Fragments of Fantasy: An Interview With Rachika Nayar

Photos by Yulissa Benitez, courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Yulissa Benitez, courtesy of the artist.

The first time I caught Rachika Nayar live also happened to be the last bill I played on before COVID reached NYC. In retrospect, it would have been tough for any act to follow—mere minutes after her sets start, the Brooklyn-based producer and composer has already encouraged an ecstatic communal listening environment using only a few simple ingredients: stage fog, warm mood lighting, and an obliterating wall of electronics and effects-laden guitar.

Since that night and the global health crisis that followed it, Nayar has released two albums for NNA Tapes that are as pensive as they are phantasmagorical. By blending the sonic vocabularies of genres as diverse as Midwest emo, drum and bass, post-rock and trance music, she stirs up a power maelstrom of maximalism equally destined for public dance floors and private daydreaming.

When tasked with talking about her sound, it's clear this sense of sonic overwhelm is no coincidence. "I both love and feel so wary of melodrama, because its entire premise is to be uncritical," Rachika explains in the press copy accompanying her new album, Heaven Come Crashing. "Taking your most massive emotions at face-value feels so fraught when they partly originate with structures you can't control, with structures you maybe even feel at war with."

The weekend of the record's release, we sat down over coffee in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn while she talked me through its making. Along the way we discussed granular synthesis, swapping stems with collaborators, a few favorite filmmakers, the ravishment of rave culture, and the fragments of fantasy that define her work.

The official video for the title track of Rachika Nayar's album Heaven Come Crashing, featuring Maria BC.

Since the pandemic began, you've released two albums and a tape. The opener on your debut starts with a wall of guitar processed through granular synthesis; your cassette for RVNG centers around short sketches for guitar that let the listener in on your process; the back cover and Bandcamp page of this new one contains a Roland Barthes passage about fantasy presented in bits and pieces. This concept of the fragment, the grain, moving from moment to moment—it seems to be a thread. How important is it to your work?

That's a really interesting question, I'll have to think that over.

Take your time.

(After a long pause) Yeah—I guess it’s just a theme that comes up for me a lot in how I approach my music aesthetically and how I approach my life and sense of self more generally. It never feels right trying to constrain everything to a single meta-narrative. It's hard for me to unify it into one single thread. Finding my own musical style between creating across different personal and shared projects… Moving through different worlds or identity kits growing up… Instead of trying to unify or integrate it in a way that's all coherent, I think more about honoring things in their particularity and bits and pieces. I didn't even really think about how some of those motifs you mentioned also reflect that theme too until now.

Going from the micro into the macro, talk to me about your relationship with effects as a vehicle for expression. I know you devoured a lot of different genres growing up. Was there a particular watershed moment in the act of consuming all of this music and extensive listening where you realized, "Whoa, you can do this to a guitar"?

I wonder what my earliest experience with thinking about guitar in that way was. One that comes to mind is this song "Wait" by Airhead that I heard when I was maybe in high school—he's the guitarist for James Blake. The style and genre that it moved through in the course of just four minutes… It felt so impossible for me to pin down. There’s this broken-beat sensibility but also this immense post-rock, heart-exploding climax that it gets to at the end. Also just the way that it's deconstructing that original song—it uses elements from "Maps" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs… That was an eye-opening moment at a point when I was starting to think about using the instrument outside of the genre trappings I'm used to assigning it to. Rob was actually on tour through NYC recently with James Blake, and we connected online and wrote a bit of music in his hotel room together, processing guitar through his modular rig, so that was a wonderful full-circle moment for me.

Is processing part of your compositional process from the beginning? Or, does your approach to treatments come after the fact?

Playing guitar and digital processing have usually felt like two rather separate stages, but necessary to each other. It’s been interesting to see how deeply I need to feel connected to whatever I'm playing on a guitar, melodically or harmonically, for it to yield something in the processing stage, even though it involves essentially destroying the original content. If I feel so-so about the source material and then try to mutilate it and carve it and sculpt it, it just never really gets there—I'll have spent three hours and it's just messy textures that don't merge into anything meaningful. Having the right notes that hit me in the right way in the right order or sequence allows me to then pull it apart and convert it into a bunch of different inversions where everything that ends up coming out of the reconfiguration is exciting to me in the way that the original sound was.

