Trial and Error with Novo Line

Written By:

Wouter Vanhaelemeesch

Published:

November 28, 2017

1. Melody Rhythm Matrices

The live set-up of Novo Line (real name Nate Fowler) looks like something that comes straight from an eighties low rent sci-fi movie. Two tables filled with Atari ST pc's, hacked synths and vintage hardware & software, with wires flowing on any side.

Nate talks to The Attic about the trial and error, mathematics and alchemy that infuses his singular music.

It's funny to me how such a laborious and deeply conceptual set-up can create a music that seems so playful, vibrant and fun. How much of what comes out of this set-up is intended and how much is sheer serendipity?

The setup was originally much much smaller; just one Atari ST, which I had just been given, and a DX7II, and a Boss DR660 which I had had for a while. Already at that point it at its conception, it was this confusing meandering MIDI beast to me, fun and surprising, and playful. The ST was definitely the catalyst. Once I wrapped my head around what I was doing from playing around with it for a few months and playing a few live sets with it, getting some encouragement from people I respected, I started adding to it, then eventually realizing I could be "All rack" and stop having to bring this giant heavy DX7II with me, when I wasn't even using its keyboard for anything, just standing the thing vertically next to my mixer. As I built the setup further, I wanted to maintain how playful it was, because that kept me coming back to that way of working. It was addictive to me. It also pushed me to advance how playful it could get, adding foot pedals, midi effects, etc. As it became a more complex setup, I started to see this kind of comically complex and gigantic construction I was building as a source of pride, a kind of pride you get when you finish building something out of wood or whatever.

Connecting to that, how does failure come into play? How much trial and error is involved? What matters most to you when composing within this strict set-up?

Failure, if we are referring to the failure that is implied in "error" of trail and error, plays a huge part. I will stand there and "generate" rhythmically unique melodies over and over until I find something that I think has a good groove or can work as a good counterpoint to something else I've already "generated." I can spend an entire week just picking out different "melody rhythm matrices" (I made that up to describe what these are) I've generated on each ST, then figuring out at which key and in which mode they play well together, and then base a live set on all these choices in front of me.

Then when an actual live set happens, I'm given all these choices, and it's sort of like I've made many different entry points into an improvised set, not knowing exactly where it will go from there.

Failure also comes into play when, for whatever reason, I decide to "generate" on the fly during a live set. That's when real risk happens, especially now that I work with two ST's, so the variables and risks related to it "sounding good" go up exponentially.

I think what matters most to me is coming up with different possibilities for the music to go in during an improvisation. If I've come up with the right "environment" for me to jam within, then the actual composing happens in the moment when I perform. That way I come up with ideas by accident, I hear how it sounds and then repeat it or vary it, instead of limiting myself to my own ideas based on what I've found to work before.

2. Era-consistency

Novo Line - photo credits: Gabriela Gutierrez
Novo Line - photo credits: Gabriela Gutierrez

Looking at the big PC monitors and reading the word 'Atari' immediately launches me back to my childhood which was during the mid-eighties. Is there a nostalgic side to this project? How important is the era-consistency for you? And why?

Its not as simple as nostalgia to me; but I do have a history of using old computers. My father was an engineer so we were a PC household as early as 1982, we also had an Atari 2600 and later the 7800. I never had an ST, my family was an Apple IIe family until switching to the IBM compatibles when the Macintosh took over. I kept using that Apple IIe for weird reasons (props in home movies, weird software programs that collected insults by and about my friends, and for revisiting with BASIC, as I was taking a computer programming degree at the time) until 1995 when I came home to visit my parents one day from University to find that my mother had thrown it away. When I moved to "Europe", in 2004, to a small town in Italy at first, I had access to all kinds of old computers and a lot of time on my hands, so was hoping I could use one of them to make electronic music, (but also video at the time) since I couldn't find anyone to play with in a band.

Era-consistency plays a big part in mostly a utilitarian sense; in the beginning I didn't care what equipment I used, but I only had two things, and both happened to be from the late 80's. As I've tried out different equipment over the years, I've found that equipment from different eras sticks out too much, or doesn't sound right with the kind of music I make, and so I sort of believe that the guy who happened to write this simple software program I misuse, back in 1988, wrote it based on the equipment that he was using and was popular at the time, so I tried to imagine what that could be. I have never sworn off using things from a different era, but I enjoy boasting that I use equipment from a specific era, or sub-era really; this second wave of MIDI tech that was designed by the likes of Yamaha to serve producers in making the first data-regurgitated pop music.

What are you first childhood memories related to music? Has electronic music always been a big part of your musical surroundings?

