INTERVIEW/// NATE YOUNG
As a founding member of the seminal Michigan group Wolf Eyes, Nate Young is to be forever embedded in the annals of experimental music. He’s also a hugely adept solo musician and his recent Regression series of records –worryingly slow, sparse, and downright genuinely chilling Noise that finds it’s horror in the circadian silences of the human body – are wonderful. We were lucky enough to catch half an hour with him in a charmingly shabby East London pub to talk about quitetude, New Age, and recording into rumblestrips before he played a wonderful, engaging set.
Josh Baines: You’re in the middle of a European tour to support the latest Regression album – do you vary the sets each night through improvisation, or do you have pre-prepared material to use?
Nate Young: It’s split 70/30; I always use that equation. Either seventy per cent of it is composed or seventy per cent of it is improvised, but I always leave room for the unexpected. I had some equipment break the other night so that was a more improvised show than normal. Generally though I go back and forth between the two. As soon as I get on stage I figure it out. I mean, sure, there’s sound check and sound check lets me know that everything’s working, and lets me know my parameters – how loud I’m going to be, or how deep the bass is, or where the mids and the treble are. I prefer to improvise when the sound is correct and when the sound isn’t correct and I can’t find my parameters I have to fall back on prepared specifics, stuff I know will work.
JB: How loud should one expect a gig like this to be?
NY: It’s not that loud really. I deal more with space and silence. In that sense, it’s subjected to the silence, how quiet is it going to be; is the audience going to be chit-chatting and am I going to be able to hear that, and I decide from there how loud or quiet I actually can be. What I’m doing now, with the silence, can become a bit awkward for the audience: they’re not sure sometimes as to exactly what I’m doing. For example, the other night this guy was like, ‘it wasn’t until half an hour into your set that I was sure that you were really playing because you kept dropping out to silence and everything was so slow.’ Maybe it was the wrong audience, maybe this audience was not familiar with my work. It all depends on familiarity with my work.
JB: Do you get audiences, then, expecting the type of material we heard on Burned Mind or Human Animal?
NY: Of course. They mean the best, their intentions are good, but it comes across almost as heckling. And it’s a shame. I feel kind of sorry for them in a way because even though I do this for myself and not for the audience so much, I see people getting confused and I feel sorry for anyone in that state of confusion. My advice is always, in terms of anything to do with abstract music, is to just listen. Just listen and wait. Like that guy the other night, it took him a half-hour till he was actually able to listen and I only play for forty minutes. He got it for ten minutes.
JB: Ok then, are you essentially here to educate the audience?
NY: It’s not really so much about education, I don’t think. But you could say that there’s a bit of demonstration in what I do and maybe that does go hand in hand with education. I’m not thinking about teaching anyone. I do get a lot of questions about what I’m doing after the gig and maybe a little bit of education happens there. I was with Keith Fullerton Whitman the other day and that guy is an academic maniac – he knows the ins and outs of everything. He taught me a lot, he taught the soundman at the venue a lot too. But I’m not in a position to inform anyone about academia.
JB: I’m intrigued as to how you delineate between noise and Noise?
NY: Well, with a lot of contemporary Noise or experimental musicians there seems to be this idea that sound has to be happening all the time. Without silence, though, there’s no way to gauge how loud anything is. It’s not like I’m stopping dead in the middle of my set but I’m definitely experimenting with the push-and-pull of volume so you can hear the difference between Noise with a capital ‘N’ and noise with a lower case ‘n’. That contrast is really important to me. It’s that contrast between loud and soft – it’s dynamics. That’s all it is. People tell me that there’s so much space in my music that it becomes confusing, they can’t figure out where it’s going or where it started, and I like that. I don’t mind total confusion by what I’m doing; even if they can’t understand what doing fully they know that there’s this long idea, this long pattern and they have a feeling that it’s there but they can’t quite get their ears around it. And, again, I like that. It’s how we hear everyday life. I really strive for this moments where math is involved, tuning. I always say that you can play with the universe or against the universe. Meaning that you can play dissonant or you can play melodic and I think it’s very important to play them both together. Otherwise there’s no harmony and it becomes even more confusing. Which maybe isn’t a bad thing for some people, but personally I like to combine the two and feel some sense of my place on the planet. Or in the universe! That’s a bit ‘New Age’ but it’s true. I like that: math versus dissonance.
JB: To return to the more prosaic world of the physical, can you describe the process of cutting records using a lathe?