At a certain point, I just found that I was using the same fingerings and voicing with guitar all the time, and couldn't really come up with anything that felt inventive to me or that felt like fertile ground, aesthetically or emotionally. It's through processing that I'm able to take whatever I've played and find the thing inside of it that's resonant. If I don't have that part, it feels like I’m just scratching at a surface—like an empty skeleton, or a superficial feeling, or a feeling that’s been said before.

When it comes to a loop, how long do you typically spend building it, and when do you know when it's finished or presentable?

If I'm working with a guitar loop, it's always the first stage. When do I know that it's done? I don’t really know, it’s just a feeling. I'll go to the place of playing and looping on the guitar and get into a bit of a flow state with it. It's whatever I spit out and then I'll work with it extensively until I'm ready to put the guitar down.

I recently spoke with Steve Roach who made that ambient record Structures From Silence from the 80s—he said that when he was producing it, he would live with the sequences on a loop playing throughout his day-to-day life before tweaking it. Have you ever done anything similar—leaving the loop on and exploring the nuances of it that way? Or, is it more cut and dry?

More cut and dry—I think I just get bored with the loop really fast. (laughs) I want to cut it open immediately. I feel like if I sit with a loop too long, it starts to feel rotten in my head, I need to put the knife to it.

I can relate. It's hard to know when to kill your darling. In terms of tools, do you find yourself studying something if you don't know how it works, or do you mainly stick to what you know? Perhaps some combination of the two?

I go through phases. Like, I’ve actually been tired of using guitar parts and loops as sound design source material since I finished Heaven Come Crashing, so I’ve been turning elsewhere and experimenting with new things. One thing I was challenging myself with recently was to take the smallest piece of sound information I can, like literally a few bits of audio or one crest or clicky artifact of the audio waveform, and then sending that through re-amping and distortion and tape until I get something usable out of it, like a hi-hat or a pad.

When I was writing Our Hands Against The Dusk, the things I was doing to guitar with Ableton's Warp engine or various granular synths—I never really experimented with those much before. There was a lot of research looking up new Max for Live instruments and whatnot, looking at how different artists that I look up to work on their own sound design processes. After I've put together a few methods that feel familiar to me, I'll probably just build on those for a while until I start hitting a wall of making the same thing all the time. Then I'll go through stages of experimentation again. It’s a constant back and forth.

As someone who also utilizes Max For Live a lot, and has done very basic Max/MSP programming, I feel like that particular community is undersung. If people are building those tools for others to use, why not utilize them?

Right, exactly.

The particular integration of Max and Ableton breeds this fluctuation that I was talking about—you can either just use your ear and dial it based on instinct, or you really get into the grain of it, no pun intended.

Yeah, there's so many different layers of depth that you can get to—just using what the community has to offer, or getting into manipulating the devices yourself etc. I've never really gotten quite that far myself. I tried to learn Max For Live for a little bit, but then I realized it was going to take so much more time to be able to build tools on my own than I had the mental capacity for. So, I never got really into programming. It seems like a fertile ground for people who have those kinds of skill sets though.

Rachika Nayar lays down some loops in her bedroom in this live performance courtesy of New Sounds.

You said that Heaven Come Crashing came together much faster than your debut, which you spent a few years on and during which you were doing a lot of sonic exploration and developing a relationship with your tools. We've talked at length before about our shared love of Robert Henke's Granulator tool for Max For Live—could you talk me through a few others? Maybe how you approach them now as opposed to when you were really in the throes of learning them? I also realize this is potentially a "magician never tells their secrets" thing.

No, I'm happy to share my tools and process. There's obviously a lot of ugly social history to whose work and inventiveness gets pilfered by other people in the history of music, people who then make tons of money off of it while the original creators who live on the margins have their creativity erased from history. As for myself, I don't really feel like I'm in that position per se—I feel fortunate to get to share what goes into the process and have that be a place of interconnection and learning. I don't want to have a sense of possession or ownership or something over my methods. I’d rather it to feel communal.

