[INTERVIEW] Nate Wagner (Leaaves, Lord Bendtner, Tony Wonder)

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It’s been a prolific year for Nate Wagner who makes music under his monikers Lord Bendtner, Leaaves and Tony Wonder as he released new material for all three of his projects, even with more music to come from Leaaves sometime in December. In addition to his musical ventures, Wagner is the head of digital communications and a regular contributor to the cassette culture blog, United Cassettes.
Nate took the time to answer our questions via e-mail and discussed his influences, stagnation in experimental music, DIY artist he admires and his favorite cereal.

What are your main influences for music and do you have separate or the same influences for your different projects (Leaaves, Lord Bendtner, Tony Wonder)?

NW: I listen to a lot more music than I could ever hope to play, so I usually end up synthesizing a handful of influences into one project. I attribute part of this to the fact that I’m pretty lousy at imitation – anything I try to copy ends up rife with unintended personalization – but most of it to the fact that I’m much more interested in advancing a cautious, calculated evolution of whatever musical sound or idea I’m tapping into. This is most true with Lord Bendtner, which seems in retrospect to be an amalgamation of lo-fi instrumentation, lovingly-programmed 80s synthesizer patches, and various guitar styles from diverse 90s/00s indie rock scenes. It should also be noted that much of the influence I draw is detail-oriented, which makes drawing a direct line between my favorite records and the music I’m creating very difficult. Instead of figuring out how to make a midwest emo or shoegaze-sounding record, I’m thinking about how I can fit some of the theory and technique Chris Simpson or Dan Hoerner were playing around with alongside the kind of submerged, haunting textures Andrew Saks or Kurt Feldman so astutely wielded.

Leaaves is much the same way, and aside from a handful of ambient or experimental idols, I mostly draw on popular music – broadly speaking, of course – to inform my compositions. I personally find experimental music to be much more susceptible at the one end to conceptual laziness and at the other to plagiarism. So I have an added incentive to steer clear of what other experimental artists are up to when I’m working on a Leaaves album, in order to give myself the most room possible to make something distinct.

Tony Wonder is an exception to my other projects, which were almost entirely conceived of and recorded on my lonesome. It’s much more difficult to make cooperative songwriting work; before I met Max Gowan, TW co-conspirator and accomplished solo artist, productive and focused collaboration was honestly a bit of a white whale for me. But Tony Wonder is a real dream because I get to mess around with my pitchshifter and Max still makes something fabulous out of it.

You’ve been living in a lot of places on the globe, growing up in New Jersey, going to school in North Carolina and working overseas in Germany and Austria, do you think it’s had an effect on your songwriting?

NW: I certainly associate most songs and albums, including those I create, with specific times and places. So in that sense, every album of mine has a retroactive temporal dimension that I tap into every time I press play. But it’s super subjective, and each unique listener probably has their own associations. It’s probably fair to say moving to North Carolina for university has had an impact on how seriously I take songwriting. The New Jersey scene I left was largely non-existent (but shoutouts to Saves the Day, Invalids, and Miami Vice for keeping Princeton #real), so having such a deeply musical environment in which to cultivate my craft is second to none.

The Lord Bendtner tape might be the most heavily influenced by location, if only circumstantially. I began a two-month stay in Vienna unsure of whether I’d be able to write anything. Made myself buy a cheap parlor guitar and found a practice studio in the city where I could record drums. So that record is heavily influenced by the unique tools I had at my disposal and the relatively large amount of travel it took to complete it.

Each of your projects is pretty distinct from one another, but when it comes to songwriting sessions, do you get into the mindset to work on music for a specific one or do you just write and see which project the song idea could fit with? Would you ever use an idea intended for Leaaves but backtrack and repurpose it for a Lord Bendtner track?

NW: Honestly, I scrap about 75% of what I write perhaps because it doesn’t really fit anything I’m trying to do. It’s kind of demoralizing, but invariably most everything I write sounds too much like *me* and not enough like those active music projects which I guess ultimately have to transcend me enough so I feel comfortable sharing them with the outside world. But that 25% that makes the cut is obviously either/or from the first measure, not least since both projects have such distinct creative processes. Leaaves is largely sample-based these days, while Lord Bendtner songs only happen with a guitar in hand.

I thought it was interesting that you said experimental music was susceptible to plagiarism because I always thought it was harder to emulate, especially noisier kind of experimental music. Could you on elaborate why you feel experimental music could be vulnerable to plagiarism?

