Interview With Nathan Leigh

Nathan Leigh is a composer, writer, animator, and activist -he does it all. He even has composed music and designed sound for over three hundred plays at theatres across the United States. On November 19th, Nathan will release his brand new EP, House On Stilts, with his band The Crisis Actors. This week I had the opportunity to pick his brain about the forthcoming release, the stop-motion short film, which will release alongside the EP, and more.

Press image for composer, writer, animator, and activist Nathan Leigh.

Who is Nathan Leigh and The Crisis Actors, for anyone who doesn't know? Nathan: We're a group of friends who make music together. There's a core of me, my bassist Corey Kaiser, drummer Rich DiGregorio, vocalist Noie, and tenor sax Anthony Cekay, and then about twenty other musicians who sit in when they can. It started as a solo acoustic project and gradually got a lot more complicated and a lot louder. How would you describe the band’s sound for anyone who hasn't heard your music before? N: I don't put a lot of stock into genres. I'm a believer that you should just make cool art and let other people figure out what it is. But I guess you could call it "chamber punk" because we have big complex arrangements but a punk rock heart. Our songs can run from folk to punk to ska to electronica to chamber music, sometimes over a single song. It's a little like if Jeff Lynne had grown up listening to Fugazi and conducted ELO accordingly. You recently announced the release of your new EP, House On Stilts, out November 19th. How does it compare to your previous releases Let's Get Lost, A Life in Transit, Ordinary Eternal Machinery, and Myths, Conspiracy Theories, and Other Stuff I Made Up To Sound Interesting? N: It's a lot quieter and more introspective than my recent stuff. Myths is a big rock record. We recorded a lot of it live as a band with as few overdubs as we could get away with. House On Stilts was recorded mostly at home by myself over the pandemic. They share one song which the rest of the band appears on, "More of a Call-Out Post Than a Song, Really," but the House On Stilts version is much more stripped down than the album version. Both albums are political because all my work is political on some level, but Myths, is more external and about big issues, and House On Stilts is more about the internal and emotional impact of the maelstrom of social injustice. The House On Stilts EP is going to be accompanied by a pretty remarkable stop-motion film that you started creating ten years ago. Were the EP's songs written ten years ago as well for this project or did they come much later? N: The title track I wrote ten years ago. The film was supposed to just be a music video for it. I had major surgery on one of my lungs, and while I was laid up, I started sketching out ideas, but it quickly became clear that I wasn't in any position to actually finish it. Either in terms of my health or skill at animation. I'd pick at it periodically, but stop motion is such a slow medium to work in that the project kept growing, and I was constantly adding things to my shot list and re-recording bits of the music any time I acquired new equipment or learned a new technique. So it sort of became this ambient background thing that I was always working on but kind of never expected to finish. As I was starting to plan the release of Myths, I realized that the first track was in a lot of ways in dialogue with the rest of it, so I decided to tie it all together, and that kind of provided the anchor I needed to finally finish it. What should listeners expect from the stop-motion film come its release? N: I'm really proud of this animation. Because of how meticulous stop motion is, I often have to skip small details in order to just get something across the finish line. Working on this one over so many years gave me the opportunity to insert a lot of details that I've never had the luxury to do before. But ultimately, I think it's an emotional journey about trying to find your people that I think is heartbreaking, frustrating, and finally hopeful. What is this collection of songs on House On Stilts about? N: The songs are about the way the world's problems can often feel so big that the only viable solution is to run away from them and hide, except that doesn't actually solve anything. It's not literally narrative in the same way the film is, but there's an emotional throughline from start to finish. How does the album title correlate to the song’s themes? N: It's pretty literal, to be honest. I was on tour in Florida a number of years ago, and I was very, very lost and very, very burnt out. Most tours at that point, I would sleep in my car, get up with the sun, and drive six to eight hours a day before getting to the next venue. And would then have commission work and writing work to do before the show, not to mention dealing with advancing shows and filling holes in the schedules when something fell apart last minute, so those first few solo tours were exhausting. I had very few moments to just kind of be. I ended up driving by this body of water with a ton of little houses on stilts jutting out over it. In that moment, all I wanted was to build one for myself and escape all of my responsibilities. I wrote the song on the spot in my car. You wrote an additional fourth track for the EP, "Care Worker' Nocturne," which does not appear in the stop-motion film. You wrote the specific piece during the pandemic as a gift to a friend who happens to be an ER doctor in New York City. How did your friend initially react to first hearing it? And was it always intentionally supposed to come out as an instrumental number? N: She was definitely moved. She had asked me to write something for her early on into the crisis, and I really struggled with it, to be honest. I'm a very verbose person most of the time, but as a person with a high-risk lung condition, I was such a mix of terrified, angry, and exhausted that I really struggled to find any words at all. I finally realized that me writing about my feelings on any of it wouldn't be helpful to any of the people in my life in the thick of things because the last thing they needed was to be on the receiving end of my mortal panic. What was helpful was to give them something quiet and contemplative, a little escape from the pain and chaos and fear. It felt like so much of the first three songs on the EP are about searching for that headspace to be quiet and contemplative that it was a natural resolution to the journey. Do you happen to have a profound moment from the songwriting or recording portions of the new effort? N: It's always weird revisiting old work, especially something that you wrote immediately before a pretty major life-changing event. I knew I wanted to do new recordings so they would sound unified, and I've just grown a lot as an artist and as a producer since I first wrote "House On Stilts." So after I got over the "Oh, I can't believe ten years ago Nathan did that," there was something really beautiful about popping back into a headspace I hadn't occupied in a long time to figure out how to breathe life into the song. I got to kind of learn from my past self. It was like a form of time travel. If you could collaborate with literally anyone, a musician, director, whomever to collaborate on music or a music video, who would it be and why? N: It breaks my heart that Inner Ear Studios just closed up because that was always a bucket list goal, to record something with Don Zientara. So if I have this magic power to make any collaboration happen, it would be the resources to halt the demolition of the building and bring Don back for one last con. What are the plans for the remainder of the year or even leading into the new year? N: Now that this project is off my chest and out in the world, I'm gearing up for a series of remixes of songs from Myths, a few new music videos from that project, and some new games in development. It's going to be a busy couple months for sure! Finally, is there anything that no one asks during interviews that you wish they did and what would the answer to the said question be? N: I feel like in most interviews I do, people want to talk about my activism, animation, or music, but no one ever asks about my cat, which is weird because as a band, we spend a lot more time discussing our cats than we do any of that other stuff. Her name is Commodore Welcome, and she's perfect. She sits attentively in front of the speakers any time I play FEVER 333 or A Tribe Called Quest, so I've concluded those are her favourite bands, and her favourite game is fetch with these little plastic springs. I made a pixel art game where you can play as her last year. Thanks for taking the time, Nathan. Is there anything else you may want to add before you go? N: My most recent animation, The Immortan Joe Memorial Highway, was just picked up by the Jersey Shore Film Festival and will be shown later on this month!

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