[Interview] Nathan Montalvo on the 80's, Guitars, 'Neon', and Video Games

Earlier this year, I wrote an exciting album review for Nathan Montalvo’s debut Neon, a truly 80’s inspired guitar record that had me wanting to turn back the clock more than ever! Especially with the way 2020 has been progressing... In September, I had the opportunity to interview Nathan about the music and video games inspired behind Neon, and shortly after, our hero Eddie Van Halen passed away. This news is and was so devastating to both us, and the whole 80’s and guitar world. It was nice, after a little grieving, to come back and look at why EVH and this era was so fantastic. It was a golden age of video game systems at home, and some of the best music to grace the airwaves in their infancy. Nathan also plans to have t-shirts available for sale in 2021, so stay tuned for that release as well!! Take a look at this exclusive interview about guitars, Neon, and Nathan Montalvo!

Robyn: Hi, Nathan! Would you like to introduce yourself or say anything quick that you’d like people to know about you and the album?

Nathan: My name is Nathan Montalvo, and I’m from Statesboro, GA –laughs- the most well-known city in America. And things about the album…let’s see. It took me a long time to do, a few years, I feel like for the most part it was a 2 man operation just me and my friend Randy, Randall Lowry, engineering the whole thing and I feel like the two of us really tag-teamed that album over an extended period of time. I can’t believe that it’s done and over with for how long I worked on it. And it’s available to get, so anyone who’s interested in it is free to message me and I’ll send you a copy and write my name on it. It’s a good time!

R: Awesome! So obviously I love it! I love the whole concept, the video game feel, part of why I love Iron Maiden is I really do feel like it’s listening to a video game sometimes, so it has been really cool to have music that’s somewhat about that, somewhat not with the story you can kind of hear, whether you hear words or not. So if it revolves around the 80’s sound, in particular, how much of that has been a part of your life? The 80’s in particular.

N: So earlier I was talking about how I’ve been cleaning up and de-cluttering a little bit of the house, and I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, but I was finding old notebooks from school that went as far back as 1st and 2nd grade. Just things we held onto and things that never really got thrown away. I’m kind of sentimental I guess, but looking at my old handwriting, before I was learning cursive and letters and 8 forming, I would see I would draw Van Halen on my math stuff. All the toys I found from that were Rowdy Roddy Piper and his Hot Rods shirt. I think it’s always probably been in my life and I think the big part of the reason for that was my older brother is 8 years older than me and I think instead of him throwing his toys and stuff like that away, I would just get them as hand me downs. So that’s just what I had originally, and it wasn’t just toys. It was magazines, in some cases music, I inherited a lot of cassette tapes, lots of left over Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue, not just musical cassette tapes, but movies as well. When I was growing up I had a lot of time to myself. So you know, both parents worked, when I was way little, he [older brother] had more of a social life so he was gone after learning how to drive. So, that left me a lot of time to go around an investigate things and it wasn’t long before I found Back to the Future! –laughs- Everything was amazing. I almost never found any one thing from that time that I didn’t completely love. The more I think about it, the more I don’t remember a time where 80’s things weren’t part of the whole thing. So I feel it’s just always been a thing I was sort of born into. I, for a long time, wasn’t even aware that that’s what that was. I thought that was just everyday life for other kids, but I don’t think I’ve lived one day where I haven’t been sort of immersed in it.

R: I totally relate to that too, especially being left to your own devices. Totally relate like, “Welp, I’ve got this awesome music, I guess I’m going to learn everything I can.”

N: Yeah! And you know it’s amazing we have a lot of touch screen things now, where you order your food at McDonald’s with a touch screen and they’ve got it so all your phones are touch screens. In that time that I remember growing up, everything had to have buttons on them, and buttons, I don’t know what it is with little kids and buttons, but when I was a little kid, I got such a huge rush out of the way a button would click and it was like “I have to do it again” and it was just…

R: Satisfying?

N: Yeah! I feel like video games became way of a…way…

R: Full of button mashing.

