THEE NATHANIEL FREGOSO & THE BOUNTIFUL HEARTS
Thee Nathaniel Fregoso interrogates his long term sonic collaborator & Bountiful Hearts staple Joel Isaac Black for Splendid Berlin. Featuring an exclusive Isaac Black mix.
Interview: Nathaniel Fregoso
Portraits: Heike Schneider-Matzigkeit
I met Joel at Amoeba Records in L.A., where he was working at the time. We soon became friends and we were absolutely incorrigible together. Partners in crime is an understatement, we did every stupid thing you could imagine, many times over, and we did it with gusto and panache. He was a drummer, and I wrote songs, so eventually we channeled that reckless energy into music. My solo record, Thee Nathaniel Fregoso & the Bountiful Hearts, which is being released via Duchess Box Records on 12 September, is the result. The day after finishing the final mix on the record, I left L.A. for Berlin, and a few months later Joel came over too, to see what all the fuss was about. Needless to say, there were more adventures and there was more madness. A friend once said that seeing us together was like listening to Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town”. I am so lucky to have met this guy and to be able to call him a friend. So, ladies and gentleman, crank up the Thin Lizzy, without further ado, Mr. Joel Isaac Black:
NF: So, you’re originally from Texas?
JIB: Yes, I was born and raised in Dallas. My father was a blues musician amongst other things, from my earliest moments, the music that I still think is some of the best music in the world J.J. Cale and greats. Sixties stuff. He had good taste. And I remember my first moments of getting excited about my little stool that I could step up, and when I finally grew tall enough, to put records on the turntable which was a beautiful broken down 70s thing that required a very careful amount of pennies or coins balanced as a counterweight on the stylus. And this was a really special game. Making sure that I could put a record on perfectly without a loud scratch being omitted, which would cause my Dad to come run and then yell at me. These are all things that I’m sure influenced my excitement about these things.
NF: And then you started playing drums when you were . . .?
JIB: I started when I was 11, maybe. And the next year I was in a concert band situation at school. I always liked that. But immediately I begged my parents to get a drum set, a proper drum set and this was an escape for me. I played along to Steve Miller records. And to this day a lot of the drummers which I still find the grooviest were my original inspirations, just playing along to them.
NF: You and I met at Amoeba.
JIB: You were coming to see an in-store of a band, weren’t you?
NF: Yeah. I don’t remember what.
JIB: I remember thinking a friend of yours, Ben Lee, who is a friend of a lot of people, was a funny guy. And I went up to you and introduced myself. That’s when we started hanging out a lot. It was much more fun to hang out with friends who shared humor and passion for goofy excessive living and exciting funny things that didn’t necessarily fit into some of the predictable rock and roll tropes that are easy to follow in L.A.
In L.A., you realize all your friends who are playing rock and roll are very very safe living people and that’s what attracted me to some of the craziness. And you always had friends in the film world that were older weirder people. Like instead of going to work, you’d make me call in sick and go to this crazy shut-in pad of this Hollywood screenwriter, just surreal moments, and this is much more satisfying and gives me a lot more passion and interesting anecdotal living for future projects, and for future inspiration, than showing up at a really obvious boring sanctioned rock and roll event. I think that was a big inspiration.
NF: We started playing together.
JIB: We were both in other bands. You of course were in the ongoing Blood Arm and I was in a short-lived but bright shining star called Sweaters, friends I met through you, and this was again a part of our insufferable ability to hang out forever. And I had a particular house that functioned as a wild party spot but also a rehearsal place.
When we were first playing, the person in the room was the bass player, even if they couldn’t play bass. That’s not the point, just make noise for a while, got tired, put on the Rolling Stones again. I’m always cheerleading, I’m always an outspoken energy in a band, but being the drummer you’re not usually the songwriter. I know my way and I have my opinions around every sort of melody and note and I can generally express myself, articulate myself, but I’m not composing like a songwriter is, so it’s just a different role and I think a band needs both and I think our chemistry was good for that. Based on mutual absolute disregard for everything else, we can just do it, fuck all. And that’s the way the greatest projects are born.
