Nate Heller Interview [Full]

Due to a lack of interest from my intended publisher, I have decide to present to you the long awaited interview with Nate Heller, in its entirety. Nate Heller is a Bay Area musician, whose projects include the band She Beards. She Beards will be performing at Snob Theater @ Dark Room Theater on October 28th. 10 PM. $10. More information: Here. Thank you for your patience. Thank you Nate Heller for the interview.

[Note: This interview occurred Spring/Summer 2011]

Courting Comedy: What was the first instrument you learned to play, what’s your current instrument of choice and what’s an instrument you wish you knew how to play?

Nate Heller: Mom put me in piano lessons when I was about four or five years old, with our neighborhood teacher Amy (whose son Andrew happened to be my best friend at the time).  Shortly after that Andrew and I went into the Piedmont boys chorus a couple of days after school.  It was wretched.  I hated it so much that I often faked being sick to get out of going (I liked faking sick a lot as a kid).  This totally backfired when I feigned illness on the day that we got to perform the National Anthem at an A’s game.  I must have forgotten that it was happening cause I was a huge Ricky Henderson fan and would have given my undescended left testicle to meet him.

Currently guitar is my primary instrument (and voice I guess), although I own a banjo, a piano, and an accordion.  I can still play keyboard okay, but I’m pretty piss-poor at all the others.  It’s still fun to mess around on them anyway.  I guess I wish I spend more time
learning accordion, cause the one I have is a really beautiful one that my friend Gabe gave me a few years ago.  His dad gave it to him, and when we lived together I played around on it so much that he gave it to me for my birthday.

CC: What was your first favorite band and what band shaped your current appreciation for music?

Heller: I always loved music - family holidays usually saw us crowded around the piano with mom playing and everyone singing along.  Our mom and dad were pretty instrumental in us kids’ desire to be creative. Mom was especially encouraging (or forceful?).  She really wanted me to be able to read music and be able to sing, which I will reluctantly admit that piano lessons and boys chorus helped immensely with. 

But like most kids, I think I really started to become opinionated and devoted to bands around age eleven or twelve.  Weird Al was the first CD that I owned, but when puberty hit I started having more “serious” feelings about music. 

I had an unhealthy obsession with Smashing Pumpkins, but I also loved Green Day, Weezer and Jimi Hendrix.  This was also around the time that I convinced dad to buy me an electric guitar unbeknownst to mom, and soon she stopped insisting that I stay in piano lessons and I switched to guitar.

CC: What defines you most: are you a musician, a producer, a songwriter, a hybrid or something else completely?

Heller: Wow, that’s a tough question.  I definitely don’t think of myself as a musician primarily.  Whenever I play music with really good musicians who are classically trained, or just practice a lot, I realize that my I just don’t have the chops they do.  I love to produce music and write songs, and I think my biggest strength as a producer and musician is being able to listen to a piece of music as a whole and add or subtract elements based on what the song needs. 

I guess I like to think that I am part of a newer generation of artists who can do everything themselves - It’s really easy to set up a studio in your house, compose a beat, add some instruments and write vocals these days.  Going into the studio even when I first started playing in bands was a much more expensive and time-consuming process.  Now, from my home studio, I am able to produce mashups, full band recordings, music for TV and film, etc. 

A few of the most recent things I’ve done that [illustrates] how diverse a home studio can be - I composed a really stupid intro song for Emily’s FCC radio show (in about ten minutes), I finished 25 tracks of music for a company that licenses songs for TV and film purposes, and I also produced a song for my extremely talented thirteen year old niece who had never been in a recording studio before.  It came out so good that I plan on recording a full album with her this summer.

How many bands have you been in?

Heller: I’ve been in hella bands.  Is hella a number?  I’ll say around 7-8 bands that actually practiced regularly and/or played shows.

CC: What was the name of your first band?

Heller: My first band was called “Sugarfoot”.

CC: How did your current band, She Beards, come together?

Heller: She Beards began forming when a band I was in called Wendy Darling started kinda coming to an end.  That band started in San Diego, and I convinced all the members to move to the Bay Area with me.  We had a pretty good run of having management/agents and touring big festivals around the country, but Bay Area life didn’t seem to suit two of the members who moved back to SD.  We continued to tour for about a year after that, but developing new material and practicing is pretty hard when you are 600 miles apart.

