Returning to a life in electronic music after a 20 year hiatus is pretty much unheard of, and yet, thats the situation Nathan Pope aka Antenna Happy finds himself. Growing up in the Midlands and schooled on the burgeoning sounds coming from Detroit, a young Nathan found his sound early on. A few years of clubbing in the North of England cemented his love, and with residencies and appearances in one of the UKs hippest cities – Bristol all through the early 1990s, Nathan was set for stardom, but became disillusioned with how the scene was being commercialised, so stepped aside and began a career in acting instead. Fast forward 20 or so years and with the birth of his daughter, a spark was reignited, and the Antenna Happy project was born. His first release ‘Pinto’ found favour among many in the underground, and now he’s full steam ahead. A&R man Simon Huxtable caught up with Nathan recently to explore his unique and interesting past life, talk through his music and find out his views on the scene today.
Hi Nathan, thanks for joining us at Decoded Magazine. Hows your day been so far?
A bit foggy. There is an enthralling test match in progress at Headingly, and listening to that on TMS has kept me on track. It is my favourite radio show.
So lets start at the beginning. Tell us about your musical discoveries at school, what was it about the sounds of Detroit that so enamoured you?
I’d never heard anything like it. Really, it was the first music I loved. My sister had introduced me to Bowie and Talking Heads, I loved them, and I was a real fan of the Pet Shop Boys, but when I heard techno for the first time, I was hooked. I loved that music could convey such emotion, without lyrics. And it sounded like the future.
Aside from Juan and Kevin, who were your musical idols growing up, and have they changed much over the years?
I’ve never really been an idoliser of artists. I grew up with the DJ culture, where it was the overall sound that mattered, not the individual artists. Everyone contributes to the whole, and it is still the case. Of course there are amazing producers that have been massively influential, have changed the course of the music, and at times I have been a little obsessed by them, but there are too many to mention….. Labels-wise, I had pretty much everything on Work and Guerilla. Artist-wise, it would have to be Underworld and Carl Craig. I had all of Underworld’s 12”s in my record box in the early nineties, they never left (unless they got nicked). Carl Craig too. Paperclip People tracks got played at Lakota week-in, week-out.
We’re well versed in the Northern clubbing scene of the UK, but for those a little late to the game, can you explain how revolutionary and exciting those times were for the clubbers that were fortunate enough to experience the birth of house music?
I was incredibly lucky really. I missed the very first wave of acid house, but in early 1989 as soon as the music and stories had started to filter through, I met some like-minded people at school and one of them had a car. We started going to clubs in the North and the Midlands – Leeds Warehouse, Shelleys in Stoke, The Hacienda in Manchester. But my spiritual home back then was the Eclipse. It was insane. The UK’s first all-night licence and it was off the scale. It was the essence of the UK rave scene, in a four-storey concrete monstrosity in Coventry. Sasha, Fabio and Grooverider on the same billing, you could hear Promised Land and Energy Flash back-to-back. The music would stop at 6am sharp, no “last tune” nonsense, the halogen lights would come on and blind everyone, and you’d all go outside and dance in the car park or the bus stop to the noise of the engines. It wasn’t cool. But it was amazing, and you can trace the birth of so many sub-genres of dance music to that point in time. It felt like a revolution. Musically, it was. Politically, the government were very clever in that about that time they started to allow these things to happen. Controlled licensing, the end of illegal raves. As a result, the political revolution never happened.
Like many students in the 90s, you took up DJing as a hobby fuelled by your love of the music. Talk us through those tentative first few months of practice..
It was just a great laugh, and again, I was very lucky. I knew by then that I wanted to be a DJ, and one day to write some tunes. I had been buying vinyl for a year or so and I had quite a few records. I was at Bristol University, the halls of residence I was staying at just happened to have a pair of 1210s and a 1k rig. They had no idea. I borrowed them, had them in my room and tormented the neighbours. I made tape after tape. My mixing was never great, but the tune selection was ok. It didn’t feel like practice, I was having the time of my life!
