Composer and DJ Nathan Micay talks to us about the creation of his latest album, his scoring work for HBO, and how SLATE + ASH software helps shape his creative process.
Nathan Micay, originally renowned for his majetstic club music released on imprints such as AD 93 and LuckyMe, has more recently been leaving his mark on the landscape of film and television scoring. In 2020, he crafted the acclaimed soundtrack for HBO's Industry by blending hazy synth melodies with a distinct digital artifice, reflecting the cold edge of London's finance world. His latest score is 2023’s Reality, a heart-pounding whistleblower drama starring The White Lotus’s Sydney Sweeney.
Amidst his crammed October schedule of DJ sets promoting his new album To The God Named Dream, Nathan caught up with us at S+A HQ before heading across the road for an all-night slot at The Love Inn.
Your career to date has seen you live in quite a few locations — do you now see yourself settled in Berlin?
I've lived in quite a few places. I'm originally from Canada but have also lived in Israel, Leeds, Berlin, and Denmark. Now, I'm back in Berlin, in Neukölln.
When I first arrived in Berlin eight years ago, I lived in Wedding and found a large room that would be considered very cheap in today’s market — 40 square metres for 400 euros a month. We were the last wave of people who could easily find affordable places to live here.
Did you study music in any of these places?
I was actually on track to become a lawyer. I completed a history undergraduate and wrote my thesis on law because my university offered a pre-law qualification program. As my music career started to gain traction, I made a deal with my parents to pause my law studies, move back in with them and give music a shot.
"THAT YEAR I RECEIVED MY FIRST OFFER TO PERFORM AT BERGHAIN. BY JUNE, I WAS ON A PLANE TO EUROPE!"
What was the process of making your new record To The God Named Dream?
I wrote most of it at a kitchen table while staying at my ex-girlfriend's place in Denmark. I brought my big desktop iMac with me. The recording process is a bit hazy, as time seemed to stretch in that kitchen. I'd spend hours with headphones and a small MIDI keyboard, composing.
Since I was swamped with film and TV scores, I hired Michael James Thomas in Copenhagen to mix the album. His use of out-of-the-box gear added a gritty texture compared to my own mixes.
Does the album have a core concept?
My favourite albums always have a concept, and I'm all about maintaining a consistent theme. For Blue Spring, we had a dystopian rave concept with an accompanying comic book.
This time, I drew inspiration from library music. I found old records, extracted segments, and created ambient drones or sometimes converted melodies to MIDI. For this project we had the idea of a haunted library record, much like Jumanji or Hellraiser. We turned that concept into a unique board game!
Is the demonic figure seen in the promo and the videos related to the writing situation you were in?
The music videos were made by a guy from the record label. They have a demonic figure dancing around Montreal and nobody pays any attention. We've become so desensitised. I was joking with my friends the other day: if aliens landed on Earth, would anyone even look up from their phones?
There is a fantastically leftfield "screamo" scream in the middle of Fangs that reminds me of some of the more out-there Oneohtrix Point Never moments — is he an influence?
He's an idol of mine. I've tried to follow his career path and love everything he does. He is incredible at weaving nine different ideas into his tracks and knows precisely how to craft ideas into a song. I'm actively working on honing that skill, especially in my film scoring work, where I have to seamlessly transition between various emotions within a single scene.
As for that scream, it was a last-second inspiration. I came across a YouTube tutorial on proper screaming techniques, and that's where it came from.
Similar to the youtube-ripped piano line in OPN’s track Manifold?
Oh, yeah! It's funny because I listen to his music, and I'm like, "How on earth?" And I feel like a bit of a hack because I've sampled a YouTube video. But, you know what, I'm pretty sure a lot of his stuff is also sourced from YouTube — everybody's doing it!
How did you develop the sound palette for your Reality score?
The director, Tina Satter, initially approached me for upbeat music, but after watching the film, I knew that "happy music" wasn't the right fit. The temp score was dark, sparse, and dynamic. I expanded upon it with drones.
I approached the film's contained time frame consciously, aiming for a claustrophobic atmosphere. I wanted the music to conceptually allow more oxygen in, contrasting with the main character's feeling of decreased oxygen supply as the story unfolds. To do this we put a filter on the music that gradually lifts as the film progresses. The cathartic release comes at the end when she gets arrested.
