Novo Line

Novo Line is the moniker of Nat Fowler, once part of the Baltimore math rock scene, but nowadays transformed into a clusterfucking techno act that delves deeply into the unknown territory of old skool atari computers. Last year he released an amazing record on Ecstatic Records that takes the idea’s of UR, Drexciya and alike deep into the 21st century, without resigning to new technology. Techno used to be a thrilling genre that was all about developing new idea’s and sounds, but then the market started mingling in by producing pre programmed plugins aimed at lazy producers copying each other. Novo Line revives the original spirit and takes techno where it belongs: boldly into a universe where no-one has gone before.
15 November 2017 | AG 10
Niels Latomme

How did you end up in Berlin, coming from Baltimore? You’ve been around for quite a while, starting as a musician playing in math rock bands. And when did the atari’s come in?

Nat Fowler

My band Oxes first toured Europe in 2001, and I fell in love with someone. It changed my life, and brought me to Italy in 2004. But small town living, for many reasons, drove me crazy. I had to get out, and so as a couple we emigrated to Berlin in 2007, because it was cheap, we both had friends here already, and it seemed to be drawing many people from all over for its arts and culture. A lot of that part quite frankly was seeing the grass greener on the other side, but it’s worked out enough for us both, for work and for life. I just wish the locals were nicer and the weather was sunnier.

Starting working with Atari’s was an accident. I wanted to make music by myself because I couldn’t find anyone to make music with. I was lucky to find the musician friends I had in Baltimore, but nothing came close in either Italy or Berlin. I wanted to continue in the general direction I did with Oxes, but as a one-man-band. This idea clashed a bit with the idea of electronic music and dance music, at least in any ways I knew of on how to produce. But I was determined to find a way.

I didn’t want to make math rock in the way that most people conceive it; I liked how King Crimson’s RED, Melvins OZMA, This Heat, Cheer Accident, or even Metallica’s And Justice for All is math rock. But I didn’t like how most modern independent bands did it most of the time. I moved away from Baltimore at about the same time that my band Oxes was having a few creative crises- so from the beginning with an electronic direction so-to-speak, I had certain ideas regarding rhythm and melody/harmony that I didn’t hear much elsewhere.

In the back of my mind, since I moved, I wanted to do something that excited me like those records excited me, but than as a solo act. On the other end, I liked what the Perlon scene and artists like Errorsmith and Soundstream/Soundhack did with rhythmic shifts in live and dj sets (I’m talking back in 2002-2004 here!). Plus, all modern software didn’t seem to allow the elasticity or texture I wanted.

At that moment, I found myself volunteering for a Goodwill/Oxfam kind of place in Italy, called Manitese. We would clean out old houses, and I’d find old computers that hadn’t been touched in years, and a broken DX7II that I fixed. I had a friend, Jeff Donaldson, aka Notendo, back in Baltimore that was making glitch art and doing various weird audio/visual things with the Commodore 64 and nintendo. He had an Atari ST, and used Cubase on it. He always raved about its stability.

Some time later, already Berlin, I was figuring out what to do — setting up a studio, meeting people. My studio landlord was cleaning out his basement and gave me his old Atari ST, because he knew I had those C64s... It took about 2 months to figure out what to do with that Atari ST, and I’ve just added layers of complexity onto my original discovery of how to use it, ever since.

NL

It’s interesting that you use an old machine such as the Atari. Techno and electronic music once was about having a new array of new technology that could produce any new sound possible. Nowadays it seems more and more about a retro thing. Is it that way for you as well?

NF

I’m not going to pretend to be any scholar on Techno or electronic music in general, but from what I know about some of Techno’s origins, it was about abusing and misusing tools that were made for a different purpose. That visceral first Phuture record was done using machines that weren’t made to do that — you can’t say that about modern equipment or software synths.

I like that early techno approach. I’m squeezing out some new purpose and use of these Ataris, midi tools, and synths for sure. I think it’s a shame that once electronic instrument companies caught on to the appeal of using these tools for purposes aside from accompaniment with acoustic and normal instruments. They started to manufacture and market things based on these ideas that electronic artists had and it became a feedback loop in only a few directions, and the only direction things have seemed to go in for a while now is in sound texture, but there is so much more to music than just how it sounds, so I try to explore some of those unexplored facets. . .

With regards to being retro, for me it’s not a retro thing but a holistic thing; I’ve wanted to not be classified as 8-bit or Italo or 80s renegade or whatever. But I’ve found myself settling into the MIDI tech that was available from about 87-90’, because those machines seem to work great with each other, sound wise and technically, and of course the ST and the software I run are also from that era. I’ve tried throwing in analog/modular, more modern filters,etc, but I have yet to find something else from a different era that fits with what I’ve built up.

NL

Maybe you can see it as a new form of craftmanship then?

