Nathan Felix’s first symphony, The Curse, The Cross, and the Lion, will have its world premier performance on February 13th & 14th, 2015 in Cleveland, OH area by the Chagrin Falls Studio Orchestra, conducted by Steve Eva. Tickets are available from the Chagrin Valley Little Theater site.
It was a surprisingly chilly Friday in mid-September when I met Nathan Felix at the Tattered Cover bookstore on Colfax Street in Denver. He was in town to attend the screening of David Schulte’s short documentary The Curse and the Symphony at the Docuwest Film Fest the next day. Nathan is the subject of the film, which chronicles his journey in getting his symphonic work performed and recorded. Part of our conversation that afternoon stems from the story that Nathan tells in the film, where he explains how he became interested in composing: “I toured a lot in punk rock bands right out of college, and one night we were just so furious. I didn’t want to hear anything from anyone so I turned up the local classical station and just fell in love with it. It was more that I fell in love with the arrangement.”
Nathan’s symphony has the trappings of a “normal” classical music work – swelling strings, bright brass, kettle drums – but there are also bits where you cock your head and think “That doesn’t sound like the classical music I’m used to.” As I found out during our conversation, that seems to be by design on Nathan’s part, that he doesn’t put much stock in how things “should” be. He’s just delivering the music to us as he hears it.
We had set up the meeting in August in a friendly e-mail exchange that set the tone for our chat. Our discussion as transcribed here was about an hour, but it went a little longer than that, as I recall. I’ve tried to edit down some the conversation, but Nathan’s experiences in music are so interesting that I’ve ended up leaving it mostly intact.
I noticed him walk in, recognizing him from the film. I set the book I was browsing down and made my way over to introduce myself. Nathan grabbed a coffee from the café inside the bookstore and we sat outside for a bit before heading back in out of the cold.
Your Older Brother: How did you start getting into music?
Nathan Felix: My mom put me in piano classes when I was a kid, and I hated it! But I hated it because I wanted to play baseball, and the piano class was right by the baseball field. So every time I had to go to class, the whole baseball team could see me, and I was embarrassed.
YOB: That’s torture!
NF: Yeah, it was really embarrassing and traumatic for me. So I refused to pay attention. My brother and sister also took (piano) and we had to learn classical pieces but I just didn’t learn them and it was so difficult before the teacher kicked me out. I mean, I’m talking like 10 years old, 12 years old and I’m getting kicked out of piano class. She said “Okay, I’ll give in and let you play something you want to play” and I learned how to record little things on the keyboard, and I would just create these Jaws type of cinematic things. Didn’t go over well at the recital, so she just said “You gotta get your kid outta here.” I didn’t really answer your question, though.
YOB: Well, when did you start getting into bands?
NF: I told my mom I wanted to play drums and she said “Well, but you gotta start off with piano” and I was like “Why?” and she said “It teaches the basics of theory” and I thought “But there’s no theory behind drums…” But in hindsight (growing up in) Laredo molded the way I thought towards music because when I first moved to Austin, I remember going to my first concert. And I was fifteen, so think about it, at fifteen I had never even seen live music at all, and never heard a guitar played out of an amp, ever. It was just taboo in Laredo to like anything that was not…what do they call it…it wasn’t…obviously Tejano wasn’t popular, but for the kids it was kinda club music, but it was Laredo club music. So on MTV I would see – well, I was banned from watching MTV, but I would sneak and see Nirvana, and I was like, there’s this music out there that I was just not exposed to. So I was fifteen and I went to my first concert, and these guys were soundchecking and doing the testing and he played one chord at this outdoor venue and it was like “vooom” and I was like “Wow!” This wall hit me, and I thought “I gotta do that.” It was electric to me. At that point I knew I wanted to play. But it took a while for me.
I eventually learned guitar – again, I was into sports, so I played basketball when I got to Austin. But I hurt my knee and that’s what forced me to play – well, not forced me to play guitar, but I couldn’t move, so I was like “Well, the guitar’s there,” and just never gave it up. Literally 13 hours a day in the summer.
