Greatly easing the pain of summer's end, Mas Ysa debuted with “Why” in mid-September, an '80s-nostalgic anthem that has seized many a heart string with an iron grip. You may not recognize the moniker Mas Ysa yet, but if you hung around the Williamsburg music scene any time in the past six years, you'd most certainly recognize the man behind the tune, Thomas Arsenault. As part of the Shinkoyo Art Collective, Arsenault saw the rise of the Kent Avenue music scene which now includes the venues 285 Kent, Death By Audio, and Glasslands. Most significantly, Arsenault built and ran an intimate home studio on South 1st and Kent where dozens of artists worked on albums, including Arsenault's roommates, Teengirl Fantasy and Laurel Halo. It was in that apartment that Laurel made Quarantine, and in that studio that she recorded her vocals. The tenants of that apartment were evicted by the police last year, and the space is now an office filled with cubicles. Since then, Arsenault moved to Upstate, taking not only his studio, but a hefty amount of colorful stories.
The Creators Project: Can you talk a bit about the studio in your former apartment?
Thomas Arsenault: Before 285 Kent was 285 Kent it was called Paris London New York West Nile [opened by] my buddies from [Oberlin University]. They're a little bit older that me. When I moved from college I bee-lined it straight to them. And the landlord had a similar space open up right in time. I went in and I looked at the place and there was this box built in the back. The whole thing was empty except for this box. The landlord was like “yeah we can take that out for you if you want.” And I was like “wait a second.” I walked up to it and there were plants on it and the floor wasn't finished and there were no air ducts or a door or anything… and it was like a fully fledged-- floated floor, no parallel walls, dipped ceiling-- fully built studio from the guy who had lived there before. And he abandoned it. I got a free $50,000 room to make music in.
So this was tied to the West Nile project?
Yeah, absolutely. The people who started West Nile are called Shinkoyo. They also started the Silent Barn. I was brought into that music/noise/art collective. I didn't have internet for the first two-and-a-half years, so the back door of West Nile was open, and that was my living room/internet place. It was just a big share.
How did Shinkoyo happen into what became West Nile?
The space was found because at the time Zeljko [McMullen]-- who ran West Nile with this guy Doron-- was Lou Reed's personal assistant, and was in Lou Reed's band. And Lou was looking for a studio-type practice space, and through that process, Zeljko had met with the real estate person and seen the place. When Zeljko had left working for Lou Reed, he went back to the person and said “I'd like to take this over.” It was found for Lou.
Like my place, West Nile always had a rotating cast of people [living there]. West Nile would go from six to twelve people, my place would go from three to seven people. Like every month, constantly, different configurations of who gets what bedroom.
Sounds like a flop house for musicians.
The area's really conducive to that. You could play at Glasslands, you could play at Death By Audio, you could play at Zebulon. You could get these shows really quickly and always have a bunch of friends to play with. Tim DeWitt from Gang Gang Dance lived there, Bruno [Coviello] from Light Asylum lived there. Teengirl Fantasy lived there. Laurel Halo lived there. Nickel from Nymph lived there. Ad Hoc was started there. The kickstarter video was shot there. Before there was an office, Ric [Leichtung] basically sat on the couch and did everything from there.
Although I ended up getting a full-on police eviction, that landlord… all goodbyes are bitter in those scenarios. The landlord was an older Hasidic man. He would come in and sit in the studio and like that we were there, like that we made music. He'd come in and go “you know, I pray to God that I always have such good tenants like you guys” so when I didn't have any money for rent, he helped me out.
These days, so many electronic musicians just work from their bedrooms. Could you talk about what went into building a studio for those types of artists?
At the beginning Oberlin had given me their tape machine, and I bought a big mixer, like a big 24-channel analog mixer, and I recorded a couple indie rock bands and stuff. It was never so much a pleasure to do it there, because obviously it was just one little room. So I kind of cycled my gear into getting a couple of synths and some hardware effects. Often it's a space where people could be loud, feel comfortable, and work into the night without anyone bothering them. A lot of people who make electronic music, who made it in there, aren't just super on their laptops. Like Laurel [Halo] is really on her laptop, but then she's got this really specific vocal presence. In order to mix that, it's better not to do it on headphones. In order to track it, it's nice to have a hardware compressor and a good mic. But more importantly than that, it's not a really overwhelming space where you're paying an engineer. You can get weird and try things, and you can just go late.
