Interview with Dead Nature: 'The King is dead...A new one must rise'

Former Spring-King linchpin delves deep into his childhood following the debut of a reflective yet expansive new solo project.

When Macclesfield quartet Spring King announced in November 2018 that they were splitting up after a rollercoaster six years, during which they crafted two records and gathered a cult following in Britain’s indie-rock heartlands, it brought to an end a band who gained an array of plaudits as a force for the future.

Out of the rubble, Tarek Musa, the dynamic former frontman and drummer, emerged seemingly unfazed. ‘Stepping back has been difficult in some ways but I’ve always been aware that every band has a lifespan, so with Spring King I always enjoyed the ride but didn’t want to get so attached to it where I was affected by the lows or the bad things that happen,’ he recalls. ‘That’s always been a big thing - like I’m very content with doing one thing and then that thing completely changing and becoming something else. That kind of goes in some way to reflecting my past, this idea of ups and downs. I learnt very early on in my life to not get too attached to things because otherwise it dictates how you will feel when the opposite happens. It’s always inevitable that something is going to go down and then come back up.’

Image courtesy of Dead Nature

As a child, Musa acclimatised naturally to the notion of unpredictability rather than stability. Increasingly aware of the fleeting nature of existence, the musician found himself stuck in a perpetual stillness growing up. ‘I spent a lot of time living with my grandma and other people,’ he reflects. ‘There was always this stillness growing up. It felt like nothing moved, time stood still, the air in my house stood still, it was really quiet a lot.’ This idea of living almost frozen whilst time passes inspired the name Dead Nature, the moniker that Musa has adopted for his current solo project, of which debut EP Taking My Shadow was released last month.

"There was always this stillness growing up. It felt like nothing moved, time stood still."

The moniker itself was inspired by a Portuguese friend of Musa’s. A painter, she explained to him how the literal translation of a still-life painting from her native Portuguese to English is “Dead Nature.” ‘Something just struck me about that and there was nothing more to it really and I guess I liked it more than my own name,’ he laughs. ‘I like how it represented a lot of my past, this idea of still-life. I heard Dead Nature and it just struck me. It was very off-the-cuff but it did hit me.’

In the months following Spring King’s split, Musa started collating voice notes on his phone, thirty-five of which made the approved cut following a much-needed Christmas break. In January of this year, the impresario had selected eight songs to start recording the following month and by March he realised he had something tangible to work with. ‘I was playing all of the parts again, which was quite cool,’ he beams. ‘It meant that I was jumping from instrument to instrument quite quickly. I didn’t want anything to really stop the process or the flow that I was beginning to pick up. For such a new project I didn’t want there to be a point where things slowed me down in any way. When you’re working on your own, it can easily stop you completely.’

A self-confessed work addict, Musa has spent his recent time balancing Dead Nature and his commitments as a producer, as well as taking time to delve back into his past, a fundamental trope to the solo project and his debut EP. ‘A lot of my music creativity is fuelled by an underlying anxiety,’ he offers. ‘Growing up was quite an interesting experience for me in many ways. There were a lot of times in my childhood where all I had was music, so it’s kind of a safety net and over the past few years I’ve actually dug into that a little bit to try and understand things. I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of what I do is propelled by this intense need to do something musical. It’s quite eye-opening for me just having the past few years to think about stuff like that but I’m fine with that. There’s always an intensity to my music, lyrically there’s always been a bit of a darkness, a bit of sadness as well to it.’

"A lot of my music creativity is fuelled by an underlying anxiety."

If Spring King’s two records hinted at a darkness embedded within its ringleader, then Dead Nature manages to take the hinges off Musa’s mind, projecting total vulnerability and honesty, wrapped snugly in a blanket of positivity for the future. In My Heart hones in the idea of relinquishing the past, letting go of toxicity in order to progress forwards. It offers a sense of defiance, a spirit and camaraderie that relays a message to push onwards even when the going gets tough. ‘Growing up, I was always quite a large teenager,’ Musa states frankly. ‘I was like eight sizes bigger than most children, so even then I was thinking you’ve just got to lose the weight, trying again and again and again. Sometimes that can be a mental thing as well, I could sit here for months at a time just feeling low about myself but inevitably you’ve got to try and call it a day. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes you fail and you’ve just got to keep at it.’

The tranquil and graceful Rookwood highlights Musa at his most vulnerable. A lullaby song to his past, exploring family and rooting across a broader set of emotions that the singer states he hasn’t addressed before. It highlights a maturity that fans of his previous band would be surprised to see. ‘I’ve never written a song like that, I’d never written about my past like that so this is the first song in which I’ve put to paper what’s in my mind from that time in my life. It’s like a time capsule of growing up. The first time I heard that song after it was mastered I just cried, it’s just fucking emotional. I’ve never been one to have a diary or write what I’m feeling so it’s all been in my head which isn’t a good thing sometimes. You just need to get it out and this is the first time I did that.’

He continues ‘I’ve always tiptoed around subjects of the past like growing up but it was definitely an interesting one for me. It was one of those things where it was like if Dead Nature was just a project where nothing big happens with it, whatever happens I want the first EP to be something to be proud of. If I had to stop Dead Nature tomorrow because I started producing bands for the rest of my life, I would be really happy. Equally, it’s a great starting point for the future.’

