Nate Young: Interview
“I want this record to be like a hex sign.”
If you haven’t heard of Nate Young, you haven’t been paying attention. He’s the force behind great noise acts like Demons, Stare Case, and Moon Pool & Dead Band. You probably know him best from Wolf Eyes, the Michigan noise group whose past and current members have been a part of other luminary groups like Dead Machines, Handicapper Horns, Hair Police, Dead Air, Graveyards, and many others. In terms of the upper echelon of American noise acts, these dudes are the glistening, pulsating, malignant nerve center at the center of the Midwest, erecting walls of crushed beer cans and rotting synthesizers to carve a barrier between East Coast design school kids like Black Dice and Lightning Bolt and the West Coast’s rainbow spectrum of noise punk (No Age) to harsh noise (John Wiese). They’ve come to typify much of Midwestern noise: organic, scruffy, thunderous, and unrelenting — these are folks who can’t even drive to the beach to chill out (unless that beach is on Lake Huron.)
Nate Young has always been one of the main driving forces behind Wolf Eyes and, separately, Midwest noise in general. He’s known for his close relationship with the tools for creation and distribution of his work. Lathe cutting, synth wiring, artwork; he’s got a hand in it all. It’s this personal connection that makes his work, as well the segments of Midwestern noise he’s participated in and influenced, so interesting.
Soon he’ll be releasing an LP as Nate Young Regression on NNA Tapes called Nate Young “Stay Asleep” Regression Volume Two (TMT News), which will give us all a glimpse at what’s turning him on right now. I recently had the chance to talk to him about the new LP as well as his general approach to his art these days.
What should we be expecting from Stay Asleep?
Well, the entire title is Nate Young “Stay Asleep” Regression Volume Two, a long but informative title. Volume one was released on Ideal Recordings in 2009. On Stay Asleep, I used analog synthesizers, digital piano, handmade electronics, and tape loops.
At the time I sat down to record this album, a friend had lost someone close to him, a family member, and witnessing that had a heavy impact on me. I had also just moved and was setting up my equipment for the first time in a new space. Those moments coinciding led me to begin these songs.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about it after the fact as music that can protect against the “evil eye.” I’ve been looking at hex signs and different evil eye catchers for inspiration on a new edition of drawings. I love the idea of making something that is fascinating and draws away gazes of envy or dislike. In Michigan, we call this evil gaze an “ice grill.” In a way, I want this record to be like a hex sign. I am not extremely superstitious, but I like the idea of distracting negative energy with art and holding it at bay.
Since this album is being released (relatively) under your own name, did the recording differ from the work you’ve done with groups like Wolf Eyes and others?
I recorded and composed [the album] at Burning Log (my recording base). Aaron Dilloway and John Olson [Wolf Eyes members past and current, respectively] are on the last track “Collapse.” John plays wind instruments and Dilloway jams tape effects. I do almost all the recording and producing duties for Wolf Eyes and Burning Log, so the production experience was not very different from any other record I have done.
“I have seen people lose their shit violently at Wolf Eyes gigs. I have also seen people having sex at Wolf Eyes gigs.”
When you approach producing new material for a solo or side project, do you consciously pursue a certain sound or is each session organic?
Each session in some sense is always approached organically. Sometimes recording the water heater or the fire place will start the process of writing. Very little planning goes into each session except what gear is used. I use different equipment or different combinations of equipment for each group. This helps define a specific sound for each group or solo work. My gear in Wolf Eyes is nothing like my gear in Stare Case, Regression, or Moon Pool & Dead Band.
How did you get hooked up with the folks at NNA?
NNA approached me and I saw that they had put out a couple of my friends’ releases. When I see my friends on other labels’ rosters, it always is a good sign. NNA has been great to deal with.
The work you’ve produced thus far has been very far away structurally from conventional pop music and conventional music in general. It seems like playing with other musicians in this context may present a unique situation in which the performers are not telling each other to play a certain note or keep inside a certain key, but are mingling sounds together with their own idiosyncratic devices and methods. Do you find this process led to more personal situations where you’re inventing a language in which to collaborate, as opposed to traditional musical convention where a C chord is a C chord and an A minor scale is an A minor scale, no matter what instrument you’re playing?
