Having eschewed the mixed delights of London for a return to his native Norfolk three years ago, and beaten a two-year patch of the dreaded writer’s block, Nathan Fake reenters the musical fray. It’s a return of some style and swagger with Providence, a new album crammed full of irresistible synths, arpeggios and warped rhythms.
Fake’s reputation has been built on his unique take on electronic music. He first came to light in 2003 when an encounter with equally mercurial electronic musician James Holden led to the release of Fake’s debut single, Outhouse, on Holden’s Border Community label. The sumptuous LP Drowning in a Sea of Love in 2006 saw Fake lauded as a major new talent on the electronic music scene, and has been followed by a slew of critically acclaimed albums and EPs, and remixes for the likes of Jon Hopkins, Radiohead, Perc and Clark.
Providence is a stunning feast of electronic processes, and a particularly welcome one in that it signals an end to Fake’s writer’s block and, hopefully, the beginning of a long and fruitful journey with Ninja Tune. We were delighted to catch up with him at his home studio in Norfolk to find out more about the digital and analogue machinery behind his finest work yet.
You’ve got an eclectic array of synths at your disposal. Can you talk us through them?
Nathan Fake: “There’s a laptop running Ableton and Cubase. I’ve got a Korg Prophecy, which is one of the main things I used on Providence. There’s a Jupiter-6 as well, and an Arturia MicroBrute that was used a tiny bit for some bass sounds.
“In terms of drum machines there’s a Casio RZ-1 and a Roland Aira TR-8. Again, the TR-8 was used quite sparingly, mainly for bass drum sounds. It’s nice but weird that it doesn’t really sound like an 808. It’s very boomy, so you have to EQ the kick, as they’ve added like a 50Hz boom on it. I run it through a preamp to warm it up a little as it is fairly spiky and digital, although it's fairly faithful to that analogue, synthesised, sound with the hi-hats and stuff, and there are a couple of really nice extra sounds too.”
The Korg Prophecy is a blast from the past…
“I remember when it came out - maybe about 1996 - reading that The Orb and Autechre were using it and thinking it must be a really good synth. I happened across one online the year before last and thought I’d check it out. It’s a weird little thing that looks like a MIDI controller and it’s a very strange synth. It’s a monosynth but it’s got quite a deep synthesis system to it. Korg came up with their MOSS [Multi-oscillator synthesis system], which means it has all the standard square, triangle, etc, waveforms but it also has reeds, brass and plucked strings. There are all these dense, washy digital synths but it’s a monosynth, so you have huge pad sounds but you can only do one note at a time!
“I think the Triton and the Trinity evolved from the Prophecy and I’ve never really been into those big workstations, but I just like how awkward the Prophecy is, and the sounds on it are pretty usable.”
There’s a real warmth to the synths on Providence. How did you achieve that?
“I like that mixing of aesthetics, when you rough up something pristine and digital. I’ll record stuff onto cassette tapes… And also when you take a phat stereo sound and squeeze it into mono, that adds a different dimension to it too.”
Do you think software makes us too lazy to add ‘that little something extra’ to the sound?
“Yeah, maybe. Currently, though, I think tape has definitely come back. Loads of labels are even releasing cassettes again, which is just the antithesis to digital streaming or MP3s, really. It’s the same reason vinyl got popular again - it’s a nice alternative to the digital formats.
“When I started making music, I’d put things onto cassette, as that was all I had. Then I got a computer, which was amazing, and now I’m recording stuff onto tape again as I think tape sounds good.”
You suffered a bit of writer’s block. Did Providence come in one big rush after that?
“It really did, actually. It didn’t take long at all. I kind of started writing things towards the end of 2015, but I started working properly on the tracks last year, and I’d got the album all done by June. There was a lot of overlap, where I was writing stuff and finishing stuff at the same time, so all the tracks were on the go at the same time.”
Being an electronic musician is like spinning plates at times, right?
“[Laughs] Yeah… especially when you work on a computer. You can bring up a saved project, work on it for a bit, then switch to something else. I guess I did use a lot more hardware than I have before, so I stuck to one track at a time more than I’ve done in the past. My older stuff was done solely on the computer so it was definitely fun having more physical stuff to use.”
Did you turn to hardware for compressors, too, or do you still use plugins for that side of things?
