Nick Turner is a psychotherapist and musician living and working in Chicago. A lifelong lover of music, he explored playing in bands throughout high school and college as a guitarist, but ultimately was left feeling unfulfilled and frustrated. A much needed break allowed him to get his career rolling, and when he decided to create again, chose to explore his interest in modular synthesis and started releasing music as Tyresta. We spoke on a rainy morning and discussed the artists and experiences that have influenced his work, how his professional career and creative endeavors are intertwined, and our shared love of a good cup of black coffee.
Nick Turner performing as Tyresta.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started as an artist.So, I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago. My grandpa worked for 40 years at Nabisco, and his retirement career was singing and telling jokes at nursing homes and Italian fests in the area. He had his own P.A. system and this karaoke machine that he would sort of sing over, so he was an early model, showing that people could entertain as a side gig. My parents were always listening to vinyl and my dad had a reel to reel. Music was always around, so that inspired me early on. I got my first guitar in 4th grade, I think? I’ve played music pretty consistently since then. I started taking lessons and playing in bands closer to junior high.
Let’s talk about the bands you’ve been involved with?
So at that time I was into stuff like Nirvana and, you know, pop punk like Weezer and NOFX and these bands sounded like that and maybe a little bit of Fugazi and that side of punk and hardcore. Um, yeah and my first band in 7th grade wrote a couple of songs and broke up. As I got into high school, I was skateboarding and playing in other punk bands. That gradually shifted into getting into post-rock, and bands like Mogwai. When I was in college, I was in a post-rock instrumental band (two guitars & drums) sort of in the realm of Pelican, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, stuff like that. After college, we stopped playing because we were all busy, some people started having families, moving to the suburbs, and so on. So that was kind of my musical journey.
For the better part of a decade, I didn’t do anything musically. I sort of fell into a rut. I got bored with guitar, kind of hit a wall with it and also, I was broke so I didn’t have any money to buy recording equipment, a looping pedal or anything. I couldn’t do anything! So, I kind of walked away. My guitar gathered dust, I’d pick it up occasionally, but yeah, I really wasn’t actively playing music. I really ramped up seeing live music, getting into new bands, collecting records and tapes and all that. I was still consuming music more than ever.
That break coincided with me going to grad school and entrenching myself in the world of social work. A lot of that decade was starting my career, figuring things out, making them work.
Let’s talk about synths and Tyresta.
So, 2016 was a weird year. That’s when my wife and I got engaged, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and then Trump won the election. After hitting a wall with guitar, a friend of mine who was super into synths let me borrow a Juno and an Axis Virus. I had some interest in synths, I picked up a Korg MS-20, but again I didn’t have any recording equipment, or really know what I was doing. I had sort of been curious about synths for a while, and when we went to Sweden for our honeymoon, I was set on getting a OP-1 (Teenage Engineering, who makes them are based in Stockholm) so, I was even being nerdy about getting a synth from the source. It ended up not working out because they were actually more expensive then back at home! I went by, but just ended up waiting to buy one ‘til I got home.
I had been thinking about making music, and on the plane over I listened to the 331/3 book for Brian Eno’s Another Green World, which went into the history of the making of the record. The time I wasn’t playing was kind of driven by imposter syndrome when it came to making music. I didn’t understand theory, or anything like that. His whole process of letting go of the structure, experimenting and seeing what sticks, going in without a plan, leaning into uncertainty and all that finally left me feeling like “OK, I can do this.”
I should mention to you that I’m still not super well versed in the technical aspects of everything, I’m just kind of experimenting and figuring things out. I think that’s sort of the fun part about it.
I know a lot of people who are well versed in the technical aspect of it and they get bogged down in it and it hinders their creativity. I think there’s a balance to be struck between not knowing what you’re doing, having happy mistakes, and figuring it out.
So, I bought an OP-1 in the fall of 2016 and started Tyresta, named for a forest preserve within the city limits of Stockholm. It’s cool, we went and visited it. I started writing ambient and drone songs around that, and releasing them on Soundcloud. I needed an outlet, I was like struggling. A month before our wedding, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, so that was a really scary time. We got back from Sweden and Trump got elected, I was kind of rethinking my career, I had hit the ground running too hard, and felt completely drained. It just felt like a prime time to dive back into music.
This album came out that year by Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlin Aurelia Smith called Sunergy, and that was my first real exposure to the Buchla music easel. I had already been looking at modular synths and was interested in stuff like that, but that record was really kind of mind blowing for me, and Kaitlin Aurelia Smith used an OP-1 with the music easel on it, and I was just like “Oh this is what I want to do.” So, maybe not the most sound financial decision, but I bought a Buchla Music Easel and gradually paid it off over the course of a year. The first two synths I had that really connected with and started making music on were the OP-1 and the Music Easel.
The Music Easel is a semi-modular synth, but it motivated me to then venture into euro-rack modular synths. Since then, I’ve bought and sold stuff, I had too much stuff at one point and started experimenting with what I connected with and what I didn’t.
