Spirit Adrift's Nathan Garrett Lands His Astral Metal Rocket in Bastrop
Ride into the light
Friday, June 21, 2019: Summer solstice tilts our overcooked globe toward its nuclear reactor for the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Midsummer hot, East Sixth bustles from end to end. Inside a steamy Hotel Vegas, Austin death metal trio Skeleton blows a blackened Nordic gale.
Between sets, Roky Erickson's first wave garage-punk haunting The Evil One loops endlessly. Three Fridays earlier, psychedelia's two-headed dog ascended the astral pyramid. A metallic wake followed: Michael Schenker landing a UFO outside Empire Control Room, Ft. Worth synth-n-doom duo Pinkish Black igniting Beerland's sudden demise, Judas Priest strafing ACL Live in back-to-back nights of Firepower, and 72 hours of Austin Terror Fest reigning Japanese snuff act Church of Misery and Kentucky black metal roots traditionalists Panopticon.
When Spirit Adrift performs on 2019's consequently shortest night, the Phoenix foursome rides classic metal guitar harmonies off May's Divided by Darkness, a third full-length "Born Into Fire" and "Tortured by Time," but swearing "We Will Not Die." Orbiting one-man band nucleus Nathan Garrett, the group transcends the corporeal into the metaphysical.
"We got into Austin early," recalls Garrett 15 months later. "I walked around the park with some friends. Roky Erickson had just passed away while we were on that tour, so when we got to the venue with my buddy Adrian [Bolton], who lives out here, he knew the sound guy. Adrian knows everybody.
"So I grabbed the sound guy and said, 'Hey, if you're cool with this, I only want you to play Roky Erickson's The Evil One, that album. Only play that. Don't put on anything else.' He was stoked, like, 'Hell yeah!'
"That album played on repeat 12 hours that day."
Skeleton shrieker Victor Ziolkowski remembers the gig.
"Last year, we joined forces with Spirit Adrift and it was a great time," emails the drumming bandleader. "I actually didn't know [Nathan] just moved here, so feel free to pass along my contact. I'd be happy to hang out and get to know him."
Out Past the Cornfields Where the Woods Got Heavy
Friday, 9/11, 2020: Wearing a Willie mask and John Prine tour tee, Nathan Garrett stares out the screened-in porch of the house he and his wife bought on a plot of greenbelt in Bastrop County's Cedar Creek.
"We had to put our dog down January 2," he says. "Then Nicole flew out here two days later for interviews at Whole Foods and right after that I went into the studio in Tucson to begin recording Enlightened in Eternity. That was the most fucked-up, surreal, difficult month of our lives.
"The dog dying forced us down here. We said, 'We need to get the fuck out of this house and out of Phoenix.' She died from something called valley fever, which happens in the desert. We were pissed off at the area and just couldn't be in the house anymore. I was in Phoenix for nine years and I didn't even intend on being there for one year.
"So we ended up here. We moved into this house on March 1. I was supposed to see my buddies Power Trip two weeks later."
In fact, the singer-guitarist-pianist-drummer-bassist set his sights on Austin eons before that.
Spanish fortune hunter Ponce de León picked the flower, "La Florida," in 1513 and 475 years later, Garrett entered the world a proud Southerner. Four months in, a fire alarm at the family's apartment building caused his mother to suffer a seizure and die from what her son pinpoints as a likely undiagnosed heart condition. He subsequently grew up under the care of his father and grandparents in Oklahoma.
"She had a motorcycle and partied pretty hard from what I've gathered," says Garrett about his Kentucky-fried parent, who grew up in remote Somerset where names originated from the Bible. "She was deaf. Both my parents are deaf. Not a lot of people know that."
They met as youths at a school for the deaf in the Bluegrass State – much like Austin's world-class facility, perhaps.
"Right!" affirms Garrett. "My dad went to this one for a minute. Yeah, when I was a kid, one of my earliest memories is coming down here and staying with him, and we saw the bats. I must have been 6, 7, but I remember walking around Austin and seeing the bats. He wasn't here long, but that's how far back the connection goes."
Grandma Garrett excelled at piano in every musical around town and put her charge into lessons for the instrument starting at 3, followed by his choir work in their church, where at 16 he taught himself drums on the basement kit to Slayer and Pantera. At home, he thrived under house rules dictating all disciplines receive equal sampling – "sports, music, scholastics; I was on the debate team and competitive choir" – of which stuck baseball (pitching) and music.