Electronic music was hardly a part of my childhood. My parents listened to country music, and I grew up on the first years of MTV, (which meant Madonna, but also Herbie Hancock!), and then later I got into punk/hardcore via Thrasher Magazine and a few kids with cassettes in the boy scouts troop (!). If there was any electronic influence on me, for better or for worse, it was only from the MIDI revolution that took over song production in the mid-80s for dance and pop music. The unique alternate versions I heard at the local roller rink (which I much later found out to be always called "dub", "extended", and "bonus beats") planted a seed in me; I was in a suburb of Baltimore so I was hearing the beginnings of Baltimore club as well as a lot of Latin freestyle and infinite Shep Pettibone remixes as I skated. But I always wanted to be in a band, and got my first electric guitar when I was 11, and started my first band at 13.

And further down that line, what are you first memories related to PC's? Seeing those big monitors always takes me back to playing games on my dad's computer during rainy Sunday mornings.

My family was one of the very few "computer families" around. Having the Apple IIe (the exact model used in the TV series Lost) was amazing for me. I loved the green monochrome monitor, much more than my cousin's amber monochrome monitor! There was this one text game (in those days either you played a text game or you played a simple arcade game using the arrow keys) called Animals; it was a really clever bit of programming in which the software would ask you to think of an animal, and after a certain number of questions it would guess which Animal you were thinking of. If it couldn't guess, then you were to enter a question for the animal you were thinking of, and the program would save it. As you (and your friends) played it more often, it would get better at guessing, and after a while I must have had more than 200 obscure animals saved in there. In my late teens I turned that computer back on for the first time in a while and loved showing my friends these old programs. This was in 1990-1991, there hadn't been enough time for me to even consider that stuff being vintage yet, and I don't think the concept of retro gaming existed yet! After one friend decided to get revenge on an ex-girlfriend by entering her into my animal "database" with an insulting question tied to her, it started a tradition, and I eventually had more than 20 friends saved in there, always via somebody else wanting to prank/insult them. One of my first long-running conceptual jokes, but alas my mother threw it all away before it got to mythic proportions!

I think without my exposure to all that early computer hardware (5 1/4" floppies, slow loading time, lots of wires) it would probably have been much more difficult to get started so quickly with an Atari ST in 2011 when I was given one.

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3. 21st century technology

Novo Line
Novo Line

How do you keep those floppy discs going since their lifespan is notoriously short? How many do you use up on a weekly, monthly basis? And why do you use two ST's? Do they swap files and if so, how?

Well, I asked myself that in 2015 after I had replaced 10 different failing disk drives in all my ST's over the course of one year, and so finally, against my own scruples on using the old disks and drives because I found it slowed idea development down to a much more comprehensible and therefore enriching speed, I switched to "Lotharek" SD card floppy drive emulators. They plug right into where the old floppy drive used to be, and you insert an SD card into a little slot in it and that SD card can contain up to 2000 floppy disk images. My saving is now much more reliable (I always had to save on at least a second floppy), and load times are ~10seconds instead of 2-3minutes.

When I want to "swap" files between the two ST's, I just save on one disk, remove from ST1 and put into drive of ST2, and load it. There's no networking between them, although that is possible if you're using a different kind of program, via the MIDI ports.

I use two ST's because one wasn't enough after a while. I was going in one direction with one ST, sometimes quite deeply, but always in one direction, and so I thought, shit, why don't I try two? Then I can go in a different direction on each one, and merge the MIDI before they hit my synths and drums.

A follow up on that: how does 21st century technology play into your life? Smartphones, laptops, social media?

I use them all but I'm careful with them; modern computers are designed to be highly addictive money generators. I'm suspicious of the ubiquity of computers, for communication, for getting our information, etc, I've felt that way since long before Trump News, and I find it really interesting how computers have been marketed to people since the dawn of PCs; you look back at the first ads of people using computers for everything, and being captivated by them, and when you think back to how we really used them and how we really were captivated by them back then, its so much more accurate description of how things are now!

Its a shame we are getting away from physical media too. My house is full of videotapes and cassettes and records because I like having, holding, and deciding. To put it simply, I really enjoy the solitude and simplicity of the old computers; you can comprehend what it's doing, it's just a dumb machine, and you're shut off from all the distractions that are on your multi-tasked modern computer. When I need a break in the studio from working on something, my brain isn't even given the choice to switch windows and waste some time reading what someone reposted to confirm their own opinion on any contested topic. Instead I do any number of other things that don't involve a computer at all!

Someone like Lorenzo Senni, who seems similarly interested in re-contextualizing old technologies and maligned sounds (trance in his case) became interested in experimental music through hardcore punk. Did you have a similar path into this kind of stuff?

