Getting Lost in the ‘Wilderness’ With Makeup and Vanity Set’s Matthew Pusti

Yesterday, as I found myself wandering through Greenpoint’s empty early morning streets, still working out the prior night’s rough sleep and feeling detached from my own body, I decided to put on my headphones and blast Makeup & Vanity Set’s new double-album. Almost instantly, I felt alive. My heartbeat quickened, my skin tingled with excitement, and a sense of energy was restored in my step, or should I say, sashay, down the street—because who needs coffee when you’ve got MAVS? I could feel each synthetic surge echoing in my heartbeat, neurotransmitters triggered as I fell awash in the visceral sonic universe of Wilderness, the latest from Nashville-based electronic artist, Matthew Pusti. But this was all to be expected, as the man behind the music has an incredible knack for creating transportive music that abducts you into his universe and holds you captive. 

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Out today, Wilderness is the follow up to 2012’s 88:88, an incredible sci-fi concept album, which I emphatically described as, “What would happen if you took the work of David Lynch, set it in the dystopian world of Blade Runner, and let your imagination wander.” While 88:88 is full of piercing, otherworldly light that perks up the senses and serves as the ideal sonic accompaniment for a sun-dappled day drives towards the future, Wilderness turns the lights down for a haunting meditation on the technology of human life and death. On Wilderness, through its sound and textures, there’s the overwhelming feeling that this was specifically written for warm weather night drives towards the end of the world. Each of the 20 tracks on the album are as complex and intelligently written as they are purely pleasurable, featuring collaborations with Jasmin Kaset, Big Black Delta, and The Protomen—the heavy synthetic beats and pulsating melodies made even sweeter by soaring, beautifully placed vocals. Wilderness exemplifies what Pusti does best: taking the chilly remove of 80s sci-fi and grounding it reality, giving it a warmth and depth of feeling that’s not only impressive in its composition but emotionally stirring.

So to celebrate the release of Wilderness, I spoke with Pusti about the isolating process of making music, the power of his aesthetic influences, and the acute inspiration of death.

Can you begin by telling me a bit about how you started making music as Makeup & Vanity set?

I started out in my bedroom, just seeing what would happen. It’s still sort of like that. I guess a few years ago I made the conscious decision to try to work as simply as possible. I have to whittle everything down as bare as possible. I make a lot of mistakes. Accidents are kind of a crucial creative thing for me. It helps me get out of my own head. The last few records have had concepts that drove the process, but they still fall into the realm of ‘discovery.’

You’re obviously enamored with a very specific kind of sound, elevating your influences from the past in a really interesting new way—so who are those influences exactly for you?

I’m more visually motivated than anything else. My parents were both visually creative people. That was something that I got into early in life, that I’ve always held a tremendous reverence toward. I think that’s were the sound comes from, that it’s a response to those things. I spent an extreme amount of time watching Tarkovsky with this record, specifically Solaris and Andrei Rublev. I kept coming back to Rublev because of how Tarkovsky deals with the ideas of faith and identity and being confined by both of those things. Caspar’s artwork was more inspired by Yasujiro Ozu with this record, and I was thrilled when I saw the artwork for the record for the first time. I felt like something really connected there. It had it’s hands in so many different things.

Coming off 88:88, what did you want to do differently this album, and what new territory did you want to explore with your sound?

I knew that whatever I was doing, it was going to acutely deal with death, and I felt like that immediately pulled a lot of the musical palette of 88 off of the table. I realized pretty early on that I was spending more time turning knobs and less time programming and sequencing. I spent much of the time in the beginning just letting things breathe. As that time progressed, the amount of material just spiraled out of control, to the point that it was overwhelming. The process hinged less on any specific type of sound as much as it did on just doing anything that seemed scary to me.

Although this album is more epic in scale and has even more grandiosity than your last, do you find similar themes and sonic landscapes that run throughout all of your music and define you as an artist?

I think so. I like things to feel like they might fall apart at any time. I don’t like to keep things too aligned in that way. I had a lot of fear making this record. It feels really evident to me when I hear it now. The process was/is so isolating. Wilderness got to where those fears and feelings were almost deafening. I don’t know if that makes it more or less vulnerable for other people when they hear it, but I know that in the end it is the most true.

How did Wilderness begin? What was the original concept and idea, then how did you build it out from there?

I lost someone close to me, to cancer. The idea of cancer is almost as insidious as the disease itself because it just covers everything with death. Everything came from that. It’s like a shroud. I spent a couple years writing the bones of the record, but when I did have to confront actually losing them, I couldn’t listen to any of it. I couldn’t do much of anything. Early on I believed I was making this totem that was going to swallow up all of that misery and then I’d be able to move on, but as it progressed it became more about what to do afterwards, and in that regard the record became more about being left behind to pick up the pieces. The concept was born out of that more than anything else, that death has a way of tainting our memory and we can never climb out of that, we can never get that back.

