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Director and Musician Terence Nance is a Creative Maximalist

Written by on January 3, 2023

The creator of HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness discusses making larger-than-life art and making guitar slides out of beer bottlenecks.

photo courtesy the artist

Known primarily as a director, Terence Nance first made waves nationally with his 2012 feature film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. A selection at the Sundance Film Festival, the psychedelic lovelorn tale featured Terence’s signature maximalist-yet intimate-fast-cuts, dense visual style and music from Flying Lotus. Accordint to Nance, his panoramic sense of scale isn’t the result of some grand intention to dazzle: “I definitely don’t think about scale in that way, ever. I only really understand it in music and in film that it’s maximalist, or there’s a grander scale happening because people say that.”

His sketch comedy show, Random Acts of Flyness premiered on HBO in 2018 and garnered positive reviews from outlets including Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, and ultimately received a Peabody Award. He also collaborated with fellow native-Texan Solange Knowles on a film that serves as a companion to her 2019 album When I Get Home. The 33 minute piece was primarily shot in the Lone Star State.

Season 2 of Random Acts of Flyness premiered in December of 2022, but Vocalo’s Ayana Contreras chatted with Nance in late August, upon the release of the prolific artist’s debut album, V O R T E X, released on Brainfeeder (a label founded by Flying Lotus). Recording as Terence Etc., the project was completed over nearly a decade and contains the same cimematic quality of his visual work, deftly translated for sound.

Terence Nance: What’s up?

Ayana Contreras: Hey, man. How are you doing?

TN: Man, it’s been a crazy, crazy last few days. I was in Nigeria.

AC: Oh, wow.

TN: Yeah, and I just got back, and I’ve been editing Random Acts [of Flyness], so I had to do a few all-nighters. It’s been pretty exhausting, but also blessed. I’m just, all good things happening. The album came out. I didn’t know it was you I was talking to.

AC: Yeah, I tried to be really low-key about that.

You’re in New York, right?

TN: I’m in New York, yeah, right now. Yes, New York City, in Brooklyn and Bed Stuy. Yeah. Out here.

AC: I particularly wanted to ask you about this album, [V O R T E X], because one thing I know is that you had a lot of hand in a lot of the scoring work and your visual creations. So, was that the impetus to actually saying, I’m just going to go full on and make music?

TN: Oh, no, I was doing music before I was doing films. My family is mostly musicians. My uncles are musicians. Both my brothers are musicians. So, I was just around that more. My mother is an actress and a theater director, so I was learning about theater too, but just around it. I started making music, definitely right before I started making films, kind of later in high school, early college. First year of college, I think I wrote my first song. So, a long time ago, however long ago that was, 15, 16 years, something like that.

And my first things doing film were scores, so composing for films. My friends… I had done, my first job, actually, in film, or TV, was doing the bumper music for this BET… Well, it was Centric. I don’t know if you remember that channel, Centric? They had these TV shows, like short film showcase TV shows, and I made the theme music and the bumpers for them. So, I was kind of in that practice before I was making shows. I mean, also, I wasn’t really doing anything, just trying to work something out. Make some lunch money, kind of situation.

AC: Yeah, I mean, it’s really beautiful work. Really interesting.

TN: Thank you.

AC: I love [harpist] Brandee [Younger]. Anything Brandee does, I’m about.

TN: An oracle. My God. So amazing. So amazing. Yeah.

AC: So, the people around you on the project, were they people that you just have relationships with, or were you like, oh my God, I love this person’s music, I want them to work on my project? Or was it sort of a combination of those two things?

TN: A combination. Mostly people I work with on things. Obviously, Solomon [Dorsey]. I had known him for a long time because he and my brother are friends and had gigged together a lot. I had written the songs a while ago, and around 2012, 2013, I was doing live shows, trying to perform them live, before I recorded them, really. And he played live for a few of those shows, and he offered to produce the songs when I was ready to record them.

If he hadn’t done that, it never would have happened, somebody of his level of expertise and skill, talent, just coming. Because I knew how to produce in my own concept of that, but watching what it actually took for the type of music I was actually attempting to make, I had no expertise to do any of it. Because I mean, a lot of what it is is [Music Directing]. He knows how to MD a situation, really work with several musicians to get a really specific vibe and sound. He was doing that.

And then, Nick [Hakim], I’ve been working with a lot, and still work with a lot. These are brothers of mine, so it was just the people who I’m closest to, for sure. But then, obviously, they brought in a lot of different people. I can’t remember how I met Brandee, if I met her through Nick or Solomon, but a lot of the other musicians came through them, or just being around Brooklyn, making music and meeting people.

photo, Alima Lee, courtesy of the artist

AC: In your visual work, the scale is huge, but it’s oddly intimate. I don’t know how you are able to make something seem so large, and yet feel so much like it’s coming directly out of your head. But that is the same sort of conception, the same sort of feeling that Ism getting from the album. Less of a question, more of a statement.