In fact yes I did. When I read last year that Senni had a similar background it made some sense. The first thing is, it gave me a ton of performative experience, which teaches you about travelling, packing, adapting to different sound systems, different kind of crowds, how your set works as an opener vs a headliner vs the middle, and a lot more. It also exposed me to tons of interesting music, old and new, from staying with people or speaking with other musicians I met. With the band that ended up being the one "success" before this, we were very into the idea of recontextualizing heavy metal and hard rock tropes into modern composition and post modern performative ideas, with a big bloody steak of irony on the plate as well. With Novo Line, it seemed that it became a natural progression, despite there being a 6 year gap, but instead of channeling hard rock, its Adult Contemporary.

4. Berlin and Confrontational Practical Jokes

When and how did you end up in Berlin? And what's your relationship with this city which is of course a mecca for electronic music and all things club life? Are you a Berghain regular or more of an outsider to the Teutonic dance milieu?

In 2001 I played here for the first time with my band. In 2004, after moving to Italy, I came here for our honeymoon and we stayed with a Baltimore friend who was visiting for the summer, and got exposed to Weekend, Club Der Visionaire, and swimming in a lake naked while high on speed, while subletting (famous Berlin DJ) Magda's apartment. Via that same friend I was exposed to some pretty cutting edge stuff, especially for the time, from Berlin via the Once.Twice.Sound festival that he organized in Baltimore the year before; to this day I still love what Errorsmith and Soundstream do. In 2007 we moved here, and yes, we dabbled in Berghain/Panorama Bar visits, but never a ton. But that's dwindled to maybe twice a year now. I only go if I know I'll love the music, because the times I've just gone randomly, I get in there and I'm like "oh no, I'm stuck here" because I don't want to feel like I've wasted the visit.

To define my relationship with the city is hard, because it's changed so much and the city itself is hard to define. I came here knowing a few people in the indie world, a few in the electronic world. Then I found out that the city had all these bubbles of different little music scenes, and eventually found myself in one that spontaneously formed in Neukoelln. I can't imagine my coming up with this project anywhere else, as the kind of venues and club culture informed what I came up with. It's like I thought "what would _I_ do if I were on stage at this time of the night/morning, playing to these people on these chemicals" and then I came up with it, but that idea would have been different in some other city.

When browsing online, I came across some of your previous projects like the band 'Oxes'; which was a math rock band that was part of 'The Baltimore Rowdy Collective'. I also came across the line: 'Their shows were marked by lesser accepted ideas of showmanship' There is also mentioning of 'confrontational practical jokes'. I very strongly feel the need to know everything about this now.

We still haven't gotten around to making the BRC WIKI, so I apologize that I can't direct you to better documentation of all our hi-jinks.

The BRC was a group of friends that most often manifested "Rowdyism" at various post-punk shows in the Baltimore/DC area, by chanting nonsense phrases at bands (we loved these bands, we would never waste the money and time on bands we didn't like), breaking stuff (we would bring little ceramic figurines we'd buy that day at a thrift store and smash them with a hammer at the foot of the stage) and outside of clubs, organize and execute bizarre events like "sensory deprivation week" , "marathon around the light post in the university square", and eventually take some of the ideas and incorporate them into the performances of a side project joke band that took on a life of its own.

Oxes was super fun, and I was really lucky to find two musicians that were much better than me that were willing to play with me so that we could encourage each other to push our humor to new levels of absurdity. For anyone needing more info on that band, there's some stuff on Youtube, but its hard to find footage from our really active and prolific era, from 1999-2002.

What's next for Novo Line / Nate Fowler in the bigger scheme of things?

I'm finally building up my new studio now after having to move out of my old one earlier this year. I rehearsed and prepared for 3 weeks in March among piles of trash and boxes in a new raw space, and since then, my gear has been on the road, from mid-March until August, being trucked around to different places across Europe, with the same "entry points" I mentioned before, for each of the 11 shows. That was the first time I've done more than two shows with the same "settings" so it was an interesting exploration into how different my set can be if I don't change anything or prepare something new - usually I'll change those "entry points," I'll change my synth patches, I'll change my drum sounds, for every performance. I'm hoping these recent shows inform my improv that will come about from having an all new setup again, one I can pick out, hardware wise, from a larger set that I'm currently installing in my studio. One thing I can say, I'm hoping to throw a second sampler I recently acquired into the live rack, but I need to understand what i'll use it for first, which will take days reading a manual and then weeks of experimentation. I'm also going to attempt to run 3 and 4 ST's at the same time. What's coming from me soon is a few different more conceptual cassette releases on Ecstatic, that hopefully reach high- and low-concept at the same time.

If you could ask Pythagoras one question, what would it be?

I would ask him what is it that he always whispers to the oracle when he goes behind the candlelit fabric wall and all you see is his shadow.

* Main Photo Credits: Gabriela Gutierrez

About the Author

Wouter Vanhaelemeesch

Wouter works as a music promoter and festival curator at art centre Vooruit in Gent, Belgium. Next to that he also runs the audioMER label.

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