PODCAST | 17 October 2019
Photos, Text & Interview: Martin Hufnagel
Nathan Micay and our editor-in-chief Martin met at his apartment in Berlin and talked about his beginnings, playing support for Skrillex, living a healthy lifestyle, being a personal trainer for his DJ colleagues, moving to Berlin and, of course, his latest releases.
Listen to our full conversation on The Wasted Hour Podcast
One of the best parts of going out is discovering new music. A DJ you’ve never seen before is playing records that you’ve you never heard and sparks this sensational feeling. That's something we chase all the time. Back home, you google his name, then dive into the DJ’s catalogue and explore a whole new world of records and references.
That’s what happened a while ago, when I heard Nathan Micay play at Berghain’s Panorama Bar. In his set, he sprinkled in catchy, almost cheesy melodies that made me dance and smile (the same for the major part of the dance floor, too). So, I met with Nathan at his apartment in Berlin to chat to him for a bit.
Nathan has been a regular at Panorama Bar since his first gig there almost 4 years ago. Nd_Baumecker was responsible for his first booking there in June 2015. 'I think we bonded over our love for trance and not being afraid to play cheesy things', says Nathan.
He grew up and lived in Toronto, but decided at short notice to move to Germany’s capital after an offer to play at Panorama Bar and Fabric. 'It’s probably the most spontaneous thing I’ve done in my whole life. I lived on a guy’s couch for like 6 weeks, which was kind of terrifying but it all worked out. I was 24, and I had no money at all, and I had to work all these weird jobs under the table and it was very scary.'
Of course, the offer to play at one of the most well-known nightclubs didn’t come out of nowhere. At this point he had already made a name for himself as a DJ and a producer of electronic music, after his discovery of the genre. It was in 2008 in Israel when Nathan heard dubstep for the first time. 'I didn’t really know what it was but I heard it and was like, "What is this?!"' Back in Toronto, a friend also introduced him to jungle, and Nathan took a deep dive into the enormous pool of electronic music. Strongly inspired, he combined his passion for that new-found music and his musical knowledge to start producing on his own.
Nathan Micay, 'Ecstasy Is on Maple Mountain'
At a young age, Nathan was 'forced' to learn classical instruments like piano ('I hated it!') and violin, so when he started producing, he already had a basic knowledge of chords and harmonies. His mother still jokes that he can pick up an instrument and figure it out in 2 days.
In the course of our conversation, it became clear to me that Nathan is driven, very focused on the stuff that he’s doing and not afraid to work hard. The combination of all that is a possible explanation why just a few years after his start, he was playing in front of 3000 people in Montreal and was asked to support Skrillex for his tour.
'I was living in England during my third year at university, and my agent at that time said, "Hey, do you want to open for Skrillex? They pay well and it could be fun."' After the first night already, Skrillex complimented Nathan on his closing track ('Flim' by Aphex Twin). However, the crowd wasn't pleased with his style and selection of songs, so he left the tour after just 2 dates. 'The first night was at this thing called Elita Festival in Milan. It was brutal. Obviously, I packed a lot of dub-step stuff, which I like, and I thought I could maybe play original sounding stuff, and they would like it, but they didn’t. People were booing and throwing stuff… It was a good learning experience for me, but it was tough.'
Nathan’s motivation didn’t suffer from his short tenure as a support act for Skrillex, but another incident forced him to take a step back. While on a university exchange program in England, on his way home one night, he was beaten with a length of pipe and robbed. The resulting migraines and headaches that he experienced when working on the computer were so bad that playing live wasn’t an option and producing went out the window. To help getting back on track, Nathan used the time to broaden his musical knowledge, not only electronic genres: 'At that time I also discovered trance, and that really took over my life.'
When I visited him at this apartment in Berlin, he opened the door wearing a Mobb Deep long sleeve and calls '93 till Infinity' his summer song. Talking about monumental albums, he also mentions Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon.
So, when he eventually came back and started to produce new music, his sound had obviously changed. Labels like ESP and Whities released his new EPs, and he also changed his name from FKA Bwana to Nathan Micay.
In 2019, he released his first album Blue Spring on LuckyMe, accompanied by a complete story and a comic book, followed by an EP.
What’s the difference for him between making an album or an EP? 'I put a lot of pressure on myself. I’m not the type of person who’s going to put out an album of songs. So we made a comic book, and I wrote a story, and we made all this artwork. It had to be a concept, so I had to make a story. With an EP it’s dance music, you make it for the DJs to play.'
The album is inspired by the Castle Morton Festival, an illegal rave that was held in the UK in 1992 and resulted in some draconian laws that affect the scene in England until this day. 'When I started doing it, the world was really starting to get to where we are now. Crazy people being elected, parties being cancelled and crack-downs from governments. I started to find parallels in that and what was happening in England in the early 90s.'
With this concept Nathan avoids the classic trap of an electronic or dance music album. 'We’re so used to making functional music that when you put out an album… nobody has the time or the need for eleven club tracks. That’s why so many of them fail. And when people start to realise that this is gonna fail they say, "What if I use a bunch of vocalists to sing over club tracks so they seem less like club tracks?" But for me that’s still not going to work.'
It took 2 attempts (which means 2 fully produced albums that will probably never see the light of the day), until he was satisfied with the result. With another EP coming out, running 2 labels (for example, a re-issue label called Schvitz, which donates all its income to charity), teaching Ableton to refugees, and playing live, it’s no surprise that Nathan doesn’t sleep a lot. Yet, he has followed a healthy lifestyle since his freshman year at college. 'When I went to university, I was an art student, so I had a lot of spare time because you have to do so much reading. And my school had a really nice gym, and I really got into it. The more research I did about diet and nutrition, the more I realised it’s hard to balance that with drinking.'
He lifts weights 3 times a week, does a lot of cardio, runs a personal trainer programme for other DJs, and avoids drinking alcohol - all factors that earned him the reputation of being 'the healthy DJ'. Nathan says, 'I should clarify. I’ll have a drink, and I’m not never drinking, I just don’t get really drunk a lot. I think I just don’t see the point.'
DJs are the centre of many parties, they’re constantly travelling, and are thrown into an intense atmosphere several times a week. While this sounded like a dream come true to me at another time, I can now comprehend the effort and the effects it has on your body and mind. More and more colleagues approach him and after asking, 'How do you do it?', they seek advice from him. Following a healthy lifestyle and diet is something that has come into consciousness for a lot of DJs. Pictures of artists doing sports, eating healthily or taking time off are part of their Instagram feed, along with a short video of them closing their set. 'I think the Avicii thing changed it for people... Things like this shed light on real issues. Other DJs see it, and they think that’s something they can easily avoid.'
Going to the gym or working out any other way is Nathan’s way of taking care of himself. 'If you can work out, it’ll raise your endorphin levels, it’s a natural serotonin maker. It just seems like an easy solution for a lot of the problems that people talk about.'