I started getting into bands almost a year & a half after I started playing guitar. I sort of, I think to a fault, sort of push things. I got some advice when I was a kid one time, from a girlfriend’s uncle, and he said “Don’t wait ’til it’s perfect, just throw it out there!” So I started a band, they’re all bad (musicians), and I’ve learned now that “Hey, that’s good!” It’s sort of like on-the-job training. I think at the end of my high school I was already playing in a band but I soon learned that it was so hard to get other people who were as passionate about it. I grew up in Austin and it was a city of music, but in the late 90s, man…I lived more in north Austin, and I think there was only one other kid that played guitar in my school. Looking back on it, it’s like “Why wasn’t everyone carrying around a guitar?” It was just taboo, same (as in Laredo), so I just thought “I’ll wait ’til I get to college.” Funny thing is that in college, I spent 4 years at University of Texas trying to start a band every single semester. I think I played one show my whole time in college. It wasn’t until the day I graduated where I said “F this.” I told my brother “I’m gonna teach you how to play” and I had a job working for a booking agency, so I was booking tours for these bands and I took my best friends and I said “Look guys, we’re all best friends, let me teach you how to play keyboard, I’ll teach you how to play drums, I’ll buy all the equipment, I already have it.” I said “I book for these bands, I can just book a tour with us opening up for these bands” and they were just mid-level, small bands. And I said “If anything, we’ll just travel the country” and they bought it! They were like “Yeah, I guess we’re not doing anything else, we can’t get jobs with the economy, we’re all graduated.”
YOB: How did you start booking bands?
NF: I got a call from a guy, an agency out of Missouri – I actually never met the owner but I still talk to him – and we’d book national tours for them. It was super DIY, too. I was booking punk bands that were doing the DIY of the 80’s punk thing where it was “Hey, we’re going to go play in Mizzoula, Montana because no one goes out there, and we’re just gonna play for the kids there.”
YOB: So how did he find you?
NF: He had an agent from Austin and the guy knew me as a guy that just liked music and liked bands and I was really enthusiastic. He just said “Hey, do you wanna do this?” I didn’t know anything about booking or any of that. And they paid me good for that time and the cool thing is that I figured out “Hey, I can tour and I can do it on a computer.” For me it was really cool. I got out of college in 2003 and I just started that year, right when I got out. We were hitting the road non-stop. We would go three months at a time, come back, take 2 months off, get little jobs, make some money, then just go back on the road. And each tour got better.
YOB: What was the name of the band?
NF: (laughs) Well, it transitioned, we went out and the band was called Lil Blokes, but after a year we actually got signed to a small label – I think it looked more impressive, what we were doing, than what we were actually doing. We had some good times and we had some good shows and we were building a following in certain cities, but a lot of cities were just, you know, playing to 15 people. But they just saw that we were doing something out of Austin. So we got signed to a small label but they suggested “Hey, you should change your name.” So we changed our name to The Noise Revival. Later on I kept that moniker, and it’s expanded to The Noise Revival Orchestra, the Noise Revival Experience, just ’cause I like the name.
YOB: So, I watched the film and you told the story of how you were sick of listening to people and you turned up the radio…but that wasn’t your first exposure to classical music, though, was it?
NF: It was the first time that I ever really paid attention to it. I’d never spent time really listening to it, but yeah, you hear classical music but I hated it. I was one of those guys that, in a band, it was just like “This is music and this is what we do and if you’re playing pop or whatever at the time, Britney Spears or something, that’s crap.” You know, I thought I knew more than I really did. I wasn’t really open to other styles of music at all. I looked down at classical music. I hated something that I didn’t really know anything about. I think the only classical music I truly knew was probably Nutcracker.
YOB: Do you know what you were listening to in the van?
NF: No, I have no idea what we were listening to, can’t remember. Didn’t even stop to think about it. It was sort of just happening, it just sounded great. Most classical stations even now, they don’t really stop and tell you what you’re listening to.
It was also, at that time, that label came to us and said “Okay, you changed your name and that’s cool” and actually one of the label owners was like “I should join the band” and they told us “Hey, you guys really need to change your sound” and I was offended even before he said who we should sound like. He said “You need to sound like (Indierect labelmates) Ghostland Observatory ’cause they’re the future,” and I was like, “Aw man.” Like, I don’t want to play that music. I mean, they’re cool and everything, but…. Needless to say, when we got off that tour there was so much tension in that band amongst my brother and my friends. We kicked out a friend to put the label guy in the band, and it was the wrong move. It was my first taste of what the meaning of music, friendship, chemistry, business, even though it was small time. And after that I was really burned out and with classical music…maybe I was just open to anything new, or maybe it was a saving grace, whatever it was, it was awesome.
