Bill Nace :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Bill Nace is a collaborator by nature, seeking out like minded experimental improvisers to explore the possibilities of traditional and prepared guitar. Over the years, Nace has worked with luminaries of jazz, rock and noise including Thurston Moore, Steve Gunn, John Truscinski, Chris Corsano, Yoko Ono, Samara Lubielski and Kim Gordon (his partner in Body/Head). But at the same time, he has also worked alone, often on the road, making solo improvisations from guitar, amplifiers, loops and bits of metal and wood.

In May, Nace releases his first full-length studio album of solo material in Both, a riveting collection of long fractured drones, altered tones and insistent, nearly subliminal rhythms. Yet even though he’s the only player on the disc, the new record is still a collaboration. Bitchin Bajas’ Cooper Crain mixed and produced these tracks, playing an integral role in the way the finished product sounds.

Nace isn’t wholly comfortable talking about his work. He mentions several times that he’d rather hear what listeners think of his music than get too deep into the details of process, inspiration and intent. But even so, he provides illuminating detail on how he thinks about rhythm, drone, collaboration and the very strange climate for music (and everything else) that he finds himself releasing this album into.

Aquarium Drunkard: Is this really your first solo album ever?

Bill Nace: The first full-length. I’ve done a couple of EPs and some cassettes. But it’s kind of the first full-length studio recording, yeah.

AD: You’re well known for your collaborations. What made you decide to work on your own this time?

Bill Nace: I’ve actually been doing solo stuff for years. I used to tour solo a lot more than I have recently. It’s not necessarily a new thing. It’s just, I hadn’t put much out solo. I’m kind of getting back into it. But it’s not like I was strictly collaborating and now I want to do solo. I’ve just been doing it more.

AD: I’m guessing that this record pre-dated the pandemic, but we’re an awful lot of people doing stuff by themselves now.

Bill Nace: The album did predate it. We recorded the record at least over a year ago and tracked it. This is such a weird time to talk about it. It’s always weird when you’re talking about a record. It’s always something that you worked on, usually, like a year or two before the actual record comes out, because there’s such a lag time. That’s always there. You’re always trying to remember where you were at and you’re in a different time now. But on top of that, now is just such a weird time to talk about …anything.

AD: Is literally every sound on Both, is that all you?

Bill Nace: Every sound? Yeah. Everything’s guitar. It’s a little more produced than normal. Normally, with anything that I put out the guitar is kind of like, how do I represent what happened live. This is a little produced, but it still kind of follows the shape of what happened live, so it’ll …even if there’s like, say we added some delay or there were some sections where we dumped stuff down to cassette and then back in, it still kind of follows the shape of what happened live. Certain sections will maybe be embellished or produced a little.

AD: Is it all guitar or did you use anything else besides guitar?

Bill Nace: It’s all guitar, and then there’s one track that has a Shruti box.

AD: Cool. Which track?

Bill Nace: It was the first one they released, so I want to say “Five.”

AD: That’s “Five” yeah.

Bill Nace: And then there’s loops, but the loops are all guitar sounds.

AD: When you were making this, did you think of it as one long composition with parts, or are each of the parts free-standing things.

Bill Nace: I’m kind of curious how that sounds to other people. To me, they kind of all work together. Drag City just put out a video of the last track, and it’s cool and the video Jake Meginsky did is great. But I definitely hear it like last song on the record. It’s really minimal and simple, and it’s supposed to be like the end, like the whole thing kind of collapses into that song. I think you always have records where the songs work together, but you can take them out and they stand on their own, so hopefully these do that, but I do hear them as part of one big thing.

AD: That’s what I was thinking. I listened to it a couple times this morning straight through and it seemed like it was pretty cohesive and flowed from one to the other and made sense as a whole.

Bill Nace: Yeah, good.

AD: What does the title Both mean to you?

Bill Nace: Not to pass the buck, but I think I’m more curious about what it means to other people. I wanted something that had a lot of room in it for people to come up with their own narrative for it. But for me, I felt like it was about giving up control. I gave up a lot of control in a certain way with this record. It came out of that. Out of control, in control. It really collaborative between me and Cooper [Crain] who helped produce the record. It’s both live and produced. But it didn’t start as a concept. I just liked that title because it applied to the whole process in a way that I liked. I think it could be a rolling thing, and people could listen to it and have their own take on what that is.

AD: It seems like in a way the album, being one person playing one instrument is a singular thing, but Both implies duality. But that makes sense.

What can you tell me about making this album? Was it all improvised on the spot or did you have some ideas you were working on before you started recording? How did that work?

Bill Nace: I knew that I didn’t want to just do a live recording. Those are fine and I would maybe still do one in the future, and I’ve certainly done plenty of that. It wouldn’t be a problem to just go and do that. But I knew I wanted to do something where we’d embellish certain elements or add stuff here or just change the quality of how you’re hearing. Cooper and I recorded in a couple of different spots, and then Cooper was playing around with mic placement and things like that. Definitely for the base of it, I just tried to go and improvise. To be open to the space and the recording to make sure that I was happy with what the base material was, and then from there we kind of started talking about what I wanted to do with it and ways I wanted to play around with it. Cooper was a huge part of that as well.