N: Yeah! It’s just, I don’t know what it is about the rush you get from pressing a really….pressy button. It clicks! It’s like when you’re in an arcade and you just “tap-tap-tap-tap”! Just the sound of it is just oddly satisfying; it’s like scratching an itch! So luckily record players had really good buttons that you could press!

R: Everything seems to have been made better back then, including the music. Well I mean, that’s partially why yours [music] is so good; because with newer bands, they don’t really have a slight 80’s edge or melody or whatever. Sometimes I think it’s good, but I feel it’s the best, even in death metal where you can kind of hear some of that, I feel that it’s just better.

N: Yeah! I feel it comes from somewhere, and I think when it comes to music in general, you can never fake attitude or authenticity or anything like that. So if you’re listening to a song and it’s written by somebody that needed to make a paycheck, I feel like that translates. You know.

R: Yeah! There are some old Rolling Stones albums, even some old Alice Cooper albums where it has one hit song and all filler.

N: Yeah! It really translates somehow and that makes me happy I guess. The soul shines through!

R: So what are your favorite ways you “turn back the clock” in your spare time?

N: Watching a VHS movie, and the reason why I say that particular activity is because I feel we now have perfected the ability to make things flawless in a way. It feels weird to say that in 2020, but as far as technology and things go, and to watch a cassette tape, for me, is one of the ultimate ways to turn back the clock. As soon as you put it in the first thing you see is a huge “FBI warning! Don’t reproduce!”

R: Then usually there’s a whole bunch of trailers and stuff like you’re at the movies too.

N: Yeah! I love the guys voice “COMING SOON!” I go “Oh mann! What is it?” and then it’s like “There’s Something about Mary”, and the older and farther back we go, it’s things like Terminator and Terminator 2. You know, I’m looking at my movies over here, like Village Kids,

R: Breakfast Club! I see in the background there!

N: Yeah! So, it’s like how you read a newspaper and you see the current events is almost what that is for me. Sometimes reading music I feel like is a really telling way of turning back the clock because if you read a piece of classical music, it’s almost like you’re in the imagination of the composer. So if you read a piece by Mozart, maybe you see where the melody is going. It’s a lot of tedious work, if you’re a guitar player it’s even worse because it’s like, “Where do I put my fingers? So it’s either here or here. Or here.” You know, it’s very telling, in my case, a lot of my favorite guitar players did that, so to sit down with a meganene type thing and figure out where the fingers are going, and you stumble on this, quarry of notes where I think, “Why is this familiar to me?” It’s because I’ve learned this Yngwie [Malmsteen] song forever and a day ago. So you’re not only in the composer’s head, you’re in your heroes’ head now and I’m double back in the clock right now. It’s amazing. Playing video games of course! From back in the good old days, something that we both love. I feel that in particular, some of the most far back in the clock moments for me when it comes to that is remembering that you can only defeat Dr. Wiley at the end of Megaman 3 by using toss pin which is up until that part of the game, the most useless power-up, but it’s the only way you’re going to defeat Wiley unless you are the white with the pea shooter that you start off with. Those things are all time machines for me, those things are the Delorean.

R: I wanted to throw out for the guitar geeks out there, you have the Marshall amp, and Fenders? Is there something in particular that you really care about and say about anything you have in your set-up?

N: Yes! I gear that I use live, it is a Marshall 4x10 cabinet. The primary reason for the 4x10 cabinet other than it was just the one thing in the store at that time that I needed that is a 4x10 cabinet, you can actually see in the “Turn Back the Clock” music video is actually the marquee that’s on the arcade cabinet of the video game Final Fight and if you look it fits perfectly onto the cabinet. And for that reason I keep it about a 10. I’ll show it to you in a second. I also use an ISP Theta X that’s my floor unit, and the Fenders, they are Fender HM Strat guitar, so in recording the record, I used mostly a 1988 Fender HM strat and part of what I love about that guitar is that it is, up until this year when the re-issue came out, we, myself and Ethan Brosh, great guitar player, one of my best friends, the both of us have played it for a long time. Part of what I love about that guitar is, for a long time, you couldn’t find one and you could never see one, and they became “uncool” in the 90’s just like most other things. I think that Fender resisted coming out with a guitar like that because they’re traditionally rooted in more of a bluesy Stratocaster type thing and as soon as they could wipe their hands clean of the HM Strat it was gone. If you went to the Fender website, you can see every guitar they’ve ever made in their history of fenders but you wouldn’t find that one though. The guitar itself, got one here you can take a look at it, it is unapologetically 80’s, as this one is a bright pink color, I’m a big fan of colors that refuse to be ignored. Which hence, the title of the record, Neon, I wanted it to light-up, and I feel like this guitar does that. It’s unusual, it has 24 frets on it, a typical Fender only has 21 or 22 frets. It has a Floyd rose on it. The old one has a tailor.