NW: I think it comes down to population density and the form/content equation. Rock will never die, simply because it’s propagated itself in massive fashion. True, it’s tough to find truly original ground in that particular arena, but setting aside copycats and corporate drones, the diversity of thought in rock music has given up-and-comers a million different influences to draw from. And in that sense, while the *form* of rock music – drums, guitar, bass, synthesizer, vocals – is fairly rigid, the content is not. There are a million distinct subgeneres, all feeding into and off of one another. Experimental music – by which, if it wasn’t clear earlier, I mean strict attempts to create an alternative concept of music, not just an avant-garde fusion of popular music – is a more sparsely-populated affair, with far fewer reference points for an aspiring experimentalist. Even though, arguably, the experimental tradition predates that of rock. So the upshot is that, with fewer styles and concepts to draw upon, it is even trickier to move beyond your influences. This becomes even more clear once you inject the question of form and content into the equation. The content in experimental, though it purports to be unencumbered by conventions in popular music, is even more limited in my view than that of rock precisely because they must avoid them. Experimentalists ought not to rely too much on conventional or recognizable instrument timbres, must avoid straightforward percussion parts, had better be edgy! Unfortunately, those attitudes too often coincide with the same approach to form. You have your modular synthesis crowd, your ambient vaporwave crowd, your sound art crowd, etc. more or less all following their subgenre’s venerated figureheads and rehashing their visionary ideas over and over. Which is a shame, because true experimentalism should entail a bit more independence / innovation / trailblazing precisely because there are still uncharted waters. But I often get more mileage out of new records in rock than experimental for these very reasons.

Some of your projects make reference to pop culture and sports, like Lord Bendtner is based on a football/soccer player (Nate: Niklas Bendtner, once hailed as a soccer prodigy who failed to deliver on his promise while at Arsenal and has subsequently become somewhat of a laughingstock) and Tony Wonder is based on Ben Stiller’s recurring Arrested Development character. Does pop culture play a role in your songwriting?

NW: Pop culture has no role whatsoever in my songwriting, but it sure makes for nice song titles or project names! I think, ultimately, fewer folks at DIY shows and the like pay attention to the lyrics anyhow, so you live or die by your musical chops and… your band name! Last show Lord Bendtner played, we had an Arsenal fan come up to us just to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. If nothing else, it’s a real improvement from my last project whose name was unequivocally panned by one Twitter user.

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How’s the music community in and around Chapel Hill? What local band(s)/artist(s) are you most excited about?

NW: I’ve been paying a lot less attention locally as my studies have intensified and as some of my dearest music friends have jumped ship for other cities. I wish I had a car; I’d be spending a lot more time in nearby Raleigh. Some very kind dedicated folks running excellent house venues there. Locally, Lord Bendtner’s drummer, Adam, has an excellent funk-tinged pop project – think Homeshake with Robert Glasper as principal songwriter – but hasn’t really managed to get it out there just yet. Soccer Tees are super neat. I’d love to play another show with Truly, too! I guess ultimately I’m much more invested in a scattering of DIY artists across the US and Europe – Moving In, Curacy, Lonesome Blood, Sea Glasses, Josh O’Hara, Mile Me Deaf, whatever Dave M’s up to these days. And as much as I’d love to do more stuff locally, I wouldn’t be half as dedicated to my art without friends in far-away places.

You write for United Cassettes and is someone who has an appreciation for the format, do think cassettes would get to the revival level that vinyl experienced, and if so, would you consider it a negative or positive?

NW: I mean, if we’re talking about the sort of forced, skanky, corporate-driven revival folks like Urban Outfitters are currently trying to make happen… undoubtedly negative. There are plenty of thinkpieces detailing what that’s done to vinyl. It reeks. But legitimation of the cassette format – to get people to go beyond “oh how hipster and arcane” – would be pretty neat. I think the advantages of the format speak for themselves – compact, durable, affordable, infinitely customizable. Honestly, the real trick is convincing people of the value of art, the urgency of cultivating and supporting an arts community, and tying all of that to a physical product. Tough work, but, like any good proselytizer, you’ve gotta start at home with the folks you know!

Pair your favorite cereal with your all-time or current favorite record.

NW: Frosted Mini Wheats and my 2016 AOTY, Porches’ Pool

Keep up with Nate and his projects on Twitter @nateyomatey or on Lord Bendtner’s Facebook, Leaaves’ Facebook, and his writing on United Cassettes.