Electronic music can be a serious place. Between the ominous thump of industrial techno and the sweaty braggadocio of EDM, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that essentially, we’re all just here to have fun.
Sure, electronic music is art, and it’s also how some of us make a living. But if we cast our minds back to remember the reason we opened up a DAW or picked up a synth in the first place, it’s the sheer joy that’s sparked by making, breaking and rearranging sounds - and the promise of where that could lead - that got most of us hooked.
Nathan Micay’s music bottles that feeling and amplifies it to the nth degree. Micay’s latest album, To The God Named Dream, brings a welcome sense of optimism and a light touch of humour to a genre that’s often guilty of taking itself a little too seriously. Thrillingly maximalist and joyfully unpretentious, the record mashes up a cacophony of sounds and influences into eleven riotous tracks that expose the old adage ‘less is more’ for the lie that it really is.
In Micay’s world, more is in fact more, and the music is all the better for it. Synths are stacked sky-high as stadium-sized melodies soar across the stereo field, trailing a shimmering tail of reverb and delay in their wake. In the same track, you’ll hear trance synths, 808s and breakbeats happily coexisting with live banjo, Nickelodeon cartoon samples, gated vocal hooks and ‘90s vinyl scratches: emerging from this blissful chaos is the undeniable feeling that both we and Micay are having a damn good time.
“During the pandemic, electronic music took on this seriousness,” Micay tells us. “I thought with this album, it doesn’t need to be that serious. I take the work seriously, and I work very hard at it, but it doesn’t mean that everything has to be like… ‘I’m an artiste’, you know what I mean? Making this album became like playing as a kid again - making fun, playful music.” The project’s embrace of shits and giggles extends further than you might expect: it’s likely to be the only album released this year that arrives bundled with an original multiplayer board game, said to be a hybrid of Jumanji and Hellraiser.
Though his debut emerged in 2012 under the alias Bwana, everything Micay has released since 2018 has been under his own name. This fork in his discography was inaugurated with 2018’s First Casualty, a sweeping, technicolour anthem that laid down a blueprint for the albums that followed: fizzing with the bleary-eyed buoyancy of a mid-bender sunrise, the track’s mid-tempo chug made room for a patchwork of radiant synths and sparkling melodies, coming together to produce a wholesomely sentimental vibe that recalled the utopian optimism of ‘90s rave while keeping one foot planted in the future.
Two years later, Micay was asked to score a HBO drama series that became one of the year’s most talked-about television shows. Industry follows a group of wide-eyed graduates into the cutthroat world of top-tier finance: Micay’s superb, synth-led soundtrack, made with just a handful of plugins and his laptop keyboard, is proof of the truism that you absolutely do not need that $5k hardware synth you’ve been lusting over. Some producers collect vintage gear, stacking up hardware in the back of a dusty old studio, but Micay is a different kind of collector, combing the internet’s darkest corners for niche Kontakt libraries and samples from timeworn library music buried on YouTube.
We caught up with Micay from his home studio in Copenhagen to find out more about how Taylor Swift, obscure plugins and the joy of preset-tweaking inspired the making of To The God Named Dream.
How did you first get involved with electronic music-making?
“I've always worked on music myself, but not with the goal of making it as a musician. During high school I’d use GarageBand and make these four-channel bluegrass recordings. I was really into bluegrass at the time, and I can play banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar - I used to make these terrible-sounding recordings - I used the microphone on a Mac from 2007, so you can imagine how rough it sounded. You could probably hear my family talking in the background.
“That was my first foray into music production, and the idea of actually recording anything, but I started to take it more seriously around 2011. I was in university and I just hated the school I went to, it was very party-driven. I was really into dubstep and post-dubstep and that whole thing.
“I just started making some songs and putting them on SoundCloud. I would make one song per week - every Sunday I'd put up a new song. After about eight months of doing that, two of my songs kind of blew up and I just went with it from there. It's been a touch and go process ever since, but now I'm in a place where I'm pretty confident making music.”
Has your background with acoustic instruments informed the way you approach electronic music and production?
“I wouldn't say it's directly informed it, but it's definitely given me a perspective on how to put together a melody outside of just sampling, which with my score work has actually been really instrumental - forgive the pun. But yeah, it’s been very helpful for me.
