By Kelly King
Nate Morton is one of the most highly visible yet covert drummers via his gig on NBC’s The Voice. He’s captured a host of fans due to his deep pocket and exciting visual style. Those of us who know him realize that this is simply who Nate is at his core, deep and dynamic. It’s surprising that anyone not involved with The Voice gets to know him because the show has been relentlessly producing seasons since 2011, seventeen so far and going strong. Continuous work is the greatest proof that you are doing something right, even more than awards. Even so, the show has received a number of Primetime Emmys, powered by their incredible house band with Morton as the engine propelling it. While his “day gig” is playing pop songs for millions of viewers and emerging talent, Nate is fond of stretching out when the opportunity affords. When he mentioned his new recording project Fraudprophets, it seemed like an ideal time to ask him about the yang to his yin, being a closeted brusher, and Scranton bar tabs.
KK: Please describe this music in your own words: Influences, genre, aspirations, sonically, etc.
NM: Poptosis” [the title of the Fraudprophets debut release] is an idea; the idea that even though Sean and I are playing maybe more notes than you might hear on an Ariana Grande single or implementing more “expensive” chords, neither of us ever managed to stray too far from our roots, which is based around singable hooks and memorable melodies… hence, Poptosis. I describe Poptosis as “Pop mainstream jazz fusion.” What I mean by that is, it’s jazz by virtue of the fact that there are improvised solos done in an exploratory nature and it’s fusion because we didn’t place any stylistic limits on where we allowed it to go. We were both able to incorporate musical elements from a wide array of genres but it’s mainstream in the sense that we steered away from complex mathematical equations. It’s pop because Sean and I have always centered our attention around playing songs in the sense that even if there is a level of harmonic or rhythmic intellect involved, you still walk away from the listening experience with a melody in your head or a hook. There may be an odd time signature that you didn’t even notice because it was masked by the strength of the melody… Poptosis = pop mainstream jazz fusion.
KK: How did this (essentially) two-person group come about?
NM: Sean and I had talked about doing SOMETHING together for most of the two decades that we’ve known each other. We’ve worked together on many projects for others and I’ve tracked drums on several of Sean’s songs here and there. On the night fraudprophets was born, we’d gotten together in my garage turned studio (christened, the “Garudio”) to hang out, drink and chop it up, as ya do; one thing lead to another and we started jamming and recording random ideas. Sean fleshed out those ideas and they morphed into songs over a few nights like that, Fraudprophets was born. If we’re fortunate, at some point we’ll get to do this thing in front of people and when that happens… me thinks we’ll need to add a couple peeps. That’s a bridge we look forward to crossing!
KK: Sean Hailey- this guy is amazing! What doesn’t he do (probably easier than asking what he does)?! Guitar, Bass, Keys…what am I missing?
NM: You don’t even know! Not only does he play everything, write songs, and do all the things on the creative side; he’s also an incredible engineer and infinitely well versed about everything on the technical side. As best I can determine so far, the only thing Sean doesn’t do is play drums. YAY ME!
KK: Last year you released Funky Jazzy Stuff with Kenwood Anderson. You seem to have a thing about collaborating with one other musician. Are you a serial musical monogamist? Seriously, what’s up with the non-conventional two-person band/project thing?
NM: Shout out to Kenwood Anderson and the record we did together, Funky Jazzy Stuff. That was a great time and I enjoyed the work we did together. Similar to Sean, Kenwood is a musician capable of filling in all the holes… and he actually DOES play drums. The projects are similar in the sense that my primary role was as drummer and I was fortunate to work with guys capable of painting the rest of the canvas. Here’s the primary difference in the two situations. With Kenwood, he said, “Let’s work on a project together!” I was like, “YES! Let’s do it!” -then he went through his catalog finding songs he thought best suited my playing. He created the optimal play list and I went in and tracked drums & percussion, sometimes offering arrangement suggestions. For the most part, the songs were already there. Conversely, with Sean, we sat down together at our instruments one night and said, “Where do you wanna go?..I dunno where do YOU wanna go?… I dunno… let’s try going over here… oh cool… how about after that, we stop by here for a minute? -Okay cool, but can we pick up this from that place over there on the way?… Yeah… definitely, and we might as well grab a couple of these while we’re there!” I think that’s why each of the songs on Poptosis feel like a miniature opus unto themselves. That said, as the songs on Poptosis began to take shape, we did enlist the help of several of our extremely talented friends to join in the journey!
