Two years since their debut EP “Wait,” Nashville-based band, Arlie has taken off to solidify themselves in the indie rock world, touring across the country with shows at esteemed festivals such as Bonnaroo.
The group met in college, forming a collective of students from Vanderbilt and Belmont. Now, band members Nathaniel Banks, Adam Lochemes, Carson Lystad, and Jason Antwi are in the process of putting together their first LP while quarantined together in Nashville.
I talked with lead singer, guitarist, and writer, Nathaniel Banks, about his experience so far as a touring musician and the rising success of Arlie. However, such success comes with the responsibility and stress that the average fan can’t fathom. We had a dialogue about the mental health challenges that artists face and how to find success in the ever-elusive music industry.
MR: Looking through all your music and content so far, it’s clear that visuals are a big part of the Arlie aesthetic —the “didya think” video being my personal favorite. You’ve mentioned in other interviews how visuals are intertwined with your music. Could you elaborate on the artist process and how this aesthetic came to be?
Nathaniel Banks: I started to get inspired by all these collage artists on Instagram. With all these demos I was putting out on soundcloud, I would pair them with whatever image I was inspired by. They were all in this world of some retro, futurist, surreal collage. That’s what inspired the “didya think” video. It was made up of cut-outs from a bunch of random books we bought from a closeout sale for a used book store. It was this whole combined world with outer space, the beach, the ‘50s … It was something I wanted the music to exist in. Our friend and videographer, Sam Boyette is a pro, so we definitely trust his vision and feed off each other’s creative energy. Like the “Too Long” video was made out of one of his dreams. It was super cool to make it happen
MR: It’s interesting to see this futuristic and collage-esque dream world you’ve got going on. You guys released “Wait” two years ago. Whether learning about yourself or the band, what have these last two years been like for you?
NB: It’s been really insane on multiple levels. First, it was the EP we put out with the burst of excitement and touring. We really were honing our chops as musicians and just going through shit together — bonding and all that. Then, [I] kinda took some time off, as I got into this writing zone … I literally drove myself crazy. Ended up in a mental hospital. That was a little over a year ago. Then I started getting healthy again … Going to writing sessions … Did some co-writing and co-producing … Learned a ton from that with working from pros, just learning how those types of peoples’ brains work. But those songs that came out of co-writes and co-production just didn’t feel like Arlie. I started this project to make the music that I wanted to listen to and felt was missing out there. It’s hard to make something personal with a new collaborator that I don’t know really well.
I’ve had a batch of 40 new songs since the EP that I believe in. And a bunch more that I hate. It’s been a narrowing process over the last few months with the band. For example, Adam, our drummer, who is a really good mixer and just overall helpful with sounds and fixing things, has been great to take some weight off my shoulders. Overall, I’m grateful that the whole group brings their unique strengths to the table and it really contributes to our process. If you try to wear six hats at once. It’s kind of maddening. As a team we have just been quarantined and are really getting into a flow. It’s exciting and we can see the finish line: LP. A lot of ups and downs. But in an optimistic and motivated spot right now.
MR: I’ve met a lot of writers and musicians that struggle with mental health, and I’m glad you’re trying your best to get on with your career and take care of yourself. It’s no surprise that mental health is not a conversation occurring on a widespread basis. How has it been trying to balance everything you have going on while trying to maintain this success and artistic process of Arlie?
NB: It’s definitely been a major struggle. I feel like I wouldn’t have taken it so bad if it was something I felt comfortable talking about at the time. And that can be changed culturally through a whole bunch of people trying to break down that stigma together, bringing attention to the benefits of therapy and whatnot. I feel like that is a movement going on that needs all the help it can get.
MR: What steps have you taken to make sure you’re looking out for your own welfare while also keeping up your writing process?
NB: It was a major lesson that hit me over the head. I feel like I tend to learn things the hard way. There is this archetype of the “suffering artist,” and I feel like I went as far as you can go in that direction until I realized that wasn’t really effective. For me, success is living up to my creative potential. That doesn’t happen when you’re mentally unhealthy. Success requires being the best version of yourself. That includes how you treat others. Working with the band, it forced me to realize when I’m not dealing with my shit it comes out and affects others. So working as a team, you have to have to have a healthy way of processing your emotions.
For me, being deliberate about simple things like eating at the same times, doing a run or walk, taking time for silence, and not bombaring your brain with stuff [helps]. Sleep is a huge thing. I’m into the mind-body connection. What’s in your mind and heart affect your body a lot more than what most of us are aware of. I see it as one pursuit: being a better person, being mentally healthy, being a better musician, and being a better artist. The little things add up. I’ve also been off social media for a year now. You almost have to be on it as an artist and it’s great to connect with fans and what-not. But it can be really unhealthy for people who are prone to it. It’s been good to take a break from that too.
MR : That’s great to hear and demonstrates a good perspective that I think a lot of people could learn from. I saw you’ve played with a bunch of cool bands such as Snail Mail, Post Animal, and Soccer Mommy. What has it been like coming into contact with artists on the national stage? Anyone you were particularly excited about?