I released my first stuff as Tyresta in the fall of 2018, and since then have just sort of been gradually figuring out how to play shows with modular, and how to write and record music, because this was the first time I was doing it on my own. I was a little spoiled in high school and college, one of my friends was a little older and had set up a studio in his house and was interested in sound engineering so we essentially had access to a free recording studio.
Part of it was having a modest, basic set-up. It’s sort of embarrassing, but I still record to GarageBand. It’s simple, it’s straight-forward, there’s not a lot to wrap my head around. I can just hit record and kind of go with it, so I appreciate that type of simplicity.
I had been meditating, studying Zen a little bit and practicing mindfulness off and on for a while, sort of ramping up that part of my life as well. So I wanted to create meditative music that incorporated elements of uncertainty and randomness into it. Music where there was space to feel things and allow for you to immerse yourself in it. Having that creative outlet again was great and not being stuck even in post-rock song structures, not having to “go somewhere” with it, even in all those years that I had played solo guitar when I would try to write folk songs or whatever.
I wanted to allow myself the room to experiment and do whatever I wanted, having a broad range of releases that might not all fit into “Modular ambient” or whatever. I just wanted to have fun and not limit myself and it’s been really fun. That’s part of what crushed me for that decade, overthinking it, giving into imposter syndrome, and just being stuck in the belief that I couldn’t do it, or didn’t have anything to say.
Are there any stories or experiences from recording your own music that stand out to you?
Yeah! Part of working with and designing the modular synth to, at moments, essentially play itself, or setting parameters and creating generative music can lead to things that are surprising, or things you didn’t really expect. That’s been super fun and kind of why I’ve been able to be prolific. I’m constantly recording and editing things. There are moments where I’ll set up a patch, or a couple different patches, and just sit and meditate with it. Then, maybe I’ll tweak something every once in a while which will take it in a new direction or create a new mood. That’s actually happened quite a bit, and that’s why I've felt compelled to release so much music… I’m having so much fun with it. Sometimes people are like “How did you do that? How did you design that sound?” and I just don’t know! It just falls into place, which is kind of the double edged sword of modular. You can create this song that’s just amazing and then you shut off the synth, turn it back on and it just sounds completely different, and you’re not able to recreate it. I think it’s fun though, it puts you in the position to always be recording so you don’t miss out on something.
I’m surprised to hear that this project is only a couple of years old, based on how prolific you are. I feel like you have a new release every few weeks!
Getting into modular synthesis and giving myself the freedom to experiment and not get caught up in self-judgement just opened up this creativity window for me, so I’m constantly recording stuff and kind of gathering an archive. Processing it, slowly putting together songs for releases. You know, part of the fun of this project and what has really kept me going is collaborating with all of these different tape labels and net labels. It’s been super fun, I’ve connected with people all over the world doing that. Working with different philosophies and approaches to releasing music, different artists, artwork, it’s all been super fun too.
I had sold off all of my guitar stuff, I just needed a reset. I wanted to do something I didn’t know, didn’t have any muscle memory for, and that was great. Eventually I started to miss guitar and now I have one again and have slowly kind of been incorporating it back into my music.
So you have a hand in curating at least a couple labels, correct?
Yeah, a couple of years ago my friend Zach started a label called Past inside the Present, based out of Indianapolis. It’s been interesting, that label’s been really successful and I think it’s because he has a really specific aesthetic and a talent for graphic design, so the label also has a visual vision. He was able to do some vinyl releases from the start and was able to grab people’s attention with the presentation. It just kind of took off and I thought I’d like to maybe be a part of it. So in 2019, I randomly saw him post on Twitter that he was looking for suggestions for ambient tapes and I reached out to him and it kind of took off from there. We started communicating, and then I released a tape with them, and then he brought on Isaac who helps run the label and brought on me, and I do write ups for the releases as well as help with curating.
Just in the past few months, this Japanese artist who had released something on the label sent us this EP that had remixes by Jim O’Rourke and Oval. It didn’t really fit the direction PITP was going, and Zach decided to pass on it. I was like “How are you going to pass on a record with Jim O’Rourke on it?!? Let me start a side label, I can take in all of these more experimental demos that we get and try to make something of it.” They liked the idea, so that’s how this new project Fallen Moon Recordings got started. It’s been fun getting that together. There is a sameness to a lot of ambient right now, some of it I really like and some of it I’m just really bored by. I don’t think there’s enough experimentation going on, at least in some of it. The sameness isn’t just in the music, there are a lot of white dudes just making ambient music in their bedrooms. It’s not a very diverse genre. I’ve been trying to focus on women and people of color and It’s been fun trying to support these artists, and I’m trying to place an emphasis on that too.
What do you consider to be the biggest influences on your work, and how have you seen these evolve over time?