“I have found this actually, when I'm making dance music, it's like: ‘uh, how do I make a melody? I need to just screw around with a sample…’ But obviously when I’m scoring, legally, I can’t do that. So I've been using real guitars and VST synths, but I have to actually write the melodies myself, and I think coming from a guitar and viola background, that's been very helpful for me.”
We’re told you set up a studio space out in Copenhagen following the pandemic. Could you talk us through it?
“Building a studio is a bit of a stretch! My girlfriend is Danish, so we moved out here and I was lucky enough to find a place through a friend. So I've been working in this space since then. My setup hasn't really changed since Berlin. I'm still very much in the box, although now with score work, I'm more and more using guitar and violin and viola. But yeah, it's pretty much the same.
“I’ve got myself a nifty big old keyboard now, which I didn’t have in Berlin. So that’s pretty nice. For all of my previous albums and score work, all I had was the A to the L keys on my Apple keyboard. That’s how I'd write a lot of my melodies. So that's really been the biggest change. I'm not much of a gearhead, but I'm a huge Kontakt library, obscure plugin head. That's where all my goodness comes from.”
When did you begin working on the material that would become To The God Named Dream?
“The first track was written in February 2021, that’s the first track on the album, My Sweat Dries With The Heat. This was during the pandemic, and I had a bit of time off from scoring. I was figuring out a way to move on from the previous album, Blue Spring, and I wrote this one track that I thought was a very good opener and a good build on what was already there. So I sent it to the label and they said yes, go with this vibe. So I began writing tracks when I had time in between all the scoring I was doing and it took shape pretty quick.
“I wrote the majority of the music when I first got to Denmark. I didn't have the space I’m in now to work, and I was pretty much at my girlfriend's apartment’s kitchen table. I wrote a lot of it literally just sitting at a kitchen table in a wooden chair. I have this big, powerful iMac and I would just carry it around in this military case and just set it up on the kitchen table. So it was written throughout 2021 and the beginning of 2022.
Could you talk us through one or two of the musical influences behind the record? We’re told pop was a big influence this time around.
“I'm a huge Swifty. Without any irony, I've been a big fan of Taylor Swift since I was in grade nine. I’m always a huge fan of anyone who can have interesting melodic performances with the voice. Caroline Polachek, I got really into during the pandemic, and she just takes things to a new level. Just the falsettos, and the way she's able to sound like she's using Auto-Tune, but she's not.
“Also, I got really into this whole trend right now of interesting vocal distortion and vocal processing. During the pandemic, my roommate was working for Native Instruments, which I think acquired iZotope during the pandemic, so I started getting iZotope stuff for free, essentially. That was very fun to play around with.
“Those were huge influences. I also just started going back through ‘80s pop music. It's so exuberant and regal. That whole era - not ‘80s, more like early ‘90s - with these big music videos and big production. William Orbit starting to come into the picture with Madonna, particularly - that whole era I think is so cool. There's just no rules about anything, it’s just like… let's get thrash guitars over a big beat! I love that. With this album, I tried to take the approach of less is not more, let's go for it. If I can make ten different weird sounds work together, that's awesome.”
Which iZotope plugins were you using?
“I think it's called RX 8. It’s this amazing plugin where you can isolate things. As I said, I made this a lot on the kitchen table so from a purely practical standpoint, that helped me isolate things that I was trying to record, if you could hear a lot of other stuff in the background. I used their distortion too, Trash. But another one that I used even more than than all the iZotope stuff was Soundtoys: Decapitator and Devil-Loc are pretty much on every channel.
“It's funny - while I was making them, I would use that, then I'd send them off to Michael at Studio Moonchord, who mixed the record. Then he would replace them with the real outboard gear that those plugins are built on. So it was this funny thing where I'd be tinkering for hours trying to make something just right, then I send it to him and he would delete all of my plugins and everything I'd done. I would send him the WAV file of the original processing on my end, and he would replicate it with his own stuff, which I think is part of the reason why it took so long, but obviously it would sound better.
“At the end of Fangs there's this huge, digital bitcrushed and distorted synth that comes in and he completely re-recorded that through his outboard gear. I don't know what he used, but it was crazy - it had so much more depth and sounded so much cooler.”
