Jon Natchez, a multi-instrumentalist (he played eleven instruments on his most recent album,) was dubbed by NPR as the most valuable side man in indie music. Natchez has played for a staggering list of bands including Beirut, Camera Obscura, The Antlers, and Okkervil River. With the band Yellow Ostrich, he seems to have found his place, for now. He also happens to be a highly intelligent, eloquent, and funny person to boot.
We talk to Natchez about his musical development, the idea of a side man, and Yellow Ostrich’s excellent new album, Strange Land, which is out today.
Your resume goes on and on and on. How did you come into music and specifically, how did you grow into this role as an itinerant side man?
I was originally a sax player, and I liked it, but I was just a typical high school kid doing it because it was kind of fun. I was the only kid in my high school that could improvise. People needed me and I played with them. That’s how I joined a band in high school. We never got huge or anything, but we would tour during the summer and play clubs over the country, and I got bit by the bug. From then on I just loved listening and performing, and since it started at a young age, for good and bad it stuck with me.
You know, for a while, I cared more about films. Before I did music my nickname in junior high was Woody Allen, because I was Jewish and loved writing and talking about movies. Then in college, I wrote a bit about movies, and I still love long form literary journalism, but I never wanted to write about music. I just loved playing it.
And after college?
I moved down to New York, and I was doing the classic whole of exploring life options. I did a lot of crappy part time jobs, music here and there, and some freelance writing. All the while, I listened to a lot of soul, R&B and old records, but in terms of what I was playing, I was a jazz snob. In college and then after college I spent a lot of time practicing complex jazz, and I had this belated and small epiphany that I didn’t like playing this stuff. It was a fun challenge, and a great intellectual exercise, but I realized that the music I enjoyed listening to was different than what I played.
I was also listening to more obvious music of the time, i.e. Aeroplane Over the Sea, and all of a sudden, I realized that I wanted to make music in the vein of the stuff I love listening to. The jazz was fast and complex harmonically, but what I listened to was more complex emotionally, and the music had so many different textures.
What was your first stable gig?
I saw this band The Silent League, in 2003/4. It was the era of the polyphonic spree, post Neutral Milk Hotel, and this band had six members, and played emotionally rich music full of unique textures. I approached the band, and I joined up with them, and it became my main thing for a good two years. We had our run, did a couple of tours in England, and put out an album. That was a great chance to experiment in making music I felt connected to, and it was there I learned a lot of new instruments.
How did you find yourself in Beirut?
Well, Zach Condon, he was just getting started. He was this crazy story. He put out this album and never thought anything would happen, just this kid in New Mexico. He never even played live before that album came out, and all of sudden people are interested in hearing him. He moved to New York but his band needed more people, especially horn players, and his manager happened to know me. I had great chemistry with Zach and the band.
How then did you find yourself with Yellow Ostrich for the past year?
Very serendipitously. I was burned out from touring. I was touring with this other band Bishop Allen, and a french band, Herman Dune. I was on the road for 200 days a year. It became too much, especially because every band is its own brand of soap opera. I thought I was done with the touring part of my life. I just wanted to stay in New York and work on random projects, which I was able to do fairly regularly. A few years later, of course, I find myself wanting to be on tour again. And then just randomly, within me weeks of me having that realization, I get a call from my friend Michael Tapper, the drummer in Yellow Ostrich.
How did that first meet-up go?
Almost like a cliche. We went into the practice space, and I knew it would be a great fit, immediately, almost from the first few notes. I felt Alex’s music from the get-go. Michael sent me a copy of the Mistress LP, which was basically Alex recording alone, and I thought that it was very good, but I clearly saw that Alex had grown so much in that short time since he put out The Mistress that I knew Yellow Ostrich could be something great. So three weeks later I was on the road.
What do you find most compelling about the music and the band?
Good question. Many things. My chemistry with this band, for numerous reasons, is the best I’ve yet to experience. I have a very particular philosophy about bands that as much as there needs to be collaboration, the band needs to be built off one voice, metaphorically. A band needs a singular musical vision. With Yellow Ostrich, there’s been a great balance between collaboration and this singular vision.
In the case of Alex, I found his content and musical ideas compelling. People underestimate how hard it is to collaborate, but Michael and Alex make it easier than ever. Philosophy aside, I like the ideas that each person brings to the band. There’s a great balance of creativity and song craft. We are always trying to do something exciting, not just catchy hooks, but also playing with tones and textures.
Finally, it is really fulfilling being part of a trio. I have always been in larger bands of five to 10 people, but being in Yellow Ostrich there’s so much room for all of us to explore together, and they let me try whatever I want to try with different instruments. It is definitely the most challenging band I’ve been with, just physically, and in terms of the sheer number of instruments I get play around with.
One of the more interesting aspects of Yellow Ostrich is how quick and clear the evolution of Alex Schaaf has progressed, for everyone to see. What do you think of his evolution as an artist?
One of the things that’s been so great is to see Alex’s growth as an artist. He’s much younger than Michael and I, so much so that when I wanted to join the band, I worried if I could work with a 25 year old, but Alex is so incredibly mature and enjoyable to work with, both in terms of personality and his music. I generally shy away from the word maturity, but seeing him mature as an artist is amazing, just how fast it happens.
Another thing about being in a band that can get grating is that the pace can get excruciating. It can take four years to put out a record, and some artists never want to just release songs into the world that aren’t “perfect” in their eyes. But Alex and now Yellow Ostrich is all about working on something in the moment, taking the excitement of an idea and then constantly developing things as we go along. People don’t always realize that he has this whole back catalog. He would never play those old songs, but he’s thrilled he put it out there. For us, it’s not some Platonic ideal we strive for, but a creative process in flux. All three of us are very restless, which is another way we get along with each other.
Do you feel a tension between the more side man component of your career and a desire to be part of a distinct band?
I do have split personalities as a musician. I love the idea of being a side man. I romanticize the players of the 50s and 60s. These people saw music as a craft. It wasn’t just this precious muse to be kowtowed. You worked hard and played well. I loved the idea of bringing my own personal touch to something that isn’t mine. To me, there’s something noble and romantic about a side man, you get called in, you come to the studio, and leave. It’s stimulating and exciting to work on different music each day.
At the same time, artistically, and creatively, it’s obviously more rewarding to be part of a long term project. With Yellow Ostrich, I do feel apart of something that I know to contain great potential, and it is differently exciting.
How are you feeling about the band and record right now?
Sounds completely dick-headed, but I love this record. We spent the perfect amount of time on this record. We recorded quickly, but not too quickly. We recorded them in just about a week, and now we’re excited to see how they develop live, and we are already looking towards new ideas. I imagine though, that for the next album we will spend more time on in the studio, let it evolve more gradually. However, for Strange Land, there was just a restless excitement at the initial stages of the trio coming together, of where we are right now, and how much we enjoy playing together.