From the magazine: ISSUE 89, December 2013/January 2014
Unless you frequent hole-in-the-wall Brooklyn venues like 285 Kent and Glasslands, your first exposure to Thomas Arsenault’s music probably came in the form of “Why,” the debut missive from the Montreal-born artist’s Mas Ysa project. On the six-minute, multi-part epic, which flits back and forth between throbbing techno and Springsteen-tinted arena rock, his scream-sung lyrics read like the transcript from a therapy session in which Arsenault plays both therapist and patient. She said, “I know I don’t want you”/ And I said, “Why? I’m not that cute,” he howls, offering his own answer before presumably being given one even more devastating. When the track popped up out of the blue in September, it felt like the work of an artist whose sound had arrived fully minted.
But Arsenault’s been around for a while. From 2009 until 2011, he recorded under the name Ablehearts, making fractured, experimental folk music that involved running his voice through digital filters until it became unrecognizable as human. The songs often felt more like miniature exorcisms than pieces of music, and other than a few Bandcamp-only EPs, he was never satisfied enough with any of them to pursue a physical release. Up until March of this year, he ran a live/work space across the street from Brooklyn’s famous Domino Sugar Refinery, toiling tirelessly inside a studio frequented by the likes of Laurel Halo, Teengirl Fantasy and former Gang Gang Dance drummer Tim DeWit. That was, of course, until he got evicted. “It was an industrial space that wasn’t zoned for residential living, so I had a feud with my landlord and then they asked me to go,” Arsenault says over the phone. After packing up his things, Arsenault ended up driving two hours upstate, eventually settling near the town of Woodstock, where he’s since constructed a new studio. These decidedly more rural surroundings have provided Arsenault with something that his old neighborhood couldn’t: the privacy he needs to scream his heart out. “I’m yelling a lot, and it’s kind of irksome to imagine that I’m subjecting other people to that. Here, it’s good, because it’s just the birds I’m bugging.”
Arsenault describes himself as a “hyper-private” person, but you’d never consider him an introvert after talking to him. Give him the slightest prompt, for instance, and he’ll spend ten minutes waxing nostalgic about the all-night techno parties he attended at the age of 15, when his family was temporarily living in Brazil (“I’d tell my mom I was studying at a buddy’s house, coat-check my backpack [at the club] and then take a cab to school [the next morning]”). But he’s self-deprecating when discussing his musical abilities, claiming that he’s “not much of a singer.” Still, Arsenault’s music doesn’t paint him as an introvert so much as a perfectionist who spent years honing his sound before unveiling it to the public. With its synthesis of disparate styles and a climax that’s equal parts catharsis and emotional salve, “Why” shares the confessional bent of Arsenault’s earlier work while blowing up its hooks to festival size. “I’m a lot less apologetic and feel less like I’m submitting an audience to this terrible narcissistic memory I’m having, set to 157 BPM,” he says of his work writing his debut EP as Mas Ysa, which he’s aiming to release early next year. “Maybe on my fourth record I’ll write all these self-affirming pieces that inspire you to buy early Christmas presents for everyone who’s ever loved you.”