I don’t know that I have a ton I can verbalize about the granular tools though honestly. In terms of Granulator or the other devices I love, it's just a matter of playing around with them until I’d find certain settings that can get a particular effect that I’m going for—whether I want to have a sound that takes the original sample and scans through it erratically and thereby retains the original melody in its larger shape, or a texture that just strips it down to little bits that then get totally abstracted from the original.

Honestly, also, I just use the Ableton Warp Engine a lot—stretching something a million times and fucking with the mode, automating the different parameters, then printing it and shrinking it and automating it, printing it, over and over and over until you have a bunch of different prints to layer… The Warp Engine's the best. That's all I need sometimes.

The sound palette on the new record introduces a lot of new elements into the fold. More emphasis on synthesizers and drum programming, as well as guest vocals from Maria BC. Talk me through the process of working these new elements in and the resulting adjustment period.

My old guitar-processing textures are rather arrhythmic and outside-of-the-grid. They feel organic and volatile to me. I was finding that it felt a little ungrounded, often when I was writing music, and things wouldn't quite line up how I want them to. Something that felt fun with this record was pairing those more erratic timbres against these really pristine software synths that Avicii and Deadmau5 probably used, like Massive.

I love your approach to working with a vocalist. Maria BC's contributions to this record—they kill it. Just the way their voice sits in the mix makes it feel like a balanced collaboration; it almost evokes Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher.

Yeah, like, deep in the mix.

What was that process with them like?

In terms of the mix, I like mixing vocals or even a synthesizer that has a vocal quality a little softer, just because our ears are so immediately drawn to vocals—it takes up so much space in your ears whenever a human voice arrives. And yeah exactly like you say, I wanted to bring out the interplay between the vocals and guitar. I see them as having a conversational dynamic. I love that it registers that way to you too.

I had never worked with vocals with lyrics before—partly because I've always thought about the emotional space of my music as being something preverbal—but Maria just has such a suggestive and connotative poetic sensibility to their lyricism that I love and has impacted me so deeply over the past year. There was a drive to incorporate that together—it went through a few different layers of taking what they offered and pulling it apart. They sent me something that was twice as fast, originally.

So you swapped stems remotely?

Yeah, I sent them the whole track. They sent back—with their incredible vocal tracking and mixing abilities—four or five layers of vocal lines criss-crossing. We sent it back and forth a little bit. I took the original one and I stretched it out to half-time, then they redid those vocals in half-time. I put both of those together, after also stretching the first five layers and randomizing them a little bit. It came out sounding like 17 Marias singing at once which I love, personally. We’re already unbelievably blessed to have even one in this world.

Photo by Yulissa Benitez, courtesy of the artist.

When I first got the press release for the record and I saw y'all were working together I was like, "Okay. Yeah. This tracks."

They're an incredible musician.

Definitely. I understand you took a lot of inspiration from film scores for this album. Were there any that you were particularly drawn to, or trying to channel during production?

Definitely "Cyberbird" by Yoko Kanno from the Ghost in the Shell soundtrack—it has these breakbeat samples with this huge symphonic backing, and this really magnificent, epic sense of drive. I was probably channeling that a little bit. That's the one that comes to mind right now.

Is that a world that you would ever be interested in, scoring?

Yeah, that would be really interesting to me. The only time I've ever really done that was for a little re-scoring series I did in Brooklyn five years ago. They would just have producers take some favorite film and make a whole new score for the film and then screen it at (former Brooklyn bar and cinema) Videology—rest in peace—or the Knockdown Center in Queens.

What film was that?

I did a take on the Michael Arias anime Tekkonkinkreet. I was really pleased with how that came out and I released all those songs on a little EP a couple years after that. I've never quite gotten the chance to do it outside of that. I feel like I'd really wanted to be a project that I feel really attached to and excited about, but part of me feels hesitant because it feels hard to separate what goes into my project versus what is something that I want to offer. If I come up with something that I feel really connected to, part of me feels worried that I'd just be like, "Oh, I want to take this and put it on my album." (laughs)

For sure—splitting the difference, so to speak, between a filmmaker's vision and then yours.

That's actually what happened with Heaven Come Crashing—I was remixing a song for (ambient musician and mastering engineer) Rafael Anton Irisarri and I loved the song so much, I was so thrilled about it and felt like it embodied the core of the album so deeply. It was actually after I'd finished the whole album and sent the whole thing off to be mastered and was going to go meet Raf to master it a week from then, but then I was like, "Ah, I love this thing too much I need to put it on the album." And, Raf was like, "Yeah, no, totally."

