Collage Talks: Very Nice Massage

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R: Hey, Very Nice Massage! Thanks for agreeing to discuss your upcoming album, Based On The Data, with me!

Z: Hello Rachel! Thank you for having us!

R: Please introduce yourselves!

Z: My name is  Zach Stolz, I am one half of Very Nice Massage, and a musician living on Kangaroo Island and New York.

C: My name is Chris Retsina, I am a musician and painter from New York City.

R: How did you two meet?

Z: We met when I was on a year off from my degree in medicine. Chris and I met just as I was finishing my planned time in NYC and I ended up staying!

C: Our first interaction was actually at a friend’s gig [King Cyst] five years ago. We were the two tallest people at the show and started making jokes to each other from across the room!

R: In the band, who plays what?

C: Zach is on bass and I sing the lead vocals. As far as instrumentation we alternate freely. Generally I would say maybe Zach leans more towards synthesis and I towards beat-making. That is definitely not a rule though. We usually work in shifts and almost always augment what the other plays in some way or another. We have a drummer named Tom Stephens. He is the absolute best!

R: So, what’s the story behind the band name?

C: We spent weeks kicking around different names. Picking a band name is such a silly experience. You have to balance the right amount of stupid and sweet! Very Nice Massage just sort of popped up one day while we were getting lunch. It fit perfectly with the sound – tension, release, relief.

Z: Really, it’s an excuse for us to get as many massages as possible.

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Photo: Liv Chung

R: Let’s discuss your creative processes and stages of formulating a complete album.  What are the stages of co-writing that you two go through?

Z: We’re having a constant discussion  about music, gear and world views. I come from more of a science background, Chris from art, but we share a general sensibility that lets us communicate pretty well, and have a good time as we go.

C: This is the third album we’ve done. The first one we made was called “Mostly Love Songs”. It lacked that special something and sounded clinical to boot,  so we tossed it and started fresh to make what ended up being ‘Get To The Dadaa’. It was a drag to have spent a year and a half working on a doomed album but we learned some important lessons, most importantly that it doesn’t pay to be too precious with your work!

Z: While we are apart we listen to as much new music as we can, gathering samples and techniques to use in recording. Taking field recordings, waves, animals, fools on the street.  We’ll meet up, eat a lot of bagels and walk around Brooklyn and Manhattan getting on the same page, “processing each other’s data”.

C: I’d say we usually start songs with a bit of a verse or some basic changes. Just block in the chords, find the groove and go! Then we just add loads of other bits, modulate everything and time stretch until the tune feels like it’s finished. Sometimes we get into something more interesting than what we started with and have to rewrite the entire song.  

Z: When it comes to putting it all together, it’s a bit like making a Frankenstein. Walking through New York finding old body parts. Grinding down James Brown’s jawbone, letting some of our own blood, a pacemaker, brain implants. Undead music!

C: Our last record was a lot more difficult to make simply because we hadn’t developed our own vocabulary yet. With this album we started strong because we had an idea of what we wanted from the beginning. We’d learned basic things like how to EQ a track and harder things like how to write a song too! 
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R: New York is typically well known as a huge melting pot of cultures, social scenes, diverse inspirations, which is arguably a creative advantage. Where do you gather your music sources, and accumulate knowledge before pumping out a song? Is it through other artists, bands, gigs, culture, society, books etc?

C: Zach and I come from very different musical backgrounds. It’s been a real treat because we get to fill each other in on things the other has missed. I consider myself very lucky because I grew up in Greenwich Village and had the opportunity to hear lots of different music all the time. Both my parents and sister all had wildly different musical tastes and took initiative in taking me to see shows first hand. Also just hanging around in the parks you would hear music all day. I started playing music pretty late, I think around 19 but I’ve always been an obsessive listener. Having immediate access to all kinds of stuff was a gift. 

Z: There’s a constant anxiety and periodic elation in New York that I think has gotten into the music. Someone will be yelling at their kid while a group of friends dance in public. You’re always getting other people shoved into your headspace. 

C: I just keep an ear out for anything that sounds like it could be interesting. I’m always writing down names, screen grabbing stuff on the phone, reading, checking out record shops and raiding my friends music libraries! Music has a way of finding you precisely when you need it to. 

Z: Making a record in New York is a bit like choosing a place to eat there. You want to be able to eat Veselka potato pancakes, Pies n Thighs Fried Chicken, The Islands Salmon Jerk Plate, Minca Ramen, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream and Yoghurt and peaches in the park, all at the same time. A fantasy!

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VNM’s ‘slice of heaven’ – gear and paintings

R: Also knowing that you’re both on opposite sides of the world at the moment, how does New York (or Kangaroo Island)  as a city, as cultural space, an ‘idea’, how do the places the album has made contribute to the sound? Or is the music totally digital, constructed via the internet with no consideration for the natural space around it?

C: I think your environment always seeps into the music. This album was recorded in NY and LA. The two of us are workaholics so no matter where we are we set up our portable studio and jam. I will say that there is a bit of a difference between what we make while staying in the two cities though. 

When we’re in Los Angeles we’re basically always there to play some shows and hang out with friends. It’s corny but we really get into the California vibe. Our time is a little less regimented, we’ll record at odd times, use softer sounds. 

When we’re in NYC I’m working my ass off to be able to afford uninterrupted time off to write and record. We work out of a noisy painting studio above Mcguiness Ave in Greenpoint which is basically a highway. I think all the competing street noise sort of pushes us towards more aggressive sounds simply because they’re easier to hear in that environment.

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Photo: Very Nice Massage

R: Samples are a significant part of your music, and I recognise how sampling has transformed the landscape of music throughout time. I particularly like how choosing to sample a certain sound, often there is a reason or the sound has a greater meaning to you as the artist, and by sampling it, allows you to inject yourself in to the narrative of the music. Ultimately, taking something you love, and building upon it. 

