I interviewed Nate Newton, bassist for Converge, via phone in October. Converge was in Florida, following in the footsteps of a series of hurricanes which had ravaged that state - lucky for Florida, since Converge's music probably would have laid waste to whatever hadn't fallen down. Nate also plays with Old Man Gloom, one of the more interesting bands currently working in the constantly expanding and increasingly experimental musical style that is still sometimes called metal. We pick up the interview in progress.
Nate: We're all shot, man. We drove from Atlanta to West Palm Beach.
That's still cleaning up from hurricanes, isn't it?
Nate: Yeah. The club we're playing tonight, we're playing outside and the stage is just ravaged. I can't believe they're going to have a show in here.
Is there going to be anything left after you're done?
Nate: Hell no. Nah, it'll be fine. We've just been trying to figure out how to make everything work, so I apologize for making you wait.
Don't even sweat it. I've just been managing the Red Sox to the World Series on my PlayStation.
Nate: Very nice. I wish you were fucking doing the real job.
I don't know. I think Theo made a good move. I'm sad to see Nomar go, but at the same time, they are giving up a lot fewer unearned runs now.
Nate: Yeah, they're doing pretty good this year. I don't know, there are a few games that I've been pulling my hair out, but overall, I'm fairly impressed with how they've been doing.
Now if Pedro can just keep it together through the post-season ... that's a big if.
Nate: Totally. All right. You ready to do this?
Nate: Let's do it.
The first question I had for you - and it's kind of odd because you're playing in Florida tonight - but I stumbled across an interview that you did for a paper in Florida in which you were talking about the idea of punk as a mindset. I was curious what you meant by that.
Nate: Sorry, I'm really out of it right now. I'm trying to collect my thoughts. Punk as a mindset is the way you approach things. I assume we were talking about the band and the way we approach things?
I think the context was - and this was the frustrating thing about the research - but it seemed like every interviewer who had talked to you asked what you think of mall punk and emo bands and metallic influences in pop music in bands like Story Of The Year or whatever.
Nate: Yeah, we get asked that sort of stuff a lot.
I think you were talking about it in reference to that, that your music might have a metallic influence but the difference is how you approach it.
Nate: Yeah, that's exactly right. We're a punk band in the sense that we do everything on our own. We don't do things with the hopes of selling more records or making more money. I think that a lot of bands these days that kind of pawn themselves off as punk really aren't. They just steal the fashion or steal the image and just do things like any major label rock band would do and I don't personally think that's right, but that's just me.
Boy bands with guitars almost.
Nate: Yeah, definitely that. There's a whole lot of that going on these days. It's kind of sickening to me, but far be it from me to tell anybody how to live their lives. It's just not my place to dis somebody else's effort. Disrespect somebody else's effort. Sorry, I turned into a rapper there for a second.
That's kind of what I figured you were getting at. So let's start with talking about you. I know you've been in Converge for several years and albums, but how did you start playing bass? Did you start with another instrument?
Nate: Yeah. I'm a guitarist, actually, and my old bands all toured with Converge throughout the years and honestly, what started me playing bass was Kurt calling me one day and saying, "Hey dude, Steve can't go on this tour. You want to play bass for us?" I said, "Sure man, it can't be that much different from guitar." That's basically it. That's how it started.
I actually switched to bass from guitar a few years ago because I figured there are two fewer strings to fuck up on.
Nate: That's true, that's true. It's definitely a whole different ballgame as far as stringed instruments. It's completely different than guitar. At first, I didn't think that it would be but it really is. As far as just wanting to play music, I grew up in a pretty musically-oriented family and it was always around me and I just always had the desire to.
Parents played music, always had records around, that sort of thing?
Nate: Yeah, tons of records. There was a piano in the house and whenever the family got together, everybody was sitting around the piano singing. My grandfather played drums and guitar. I just kind of grew up with it.
I grew up with a piano in the house but we never used it, it just sat in the corner as decoration, but you actually got together around the piano and sang songs?
