Making his debut at this year’s Lightning in a Bottle Music Festival, Noah McBeth aka NoMBe took the Lightning stage by storm Friday night, bringing sickening guitar solos and shifting effortlessly genre to genre. NoMBe got the crowd instantly hooked playing hits like “California Girls,” “Wait,” and his new single “Freak Like Me.” We sat down with McBeth after his set to talk about his first time LiB, why he’s releasing songs the way he is, and his band’s current lineup.
This article has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
The thing I love about you guys is the constant shifting from genre to genre, it’s unique, going from Hendrix to the xx and more.
Those are huge compliments, I love both those artists. Part of that is my upbringing. My dad is this huge music aficionado, and was an artist manager and drummer and he always had a pretty varied record collection from house music to classic rock to ’80s pop, everything. He introduced me to Jay Z, to A Tribe Called Quest — my German dad who’s now 55, put a lot of people on the map for me, my mom as well. She’s from Brooklyn, she introduced me to the Beatles and stuff.
I love all music and I realized pretty early on I can’t really settle, I’m a very indecisive person — even when I’m ordering sandwiches at Subway it takes me like 40 minutes. So with music, that translates into ‘I feel like making a house record today, I feel like making a rock record.’ This particular album I was really into guitars and distortion in stuff,
You’re releasing a song every month now?
Yeah we’re doing a song a month, but the album is it’s own body of work. So the way we’ve been saying it, the label and our team, we’re saying we’ve been releasing the album in real time. It’s kind of one of those things like, I love albums, I feel like I am an album artist, but it is a singles-driven market right now. But that’s right up my alley because I like writing songs that have a defined character and a defined theme. I don’t like making noodly filler tracks. I want every song to have their shine so it kind of made sense to do it that way.
Was the label receptive?
Very. They loved it because usually it’s hard to get stuff out of artists, you have to push them a lot — and I had the album for a long time and refining it took a long time as well. I just finished the first album and I’m halfway through the second album.
Where do you do most of your writing?
I do most of my writing in my studio at home. I’ve tried [the beach] but I’m very impatient, so when I have my idea, I need to write it, I need to track it, I need to do stuff. When I have a guitar, I can’t just sing and have it in my head and drive home. I’m all over the place. My studio’s kind of my control station, my bass is on the left, my guitar is on the right, I have synth and piano behind me. So like within my chair I can just roll around at intervals.
You’re totally not afraid of guitar solos.
I’m not. I was but at some point I realized, “You’re gonna fuck up,” and fuck it.
Are they spontaneous or impromptu?
Yes, but I don’t want them to be. I try to make them like the record but when I’m on stage I get carried away and I’m like, “Well, I want to do this now.” Especially if I make a mistake, then I’m like, “Aww, fuck it.” I’m not like a guitar player’s guitar player. The guitar came second to me, I started playing when I was 16, 17.
Your first instrument was piano?
Piano. It took me awhile to get comfortable and I still play the guitar like a newbie, kind of. When I write, I’m not like as familiar with it with can really hold you back as a writer. If you grow up playing something, so much of it becomes muscle memory and then you — it becomes so boring and it’s really hard to write. If I write a ballad with just triads, it feels like, “This is it?” You tend to over-do things. But if I pick up a saxophone, which I can’t play at all, I’m going to stick to the very least amount of things I can do to make it work. I love writing on an instrument that I’m not that good at.
The last song [of the set], “Sex,” hasn’t been released yet?
It has not. It’s going to come the end of the year. It’s actually really old. I wrote it about three times with different verses. It was originally a house song. The hook was the same, but it had a house format, four-on-the-floor, but it’s a funny song because to me when I wrote it I was like “Fuck, this is way too poppy, I shouldn’t release this.” But then it kind of grew on me, and it became one of those things where I kept writing to it and more and more verse came and I ran out of verses and I was like, “Let me make a poem out of the leftover lyrics.”
“Sex” was one of those songs where you have a lot of puns: “Baby from 9 to 5 a.m. our stars align / Rock on from side to side / Round and round like fireflies / She wants it all the time / Wet dreams and lullabies. / I give it my all tonight / The way I have her calling, like / Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Is it hard to get the set list right for a situation like a festival?
It depends. We had a different set list when we started a few weeks ago and then Fourth of July, the opener, just felt really good … The climax should be at the end. Start strong and leave strong and make sure they don’t leave in between.
To what extent is the band you with other people playing instruments?
I’m technically a solo artist. NoMBe is kind of like Tame Impala is really Kevin. Gorillaz is really Damon Albarn. I hire band members, but I want it to feel like a band as much as possible. I try to incorporate into everything, that’s why in a lot of interviews I talk about “we,” and when I tweet I say “we,” but I had completely different players half a year ago and before that, I had completely different players. NoMBe is basically an acronym for my name, which is Noah McBeth.
Your lyrics are kind of poetic but they’re pretty apolitical. Is that by design?
I haven’t thought about it that much. I do want to grow as an artist, so I make conscious decisions to change or evolve but it’s not like the cliche of artists that go pop, like Coldplay. They had this sound and these lyrics and now they’re like fist-bump music. For me, I tell stories and I try to tell them in the best way possible. There’s a point where I don’t want to be the dark, electric R&B guy. I realize that I’m a more extroverted person than that. It’s just that “Miss Mirage,” “Kemosabe,” my first EP, that was all very R&B electric soul. Electric soul is still what I do now, but I was more comparing myself to people like James Blake and Chet Faker and these kind of people.
I talk about everything. This album is about women, for the most part. From my mom, girlfriends, exes, flings, everything. I just tell stories of experiences. We’ve been putting a lot of work into getting female perspective in the creative process. I hired almost exclusively female directors, to have a female creative director. Obviously, the band’s all-female. And I don’t want to get that misconstrued that it’s a feminist album or that I wrote it to be a feminist album, but I identify as that and it’s just stories. In some stories, I’m an asshole. In some stories, people break my heart, and that’s just life. So it’s not supposed to judge, they’re just stories. I just felt like the common denominator was that every song is about a different woman in my life and I just wanted to show that with the branding and everything.
Since we’re from S.F., we have to ask: There’s a former restaurant called NoMBe that shows up at every festival with their ramen burger…
I saw that! We’ve been having this social competition about who pops up quicker on Instagram and they have the website name. Two years ago, we were trying to get the website name and we’re like, “There’s this Japanese restaurant and slowly…’ Obviously, a restaurant can’t compete with an artist in terms of press because I post every day. Now when you type in ‘NoMBe,’ you see less and less of the restaurant but when I saw that they closed down or switched their business model, we tried to get their website and they quoted us a ridiculous amount of money. I was like, “Come on.” It’s really my favorite food. I love it.