Tobias Nathaniel with The Red Step

Tobias Nathaniel with The Red Step

“Go live your life, feel things, interact with your dreams (the ones that happen when you’re asleep), be honest with yourself and begin to think about how you’d sort it all out on your own terms."

Tobias Nathaniel co-founded San Diego band The Black Heart Procession with Pall Jenkins in 1997. He has also played with the bands Three Mile Pilot and Blonde Redhead. In this interview, he talks about his non-musical creative influences, his recent relocation to Serbia, and his new band The Red Step.

Interview by Tyler Nesler

You play both guitar and keyboards, but your primary instrument in The Black Heart Procession has been the piano. You’ve also played piano in the bands Three Mile Pilot and Blonde Redhead. Has this always been your primary instrument, or were you originally more focused on the guitar?

Guitar was my first instrument – specifically thrash metal guitar. Piano would have been anathema when I was a pissed off 15-year-old kid. It took a while for me to understand that playing and writing are very different things, but I’m lucky to have nerded-out on guitar enough to have gained appreciation for technique in general. Piano/organ for me was an avenue toward shedding technique and theory – trying to find the most direct route to the idea, feeling or concept itself. Anyway, the simple answer is guitar first, piano second.

Do you find it more difficult to compose for the piano versus the guitar? Which approach comes the most naturally to you?

Any instrument will do, since the compositions come first. Writing for me works like this: go live your life, feel things, interact with your dreams (the ones that happen when you’re asleep), be honest with yourself and begin to think about how you’d sort it all out on your own terms. Now you can pick anything up and make something out of it. It doesn’t at all need to be a musical instrument. At any rate, I hear the thing before I touch the instrument, so it doesn’t really matter.

Your piano playing in Black Heart is integral to the overall atmosphere of the band’s songs. To me, some of your compositions sound rooted in Classical music structures and forms, such as the nocturnes from composers like John Field and Frederic Chopin. How significantly have Classical composers influenced your writing for piano?

Again, I don’t see things as piano/guitar/other in terms of composition. However, Bach, Mozart, Penderecki and Schnittke have had the biggest influence on me in general. Satie, Dvorak, Martinu and…well there are a lot. That said, I’m far more influenced by reading than listening to music. Authors like Mervyn Peake contribute much more to my creative pool than Rachmaninoff. I really don’t sit there and listen to any music and try to emulate it, or even consider it. The chord changes, harmonies and melodies tend to come from somewhere else – perhaps whispers of the above but ultimately shaped by something else entirely.

Are there any contemporary piano players in rock or pop music who inspire or influence your work?

Nope. And, I hope they have no idea about me either. There are deeper wells to pull from.

The only exception – in terms of inspiration – would be Sam Coomes. Truly unique, heartfelt and genuine. But I’m not sure he’s a ‘piano player’ in the way I think you meant it. Whatever the case, I’m more than grateful to have shared the stage with him for two month-long tours.

Black Heart songs are largely ballads of longing and loss. They feature a kind of Gothic literary quality, like little short stories or poetic moments of longing or despair. Were romantic or Gothic writers such as Poe much of a direct lyrical influence?

This’d be Pall territory, but as for direct lyrical influence, I don’t think so. Pall tends to draw on other, more esoteric sources.

Touches of noir and murder ballads can also be heard in Black Heart songs, especially on the 2002 album Amore Del Tropico, which seems the closest Black Heart has gotten to a concept album. Would you consider that to be the band’s most narratively connected album? 

I suppose many would see it that way, particularly lyrically and aesthetically. But from my perspective, all of our records have a strong narrative slant. I guess it’s subjective. For me, The Spell makes a connection that’s meaningful in a very specific way – there’s a unique undercurrent happening which is hard to pin down. Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, but I’m very fond of that album as a cohesive, interconnected work.

After releasing six full length albums, Black Heart went on a hiatus until 2017, when the band embarked on European and North American tours. You played your debut album 1 in full on these tours. [What] was it like for you to return to music you had first written and played twenty years before? Surreal, satisfying, both?

Honestly, it was weird. There was a sort of temporal dissonance at play; the distant memory, the recent memory, the muscle memory. A kind of reluctant acknowledgement of then and now in tandem – what these songs meant at the time of conception, what they mean now, and all the while my fingers just going through the motions. Mostly surreal. Sort of disturbing.

You’ve recently relocated to Belgrade, Serbia, where you’ve formed a new band, The Red Step. What’s your creative outlook for this new project? When is the first album due for release?

The Red Step had a strange birth. I moved somewhere completely foreign, met some people and started working on music with them. We come from totally different backgrounds but have since become family – and in some cases, quite literally.

For instance, Marijana Markoska (my wife) handles the visual aspects of our endeavors and has also designed album art for BHP, Rudolph Cibulski (my Kum – like godfather/best man combined) plays bass, Vlada Markoski (my brother-in- law) plays drums in The Red Step and BHP, and Boris Eftofski and Uros Milkic work with both The Red Step and BHP as keyboardist and engineer respectively. Sarah Jane Seatherton, our cellist is – like me – a Belgrade transplant. Together, we’ve somehow not only managed to create something new, but also collaborate on multi-decade, pre-existing projects as well. I’m floored as I write, but I really think this is how it should be done. Information overload segment out.

As for creative outlook, I guess I just hope to make or continue to make music which I think is genuine. Honesty in what you do is critical – commercial, abstract or whatever in-between. Anyway, our first album is basically done – just a couple tweaks here and there and then we’ll see what happens.

Are there any Serbian or Balkans musical influences in The Red Step, or any idiosyncratic inspirations you’ve picked up from the atmosphere of Belgrade itself? 

Macedonian folk music can be seriously fucking depressing. I thought I had a handle on the depression angle, but after listening to Vanja Lazarova, I had to reconsider my stance. Some of this music is absolute suffering expressed perfectly. In terms of Belgrade, yeah sure, it’s gray and bleak. I dig it.

Any plans for new Black Heart material, or do you plan on focusing your creative energies on The Red Step for the near future?  

There have been whispers of new BHP stuff. Who knows what the future holds. Pall and I are in very different places experiencing very different things, but perhaps that’d be a great formula for something new. For now, finishing/releasing The Red Step album is at the top of the list.

View videos and hear recordings by The Red Step on YouTube, and check out more music by The Black Heart Procession here.

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