Nathan Micay on Being a Personal Trainer for DJs, Trance Music, and His Beautiful "Industry" Score

Nathan Micay on Being a Personal Trainer for DJs, Trance Music, and His Beautiful "Industry" Score

Back in 2015 (I think?), I was in Hudson Mohawke’s London studio profiling him for a cover story for The FADER. In between watching Tim and Eric clips and watching HudMo tinker with what would become his album Lantern from that year, LuckyMe co-founder Dominic Flannigan played me some music from Bwana’s fascinating Akira-themed project Capsule’s Pride that would be released in 2016. This fall, I was watching HBO’s ludicrously enjoyable Industry and found myself entranced by the show’s lush, rolling synth score. Lo and behold, Nathan Micay is the man behind both.

The Berlin-based Canadian producer’s releases over the years have veered towards the sugary, ecstatic subgenre of trance, and his enveloping score for Industry certainly carries a bit of trance’s DNA along with the type of swarming, starry-eyed synth pop affiliated with old-schoolers like Tangerine Dream as well as current-gen auteurs like M83’s Anthony Gonzalez. Every person I’ve talked to about the show since has said that the score really stood out to them too, and I thought it would be great to talk to him about his multifaceted career and his artistic approach.

You’re from Toronto but you live in Berlin. How has that been?

First couple of years were a little weird, but the last couple of years paid off. I don’t really drink or do drugs, so I don’t really fit in, I guess. [Laughs] I’ve had my music career there, but I’ve also had a career as a personal trainer for DJs, which is hilarious.

Tell me about how you got into that.

I got a message one day from a guy on Shifted’s label that I was kind of friendly with. He was getting in touch on behalf of Shifted, and he said, “We saw a picture of you on Instagram, Shifted would like to get in shape. Do you do personal training?” So I was like, “OK, I’ll give that a shot.” He lost ten kilos, then he told his buddy Vatican Shadow, and Vatican Shadow told somebody else, and after a while I had 15 to 20 clients a week in the techno world.

Have you continued doing it in the pandemic?

I stopped doing it last year, but it’s been an anchor as far as me staying in Berlin. In the spring, I had a lot of people asking me to do video calls. I did a fitness video for Resident Advisor with an ‘80s intro and American Gladiators music, but I don’t think that’ll ever see the light of day. It’s a shame.

Any personality quirks you’ve picked up on while working with DJs in that fashion?

Well, I just turned 30 a few weeks ago, and the peak of my personal training was around 26 or 27. So at times I was training people a decade older than me, which was surreal. In my mind, they’re superstars, and I’d see them and there’d be this funny thing where they’re coming to me, someone who’s so much lower on the totem pole. Everyone wants the booty, that’s pretty much what I took away from it. The people I trained from the UK called me a “cunt” in an endearing way, so I had to get used to that.

I trained Massimiliano Pagliara from Ostgut Ton, and he’s a former ballerina, so his flexibility was on another scale—but he came to me to learn about strength training, so we went to the store, bought him some kettle bells, and taught him how to use them. Most people just want to start, though—to be eased in.

What has the pandemic been like for you?

I was incredibly blessed to get the [Industry] gig. I’d been talking to HBO before the pandemic, and they finished filming just before, so I was able to just get to work on the score. From March to early October, it was ten hours a day working on the show. It was like having a 9-7 job, so I just sat in my chair and had Zoom calls with all these people I’ve never met before. Since that’s ended, I’ve been learning Spanish and doing yoga—trying to find purpose every day.

I don’t leave my house much anyway aside from touring, and I like to work on schedules, so the score work was incredibly suitable for me. I’d wake up at 7:30, make breakfast for my girlfriend, she’d go to the “office”—the other room—and I’d have meetings with my music supervisor and music editor to figure out the goals of the day.

What went into this score in terms of inspiration and reference points?

The moment I started to hear about the show, my mind went to Tangerine Dream being used in Risky Business, because of the way the show portrays these rich kids in youth. I thought Tangerine Dream did a great job capturing that. The setting of Industry isn’t very notable—it’s this big, gray, cold bank—so I like the idea of having this warm exuberance wash over it. It’s the same way Succession pairs these cold board rooms with a hip-hop and classical score.

They sent me drafts of the first few episodes, and as I started to watch it I noticed that they used the Tangerine Dream soundtrack as a substitute, which is exactly what I was thinking. Another thing I was thinking about is Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire. The score makes the running so epic. I was trying to build something that had warmth and excitement, and it was important to convey that this is the most exciting thing that could happen in these characters’ lives—the equivalent of me playing Berghain for the first time. I initially wanted to do more orchestral stuff for it, but as I started to lay things down, HBO very quickly said, “Stick to the lane you’re in.”

Have you noticed increased interest in your music since Industry came out?

A lot of people go to the YouTube page for “Blue Spring” and say “Industry brought me here.” That’s always been the dream—to have someone in your comments saying “So-and-so brought me here,” and then someone else saying “I was here before that.” [Laughs] It made my year. Since the show came out, I’m definitely on Twitter a lot more in general.

What were your interests when you were younger, before you got into making music?

For a long time, my dream was to be an architect. Before that, my dream was to have a picture in the back of Lego magazine. I’d send them pictures all the time, and they rejected all of them. Once I got to high school, I realized being an architect wasn’t gonna happen because I didn’t have the math brain. Law wasn’t exactly my dream, but it was a realistic pathway.

Once I got into university, I got really into fitness, too—but that wasn’t so much adolescence as it was when life became more real. When I was six years old, I loved lip-syncing to pop music, too. I’d buy all the magazines and I knew everything that was going on. My mom told me for years that I should’ve gotten a job in pop culture writing.