TN: No, you’re right. I mean, when I step back and look at it, that’s definitely true. In my mind, I was like, I definitely don’t think about scale in that way, ever. I only really understand it in music and in film that it’s maximalist, or there’s a grander scale happening, because people say that. But my experience of it isn’t like, this has scale to it, on film or music, and I think it’s just because I’m not a good judge of space at all. I don’t know. I don’t know what seems large or seems small to myself or anybody. I’m not a good judge of space or time, or space-time, any of the three. So, I think my experience of it is more on the instrument side of the spectrum, on both accounts.

TN: But yeah, the music, I think, is interesting, because I think sometimes, I did realize just one big journey with the album was recording the vocals, and where my ear led me in a lot of was just through a lot of background vocal parts and arrangements, and just a lot of complex arrangements. And I didn’t really realize how long that takes, and how meticulous I needed to be, how much editing it took on my part. I definitely just didn’t know until I did it a lot, and now I know.

But I guess it could be understood that that’s a process that’s both extremely complex and layered, and has a large scale, but it’s still just me in front of my computer with a microphone interface, working it out, you know what I mean, for however long it takes to do a gazillion vocal stacks.

AC: That’s an interesting point, because I think most of the music I listen to is at maximum 24 tracks, right? Based on the technology that was at that time. And so, I’m working on a 45, and I’m intentionally keeping it from being perfect. I’m intentionally keeping only X amount of tracks, because it could just go on forever and ever and ever, and as a perfectionist type of person… I like to call myself a recovering perfectionist. As a recovering perfectionist, you could get down that rabbit hole and it would just go on for infinity. [One of the earmarks of your work] is sort of the maximalist approach, where was the point where you were like, it’s ready, this is it? I mean, was there a point? Do you still feel like there’s more that you could have done?

TN: No, there’s no more. There were several points. There were kind of macro moments when it was like this thing was ready, and micro moments. You were just talking about recovering perfectionist. I’m the same way, but I don’t know if it’s… yeah, maybe some kind of perfectionism, but the way I would just keep rerecording, rerecording vocals. But then I developed this technique of only allowing myself three takes, and asking myself the question, some ridiculous, dramatic question, like would I die if this was the take? And considering then moving on if I would not die. And I think before I did that, I don’t know when I would have finished it, because I would just keep redoing it.

A performance is a recording of energy. It’s not so much a recording of a technical execution. It’s both, but it has to be foundationally the energy. And you can’t recapture energy, really, you know what I mean? It’s one thing, and then it’s another.

And then, I was working with Solange on her film, When I Get Home. She played us the album, and it was all in one file, and I was asking her about it, and she was like, “Oh yeah, I put it all in one file, just listen to it as an album, so then you’ll know how to edit it down and see where you’re bored.” I was like, huh, I should do that.

So then I did that, and it instantly took it from 14 songs to 11 songs. And I think when it got in that 11 songs sequenced form, it was like, okay, this is it. And it still took like, three years after that to come out, but it was working towards something that was finite.

And then, just pandemic. Just recording the vocals at the house, it created the space that I’d needed, that I’d only taken intermittently over the years. I was able to take it in larger chunks.

AC: I do hear that from a lot of people, that one of the silver linings of the pandemic, if there is such a thing, is the idea that you were able to spend some extra time that maybe would not have been available to you to do some passion projects. So, would you consider this part of that?

TN: I don’t know, because it was always right at the edge of happening, and I was pretty consistently working on it, so it didn’t feel that way. I think it’s a bookend, in that it still would have probably even happened in the same time, even without the pandemic, but I think just from a craft perspective, it wouldn’t have been as good. It probably just wouldn’t have sounded as good, because it would have been happening just a little bit, in a slightly more helter-skelter way, probably. But yeah, I think I was just able to spiritually understand why it was necessary to do it, get to a clarity on why my spirit required me finishing it. Because I think the pandemic really, it helped bake in a spiritual practice, a daily spiritual practice. Which I know that it was always happening, but it just baked it in, because it was such a difficult time, so you go to prayers.

AC: The other question that I was wondering is, do you have some ideas in mind for how to present this in a live setting? Because you said you’ve already done live shows, with iterations of this material. I mean, were you thinking about that in the creation of it, or have you been thinking about it?

TN: Yeah, I think about it a lot. We need a lot of rehearsal. Lots and lots of rehearsal. I mean, we did do, pretty much all the songs on there, we’ve done live before, so it isn’t abstract, for sure. And playing the songs live kind of started to determine their arrangement. They all had some story, but a lot of them were just guitar and voice demos that didn’t overly suggest how they would be arranged or would have instrumentation, and I just sort of described it.

