Nathan Moody is a humble and powerful voice in modular synthesis, and he is a respected artist in many genres and circles. I knew of Nathan via social media, admired his penchant for analog circuit routing and outdoor adventure in the Bay Area (California), but it was his dedication to informative music tech blogging on his art and discoveries that lead me to ask him to be the first artist interviewed for this site. I was honored to interview Mr. Moody for Hypnos Audio. -(Dave B.)
Bio: Nathan Moody is a cross-media artist and designer. He releases albums under his own name, blogs about sound design and field recording, creates short films, and designs interactive installations. He has worked in nearly every creative medium, from oil paints to visual effects for films, from tattoos to screens. Nathan’s work has featured in film festivals, won numerous awards, and many DJs’ playlists for nearly twenty years.
HA: What inspires you to create music?
NM: Constraints. I’m lucky enough to have sufficient instruments to stay inspired with the tools I have, but I need a hook, theme, concept, or other reductive force to limit the possibility space. Recently I’ve been making albums using only one instrument, only played live, and that’s been sustaining a sizable body of work that will be released throughout 2017. I think any creative person has to come to terms that even great ideas can lead to dead ends, and we all need to be OK with letting it go if it’s not the right idea, approach, theme, or what have you.
HA: Could you describe your process of starting a new musical project?
NM: Once I’ve landed on a hook, concept, or other constraint, I explore it. It’s like pacing around a small room. You get to know every nook, cranny, imperfection, and nuance of the thing you’re exploring. Sometimes that process yields studies, sketches, notes, and more ideas, and it can take longer than actually producing the project itself! I’m always looking for a sonic or visual language that can be stretched like a vocabulary across moods and notions. It takes a while to find that certain…voice, I guess. Perhaps I find it less daunting to find a voice per project than to find a voice that I can claim as my own for the rest of my life…if that exists at all.
HA: Do you set boundaries, or markers to set a pace for your project? (e.g., a certain amount of creation/production a week, or day, etc).
NM: Beyond the conceptual boundaries above, I have to make the most of what time I have. I’m getting older and have a demanding non-music job, not to mention a relationship to maintain, and other hobbies. When I sit down to work on music, I do so with intense focus to make the most of what time I have.
I’ve found that arbitrary time limits have their uses, though. About once every two years, I pick a time frame and tell myself that I just need to “get to done.” I’ve created an experimental film and a stop motion short using this technique, in 36 hours and one month respectively, with the “rule” that I can’t ever go back and polish it. It’s done. Going from concept through completion in this way allows you to really keep the big picture in mind. You simply can’t afford to be a perfectionist. I find that really satisfying, warts and all. It hurts to look back at all the things that could be better, but it hones creative instincts like little else.
HA: Do you enjoy collaboration and do you set boundaries/standards on working with others?
NM: I’ve tried collaboration with other musicians, beyond just simple remixes, but they often seem to stall. We all lead busy, harried, adult lives. I wonder if working with another musician outside of a remix or proper band context instills that “stepping on the others’ toes” sort of worry that causes an awkward level of trepidation. Maybe it’s because I’ve not had the chance to do this in the context of a proper concept, theme, or what have you.
What absolutely fires me up is working with other creatives in other disciplines, like dancers, filmmakers, coders, and animators. Or when I do those things for other musicians, without doing music myself. That’s the kind of collaboration where each person has their own discipline and you really are deeply interpreting the others’ work. I recently worked with a writer, providing the sound design for an alien language for an audiobook, and that was great fun. I’m just starting my first score for a film, and that’s just the kind of collaboration that I find exciting.
HA: How long does it typically take you to start and finish a musical project/album, and have you learned any creative techniques to generate/start projects and would/could you share them if so?
NM: To land on a concept, you can’t rush that. That just comes to you in those frustratingly infrequent blasts of insight. You just need to let that come in its own time, and to phase projects so that you can let the inspirations keep coming.