KK: Why did you choose to record this at thisisnotasteP Studios? You track at Henson and the other great studios in LA, what’s the reason for this one? Follow up, your drums always sound great and always sound like you…. how do you get the same sound regardless of where you go?
NM: thisisnotasteP is Sean’s studio. He did much of the heavy lifting in terms of recording and mixing but the drums were recorded in Alan Hertz’s room in Van Nuys… and many of the guests that appear on the record tracked their added contributions in their own studios as well… For future, maybe there will be a session where we are all able to track together as a band in a large room, but this time around, on multiple levels, I think this is what made the most sense…
KK: You work probably more than any other drummer I know, so why not take time to just relax…snowboard, tennis, have another child, learn to play the recorder. Why does time-off lead to another project and another record?
NM: I love my gig on The Voice. Everyday my eyes pop open one more time and I get to go be a part of that situation continues to be a blessing. That said, Sean and I have a particular bond, so Fraudprophets is less about cramming off-time with some other project and more about finding the time to create a conduit to open in order to allow certain ideas out into the universe. Fraudprophets isn’t a gig I have to do; Fraudprophets is a connection I get to be a part of.
KK: Assuming you keep the same pace up and the Voice is on for ten more years; you’ll have five more recordings with five different bands…making for a total of seven bands. Will you go on tour as “Nate Morton and friends” playing Grateful Dead marathon gigs that last 7-10 hours?
NM: Haaaaa!!!! Well… as previously mentioned, Sean is multi-facetted and musically limitless. He has a catalog of hard rock tunes w/ vocals. He also has a catalog of sensitive singer/songwriter coffee house material… and I LOVE reggae, so a couple years from now we might be able to whip that together. The greater likelihood is he and I touring with a full complement of the requisite musicians necessary to fill out each of any number of multiple projects. Therefore, any given tour date might include the coffee house configuration for a midday patio gig then Fraudprophets with jazz set times and a reggae gig that starts at 1am… I’m down with that scenario… are you? Can we do that please?
KK: Your side projects are always instrumental. They’re always great but does vocal original music not interest you? What’s the reason for always sticking to instrumental music and your love of it? Is there a type of original music that involves vocals that interests you for the future? Here’s your chance to put the idea out into the universe… what would it be like?
NM: My first side project was a band called Dootybug. I guess technically, “dootybug” was me as that was the nickname my grandma gave me. Dootybug released a record ages ago called Playground Philosophy. It was an eclectic mix of hiphop, rock, reggae, and whatever else I wanted to include. I was the primary vocalist on all the tunes and that was quite an experience. I even did a couple of gigs and Sean was my primary collaborator in terms of making that project a reality. All that said, at this exact moment that’s not my mind space. I don’t think Sean or I have any opposition to including vocals on a track going forward so the door is definitely open to that amongst MANY things.
KK: All kidding aside, you know that I think you’re amazing and I love your playing. Are you proving something to yourself by taking on these projects?
NM: Not at all. I’m just still the same 5 year-old who loved beating on pots and pans all day… I still do, so it’s always going to be a blessing to me!
KK: Let’s discuss the tracks on this Fraudprophets release. I think it would be interesting to the readers to hear your insight on the songs. Sometimes it’s understanding how a musician thinks that communicates as much as the playing itself.
NM: I Think I just said that
KK: Is funky rock & roll back?
NM: It never left; at least not on my playlists.
KK: There’s a lot of excitement and humor in the mood of this track; is that important to you in the projects that have your NAME on them?
NM: It’s not a matter of me making it something important. it’s more about just allowing your feelings and personality to come through in your playing and if it does, that’s a success.
KK: There’s a lot of edgy-going for it playing by you on this track; when do you know you’ve gone too far in terms of fills and letting loose?
NM: That’s the beauty of being a “member”… no boundaries. You just get to be you with no right or wrong answers.
KK: Contradicting the last question and approach; this song is very reserved. Why did you stick to grooving ala snare, kick, hat (for the most past on this song)? What inspired you to play so reserved about this song?
