“That process of writing is something that before I met Nick I just didn’t know anyone personally who wrote that way, and it lends to the flavor of a lot of the music that we do. It’s a purely different way to approach a song.”
It doesn’t matter what kind of creative person you are; nobody wants to be trapped in a box. It’s always more beneficial to leave the door open for another trait or skill rather than being typecast into just one. The former has the potential to be exciting and show other sides of one’s self while the latter is repetitive, boring, and the artistic equivalent of ordering a Big Mac for lunch every day for eternity.
Rather than be grounded to just trip hop, Boston’s This Bliss decided to expand their sonic horizons with their second LP Retroshade that came out via Mint 400 Records on March 5. For the recording, the duo of vocalist and guitarist Jess Baggia and drummer and electronic whiz Nick Zampiello were joined by Danni Vitullo on synths, saxophone, and bass; and Tom Maroon on guitar and synths.
Baggia and I recently had a conversation about having more to offer than just one style, using analog equipment to create unique sounds, a remix album the band put out last year, and connecting with people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Retroshade seems to expand This Bliss’ sound beyond the trip hop leanings of your prior releases with it having more of a new wave and pop vibe. Did you and Nick consciously make an effort to expand artistic range while making the album?
It’s got a different feel than our debut Forensic Styles, for sure. I think what’s interesting about us as a band is that even when we first started before we released any music whatsoever, we’ve always had a lot of different influences at play and a lot of music that we really like. We write a lot and we get together to do all of these different demos so in the case of our debut, it was more of a question of which of this batch of 30 songs we had that we were going to use. We whittled them down into what people know as the record now based on feel and vibe, which resulted in this trip hoppy, James Bond guitar-style thing that we had going on and we liked it. It has a cohesive feel but that’s just one flavor of who we are as musicians.
With the Dramatization of Real Events EP that followed, we were trying to kind of dip our toes in the water, branch out and share some more elements of us. If I could do it over again, I probably would have just done a full-length as opposed to an EP. I felt personally some pressure to get something out there quicker so that’s why we ended up landing on the EP as opposed to doing another complete album. Now we’re in this situation where it’s perfect timing to do another full-length while thinking through who we are as a band and where we want to go next. Then the pandemic happened so it really stretched the timeline for us dramatically.
Initially Retroshade was going to come out last year, but, as everyone knows, the world stopped and it’s still kind of stopped. I don’t want to make it seem like it’s a pandemic record; it was worked on during the pandemic, but all of the songs were written before the pandemic. We allowed in that sense to let it incubate a little more and not rush it out the door; that’s the silver lining for us, and this is the first record I’ve done in a long time where I didn’t feel this intense pressure to get it out before it was ready. In this case, we had the time to wait until March and take our time with it and release it in 2021. That has done wonders on our ability to really work through the mixing process and think about what we’re trying to go for from a production standpoint.
We did try new things that we had never done; we worked with Ethan Dussault at New Alliance and this is the first time I could think of that Nick has had someone else mix his music in a really long time. Taking that opportunity to pull somebody into the fold and do something different adds another flavor to why we’re a little bit different in Retroshade. To really answer your question, I think that pop element is always in there because I personally love pop music and Nick really likes uptempo dancy material. It’s natural for us in a way to have emerged out of trip hop into other electronic styles, and I honestly hope that the next record we do will be yet another flavor that’s different from the new album.
I’ve definitely noticed that natural progression with this record and also, talking about taking your time with it. The album was also made using analog equipment, so what made you and Nick want to go that route when so many other artists are going digital these days with Pro Tools and everything else?
That’s what makes Nick’s writing process very unique. We still are sort of digital, we use Pro Tools and all that good stuff when it comes to what we’re doing or how we’re working from a production standpoint. When it comes to actually writing, he has the best gear I’ve ever seen. He has this really great collection of all these different synthesizers and drum machines. A lot of these things that we have you can find a plug-in in Logic to replicate it but it’s fun that we have it.
