Interview with Nathaniel Johnstone

Nathaniel Johnstone talks about his new solo project, his instruments and the steampunk community.

Nathaniel Johnstone
Nathaniel Johnstone (Hans Watson)

Nathaniel Johnstone talks about his new solo project, his instruments and the steampunk community.

Your solo project is titled Nathaniel Johnstone Band, how about saying something nice about each of your band members by means of introduction?

Oh, that’s easy! I’m blessed to have such high-caliber musicians on my team!

  • Jes Brown: When I met Jes twelve years ago, I saw that he was a fantastic drummer (Jazz/Afro-Cuban/Brazilian styles) and wanted to do a project with him. Alas, it took nearly eight years to find the right circumstance. When I approached him with a few tunes that I’d written using traditional bellydance rhythms, he immediately saw that they had strong similarities with the Brazilian rhythms that he’d already been playing. He’s one of the best drummers that I’ve ever jammed with. My tunes would not be anywhere near as cool if he’d not been there to help mold the rhythms into what they are.
  • Jean-Paul Mayden: Jean-Paul is down for anything. He can pretty much play anything as well. I joke that one day I will find a style or musical instrument that he can’t do and he consistently proves me wrong. He’s in several different musical projects and does different stuff for each one. The thing I like best about his contribution to the band is that he knows how to really hit the bass groove without over- or under-playing.
  • Mel: Mel is an old-school classically trained opera singer. Her voice is beautiful and she approaches it like an instrument just like the others in the band. She didn’t really want to sing words and I think that fits the music perfectly. She has a great deal of power to her voice as well. There have been shows in smaller venues where the sound guy just took her out of the mix because the mic wasn’t even necessary.
  • Libby Bulloff: Largely speaking, Libby is the tastemaker of the band. A lot of the music that I’ve discovered and have since emulated was a result of her suggestions and research. Most of the dancers that we collaborate with were originally friends of hers. Since then, we’ve done plenty of creative projects together and this is just the current one.

Imagine someone doesn’t know your music yet and you got to let them listen to just one of your songs by way of an introduction, which song would you choose and why?

I like to start with “The Heart Unwound”. It’s got everything! Slow lyricism, fast jams, a showcase for Mel’s voice and it’s one of the first banjo tunes I ever wrote. It’s a great tune for bellydancers to really cut loose.

People probably know you best for playing guitar and violin, but you’re a multi-instrumentalist beyond those two. Which other instruments do you play?

The convenient thing about the instruments that I play is that they all lead to one another. I started on guitar/violin and the mandolin is the obvious offshoot, it’s played like a guitar and tuned like a violin. I knew how to play the mandolin before I ever held one in my hands. The tenor banjo is tuned just a viola so that was really easy as well. I can play the piano fairly poorly — not so well to perform, but it’s what I generally compose on. I can play a fair number of hand drums and percussion instruments well enough to record, but I hardly ever get the chance to play them live.

What are your preferred brands/types of every instrument that you play?

For the guitar I was a Fender Strat guy for many years. I just love the body shape and neck. When I switched to Ibanez for the seven-strings, I picked the RG-7620 because it was the closest to the Strat body shape. I am now sold as an Ibanez guy.

I actually play a five-string viola nowadays. It’s got the E-string of a violin as the top string, so I can still play all the violin parts. It’s a little bit larger than my old violin and so it’s much more fun to play. It was made by a violin maker in the San Francisco area named Scott Cao.

My mandolin is a National Instruments resonator mandolin. I love how it sounds. It’s so warm and mid-range in tone. It’s loud, it’s brash and it rocks! I hate playing other mandolins anymore.

My banjo is a cheap student model I got from a shop in Seattle called Lark in the Morning. It is a lot of fun to play. I’ve not found “the one banjo” yet. I’m still looking.

I’ve got a ’86 Japanese-made Fender P-Bass with Drop-D tuner and an EMG P-Bass pickup. Basically, my dream bass.

What instrument do you generally start with when composing a new song?

I generally start on either the violin or piano. I’ve got a couple of keyboards set up next to my recording desk and all the sounds I could ever want plugged-in. I’m always poking around looking for new musical ideas with them. The violin gets at least an hour a day and so the ideas are always coming out when I get bored with the scales and arpeggios. They don’t always end up as violin parts once the tunes are composed, though.

I’m working on a new album of material right now that has a lot more keyboards and piano parts. I’m hoping to have that finished and out the door by March or April. Wish me luck!

Good luck! Your solo works compiled on Evidence of Past Misdeeds (our review here) have a strong ethnic vibe to them. What inspired you to go for this kind of sound?

I was inspired by my friends who bellydance. Most of my music was composed specifically for them. They are an amazing group of women who have very strong on-stage personas and I’m very much inspired by them. I wanted to write pieces that captured how I felt when I saw them dance. Some were fierce, some lyrical, some were just beautiful.

My dear friend Paul Mercer (my mentor as a violinist) showed me a lot of the scales and rhythms that he uses when he plays. He’s studied with several masters of Indian classical music and he’s passed on a few choice concepts to me. I love how the exotic modes make me play. I can’t just play a straight scale with I play in those modes. When I try I end up making up a new melody every time!

