How To Be Dark by Embracing Joy: A Metavari Story

With his ambitious, visceral, and perspective-refining musical project, Metavari, Nate Utesch has weathered existential shifts in himself and his project as he’s shepherded it to the engaging electronic musical force it is today.

His journey has allowed him to take on the power of myth. He’s had to disabuse himself of a rather pernicious belief that seems to encompass so many musicians, writers, painters, and other artists.

“For many years I thought that pain and suffering led to the deepest, most rewarding creativity,” Utesch told Vehlinggo recently in a lengthy email exchange from his home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “As an ambassador of the strange and a composer who tinges towards darkness, I assumed that surely I needed to write in a vacuum of torture. But I could not have gotten this more upside down and backwards.”

Metavari turns 10 this year and the multifaceted and expansive synth-driven, largely solo project is entirely different from the five-piece post-rock outfit of the first third of its life. Today, Utesch’s project releases on labels such as One Way Static and Light in the Attic and is a contemporary of the likes of Makeup and Vanity Set, Le Matos, Antoni Maiovvi, and Graham Reznick in musicality and scope of vision. (In fact, Utesch will join MAVS this June for a seven-inch split releasing on Mind Over Matter Records.)

“… I assumed that surely I needed to write in a vacuum of torture.”

But to get here — to get to a place where he’s released the phenomenal Symmetri and companion EP Tetra A.D., and toured an intensely riveting rescore of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — Utesch had to embrace certain shifting realities and philosophies.

Metavari Symmetri
Nate Utesch (Metavari). Photo by Evan Perigo.


“I may be a dude who loves gloom and doom, but I never knew how raw and how dark Metavari was able to be until I started embracing joy,” Utesch said. “The happier I am, the better I am at creating the work that makes me happy.”

It’s a powerful idea: That the more you suffer, the less you really create, or, as Utesch puts it, “negativity is the enemy of creativity.”

Perhaps this is what makes Metavari such a compelling project: It can reach points that are abrasive and unsettling, as heard on songs such as “Witchhunt” or “Assemblé en Miroir II,” but the listener is able to embrace the catharsis feeling a sense of safety. After all, there’s hope woven into the fabric. Of course, there are also the songs that are inherently hopeful, such as “Hymns” and “Awake as One.”

“… I never knew how raw and how dark Metavari was able to be until I started embracing joy.”

“An artist who can embrace the abstract, brave confusion, and be inspired by hope — even if it’s hidden at the edges — is a force to be reckoned with,” he says.

A Nice Midwestern Boy

Utesch was born in the early 1980s, and but for a brief stint in Southern California, was raised in Illinois and Indiana. He still lives in Indiana, where he works as one-half of the art department at the Secretly Group, designing album covers and related things for releases on Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, and Dead Oceans. (He also recently did that superb and angelic poster for The Smashing Pumpkins’ reunion tour.)

He was raised in what he calls a “fairly lax movie-watching environment” that made his house the go-to spot for watching late-night horror and sci-fi rentals on the weekends (we all had friends like this, or perhaps we were these friends).

“I have been… a connoisseur of the strange, tenfold.”

“Now riddled with nostalgia, I realize I pummeled my childhood with quirky, odd-ball films that often employed ‘synthesizer music’ over something more traditional just simply due to budget,” Utesch says. “The untouchable quality that a synthesizer has over a young person with a limited understanding of music made those sounds absolutely mesmerizing. I have been infatuated with film and film scores ever since — a connoisseur of the strange, tenfold.”

His home life was one that fostered an artistic path, perhaps because of the life trajectory of his mother and father. His parents are both a fascinating dichotomy of artist-meets-healthcare-professional. His dad is a musician-turned-psychologist and his mom a commercial artist-turned-occupational therapist.

“There’s a joke or a story in there somewhere, I’m sure, since the careers that didn’t pan out for either of them ended up being mine,” Utesch points out.

As with so many professional artists, Utesch was exposed to some type of musical education early on. His mom taught him rudimentary piano lessons when he was five, and throughout his childhood his family kept a piano in the house.