I think you’ve managed to find the balance in this album, particularly on the final track ‘My Favourite Things’. What are your thoughts about the way that samples have shaped your music experience and knowledge, and consequently the process of choosing and including samples in your tracks?

Z: I guess samples are this new language in music that has been limited through copyright laws, and that makes it an exciting space for us. By making music without any immediate intention to sell it, we can explore that space.

C: Zach and I think of what we do as “post internet music”. When genre jumping is the norm, why wouldn’t you? Neither one of us has any interest in doing pure period pieces. Promoters, bookers and the lot want artists to be able to sum up their entire creative output into two words. No thank you. 

Z: It’s worth mentioning that we are repeating the tradition of white guys extending what black musicians were pioneering 30 years ago. There was some amazing music made in the late 80s and early 90s which shares a lot with our sampling theory. All put to a stop by a sampling lawsuit in 1991. Check out Biz Markie.

C: Sampling is tricky. I could almost take almost any sample and process it to a point where it sounds “cool” but that doesn’t really mean anything. I think sampling only really works when you love or have some emotional connection to the source material. 

Fundamentally we see sampling as a form of data processing. Besides, why try to reinvent something when it’s already playing out of your speakers in all its glory. When you grab sounds from all over the place, you’re harnessing your taste to tell the story and also creating opportunity for new connections. 

That’s part of why so much of our sampling is blatant – it’s like, “here it is, exactly what you thought it was”. Our game has a lot to do with changing the context.

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Photo: Liv Chung (doggo here)

R: The music video for ‘Total Confusion’ has lots of interesting clips stitched together, is the process of creating this also interconnected in some way to your music sampling process too? 

C: The video was made by my longtime girlfriend Abby Lloyd. She did the cover for our previous album and made a music video for a song from our first album also using video collage. Abby has a gift for recognising things that are just slightly (or very) off. When she decides to hit you with it all at the same time it’s dizzying! Check out more of her work online

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Photo: Very Nice Massage

R: Tell me about your sampling philosophy, or ideas regarding collage or palimpsest and how it has evolved. What is the process of how you incorporate your own live instrumentation with the samples?

Z: It’s often subconscious. A sound from a song will pop into our heads and be in the right tempo and key, ready to go! At the same time, a lot of fuckery often goes into making something fit. We grew up playing along to CDs and mp3s in our bedrooms. Adding  live instrumentation over a sample feels similar.

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Painting by Chris Retsina

R: Is there an element of parodic fun in your music, reminiscent of Frank Zappa?

Z: The music is full of personal jokes. Haha I used to listen to a lot of Zappa. Maybe this album shares his anti-censorship anti-capitalist conspiracy tendencies.

C: I would definitely say we’re pranksters but not in the same way as Zappa. His sense of humour was cartoonish, grotesque and very aggressive. I feel like we tend to gravitate towards absurdity.

R: Chris, being in New York has meant you’ve been a witness, and been at the forefront of various vocal political movements, most recently, the Black Lives Matter protests. Does your involvement and immersion in this discourse influence you creatively in your approach to music, or messages you convey in your music?

C: We recognise that we’re two white guys operating in a space that was largely pioneered by black artists. We’ve always kept that in the front of our minds.

Throughout our process, Zach and I try to remain both conscious and particular of what we choose to sample. We make an effort to use material that relates directly to our personal histories as best we can. For example, my father being a Greek immigrant led us to exploring Mediterranean music. The reality is that across genres, most roads lead back to fabulous black artistry. 

This new album was finished almost a year ago so I can’t say there are messages embedded throughout the music that speaks about the current political landscape directly. That said, growing up in NYC the wealth disparity and systemic racism has always been on full display. 

I think participating in any discourse that has an effect on you personally, will have an effect on the art you produce.  

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Improvised cow onesie and suitcase as a recording booth

R: Tell me about the first tour you two did for the first album, what was your experience, funny/interesting tour stories, aspects about touring you encountered that were perhaps surprising , when can we expect another tour? Details!

Z: Last tour was Get to the Dadaa with the LA based band/angels Sonoda on the West Coast of the US. From Seattle to San Diego. I ate my broccoli and managed to jog every day. Our favourites were the house shows. Pretty wholesome all in all!

We had this radio show lined up in Santa Barbara, and were pretty excited for the trip – playing on air, getting a swim and seafood in at Malibu on the way home. But that day we woke up to the sound of these insane cymbals crashing, snare drums, tubas, trombones like elephants. We took samples of it! I remember getting out of bed and squinting through the kitchen window to see a Latino guy dressed up as a cowboy prancing his horse around the street. It was incredible, but they’d towed our car! So instead of our beach paradise leg of that tour, I spent 6 hours in line at the tow depot waiting in line to get the car back! Apparently some mob figure had organised the no standing notices and put them up only minutes before the parade started. There was a cinema full of people who had come out of their movie and all their cars had gone!!

C: We will tour as soon as we can! We’re hopeful that it will be possible before the end of the year but we’re not holding our breath, it’ll probably be next spring unfortunately. We’ll be putting together programming in the meantime.

Z: Next tour will be post-COVID19 unfortunately! Chris will finally make his Aus Debut, and a US tour is certainly in order. I need a tuna melt with double-fried sweet potatoes.

R: Thanks so much for spending the time to be in discussion with me today, I’m so excited for everyone else to have a listen to the album!

Z: Thank you Rachel!!

‘Based on the Data’ was released on August 14 2020

Watch a preview music video of one of their tracks, Total Confusion, here

You can find out more about Very Nice Massage through their socials:

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