Nate Brenner is an Oakland based musician who, when he isn’t playing with the tUnE-yArDs, is Naytronix. Started as a side project Naytronix next record Mr. Divine to be released Oct.16 via City Slang, is the follow up from his debut Dirty Glow back in 2012. He is set to do a US tour kicking off 10/16 in Brooklyn,NY, then checking out Germany and the UK. We got to talk with Nate while he had some down time, from his hometown in Indiana, and hear about his music and tours and what it took to make this record Mr. Divine.
Nate tells stories that make you feel like you’ve been there, elaborating on his tours, musical upbringing, his recent singing lessons, and how writing in a notepad while in the back of the car on tour with the tUnE-yArDs turned into Mr. Divine, the second album from his project Naytronix. The honest detail in these stories creates quite a modest humor expressed through his everyday acts and overall character.
Northern Transmissions: How are you?
Nate Brenner: Good just enjoy my first cup of coffee for the day?
NT: Where are you in the world?
Nate: Bloomington Indiana at my mom’s house. Sunday we just finished our last show of the tUnE-yArDs tour. So we’ve ended and since then I’ve just come here for a little break.
It’s kind of like a relax before going back to work for Naytronix.
NT: How was touring with the tUnE-yArDs?
Nate: Great yeah it was fun!
NT: How long were you guys on tour?
Nate:We were out for the last 17 months but this last little bit was only 4 or 5 days. cuz you know we break it up not just playing the entire time.
NT: So you play the bass for the tUnE-yArDs and you also have this side project called Naytronix. How did you get the name?
Nate: The name kinda just came to me. I was recording with a friend and we were just thinking like awe I can’t be Nate Brenner, and then I was sort of thinking Naytron, like Deltron 3030. Then my friend was like how about Naytronix and I was like ya!. It was kind of just a working title, but then I stuck with it. I like to put the Y in it so it’s not just directly my name but I think it can confuse some people.
NT: Mr. Divine will be your second album from Naytronix (out on Oct. 16), when did you start Naytronix?
Nate: I started the project in 2011 and I started as a way to work on my own ideas when I had free time. I started touring with Tune-Yards in 2009, so I’ve been busy pretty much since then but we would have a bunch of long drives all the time. Originally I’d just be in the car, take a note pad and just writing ideas for songs and stuff. And then Naytronix the band has been around for a long time but it’s slow because of my schedule. So it’s my second album (Mr. Divine), I just try to fit it in when I can and keep it going. I’m excited now because I have a break with Tune-Yards so I will have plenty of time to give it a good push and tour. It’s kind of that one project that has just been on the back burner so I’m excited to really push it forward for the first time. Having the support of City Slang, the record label, this is the first time I’m touring that is going to be a conclusive solo, I’m going to be able to play as much as possible and try to get it off the ground.
NT: Ok cool! So you’re gonna be playing on tour solo,
Nate: Yeah with like samplers and pedals then me on vocals.
NT: Yeah, you were working with Mark (Allen-Picollo) your guitarist and a percussionist (Robert Lopez) too on this album right?
Nate: Ya so Mark plays guitar on I think every song of this and he mixed the album too. We’ve been friend for like 10 years or something. So he’s one of my longest creative music partners besides Merrill and he has a full time job and he’s in school so he’s like so busy he can’t tour. I didn’t feel comfortable having an audition I just want a musical partner though I see the benefits to both. I think I just wanted to get things going with out finding someone new. So when Mark couldn’t go I just was wanting to do a solo thing.
And Robert he’s an amazing percussionist too, he recorded a lot of the percussion on the album but the same sort of thing where he is in another band and works and you know it’s kind of just at this level where I don’t have the resources to hire people. If it’s just me I can be gone for months and just crash on people’s couches or whatever. But if it’s three people they have to pay rent and so it becomes just more of a serious job.
NT: Ya and more organizing. So what are some show’s you have planned already?
Nate: I have shows coming up. My first one is New York on october 16, then I’m doing this midwest loop that ends in Chicago. Then i’m coming home and doing an oakland show and then flying to Europe and doing germany and the UK and then coming back and doing the west coast. A lot of them are on my website but there a couple more that need to be confirmed. So ya there’s a lot of shows coming up that I’m getting ready for.
NT: Alright nice. okay so Mr. Divine, I personally really like the album it’s chill. What’s your favourite song from it?
Nate: Thank you. I like them all so I can’t, one of my favourite songs to play live is probably Dream. I like them all so it kinda just depends on what I’m in the mood for. I’ve noticed that most other people really like the back in time one but what about you what’s you’re favourite song?
NT: Well I did like dream a lot.
NT: I mean I like that whole album it’s one of those album that you can listen to the whole thing and it’s really awesome throughout it all.
Nate: Thank you.
NT: No problem! How does technology affect or influence your songwriting?
Nate: Yeah, I mean it’s definitely affected the writing especially as a solo performer. In this way someone like myself and others, we can write songs by overdubbing. so we don’t have to be playing it with other people at the same time. For example on this album I’d play the drums or have a drum machine and then go write the bass lines, then guitars and whatever vocals. So it really affected the overall writing and process. You can just hear something over and over, then play along with it verses you know having to get together a bunch of guys together to rehearse and then go record. I think it’s made it possible for all these solo artists like even Merrill’s early Tune-Yards stuff and tons of other people like Grimes.
So in the past we’d all need to teach parts to other people. The way you can develop ideas are just easier to do by yourself and overall editing. When you’re working with a laptop, you can take one portion of the song and copy it a hundred times, erase it, take two sections apart then you could put a bridge in between the two sections. That was really hard in the past when you were recording to tape. You’d have to cut the tape and copy and paste the tape with like glue and scissors. So the songwriting process becomes easier for an individual to do. At least for me that is how it has effected me the most. Even with synthesizers, I have a recording studio that is not really expensive at all but 30 years ago a studio could have cost 100 thousand dollars like to make this record would have been so expensive but everything has just gotten so portable now.