Jon (who is the bass player of She Beards) was also the one member of Wendy Darling that continued to live in the Bay, and he and I continued to work on new material together.  Then we jammed a few times with Carmen playing synthesizer, and I thought “I should write some vocals for these songs.”  I hadn’t really considered singing before then, but I thought we were writing some catchy songs that could use vocals.  Over the next months we hooked up with our drummer, Bryce, who was a friend of a friend and within playing with the full band a few times I pretty much had my mind made up that we needed to start recording and play some shows.

CC: What’s the experience like playing live with She Beards?

Heller: Does the band do anything particularly eccentric or stick to providing music?

Playing shows is one of the most rewarding aspects of doing She Beards, cause we have so much fun on stage.  I think the atmosphere of our shows is pretty casual - we don’t have any pyrotechnics or fake blood, but we try to vibe with the crowd as much as possible.  We definitely focus on playing the music as well as we can, and throw in
a little bullshitting with each-other and the crowd between songs.  In general, I tend to find that when we are enjoying ourselves on stage, smiling and rocking out to the music, that’s what we get back from the audience.  Then it becomes a thing of sort of feeding off the energy of everyone in the room - you give as much of yourself as possible and the crowd gives back (hopefully!)

CC: What was the process for recording your new EP? Did it take long? Any surprises along the away?

Heller: We recorded our EP at my home studio in Oakland.  My girlfriend Carmen (who plays keyboards in the band) and I sublet an apartment from her mom in Oakland.  Her mom, Pammy, is a pilates instructor part-time and as a result we have a large pilates studio in our backyard.  That’s effectively also become the “live room” where I do all of my recording, and it also doubles as our practice space.  I run cables out there from my recording desk inside and it effectively functions like a normal recording studio, where me and the other musicians are inside giving cues to the person performing in the pilates space while we record.  For the EP, we did everything piecemeal - meaning we lay down all the drum tracks first and then add individual elements one by one - which is pretty much the typical recording process theses days.  We have a seven inch record coming out in July that is four songs, and which we recorded completely differently.  For that one we all recorded simultaneously live.  I am really excited by the results we got from those sessions because I can hear that we are really grooving together (for lack of a less dorky word).  And the whole process was a lot quicker and more fun.

CC: The lyrics of your songs are noticeably curious, imaginative, and tell slice of life stories. What’s your inspiration as a songwriter?

Heller: Writing lyrics has been the biggest challenge for me in this band. I have been just a guitar player and arranger in bands for so long, that it was definitely a new experience to be the voice too.  I try to write about real shit from my life as much as possible, and most of the songs that end up being scrapped are the ones that don’t feel genuine to me, lyrically.  “Muertos” is a perfect example of a song that feels totally real and true to me.  It’s about the experience of losing two of my best friends before the age of 25, and not knowing how to make sense of why that would happen.  I think writing that song was therapeutic for me in terms of just being able to work out my own issues over their sudden departure, as well as being a way to express my gratitude for the time we had together by memorializing them in some way (both for them, and the people that survived them).  There’s also a song on the new seven inch that started as a birthday present for my sisters when I couldn’t think of anything to get for them.  I started writing a song for them that ended up being a sort of confessional about how they’ve been really inspirational in terms of my own creativity. That’s always really gratifying to me as well - when, in the process of composing a song, it becomes something other than what I set out to write and gives me little revelations about myself.

I have heard people say that our songs come across as sort of wondrous and uplifting, which I really like hearing.  Because even when I’m writing about something really upsetting or emotional, I feel like it can be nice to juxtapose those feelings with an uplifting style of song.

CC: You are apart of the musical duo “Rainbow Chair” with your sister Emily. What was the first collaboration between you two?

Me and Em have been collaborating for several years, on projects of varying stupidity.  Rainbow Chair is probably the silliest.  The first collabo I can remember vividly was at our middle school - I was in 8th grade, and Emily was in 6th.  I played guitar and Em sang “In My Life” by the Beatles.  There was not a dry eye in the house when we finished.

CC: The seeds of Rainbow Chair have been around all your life. What inspired the initial idea to create the band and perform live?

Heller: Rainbow Chair is a pretty accurate representation of characters I’m sure we encountered during our childhood.  In true Bay Area fashion, our parents were pretty deep hippies when we were little, who gradually suburbanized.  That’s not to say we didn’t have a chance to experience a lot of classic hippie child rites of passage - yoga camp, ashrams, and tofu prepared 1000 ways.  As a result of all the groovy shit we witnessed as kids, I guess we just think characters like Gary and Moonbeam are funny.  I think extreme versions of every character type exist, and our [Rainbow Chair] characters are extremely extreme in their dedication to hippie lifestyle.

