Experimental student musician “Nina Spheres” talks about debut album

Experimental student musician “Nina Spheres” talks about debut album

Photo Credits: Nina Spheres. Nina Spheres' album "Spherical" focuses on location, not sound.

Ben Mueller-Leclerc discusses “Spherical” and the recording, editing process

Experimental musician Ben Mueller-Leclerc, a fourth-year philosophy major who goes by the alter ego “Nina Spheres,” sat down with Arts and Culture Editor Liz Jacobson to discuss his latest project “Spherical,” released on June 30, 2019. “Spherical” fulfills Mueller-Leclerc’s dream of finishing a project — from recording to editing — by himself. 

“Spherical” tackles solitude and the mind, transporting the listener to another realm, a hypnotic soundscape, which creates a space for self-reflection and exploration. The nine-track album listens like a soundtrack and builds like a crashing wave, full of emotion with heavy synths and deep vibrations (and accordian) throughout. 

This following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The California Aggie: Tell me about “Spherical.” 

Nina Spheres: The album itself is a culmination of mostly random musical projects — I didn’t begin recording with any idea of how to mold them all into a cohesive unit. So, in this way, recording was pretty sparse and directionless. Much of this had to do with the fact that my recording is usually done in solitude, with only myself and my own opinions as a reference point. 

  This is increasingly common among recording artists today, especially solo artists, and it really is a difficult thing to tackle. The album was my way of tackling that solitude and of finding some sort of direction in my music. It gave me the chance to explore the depths of my mind — much of it is ugly, monotonous. But some of it shines and progresses. It reflects my own ideas and history, as well as a monomania of the recording process. I spent (and wasted) a lot of hours on this music. I’d wake up in the morning, record all day, go to sleep and repeat this, every day, for months. Sometimes it would yield something worth keeping, sometimes it would yield trash, and the album is only the pieces that fit well together.

TCA: Beyond tackling the solitude, what went into the production of the album?

NS: I had friends add in things here and there arbitrarily, but really the album is just myself exploring the medium of recording. My dream at 19 was to make a full album, one that I was at least mostly proud of, without the help of anyone above me in terms of technical knowledge, hence a lot of bad recording quality, bad mixing, mastering, et cetera, because I was learning how to do it all as I went along. 

But it really was a beautiful thing for me because I learned it all myself. In some sense, the album — beyond its content — is also a journal of my work in learning how to conduct this sort of process. It’s helped a lot in terms of connecting with other people because I’m able to use this knowledge to others’ benefit, as well as my own, like The California Aggie’s Couch Concerts. It also piqued the interest of some people at KDVS, and I was able to finally form a group and be comfortable outside of my own head.

TCA: Where did the name Nina Spheres come from?

NS: Nina Spheres, at the time of the album’s release, was just me. I chose the moniker as a way to feel as if someone else was releasing the music. I was really uncomfortable with the thought of other people hearing the stuff I’d been working on. I wouldn’t show the music to anyone over the course of making it, save for one or two friends. 

The “alter ego” helped a lot with this initial release, and it still does now. It’s as if I’m morphing into whatever fictional character is behind that name, and really, it’s a liberating experience. I think many of us need to construct fictional characters out of ourselves in a world that, especially in the United States, has become almost entirely fictional. Music is a way for me to take a colorful, fictional stance on hard, tangible phenomena, and an alternate identity helps with forming that fiction.

TCA: Where do you draw inspiration from?

NS: Inspiration isn’t easy to pinpoint, and I’d like to think that the inspiration is just derived from my place in the world and how I feel about that place and how I navigate it. I don’t take inspiration from a single thing or event, more so from a generalized outlook. I usually choose not to write music about anything, instead just engaging with the act of recording, knowing that something is expressed regardless. 

  It’s up to the listener to try and find some meaning, but really, the music is simply a location in which one can immerse themselves and reflect on their own feelings. I think that — reflecting on oneself through another’s work, rather than concentrating on the artist and their message — is important, and so I try to accentuate that experience with the things I work on.

TCA: How would you describe the sound of “Spherical?”

NS: In terms of sound, I guess there are certain musical ideas that I wanted to explore, such as repetition and drone. These are ways to structure music that I’ve been really interested in for a while now. The hypnotic aspect of repetitive, droning music opens up a space to think in the abstract. I find this attractive in the work of someone like Phill Niblock, who focuses on lengthy, multilayered drone music, which evolves and builds slowly over time. When I listen to his music, I’m carried to this foreign landscape where I’m able to take a fresh perspective on things. I sort of imitate that kind of location in my own music.

That’s the thing, I don’t really think of my music in terms of sound, but instead in terms of location. That location would be somewhere, like, the bottom of a well, in the middle of the desert, or something.

TCA: “Experimental” is a pretty broad term. Do you think that your music fits into a genre?

NS: I call it degenerate, because first off, I don’t really know what I’m doing, and over time I go to great lengths to make my recordings “worse” — empower them by deconstructing them. Lee Perry would urinate on and burn his recordings, and then reuse them, and I think this is the greatest production tactic ever: destruction over production. 

In a world that demands productivity, one way of retaliation is constructive destruction. You’re still being productive, in an artistic sense, but you’re making destruction the dominant ideology in terms of treatment of the material, and that makes for interesting results in music. I also think cinematic experiences are also really valuable; they get ingrained deep in the mind, because of how drawn we are to cinema and cinematic life. 

“Spherical” has a cinematic quality to it, which was in many ways intentional. The genre would be a collection of these aspects, but usually when this happens it gets called “experimental,” even though there’s music out there that’s way more experimental than my own.

TCA: What is your favorite part of the album — a certain song or snippet?

NS: My favorite part of the album is the accordion piece that comes in around three minutes into the first track. This is actually a motif that appears in a few different places during the span of the album. When my grandpa died, his accordion was given to me because no one else in my family plays music. That little riff was the first thing I played when I picked up the accordion — totally at random. It meant a lot to me and still does. It’s a beautiful little thing, and that accordion also appears all over the album.

TCA: What can we expect from Nina Spheres in the future?

NS: Unfortunately, all Nina Spheres operations are again limited to recording, but once the quarantine is lifted, we’ll be focusing our energy on live performance. Before COVID-19 came along, we had a decent run of shows, and we’re really looking to continue doing that, and potentially tour, if we can make it happen. We’re hoping to release another album by the end of this year, or early next year.

Nina Spheres and “Spherical” is available on Bandcamp.

Written by: Liz Jacobson — arts@theaggie.org