I can see that with modular, this satisfaction of building up your modular synth and the patch with many cables. For me, what I do with my MIDI cables is somewhat similar. I build up this physical interface for every show, each cable going to a certain place to do a certain thing, and it’s very satisfying having this large thing that I can look at, and change physically, and manipulate with knobs, and of course digital buttons.

NL

You refer on the Movements album to the Pythagorus’ ideas and that is interesting, as we programmed a movie about Tony Conrad who was explicitly Anti-Pythagorean, in the sense that he was anti-elitist and radical democratic — he saw the theories of Pythagorus as being elitist, as it strived for harmony.

NF

Funny, I just put a Conrad piece in a mix I’m doing to promote the new record.

I think for a certain era, it was important to throw away the shackles of the past, for new music in the 20th century. All the old ideas of composition, harmony, rhythm, aesthetics, could and should have gone out the window. But that revolution is over, just as in visual art. It exists, we have echtzeitmusik, we have noise, we even have Post-Techno made only with software. Soon we’ll have AI doing it. We have people making very normal dance records and professing their love for new music. 

I’ve come up against a lot of resistance to my music from many in these different musical worlds over the years, which has made me give up on even convincing anyone that I’m on their side so to speak: it’s not that its history hasn’t informed me; it’s been completely integral to the formation of what I do, but I don’t wear my influences on my sleeve.

As for Conrad’s beliefs: I could get sidetracked here and challenge the idea of democracy in its opposition to harmony (would someone want democracy in order to create chaos?) but I’m also ill-informed. But as far as disregarding the ideas because they were elitist, especially if they are 2500 year old ideas. that is misguided. But in any case, using what we know of Pythagoras’s secret school inherently makes it not elitist: I’m not in any school, I literally just watched a youtube video and started digging around the internet and eventually into paper books on the subject.

But as for the ideas, there is something to be said about harmony and being pleasing to the ears, to form that is harmonic and based on principles derived from natural phenomena. When we listen to music sometimes we like it because it’s beautiful, other times because its ugly. I try to make something in between of course like many people do, but using the Pythagorean frequencies and scale, which is luckily possible with this old equipment I have*, the tones reverberate better in a space, they mix together better in the electronics inside an analog mixer. They are slightly off what we are most accustomed to listening to that they offer something new to the ear without our minds really becoming conscious of why. Dissonance and Consonance sound different as well.

 Also its important to know that the label wrote the album text, so me telling them about using the pythagorean scale gets translated into ALBUM BASED ON PYTHAGOREAN IDEAS BLAH BLAH ;)

*- (I tuned 127 notes by ear to a tone generator, within .6 cents accuracy, on 4 different synths, very different from a scale preset called Pythagorean)

NL

Where does the name Novo Line comes from?

NF

The area I live in, Neukoelln, which I joke that I founded because in 2007 it was so little known as even a place to look for apartments, is full of these storefront Casinos. Sometimes up to 5 on a single city block, and most are empty or near empty, with a bartender standing under some crazy lights, and open 24 hours a day, or my favorite, 23 hours. There were A LOT more 10 years ago, but they are still quite widespread. It’s not clear if they are money laundering setups or what.. They are called Automatenspiel Spielotheks, and when I started using the ST to make music, I realized that I was kind of gambling when I made music, because it was based on random generation of notes,  and literally translated from German, Automatenspiel is Automatic Game, and i liked this idea of producing this music using the most archaic tech I could manage to string together with MIDI cables, making something that sounded new, almost automatically. So I was at a bar one night with Francesco and Leila (Sea Urchin, but this was before Sea Urchin!) talking about this new thing I was doing, and Leila didnt like the name Automatenspiel, because it was too literal. She pointed out that good names have a level removed between the idea/concept and the name. She was right, and like a strike of lightning, I screamed out “NOVO LINE!” and Leila loved it:  most of these Casinos have these swirling lighted signs in the window, advertising the digital slot machine brand (from austria where Leila is from!) called Novo Line, and in fact what I am doing, in contrast to what I used to do (make music with guitar in a band), this was a very new, or novo, direction, or line to be going in. The name worked, on many levels, and I like playing with the idea of using the name of something so ubiquitous that nobody even notices it. My artist name is vaguely familiar for many people in Berlin, but I’d say only 1% understand why: they see it every day, multiple times, in storefront windows that they dont even look at.   

NL

Do you have a fascination for space travelling?

NF

I don’t. Or maybe just a healthy fascination? If you’re referring to the album cover,the earth image is the very first live image of the full Earth, ever transmitted to earth from satellite, on a machine my father built at his job, in 1974. Nokia has the rights to the patent since 1995 (no, I dont have a waterfall of nokia money, he was a company man and saw no credit). I found the original diapositives a few years ago in my parents’ old house in a locked filing cabinet I had to force open when I was emptying the house.  my jaw dropped, so I committed to having them become future album covers. This is the first one, designed by my sister in law, using the earth as the centerpiece. There are more to come!