Producer Letta, aka Tony Nicoletta, has had a hell of a year: touring in support of his first album Testimony, a second full-length in the can, and first gigs in London, Tokyo, and Seoul. He speaks of these achievements with a sense of bemused wonder, which, given his past, is understandable. Eight years ago, Letta was a full-time junkie, mired in a heroin addiction that nearly claimed his life. He speaks freely about this period, and its imprint is all over his brooding, icy instrumental grime.
You’re a big William Gibson fan. Could you tell me about your relationship with his work? My uncle gave me a copy of Pattern Recognition whenever it came out. I don’t know how I’d never known about Neuromancer and all that shit way before. The Sprawl Trilogy really resonated with me. I’ve always been into dystopian shit—like, my favourite movie’s Blade Runner. The visions I saw while reading Gibson’s books completely affected my music. For a long time, I tried to make music imagining what it would sound like in these dystopian places where everything’s fucked. I’ve read a lot of other cyberpunk stuff like Bruce Sterling and other people, but Gibson’s just got it. He’s the fuckin’ man. He predicted the internet.
It makes total sense to me that you’re also a huge Blade Runner fan. The sound design of that movie has this expansive, ambient quality to it that I also hear in your music. All that Vangelis shit, yeah. Seeing that movie was really visually powerful to me. That was a big influence on all the types of music I’ve made over the years. All those lush, building synths.
I’ve always strived to make cinematic music. When I’m writing an album, it’s more that I’m writing a score to my own memories. I would love to score films. I’d really like to do stuff for documentaries. There are ways to bring out so much more emotion than just a fuckin’ steel-string guitar, or some nice, soft strings, or the classic documentary sad piano. There are ways of connecting people a lot more through sound, but it’s never going to be the focus of the documentary, which is why I think I like it. It’s subtle things that can really make you feel something. I think that’s what I try to do with my music. No builds or massive changes, just an overall vibe that progresses, as feelings do.
You recently came back from your first Asian tour. Tell me a bit about your time in Tokyo. The show was amazing. Crowd was super hype. I had five days there, so I did a lot of exploring. My first stop was to go to Shibuya and hit the adidas store. It’s kind of an obsession. It’s all I wear, so that’s always priority number one in a foreign country: find the adidas store and blow all my tour money right away.
Where does that obsession come from? There was a point in my life a couple years ago that I wasn’t super happy and I was like, “You know what? I’m done stressing about bullshit. I’m gonna buy a bunch of sweatpants and just be comfortable, I don’t give a fuck what everybody thinks.” And adidas has the dopest sweatpants, so it became this thing where it was like, if I just buy adidas, then I never have to try that hard. I just wake up, throw on a white tee and some track pants and I’m good to go. Now it’s turned into a whole other level of having to have all adidas. It’s a thing, and I have so much I can’t turn back. It would be way too expensive to switch up the style. Big up my Grandma for just copping me two new Man U track pants that just came out for my birthday. She knows what’s up.
Right. Back to your Asian tour…Yeah, what else...I went to this temple, Meiji Jingu, beside this big part in the middle of the city between Harajuku and Shibuya. It was so cool. It’s actually the first place I listened to Blonde. I’d been wanting to check it out but I’d been busy, so I took the afternoon, went to a temple, and bumped the Frank Ocean record. It was a great place to hear it, actually.
One thing I love about this mix you’ve made is the field recordings you’ve included in it. They do a wicked job of bringing you into the world you’re creating—it seems to me like you’re really into world-building as an artist. I think that’s why I’ve always been drawn to the movie thing. I sample tons of stuff besides field recordings. Little tidbits of shows and movies to try to capture that moment a little more. I get real specific. When I use subway sounds or water, I’ll scour YouTube for weeks if I have to find the river. It might be from the northwest where I grew up. In the mix there are things from different trains and different subway stations from New York, the Metrolink in L.A., the same route I went from Croydon in South London to go play Rinse FM, things like that. I’ll find things on YouTube from places I’ve been and throw them in there. I think it’s almost cooler when I didn’t record them, because I can go find these random YouTube videos filmed by some tourist and be brought back to that place. Even though it’s not my recording I can picture myself there when I hear the sounds. I always try to incorporate that kind of stuff. It makes it more personal to me. Nobody ever knows where that shit came from. They probably assume I’m using a water sample CD.
There are a couple bootlegs on this mix from some real legends. There’s a David Bowie bootleg and an Elliott Smith bootleg. How do you approach tackling the work artists like that, who are such cultural monoliths? When I was shooting dope, for many reasons, I felt a connection with Elliott Smith. He was all I listened to then. I’d always wanted to do something, but when I got sober, I couldn’t listen to Elliott Smith at all. There was no way. It was way too hard. Years and years before, I had tried to do something with that song and it just wasn’t happening, so I gave up. Then, when I was working on the first record, things were going really good, and I was feeling positive and reflective. I went back and revisited some records that I hadn’t listened to in maybe eight years, whenever I got off everything, and it was emotional but it was a good thing, like a purging of stuff. I came across that song again, and I was like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna try to do this one time,” and everything was on beat, everything made sense, and it just flowed out of me. My connection with him was so heavy that it was a big deal for me to do that. It was a therapeutic thing.
There’s some poetry in the way that all worked out. Are you a spiritual person? 100%. I should have been dead multiple times. I’ve made nothing but wrong decisions, for the most part. But it’s all lead here. It can’t just be some big accident. I believe in something outside all of this. I believe very strongly in energy. What we put out and choose to receive, this is all serious, impactful shit.