City Light Mosaic: cyberpunk and futuristic pop for imaginary worlds
Tony Sanzone (City Light Mosaic) has ideas. Plenty of them. Concepts ranging from dystopic worlds filled with neon lights to loner alter egos that wander around dark cities, in search of emotions and human contact. But he also has dreams concerning his reality and how he wants to shape it: dreams of publishing cool, futuristic pop music, as well as providing a platform to fellow artists on his label, No Agreements, which has earned plenty of attention this year with releases by Material Girl and Naked Flames, among others.
Some of these creative visions have been poured into Indigo City Burning, his latest album. The record combines a conceptual background inspired in Boston, where he currently resides, as well as some elements of fantasy. All these elements coexist with an ecletic mix of influences, from club music to ambient and experimental R&B.
You have released a new album under your City Light Mosaic moniker just a few weeks ago, in which you mix different genres of pop and club music. What can you tell us about it?
The music is a personal interpretation of what it feels like to be in Boston. Not so much Boston as an actual place but the way I view it because of the art and media that shapes me – be it fashion, cyberpunk aesthetics or DJ sets and raves. It all meshes into this world I call Indigo City, which is half real life, half fantasy, and I basically made the soundtrack to the way I feel in it.
I want my music to make the listener feel they are immersed in a certain world. I also worked with the concept of a cyberpunk popstar, which has multiple layers to it. Not only the very literal one, but also in the reasoning to why things sound like they do: I wanted to explore the idea of what pop music would sound in a cyberpunk landscape, and so I took influences from ambient and club music, but also from cloud rap and alternative R&B in the sound.
The first half of the record is very pop, whereas the back half explores ambient and club music, although the sounds bleed one into another. “Lower Level”, for instance, has an industrial and techno sound but the vocals have a catchy factor; and a track like “Chemical Lovers”, although poppy and catchy, has a club feel; the kick is so driving.
Throughout the album, to convey this futuristic sound you oftentimes employ robotic-like vocals. How was this element worked on?
It comes from me wanting a pop inflection on the record, but not wanting it to sound very human either. I got comparisons to people from Drain Gang because of it, and while I don’t think it was super intentional, I get why and I really do like what they do for pop music. There are some areas of crossover with artists like Bladee, especially in cuts like “Frostbite.”
I feel vocal modulation is very useful in terms of gender identity. A lot of people use it to present themselves in their true identity when it’s harder for them to normally do that. It works with androgyny a lot, which is a massively important thing to me: I wouldn’t call myself gender neutral, but I wouldn’t identify as masculine or feminine either.
It also helps that vocal modulation sounds really cool and futuristic.
This sort of take on the vocals makes it hard to tell what the words are saying throughout a big part of the album, and the lyrics aren’t available either. It’s a rather unusual decision for such a conceptual album.
There are lyricists that work with words that wouldn’t amount to much if you were to write them down, but in the context of how they sound, they evoke a strong sense of emotion. And that’s the idea I went for: vocals as an instrument rather than the actual words that come out of my mouth. It happens a lot in dance music; you got artists like DJ Healer or Burial, who take snippets of someone else speaking or singing and completely change the context of them.
There are, however, words that will shine through on occasion and there’s also the tonality that comes through regardless; that is what I want to focus on, along with texture and space. When you work with music that serves as a score, I don’t think lyrics are as important. A great example of this is My Bloody Valentine: their music has been used to score Lost In Translation and it works so well while the vocals are very low in the mix. And it wouldn’t work if it weren’t like that.
Since many of the songs work as a soundtrack in the life of this fictional popstar, how was that approached? Did you plan every track as an individual scene?
When I came up with the popstar in a cyberpunk world concept, I interpreted in the way of how it feels to me; what it would be like if I lived that life. It’s fun to fantasize like that. And the songs are also very colored by personal experiences; by media and nightlife. And a big part of nightlife for me is not just being in a club or bar – it’s the small moments like taking a train or going to a 7/11 at 4 AM. It’s a collage of experiences that paint feelings and memories for me.
Oftentimes it wasn’t a process of saying “OK, I want to emulate this,” but rather I started writing and a memory would come to me in the moment and dictate the direction of the song. For instance, the second to last song, “You Just Melt Into Me”, was scored on top of the jukebox scene in the movie Fallen Angels, by director Wong Kar Wai. The original version lines up perfectly with the scene; the movie is one of my favorites and it captures a lot of intimacy.
