Last year's breakup of Brooklyn rockers Pela came after a string of nightmarish misfortunes, from falling out with record labels, to a failed record deal, to two injuries–one of which halted a tour–incurred by their lead singer Billy McCarthy while on stage during the band's notoriously intense live performances.
Nearly a year post-Pela, guitarist Nate Martinez is about to release the first album from his solo project Thieving Irons, This Midnight Hum. The blissed-out alt-country epic is driving but despondent, sweetly raw, and soars in all the right places. Drummer Bryan Devendorf of The National joins Nate, along with a plethora of chronologically mismatched instruments like 1980's Casio keys and a banjolin of all things. Last week, Nate spoke to us about Pela's rough demise, his relationship with pre-explosive-fame The National, eternal nicknames and Australian slang.
How long have you been working on This Midnight Hum? We've been working on it for a while and I'm glad it's finally seeing the light of day soon! All in all maybe a year. I started writing a couple of the songs last summer, and come September it got into full gear with finishing out all the tunes for the album and starting with the recording and everything.
You recorded at Saltlands in Dumbo, right? Yeah, I'm actually here right now! When I was in Pela we worked there a lot, and I recorded some drums there, and recorded a lot at my apartment, and then additional stuff at my friend Mike's studio. It's this place called Temperamental Studios, it's a converted 1828 church up in Geneseo, NY.
That must have killer acoustics. Oh, it's great. You don't even have to do anything. He filled the space with all these beautiful instruments, and you just kinda walk in and you can pick up anything or just clap your hands and it sounds awesome.
Are you originally from Brooklyn? No, I grew up north of Buffalo in this small town called Lewiston. It's right on the border of Canada. I spent my youth there and when college time came, I came towards here.
Where did you go to school? SUNY New Paltz, an hour and a half north of here.
Did you study music? I did, yeah. I studied jazz performance. But we did everything; compositional classes and some classical courses and stuff. But I just sort of versed myself in most of the performance classes. Ultimately it was just a fun time like everybody has in college and I ended up just playing lots of rock and roll. It was a cool hippy haven. I don't know if you've ever been there, but it just runs in the streets. [laughs]
Has any of that jazz training factored into your music? No! Not at all. Learning jazz is great and everything, but going into college and trying to pursue music is an odd mix. With music, unless you go to a place like Berklee School of Music, you have only a few choices. There's jazz, classical, music therapy or just theory. I think for me and my friends who I met there, who I still play a lot of music with, it was some way to buy time while learning and ultimately I think as soon as I got done it was just kind of, like, "throw it all out the window." I had no interest in really pursuing jazz music when I got done. It helped with the theory end of things and really truly understanding the vocabulary, but beyond that, that's the extent of the learning.
Are any of the guys you played with in college in bands around here now? Ever heard of the Rolling Stones? [laughs] No, but, Eric Sanderson, we played together in Pela, so we've known each other for almost fourteen years now, and my very good friend Josh Kaufman, he's playing with Thieving Irons. Another friend of ours has a project called Project Jenny Project Jan. Have you ever heard of it?
I haven't! It's really awesome. Totally entertaining music. It's more of electronica with a theatrical element to it. So yeah, most of us decided to move down to Brooklyn when we got done with school to pursue music and the arts and all that.
We love those. Go for it. About six months before me and a couple friends decided to move down here, one of our friends came down here to play a show and played with a band called The National. This was back in late 2000, or maybe 2001, I'm not really sure. He came back and we were talking and he said "You know what? You have to meet this band The National." And I was like, "Okay, cool." And I ended up remembering the name, and literally two weeks after moving to Brooklyn I got introduced to this guy, who happened to be Bryan, and he's like, "So who do you play with?" And I was like, you know, "We've got this project...who do you play with?" and he was like "This band The National," and I was like, "I'm supposed to meet you! This is awesome!" And two weeks later I was recording with them on their album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. I played guitar on a track called "Cardinal Song". From then on I recorded on specific tracks for a couple of their albums up until Boxer. If Bryce [Dessner] had to be out of town, I would sit in on a couple dates or go over to Europe and do a couple things with them. In Pela we did an EP that we did with their label Brassland. So I've known them for a while. It just was really natural, when it got to the point that I had this new music, Bryan is absolutely one of my favorite drummers, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to ask him if he wanted to do it, and he was into it, and I was excited.
Do you see touring or collaborating with them? Sure! They're really busy right now with this massive success that keeps happening and growing with them, especially with this new album High Violet. But who knows! The future's unwritten, you never know. I certainly want to do more stuff with Bryan immediately but I really like all those guys a lot, they're really talented people and I hope to do more stuff with them.
On the Pela website, you guys described your genre as "pastoral punk." I may just not be cool enough to know what that is, but I've never heard of it. What does that mean? You know, that... pastoral punk... I think it's like when... when... I don't really know what that is myself. [Laughs] I understand what they were going for, the person who wrote the bio was trying to come up with some kind of witty, clever label that could be spun in different ways as opposed to straight up American rock, but it probably came from the idea of "pastoral" meaning hymnal, like in a church. Or maybe transcendental. I'm not really sure. But it's an interesting label, I must say. It's pastoral punk, did you say?
Yeah. Yeah, Pela was definitely not a punk band. [Laughs]
What type of image do you see surrounding Thieving Irons? I know Pela's was this very American, very much a wandering everyday soul type of image, but Thieving Irons is a very different sound. I think Thieving Irons, with this album in particular, I had some concepts that sort of tied together throughout the recording of it, the title of it, the art on the album...Kind of taking a bit of music history over the past 120 years and applying all these quirky instruments along with new instruments and trying to create a unique sound that transcends a specific time period. That was our technical approach. Next thing you know we would have a quirky, really crappy Casio from the 80's playing a line, and then there would be a banjolin from the 1890s.