AD: Let’s talk about Cooper he’s from Bitchin Bajas and Cave and Jackie Lynn and a bunch of other bands. How do you know him and how did you decide to work with him on this?

Bill Nace: I know him through Dan (Koretsky). I’ve also known Haley (Fohr) for a few years, so I met Cooper through them. And then, I was in a group show at the Soccer Club, the gallery that they run, and then I played as well solo and then soon after, Dan asked me if I wanted to do a record and you know, like I said, I’ve been doing it for years, but I’ve put off doing a proper record, because I’m always so hard on it. I’ll record and then I don’t end up doing anything with it. He had been working with Cooper, so that was kind of intriguing. I do love collaborating, so having some kind of collaborative element to it gave me an entry point to it.

AD: Is it possible to articulate what he was able to do for you?

Bill Nace: I don’t want to peek too much behind the curtain, but yeah, I definitely had ideas for what I wanted to do and there were certain music that we were talking about and then he helped me facilitate a lot of that. Then he had a huge hand in the mixing, too. I gave up mixing for this album. Even though I love to mix, I gave up a lot of control with the mixing because I just wanted to have it be collaborative and have it not just be me. I think I knew what it would be if I mixed it.

AD: You wanted to be surprised?

Bill Nace: Yeah, it was a cool way to be a little bit surprised by it.

AD: What do you like about mixing?

Bill Nace: I think the organizing. I like making decisions based on the feel. Like that feels right or let’s mute this mic and here’s a guitar from the drum mic. Stuff like that that you can play around with. It just kind of changes your perspective.

AD: Sure, so you play the guitar in some standard and non-standard ways. Can you tell me about the techniques you used on this album? Anything interesting?

Bill Nace: I did both. I did some basic finger picking and some chords, really simple chord progressions and then I did some prepared guitar, which is, you know, when I play with different pieces of metal and wood and bowls and stuff. I kind of just threw everything into the pot.

AD: Do you know what you’re going to use when you sit down to play? How does that work?

Bill Nace: I know what I’m going to use. I have my implements in front of me, so I know I’m going to use them. I don’t like, reach over and pick up a broom and start playing with that. But yeah, there are limitations as far as what I have and a lot of times I use them in the same way because I’ve developed a technique with them, but sometimes, yeah, I’ll do something with them that I’ve never done, which is cool when that happens too. It’s a bit of both.

AD: I like the way the rhythm works in the middle of the long drones here. There’s there a sense of time passing but also kind of a time-less-ness if that makes any sense? These obviously aren’t compositions in traditional time signatures, but how do you see the role of rhythm in your work?

Bill Nace: I think it’s really present. I don’t think you always hear it. You wouldn’t immediately say, “Oh, this is rhythmic music.” But I do think it’s in there. I love loops. I love music with loops. That inherently is rhythmic.

I started playing prepared guitar and really learning how to play guitar with drummers. So, like, Chris Corsano, Jake Meginsky, John Truscinski. He has a duo with Steve Gunn called the Gunn Truscinski Duo. John I’ve known since I was 18. Jake and Chris, I met when I was 23. I came up playing with them and I kind of learned how to play with them, and they’re all drummers. I’ve always thought that that had a huge impact on how I play, which I think is rhythmic.

AD: Interesting. So, there’s a lot going on in these tracks. I know you called these tracks minimalist and they are, but there’s a lot going on in there. Sounds on top of sounds…I was wondering how you build up these tracks?

Bill Nace: I more meant the last one was minimal just in terms of sounds. It’s really just me in the room with a loop and me playing to it. I more meant that was one was minimal. There’s not a lot that’s going on.

AD: But how do you make the layers? Do you go back? How do you start and how do you know when you’re done?

Bill Nace: That’s always a question. I like to keep it as simple as possible. I always err on the side of cutting stuff out, rather than adding it. I think it’s always a balance of letting yourself experiment with adding stuff but not getting too carried away with it. It’s the same as when you’re sitting and improvising – or a conversation. Something can feel charged with energy or some kind of momentum, so you focus on that. And if it’s not, then you quickly move to the next thing. It’s like – you don’t keep telling a joke that no one laughs at. For me, if I’m hearing something else or I think adding something would help all the other elements, then I’ll explore that. I also like things to just sit on their own. I have a duo with this violin player, Samara Lubielski, and I just bow one string with her.

AD: And that’s enough.

Bill Nace: I love having that limitation. This is it. This is what I’m going to work within. Let’s see how much I can move around with that. That’s kind of my baseline. How simple can it be and stand on its own. And then from there, if it needs more then I think that’s cool, but it’s not a requisite. The studio can be daunting in that way. There are endless possibilities. You can get trapped in there. But it’s also cool to explore, too.

AD: I really like “Part Four” and it’s got this sort of shimmer. It’s on the edge of perception. Super delicate. I was wondering what you could tell me about what you were doing there. Do you know?

