Hi Nathan, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
Thanks! I’m good. This fall has been one of the busiest of my life between my band and theatre work. I did the sound design for this amazing piece called Nat Turner In Jerusalem that my friend Megan Sandberg-Zakian directed Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop, and now I’m laying the groundwork for a few plays I’m composing music for in Boston this winter. I just signed on to score a production of James and the Giant Peach at ART, which is one of my favorite stories ever being staged at one of my favorite theatres in the country. So I’ve been in and out of rehearsals and recording sessions all day every day for the past 3 months. It’s been a whirlwind but a really exciting one!
Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Never Be Normal”?
“Never Be Normal” is kind of an old song. I wrote it back in 2013, and it’s been a staple of my live set since then. I’ve recorded it a few times, but never been happy about how it sounded. My favorite of those is from my old post-punk band A Thousand Ships, so we included that on the EP that accompanies it. The other songs on the EP are tracks that were recorded for the full length and got cut for various reasons, but I like playing live, and wanted to have out there in some capacity.
Did any event, in particular, inspire you to write this song
I was heavily involved with Occupy Wall Street, and actually continue to work with the puppetry group we founded out of it, The People’s Puppets. I’m headed out to our bi-weekly build session shortly to make some banners for a demonstration against the Dakota Access Pipeline. On the 6 month anniversary, this was March 17th, 2012, we were surrounded by the NYPD as they tried to clear Zuccotti Park. I was soft-locked around the tents in the middle of the park. I’d had some problems with my lungs in the past, and as I saw the cops moving in to force us to disperse, I remember saying to the guy next to me that I couldn’t afford to get arrested or beaten. He unlocked arms and just said, “then run.” So as the cops moved in shouting “disperse,” I got up to disperse. As I was trying to get out of the area, a bunch of them grabbed me, beat me about the chest and pushed me out of the way. I ended up in the hospital with a collapsed lung, and spent a lot of time dealing with that trauma.
I wanted to write a song that told the story of what those of us on the ground experienced, the trauma and violence from the police, but also our resilience and the strength of that community. Because I felt like at the time I was writing it about a year later, the movement had really been mischaracterized in the media. Now, 5 years later, pretty much every politician, left and right, is running on a platform of economic reform and reining Wall Street, and it’s a little bizarre, but gratifying. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it’s encouraging to see so many people talking about the same issues we went down there to talk about 5 years ago. So I wanted to write something defiant, something that said “you can beat me, you can mock me, you can do whatever you want, but I’m not going to be silent. You’ll have to kill me for that.”
How was the filming experience?
I shot the video with John Regan from CactusHead Puppets. We’ve been talking about making a stop motion short together since college, but neither of us had ever really done it before. We’ve both done a lot of puppetry, and are both huge fans of Ray Harryhausen, but we walked into it with this sense of “well how hard can this possibly be?” Which is basically the phrase that’s gotten me in the most trouble in my life. The video was really like a stop motion boot camp for both of us. It took about 4 hours to shoot every 8 seconds of video because every element in every single frame has to be perfectly positioned relative to the last one. But the concept of the video, all the toys going to war, kept it a fun process. We approached the whole thing with this idea of being two kids who emptied their toy boxes onto the floor and made it up as we went along. My parents had just sold their house and retired, so I had boxed up all my childhood toys. I brought it to John and Megan’s apartment in Springfield, we emptied it out on the floor, and went to town. We’re working on a new one now, which is a little more designed and artful and less gleeful nihilism. We’ve only shot about 10 seconds worth of it so far, but it’s going to be amazing when it’s done. In like a year probably.
The single comes off your new album Ordinary Eternal Machinery – what’s the story behind the title?
The name comes from a book by Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers, that my sister got me obsessed with when I was in high school. “Ordinary eternal machinery, like the grinding of the stars.” I love the imagery of it, like a Jewish mystical way of saying the same thing as that famous Carl Sagan line “we are made of star stuff.” A lot of the imagery on the album draws from both Sagan and the Jewish folklore and philosophy I was raised with, so it felt like a perfect summation. It’s about the merging of the mundane and profound. Or the profundity of the mundane. That paradox where the things you take most for granted tend to also be the most important. Like breathing. You never realize how important breathing is until you have to think about breathing.
I recorded the album in the middle of a lot of upheaval in my life. I’d gotten out of a really messed up abusive relationship, and gone on tour for 5 months and was longing for a day when I didn’t have to pack up and leave and go somewhere new. I was broke and burnt out, and desperate for an ordinary, boring day, and thinking about how beautiful that would be to do nothing much at all. The Leonard Cohen line kept popping into my head while I was on the road. That imagery ended up filtering into the sound of the album too. I started imagining everything as this big clockwork machine just beneath what we can see. So the songs on the album are full of these moments when the drums and guitars subside and you hear these rhythmic mechanical noises underneath.