Nate: Yeah, but don't get me wrong, it wasn't like we did that every day. It was like on Thanksgiving, all my aunts and uncles would come over and they'd get a couple of drinks in them. By the end of the night, everyone was sitting around the piano doing something. It was fun.
So what dragged you into punk and hardcore? How did you get interested in it?
Nate: I originally got into it through skateboarding. I started skating around, let me think ... I was probably about seven years old and just buying Thrasher magazines and seeing all the Pushead drawings, and being like, "I like skulls! What has skulls on it? I'm going to buy the tape!"
So you had a lot of Septic Death records?
Nate: I had some Septic Death records, yes I did. I guess about the time I was 11 or 12 and started being interested in it, I had an older cousin who also skateboarded and was into punk rock music and I think the first record he gave me was Black Flag. What was it? It might have been "My War" ... no, it was "Damaged." That was it for me. He gave me a tape and one side had "Damaged" on it and the other side had "Among The Living" by Anthrax. I guess, to this day, you can see remnants of that tape in the music I write.
Let me take a guess here - was that around 1988 or 1989?
Nate: No, more around '86 and '87. I started getting my first punk records around then but that particular tape, when I got really introduced to the harder stuff, that was probably '87 or '88. My first show was Agent Orange, so there you go.
Starting off with Black Flag and Anthrax makes sense for what you're playing now, but what else has informed your work, not necessarily just music, but what stuff factors into how you play?
Nate: Everything, you know? Not to sound like a total music hippie nerd guy, but everything I hear influences the way I play, whether it's something I don't want to do or something I do want to do. As far as bands go, I was really influenced by Black Flag, by bands like Danzig, The Accüsed, Rohrshach, Entombed, The Wipers, stuff like that, but by the same token, I also grew up around a lot of country music which I think made it evident to me that it was okay to be open with your emotions in music, like with early country music. My dad, his favorite band is Led Zeppelin so that was always blasting in the house. I just grew up with a blanket appreciation for most music and that influenced me in a lot of ways. Listening to everything made want to learn how to play it.
Well, you can certainly hear that appreciation for diversity in Old Man Gloom and some of the tracks on the new Converge record. "Christmas" goes from doomy metal to ambient, and "First Light" on the new Converge album sounds like it has an Ennio Morricone influence.
Nate: Yeah, when people ask us about that, I'd say it's our tribute to Neil Young's "Dead Man" soundtrack.
That explains it, because it sounds like a weird spaghetti western thing.
Nate: Yeah, that's totally what it is. We like to call it introspective guitar.
Honestly, the new Converge album sounds more experimental and expansive than previous efforts had been. I was wondering what sparked it - is this intentional, is it natural growth, getting bored of the same old thing?
Nate: It's a little bit of all that. We, by no means, wanted to re-write "Jane Doe." I can tell you things that we definitely set out to do - we wanted very much to write a record that sounded more like a live band in a room instead of an over-produced metal record. We wanted to write a record that wasn't perfect, that had little subtle inconsistencies in it that made it sound human. We wanted to write a record with more cohesive songs and less math and riffs being put together just for the sake of putting them together. We wanted to write a really raw punk record and I think we got pretty close to it. I won't say that it's 100% what we wanted, but it's pretty damn close.
So what's Converge's songwriting process like? You just mentioned that you wanted it to sound more like a live band in the studio and I've heard that some of these songs were at least partially written around the time "Jane Doe" was released and have evolved over the past few years.
Nate: Yeah, a few riffs off the record definitely came from that time period, but the songwriting process, every song is different. Sometimes, one of us will come to practice with a whole song written, "Here you go, play this guys." Other times, there were some riffs from before we were writing "Jane Doe" that we just couldn't figure out what to do with so we jammed on them and let the riffs figure out which way they wanted to go rather than us trying to force them into something. Other stuff was just us sitting around, jamming a little bit, and somebody making a noise that sounded cool and somebody else going, "Hey, do that again!" We really wanted the record to sound like we sound live. When it gets quiet, we wanted you to be able to hear the quiet, to hear somebody accidentally touching their strings while it's quiet, to hear the drumstick getting put down. It's a punk record. That's really all I can say about it.