Currently, someone I just adore is Felicia Atkinson. The way she’s able to mix Musique Concrete, avant garde, and field recordings with MIDI instruments and her own piano playing and sound design. She is just so good at that, and I’d love to eventually make music like that. Her work has particularly inspired me to experiment even more with processing, field recordings, and kind of making music with whatever. I’m working on an EP that's based on recordings I made of my nephew’s toy xylophone and tambourines that I then put into my modular and eventually computer. These sounds are mixed with other field recordings, but I’m not using any oscillators or sound sources, just creating songs and sound collage.
There’s that jazz label International Anthem, and I’ve been trying to dive into all of their stuff.
I’ve been getting into people that originally kind of invented Musique Concrete, like Luc Ferrari, Pierre Schaeffer, Beatrice Ferreira. I’ve just been diving into that, or these people just making this totally bizarre sound collage, sort of turning their nose up at the establishment and trying to create a new form of music in the 50’s and 60’s. I find that to be super inspiring.
Do you have any upcoming releases?
Yeah, I’ll have a vinyl release coming out this October on PITP. I’m really pretty excited about this one, I pretty much wrote half of it last summer and fall while reflecting on my mom’s illness and the time we were spending together as a family, trying to be present without being so wrapped up in the fear of what would be coming next. Then, I wrote the second half of it right after she died. It was therapeutic writing the record, and it’s my first release on vinyl.
What are you listening to these days?
Well, I’ve amassed a ton of stuff on Bandcamp from those Bandcamp days where they waive the fees, and slowly working my way through it. Christina Vantzou did a record with John Also Bennett called Landscape Architecture that I like a lot. We talked about diversity in music, and I’ve been trying to dive into more female identifying experimental artists, as well as people of color. Marja Ahti just released a record called The Current Inside that’s really good. Shanna Sordahl has a record called Radiate Don’t Fear The Quietus, and Felicia Atkinson released an EP a little while ago called Everything Evaporate… those are some of the stand out ones. I’ve really been studying these to learn how to compose like this and avoid getting bored and creating empty soundscapes. I mean, I enjoy doing that too, but I don’t want to fall into that sort of boredom again, falling into muscle memory but this time with my synths. I want to avoid that sort of comfort zone.
Do you want to talk about what you do professionally and if you feel any connection between that and your creativity?
Yeah, so I’m a mental health and addiction therapist. I went to school for that, and have a master’s in social work, am a licensed clinical social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. I do individual therapy and my main focuses are addiction, trauma, anxiety and depression. A big part of that is leaning into emotional experiencing, helping people deal with things that are really difficult. Helping them tolerate distress and discomfort and discover what they want out of life, what’s meaningful and important. What they’re passionate about. I think it plays into my music because, if we go back to talking about when I was feeling burnt out and how invested I was in my career. Having music take up a significant portion of my headspace and time during the week has been nice. It’s a good example and actually came from my work. If I’m teaching people to have lifestyle balance or encouraging them to work on discovering passion, I’m not going to be a hypocrite and not take care of myself. I talk about the music that I make with my clients (when appropriate, not like I’m trying to sell myself to them,) but as a way to talk about my own experiences with anxiety, burn out, grief and loss, and how I’ve been able to cope through music. I try to use it an example of how you can be a creative, passionate person in whatever way you want to be.
I’m not doing as much trauma work as I was before, but I was also dealing with some of my own reactions to my clients through music. The moods, feelings and concepts behind some of the records I’ve done have been informed by my work with clients, so they are very much sort of linked, I guess.
OK, Let’s talk coffee. Do you like that stuff?Ha ha yeah! I love it.
How are you making it at home?
Most of the time during the week we’re just doing drip but we also have a Clever, and a couple of different French presses, so it’s a mix of those three. But yeah, in the morning when we’re feeling lazy and just want to wake up, drip.
Do you have a go-to if you find yourself out at a cafe?
Just black coffee. That’s the fun of it for me. Discovering the flavors, complexities and different profiles. It’s the same thing I love about craft beer.
Are there regions you like?
Not really, I tend to stick with light to medium roasts, but like to be able to explore the world coffee-wise. I guess maybe I’m a little partial to fruitier coffees than say chocolatey, roastier coffees? I’ll try most stuff, though.
How do you feel that coffee intersects with your creative process?
Well, because I’m a person that tends to be on the more anxious side of the spectrum, I try not to have coffee later in the day, I typically have a cup when I wake up and one before lunch. Most of my music making happens in the late afternoon or evening. I think that sometimes it’s still intertwined. Like, with the Music Easel for example, you have to turn it on, let it warm up and stabilize before you can actually play it, and there are times I’ll make a cup of coffee while I’m waiting for it and then I’ll dive in. Years ago, I kind of had my sights on the Pacific Northwest, just because it had everything like good craft beer, craft coffee, all that stuff that I’ve been interested in, but then Chicago caught up. It’s been inspiring to be here, with both craft beer and coffee. It’s so much fun with all of the options, different aesthetics, different approaches, and it’s kind of inspiring as a creative person.
Many thanks to Nick for taking the time to talk! Be sure to check out Tyresta, Past Into The Present and Fallen Moon Recordings. First time buyers can use the code MODULAR at check out and receive 20% off of your order!