By Ben Schneider
“Who the heck is this guy, and what’s he doing inside this screen?” Lucas Nathan’s warbly, synthetic voice-over asks as the camera zooms out from a black and white still of his comically blank face. The opening to this 2014 Youtube clip, entitled “Who is Jerry Paper: The Infinity Between One and Zero?” is quintessential Jerry Paper fan fodder. It is one morsel in a long trail of digital breadcrumbs that the unclassifiable musician has left for his cult following. Many of these artifacts seem to call into question the relationship between artist and audience, between everyday guy, Lucas Nathan, and musical persona, Jerry Paper.
In an era of meticulous personal branding, Nathan’s artistic output is conspicuously inward facing. It’s almost as if those questions from the opening of “Who is Jerry Paper” are directed mainly at the artist himself, and everyone watching is just along for the ride.
"The whole point of Jerry Paper is a character that I can stand back from that's also me," Nathan said in our interview, adding, "I feel like that's a really important thing for people to do."
Listening carefully to the words of his latest album Toon Time Raw!, one begins to see just how consistently Nathan plies his succinctly stated project. The record is full of Buddhist sounding aphorisms like this ditty from "Jumbo Ron:" "He rides the flow of inner chatter as if he is the river itself./ Wake up to your life! There is no thinker only passing thoughts."
In fact, Toon Time Raw's! focus on escaping the ego and its trivial machinations (for musician and listener alike) presents the clearest tie to Jerry Paper's previous work. In many other respects, this album represents a new and unexpected stage in the musician's evolution. The diversity of sounds and styles—bold transitions from pop-friendly hooks to sad boy synths, Brazil '66 to Grizzly Bear—feels like a big jump from his prior albums, which have a more consistent feel to them.
Beyond Nathan's continued growth as a being, the single biggest factor behind the Toon Time Raw!’s unique sound is the contribution of BADBADNOTGOOD (BBNG), who performed much of the instrumentation on the album, "like the Wrecking Crew, or something." The lightning hot Jazz Quartet's genre warping sensibilities shine through, despite the fact that all of the instrumentals were written and demoed by Nathan. There are moments on the album, like the intro to "Hijinks Ensue," that sound like they could have come right off BBNG's July release, IV. Indeed, the musical symbiosis between Nathan and BBNG is two-way. Although he wasn't directly involved with the production of their new album, Jerry Paper is credited as a "spiritual advisor" on IV.
Nathan wasn't aware of the shoutout until he was asked about it, although he didn't seem particularly shocked. He and Matty Taveras of BBNG have been close friends for the last five or so years, and apparently operate on a very similar wavelength.
"A lot of our process was like meditating before we went into the studio," Nathan said of his experience co-producing Toon Time Raw! with Taveras.
The collaborative nature of his album represents a new direction in Nathan’s artistic career, which, up until now, has consisted of a series of relatively independent ventures. Nathan was originally drawn to art as a way of passing time by himself. As a kid growing up in LA, he didn't have a lot of friends in his neighborhood, he recalled. "I wanna use the word lonely, but lonely sounds sad, which is not what I mean. But I was solitary."
In his preteen years, Nathan would occupy his time by drawing "all the time, a lot." Then, at age 13, he discovered Sony Acid on his laptop, and began recording himself playing music. He became a one-man band, adding new instruments to his compositions as he learned them, compensating for the lack of attention he received in his high school band.
As a college student at the New School, he continued to spend much of his time making music by himself. Gradually, however, he was gripped by the urge to share his creations with the world.
"I had this mini nervous breakdown where I was like, what the fuck. I keep making music but how do I get people to hear it?"
Nathan’s musical taste at the time, which mostly consisted of ambient and noise music, as well as 20th century avant gardists like Henry Cowell, had sheltered him from contemporary channels of music dissemination. He also spent a great deal of his energy focused on his studies in philosophy of religion and sociology of music. But then the young man who spent so much time looking back through history and into his own psyche made a Promethean discovery: music blogs. He sent out a bevy of emails and got a hit from Chocolate Bobka, the now defunct alternative blog.
"That's when I started to engage with this online world, which quickly took off into the real world," he recalled.
