ONE TRACK MIND: Zack Stefanski talks about writing “No Place Like You”

Over the last several years, Zack Stefanski has established himself as an emerging talent in the city, creating atmospheric compositions that pull equally from bands like The Talking Heads or Radiohead, updated through the contemporary lens of a band like Grizzly Bear. Towards the end of 2017, Stefanski surprise released Portland, a quick follow up to his summer sophomore release, Fancy Boy. Portland is an instant classic, a quick and visceral evolution of sound that makes perfect sense in the canon of his greater body of work. You can catch him tomorrow night performing with Limestone and Much Obliged at Four Pegs. We caught up with him to talk about No Place Like You, the fifth track on the record, which you can listen to below.

Never Nervous: Working solo, where do you start? Given the rhythm heavy quality of No Place Like You, is it a particular beat that pulls you in, or do you come up with a riff/lyric that gets the ball rolling? Walk us through your compositional process?

Zack Stefanski: I find working solo to be quite liberating in that it allows me complete control. I never have to rationalize or explain anything. I’m the oldest child, and I’m aware that I have a tendency to be a little “bossy” in creative groups. I think this is why I tend to be most productive when I’m alone.

“I’m the oldest child, and I’m aware that I have a tendency to be a little “bossy” in creative groups. I think this is why I tend to be most productive when I’m alone.”

The nature of Portland is very important to my songwriting process. After I released Fancy Boy, a record in which I relied heavily on my very talented friends, I felt that I needed to work on something by myself. I was curious what it would sound like, so I self-imposed a rule that I’d not let anyone listen to the songs until they were complete. It certainly helped me to work them quick and efficiently since I was excited to reveal my work to my friends. After a trip Kayla and I took to Portland, OR, a place we’ve been wanting to visit for years, the dream of this fantastic vacation in the pacific northwest just fell in place.

All my songs tend to begin and grow around either loops or lyrics. No Place Like You in particular started with a simple chopped up drum loop I recorded. I would never hire myself as a drummer but when I’ve got a click track and some time I can usually get something cool. I then came up with that bass part. In dealing with rhythm and bass, I find myself constantly critiquing it based on what I imagine Patrick Denney and Andrew Sears would think. We’ve been performing together for the past 4 years; they are both highly skilled musicians. I never want to give them something they’d find boring. This inspires me to work to find something they’d enjoy.

The entire process occurs in my basement “home studio” and is basically just the product of a series of actions and reactions. I find it pretty easy to work for hours developing sections of melodies and textures in Ableton; I’ll arrange them, then move them around until they feel complete. Nothing is sacred. If something feels like it’s holding me back i just delete and try something else. Thats basically where the rest of the song came from. One thing really led to another.

NN: What inspired the premise of the song? Is it a play on “No Place Like Home?” Is the “you” in question a home base of sorts?

ZS: This song was written about the glories and terrors of being in a relationship; this is definitely a love song. I like to think of it as a combination of “no place like home” and “There is no one like you.” I enjoy adding a little obscurity in my lyrics. It allows listeners a chance to find their own meaning. I’d say that people can certainly be a home of sorts. Friends can become family.

NN: Relative to that, how often does the “you” or note serve as you subject matter?

ZS: Quite often. Since many of my lyrics revolve around personal experiences, the “you” is typically referring to a real person but it changes with every song. It could be a significant other, a close friend, or a stranger.

NN: At the 2:48 mark, there is a flute sound. Did you play flute or is that a sample? What can you tell us about the assorted noises that comprise the background elements of the song? How do they inform the overall meaning or intent of the song, that kind of sonic clutter?

ZS: First of all, it is absolutely insane that you noticed the flute. Your attention to detail is uncanny! It was taken from a “field recording” of one of my co-workers. I enjoy working full time at a music store; I’d be lying if I said it didn’t inspire me creatively. Many of my lyrics have stemmed from workplace experiences and in an earlier concept stage of Portland, I attempted to get my friends involved by recording them outside of the studio. My plan was to make them a part of the album by recording them and using those samples to create songs. Unfortunately that didn’t end up working out but I did end up using some of the cooler recordings like the flute and interlude between Octopus Tree and NPLY.

“I enjoy working full time at a music store; I’d be lying if I said it didn’t inspire me creatively.”

The “sonic clutter” as you say is what I’d consider the product of both inspiration by was listening to at the time and my drive to make a super dense album that would appear to change with multiple listens. I was listening to Bon Iver’s 22, a million, Radiohead’s King of Limbs, David Bowie’s Black Star, and Grizzly Bear’s Painted Ruins a whole hell of a lot during this process.

NN: I’ve noticed that you have a predilection to chorus (the effect) heavy tones, which has a kind of 80’s indie vibe. Is that intentional? What goes into choosing the right effect for your instrumentation?

ZS: I love a good chorus tone; I currently play out of a Roland JC120 – the king of stereo chorus amps. Its just what I’m drawn to – a nice neck pickup and some chill chorus. I also have a Radial reamping device, so I can run anything I’ve recorded into Ableton (drums, guitar, bass, synth) through my pedalboard effects and guitar amp. I have accumulated a LOT of guitar pedals over the years and its exciting to hear how, say, a drum loop will sound through a Gonkulator and Memory Boy. I just love experimenting until I’ve found the right effect.

NN: What does post-production look like for you? How much time do you spend automating effects? How do you know the appropriate cut off on instrumentation? Are you worried at all about being able to reproduce any of these sounds live?

ZS: I try to only record live instruments and live automation. I enjoy having physical knobs to turn. I try not to automate too many things in my computer besides volume and panning just as a creative experiment. Doing it this way makes it damn near impossible to reproduce and forces me to stay loose and improvisational.

The nature of Portland was to record something from my head without the help of my friends. I knew that the final product would suffer if I tried to make something easily reproduced live – I put it completely out of my mind. My friends are significantly better at their respective instruments than I am; I thought it would be better to create something that sounded interesting rather than something that sounded real. Portland is unapologetically not-real. I do enjoy performing live but creating a record gives me unequivocally more satisfaction than any gig I’ve ever played.