Nathan Conrad is a strange human being.
Ask him for a religious concept album, and he’ll give you a copy of Spoken Nerd’s early album strangely titled “The Lion, the Fish and the Moustache,” a title brimming with humorous reverence to C.S. Lewis.
You want a Spoken Nerd song that pines for the fairer sex? You can catch him strangely crooning “all the time she thought I was gay, I was looking for a girl like Rachael Ray” or singing praises about someone who possesses a “Watermelon Heart.”
When he isn’t bragging about being one of the “Dark Lords of the Cupcake Forest” who is wearing “People Skin Coats” while being “The Last Real Farmer Alive,” he actually finds the time to make club songs for the people.
You can catch him celebrating “Christmas Time in the Club,” or he’s busy performing the songs that bring all the boys on the dance floor.
No, he really has a song called “We Get All the Boys on the Dance Floor,” promising that he gives them what they’re asking for, “pretending that there are lots of pretty girls in here.”
But there are no pretty girls here in the crowd, this is the Nashville indie rap scene. Any female in the scene is most likely only there to appease their boyfriends who all fancy themselves the next Sage Francis, MF DOOM or Slug of Atmosphere fame.
So you get it, give Nathan a song idea, and he’ll twist up the concept into something that you’ve never heard before, a familiar yet slightly deranged take on a topic that has been done to death with worldly sincerity.
And it’s one of the reasons I love him.
When he steps to the microphone as his emcee alias Spoken Nerd, Nathan spits a collection of verses that are equal parts sarcastic, humorous, spiritual, earnest, and other trendy words people look up to describe rappers that they enjoy hearing.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand what he is saying in his rhymes, sometimes the jokes go over even my head. Which is quite the accomplishment, since I’m known to write weird lyrics myself, with weird concepts like getting frisky with the Matrix.
Nathan can give off the vibe of that weird smart kid who makes private jokes that only he understands, some oddly baked concept that doesn’t quite translate all the time to the listener but still provides an enjoyable listening experience multiple times while you try to decode his lingo.
He’s that smart kid that wasn’t always acknowledged by his peers, as they were busy being too pretentious for their own good. He’s the hipster too hip for other hipsters, so hip that he was in his own lane that other individuals might mistake for merely being ridiculous.
This was the guy who was tongue in cheek yelling “four more years” in 2004, smirking along to his song titled “Ode to W” while you were busy screaming John Kerry wasn’t a “flip flop” and I was trying to convince Democrats to vote for the Nader/Camejo ticket.
And that’s another reason I love him.
Is he being sarcastic?
Is he being serious?
Is he really making fun of you?
Is he in on the joke?
Is there a joke to be in on?
Is this article about Spoken Nerd or State Parks?
Well, you can’t have one without the other, as State Parks is the brainchild of none other than Spoken Nerd himself.But why does an emcee who has full creative control of his current project have the need to create a side project? Furthermore, why does it have to be a rock band?
As a creative artist, Nathan felt that he “was too often making compromises to make these types of songs fit the Spoken Nerd format.” The rock band transition was normal for him, adding that he has “written songs that fit a rock and roll format but in order to make them work on a Spoken Nerd album we were producing them in more of a pop format.”
“I’ve always wanted to front a big dumb rock band and I’ve played in several bands,” Nathan chuckles, “Ultimately, this will give Spoken Nerd a better landscape to be what it is and it will give songs that don’t fit the Nerd format a home.”
Remember that quote, there will be more on that side of Nathan Conrad later.
State Parks is an indie rock power trio that was formed in Nashville, the initial lineup that recorded the album was Nathan Conrad on bass and vocals, Matthew Stamps on most of the guitar parts and Kane Clearwater on the drums.
Though initially it was only going to be Nathan and an accostic guitar, he “had always wanted to work with Kane Clearwater” because he “loved the energy he brought to [Invisible Library band] Hushpad and I also have developed a great friendship with him over the years.”
Having previously worked for Matt Stamps who he “had always heard was an amazing guitar player”, he added him to the lineup and the rest, as they say, can be streamed on Spotify and Apple Music!
State Parks’ current lineup is no slouch either, with Nathan still on bass and vocals, Invisible Library recording artist Dale J playing the guitars and Elijah Hyde on the skins. Dale J has a history with Nerd as he signed him to the label, but Elijah is a new addition to the Invisible Library family who Nathan met at local Nashville pinball events.
And as previously mentioned, it was formed by an emcee with rock and roll aspirations.
But please don’t call it a rap rock album.
“Our tastes and influences span throughout several genres of music but State Parks is more laden with indie rock and shoe gaze vibes than Hip-Hop or jazz,” Nathan insists.
When you listen to their self-titled debut album, you can’t help but agree with him. The guitar riffs are meaty and fully expressed, more than repetitive loops that you would find on a rap or pop album. The drums have a swing to them, a rock intensity that flesh out the concepts behind Nathan’s vocals.
And the vocals.
You can still hear his roots in rhyming on some of the tracks, but you can feel his pipes stretching out, at times breathy and other times intense. More melodic than bound to the structure of “spitting bars,” Nathan is experimenting with a new genre, producing new and interesting results beyond the Spoken Nerd brand he has created.
