Having relocated to Belgrade, Serbia, The Black Heart Procession’s Tobias Nathaniel has teamed up with a group of talented musicians from the city’s garage-rock music scene to unleash The Red Step. The project marks Nathaniel’s debut as a vocalist, and his voice is perfectly suited to the dark blend of post-punk and garage-rock.
The Red Step is rounded out by keyboardist Boris Eftovski, bassist Rudolf Cibulski, and drummer Vladimir Markoski (all hailing from Serbian garage-rock band Kazna za uši) and Londoner Sarah Jane Seatherton on cello. Nathaniel is the guitarist. Having been initially slated for a late 2020 release, The Red Step’s self-titled debut album is out February 26 on Prava Records. Over Skype, Nathaniel discussed the development of the band and the making of their album.
How did you come to re-locate to Belgrade?
Tobias Nathaniel: Well, my wife is from Belgrade. I ended up coming here and staying. Through my wife, I met some friends and some family—people on her end who did music. We started getting together playing stuff, and it just evolved from there. This was around five years ago.
Did you have a strong sense as to what you wanted The Red Step to be?
Tobias Nathaniel: I think the sense of direction had been in my head for a little while. Like with my previous band, Black Heart Procession, I’m known for being the slow and sad piano dude. It’s sort of like lamenting over observed behavior of people and kind of taking a darker, more morose, or sad approach to the output. I kind of started internalizing things a little more, in a more vexed way, like becoming annoyed at things. So the output is a little faster, a little more aggressive. And those guys had been playing in a kind of garage band before, so it all sort of meshed nicely.
How do you feel it might have evolved from the initial inception to what we hear on the album?
Tobias Nathaniel: I guess that album is a snapshot of everything. It’s not in chronological order, but you get a view of what’s happening and the different emotions and different sentiments that are there. So I guess the evolution is in the album itself.
How does your creative process with The Red Step compare with The Blackheart Procession?
Tobias Nathaniel: For the Red Step, I tend to have some kind of core idea in my head before I bring it in. So it’ll be something like riffs, chord, progressions. Maybe some elements of harmony and the primary melody. Actually, it’s the first time I’ve ever sung in a band, so that was an interesting process. Blackheart Procession is primarily Paul as the singer/guitar player and other instruments, and then me. I do multi-instruments and whatever. So for that band, we kind of just present ideas to each other and fill in the gaps as we go. The process is a bit different than The Red Step.
What was it like taking on vocals?
Tobias Nathaniel: It was a massive challenge and perhaps the most challenging thing I’ve done in my musical career. Living in Belgrade, I was actually looking for a singer. I didn’t want it to be instrumental. I wanted it to be approachable by a wider audience, but I did want there to be vocals. And so I figured like, okay, I guess English is the way. I started asking around; there wasn’t much. We ended up having this guy, Nikola Vranjkovi?, from here who was in the band from the nineties called Block Out. He does production and some other stuff; he is kind of a well-known figure in these parts. He happened to be at one of our practices, and I was talking to him during the break and I said, “Do you know anyone who can sing and sing in English?”
And he’s like, “Huh? Well, why don’t you do it?” It was like, “Gee, I hadn’t thought of that.” It was like a light bulb going off. And he said, “Just go try it, go do it.” And I did, and it was horrible and he’s like, “Look, in six months, you’ll be fine. Just keep going.” Throughout that process, I tried to find what my voice is capable of doing, what I’d like it to sound like, how to wrangle all the details, like how should the vibrato sound? Where am I comfortable? All those things. And Nikola was right. After six months or so, I finally was able to not completely hate the sound of my voice, and it went from there.
Were you able to perform with The Red Step much before the pandemic?
Tobias Nathaniel: Well, we had played a handful of shows here in Belgrade. We did one festival in Macedonia, but not much outside the region.
Did performing live help you come to terms with being a vocalist?
Tobias Nathaniel: Yes, actually. At one of our earlier shows, there was someone there who was recording the performances. I listened and was horrified, but it helped me to try. With anything challenging or difficult, you should probably just interact with it and try to deal with it if you can. And so that really helped, figuring out what I needed to change, certain inflections I totally hated, and subsequently changing them.
What is the music scene like there?
Tobias Nathaniel: It’s actually pretty diverse, and I hadn’t really thought of it this way before, but it is. There are people who are into more traditional kinds of folk music. It sounds very Eastern to a degree, like maybe Turkish because Serbia used to be under the control of the Ottoman Empire. A lot of those things stuck in the culture and even language and certainly music. So there’s that stuff around. There’s a weird version of it called turbo-folk that was popular in the nineties. It was a sped-up version of this folk music with people on Casio keyboards with the modulator wheel making it super crazy. In the eighties, late seventies/eighties, there was a great scene here in ex-Yugoslavia. Bands like Šarlo Akrobata that broke up into Disciplina Ki?me and Ekatarina Velika. So there was actually a very strong scene here in the eighties. And I think that has influenced what’s been going on here. And most importantly, I was working with a friend of mine, actually, the guy who recorded this Red Step album at his place Down There Studio, in Roche. There are a lot of great bands, especially like the younger generation. They’re basically teenagers, and they’re playing really cool, weird art-rock stuff and just experimental, very strange, interesting combinations of things. So it kind of runs the gamut; the entire spectrum is kind of covered here.
The album release was delayed – was that due to Covid-19?
Tobias Nathaniel: Yeah, exactly. The actual physical vinyl got delayed due to some kind of coronavirus-related stuff. We agreed that it would be best for us to release everything at once. I think originally this record would have come out way earlier, and we would probably be on tour or coming back home from tour right now. So everything has been massively delayed. And of course, the live scene has been greatly impacted.
Creatively, has there been any upside? Has it led to any music or projects you might not have done otherwise?
Tobias Nathaniel: Not necessarily. For me, writing music happens when there’s a need; then I’ll do it. I really don’t sit down and try to come up with stuff. If things start occurring in my head and a song manifests there and sticks around for a while, then I’ll address it. Nothing’s really manifested recently, and we haven’t really been getting together, just due to safety stuff.
With Blonde Redhead, you played piano on what became the “Evil Morty” theme on the TV show Rick and Morty. What are your thoughts on that?
Tobias Nathaniel: I think that’s cool. It’s a cool show. I had nothing to do with the licensing of it, and that’s a Blonde Redhead song so that’s their deal. I think it’s great that music is getting out. It’s got a massive audience and a younger audience. I dig the concept of Rick and Morty, so it’s very cool overall.
What is the current status of The Black Heart Procession?
Tobias Nathaniel: There is an idea that when the timing’s right, to work on another record. We’re going to have to do it a little bit differently. When we recorded our album, The Spell, I lived in Portland, Oregon. Everyone else was in San Diego, so I would fly down there. That’s kind of not possible. So I think we’re going to have to figure out how to make that work logistically. That would be cool. And that’s kind of the last thing we talked about. I love making music with Paul. He and I have a very interesting sort of dynamic together, and it’s in my opinion something super special. I think we’re capable of doing more stuff. And we would like to when the timing is right.
Would you be able to collaborate remotely?
Tobias Nathaniel: Definitely. And even having lived in Portland and the band being in San Diego, we’d send ideas back and forth. I have some things at home that I could do moderately professionally, and with the studio here that my friend owns, we’d be able to get some good quality stuff happening and send it, so it’s all totally possible.
To purchase the album, visit : https://theredstep.bandcamp.com/.