Ambiance Master Nate Brown

Walking Through a Calatrava Mall with the Creative Director Behind Beyonce, Kanye West, and Alexander Wang

  • Interview: Thom Bettridge
  • Photography: Eric Chakeen

“Us living on this planet is very temporary,” Nate Brown tells me, as we walk through the Westfield World Trade Center mall. As I look around, I realize that this Calatrava-designed shopping center where Brown and I are hanging—which stretches underground from Ground Zero to 200 West Street (the building that houses Goldman Sachs)—already looks like a sci-fi landscape. Brown is obsessed with outer space and the work of Elon Musk, but as a creative director he is tethered to more Earth-bound concerns, like devising uber-spectacles for Kanye West, Jay Z, Alexander Wang, Beyonce, and John Elliott.

In a world that gives us very few excuses to not be on our phones, Brown is a master of ambiance, turning concerts and fashion shows into fully-immersive experiences. He speaks about the amorphous practice of creative direction, like the decision to have Kanye hanging from the ceiling on his last tour, in very mathematical terms. And he is always careful not to violate the dozens of NDAs that he has signed.

Let’s put a concert on in space instead of at another football stadium.

Thom Bettridge

Nate Brown

Whenever I do an interview, I always like to start with this question: What draws you to speak to me?

First of all, I’d really like to define with you what a “creative director” actually is.

It’s funny, a lot of people want to know that, including many creative directors. If you speak to an architect or if you speak to an artist, they’re obviously going to give you a different definition of their working capacity.

Then maybe it’s better to talk specifics. One thing you work on is fashion presentations. Fashion shows used to be very specific industry experiences, but now they have become pop-cultural experiences. Why?

When I approach something like that, I try to take it down to the most Dr. Seuss level of what the thing is—strip all the intellect from it, try to make it as simple as possible, and then build from there. Everyone now looks at fashion. Some of those people might be there in person, some online, and some via Instagram. Some will be on Snapchat and Facebook live. Whatever the medium of delivery is, you’re basically building a multi-sensory experience. Clothes are a part of it, but they’re a small percentage of it now, right? For instance, the Yeezy show last season was the ultimate field trip out to the middle of nowhere to see someone’s clothes. It was a full-blown spectacle—and I’m not going to comment on whether that was right or wrong—it was just the epitome of a fashion show as a cultural experience in 2016.

Concerts also create an in-person experience that can somehow cause a rupture with our everyday virtual experiences. I’m wondering what kind of strategies there are for creating an aura in that way?

That’s always fun for me, you have so many senses you can engage. We try to reverse engineer that. What do you have that people can ingest? You have music. You have visuals. You even have scent, if you want it. As a creative director the sky is not the limit, and I like that. I like working within a tangible canvas. That’s anything from budget, to space, to the opening act, to the whole tour. There are so many different parameters you have to work within, and those parameters automatically ground you from thinking too high up. Before we thought about doing a Bonnie and Clyde story for Beyonce, we were thinking about what the stage representation would be so that people can have a more deeply ingrained experience. Historically, it’s a crowd of stage and screens, but the Kanye show—with him on stage hanging close to the ceiling—was a great example of what we do. It screwed up the VIP vs. General Admission experience. At the cheapest ticket price, you were the closest you could be at the show. That’s never happened before.

It’s not quite political, but it sort of operates in the same way as politics. You’re dealing with the perception of what’s popular in a group, but also untangling the hierarchy of it.

It’s something you always have to deal with when you’re a pop star at that level, right? How do you create a democratic viewpoint when you’re an ultra celebrity, an ultra superstar? Playing into that is very important. In some ways, I was blown away by Gaga’s Super Bowl performance. When she jumped off the roof of that super dome or whatever it is—she doesn’t give a fuck man, she’s fearless. Even if I would have done it differently, I can look at that performance and say it’s one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.

In many cases, it seems creative direction is a matter of engineering different types of ambiance.

Absolutely. But if you’ve talked to a creative director about a project, you’ll probably get a very deep and detailed story about what the thing is. A lot of that detail was probably used to sell it to investors. Ambiance is an impossible thing to translate to someone who’s also going to be paying for it.

But ambiance is what you’re trading in, even if it’s ill-defined. I feel like there’s a new and amorphous way of working in the creative industries that has grown out of Tumblr—mood boards, reference images. How does that feed into your process as a practitioner?

Pre-internet, creative directors had to go to a library, or travel to India with a camera to pull references. Then those references would be something you'd hold very true to your heart, because you had to go and discover them. Now, we’re in the era where discovering the reference is the easiest part of the job. I think everyone has a different style of working. I like to think of my style as mathematical. I look at a problem that might exist and try to solve it—whether the solution is a visual component, a sonic component, or tied to another sense experience. It’s solving equations.

I feel like there’s a disconnect that forms when you find all of your images on a computer, because when that translates into a real space, the reality resembles being on the computer. There’s a sensory disjunct there.

Totally, and it is devoid of a lot of real life emotion that is required. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do via any of our outlets is for someone to gain some kind of experience from it. So, if you’re limited to the fifteen inches between your eyeballs and an LED screen, your experiential capacity is limited too.

Ambiance is an impossible thing to translate to someone who’s also going to be paying for it.

What’s something that you’ve always dreamed of doing?

I think on a grand scale, like working with NASA. We’re so far off, but that’s ultimately the Henry Ford of 2030, you know? Like what Elon Musk is doing, trying to pioneer space travel. That kind of stuff makes me think: ‘Let’s put a concert on in space instead of at another football stadium.’ So that’s what I’m trying to figure out, how to break the mold of the standard we’ve created. On a smaller scale, there are really cool companies that are coming up with concepts of doing concerts in people’s bedrooms, and that’s really exciting to me.

But what do you feel like a dream project would be? Like for example, Walt Disney one day was like, “I’m going to build a city in Florida.”

I think a dream project is figuring out ways to extend life, and that’s a very broad term. But, to extend life and take people off earth to some capacity.

Having Beyoncé in space, or having everyone in space?

Having everyone in space, living life in much more meaningful ways.

I think we’re preparing to not live on Earth anymore. I feel like that’s a digestive quality of our moment.

We’re totally trying to figure that out. Us living on this planet is very temporary. To actually have the audacity to think about being on Earth forever is pretty crazy.

So, what are you working on right now?

Here’s the thing: you can’t really talk about it until it’s been done. So I live in the NDA zone. But a big motivator for me is trying to maximize our capabilities as humans. We’re building a platform right now called The Condition which is going to be the first wellness, health, activity platform—but done all through the lens of the creative collaborations we work with on a daily basis. Everyone wants to live their best life, but they don’t know how to do it.

  • Interview: Thom Bettridge
  • Photography: Eric Chakeen