"I went to one wrestling match, a big deal in Oklahoma, and got picked up and slammed on my head," chuckles Garrett. "My grandpa was like, 'Well, fuck that.'
"And yeah, as my first instrument, the piano established a solid foundation, 'cause you learn rhythm, you learn bass playing, you learn lead playing, you learn theory, you learn everything interacts musically. Technically, it's like a percussion instrument, so you're kinda learning the drums too."
Come on the Risin' Wind, We're Goin' Up Around the Bend
In the beginning, John Fogerty created Creedence Clearwater Revival. And music for Nathan Garrett had dawned largely without form and void, but Lynyrd Skynyrd also cleared darkness from the face of the deep. And as the Spirit moved upon the face of the waters, Jimi Hendrix said, "Let there be light."
And there was light, LED.
"It was an Apple computer commercial," laughs Garrett. "When they unveiled those iMacs with the different color shells, translucent, they did an ad for the purple one and they played 'Purple Haze.' I just happened to be in the room and even at 12, I was like, 'What the fuck is that?'
"Then I heard Black Sabbath, like, six months later and that was it. That was it."
Diplomaed in 2006, a year later he lived primarily on the road as a musician and band support, and even considered ATX when Bolton relocated to Central Texas from Arkansas. Settling for Garrett in the absence of his buddy from Dirtmother ("like Eyehategod"), Fayetteville fed the former's metallurgy with a multi-act habit including Rwake and Pallbearer. When the scene "petered out" in 2010, Austin topped his hometown playlist.
As he simultaneously optioned an axe slot in New Orleans sludge hammer Haarp, two friends talked up an eight-month recording school program in Phoenix. Halfway through the ensuing decade there, including years in Gatecreeper, he paused.
"So I went into detox in 2015," he says. "I was there three days. This was after drinking a lot for a really, really, really long time – every day. Every day. When I got out, it was insane. That's the craziest drug you've ever been on: 'Oh. This is what it feels like being alive. I forgot.' And I just had those two songs immediately. The week after I got out of detox, I had those songs written."
Clocking 12:12, "Specter of Ruin" and "Perpetual Passage" at 15:30 sandwich Spirit Adrift's debut 12-inch, Behind – Beyond. The A-side loosens a new summoner from the grand canyon of doom, a mid-tenor commanding deep gravitas over a Seventies/Nineties sonic rupture inlaid with weightless atmospherics. Contemporary in production, thrust, and sheer voltage, the EP vibrates a timeworn permanence.
Likewise, its follow-up LP, 2016's Chained to Oblivion, also on Los Angeles metal forge Prosthetic Records, radiates an equally deathless vitality. Massive monument to sound and fission, its five tracks lower a bottomless boom both lyrically and instrumentally, a canonical text of premonition and detonation. Nearly 10-minute launch "Psychic Tide" bursts a liquid crystal compass of shred, pointillism, and anthemics surfing their own stairway to heaven.
"We did the EP in a day, day-and-a-half," estimates Garrett. "Then I had the next one. It was like a dam broke open. I felt barely tethered to the earth, but all of these songs kept coming out. It was intense, just me and the guy who engineered it and mixed it, but I played everything on the EP and full-length.
"Chained to Oblivion is by far our most complex album. It's so layered people don't realize every guitar solo except for one is harmonized. Every guitar solo. And I actually played it. I didn't use an effect to harmonize the guitar. I wrote the solo out, then I figured out the harmony of every single note and bend and everything in every solo, and then I played the harmony.
"I had it all tabbed out. Sometimes there's six guitar tracks going at once and they're each playing two or three different notes, and when you put it all together, it forms a giant chord, but that's every note of the whole section. And every vocal is harmonized except for one chorus. I was listening to Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats at the time. They do Beatles harmonies where they're both singing the whole time, harmonies.
"I was like, 'Lemme do that.'"
Obey Your Master, Your Life Burns Faster
Piloting the Pallbearer van one day on tour with Baroness, Garrett shit-talked the idea of riffing off not a favorite chord progression, but the greatest metal album of all time. Sophomore Spirit Adrift album Curse of Conception (2017) thus pivots "Earthbound" to the graves on Metallica's Master of Puppets. For Divided by Darkness, its conceptualist undertook a health regimen to counteract the emotional toll of a song cycle about humanity torn apart by its powers that be.
