Jam-pop. Dance-funk. Alternative-folk. Electroacoustic.
Bar-goers and fans say it’s tough to define Nate Holley’s specific genre, and he agrees.
“I always struggle mightily with describing my music,” he says. “I’ve essentially become a guy who tries to read the crowd and play songs people know, but in my own fashion.”
It’s clear conventionalism isn’t on Holley’s playlist, as he leaps across musical boundaries amid Midwest nightlife. But admittedly, selling drinks at a rapid pace keeps him employed. Holley’s compelling stage charisma became an algorithm for connecting with strangers in such a way that makes friends. Suddenly, visitors to Lake Michigan’s coast want to stay on their feet late into the night, dancing to a mix of top ’40s, classic covers, and catchy originals.
“People can expect to see and hear a lot of things going on,” he says. “My creative process is confusing to a non-musician, which I think adds to the mystique. The process between originals and covers isn’t much different.”
One of Holley’s favorite songs to perform is “Regulate,” by Nate Dogg and Warren G. He says it’s an all-encompassing experience if the crowd’s involved.
“It’s not the danciest of songs, but a lot of people know it and it really turns heads with the right crowd,” he asserts.
The looping mystique
Holley, who hails from Urbana, Ill., but now lives in Saugatuck, is recognized among musicians for his looping magic — a complex recording dissection of riffs, beats, and melodies. A loop is a repeating section of sound material, typically used to create ostinato (continually repeating) patterns. Holley loops the longest sections of a song first, then accompanies himself by singing and playing along with the sequence on guitar.
“I can’t hide the building up of a song, so the audience will hear me record each part and then pull parts in and out to create a ‘band’ sound,” he says. “I’d say 75 percent of listeners who’ve never heard me probably assume I’m using pre-recorded parts, as I’ve really worked on being fast and mistake-free on the setups.
“You’ll hear a lot of loopers messing up parts, making loop mistakes and having to redo them, or taking five to seven minutes to set up a song,” Holley adds. “I pride myself on avoiding those pitfalls.”
Holley’s looping expertise started in 2001, before he even owned a loop pedal. Self-taught, he discovered a delay pedal and set it on infinite repeats, thus giving himself a three-second loop. It’s a musical style Holley’s idol, Keller Williams, has been practicing for nearly four decades.
Williams, who’s considered by many to be the forefather of the one-man looping show, built a national reputation on his engaging live performances, no two of which are alike. His stage shows are rooted in singing compositions and choice cover songs while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.
The approach was derived from “hours of playing solo with just a guitar and a microphone, and then wanting to go down different avenues musically,” Williams says. “I wanted something more organic, yet with a dance groove I could create myself.”
Holley says playing shows with Williams is a highlight of his career. Together or separately, their live shows — and their ability to improvise to quirky tunes despite the absence of an actual band — make them stand out from other performers.
The drummer advantage
Holley says his many years of practice have resulted in seamless delivery. He doesn’t remember much of life without music; his mother, now a retired University of Illinois professor, left college to tour in a band, while his father, he says, had him practicing harmonies and rounds as young as his memory serves him.
“The first show I ever played was actually as a drummer at 15 with my high school band,” Holley says. “It was nothing crazy, but our school had numerous bands and actually set up a night where they could all play in our auditorium.
I really feel like starting on drums gave me such an advantage with looping because I always think in terms of time. My inspiration tends to come from the beat; I’m always thinking beat first, which I attribute to starting on drums first.
“There’s always going to be ’80s and ’90s bands, and classic rock bands,” he continues, “but I definitely found a void to fill. I always avoided playing cliché songs and figured there’s 25 other bands playing them, so I’ll leave them for those acts. But selling drinks is the name of the game, so I’ve moved into playing some standards — but almost always in my own fashion.”
The coastal scene
Of all the places Holley has performed across the Midwest and Florida, Michigan’s western shoreline remains at the top of his list. In fact, his love for Saugatuck extends beyond the stage; he’s a summer dune-ride driver at Saugatuck Dune Rides.
“(It’s) very congruent with music. You’re in front of 18 people telling dad jokes and whipping around the dunes,” he laughs. “It’s amazing.”
He can also be spotted at The Southerner or Phil’s Bar and Grille, two of his favorite Saugatuck restaurants. Both received a shoutout on his original song, “Tiny Little Tuck Town.”
When it comes to nightlife and venues, “I love Wally’s more than words can describe,” Holley says. “It’s just congruent with me. It’s not too big, so the energy is high. There’s always a new set of ears and eyes every weekend in West Michigan because of the tourism factor and the amazing summer weather.”
His other favorite live-music venues include Black River Tavern and Captain Lou’s in South Haven; The Kirby House in Grand Haven; and Hops at 84 East in Holland. For musicians looking to make a rise in similar bars, Holley’s advice is simple: “Put in the work.”
Holley has moved to four new cities throughout his music career. Each time, he used the same method to meteorically gather a following: Find open-mic nights at local bars, and play your three strongest songs based on the crowd demographic.
“More often than not, I’d be booked for my own gig at that same bar within the week,” he says. “No one is going to do it for you. Think about what you love and what the crowd wants to hear, and find a happy medium.”