CC: You mentioned your first CD was a Weird Al album. How interested are you in comedy?  Have you ever tried stand-up, film, sketch or improv?

Heller: Weird Al was a great influence on my young mind, in terms of being totally amazed by what a person could do creatively.  I outgrew Weird Al, but have always been pretty interested in comedy, although I never really considered performing it.  I was always more involved in the music scene.  When Em started doing stand up regularly, it seemed like a logical next step for her in terms of all the performing we did as kids and teens - just as the band thing was natural for me, and theater acting was the choice for our older sis. Even so, when the idea of Rainbow Chair came up, I was totally stoked to be invited into Em’s comedy world.

I think the cross-over was pretty natural though.  It went like this - we had already collaborated on musical projects in the past, and when I had a last minute cancellation at a charity show, I asked Em to perform some of the songs we had written at the show with me.  Her lyrical style is pretty tongue-in-cheek and clever, and as we played, we got a ton of laughs and after [the show] people were commenting on our stage chemistry.  That’s when we sort of realized that we could potentially do a really funny musical comedy show.

The only time I ever attempted stand up was when I performed a bunch of Em’s jokes at her birthday party last year at the Dark Room.  I killed, naturally.

CC: You make mash-up music under the moniker “DJ Leilos”. Did this idea come to you in a dream?

Heller: I do the mashups under the name Leilos (no DJ).  I don’t really associate with the title of DJ, because I have no knowledge of using turntables.  I first became interested in the idea of mashup music when I heard Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” (which is a mix of the Beatles white album and Jay-Z’s black album).  I never really considered making my own mashups however until I was on tour with my old band, Wendy Darling, and performed at a festival with Girl Talk.  It kind of sparked a competitive urge within me - that was my first exposure to his music, and I sort of automatically went, “I could do that.”

The name “Leilos” is something that came from my childhood.  Whenever we asked, “what’s for dinner?” or “where are we going on vacation?” the answer we got from our parents, who either didn’t want to tell us or didn’t have an answer, was “leilos.”  Leilos sort of means you don’t what you’re gonna get, but you will be pleasantly surprised, so I kinda latched onto the name as my producer moniker.

CC: Leilos mash-ups frequently features between hip-hop/rap and indie/folk music. Which genre do you use to initialize the process, or is it an organic conceptual synthesis?

Heller: I love mixing indie/folk and hip-hop genres together, but I can’t say definitively that one inspires the other.  There are times where I start with a rock track that I think would sound great with someone rapping over it and seeing if I can find something that will fit, but more of the time it’s about constructing a track underneath a rap a cappella that I’ve found.  Most of the finished tracks on my album are the product of a lot of trial and error, but I always start with music that I really like as the foundation.  There aren’t a ton of hip hop a cappellas out there, so I’m always excited when I find one that I like.  I’ve also toyed with the idea of using rock a cappellas over hip-hop tracks.  Phoenix released a cappellas for their album, which was a really cool thing for them to do, and I was able to make a mashup of one of their tracks with Andre 3000/Kelis.  I also recently acquired a bunch of David Bowie a capellas that were released as part of a reissue, so I’m excited to work with those too.

CC: Master tapes, a cappellas, and instrumentals are hard to come by. If you had free reign on all recorded music, what would be the ultimate mash-up?

Heller: Man, it’s hard to say what the ultimate mashup could be, because it is so much trial and error.  But I definitely wish there were more Outkast, Tupac, [Notorious] B.I.G., and Nicki Minaj a cappellas out there.  I’ve actually gotten some great suggestions from comics for mashup ideas - Chris Garcia suggested (brilliantly) that I mix “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” by Tom Petty and Juicy by Notorious BIG, and that I call it “Petty to Die.”  Emily also had the idea that I mix “Fuck You” by Cee-Lo with “Untouchable Face (Fuck You)” by Ani DiFranco.  Both were great concepts that I attempted and failed at.  Sorry guys :/

CC: You wrote “Rock My Body”, featured in the soundtrack for MacGruber. What was the writing/recording process?

Heller: I basically got a call from my brother-in-law, who directed MacGruber, saying that they were thinking of having a scene where Mac finds a CD made by Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig’s character) called “Songs for MyGruber,” and as he skips through the tracks he realizes she’s been in love with him all along.  So I ended up writing about six songs to his specifications, which was basically “really crappy sounding 80’s music she could have made in her bedroom.”  I composed the tracks on my laptop as I wrote the lyrics/melodies, and then did demo versions of myself singing the songs, and sent them over for them to hear.