How was the recording and writing process?
It took forever! Ordinary Eternal Machinery took about 2 years to make, though there are some bits on it from demos back to 2010. You can’t really hear it on the single, which is probably one of the more stripped down songs on the record, but a lot of the album is pretty heavily orchestrated. I play with a revolving line-up of friends, so every show is a little different, but I wanted to get as many of them on the record as everyone’s crazy schedule would permit. There ended up being about 30 different people playing on it in varying capacities.
It was really important to me that everything be totally organic, so all the mechanical sounds on it were created by experimenting with found objects and mic placement. I love electronica, and I wanted to create some of the sounds people make with drum machines and synths with real physical things. No synths were harmed in the making of this record! Stuff like the old muffler that fell off my car, a washing machine full of nails, a couple beer growlers tuned to different pitches, homemade music boxes, hinges. old metal toys from the 40’s, and a hubcap played with a violin bow all became part of that machinery. That was a lot of fun to create. My housemates would come home and find all the cupboards open and me running around with drum sticks seeing what the different kitchen implements sounded like and just sort of shake their heads. It definitely pissed off the cats. There’s a lot of tension between these like uptempo folk punk and indie rock moments on the album, these really beautiful lush orchestral moments, and the machinery pulsing along beneath it all. It’s a big messy album, and I really hope people are willing to go along for the ride.
What have you learned from your tour stints throughout pretty much the world?
My favorite moments when I’m traveling are always when someone just completely crushes your preconceived notions of a place and the people who live there. A few years back I was playing in Leavenworth, Washington, which is this totally surreal place, if you’ve never been there. It’s this faux Bavarian village in the Cascades. Everything’s decked out to look like a village in Germany in the 1880s. Lederhosen everywhere. And there’s this bar, Der Hinterhof, that I’ve played a few times, which is the only place that doesn’t just do like polka and oompah music. I played my set and sat down with this group of people, and got into a conversation with this guy who tells me “I’m basically a Limbaugh conservative.” And I’m thinking “well shit. I’m a queer commie Jew from the northeast who organizes with Occupy and Black Lives Matter. This isn’t going to go well…” I mean I’m literally Satan as far as this guy’s concerned. We ended up staying up until 3 AM drinking and talking. We had our differences, but we took the time to listen to each other, and we were both surprised how much we had in common.
It’s easy to assume “all people from here are like this and all people from there are like that” because that’s hardwired into our brains. We all do that on some level. But those are caricatures, you know? No-one is just one thing. Everyone is more complicated than that. When you travel, and really take the time to talk to people who you might not otherwise talk to, you can move past that instinct to stereotype and view other people more compassionately. It’s like that Stephen Hawking sample in that Pink Floyd song; “all we need to do is make sure we keep talking.” I know I have some views that people might find controversial, but David Gilmour’s Pink Floyd is the only Pink Floyd worth talking about. There, I said it.
Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
I try to write songs that are about things bigger than me. If I’m telling a story from my life, I try to make it an example to illustrate a larger point rather than just the thing itself. I write songs as my way of processing my experiences, but as I write them, I try to draw in larger issues of social justice and bigger trends, and I try to add a little humor in there. Alma Sheppard-Matsuo who did the album art, is making this huge booklet that makes some of those links from lyrics to social themes really clear. I can’t wait to share that with people.
I used to play in an emo band in college, and I’ve definitely written my share of “you broke my heart and now I’m really sad” songs. It’s just not that interesting to me anymore. A good song should be like a good standup bit, you know? The comic tells a story from their life and then twists it to make a bigger point, or show how absurd something is. I want to do that with my songs. I guess I want to be the Eddie Izzard of music. I’d be cool with that.
Any plans to hit the road?
Yeah. I’m actually heading on the road next week for a short tour, and then I’m in the middle of setting up a larger one for late January / early February. A lot of these are DIY spaces and house shows, which tend to be my favorite places to play.
11/15: Pittsburgh, PA – Spider House
11/16: Columbus, OH – House With No Name
11/17: Wyandotte, MI – The Rockery
11/18: South Bend, IN – The Well
11/19: Galesburg, IL – DIY Galesburg
11/20: Muncie, IN – Cosmosgiving
11/21: Cleveland, OH – Sunnyvale
What else is happening next in Nathan Leigh’s world?
Too much! I’ve got 2 new videos in the works, one for “BFA In Technical Theatre” that Matt Weston directed, and one for “Beaches In Winter” that I’m directing that should be out this month. Then once I get back from tour I head straight into rehearsals for 4 plays in Boston and then it’s time for the CD release tour and all that mishegas. I think Fall 2017 is gonna be pretty relaxed though.