We caught up with Nathaniel Banks to unpack the bands debut album, BREAK THE CURSE.
Image: Gabe Drechsler.
Indie-pop outfit Arlie have treated us all with the release of their debut album, BREAK THE CURSE. We caught up with singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Nathaniel Banks to unpack the bands debut album, the evolution of his artistry, how Arlie came to be and so much more!
Across the glistening release, bright sonics and 70's inspired soundscapes unfurl beneath Banks magnetic and captivating vocal performance, accompanied by infatuating harmonies. Conversational and tongue-in-cheek lyricism explores transcending societal, cultural, and generational traumas, whilst also creating thought provoking moments.
Earlier this week, the band shared their home-video inspired visual for break the curse. Directed by frequent collaborator Gabe Drechsler, the clip stitches together footage of the bands time on the road and creating the album, offering an intimate glimpse into their behind-the-scenes world.
Could you tell us a bit about your background in music and how ARLIE came to be?
Well, in the first lifetime I can currently remember, I was a white cockatoo named Snowy. That’s where I got my sense of melody, I think. That one was really sad, actually, because I was behind bars the whole time. But there were some people around who planted the seed of what it would be like to be flying, even while I was stuck in a cage for forty years. I dreamed about flying a lot. And then by the time I got to this lifetime, I was ready.
Dad had a little tuning fork and he would test my pitch when I was little. He’d say, “This is a G, now can you sing a C?” And I was four, and I would sing it. And he was very encouraging once he found out I could do that. I did the classic thing where you play piano for one year and quit because your teacher is mean. Kept messing around on piano the rest of my childhood and that was a great joy. Otherwise, I sang in a children’s choir a little bit, but then when I was about ten, I started playing saxophone. I got serious about the saxophone and music in general when I was twelve. Quit Boy Scouts and baseball, and decided music was the thing for me. Most of my music training came from jazz band and combo, jazz camps, and really intense saxophone teachers.
Throughout childhood, I was always in the basement obsessing over Lego creations, and then when I was thirteen, I switched pretty suddenly from obsessively tweaking Lego projects to obsessively tweaking Pro Tools projects. I worked at a music store as my first job, so I got mega discounts and was able to buy a basic interface and mic. I always wrote pieces of songs, but I didn’t finish songs. Eventually, I realized if you wanted to impress someone you had a crush on, it was better to do a whole song than a piece of a song.
Then I was eighteen and taking music theory classes at Blair School of Music, which was what I always wanted. I was in love with music theory. I had great professors, and I had high hopes that one of them would be my composer mentor, until they got upset at me for writing pop songs. So for the next semester of theory, I had to keep that a secret and absorb all the secret knowledge of a classical music snob without revealing myself as a poptimist.
Playing alto sax in big bands for the last years of high school and first years of college - that shaped my understanding of music. Jazz theory classes were so satisfying. I’d been longing to understand why certain harmonies work, and then I finally had names and vocab for it all.
Then I got into the Nashville co-writer world in 2014. Got tired of Vanderbilt and wanted to branch out of my social scene. That scene taught me how to move faster. How to not constantly question every single decision you’re making. When you’re with another person, you’re motivated to finish something you can both feel good about at the end of your day. Especially if you have social anxiety. So I learned about what the process could be, and then retreated back to writing by myself. And that’s when I finally started to figure out the Arlie thing, when I realized I’d acquired lots of skills, but wasn’t making music that I’d really want to listen to or that expressed what I felt deeply at my core.
So I got insular again, making demos solo in my dorm room, and eventually after a bunch of bad ones, I made “didya think” and “big fat mouth” and a few other good ones, and that’s how Arlie was born.
Your debut album BREAK THE CURSE is here! You’ve been releasing music since 2018, how do you think your artistry has evolved from throughout your career to what we hear on the record?
As a writer, I’ve gotten better at following the thread of what is most emotionally compelling to me rather than getting caught up in song ideas that are really heady. I’ve become more intentional and focused on using my analytical, rational side to serve the emotional side.