So, I have ideas from that, but I think I’m very open to whatever the moment presents itself. I’m open to doing many concepts of it, like me and one other person. I’d be interesting doing, what does that sound like, just me and a drummer, or something? Or an orchestra? I’m very curious about just what those circumstances can present, in terms of how to do it live. But yeah, I mean, I think it just requires… I think the main thing I’m curious about is how people will receive it, because it’s pretty bombastic music.

AC: If I may, I think a lot of your work is that way. But that’s not bad. I remember the first time I saw An Oversimplification [of Her Beauty]. It was in one of those little art house theaters here in Chicago, and I was like, “Who is this person?” You know what I mean?

TN: It was me.

AC: It was you! And then when I met you, I was like, “It was you!” And it was like… It’s kind of a weird thing, because it’s so clear that you put so much of yourself into your work, right? Some people don’t do that as much. It feels like a much more fictional space that they’re working in. But you have a lot of fantastical yet autobiographical in some pieces in your work. I mean, that’s the vibe I’m getting. I could be totally wrong. It could be totally just made up stuff, but it doesn’t feel that way.

TN: Yeah, I think it’s definitely both. It’s totally autobiographical, and then also not at all. I think, like everything. I don’t do so much hiding of it when it’s autobiographical. I also don’t do too much, when it’s not, explaining it, breaking it down, when it’s not. So I think some of it is just… Sometimes I’m working through a question that isn’t actually about something that’s happened to me, but I’m using my own body and my own place. The other half of the time, it is something that happened to me.

But I mean, the album, I think, is probably less autobiographical, one because I don’t totally remember the things that happened that inspired a lot of it, because it was so long ago, if there were real things, in certain situations. But then also, I think music as a portal is for me personally, it has a very strong channeling energy, so I don’t really know where some of the specifics of how it sounds come from, and put words and stories in it. They’re not easily identifiable or connected to experiences for me, as other things, like writing especially, or filmmaking.

But same with filmmaking, but for instance, for the image side of filmmaking, I’m trying to light a scene. It’s not usually based on a place I’ve seen, and the light in a place that I’ve seen. It’s just like, I want it to be like this. The energy is this. I don’t know, it’s just coming from somewhere else, whatever the orders are of the world.

AC: That’s so interesting. I mean, I’m trying to think if I have any other specific questions. I don’t really. Oh, you had mentioned the follow up on your point about it being sort of bombastic. Your word, not mine. I wonder, do you think that there is a particular track or two on the album that you kind of see as gateway drug records? And if so, why? And if not, why not?

TN: A gateway towards what it is you’re getting yourself into?

AC: Correct.

TN: I think all of them are that. I think they all do a good job of representing the rest of the family. But maybe, I would say, “In Contemplation of Clair’s Scent”, because it’s got a lot of movements, and it contains everything that could be contained on the album. I think it was one of the longest gestating ones, for sure, so it’s got a lot of the remnants of just life on it, just because it’s been carried through a lot of moments.

I remember the rhythm at the beginning of it, it’s a little bit based on hearing that Portishead song… Is it the Rip, or Plastic? It’s whatever song has a beat, it’s kind of a standard backbeat, and then it does these tom rolls that they edited, like… they kind of cut together. And I don’t remember why, but those tom rolls, I just had this idea of constructing everything around the tom rolls, but it just was in my head, just because of the tom. And I don’t even know how that became attached to that song, but at some point, it did.

And then, the rest of it was because I had learned “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues”, the Skip James version of that. I wanted to learn how to play it. And then, the way it was played was with a slide, the bottle slide, so at the time, I was into trying to make slides from whiskey bottles or beer bottles.

AC: Of course you were.

TN: Yeah. I just made a slide and figured out how to cut the neck of a bottle and file it, whatever. And to play that song, you have to tune it to a specific tuning, so my guitar was tuned to that tuning. But then I just started playing bluegrass-sounding arpeggios on it in that tuning, and that’s how the chord change for that song came out. But I don’t remember… Yeah, I just kind of remember that happening. But it doesn’t really have anything to do, the energy of that song it doesn’t have anything to do with any of those reference points. You don’t hear any of that in it. But it’s just funny. It came together from so many places.

AC: I mean, I think some of my favorite, most creative stuff is that way, right? You have these inspiration points, but you’re not trying to mimic that. It’s just something baked inside of it that is not clear to the person who’s listening to it.

TN: Mm-hmm.

AC: Cool! I’m really excited about all the work that you’ve been doing recently. It’s really cool stuff.

TN: Thank you. Thank you. I can’t wait to see you on the dance floor one more time.

AC: Till then!

Follow Terence Nance on Instagram and Twitter

Interview and Introduction by Ayana Contreras

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