Nate Allen's music is the result of a convergence of influences: punk, Americana, folk, protest and blues, for starters. The common denominator is always high energy music and insightful, socially-conscious lyrics. Recorded with a new band called The Pac-Away Dots, his newest album, 2015's Take Out the Trash, addresses "racism, equality, burnout, unemployment, and death among other topics all wrapped up in an at-times fun musical shell." Allen sings with an honest love of life, people and social justice. We're fortunate to share an interview with Allen, his book, music and movie recommendations, and music from his latest album on Listen Local.
Please introduce yourself.
Hi. I'm Nate Allen. I grew up in Roseburg, Oregon and I moved to Kansas City about 2 years ago. I've spent much of my last 10 year in a tour van learning how this rock n' roll thing works. I have currently have two main projects. "Destroy Nate Allen" is an interactive, sing-a-long, rock n' roll duo and a solo project "Nate Allen" sounds like the quiet songs at the end of loud albums when I'm not playing with a full band as The Pac-Away Dots.
How long have you been a songwriter?
I started writing songs when I was 15, so just about 20 years ago.
What does a typical day look like for you?
We've been living on tour hours for the last year or so. Tessa (my wife/bandmate) and I are both self-employed so we get up around 10 and start our day with breakfast and coffee. Our home if very business focused. Tessa is a tax professional and I do small business development. My days vary quite a bit. In a given week, I'll work on music, websites, a few other business ventures and then spend time reading, cleaning house, meeting with friends. Evenings are filled with either watching Netflix or going to a shows. If I'm lucky, I'll play a few board games as well.
Tell us about your new album, Take Out the Trash. What inspired it?
Take Out The Trash a very transitional record for me. In some ways it is a time capsule of my months leading up to our move to KC. Half the album is full band, bluesy and rocking, while the other half is minimalist and acoustic. I would say it's an Americana record. Lyrically the album deals with racism, equality, burnout, unemployment, and death among other topics all wrapped up in an at-times fun musical shell. I think of my self as non-political songwriter but I care deeply about people and as my friend shared stories with me, I started processing my privilege and awakenings through song. A friend once told me put I sugar coat even my harshest words so even with I'm writing about something extremely personal it still managed to be wrapped around a catchy hook. I wrote Trash in 2013 but some of the songs are very relevant to current social issues in Missouri and through-out the global landscape.
What songs are you most proud of?
"Social Equality," "Westside Blues," "Death is Overrated" and "Goodbye Letter" are all standout tracks for me. Overall, I'm very pleased with the album.
Your music encompasses so many different styles, from highly energetic punk/pop protest to solo acoustic folk. At the core of it all are self-reflective and socially conscious lyrics. Are you a heavy reviser of lyrics and/or music? Or is your approach driven more by spontaneity?
There is definitely fine-tuning process but it rarely affects the chorus, hook or flow of the song for me. I would say my revisions are minimal. I find good songs can be played in many different ways so it is really a matter of finding what suites a song best.
Can you point to one time in your life where you knew you wanted to be a songwriter? Who inspired you early on to write music?
Up until I heard Green Day's Dookie, I hated music. But when I found punk, I fell hard and I was converted with a furious passion. That being said for the next few years, I was still much more interested in baseball and having a girlfriend than making music. I don't have any strong memories of wanting to write songs before I started and then I couldn't stop.
I grew up in Oregon and went to small Christian school with limited access to music so, I was particularly influenced by northwest Tooth and Nail Records scene of the mid-90's bands like Ghoti Hook, Pedro The Lion, 90 Pound Wuss, MXPX, Five Iron Frenzy, Havalina, Calibretto 13, and Danielson Famile we're all in regular rotation and great influences early on.
Describe your creative process.
I say I am more of song catcher that a songwriter. As I go about my day, a song will just show up. Lyrics, melody and chorus will tumble out in a nearly complete form. I'll grab my phone and try to capture the melody and words before I forget it. After that I'll match up some chords to the song.
What tools do you use?
As far as tools go, I demo songs on my phone. When it comes time to make an album, I'll gather all my current demos and see what I have. At this point, I'm normally writing a few projects at once, so I sort songs based on where they would fit best. I've normally got a pretty big collection to sort through. I keep track of lyrics on google drive and organize everything in excel. I'll start refining the songs until a record emerges and then I'll do my best to capture every idea in my head for the songs. Depending on the project, I either head into a studio or record at home. At home, I record with some old mics and a KORG D888 that I've use for about 10 years. I like to seek out help with engineering because it's not my strength or passion. I am a much better songwriter than mic-placer.
How does collaboration figure into this process?
At this point, Destroy Nate Allen is 100% collaborative. Tessa and I co-wrote our last album in the van, on tour, before shows. I don't recommend anyone do that it definitely shaped me as an artist and person.
Who or what currently inspires you?
These days, I spend more time with books and podcasts than music. I'm trying to get back in the habit of listening to music. I'm not really sure how inspiration works. It's rare that I experience something and my response it to go and create. That does happen but it is rare. I tend to be someone who internalizes events, and lessons and then as I give myself space to process life - through journaling or maybe washing dishes, a song will come. Daily life also tends to inspire me, I sing silly songs around the house and sometimes they are worth remembering.
Nate's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
How Music Works by David Byrne. A great book fully embodying its title, I recommend it to any musician or music lover.
Cash by Johnny Cash: The Legend in his own words. This book is a fantastic read.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster: I was struggling with creativity earlier this year and when I read this it opened me up in wonderful ways.
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle. I was sick on tour in 2007, I read this book over a week of rest and I was restored. I swear it's a little bit magical.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston. This will make you laugh and cry possibly at the same time.
Danielson - A Family Movie. One of our favorite bands. Learn their fascinating story.
We Jam Econo - The Story of The Minutemen. A great look back at a fantastic band, I've lived the better part of my last ten years in my Econoline.
I'm Wide Awake It's Morning by Bright Eyes. Wide Awake helped me chart a musical course early on and it holds up very well.
Social Distortion by Social Distortion. I learned "Ball and Chain" and then couldn't strum another pattern for almost two years.
Here Come The ABCs by They Might Be Giants. This fantastic record is perfect for the kid in all of us.
Dookie by Green Day. Green Day changed my life in '94 and stoked my rock n' roll fire.