Dedicated weirdoes eventually experiment with conventional tunings and scales. It is just unavoidable. For instance, all variable tape machine speeds are set up in octaves. Shifting from 7 1/2 to 15 inches per second raises the pitch on the tape by one octave. So even if you’re recording tapes of dying birds, you can transpose the pitch and possibly create a dissonant chord with the dying birds. On my new record, I use a standard tuning on all my synthesizers. This actually makes them fully functional and easier to use. For example, pulse width and frequency modulation work best when you’re in tune and conscious of detuning. I think a certain level of control and concise communication is essential to playing any sound.
In my experience, most unconventional or experimental musicians do speak their own insane language. The language is almost always based on intuitive taste, hand motions, and general weirdness.
Do you have any of your own language you use?
I use the term “zero point” in my own weirdo music language. This can mean many things; relative volume level, resonant frequency, spacial relation, boredom, duration to beer store, etc. So in Wolf Eyes, and in all my projects, when I get to a gig, I sound check for “zero point.” Little weirdo terms or slang develop within groups and then slowly spread. This helps big time.
You seem to have a close relationship with the physical aspects of music distribution. For example, I’ve enjoyed reading your accounts of melting records and your extensive experiments with lathe cuts, where you’re literally carving the sound-producing grooves into an object.
When I first started drawing and playing music as a teenager, my ultimate goal was to make drawings with recordings on them. I made this possible in my twenties by acquiring a record lathe.
What does physicality mean for you as it relates to music?
Physical objects and sound have always gone hand in hand with me. I think of lathe records as very flat, three-dimensional sculptures. Each is hand-carved and has a playing life of its own. The physicality of music objects is what maintains the personal relationship with the audience. In other words, the weird object is such a nice complement with this weird music and helps the music maintain a maxed-out weird impression.
“My mother used to get furious with me because I would take apart all my electronic toys.”
Since physicality is especially important to you, do you feel alienated working in a music culture that is so internet- and cloud-based?
I don’t feel alienated, and I don’t feel like [the internet] is where the work happens. Live performance and small editions of releases will always be more important. Clouds and MP3s will never take the place of handmade objects. The singularity is inevitable by definition, but I don’t think it consciously informs the direction of my work.
You’ve released many smaller-scale (as opposed to full-fledged LP) releases on cassettes, 7-inches, and the like over the years. This seems like something that’s fairly characteristic in the noise community. For example, John Wiese just celebrated the release of his one hundredth 7-inch. Is this simply a practical aspect of releasing experimental work, or is there something that attracts noise artists to producing so many varied releases on this scale?
I have always thought that there are more colleagues than fans of noise music. This seems to be why a constant flow of limited releases exists. It has been a way to exchange ideas, check out progress and even make jokes for each other.
I do feel like there is a bad side to this. Sometimes a feeling arises, “I am drowning in unedited recordings of noise rehearsals and jam sessions,” or “I don’t want to trade my LP for a cassette.” This perception is only an illusion and applies to people who can’t laugh at themselves or take anybody serious. I do think noise musicians and labels should be a little more thoughtful with every release. But at $5 a pop, why not give every tape and CD-R a chance. Fuck it, it’s still cheap at $5. No inflation exists at a noise gig.
From what I understand, you seem to have a close relationship with the equipment you make sounds with, in terms of their wiring and construction. Over the years, how involved have you been in manipulating the electrical and mechanical guts of your instruments?
My mother used to get furious with me because I would take apart all my electronic toys. When I got interested in electronics, I had no idea what I was doing. It was a means to an end. At 17, I had broken my guitar by strapping a huge spring to it. All I had was a crappy toy keyboard to jam. I thought it looked better with the guts hanging out. Then I found an Atari joystick and thought, “If only this joystick could bend the notes or make it sound fucked up.” I sort of willed it to work with some bubble gum and spit. Since then I have learned a bit more.
