THE HUMAN ABSTRACT’S NATHAN ELLS REVEALS ALL IN METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
Nathan Ells of The Human Abstract was one of the most interesting interview subjects I’ve spoken with all year, mostly because he was completely honest and so willing to speak about what makes him tick. Nathan came off sounding like a true artist in it for the long haul for the love of his craft, and I’ve got nothing but respect for musicians who take that approach and wear it so openly on their sleeves. The Human Abstract’s music itself is telling of that attitude also; this summer’s new release Midheaven certainly stands on its own as an artistic statement not bound by the confines of the modern metal scene.
In the interview that follows, Nathan told us all about the change in musical direction from Nocturne to The Human Abstract’s recent release Midheaven, the reasons behind A.J. Minette’s split with the band, whether he takes critics’ and fans’ opinions to heart, his prog-rock heroes, the importance of talking directly with fans, creating music for the sake of art, and what went wrong in the initial Midheaven recording sessions with producer Toby Wright.
The interview kicks in when Vince’s phone rings and Mr. Ells is on the line. Five minutes earlier when Vince had called, Nathan had asked if he could call back in a few; apparently the band was circling around the streets of Tulsa, OK (I think) looking for the venue at which they’d play later that night.
So you guys are in the midst of a venue finding snafu?
Yeah, we just found it actually. Good times.
What tour is it that you’re on right now?
Well we’re actually doing a few pickup dates on our way to start the Trivium and All that Remains Tour.
Awesome. So you’re going out with some heavy bands this time as opposed to the Warped Tour where you guys were probably one of the heavier bands on the bill?
Yeah. It’s pretty different on the Warped Tour. Everybody’s pretty different. It’s a pretty large difference between all the bands because there are just so many of them. It’s kind of weird. It’s not like any other tour.
Was the reception pretty good even though you guys were probably one of the heavier bands on the bill?
Yeah, they actually say that the heavier bands were the bands that did the best at the Warped Tour. I mean Katy Perry, who had a lot of promotion, excluded of course — but the heavier bands were doing a lot better. All that Remains was on that and Devil Wears Prada, and the Dillinger Escape Plan were on it for awhile. Those bands did really well.
So now you go on this tour where you guys are probably the least heavy band on the bill. Are you worried at all with audience reaction on this tour or do you look at it more as an opportunity to build a new fan base?
Well I suppose we pay more attention to how we’re going to build our set list when we play a tour like this. Being the odd man out on the tour is definitely not something that is new to us. I think every tour we’ve ever been on with the exception of the Protest the Hero Tour in Canada, we felt kind of out of place. It’s kind of hard to match up our band with other bands. The one thing that I do dislike about a heavier tour is there is always this feeling of needing to be heavy enough or brutal enough. That’s not really what we’re all about. Thinking about that is going to make me vomit, really.
Do you construct your set list differently based on what kind of audience you anticipate is going to be there?
Sure. Absolutely, because we have a bunch of different kinds of songs, especially with the release of the new album, and depending on what we’re going to tour with it’s like the people who are our fans are going to be stoked regardless. We definitely pick sets based on the bands that we’re going to tour with because you want to pick up that band’s fan base also. It’s kind of why bands tour with each other. We definitely pick a set list based on who we tour with for sure.
A moment ago you said that you don’t want to get too caught up in being the heaviest, the most brutal whatever it is.
It’s definitely something I never think about. I don’t really care.
Not at all. No way. If it was it [the album, Midheaven] would probably be a lot more brutal, but we weren’t. We were just kind of worried about writing good songs. For the new album we wanted to have some songs on there that would stand the test of time that wouldn’t be just like fashion music. Something that in 10 years from now people are going to look back and say “Oh yeah that was from the ’08/’09 era.” There are all kinds of that stuff going on. People don’t even realize that times are kind of crappy, and you kind of get caught up in whatever fashion music that is happening at the time. The only way to step above that is not paying any attention to it, and not worrying about fashion so much.
Do you feel like you’ve accomplished that?
To a great degree. I don’t want to get on my high horse or anything like that. It’s always difficult to tell at the time, but we definitely didn’t take into account much about what was going on musically and what the trends in music are right now. We’re not really that concerned with that. I think the more that we pay attention to that, the more we’re going to get ourselves into trouble. I think bands that jump on the bandwagon and become overnight successes are doing that, but then a couple of years later their career is over because they jumped on a trend and just pushed it so hardcore. Kids realize that in a couple of years and are like “That band is a flash in a pan.” They don’t even know why. It’s because these bands are trying to use the trends to their advantage, and it’s not where we’re at. We want to make art. At the end of the day, people are talking about bands and are like “Oh they’re trying to please these people, and they’re worrying about what these people are saying,” and all this shit. I don’t care about the critics. I care about what our fans want because you want to give the fans what they want, because they are your fans and everything. We do have a certain rapport with a certain group of kids now, but other than that you don’t really care. I listen to myself to figure out what kind of music I want to write next.
Were you, in the writing of this album, did you go back and listen to any classic records at all? Because it definitely has a more traditional influence. Prog rock influence, I would say the most.
We were definitely talking about going in a more prog as opposed to technical metal direction. It kind of seems silly to say, but I guess there is a pretty big difference. To me good prog rock is taking off time signatures and making them not really noticeable how exactly difficult the song is until you try and go and play it. Some of the best prog rock bands have done that.
Any particular influences on that?
Like King Crimson, Rush, Tool (they’re always really good at that), and the bands that make it look easy. They make it so that you don’t even notice that the song is hard to play, that’s what I really like, understated prog rock.
Was that conscious change in direction independent of A.J. leaving the band or was it a result of that or after that?
