Nate Mendel has already had two very successful music careers—first as the bassist for emo pioneers Sunny Day Real Estate (whose debut album Diary has risen from a cult favorite into the rock pantheon since it was realeased in 1994), and then in the same position for the Foo Fighters after the first of Sunny Day’s several breakups. Now he’s setting out on a brand new venture, this time as the front man and mastermind of the new group Lieutenant. Its debut record If I Kill This Thing We’re All Going To Eat For A Week (which recently dropped on Dine Alone Records) has some of the Foos’ classic rock hookiness and Sunny Day’s epic sweep (as well as guest appearances by SDRE front man Jeremy Enigk and Helmet’s Page Hamilton, among other alt rock vets), but its cleverly constructed, emotionally intimate indie pop has an identity all its own.
Recently EW interviewed Mendel via email while he was on tour in Australia.
EW: Having followed you since the Sunny Day days, you’ve always struck me as sort of the quintessential quiet sideman. Was there a particular catalyst that inspired you to finally strike out on your own? Do you think it’s a different kind of record, sonically and thematically, that you would have made if you’d done this earlier?
NATE MENDEL: …That’s why I held off on doing a record for a long time—the thought that one would need to be more of an extrovert in order to sing into a microphone, and maybe more ambitious, and I saw myself as not particularly strong in either of those areas and therefore disqualified from writing songs. But I eventually became more comfortable as a musician and thought if I could put together a bass part I found interesting, why not layer melodies on top of that, and create a song?
The music is probably not altered by having come later in life, but the lyrics would be. I wouldn’t have thought it appropriate to speak about love, or deeply personal topics when I was younger. I would have seen it as too prosaic, but those topics were what came to mind while writing, so I used them.
After spending so much time in arguably the biggest rock band in the world, what’s your experience been like starting a new project from scratch?
I have some experience working on a band outside of Foo Fighters–The Fire Theft a few years ago. There’s a few opportunities that name recognition affords, but really, and thankfully, people respond to music based on the quality of it. You are starting from scratch with a new band, and I like that … the challenge to do well in an inhospitable environment.
Your lyrics, and particularly the title of your album, have kind of a literary feel to them. Are there any non-musical writers who you consider influences?
I studied journalism in college, and planned on writing for a newspaper, so I have some history with words. There were no particular literary influences for the lyrics, outside of a Barbara Tuchman book that inspired the song “Belle Epoque,” but I do try to pick up things along the way.
It’s been a couple decades since Sunny Day’s first time around, and with the emo revival in full swing it seems like the band’s more influential as it’s ever been. What’s your perspective on the situation?
It was interesting to see, in the late ’90s and early ’00s, the band take on a second life after it had ceased to be active. We were pretty arrogant, or let’s say sure of ourselves, honestly, as a band—[we] thought we had something figured out–but [I] never would have guessed that it would be something that had a life outside of that decade.
You have a great roster of guests on the album, a lot of them who you’ve worked with for a long time. How did you decide who to bring into the creative process? What’s your secret for maintaining creative relationships, which I know can be difficult to sustain?
I wrote the songs as a recluse. I needed to know I had something worth showing to people before asking for their help, because with no history as a songwriter I didn’t feel comfortable even approaching a recording engineer, thinking they’d hear what I was working on and say, “Yeah, so you want to record… this?” After I got over that I just worked spontaneously, asking whoever came to mind at the moment and seemed like a good fit. No grand strategy.
In working with other people I’ve found it works best to try any ideas that come up. Don’t shoot anything down without hearing it. If the idea is good, it lives, and if it isn’t, at least the person who threw it out has been heard.
LIEUTENANT U.S. TOUR DATES
March 23: Nashville, TN – Exit/In – http://ticketf.ly/1z7rwxX
March 24: Columbus, OH – The Basement – http://bit.ly/1HNA2bw
March 26: Washington, DC – Black Cat/BackStage –http://ticketf.ly/1z7rCWt
March 27: Philadelphia, PA – Johnny Brenda’s – http://ticketf.ly/1BX4rxY
March 28: New York, NY – Mercury Lounge – http://bit.ly/1LFriUj
March 30: Brooklyn, NY – St. Vitus – http://ticketf.ly/1KliKyj
April 1: Toronto, ON – Mod Club – http://tktwb.tw/16nMzSo
April 2: Pontiac, MI – Pike Room – http://bit.ly/16nMaPR
April 3: Chicago, IL – Empty Bottle – http://tktwb.tw/1zNFpnh
April 5: Denver, CO – Larimer Lounge – http://bit.ly/1EBpwkV
April 8: Los Angeles, CA – Troubadour – http://ticketf.ly/1uRPyI2