Nate Utesch has quickly been proving himself to be one of the most creative electronic composers working today. The evolution of his band Metavari as a once Midwest post-rock outfit that played stages at SXSW to the one-man studio project seems to have been a seamless one. Though I don’t think anyone pines to be alone in the studio, it’s something that has just become natural to Utesch.
Two years ago Metavari released in collaboration with One Way Static Records his excellent re-scoring of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis on Record Store Day 2017. It was a brilliant work that combined both Utesch’ love of electronic dance music and his love of the headier sounds of the Berlin School world of German synth music. It was a commission piece that took on a life of its own as a standalone album. One that became a highly regarded piece of vinyl treasure on every vinyl head’s favorite day of the year.
This year, One Way Static and Metavari have partnered once again to release ABSURDA : Music Reimagined in the Short Films of David Lynch on Record Store Day 2019(this Saturday, April 13th.) This is Metavari’s official fourth full-length, and talking to Nate Utesch it might just be their best album yet. I have heard it, and it is incredible. As a standalone it’s like this strange dream you fall into 10 times in a row, each one a little more eschewed than the previous. Sort of like the man himself, David Lynch. But watching the Metavari pieces synced to the short films is something else. If anyone dared re-score David Lynch, I think Nate Utesch was the right man for the job.
I sat down and talked with Nate about ABSURDA, his love of David Lynch, and about his gradual shift from software to hardware in the studio. We also talk about the addition of live percussionist Colin Boyd for the ABSURDA live shows.
J. Hubner: So where did the idea to re-score David Lynch shorts come from?
Nate Utesch: Last year One Way Static approached me about working together on another Record Store Day title (they were the label that released my Metropolis re-score for Record Store Day 2017). Metropolis had done well and they were curious if I’d consider doing, not just another Record Store Day release, but specifically another re-score. At the risk of becoming a dude who just does re-scores, I did like the idea; so long as we could just find the right material. Admittedly, I didn’t think of Lynch first. I was focused on the idea of feature films and assumed his would be too risky to do something public with (we had a little legal trouble with the Metropolis re-score the more I played it live).
J. Hubner: So what were some options being thrown around before landing on David Lynch’ short films.
Nate Utesch: My first choice was THX 1138 (but received a formal “please don’t” from Warner’s right and clearances office about doing this so we bagged it). Second idea was Tetsuo the Iron Man. This would’ve been great but it’s just modern enough (not to mention already has a killer electronic soundtrack) that it just didn’t sit right the more we talked about it. Third was an excerpt from Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan called “Hoichi the Earless.” This came the closest to getting the go-ahead. I even met with a taiko drum ensemble about collaborating on arrangements. But we couldn’t solidify clearance enough to feel comfortable. I’ll spare the melodrama of the other stories but we also talked about Night of the Living Dead, Alphaville, Dead Man’s Letters, The Boxer’s Omen, The Seventh Seal, Galaxy of Terror, Gunhed, Hardware, The Beyond, Fehérlófia, Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, The Holy Mountain, The Inner Scar, Burst City, and Crazy Thunder Road. Exhausting to say the least.
J. Hubner: Wow. Yeah, that sounds like one disappointment after another.
Nate Utesch: To be honest, I started losing interest in the project. There were too many piece of the puzzle to have to fit together for it to work and the inspiration in it all was drying up. So I started at the beginning and had to ask myself, “whose work would mean the most to me to do this with?” That is, regardless of what people may think, the blasphemy of the concept behind re-scoring, or even the potential copyright issues. There are lots of people on that list and some that we had already discussed, but at the end of the day the answer to that question is most definitely “David Lynch.” Knowing One Way Static weren’t going to like this (due to copyright issues), I immediately started thinking about the most obscure or non-commercially distributed titles he’s done. And as you can probably imagine, landing on his short films was pretty natural next step. I just had to narrow down which shorts I wanted to use. One Way Static was fully on board.
J. Hubner: So David Lynch is a go, what was the process you went through to decide on what shorts you wanted to re-score? Did you simply go with your favorite 10? Or was there something else pushing your choices?
Nate Utesch: My first idea for the “re-scoring of Lynch shorts” route was to do The Grandmother in full and then 10-15 mins worth of his shortest short films. But there were just too many favs and way too many themes coming in and out of view as I sorted through the madness to narrow down those last 10 mins. It dawned on me that if I only chose films that clocked in at 5 mins or less, the track lengths wouldn’t be all that different from a traditional record. I would essentially be utilizing the themes and the pacing of Lynch’s short film repertoire to guide the writing of my next formal LP. I couldn’t write fast enough after that. But not everything I wrote made the cut; I scrapped early compositions created for a piece called “16mm” from Lynch’s Lime Green “Mystery Disc” DVD and a nearly finished score for a film called “Blue Green.”
