Crossing Over

An American math rock vet finds a home on a Czech label.

Michael Nace is the only non-Czech artist on the Czech-based Minority Records.
His new album, The Voyage Out, represents a significant departure from the label’s
excellent but mainly post-hardcore offerings. The 23-year-old Nace, formerly of
Philadelphia’s respected math rock trio Drill for Absentee, has engineered a luxuriant,
mature and introspective trip, more reminiscent of Elliot Smith or The Ocean Blue
than his own early recordings. It’s hard to imagine what sort of effect his tawdry
little emotions had on the crowds gathered to hear Michael at New York’s Mercury
Lounge during the College Music Journal festival (CMJ).

The Pill spoke with Nace last week.

Pill: How did you hook up with Minority Records?

Nace: Dan Dudarec was a big fan of Drill For Absentee, and really wanted to work
with us in some capacity. Unfortunately, DFA was winding down by the time he had
expressed interest in us, so the project was abandoned. In the summer of 2001,
I sent him a demo of solo music and he expressed an interest in recording and
releasing the music. It was really something I had never counted on. A few months
later, Geoff Turner and I began recording it at Phase Studios in Maryland.

Pill: How was the experience as compared to U.S. labels?

Nace: Working with Minority has been nothing short of amazing. There are very
few record labels out there that will stick their neck out for a musician the
way they did. At the start of this project, I was virtually an unknown artist
with no band to play with. I hadn’t even played any gigs. For Dan to invest his
label’s resources in me was a real honor, and the work that he has done for the
album has been amazing.

Pill: Have you been to Prague before? Did you have any contact with Czech musicians
before becoming involved with Minority?

Nace: Though I haven’t been to Prague as of yet, I’ve known Dan for quite some
years now. As a result of being friends with him and signing to his label, I’ve
had the opportunity to experience a broad cross-section of independent music in
the Czech scene. I find it remarkable how the music community there seems to be
much like it was here in the U.S. eight to 10 years ago. Bands like Waawe, Gnu
and C all come to mind as a new generation of musicians who are bringing the experience
of post-communist society and the artistic tradition of Czech culture to their
love of innovative American music.

Pill: Describe the experience of playing CMJ.

Nace: CMJ is really a bit overrated, as are most music conferences and showcases,
in that they are only as good as what you make them. At a normal gig in the U.S.,
the focus is on entertaining an audience. It involves simply promoting the show,
mobilizing your fan base and putting on a memorable performance. CMJ, however,
is supposed to be a showcase that allows a band to invite the music industry to
come see them. I suppose that for people who live far from New York City, it has
value. But since I live only two hours from New York, CMJ really is always just
another gig for me.

Pill: The Voyage Out has strong folk elements, even hints of Eastern influence.
Tell me about these in the context of your songwriting.

Nace: I really don’t consider myself a folk artist, though I do recognize that
The Voyage Out can come across as a folk album. I think this is due in part to
the arrangements that Geoff [Turner] and I developed for the majority of the songs.
Rather than just layering different instruments and parts on top of the acoustic
guitar and vocals, we wanted the different instruments to be entering and leaving
the songs in an almost narrative fashion. As a result, many songs are not driven
by a bass and drum rhythm section, but by the acoustic guitar, a true folk motif.

Eastern motifs do come into play in a Qawwali sort of way with respect to the
idiosyncratic rhythms of some of the guitar parts. There’s definitely a spiritual
aim to The Voyage Out, but not so much in the Qawwali sense. I think I bring more
of an Irish Catholic identity to many of the songs. A kind of Joycean obsessiveness
and consciousness that undercuts the sublimity of the album as a whole.

Pill: Your music is happy, upbeat, even. Do you feel out of place playing songs
like this in the U.S. these days?

I hesitate to mention it, but all I read in reviews these days is “post 9/11”
– was that energy hanging over CMJ?

Nace: Most of the songs were written before September 11, with the exception of
“Lucky, Solitary Life,” which speaks directly about that experience in a personal,
confessional context. My approach to writing songs has remained the same, even
after that day. I try not to make music just for myself. If I did, I guess I wouldn’t
bother releasing it and performing live. Rather, I make music for other people,
and more importantly, I want to make music that makes people feel good.

I find that in the U.S., musicians seem to say and do the exact opposite. They
say they make music only for themselves, and the music they make often inspires
negative, selfish and self-destructive emotions. You see it most directly with
artists like Limp Bizkit, Marilyn Manson and some other big-name pop acts. It
certainly is their right to make whatever music they’d like, but it has always
seemed to be a waste of their talent to me.

There’s definitely a “post-9/11” condition among musicians and non-musicians alike,
though it really hasn’t changed my overall approach to making music. Many big
musicians have made spectacles of themselves in the wake of September 11. Great
musicians like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney really used the
disaster in their recent endeavors. It has quickly become a cliche, and has in
many ways already lost its effectiveness.

Pill: What happened with Drill for Absentee?

Nace: Nothing too terrible drove DFA to break up. We always got along quite well
and had an incredibly healthy and functional songwriting dynamic. But after playing
together for five years, we started to want different things. Kevin was accepted
into the very prestigious composers program at University of Pennsylvania and
has become a classical composer. Bryan moved to New York and began playing in
a very successful rock band there called The Alps. I wanted to switch from math
rock to a more sublime solo outing.

Pill: It was nice to see so many familiar names on The Voyage Out [Adam Wade from
Shudder to Think, Geoff Turner from Dischord]. Do you plan to continue recording
with the same group?

Nace: For the next album, I’d like to involve many of the same people as on The
Voyage Out. It’ll depend on the kind of budget I have to work with. Geoff will
definitely be involved again, and since I’m hoping to record in Prague, I’d like
to collaborate with some Czech musicians as well.

Pill: Any plans to come to Prague?

Nace: I want to arrange another record deal and get to Prague as soon as possible
to record. I’d like to play over there as well, but unfortunately the money doesn’t
exist to make that happen at the moment. I’m hopeful that I’ll be in Prague either
playing or recording within the next year.

Michael Nace’s The Voyage Out is available through the Minority
website or through Day
After Records

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