Over a Long Distance Phone: An Interview With Nate Scheible

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Certain moments on Nate Scheible’s incredible Fairfax may float sonically with a gossamer effervescence, but emotionally they hit like a ton of bricks. Fairfax is a narrative, taking unexpected source material and turning it into a world we can all relate to in one way or another. His music is always an enticing place to sit for a time, but never has it been more moving and considered.

Fairfax was originally released on cassette via ACR and has been newly remastered for reissue on vinyl by Warm Winters Ltd. This new edition is out now. Grab it here.

So first things first, how have you been holding up and making it through these last two years?

I’ve been doing alright. I mean, there’s plenty I can complain about, but I’m certainly in a better position than most. I live in an area where people have taken the pandemic seriously, at least in comparison to a lot of other parts of the country. I have a steady job that is flexible in terms of allowing telework and is proactive about safety precautions… It’s been tough finding creative inspiration on occasion, but I’ve still managed to stay productive. And when the mood doesn’t strike to make music I’ve been reading and watching a lot of films and baseball, which is something I didn’t have a lot of time to do before the pandemic. So I’ve been enjoying that. All in all, like I said, I’m doing well. 

Okay, let’s go a lot further back and talk about some of your earliest memories and experiences related to music and sound. Were there any songs or albums or experiences that you heard/had as a kid that made you really feel something different and maybe realize that music was a bigger thing for you than most?

So, there are a couple things that come to mind- one album and one experience. Really early experiences are tough for me since I have such a bad memory, but there are two instances from probably when I was around 11 or 12. Around that time I had been shifting from listening to predominantly hip hop and popular r&b and getting more into other forms of music- still mostly pretty mainstream. A big part of that exploration involved going through a bunch of my dad’s records, which he didn’t really listen to but were stored in boxes in his workshop. I still have a pretty vivid memory of hanging out in my basement and listening to the Frank Zappa record Hot Rats for the first time. I don’t really know if I can pinpoint what it was that resonated with me. I assume that where previously I was listening to music more passively, my engagement with this record was certainly more active. I was impacted on a visceral level as well as an intellectual level- it just stimulated my brain in a variety of ways that music hadn’t up to that point. It definitely set me on a path of a deeper, all-consuming exploration of music.

The other thing that stands out in my mind around this same time was when a small jazz group came to perform at my school. Honestly, I have no recollection of the music. I’m sure it was some quartet doing standards… Anyway, just for some background, my primary instrument is drums. So I was mostly watching the drummer. And at one point, rather than hitting the ride with the tip of the stick as is typical, he held the stick perpendicular to the side of the cymbal and struck the edge of it with the side of the stick. And I can remember that moment so clearly, like some aha! moment, haha. I mean, it’s not the height of extended technique or anything, and it almost seems incredibly naive now, but it opened my eyes to the possibilities of just straying from what is considered “conventional.” And that one cymbal hit kind of resulted in my thinking about music and sound in more unconventional terms and playing with much more of an expressive or creative approach.

At what point did you make the jump to learning to play music and wanting to create your own work? Was there a particular moment that set you down this path?

So, as I mentioned, I’m a drummer. I started learning the basics in elementary school, then started teaching myself how to play kit in junior high, and just took to it really quickly. The summer before my 9th grade year I started playing in a punk band with some folks who were 4 or 5 years older than I was. We used to play out quite a bit around the Cleveland area. It was the first experience I had writing original music. Anyway, that process of getting together regularly to practice, fleshing out ideas, coming up with drum parts, figuring out arrangements, experiencing the benefits of collaboration, the camaraderie of a band… I really loved that. Starting with a small idea and developing it until it turns into something. It’s just incredibly rewarding. Especially if it’s something you are actually happy with! So there isn’t a specific moment, but that whole experience of playing in a pretty legit band at an early age was a big deal. It’s such a generic response, I know, but it’s that satisfying feeling upon completing something from nothing that still motivates me.

Now let’s talk about Fairfax. I remember first hearing it a couple years ago and when I found it was being reissued, I started revisiting it and was taken aback by how, especially after the last 20+ months, it feels even more potent than it did when I first heard it. In the intervening years since you made it, how have your feelings about the album changed?

Yeah, it definitely resonates a little differently now. Obviously, the feelings of isolation, distance, loneliness are front and center. Mental health struggles. Hyperawareness of the self. Cautious optimism. Those are just a few parallels that you’re probably hinting at. In terms of my feelings about it, they haven’t changed much. I’ll be honest, I don’t revisit my work too often, so once I complete a thing, I usually don’t listen to it. I’m focused on whatever I’m working on in the present. In this case, however, the record was being remastered for the re-release so I had to listen to it quite a few times. It’s very tempting to be kind of sarcastic and say, oh, my feelings are that I wish I would’ve faded this part out sooner, or I would’ve mixed this differently, haha. I mean, my feelings about those little details are more true than I’d like to admit! 

But aside from my own self-criticism, revisiting it at the beginning of the pandemic did make me think a bit more about how we communicate with one another. What we find comforting, especially when we feel isolated. How would the narrator be engaging with her partner today rather than in the early 80s? Text messages, video chats, commenting on each other’s photos on Instagram? She obviously feels anxiety about not receiving letters from him and mentions setting up specific times to connect through long-distance phone calls. Time and distance are major themes in their relationship. Does our ability to connect with anyone at any time really make us feel more at ease? Would she feel closer to him if she were able to engage with him on a more consistent basis? Would it create more expectations, and therefore, more anxiety? 

These obviously aren’t profound questions. And actually expressing them out loud makes me feel kind of pretentious. But the archivist in me is curious about her tape as a sort of historical document that sheds light on these questions.