Is there an environment that you create in best? I ask because your sound is so overwhelming and immersive and brings me into a very particular mindset and conjures up all kinds of images and sounds, so I’m curious if you need to get yourself into a certain physical or psychological space in order to work.

I need some type of touchstone that motivates me. I have a hard time just sitting down and being aimless without some kind of emotional set-point. I get that from film and images mainly. My studio space is really simple. I have this old desk that I work at. It belonged to my grandfather. When I was a kid he used to sit at it with me and show me photos he had of bombs being dropped out of planes over Europe during World War II, photos he took overseas during the war. My family immigrated into this country from Poland and the Czech Republic. They had no anchor outside of their faith. That had a profound impact on me when I was young.

How did you go about working with your collaborators? Did you know right away who you wanted to have on the album and what kind of songs would correlate with each performer?

I knew that Jasmin would be in there. I sent her the conceptual stuff, and sent her the tracks. I was sitting in my kitchen listening to the playback on “Hand in Hand” and my wife just lost it, we both did. She found the pulse of the thing so well. I think, with this record, it had more to do with trying to connect with people that had something to say within that world, something about suffering and loss. Suffering is such an isolating thing, especially processing grief and the pain that lives in that.

When you bring Caspar Newbolt into the process and how did you conceive with him the aesthetic of the album? How much do you visualize that element when you’re creating? Is your music inspired by both the visual and aural?

Caspar is always the final step. I send him bits and pieces as we go, but I have to be very careful with that because Caspar is brutally honest. I absolutely cherish that. It can be crushing but it’s invaluable. The people that I turn to for that criticism, none of them are music people. They’re all visual arts people. I sent the record to him and then I kind of wanted to throw up a bit. I was so nervous. The aesthetic end of things is totally his. I give little, minor tweaks but I have a great amount of peace in knowing that I can hand it away to him and it’ll be perfect. With this record, there was some talk about the conceptual end of it, he knew what it was about, and he knew that it had some science fiction leanings, but the cover is wholly his own work.

Do you look at music and creation as a way to solidify your memories and experiences in a particular time and place? Have you changed as a person and evolved as an artist since starting MAVS?

I think the evolution is in being able to connect those memories and experiences to the music. I didn’t set out to make emotional synth-based music; I think it got to that point because of those experiences and how they bled into the process. There is something fantastic about making music and having the endless realm of possibility in that, but when life starts to creep into it and you start acknowledging reality in that, it’s a bit of a crisis for me. The vanishing point comes into focus in that. For me, I don’t know if that was a good feeling, but, creatively it was intensely challenging. That changed every facet of that process.

Can you talk about your working relationship with Joey Ciccoline and how this album coincides with Eidolon, as 88:88 did?

Joey and I spent a lot of time talking about what would be next and somewhere down the road I told him I had been making new music about all of the personal things I was going through and he responded to that. I don’t think I ever thought that the record would end up being his next film until he asked me if he could do it. The album concept is a much wider arc; Joey was adamant to do something very down to earth, that wouldn’t rely on FX. He tried to make it as practical and character-based as possible.

88 was an easier arrangement for me because Joey had already done most of the conceptualizing and all I had to do was watch it and react to it. With Wilderness, I decided early on to surrender the visual end of things to him completely. I had a tremendous amount of fear around that. I had made all of this music and come up with a loose outline of what the story was, and Joey and Daniel Shepherd, the writer, fleshed that out into a film. There is a lot of collaboration that happens in that, but I wanted it to be his thing. We consciously decided to separate the visual path of the film and the artwork that Caspar was making. I think that, after 88, it made the most sense to collaborate in a really controlled way.

I don’t think I was prepared for that either. In the way that when the vocals came into the music and it was just shattering to hear someone else speaking to the things I was feeling, it was really devastating to watch Eidolon repeatedly while I was scoring it. The film just really resonated with the experience. Joey finds all of these incredibly subtle ways to let the camera sit on people to where the emotional, non-verbal content is screaming at you. It’s unsettling. When we started to show it to people, they asked a lot of the right questions; they all seemed to be pretty alienated by how emotional it was.

How do you, ideally, imagine your listener connecting to this album—even if its something untethered to reality.

Caspar was the one who pushed me to put the record on vinyl. I find a lot of the cogs in the business end of things really draining but we were able to work out a deal to make the vinyl happen, and the first time I was able to sit, with that format, in headphones, that was the first time I really connected with it as a whole. It’s a lot of work. Joey was finishing the film and he reiterated having that moment when he could recognize that it’s a big, expansive thing that we did. I think that whatever action that takes for people, I hope that it’s a complete one. The record had so many iterations before it was done; the end of it always had this quiet moment and somewhere along the way I added this klaxon of synthesis that just rings out forever. I hope that people can hear that and that it was connect to wherever they are in that moment. I hope that it’s real.

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