WE ARE BACKSTAGE at Holocene. Nice Nice just wrapped up an hour-long set.
"It was our worst show in a year," says multi-instrumentalist Jason Buehler. "I will go home tonight and curl up into a ball on my bed." Percussionist Mark Shirazi shares the sentiment. "Worst show we've ever played," he says with only a hint of sarcasm.
Halfway through our interview the club's soundman wanders in. "I don't mean to interrupt," he says. "I just wanted to buy a record." Like everyone else in attendance, he hadn't detected even the slightest hint of Nice Nice's discomfort onstage as they concocted handfuls of sprawling, percussion-heavy suites. Most were downright mesmerized.
The next morning, the band will leave on tour, their fourth since December, and first since the release of Extra Wow, the band's Warp records debut. Coincidentally enough, says Buehler, "Warp is one of the reasons the band exists."
Ten-odd years ago, Buehler found himself newly single and another potentially aimless graduate of Evergreen State College. For a few months, he'd been playing music with Shirazi, a friend from back east, but it felt tenuous. Adulthood began gnawing at Buehler's art.
"I was obsessed with music and that was my life," Buehler says. "But I felt like maybe it was time to grow up. My parents knew some people in [New York] and I spent the day in an ad agency and did all this kind of crap." After the workday, Buehler looked to unwind. "I went on a record shopping day that kind of changed my life."
He bought records by Squarepusher and Autechre, both Warp artists. "After listening to them I called Mark and was like, 'We've got to play music. I'm moving back out there.'" Shirazi, meanwhile, had relocated to Portland and Buehler joined him a few weeks later.
In their early years, Nice Nice leaned almost exclusively on improvisation. Shirazi is a precise and wildly active drummer, his syncopations creating the driving foundations for Buehler's noisy loops of guitar, synths, vocals, and more. Lately the duo has incorporated more pre-written structure, although they still leave plenty of room to wiggle.
"There's much negative stigma surrounding the word 'jam,'" explains Buehler, before Shirazi jumps in to finish the thought. "I'm over it," he says. "I've fully embraced it—we jam!" And when they're feeling it, Nice Nice's improvisations at practice cruise toward the two-hour mark without a single break in the music.
An insistence on the moment keeps Nice Nice engaged after a decade together. "If there were a laptop onstage it would take away from what we're actually doing, which is making this music in real time and building the loops live in real time," says Buehler. "It's challenging."
Indeed, Buehler's dexterity is impressive. In the matter of a few bars he'll play guitar, keyboard, and sing, all the while modifying the wealth of looping sounds swirling around him. He seems more of an active player than knob twiddler. Rather than tracing traditional pop structures, Nice Nice's songs arch and weave from one movement to the next. One opens with a hiphop bounce, accelerates and busies to African polyrhythm, before melting away into a woozy throb. Another begins by stacking tiny loops—tambourine, bell chimes, melodica, kazoo, and mbira all tethered before the kick drum begins to thump.
From a distance, Nice Nice's musical swell can feel like a constant and clattering racket. For maximum enjoyment, one must engage—come close, separate the instruments, watch the band come and go, build and burst.
Disparate aesthetics have colored Nice Nice's recordings, as they've produced ambient, improvised, and electronic themed albums along the way. For Extra Wow, capturing the live fury became paramount; the band elected to stop playing shows and focus on recording. In retrospect, they called holing up a mistake—especially since it took much longer than expected.