YOB: So how did you get started composing? Getting stuff on paper.
NF: Well, that came years later. I did start composing but I vividly remember getting off tour and my brother and my best friends were like “We’re gonna go do something else, this is pulling us apart.” I knew I had to start over, so I took a break and after a month I called up some people that I knew just from Austin, I called up a drummer that I knew was in band in high school, but I never really talked to him, and I said “Look, this is what I want to do” and went on this spiel about orchestra music and this and that like I was some kid, like it was this brand-new music, something that had never been heard of, and he was like “Okay, cool dude, sure. Yeah, I’ll join whatever you want to start” but he was a percussionist so I was telling him “I don’t want you to play your drum set, we can play timpani and I’ll buy timpanis, I’ll find them and contrabass drum and horns, do you know anyone that’s in orchestra?” And he was like “I was in band four years ago, I don’t know anybody, but I’ll help you.” So through that and through CraigsList I said “If you play any of these instruments” – I didn’t even know, I was so ignorant. I was oblivious. I never was in band in junior high or elementary. So I just said “If you play any of these instruments, respond and we’ll start a band” and I got like 25 people. And I said to all of them “Ok, what do you play? I don’t care how good you are, just come.” and about 15 of them showed up to this rehearsal and I had two pieces of music that were on my little 4-track and I would play the keyboard and say “Ok, I want the trumpet to sound like this” and I’d play these little (makes the sound of a trumpet run) and I put this hodgepodge of music together. We got together and jammed out to this and half the people left and seven people stayed and I just said “Okay guys, we’re gonna start a band!” I thought it was awesome, but later on they told me some of them felt sorry for me, some of them had broken up with their girlfriends and they needed something to do to take the pain away. Some of them said “We thought you were enthusiastic and I was bored at my job and this kid sounds like he’s got something.” That’s how it started. And we kept recruiting. At some point we had almost every instrument come through the whole band. We got good and we capped off at 13 solid members rehearsing every Monday.
YOB: Were you the only person writing the music?
NF: Yeah! No one wanted to write! I said “Look guys, I don’t know how to write the music out,” but I had a trumpet player named Zach and he was in the UT orchestra. I would hum it out or play it on my guitar and then they would translate it and they would write it down. So if we had a member gone for a while or leave, it was really hard to replace because either they wrote it down half-assed or they memorized it. ‘Cause I didn’t want sheet music onstage. It was all about “We gotta look cool, you know? We’re a rock band.” But Zach said “Look, you need lessons,” and I was like “Whatever, dude” and he said “Come see our orchestra play.” So he would get me to rehearsals and they would play Planets which I had never heard and they played Mahler, and I would run up to Zach and say “Zach that was amazing! How can you not want to go home right now and write out these huge pieces?!” And he was like “Dude, chill out, I just play.” So that was my first taste of “You guys really just play. I can’t be asking you guys to write stuff or come up with stuff, you don’t even know how to improvise.” It’s a whole different world. So then that made me realize that “I’m not going to get any help here,” so I said “Zach, can you get me some books?” So he gave me some books and it was like reading another language. I knew enough just from playing music, but it was a long process. Eventually I started writing it out, someone gave me Finale (music notation software), and the more I did myself, then they would say “let me help you” and they would sit down with me for an hour and teach me more. A long process.
NF: This is totally random, but by any chance did you ever get into Big Audio Dynamite?
YOB: Yeah! Their first album…well, their first few albums are amazing.
NF: Allright, because I am one of the hugest Clash fans and I only stumbled upon Big Audio Dynamite last week. But I had heard about them because I always knew what Mick Jones did but I always assumed that it was some band that was a failure. Dude, I looked up their first album and it’s amazing. I haven’t stopped listening to it. I wasn’t old enough to enjoy the 80’s the way that people talk about it, but I think now that the 80’s are back, or have been back, I guess I grew up as a kid maybe I just don’t remember certain things like the cool stuff. And there’s this certain connection of that era that I have, and I don’t know if it comes from being a kid or just now in today’s world, but damn there was some good-ass music back then.
