Mar 31

Nathaniel Johnstone

by Edward, Filed under: Interviews

MC: Your performance at Eccentrik really blew me away!   Considering all the different elements in your music, I was amazed at how seamless and natural everything sounded. For example, it was only after I really began listening that I could pick out things like the reggae-sounding bassline, etc. How do you manage this?

NJ: I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the show. I really didn’t know what to expect from the performance but I knew that there would be some amazing musicians on that stage and that whatever happened, it would be awesome! I wrote pieces that were complex enough that they were interesting to play and yet simple enough that the musicians involved would be able to improvise around in them. On the last song we played, Davis Petterson (the drummer) had never actually heard the song before and had to come up with a rhythm right there on the spot. I love that I know musicians who can do well under that kind of pressure.

As far as how I ‘managed’ to get the sound? Well, it’s all about the trust that I had in the musicians on that stage. Each one is really good at what they do and I just told them, “do what comes naturally” and I left it at that. That’s the joy of improv. It’s always a surprise!

MC: What are some of your favorite influences/artists in world music?

NJ: When I was a developing violinist, the only world music that I was exposed to was of the Celtic and Folk variety: mostly dance sets played in accompaniment to Highland and Irish dancers. I was also exposed to a lot of bluegrass and really like the almost Jazz-like improvisation that the really good players get into. Beyond that, most of my early musical influence was very classical in nature. Of course, that was always colored by all the heavy rock music that I was learning on the guitar.

When I joined Abney Park, I found myself playing with a more Eastern European/Harmonic Minor sort of style and that’s really where I’m finding the most inspiration. Artists like Beats Antique, Balkan Beat Box, Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grapelli, Shankar, and Firewater are getting pretty heavy rotation in my CD player nowadays. They all have a more modern slant to the traditional harmonies and rhythms and that is really spurring me on in my own musical explorations.

MC: You are a prolific musician! Were you inspired by any particular violinists? (I played the violin as a child, and it has stayed close to my heart.) How did you become interested in the mandolin?

NJ: Actually, my most recent inspiration is Paul Mercer. He is such an open minded and good-hearted musician that it’s always a joy to share a stage with him. I took a rather lengthy hiatus from the violin after I graduated from college to concentrate on playing the guitar. I found myself drawn back to it very shortly before joining Abney Park. I figure I’d been back to the instrument no more than a year before I met Paul at DragonCon in 2006. One of the very first things he did when we met was to hand me his 300 year old baroque violin and said, “Let’s improvise!”  That stuck with me and it very much informs how I approach other musicians now. There’s so much joy to be had in music and it’s compounded many times when shared liberally.

I’d always been interested in the mandolin as a kid but had never had the opportunity to play on one. It wasn’t until I was in college when someone handed me a mandolin and said, “try it!” I’d already played the violin and guitar for some years and found myself instantly able to play: the mandolin is tuned just like a violin and the ergonomics of playing it are just like a guitar. I’d never touched a mandolin before and was instantly playing all the old fiddle tunes I’d learned as a child. I went out and bought a cheap old mandolin and have played ever since.

MC: I see that you are a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. I don’t think most people today realize that Lovecraft is really the dean of modern horror, and most popular horror authors owe a substantial debt to him. What do you enjoy about Lovecraft? What are a few of your favorite stories?

NJ: What I like best about H.P. Lovecraft is that he totally eschews the standard model of horror where the conflict is cast as some kind of hero vs. villain struggle. It’s not so much a good vs. evil story as it is a story of an unfolding, nihilistic realization that -everything- we know or thought we knew was wrong. My favorites are Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath and Lurker on the Threshold. I especially like the use of first person voice in his stories and they are even better when read aloud.

MC: What is going on with Abney Park these days? Are you looking forward to the Whitby Festival?

NJ: Things have been getting steadily busier and busier over the past year and it looks like it’s only going to be getting busier. We’re hard at work on the newest album and some of the mixes are really close to done. We’ve been playing about half the songs from the album at shows recently and they’ve been getting a good response. I may be biased but I think the whole album is really going to rock.

We’re all looking forward to visiting the UK. We’ve got two shows planned – one in Whitby and one in London the very next night. I have a feeling there will be very little sleep in this trip. There is so much that I want to see and do…

MC: What do you consider to be the central pillars (for want of a better word) of the Steampunk subculture? I find it to be a fascinating mix of things infused with a fresh approach that will readily appeal to people who may be burned out in related subcultures, There also seems to be a sense of camaraderie that I miss from the old days in the gothic community. . What are your thoughts?

NJ: The first thing that springs to my mind is the inclusive nature of Steampunk. It’s an aesthetic that -everyone- can like. It’s definitely a culture of DIY and Makers. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to build boilers or anything like that – more that everyone, on whatever scale, makes their own way. Even as simple a task as dressing yourself takes on an entirely unique quality. I never see the same outfit worn by two different people.

The audiences that I’ve seen at the Steampunk festivals dwarf every other demographic I’ve ever played to. It used to be that the audience at your typical Abney Park show tended towards the 21-35 year old club going crowd. Now our demographic seems to range from 8-80 years. We still play in 21+ clubs at times but it’s the all-ages shows that we occasionally play that have been some of the most rewarding shows I’ve ever done. I was floored the first time an older gentleman brought his granddaughter to one of our shows!

MC: What are some other bands and events that you would recommend for people getting into Steampunk? Do you have any favorite books or authors?

NJ: is a great resource for Steampunk music. Jordan and his crew have pretty much nailed the aesthetic as far as I’m concerned. For specific bands, here’s my short list: Rasputina, Dresden Dolls, Tom Waits, HUMANWINE, The Ghosts Project, Magpie Killjoy, Hellblinki, and Voltaire. Now, not all of these bands claim to be Steampunk but they all have that certain flair that I like to see in my Steampunk.

Tim Powers wrote an incredible time-travel yarn called The Anubis Gates. Pretty much everything he’s written is awesome but that’s the one that really drew me in. His book On Stranger Tides is also as cool but less Steampunk in scope. I’m also a huge fan of Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius.

MC: If you can’t get hold of Jameson, what is your next choice in Irish Whiskey? Have you ever gotten hold of the famous Red breast or Green Spot?

NJ: Generally speaking there aren’t a whole lot of choices available to me. Here in Seattle, it’s Jameson or Bushmill’s and between the two, Jameson wins out. I once was given a bottle of Inishowen and loved it. Alas, it’s not available locally. I’ve not tried either Red Breast or Green Spot. I’d certainly be game to try.

MC: Do you like animals? Do you have any pets?

NJ: Cats. Lots and lots of cats. Well, two: Eleanor and Simon. They are about 9 months old right now and have effectively taken ownership of my tiny home.

MC: Are you working on any new projects? Anything else you would like to add?

NJ: I’ve been following my muse wherever it takes me. At the moment, I’m spending most of my time thinking about the new AP album. After that, I’m going to see about turning the songs played at Eccentrik into something more concrete and album-worthy. And from there? Who knows?

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