NY: It’s basic really. The first experience I had with it was reading something like 101 Science Experiments for Children and it described using a paper cup, a needle, and a piece of flat, paper coated wax, and it just sings, you just push it forward. That’s how every record is made. I don’t think of it so scientifically, I think of it very artistically, more as a horizontal sculpture. Every cut is going to be different. It depends on the material that you’re cutting in to, how sharp your needle is, the angle of the needle, how hot or cold it is, how much humidity is in the air, all these things that factor into how records are cut. Especially on the lathe frontier. Of course mastering records and using acetate is a lot more scientific – they have instruments to measure these things. I don’t. I have to think, ‘Okay, it’s a pretty good day to cut a record, the temperature’s just about right.’ I have problems all the time. There’s no science to what I do at all except for the loose variables. It’s just a feeling, and I’m sure some people are very specific about it but I just try to feel it out. Not every cut is successfully, but I do think that every cut is a sculpture within itself and I think a lot of people have a hard time racking their brains around that. Maybe it skips, maybe it skates (mimes noise of needle sliding off record) but there’s still information on it. I’m doing a record cut on pieces of plastic plates and to me that’s really interesting that there’s information on this piece of garbage that you’re gonna have a meal on and then throw out. Here’s something that’s kind of far out: you know the rumblestrips on the side of the highway? I had this idea of organising those rumblestrips into patterns so when you drive on them it’s a record. I really think this would be amazing. That’s the beauty of records – it’s everywhere and it’s just a matter of playing it. Reading vibrations is really fascinating to me, and the reason I’ve been into record cutting is that abstract vibe.
JB: Aside from that abstraction, do you derive some pleasure from the physical act of cutting?
NY: It’s great. Before I was a musician I was a visual artist and always wanted to give sounds to these drawings and I found a way of making that possible. I get into the practice a lot. For example, the ‘chip’ that comes off the record is really fascinating to me and I’ll hold it up and think, ‘This is the negative space.’ Of course it crumbles right away but this is the essence of the sound and the sound is here. I’ve been experimenting with cutting on X-Rays recently and it gives me a really creepy vibe because, obviously, this is a photograph of someone’s bones. I get them from old hospitals and a friend of mine acquired a bunch of them and he passes them on to me. I’ve been using a heated stylus as well so you smell this stench as you’re looking at these bones, and you’re watching this chip come off and there’s some sort of physical and mental sensory stimulation. It’s disgusting, it’s eerie and it’s gross. But still really fascinating. In general, I think, some of the more gross things are fascinating, even if they’re toxic!
JB: Is selling CDRs and lathe cuttings at these shows simply a way of getting music ‘out there’ or is there an element of harking back to the pre-digital era?
NY: Experimental music is half people wanting the physical object and half want an example of work, so an MP3 for example. I was just in Japan and no one bought my LPs, they only wanted MP3s or CDs and that really shocked me. The reason being that they don’t have a lot of space so it’s easier for them to have an MP3 that they’ll actually listen to and experience. It’s the opposite in the rest of the world where people are so obsessed with records and not so obsessed with digital formats.
JB: Do you lament the fact that there’s now a generation of music listeners out there who have pretty much no inclination to go out and buy records and CDs?
NY: It’s a bummer. But I do the same thing, we all do. I’ve acquired more music that than I ever possibly could from going to a record store. In one afternoon I can acquire a record collection, versus going to a record store where maybe I’ll pick up one record I love. But that one record is going to mean so much more than those MP3s. That’s why I make the lathe cuts – you wont ever get another that sounds like this and I think that really touches on the important part of objects, records. I believe in what I’m doing, and what other people are doing, is important. It establishes a relationship with someone who might be interested in your music. Even if you don’t like the record you still think it’s a cool object. I mean, not every record is good. Kids, they like this New Age music…that’s fine…
JB: I was actually going to ask what you the likes of Emeralds, Dolphins into the Future…
NY: It’s very New Age, but it’s not new. Someone had a term for it the other day that meant something was a copy of a copy of a copy. I cannot remember what the word is, but I’d never really thought about it that way before. I’m not saying at all that Emeralds or whoever are copies of copies but I do think that they’re very similar to other artists – not to say that I’m not either, you could say that I’m post-industrial or whatever. New Age has never been my cup of tea, I will say that. I’ll listen to some waterfall sounds but not for very long.
JB: Is there something akin to the Nurse with Wound list for Nate Young fans to delve into?
NY: A Nate Young list? It’s just my friends. Off the top of my head, it’d include John Olson, Mike Connelly, Twig Harper, almost everything in Michigan. My list would be of Michigan based music because that’s where I’m from. I relate to these people on a level I don’t relate to other people on. I hope the NWW list is similar. Throw Andrew WK in there too. Good friend of mine.