“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 all things ‘keys’,” he says.

He started out as a fan of metal — that’s what made Utesch want to get into music in the first place.

“The number of punk and metal bands I was in during my adolescence is staggering,” he said. “In fact, just weeks before the conception of Metavari, I auditioned to be the vocalist in a hardcore metal band — and failed miserably.”

The metal band he auditioned for is one of those types that has a synth player. In this case, it was Ty Brinneman, who ended up becoming the bassist in the first incarnation of Metavari — and still plays bass for Metavari at shows even today.

Metavari live
Metavari’s live crew consists of main member Nate Utesch (foreground) and Ty Brinneman (background).


The thing about electronic music is that it can be pretty incomprehensible even to people who live in the genre, so imagine what it’s like for a kid whose first foray into music is metal. So, too, in the film score composer realm: the barrier seemed pretty high as to be inscrutable.

“I barely knew the names of composers who created the scores to the films I loved so dearly,” Utesch says. “I could have almost perceived them as machines designed to create the music.”

But over time Utesch started seeing the same names over and over again — the very people who’d inspire him so much and whose musical spirit he’d, in a sense, integrate with his own.

“… I owe my life to Richard D. James/Aphex Twin.”

“The machines came to life and became my heroes,” he says. “All the usual suspects sit at the top of the list for me: John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, Goblin and Claudio Simonetti, Angelo Badalamenti, Vangelis, Wendy Carlos, on and on.”

Outside of those composers, Utesch found early inspiration from a variety of electronic musicians whose character has left a mark on the Metavari project: Jean-Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk, Boards of Canada, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Telefon Tel Aviv, Ministry, “and the man I owe my life to: Richard D. James/Aphex Twin.”

A Post-Rock Past

Let’s skip ahead a bit to 2008. “A New Hope” in the form of Barack Obama was on the horizon. Yours truly was variously in a shoddy apartment on Hennepin Avenue in Uptown, huddled over crappy computer listening to Crystal Castles, or camping somewhere in the Mojave Desert. David “College” Grellier was preparing to release his scene-defining debut album, Secret Diary. And Utesch and four close friends were making music in a basement in Indiana.

They were an interesting bunch. Of the five, they all had their various musical proclivities: three were into synths and gear and such; three were guitarists; two were into the production side; two were metal heads; and exactly zero could sing worth a damn.

“What came out ended up being very inspired by the post-rock genre, but from day one has still always incorporated synthesizers, sequencing, and live visuals,” Utesch asserts. “As I became more confident as a producer and an electronic musician, Metavari became more synth-heavy/electronic-minded.”

The result was 2009’s Be One of Us and Hear No Noise, a tight but potent 10-cut debut that featured engaging ruminations such as “The Priest, the Shore, and the Wait” and “Maedchen,” along with catchy cuts such as “Pacific Lights.”

Over the course of about four years, they played many shows as they built a name for themselves, despite the various members having other obligations, such as work and family. By 2012, there were four members and a shift in sound and personnel was on the horizon.

They were setting out to write their sophomore full-length album, which would have marked their fourth total release. Utesch was eager to dive deeper into the realm of electronic composition, but his desire to transition genres ran up against more traditional and formidable foes: time and space.   

“I think it took two years for us to come to terms with the fact that we weren’t witnessing a ‘busy season,’ but we were evolving into something new.”

“…It became harder and harder to get all of us in the same room,” he says. “We weren’t at odds with each other. [The others] had busy lives, kids, and careers that pulled them away from the writing process.”

Moonless

“I think it took two years for us to come to terms with the fact that we weren’t witnessing a ‘busy season,’ but we were evolving into something new,” Utesch continued. “And then when I realized I was the only one left, it took another year for me to re-focus and finish the record.”

