Nate Martinez is no stranger to the music scene. He started exploring his career in music in the Brooklyn band Pela which lead to performances all over the US as well as ones with the National. After Pela broke up last year Nate delved into his solo work, something he was working on throughout his time with the band. Some intense writing and a couple of recording sessions later Thieving Irons emerged, producing a literal soundscape of instruments and emotions floating through his debut album This Midnight Hum. We sat down with Nate at Chicago’s Empty Bottle to talk about how Thieving Irons came to be.
Heave: I heard you were at Daytrotter earlier today, how did that go?
Nate Martinez: It was good. The last band I was in, we tried to make it happen with our routing and touring in the past but it never really materialized. It was really nice to go there and record a bunch of songs, meet Sean [Moeller] and see the whole operation at Rock Island. It was cool.
Heave: Yeah it’s really interesting how they set up everything for the videos and recording.
NM: Yeah they’ve just really got a system down. And I was talking to them, they just opened up a thing in Austin too. It seems to be that’s happening more and more. Some are more classic radio recording kind of things. In my last band we did KEXP and stuff like that, radio stations where you either set up minimally or with the whole band and you record the session and that was like the live band thing. And then there’s other places who are doing actual video and music. Say you’re in the Netherlands and you want to see a band from Brooklyn. You can actually visually see them through these things. It’s cool.
Heave: After Pela ended, what was your driving decision to start Thieving Irons?
NM: I had started writing some songs for a side project and then when it ended it just made sense. I had already started working on this thing so it just made sense to put all of my energy into it.
Heave: On your new album This Midnight Hum you have a lot of your friends working like Bryan Devendorf from the National and Zak Ward of Son of the Sun. How did you get all your friends involved?
NM: Well it was actually me saying “Hey I’m doing this, take a listen.” In particular the first person I asked was Bryan because I’ve known him for a long time and I’ve worked with the National a bunch in the past. So it was kind of just a natural thing for me. I’ve always wanted to work on music with him. He played on one song on a Pela album a long time ago. He’s one of my favorite drummers so it was natural. And he was really into it so we hung out and sorted it out. Everyone else, my friends Mike [Brown] and Dan [Brantigan], people just started coming into the fold. It was really natural actually.
Heave: I also read, I think it was your interview on KEXP, that at Temperamental Studios there’s a lot of odd instruments and that you were just picking up stuff and using it on the album. How did you decide which ones to use and which ones not to use? It sounded like there were so many.
NM: I don’t know, you walk around and you just look at something, you turn it and you listen to it and decide hey let’s try it. Mike, who owns the studio, he knows every instrument. So between the two of us we just worked in tandem. We’d throw mikes up and record and just kept documenting sounds and different stuff. That’s why there’s so many different instruments on it because the sensibility of musicianship, everybody played really well too. There’s already this thing and you’re reacting to that so there’s a lot of different sounds. To me at least it doesn’t sound like it’s ever too cluttered even though there might be ten different instruments on it, including a drum set. Just knowing instruments made it easier.
Heave: Did you play most of them or was it more yourself and Mike?
NM: I started out and I recorded in my apartment and recorded all these quirky keyboards and acoustics and some electrics. And then we added the drums. Then with Mike we went to his place and he played a lot of piano and organs. It’s a swap. He plays a lot of instruments, I play a lot of instruments and then our other friends fill in the spaces with specific instruments that they play.
Heave: Is it different touring with Thieving Irons than it was different touring with Pela – going from a solo project with band members to being a part of a band?
NM: It’s the same and then when you’re starting out with a new project and you’re going out and supporting it, there’s certain obstacles that you have to deal with and that you have to figure out. At the end of the day that aspect, not the musical aspect…I’ll break it up into two parts. The business aspect you’re trying to make sure you’ve got your overhead and what not. From the musical perspective, there’s been slight line-up changes for this project and in general the songs are written but there’s not a written script. In Pela we had more these are the songs, we’re going to play them every night, not really deviate from it too much, we have our show this is it. With Thieving Irons it’s kind of like letting the music speak a lot more and letting the evening and the energy dictate things more. It’s a little bit more flying by the seat of your pants which I kind of enjoy.
Heave: I got a chance to listen to the album today like I mentioned earlier and I couldn’t think of a really good way to describe it. My boyfriend actually asked me before we came to the show and I couldn’t find a good way to convey it. In like three of four words do you think you could describe This Midnight Hum?
NM: I would describe it…it’s definitely dreamy. But it’s also grounded. I enjoy writing and listening to music that has an interactive element to it. This may be longer than three or four words, is that ok?
Heave: (laughs) Yeah it’s fine.
NM: Ok (laughs). I like thinking about sounds visually and also that escapist element to it. So where you’re listening, where you can get lost in it and it’s a sea of sound. I’ve always loved that and gravitated towards it. I could’ve edited down all the instruments on it and made it more of a focused thing with a couple instruments but I really left everything there. It’s all dancing around and doing something that’s really special and so it’s kind of like a bit of a dream. That’s what This Midnight Hum is in a lot of ways. But it’s also…I’m going to stop (laughs). I can keep going on a tangent but it’s like I’ll stop.
Heave: That’s the problem I was having too. I couldn’t like, pinpoint it so I just kept talking and finally said just listen.
NM: You know what, that’s what I hope people do. If they can take a moment with it, maybe they’re going to arrive at a couple different conclusions. Either they don’t like it or they like it or they can’t fully understand what it is so they going to continue listening to it. And maybe through that they’re going to form their own bond to it which is the most important thing to me. That’s how I came around to it. After a certain point not trying to dissect it, accepting it’s a hodgepodge of sounds. Some people say it’s alt-country or Americana. I can understand certain elements of it but overall I don’t think you can exactly pinpoint it to genres.
Heave: I’ve never really gotten the Americana genre. When you think about it, America is a bunch of immigrants and Native Americans that all came together and melded into certain cultures.
NM: Well Americana is a blend of all that stuff. It’s dreamy music.
Heave: I also read that you majored in jazz while you were college. Does any of that experience influence your writing or your performance?
NM: I think that having the knowledge about that kind of music is helpful. Ever since I’ve been playing music it was to try and figure out my voice in it. At least for a while you do have to try and understand. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to learn the knowledge behind music, you know what I mean? But the thing about going to school what it taught me is actually that as soon as I got done I threw it all out the window. Otherwise it would’ve confined me. I think with anything before you can forget about it you might as well learn it. Because then you can forget about it and you can still have maybe a better understanding of exactly what you do want to do as opposed to not knowing certain things.
Heave: It’s better to learn and forget than not learn it at all and make mistakes.
NM: Yeah. Well, you make mistakes regardless. But definitely the greatest thing I learned from it was that I learned to forget.
This Midnight Hum is out now on Seabird Recording Company. Nate Martinez and Thieving Irons will be playing CMJ on October 19 at the Rock Shop and October 23 at the Rockwood Music Hall. You can listen to Thieving Iron’s session at Daytrotter and download their set here.