I remember I had a girlfriend who said “why are you always buying and selling gear?” When I would sit down, I had two practices. One was that I would sit down with an acoustic guitar and strum along to the four Dylan chords I know. The other is build some elaborate effects chain and have it ring out and do all sorts of stuff. But eventually witnessing certain bands writing on their rig, I downscaled gear that I wouldn't use live. I made this [instrument], I call it my “electric-acoustic guitar.” It's just a big acoustic guitar to me at this point.
What do you mean by electric-acoustic guitar?
Well my rig can sometimes feel like this player piano. There's all this sequencing involved, like pre-meditated sequencing, like use chords then certain melodies, then I have options to send things through certain effects chains. It's nice, ergonomically, when you perform on the same set-up that you wrote on. So instead of writing a chord progression and putting some synth plugin on it-- carrying that around on a iPod or something, figuring out lyrics to it-- and then figuring out how to put it into gear. If you just make it, and make it play back, and make the part individually manipulatable on the thing that you wrote it on, then when you perform it, it feels more like the event when any of it occurred to you. That's something I absolutely got from Blondes and Teengirl Fantasy being in my studio.
When “Why” came out, a friend mentioned that it was distinctly '80s, and Pitchfork mentioned that it was really '80s. I didn't really realize that until it was out in the world. It's just actually what my gear sounds like. And to be honest, there's a lot of production I like, laptop based producers I like, who make shit just in Ableton. But it's not so much trying to carve our your aesthetic platform to be like “I'm a different individual, my heart has different scars on it on yours, so I want to sound different.” A lot electronic music is just playing back at me. I gravitated towards this one synth in particular because it wasn't something I was hearing a lot. So when I heard it, I wasn't like “this is me,” I just felt it was new. And not referential, actually.
What else do you do to cultivate your personal sound?
If you listen to a band like The Knife, there's always a vaguely steel drum, synth-ish sound from one track to another, regardless of if its what register it's in, and whether the attack is really there to sound like a steel drum or not. So they keep this really nice palette. For my production, I use very few samples. I use a 909 live, and I use a 909 to track with.
What's the advantage of using that specific drum machine?
The advantage to me is the limitations. [On a computer] you spend all this time sorting through snare sounds, with different pitch-to-noise ratios, and all that time the music is going away from you. The advantage of just having one drum machine is that it's just a trusty place to come from. When I go from a ballad to a banger, I'm still orbiting the same sound world. I could go “oh well, I want this thing because it better fits what I want the song to transmit, because I can choose from every type of sound that's ever been made, or invent a new one.” I can get too lost trying to articulate that thing. Versus saying “this is what I fucking sound like.”
This is really your first batch of your own material that you've released. Were you concerned with being more of a scene builder than a musician before?
No definitely not a scene builder type, and definitely my studio was made so I can make music. But both my parents had seven brothers and sisters, and both of them lived within a mile radius of everyone else in Montreal, so I have 33 immediate cousins. I like coming home and there's six different people at the dinner table. I like coming home to my studio and having my buddy Sam be like “oh, I'm mixing the Balam Acab record, I'll try to kick you some bucks.” 95 people had keys [to the studio]. That more so comes from the scene that West Nile built, the inclusion of “come play shows, come play here.”
The way this all get started was just playing a buddy's birthday party at Zebulon. I did an interview earlier this week and I hyperbolically said that I left Williamsburg because Zebulon closed, but when I go back there now, there isn't that kind of place where I can go to that mega club, and you can say “ok I'm going to go back there, and I know that everybody from every show is going to be there.” Or, “it's a rainy Tuesday night and people are going to be there, and there's going to be a bunch of musicians.”
Certainly the scene has shifted. Different Williamsburg.
I know when I got there it was a different Williamsburg to the people who are like 5 years older than me. 285 is doing great, and I'm going to play there in a couple of weeks. I'm not complaining being curmudgeonly like “oh Williamsburg's changed.” I'm sure for the people who have been living there since '97 that they hated seeing me on the street with my wolf t-shirt.
And it's cheaper for me to live upstate! Zeljko's up here with me right now, helping me mix. He found a guy in town, he's producing his record. Brian DeGraw's up here, from Gang Gang Dance. People ask me what it's like, like “don't you feel isolated and crazy.” They only remember seeing me at Zebulon, otherwise I was holed up in my studio. Other than not having Zebulon down the street, I'm the same. But now I have to drive for two hours if I want to play a show.
Below, check out Mas YSA's newest release "Why":
Top image courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan.