Interview with Nate Hall of U.S. Christmas

June 13, 2018

Interview with Nate Hall of U.S. Christmas

Nate Hall, a mastermind behind U.S. Christmas – dark space rock collective from North Carolina. Nate has also a wonderful solo acoustic discography. 

How old were you when you began playing music and what was the first instrument you played? 
I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 15. It’s the only instrument I’d ever played and is still really the only one I’m versatile with. I love anything with strings, and I have mandolins, a banjo, fiddles. And I love theremin and synth. I recently played bass on tour with Dreamy D. I love playing bass. But I’ve got at least 100 guitars so that’s obviously my true love.
What do you consider to be your first real exposure to music?
Probably just FM radio. I remember getting a station from Johnson city TN, which was pretty far from where I lived in rural NC. Some nights they’d play more obscure stuff. I heard Voivod, and I remember right after that Soundgarden’s cover of “Into the Void”. A friend gave me a mix tape with a lot of Neil Young on it. This would have all been real early 1990s. The first real album I dug in to was U2s Joshua Tree. I still love that one. I definitely had a sense of music as a complete work and vision through exposure to great records.
What bands were you a member of prior to the formation of U.S. Christmas?
I was never in a band before USX. Hadn’t really ever played with anyone.
U.S. Christmas started around 2002. When and how did you all originally meet?
I grew up in Mitchell county, which is next to McDowell county/Marion. But I didn’t meet John, Tim and Matt until I moved to Marion after college to work at the newspaper. John and Tim were living together and had both played in bands before. It’s a small town so it was kind of impossible not to run into each other, since we obviously stood out and had similar interests. I enjoyed the early times a lot. We had no expectations or pressure, and so anything that happened was like a bonus. This was all around 2002. 
When did you decide that you wanted to start writing and performing your own music?
Ever since I began playing I felt a creative drive. I had no experience though, and really no guidance. I learned to play by watching people play on TV. I learned to sing by being stubborn and doing it a lot. I wasn’t good at first. But I had an undeniable drive to create songs and records. I could just feel them inside, not sure how to explain it. I felt like if I didn’t bring these things into reality that I would die and fail at my purpose. It’s a huge relief to have that behind me.
What does the name “U.S. Christmas” refer to in the context of the band name? Who came up with and how did you go about choosing it? 
It’s the name of a buffalo hunter from the 19th century. Bob Dylan says the name in the Sam Peckinpah movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. As I recall, we were watching the movie and sort of thought it was a good idea to name the band that. I don’t really ever call the band that though. If people ask I say USX. It’s easier.
What’s the songwriting process like? And how would you compare it when you’re working on a solo project?
I tend to hear sounds, melodies and words in my head, and it usually happens around water. Pain and stress often make it worse. When I start hearing them, I know it’s not going to stop until it becomes real. At times it has been a lot of fun and really special. Other times it’s just misery. It’s easier when it’s just me making the record because I don’t have to explain anything. 
What would you say influenced you the most? Have influences changed during the years?
As far as guitar goes, I’d say Neil young. The way he mutes strings, the way he uses tone and how he does what he wants when he wants to do it. There aren’t any rules and he knows this. It’s stupid to ever think there’s an “appropriate” way or time to create something. That’s dead, practical business thinking and I hate it. I love Hendrix too, Dylan. Brett Netson has been a contemporary and personal influence. Scott Kelly too. 
Can you share details how your first albums such as Bad Heart Bull, Salt the Wound, Eat the Low Dogs were recorded?
Chad Davis, who joined USX real early on recorded all those. He’s a genius, and really made those records possible. He had the equipment and ability to record them, and he had the context to know how to bring out our best. We didn’t have to travel far or pay anything to make those records, which was the only way it could have happened. He’s a special dude and a great player and is still someone making interesting music. 
Then came the release of Run Thick in the Night and The Valley Path
Those records had so much momentum and power, but Run Thick in the Night especially marked a big change because so many people had left the band and new people were involved. Looking back, I really was difficult and basically ran over everyone. I thought in terms of- “this is the one chance to do this on this scale, and I/we won’t ever get this chance again”. That record is really an elaborate and intricately coded record. The stars, shifting energy, time, darkness, love, human history and violence all intertwined and exploding at once. A lot of people liked it, but I don’t think anyone really saw what I thought would be obvious. There are so many repeated number patterns, codes and references to things that were screaming to be heard and break into human consciousness. The Valley Path came from that continued momentum. It allowed me to say goodbye to a very special geographical place that I knew I would have to leave behind, and it really allowed everyone else in the band to fully shine. Most of them hadn’t been a part of the full Run Thick in the Night writing process. Some came in just before we recorded. Travis Kammayer, who had worked with Sanford Parker on Run Thick in the Night really worked well with us as essentially a part of the band. I love that record. If that last portion of it is the last thing USX ever records it’ll be the perfect end.
Lately you’ve been more involved with your solo career. Two years ago you released Our Path To Trouble, under moniker Uktena.
