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This Is What Mas Ysa Sounds Like

We spent a day in the woods with Tom Arsenault discussing noise, heartbreak, and the music of self-examination.
August 5, 2015, 1:00pm

Photos by Marty Olivo

There's a bear that comes crashing down the path behind Tom Arsenault's house every few days. The deer, too, work their way along the little trail they've cleared out. It's quiet enough that Arsenault has been woken up by the clatter of their hooves on the road at night. He has a sheet hung over his downstairs window to block its reflectiveness because birds kept crashing into it. In the upstairs room that serves as his studio, where he makes music under the name Mas Ysa, anonymous cables may lie tangled on the floor, and the standalone converted garage that he uses for rehearsal space may be packed with gear. But overall it's a low-tech place. There is no cell phone service. The nights are dark.

“If it was night time here I’d... turn the lights off, and I’d drive this in the pitch black, just trying to feel it because it makes me feel like Batman,” Arsenault told me on a pleasant June afternoon as we drove down the quiet wooded road outside of Woodstock, New York, that leads to his house. “You know that scene in the first Batman?” he quizzed me. “That’s what I do here. I turn it off and I, just, am Batman.” Talking to Arsenault is like this a lot of the time. He is engaging and attentive to the world around him, excited by small details and drawing omnivorously on culture to make his points. Although his music's tone could easily paint him as brooding and tormented, he is more accurately seen as a dude in constant conversation with the world around him. The day after we met, he emailed me about a hummingbird in his backyard; during our time together, he discussed at length his admiration for hip-hop radio personality Charlamagne tha God, repeatedly referencing segments from the host's Breakfast Club morning show.

“I don’t think that my private music necessarily intersects very seamlessly with my public personality,” observed Arsenault at one point, as we drove among nearby towns, nominally running errands that we never ended up completing and at several points getting lost. He had picked me up earlier at the town bus stop in his girlfriend's SUV wearing wraparound sunglasses and holding his hand out the window in a thumbs up, looking a little like a dad pulling up outside his kid's soccer practice. We stopped by an A/V supply warehouse, where Arsenault perused the catalog for a while before determining he didn’t know the exact specifications of what he wanted, and a small grocery store, where Arsenault asked if fellow area resident David Bowie had been in recently. “I’m not going to be 14 martinis deep, crying into my olive dish all the time. Maybe that’s like what the ballad at the end of my record might suggest.”

That record, Seraph, can be heavy. Like Mas Ysa's first release, 2014's Worth EP, it deals heavily with themes of heartbreak, lacerating self-examination, anger, and catharsis, much of it inspired by one particularly devastating breakup but more generally of “having [his] karma clocked clean from every relationship [he] had had.” It is intensely, richly, human music. It is also straightforwardly synthetic, a bricolage of programmed drums and synths that pound with the relentlessness of the hard techno Arsenault developed a deep love for as a teenager frequenting dance clubs in Brazil. It is electronic music with a soul, electronic music that takes questions of being and jams them into a rubric of noise looking for answers.

“I just found that it would feel good to do,” Arsenault said of his gradual slide into making music more publicly. “Like 'oh, this feels better. This is helpful.' Literally it's just cathartic. It was like 'this is cathartic, fuck it.'” Songs like “Margarita” and “Look Up” crescendo into massive bursts of drums and ebb into pretty, diffuse runs of isolated instruments; they mirror those frenetic, emotional late night walks and afternoon drives where thoughts pile on top of each other and explode into calm epiphanies. Arsenault's lyrics are precise in their details, telegraphing their realism, even if they tend to be slippery (i.e. “the source of the best stuff was a back rub from my first love”).

His singing often builds to a wail or a ragged shout. It is vulnerable music. It opens itself up to failure. Its aim is honesty. Arsenault recently learned the term “struggle rapper”—a dismissive phrase for an artist trying too hard to reach an end goal or project an image without the substance to match—from listening to the Breakfast Club, and it resonated: “I took that to heart on my own practice, where I was lie-singing a song or something then being like 'fuck, oh, this is so—I’m struggling! Fucking Charlamagne tha God would hate this song.'”

As a listener, you come to trust Mas Ysa because his music suggests, if not exactly a way to be in the world, a communion with someone looking for what that might resemble. He operates around other people with something bordering on an aloof, artistic eccentricity—chatting with store workers with an idle inquisitiveness, for instance—but which is really something simpler, a firm sense of self-assurance and an awareness of his surroundings rather than a need to please. “I’m not like 19 and super eager to be in the limelight,” he mentioned, of his career. “I’ve been making music for a long time without anybody paying attention to me. So I’m a little bit—maybe to a fault, and with no resentment I say this—like take it or leave it.”