Is that how he ended up with the additional synth credit?

Yeah, because that still has one synth sample from there.

Sick, I was curious about that.

Yeah, that was the journey. It's funny that he then remixed the song, because the song is already a remix of one of his songs, basically. He remixed his own remix—

The remix of a remix.

Uh-huh, which I guess all music kind of is. (laughs)

Going back to scoring, is there a filmmaker—past or present—that you feel would be a really good pairing with your work? I want to get a feel of your visual ethos.

Damn, who would be my dream? Probably Gregg Araki—he's the Queen. We all love Greg. I mean Nowhere and Mysterious Skin are two of the films that had the biggest impact on me.

I mean, you'd be right at home. That Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie score to Mysterious Skin is practically an instrumental shoegaze album in itself.

Yes, with the Slowdive opening…

I haven't seen that movie in a long time.

I rewatched it really recently, actually. I also really love Michael Haneke's films, but it's obviously a very different affect from Heaven Come Crashing.

He's also not just a score guy at all. His work is always black title cards, no sound, sitting with the bleakness.

Totally, it's so much negative space.

I don't know. Maybe you could somehow weirdly juxtapose it.

Is there any music in Caché? Have you seen that one?

I have, and no, I don't think there is at all.

Does he have scores at all?

No, not really! I think he's one of those purists that just doesn't mess with non-diegetic sound. Sort of like what the filmmaker Robert Bresson said about the soundtrack inventing silence.

Exactly. His whole thing is negative space, literally and sonically.

The official video for "Losing Too Is Still Ours", the opener on Rachika Nayar's 2021 album Our Hands Against The Dusk.

You also repurpose the sonic aesthetics of '90s rave and trance music on the album, what with all the supersaw synths and Amen breaks. This also seems to extend to your live presentation over the years: shrouding the performance space in fog and mood lighting and removing the body from the stage and instead opting for a communal listening experience. Could you riff on your relationship to this idiom of music and then the community of rave culture at large?

In a lot of ways, raves feel for me like a peak musical experience. In my ideal sense of the thing, it’s totally removed from the celebrity of the artist's body or from viewing them as the art object to witness in the moment. Instead you’re just being guided through a sensory-social space with other people—having your visual and listening capacities totally obliterated, not being able to see anything but your immediate surroundings, your own body, being tuned in to your own somatics with the music… The subs pounding in and out of you. That sense of total immersion is something I'm really drawn to. The sense of ritualistic ego destruction that can happen there is a really powerful experience.

As for me performing, I just never had much attachment to making my own person the spectacle to perceive for performance—I just don't really make music with that intention in mind. All my music, like most electronic music, is meticulously arranged over time. Little of that process is something I can rehearse in real time on a stage. The idea of deconstructing it and then reconstructing it to give it an aura of performance when people watch me interacting with my knobs or whatever—it just never felt like I got to a fulfilling place or dynamic with it. It didn't seem like a worthwhile way to spend my energy. I started being more interested in sensory experience with light and sound—the listener is then able to relate to their sight or their hearing or faith.

The focus on sound is so important, because it allows for the expression of subjectivities that wouldn't otherwise be expressed. This idea of fogging the space and making it all about the sound not only makes the experience more visceral but it allows listening to be on the same plane as the social gathering, which is rare to come by…

Yes, the communal listening experience. I'd rather a show feel like me being in a space with others than me being in a space performing for other people. I'd rather go to my own show and watch it in the same way that a director could go to a movie and watch it with everyone.

You have a number of live dates coming up in the fall. What are you hoping that new listeners get from hearing the new album live?

It's honestly hard for me to give an enveloping answer about it. I feel excited when listeners take things from it that I never would've expected. I don't really like applying much interpretive structure around my music, or expectation about how I necessarily want it to be received. My mentality is always more to bring to it what I bring to it—not even necessarily something that I need to share with anybody else. But somewhere in the musical space between my own personhood and the listener's life experiences, something new is metabolized in the encounter that's unforeseeable. That's what I would want: for something that I can't foresee to happen.

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