“It’s a mixture, really. A friend has a Drawmer compressor that I really like and I intended to borrow that to use on the album. Actually, not too much of it is compressed, as recording a lot of the stuff with tape brings the headroom down quite a bit, then I master it afterwards. My older stuff is really, really compressed but I just used software compressors, which sound good if you’re doing it in a rush, but a few months later, I listened to some of the stuff on headphones and it sounded a bit squashed. With this album, I made a decision not to compress everything and sidechain things, which I used to do loads. It’s paid off, I think, as there’s a lot more space in the mix.”
When you’re mixing, do you reference tracks on a range of playback systems?
“Mostly on speakers, although I’ve used headphones a lot more on this album, just to help get the mixes right. I used to be a bit more slapdash with my older stuff, but that was also the idea of it: to keep it quite raw. I’ve got some speakers in the kitchen that I like to listen to mixes on, and also in the car. I like putting stuff on my iPod and playing it on shuffle, and sometimes one of my tunes will pop up - it‘s interesting to hear how your own music sounds next to others. It’s good to hear your own stuff that way, as sometimes when you’re making it, you’re listening too hard to it.”
Do you mix in the box?
“Yeah. I mean, I do use a little Mackie desk, too, but a lot of it is mixed as I go in either Cubase or Ableton. I used to use Cubase years ago, so I still end up doing sketches and ideas in it sometimes, and I actually ended up finishing a couple of tracks for the album in it this time. I use Cool Edit as well - I’ve always quite liked using these weird, standalone programs, as it’s nice to close down the workstations and mess around for a bit.”
“I’ve got Ableton Live 9 Suite, which is an incredible piece of software, but it does absolutely everything, and occasionally you just don’t know where to begin. That’s why I also like having things that are really simple… stuff like the Prophecy, which does a lot but you can’t really do a lot with it other than pump out some melodies.”
It’s nice to step away from the matrix and strict timing every once in a while, too, yeah?
“Definitely, yeah… The thing with the Korg Prophecy is that it’s got note velocity, which a lot of the older analogue synths I’ve used in the past didn’t have. So that’s something I’ve never had in my tracks before: different velocity on notes. You can’t quite put your finger on it but it definitely adds something.”
Are you using any external filters?
“No, it’s basically all done in the synths, really. With the filters on the Prophecy, the resonance is quite harsh because it’s digital. In my live set, I use the Sound Toys Filter Freak, but I don’t think I really used it on the album. It sounds so analogue and nice. I’ve also got a Roland SH-09, which I forgot to have out today. I didn’t use it as a synth on the album, but I used the filter as it’s got a line-in. It’s also got an envelope follower, which sounds amazing when you run external stuff through it.”
So a little extra effort and imagination with your sound can pay dividends…
“I think when you’re working on an album, you make a little extra effort to experiment with things like that. I don’t really know that much about gear; I just have bits and bobs. I come across stuff like the way I found the Prophecy. With the SH-09, I had a mate who had one and I thought it sounded amazing - I had to get one.
“There are times in between albums where I’ll just bang something out in Ableton with soft synths, but if I’ve written a melody I’m happy with, then I’ll often do some experimentation with it. Mostly on this album, as it was mainly the Prophecy on it, I’d just jam out a soloed MIDI part then comp together all these jams and edits.”
Are you good at deciding you’ve got a take?
“I am. I feel like I’m not when I’m working, but when I look at other people I know who make music, they’ll have, like, 20 versions of something. I’ve had five or six versions where I’ve added or improved on something, but I think I’m pretty good at sticking with the original idea.
“There’s one track on the album, HoursDaysMonthsSeasons, where it started off with loads more drums in it, but I thought all the hi-hats and claps sounded way too busy so I muted them and it sounded brilliant with just a kick drum. So, there were four versions of that with all the drums in, then the one where I muted a lot of stuff ended up being the final one.”
So you subscribe to the importance of the happy accident in the creative process?
“Absolutely. I was playing the Jupiter-6 at one point, recording something into my laptop, and, for some reason, the input had been changed to the laptop microphone rather than the soundcard. I sat there playing the Jupiter for ten minutes before I realised it sounded really weird, but it sounded so ghostly and distant that I ended up using it. It’s similar to how mobile phones have that gate where below a certain volume it just goes silent. There’s no way I would’ve thought of trying that deliberately.”
The Jupiter-6 is underestimated, isn’t it?