Growing up, Arsenault floated excitedly through the world of music in whatever way it grabbed his attention. He grew up in Montreal to an Ecuadorean mother and a French-Canadian father, and his family moved to São Paulo when he was a teenager. There, he developed an interest in making music on a computer program called EJ, “which is like Fisher Price Fruity Loops,” and practicing turntablism. He listened to the rock music his family shared with him, the jazz and bossa nova records his Brazilian friends would play while they sat around drinking, and the hard techno of the clubs they'd go out to. While in college at the University of Victoria in Vancouver for writing and religion, he attended a short electronic music summer camp at Oberlin College in Ohio, and he was encouraged to apply to the school's prestigious conservatory for a program in composition and electronic music.

There was one catch, though: To get in, you had to be able to play an instrument, and, even though he was doing various production and audio-visual projects in his spare time, Arsenault knew very little about music, academically. “I did not know what a treble clef was,” he said as we sat in his rehearsal space drinking ciders. His roommate at the time had a flute, so he found a flute player in the University of Victoria music program and had her teach him, parroting part by part a single song that would suggest several years of experience and a firm grasp of reading music. When the audition came, he bluffed his way through playing Gabriel Fauré's “Sicilienne” and made the program. For a few years out of college, his conservatory background hampered him to some extent, introducing self-doubt about his adequacy as a musician that manifested itself in his private attitude toward his own music. But arguably that's what makes his music so interesting now: There's not just a sense of someone grappling with technique but a sense of someone grappling with himself.

“Although I had friends in the music industry always, I never sent a demo to anybody,” he explained. “I never had them put me on a show or anything. I kind of was happy to have the feeling when you write something and leave it, not even commit it to a finished version. So I still have that safe space mentality when I’m making music that is not necessarily going to be public. And then I end up accessing corners of myself that I would be ashamed of or embarrassed to share... There is even a level of confessional earnestness in my tunes that didn’t exist in the scene I was making music in at the time. Everything was like electronic music as design, electronic music as a function of the club.”

The conservatory also introduced Arsenault to a group of like-minded friends. A few years older than his fellow first-year students and, as a Canadian, thoroughly acclimated to life in North America, he skipped out on international student orientation and headed to an Oberlin bar, where he met a group of graduated seniors who were moving to New York. Those friends started an artistic collective called Shinkoyo, as well as, eventually, a Brooklyn DIY performance space called Paris London Tokyo West Nile, and Arsenault would travel back and forth between New York and Oberlin to participate in the scene. Encouraging professors nurtured the musicality he displayed in projects like composing noise pieces for New York art openings. When he graduated, he moved to the city, eventually settling into a loft space in the same warehouse complex that housed Paris London Tokyo West Nile (the space would go on to be a venue called 285 Kent and, presently, the site of the VICE New York offices).

“We always had this ethic of 'we jam.' It doesn't matter if you can't play guitar or whatever,” Arsenault explained of the music that began to emerge then. “But it wasn't a punk thing. There's some lines where people come to noise through punk, and some people come to noise through John Cage. I didn't come to it through punk. I definitely came to it more or less through school.” The loft Arsenault moved into had been built out as a state-of-the-art soundproof recording space (he was able to get by for a while by doing engineering work, letting bands he knew record in the space for below-market rates), and the overall creative environment paired with low stakes encouraged sonic experimentation.

“I could spend a week in the studio just making clicking sounds from a no-input feedback,” he said, and he repeatedly described his interest in “sound for sound's sake” as being similar to that of a geologist looking at a rock. “Most of what you're doing is being a witness,” he explained at another point, paraphrasing Thom Yorke's observation that with electronic music—as opposed to with playing an instrument—you're able to set something in motion and then step back and observe it, “recording it or not recording it and then kind of like walking away.” Noise and electronic sound is, in Mas Ysa's hands, a landscape of pre-existing features primed for discovery. It is experimental in the literal, scientific sense: “I hear bands or read things that go like 'oh, we're experimental' because there's some like wacky delay in your thing,” Arsenault told me. “I mean experimental like I don't know what's going to happen: 'Oh, that's happening? Oh, cool.' Not just like weird.”