Yeah Uktena has been a good experience overall, and I’d like to do more. Our bass player Joe has been healing from a broken foot so we haven’t played much. But we have a good time together. It’s just understood that we do things as our lives allow.
Your latest release is The Center of the Earth.
I think The Center of the Earth is a good record, strong in every way. I wish I could be proud of it, but the after effects ruined my life. I wrote it for a woman who I thought I would be with forever. Not only did that not happen, but she completely abandoned me after my life fell apart. I lost my home. I got divorced. I’ve struggled every single day since. I don’t want to hear it, and I’ll never play any of the songs. I wish I had never made it. To make matters worse, I had a two year ordeal with the label that originally agreed to release it. It was a terrible, painful, stressful period of my life. Hypershape, a great Italian label, stepped in and gave it a proper CD release, but not one single person wrote anything about it. The whole experience put poison in my heart.
A Great River from a few years back is one of my favorite records from your discography. What’s the story behind it?
That record also came from pain, but was ultimately cathartic. I did it in one evening with Travis. I think that’s pretty remarkable. Neurot agreed to release it and it did really well as far as I could tell. A lot of it came from the really rough times with the band, my own personal struggles, and a desire to shed that awful weight. It worked. It helped me move forward. However, what followed was ultimately disappointing. A record like that should have been a clear indicator of an artist with a lifetime of music in him. But people are fickle and stupid. I can’t change that. People think I’m arrogant because I say things like that, and I am. But do you know anyone else who could pull off a record like that on no budget, no rehearsal and no time? But that seems to be irrelevant. On the upside, I can stand in front of my creator when I die and know I did my best. I gave people hope with that one. I saved part of myself. The mysteries of the world are hidden even from those who speak them. Still, those songs tell me there is a better place we are all bound for. Everything will be alright in the end.
The collaboration you did with John Baizley and Mike Scheidt was also great.
The Townes thing came from Ansgar as I recall. He’s a German Neurosis guy, a tour manager and someone they trust and rely on. He started a label My Proud Mountain and in part released the vinyl of A Great River. He knows Mike, John and I, and I guess it was pretty obvious to ask me because I had already done a Townes cover. I wanted to have women on the songs because Townes loved women and so do I. So I, Stevie, Dorthia and Meg all agreed and of course did great parts. It was easy to do those songs, and I love playing anything he wrote. I was actually involved with two of those records, the second one a Record Store Day 10 inch with Steve and Scott from Neurosis and I think John Baizley. I did a weird version of “A Song For”.
What about Electric Vacuum Roar and Fear of Falling. How would you describe those two records?
Those two records were a ballsy departure from A Great River, but were bitterly disappointing. Electric Vacuum Roar is really epic and soundscapey, with my favorite guitar player Brett Netson on the whole thing with me. Dave Clark who does live sound for Neurosis mixed it. I love that record and I put it up there with anything else I’ve done. I did Fear of Falling with Scott and Richard/Poisonous Snake as the band. We had great chemistry and toured twice on those songs. Travis once again recorded both of those. They are both solid, strong, unique works, but Neurot for whatever reason passed, and once that happened everything went to shit. Nobody wanted anything to do with me. Small labels seemed interested, but several folded before things could happen. HCB Records in Israel stepped up and did a CD of Electric Vacuum Roar and Tym Guitars in Australia did a killer 7 inch with some of the Fear of Falling tracks. However, neither one got any real attention, even in my damn home town. It’s really frustrating having this creative drive and ability to follow through, yet I’ve always been ignored here in the place I authentically represent. But this country celebrates mediocrity. I can’t change that. 
May I ask you about the use of psychedelics? Any impact on the band’s sound and vision?
Believe it or not I’ve never taken acid. One of the results of geographic isolation I guess. I like mushrooms, but the music I make really comes from another place entirely.
What kind of process do you have at mastering material for the release?
I’ve always just gone with what was possible to get it done. Whoever a label would spring for. Sometimes, like with Salt the Wound, no mastering was done at all. I honestly don’t think about it.
Who are some of your personal favorite bands that you’ve had a chance to play with over the past few years?
I like a lot of bands. The vast majority I’ve played with have been great. But if I had to pick anyone to play with solo it would be Dorthia Cottrell and Mike Scheidt because touring with them has been wonderful. And with a band it would be Weedeater because I laugh every day all day with Dave Collins.
What are some future plans?
I just want to be a good dad to my kids, a good son to my folks, a good man to my girl and to survive. I like to work hard and it would be nice to make a little extra playing music. I’d like to play Ireland and Scotland before I die. That’s it. 
Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
Caustic Resin – The Medicine is All Gone, Fly me to the Moon, Trick Question
Dorthia Cottrell
All books by Cormac McCarthy
The poems of James Dickey
The history of North American Indians
Thank you. Last word is yours.
Thanks for taking the time to interview me and let people know about my work. It’s harder now that I can ever remember for independent voices to be heard. 
Keep an eye out for the very first USX record, Prayer Meeting, which will have its first proper release on Hypershape Records early fall 2018.
– Klemen Breznikar
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