“Yeah, it’s a beautiful, very distinctive synth. A mate had a Juno and they’re very popular and have a distinctive sound, too. I was kind of expecting the Jupiter-6 to be in the same vein as a Juno but it isn’t. It’s a really sharp, cutting synth. Quite unpredictable, too. Mine even more so, as some of the oscillators don’t work on certain keys, which does actually create quite interesting effects when you’re playing arpeggios. You can get strange note drop-outs, or some of the notes go out of tune with each other. That’s the beauty of old analogue gear.”
Just how brilliant are the onboard arpeggiators on the old analogues?
“[Laughs] Yeah, absolutely! I’ve never really used them on a track before. The arpeggiators on the Prophecy and the Jupiter are like separate instruments in themselves! So many things on the album are just doing weird things with the arpeggiator. It’s also good that they slip out of sync a little at times… even though the Prophecy is digital, the arpeggiator does slip and make some bizarre noises!
“I’ve even used some of the presets from the Prophecy, which are a little dense and unusable, as I like the challenge of making something cool from those sounds. A couple of tracks were born out of that.”
When you go out to tour Providence, are you taking any of the hardware synths out live with you?
“I use the MicroBrute. I did think about using the Prophecy but decided against it, as it’s not the kind of synth you can play around with very much live. It’s just buttons and all you can really do is trigger it. I’ve used the MicroBrute to recreate some of the sounds I used from the Prophecy on the album and I am still using the Waldorf A1 for the live shows, too. I can program stuff really quickly on that… it doesn’t use much CPU on the laptop and it never crashes. I’ll have several instances of that open and routed to MIDI controllers with all the cutoffs and stuff.”
Providence sees you working with vocalists for the first time, too…
“Both those collaborations came about quite by chance, as they were people who I became friends with. Degreelessness, the track with Prurient, came about when we hung out once and he suggested we work on something together. The collaboration was done over the net, so I basically sent him parts of something I’d been working on and he sent it back with all his delay and pitchshifting on it. In that context it was like getting parts for a remix. I would like to do more of it in the studio, actually, as the same thing happened with the track I made with Raphaelle [Standell-Preston from Braids] - she’s based in Canada. She sent a whole bunch of stuff, which was all amazing, but I only ended up using a little bit of it.”
Are you excited to be a Ninja Tune artist now?
“Yeah, it’s a big change. Border Community were great and raised me up, really, since 2003. Ninja were interested for a few years but I didn’t have much to let them hear until now. I didn’t make the album with a view to being on Ninja and it’s really exciting.”
Do you think de-camping back to Norfolk has helped get the creative juices flowing again?
“I lived in London for about seven years and I moved back mainly as I felt like a change. I don’t know if where I’m based geographically influences the music I make. [Laughs] I don’t think when I was in London I was making music that was more urban. The last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to live on my own which is great for working.”
Is there a lot of excess material left over from the Providence sessions?
“Basically, right now I’m putting a live set together - although it has been played out a few times already, so it’s more a case of tweaking it. I’ve got a few things that I’d like to release, so I’m trying to put together what concept the next album or bunch of tunes could be in terms of the instruments I use.
“I’m quite into the idea of finding unusual instruments to work with, whether it’s synths or acoustic instruments. I like the idea of trying to play a flute and recording what comes out! Or maybe finding some other random ’90s synth and making an album with that!
“I tend to gravitate towards crap gear rather than high-end stuff, as nice as that can be. I don’t know if it’s the fun element of it - I guess, when I use something high-end I convince myself I’m not going to use it to its full potential! I felt a little like that when I got the Jupiter. I was chuffed but felt like maybe there was someone who could make better use of it than me.”
No modular stuff yet?
“I’m a bit like what I just said about the Jupiter with modular stuff, really. I’ve got some friends who are really deep into it and making some amazing stuff, but I don’t think I’m tech enough for all that. There’s a massive crossover with tech and musicianship with the modular stuff, but it seems to be mostly tech. People nerding out over the various modules does look fun, but I’m not that geeky. I like just grabbing a synth, turning it on and seeing what it can do.”
What are you using for an audio interface?
“I’ve got a Focusrite Scarlett 6i6, which is brilliant, and the best soundcard I’ve had. It’s quite small with not that many ins and outs, but I don’t have huge amounts of gear, so that’s fine.
“I’ve got Neumann KH310 speakers and they’ve got an amazing low-end response. This album is the first proper album I’ve made with them and it did feel like I hadn’t been making music properly before I got them [Laughs]! The speakers are probably the most expensive thing in the studio!”
Providence is available now on Ninja Tune. Visit Nathan's website to find out more.