Photography by Sonny McCartney | Words by Reef Younis
Seduced by psychology, spirituality, science fiction, Peruvian geoglyphs and forward-thinking RnB production, NZCA/Lines’ arrival at gossamer, synth-laden electro pop came as a welcome surprise when his debut dropped earlier this year.
Born from a desire to take control of his own project, and time spent indulging in classic pop and Dr. Dre, Michael Lovett’s glistening pop take on honeyed bump and grind made his self-titled ‘NZCA/Lines’ album a triumph of craft and form – a dedication to high-quality, often complex production that is a measured mix of sexless vocal robotics, cut-crystal falsettos and breathless mourning glided between the concertedly cold and a simplistic joy of pop harmonies.
Despite a relatively small advertising push around the album’s release in February, the buzz of press anticipation made the record an early stand out, even if that favourable reaction hasn’t transformed Michael’s life just yet. “I’m sitting on a bench in Peckham Rye and not currently sipping Cristal in LA right now. Hopefully that paints a picture for you,” he laughs.
Michael is currently a student juggling a growing academic workload with an equally burgeoning music one, and the build up to his debut album marked an early turning point for a young man previously a member of the polar opposite indie twee band Your Twenties. At the stage of starting his electronic alter-ego, balancing his university outlook with his music wasn’t too much of a consideration, but after the release of debut single ‘Compass Points’ late last year, he quickly realised the two elements would have to co-exist.
“Last October, we were putting out ‘Compass Points’ and I was toying with the idea of going on an exchange,” Michael remembers, “and I just thought we’d put the record out and it wouldn’t really matter. I wasn’t expecting anything to happen then at all, never mind radio play, so it was a nice surprise. It’s now raised my expectations to the point I’m disappointed, constantly,” he laughs.
It’s marked an evolving journey of exploration for Michael ever since. After playing in bands previously, NZCA/Lines was the concerted attempt to take control of his own project, and the opportunity to move away from the band dynamics that he felt compromised what he wanted to do.
“I’d kind of always done my own stuff but I’d also been second fiddle in other bands,” he admits. “It’s great because everyone’s writing but there’s always that clinical thing of wanting to write your songs and have your project. I wanted to approach music not in the band way of four boys, four guitars, but in a more conceptually driven, planned out way. I wanted to make a focused record that progressed the narrative stuff I was doing and I had these demos that I started working on with Charlie [Alex March] and that helped bring out the soundscapes I’ve got now.”
It’s those dystopian landscapes, populated by lost souls and lost lovers, that create the sleek, synthetic backdrop for delicate, programmed beats and Lovett’s diaphanous vocal. It sets the standard for the album’s beautiful, layered production, pulling in elements of Cliff Martinez’s neon haze, Junior Boys’ purring downbeat pop and even Metronomy’s off-beat tendencies.
“I like the sense of the fact you can’t really hear the mark of the hand,” Michael enthuses, “and I like the fact the vocals became this kind of an instrument instead of one person singing their heart out. The reason why it ended up being about a general sense of longing and loss was because it has to have a human emotion, so in terms of themes, as long as I keep feeling melancholic and longing, it’ll sound like that.”
Away from the process of production, the diverse themes and concepts behind ‘NZCA/Lines’ firmly play to Michael’s artistic focus, and fierce determination to give his work a shape and narrative. Combining the different pop and RnB influences with a science fiction slant is a complicated combination, but the overriding concept, in Michael’s mind at least, is a relatively simple one. “I am a perfectionist over stuff and I think that’s one of the reasons I work so well with Charlie because he’s the same,” he says. “We gelled quite well because we both want everything to be very specific and complete. Charlie’s a great sculptor of sound and I think I’m very obsessive over the songs in terms of how things fit in the arrangements, so together, I think that’s what made it work. I can’t take full credit, but yeah, it’s very important to me.
“I wanted to write narratives in songs, and I thought that would be a much better way of writing,” Michael continues. “Instead of approaching songs with the thought of ‘what am I feeling like today?’, I wanted to have a theme. Invariably they end up incorporating emotion, which is what makes them songs, but even though there are these disparate science fiction themes, in the end they come down to simple things really.
“At the time I was listening to a lot of Dr. Dre and listening back to a lot of the commercial RnB stuff and really good pop music, but whatever the highfalutin concepts for the record were, or are, it’s hopefully just catchy songs people can enjoy.”
It made for a time-consuming process, spaced out over a year and a half, snatching time to sketch out the blueprint Michael desperately wanted to create. It was here he let his perfectionism and experimentation come to the fore, unburdened by having to compromise and incorporate a raft of outside ideas. “It was quite an exploratory process really,” he admits. “It wasn’t a case of going into the studio and recording it; it was doing bits and bobs with breaks in between over a long period of time. Once the idea became clearer, it was easier to write other songs, but the initial stage took a while to solidify. It was really kind of exciting because I used to write a certain way when I was making electronic music in my teens, but then I got distracted by the pop band dynamic. I’ve basically ended up going back to what Daft Punk call ‘bricolage’, where you paste elements over each other and do stuff that throws you off. If you sit down with a guitar, you kind of know what to expect, but if you record a vocal and rearrange it and change the pitch and the rhythm, you can surprise yourself.”
The experience has already helped shape and inform future material of Michael’s – he’s now keen to simplify instead of further diversify the NZCA/Lines sound. With the live show presenting a logistical and economical challenge, it’s forced him to consider the impact of how the next album will translate in the ever-evolving live setup.
“It’s been a liberating experience,” he nods, “but I think the next stuff is going to go back to basics and just try to find the best bits of traditional song writing. The record, looking back on it, it’s very busy, particularly in the vocals and arrangements, so it’s about making it more sparse and immediate. The producing, I’m proud of, but it’s quite complex; I’m looking to make the next one more straightforward.
“In terms of the live approach, there wasn’t one, really,” he laughs. “It was pretty much what’s good for this song and afterwards it was a case of, ‘Oh fuck, how do we play this live?!’. Partially, it was down to the economy of recording, but bearing in mind I can’t play five keyboard lines now, it’s about questioning what’s essential and whether it can be dropped.”
So after adapting and expanding the band to a live performance three-piece, it’s been a steep learning curve and a lesson learned in more ways than one. With such a focus and concentration on outlining album and song narratives, Michael’s had to amend his initial thinking and relinquish some of the control when it comes to making the NZCA/Lines live show the experience he wants it to be.
“It’s been great to play out live because at the start I’d be like, ‘these are the tracks, these are the parts’, and sometimes it didn’t always work out and we’d try something I’d never have thought of,” he says, candidly. “Originally, it was a case of trying to make it sound as close to the record as we could but now it’s much more about slowly starting to change it and realise that things can be different. It’s still a solo project in terms of authorship but live it’s all three of us. It’s given it a different perspective and I’d like to have more members, but at this stage we can all fit into a Nissan Micra which is helpful.”
‘NCZA/Lines’ was released via electronic indie LOAF Recordings, but his follow up is currently without a home, not that that has diminished Michael’s desire to get his second record finished. He points out that, “the gap between finishing a record and releasing it is huge,” but says that he still hopes to release another album next year.
“When you start getting into the music business, with a small or capital ‘B’, there’s a lot of crap that comes along with that,” he says. “For me, I think it’s about not losing sight of the spirit of the first record, because that was made for the love of it. It’d be great to find a new home, and find someone who is as excited about the music as we are.”
Originally published in Loud And Quiet 43. Read the issue in full here.