The tonal qualities of “It’s Beautiful Outside” are what make it a stand out track on the album, as the song goes from slow and dramatic to jangly and cheerful. At one minute the the drums thud, power chords beat you down and Nathan’s intense vocals, soaked in reverb, hit the listener as ethereal female background vocals only heighten the sense of drama. The melancholic cello carries your ears through the emotional experience…
…only to be replaced soon by upbeat drums, bright and shiny guitars and a sickly sarcastic alternative growl from Nathan that create a package that would feel at home in any 90s rock album.
Though Nathan claims that State Parks is a project for songs that are different than the usual Spoken Nerd motif, it’s interesting to note that “It’s Beautiful Outside” itself is a song of contrasts, as the vocalist clearly believes that it is not beautiful outside, with lyrics like
“They say it’s beautiful outside
You should probably run and hide
Inside those rays of sunshine
They say it’s beautiful outside”
You start to question the sincerity of the song title and the artist as he continues with
“Women laughing walking dogs
I’m inside with the lights off”
As a Spoken Nerd fan of several years, this starts to remind me of a typical Nerd joke song, but he follows up with the more disturbing
“With my back against the wall
Murmuring and cursing God”
You can sense there’s more going on here than jokes about sunscreen and getting caught in a spider web while walking in the outdoors. The lyrics seem to switch from comedic and lightly observant to mentally disturbing and rather concerning.
If this song is to merely be seen as dark comedy as opposed to a sincere plea for help, than the comedy is rather dark indeed. But the feel and mood composed through the music lets you know that there’s something deeper here than a mere throwaway song to make you chuckle for a minute
When approached about State Parks’ lyrical content, Nathan mentioned that “Sometimes sarcasm is what I want to convey as a whole. These songs are mostly sincere with maybe the exception of ‘It’s Beautiful Outside.’”
“It’s Beautiful Outside” is one of the middle tracks in the album, and can be seen as a transition song for Nathan, one part Spoken Nerd, two parts State Parks. This album on a whole seems to represent a man who is discovering a new side to himself, an artist who is maturing with age and embracing the viewpoint of wisdom with the hindsight of a man who has experienced the ups and downs of struggling in the music business and walking in the path of Jesus Christ.
Songs like “I Don’t Want to Go to Hell” clearly express his theological stances while confessing that his “intentions were never that good.” “The Grand Canyon of Arkansas” weaves a tale about going to, well, the Grand Canyon of Arkansas, rather unmetaphorically, while displaying Nathan’s love for all things about State Parks.
So where’s the hidden meanings, the snark, the hipster jokes on hipsters?
When asked what State Parks represents as a band, Nathan responds that “we represent a personal development that is implemented through the listener's memories of enjoying the State Parks throughout the country. Our hope is that our songs or at least our band name will help others engage their introspective side.”
He further cemented that idea by stating that State Parks is “music to think about stuff to.”
Which makes sense, because that is what happened to me while I was listening to album closer “Mickey Spillane.”
The track is named after a famous American crime novelist, which is really such a huge indie rock move, am I right?
Anyway, I have never heard Nathan’s lyrics sound this earnest or emotionally open. There is no joke here, no witty smirk, and the music helps convey the mood he is going for. The guitar parts range from shimmering to bombastic, something that would fit right in with Green Day’s epic “American Idiot” album, if Green Day believed in God, I guess.
“You don’t wanna take that path
You don’t wanna smoke out with the bad kids
Disappoint your mom and dad
With something sad like a coming wrath to snatch you
It’s hard to know what to do
When you’re not smart or popular or cool
And you just wanna be remembered
Like 911 or the kid who died in high school”
These opening lyrics to “Mickey Spillane” hit me like a freight truck with so many feels and memories from the past. In a few words, Nathan evoked my past of being a kinda church kinda secular kid, stuck between wanting to be cool and wanting to be one of the good kids.
I remembered what it was like growing up being smart but not the valedictorian, funny and likable but not the prom king, cool in my own mind but not cool enough to be invited to hang out with the other kids in high school or youth group.
I recalled how 911 changed my life forever that senior year, and the girl I never knew but who tragically died that year in high school.
He captured the sincerity of trying to be a young born again Christian in a world that was changed forever, and where someone else might call the imagery of “smoking being bad” cheesy, my moral upbringings can so relate to this track.
In a minute I was convinced that this was more than some half baked goofy side project, and I was introduced to the other side of Nathan Conrad.
I understand why State Parks exists.
And you will, too, if you check out their album.
When asked about the three magic words, here is what Nathan Conrad said:
Live: “To wake up and splash water on my face, to eat breakfast, to write songs, to work, to rest…”
Laugh: “To reminisce on life, to succeed, to fail…"
Love: “To connect closely to someone.”
When asked what was next for State Parks, Nathan mentioned that songwriting has begun for the follow up to their self-titled album and there might be a possible 7” or cassette tape made to keep fans satisfied while waiting for the full-length sequel.
State Parks will be playing at the upcoming Audiofeed Music Festival in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois on the 4th of July weekend. For more information, check out their page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Audiofeedfestival/
If you can’t travel to Illinois, then you will be able to see them at Nashville’s KILLA TOMATO FEST at the Cobra in East Nashville on September 29th. There will be more information on this event in upcoming months.
In the meantime, please feel free to check out State Parks on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/1U3F7CoCQx6vRm8hiids5K
Or Apple Music: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/state-parks/1363021751
You can also check out State Parks here on the one and only Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/STATE-PARKS-1009002285850444/
Social media, ain’t it great?!