At the time, Nathan released music under the name Zonotope™, which is, according to him, "A mathematical term that I don't really understand." Rather than being a persona, Zonotope™ was a project with a predefined, four part scope. The intended effect was to "make it feel like there was a rip in space time and you're getting a little feed into another dimension." The content filtering down to us listeners from this alternate universe was the propaganda for a "new age cult" known as the "Church of Love, Light, and Bytes."
By the time he finished the four-part project, Nathan was ready to work on a "less constricting" concept. Jerry Paper is a character from the Zonotope™ universe who breaks away from the cult and goes to work as a musician on a cruise ship. This image serves as a helpful starting point for understanding Jerry Paper's aesthetic. In his music and videos, he tends to present himself as a corny, albeit eccentric lounge singer, at odds with the hyper artificial worlds he inhabits.
These types of incongruities abound in the video for "Halfway Zen," in which Jerry Paper awkwardly wanders around the not-so-picturesque parts of Aruba—including an oil refinery and an abandoned tourist bar—sporting his signature purple kimono. In the video for "Real Now Love," a digitally animated Jerry Paper attempts to live his day-to-day life in a house that seems to be smarter than him. During the song's bridge, Jerry Paper's avatar sits in front of a computer with a dialogue box that says, "Email sent to literally everyone," while the apparently digital walls of the room swell with sad face computer screen emojis. As his avatar throws up his hands before the existentially frustrating spectacle, Jerry Paper sings, "I am here, so very here/ I am now, so very now."
There is an undeniable sense of irony to this project and persona. Jerry Paper exists in environments that are supposedly relaxing or productive, but ultimately prove to be the opposite. Just as these narrative environments are revealed to be full of artifice and simulacra, so too is the very structure of the music. Up until Toon Time Raw!, Jerry Paper's music was almost exclusively produced using what Nathan calls, "fake instruments;” which are essentially just settings on a synthesizer.
The attempt to use the products and aesthetics of an artificial world in order to criticize that world call to mind the writings of George Saunders and Don Delilo, whom Nathan cites as his greatest influences. Nathan strives for a similar "synthesis of humor and every other emotion," in other words, an artistic product that is both funny and profound. He's also inspired by the emotional engagement that Saunders, in particular, elicits from his readers.
"If you have an audience, I think you should be thinking about how you impact the world. And I think the most important thing is that you try to stimulate empathy."
In fact, Nathan emphasized that humor and empathy are the two things he focuses on during his artistic process. Both are means of taking in the bigger picture by stepping back from one's own personal thoughts and judgments. Nathan hopes that by presenting these kinds of ideas in his art, he can encourage other people to apply them in their lives.
His mission of "getting people to embrace their inner freaks and look at themselves and smash their egos," has a new form in Toon Time Raw's! cast of animal cartoon characters. The cartoon concept was directly related to the fact that this is his first album to use real instruments, Nathan explained. Just like the experience of fake instruments, the fantasy world of the cartoons gives the listener a different perspective on reality.
When confronted with "these cartoon characters with complex selves and complex lives," Nathan surmised, "you don't necessarily form judgments about them; you just experience them."
In his subsequent work, Nathan has continued to experiment with new and diverse ways of achieving a similar effect. In addition to a forthcoming Jerry Paper album, recent months have seen Nathan making music for other artists’ work, including comics and filmmakers. Jerry Paper’s unmistakable keyboards set the mood for “FPS” an Adult Swim short released on Youtube this October, by the animator and frequent lofi collaborator Cole Kush. The video stars a big spending, hard partying mobster in the mold of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, who suddenly has a crisis of conscience upon killing a man in front of his family. The game/video continues as the mobster is arrested and taken to prison. Along the way, Nathan’s music and sound effects walk the very same line as the images, bringing to life a familiar gaming experience without the characteristic amorality.
As Nathan expands his oeuvre into other media, his message of stepping back begins to relate back to media itself. With mediated environments becoming an increasingly important part of our lives, they, too, will demand corresponding infusions of empathy and humor. In the coming months and years, we can be confident that Nathan will provide many such cosmic pick-me-ups.