Cover Story: Nathan Micay is Building Universes, and Fighting
For The Rave
Nathan Micay’s artistic history goes back almost 10 years, and has touched multiple points in the electronic community. Originally from Toronto, Micay first started making music and performing under the Bwana alias. He ended up touring with Skrillex, releasing on Diplo’s Mad Decent imprint, and his records were played out by the likes of Sasha. After a series of seriously-well received releases on Aus Music, Micay delivered what was to be one of his final releases under the Bwana alias — a conceptual record based upon the Manga film Akira, released as a free EP through the Scottish label LuckyMe. Capsule’s Pride was a surprise to most; a swing to the right, acting as another wide deviation in his career trajectory. Yet, as an abstract body of work, it totally worked in capturing the mood and emotion of the film, all set within the framework on an electronic music record. It also acted as segway into the next step of his career — moving to Berlin, changing his artist name, and releasing his debut LP — an even more radical, conceptual, gleamingly brilliant record.
Upon meeting Micay in Berlin, I was struck by his physical presence. Although he says he’s not as bulky as he used to be, his build and physique is more than admirable. Across his career as a producer, his regiment towards fitness and strength has remained a constant, counterbalancing the areas of his life that have remained in flux, like where he lives or the type of music he makes.
A few days prior to our chat, Micay DJed at Berlin’s Panorama Bar, a club that has become one of his staples within Europe. Micay’s musical creativity and diversity is reflected more and more in his DJ sets. And as we settle into our conversation he divulges into some of the “tricks” he pulled off over the weekend. “I played a couple of EDM things, not pure EDM, but cheesy big drum things that worked really well,” he says. It’s something he thinks Berlin crowds — who, it could be said, once held a tyrannical attitude towards DJs deviating from techno and house — are becoming more open to. “At first I used to play a lot of trance, and a lot of people on the Panorama Bar Facebook groups were commenting on it. But I now I feel like people are more open to it.”
Taking it a step further, Micay also researches old club charts of Germany to see what records were once popular. He says it installs a certain sense of nostalgia in the older audience members, which is an intrinsic part of his artistic character. One such track he discovered while digging away, was Enya’s “Only Time”, a number one hit in Germany from 2000. “I played it at Panorama Bar in August,” he explains. “I thought it wouldn’t work, but it really did.”
For over a year now Micay has been running three of his own labels; the limited-edition vinyl only Schwitz Edits imprint, Schwitz Eternal (again, vinyl only), which re-issues long lost rave epics, and Original Schvitz, a label for his creative, urgent dance productions. The revenues from each label are divided between separate charities of Micay’s choice. With the Edits series, the revenues from each release go to a different LGBTQ charity, the latest of which have been attributed to India’s Humsafar Trust. “With Eternal Schwitz, 60 percent of the total goes to the artist, because I feel like they weren’t being paid enough from the original, and then the remaining 40 goes to aequa, this community support group in Berlin that fosters learning environments for women and transgenders, run by my friend Sarah Lynch.”
The revenue from Original Schwitz goes to a local Berlin organisation called Give Something Back to Berlin, a community platform that aims to connect migrants and refugees with locals to help foster community integration. Not only does Micay support the project with the revenue from his records, but after being asked whilst playing a benefit party, he is now also teaching music production at the organisation’s school. “They keep asking me back,” he says proudly. “I’ve also been teaching them about running a record label, and last week I was asked to teach about finances as a DJ, which I’ve also had quite a few big DJs hit me up about.”
When it comes to running his labels, aside from actually delivering vinyl to the record shops, Micay has his hands in all day-to-day aspects — like licensing the tracks, producing or remixing music, and creating the artwork, which he designs with the help of his brother. Sometimes, he even does his own press. “My management sometimes say I go a bit overboard, but I mean, it’s a mixture of curiosity to learn every process. If I ever want to do something outside of DJing it’s good to understand the whole thing.” It’s perhaps not surprising that he’s become so skilled at accounting that other artists are asking for help. “I have my hands in a lot of things. I guess it’s an ego thing to say, ‘I know that I’m capable of doing it, so why make someone else do it?’ It’s the same thing with the money aspect of this job. My accountant, I want him to do little as he has to do. I think a lot of people get caught up in the artistry side of what we do, which is great, but you still can’t ignore it.”