R: It’s cool! I really like that black hardware too on it.

N: Yeah! I feel the contrast on is really cool. It just makes everything pop out with the guitar. It plays a big role in the things that I do in a weird way, we, myself as well as Ethan, have been playing it for long that it’s become a trade mark.

R: Where people expect to see it.

N: Yeah! It’s become a thing. Also a great guitar player before us, most notably Greg Howell, he’s a guitar hero and we really liked him and his music, he was also a very 80’s guitar player when these started coming out. He’s more into the fusion rock style, but when he came out in the late 80’s he was just unbelievable. The whole thing with me as well is I was inspired by other 80’s guitar players so this is about as 80’s as it gets. It’s Fender and it’s so unique that they never really did this it just makes the guitar way more special to me. I think that covers all the guitar gear. That’s the Marshall, the guitar, anything else?

R: Just anything you wanted to share!

N: DiMarzio pick ups, I use that a lot, they’re on every guitar, DiMarzio, Marshall, and ISP. So there you go!

R: It’s a burning question because I love Richard Marx so much, and “Wall Street” I listen to a lot in the mornings because it’s really chill and pleasant. I love it for nice drives through the park, what is your favorite AOR artist like Bryan Adams, or who you were channeling. I just hear so much of him [Richard Marx].

N: I really love Peter Cetera of Chicago, but most notably I like his solo stuff. Chicago is great too, can’t put them down at all, but I like him, I think I was trying to channel a bit of Mr. Mister and I was kinda mish mash or Richard Marx and Michael Douglas! Not a musician, but the song “Wall Street”, I wrote that while I was watching that movie Wall Street and I wanted to make the whole song drip with cool breeze in the air, I wanted the listener to feel like they were in the city to do some serious damage for whatever your own purposes might be, like you’re about to take over the whole city. So I was just trying to reach into some Bryan Adams territory. I wanted the guitar to have a sultry kind of voice that they all have where it produces a natural reverb. Also, Stan Bush. For anyone that might be a nerd out there and into this stuff, if you’ve seen Transformers the movie, this is of course, “You know the touch!” So that’s Stan Bush, Stan Bush also any Jean-Claude Van Damme movie where he’s got some serious thinking to do, you will definitely hear Stan Bush singing in the background. He was like the go-to for those kinds of moments in the 80’s movies. It’s very difficult for me to not start singing a Stan Bush right now, but, I want to channel that whole attitude and illustrate my love for that.

R: That’s partially why I love it so much because it’s a whole different hodge-podge there’s 80’s metal, 80’s rock, 80’s soft rock, and the acoustic, like there’s definitely a variety of different 80’s sounds. I’m a huge closet, but not closet, but kind of closet Richard Marx fan, and that’s just part of the 80’s I love so much it’s just so authentic.

N: Yeah! Oh believe me, I’ve thought those all before and had fantasies of being the guitar player for Richard Marx in the band. You know. That would be an ultimate dream come true or pretty up there!

R: Even the high-speed stuff, when I’m playing Metroid and whatnot, I kinda remember when I was listening to Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Night Ranger it just all puts me back. Like in particular Master of Puppets and Midnight Madness [Night Ranger] were very huge. 7 Wishes, that whole album!