NT: Are there any other projects you are working on right now?
Nate: No, right now I’m basically focusing on the live set. I’m wanting it to be a lot different from the album and stretch out the songs to have long groove with vocals and kind of percussion riffs down. So that’s a big process versus just playing the songs as is. There’s also the logistics of organizing and thinking “okay so I have to fly here and rent car” and that whole side of things is a big amount of work that I’m just getting started on.
NT: It seems like a cool adventure so far.
Nate: Yeah and I like that kind of stuff, problem solving. Like how do I get from point a to point b with my instruments and like ‘oh, well if I have two checked bags and it’s the maximum and a 50 lb weight limit’. Yeah that whole thing is fun.
NT: Yeah so when you go on tour to other countries do you find it limiting with the amount of equipment you can bring?
Nate: I used to but now I really like it. I’ve only done two solo shows, one in Berlin and one in Sacramento and so the Berlin one was hard because I ended up bringing way more stuff than I needed and I’ve learned a few lessons. Basically, I was just carrying these big suitcases through the airport and I brought my own stands I later thought why didn’t I rent a keyboard stand or borrow one. That was my first solo too and I was just really nervous so that was the challenge because I am used to playing in a band and with other musicians. Also I grew up playing jazz and doing a lot of improv stuff and so I wanted to compensate for that by bringing too much synthesisers and too much gear. Now I’m kind of thinking I can simplify that. I had a visual thing like a projector that is connected to the sampler so it’s triggered by the music. So that’s an element that makes it feel like it’s a real show for me. you know it’s not just me turning knobs or singing it makes it feel like it’s a real interactive band thing with all the visuals that go with the music.
NT: You said you grew up playing jazz?
NT: Did you start that with the bass?
Nate: I started on drums and my dad is a jazz and boogie woogie piano player, so he would have me and my brother play. We were taking drum lessons, piano lessons and a little voice lessons but I pretty much didn’t want to sing so I stopped. We were in the children’s choir. So I stopped singing, stopped playing the piano and just played drums until I was like 13 and started playing bass. Throughout highschool I was just playing jazz and rock, a lot of Zeppelin and also funk, but got really into jazz. I studied with the upright bass at Oberlin Conservatory. So pretty much from 18 to 24 I was only playing upright bass and then went back, to essentially when I was 14, just playing drums again and started playing keys and synthesizers and slowly singing again. This album was the first time I took voice lessons In 2013 we had a year off from Tune-Yards so during that year I found a voice teacher. On my first album I pretty much just used the vocoder and I just wanted to become a better singer. Actually it was Mark the guitar player who recommended her and it was his wife’s professor at UC Berkeley and she studied classical voice. So the teaching was from a classical voice teacher but she loves pop music, there was a lot these italian etudes and then my songs and start singing “I Don’t Remember” or “Mr. Divine”. I went through them one by one and she made me write out the melodies too otherwise she’d keep telling me I was singing the wrong note, you know, is it a or b. Later I started bringing in instrumentals and I started playing along with them, just the instrumental on a cd player and she’d just be like (*does high pitch impression of his teacher’s voice) ” you sound wonderful, great! aww”, but any time I had bad technique she’d stop me like (*again) “No! No! no-no-no-no-nooo” because she didn’t want me to injure my voice.
NT: Ya for sure!
Nate: Yeah, so now I’m ready to take stroll the road.
NT: Your vocal chords are prepped and ready.
Nate: They’re strong now, yeah (laughs)
NT: That’s good!
Nate: Yeah I felt good about that because I felt before I was taking lessons, I was working on the album and I was just like “the vocals they just they don’t sound good” and then like “i don’t know how to fix them” and Mark said “you should take voice lessons” so it’s like “oh yeah! If I want to be better at something I can just get help from someone that knows how to do it”, instead of you know, put a ton of effects on them or, never release the album at all. It’s very logical but I definitely had to humble myself.
NT: That’s awesome, so you definitely put some extra work in for this album.
Nate: Ya well you know it felt good, it was a lot of work but honestly when I was making it and just going to the studio to work everyday I wasn’t like “oh I have to make this album soon”. Instead I got really into the process of figuring out what to do with my time how do I spend my days and after like 2 years that was when I was told myself okay I should probably finish this, so I booked the studio with Mark. I recorded it all at mine and Merrill’s studio in a basement in downtown Oakland that we rent. So it’s not like a recording studio but more of a rehearsal one.
Nate: So I booked these days with Mark in this real studio and I said we are just gonna mix it and I think we did like two songs a day. We mixed them all down to tape, so what that means is like the whole album I was using a laptop but at the final stage we mixed it to this board they used in the 70’s, so it went back to that technology and so it sounded really good. Even since I recorded it myself, it brought out some really good tones but there’s no going back or changing it. So I basically force myself that this was it this is the mix. The way all albums were made back then before laptops, you’d mix it and that’s it you can’t go back and turn up the vocals or whatever. So in that 2 years I was just tweaking it non stop and thinking “one day i’m puttin it out”.
NT: Nice so it’s like a very raw sound but fine tuned.
Nate: Yeah totally.
NT:Alright well my last question is what are 5 albums you like or are currently listening to?
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band– The Beatles This is just a classic
Who is William Onyeabor– William Onyeabor I think it’s a big influence on Naytronix. He was a nigerian funk synth guy from the early 80’s.
Gris Gris– Dr. John One of the albums I was thinking of the most.
Innervisions– Stevie Wonder Another classic.
Black Messiah– D’Angelo and the Vanguard
Interviewed by Nova Olson