Micay is clearly a person who likes to take responsibility and control over many aspects of his life and work. But that isn’t to say he’s a control freak or an obsessive. He shows a great degree of versatility, applying himself to any challenges that come his way. “It’s how I was raised by my parents. They were like, ‘if you can do something, then do it yourself.’ I forget that if you’re paying someone to do their job, then let them do their job.”
But at what point does it all start to take its toll? Along with releasing his debut album, running several labels, producing, remixing, and everything else, Micay played around 60 shows last year, including tours in Japan, Australia, and the US, making 2019 his busiest year yet. “Last year I did hit my limit for sure,” he laments. “People ask me, and my parents are constantly worried too. The other thing is that I don’t sleep very much either. Not out of necessity but I’m just thinking of things to do, which is a problem.” In other interviews, Micay has stressed the importance of pacing oneself in the DJ business, something he says he’ll focus on for 2020. With no shows scheduled for February, he seems to be putting his ideas into practice. “This year I decided to take it lean. I’m understanding my limits of touring, and it is hard.”
On top of his musical projects, Micay also works as a personal trainer. Nowadays he’s limited his client base to a handful. But in his earlier Berlin days, he was training people — mainly DJs and producers — almost every day. “Coming here, I didn’t know anyone apart from Avalon [Emerson], and even that was through a Twitter .” With no job, no contacts, and his music career not taking ahold as fast as he would have liked, Micay took to what he was good at: staying ripped and keeping in shape. Soon he started getting noticed, with one big techno producer approaching him about training. “He was like, ‘You look like you know what you’re doing.’”
After a while Micay started fostering a community of musicians who were looking for help getting fit and staying healthy. As the conversation surrounding well-being and mental health within the electronic music scene became more prevalent, more and more artists started to turn to Micay to help them train and become better versions of themselves. “It became this thing where a lot of DJs were starting to feel fatigued and like, they wanted to have something else to focus on. So it ended up being this thing that led to mental health gains, bodily gains, whatever. I then had this birthday party in November, and there were like 25 people there, and there were only like two people there who I hadn’t trained.”
One of the many benefits of training, Micay explains, is that training and gym work is something you can always rely on. In a world of uncertainties, where your bookings as a DJ might dry up, or the sure-fire banger you wrote that doesn’t necessarily translate to a wider audience, fitness can remain a constant. “It’s something you can focus on. And as long as your body is capable, you can do fitness, and it’s a goal you can control, whereas music is not.”
Micay applies this tough, holistic approach to all parts of his life, including DJing. Although he admits he’s not much into partying — “and people in Berlin like to party,” he dryly admits — he stresses that he’s “no saint.” “I’ll have the occasional drink, but when I go to Berghain, for instance, I’ll have a ginger beer.” For Micay, it’s important to bring the same amount of energy to each gig, and in order to do that he has to stay on top of things. “For years I’ve treated it like my job. Like, I wouldn’t go to my office job drunk,” he states. Another important aspect is diet; or more importantly, eating. Clubs rarely stock nutritional snacks, and Micay thinks a lot of clubbers don’t eat before going out, due to a fear of getting bloated, which in turn puts stress on the body. But it’s not only the clubbers who might want something to eat. “I see more and more DJs bring snacks in as well. I had snacks at Berghain this weekend; crunchy bars, sunflower seeds and a banana.” He applauds the venues that are taking note of these changing dynamics, particularly ones that are bringing in restaurants and food services to offer to the punters — places like De School, and Ankali in Prague. Food for thought.
Micay’s apartment is adorned with personal artefacts, from times he lived abroad, parties he’s played at or promoted, along with various books on music production. There are also several Japanese anime posters and figurines. Micay’s interest in Japanese culture has long been a part of his life, but it’s something that really started to bloom once he visited the country, elements of which can be heard throughout his work. There’s the Akira concept album, the artwork for Blue Spring by LuckyMe’s Dominic Flannigan, and the odd sample within the productions. Wanting to know more and immerse himself further, Micay started to teach himself Japanese after his first visit, and has continued to do so for the past two years. “I knew a few words when I went there, but then when I was there people were like, well you should learn a few more words,” he recounts. “People there are trying to encourage you to be your best.”
The title for Blue Spring, along with the premise behind the album, came to Micay while on a visit to Japan. Hanging out with a friend, he was asked if he knew what a blue spring was. “It’s when in Japan, there’s an early harvest of tea and there’s a Blue Spring. It’s supposed to make you think of your adolescence.” Researching into the concept further, he started to think about what adolescence means, in particular the differences within Western and Japanese cultures. “Most people in the western world think of your adolescence as being the best time in your life, whereas in Japan it could be anytime in your life.”