J. Hubner: David Lynch is such an exact, precise, and polarizing auteur. Every detail of his films is poured over by him; from writing, dialogue, character wardrobes, cinematography, and of course the film scores. What did you want to add to his already fleshed-out pieces? I mean, it’s not like you were re-scoring over Badalamenti or something, but still I’d love to know your thought process going into each of these and what you wanted to accomplish.
Nate Utesch: This is a great question because I had to consciously ignore the fact that I was erasing the sound design from Lynch’s work in order to do this. Which makes this whole thing preposterous. It actually exposes what I’ve created as completely unnecessary. But I liken it to the way my son and I draw together. He asks for something first (most often the head of Spider-Man) and then he destroys it with dark, nearly permanent lines scrawled every which direction. It looks terrible. He’s two. He’s ruined my Spider-Man head. But he’s visibly bubbling over with pride. Not just of what he’s drawn but the fact that he’s drawn on top of what I made for him. And that is exactly what I’ve done here.
J. Hubner: Was there one particular short that you found difficult? One that was your favorite?
Nate Utesch: “Six Figures Getting Sick” was an incredibly hard one for me. Building a consistent meter over something that has a rhythm already (albeit nonsensical) and repeats itself six times. In the end it’s certainly one of the ones I’m most proud of. In terms of an overall fav, the films themselves color that opinion for sure, but at the moment I’ve been consistently proud of “The Alphabet,” “Dream #7” and its “extension.”
J. Hubner: At what age did you get into David Lynch? Has his work been a lifelong obsession for you? I was 16-years old and watched ‘Eraserhead’ with my older brother late one night. It most definitely made its mark on my psyche.
Nate Utesch: His work most definitely has! My dad introduced me to Lynch when I was 14. 1995. He would take my friends and I to the video store so that we’d be (inadvertently) properly armed with the appropriate amount of horror and topless scenes when I’d have friends stay the night. When we’d recall the high point of the movie for him the next morning he’d swear he forgot “it had all that stuff in it” but, right as rain, it’d all happen again next week. One night he found the European pilot episode of Twin Peaks for us. Which was a stand-alone edit of the pilot episode (complete with solving Laura’s murder). Every single one of us were mesmerized. Not knowing entirely what I was in for, I watched everything “Lynch” that I could get my hands on after that. Which made for an unusual watching-order because I was reliant on what I could rent at the one video store in our rural Indiana town (Fire Walk with Me, Dune, Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man). It would be years later before I’d get a hold of Eraserhead. I special ordered the full Twin Peaks VHS set from Suncoast Motion Picture Company.
J. Hubner: Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts a bit. This is the first Metavari long player that’s made with 100% all hardware in the synths department. Was this a decision made specifically for this album, or was it something you saw the Metavari production eventually moving towards? I think however an artist gets to where they need to go is 100% correct, regardless of the vehicle they take. Having said that, I’m 120% stoked on real world, man-made machines creating this record.
Nate Utesch: I’m probably a late bloomer to hardware than most musicians working in electronic music. I did buy my first synth, a Moog Prodigy, when I was 18. But it was because I wanted to incorporate weird noises into the rock music I was making. It gave me a really rudimentary understanding of VCOs and waveforms but it felt disconnected from the electronic music I loved. The music I loved felt like “experiments with computers” while true synthesizer music looked like Rick Wakeman in a cape and I didn’t want to make music like that. The summer before Metavari was fully realized, I was making “computer music” with my good friend (and founding member) in our basement. He had an MS2000 and a DX7, I had the Prodigy, but we were really just figuring out how to use the software Reason. In fact, I remember we often used the DX7 as a midi controller (straight to hell, I know). As the band grew and turned into something much more rock oriented, my “electronic contributions” were focused on the programming and sound design and synths stayed in the background. I convinced myself that a) I couldn’t afford any synth that was worth anything and b) it was too risky to bring anything on the road anyway. So I painstakingly sought out emulators and software synthesizers from folks like Puremagnetik that sample the actual instruments. All of this has of course been turned on its head over the last 10 years in Metavari (and I love Rick Wakeman’s cape, btw). I’d like to think I am still most definitely making “experiments with computers” but the curation of synth voices is as much a crucial piece of the puzzle as anything else. I purchased an ARP Odyssey after I finished the Metropolis re-score (replacing an emulator) and slowly started re-prioritizing how I wanted the live show to look and where I wanted the synth sounds to come from. I’ve since replaced all the software synthesizers I use except for the TAL-U-No-LX (which coincidentally did not make an appearance on ABSURDA).