Before, I was writing from a very heady place, and every once in a while it would coincide with something emotionally resonant, and that’s what would make a good song that I wanted to put out (even though I wouldn’t have described the process that way at the time; I look back and that’s how I view my younger self as a writer). Now I do it more often the other way around - start with feeling, then make it make sense rationally/analytically after. I think both approaches have their value.
As far as the production of the recordings, it has evolved from being very insular and primarily a solitary process to involving other people more. Whereas live shows have always been collaborative, the WAIT EP was more of a solo endeavour. The BREAK THE CURSE LP involved a lot of producer collaborators, as well as some songwriting collaborators here and there.
The album centres itself around transcending societal, cultural, and generational traumas. What inspired this conceptual exploration within your music?
It started with a hunch. It started with the song break the curse. That was straight from my subconscious. And then a year after that, I started reading about all this stuff that I think about when I think about what “break the curse” means to me now, from a psychological, spiritual, philosophical angle. A lot of the things I was reading seemed to converge around the concept of trauma or wounds and how they affect our neural programming, how it’s perpetuated in cycles, and how a lot of people take them as a given, as a part of life. But when you break the cycles down and how they happen on a specific level, on a moment to moment level, you can understand what’s going on, and maybe feel empowered to make a different choice. And in that way, you can step out of a pattern and choose not to perpetuate a cycle.
Eckhart Tolle and Don Miguel Ruiz, who are both in their own category, as far as I’m concerned - changed my life. Thích Nhất Hạnh and Pema Chödrön helped me apply the Buddhist perspective on many of the same issues; Bessel van der Kolk and Nicole LePera from the psychology/therapy side, Deepak Chopra and Joe Dispenza - totally insane if you ask the kind of people I grew up around, but I think they’re brilliant. And then the classic new age heroes like Alan Watts, Ram Dass, you know - I’m big on research, I like to go deep when I get into something. I spent so much time in college reading classic works of literature and studying beautiful music and reading brilliant philosophers, none of which were of any immediate use to me in relieving the overwhelming pain I was in. I realized I wanted to spend my reading time on books I can use to directly heal myself, because I am broken and all the poetry in the world can’t seem to cure me - at least not by itself! Spoiler alert: self-help and new age spiritual books didn’t cure me either.
A good therapist and better relationships and better role models have been far stronger than any book could be for my mental health. Still, the books are fascinating! And they helped me a lot along my path. Maybe on the next record you’ll see what it’s like when I have the analysis before I’m writing. But for me, for BREAK THE CURSE, all of that happened after these songs had been written.
How important was it for you to explore and break down these themes within your music?
I’m always breaking down themes within my music, I’m always trying to understand life more and understand people, understand relationships, understand myself - that’s part of what drives me to write songs. But with the idea of “breaking the curse” and specifically the stuff I just talked about in response to the last question, the fact is, I came up with all that analysis after I’d already written the songs. Those themes were the guiding force in the production phase, for sure. It is all very important to me, and I think I was exploring through the music, but not in a conscious way. Maybe it will be more at the forefront of my conscious brain when writing the next record.
How did you arrive at the sonic realm BREAK THE CURSE exists within?
“break the curse” exists within! I really like that phrase you just coined!
Really, it was meant to be sonically expanding outward in all of the different directions I’d begun to point in with the WAIT EP. If you’re familiar with both bodies of work, I think you’ll understand what I mean!
Which three songs off the record would you choose to play to someone who had never heard your music and why?
“wait a minute,” “titanic,” “break the curse”
They’re a good start. The rest will make more sense after listening to them. They were also written earlier than the rest.
What’s one line, lyric or musical motif from the album you find at times can be stuck in your head, or one that you’re most proud of?
Melodically and lyrically, sickk feels the strongest to me. I’d say that entire song. Every piece of it gets stuck in my head.
How did the album evolve throughout its creation? And do you have a particular process during writing sessions or does each song take on its own creative process?