Speaking of which, being trained as an artist taught me the value of always having at least two projects going at once. When you stall on something, you turn that canvas to the wall and dig into the other piece, saving you frustration on one while bringing a fresh perspective to the other. I do this religiously, and it really helps fight burnout.
Once writing, barring stalls or sidetracks or creative blocks, I tend to really be focused and finish album recording and mixing in one to six months. However, I sometimes let a month or more go by before I do final pre-master mixing and track sequencing. I need to listen to the material over and over again, live with it, and that sometimes helps not just with insights of which track goes where, but those honest, hard questions about whether any part of it is good enough to be in the finished project. I regularly jettison 2-3 songs per album as not being quite right.
This is also where having a council of listeners you trust is supremely helpful. I’ve got my own international “Council of Elrond” that helps me be more objective about the project. My mastering engineer is the final sanity check; I adore the music he makes, so I trust his opinion implicitly.
HA: So many musicians get wrapped up in gear, do you find that it hinders your process?
NM: Sometimes I do, yes. I find that the gear that works for me has a real immediacy to it. I stopped painting with oils because of this; it takes forever to dry, if ever, and it’s not as immediate as drawing or watercolor or pastel. I stopped playing the saxophone and picked up the guitar for this reason, too. I stopped using many electronic instruments because of hidden key combos I can’t remember. When I find a piece of gear gets in the way, I sell it, and that’s how my studio has taken form.
Even in the seemingly non-immediate world of modular synthesis, there are indeed modules that are simple and self-evident. Features don’t make for inspiring tools, interfaces do, and for me, simpler is better. I want to use my brain for weird routings and evocative sounds, not overly clever hidden modes or post-launch add-on features that don’t match panel labels.
HA: What do you do at the end of your creative cycle? (e.g., do you immediately move onto the next thing, take a break, etc).
NM: One of two things happen: I move on to a different method of creating, or I switch from output to input. I often find that I need to switch instruments, or even switch media, after a big project or two. For example, after having completed five electronic music albums, I dedicated six months to ambient and experimental guitar. I might spend four months making visual art and then eight making music.
However, sometimes my creative fire does flicker a bit. When I feel that, it’s time to find new inspiration. That’s when I go through periods of insatiable media cravings, like reading, or watching a ton of films, or seeing plays or dance performances. Those things don’t always lead me somewhere specific, but I feed off of the creations of others and take inspiration from it in some intrinsic, subconscious way.
I also get outside a lot. I’m an avid hiker, backpacker, and sea kayaker, and spending time in nature causes creativity to come rushing back when I return.
HA: In addition to electronic music, are you currently working on any other artistic endeavors?
NM: I was trained as an illustrator, so I’m always drawing. I spent years as a visual effects compositor, motion designer, and video editor, so I do video projects as well, and have a piece that will be premiering at a festival in New Zealand this fall. I did a music video for A Box in the Sea recently. I am scoring a documentary primarily using the guitar. Somehow I still manage to hold down a demanding day job as an executive creative director, where I design large scale interactive installations.
HA: If you could give advice to one artist on the creative process, what would it be?
NM: Isak Denisen, whose real name was Karen Blixen, wrote, “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” This strikes at the heart of doing the work for work’s sake, not forcing anything, and just getting that “time in the saddle” that we all need to hone our craft…without considering the outcome. That is the most important aspect of one’s daily creative practice. Time and time again, I find that when I create something without expectation of success, it’s more successful. Choreographer Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit is a strongly recommended read on this aspect of the creative process.
An art professor of mine once went on a tangent about how the edges of a Lucien Freud painting – not the figure in the painting, but the area beneath the masking tape along the edges – were the most interesting. This is where bleeding and capillary effects happened in a way the artist couldn’t willfully intend. “Everything interesting happens in the margins.” That one phrase has defined where I look for art, music, film literature, culture, and even friends. All it takes is an open mind and wandering eye, and a willingness to shine a spotlight on, and embrace, an overlooked thing.
Finally, have a strict “no asshole” policy. You’ll be surprised how constantly it’s tested, and the lengths to which you must go in order to enforce it, but trust me on this. Life is too short to do otherwise.
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