N: It’s amazing that you say that because on Netflix, you can watch a little series called Game Over, did you see that episode about the guys that made DOOM? The thing you’ll really appreciate is that it was two guys who made DOOM, and it was just them and a warehouse and one of their rules was, they would each trade off every day with the boombox and one guy got to listen to what he wanted all day, and the other guy listened to whatever he wanted the next day and they would trade off. He said they’d listen to just metal music and to me that was amazing to hear that I guess the cycle has probably been going on since those days where the music inspired the games and now the games inspire the music. It’s a beautiful thing.

R: I have some comments here, I keep hating I keep forgetting how to pronounce “Hakyokuseiken”, but that and “Aqua” are definitely my favorite songs, especially back to back, like I can’t listen to the one and not the other, or if I hear “Hakyokuseiken”, I feel I have to put on “Aqua” afterwards.

N: Yeah! Did I tell you where I got that name from?

R: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

N: Very close! So the pronunciation is “hacky, oh, koo, say, kin” and I got it from Fatal Fury the video game and that is the martial art that the two main guys Terry Bogard and

Andy Bogard to use to fight with in the game, and when I was making that song, I wanted to make a song that clearly showed in some way or another that I’m very influenced by the Sega Genesis and which Fatal Fury was that, the Genesis fighting game. I was also listening to a lot of shratenel record kind of stuff whenever I wrote that so I said, “I have to bring this love to the table and also separately musically, I had to bring this love to the table” so I tried to mold those two things together.

R: Yeah it definitely seems like, you know, if you were to put it together, playing with your friends or whatever, you can envision hearing that in the background. It’s been fun, dodging different things in the games, just having a rhythm in that and going “do do doo doo do do” it’s so cool!

N: You gotta make it, cut-times, “do-ch-ch-doo” match all your adrenaline you got goin’ on.

R: Like in Metroid when I have the screwball, and I’m just aiming for everything that I can and then I die. And you said with “Aqua”, my other favorite, that you did it all in one sitting. Was it a goal to have a song like that in one sitting, is that just how it came out? Is that how you try to do things?

N: So “Aqua” was a very happy accident where we had, when we were recording, almost every song we were almost finished with, and then Randy had the suggestion “We should do 10 songs” and I was like “I have 9”. He’s like, “Well 10’s a good even number, let’s just try it” so he opened up a new session and I’m there on the couch with nothing. I was like, “Uhh..” and immediately something popped into my brain, so I just started to play that little riff, it’s a C minor chord using all down strokes, and then he clicked record and asked “Okay, what comes next?” and I went, “…” so I’d play something else 4 bars at a time he’d do that each 4 bars. It was exactly like that. It was complete, on-the-spot writing where it started with that riff, and then chords, and then a melody popped into my brain and that song almost had no, like there was never a rough draft to it. There was never a “I wrote this a while ago, or this old melody...” Zero, scratch came to that it was all on-the-spot writing and I was really happy with how that came out because it was kind of like some left over Richard Marx kind of attitude but with like, high gain.

R: Part of what it is with him, is he doesn’t really have much of a problem with having a bit of a vulnerability to him too and that feels more of the a capella feel of a song for it, I mean there’s power yeah but with way less drums and everything else with it.

N: Yeah, absolutely and I hope that in some way if he ever hears that song he won’t be like “Psh that doesn’t sound anything like me” and “I know I know, you’re way better than me” R: Well with the quarantine, he might listen to anything, you should just send it!

N: I know I know, if he’s on social media I’ll see if I can.

R: He’s on Twitter! He runs his mouth politically on Twitter which can be kind of funny, but he’s definitely on there. I’ll just pop him your YouTube link.

N: That’d be awesome!!

R: Have you had any specific reactions to the album coming out or to the songs and stuff. Some things you didn’t quite expect?