Synths are a huge element of your sound. You’re a big fan of soft synths, right?
“I'm only using soft synths. I almost bought a Moog One during the pandemic. Because we were all at home and it seemed like you know… why not? I watched the Oneohtrix Point Never video about it, with him using it on Uncut Gems and I was kind of like… do I really need this? Maybe one day.
“At the moment, for synthesisers, u-he Diva is pretty much my go-to. It’s all over this album. But then there's all these niche synths I've been buying on Kontakt that I've become obsessed with. There’s this one brand, Karanyi Sounds. It’s just one of many niche, small Kontakt library makers. That one in particular makes some really great vintage-sounding synth libraries. That was all over the album, but as far as my workhorse, Diva is still the one.”
Can you tell us about any more niche plugins you’ve discovered?
“Totally. For a lot of organic sounds, I use this website called Pianobook. There’s probably like 2000, 3000 free Kontakt libraries on there. Some of them are god awful, but some of them are actually pretty cool. A lot of them are very basic, like… here’s 20 notes on some junk guitar I have, but you can use them as a starting point. They sound pretty cool once you process them with some reverb or whatever else. I've got a huge collection of those.
“Then I've got all these weird synth plugins that I've bought. Slate + Ash, I'm obsessed with them. They're also all over the album. They're a developer duo from Bristol - it’s by far the coolest stuff out right now for Kontakt. They only have three libraries, but every time they put one out, I jump at it. I used a ton of this library called AURAS. It’s made to work with MPE, but I don't have any of that equipment. So I actually just go in and I automate it myself, which maybe helps but maybe doesn't. I love that stuff.
“I follow this YouTube channel called Sample Library Review. Every Friday they review everything that’s come out this week and everything that’s on sale, so every Friday I go on there and go through it. I bought one called Raw Strings, which is just made by some guy - that’s the thing, I can’t tell you the name of companies for a lot of this stuff, because it’s just one person who made this one thing, and that’s all they’ve got.
“I have this one here called EW Harp II, I use that on all types of stuff. It doesn’t actually sound like a harp, but it’s awesome. There’s another company I buy stuff from called Maleventum. They make these very cool libraries: they have one called Viking Horns, and then they have one called Colombian Flutes and Whistles… they just have crazy, rare horns and whistle libraries. That stuff’s all over the album as well. Those are amazing.
“I’ve got this other one, the Atelier Series from a company called Musical Sampling. They have these vocal sample libraries called Maggie, Amy and Fauxgorian. They’re the most realistic-sounding vocals you’ll ever hear. I just finished a score for a new film that's coming out on HBO and at the end there's a big vocal number, and they asked me, ‘who do we have to credit for this’ and I said, ‘oh no, it's a Kontakt library’ - but it sounds unbelievably real. There are unbelievable legatos and control on the vocal. That’s one of my secret ones I tell a lot of my friends about.
“Karanyi Sounds, who I mentioned earlier, have this one plugin I bought called Vapor Keys. It’s kind of hilarious - you look at it and the whole thing is supposed to look like it’s a vaporwave Windows opening page or something. But they really nailed the aesthetic, as well as the vibe of the sounds. It's got all these amazing recorded presets from old digital synths from the 90s.
“Stuff like that is all over the album. I’ve got tons of these tiny little Kontakt libraries. I decided that I could buy a Moog One for 6000 euros, or however much it is, or I could buy 200 of these little niche things for 30 euros each. Some of them are terrible - I’ll usually just buy them if it’s under 30 euros and it looks cool.”
When it comes to designing patches on synths like Diva, are you building sounds from scratch or tweaking presets?
“I'm tweaking presets. It's funny, when I first started, I used to think sampling was cheating, and I used to think presets were cheating. Then I watched that famous video of Legowelt, where he goes around his apartment showing his collection of synths. Then, once he started to give out these sample packs of presets from those synths, then I heard all those samples in Four Tet songs, I was like.. it's not cheating at all! Nobody cares.
