronic producer Nick Zanca was diagnosed with mono in early November, he was relieved. "Everybody who has had mono has been like, 'Oh man, get ready for the most boring month of your life,' and I'm like, 'I need boring right now,'" he says. "My life has been so exciting and it's only about to get more busy, so if I can watch Twin Peaks in my apartment and just do absolutely nothing else, I'll be OK with that."
The 20-year-old Columbia College student better known as Mister Lies used some of the time he spent laid up with the virus to reflect on the past year. It's seemed to fly past, transforming him from an unknown bedroom producer sharing music with friends to a two-time recipient of Pitchfork's coveted Best New Track designation. The whirlwind began in late January 2012, when Chicago-based blog Flashlight Tag posted about the first official Mister Lies song, the moody "False Astronomy." Since then Zanca has released a couple EPs and a slew of songs, toured twice, and signed with Lefse Records (whose catalog also includes the likes of Neon Indian, Youth Lagoon, and How to Dress Well).
Zanca shows no signs of slowing down this year. On Sun 1/20 he'll play his biggest hometown gig yet, opening for UK R&B sensation Jessie Ware at Lincoln Hall as part of the Tomorrow Never Knows festival. He squeezed in a short west-coast tour before the TNK date (his spring semester begins at the end of the month), and he plans to make live shows a bigger part of the Mister Lies package—like many producers who take their music onstage, he's had to come up with a performance style that's more than glorified DJing, and lately he's started building his songs on the fly, singing live, and using visuals by Theodore Darst and Brad Rohloff. Next month Lefse will release his full-length debut, Mowgli.
Mowgli departs from the mellow style Zanca established last year, which is sprinkled with ambient synths, hollow snares, and syrupy, warped vocal samples and sounds a little like 90s trip-hop or mid-aughts UK dubstep. The new album is sometimes just as sumptuous and soothing as that earlier material, but here and there Zanca pumps up his drum patterns into hard-hitting beats and adds jarring keyboards or bulbous horns. The opener, "Ashore," erupts with surges of what sounds like a backward sample of a squealing sax. Because Zanca has a full-time course load in playwriting, starting in March he'll support Mowgli by touring on the weekends.
Zanca grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut, and developed a taste for electronic music in elementary school in the late 90s—he'd listen to Now That's What I Call Music! compilations, playing the tracks from acts such as Fatboy Slim and Moby on repeat. Then he got hooked on DJ Shadow's Endtroducing . . . . . and Portishead's Dummy. "When I was 12 or 13, I heard those records for the first time and just started experimenting in Sound Forge on my dad's computer," he says.
In middle school Zanca played in punk bands, but he also got his first Macbook and started working with GarageBand and Logic. Shortly before he entered high school in 2007, he and his father, Bruce—formerly a press aide for the Reagan and Bush administrations and now senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer for Bankrate—built a recording space in their basement. "When I wasn't in school that's where I was, in my basement working on stuff," he says. In summer 2011 he launched the solo project Lake Rescue, named after the location of his family's lake house in Ludlow, Vermont; he initially intended it to be guitar and synth driven, but when he moved to Chicago to attend Columbia in the fall, it took on an electronic-pop sound.
Two weeks into September, Zanca met two other students who were also producers, Nolan Andrea (aka Soleman) and Rafa Alvarez (aka Different Sleep). Before Alvarez moved to Chicago from San Diego, he'd joined a collective-slash-label called Svengali, founded by fellow aspiring producer Peter Luber (whose stage name is also Svengali). It arose in fall 2010 from a loose group of friends with similar interests who liked to share their passion projects. "We'd post songs that we were working on on our Facebook group," says Alvarez.
By the time Alvarez moved to Chicago, the Svengali name was making the rounds on the blogs; Alvarez attracted a lot of interest from Flashlight Tag, and in fall 2011 Zanca became part of the Svengali family. In late January he released "False Astronomy" as Lake Rescue, and Alvarez sent the song to Flashlight Tag founder Tyler Andere, who liked it so much he gave Zanca some advice. "He's like, 'You should start a new moniker and start a new name for yourself,'" Zanca says. "He basically helped me brand the entire Mister Lies thing."
"I sort of told him, 'You should go anonymous and see if people pick up on it, and I'll help you push it,'" says Andere, who also contributes to tastemaking sites such as Potholes in My Blog and Portals. "He made the Mister Lies Soundcloud that day, uploaded the track, and I started posting it on Flashlight Tag and Portals." A version of "False Astronomy" credited to Mister Lies appeared on Flashlight Tag on January 31, 2012, and for the next week and a half Zanca worked on the first Mister Lies EP, Hidden Neighbors. "'Cleam' was basically done in one six-hour session at two in the morning, and I had a one-act play due for my class the next day," he says. "So I literally finished that, got the last five pages of the last scene of the play done, and then just didn't sleep." Zanca released the EP by uploading it to his Bandcamp page.
Pitchfork caught wind of Mister Lies, and in March it posted "I Walk," a one-off with vocals from Zanca's friend Jessica Blanchet, as a Best New Track; in April the site bestowed the same honor on "Cleam." Within the next month Zanca shed his anonymity (he still goes by "Mister Lies," but he also lets people know his real name), released a collaboration with Alvarez called Mass EP via the Absent Fever label (which Andere founded with Eloise Hess of the blog Verb/re/verb), signed with Lefse, and began a short tour of California supporting popular avant-garde electronic producer Tycho. (Around the same time, Lefse hired Andere to do A&R, a development Andere credits in part to Zanca's success.)
After the California tour, school was out for the summer, so Zanca returned to his parents' place in Connecticut to work on his debut full-length. He had a hard time working in New Canaan, though—he was homesick for Chicago and distracted by the same social scene he'd been happy to escape when he moved to Illinois. At the end of June he left for his family's Vermont lake house, where he spent the rest of the summer (aside from a short trip to Chicago in July to play an Empty Bottle show with Supreme Cuts and attend the Pitchfork Music Festival). He lived largely in isolation, making field recordings, plugging away at his album, and reading Nietzsche and The Jungle Book. He worked with his collaborators—including actress Aleksa Palladino, singer for New York duo Exitmusic—mostly via e-mail. Zanca decided to name the album after the feral child from Kipling's stories. "We all kind of have that feral-child quality we go through," he says. "Even though we don't want to admit it."
Zanca says parts of Mowgli will take his fans by surprise. "If people are expecting 'False Astronomy' and 'I Walk' and the chillwave side of things, they'll like this record—but they'll be a little bit taken aback by the first half, because it's probably the most hard-hitting tribal stuff that I've done," he says. "It's kind of like side A is destroying the room and side B is looking around the room and realizing what you've done and trying to fix it."
Zanca describes Mowgli as the harshest Mister Lies material to date, but despite the hiatus that mono forced on him, he's already moved on from it. "Maybe it's the fact I'm so young or it's the subject of untreated ADD or something like that, but these songs, I'm kind of past that," he says. "I'm listening to a lot more darker shit, a lot more dark ambient. I'm revisiting my noise roots. I'm listening to a lot of Nine Inch Nails, oddly enough, and that's been inspiring me in ways that I'd never think it would have."