NF: That’s, I feel, the spirit of the Bountiful Hearts record.
JIB: Absolutely. This is the thing, I mean, absolutely parallel to what I’ve expressed before it’s just a fuck you to people who are doing such normal things, it’s so so boring. Your determination to do something fun and original despite being mocked, despite all the critics who say, “where’s your serious emotional resonant great record that’s full of meaningful things with new sounds and stuff.”
I think it really clicked when you said you were leaving and moving to Germany. Well, fuck, you know. To be honest, there was a fog around me and you said well let’s get studio time. You really provided this thing, “Well, you’re never going to be ready, it’s never going to be finished, let’s just do it, otherwise it will never exist.” And that’s really true, you have to force yourself to commit some things to tape.
NF: And then when the record was finished, I moved to Berlin. And you moved a few months later. Can you describe moving?
JIB: This is a period of my life that I was increasingly likening to a fog. There was just angst. A lovely German word as well. Just existential problems with L.A. I don’t dislike the city. I disliked the way that I was conducting myself there. I’d become predictable. And I didn’t think that you were the answer going to Germany. I didn’t think that our band was going to have a career in Germany. I had a girl that I was interested in, who lived on this side of the world. And in my mind I thought, maybe not London, but Germany, close enough.
The realities of living, finding a place, finding a job were absolutely suspended and that allowed me to make this incredible break. Luckily I was very poor, had very few possessions. I had no strings attached. People would ask, “How are you moving to Berlin?”, “I don’t know, I’m moving to Berlin.”, “How are you doing it?” Well the first problem is selling all my possessions to buy a plane ticket. That’s actually the only problem. Yes, I have family, I have friends, but they’re nothing as important to me as finding a place that feels like freedom. And I hope most people feel the same way. There’s no substitute for that. And if I had to move again, I still would. I assume it only gets harder as you get older, but at the time it was just, yeah I’m doing it, solo, myself. I didn’t understand visas, I didn’t know anything about living in Germany. You just told me I could sleep at your place and that was good enough and I came.
NF: Can you describe the early days here?
JIB: Haha, the fog. Yes, I can. I remember the day that I arrived. It was overcast and drizzly. You gave me instructions from the airport which I followed dutifully and I was shocked flying in how green it was. Berlin is such a beautiful green place. Until you’re a hundred feet off the ground you think you’re going to land in the forest and Tegel is such a beautiful little place. Just imagine as foreign as foreign can be. In the end you’re not shocked by anything, but everything is also new and it’s the subtle things that arrive in the first couple days.
NF: We were living in a closet together.
JIB: That’s true. That’s also true.
NF: In those early days.
JIB: The uncertainty of our rent or where we’d end up. We had a lenient landlord. We had a circle of friends. I guess we had a support system, but I do remember the fear and excitement being a great great thrill.
I remember we posed as electricians and were hired to wire a clothing boutique. I remember drawing a picture in reverse, so I could take a picture and email it to a friend who was an electrician in Los Angeles, to ask him if we were going to short circuit the whole house. We got paid for that and I remember we were just like, “Yeah! Buy some beer and cheese and bread!” Elemental things and being here, coming from the most pretentious place ever in Los Angeles. There was absolute lack of judgment, lack of judgmental people around you. That’s just the most seductive thing ever. These people don’t give a shit about any of your little hang-ups about any of your pretentious little cliquey rock and roll bullshit, it’s all pretense. These people are going to their mosque. They live a very different life from you. They don’t have the same experiences.
NF: Can you describe Kater Holzig and how you started to work there?
JIB: I fell in with a lovely lady, who is still my girlfriend. She had put the word out that her lover was looking for a job. At the time I spoke no German. I didn’t speak the language of the city. More than even the literal language, the lack of knowing the landscape of the city, what neighborhoods, what establishments, what type of jobs would be suitable for me.
