Prince Nifty played a set at Against Life in Toronto last September. He says the moonrise over the lake was sublime – I say his set was also, sparking my fascination with his album Pity Slash Love, released in 2013.
The album is a full adventure, a wide expanse of sounds and meaning, crossing definitions and defying genres. Prince Nifty (Matt Smith) serves up a fusion of sounds, combining acoustic with digital: guitar loops, vocal harmonies, tribal chanting, drum machines, psychy synths, visceral screams spiral across a unique and memorable canvas.
The title track and first two minutes of the album introduce us gently: folky acoustic guitar and indie rocky singing meet breakbeat drums, a quick rhythm that builds to a krautrock pew-pew-pew crescendo. I get the feeling of being lifted up, soaring through a storm of bright sounds, floating on a cloud, speeding through space.
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‘From here‘, ‘Pity Slash Love Pt. 2‘ and ‘Glass Figurines‘ rush us through hypnosis until in ‘Vox News‘ ‘Double Double Dose‘ we return to a calmer sound. The deep layering and cut up beat of the track suggest a thought-out writing process – in fact, according to Prince Nifty himself, the original beat is from ’05 (maybe) and has been revisited and rewritten a lot over the years.
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We’re now taken further down into meditation with the tribal drums and chants of ‘Naab‘. We’ll hear chanting of a very different vein in ‘O Sluggard‘, in which gregorian chanting over restless animal chatter close the album with a sombre, moving taste – but along the way, each song will present a unique sound.
“Genre: All Over”, as written on Bandcamp, is the only box this album might fit in. It’s an arc through thought and feeling, ending a long way from its beginning. A great deal of thought seems to have gone into the album, not only in its sound but in its writing.
I asked Prince Nifty about his writing process, the thoughts behind the music, and whether there was a thread connecting the songs.
Prince Nifty: As things occur, or have a tendency to occur: good and bad habits, the availability of instruments and studios… I try to group some of these things together as they start to appear and develop them again together but sometimes, without a lot of thought these threads are just there out of my own habits of harmony or process, my own rhythm. There were great gaps of time between some of the work on Pity Slash Love and there’s a whole bunch of work from around that same time that is still unreleased.
‘Body Irony‘ paints an path of its own, starting with a deep bassy beat, but then flipping into a jazzy sax solo with tape hiss washing over us like ocean waves.
There’s an exploration of contrast and paradox throughout Pity Slash Love, where delicate is woven with evocative, noisy with gentle, hypnotic with meditative. Song lyrics are published on Bandcamp: some read like personal letters, poems drafted to Toronto. Others are more cryptic, mystical phrases cut together.
I asked Prince Nifty about the apparent duality, the intersection between the concrete and the experimental/abstract. Where did the explorative sound meet with the specific political and social message of his music?
Prince Nifty: As I think about it nowadays it feels like the work is about remaking – I think that’s where things collide. In the most basic sense it’s just the way I write music. It rarely just works, it needs to be revisited and revised, and in a larger sense a lot of the pieces were deep reworkings, resamplings and rearrangements, which subsequently became very new things, more alive. Toronto is once again being remade, with renewed violent fervor.
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In ‘Vincentian Values‘, my favourite track of the album, cut up samples create a disjointed platform upon which delicate vocals stretch and linger. Commenting on the writing of the song:
Prince Nifty: Particularly time-spanning: an older choral piece, sampled and chopped and played back on a keyboard, with new singing added.
There’s a contrast between recognizable words and chaotic jumbled sounds, and I asked what meaning there was in the songs and lyrics:
Prince Nifty: The lyrics are all alleged moments of plagiarism: plagiarism of misquotes of Mark Twain made by Alan Dershowitz that Norman Finkelstein takes issue with. Finkelstein lost his professorship at DePaul University after a very public character assassination from Dershowitz. The dean cited Finkelstein’s lack of vincentian values… The politics are fascinating, but I was interested in the idea of a quoting of a misquoting of a misquoting of Mark Twain as a lyrical content for a song built of similar musical stuff. It’s confusing – and particularly how both the politics and formal elements are inextricably complex interested me. Namely that a misquote of a misquote of a rather uniformed almost journal style writing from Mark Twain was used out of context by an extremely powerful and well known American lawyer as an excuse for Israel to continue to advance and annex and settle Palestinian land. It’s interesting complex powerful stuff.
Aside from Pity Slash Love, Prince Nifty has various releases over the years, fresh despite their age, each a small journey in its own right:
Pity Slash Love came out in 2013. Since then, Matt Smith has played a few shows in Toronto (also as part of the Nifty Trio as recently as this February), and put out ‘Anti Gravity‘, a further exploration of gregorian chanting, and part of a larger project based on the Dreams chapter of Carl Jung’s last book, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. The first installment, which is due soon, is a choral piece.
The second installment of the Jung-inspired works has just started, and who knows what it will sound like. Prince Nifty reckons it may well “diversify”, although he finds that a gross word to use for music:
Prince Nifty : It’s a post mixtape/playlist/streaming world now. It’s been for some time. The continuity of a genre or a record is just a decision or an adherence to a tradition.
Prince Nifty, Man Made Hill, Against Life, and many excellent musicians (special mention to Bernice) really speak for what makes Toronto art fantastic: creative, experimental, diverse, exciting, honest. Moon rises over the water, vocal harmonies by the fire, DIY self-expression. If you find yourself there, explore the smaller gigs and venues, dig around for the little treasures underground, go to Double Double Land.