The public face of Gossip is unquestionably Beth Ditto, but the band’s sound wouldn’t be nearly as dynamic without guitarist Nathan “Brace Paine” Howdeshell. Over Gossip’s 10-year career, he’s gone from playing basement parties in Olympia to closing the John Peel stage at Glastonbury and keeping the band’s indie credentials despite signing with Columbia. On a recent New York trip, Howdeshell took some time to extol the virtues of being a shrinking violet, to shame American Idol, and to hint at Gossip’s possible foray into country music. He also happened to mention that having your band’s album produced by Rick Rubin is a very cool experience.
What are the good points of being in a band with someone out front who is so instantly recognizable?
The best part is that I usually get to disappear into the background, which is exactly where I want to be. A band just can’t have two huge personalities and exist long-term, which thankfully Gossip has. It also helps that I think what Beth is doing is great, and being part of a band that’s actually doing something is a rare opportunity these days. I wouldn’t squander it over something petty.
There really are three facets to the band, and there are also three voices. A lot of people equate Gossip with Beth because she’s so out there, but the band really is greater than its individual parts.
Did you ever picture yourself as the one out front?
No, not really. I enjoy my position. I enjoy playing and the work I do on the guitar. Even though the Smiths was essentially about Morrissey, Johnny Marr played a pivotal role in the group. There’s always been a good dynamic in our group, so I’m not interested in demanding that I step forward and have equal billing in the band.
Has your career ended up the way that you expected?
I can definitely say no to that, with the reason being that I didn’t expect anything. We’ve been a band for 10 years. It seems like yesterday we were playing basement shows and putting out 7-inches and thinking it was a really huge deal. In this business, you can’t really set out to do something. A lot of our friends in the business are just as good but simply haven’t had the luck we’ve had. You just keep doing things that you’re proud of, and sometimes it will work out. I’ve been lucky that my career has worked out in a way that has been really exciting.
What is the one thing that you would have changed about Gossip’s history?
I don’t know that I would have changed anything. We’ve always pretty aware of our decisions, from whom we record and tour with to our album art. Our U.K. label did release one of our songs that eventually became the theme for a show called Skins. That was sort of unfortunate.
Don’t tell me you’re one of those bands that rues its success.
It’s just unfortunate that out song was co-opted. If a band wants to sabotage itself, there are plenty of really easy ways to do it. It’s funny that anybody in a band would complain about success, when success is so hard to attain and so fleeting.
Do you consider Gossip’s music to be your life’s work?
Definitely up to this point; the music plays a pivotal role in my life and the people who are close to me. There always has to be a next step, though. If it gets to the point that the music becomes work, I’ll walk away and look for another way to fulfill my needs.
How long do you expect the band to be together?
I could imagine us being together forever, playing music together in some form. I don’t want us to be one of those hugely old acts trotting out on stage well into our seventies, but if the chemistry is there and touring is fun, there’s no reason not to be out there doing it. We’re good at not letting things build up, so it’s safe to say we’ll be around for a while.
Was making Music for Men as exciting as making The Gossip?
It was different. Our first record was recorded in two days in a bathroom. The energy is definitely there, but the message is lost in the action of recording. We’ve developed over our career, but we also always do what we want to do at all times. If we want to go back and make an album in two days in a bathroom, we’ll do it.
I’m not sure Rick Rubin would produce that. What’s it like to work with him?
Rick Rubin rules. He’s amazing. What people don’t realize about him is that he’s the biggest music fan on the planet. It’s always music first with him, and he has this metaphysical connection to it that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. When he said that listening to Gossip was a game changer for him; that was so affirming, Not a lot of things affect me, but I was so blown away when I heard that.
One of the main criticisms of Music For Men is the “loud” production? Where do you come down on this debate?
I think that we’re a loud band, so the production is loud. We really think more about how the album will sound live, so everything we do is more attuned to playing the songs in that context. Music For Men sounds exactly how we wanted it to sound.
Where is the band going next?
We like to keep that open for discussion, so we don’t end up painting ourselves into a corner. The next album could be a country record or something dark and noir.
Are there any dream projects out there for Nathan Howdeshell?
I would love to make a film. I do a lot of ‘zines, so I’d love to a book. Maybe a movie, something personal and not too loud. It will probably never get made.