Matt Smith is Prince Nifty, a Toronto-based electronic artist and producer; Victoria Cheong is a fellow Toronto-based electronic artist who records as New Chance. They both have albums coming out soon — New Chance’s Real Time is out this Friday via We Are Time Records, and Prince Nifty’s Interplanetary Machines is out in August via Second Spring — so to celebrate they sat down to catch up. You can read the transcript below, and check out the premiere of New Chances new video for the album’s title track!
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Victoria Cheong: It’s always weird to call yourself a musician when you don’t feel trained, or something.
Matt Smith: Totally. I read this amazing interview with Jim O’Rourke — I can’t remember what it was, but he refuses to call himself a musician. He’s just like, “I’m not a musician.” And he certainly was at a time, but now he’s just like, “No, I’m not. I use music and sound, but…”
Victoria: Yeah. I honestly think of myself as an artist. And I don’t come to that lightly either, but I think that is what I am, for better or worse.
Matt: Yeah, I think I feel the same way. I think we have a lot of overlap of our kind of artistic career. We both have done a bunch of work in the contemporary dance world with similar people, with different people. I think we both had these very complicated relationships to running a record label at one point.
Victoria: [Laughs.] I never thought about that as an overlap. Yeah. Oh my goodness.
Matt: I think for me it’s maybe less obvious, but we both make music kind of for dancing, or for body-moving in a way, in our own projects.
Matt: I think I also think of myself as a singer, and in some ways it’s kind of a real prime drive, or a prime instrument in a way.
Victoria: Yeah, we have those things in common. That’s why I thought it would be interesting for us to talk about those overlaps. But also, I think I’m just interested in talking about music, I guess. [Laughs.]
Matt: [Laughs.] Uh huh.
Victoria: Probably this is something that we share also, that we tend to work on our own and then present the results, either in performance or as recordings. It’s actually mysterious what goes on in the solo artist’s studio. I don’t know what goes on for you. I kinda know what goes on for me. [Laughs.] It’s like, me crouched on the floor with a notebook, or it’s me banging on a synth trying to do something repetitively when I’m not that skilled of a player, or searching for specific sounds that are exciting to me or whatever.
Matt: Yeah, I think if you were a fly on the wall in my process, for sure it would seem insane. So much of it would seem like the work of someone who’s mad. And I’m not denying — I mean, I think I’m a fairly normal person, but the process is…
I think this is also part of the problem, it’s a blessing and a curse of people like us who work by ourselves and are not virtuosic instrumentalists. You’re working from texture and tone and timbre and sound in these different ways — it’s a different sense of taste, but it’s also like, leave no stone unturned. Instead of being like, I know exactly what key this is in, what mode would work, it’s like, I am gonna just mash around on this drum machine or this keyboard or look through these libraries of samples ad nauseum until something sticks.
Victoria: Yeah. That’s why I think about my own process as experimental, even though I wouldn’t really label myself an experimental artist, because I don’t really label myself most things. But ultimately it’s like, you kind of have a hunch about something and then you give it a try, and then that leads you to the next thing, and it’s like a series of experiments to get to where you end up. Do you relate to that?
Matt: Yeah. It’s like these funny kind of slopes or something — I imagine a marble or a rock that’s rolling down a hill. It’s zig zagging, and sometimes it moves really quickly and then sometimes it gets stuck on a ledge for a year or something, or more.
Victoria: Yeah, totally.
Matt: And then the wind blows or the rain comes, and then it rolls down again. Sometimes I’ll just be having a cigarette and some silly little idea will just pop into my head — it’ll just be like an earworm, and I can sort of think a bit abstractly about it and develop enough of an idea that I’m compelled to try and make it happen as a recording or something like that. So some structure, some chunk of things might be born quickly. But for me, I would say ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s never like a stroke of inspiration, and that’s that. It gets things started, but I’m very fastidious — I’m sure it drives other people mad sometimes, when I’m working with them, just how details can kind of get the better of me. I can get lost in it. It’s generally like just chipping away — which sometimes something emerges from that, but then other times, it’s way less obvious.
Victoria: I think I hear that in your music. I hear a precision. I think that I can only assume that that’s just your way.
Matt: It’s the only way I know how to do it.