Whilst a great deal of material on Taking My Shadow harks back to Musa’s childhood, offering a sense of closure to a turbulent period of his life, the musician also explains his joy at being able to write his own music again. ‘I thought that after Spring King I wasn’t going to be writing songs again,’ he shrugs. ‘I just thought I was going to produce bands and help upcoming musicians who want to get going. I thought that was all I was going to do, but I’m a bit of a workaholic, I’m addicted to this kind of stuff. I like the rush of releasing things. I love communicating with artists about artwork and music videos. It’s all part of the process for me and it’s all part of the music. Being a musician is so up and down, you never know what’s going to happen, but I’ve felt like this has been a really positive experience so far. I feel good about it and moving forward in music, that’s what it’s all about.’

The sense of rejuvenation with the writing process was accompanied by a comforting presence of familiarity. As the lead songwriter, producer and mixer for Spring King, Dead Nature felt like a natural entity, the singer highlights. ‘It still has to go through my ears, the prism of my music and the way I see and think about music, which is still kind of the same. In the early days of Spring King especially, it was more of a solo thing. It started out in my house as a bedroom project and I would try and blag my way through on the radio. In terms of workload, I’ve always had that drive in the beginning for any project. For instance, when Spring King was over, I wasn’t sure how I was going to fund being a producer.’.

Image courtesy of Dead Nature

A relentless worker, Musa navigates his responsibilities as a musician and a producer with a touch of finesse, but it’s apparent that the artist doesn’t shirk away from responsibility and duty when wearing the production hat. ‘When bands leave my studio, I don’t just give them their mixes at the end of the day,’ he says. ‘I’ll sit down with them, they always come to Liverpool to get a coffee, or to get advice. I feel like it’s a duty to help those bands who take the more DIY approach to it all, who need some help writing press releases for example. I’ll sit with them for hours over a couple of weeks to help them with the other stuff.’

By taking the pressure off of himself and his music, Musa’s selflessness with tutoring rising bands allowed him to extricate a canyon of wisdom, whilst giving solace and comfort to the singer himself. The cathartic process has clearly helped Musa’s mindset as well, as the musicians states. ‘I guess it kind of clears me of any kind of fears that I have as well. I’m able to see that other bands are going through this and I’ve been in those shoes. By helping them with those issues, you’re returning to your past and maybe re-experiencing things that you went through when you were in their shoes. It makes me grateful for where I am now and makes me want to help rising bands. Being a musician and watching other musicians around you, especially when you’re producing them, it feels like you’re all in the same ship and you’re helping each other out, even though you’ve got a different role. There’s a big camaraderie I find. I do find that things are a bit scary at times, and a bit fucked in a way in music. There’s a lot of talent out there that doesn’t get recognised. At the same time, everyone’s in it together, propelling the force to get it to grow.’

"It feels like you’re all in the same ship and you’re helping each other out, even though you’ve got a different role. There’s a big camaraderie I find."

A fighter for the little man, a champion for the rising band, Musa’s experience in the industry has seen him face-to-face with industry bigwigs and professional egos, the latter of which he addresses in Pride (Wake Them Up), a track that came about from reading about [Roman Emperor] Marcus Aurelius years ago. 'Sometimes you can be so proud of who you are that actually you become dismissive that you might be wrong,’ he proclaims. ‘I read this book which was very stoic and simplified. There was this notion that pride is actually a deceptive thing at times that can really deceive you into thinking you’re doing the right thing when actually you’re doing the wrong thing. Sometimes not having any pride at all is better, it can be a bias, swinging you to one side. Actually you want to be open, pride can be a defence mechanism sometimes. There are blurred lines between being proud and being stubborn. It’s this idea that sometimes it’s ok to put your ego in the door and just be open to things.’

Having made the choice to release music under a new name, you might question whether by wrestling control back of the writing process, Musa is dangling an olive branch for a potential ego to grab hold of, but when getting to understand the man behind the process, this couldn’t be more unfathomable. A humble man with a tenacity to simply release the music he wants to make, Musa is clear that Dead Nature represents a new era. ‘I think this is the beginning of something new for me,’ he says. I’m equally nervous and excited just because some people will probably associate me with my past and some people will expect me to do something completely different.’

Given Spring King’s popularity throughout the six years of their existence, it’s captivating to see how Musa views the new project. ‘Dead Nature isn’t a step back, I think it’s a step in a new direction,’ he declares. ‘It’s a new way of thinking about music for me and not getting too attached to marketing, products and social media when you get bigger. If you get too attached to the technical jargon, you start to lose what your music is about. I want to keep working hard and doing my best, but also make this as relaxed as possible. I’m very content with wherever I am, I don’t have set goals at all, I just treat things as they come to me. That way you’re never hurt or never gutted when something doesn’t happen. It’s all quite fickle in a way so I just want to get music to the fans. The best thing is just connecting with people, I just enjoy being around people.’

"If you get too attached to the technical jargon, you start to lose what your music is about."

If being around people is what the musician hopes to achieve, he might be granted that wish pretty quickly in the coming months. Tarek Musa has found the perfect soundscape that encompasses personal redemption and commercial appeal. For the charismatic workaholic, the possibility of more music and life back on the road could be a tantalising prospect. A reflective Musa has finished with looking back at the past. Now it’s time to look into the future.