I don’t mean to come off as, Oh we’re so great because we have this gear, because it’s something that’s taken Nick years and years and years of collecting in order to find. It’s not an easy task but I think that is something special about the writing process because what he does is so cool. He literally has this crazy patch bay so he can patch in, last time I checked, 32 different tracks where he can just run a lot of different synths and drum machines into Pro Tools. All of these machines have their own internal clocks, we want to get them speaking the same language so they get patched into a sequencer. Then he can basically start running them and adding as he is going, maybe starting with a drum loop and then he’ll add different drum machines with a snare tone and so on.
All of these things start layering on top of each other and that’s the palate which we ultimately get into. That process of writing is something that before I met Nick I just didn’t know anyone personally who wrote that way, and it lends to the flavor of a lot of the music that we do. It’s a purely different way to approach a song.
It’s also very organic as well because like you said, you’re using actual machines and instruments rather than plug-ins.
Oh yeah, it’s funny you say that because those machines aren’t always in tune, so we’ve had fun things where because of that something cool comes out of it. It’s something you didn’t expect, so then you’re pitch shifting the original thing you recorded to try to make a new sound. Having it be more organic is an opportunity to do things that are less perfect that I would hope make it a little bit more unique.
Before Retroshade came out, This Bliss put out the remix album titled Forensically Restyled back in October with a bunch of different artists, including you and Nick, doing different takes of the tracks from the debut album. Did any of those remixes have an influence when it came to writing the songs for Retroshade?
Yeah, in a sense that everyone has their own approach and we basically all turned in a song to Nick and he was responsible for mixing and mastering them so they would all fit together. We talked about from producer to producer how everyone has their own special thing with how they EQ or what they think is important in a song so I do think that comes into play. We talked about that a lot, especially in the mixing stage of where we want to fit as a band because when you start to think about really famous electronic artists they might mix or master a certain way. I know we had a conversation about vocals and how female vocalists are EQ’d versus what were trying to do. We tried different things while figuring out if we like this or if we like that, so I think just in general it’s impossible to create in a vacuum while you’re thinking about your peers and what they do, what you like, why it works, and what you want to bring to the table.
The thing that was really important for us was trying to find that blend of who we are and what is “modern” in electronic music. Because we used the gear that we used, it’s very common for people to tell us that it’s very retro sounding. It cracks me up because I think they’re hearing the sound of the 808 and it sounds retro to them, which I get. It’s interesting how someone’s ear reacts to the gear and what that makes them think about if something is modern or not. We always kind of talk about what it means to sound modern and how modern we want to be.
Nick is also the owner of New Alliance East Studios in Somerville, so does his running of a recording studio make it easier or give the both of you an advantage when it comes to experimenting with recordings? Do you not have to worry about wasting time or money when you and Nick can just go into the place when it’s available and hash ideas out?
It certainly has its benefits, but with benefits can come challenges. There’s definitely a luxury that comes with going into your studio whenever you want, assuming there isn’t another session you’re running. You can go in and do that without having to worry about the cost looming over your head, and it’s great to have that feeling of not being stressed out about it. The other side, though, is that it’s a lot of work; it’s hard to be the artist, the producer, and the engineer along with everything else. We’re all in this DIY world so Nick and I wear a lot of different hats in the band.
We can get so much done but we don’t get to have the more luxurious artistic moments all of the time because we’re always on to the next job.
With Retroshade being released, what’s next for This Bliss? Do you plan on laying low until it’s safe to have shows again? I know you’ve been posting “Bliss Tips” on your Facebook page on Tuesdays, so do you plan on just focusing on social media for the time being?
We want to do as much content that we can in lieu of not being able to do a live show. We’ve been talking about how to incorporate elements of our live performance into making videos. I like to personally connect with our audience so I think that’s an important piece to it. I would say in general that I want to be as connected to people as much as we can while we share this record and hopefully get it out to fresh ears. We also have our next album completely written, so it’s only a matter of when we want to start tracking it officially while figuring out when we want to release it.
For now it’s all about enjoying Retroshade, having fun with it and having people listen to it. Then when we’re ready we’ll go full speed ahead on the next thing and hopefully have another release that’s not too far away from now.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.