UNCHARTED: Prince Nifty

Amateur ethnomusicologist Matt Smith is converging dozens of genres into one brilliant, unclassifiable collage. We spoke about Toronto and its electronic music, getting through guilt to record, and racist L.A. parties.

- Oct 17, 2013

Uncharted is our weekly showcase of independent artists we think you should hear. This week we speak to amateur Toronto ethnomusicologist Prince Nifty about the Toronto electronic music scene, feeling guilty about music, and about how his latest album Pity Slash Love is an ode to his city.

Matt Smith has very specific ideas for his Prince Nifty project. Any time he speaks about one of his songs from Pity Slash Love, his latest full-length release, he showcases an intimate knowledge of each function of every instrument, rhythm and section. He knows what goes where, why, and where it comes from. There's plenty of heart, too; Matt doesn't claim to be an ethnomusicologist, but his natural passion for global musical traditions is clear throughout the record. They're all a part of what Matt sees as “the human default,” which he observed while working on a music documentary in Madagascar. Pity Slash Love is a convergence and celebration of those multitudes.

Matt began absorbing these sounds in high school. “A good friend of mine would go to the French Canadian school’s libraries and get all these recordings, like French versions of the Smithsonian Folkways stuff, and we’d dub those CDs and just have piles of them.” Shortly after dropping out of university, Matt began to hear the connections. “People would talk to me about how 'Techno is the forefront of avant-garde',” he laughs, “and I’d be like, no it’s a polka. Just throw in a couple of different instruments.”

Pity Slash Love is a rare album that's both accessible and impossible to categorize by genre. The labyrinthine musical expression Smith deals with crosses oceans and centuries, engaging each other with dignity and marvel, with eyes set firmly on some much larger continuity than an average album can contain. Through all this, he refuses to ignore the personal circumstances that have formed him, preventing the music from lapsing into a self-indulgent, didactic scrum. The fingerpicked guitar on the early tracks recalls Dirty Projectors, paying tribute to the folk music of some long lost village. On one song, you'll hear the parallels between Smith's proto-footwork and ancient chants. In the last three, his sounds of a small town churches are revived into choral experimentation.

Labels are interested in repressing the album, but only piecemeal, leaving out certain songs to try and force it into a category. Matt's not into it. He's got a “much more focused, electronic” record he wants to release (half of Pity Slash Love had to be re-recorded after a smashed hard drive at the airport). He's also working on a piece for a choir based on accounts of UFOs as written in Carl Jung's Flying Saucers. As well as helping build 6 Nassau Studios in Toronto's Kensington Market, Matt plays bass for Owen Pallett on tour. We covered it all last Sunday over coffee.

Where does the album’s title come from?

Pity Slash Love is how I feel about the city. The record is kind of like a critique of Toronto in a way. Not all negative, but this sort of political, geographical thing of [what’s happening] here. It’s kind of ruled by fear in a lot of ways. A lot of bad ideas, a lot of growth that’s ad hoc. The things that get the money and time are the worst ideas. It’s ugly as sin, all the new architecture. It’s dealing with the unhinged quality of not thinking about things in the long term. But then on the other hand I have friends, the creative community that I know, [who] are second to none. So there’s these people I know who I love so deeply, doing things for no money [that are] so interesting and so fun.

There’s the city that you live in and the city you live with.

Exactly. So it’s that sort of idea for me. That situation. Pity slash love.

Toronto has become known for punk with the rise of bands like METZ and Fucked Up, but you’re in the middle of this burgeoning electronic scene. How do feel about that community?

I feel good about it. My heart is kind of in a million places, but I think that it’s good that there are so many facets to it. There’s some kind of congealing of all these influences. Like, when I was a teenager I listened to the Prophecy show Sunday nights on CIUT, which played all this jungle. I was really interested in this idea that although Toronto wasn’t the home of [jungle music], it was a home away from home for it.

Did you go to a lot of jungle parties?