“I'll take a preset from Diva and I'll usually process it or I'll make some chain. I like building chains from the ground up, I don't like building sounds from the ground up. Although I guess you could argue that a chain creates a new sound anyway. I don't have time to build a sound within the synth, I like to just go through the presets, then I'll find something and then be like, that's cool.
“I can visualise very quickly when I hear a preset in a synth, or even in a string library or something, how I can take it from that sound to the next one. I'm good at doing that. But if you sat me down in a synthesiser store and gave me some Oberheim synth and said alright, programme this, it would take me a while.”
You’ve said before that you put a lot of effort into the way you process your soft synths to give them a warmer and more analogue tone. How do you approach that?
“When I'm feeling lazy, honestly, it's just the Ableton saturator turned up to 20. That seems to work. The big trick for that with me is I’ll layer it. I'll do the classic thing of taking one sound, layer it into three: low, mid and high end, and just really make sure each of those captures those frequency ranges that I want.
“I usually really pump up the mid-range one and saturate the low end to a point where the harmonics are just pouring out of it and it’s lost all its sharpness. You know when you have a sharpened image on Instagram or something? It's the opposite of that. But then I'll keep the high end really sharp, and that seems to create this warm, perfect combo for me.
“Over the years, it's been quite funny. A lot of magazines have written that I must use a lot of gear. When I have done scoring in the past, and I have meetings with directors and stuff, they're like, where's your gear? I'm like, this is it… I’ve just got my Mac keyboard here. There’s been a few times where I'll hold the laptop up and press a number key on it and get this huge synth sound, and they’re like oh, okay.
“Another thing is, I'll take a Diva patch, and then layer it with some other sample I’ve found. It’s this layering trick that all these new VSTs are doing now, where you can create something much cooler than just the one thing on its own.”
I love the variety of sounds on the new record: you’ve got everything from banjo to record scratches. What’s drawn you to these sounds that are associated with quite a specific context?
“The banjo and the pedal steel go back to my former slash still-lingering love of country and bluegrass. I have a banjo, so I was at my parents house and I just recorded that. I can shred a mean banjo. The pedal steel, I was lucky enough to have access to a friend with a pedal steel for half an hour one day. I recorded it but the recording kind of sucked, so I did what I always do, and it turns out there’s a Kontakt library for everything.
“I searched for pedal steel libraries and there were a ton, but one in particular sounded fantastic. I did the trick that I’ve gotten really good at: I took the audio from my friend’s recording and put it through convert to MIDI in Ableton, which is my trick for everything now. The next thing you know I had this awesome-sounding pedal steel part.”
Can you talk us through some of the samples found on the new record?
“Every track has more samples than I can remember. One of the big things I started doing on Blue Spring, that I've continued to do with this album - it's kind of a cornerstone of a lot of my productions - is that I’ll go on these YouTube channels that are dedicated to old library music that nobody can find, and I'll just go through that.
“A lot of them I can't buy because either they're €300 euros a record or they just don't exist any more. So I'll just convert the YouTube to an mp3 and bury it in the mix. But a lot of is just so cool and textured. I couldn't tell you the name of half of these records, but it's all old library music.”
Did you experiment with any new production techniques or processes this time around?
“One thing that was huge for me: I’d take some big record that doesn't really have any decipherable main melody, and I would just drop the audio in and convert to MIDI in Ableton. Then you'd have to be like an archaeologist, and find the melody among this clutter of MIDI notes. I would drag my mouse through the MIDI notes, and you'd find the ones that sounded cool together, delete everything else then rearrange those into these bizarre melodies. Some of the melodies on the album, I don't think any human could have come up with on their own.”
Did you mix the record?
“The album was mixed by my friend Michael here in Copenhagen. The whole thing was mixed on outboard gear in a very tedious long-winded way, not at all how I would do it myself. I just didn't have the time to do it myself and I thought I'd try it.”
Was it difficult to relinquish some of the control over the mixing process?
“It was definitely kind of exciting at first to send it to him. I knew what he was capable of. He goes under the name Aether’s Spring and he has a studio here called Studio Moonchord. He’s got this insane rig - I don't know enough about gear to tell you what he's got up there. But it's crazy. He's got a lot. So I took some tracks there and he played them through some of the outboard and it just instantly sounded vigorous.