Conversation drifted to writing original songs vs. playing cover songs
YOB: I still don’t really do cover songs, because I didn’t want to take the time to learn to play someone else’s song. Not that I don’t want to take the time, but it’s just more interesting to come up with my own. For me, it’s sticking to it. I can come up with a melody or something and go “Huh, that’s cool” and then just…blow it off. (laughs) It’s disposable.
NF: I was the same way, I never ever wanted to learn cover songs. When we first got that guitar – it was actually my brother’s guitar that he got for Christmas – and he started playing some stuff on tabs and I was like “Wow, that’s the song, that’s really cool.” So I tried doing that and said “This is boring” and that’s why I put it down originally, because I was like I don’t wanna do that. I think to this day, in a live setting, I’ve covered maybe like five songs, and I’ve done almost 1,000 shows. It’s just boring to me. I have this tour coming up that I got invited to – and keep in mind, I haven’t played in a band for maybe a year and a half, ’cause I’ve gone full into composition – but I got invited to do this tour in Asia so I was like “Yeah, I’ll do it” so I just called up some people. But I decided that I love Big Audio Dynamite so much that if there’s one cover that I ever have to play, and this might be my last tour, I’m gonna play a Big Audio Dynamite song. Do it live.
YOB: Do you know which one yet?
NF: Yeah, I have to ask the band, let them pick so we could all enjoy it. I didn’t want to be like “This is the song,” but I gave them only four options, and the majority would win. And it was “The Bottom Line“.
YOB: In Asia, I’m sure there are people who know that song. That will be cool. Going back to schooling – I’ve never had any guitar lessons, and there was part of me that early on was like “No, I don’t wanna learn how to play it, because I don’t want it to take any edge off of what I have.” And a few years ago I was trying to get my youngest to take singing lessons and she was like “No…” and I’m like “Why not? You could learn how to breathe and really project” and she said “Yeah…but it might mess up my voice, kinda.”
NF: That’s interesting to be thinking like that at a younger age.
YOB: So… (looks around) when you go into a bookstore, what section do you go to?
NF: I always grab a cup of coffee and then…it just depends. If I go to a library, then I automatically go the music section. If I go to a bookstore, and this is going to sound really sad, but the only bookstore I know and go to in Austin is Barnes and Noble, and I love going there. I usually go to the architecture or design section. I love those kind of books. Not that I ever want to do anything with architecture, I just find it fascinating.
YOB: What about record stores?
NF: I’ll go to the vinyl first. I don’t necessarily go to one section, I just kind of start scanning. I’m the kind of person that when I walk into the library, it’s one of my favorite places to go. But when I get there, I’m like … “Woah … what do I do?” I’ve planned it all up and I know what I’m going to do, but when I get there, I just freak out. Same thing with record stores. I just never know what to buy. I always want to buy everything, but then I never buy anything. But, one place I do always go is to the other section of vinyl, really obscure, and the classical. Classical is always super cheap. I love the obscure ones, ’cause you come across weird stuff like people reading car manuals, stuff like that. I think it’s fascinating that they made stuff like that, you know?
YOB: I always wanted to take stuff like that and drop it into a song. Like sample stuff from instructional video tapes or stuff like that, like “Here’s how you build a bookcase, first you take this and then you’d do that.” Especially industrial music, stuff like Ministry, they would just drop samples in, and that’s where I wanted to pull samples from, was stuff like that.
NF: I like that idea. I like it too because I’ve been listening to Big Audio Dynamite and they just sample throughout the whole song, just random stuff. It’s cool.
YOB: When I first got here, I went walking through and found the music section and there was a book by Griel Marcus called “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs.” What are some songs that are seminal to you?
NF: I think more in terms of albums, but I can do songs.
YOB: Albums works, too
NF: I look at the Pet Sounds album as one song in itself. It was before I got into classical music, but when I think back, that album, especially the arrangements and the instrumentation, it was very influential. At the time I heard that album I was playing punk rock and I thought “I gotta do something else”, so it was influential in me developing larger arrangements.
For sure London Calling. But if I had to pick one song on London Calling it would be “Clampdown.” It’s not my favorite song, but lyrically I think The Clash made me think I could be some political figurehead in music. So all my early songs were trying to say something similar to what they were trying to say. I know all the lyrics, but like “Spanish Bombs,” I know some of the figures and places but I don’t know what the story’s about. I would hear it and say “Wow, he’s saying something important, I can tell” so let me take an event from today and try and make meaning out of it. But I gave up on trying to be political after a while.