Victoria: It’s part of who you are. It’s an honest expression of your mind or your thought process, or your physical process with an instrument, or whatever it is. I certainly hear an attention to detail. It doesn’t just mean because it sounds good or something — it means I hear an elevation of detail in and of itself, for sure. It’s precise. It’s sort of expertly cut, in a way.
Matt: Yeah, for sure. Like you’re saying, I also think of myself as an experimental musician reluctantly, but in this way of it being like, things are an experiment. Oftentimes, I’ll be working in theater or in dance, and I think in those spaces there’s more general acceptance for things to sound weird. There’s just a broader palette. Like, people who would hate listening to [composer Krzysztof] Penderecki or something would accept it in a film — wouldn’t think twice about it.
Matt: So I’m really extremely grateful for being able to work in those places for that reason. For me at least — I don’t think it’s true of those whole fields, but in particular the people I’ve been working with, there’s been this beautiful process where you can play around, and you’re learning with the dancers and with the choreographer as they’re developing this thing, or with that writer or director if it’s theater or whatever.
I think for me, one thing that is kind of a constant is reimagining, redoing, revisiting. So a lot of things that were like little kernels of ideas that were for theater or were for dance, I’m going to kind of cannibalize that and make some other things. There are these layers kind of inbuilt where you can just go back and be like, OK, I got this thing, now I’m gonna cut it up and use it as base material for something else.
Victoria: Yeah, I do that exact thing also. It’s like, as long as I’m making consistently in whatever context it is, it’s never wasted energy or wasted time on my part. I mean, sometimes maybe it’s just a learning process to kind of get from one step to another. But a lot of the time it’s like, Here’s a piece of music that I made for something but they rejected it, or I rejected it for that purpose, and now I can revisit it and pull out that one part about it that was interesting and use it to do a remix.
Victoria: I find for me, I like always having kind of like a satchel by my side full of sketches and demos and kind of half-baked ideas that I can put in the oven and fully bake for a new purpose.
Because it’s kind of daunting to have an assignment, like doing a remix or something, and to just go into it cold. I mean, I do it sometimes, but I think it also yields a different kind of result. If I go into something with some kind of artistic intention, it’s so much less interesting to me than if I pull out a sample that doesn’t seem like it should work and doesn’t really make sense, but it does feel right and it works somehow and ends up being this kind of exciting thing, something that I couldn’t couldn’t formulate intentions about.
That’s kind of the chance thing, or the happy accidents, or just the play. A lot of the time in the studio, it’s about cultivating that sense of play — like what’s possible? Anything is allowed. I mean, at least at first, in that kind of creative moment. Which is actually so rare, to have that time where you’re just like, I get to play! A lot of the time we have obligations that we need to fulfill, or deadlines or whatever. I always am grateful when I can return to that and just mess around like I used to when I first got into music and I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was just feeling around for what feels good. And that’s still what I always do.
Matt: Yeah, I think that’s great, because I think there’s a bit of a masochistic streak in a lot of musicians, where your ideas have to be tight, your morals, your ethics have to be tight — it’s got to be a tight ship. There can be a tendency to kind of flog yourself. It’s work.
I remember when I first started really writing songs years ago, I used to have this sense of like, you’ve got to keep something in your back pocket, you’ve got to keep a little something extra in the tank. It would kind of stunt the songwriting process, because I was afraid that I was going to run out of ideas or something. It was this weird feeling of like, I can’t put all of my ideas in this one song or else then I’ve only got one song. As opposed to, I could stretch this out and have, like, ten songs, or something. I remember it being almost like this huge existential kind of cloud hanging over me.
But I think what you’re saying about that sense of play, that really is rare in a lot of cases, but once you’re in that zone, when you’re in that playful energy — I mean, just that alone, aside from it being generative, it’s just wonderful. It’s just a nice place, like it feels good. I think it’s hard for people on their own, like us. Maybe it’s hard for musicians in a lot of ways, because it’s up to you. If you’re working in dance or theater, for better or worse, you’ve got to rent space and pay people and have times set aside.
Victoria: Yeah. You have sort of a boss, whereas when you’re your own boss it’s like, what kind of boss are you going to be to yourself?
Matt: Yeah, totally.
Victoria: In the scheme of what a day or a week or a month looks like in my studio, those generative days where I get to just play are so rare — but also, that’s where everything comes from. But it’s not like I do that every day. I think some artists actually do do that stuff every day, and they’re very prolific, and it’s easy come easy go in a way. I’m not like that. I don’t have that amount of energy to be making things all the time like that. But it’s just wild to think that everything, all the raw material, comes from those days. And I’m always just so grateful that they happen. And then they don’t happen all the time, and they can’t happen all the time, either because I’m busy doing other things or because I’m just not feeling it.