The album, Moonless, supported by a Kickstarter campaign, wouldn’t manifest until 2015. In that three-year span between 2012 and 2015, Utesch was excited to be going down a different path with the Metavari project, but was still holding out hope that the “busy season” was just that: a season, which can come and go. There were hints that this was the case. Utesch co-wrote three songs on Moonless with Metavari’s guitarist and two other songs that would eventually feature on the album had instrumentation from the other members. It was the kind of little things that instill hope in someone who nevertheless knows that deep down some change is afoot. In fact, they all even played some shows together to support that album. But deep down, a person knows.

metavari-moonless

“… Pretty quickly it became clear that I had two options: take a step back and let Metavari be a casual affair with old friends, or acknowledge the loss of the band and embrace where we were headed,” Utesch says. “I opted for the latter.”

Moonless is a really fascinating album, one with some true gems on it, such as the kinetic “Awake as One” and “Hold the Night.” But its provenance as a record borne of a time of transition stands out to Utesch this many years later, because of the soft focus it has.

“Looking back, Moonless feels a bit scattered to me,” he says. “I was constantly sorting out how the four of us might perform those songs live and what our roles would be, but also intentionally sequencing all the percussion in case this was the end of live drums for us. It was the introduction of vocals, saxophone, and some very synth-poppy sensibilities on a Metavari record.”

“’Moonless’ needed to happen the way it did so that I could move forward into where Metavari is now.”

“There’s so much I should have considered regarding where to take Moonless, sonically, but I think I became distracted by everything happening behind the scenes,” he continued. “All that [is] to say, Moonless needed to happen the way it did so that I could move forward into where Metavari is now.”  

Metamorphosis

When you change the sound or approach of a musical project — say, you take a multi-member post-rock outfit and turn it into a mostly solo electronic one — you expect there to be a bit of a bumpy road during the transition. That said, you never really know if anyone is going to be too put off by it. In the case of Metavari, the outcome was nuanced.

Utesch thought that because Metavari wasn’t on a major label or wasn’t landing those sweet, sweet “big” support tours, they weren’t really “discovered.” He thought he could drastically change the band’s sound and get away with it.

“Looking back, this assumption was a little absurd,” Utesch says. “Especially considering by the time Moonless came out, we had played hundreds of shows across the country.”

Sure, Metavari hadn’t “made it” in the sense some might attach to measuring success, but they certainly had a fan base. And that fan base has made their perspective known:

“I prefer your old records” was a “regular email in my inbox for most of 2015,” Utesch said.

“I prefer your old records was a regular email in my inbox for most of 2015.”

Now, we find Metavari in a fascinating place. Utesch has the coattails of a decade-old musical project, in terms of booking tours and support slots, but Metavari has also felt new for the past three years because of the paradigm shift in composition and approach. It’s not a bad a place in which to exist, but it has its challenges.

metavari-metropolis

Metavari on the Fritz

With the release of Moonless in the rearview, an opportunity would arise that would change the course of the Metavari project. It was late 2015 and Cinema Center, the art-house movie theatre in Fort Wayne, had asked Metavari to be a part of a concert series in which artists would rescore silent films and perform their creations live. It’s a cool idea that ups the ante on the traditional in-house cinema organist that used to support silent pictures.

For Utesch, Metropolis was the obvious choice. Fritz Lang’s profoundly influential 1927 sci-fi film was decades ahead of its time and lends itself well to a rescore at the hands of a highly visual and sonically gifted artist such as Utesch.

“The better part of the following year was spent writing the score,” he said. Why a year? Because this shit’s hard. “The writing process was by far the largest undertaking I’ve ever been a part of.”

Early on, Utesch decided to tackle Metropolis in a fashion that resembled the composition of his favorite soundtracks: stretches of “sweeping soundscapes and ambient composition” juxtaposed with shorter traditional songs. That type of coverage was particularly crucial for this particular film, because it’s silent.

“… I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get a breather during long stretches of dialogue or natural sound from the film itself,” Utesch says. “So weaving in and out of ‘songs’ versus ‘scoring’ was the earliest bullet point on what I wanted to accomplish.”

A task of this magnitude requires meticulous planning, and Utesch was up to the challenge. He put together a spreadsheet that tracked the film minute-by-minute, cataloging the tonal and mood shifts in scenes and making a pointed effort to track all the recurring themes.