Each song definitely takes on its own process, but I do have some characteristic ways of writing. I’m usually gathering melody and lyric ideas throughout my day. Usually when I sit down to create something intentionally, I try to recreate something that’s in my head on the guitar or piano or recording software, and in that process, it becomes something else. It’s never exactly what was in my head, that’s not possible! Then I figure out what that new thing is, and try to make the best version of that.
Almost every song on BREAK THE CURSE went through three or more phases of sounding very different. There are two exceptions: don’t move and titanic both sounded in their initial form pretty much like what you hear on the record. Otherwise, each song started as a rough demo with a certain vibe, became a more developed demo with a different vibe, then a more produced version, and then some of them pivoted hard in another direction - maybe I would go back to find the elements that worked in the demo and combine them, or commit further to the new direction. Then I’d come back with fresh ears and usually notice something major I’d completely missed before.
Each of the tracks was a different journey, but the process generally looked something like that. And because the pandemic extended the deadline by quite a few months, there was a lot more time than usual to keep coming back and conceive of the songs in new ways, to make more changes. My collaborators and I wound up doing the final mixes of most of the tracks ourselves, after many hours of livestreaming changes with an outside mixer. It reaffirmed that mixing is often a crucial part of the composition for me - this isn’t necessarily the case for most people, but for me and artists like me, the mix can’t be truly separated from the artistic process.
You’re currently in the midst of a North American tour. What can audiences expect from one of your live shows?
A really great band and a singer who sounds like a dying frog if it’s this week. Otherwise, I would expect to sweat and be prepared to sing along!
What’s been your favourite moment from the tour so far, and can we expect any Australian shows in the future?
Meow Wolf in Santa Fe - we got the whole place to ourselves as our “green room” before the show. It was the most magical experience already, plus we were with our friends, the band opening for us, called Angel Saint Queen. So we got to have basically a private party inside of a waking dreamland.
GET TO KNOW ARLIE
Biggest musical influences?
My dad. Christmas hits compilations. Mozart for Babies. James Taylor’s greatest hits. Cannonball Adderley. And of course, The Fab Four.
Album that has had the most impact on you?
Jamie Slocum was my first CD.
Also: Help! by The Beatles.
How do you define your musical style in 3 words?
Pew pew pew.
Best song of 2021 so far?
icetrays by Arlie.
If you could create the soundtrack for any film, which one would it be?
The next Wes Anderson film.
Hannah Montana or Miley Cyrus?
Miley, my queen.
What was the first song you loved to sing?
I Love You Lord.
A song you would love to cover on tour?
The Washington Post March.
Album you would listen to on repeat on a road trip?
White noise 500 hz.
First concert you went to?
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.
Best concert you have been to?
The Tallest Man on Earth at the Ryman, solo.
First album you ever bought?
Switchfoot’s first three CDs came as a package deal
Would you rather be a Spice Girl or a Backstreet Boy?
What would your street name be?
Most memorable show you’ve ever performed?
Guilty music pleasure?
Playing a half step above the melody in marching band when there are too many saxophones for anybody to tell who is off.
Also: Owl City’s Good Time with Carly Rae
If you could support any artist on tour, who would it be?
Vampire Weekend; Elton John; Tyler, the Creator; Eckhart Tolle.
An artist you think has had the most influence on the music industry.
Prince and The Beatles.
What advice would your current self, give your future self, for a year from now?
The greatest perception is continual awareness.
Remember to have compassion for people who are suffering and have no way out. I think a year from now I’ll be experiencing less suffering (because I am very determined to heal) and then I might forget how many people are feeling like there’s no way out and how overwhelming that is. I’ve felt that way for so long, but I also know how quickly I forget things.
The moment you knew you wanted to be a musician?
Silly question. Probably 8th grade with my band - we weren’t old enough to enter the high school battle of the bands, but we went and saw them. Watching the juniors and seniors was epic; I was completely enthralled. I didn’t ever not want to be a musician. I never wanted to do something besides it.
BREAK THE CURSE is out now!