N: Yeah. So the album had been available digitally for almost a year before we made the hard copy. So when I finally released it digitally, what I couldn’t believe and what I was really surprised about was the amount of people that, got it first off it wasn’t in record numbers or anything. I mean it’s my very first thing I’ve ever released so I was like “Well who’s gonna want to get this?” and of course it started off with people that I knew that wanted to support which was great. And then what started to be really cool to me was it tapered off into people that I kind-of knew but I might have met like one time and we didn’t really speak after that, and it ended up just like, “No yeah I met you that one time you were on your way out the building” and like “I’ve been listening to your stuff and I want a copy.” Yeah! And eventually strangers would pick it and most recently, the thing is, you can never tell who’s downloading it or where they are when they buy it, like from streaming on Apple Music or iTunes or whatever you use. But when the hard copy came out, that kind of came out when Covid 19 came out, so what that did, was the distributor said they weren’t shipping anything out because of Covid 19 and I made up my mind that I got all these CD’s and I’ll sell them myself. I got to see where my music was going because I had to make the addresses out. And I was really surprised where they were going, places I’ve never been to in my life!

R: And they'd heard of you!

N: Yeah! I mean one went to Calgary, Canada and another went to LA, a few went to LA, and then one went to Texas, Wichita, Kansas…it was like my album was “on tour” or something. I couldn’t believe it. And probably the biggest surprise came from a couple of guys, this wasn’t huge in droves, but a couple of guys in Europe bought a copy and I never even been to Europe. So to learn that somebody in Poland wanted this CD and they shared with me, “By the way I wrote about this in my ‘Best of 2019’” and sure enough he sends me a link and there’s me in another language that I can’t read. I didn’t expect that at all. It was very new for me and I was also happy of the miles. The sentiment is how far, just the distance that my hard work and love for this kind of stuff is going was something I was really happy about.

R: That is really cool!

N: Yeah it was surreal.

R: So tell me, well obviously all of them are your babies, other than “Aqua” because you really worked hard on all of them, but do you have any personal favorites like either to personally play or love a melody of?

N: I feel like “Turn Back the Clock” is almost the entire theme of who I am and everything I do so I was really happy about that one. I feel like Fall Into me was a really special song that I was, it was the most different out of all those songs to put on there. I liked that because I feel like I made that one along with other songs like that where I played the acoustic guitar in a hard and heavy time in my life. I was happy because that song was finished years ago when I was just starting to write some of the other songs. I was really happy that I was able to put that one on the record because it’s such a vast contrast from the other stuff and it’s another example of my writing.

R: So that one was the first one on the album technically you wrote?

N: Well, it’s the first song that was always finished. The first thing I wrote was “Wall Street” and the last thing I wrote was “Aqua”, but “Fall Into Me” was all the way finished. The was done before anything got recorded. That was already done as far back as 2013 almost.

R: So it’s kind of surreal having something from so long on top of everything else, something that lasted like, “Oh see, I did have a seed even if everything else around it sucked.”

N: Yeah! It was very surreal and I feel like that one in particular is cool to look at being played so I was trying to conjure up a way where I could have a video of me playing it because I, everything you hear on that song is one guitar, so it’s also the only the song that I recorded in a single evening like all the other ones I had to come back and do solos and come back and play melodies and come back and play rhythm guitar that everything was done in one night. That one went off without a hitch, so that was cool.

R: Eddie Van Halen, of course, I actually really hear a lot of Jimi Hendrix specifically in “Neon.”

N: Ooooooo really!?

R: Really. I don’t know if it might be the bluesy vibe of what you’re using or something; I hear it a lot which is good though. For “Neon” that theme, obviously the title track, and kind of “Eruption”, what in particular really went into that, what was important for you since it was THE song?

N: Yeah, that’s an important one. There’s a lot of guitar backstory into that, when making a guitar album specifically like a guitar virtuoso album, you have to find some way to show a lot of different things. So being able to play over a variety of grooves, being able to play at a variety of tempos, and a few different tones, and you also want to be able to show that you can hold your own in a sort of territorial world of guitar playing. So for that one, mentioning “Eruption”, if you listen to “Eruption”, one of the things that song does is, it is Van Halen’s, it shows his strength and in many different ways: great note choices, technique, imagination, and that solo he does really illustrates who he is and a lot of other guitar players kind of did the same sort of thing where they would have other guitar solos live. You’ve seen Dokken with George Lynch how he’s got his solo and then you go see Def Leppard where it’s just Phil Collen playing for a minute. That was like a THING for the 80’s.