Spurred by emotional upheaval, Arsenault's music became less intellectual and more personal, and he started improvising lyrics as he'd jam at home. “There was a mic in the studio... You’d come home and switch on a delay pedal with a really long decay and and start yelling in it, and then you feel better when you’re done doing it,” he described. Those improvisations eventually turned into songs (this is still more or less his writing process). At the encouragement of friends, for whom he would play his compositions privately, Arsenault slowly took Mas Ysa public and then on the road.

Late in the afternoon, after another cider at the picnic table on his back deck, Arsenault showed me how his live rig worked, detailing the software patch he spent two months writing so he could use his setup like an MPC and showing the buttons and knobs that prompt and control individual sounds. Mas Ysa's show is still heavily improvisational, and Arsenault describes the process of performing live as one of “building” songs, triggering MIDI signals one layer at a time and setting the whole thing in motion. He tapped a few pads on his rig to demonstrate the new way he’d been building “Why,” and individual song components snapped crisply, automatically to life.

There’s something instructive in this building process because it so clearly mirrors the tension of the human and the mechanical that Mas Ysa is about. The torments that surface in Mas Ysa's music—jealousy, the heartbreak of being far from your family, the frustration of trying to move past something and failing, post-breakup shame—seem like emotional challenges for which it's possible to set a healing process in motion and have resolve themselves with time. But of course the healing process for anything human is much messier, and it probably involves a lot of anguish and screaming. Mas Ysa captures that collision.

Songs hurtle forward with the ebb and flow of emotional energy, and in that perfectly controlled digital maelstrom is fumbling, sometimes uneasy self-examination. “Shame” examines the post-relationship horror of feeling not so much a lack of love from the other person as an intense self-oriented revulsion for making things go wrong. “Suffer,” a song that Arsenault describes as “pretty overtly misogynistic,” is pettily vindictive, offering a dismissive fuck you to one partner who refuses to languish in self-destruction and wishing misery on others. “I'm not like proud of the sentiment in it,” Arsenault said. We sat on his back deck, and birds chirped merrily in the trees around us. “And I'm not proud of that version of myself in it. But I don't have to be. It's a song.”

“Gun” was a song that Arsenault performed live for a year before deciding it was selfishly one-sided and writing a female part that turned it into a duet with Nicole Miglis of Hundred Waters. “That song is very directly about a certain ex-girlfriend,” he noted, adding that he could imagine the response to its self-indulgence: “'Like what the fuck are you crying about? You're heartbroken? You were such a dick. You're still a dick. This breakup is still about you? And you put it in a song? That's why I dumped you, because the relationship was about you. And you even commandeered the breakup to serve yourself. That's insane!'” Putting those rejoinders into the song helped him “live with that song a little bit better because it was not so one-sided.” Sometimes, as on “Garden,” there are echoes of examination that verges on religious, but “the guilt thing has to do more with me framing like a certain amount of behaviors and how I can do certain people wrong from like a selfish standpoint. I'm not worried about going to hell, I'm just more in awe of how selfless and graceful people who are full of love are.”

Arsenault is more settled now, though. He moved upstate a couple years ago after he was evicted from the Williamsburg loft in a legal dispute over zoning with his landlord and wanted to find a place with cheaper rent. His home is lived in, the kitchen full of the ordered clutter of dry goods and utensils that come with wholesome cooking, the dining room filled by a massively sturdy table. There is little hint of chaos; he comes across as settled. “I didn’t move up here to be in solitude and make a record and get all Bon Iver about it,” he mentioned. “This is just where I live and the speed I like to live at.” After touring with the songs on his record for a year or more already, he's come to approach them with a little bit more remove. He sees the intensity of his current album as a potential invitation for people to identify with it strongly for a short, emotional period and move on.

“I’m actually excited at some future point in the Mas Ysa project to approach stuff from a less personal zone,” he said at one point as we wove through the woods along a back road. “Not from a less earnest or focused zone—not from a less honest place but maybe from less of a confessional place when I’m feeling less confessional—and have a record that’s more like sonics.” He originally toyed with the idea, after signing to his current label Downtown, of making something that was weirder and more focused on sound and field recordings.

But the lyrical impulse took over, and here we are, with music that's equal parts an invitation for cathartic oblivion on the dancefloor and invocation of cathartic escape in the headphones. It's music that has settled in and found itself, that has wrung out its feelings and its sonic influences, that has thrown its messy genesis into the crucible of electronic regularity and emerged with something final to latch onto. “I have like this sort of thing that's just like 'well, that's just what it sounds like when I make music,'” Arsenault said offhandedly and assured, as he sat beside the piles of gear in that little rehearsal space in the woods. “'I make music, and that's what it sounds like.'”

Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.