Today's fourth long-player spells out the group's alphabetical evolution via the song titles alone: "Ride Into the Light," "Cosmic Conquest," "Harmony of the Spheres, "Stronger Than Your Pain." Prophetic certitude, technical supremacy, compositional convocation, Enlightened by Eternity gallops Spirit Adrift's rousing apex. Not a misspent note, lick, or sentiment treads therein.
"The last album was about war and darkness and destruction," ticks off Garrett. "This one moves on from that. Here I saw people on horseback leaving the scene of a battle and riding into Valhalla with light streaming down. It all came together as I was working on that first song.
"I was reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, which trains you not to fear anything that's going to happen. I was reading Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, like stoicism stuff and Eastern philosophy. Our drummer Marcus is really into The Tao, so everything coalesced with all that reading. I'm so grateful I wrote an album that's positive and uplifting instead of some typical wannabe evil metal stuff, because when it came time to record it, that kept us going."
Writes Dallas rep and Phoenix holdout Marcus Bryant: "Nate and I work to better ourselves as people and musicians on a daily basis. We're always exchanging ideas. The Tao made room in my brain for schools of thought like Jean-Paul Sartre and other existential writings, and recently I've been on a serious Carl Jung kick. Exposing yourself to new ideas and influences informs all you create.
"Working with Nate is a dream come true because like me, he's an obsessive perfectionist that lives for music."
Accordingly, "Astral Levitation" defies gravity. Accelerating from an almost revival tent metallic blues to a UK cavalry assault, the rejoinder to opener "Ride Into the Light" floats Enlightened by Eternity. Intones Garrett: "Redefine your soul/ Mastering your greatest foe/ Sacrificing control/ Doing what you've always known."
"That song was in Tony Iommi's autobiography," explains the rabid reader. "He talks about how he can astral project, so I wrote a song about that. Sounds real Sabbath-y, but then I turned it into a metaphor about realizing your potential and taking control over your life or manifesting into your final form, whatever you want to call it."
Iron Man sits in Garrett's front office book cubby next to recent tomes from Rob Halford and Dave Mustaine. Equally prominent are autobiographies from Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson. Asked his country music gateway, he extends a fist with Jennings' logo ring, but resists unveiling an upper back tattoo diorama of the Texan.
"Waylon's buried in Mesa, Arizona," says Garrett closing the front door behind us. "We used to live right around the corner and every year I got a sobriety chip, I would go put it on his grave, because he got sober there and died sober. Every year I'd go and sometimes on his birthday."
Lord, I Wanted to Be Something You Could Depend On
Pandemic rescues barking from the backyard, we load into my SUV and head to Astro Record Store in Bastrop. "Against the Wind" breezes through my head after I spot the record under the Garretts' living room big screen, to which the owner points out the horse latitudes between Bob Seger's cover art and that of Enlightened in Eternity. Shotgun turns up the new Colter Wall CD in the car stereo.
Off to market, vintage platters by Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty, Tompall Glaser, and outlaw wives Jessi Colter and Rita Coolidge detour to Garrett as gratitude for his merch generosity back in the library/music room. Then the vinyl gods deal him an ace when the last LP in the crate turns up Gordon Lightfoot's Sundown, the one title he sought from the Canadian folk pelter. At Astro, he plucks out Jennings' prize 1974 Willie Nelson-infused This Time before walking out with an out-of-print mondo Band box set.
Soon he'll be slinging Hank Williams covers at the hood saloon.
"When I was living in Arkansas, I used to do three-hour sets in bars playing covers on an acoustic guitar," he grins. "Nobody heard it, but 100 percent I eventually wind up playing country music regularly. One hundred percent."
Astro's proprietor later slips Garrett's number to fellow guitarist Jeff Henson of Duel, perfect local show mate for Spirit Adrift.
"[Nate] hung at the studio this past weekend while I had a band in there and he ended up playing a solo on a track," relays Henson. "He slayed it in a few takes. He's a very meticulous and deliberate guitar player with great styling and vibe. Where I might slop over a few notes in a run trying to get to my next landing spot, he would play every note precise and exactly the right one. I'm sure we will be working on something in the future."
Spirit Adrift? Spirit landed.
"I agree," nods Garrett, divulging daily supplements of Billy Joe Shaver and professing hero worship for Austincentric filmmakers Richard Linklater and Mike Judge. "I agree."
"My grandparents were supposed to move with us originally, then coronavirus happened, but we as a family are buying 13 acres east of Bastrop," he reveals. "They will build first and when the Tesla plant opens, we're gonna sell our house and build. We'll be right next to each other."
Welcome home, Garretts.