The Alternate World of Nym
The passing this year of French music concrète pioneer, Pierre Henry, made me think of artists like Nym; Young musicians using different tools to sample the world but achieving some of the same goals that Henry and others sought seventy-years-ago. Lewis Scaife, who records as Nym is a spiritual descendant of the earliest sample artists like Henry, and Pierre Schaeffer who were manipulating sounds from the real world back in the 1940s.
Lewis Scaife is typical of the post computer generated music generation. He doesn’t have any real music training. He never played in a band. He just booted up a computer and music software and started creating. And he doesn’t make music that would always conform to notes on paper, or instruments in hands.
“Probably it stems from my non-traditional pathway into music itself. I had not conventional music training or instrument training,” he admits. “I got a computer in my early teens and started recording stuff, and just kinda mashing it together, using whatever technology I could find at the time. And eventually got into more specific sampling once I started learning more about the history of hip hop instrumentals and learning more about what sampling was, how it was done and the technology surrounding it.”
Lewis Scaife is in his living room/studio, in Durham, North Carolina. The view on Skype is austere. Scaife himself is slender, with brown hair cut in a purposely disheveled hipster mode and wearing horn-rimmed glasses. He records as Nym, as in antonym. “That’s correct, yeah,” he confirms. “The word antonym as well as a slight reference to the film and book, Mrs. Brisby and the Rats of NIHM, if you’re familiar with that one. Yeah, that was a childhood favorite and kind of an early reference there that stuck.”
You might not recognize Nym’s hip-hop roots listening to his music, but that’s what he cites as early influences. “Although they aren’t really sampling artists, The Roots were a heavy influence in the early days,” Scaife explains. “Outkast’s production team, Organized Noise and that whole kind of dirty sound stuff in the beginning, that was terrific. “Then of course, DJ Shadow, and I started getting into the more specific instrumental producers, DJ Crush, eventually leading to your more kind of light, Bonobo and more trip hop elements, so that was my trajectory there.”
You can hear that sound on his earlier albums like his 2006 debut release, Edge City. But Lewis Scaife is getting mellower in his old age, all of his barely thirty years. “Yes, absolutely, from Edge City towards Lilac Chaser. It’s definitely gone from your more quirky kind of boom bap hip hop to a bigger room, bigger atmosphere,” described Scaife.
“One of the reasons why I stopped listening to as much hip hop music, I still like the genre a lot, but I just got rather tired of hearing men yell at me,” he jokes. “And I’m just going for something a little bit more soothing now,” he explained.
You wouldn’t think of ambient instrumental downtempo music as being political, but in Nym’s case, it is. “Certain songs definitely have a trace of the rage that I felt about the way things have gone in this country the last year or so,” he confides. “And my fear of it, and also hope for improvement soon.”
The very concept of the album, Lilac Chaser, relates to a world where reality is questioned and facts are alternate. “Lilac Chaser came together after I viewed an optical illusion by Jeremy Henton,” he reveals. “It’s a series of lilac circles, that one of them disappears as it moves around in a circle, and your brain sees this and there’s an after image effect that occurs, and you see a green circle where this no green circle if you start at the center. It had me thinking a lot about sensory perception and when we sense things that don’t really map to reality. And what that means for us. On a small scale an optical illusion is a beautiful, fun, kind of sly, playful thing, but it’s also indicative of potential problems in our cognition and the way we communicate with each other, the way we see the world. In that sense it’s more dangerous and very sad in a lot of ways, and so I kind of rolled that into one larger project that, while instrumental, I feel captures that vibe as much as I can.”
Much of Nym’s music is built around distortions of reality;found sounds that he relocates into an out of context environment. “Like most people, I just have a cellphone in my pocket, so I’ll grab that and just record some quick lo-fi stuff, wind chimes, any kind of bird calls I’ll come across that I like a lot,” he affirmed. “I recorded the cicadas in the song, “Yeocomico”, and the chimes and that kind of thing. But I will reach out and find some sort of jungle bird sound if I need that and process it in such a way that it sounds a bit more alien. But yeah, I really like piling in the noise samples to make it feel like a real atmosphere in the room.”
“Yeocomico” is named for a river in Virginia where Lewis Scaife grew up on a farm and it’s a piece where he creates a location, albeit, a surreal one. “Every single song I write has a room or a space associated with it, whether it be a dusty attic or a wide open plain, or a river or anything like that. I want it to have a visual impact.” insists Scaife. “The song “Come Back” from my album Convex, people describe as like a dusty desert plain that they’re riding across, and a train, you know, or or something like that. I always love hearing what people come up with.”
The music of Nym has evolved since his 2006 album, Edge City. That music was more playful in it’s use of samples, while Lilac Chaser has a more contemplative, melancholy tone. “There was an aspect of silliness almost in some of those tracks that have that, which is so funny because Lilac Chaser to me was the happiest album I’ve ever written,” he declared. “While it does contain some of the most bittersweet and sad sounding songs, it really comes from a place of happiness.”
Lewis Scaife is one of those people you have to watch out for. If you see someone pointing their iPhone in your direction, it might be Scaife, recording some ambient sound for his next album. His latest album is Lilac Chaser..