So it sounds like you worked to catch the ambient sounds of a band in a practice space.
Nate: Well, all of my favorite records, they aren't perfect from a production point of view. They're perfect in the sense that they are what they are. Does that make sense? All of my favorite Black Flag records, they definitely aren't perfect records as far as the recording, but I don't want to change them. That's what we were going for. We just wanted to write a record that sounded human.
From my perspective, my favorite records are the ones where I hear a vocalist's voice cracking as they try to hit a note that's out of their range.
Nate: Yeah, that's awesome because you can tell that they're just going for it, you know? You can kind of feel the energy that they had going in the studio right then and I think that's important. I think that gets lost a lot in a lot of records these days.
Absolutely, because everyone wants things to sound crisp and clean when we're talking about an artistic process which is inherently messy and muddy.
Nate: Yeah, exactly.
That's the stuff I tend to like, so I know what you're talking about.
Nate: Well, I'm glad somebody does.
Well, I'd rather hear somebody trying to do something that might be beyond their range and missing it than somebody doing something safe.
Nate: Yeah, I know what you're saying. I totally know what you're saying. I'm going to get this quote wrong and I actually just said this to another interviewer the other day, but Picasso said something like he spent half of his life learning how to paint and then he spent the rest of his life trying to figure out how to paint like a five-year-old. I'm probably totally wrong with that quote, but it's kind of like that. We know how to play, now let's try to let ourselves hold back and just let the songs be what they are instead of us trying to musically masturbate.
The funny thing is that Raymond Chandler said something almost exactly like that about writing, that you can learn all the tricks of the trade and wind up with nothing left to say. Anyway, going back to the songwriting, you mentioned that you have riffs hanging around and people bring in songs. Do riffs drive it, is it driven by lyrics? Who writes? How does it break down?
Nate: Well, every record has been different in that department. "Jane Doe" was a little bit more like Kurt and I would both come to practice with complete songs. Then we'd change little things here and there to appease each other, you know? This one was a little more of a group effort. Most of the songs were written with all of us in the room just playing, and then we'd get through a riff, stop, just kind of let it feed back for a minutes, look at each other and be like, "It should be slow here" or "Now it should speed up." Everything was written really naturally. There was a lot of thought in it in the sense that we thought a lot about what we wanted to keep ourselves from doing, if that makes sense.
Going back to that idea of restraint that you were talking about earlier.
Nate: Yeah, very much. We really tried to exercise that a lot of this record and that's pretty much what it was. The bottom line is that we just want to write records that we would want to go out and buy and listen to, because for me, with Converge and Old Man Gloom or anything else I've done, I feel like there's a void in music somewhere that needs to be filled, like there's a record out there that I need to buy and it's not there, a record that I need to hear and it doesn't exist so I guess it's time to record it and I guess that's kind of what Converge does. At least, that's the way I view it.
I completely hear that. It's a rare night when I'm not ripping through my record collection looking for something that I have to hear and realizing I have to go to the record store the next day.
Nate: Yeah, and that's how it is. I'll be like, "Man, I wish I had a record that was like this band's intensity but had this band's total sloppiness and this band's total reckless abandon." Well, I'm just going to go write some songs and do it myself. It's kind of funny, because that attitude is kind of how we attack everything in this band, whether it be our music, the way we book our tours, everything, you know? It's always been done from within our little group and we intend to keep it that way.
So it sounds like the restraint was difficult for you, like it was a different challenge.