The OST will be released sometime this year. In the isolated music, you can hear more textures than in the film. There are several scenes in the film featuring SLATE + ASH instruments and I’d often use multiple instances of LANDFORMS to create drony, textural soundscapes.
"IT'S A VERY CONTAINED FILM — ESSENTIALLY THREE PEOPLE IN A ROOM"
What led to your involvement in scoring the TV series Industry?
One day, I received a text message, and three days later, I found myself flying to London to meet with the show's writers. We instantly connected, sharing references like Tangerine Dream soundtracks and the film Risky Business.
My own music has always had a cinematic quality and my ultimate goal was to score films. They had heard my album Blue Spring, and its title track eventually became a part of the show.
As I was brought on board, the pandemic hit, and scoring Industry became life. It felt like I'd been thrown into the deep end, while I had some experience with low-budget indie films, this was a completely different ballgame with a whole team turning to me!
How was Industry's sound palette developed?
We aimed for cold and artificial sounds to reflect the banking environment, but we also wanted the music to feel kinetic, youthful, and vibrant, conveying that this was the most exciting place these graduates could be working. The score has a heavy focus on big melodic synth hooks. I incorporated drones occasionally to add depth. I love u-he’s Diva — it’s all over Industry.
What can you tell us about the more recent scores you've been working on?
I've just wrapped up the score for the prequel series to Sexy Beast, an old Jonathan Glazer film starring Ben Kingsley. The final scene of Sexy Beast cuts between orchestral strings, guitar, a massive buildup, and drones. By the end, the Ableton project has grown to about 130 channels. SLATE + ASH instruments greatly assist me in this process!
I also worked on a documentary about Y2K called Time bomb Y2K, which is currently doing the festival rounds. The music is filled with computer-like, bleep and bloopy sounds. I'm used u-he’s Diva, Zebra and SLATE + ASH's AURAS for synths.
How frequently do you incorporate unfamiliar instruments into your scores?
I always joke, with film scoring, you can hack it on instruments because a lot of the music wants to be as unnoticeable as possible! Even if I do a bad take, there will be something in there that I can mess with and do something cool with.
Do you collaborate with other musicians when composing your scores?
I'm usually adamant to work by myself because the timelines are quite tight. Very often a director wants something for the following week so I just do it as well as I can myself.
The first time working with any musician was for Sexy Beast. I hired this guy called Peter Honoré, known in the guitar world as Danish Pete! He shreds! One of the big themes in the show came from him just riffing on his electric guitar. I then time-stretched the audio, detuned it and added strings. But the essence of it is what he did.
There's this hilarious but great video of Angelo Badalamenti talking about how he wrote Laura's theme for Twin Peaks. He explains that he would play the piano and David Lynch would respond with, "Yes, follow this! Make it darker!" So, I was essentially trying to emulate that creative process. I sat beside Peter, asking him to take me to dark or more romantic places.
"I WOULD SING A MELODY AND HE COULD IMMEDIATELY PLAY IT — THAT'S WHY YOU GET THE PRO IN RIGHT?"
What are some of your favourite acoustic instruments?
I'd say the viola because it strikes a balance between the lightness of a violin and the depth of a cello. The cello is pretty amazing if you really know how to play it, which I can't claim to do. As for other instruments, I like taking my violin bow to a guitar and I'm into cool tonal percussion instruments.
What about in-the-box tools?
My go-to instruments include SLATE + ASH, u-he Diva, Eventide H300, and various Soundtoys plugins. Arturia has some cool stuff, but I prefer to keep things minimal with it. When it comes to Kontakt, I've amassed quite a collection of libraries. Native Instruments’ Ashlight and Straylight are fantastic.
What does SLATE + ASH bring compared to other software?
I started using Kontakt when AURAS was first emerging, and Kontakt seemed overwhelming. However, it's incredibly user-friendly and helped me get used to working with Kontakt's complex interface.
LANDFORMS offers inspiring presets, and I appreciate how granular you can get with it, allowing you to delve into the details and understand how the patch is made. I also often use the CYCLES samples without the engine. It's impressive how you can drop in your own sounds into the engine and generate all these crazy things. It does a lot of the heavy lifting, but you still need to know how to harness it.