NM: There’s no profound answer here. They are two different songs around two different concepts and two different meanings. I Think I Just Said That was a smart aleck quip I made when we were messing around, so there’s plenty of room musically for smart aleck quips. Scrubs is a different creature with another vibe altogether. it’s more introspective, more thoughtful in its opinion on things. I Think I Just Said That is a brash, cheeky, know-it-all teen. Scrubs is that kid’s parent.
KK: I think this is a great example of how most drummers might have not made this track as exciting. You like to switch up your time playing. Even though you don’t stretch out with blazing chops (I’ll slap you if you try to say “I can’t do that”) you find a very ear- catching way of making the parts deviate and interact with the song structure. Is this something you’ve always done and what do you think inspired this kind of approach?
NM: Man. This may not be the most informative answer for this context but the truth is, every single time I sit down at the kit… EVERY SINGLE TIME, no matter the context… pop, jazz, country… whatever… the only thought that goes through my mind as I pick up the sticks is, “Okay Nate, please do your very best to make music.” Literally, that’s it. I just want to make music so I attempt to scoot my dumb little brain out of the picture. I take a deep breath in order to try to help myself get out of my own way and when the track starts, I try to erase my mind of everything previous in hopes that leaving it all to my instincts, something special and musical might occur. That’s my long-winded way of saying that nothing I do is calculated, practiced, rehearsed, or planned. Sometimes something neat happens and sometimes it don’t! lol.
Moths and Mosquitoes
KK: Do you love percussion?
NM: I don’t know if I’d say I “Love” percussion or not. I’m a softy. My hands are made of cheesecake… but for this particular track, it seemed to be screaming for Cajon and I didn’t’ wanna disappoint the music.
KK: What do you love about it? Has your time on the Voice changed your preferences for percussion as well as your approach?
NM: During my time on the Voice I have tracked more percussion than I ever did previously. that said, nothing about my preferences have changed. For me, the challenge of percussion is knowing how to get in where you fit in. My favorite percussionists to play with are the cats who know to leave space because they know that’s probably where the drummer is gonna turn it around with a fill, so I’ll leave that. It’s always about using your ears and letting the song guide you.
KK: Follow up-What’s your favorite percussion track you’ve performed live?
NM: Probably “Strong Enough” [Sheryl Crow]. I played a purpose built percussion configuration for that one that included my Pearl travel congas, Pear Cajon and tambourine, as well as a Lambertville Suitcase drum, 5-gallon bucket, and a water jug.
KK: For the Fraudprophets record, why did you play the first half of Moths and Mosquitoes on Cajon and then switch to drums, only to then switch back to percussion and then drums again?
NM: Doesn’t that happen all the time? lol. Small section to big section back to small section… or the opposite; I’m really just playing music. I don’t think about anything more than that. I’m just trying to choose the proper tool from the shed, the right color from the palette, the right tire for the weather conditions, the proper attire for the event. Okay… I think four analogies is enough.
Eat a Frog
KK: Do you like country music and train beats?
NM: Yes, very much!
KK: What do you like about them as a genre and as a drummer? What’s your approach for a train beat? You make it very exciting and edgy. What’s your secret? The breakdown/vamp section at 2 minutes is awesome!
NM: I can’t really tell you specifically what I like about a train beat. I don’t know how straight I’m playing versus swung, no percentages. It just represents a foray into another genre and that’s exciting for me! During the initial creation of Eat A Frog, my laying down a train beat for Sean to work out on was simply a musical volley. I just wanted to see what he’d do, and I think what he did is awesome. Btw, Fleenor who is a featured guest on this track, knocked it out of the park!
Sad People Music
KK: You told me about being on tour with an artist (Natalie Cole, I think) and being determined to find a way to practice so you practiced brushes in a closet with the door closed. Is this song the direct result of that practice? Does the Nate Morton who was in that closet appreciate the position that current day Nate Morton finds himself in; professionally and personally?
NM: It was absolutely Natalie… -sigh… RIP… With Natalie, when we’d do the whole big band thing with horns and hits and stuff, it was easier for me to hide my inadequacies. As long as I set up the hits and nailed them, I was winning. On the jazz ballads, especially if it was a small group gig, all my short-comings were on display. So yes, I’d pretty much practice brushes constantly cause I knew I’d be super exposed in those situations. Nowadays, my brush technique is still dubious but whatever level it’s at… I definitely owe to many dates with Natalie and those days spent in janitorial closets with my brushes and snare trying to figure it out. I wouldn’t say this song is a “direct result” of my time spent playing with Natalie Cole but I would say that the time I spent with her helped me become a better musician.