Nate: It kind of was because you get four dudes with ADD together and put them in a room and give them guitars, they're just going to try to go nuts all the time. Especially in a band like Converge where that's what we've done for a long time, it was an experiment to see what we could keep ourselves from doing. I don't really know how to explain it, like, "Okay, let's not overplay on the metallic guitar, let's not have every bass line be completely all over the place, the drums don't always have to be so insane that you can hardly follow them." We just wanted to write cohesive songs and in order to do that, we realized we needed to calm our asses down a little bit. By the same token, I think this record is equally, if not more, intense than "Jane Doe" is because I think it's a lot more to the point than "Jane Doe."
One of the things I liked about it is that it seemed like there was more to hear. I try to listen to every album on headphones for the first time.
Nate: Yeah, that's a good way to do it.
Well, on songs like "Inner Shadow," there's just a lot more to pick up - there's a lot more subtlety, a lot more dynamics where "Jane Doe" was all go, no slow.
Nate: Yeah, that was a big thing that we wanted to do with this record also. It kind of moves and breathes in almost an animal-like state. I'm sounding like a total hippie right now, but it's almost like the record goes in the directions that it wants to go on its own and we just kind of let it do that.
Well, that totally makes sense and now I'm going to sound like a hippie when I say that sounds like it was an organic progression.
Nate: Yeah, it definitely is, it definitely is, but by the same token, we're all into all kinds of music and you can't just be on 10 all the time. If it's at 100% intensity for an entire record, it honestly takes away some of the punch that the intense songs would have. You have to pace it and in order to do that you have to slow down sometimes. Likewise, doing that, going into something slow makes the slow songs even that much more powerful.
It sounds like "You Fail Me" takes a cue or two from jazz in that respect, in not letting loose a flurry of notes all the time and taking a breather.
Nate: You know, I never really thought about it like that, but I could totally see that. That makes a lot of sense. I don't really know how I could compare it to give it you a good example of the way we were thinking about it. I guess, like ... yeah. You're right. How about that? There's your answer. I don't know that much about jazz, I don't listen to a whole lot of it, but that makes perfect sense and fits right in line with what we were trying to do.
Man, jazz was the punk rock of the 40's and 50's.
Nate: Oh, I know. I like and appreciate jazz but I don't know all that much about. I know the big names, I own the big name records but if you gave me an obscure reference I'd probably be like, "What are you talking about?"
So when I found out I was talking with you, I was stoked because I figured I'd get to talk about Old Man Gloom at the same time. In a lot of ways, "In Her Shadow" seems almost like a bridge between the two bands because of the trashy, metallic and doomy tendencies of some of Old Man Gloom's songs and the ambient, ethereal, found-sound elements.
Nate: You want to know something funny? I didn't write that song. That was all Kurt.
Now that's interesting.
Nate: Yeah, it is. I mean, Kurt's as much a part of Old Man Gloom as I am though. He's produced every record and he's right in there with us, maybe not in the writing process but in the recording process. With Old Man Gloom, the way that it's recorded is almost as important as the songwriting. We look at Kurt as a member of Old Man Gloom.
This brings up another point, because it seems like with every Converge or Converge-related project, there are a fairly high number of people moving back and forth including design, production, like an artistic collective.
Nate: Yeah. To put it simple, I'll quote Willie Nelson. "I find love is making music with my friends." That's what it is. We just have a lot of friends and enjoy playing music and I feel like I'm blessed to be surrounded by so many creative people and I love making music with my friends and so that's what we do, all of us. That's the bottom line. A lot of it is just about whoever's around that day, right then. "Hey, what are you doing today? Come over to the studio, I've got something for you to try out." That's pretty much how it goes.
So how much thought goes into the total package? It sounds organic, but is there any intent behind unifying the design, the sound, etc.?
