Rewind a couple of years and Nathan Fake was in a rut – a gruelling tour schedule and a bout of depression had left Border Community’s prince of pastoral techno lacking in inspiration and unable craft a follow-up to his 2012 album Steam Days. But with the help of an unloved ‘90s synth and a couple of unlikely collaborations, the Norfolk producer has returned with what may be his best album yet.
Nathan Fake grew up in rural Norfolk, messing about on a Casio keyboard he’d received as a Christmas gift. As this hobby gave way to obsession he taught himself to write songs, and at 19 he signed to Border Community. “My parents didn’t know what to make of it, we were from this little village in the countryside, so there weren’t really musicians around,” he remembers of his early success. In 2006 he released his debut album Drowning In A Sea Of Love, which received plaudits for its bucolic take on techno, an aptly for a musician from the sleepy village of Necton.
The record saw Fake crowned as “progressive techno’s poster boy”, a tag he soon evolved beyond with his next two LPs, 2009’s Hard Islands and 2012’s Steam Days, both of which tended towards increasingly complexity, retaining elements of his debut while adding a luminous density. But after a lengthy tour in support of Steam Days, Fake dropped off the radar – and stayed there for five years. He kept busy (“I don’t want this to be some sob story,” he points out), starting his own label, Cambria Instruments, and moving from London back to East Anglia. But for two years he ran aground. “I wasn’t making any new music I was happy with,” he says. “It became a cycle of either not being able to make music or not wanting to.”
The extended hiatus eventually led him on the path to Providence, easily one of the best electronic albums you’ll hear in 2017. Providence marks a shift in tone for Fake, delivering emotive melodies of the kind that defined his early career while imbuing them with hard-earned grit. Synths spasm across the title track in dense, unwavering arpeggios, while ‘HoursDaysMonthsSeasons’ would feel as at home in a club as a cathedral. Then there’s a new concept for Fake: collaboration. The chewy and complex lead single ‘DEGREELESSNESS’ was created with Prurient, aka Dominick Fernow (“I really love his music, but I thought he wouldn’t really want to collaborate with someone like me,” he says) while the skittering bliss of ‘RVK’ features Raphaelle from Calgary art rock band Braids.
When we meet it’s in the South London offices of Ninja Tune, where wall-to-ceiling posters of the label’s artists past and present watch over his return. After the release of Providence on Friday, Fake reveals how an “ill-conceived” vintage synth killed off his writer’s block and helped him take his music to the next level.
“I was really emotional making this album – I’m glad if others can recognise that intensity”
It’s been five years since your last album. Can you talk us through the reason behind the extended hiatus?
After Hard Islands came out I toured pretty extensively, and once that was done I carried on trying to make stuff but I sort of lost my confidence. Basically I was going through a quite heavy bit of depression those two years. It became a cycle of either not being able to make music, or not wanting to. At the time I was focusing a lot on the live stuff, which is something I’ve always put a lot of thought into, and that was one of my ways of justifying it: ”Well, I’m not making much, but I’m coordinating my live set at the moment.”
What changed for the new album to help pull yourself out of that period?
I don’t want this to be some sob story [laughs]. I still gigged quite a lot and concentrated on the live performances — but there was a bunch of personal stuff going on, and I wasn’t making any new music I was happy with. Then I had a flash of inspiration, bought some new gear and started making stuff without really worrying about how good it was. That’s the key really – when I made new tunes using different gear it was really inspiring.
You’ve mentioned that part of this inspiration came from using the much maligned Korg Prophecy, right?
Honestly, it’s a really ill-conceived machine, which is something I found quite appealing — I like stuff that doesn’t really work properly. It’s a mono synth and you can’t play chords but it’s got this incredibly complex synthesis system, so it’s super-clean, super-digital and you can make some really dense sounds. When it came out in the mid-90s I remember reading in Sound On Sound about how all the big names were using this new synth. It was like, “this is our crazy new machine,” so I assumed it must be the best synth ever. They were a grand when they came out, which was a lot of money, but I found one on eBay a couple of years back for about £200.
How did the Korg affect your writing process?
On the old records I was just using a PC. Obviously I would play stuff on the keyboard, but a lot of the time, especially on Hard Islands and Steam Days, I would be doing everything by just clicking around on the mouse and clicking in melodies. In a way it was more rigid and more pre-planned, whereas this felt like making music when I was a kid, just playing and getting back into instruments. So I ended up messing around with the Korg and making loads of tunes — that’s where the album came from, me just relaxing and really having fun, jam sessions that I heavily edited afterwards — I was just playing in real-time and then building tracks around what I’d produced. I was playing a lot of melodies live on the keyboard, which I hadn’t really done for a long time, and the result was something visceral and cathartic.
The catharsis you’re talking about gives Providence an overarching intensity — is that what you want people to take from the LP?
I guess. I was really emotional making it and it’s emotionally intense for me, because when I made the record I was connecting certain emotions to the songs—although I assumed people would see it as quite chilled out. So I’m glad if others can recognise that intensity, because sometimes people don’t really know what to make of instrumental electronic music.
So do you feel the writer’s block has gone? I saw on Twitter you mention you made four tracks in one day.