J. Hubner: So what were the go-to synths on ABSURDA?
Nate Utesch: The Prodigy got a little love on some basslines, but my big three were the ARP Odyssey, Prophet Rev2, and the D-05 from Roland’s boutique line.
J. Hubner: Despite this being released on RSD 2019(April 13th for you folks with no RSD advent calendars), this isn’t an in-between record for you. This is Metavari’s fourth full-length. Looking back at what came before, how do you feel about the evolution of the band? Is Metavari progressing where you had hoped it would? Or has it been a complete and utter surprise every step of the way?
Nate Utesch: This has definitely been a surprise. It’s wild to look back at the early days. I certainly always wanted to make electronic music, but in the throes of our first couple records I had no idea 10 years would whisk by and I’d be all by myself doing this the way I am now. It’s hard to say if this is where I would have hoped Metavari would be. I never hoped I’d be going it alone, but I also couldn’t be happier with what I am in the middle of right now. 2019 is also seeing the addition of live percussionist Colin Boyd. He brings a slew of left field acoustic instruments and implements a very avant-garde/free jazz approach in tandem with what I’m up to on stage. I cannot wait to tour this record with Colin this year. It’s put ABSURDA on another level for me and I’m thrilled for Metavari’s future with him.
J. Hubner: In the pantheon of the Metavari discography, where do you see ‘Absurda’?
Nate Utesch: It’s so hard to say because I’m so very close to it at the moment, but I can’t remember the last time I wrote anything that felt so focused and intentional. Perhaps it was the guide set out underneath me in the short films, perhaps it was the time crunch that forced me to stay on task. If there’s a grotesque portrait of “Metavari” in my mind’s eye and I’m trying desperately to stay on a path that paints that image as closely as I can, I’d say ABSURDA has come closer than anything else. But I’ve still got some work to do!
J. Hubner: The LP comes with directions on where to drop the needle so the music syncs with the films. I imagine this will be happening worldwide on April 13th. Any advice for those hitting the turntables on RSD, ready to sync?
Nate Utesch: I don’t think it’s gonna be too bad! Most of these start right at the first sight of picture. There’s enough going on that your brain will prob tell you it’s syncing whether it is or not haha. With or without the record, though, I made a website where you can watch all the films synced to all the music. That may not be as fun, but hopefully it’s helpful none the less! http://metavari.com/watchabsurda
J. Hubner: Did you ever sync ‘The Wizard of Oz’ up to Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’? I did, but I don’t remember if it worked or not. I’m sure at the time it was mind-blowing, though.
Nate Utesch: I did! So great. Felt different every time, too. I remember so many theories on when to drop the needle for that silly thing. Funny enough, there was a season in high school where I was determined to find the next Oz/Floyd miracle. Ultimately decided it was the 1971 Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory movie alongside Sailing the Seas of Cheese by Primus. I’ve forgotten when to hit play, but it was at least half way through the movie. Such that the ticket winners are entering the factory during “Here Come the Bastards.” Don’t judge me.
J. Hubner: You seem to truly shine when creating from direct inspiration. From the ‘Metropolis’ re-score to now David Lynch shorts, your interpretive composition has been absolutely exhilarating to not only hear, but see. And that’s not saying ‘Moonless’ and ‘Symmetri’ are toss offs. Those are brilliant electronic records. I guess what I’m asking is what’s next? Does scoring for original films interest you at all? Or do you have other ideas in mind for the LP 5?
Nate Utesch: That means to the world to hear, J! Thank you. It would be a dream to work on a feature film or an original work. Late last year I had the opportunity to pitch to producers for what would’ve been my first motion picture score but they ultimately chose another composer. Was a little devastating in the moment, but it’s led to some great conversations. I’m trying not to count on there being another opportunity, but I’m locked and loaded should fate deal me another card.
When One Way Static approached me about the Record Store Day re-score concept, I had just started sketching ideas for the next Metavari LP. This was all tabled of course and the next Metavari LP became ABSURDA, but I’ll be putting that poker back in the fire as soon as I’m able. It has a title and a very specific theme. The deconstructing of my music that happened while working on ABSURDA–the collage and chaos of sounds, experimentation with foley and field recordings as percussive devices, and further sketching on the portrait in my mind’s eye–has pointed me in a really exciting place as a composer. This next record already feels like it’s going to be a heavy milestone for me.
J. Hubner: If you could ask David Lynch one question, what would it be?
Nate Utesch: If I could be so blessed as to be sitting next to that man, I think I would ask him if he wouldn’t mind just sitting in silence with me for an entire minute. And then I’d soak everything lingering in that room into my body, trusting I’d never be the same after that.
ABSURDA: Music Reimagined in the Short Films of David Lynch comes out this Saturday, April 13th on RSD2019. Seek this one out, and keep up with Nate and Metavari at their website for future live shows.