I think it was totally mutually exclusive or not related at all. If A.J. Minette had stayed in the band, we would have gone in a much lighter direction than we have. That’s for sure. I think that was part of the problem initially, that A.J. wanted to make the next record not even heavy in any way at all. I’ve been in metal bands for 13 years, and everybody else in the band has always been into metal. All of our fans that we worked so hard over the past few years to build up love Nocturne and love our band from that Nocturne time period. Although we did stretch out into different directions on the new album, I just kind of felt like it would be a serious slap in the face to everybody like our fans, and really it would not be very fun at all to not be a heavy band anymore. I really love doing the high energy live shows. I think that’s what everyone has come to expect. I mean it’s not doing what people expect, but I think heavy shows are fun. I think what we built up with the band initially was a pretty good thing. I think that was one of the major reasons of A.J. leaving. He wasn’t feeling the heavy music like he originally did. He didn’t want to do another heavy album, so I think that’s really the big difference of A.J. leaving the band that it kind of made [Midheaven] a heavier album than it would have been. That’s for sure.
That’s interesting to hear because a lot of the people who comment on our site, at least, might not be aware of that. They seem to think that his leaving the band was actually responsible for this record going more of a prog-melodic direction.
Yeah. that’s just because they aren’t within our circle of friends and don’t know us personally. They haven’t had the experiences of actually knowing what’s going on with the band. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just how it is. Everybody fills in the blanks about what they think happened. I’ve been reading a lot critical reviews of our albums. It’s really funny to me with these critics I’ve never met they’ll just be filling in all these blanks about what happened. They really have no idea. It’s just kind of like their opinion of how it might have been, but they talk about it like this is how it is. They really just don’t know.
So do you concern yourself with that stuff at all, both from a critic’s standpoint and from a fan’s standpoint leaving feedback for you guys on blogs, Myspace pages, or any of that? Do you get caught up in that stuff?
Well, I talk to fans all the time. I’m always on my laptop and have every instant messenger that you could even have. People look me up all the time, and I’m very avidly talking to these people because I want them to know. I want the fans to at least be in the know about why we’re going in the directions that we are so they don’t have to wonder. We’re in the age now where you can contact these people and ask them. I want to be accessible in that way to where if somebody has a question about what we’re doing, I can be there and tell them what’s going on. As far as fans are concerned, that’s my stance on that. As far as critics are concerned, I don’t give a shit. I don’t care what a critic says. A music critic who bases their entire life on critiquing the music of others seems really weird to me. It also seems like critics give a negative review almost on purpose like it’s their job to do that. There are some of these critics who give negative reviews that have all these particular details to make a name for them. When a critic does a review on an album, it’s like they’re soft of something if they like the album. They can only like 1 album out of 20 or something in order to be a good critic. You got all these bands and most of them are trying to make some art. Nobody is in it for the money anymore. So it’s like are you doing it for the chicks or for the art. At the end of the day, I just care about making art. You got this guy over here whose job is to critique my art and fill in a bunch of blanks when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. So I don’t really care what he has to say.
Do you give a shit at all that your album debuted in the top 200 Billboard or you couldn’t care less?
I think that’s great. I think that’s an amazing thing for us to do. It’s things like that that perpetuate the band and make us be able to go out and tour and do the things we do. I love the touring lifestyle. I love being out on the road. I love doing rock shows every day. Right now I’m homeless as shit. I travel the country. I don’t have a home of my own. You make a very particular choice when you decide to become a musician these days. It’s not like how it used to be. You don’t ride around in your limo and have your tour bus. You don’t get a bus on the Warped Tour. We were in a 15 passenger van. In a way it feels really good. It feels like there’s no bullshit involved in my every day life. It’s like I’m not lulled by all the comforts of having an aspiring career in the music business. Even though we’re doing really well, a lot better than a lot of bands out there, we’re still not living high on the hog at all, not even close. It’s like the only thing that drives us at the end of the day is our artistic integrity and the desire to get to the next level. That feels pretty good actually. It’s like the one really pure thing in my life that can’t really be altered.
That’s awesome dude. That’s really refreshing to hear. We’re definitely big fans of the record. So one more question and then I’ll let you go. What happened with Toby Wright in the studio?
Oh man. I love getting this question. There are certain things that I’ve been told not to say, so I’m just going to try and say it the nicest way possible. The factors that went into Toby Wright not working out is that Toby Wright is a producer that is used to getting paid a whole lot of money to do what he does. We paid him, I believe, $17,000, and I don’t think that was even close to what he was used to being paid. So I think that started us off on the wrong foot in his book and the way he does things. I don’t really have a whole lot to say about Toby other than the fact that when we got done with everything, the mixes didn’t sound like we wanted them to, so we had to go with somebody else. We ended up pulling extra money out of our pockets to do that.
So did you record everything again or did you have an additional mixer on it?
There were a lot of things that we recorded again except for a lot of the drums and some of the guitar and vocals for the most part. I think I ended up re-doing about 3 songs worth of vocals and [we] probably re-did about 70-80% of the guitar and all the bass. I think all the drum parts are the same. We might have redone 1 drum part.
Do you feel better about it having made the call to discontinue working with him at some point and moving on? Having done all that stuff again, do you find that the end result is what you wanted it to be?
Absolutely. It wasn’t even close to what we wanted before. So taking the extra 3 weeks and working with the other producer was the time we needed and the attention to detail we needed to really make the mixes sound like they do. Some of the effects and samples were little things that made the album have the sound that it has. I just felt like before we took those extra 3 weeks, the album was sounding bland and generic. Not enough work was put into it. We gave him so much leeway on making the sound happen and put a lot of trust into that, and it really just didn’t pan out for us. So after that happened we took a lot more into our hands by then getting in touch with another producer. It came together at a really crucial time.
Cool man. Like I said, I’m really big into the album. Thanks so much for taking the time. We’ll see you when you get into New York.