The early 90s were a time of much activity in the Bristol scene, with bands like Massive Attack, Portishead, Gary Clail and the On-U Soundsystem, Smith and Mighty, as well as many many pop bands all calling the city home. How was it for you starting out in such a musically rich environment, and what challenges did you face setting up your night Flybaby?
Bristol was great. I was young and didn’t have a great deal of knowledge about the musical heritage, apart from the obvious ones, but it always felt accessible, that it was ok to do your own thing. I met Grayson Shipley, he was very focussed and made things happen – he has remained very active as a DJ and producer throughout this time – and we just hit it off. Grayson was already running a night, and I was DJing at another, and we decided to join forces and start Flybaby. It was at a venue called The Mandrake, a couple of arches underneath Park Street, god knows if it is still there. About 150 people on a Wednesday night, pretty much always rammed, unashamed hands-in-the-air, we decked the place out with hand-made banners, we did our own fly-posting all over the city in the dead of night. It was a dream come true. We had a ball.
Lets talk about Lakota. For most people, Lakota will be a faceless nightclub in a city they barely know, but for Bristolians, Lakota represented everything good about dance music. Of course, St Pauls was a different place in the 90s, how did you feel going there for the first time?
I didn’t have an opinion about its location, but in terms of playing there it was actually a tough call. Flybaby was going really well mid-week, and we had decided to start a weekend night. At the same time, we were offered a residency at Lakota on a Saturday, a new house night called Revolution, just as the UK club scene was really starting to go nuts. We went to Lakota as punters and loved it. There would be regular cash, playing with these “top” DJs and pretty much carte-blanche in a back room that was perfect for our thing, plus a 4am licence. It really was an either-or choice. We agonised over it but decided to go with Lakota. It was brilliant, and there were some amazing times, people came from everywhere, four-hour sets for a dance floor full of crazed lunatics… the best DJing experiences ever…. but I do wonder how things would have gone if we had backed ourselves and did our own thing.
So fast forward a few years, and we understand you became disillusioned with the way things developed. In a recent interview you call yourself an ‘idealistic teenager’ and that you believed dance music was a real revolution, so its with some empathy that we understand your desire to shift focus. You decided to try acting, had you any training in it at that point?
I had always loved acting, from a very young age, and I was also doing loads of plays at Bristol, so I just felt like I had to give it a shot. I had an itch to scratch. I went to drama school in Glasgow, but that was a few years later.
Since then you’ve become a software designer. What sort of stuff do you work on?
Websites. The geeky bit, not the design bit. There have been a few projects but the one I’m most proud of is a bereavement charity / fundraising website called muchloved.com. I was asked to help design and code the software by my brother-in-law and it was just a fantastic project to be involved in. They were really ahead of their time, it was developed pre-social media and the ideas they had then were pretty out there. I don’t work on it so much these days but it’s going really strong which is great to see.
Last year saw you step back into the limelight with the release of the excellent ‘Pinto’ EP Which we described as like …”Phil Kiernan’s ‘Never Ending Mountain’ on steroids!” Talk us through the inspiration for the track, and the choice to work with a fledgling label like Reinhardt.
That’s quite a description! My favourite was from my niece Ava, who was two at the time and said it was “scary and shivery”…. To be honest there wasn’t really any inspiration, I was just writing and writing and trying to get a lot of bad ideas out of my system. Then Pinto came along and it was the first time I really felt that I was on track. Getting the tune out on Reinhardt was really a very organic thing. I had met Alex Oxley through Lisa Jeliffe who I met at Burning Man. We made a connection but I had no idea at the time where it would go. I had done an edit of The Chain for their Fleetmac Wood night, and sent Lisa the first cut of Pinto. Alex was up for starting a new label and approached me about Pinto being the first release. I was very chuffed. It was organic and a perfect match I think.
Tell us about remixing ‘The Chain’ by Fleetwood Mac, are there any classics you feel shouldn’t be touched?
I don’t think anything is untouchable. I would probably not have a go at Unfinished Sympathy, for example. To me, it is perfect, but that’s not to say it shouldn’t be re-worked by someone if they can bring something new to it – take Greg Wilson’s “two sides of sympathy” for example! The Fleetmac Wood edits I have done have been really helpful for me, it is quite a specific task, you don’t have stems, you only have the WAV ripped from a CD, so you have to be very creative within set parameters. It’s good learning.
