This Simulation Is a Good One: An Interview with Nate Mercereau
When not playing electric guitar for Lizzo, co-writing with Shawn Mendes, or tutoring under Shelia E., Nate Mercereau is a songwriting force to be reckoned with, and with his debut instrumental solo effort Joy Techniques, his artistry has deepened further.
12 July 2019
Describing the sound of Nate Mercereau's debut album Joy Techniques in comparison to other records can prove to be challenging. Sometimes Joy Techniques feels like a natural fusion between the jazz hip-hop stylings of a Brainfeeder Records album, mixed with the fun synth ingenuity of Brian Eno. Sometimes it feels like McLaughlin and Davis on a Stones Throw release. But for anyone that has been following Mercereau's work over the years can tell you, it just immediately sounds like signature Nate Mercereau.
Over the past many years, Nate Mercereau has been carving out a name for himself working alongside legends like Sheila E and Jay-Z, and on-the-rise stars Shawn Mendes and Lizzo. With a signature affinity for colorful sonic textures that radiate warmth and ooze cerebral tone, Mercereau is a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist with credits spanning around 20-something instruments. Sometimes you may find him punching up the instrumentals on hip-hop samples with lush keys and synthesizers like on Jay-Z's 4:44. Other times you can catch him ripping Prince-inspired guitar solos with Lizzo. That is, if he's not lending some soul to Leon Bridges and Rhye, or backing pop sensation Shawn Mendes.
All of this leads to Joy Techniques, a project that fuses Mercereau's jazz training and virtuosity with his sharply-honed and highly-developed pop writing sensibilities. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, Joy Techniques is the perfect fusion between worlds of Mercereau's jazz roots and his songwriting craftsmanship.
"Something I was thinking about was making music that is really high level and musically advanced, but inviting everyone to that party," Mercereau tells PopMatters. "I'm not necessarily trying to make things to go over people's heads. And I think that's always been what jazz has essentially been. People are trying to connect as emotionally as possible. Things get lost along the way, and you can get self-indulgent. So I was aware of making something that is a concise statement. That's why the record is relatively short. I occupy a space which is straight-up between experimental jazz music and these high-level pop sessions. It all kinda has been in my world lately, so what I'm making is reflective of that."
Written and performed using guitars entirely with vintage guitar synthesizer units, no keyboards were used in the making of this album. But without the disclaimer, you easily may have never noticed. Mercereau creates an immediately colorful and vibrant musical landscape, shaping every corner with lush, natural-feeling synthesized guitar tones, backed solely by drummer Aaron Steele and the very occasional guest instrumentalist, like Kendrick Lamar producer and saxophone extraordinaire Terrace Martin. These synthesizer pedals proved themselves to be a relentless inspirational force, fueling the material that would come to be Joy Techniques.
"I kinda found them a couple of years ago," Mercereau notes when talking about those synth pedals. "They just ... appeared, you know? I found one on Craigslist, and on a whim, decided to pick it up and see what it was all about. I'm always getting gear for the studio; trying new things. It kept revealing itself to be an inspiring source. I was just like, 'Let's follow this thing all the way down and make the whole record with these things.' I didn't decide beforehand, it just kind of happened that way.' Anybody that has used one of these units can attest to the difficulties of mastering them, let alone getting the right sounds out of them.
"So the GR-700, the big silver one, I use that on the song 'Joy Techniques' in particular," Mercereau continues. "It's on the outro, kinda beneath Terrace while he's just sorta wailing on that free jazz outro. Also, all the organ sounds you hear are on the 700. No actual keyboards on the record, all guitar synthesizers. But honestly, the one I used by far the most was the GR-300, like the Pat Metheny box. And I used the 500 for some bass stuff, and some lead become mono-synth lead things."
The sounds of Joy Techniques are almost visual in how vivid the compositions are. Each track sounds almost as if it were a motif or character theme to a movie or video game, exuding an intense sense of purpose, "I'm not a video game dude," he laughs, "But, you know, what you might be picking up on, is the visual nature of the music. I really think of it as a space and time, and I'm influenced by things that are not musical. It'll be like a scene I have in my mind, or a kind of emotion when you're in a certain physical space. I pull from a lot of that, so that coupled with the synthesizer sounds totally adds up why it would come across in such a way."
With song titles like "The Simulation Is a Good One" and "Righteous Energy", Techniques' spiritual connotations are immediately recognizable, perfectly in tandem to set up the listeners journey through Mercereau's experimental wonderland. Although, unlike Twin Peaks: The Return, one doesn't need any extra ancillary material to pick up what Mercereau is putting down.
"I'm not a transcendental meditationer myself, but I am aware of the altered states," the guitarist-producer notes. "I'll put it that way -- and that could be anything as simple as having a moment with your friends, just connecting in that way where you transcend whatever your normal reality is. Those kind of moments where you're feeling synergistic with your existence, and you have that kind of sizzle of, what's the word, just like, synchronicity you know? That's the feeling.
"The title of the record is called Joy Techniques because I was essentially trying to create that space as intentionally as possible with the music. So that's the loose thread between all of them. That synchronistic feeling you get. It could be anything. I get it a lot in nature when I'm by myself, and I have time to connect with the actual earth. But it could happen in conversation; it could happen musically as well. And we use these songs as vehicles to achieve that live and show that experience."
