Channeling ancient Peruvian culture through glittering electronic pop, NZCA/Lines combines high concepts with immediately striking melody
In the expanse of the southern Peruvian desert lie a series of seemingly innocuous lines carved in the area’s distinctive ruddy surface. Innocuous from the ground, that is. From above that barren scape, in flight or from high in the surrounding hills, these lines come to staggering life.
Forged by the ancient Nazca culture around 1500 years ago, they form a series of geometrical shapes, and more remarkable still, beautifully crafted images of creatures including a monkey, a giant and a lizard. In the wrong context these lines are nothing of note. But viewed in the correct way, they are one of this earth’s most extraordinary spectacles. So struck was Michael Lovett by this phenomenon that its name was adopted as the overarching title for his entire musical existence. Both specifically and in a broader sense, the lines simply spoke to him.
Lovett comes from exceptional musical stock. His brother, Gabriel Stebbing, was one of the founding members of Metronomy, that rarest of bands who combine popular appeal with impeccable musicianship and credibility. Indeed, the area of Devon which sparked his musical longings spawned numerous creative individuals particularly adept in the art of perfectly-made pop. Lovett soon found his own route. Via the promise- riddled Taking Tiger Mountain, a band whose early outings suggested a spark that many bands could never hope to achieve, and a stint on bass in his brother’s post-Metronomy indie-pop outfit Your Twenties, he found that his ear for a tune was perhaps best nurtured alone. From this came the self-made but wide-reaching sound of NZCA/Lines. The forward-thinking Loaf Recordings soon picked it up, and an exceptional self-titled debut followed.
Much like those humble Peruvian lines, behind the immediate impression of simple, addictive pop melody is a wealth of intriguing detail and intent. The painstakingly thought-out concept, which unfurls lovingly throughout the record, never becomes alienating. In isolation these songs are dance floor- friendly with an effortless knack for melody which belies Lovett’s youthful appearance, crisply produced with just the right amount of R’n’B sex and sass alongside clipped, glitchy beats. And when listened to as a whole, the album’s internal referentiality and considered artistic context hits hard and true.
Joined by a pair of like-minded individuals in the live arena, he has found a way to not replicate but recreate the album in a live setting. This has served to forge a real sense of momentum, where the record has become both a starting point and a creation that runs alongside this constantly evolving project. It’s a show that Crack is proud to be presenting at our forthcoming monthly party at Dalston’s The Nest on May 12th.
Having shared an enlightening conversation with this truly inventive young artist, as well as gratefully accepting a mix-tape for our Crackcast series which showcases an extremely eclectic roll-call of influences, far from being limited by its dedication to one-of Peru’s greatest landmarks, this project shows scope to grow and grow.
How has your song-writing process changed since you began as a musician?
It’s changed a lot. It used to be about trying to write the three minute pop song in a band format, sitting at home playing the drums and the bass. Then I moved to Falmouth and the band and me started playing some of those demos I’d worked on in my Mum’s garage. That evolved into the band Taking Tiger Mountain, and it became far more about being a band than just being me. While that band only existed for a short time, everyone was very proactive. I got caught up in the romance of a band, not least because of my brother – not Metronomy, cause that came a bit later – but he was in various bands. But I’ve now almost gone back to the way I used to write music before that point, back when I was 15/16, based on the computer and messing around with keyboards and multi-tracking. It’s really nice because you come up with stuff you wouldn’t expect; you’re able to put something down and create ideas by joining things together in a way you wouldn’t expect.
You wonder if there’s something in the water down in Devon, with people like yourself and Metronomy making such memorable pop music. Were you all friends growing up?
Well, the Metronomy guys are older, Joe (Mount) is like five years older, Gabe’s seven. They were leaving school when I was 13/14. They were very much the older generation at that point, I was only really allowed to be included in parties and stuff a little later on. Even then, especially with Gabe, it’s been difficult to get past the ‘little brother’ thing. And along with James, who’s in Veronica Falls, I saw them all but couldn’t claim to have been friends with them as I was a bit too young.
Were they making music back then as well?
Yeah, Joe, James and Gabe and this other guy were in a really good kind of Beatles-esque four-piece called The Upsides. There are some great photos of them all when they were about 16, and my Mum always used to play it in the car! I think it’s stuff like that which pushed me towards being a band. There’s a tape with a track that is Joe Mount’s first go at playing guitar and recording. That’s probably going to be worth something at some point!
Do you think it’s the future to continue to see more and more solo, bedroom-type producers rather than bands? It’s notoriously difficult to make money, so do you think more and more people will be drawn to doing simpler, more time and cost-effective solo projects?