A banjolin? A cross between a banjo and a mandolin! So there was that, and then my friend Rich Caruso who did the artwork for the album had a similar process. It had a sort of antique quality to it, but he used modern technology to arrive at it. I think that has been the approach on this one. As far as future music, I don't really know where it's going to go. This one has a somber quality to it, that's also uplifting at moments. But that's a good question. I have no clue. I know that songs keep coming out, and they're changing. I went through this last year...the way that you're feeling is reflected in anything that you do, whether you're writing a short story or a song or if you're painting... If you've got a lot of anger, you're going to convey that. With this, there was a tremendous amount of change. When you pursue a band for seven years, and giving up everything to see this thing through and then it couldn't make it through the door, and putting so many aspects of my life...not on hold, but when you dedicate yourself to something, you've got to go full board. The combination of that ending and then having this void...it was very easy to dedicate all my time to [Thieving Irons] because it felt good. The combination of that and some family members passing... it was a turbulent year for me, as it was for a lot of people. So that's these songs, you know? For the new songs that I'm writing, things aren't as turbulent. There's a bit more of a look towards the next phase in my life, and what energy I put into things. There's less somberness. Lookin' ahead!
Pela went through quite a bit of hard times towards the end, didn't it?
We were cursed with a black cloud over our head [laughs].
Were you thinking about launching a solo project while Pela was still together? It had come up from time to time. The story of that ending of that band is a pretty long, insane story. What happened, to sort of condense it for a moment, was that we were set to final negotiations for a very big record deal. As if those things even exist nowadays. [Laughs] We had been in those negotiations for a while and it was set to go through but it didn't. And in that time that we were waiting for all this business stuff to happen, there was nothing for us to do. No shows to play. So in the midst of this, that's when I said, "I have time right now, I'm going to dedicate some of it to this side project and grow a little side garden." That's literally how it started. So when things really weren't working out [with Pela], it was like, "Oh, okay, I already have this thing going, I'm going to dedicate all my time to it now."
Billy McCarthy [Pela's lead singer] suffered a few injuries towards the end of Pela, what happened there? There was a bad situation in Chicago, and then another one in Seattle actually. A cut hand and then a broken foot.
That was while performing? Yes, both of them.
Yikes. What is Billy doing right now? Him and Eric have a new project that they're working on. We worked on this album for a very long time, and now... What I believe to be happening is that they're going to be releasing this album, and eleven out of the twelve songs are Pela songs that we recorded and produced and they didn't really change, and there's one additional song on it. And they're going to be releasing that album under their new project name. It's called The Augustines. We started recording that album three years ago. Come October it'll be three years.
Uh oh. Only one non-Pela song? It's not being released as some kind of posthumous Pela project? Nope. No, to my knowledge it isn't.
I noticed your name is listed as Nate "Natron" Martinez on the site. Where did that nickname come from? [Laughs] That nickname is something that...well, you know, you went to college, your friends never gave you a nickname?
It's hard to adjust 'Zoe' much, three letters tends to be limiting. That's a great name! I don't know why, people have always given me different nicknames. I don't know if it's a combination of my name and my personality? So my friend called me Natron and it caught on like wildfire and I haven't been able to shake it. Nor do I really care to, it's pretty harmless, and, like, my email address still has it in it still. There's been a lot of variations on the name Natron. It'll probably stick till I'm dead.
Where does the name Thieving Irons come from? It comes from the idea of spanning music history. I wanted to find some sort of name that correlated to the way it was recorded and the antiquity of everything. I was doing some research, and back in the early nineteen hundreds in Australia there was this slang, and thieving irons meant a couple things; either hands, or shears, and it also means purse-snatchers! I think it really worked well with the music and it was an easy sell for me once I came across it.
How was your show at Northside Festival? It was great! But I think everybody was really tired, it was Sunday night and everyone had been running around for days. I had never played at that place, it was at Bar Matchless. I was glad to be a part of it, it was a last minute thing.
Who are you listening to these days? A friend just gave me some stuff from that band The Girls. I wouldn't say I'm totally into The Girls, but I've been trying to get back into music. For a while now I haven't had time leisurely listen to music. In a long-term sense, I love The Kinks. I can always listen to The Kinks. I actually need to get a new record player because I have all this stuff on vinyl sitting around the apartment that I need to get back into again. There's this album that I'm really looking forward to hearing again; it's by Tom Verlaine from Television. He did it back in the late eighties. It's a really quirky, cool art album. But new stuff? That's a really good question. I'm really horrible at listening to music regularly.
One doesn't expect that from musicians! There's been so much music coming out of me that I'm just trying to keep up with documenting that. I haven't had a free moment to sit down and digest an album in a while.
What songs off This Midnight Hum do you most like to play live? I like all of them, but I'm really excited about that song "Red Horses." I'm in rehearsal right now, I just stepped out, and I'm looking forward to getting into that song. They all provide something different. I think Ashes on the Riverbank is great to play live too. The album comes out Tuesday and then people will really be able to give it a listen, and if they like it they can come to the show we'll be able to give a better reciprocal experience. It won't be like another band playing ten songs in a loud music venue they don't know anything about. I'm looking forward to playing all of them for people, and once they know the songs we can all have a better experience.