“Every time I would get a track back from him, I was pretty excited to see what it would sound like. Sometimes it was great, sometimes it was not exactly what I was looking for. On one track, If Wishes Were Fishes We’d All Cast Nets, he completely transformed it. It has way more of a character to it now, it’s much cooler. But then on others, like To The God Named Dream, I pretty much told him: let's just keep it as it is and just pump it up.”
Tracks like The Death of FOMO have quite a cinematic vibe. Have your experiences writing for television and film influenced how you approached your solo work?
“It hasn't made things more cinematic, because ironically, as I've entered cinematic music as a profession, they actually don't want what we would call 'cinematic' music any more. I think they want music that's very tailored for specific sounds and emotions and scenes. Whereas in electronic music, we'll listen to something and be like ‘that’s cinematic!’ and for us, cinematic means grandeur, and huge, and expansive, but that is not in my experience what people want, at least in my scoring career so far.
“But it has made me have much better quality control and helped me with the ability to be concise. The tracks on this album are much shorter than a typical electronic music release. A lot of the ideas don’t even last for 20 seconds at a time. That comes from scoring, where you have to cut, cut, cut, and everything's moving from one scene to the next scene to the next scene.
“A lot of these tracks are so disjointed. Don’t Wanna Say Goodbye in particular, nothing on that track lasts for more than 15 seconds, every motif is so quick. I’m trying to find ways in which you can take a theme or motif and then bring it back 40 seconds later in a totally new context, but it's still recognisable. That's something that's very common with scoring work that I've discovered so far.”
Your score for Industry featured some awesome synth sounds. Were those all soft synths too?
“That's all Diva, pretty much. Arturia Pigments, too, I used that a lot. For strings, it’s also a lot of Spitfire Audio and stuff like that. But for synths, those are the two big ones I'm using on Industry.”
You’ve talked before about Vangelis’ score for Chariots of Fire being an influence on the Industry score. Are there any other inspirations you can pinpoint?
“I’m a big, big fan of Oneohtrix Point Never, if it’s not obvious enough. They were constantly pointing to Uncut Gems, and that was kind of an influence in terms of its weirdness and boldness, but obviously, very different sound palettes.
“All the stuff by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, too: Ex Machina, Annihilation and Devs. They had this other show I was watching a lot while I worked on the second season called Archive 81. Their stuff is so textured and dark and cool. For me, that’s cinematic - they really know what they’re doing. Then, the guys from Industry and I really bonded over the Tangerine Dream score for Risky Business. That was probably our biggest touchstone - we were all over that thing.”
What direction are you heading in for the third season?
“Well, I've sent them the album and they loved it. We've been talking about the album being an influence on the third season, so we might get some screamo singers in there… we'll see. [laughs] But, it sounds like with the third season, there’s no rules - all bets are off.”
You’ve said that on the new record, you wanted to capture a sense of humour and fun. Was that a reaction to the tonal restrictions of working on film and television?
“Not necessarily, because throughout all of this, I was also working on this HBO series for children called The Last Bus. There was a lot on there I had to do that was comical. I’ve never written comical music before. It's the biggest challenge I've ever had, musically, to make something that's funny. It's just not something you really think about. So I guess that gave me that idea. I think it was more a reaction to the fact that before the pandemic, I found music to be fun. Then during the pandemic, music took on this seriousness.
“I'm talking about electronic music specifically. Everything just became fast and intense and super serious, and there’s this idea of the DJ being this world-shattering, paradigm-shifting person… I think that might have been true 20 or 30 years ago, but not when you've got 40 DJ mixes coming out on the same day. Everything just became so serious and I thought with this album, it doesn't need to be that serious. I take the work seriously and I work very hard at it. But it doesn’t mean that everything has to be like… ‘I’m an artiste’, you know what I mean?”
The album certainly has a playful, joyful, almost innocent tone to it. Was that a vibe you were trying to capture?
“Yeah... I love doing all the score work, but it’s begun to feel like that's my job, and this album was kind of like playing as a kid again: just making fun, playful music. Blue Spring also felt like that, but I also had a very ambitious goal in mind with that album, whereas this album was more like… whatever, let’s throw a bunch of sounds together! I mean, why not?”