Yeah, that was crazy. I haven’t done that in so long. I mean, they’re very rough, but that’s the idea. I quite like making stuff all in one go right now. Obviously they sound like they’ve been made in one go, but I think that’s cool, because with an album I spent loads of time on mixing and stuff. Making so much stuff in one day is the antithesis of that.
But still, this album came together quickly once you were working on it?
Yeah, it was intense. Really the most intense—far more work than previous albums, but compressed into more time. With Steam Days—mainly because I was doing a lot of gigs while making that album—I worked at a leisurely pace and probably took a year and a half or more to complete it. But with Providence I was just really into the tracks and wanted to get them finished, because I was excited to play them to the label.
You’re on Ninja Tune now after years with Border Community—why the change?
It happened really naturally. I’d done a couple of remixes for Ninja in the past, and built up quite a nice rapport with them and they were like, “Send us some stuff at some point” – and this was ages ago when I didn’t really have anything to play them. But they always seemed keen, although I started making this album not knowing where it would be released.
Can you talk me through the gear you’re working with now?
It’s not very impressive, really – the album’s pretty much the Prophecy and a laptop. Although I used a Roland Jupiter 6 on the album a little and lots of drum machines, like an old Boss drum machine, the Casio RZ-1 and the Roland SH-09 synth. That’s kind of it. Most of the drums are little sample one-hits which I’ve accumulated over the last 15 years or so, which I love to play with. Then everything’s recorded through cassette, which is why Providence sounds quite dusty, especially compared to just playing with a Korg straight into an amp.
So you record all your synth parts onto cassette first?
Yeah, I’ve done that for years, recorded onto cassette then back into the computer. It really adds an organic edge to things. The reason I started doing it was because I used softsynths—this was a long time ago—and I wanted to try and make them sound more analog. It gives the sound a bit of wobble, and with drums it just sounds amazing. I have all these different tape recorders that sound quite different to each other, so I’ll use one for drums because it’ll make the hi-hats break up nicely, or distorts the low end. Then I’ve got another one where it’s really wobbly and adds a weird phasing to synth sounds.
The synths on Providence have a liturgical quality, like they could be played in a church—is there a spiritual link for you?
The album kind of explores that. I mean, the traditional meaning for the word providence is “divine guidance” or “knowledge”, and I’m an atheist so it’s nothing to do with that. I guess it sounds a bit wanky [laughs] but music is a very human thing that can affect people’s emotions inexplicably. So there definitely is a spiritual side to it, yeah. That’s what I believe music is. It’s obviously some in-built human thing that stirs up emotions for whatever reason.
Outside of your own work, what kind of music stirs up those emotions in you?
All kinds of stuff. There’s the obvious, emotive stuff like Mogwai and Tim Hecker, but also music that’s just out on its own like Autechre—who are probably my favourite artists of all time. I mean, everything they’ve ever done is just fucking genius. I saw them live and the show is quite heavy—at least it was at the time—but I was welling up, because there’s nothing else on earth like their music. Although I think if I played it to my mum she’d be like, “Ugh, that’s horrible.” But for me it’s so human.
This album mark your first collaboration with another artist. What was that like after years of working alone?
It was really good. Dominick [Prurient] and I had hung out a few times after playing at the same festivals, but when I first met him I didn’t have any clue that he’d be into my music. Then he approached me while I was playing a Ninja Tune party in New York, and was like, “I should do some vocals for you.” Obviously I thought that would be amazing, but I didn’t know how it was going to work out.
And that ended up as ‘Degreelessness’?
Yeah, I used one of his older tracks [‘Time’s Arrow’] as reference. On that he’s just kind of speaking, and it leads into a repeated phrase and I was like, “Why don’t you do something like that?” Dominick sent me back his vocals and it was perfect—a lot of it’s quite muffled, because the track is so dense, but the fact that there’s this mumbling voice on there adds an extra human dimension.
You also worked with Raphaelle from Braids on the track ‘RVK’. Her the vocal arrives really late in the mix and surprises me every time. How did that come together?
I said to her, “Don’t write a song, just think of something to sing,” so she repeated the same phrase over and over and sent it back with the reverb already attached. It sounded great, so I just shoved it straight in the track. We did the radio edit for the release and the label, or my manager, said, “Maybe we should add some vocals in the first half?” [Laughs] But I like the album version, it’s so different from anything I’ve done before. I was a bit worried my fans would be like, “What the fuck’s this?” It says ‘featuring Raphaelle’ so people will just be waiting for a vocal to drop.
You seem at home composing by yourself. Do you ever find it an isolating experience, or would you have been quite happy to make this record alone?
I don’t think I would have initiated a collaboration—especially with a guy like Dominick—because while I really love his music, I assumed he wouldn’t want to collaborate with someone like me. A lot of artists seem to collaborate effortlessly, regularly working with people, and I’m definitely up for it in the future but it’ll have to be an organic process rather than, “I want to work with this singer.” I’m just so used to being on my own, so it was nice how this all happened so naturally.
Providence definitely feels like a leap forward. Are you happy with how your music has developed?
Yeah. My first album came out 11 years ago, and back then I didn’t know whether I’d still be making music 10 years later. It’s like with Autechre, they seem to have got very deep into the technical side of things, but there’s also a human side to their stark electronic sound. I guess I’ve always just wanted to explore melody and chords and that’s basically what music’s all about: continuing being inspired by things.