No Sass: Photay Opens Up On Debut Album

The cover of Photay’s self-titled album out last month via Astro Nautico features the young producer gazing stonily at us, sporting an impressive halo of curls. The black-and-white photograph captures the now 21-year-old Evan Shornstein in eighth grade, back when he played drums in a punk band. Eight years later, and Shornstein has released two electronic albums under his solo project Photay—and replaced the afro with a much less attention-grabbing ‘do.


“I feel like a lot of electronic music can be very serious,” Shornstein told me, when we met at a cafe in Crown Heights. “The album is pretty goofy at times, but I thought the cover would take it back home. I do take it seriously, but I thought it would be nice to have a balance.”

The music, however, still speaks for itself. Combining samples, live instrumentation, and field recordings, Photay is simply a fun listen, mainly because its production is incredibly crisp and diverse. “No Sass,” its standout tune, mashes auxiliary percussion with sultry brass arrangements, deftly layered and manipulated to sound like the horns of a jazz ensemble. (Shornstein’s roommate, who also makes music under the name AceMo, supplied the trumpet work on “Reconstruct.”) “Static at the Summit” leans more chillwave, a glitch-rich track that shimmers gorgeously atop blossoming synth pads and a fervent pitter-patter of beats. And the album is filled with sonic surprises, alien sounds that disrupt but ultimately charm. At the end of “These Fruits These Vegetables,” for example, Photay slyly inserted the beeps of radio frequency interference—a move that startled the album’s audio engineer enough to call the label and ask if the sound was intentional.

“I think it’s fun to jump around so you don’t set yourself up for people to expect one thing,” Shornstein said. “My goal was to incorporate a lot of different influences and also not have it subject to one area: it’s not just exclusively for a club; you can also listen to it on headphones.”

Photay cites Aphex Twin as an early major influence—someone whose music he “grew up on” and whose forthcoming album release after 13 years of silence he calls “kind of cosmic” as it nearly coincides with his own. Hailing from Woodstock, NY, he also describes being raised in an environment of openness. “Even though [my parents] are educators, they were like, Do music. Do what you want,” he recalled. “I think part of why I’ve been able to focus on this so much is they’ve been accepting, letting me practice and make a bunch of noise.”

In high school, Shornstein started experimenting with turntables and digital audio software; during his freshman year of college, he stayed with a family in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, to study African drumming. The month-long homestay served as a turning point in his musical career, exposing him to percussion styles on the djembe and balafon that he weaves into the album. He also recorded copious local street sounds and conversations, interspersing the field recordings throughout the tracks. The moniker “Photay” itself derives from a word that means “white person” in Susu, one of the region’s many languages; kids in the city would shout out “Photay! Photay!” at him, laughing as they pointed out his foreign appearance.

Photo by Dylan Kaplowitz

Shornstein is now in his final year at SUNY Purchase, where he studies music composition. He self-released his first full-length album during his sophomore year, and first became acquainted with the folks at Astro Nautico after attending numerous Freecandy shows in New York City, making a deliberate effort to “connect with people in the city and break out of the bubble of school.”

The past few weeks, though, have been nothing but intense, with the release of his album followed by the start of school, where he fights the urge to ignore his phone as it lights up with notifications from people responding positively to the record. “There’s been a few bathroom breaks where I run to check my phone,” he joked.

At 21, Photay hovers on the threshold of post-college life, at an age that is for many equally scary as it is exciting. But the release of his debut with Astro Nautico has him firmly planting his banderole in the music scene, his confidence fully apparent in the nine solid tracks.

“I’ve always been pretty damn clear that music is where I wanna end up,” he said. “So now I feel really good about where this is going…by the time graduation rolls around, I want this to be 100 percent my focus.”


Evan’s WILD wish: I’ve really been obsessed with the idea of traveling in the Alps, like in the weird houses on the hillside. I think it would be fun to live on a farm or something for a while and do some flying around in a hot-air balloon…to have some type of overhead view.


text by: Claire Voon

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