How did you get into electronic and dance music?

I had this friend Andrew in grade 11 that was getting into dance music, and I hated it. He was listening to MSTRKRFT and Fake Blood, as well as Steve Aoki and Bloody Beetroots. There was this club called The Social that everyone used to go and sneak into with fake IDs, and I used to go there with my friends. I hated all of the music. Then we got into jungle and drum’n’bass, he had a Dillinja CD and we used to blast “Listen to My Flow” in his parents’ 2002 Nissan Altima. I was like, “This is sick.”

This kid Owen who sat next to me in science played me Tiestö’s “Traffic,” and for some reason that really hit me but I never followed up on it. My parents were convinced that YouTube was a virus machine, so I couldn’t go home and look this stuff up. After high school, I went to Israel for a year, and I happened upon a club playing dubstep. I asked the DJ what he was playing and I wrote it down—The Widdler’s “Froggy Style.” My mind was just blown.

I didn’t really have internet, so when I got back, sure enough Andrew was waist-deep in dubstep and started taking me to shows. I saw Benga at the Mod Club in 2007 or 2008, and then I started going to this party Bass Mentality that was being run by Zedd’s Dead. They had Skream and Caspa, and we saw Plastician too. When I went to university, I hated it, so I downloaded Ableton and started making tracks. After a year, I got my first gig at Bass Mentality. I opened for 16Bit. It was a huge night for me.

In my third year of university, it just so happened that I went on exchange to England right as my tracks were getting played on SoundCloud, so I got to get a little preview of DJ’ing too. I got to see a Digital Mystikz show, I still have the poster from the gig.

Tell me about releasing music through LuckyMe.

I really wanted to release stuff through them because of Jacques Greene’s “Another Girl.” I was making dubstep emulations and I could not figure out how to make a wobble or shuffle, and when I heard that song I could recognize how it was centered around chords that I’d learned from playing viola and in music theory. Suddenly it all made sense to me. If it wasn’t for that track, I wouldn’t have started making music to the level that I have now. I thought they had the coolest artwork out of everybody, too.

I wrote Capsule’s Pride in 2014, and LuckyMe was the only label that made sense with the aesthetic. When I wrote the album, I had a friend make artwork and I was going to just put it out into the world, but when I sent it to Dom, he was like, “Okay, we’re gonna do all this next-level stuff for it.” This is why you go to them—because they have a vision that you can’t comprehend.


Capsule’s Pride took cues from Akira, which is a generational touchstone.

After my year in England, I was very badly beaten up, and I got put out of commission. I had a whole year where I couldn’t make music and just stayed in my room studying. After my migraines had stopped and I was able to live again, I convinced my parents to give me one year to live at home and rebuild my music career if I cooked and cleaned. Under the direction of my friend Josh, the idea was to do a live scoring of Akira in Toronto, but as the project started to take shape it became more like an album.

The goal was to make 75% of the album out of things from Akira—even the synths on it are granular synths from Akira. Every day for six months, I’d wake up and chop up this terrible recording of the movie in MP3 format. I wrote a storyboard. My dad was like, “If you’re gonna stay at home and do this, don’t goof off—treat this seriously.” He’d make sure I was working on it and have me tuck in my shirt and stuff, which was hilarious even though I was just walking from my bed to my desk. My parents didn’t know what Akira was obviously, so my dad would be like, “I don’t think anyone’s gonna connect with this. I don’t know who these people are.” I was like, “You’ll see.”

Tell me about how your sonic style progressed.

My early meanderings were post-dubstep. Nobody’s proud of that. But I think those songs hold up well for what they are. Later I got really into trance, which is swapping one embarrassing thing for another—but not embarrassing for me. James Holden’s Balance mix was a touchstone for that. I knew him as an avant-garde electronic musician, and then I listened to that mix and I was like, “Holy fuck!” I got into Sasha and modern takes on trance from there, like Oni Ayhun. Around that time, Space Dimension Controller put out Welcome to Mikrosector 50, which had a lot of trance-y elements, so I was like, “OK, people are still bringing that flavor. I need to make this my focus now.”

You mentioned trance being embarrassing, but I’ve always loved trance. I hear it in a lot of good stuff lately, too. Why do you think people are drawn to trance?

The first time I played Panorama Bar in 2015, I was really on one. I played Sasha’s “Xpander,” I played half of the tracks from that James Holden mix. It was four hours of trance. Two things happened. Natalie, the woman who does the lights at Panorama, came up to me and said, “What is this music?” I said, “It’s Sasha’s ‘Expander.’’ She was like, “No one has ever played this! This is so loud.” She loved it. After that, the comments sections were lighting up and people were saying, “I can’t believe I came to Panorama just to hear ‘Xpander!’ I’m so disappointed.” Now, nine times out of ten, when I go there, I hear trance. I’m not saying I’m responsible for that at all, but norms have shifted. [Avalon Emerson] had a similar experience there too.

I think what’s made trance so accessible for everyone is the same reason why it used to be: people are drawn to melody. If you have the choice between business techno and very serious house music, then trance denies the seriousness of the former and the formalities of the latter. For many years, I felt like a joke because I was a huge fan of Dial and Ostgut Ton, and I’m making this trance stuff with stupid track titles. My first track was called “Flute Dreams,” and I only named it that because earlier that day I’d watched Hoop Dreams.

Trance music is fearless. It has no inhibitions. Anything goes, as long as it’s catchy as hell. 2 minutes of a cheesy trance song will brighten your day more than 10 minutes of a techno loop.

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Jamie Larson