(Photo by Alicia Mellinger)
I first met Nate Allen years ago. We were both on tour, and were sharing a show in rural Illinois. He was traveling alone, from his home in Portland, OR, in a huge green van, performing straightforward, introspective solo sets under the moniker Destroy Nate Allen. I had pneumonia and was doing my best to hang on as my tourmate and I made our way back to Kansas City (and eventually, the hospital). That night, we made no money and had no place to stay. I felt completely defeated. Nate, apparently, felt differently. He encouraged us to have a “camp-out” in our cars in a Walmart parking lot. We made forts out of our vehicles, luggage, and clothing. Under Nate’s direction, we found ourselves motivated to make the best of our unpleasant situation. That was the first time I encountered the boundless energy and positivity that is Nate Allen. I still have Polaroids of our forts in a box somewhere–I’ll never forget it.
As the years went by, Nate eventually met his wife, Tessa, and she joined Destroy Nate Allen; it was as if her joining helped bring out that energetic, ultra-positive (but realistically so) side of Nate into his music. Destroy Nate Allen became a force of nature. A performance-based, upbeat and exciting whirlwind of energy that most full bands could aspire to attain. With this new version of the band going strong, Nate and Tessa moved to Kansas City (it goes without saying how excited I was when this happened). Despite the success and good reception the new DNA had been [and is] receiving, Nate was still writing more introspective, low-key songs, and he was finding it harder and harder to bring them to DNA as it evolved. Through encouragement from Tessa, Nate eventually formed Nate Allen & The Pac-Away Dots: a rock ‘n roll leaning, folk/punk hybrid that serves as a home for his more serious writing. The Pac-Away Dots, although introspective and serious much of the time, also retains the free spirited energy that has evolved from working with his wife (although she is not involved with this project). The results are a lot of fun to listen to, but also carry an array of meaningful messages that almost all of us can relate to. Their first record, Take Out The Trash, will be available starting Wednesday, coupled with an album release show at recordBar. I had the chance to ask my old friend some questions about his new project, and how it relates to his work as Destroy Nate Allen with his wife, Tessa.
The Deli: First off, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions - I know you’ve been very busy with both Destroy Nate Allen (DNA) and The Pac-Away Dots. When I first met you, you were performing solo, with more serious content, under the DNA moniker. Tell me about how DNA evolved from that into the upbeat, performance-based collaboration with your wife, Tessa, that it is today.
Allen: On my first tour (where we met), I played a week of shows with my friend Jason. His wife wanted to join the project and he would only let her sing on one song. Throughout our week of touring she kept stealing instruments and inserting herself into his band. As the week progressed he had a light bulb moment. “I play in a crappy punk band, just for fun... why can’t she have fun with me?” So she joined the band. I thought it was very beautiful, so when Tessa and I got married I had her join Destroy Nate Allen.
What I could not have foreseen was how Tessa would change Destroy Nate Allen. She brought out punk rock and theatrical edges I had but were not very pronounced at the time.
Tessa is very literal so that comes through in her songwriting, which has greatly affected our sound as we have learned to collaborate. The keyword there is LEARN. We’ve said it’s harder to be in a band together than to be married… and I would add, learning to co-write has been a whole other level of growth.
Our performance style has developed in an organic fashion from touring for months on end. Sometimes we’d be playing for 5 people and need gas money to get to the next town so we’d just up our energy level or climb on a table to get people’s attention. Once you do that, it’s hard to go back. DNA is the result of a series of doors (performance-wise) that opened that can’t be closed. The result is our collaborative and audience-involving show that is hard to bottle and fun to perform.
The Deli: DNA has been doing pretty well, and is definitely not showing signs of slowing down. Is it safe to assume that The Pac-Away Dots are not a replacement for DNA?
Allen: Correct. DNA will probably go down as one of those weird bands you saw once and never forgot but we love doing it and see no reason to stop. Since it’s just Tessa and I, we can really play as much as want. It’s actually been hard to carve out space for my solo songs because we really love performing together and when Tessa is around we end up doing DNA because we enjoy it.
The Deli: What motivated you to start this new project? Is this a return to the earlier, more “serious” solo work of the early DNA days, or are The Pac-Away Dots an entirely new kind of project for you?
Allen: The most straightforward answer is that Tessa told me start a solo project so she could have a break. Due to my workaholic default we had fallen into a never-stop cycle. I have always written quiet solo songs but it has gotten progressively harder to shift gears and fit them in within the construct that is DNA. Ultimately there will probably be at least 3 bands: Nate Allen (my solo work), Destroy Nate Allen (our duo), and The Pac-Away Dots (my rock n’ roll band).
So I would say Take Out The Trash is a both/and record. It is a new project entirely and a return to my solo roots.
The Deli: How do you feel the lyrical content of Take Out The Trash differs from your work as Destroy Nate Allen? How are the two similar?
Allen: Most often I write two types of songs. Destroy Nate Allen songs are collaborative at this point and lean towards whimsy, whereas my solo quiet songs are often much more introspective in nature.
Take Out The Trash was all originally my solo songs and I tend to be a very reflective songwriter. For instance, this week I saw a person I know being ripped up on the internet and my first instinct was to write song in his defense. I’m not sure if he was at fault or not in the situation, but I tend to always fight for the underdog and don’t believe the Internet is the best courtroom.
On Take Out The Trash I had space to reflect and be moved by the community around me and my life circumstances, so I find to the record to be both compassionate and confessional of my own judgments and fears. I believe these choices give other people permission to be more open and explorative of their own hearts and motivations.
The two projects are similar in that Take Out The Trash is very informed by my work in Destroy Nate Allen.