NB: I tend to get super nervous and freeze up when I meet people like that. Rostam was an example. He’s done work with Vampire Weekend, Clairo, HAIM, Carly Rae, Ra Ra Riot … I was just geeking out, fanboying, trying to not tell him I was obsessed with his music. Who knows, maybe I should have. We went to get drinks after. The whole time I was like “I really need to go to bed. I have a show tomorrow. But I really wanna talk to Rostam.” So I went out for drinks but he ended up being bombarded with fans, and I barely got to talk with him at all. It was cool he liked the music enough to invite us on tour.
Thinking about Bonnaroo and being in the backstage artists area. I definitely didn’t have the guts to talk to anyone. But everyone was there. Maybe if I had a few more drinks …
MR: I definitely would have frozen up too. Couldn’t imagine all that. Over the last few years, you have been able to go through the rare experience from going from a college band to a greater nationwide success. What have you learned about what it takes to succeed in the music industry?
NB: There are a bunch of ways to succeed … Trying to reach a bunch of people and still have this artist’s integrity and make music you actually care about that says something meaningful, then it’s really hard. You need to be able to trust your team and really trust your gut. Your gut needs to tell you what creative decisions you don’t want to compromise on. I used to say “never compromise,” but that actually wasn’t a good mantra. Anyone who does anything successfully compromises on things that aren’t important to them and doesn’t compromise on things that are. You have to know what is important to you.
You have to break through the gatekeepers with some initial burst. There isn’t a secret. There was definitely some hustling for that first step. We sent Big Fat Mouth to every blog I could find on the internet with a pitch that I thought would be compelling. That got picked up by 10-15 of the 60 or so blogs I sent it to. Then, Spotify’s algorithm picked it up on the fresh finds. Then, with whatever data and personal tastes on the playlists, it kept doing well. It was half luck and half me pouring my entire heart and soul into this song and then hustling.
Then, managers and labels started hitting me up. It was all of them at once. They see something taking off organically, and they pounce on it. Then, everyone has this idea that you’re set once you get signed to a label, but that’s not really true. That’s when you have to fight for your artistic license. That’s when it’s really important to have people that you trust because a lot of people are going to say what you want to hear if they have something to gain from it.
The thing is, all these top music marketing people, they don’t know how to make fans care. You have to do that. You have to create the compelling thing and blow up on the small scale. Some things are completely unpredictable but you should try to put yourself in positions for inspiration and success.
MR: The hustle is definitely a big part of it. Finding that balance between the artistic vision and knowing when to compromise too is something a lot of artists face. You gotta figure out the dynamic of your artistic vision while balancing the help from others when it comes to marketing and branding.
NB: Totally. The marketing people are great if you have your story down, they can help you tell it in a way that can reach a lot of people. But they’re not gonna write that story.
MR: I imagine you have to make an effort to get people excited about you. Fans are excited about you, not the marketing experts. Going back to the band’s quarantine in Nashville, how has that dynamic been and what have you all been up to?
NB: This has been the first time it has been all of us really involved. It has been really cool. We are forced to work out any differences or disputes because we are stuck together. We are figuring out ways to collaborate together because I think that’s always better in a tight knit group when you can really trust each other … Taking all the songs that were 75% done, getting them to 97% and passing it off to the mixer. [We have] four songs done now with seven or eight to go. It’s been kinda chill because before we thought we had to get the album done in time to go on tour this summer. But now, no one is really going on tour. So at least we aren’t getting behind. *laughs*
MR: You have talked about working on the LP and that’s a big milestone for you right now, but what do you think is next for Arlie? What are some goals either personally or for the group that you’re looking to work towards over the next couple of years?
NB: Number one is purely chops. Playing and performing. I’ve felt like I’ve lost some of that in the process of writing and composing. Now we gotta practice every day and really be professional in that standpoint. There are always ways to improve … It’s really inspiring to see people start off as brilliant songwriters and composers that work to be great performers and musicians. Also, I think becoming a band that is more of a team is more important than just having a good live show.
In all aspects, I feel like we are getting closer and more like a unit, finding roles outside of the music side of things, not trying to wear all the hats at the same time, or having two of the people fighting over one of the hats.
Otherwise, tour the whole world.
Following the success of their first EP to his hospitalization last summer, it is abundantly clear that Nathaniel Banks has taken the time to reflect on a rather eventful career even in his mid 20s. He’s witnessed the highs, struggled through the lows, but his passion for music and songwriting persists. There are some things you can compromise on in life, but whatever brings you meaning certainly isn’t one of them.
Many aspiring musicians could learn from Banks’ experiences and insight. It’s rare that you’re able to encounter someone that demonstrates such sincerity and humility following the dynamic journey of both success and struggle.
In their song, “tossing and turning,” Banks sings “Your big break could break you // The spotlight could make you blind.” While the spotlight may have taken its toll on Banks and Arlie, there is no doubt that they are going to continue on with eyes wide open, chasing the dream.