I went to some as a teenager, not as many as I would have liked to. I definitely had some big revelations about the power of music and bass. I mean the first time I heard jungle on a soundsystem I was offended by the bass. I couldn’t even believe it was possible, and then I could feel it melt my fears away. Maybe that’s it. I have a lot of anxieties in my life and hearing that much bass just tweaked the nerve a little bit and washed it away. I mean, there were a lot of drugs in those days too, so it’s like the paranoia of the high. And then feeling the bass coddle you into a nicer space. That kind of vibe is interesting to me, and I feel like the electronic music in Toronto is trying to continue some of that. I’m getting into this long-forming stuff, sort of like trance inducing music. That’s an idea that you get into these rhythms that are internal. They could go on forever.

Jungle’s coming back in worldwide, but Toronto had one of the biggest scenes in the world.

For me the continuity I’m finding now is coming from Los Angeles, like that band inc., that whole Fade To Mind crew. It’s pulling a lot from where I feel Toronto is pulling a lot from: the U.K. The music has this U.K. production side, but a totally different, queer-positive vibe, connecting that U.K. stuff, which feels mostly masculine to me. The first time I was in Los Angeles, I didn’t know if anything was real or if it was a set or something. I was also in this surreal experience, so it…

What was that experience?

I was opening up for Owen Pallett and Cadence Weapon, and we ended up in Los Angeles staying at this guy’s house who was a friend of Owen’s. It was around Halloween, and we ended up at his other house, and it was this crazy party. It was a bunch of gay porn stars, a bunch of people in TV, and basically every man was dressed up like a Greek boy - airbrushed makeup, perfect costume. There were like four women, and they were all dressed up like slutty Dorothy. And then they had bouncers - all of them were black men. And then they had a bar and catering, and all of them were Mexican Americans. It was this crazy theme playing out for me. All these weird stereotypes. If you’re gay, all you can be is this gay costume, gay character. If you’re a woman all you can be is a cliché.

So like that Paula Deen wedding, but it actually happened.

Exactly! And that was my first experience. But subsequent times I’ve been back, it’s been the best, most chilled out place on earth, totally amazing. You get a sense that all these worlds, all these visions have ended up there. Here, I feel like it’s more diasporic or something. It’s separated by invisible barriers. In L.A. it feels like there are substantial enough sounds that emerge on a label because there’s a whole bunch of people working towards developing this sound. Whereas here maybe you could say that about Drake and the Weeknd. Healing Power put out this dance comp, and there’s no threads there. There’s no set tempo, there’s no sweet spot, no technique where everyone’s using Ableton or some type of drum machine. I don’t feel like there’s any consistency, and that’s cool too. That’s kind of the vibe and that’s what makes it interesting. People are just trying things out, without much support net.

Right, there’s an elasticity to the music here. It reminds me of a New York Times profile of Nicolas Jaar where he mentions its importance to his sound. That word seems to play a big role in your album as well.

Sure. In the back of my mind, this project was trying to make a record that was a playlist that someone would put on iTunes or make for themselves. It wasn’t the overarching impulse, but it was an idea in the back of my head. It’s not that nobody listens to records anymore, but they’re quite content to listen to a slew of songs from different worlds. I thought that would be interesting, to make a record where the threads are different than genre. It’s where my interests lie. When I’m making this stuff I’m not thinking “Oh these things are all so different.” You know? I think they’re all very similar. The songs get worked on at different times, too. I tour with Owen Pallett, playing bass in his band, so I’ve had this really odd disruptive touring schedule over the past few years.

Would you like the opportunity to sit down and work on a record or are you comfortable with this method?

This works for me. I mean, everything else is a distraction. Working on music can become quite strange. I’ve got a delicate mind at the best of times.

How do you mean delicate?

I can suffer from anxieties. I was raised a Catholic in a strange repressed household. The point being, when I have to put music aside and make money, music begins to feel like a guilty pleasure, like an indulgence or a distraction, and that’s the worst thing to feel about something you’re passionate about.

How do you break through that?

I just end up fucking up, generally. I just have to work on music all night for several nights, for a couple of weeks. Put my jobs aside to the point where I have to work like a dog for a few days where normally I could do it over time. In this case I got a grant, which helped to focus to have some time to work. But I got the least amount you could get. Although I’m extremely grateful to have that money, I made a record for nothing. I don’t want to complain about it. I’m happy to do it, but I’m perpetually broke.

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