The Deli: If someone asked me to describe Nate Allen & The Pac-Away Dots, I’d be tempted to say folk-punk, yet the songs on this record are both more “folk” and more “punk” than most bands that fall under the folk-punk label. It’s almost as if this record is the sound of a folk-punk band in the process of growing up–one that does not sacrifice the whimsical, free-spirited, socially/politically-charged approach of that genre, but rather experiments with it just enough to create a potentially wider appeal. Was that something you were intentionally working towards?
Allen: I completely agree with how you described the project. I was not so much intentionally working toward a wider appeal, but Take Out The Trash is definitely an album where I am growing up as a musician.
In 2012, I compiled the Destroy Nate Allen Songbook. The Kickstarter prize turned into a 100-hour labor of love and gave me a chance to thoroughly reflect on the 82 songs I had released up to that point. In this process, I noticed a few patterns that needed correcting (such as avoiding cliché and dropping unneeded parts of songs or completely dropping songs from an album), I applied this new perspective and the result is my first release as a new and better musician.
The Deli: Who would you say were your influences for the record? Musically and non-musically.
Allen: Musically, my influences include the sounds of rock ‘n roll in Portland basements and my love for the quiet songs at the end of loud records mixed with artists like David Bazan, The Violent Femmes, Mike Ness, The Pine Hill Haints, and Mid-Era Against Me put in a blender with years of touring.
Non-musically I was really challenged by a community I was a part of to see how white male privilege had affected and informed my life. I grew up as a third-generation timber worker in a 99% white small Oregon town, racism was alive and well all around me even if I didn’t realize it. Take Out The Trash is the sound of my eyes very much being opened. See “Social Equality” and “Westside Blues.”
The other major factors were losing friends (death, jail, distance, etc.), and new revelations of my own frailty combined with trying to find work and the instability that creates in a workaholic like I can be.
The Deli: The record has a very loose, live feel to it without ever being sloppy or lazy. Tell me about the recording process for Take Out The Trash.
Allen: We recorded the album in Portland right before we moved in the basement of the house I was living in. Our impending move provided a deadline for the recording, but being a few feet from the studio was fantastic in that it allowed us to record as often as needed. Tyson Kingrey (who plays drums and lead guitar on the album) engineered most of it and I provided most of the musical direction for the tone and feel of the album.
I would say we captured the sound I was going for. I’ve learned that at least on my own I have very specific ways I like things to feel and sound and I think we pulled that off better on Take Out The Trash than any of my past recordings. The record was then mixed and mastered by Rob Bartleson (Wilco, Everclear, Other Desert Cities).
The Deli: How does a Nate Allen & The Pac-Away Dots’ live show differ from the recordings? How does it differ from a DNA set?
Allen: I would say the Nate Allen & The Pac-Away Dots’ live show differs greatly from the recordings. For now “the band” is just me, so the shows are very much more reflective in nature. I’m trying to give people space to contemplate what I’m saying, which means staying in one place (often on a stage) as opposed to flying all around like we do in DNA. This music is based around community building and it is definitely easier for a normal, uninitiated listener to digest on multiple levels.
The Deli: Should we expect more from The Pac-Away Dots?
Allen: We recorded a cover of “Career Opportunities” by The Clash for a compilation, other than that I’m not sure what we have planned. I have much on my plate, including a lot of touring, so at this point playing solo is much easier. Time will tell how I fit in the band.
The Deli: Changing gears a bit–what brought you from Portland to Kansas City? Do you ever miss living in Portland?
Allen: The short answer is cheap rent and some work (I build websites). We really needed our own place after years of constant touring and moving. Our life was in constant flux and Kansas City has allowed us to settle a bit. Portland was home for me so I definitely miss it. Everywhere we went we ran into folk I’d known for years.
The Deli: How do you like living in Kansas City, and how do you feel about our music scene in comparison to other places you’ve lived and toured to?
Allen: I’m starting to really like it here. I’m a big baseball fan so this is a good time to be in Kansas City. The music scene is growing on me quickly. I had never really experienced the Kansas City music scene when we toured through, so I didn’t know it existed. We had mostly played small clubs or random living room shows on our trips through town.
One distinctive thing about Kansas City I see is the abundance of and love for local events. In my previous towns and the places we’ve toured through, pretty much every musical event was built around touring bands. I’m learning that Kansas City is a very well-kept secret, which I’m excited to learn more about.
The Deli: Is KC a permanent home for you?
Allen: I would say it is. I’m working to shift my focus to becoming more involved locally.
The Deli: Speaking of Kansas City, this Wednesday you have your release show for Take Out The Trash, the debut Nate Allen & The Pac-Away Dots album, at recordBar. Is there anything you’d like to tell us about that show?
Allen: At the recordBar I’ll be joined by my friends Von Strantz, who are a fantastic folky duo from Indiana.
Since this is a return to my early musical roots, I’ve decided to play the show solo. This is nerve-racking and exciting. Solo I’ll be able to tell the stories behind the songs and celebrate it at a pace I’m comfortable with.
Take Out The Trash was written at the start of what has become a large season of shifting and growth in my life, and the record really has changed me and my art in many ways that are still hard to describe, so I’m very excited to finally share it with the world.
The Deli: Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to say?
Allen: Thank you so much for the great questions! Take Out The Trash arrives in stores locally and nationally on vinyl, CD, and in all major digital outlets on September 18.
Check out our exclusive premiere of the track “Death is Overrated” from Nate Allen & The Pac-Away Dots’ new album, Take Out the Trash:
Head up to recordBar on Wednesday night to celebrate the release of Take Out the Trash. Show starts at 9:30 p.m. Facebook event page.
Doby Watson is a songwriter from Kansas City.