Mercereau cut his teeth playing and touring around with local Bay Area acts until finally getting his big break working with legendary talent and iconic Prince collaborator Sheila E. Those who are in the know know that Sheila E. comes from one of the most rigorously demanding legacies of musical expertise and expectations. From Miles Davis, Zappa, James Brown, to Prince, There is a heritage of taking on the most talented musicians and shaping them into masters,
"I'm from San Diego I spent like eight years living in San Francisco going to San Francisco State and just being a part of the music scene there," he reminisces. "That's how I hooked up with Sheila E. and joined her band because she's in the Bay Area too. I was 21 when I got the gig with her and was with her for around four years. It was one of the first gigs I got that was beyond just a local Bay Area show, and I was terrified and more excited than I've ever been. She's the type of person where you do those 12-hour rehearsals, and you run the same song for four hours straight where you just play one groove. A full-blown extension of the Prince school of thought of having to be able to do all these basics perfectly, and just being undeniable at your instrument. Going into Sheila's band was a straight-up boot camp, and I learned so much from her, and I'm eternally grateful to be apart of her existence as a musician."
In recent years, Mercereau and producer Ricky Reed have formed a partnership that has proved to be fruitful not just for themselves, but music fans everywhere. Together, they've worked on music with the likes of Ke$ha on her comeback record Rainbow, charting new paths with Leon Bridges, and bringing on the uncompromising attitude and energy of Lizzo. This relationship has brought us a new era for artists with uninhibited commercial creativity.
"I played with Ricky in Facing New York for some of the reunion shows," Mercereau recalls. "We were friends in the Bay Area. He moved out of the Bay, came to LA and started this now wildly successful pop production career. And I was more of a road touring type of dude. I was playing with Sheila E. and Rhye. I came down, and we ended up reconnecting, sitting in on some sessions, playing guitar on a Ke$ha record or things here and there. Speaking of synchronicity and synergistic moments, we were just like, 'we work incredibly well together!' We just haven't had the opportunity in the studio, so now we're full-blown collaborating on Leon Bridges' albums and whatever's coming to the door. He's played quite a mentor role for me, like role model, just the type of dude who is creative and whose creativity doesn't know any boundaries. It's everything from experimental jazz to highest level pop stuff. I'm absorbing all that stuff through him."
On top of that, recently Mercereau hooked up with rising pop star Shawn Mendes and his co-writing partner extraordinaire Teddy Geiger (now transitioned into Teresa) to record two massive hit singles with "If I Can't Have You" and "Lost in Japan". As one becomes more familiar with Mercereau's work, the easier it becomes to identify his warm and colorful touch. But does a man with such impeccable skill ever feel the need to rip a killer solo on a Shawn Mendes pop song?
"[laughs] Yeah, you know, part of my brain goes there, but honestly it's like I do my best to always play for the benefit of whatever that artist is trying to be," Mercereau chuckles. "And Shawn is no slouch on the guitar. He's the one that comes up with parts mostly, and I'm kind of helping. Those two together are a dream team to work with. They're just so inspired and excited about music. I get to come in and make up some guitar parts with them or write some chords. So, honestly, because I have my own solo career, I don't feel the necessity to shred over people's music. [laughs] I have outlets to do exactly what I want to do, so it kinda allows me to be fully present for whatever any artist I'm working with wants to achieve."
And for my own sake, I had to ask him: for a man that's clearly unafraid to shred out on songs of his own, like on the transcendent Joy Techniques closer "See God, Bare Your Soul, Ascend Straight yo Heaven", why doesn't Lizzo play the awesome flute solo on the recorded version of "Juice" like she does live?
"I think that started to reveal itself at a time it just didn't line up for the studio recording. We were like, 'Oh, this is a live thing.' The song was done. I can't speak on the timing of that one, but that's my best guess. I think she's also recorded flute on some other songs and we're wary of it getting gimmicky. And that's unfortunate because she's a virtuoso. But I think we're trying to figure out cool ways to have her just be. I mean, she's a total virtuoso flute player. There's gotta be places to put that. Hell yeah, dude. And in terms of the guitar solo on 'Boys', that was really just me trying to match the energy she brings to records. [laughs] I was like, 'If anybody can have this type of music going on with them, it's her. Let's just go for it. Let's go full Prince and rip it. No holds bars.'"
So what's up next on the agenda for Mercereau? If you press him for answers on which artists he'd like to collaborate with in the future, you might just end up a little short. "It's kinda hard for me to think about that 'cos I don't like to create any expectations. For me a lot of things if it shows up at the right time in my life, then I'm pretty much willing to entertain it. I'm not sure if I have a specific answer about artists I want to work within that capacity. But in general, anyone who is seeking and in search of something different. That's the kind of thing I want to be a part of."
And for those waiting to see this material live, and eagerly taken to the next level, you need not fret.
"Oh yeah, we're gonna tour it," he exclaims. "The plan is to keep making records too. So you won't see me on tour 365 days a year, but we're going to play some shows here and abroad and get to work on the next one. We already have readjusted because getting someone to learn how to use a guitar synthesizer. It's like getting someone to learn a whole other instrument. It's not just like picking up a guitar. It's a whole thing. The idea for the band was to have a modern organ trio, meaning the organ is now a Moog bass synthesizer and a prophet polysynth, the keyboardist plays that, and we have a drummer, and I'm playing synth guitar as well. So we have a guy on actual keyboards manning that space station to achieve as close to the record sound, and then lift off from there."
Photo: Alexander Gay / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.