The album Blue Spring on was released on LuckyMe in early 2019, and came with bespoke artwork and an accompanying comic book designed by Dominick Flannigan of LuckyMe, and conceptualized by Peter Marsden. The record is built out of a blend of sounds and melodies that evoke feelings of nostalgia, and is a quasi-modern take on early ‘90s rave aesthetics. Conceptually, it was influenced by Castlemorton Common Festival, a free rave that took place in the mid ‘90s, and which ultimately led to the the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, further stigmatising dance music and rave culture in the UK. Blended together in a wildly experimental pastiche of ambient, trance, IDM, and hardcore styles, the sci-fi narrative of the album weaves around a futuristic data miner attending a free rave, which is eventually broken up by futuristic police. Blue Spring, the album’s concept states, “is the start of the revolution.”
Relating the Japanese concept of blue spring to the album’s framework and Castlemorton influence, Micay reflects upon his experiences DJing, and the different type of people he sees from behind the booth.
“In club culture, most people are younger and think that’s the best time in their life. But because I play a lot, I see a lot of older people, and it also seems like it’s the best time in their life as well, like that elderly guy in Berghain who’s always wearing dapper outfits [German style icon, Günther Krabbenhöft]. He always seems like he’s having the best time of his life. I’m sure for the people who were involved in Castlemorton, it was probably a very memorable part of their life too. So we got into asking what’s worth fighting for, and when something in your culture is harder to do, it becomes your blue spring.”
During the making of the record, Micay marks four albums whose relevance, aesthetic and vibe influenced its overall sound palette. “Future Sound of London’s Lifeforms, Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon, Jon Hopkins Immunity, and James Holden’s The Inheritors. All four, whether you like the music or not, are music unto themselves, and that’s what I was going for.”
The album’s sound, while being influenced by pioneering rave music and set in a futuristic dystopia, ends up being something that is totally out-of-time. This out-of-timeness is intrinsic to many of his recent productions, all of which have a prominent sense of timelessness. Take for instance his first Original Schvitz release, four tracks that take cues from classic trance, progressive house, and early rave, while remaining cutting-edge and modern. There’s even a track, “The Canadian Shield,” that pays homage to the legendary Loon sample, so often used by the likes of 808 State and other rave-era production acts. It’s a nostalgic cue for the heads, deep within a track that cuts harder than most others today. It’s an interesting perspective when a young Canadian producer makes a record replete with so many nostalgic prompts that are beyond his years. But then again, as he reminds me during the interview, nostalgia is relative. “I play a lot of gigs where someone in their late 40s will come up to me and say that something brings them back to when they were 20. For them, it’s a whole different thing.”
As we wind down our interview, I discover yet more work and projects Micay has been involved in. Out on the street with the photographer, Micay tells me that he’s a keen banjo player and likes to indulge himself in bluegrass music from time to time — he even played the banjo for a track released on Bullion’s label, DEEK. His background in classical music allowed him to record a strings-only version of Blue Spring that only made it to a limited cassette release. He has his own podcast series that he’s been developing over the past few years called Studio B, in which he interviews people working behind the scenes in the music industry, helping break down barriers for those with a thirst for knowledge. He’s also had his hands in a few film score projects, something he’s looking to invest more time into. “I’ve scored one feature and three shorts, but enough to give me an idea of how it works.”
One of his goals for the forthcoming year is to put together a live show, and bring more organic elements into his work. “It would be amazing if I could get three other performers to do a live string quartet, a bit like Nicolas Jaar does — that would be incredible.” Now that he feels more established and settled down with who he is and what he does, he feels like he can take more risks. “I look up to people like Mica Levi who’ll do music scores, and then do avant garde stuff. Jon Hopkins too, who’ll do some dance music stuff, then he’ll go and work with Coldplay and probably does some film stuff I don’t even know about. It’s this idea of building a universe… I like people who have all these little universes around them.”
World builder, body builder, and more, Micay has managed to open many doors throughout his career. As versatile as he is, however, it’s unlikely he’ll be filing anyone’s taxes for a living, or touring in a bluegrass cover band — just don’t be surprised if he does. “Friends keep telling me I have too many things, but they all feed into the same vehicle. Why limit yourself?”
Dan Cole is a freelance journalist living in Berlin. Find him on Twitter.