In terms of the instruments he used, Utesch leaned heavy on a 1981 ARP Odyssey Mark III and a 1982 LinnDrum for almost all of the drum sequencing. He also used sparse live drums, an alto saxophone, and his own vocals.

He would go on to perform it live for the Cinema Center series as part of National Art House Theater Day at the end of 2016. From there, he’d tour Metropolis to seven, primarily Midwestern, locales.

“Performing the score live feels so incredibly special to me,” Utesch says. “It’s probably arrogant for me to say that about my own music, but playing the entire work in front of a seated, captivated audience is so different than what I am use to — different than I think what a lot of people have seen.”

“Working on the music was so personal for me that being able to show it to people face-to-face is always an emotional experience,” he continued.

He’s since received offers for more shows and screenings of Metropolis in places in the U.S. such as Indianapolis, Denver, and Portland, Oregon; in addition to Germany.

“Working on the music was so personal for me that being able to show it to people face-to-face is always an emotional experience.”

The latter wasn’t the only instance of Europe calling. In “what seemed like a blink of an eye,” Utesch says, the inimitable One Way Static Records released Metavari’s Metropolis as an official Record Store Day 2017 release — with the excellent Light in the Attic Records taking on the American market. (For those who don’t know, Light in the Attic has a formidable distribution arm that allows dozens of independent and obscure labels to reach a wide audience.)

Divine Symmetri and a ‘Dark Season’

One Way Static’s christening of the brilliant Metropolis rescore helped define 2017 as a pivotal year for Utesch’s project, but for Utesch himself it was a very complicated time. It was one that would try intensely his aforementioned philosophy that he didn’t have to suffer.

Last year, Utesch embarked on the quest to finish Symmetri, which had new material and some reworks of certain Metropolis fare. Symmetri is a divine masterpiece, especially the deluxe edition that includes exquisite remixes courtesy of the likes of Antoni Maiovvi, Makeup and Vanity Set, and Sarah Davachi.

Impose Magazine, which premiered the Metropolis/Symmetri cut “Indigo,” referred to that song as coming off like a worn out VHS tape and praised its use of “fun, upbeat ‘80s synth.”

Symmetri certainly does resonate in a way that in part recalls both darker and lighter elements of ‘80s compositions from Carpenter and Hughes films, but the work tends to function more in the nostalgic realm of M83 than in something more overtly retro. Additionally, the atypical arrangements often evoke the otherwordly sentiments of Oneohtrix Point Never.

Metavari - Symmetri
‘Symmetri ‘ cover.


Tony Giles, the head of
The Damn Fine Network, lauded Symmetri as a potent example of the artistic ethic of Utesch’s project.

“In a music scene that seems to change on a daily basis, Metavari are always one step ahead,” Giles said.  

Although it was released after Metropolis, some of the cuts date back to that Moonless tour that Utesch and Brinneman did in mid- to late-2015, according to Utesch.

“When the opportunity to work on Metropolis came down the pike, I decided to create the records in tandem,” he said. “The movie was used as a guide to build material for both — evolving Symmetri into what would become Metropolis.”

As you can see, while not a true chicken-egg puzzle, the relationship between the two is inextricably linked in a way in which provenance isn’t always clear cut.

“People have asked if Symmetri is sort of a ‘greatest hits’ from Metropolis, but in fact it’s actually the material that was intended to be released first,” Utesch says. “If anything, Metropolis is Symmetri Expanded. But of course it’s easier to explain that Symmetri is a stand-alone edit.”

Over the course of creating Symmetri and Metropolis, Utesch and his wife experienced something truly horrible that would indeed bring out a level of pain and suffering many can’t fathom. If you’ve listened to the records and were struck by the deeply human nature of the electronic sounds, there’s a reason for it.

“My wife and I experienced a miscarried pregnancy, and it sent me into an incredibly dark season,” he says.

“Watching my wife’s bravery and staring down those dark moments dead in the eyes — knowing there was hope somewhere in it — gave me a very different perspective on happiness,” Utesch says. “It massively shaped the way those records were created.”