R: Well, and George Lynch has Mr. Scary!

N: Yeah! George Lynch has Mr. Scary, exactly. As a guitar player of the 80’s that was sort of like, here, you had to do that! You had to have a solo piece that says who you are number one, and number two is you’d have an easy time feeding me the fire. The 80’s was a very guitar-oriented time and what I really wanted to do was find a way to say just who I am and what I wanted to do was play in my house, I must do this and I’d bust! I gotta find a way that says who I am, so I was like imagining a song that had a lot of different colors and preferably neon colors. I feel like I used a lot of this one technique in particular where, for any guitar players interested in this, it’s sweet picking and a lot of my biggest influences is guitar player Jason Becker and he was also very good at that way of playing guitar and I wanted to channel a bit of his influence on me. A lot of arpeggios in “Neon” so in particular to that solo piece I’m using a lot of Major 7 arpeggios and a Minor 7, so lots of 7’s and arpeggios going on. I wanted to make the listener feel like they were being surrounded in light

R: I love it right after “Aqua” too; it definitely flows so well with everything. It’s definitely the one that you go to when you [want] to hear a little bit of all the songs obviously than “Fall Into Me” a little bit too.

N: I love that too because “Aqua” fades out and “Neon” begins out of this looming, ominous “bongggg” I feel like the two sit next to each other well.

R: Yeah definitely. A silly one on my list really…the Super Nintendo or the original Nintendo?

N: Ooooooh, God! That’s a hard question!

R: For me it’s no contest!

N: So, I grew up with NES, that one I grew up with, I didn’t own a Super Nintendo growing up because we had the Genesis and if you had both, that was just absurd. In those days you most likely have had to been rich to have both of those so Genesis is what I had, but we also had the 8 bit NES so for me, I gotta go with the NES on that because it is the one that I had.

R: So what games did you play especially on that? I played a bunch of stuff but my 3 core games were Super Mario Bros. 3, Metroid, and Castlevania.

N: Those are all heavy hitting classics too.

R: I played a bunch of the other games too, but I just always kept going back to those ones in particular, like space…

N: And how fortunate that you even had those, because it was also pretty easy to have a not-that-good game on the Nintendo.

R: Well, yeah, I did…I got Terminator 2 for example.

N: -laughs- Oh man. It’s not fair that they did that because it’s such a good movie. It’s not fair! I feel like too, that made the good games even better though. If you owned a really bad one, that made the good one even better,

R: Like in Contra, I could never even get far, but it was always so fun to play so I kept playing it.

N: It was definitely hard to last long in Contra especially if you didn’t know the code for 30 lives. We all know it now! But it’s all because of the Internet, I mean, I feel that was an uncommon thing in those days.

R: So what are your favorite games on there?

N: My favorites…so, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! Definitely Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. Also Mega Man 3. Specifically Mega Man 3 not only because that’s the one we had but that one Mega Man could slide, and that was the first game he could slide in. The music is awesome in it too. Super Mario Bros. 3, I mean again, that’s Nintendo royalty, that game, so that’s with good reason too. Some other ones, so those are three huge ones. Other ones, I know that the AVGN (Angry Video Game Nerd) doesn’t like it, but I liked The Karate Kid, I didn’t have a hard with that game I know it can be frustrating but I liked that one. Maybe I should take that back, because I like it, but it wasn’t one of my “favorites”. Maybe I should stick with my fanned out ones. I don’t want to leave any out so this is going to take me a minute to really make sure I got all of them. Like Paperboy, Paperboy, absolutely lots of really good memories with Paperboy. There was a, here’s another one, though I don’t remember what it’s called, the whole game is you’re at Disneyworld and you go on different rides and you answer different Disney trivia questions the whole game so to get to the next level you have to answer this random factoid about "Steamboat Willie" or something like that. When you get to the ride it’s a level so if you get to the Magic Kingdom you have the answer a question to get to Space Mountain. Then when you get to Space Mountain, you’re on a rocket ship and you have to blast meteors. It was a really fun game for what it was.

R: I know he [AVGN] talked about the McDonal