She introduced me, this is the girlfriend of my girlfriend, she said yeah, come meet this gentleman, he’s the kitchen chef. And I remember it was horizontal snow or something, it was the winter when I first arrived. Okay, meet this guy, so I went up to this old factory, which is of course the legendary Kater place and went to the back staircase where I met the guy, he was really gruff and had half the conversation in German which I didn’t understand. Okay, Saturday, noon. Okay, Easy enough.
We had our first show the night before as a duo and we had worked up a set. I remember I was playing knitting needles on bottle caps for percussion. It just didn’t matter, I played harmonica and we put on a great show. One of my favorite performances I can remember for a long time, DJ’d all night and with no sleep and drunk as hell, I showed up as a kitchen helper in the Kater restaurant and I just remember saying, “I’m here to work, I’ll work my ass off.” And I stayed true to my word and very quickly I was on my way there and that turned into a real job and a lifestyle and a lot of things.
NF: What are you doing now?
JIB: Kater was such an opportunity and even after a year and a half where I knew how crazy it was, my hours, working every night in this kitchen, straining my relationship, straining my health, straining my sanity. There were lots of highs and lows. The place closed and it was an obvious exodus for a lot of the kids. We all scrambled to find a little bit of income.
I spent the first three months of this year thinking about what to do next. Doing odd kitchen jobs, I really got an entrepreneurial spirit, thinking I was going to open my own pop-up restaurants, all these things. These things are very trendy and stuff, but I now had the knowledge and the challenges that I knew from the restaurant. And that’s one of the greatest experiences, the confidence to be able to organize and pull off some events.
So, I have a little project with a good friend, in which we recreate a Sunday Roast that you would find at any traditional English pub and we make the food and the atmosphere. I’m cheffing still and organizing a vegetarian/vegan menu at a local cafe in Kreuzberg. I am staying busy. Busier than ever. And DJing with a friend under the name Total Ananas. I don’t feel the boundaries that I had. And that’s a great thing. I feel like that’s still the greatest gift of Berlin. Freedom. And not having to define yourself.
And then recently, you’ve had time, I’ve had time, we say we’re going to make this Bountiful Hearts record. So I’m thrilled to just physically get my drumming chops back and jump back in. Every rehearsal feels like more promise and more opportunity and we can do a tour and then at the end of the tour, you might have to do The Blood Arm, I might have to go cook more, I might play some sets at techno clubs and the next day we can get back together and play rock and roll. And I think people will be excited and supportive for all of that. And that’s a gift I still enjoy.
Thee Nathaniel Fregoso & the Bountiful Hearts is released on 12 September via Duchess Box Records.
Mr Joel Isaac Black has produced a slinky, seductive and exclusive Splendid Berlin Mix which can be found below alongside written commentary by the man himself…
A certain relentless groove. The anxious pull of the tempo. That spastic drum-fill, jarring keyboard stab, cacophonous crescendo, and glorious resolution. These audio events contained within my records are haphazardly strewn throughout songs, movements, codas, intros, choruses…but each micro-moment can conjure such powerful psychic memories within me, each becomes a powerful catalyst, expanding into a unique emotional universe. These are my hazy pockets. Powerful triggers embedded in my favorite music. Not the singer, not the song, not the album, but the little pocket!
I sold every one of my records in my last week living in Los Angeles. Despite my painstaking accumulation of the collection, I parted with these artifacts easily, knowing they would propel me to new places. Berlin is my new place. They have records here too. But before every little hazy pocket from my past gets a little too hazy, lost to time, and replaced with the incessant present sounds…I make mixes. Inspired by an individual, perhaps a friend, or a place, a bar, a night out…I free associate from that initial prompt, mine my memories, and make up a mix. The songs above represent a careless, comulsive, geographic study of my hometown, Dallas Texas, my adventures in magic Los Angeles, and my arrival in glorious Berlin. Off we go.
Joel Isaac Black