“This is how the story of these records ends? I am so lucky.”

Amid a trial of that magnitude, finding joy for Utesch wasn’t easy, but he felt it was important.

“Within months of finishing Symmetri, we gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” he said. “I remember mixing and composing the last of it with my son in my arms thinking, ‘Holy shit, this is how the story of these records ends? I am so lucky’.”

The year 2017 brought one more release from Metavari, an EP entitled Tetra A.D. released on Mind Over Matter Records. It contains the original, extended version of “Tetraheathen” from Symmetri and a shorter version of “Tetrafugue” from Metropolis. It has also three songs built from an outtake from the “New Tower” scenes in Metropolis and a 50-second Paul McCartney cover.

“I’m pretty floored at the reception that the music from 2017 has received,” Utesch says. “Metavari isn’t the type of act that gets a lot of high-profile reviews and ends up in year-end lists, so if we normalize our expectations on that curve, then I can quickly say that Symmetri has garnished more attention than anything previous.”

The Arts United Center in Fort Wayne gave Metavari an Artist of the Year award for Utesch’s work on Metropolis and, he says, “I still can’t believe I was somehow in the running.”

Overall, the trifecta, shaped by Metropolis and magnified by Symmetri, has marked a huge turning point for Utesch and a testament of the power of his artistic steadfastness.

“It’ll always ‘sound’ like Metavari, so long as I pull from the tangled mess that brought me here.”

“When I am writing, I almost never stop to think about how it falls into the rest of the catalog or ask myself ‘Does this sound like Metavari?’,” Utesch says. “This is a bit trite, but I think that it’ll always ‘sound’ like Metavari, so long as I pull from the tangled mess that brought me here.”

And in the course of events, Utesch has finally reached some milestones heretofore untouched.

Symmetri was Metavari’s first internationally distributed record after nearly 10 years and seven releases into this project,” Utesch says. “That may not be the best batting average for releasing music widely into the world, but I have a punk ethos instilled in me. I’m fully prepared to do this down at the bottom of the ocean if she’ll have me!”

Keep the Balance Right

With the pronounced peaks and valleys of 2017 in the rearview, Utesch is looking at a busy 2018 and a hopeful future.

“Releasing three records and having a baby in one year was unreal,” he said. “I work from a home studio, which has lessened the blow on those growing pains, but my biggest goal this year is to find a balance between work, home, and music that is sane and healthy.”

There’s a 7-inch split with Makeup and Vanity Set coming in June from Mind Over Matter. Plus, there’s a new song and some original art coming out later this year on a cassette/zine in Portland, Oregon, called Delay /// Decay. Then he has two undisclosed remixes due for artists this spring. Another rescore project is on the horizon, too, although he’s mum the details.

In addition, Utesch is producing some tracks for an LA-based songwriter, marking the first time he’s produced something that wasn’t tied to Metavari “and it’s really stretching me,” he says.

Perhaps the most ambitious project for Metavari’s 10th anniversary is Utesch’s reworking of Ambling, the first Metavari EP. He says he’s “attempting to take nimble, electro-acoustic post-rock and turn it into loud, industrial-inspired electronica.”

“I’m nervous to even announce that in fear of not getting it done this year, but maybe that will hold me accountable,” he said.

“… My mind has built a grotesque collage…”

Utesch is certainly free to operate at his own pace, even if we find the ceremonial nature of a 10th birthday fulfilling. Through periods of immense change, despair, and ultimately, hope, he has been able to craft music that is inherently meaningful and exponentially intriguing.

“This may be more typical than I realize, but I consistently feel like I am making this whole thing up as I go,” Utesch says. “With no real professional training and a tragically underwhelming knowledge of electronic genres, my mind has built a grotesque collage of what Metavari looks and sounds like.”

Furthermore, he says, “I could not be a stronger advocate for the abstract and the obscured: The idea that the process of creation is riddled with confusion and we each have a bizarre and twisted path to follow that gets us on the other side holding something we’re proud of.”

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