Nate: Yeah, there definitely is. As far as the packaging and stuff like that goes, that's all Jake. He'll run his ideas by us and we'll tell him what we think, but he's the lyricist and I think it's very important for the lyrics and packaging to really complement each other and for the packaging to complement the music and really, that's Jake's world. He does that and I think he does a great job, but we're all on the same page in that respect. We want it to be a full package. We want the imagery to be backed up by the music and the music to be backed up by the imagery. I think it strengthens the entire package. At least for me, when I was a kid, buying records and listening to them, being able to look at the packaging and see, not necessarily a haunting image, but a strong image and read lyrics that go along with all of that, it made the records, to me, seem so much more awesome. A good example is I was growing up listening to my dad's Zeppelin records and "Houses Of The Holy." Perfect record cover. It's the weirdest thing you'll ever see but it's completely powerful but at the same time, it's so perfect with the music. It's kind of the same thing, not to compare us to Zeppelin, but it's the same kind of concept. It all has to fit together or else it just won't work.
On the Zeppelin idea, have you heard the Queen tribute that 31G and GSL put out?
It's basically bands like The Blood Brothers doing "Under Pressure."
Nate: Oh yeah, I've actually seen them play "Under Pressure" live before.
Yeah. It's basically all these spazzy, whatever-core bands ripping the hell out of Queen songs. Anyway, a friend of mine were talking about whether something like that would ever happen with Zeppelin, and I could totally hear you doing something like "Immigrant Song" or "D'yer Maker."
Nate: Honestly, if we did a Zeppelin song, we would probably try to do it as close to the original as we possibly could. You have no idea how much love and respect for Led Zeppelin there is in Converge. Led Zeppelin, next to Entombed and Black Flag, is probably the only band that everybody in the band can agree on 100%. You know what, actually? If someone asked us to do a Zeppelin tribute, we'd probably say no, because why? There's no point. There's no way anybody can do it better. We all love, especially me, because I'm me and so I'm the only person that I can really speak for, but I love Led Zeppelin so much that whenever I hear a band cover them, I get angry because it just isn't right.
I feel the same way about a lot of the Hüsker Dü tribute albums that have come out over the years.
Nate: Oh god, don't even get me started.
What, you're a big Hüsker Dü fan too?
Nate: I love Hüsker Dü. Big Bob Mould fan.
The first punk album that I really remember buying was "Warehouse: Songs And Stories."
Nate: That's a great record.
I wore out two cassettes, one CD and have a copy now on CD and vinyl.
Nate: That's awesome. That rules.
You mentioned Entombed. Favorite Entombed album?
Nate: Oh, "Wolverine Blues," hands down.
Well, some people say "Left Hand Path."
Nate: Yeah, well, you know what? They're wrong.
And could you even say you have a favorite Zeppelin album?
Nate: Hoo man, that's a tough one. Probably, overall, I'm going to go with "Houses Of The Holy" because that was when they started getting a little bit more experimental but, at the same time, had their bluesy, heavy rock influence going. But then I still love later Zeppelin, like "Achilles Last Stand," that's probably one of the best songs they ever wrote. I could go on for hours about Zeppelin, so just stop me.
One of the reasons it's interesting to me is that for a huge amount of time, no one would talk about Zeppelin.
Nate: Not me, man! Shit, I've always loved Zeppelin.
Well, for a long time it seemed like people were embarrassed about it and wouldn't admit that they liked Zeppelin or think that "Sticky Fingers" is one of the greatest rock records ever made or whatever.
Nate: Yeah, well it is. Hey, my phone is probably going to die pretty soon, man. It's starting to beep.
Well, let me just finish up really quick. What keeps you doing this when things aren't going well?
Nate: The music does, man. That 45 minutes every day when we play, that's why I do it. I don't make a living at this band and I never will. I've never desired to and I don't want to. I just love playing music and I kind of feel like, as cheesy as it sounds, I've always been driven to do this. It's just what I do. I don't know. I love playing music. I love playing in this band with other people of like minds who are creative and want to have fun and play music. I wish I had a better, more lofty answer for you, but that's the bottom line.
I really appreciate you taking the time to do the interview.
Nate: Hey, no problem man. Thank you.