Matt: Yeah, it’s like having chocolate bars or something. Like, they’re amazing, you just can’t have them all the time.
Victoria: [Laughs.] Yeah.
Matt: A part of me wishes I had more of a disciplined practice in terms of that. I also think it’s tricky when you’re not playing the guitar, for instance, or playing the piano — it’s like another layer of self-discipline where you have to develop your own sense of practice. You’re like, Oh, I need to practice the sampler today for an hour, I need to run my scales in the sampler. [Laughs.] I don’t know what you do.
Victoria: [Laughs.] You read the manual.
Matt: [Laughs.] But you need to do it to some degree, obviously. Whether you want to or not, you’re going to be forced to smash through the rough stuff.
In your music, I get the sense of you being like an author or a poet or something, in this way that I think you’re constantly absorbing things, and kinds of tones of voice, and then that’s part of the raw material that I hear in your music. Not in the sense of it being derivative — it’s not like that — but I feel like you could churn out tons of music every day if you wanted to. But I don’t think that’s what you’re doing. I feel more like you’re in a nice meta relationship with music, where the kind of music you want to make and the kind of music that you’re into, or that influences you, are incongruent in very cool ways. I hear these big ideas — abstract and real and heartfelt — but them getting filtered through this almost rave-y vibe.
Because you can think about raves in a lot of ways — you know, getting fucked up and dancing all night and all that stuff. But there’s a certain kind of energy. Pre- and post-rave, outside of the music there’s all this socializing. It’s this very special energy, these kinds of drug-enhanced friendships. They’re not always drug-enhanced, but you can’t avoid the reality, that’s part of that culture. Whether you’re on it or not, you’re going to be influenced by it. But there’s this there’s a particular kind of special energy to those kinds of parties, which I feel like you’re tapping into. But it’s not just like pounding four-on-the-floor energy. I feel like you’re playing with these references in this very natural way. It doesn’t feel like an essay, or like an academic work, but I don’t think you can not hear it in reference to these things that are clearly your influences.
Victoria: Yeah. I mean, I think I’m very inclusive — as a human, and then in my work also. It’s not like anything goes, but it’s part of just my perspective, I guess.
And in a way, a part of that inclusivity has to do with like, Well, you can’t have the explosive dance floor moment without the build up of the whole night. It’s not so satisfying and not so interesting to just have one clear note of experience. I guess in a big way, that’s such an overarching idea about my record, that you can’t have the balloon without a wilting, you can’t have the excitement of the show without all the labor behind it. And it’s not like trying to be a downer, like, “Hey, remember about all the hard parts,” but it kind of is. Because actually, all of those things deserve a seat at the table. All of those things need to be invited to be part of our lives and part of the kind of beautiful mandala of life. Don’t forget about the morning after and don’t forget about when you’re hung over and don’t forget about all the small moments.
Matt: I feel like it’s of this peculiar emotional quality — it’s like that whole energy is in a way a nod to a kind of nostalgia, but it’s also something that’s still alive. I think that’s the truth about about rave culture, dance music and stuff like that — you can’t be a puritan about it. I mean you can, obviously, but now you can listen to it on Spotify. It slowly has emanated from the dance floor into all these other domains. And this feels to me like this nice entanglement of all these these worlds of dance music culture. You can carry it around, bring it around with you in the world the way that you want to, the way that you do anyways. I’m sure anyone who had a nice time at a rave one night in their lives — it sticks with you.
Victoria: I feel like I always am trying to pack my whole world into into my music. I mean, not always, but that’s kind of the ideal I’m moving towards. It’s like, how can I say everything, or how can I really convey my perspective?
I wonder, what are you making music about when you’re making music?
Matt: I don’t know.
Victoria: What is the thing that you decide, “That’s worth making music about,” or “I want to make music about that”?
Matt: I remember one time I wrote a song about all the condos going up in Toronto, and just that that feeling of watching a city change or whatever. And whatever, it’s a song, it exists, it’s no big deal. But I remember on my birthday a few years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant. I was by myself, my girlfriend at the time had gone back to visit her mother in another country, and it was winter and I was just a little bit down and out. It was fine, but I remember that song “Cranes in the Sky” came on by Solange, and I was just like, Oh, my god, this song is what I wanted to do with that song, except it’s perfect. And I just cried like a fool in this restaurant by myself on my birthday listening to Solange. Like, That’s what I wanted to say and when I have something to say and I try to say it, it’s terrible.
