Nate Brenner’s Balancing Act

The tUnE-yArDs bassist juggles a new solo project, Naytronix, jazz trio Beep!, and his day job at Pandora.

Nate Brenner balanced on his left leg, his right knee bent and his Adidas Original sneaker pointed in the air with the precision of a ballerina. It was accuracy he was after at his recent Café du Nord gig — the kind of loose and spontaneous meticulousness found in jazz, which he formally studied and has now applied to distorted dance music. The result is a genre-defying mélange of new wave, funk, and hip-hop heard often in Brooklyn-based indie rock.

Brenner’s new solo project and first effort as a frontman, Naytronix, has the multi-instrumentalist singing into two microphones, playing bass, and controlling a sampler and three synths. Watching the narrow concentration in Brenner’s quick eyes, when they’re not hidden under the long curl bangs of his otherwise short hair, it makes sense that being spread thin is the state in which he likes to create.

Sam Ospovat, the drummer in Brenner’s longtime jazz project Beep!, and Man/Miracle’s Emery Barter complete Naytronix’s loud, chaotic live sound. The guys wear matching white T-shirts, the lower-right corners of which are lined with royal-blue sequins, a statement that straddles marching band and DIY hip. Standing in the crowd, dancing and clapping her hands, is Brenner’s girlfriend, Merrill Garbus, the woman behind his other band you’ve most likely heard of: tUnE-yArDs. When he’s not playing in tUnE-yArDs, Beep!, or Naytronix (which will go on tour with WHY? this fall), Brenner is the guy selecting what jazz tune will be played next on Pandora radio. His job allows him to work from home and on tour, allowing him a creatively unrestrained environmental.

“Opening or headlining, I don’t care as much as I should because I’m happy with my life. I have an amazing girlfriend and I feel so satisfied living in Oakland and playing on a bunch of stuff,” said Brenner, sitting on the patio of Lake Merritt-area restaurant Caña a week and a half before the Café du Nord show. “Pandora takes the pressure off of me expecting to make money from tUnE-yArDs, and instead I can tell Merrill ‘do whatever you want to do.'”

Whokill, tUnE-yArDs’ second album, made most critics’ top ten lists and earned the band a large following. During the band’s eighteen-month tour, Brenner composed on an iPad what would become the eleven tracks of Naytronix’s debut album, Dirty Glow, which will be released October 9. Brenner recorded the album at his home in Oakland’s China Hill neighborhood and enlisted his friends to play on it, which he casually mentioned as we sipped sangria. Later that night, he sent me a list of 17 artists in more than 25 different local bands who contributed to Dirty Glow. It was Oakland’s collaborative, avant-garde music community that first attracted Brenner to come here after graduating from Oberlin.

“When I moved here in 2005, by that point Deerhoof was constantly on tour. I missed their heyday in the local scene by five years,” Brenner said of the local noise-rock legends. So Brenner had to build his own scene, hauling his upright bass to gigs at weddings, restaurants, and retirement homes when he first moved to the East Bay. Eventually, Brenner formed Beep! with fellow jazz musicians Ospovat and Michael Coleman, and they’ve released three albums to date.

In Beep!, Brenner’s methodical yet improvisational jazz scholarship comes through. At the opposite end, tUnE-yArDs demonstrates Brenner’s ability to create a tidy pop song. He and Garbus met while teaching at an arts summer camp in 2005, maintained a long-distance friendship, and after tUnE-yArDs’s first album came out, Garbus moved to Oakland to be with Brenner. When she was invited to open for Dirty Projectors, Garbus had to modify her girl-and-a-ukulele performance to fill up larger venues, and asked Brenner to bring his bass on the road with her. The couple spent long drives listening to Wu-Tang Clan and together crafted some of Whokill‘s catchiest tracks, including “Bizness” and “Gangsta.”

“It was just going to be that one tour. I feel like I’m in the band, but it’s Merrill’s band,” said the soft-spoken and shy Brenner. “It’s all Merrill’s thing. She’s got the vision. I just want what’s best for her.”

Naytronix has Beep!’s controlled chaos and tUnE-yArDs’s Afro-funk sensibility, combining in what Brenner describes as “pop-oriented avant-garde.” Dirty Glow isn’t as catchy as Whokill and Brenner doesn’t yet have the stage presence Garbus brings to tUnE-yArDs, but it’s a solid effort. Tracks such as “In the Summer” and “Evil Dancer” highlight Brenner’s ability to make five-minute compositions hook like three-minute pop songs. In the live versions of “Baby Don’t Walk Away” and “Lead the Way,” the discord of a dozen instruments manages to come across as unpretentious and danceable.

“I wanted to make something accessible, that people might throw on at a party or barbecue,” said Brenner. “It was also a chance to expand and explore,” he said, adding that he’d like to make at least six albums as Naytronix. That may sound ambitious, especially for a guy who has so many other demands on his time. But, he’d probably have it no other way.

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