I’ve learned many things in my whole twenty-four years on this Earth, and one of the more important things I’ve learned is that nothing brings people together like music.
And Nintendo 64.
Luckily, Nick Ray felt the same.
And of course he did. Ray, better known as Speculator ‘round these parts, has a knack for taking grade school milestones and turning them into music. And I’m not talking about really vibing on some nostalgic lyrics; I’m talking about making carefully composed full-lengths that feature the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, tap the essence of the '80s Top 40, and capture the sentimental haze that grows with age-- without sounding like some dick in a basement. From that description, Ray could very well be some dick in a basement. But he’s not. His music is not a chop job from between college classes; it’s a well-produced piece of our collective minds.
Settling in on the couch with Sapporos and New York-sized slices, we dove into two of everyone’s favorite activities: listening to records and blasting muh’fuckas on GoldenEye 007.
I had instructed Ray to bring a few albums over for the evening, the theme of which I left to his devices. I was nervous in a way, as though I were about to open the pretentious hipster’s equivalent of Dana Barrett’s refrigerator, full of obscure, snot-nosed monsters waiting to swallow me whole. Of course, this anxiety said a lot more about me than it said about Ray, a charmingly down-to-Earth New York native who arrived in a throwback LA Raiders sweatshirt.
“My theme was ‘Records I Shouldn’t But Had To Buy’," he said. "You know, that kind of thing that you make a connection with when you see it. You have to have it. There are just some records that are worth your entire week’s spending money.” His eclectic handful of “must-haves” lent more insight into Ray’s musical influences than any stock question I could have found in the archives of Rolling Stone. He played Boredoms’ Super Roots 10 & Onanie Bomb Meets Sex Pistols, followed by Guided By Voices’ Alien Lanes, Big Star’s Third, New Order’s Movement, and lastly, Cluster’s Sowiesoso.
After getting a sense of his musical tastes, I finally asked him what kind of music he played (I hate to assume genres these days). "Pop", he replied, then let a beat pass before explaining, “but not in the popular music sense. ‘Pop’ is no longer defined by what’s actually popular; it’s defined by a structure. You know, melodies, guitars, catchy hooks.” All elements Speculator encompasses while exploring the effects of distortion, pedals, and mixers, which make his music almost tangible. You can feel it fill a room, much like an old vinyl pulled from an attic.
You can tell a lot about someone from his or her music collections, but you can also tell a lot by the way they play GoldenEye. Ray is smooth, methodical, and focused, peppering his killing sprees with witty asides and streaks of self-deprecation-- a pattern that recalls his approach to music. “I try to build in this super goofy vibe, where it’s clear I’m not taking it serious. But there is this matter of respect to it too; I respect music and recording and what I do.” And that’s why tapes like Ray’s latest full-length, Lifestyles, work. I’m sorry, but you just can’t sample and chipmunk the shit out of Van Halen without doing it flawlessly. Luckily for us, Ray does.
For the record, he is also phenomenal at Super Smash Brothers.
After, we piled into his '90s-something-station-wagon-thing to head over to Speculator HQ. The seats and floors were covered in just about every kind of tape you could think of, along with two pairs of cheap gas station glasses and a box of Nighttime Theraflu. As the dash lit up with familiar teal numbers and dials, an old fuzzy Charlie Parker cassette wafted in from the speakers, and I was like, “Damn.” If this were a tweet, my hashtag would have been “#thisguyknowswhatsup”.
Speculator HQ is a small hobbit-like basement dwelling, an extra room below Ray’s enchanting Highland Park porch. It has enough room for a drum set, a gang of mixers, some other shit, a record player, a computer, two chairs, and a huge amp with an amazing poster of a big-haired '80s blonde in a white lace teddy, sitting atop a white Mercedes. Across from Ray’s chair, at eye level, is a picture of a white stallion, just staring him down. This is where Ray has been holing up this past month to record an upcoming LP for Underwater Peoples, everybody's favorite guys from Jersey.
There is no knowing how long it will be until his next tape hits the deck, but from the sounds of things, not too long. Lifestyles, his last tape, only took three weeks to record. Like Ray’s gaming preferences, his recording style is marked by a “License To Kill” sensibility*: “I get each song on the first or second shot. I can’t go back to things or work on multiple songs. My brain just doesn’t work like that; I just have to do one at a time. Plus, you don’t want to hear that stuff. When you listen to good music, you don’t want to hear the time they put into it. You just want to hear the sound."
He gave me a sneak peak of the unmastered songs, and I was delighted to hear what we mutually described as “an '80s motorcycle sunset scene, like if Tom Cruise were a stoner in Top Gun”. If that doesn’t give you an idea of how great of a time you’re going to have listening to the future Speculator release, you obviously don’t like good music or haven’t seen Top Gun, which is like, pretty sad for you. Sorry about that, I hope you find the strength to help yourself.
*License To Kill is a mode in 007 Golden Eye for N64. It’s a one-shot-one-kill option, instead of the ole’ “Eyyy, let me shoot you a thousand times in the chest” model.