Does the title Evidence of Past Misdeeds hint that you may change musical directions in the future?

Indeed it does! I’d started the Nathaniel Johnstone Band as a kind of side-project where I could explore musical directions that didn’t fit in any of the other ensembles that I was in. I’d viewed it as a sometimes thing that I would use as a means to perform and collaborate with my dancer friends. As such it was pretty much everyone else’s side project as well. Now that I’m doing it full-time, I’m making an effort to expand the sound and concepts behind the music.

In my current recording project, I’m looking to have a fuller orchestration, the addition of piano and keys and add more prominent vocals with words. Look for it sometime in the spring of 2013.

What kind of music would you still be interested in creating?

Check out my Soundcloud page to get a hint of things to come.

You’re also part of another band, can you tell us a little more about that?

I’m part of a lot of bands, actually! The Ghosts Project is my other main thing. That’s Paul Mercer (a brilliant violinist unlike any other I’ve heard) and Davis Petterson (more than just a drummer, he’s practically a drum orchestra in one body). We do mostly improvisational music. It’s a bit difficult to describe, but if you start with a violinist schooled in Indian classical music, added a solid rock and jazz drummer and filled it out with me on guitar playing the funk and metal, you can begin to build an image in your mind’s ear.

We are going into the studio in December to begin work on a new album. We’ve got a handful of tunes that came together at previous shows and we’re going to write more. We’re locking ourselves in the rehearsal room for a few days and just go nuts. What survives with get recorded in the studio. I can’t wait for this one to get out!

I’ve also been helping Jody Ellen of Abney Park with her solo project. She’s just released her new album and I think it’s fantastic! We’ve just come of a short tour and it was a lot of fun. Her husband, Chris, lays down the heavy guitar, Jean-Paul on second guitar and I cover the bass. If you’ve not heard her stuff, you should go check it out!

I’ve got a long-time collaboration a bellydancer named Tempest. She and I have collaborated on many performances, mostly improvised music and dance. We do workshops and performances at bellydance festivals all over. Many of the tunes that I’ve written lately started out as pieces for her to dance to. The first six songs on my CD were recorded as the music for her instructional bellydance DVD called Bellydance Artistry with Tempest.

Jes Brown has his own project that I’ve been helping with as well. We’ve got several songs already recorded and are hard at work on more as we speak. I’m not sure what his schedule is for a full album release, but we’re making really good progress.

You’ve been active in the steampunk scene for a long time. What are the best and worst things about it?

I love the fact that so many artisans have embraced steampunk: musicians, writers, illustrators, modelers, clothing designers, etc… Everyone can play! Everyone seems very encouraging of each other’s efforts as well. It’s such an open ended aesthetic that it’s really easy to be unique and interesting.

The one thing I don’t like is when some folks style themselves as “gatekeepers” of steampunk. Thankfully, they are very much in the minority! I would rather the tastemakers encourage people to stretch their creativity rather than complain that “that’s not steampunk enough.” We’re all making it up as we go along anyway. In a way, we’re all collaborators on one grand project. At least, that’s my ideal.

If you got to change one thing in the steampunk scene, what would it be?

As I mentioned above, I would rather people describe what their idea of steampunk is rather than try to prescribe to others how “it should be done”. We’re all different in our perceptions of the aesthetic and I believe there’s plenty of room for everyone to explore their own take on it.

What’s your best memory that you have from performing with the Nathaniel Johnstone Band?

When we played at Steamcon in Seattle recently, there was a line of dancers that started to wind its way around the room in a long serpentine chain of people. More and more people joined up until there was at least 100 people grooving along with the music. We were playing the song “Ifritah”, which really lends itself to long passages of improv and lyricism and I lost myself in the moment and forgot that we had a time-limit on our set. We were opening for Rasputina that night and I didn’t want to push into their set time so, alas, I had to bring the moment to an end. It really makes me happy when people dance to our music. That’s why we do what we do in the first place.

What are your musical plans for 2013?

A new Nathaniel Johnstone album. A new Ghosts Project album. More shows. I’ve got a handful of other projects that are clamoring for attention and when time allows, I’m going to get them started as well. I’m keeping plenty busy!

You’re known to be a cat person. What do you think cats would pull by way of master plan if they were unattended for long enough?

I dread to think of it. I do my best to make sure that my own cats are never left unattended long enough for them to get into any real mayhem. They’ve undoubtedly got wicked plans, so I have to be attentive. I’m sure their plots would involve catnip, Tesla coils and lots of feathers, though.

Any shout-outs?

  • Tempest’s site has a calendar of events that she and I are collaborating on as well as ordering info for the DVD that we collaborated on.
  • The Ghosts Project.
  • Jody Ellen.
  • Jes’ project is still in the beginning stages, but we’ve got the first song and video uploaded to Bandcamp and YouTube. Expect more soon!
  • Libby’s photography. In addition to digital photography, she does authentic tintype photography with a camera built in 1908. She did the shot on the cover of my album Evidence of Past Misdeeds.

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