I’ve always wondered, too, what it was like when you first listened to the tape that you sample throughout and what you were thinking as you listened? To me, they always felt like ghost stories, but with a surprising, almost redemptive arc. It’s uncomfortable, but also wonderful. 

For years I’ve been going through thrift stores, garage sales, etc., and picking up unlabeled or vaguely described cassettes and reels and VHS tapes, just hoping to discover something interesting. It’s like playing the lottery. Nine times out of ten it’ll end up being someone’s dubbed copy of a Clint Black record or something, but every once in a while you get lucky. And sometimes you get really lucky. And that’s how I felt when I found this tape. Intrigued for sure. I also felt somewhat voyeuristic listening to it. Which can also be exciting.

I’m hesitant to give too much of my impressions, only because to me there is quite a distinction to be made between the original source material and the final record. And I don’t want to detract from the impact it may have on listeners by revealing too much. But I will say that the original tape is about an hour-long, so there is definitely more to the story than what ended up on the record!

I am continually drawn to the last piece on the album, “There’s Nothing That Says I Cannot Dream,” and the way you transform that particular excerpt of the tape into sound. It’s stunning. I’m curious, though, are there any specific parts of that tape that really resonated with you? 

Thanks for that! There were a lot of other excerpts from the tape that I liked, but they just couldn’t be integrated or set to music effectively. And I’m still a little on the fence as to whether some of it feels a little too cinematic or something. But that’s just my own hangup, haha… What resonates most with me are her forays into self-help and reading her daily meditations and the ways in which she is trying to cope with the different issues she’s struggling with. And I feel a connection to how she is using this tape as a means of processing these issues. I’ve come across these kinds of “audio letters” in the past, and they are very much directed to a correspondent and are not self-reflective at all. But this tape oftentimes feels like a therapy session. It can get really raw and confessional at times. 

So, I think it goes back to modes of communication. The opportunities for contemplation when recording your daily experiences over the span of a month. Writing letters. How these allow for self-reflection in ways that current forms of communication don’t. And that’s certainly subjective, specifically with how I engage with the world. I’m not heavily involved in social media, don’t really text much, or like to talk on the phone. Maybe if I were 10-20 years younger I wouldn’t feel this way. But personally, I don’t keep a journal or do a lot of writing, so I use opportunities like emails and correspondence as a means to document whatever is going on in my life at any given time. Even something like this interview gives me some time to put my thoughts into words, and reflect on them… So, yeah, when the lines are blurred as to whether she is talking to herself or to her partner, that’s what catches my attention.

The ensemble of musicians that play on Fairfax is fantastic. How did it all come together and did you write specific parts for them or was it more of letting them bring and add their own ideas to these pieces?

Everyone on the record is a friend who I’ve played with before in different improvisational contexts. I have so much respect for all of them as players and chose them because I thought that their sound and approach were best suited for the different sections. So I just let them do their thing. In most cases, we recorded a few takes, so if there was something they were doing that I thought really worked we’d explore it further, or if it didn’t quite feel right we’d switch it up. Most of the time they took it to places I wouldn’t have anticipated and certainly elevated the overall pieces.

While the bulk of the contributions are improvised, I did “write” some simple horn parts throughout. But I don’t really know how to do this, so the musicians took my rudimentary scores, if you could even call them that, and refined them.

How did the reissue with Warm Winters come about anyway?

So Adam Badí Donoval who heads the label originally released Fairfax on cassette through his previous label ACR. He reached out because he wanted to get into doing vinyl releases for Warm Winters and was excited at the prospect of doing a reissue. So, I thought, sure, why not. This is definitely one of the releases that really resonated with listeners so I was happy to help out in any way I could to help move the idea forward. He was super proactive about it and put a lot of effort into making it happen, especially in weathering the great vinyl backlog of 2021. Endless props to Adam, for sure, and I’m excited that this reissue might allow the record to reach some new ears.

What are some of your favorite sounds in the world?

Hmm… Maybe the sound of a train in the middle of the night, off in the distance… Light freezing rain falling on dead leaves… The crackling sound of fresh bread as it’s cooling… When I was in Indonesia a few years back, I really loved the sound of the Muslim call to prayer at sunrise. All the mosques play them through a loudspeaker simultaneously, and in the morning when there aren’t many other sounds, you can hear them for miles in all directions, all with different cadences and voices. Just really intense and dissonant and beautiful.

What are you working on currently or working on next?

Last year I was involved in a grant project through Rhizome DC in the fall, mostly focusing on a lot of really short tape-based and percussion pieces. I’m currently revisiting a lot of what was recorded for that project and attempting to turn it into a record. There are a few collaborations and potential residencies in the works, but those are still in the early stages so waiting to see what happens before naming names, haha… Also, I’ve become more interested in dance/movement lately. I doubt this is something that I would actively present or perform, but I’ve found it really creatively inspiring to move and hope to explore that in more depth this year.

What are you most hopeful for in 2022?

Not much. Honestly, haha. I hate to be bleak, but everything in this country, and throughout the world for that matter, seems kind of fucked at the moment. But obviously, I don’t want to go out on that note! Let’s see… Positivity. I don’t really think about this idea of “returning to normal” post-pandemic, but I do have hope that maybe by the end of this year we’ll at least be in a position to safely resume social activities in a way that doesn’t feel tense or overshadowed or clouded by the pandemic. Regular shows, gatherings, events, parties, hangs- all the things that are important in fostering community. I just can’t do the online shows and exist solely in a digital space. I personally don’t feel connected unless I’m seeing people on a regular basis and engaging with them in person. So, I am hopeful that this can return in a way that feels less complicated and more organic than it has in the previous two years.

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