Interview with Nathan Leigh

If you've forgotten who Nathan Leigh is, take a moment to read our last article on him by clicking here.

Crowdsurf Central: When did you start playing?

Nathan Leigh: I've been recording solo records since I was a kid, but never really took it seriously until 2010. Before that I'd played in various punk and indie bands and those were my focus. Doing my own stuff was just a way to blow off steam more than anything. I do a lot of work as a composer and sound designer for theatre, and in the fall of 2010 I got offered a contract for a play that would have paid really well and opened up some doors. But the play was pretty awful and I really didn't like what it had to say about the world. I didn't want to spend the next 4 months of my life making something that was cynical and mean-spirited and problematic in a whole host of ways. I felt like if I'm going to be broke and tired all the time anyway, I'd rather be broke and tired and make art I'm proud of. So I turned it down and booked myself a solo national tour instead. I've been touring as much as I can ever since. I try to be on the road for about 1/3 of every year.

What has changed since releasing 'A Life In Transit?'

I was going through a pretty major health crisis when I was putting out 'A Life In Transit,' and recovering from that's sort of dominated the last few years. I was about half-way through recording that album the first time my right lung collapsed, and ended up needing surgery after being beaten by the NYPD during an Occupy protest. That whole thing is what "Never Be Normal" is about. So 'A Life In Transit' was created in the middle of this major crisis, and the time since then has been a healing process, you know? Trying to learn to take more time when I need it. I tend to be the kind of person who will have 15 different projects going at once and just push until I break, and now that I know how serious breaking is, I'm trying not to do that so much. It's part of why it's taken so long to make 'Ordinary Eternal Machinery.'

What was the writing process like with 'Ordinary Eternal Machinery?'

Slow! I'm usually a "first draft is the best draft" kind of person, and I've tried to fight that instinct on this one. I started writing the followup pretty much immediately after 'A Life In Transit' came out, and recorded 3 full length albums worth of material. Every time I thought I was done, it was never quite what I wanted to say, so I'd take the best songs and release them as EPs. That was 'Let's Get Lost' and 'Plastic Army Men.' I like to think of an EP as a collection of songs and ideas and a full length album as a statement. I wasn't ready to make a statement. I started working on 'Ordinary Eternal Machinery' in earnest in the summer of 2014. I thought I'd finished it and went on tour for 5 months. When I got back I realized it wasn't done. I'd gotten involved with Black Lives Matter at that point, and it just felt like a collection of songs about how hard touring life is and licking my wounds after a bad breakup were so slight and solipsistic compared to the other stuff going on in the world. So I spent another year re-writing and revising the material and started bringing in other artists to help flesh it out and add new voices to the mix. What started as a solo project turned into this whole orchestra playing in my living room! By the time we finished there were 30 collaborators on the record and like 40 something songs that didn't make the cut.

What can we expect from that album?

I think it's going to be sort of polarizing. I decided pretty early on that I was more interested in making something that people could dive into than something that was shooting for radio appeal. I was thinking a lot about the big concept albums I loved when I was a kid, that I'd just get lost in for weeks and explore every crevice of sound. Early Pink Floyd stuff, Nine Inch Nails, Bowie, and Cursive. And like 'To Pimp A Butterfly' came out while I was working on it and that really became a touch stone during the process. I wanted to try to create something that would give people the same feeling I felt when I was young and would put on headphones and disappear for a while into a record. It's a folk album ultimately, but it's more expansive than what we usually consider folk music There's a lot of found percussion. I've always been into electronic stuff, and I wanted to find a way to make those sounds organically. So when my muffler fell off, I used that on a few songs, and then kept experimenting from there. I also discovered that if you fill a washing machine with nails it sounds awesome, but cats really hate it. I keep a picture of Pete Seeger on my piano at home, and he was kind of my guide while we were recording, but I'm pretty sure he'd take an ax to this record if he were still with us. That's exciting to me. I'd much rather really piss a few people off than be kinda tolerated by everyone.

What was recording/stop motion process like for the "Never Be Normal" music video? How long did it take?

It took about 2 weeks to shoot. John Regan and I had been talking about doing a stop motion project together forever. We went to college together, and we would always bond over our love of like old Ray Harryhausen movies, and this was something we'd always wanted to do. We'd both shot a few little test things on our own but never anything more than a few frames, so this was a pretty major leap for both of us. It takes 4 hours for every 8 seconds we'd shoot. We'd have to plan every step one of the characters would take and then count it out in frames to make sure it looked natural and fluid. There was a lot of watching each other walk or move our arms and counting. But it was important that the video had the spontaneity and joy of like two kids emptying out their toy box and playing war, because that's basically what we were doing, so the hardest part was finding the balance between planning and play. The best moments tended to be the ones we didn't plan out, but kind of came out of something organically. It was definitely a trial by fire, I went in with this attitude of "we're both puppeteers, we've both done some photography, this is basically just slower puppetry meets still photography. How hard can it possibly be?" Well after the 8th hour of trying to get a stuffed penguin to express anger we learned... But it's really lit a fire under us about stop motion. We're working on another short for "Carl Sagan," one of my favorite tracks on the record, that I think is going to be amazing. It's also probably going to take a while.

What was the recording process like with your new album?

I tracked the skeleton of it on my own before I started bringing friends in. Once we narrowed down which songs to keep, I spent 2 months writing out scores for all the strings and horn parts, and looking for ways to connect the songs. I had this idea half way through recording that all the songs should flow seamlessly one into the next, which is really easy to say and really time consuming to pull off, so there was a lot of planning. And math. There was one day I spent in Annapolis sitting on the sidewalk literally trying to solve for X to figure out the right tempo and time signature to transition between a song in 4 and a song in 6 that both had pretty radically different tempos and feels. I wanted to call my 8th grade math teacher and apologize for being that kid who asked "when are we really going to need to know this?" So, uh, stay in school kids! You never know when you're going to need algebra to make a folk record!

We recorded all over the place. About 40% of the recording was in Brooklyn, 40% on Cape Cod, and the rest was wherever we could find a quiet space. We used a lot of theatres. I got really good at setting up and taking down a recording rig and cutting a take before people came back from their dinner breaks. When you've got a 2 hour window to record 2 drum tracks, you learn to be fast. I engineered most of it myself, but I had a few friends in Kalamazoo, New Orleans, and Boston who cut their takes on their own and sent them over, so there's like a big diversity of sound and style.

What else do you want us/the audience to know?

I just opened a play at New York Theatre Workshop called 'Nat Turner In Jerusalem' last night. I did the sound design and created a bunch of these mini-mixtapes for it. It's an amazing and really timely piece, and everyone ought to see it. And I've got an EP / maxi-single for 'Never Be Normal' coming out later this week, so check that out on Bandcamp.