Currently, I am working with CHIP from Survival Research Labs and Ape Technology. CHIP has taught me the ins and outs of DIY electronics. We just finished a Gristleizer clone and have plans to make simple DIY synths and effects.
Do you feel that your electronic experimentation leads to you having a more personal and intuitive relationship with your instruments and therefore your performance?
Traditional electronic musicians from the early 20th century had to know their equipment inside and out. They also typically designed their own equipment. This has always been a great inspiration for me. I love Louis and Bebe Barron’s descriptions of the machines they designed for [the film] Forbidden Planet.
According to Wikipedia: “The sounds and patterns that came out of the circuits were unique and unpredictable because they were actually overloading the circuits until they burned out to create the sounds. The Barrons could never recreate the same sounds again, though they later tried very hard to recreate their signature sound from Forbidden Planet. Because of the unforeseen life span of the circuitry, the Barrons made a habit of recording everything.”
The Barrons were doing exactly what my weirdo colleagues and I are doing now. I wish all noise musicians would be like the Barrons, but this is not the case.
“I have always thought that there are more colleagues than fans of noise music.”
Do you feel a connection with the whole “circuit bending” scene?
Yes, I feel a huge connection to the circuit bending scene. Almost all of Wolf Eyes’ instruments are circuit bent or “tweaked,” as we calls it!
One of the most attractive things about your work is the emotional evocativeness of the sounds you produce. With Wolf Eyes, Demons, Hatred, and other projects, you’ve managed to create breathing soundscapes that remind me of terror and dread, but in a satisfyingly challenging way. Do you intentionally work to evoke certain feelings or emotions from the listener with your work?
Thanks man. I am not sure if it is intentional. Call it my style. The sounds that most interest me are the ones that have some sort of depth, or sounds that have “the spook.”
What goal do you have with the emotions you bring out in people?
I have seen people lose their shit violently at Wolf Eyes gigs. I have also seen people having sex at Wolf Eyes gigs. I cannot say this was ever my goal. I do take some responsibility for freaking people out with loud intensely grating frequencies. I know this can be hard on the old noggin. People tend to respond in extreme ways. Maybe because we are making loud music and freaking out on stage.
I managed to catch Wolf Eyes at Boomslang Festival in Lexington, Kentucky last year. You sounded even more brutal live than the stuff on Human Animal and Burned Mind. It was great! However, the most recent Wolf Eyes release I’ve had a chance to listen to, People Unwatched Vol. 5, doesn’t have all the harsh explosive crescendos of the performance I witnessed or some of your earlier work. Does this relate to your personal progression as an artist, or is this something going on solely inside of Wolf Eyes? Is it giving us a preview of what to expect for this solo release?
At a certain point, you have to be realistic about explosive crescendos. If you always have it in your mind that your music or performance has to be a brain-shattering-psycho-deli, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. I feel like all my music has taken a very realistic turn. I am focusing on technique and structure more than visceral aesthetics. Don’t worry, being loud and freaking out on stage is still my M.O.
Wolf Eyes is one of the few true noise acts that has gained as much notoriety in the “indie” music world as you have. When you’re recording for a label like Sub Pop or performing an especially large show, has there ever been pressure to make your work more generally accessible, or are you left to your own approach?
I have been stopped or cut off from the P.A. at large shows, but this has been expected from the jump. It has never changed our goals.
With all the labels I deal with, all I ask is to have control over the final art and music. I have never had a problem.
What’s coming up after this release?
From November 17 until December 5, I am touring out to the West Coast with Alex Moskos (Drainolith) to support Stay Asleep. More info will be posted on my site.
AA Records will have an art show in downtown L.A. on November 26 at Exilo Studios. I am also currently involved with a Michigan-based music and art collective called Michigan Underground Group (MUG). MUG exists for the advancement and encouragement of unconventional music and visual art. MUG will have a collective record label, performance space, and recording studio. We’ll be posting more about that online soon.