It’s kind of the opposite of what you’re saying — if I try to put that into it, it’s terrible. But what I have discovered is sometimes just through process alone, like if I just kind of follow my instinct getting to these details, reworking something — something drops. It’s like a serendipitous moment or a happy accident or whatever. Something happens, and then something emerges that feels more real than something I could have intended.
Victoria: Yeah, yeah.
Matt: The new record that’s coming out soon is all these dreams from this Carl Jung book, that his patients had of UFOs. I was working on a dance-play hybrid, just a workshop, called “Aliens.” It was a difficult process and I wasn’t sure what to do. Then I had been reading this book and I was like, Oh, why don’t I just try to sing one of these dreams as music? So I sang through it, and for me it felt musically successful and interesting — it was the stuff that I’m looking for, challenging but also engaging. That baits the hook for me, and I kind of dive in.
I realized after working on it for a little while that singing these words of these people that I don’t know — they’re just these very simple texts, they’re beautiful but they’re simple. They’re like, “I saw a UFO, it was in the sky. It looked like a cigar.” There was something about how utterly unpoetic it was to just try to make an event out of, like, a participle or something. You’re just like, This is the word “be.” Let’s make a musical element of it just by cellularly walking through it, sound by sound, word by word, sentence by sentence — teasing out some kind of poeticness. Mid-process I was like, Oh, my god, this mood that I am singing in, this energy, is so much more expressive of who I am. I could never write this as poetry. This is what I want to say to the world. Like, I don’t care about the words, but this energy, this harmonic feeling, this melodic feeling, is maybe the first time that it’s felt actually very personal.
Victoria: Yeah. It’s interesting because we sometimes have to come up with these tricks for singing, or tricks for writing. I certainly have done a lot of experimenting on my own with different voices and how to make them work, how to make them believable or compelling. It’s not easy. If you’ve ever sang karaoke or whatever, then you discover how ridiculous song lyrics really are and how much it really is about the emotion and the conviction. You just have to mean it. But that’s not easy, and it’s especially not easy if you’re people like us where we maybe — well, I’ll speak for myself and say, I don’t say things I don’t mean. If I’m aware that I don’t mean it, I don’t say it.
Victoria: Even though I think there’s room as an artist or a performer to, of course, say things you don’t mean and play with that, in my own music, I never do that. I have to find a way to mean what I’m saying or what I’m singing. Even if I’m backup singing for another person, and it’s not my words and it’s not my story or whatever, I still have to sort of do the work on my own and kind of internally to find a way to mean it — whether that means like imagining myself as another person or whatever, I’ll do that to try to figure out how to mean it. Because I feel like if I don’t mean it, I’m just not interested in doing it. It doesn’t resonate with me.
Matt: Yeah, totally. I think there is some kind of sense of truth that you inevitably have to reckon with. And it doesn’t mean that it is the truth or something. But as an artist it’s so obvious, I think, when it’s there and when it’s not. In my own work, it’s so clear. I feel like you have the sense when you’re working on something when it’s going to work and when it’s not going to work, because there is a sense of it being like, OK, this feels true. I hate the word authentic and I don’t really know what it means, and I don’t think anybody really does. I don’t think that’s it, but I think there is this sense of it that is very driving.
Victoria: Yeah. It’s kind of instinctual. That’s where you have to hone your instincts and your feeling nature, and to trust in that and to say, Yes, I feel, therefore it’s true. To me, that’s what’s necessary. If I can’t rely on my own instincts, then I’m going to be looking to somebody else, and that’s the last thing that I’ll ever do.
Matt: [Laughs.] For better or worse.
Victoria: And that’s why I’m my own boss. That’s why that’s I think I’ve sacrificed certain things to be able to be my own boss, or to be able to do what I think I need to do.
Matt: Yeah. Maybe it’s not particular to music, but it feels very musical in the sense that you have to feel it. That’s kind of what pushes music forward in this nice way, that it really is this practice that’s in this engagement of people playing with their sense of how things ought to be.
(Photo Credit: left, Yuula Benivolski)