KK: Okay, first…there’s got to be a great story behind the name of this song. Secondly, there should be a great story about Oz Noy being on this track. He’s amazing and he lives in NYC. How’d it happen?
NM: I’m gonna paraphrase my partner Seany here… best I recall, he shared that, “The emotional process of creating this record was at times like pulling teeth but, ‘The Dentist’, seemed like a dumb song title so ‘The Phlebotomist’ was next on the metaphor conveyor belt…” With regard to Oz Noy being featured, he and Sean are pals so that was the connection and with recording technology as it is today, he could’ve been on the moon cutting his killin’ tracks.
KK: I can’t help but think that this is your funky/rock/fusion moment. Is that how you’d describe it? You seem very comfortable in that intersection. Do you think it’s your strong point? If not, what is your sweet spot musically as a drummer?
NM: Wow… I never think this much about my playing. Yes, Skronk was definitely “the rock song” we felt this record needed and OH YES, I did enjoy playing it! Ages ago, Modern Drummer would sometimes include, “sound supplements” with the issue; they were flippy plastic records you’d tear along the perforated line to separate from the magazine itself so you could play it on a phonograph (Wow I’m old!). Anyway, the sound supplement I most remember was Jonathan Mover playing a song called “Put Up or Shut Up.” He melted my face off!!! Ever since then, I’ve always aspired to track a gnarly rock song for a jazz record!
With regard to that “intersection”… I don’t think anything is necessarily my strong point. I’ve probably listened to more rock and stuff, and I did grow dreads at one point specifically to have hair to fling around… so I definitely enjoy it, but typically, I view music as bigger than genre. Whenever I sit down at the kit, I’m just trying to play music. If it’s a “rock” song, I want to be as RAWK as I can be. If it’s “jazz”, same thing… or “Latin”…or “HipHop”… but what that basically means to me is, I have a certain few things that I feel are “idiomatic identifiers” and I’ll try to incorporate those but I don’t limit any of the rest of what could go on. I will quote a former instructor Ian Froman who once said to me, “If you’re playing jazz, there’s no reason you can’t play a Bonham lick if it makes sense musically.”
KK: When you played this song with Miley Cyrus, did you think “This will be perfect for my original project someday!” (Kidding) So much of this tune is propelled by the restraint and taste that both yourself and Sean exhibit. Is it hard to be powerful and yet reserved as a musician?
NM: Hmm… I don’t think so… I just think we are both similar in the sense that we are always doing our best to serve the needs of the music at any given point along a composition’s timeline ya know. When it’s feeling sensitive, we aim to be some sensitive dudes; when it’s time to open up and make more noise, we go for that. Very little of that is planned out. It’s typically more synergistic.
Two Steps Back
KK: In the nicest way I want to say that this sounds like a great TV show theme (especially starting at 3:30…4:30 in particular). Unfortunately, TV shows only have 4 second theme songs. Any plans to license/market any of this music for TV or films? Is that a possible avenue for this record? Also, what is the desired avenue for this music…where do you want it to go?
NM: In the modern music marketplace, anything recorded can go anywhere and if that’s tv or film, we welcome the opportunity. I don’t know if either of us have thought quite that far about it because in many ways, this record was a therapeutic catharsis for us both. Now that it’s out, we can meditate on where it might go from here or what life it might take on. We are always open to any and all possibilities!
KK: Last Question. Have you ever been to Scranton and if so, what type of sandwich did you eat there?
NM: LOL… I don’t know if I’m missing a joke here or not, but I have spent time in Scranton. Didn’t have a sandwich there, although I did have a round of drinks with my buddy and fellow drummer Marko and his friend. What I recall clearly is that at the end of the night I said to the bartender, “I’ll get this…” -referring to the round and he gave me a bill for $9. I said, “Sorry. I meant, I’ll get the whole round.” -he said, “That IS the whole round.” lol. Sandwiches I don’t recall but thanks Scranton for cheap alcohol. I hope I make it back one day.