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Ariel Zetina and Iceboy Violet are both storytellers by nature, but their connection runs deeper than just a shared affinity for drama or a gripping narrative.

We know there’s beauty in the poetic – in surreal soundscapes or abstract lyricism – but there’s also beauty in reality; the tangled, knotty nature of being human and all that it entails. Both artists create in the space between these two places. It’s a space where the disarmingly intimate finds expression through the collective sensibilities of the dancefloor. The result is catharsis – for themselves, but also their audiences. In Chicago, at venues such as Smartbar, and closer to home, in Manchester, at the much-loved The White Hotel. Not forgetting listeners at home, interacting with both musicians through their momentous and timely releases.

For Zetina, debut album Cyclorama was an opportunity to draw from the various chapters of her story so far. With a title inspired by her background in theatre, sounds from her Belizean heritage and experimental techno intertwine with themes of trans identity, racial inequality and the meaning of community, all anchored by her confident voice.

Likewise, vocals are also at the core of The Vanity Project, Iceboy Violet’s arresting debut mixtape. The release features the rapper and producer opening up across a suite of hard-edged electronic instrumentals from a who’s who of innovative producers (many of them drawn from Manchester’s thriving scene), including aya, Space Afrika and Nairobi’s Slikback. Thematically scattershot, it captures an artist in flux, moving between moods and feelings instinctively, with no holding back.

Here, the pair, who first met at a Manchester club night put on by Iceboy Violet and their friends, reconnect over a video call to discuss tales from the road, their approaches to songwriting and performance, and the musical lineage of their respective cities.

Crack: How has the year been for you both?

Ariel Zetina: Super busy! I was touring a bunch in June and October. I feel I went into the year not totally used to being out in the world – going to shows and being in these situations.

Iceboy Violet: I’ve just got back to playing shows; I had a two-month break before that. Just before that break, it was chaotic. January and the mixtape’s release feels so long ago. When your time is divided by shows – and the time in between is spent recovering and travelling – time warps in a way that I haven’t experienced before.

AZ: Where was the last show you played?

IV: OHM in Berlin. I’ve had trouble with Berlin crowds before, but everyone seemed to be ready to give it to me. I think it was partially because it was Creamcake – the programming is amazing and the crowd was really up for it. It made me more optimistic about playing in Berlin in the future. What was your favourite show this year?

AZ: I did Whole Festival outside of Berlin in August. It was me and Miss Twink USA – who’s the main DJ I play with – in the middle of a forest. We were around day three of jet lag and immediately going camping. It was dope.

Crack: How did you first come across each other?

IV: We met at Mutualism, a party I run with some good friends from Manchester. I saw your set – and I’m not very well versed in house and techno – and to me it felt fun, first of all, but also unpretentious and just well put together. Since then, I’ve been following your music more closely and listening to the new album, which is amazing. It does a really good job of mixing house and techno with the abstract. The songwriting is really good.

AZ: That Mutualism party was so fun – everyone was so good. I think I heard about your music near that time. You had a release on TT, right?

IV: Mmhm.

AZ: That was what introduced me to your music. There are certain tracks [of yours] I always return to. I’m really gagged at your album because I love how you had these really apparent club elements in it, but the way it’s organised, and rhythmically… it moves in a different way.

Crack: Ariel, I read an interview where you said: “I’m not very interested in subtlety. I’m very interested in being loud and bombastic. I think it comes from feeling like the only way of being heard is to be as bombastic as possible.” Violet, do you relate to this too?

IV: With performance, yes. The audience wants a fantasy – something to believe in. You have to give them something to invest in. The best way to do that is to be loud and bombastic; to be crude or just extra in any way. I think that’s really powerful. Subtlety in music? Sometimes. But once you get onstage, you have to perform – unless subtlety is your thing.

AZ: That just made me think of someone like Bon Iver – that’s a terrible example – but I feel like there’s this idea of subtleness [where] there can still be the most subtle thing versus the least subtle thing.

IV: Maybe someone like Oklou would do that, where the subtlety is magnified by the sheer amount of it – then you’ve got something special.

AZ: That’s such a good way of saying it, I love that.

"With the lyrics that I play in DJ sets, I wonder if people are like, ‘Is this Ariel’s mantra? Is this what she thinks all the time?’"

