Play The HITS; An interview with Nathan Oliver

In only six songs and 20-odd minutes, Nathan Oliver’s Head In The Sand bounds the length and breadth of the alt-rock canon with a crooked ear and a sure stride. This EP marks the end of an eight-year hiatus for Nathan Oliver, a bedroom project of Nathan White that turns into a full band when you wish hard enough for a return to 2009, when the band last took the stage and America seemed to have a glimmer of hope.
That was also the year White began bouncing from city to city, project to project. His band The Evil Tenors kept him busy writing and performing, and he played with Potluck labelmates Organos and Schooner. But a return to Chapel Hill in late 2015 was a creative homecoming, giving White the freedom to focus on his craft and produce a document that’s both personal and engaging.
Any listener of Head In The Sand can tell that White is a student of alt-rock’s golden age — though one who has mastered the material and made it his own. Take “Marbles,” an irresistible oddball of an opener that kicks you in the Brainiac before launching into a big Nevermind-style chorus; or “Clean Sheets,” a wryly sunny take on longing that sounds like Stephen Malkmus gone pop. Tying it all together is the sense that these songs are lived-in, that they speak to connecting — and not connecting — with the people in our lives. When White sings, “Clean sheets … what’s the point? You’re not here,” his cry is laced with self-deprecating humor. And his voice goes where his songs do, by turns crooning, straining, shouting.
While White’s longtime listeners will no doubt pick up on the familiar influences — notes of R.E.M. and The Shins in “Little Belle,” for example, or a Joey Santiago-inspired guitar lead in “The Exquisite Wait” — they will also notice that his songs have grown more deliberate and complex, his arrangements tighter. “Sing Blue Silver” melds Sonic Youth and The Cure to arrive at payoff that screams “anthem” in a way no prior Nathan Oliver song quite has. Closing HITS is “Kim Mi Young,” a sweet, swaying piece of Americana with male-female vocals that nod to White’s long relationship with Schooner.
Head In The Sand is Nathan Oliver’s third release, following 2009’s Cloud Animals and 2007’s Nathan Oliver. It features drummer Robert Biggers of Le Weekend, D-Town Brass and Audubon Park, and bassist Duncan Webster of Hammer No More The Fingers and Beauty World. Producer Alex Maiolo, whose Seriously Adequate Studio has worked with Sylvan Esso and Polvo, guided the HITS sessions over a long year, and the extended effort shows. It fostered a real chemistry in the performances, a feeling that the final product is as much a band effort as it is the fruit White’s considerable songwriting gifts. And as the band continues to evolve, it will return to the same stages it once shared with performers like Neil Halstead, Bombadil and Des Ark.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with Oliver to discuss the effort, which sees release via PotLuck Foundation tomorrow, Duran Duran, and ’90s indie rock. This is what he told us.
When did you first begin writing the material for Head In The Sand?
Believe it or not the song “Little Belle” was written and demo’d before we went on hiatus in 2009.  We recorded it many years ago at Pox Studio in Durham, NC, before the owner moved to NY.  I even played it live a few times.  In preparation for Head In The Sand, we fleshed it out as a full band.  Most of the tunes were written 2014 to 2016 when I was in the process of moving back to Chapel Hill.  There were other songs as well, but we chose these six as a reintroduction to Nathan Oliver.
Upon the very first listen, these songs felt familiar. They sounded like my favorite college rock band in the ’90s. Who were your favorite ’90s college radio favorites?
In the ’90s specifically, I had an early curiosity for Nirvana–from there I was introduced to the Pixies, the Breeders, Mudhoney, Unwound, and Sonic Youth, among others.  I’m always surprised Unwound isn’t mentioned as commonly as other bands from the time, but maybe that’s why I still listen to them today.  I also remember obsessing over OK Computer era Radiohead and Diary era Sunny Day Real Estate when I was in high school.  As I got older, I retroactively learned about bands like Brainiac, Shellac, Neutral Milk Hotel, etc.  A friend who DJ’d for WXYC jokes I always get into things way later than everyone else, but I find my way and appreciate them on my own time.
After not releasing anything for eight years, your follow up is just an EP. You holding out on us?
Oh most definitely.  To quote Lucille Bluth:  I’m withholding it. Look at me. Getting off!  We chose these six songs as a second introduction to what this project was about.  I took the hint from my other band, Organos, that’s led by Maria Albani.  Organos has existed pretty much in the form of EP’s and singles since 2010.  I think it’s a clever way to cater to short attention spans, provide a good stream of new material, and present a manageable bite to chew for new ears.  That being said we have several other new songs in the works for a future release.

One of the songs on the release is called “Sing Blue Silver.” Is this a nod to Duran Duran?
Apparently there’s a Duran Duran documentary by the same name.  Curiously enough, I was oblivious when I wrote the song.  Maria [from Organos] sent me a message asking the same thing after she heard the demo.  If there’s any relation it’s completely accidental.  I have a list of song titles I sporadically compile in my phone and it was one of them.  To me, “blue silver” sparks images of knights in armor and old school masculinity, and the song is about stripping that away–being honest, exposed, and vulnerable.  Is that what Simon Le Bon was on about?
Are you planning an east coast tour this summer or fall?
We just started playing again as a live band in May, so we’re working out the details.  Some of the local shows were recorded in preparation for a music video for “Clean Sheets.”  We’ll be booking regional shows around NC through the summer and branch out this fall.
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