Bill Nace: I do know. There are a couple of pieces of metal I have that I can get this harp-like shimmery sound out of the guitar. Then we dumped some of that sound to looped cassette and then back out. A lot of times, if you dump something to tape and then back out again, it can bring out certain elements of the sound, so it has that quality. Some of the high pitched things come out more and give it that kind of ghostly quality.

AD: Because some of the sounds disappear when you transfer them?

Bill Nace: Yeah, you can hear a warble in it. I think anything like that, you just kind of keep that live element but you twist it just a little bit. It’s like lighting in a film. It can add to the dream quality that you were talking about.

AD: And then “Part Five,” which was the first single. It starts in this long wavery tone that doesn’t sound like a guitar at all to me. Is that the shruti box?

Bill Nace: No, the shruti box comes in later. It starts with a loop of guitar. That’s a loop of guitar but the duration of the loop is shorter, so you can’t really tell what it is. I had recorded shruti box separately just because I knew I wanted to use it, but I wasn’t sure how. And then Cooper slowed it down to match that loop. It’s a really nice element. It’s soothing and tense at the same time. I always like that when there’s two different elements like that in one piece. Contrasting.

AD: Interesting. You’re also working with really long tones and I was wondering – you mentioned with Samara Lubiekski that you would do one bowed tone with her. What is it about the long tones? What do you like about that?

Bill Nace: I’m not necessarily doing one bowed note with her. I’m just bowing one string. I am moving around. But what do I like about long tones? I don’t know. Drone is endlessly …it’s weird. There are so many possibilities there. Like anything, it can be really boring and overused and just limiting and then if it’s done right it can be this expansive thing. And then it’s actually not minimal. You hear all this other stuff in there and all these little sounds. It takes on a life of its own.

AD: Do you have a favorite part or a sound on this record, something that came out really well?

Bill Nace: There’s part at the end of track one where I come in with this kind of loud part which was way longer live and then Cooper chopped it down. And yeah, the way that it comes in the track. I love that. I think because it’s a sound that’s familiar to me, because I do it a lot. But the track is different, so it really becomes interesting to hear something so familiar sound new or alien. That’s great.

AD: What will you be doing next? You won’t be touring?

Bill Nace: I don’t know. What are any of us doing next? Honestly, I really don’t know. All my shows got cancelled. The last I heard there was even talk of stuff being rescheduled for October, and even that seems up in the air. I run a label, so I’ve kind of just been working on a couple of records that I put into production two month ago and just got them. I’m dealing with orders for that. One is John Truscinski solo and then a record with me, a cello player, Leila Bordreuil, and this sax player Tamio Shiraishi. I’m focused on stuff like that where I have some control over working on. The shows and touring which is such a huge part of my life, I don’t have any control over that now.

AD: Are you doing any of the live streams?

Bill Nace: I’m not. I’m really not interested in it. I get that other people are, and I get why, and I’m not against it. Maybe next week it will sound good to me, but as of now I haven’t felt compelled to do it.

AD: I’ve been watching a bunch of them, and I have to say it’s not as good as going to a show, but it’s better than nothing.

Bill Nace: Of course. It’s cool that they’re there. Just to me as someone who would maybe do one, I haven’t felt like it. Maybe I’m not ready.

AD: I really miss hearing people playing together though. Because they’re all one person playing on a couch.

Bill Nace: That’s such a part of it for me. Even if you’re playing solo, you have the audience there. I’m trying to get away from screens. I don’t want to…yeah…for some reason it hasn’t appealed to me. That could change.

AD: Do you have any collaborations or side project you’re working on now that you want to talk about?

Bill Nace: I’m working on a project with Graham Lambkin. We have a record that we recorded in October, so we’re kind of just finishing mixing that and working on art and stuff. I’m really excited about that. It was a really cool, really great recording experience. And Samara and I have a live record coming out.

AD: Anything going on with Body/Head?

Bill Nace: Yeah, we’re working on a record. Kim was so busy with her solo record, and I was busy working on Both. But that’s an ongoing project. If we’re in the same space and area, and we can do it, then we do it. We did a session a couple of years ago that we never got to. So, we’re trying to deal with that. I’m not sure if we’re just going to mix it and leave it live or use it as material and chop the whole thing up. I’m not really sure, but we are working on a new record. It’s just not a studio record. It’ll be more like a quarantine studio kind of thing.

AD: Is it possible to work with people over the internet? I know people trade files. With Zoom, you can only have one person making sound at a time? Are there other platforms where you could work remotely?

Bill Nace: I don’t really know. I’ve been mostly trading files through the internet. But in terms of doing anything live or playing over the internet, I don’t even know if I’d want to do that.

AD: It just seems like all the music’s been made that’s going to be made for a while, because you can’t even go to the studio together.

Bill Nace: Yeah, I don’t know if there are situations where people have been locked down for a couple of weeks and they know they’re good, or maybe people who have already been sick.

AD: Or you could go to Georgia where everything’s allowed . . .

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