YOB: Why’s that?
NF: I don’t know. I think I just…it’s hard to explain, but when you have 13 people in a band…I became more of a manager, just managing people’s feelings. So it was so hard for me to stick to my guns because I just cared so much about the people showing up and playing that I just started to give in. And they’d say “We should do more music like this,” and I’d say “okay” and it became this hodgepodge of music. Music is cool, I love all kinds of music, but then it was “We should write about this” and “I have this poetry” and I tried to cater to people and lost my backbone.
YOB: Was it losing your backbone? Or was it becoming more empathetic?
NF: Being in the band was my full-time job, so if someone came to me and said “Here’s this poetry and I want to use it,” for them it was only a couple hours a week they were doing it, but for me it was like “Why do I need to do this?” but I also wanted to please them so I’d try to incorporate it. I didn’t mind doing it. But after that band…I never was a big lyric guy anyways, but after that band I had some opportunities develop…after I stopped playing in bands I was really depressed and I got this opportunity to tour in Europe, out of nowhere. So I got really involved in traveling and touring and playing and I met this guy and he said “Hey, you’re doing a lot of cool stuff, I can get you into this opportunity in Denmark if you write this style of music.” So he was like “Write a song like this, and it has to be radio-friendly pop for this Danish thing.” So I started doing that and I look back at those years, it was like three whole years, and I got sucked into changing my whole sound. I became this guy who was like “I care more about the opportunity so I’m totally going to write in that direction”. I lost myself.
Deep down I felt like a sellout and that no one that I trusted in my circle of people would tell me. One guy told me, one friend told me, but at that point I just felt like I was too deep into it. He stopped coming to shows. The Noise Revival Orchestra, our 13-piece band, we actually started to make a name for ourselves. We stopped having to have (multiple bands on) bills, we would be the only band that night because our sets were long. And we’d make all the money, and we were starting to sell out – I mean, small capacities, like 200-225, but for me it was such a “Wow!”. MTV did something on us. So we were thinking like “oh, this is cool!” And he knew that, and he came from L.A. and he was like “Dude, you’re on the cutting edge of something really cool.” Anyway, so then when I was doing this other music, he was like “This is shit. What are you doing? Why are you playing this?” But these songs were catchier, poppier, they were getting me invitations into these things in Europe, and I lost myself. I didn’t want to be doing that but I just did because I felt like I was trying to please other people.
YOB: How did you move on from that?
NF: I moved on mentally, but I just stopped playing music and started composing.
YOB: How long have you just been composing?
NF: Over two years now. I told you the last time I played in a band show was about a year and a half ago, but the only reason I was doing that was because I was touring in China. Before the China thing happened, I had already given up playing for six months, so, over two years.
YOB: So, what was the China tour?
NF: We got invited by a promoter there.
YOB: Was that Noise Revival?
NF: Yeah, he looked at the Noise Revival site and said “You guys should come, can you come?” and worked out this great deal for us. We made money, we didn’t have to front the money to get there, paid him back with the money we made. And so I said “Yeah.” The band wasn’t even around for six months but I told him yes it was, I still have the active website. And same thing happened, this Taiwanese festival found us online – I think it had to do with the China thing a couple years ago – but they can look at a website and say “These guys are active.” So I learned to always keep my website up. (laughs) So, when China asked us to play, we just came and played and I didn’t want to play the crap that I had been writing, but I had to play some of it because I didn’t have enough time to write all-new material. We just started playing some old basic rock & roll stuff because I was embarrassed of what I had been writing. After the China tour I was motivated to come back and start writing more, but that was a makeshift band. It’s easy to get guys to come over with you when you say “Do you want a free trip to China to play some songs?” Same thing with this Taiwanese thing, I don’t have a band anymore so I just asked people. “Here’s a free ticket, will you come?” It’s easy, but then when you get back and we have an amazing time in China and we were playing to these huge crowds, biggest crowds I’ve ever played to, about 500 a show. They’ve never heard us, they put up some Facebook-like page and we got all these followers. I think it was the novelty (of us). And the poster they made for us, they used my face and apparently I look like some Tibet freedom fighter or something like that, so they got banned from some clubs and I think it built this weird kind of buzz, like “Who is this guy who thinks he can do this?” So there were people outside of every show, lined up, and we had to fight through the crowds. It was the most amazing experience. I had never felt that rock star experience ever until I went to China. You know, clearing the crowd, 500 people, getting through, getting up on stage. It’s sort of wild wild west there, nothing’s too professional. We’d just get up and play, everything was set up for us. Playing an encore every show, kids screaming and dancing and holding our hands. And then literally rushing out like “Gotta get out” and then taking pictures for like an hour outside in the street.
|Photo courtesy Nathan Felix|
YOB: Just with the kids and stuff?