But then you got another track like “Indigo Sleeper” which once I finished it, I went back to it and decided that Indigo Sleeper would the name of a fictional railway, and the concept of the song is sitting in the railway with someone you care about.
One of the concepts you put more importance on is mixing the “real” (in the way of experiences and influences) with fantasy, such as fictional worlds. Can you explain a bit more how do these interact?
The human and dystopian aspects don’t combat, they coexist. They become part of my identity. It’s a big part of how I view the world. The cover picture, for instance, is a very specific “real life meets fantasy” moment.
When I rave in Boston and get out at like 4 AM, I feel tired and end up sleeping inside my car in parking garages; it’s something I’ve done quite a bit [laughs]. And I wanted to capture this idea of me sleeping inside a car with a soothing indigo light around me while there is this big brutalist structure outside. The architecture represents this harsh dystopian world while the inside of the car is filled with light and comfort.
A lot of the things in the album come from contrasts like this, like the song “Chemical Lovers.” There’s this aggressive kick but also moments of bliss and psychedelia, where the vocals and pads morph together.
The album has also been released as an audiovisual experience, with accompanying visuals for the music. How did the idea come up?
It was sort of a last minute decision. Naked Flames (Anton) joined my label, No Agreements, recently and he does a lot of work with 3D graphics, so he offered to do something for the music along with Peter Sullivan, who did the visuals for the last two songs and helped with the third to last. And it was perfect to me because it emulates a lot of concepts I had. For instance, one thing I love is PS1 and Dreamcast graphics, with their sharp edges and weird polygons, and that was a big influence for the visuals.
There’s also a music video that we worked on for about a month, but when we looked at the footage, a lot of us weren’t that happy with it. So I ended up editing that video at like 5 AM, 6 AM on the day of the premiere, and we reshot a lot of footage the last two nights before that. That’s the kind of thing that happens sometimes in art, you just improvise, like jazz. You go with a rough idea and come out working with something completely different.
The album features many guests throughout the songs. What did these collaborations bring to the table?
For some people it’s a source of pride that they do everything solo, but to me music is a very social thing. I’m working with other people all the time, influencing one another. So every aspect in the album is collaborative in a way: I would not be the musician I am without the friends I have, because they transform me as a human being.
The first collaboration on the record was “Frostbite”, which features Material Girl and Mixed Matches. As they contributed vocals, I saw the potential of restructuring the song into a more traditional pop sound, whereas previously it had a more ambient feel to it.
Then you also have “Indigo Sleeper”, featuring Mondegreen. I initially sent him a couple of tracks and he really clicked with this one in particular and recorded a lot of ideas. He transformed that song with glitchy parts and some weird chopped-up vocals harmonies I didn’t expect to fit in as well as they did.
And there’s Farboro, who worked with me on “Heaven’s Peak”. I sent the song to many people while I was working on it and most didn’t care about it, except him; he got what I was going for. He added his touches and brought out the natural beauty of the song, which in my opinion is an essential one to the more soundtrack-esque part of the album.
There’s also the work by Elegance of the Damned and Phonebox, artists that have contributed a series of remixes that ifluenced the club sound the records has.
Besides making your own music, you also run a label, called No Agreements. Can you explain a bit the way it works?
The approach I take with the label is seeing people for the content of their creations, and I feel it’s important to give musicians chances when they have unique visions. You can learn to polish your skills and practice, but a vision… That can’t be taught. I think anyone is capable of great music given the proper circumstances, and my idea is to form a community where we encourage each other and bring the best of us forward. What unites us is not the sound, but the ethos of the label: caring about music and trying to come up with something different.
I have a different approach from labels that are formed under a certain sound, so No Agreements works as an open door for different styles; we don’t get too comfortable. Which I believe is the problem with certain scenes: they go down when they are too comfortable with their identity and lose their sense of discovery and thus stop evolving. That’s why hip hop is in an amazing stage right now; it explores a lot of new directions.
What are the label plans for the future?
We will try to keep up with the “one release a month” method, and there’s some work going on between Material Girl, Mondegreen, Farboro and me, as well as a label-based project.
Also in the future, although perhaps not the near one, we want to branch out into visual arts, film, clothing and interactive media. More than a label, we are an artistic movement, and I want to help people with their artistic visions, no matter the medium.