We understand you have been developing a live show. Hows that going?
Slowly! I’ve done a few gigs and it is evolving. I want it to be live, but I also want to give a good account of the tunes that I have spent so many hours working on, so I’m trying to find the right balance between the pre-prepped stuff and the improvised elements. I love it though, it’s really exciting.
And you’ve been DJing a few places in your new hometown – Brighton. How does it feel to reconnect with the crowds after a 20 year break? Do the old tricks still work, or have you had to, in essence, start again?
I’m not really DJing much to be honest. I’m in my forties, I have a daughter and a day-job, I can’t really get into all of that very often. I’ve played a few sets at the Secret Garden Party over the last few years and I’ve absolutely loved it. Its Traktor for me now rather than 1210s, but it’s still the same. Just choose good tunes and take your cues from the crowd. Collectively you know where to go.
In the 90s happy hardcore got the brunt of the music snobs displeasure, these days, that honour is bestowed on EDM. How do you feel the dance music scene in general has grown, and does that revolutionary teenager ever bubble to the surface anymore?
For me handbag house was worse than happy hardcore! And I played a bit of both too! Comparing the scene now to then is like comparing chalk with cheese. But I guess there will always be commercially-successful stuff that really doesn’t cut it, and people making a mint from quite average music. That’s true in all of art.
Talk us through your studio set up. What DAW have you chosen, and do you still use hardware at all?
Ableton Live – for me it is a phenomenal piece of software. It just happens to be the one I chose when I got back into it, I couldn’t comment on all the others. For me it does everything I want it to. I also have a Juno 6, a Roland MX-1, an Arturia MicroBrute and some Moog guitar pedals. Everything else is in the box at the moment. It’s a pretty compact set-up. I’m hoping it will grow – I do love the hands-on you get with hardware.
I imagine the technology for making music is almost unrecognisable compared to 20 years ago. What for you has been the biggest/best improvement?
Absolutely. I would have given anything as a teenager back then to have access to the kind of technology that is out there now. It’s amazing. We used to have to blag studio time, and if it did happen there were no guarantees that we would come up with anything good… Quite the opposite in fact. Now you can have an entire studio on your phone. Make tunes on the bus. It is mind-boggling.
We understand your daughter is something of a painter. Is this something you’ve encouraged, or totally organic?
She’s like any other four-year-old in that she’ll love creating if she’s given the opportunity. I don’t push it but she does really love painting and drawing so I try to enable that for her.
Talking of family, how have you found balancing your personal aspirations with holding down a full time job and being a full time dad?
Hard work. But much more rewarding than not doing pursuing my dreams, which had been the pattern for many years.
Nathan, its been wonderful to meet and chat with you. We wish you every success in the future, just to finish off, what does the rest of the year have in store for Antenna Happy?
Thanks, you too. I have a couple of singles coming out in the next few months, really excited about them. First is a self-released white label “Rotor / Late” which is out now on 12”: And the Body EP is out on Reinhardt in July. Other than that, a few gigs over the summer, and hoping to write lots of music.
01// Antenna Happy – Dream 2c (Sleepwalk Mix) [Tenth Circle]
02// Olaf Stuut – Spirograph (Original Mix) [Traum]
03// Skinnerbox – Trimorph (Original Mix) [My Favorite Robot]
04// DJ Koze – Mariposa (Original Mix) [Kompakt]
05// Antenna Happy – Late (Original Mix) [Antenna Happy]
06// Model 500 – The Chase (Express Mix) [Big Life]
07// Antenna Happy – Rotor (Original Mix) [Antenna Happy]
08// Super Flu & Dortmunder Philharmoniker – Volkwein (Kollektiv Turmstrasse Remix) [Monaberry]
09// Name/Age – Akkadian (Antenna Happy Remix) [Frontier]
10// Vessels – Echo In (Antenna Happy Remix) [Bias]