NF: Yeah, it was like this underground little culture in China that was coming out to see our shows. Our first show that we played was this packed show, 500 people, but we were opening up for a band that was established so I said “Okay, this is amazing, but this is not going to happen anymore.” That band only went for two shows and then we did our the tour by ourselves, and then we’d get local acts in the cities to open for us and I said “Dude, we can’t headline a tour.” And the guy was like “Don’t worry, dude, don’t worry.” It’s part novelty and part that the underground culture was so small there that if someone in this city says “This band you gotta see, they’re coming tomorrow,” and (then that person) would tell their friends.
So I came back to the US thinking “Guys, let’s do it!” And of course the guys that I got the tickets for were like “Yeah…okay…” but nothing came of it. So I said, nah, forget it, and went back to composing. I remember, I booked a show in Austin when we got off the China show and I was like “Dude, we’re gonna do it!” and we played this show – take into account I hadn’t played a show in Austin in two years – and 25 people came. And I was like “Wow, dude, I’m here in a bar playing to 25 people and I just got off a tour where I’m playing to 400-500 people.” It was depressing.
YOB: What’s been the response been for The Curse, The Cross and The Lion?
NF: I get a lot of good press and I get a lot of good feedback and a lot of people…I only hear positive things. But I’m the kind of guy that says “I know there has to be some negative out there.” But I only get positive. And I’m happy about it. It’s one of those things, too, that I’ve learned, when you’re in a band and you release an album or release music, you (should) never say – ’cause every band does it – “This is not what we really sound like, wait ’til you hear our next album” or “Oh, this was made a while ago,” but I’m really proud of (the symphony). But I’ve grown. It took me like six years to make that. But in that six years, I’ve exponentially grown in composition. Now I can actually write. So for me it’s great, I’m happy, I’m proud of it, but I’ve already moved on in a lot of ways. It’s really hard for me to say, because I’m not that person anymore. I feel like I’m not on even footing with other composers, but I feel like I have something unique to offer.
|Photo Credit: Jean Roux Bezuidenhout|
The reason I say “I know there’s some negative out there” is because I got invited to do this composer’s thing as a composer to write a new piece in Bulgaria. First time I’ve ever been chosen for anything in composition. If you’ve seen the film, you see I’ve been rejected a lot. And I still do (get rejected), but I’m so DIY band world, where rejection is like “Okay, we’ll go to the other club!” So I just go “Oh, I’ll find another orchestra.” But when I got invited to Bulgaria, I was with guys that had their doctorate and masters (in composition), and they didn’t know my background. The first week we were getting to know each other and were going to panels and it was more of a learning experience and talking music. So they thought “You must have your doctorate, too.” So the whole time I knew who they were ’cause I looked them up, but they didn’t really care to do that. One was from Colombia and one was from New Zealand – cool guys, we’re hittin’ it off, making friends, but I’m nervous because deep down I feel like I’m a poseur! And they learned at that point (that I don’t have a degree in composition), and we’re friends so they don’t really say anything, but they expressed themselves in passive ways, you know, like marking their territory, like “Dude, I’m a professional. That’s cool that you’re here, but…” So they sorta looked down on me, and I realized that, man, this is gonna be tougher than I thought. Here I am, this guy who’s super enthusiastic, like “Yeah, I can do it” and they’re like “Woah, hold up. I just went to school for eight years, don’t sit here and tell me that you’re on level footing with me.” And I’m thinking, who cares about school, it’s about music. And I’ll send out all this stuff or I’ll talk to people that are in the composing world – or even professors sometimes – and I’d rather them come up to me and tell me “You suck” and give me a reason, but they just don’t. They just don’t say anything, so I don’t know how to adjust. I don’t have anyone to lean on for advice. Even my compositions, some of the composers in Bulgaria they’re like “Dude, it’s messy.” But I took my piece to a composer in America and he said, “As a composer you can write whatever you want, it looks great.” And those Europeans are telling me “Where’s the balance?”