It’s true that there’s not much money to be made, but actually I think the context of the solo project is marked by an essentially lo-fi sound. People make music on their laptops, but because of that it doesn’t have much sonic depth to it because you’re limited by using something digital. My record was made in the bedroom, but at the same time I was lucky enough to be able to use high-quality equipment and I ended up paying for it to be mixed on an amazing desk so it’s gone through lots of lovely analogue compressors. If you want stuff to sound really great then you either have to save up and buy equipment yourself, or you need to spend the money on taking it into that last stage. But you never really lose the need to play live, and that has to be more than just a person with a laptop to be exciting.
We were really impressed with the branding – the music videos, imagery, artwork – for NZCA/Lines. Were you heavily involved in that and do you view it as important?
Really important. I’ve taken a long time to consider the branding I want but it’s still changing and it’s still a little bit of ‘taste it and see’. I’m glad you think it’s been consistent, for me it’s fluctuated a little because I’m still learning how to do certain things. I really wanted to do the artwork for the record, but I wasn’t able to do it justice because I didn’t know how to use the programmes or make something that looked slick enough or had the right feeling about it. So Non-Format did the sleeve, which is really great.
Yes, we featured Non-Format in the magazine recently. How did you become connected with them?
They’ve done lots of work for Loaf and they have this strong ongoing relationship. They liked the record and came through with a few versions of what we ended up with, and it came out really well. I guess I’m just trying to learn from what they’ve done and … not copy, but be inspired by its approach. We made the last video, for Okinawa Channels, ourselves. A friend of ours is a professional photographer’s assistant and has done some filming. We took advice from friends and came up with this concept in relation to the song being about radio waves infiltrating a town and making everyone go insane.
What’s the story behind the name?
It comes from the idea of the New Magnetic North, which is a conceptual idea around an alternative set of magnetic poles which are constantly shifting rather than being fixed. So this group of people who are in the know can navigate by these shifting magnetic poles using certain compasses. Basically the whole record is built around little stories of different people at different times trying to follow these compasses and getting into various situations, ultimately relating back to personal matters but in this bigger context. In relation to that, there’s also the context of flying over something and seeing the ground in a very particular way, but you can be in a very different world when you’re actually on the ground. So when I found out about the Nazca Lines, that seemed to coordinate with it: when you’re on the ground. It looks like dirt tracks, when you’re in the sky it looks like drawings. I had a song called Nazca about a guy who falls in love with the airship he’s flying in and wants to kill all the other crew to be alone with it, because he likes seeing things from the air so much. And so the whole thing was named after that.
And once the concept was established, the rest of the songs grew from that?
The concept dates back a few years before the record began coming together. I was in Edinburgh at art college and began making up a few stories around this New Magnetic North idea and basing a lot of artwork around that. I’d been talking to Rob (Fresson, Taking Tiger Mountain) about wanting to approach music in the same way as you’d approach an art project, not just sitting around waiting for inspiration to catch you but being quite objective about it and trying to make music that creates a story and is like a body of work. I actually stole the idea of a person falling in love with a ship from Rob; although his was an actual ship and mine was an airship … I don’t think anyone knows that except me and Rob! So it was all pre-planned, it was just about finding the right way of doing it, which gradually became apparent.
And have you started thinking about how you’ll be able to move this concept on into a second record?
I’m beginning to write some bits and pieces with a view to recording a new demo that we’ll be aiming to have finished and mixed as a follow-up single. I’m trying to decide whether it should be an entirely new project or a new piece of the current project. Although I feel like I’ve explored this quite a lot, others probably don’t, as they haven’t been exposed to it all. So I think it would be sensible to stay with it – not with the New Magnetic North, but with the same general world, in some way. I think the next step will be a lot sexier, based more on the idea of the sun growing into a red giant and the Earth heating up and a beach culture born out an apocalyptic idea, R’n’B honeys in a futuristic setting.
How did your work with Black Devil Disco Club come around?
The record had just been finished and Loaf were getting different people to guest on it, like Nancy Sinatra and Faris Badwan and Afrika Bambataa. They were trying to get Alex Kapranos to do a track, which eventually fell through and Loaf suggested I had a go. I got the track and the lyrics – which were really, really good – and tried a few different things and they ended up using it, which was great. I didn’t expect at all. It was lucky chance.
Last of all, what can we expect from the mixtape you’ll be compiling for our Crackcast series?
I guess the aim is a kind of tour of influences, but combined in a certain way, especially R’n’B vocals with experimental electronica tracks which tend to blend quite well together. But yeah, it’s gonna be danceable.
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Catch NZCA/Lines at:
Land of Kings festival, Shoreditch: May 4th
The Great Escape Festival, Brighton: May 11th
Just Crack, The Nest, Dalston: May 12th
NZCA/Lines is available now on Loaf Records
Words: Clark Merkin and Rich Bitt
To download NZCA/Lines’ Crack mixtape, just click here