Burlington’s Own Nato: A Man With a Plan

We see the name everywhere. Nato this, Nato that. Who the hell is this Nato, anyway? We asked James M. Bushlow to find out just who this Nato cat is.

As the first notes of synth and electronic drums pulsed out of my stereo I started to wonder, “Wait a minute, techno? I thought this guy played coffeehouses.” Then came a melody played on a.... telephone. I smiled. As the techno died down it was replaced by a clean acoustic guitar and a solid bass drum rhythm. Then, the vocal came in and it all started to make sense. The voice was reminiscent of Elvis Costello and sang, “Count to ten, turn around / Disappeared, they have fled without a sound / Under stairs, in the trees / Children’s laughter in the breeze / Alive in a hide and seek..”

Nato, a.k.a. Nate Orshan, is a long-time contributor to the Burlington music scene, and he is currently putting the finishing touches on his first full-length CD, Roomful of Fans, recorded by Orshan and Matt McCarthy at the Wonderful Wife Recording Room in Burlington. Roomful of Fans proves the strength of Nato’s songwriting, showing influences that range from salsa to techno to fuzz-rock to folk, all from a local multi-instrumentalist that has been playing around town since the mid-80’s with bands like the Cuts, the New Wave band the Lawyers, The Dave Keller Blues Band, the Switch, and the samba percussion ensemble Sambatucada.

Raised on a healthy diet of the Beatles, classical music, and 60’s rock, Nato spent his high school years in Essex Junction, where he would wake up in the mornings listening to WRUV, the local alternative radio station out of the University of Vermont. Influenced by the New Wave movement and its ethic that “the old rules didn’t matter anymore,” Nato started checking out bands that were exploring New Wave , like the local bands the Decentz - fronted by Pamela Polston - and Pinhead - fronted by local artist Doug Knapp (known to most now as Dug Nap). National acts like the Talking Heads were also key to Nato’s love for a movement that was mixing experimental musical art with pop structures like the verse-chorus. “I remember waking up in my bedroom in Essex Junction, around 1983, ‘82, putting on RUV, and they played this great Talking Heads song ‘Artists Only’... It’s from their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food.... Very eerie, very catchy, and then David Byrne is screeching at the top of his voice, ‘I don’t have to prove... that I am creative! I don’t have to prove... that I am creative!’ And I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘This is what I want to be like! This guy, he knows something cool that I don’t.’”

Certain of his true path, Nato taught himself how to play the electric bass in the early 80’s, then moved on to studying the keyboard under Charles Eller (of Unknown Blues Band / Kilimanjaro fame), who also exposed him to a lot of jazz. He then took two years of formal music theory at the University of Vermont before spending a semester studying composition with resident composer Thomas Read. It was not until after graduating from UVM in 1995 (after taking quite a bit of time off and changing his major) that Nato bought himself an acoustic guitar. Though not a guitar player yet, the instrument proved to be a creative catalyst and Nato started attending open mics around town, while teaching himself how to play and writing new songs.

In 1996, Nato released an eight-song tape called Soap and Ammonia, which featured both studio and live tracks of Nato performing solo with his acoustic guitar. The tape was well received, garnering this praise from Pamela Polston of the Burlington news weekly Seven Days; “Nato’s blessed with a raw, limber, full-throated voice not unlike that of Marshall Crenshaw... Soap and Ammonia is filled with melodic hooks that pay no heed to trendiness, and conveys the singer’s appealing stage personality.”

When I started to ask Nato how he felt about the current local music scene, he was enthusiastic, mentioning the new releases by the Pants and Belizbeha as current favorites. He also named Wide Wail, Construction Joe, Chin Ho!, and songwriter Dave Gravelin as representative of the strong music scene here in Burlington, though he did emphasize that, “Burlington has had an awesome music scene forever!” We started to discuss local support for the music scene (other than from all the musicians), and Nato said he felt that there was good, positive support from City Hall through events like the Battery Street Park summer concert series, as well as shows at Contois (which is a space inside City Hall). In the computer field himself, Nato also commented on the role of technology in making the scene what it is today, “Technology has helped bring music to the forefront... it is not that there are more good musicians around, but people have more of an opportunity to take the bull by the horns and take things into their own hands.”

From late spring ‘97 to May ‘98, Nato worked on recording and mastering his first CD, Roomful of Fans. He took the bull by the horns and produced the CD himself at Wonderful Wife Recording Room using a PC, which all the tracks were recorded into. All effects, EQ, compression, and editing were done on a computer, giving Nato complete control over how his vision would sound. Though Nato produced the disc, Matt McCarthy gets the mastering, engineering and additional production credits. “It’s my vision, I produced it, they’re my tunes... but I couldn’t have done it without Matt... someone who understands that when you hear something a certain way and you want it, you really shouldn’t rest until you’ve got it... and he won’t.” The disc is extremely clean, sounding better than most locally recorded and produced efforts. Granted, the sound is pure digital, and someone who prefers an older, analog sound may not be impressed with the meticulous production by Orshan. However, I think it is easy to appreciate the work that went into making Roomful of Fans sound clean enough that a track like the opener “Hide and Seek” wouldn’t be out of place in rotation with bigger budget material on WNCS (The Point).

While listening to Nato’s debut CD, I noticed a difference between how some instruments sounded compared to others, so I asked how much of the instrumentation was tracked live, and how much was sequenced. Nato readily offered that the drums and some of the keys had been sequenced, but he also admitted that at times he had struggled a little with using so much technology to create the album. He told me, “You want to be real, you want to represent yourself honestly, but on the other hand you can say, ‘What is honest?’ For me, (it’s) to be honest to my vision for the song.”

Nato mentioned a couple of times how he treated each of the tracks on the album like a child, and from listening to him talk about the production and the songs themselves, I could tell he had spent a lot of time with the tunes in the studio. Some of the tracks, like the danceable-island number “Bom-Bom” are lighthearted (the lyrics ask the listener what it was like, “When mom lit up for the very first time”), others like “Putting Peace to an End” engage difficult subjects like child abuse. “From the Noise”, a fuzz-tone rocker with a fat backbeat is, according to Nato, a “refutation of Buddhism”, while “Run Away” is a story of... a girl and a boy. Nato said that he tries to engage topics that don’t always show up in a pop context, while trying to sound sincere and unpretentious. “One of the things that I hope comes across is the sincerity...I think that’s one of the triumphs of the Beatles... these guys have the ability to be so sincere, regardless, whether they’re singing “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” or “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, no matter how much they’re joking, there’s this sincerity.”

With the CD due to come out in January, Nato plans to start promoting it relentlessly, getting the CD on radio playlists and in stores. He wants to then perform in the areas where the CD is getting airplay, and try to develop a following and a reputation in those areas. He sees New England from Portland to Boston as his target. “You’ve got to set your sights realistically,” he says. Eventually, Nato wants to get a power pop-rock trio together and start the whole process over again, trying to expand that initial fan base. He would play bass, and be accompanied by the traditional guitar and drum kit (he is actively looking for a guitarist that is interested in similar music). He has not been backed by a band playing his material for over a decade, and he says he is looking forward to it.

If anyone’s interested by a strong release of original tunes, categorized by the artist as “semiretro pop/rock,” this is your ticket. Nato’s songs show an impressive level of musicianship, blending genres with a common thread of undeniable melodic hooks that leave you humming, singing or tapping for days. This release is long overdue for a musician who has been on the scene for over twelve years and the chances are that after a year of airplay and touring, Nato will have a lot more than a roomful of fans.