YOB: Historically, though…who am I thinking of… the turn of the century guys, the guy who did The Planets, some of those guys were seen as like, there were riots or something, like “What are you doing? You can’t do this!”
NF: Yeah, like even Strauss
YOB: I think there were a couple of Russian guys who staged stuff…maybe I’m thinking of operas and people at the time were thinking “You can’t do that”. It’s interesting for me to hear you talk about from that standpoint of feeling like a poseur. Whether or not you do anything about that it’s just like “Why are these guys making me feel this way?” But again, from the DIY/punk background of like “I’m gonna go do it anyway. I’m still doing it.”
NF: Yeah! I’m writing about my experience in Bulgaria. It’s been now over a year, and I usually write about my trips, but I’m looking back at photos and things I wrote down and remembering things. Honestly, I didn’t want to be there after a couple of days because they just treated me so bad, but the thing is that I let it happen. I could have stuck up for myself but I felt so inferior, so I let them really dig into me. Maybe it’s my personality, or maybe I fit some sort of stereotype of an American to them, but anything that was American in music, they were like “That’s shit.” They’re like “Who do you like?” “Oh, you know, I like Philip Glass…” “That’s shit.” It’s like, woah, okay. They’re talking about these old guys I that don’t know and I was out of the conversation and I didn’t stick up for myself and I really wish I would have. Since then, and even before, I had learned about this whole academic world of composition and, okay, it’s an old kind of music, but have you ever walked into a bar and you see everyone is like “We’re these independent thinkers” but then you look and they’re all wearing the same thing. To me, all these guys in the academic world, they’re like “Our music is so good” and then I hear it, and I must be missing the point, but it all sounds the same to me. They’re like, “It has to be atonal” and they would tell me things like, it’s not about what it sounds like, it’s about how you write it and the composition. We would listen to these pieces and we’d follow along and I could barely follow along because it was this weird stuff on paper that I’d never seen. It was just this noise. I love noise music, but it was the noise for ten minutes and they’re reading this thing and raising their heads almost like “Oh, he put that in there!” and I’m sitting there thinking, like, “Whaaat?” so I just start doing that too because I want to fit in. At the end, it finishes and it sounds the same, it’s almost like he played like four notes for the whole thing. And they’re just like “Oh, that was brilliant! You’d used a whole diminished fifth for everything and then at the very end you used a fourth! Ha ha ha ha!” and I’m thinking “Who cares?” And they’re like “That’s so brilliant!” and I’m thinking “But it sounds like shit.” And then I tell the guy, have you ever talked about recording it and he’s cursing, like “F that, why would I record everything, the beauty is in the composition! People that record music and want to put music out there is nonsense.” And I’m like, “okay….” I mean, to each their own, but…
YOB: But that’s like someone saying, like, Shakespeare’s plays…they can be deconstructed five ways to Sunday. It’s some of the best writing that’s ever been. And you can really look at it that way. But! It’s supposed to be on the stage. Without putting on the presentation, you miss so much of the text. And I know that because I’ve read a shit-ton of Shakespeare, but I haven’t actually watched a lot of it, and whenever I watch it it’s like “Oh, right!” There’s so much more to it.
NF: The thing is that I realize it, we’re making music. They look at themselves as “this composer” and maybe I’m not a composer, but I don’t even necessarily want to do what you do. Like you’re trying to do some sort of intellectual piece. When I look at it, okay, it’s in the sheet music, but there’s that human element to it. And a piece can be played a hundred times and played a hundred times differently each time, but that’s the beauty of it. That’s why I like rock & roll. When I started in punk bands, I taught everyone how to play, so that was the element of getting onstage where it could all fall apart. But it also could be the most beautiful thing. And I guess they just don’t see that.
Nathan blogs about his life and music at http://www.electrochestral.com/ His band did not end up covering “The Bottom Line” by Big Audio Dynamite on their Asian tour. But he says “Maybe next time!”
Nathan’s second symphony Neon Heaven will see its debut at the SPOT Festival in Aarhus, Denmark this May, followed by another new piece debut in Batalha, Portugal, at the Monastery of Batalha, conducted by Andre Lousada (the conductor in The Curse and the Symphony documentary).
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