Cinematic Synths: Metavari’s Nate Utesch

A great number of micro labels have popped up parallel to the soundtrack resurgence. While Death Waltz, One Way Static, and Giallo Disco do a lot of soundtrack reissues and releases, they’ve also been at work to present new artists working in the the ‘genre.’ Acts – like Videogram, Antoni Maiovvi, Metavari, and Espectrostatic – all inspired, in one way or another, by synth-laden horror and thriller scores. These labels and artists are the next step for those who’ve gotten into soundtracks, but want something that works more as a musical experience, rather than one tied directly to a film.

In order to understand how one takes those retro sounds and turn them into something new (and whether they feel that there’s the possibility of moving beyond those basic ideas), I’ve been speaking with prominent musicians in the field for a series of interviews about the reinvigorated genre. For this outing, we spoke with Metavari‘s Nate Utesch.

Metavari is the moniker of American composer and graphic artist, Nathaniel David Utesch. Metavari’s dark, cinematic records make extensive use of nostalgic electronics and sampling—referencing a patchwork of electronic genres; new wave and industrial, modern electronica, and the voltage-controlled film scores that raised Generation X.

What initially brought you to film scores?

I have been obsessed with film for as long as I can remember; A connoisseur of the strange, tenfold. The score is often more than half the battle for me. I love the power that music has over us when we are engaged with this medium. I was born in 1981 and – for good or bad – raised in a fairly lax movie-watching environment. Which made my house the weekend go-to for a late night, horror/sci-fi video rental binge.

Now riddled with nostalgia, I realize I pummeled my childhood with quirky, odd-ball films that often employed synthesizer music over something more traditional, simply due to budget. But the untouchable quality that a synthesizer has over a young person with a limited understanding of music, made those sounds absolutely mesmerizing.

How have you branched out from there?

I bought my first synthesizer (1980 Moog Prodigy) in college during the year 2000 and attempted to incorporate it into the music I was making at the time. I became obsessed with electronic music: Richard D. James/Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Autechre, Bjork, Amon Tobin. My good friend and longtime writing partner bought a Yamaha DX7, I hilariously won a MacBook Pro online, we installed everything we could get our hands on and starting experimenting for the first time with solely electronic music.

Are there particular artists which bridged the gap between film scores and more traditional electronic music for you?

For many years, the words “electronic music” were synonymous for me with a genre that was so incomprehensible. I barely knew the names of composers who created the scores to the films I loved so dearly. I could have almost perceived them as machines designed to create the music that carried these works.

It was only as I got older and started making music myself that I saw the reoccurring names of composers in the scores that “made me.” Then the machines came to life and became my heroes. John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, Goblin and Claudio Simonetti, Giorgio Moroder, Angelo Badalamenti, Vangelis, David Hughes, Riz Ortolani, John Harrison, John Murphy, Wendy Carlos, Clint Mansell.

So many folks in the soundtrack scene seem to come from a punk or metal background, given how intertwined those worlds are with horror. Was that the case?

This was absolutely how it happened for me. I played punk and metal from the day I learned how to play the guitar up until the day I started Metavari. And even then, Metavari was conceived with 3 guitarists and a live drummer.

How does one take those influences from horror and genre films, and move beyond them? Is there a point at which they need to be set aside?

Great question. I feel lucky that my love for film and composing music for film started there. So much of that music is raw, stripped bare, and uses modulation to transfer a theme or melody across a work of music. Horror soundtracks inadvertently “taught” me how to think about first creating a space with my music with as little as possible. Which is so infinitely important to any genre, any art for that matter. That said, learning from a genre is one thing, but limiting yourself to the same source of inspiration for all of your work is a good way to dry yourself to the bone before you fall off the branch!

What’s your opinion on “imaginary soundtracks” – scores for films which don’t exist?

I love it. Bands have certainly been touching on this for years—calling these records “concept albums” and centering them around a story. So the idea of that “stand-alone work” being for a film that doesn’t exist almost feels like a different route around the same square. I also love that it encourages a visual engagement with music for people that perhaps haven’t thought of music like that before.

Was there a particular artist whom you admired most when you first started making music?

When I first fell in love with electronic music, it was for the “math” and the “confusion” of the genre. Not necessarily the synthesizer. The man that brought the most life to me—and does to this day—is Richard D. James/Aphex Twin.

Do you have any professional training?

My mom taught me rudimentary piano when I was five and we had a piano in our home for the entirety of my childhood. So while it wasn’t professional, per se, I was surrounded my whole life by an open air to “just get on there and create.” Which resulted in a barrage of self-taught instruments through the rest of my life: guitar, drums, saxophone, and synthesizers. Additionally, Bobby Owinski’s Mixing Engineer’s Handbook has become my bible through many seasons of my life as I’ve become more involved with production.

How has your music changed – is there a stylistic shift to which you can point?

The introduction of and attempt to create electronic music in college certainly pivoted my focus off of traditional songwriting. In Metavari’s early years we were heavily influenced by the post-rock genre. As I became more confident as a producer and an electronic musician, Metavari became more synth-heavy/electronic-minded. Using Metavari as an electronic music pseudonym saw full fruition with the release of Moonless in 2015.

Where does making stand-alone music differ from a soundtrack proper?

In its furthest sense, those lines are certainly blurry for me. A lot of the ways I work on each of those are the same: the entire project is kept in mind during the writing, motifs are referenced throughout, track sequencing is produced and guided based on a loose emotional sense of the full scope. But the biggest, and maybe most obvious, difference is the distinct guidance of the film while working on a soundtrack proper. Literally watching scenes ten times over and keeping a map of the general “route” of the work and its themes ahead of time.

Metavari’s Symmetri is out now via One Way Static and available in the US from Light in the Attic.

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