They ended up scrapping the idea for the scene where MacGruber finds the CD, but there were a couple tunes (Rock My Body & Champion) that everybody seemed to like, and wanted to work into the film somehow.  So I sent the tracks and lyrics to them, and they recorded Kristen’s performance in their studio in NYC.

CC: What’s the hardest part of writing an ironically genuine love song?

Heller: I wrote Rock My Body pretty quickly, in like a few hours.  I actually think it’s much easier to write a love song that is extremely over-the-top, because where I would normally shy away from lyrical cliches, here I was embracing them to the fullest.  I think it also helped that I was a huge fan of 80’s metal bands like Van Halen, Poison, etc. because those guys totally pushed the envelope of crappy lyricism/style/personality, while keeping straight faces the whole time.

CC: How did Lightspeed Champion get involved with the project?

Heller: Dev, from Lightspeed Champion is a friend of Jorma’s (the director).  In fact, I’m pretty sure Jorma sings backup on Dev’s album Life is Sweet, Nice to Meet You.  I guess Dev heard a demo version of Rock My Body and liked it enough that he wanted to be on the track.  So that guitar solo you hear at the end of the tune is him, and there ended up being two final versions of the song.  When the credits roll in the film, the version with Will Forte and Kristen plays, and the one on the album features Dev singing Will’s part.  I’m a huge fan of Lightspeed Champion, so this was a major bonus for me.  I was already extremely stoked to have Kristen and Will singing my songs, and to add in a legit indie dude like Dev was the icing on the cake.

CC: Would you record an album with Kristen Wiig? What genre would it be?

Heller: If there was an opportunity to record an album with Kristen, I would totally jump on it.  I think she’s great at the 80’s power-ballad thing, but I also think she’s a really talented singer overall.  I’ve been to SNL and seen her sing covers with the house band before the show to warm up the crowd, and she was dynamite.  I don’t really know what kind of music she is into, but if she wanted to go all Scarlet Johansen/Zooey Deschanel, I think she would make a great folk front-woman.  One of my songs that didn’t make it into the film was a really tender acoustic ballad, and her performance was so vulnerable and sweet.  Then again, if she decided to do a comedy album or a gangster rap album, I would be happy to collaborate on it!

CC: Is your career more about the journey or the destination?

Heller: I don’t think people who work in creative professions ever reach a “destination” but hopefully just achieve certain goals as they develop.  I do thoroughly enjoy the processes of writing and producing music, so I guess it’s more about the journey for me.  I’ve done some relentless touring, where I play the same set every night and that is definitely one of the less appealing parts of the process - promoting an existing product when what you really want to do is work on new material.  That being said, I love playing live especially when the crowd knows the material.  I just think the moments where something great gets created spontaneously - like in a jam session or while goofing around with production - tend to be more gratifying.

CC: In the diminished music industry, where does an independent artist find the greatest opportunity?

Heller: I think independent artists have a much easier time in certain ways than major label artists, or people who have a whole team of people working behind them.  I really relish the ability to distribute my creative energies as I see fit on different projects - something I didn’t feel like I necessarily had the ability to do when backed by a major agent and manager.  The flip side is that you have to make your own opportunities being independent.  Personally, I’ve found some success by networking with other creative people, giving away music for free, and just trying to be cool with other artists I respect.  It helps tremendously to have other bands/artists you have good relationships with when putting together shows, and I’ve even made mashups featuring a friend’s music as a sort of payback for them putting me on a show.

CC: Can you give any information on upcoming projects?

Heller: Well, we just put out a 7” record with She Beards that had four tracks (that can be heard at  Me and lil’ sis’ also just filmed a music video for Rainbow Chair that should be pretty silly/awesome.  And I always have some mashup type of things working.  I’m toying with the idea of an album of mashup material that I can perform live - meaning I make tracks and play guitar and other various instruments to back up hip hop a capellas - sort of the only way I can really envision myself performing this type of stuff live.  I also really want to make an EP of Michael Jackson vs. Beatles mashups.  I’ve got a few half-finished tracks for each of these ideas, so time will tell if I pursue either to fruition.  I tend to just throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks.

What is your favorite chord?

Heller: I played jazz guitar for a while, and I have a particular fondness for minor seventh chords.  I also really like the sound of open strings.  How bout this - for anyone reading who might play guitar, try this one: 2-4-X-2-0-0