Ariel Zetina

IV: I’ve been thinking about that a lot because I’ve been trying to write new lyrics. I’ve been thinking about the music I hear, and want to hear, in the club, and how it often has very simple lyrics about universal concepts. But then the other side of me is very much about packing meaning into things; talking about my individual experiences in as much detail as I can manage.

AZ: I was actually just talking about this, with the lyrics that I play in DJ sets. I wonder if people are like, “Is this Ariel’s mantra? Is this what she thinks all the time?” I was specifically thinking about my friend Jane, who has this track that has “I don’t need therapy/ I just need surgery,” as the main [hook]. It’s the best track. But I did wonder, when playing it, if people are taking everything I say verbatim. What’s your writing process like?

IV: I’m trying to write more direct stuff. A line like “I don’t need therapy/ I just need surgery,” is perfect. It says so much in so few words. It’s also just really funny. Sometimes I have a concept, then I’ll think about it and get something down. The first line is the one I spend the longest on, and then the rest follows. Since I released the last project, I’ve been writing more poppy [music], but also some more [music] that’s way more abstract. What I’ve been trying to do is [write music] that’s really abstract, then in the middle have a line where it’s like, ‘This is how I feel’ – being very direct – and then go back to the abstract stuff, just dancing between the two. Do you try to sit down with topics, or do the lyrics just come to you?

AZ: Some of my lyrics will come from me thinking something is a good song title, and can I riff on it. That for me is the inching-in point – either this is the chorus line, or the line that keeps coming back, or the name of the track. I love that you’re making both pop and abstract music. Those directions are really exciting to me. I feel like I’m ahead of where my releases are, with what I’m making, and what I’m thinking about. It feels like you’re the same way?

IV: Lyrically, definitely. I’ve learned so much since The Vanity Project got released. Some of those lyrics are four or five years old, which is a really long time to sit with words and them not change meaning. I’ve matured in that I’m not trying to be difficult anymore, or too clever. Some stuff that I do is like that, but I’m also learning the value of simplicity.

AZ: I cared so much about being avant-garde and out there when I first started, and now I just want to make shit that sounds good and I want to listen to. It’s such a journey.

Crack: You’re both part of vital music scenes in Manchester and Chicago. How has it felt having more eyes on your work of late?

IV: To be named as part of this ‘scene’ is nice but I also feel… guilty? There are so many other people doing it in Manchester and who have been doing it for so long. I understand that there was a critical mass of good stuff coming out of Manchester. But I feel like I’m getting all this attention, or we’re getting all this attention, for being one part of a much bigger story. I try to tell that story, or what I know of that story, as much as possible. It’s nice that people care and that people in places I’ve never been to listen to my music. It’s really, really nice to be able to play shows in different places with my friends. I’m grateful for it all, but I want people to also give props to those who came before.

"I’ve matured in that I’m not trying to be difficult anymore, or too clever. I’m learning the value of simplicity"

Iceboy Violet

AZ: I think Chicago and Manchester are similar in that way. That really resonates with me.

IV: We have this thing – probably Chicago, too – where our musical history is so rich, that people will talk about the history before they talk about what’s going on now. There was a big exhibition the year before lockdown – a gallery show with lots of money thrown [at it], honouring these artists that came before – which is worth doing. But when that’s happening at the same time as venues and opportunities getting closed down, this nostalgia culture becomes frustrating.

Crack: Any defining dancefloor moments from 2022?

AZ: The first thing that came to mind was Marina Herlop at Unsound. I wasn’t familiar with her work and it changed my life. I was jaw-droppingly shocked.

IV: My moment is recent, actually, at Creamcake. This was quite a special one because it’s the first time my partner has seen me play abroad. We stayed right to the end and saw Suutoo, a DJ and artist from London. It was just the most mind-bending, incredible set – one of those sets where they’re so proficient and technically incredible but without sacrificing any of the fun or vibes. At 6:30am, they dropped Bill Withers’ Just the Two of Us. I’m not brave enough to do that, and then mix into a breaks tune and then play into singeli straightaway.

Crack: In one word, could you share your hopes for next year, and where you see yourself in 2023?

AZ: Discipline.

IV: That’s a good one… Beaches. I want to go to the beach.