Nathaniel Johnson is easily bored.
As we sit across from each other at Urban Bean in Uptown, he fidgets with his hands, nails painted an iridescent pink, habitually capping and uncapping his canister of chamomile. It must be strange for him, talking to someone about his music. He almost never does it.
Johnson is the sole musician behind LOYA, a moody, darkwave pop band that emanates from his bedroom in Eagan. LOYA does not tour. Johnson does not play local shows. In fact, ever since he started the project back in 2016, Johnson’s never taken his music to the stage. And yet he’s managed to amass a following of over 17,000 fans across North America and Europe.
“On the internet, there are so many ways to connect with people,” Johnson says. “By the nature of what I’m doing, it allows a lot of different people to tune in, contrasting the dynamic of performance as your primary means of building an audience.”
Johnson’s methodology contradicts conventional thinking. Band-Building 101 would tell you to play shows early and often. To scrap for every bill you can scrawl your name on and build a network from there. But conventional thinking is the exact kind of pigeonhole that makes Johnson anxious.
“Watching the development of my friends’ bands, they all start out playing shows before they even have a demo CD,” he says. “I’ve always just done it backwards, for better or for worse.”
LOYA’s music is the soundtrack to cloistered consternation. On songs like “Closure,” Johnson moans in desperation against a fluttering tapestry of pop keys and EDM bass lines. You can almost hear him wrestling with his sheets during the chorus of “Glassboy” when he mournfully sings, “I'm swelled up, and I'm ceiling eyed/ Sometimes you make me feel like glass.”
LOYA started as a Tool-inspired industrial metal band. On his first two releases, Aimovoria and Holly, Johnson screamed lyrics from the pit of his gut, torturing angry dirges out of his guitar. But working in the metal genre was constricting. One night, he came home and totally deconstructed a song he’d written, subbing in synthesizers and drum machines.
“I wanted to make it into something that doesn’t sound like my influences,” Johnson says. “I felt like, if I was gonna continue to make rock/metal music, then I was trapped. I wanted to be able to do something that is uniquely me, and I wasn’t gonna get that otherwise.”
Facebook is Johnson’s primary platform for reaching out to his fans. It’s allowed him to commune directly with would-be listeners, bypassing traditional avenues. He talks reverently about a veteran who reached out through Facebook Messenger about his time on tour and how producing music helped him keep calm enough to sleep.
In an age of YouTubers inviting followers to participate in every facet of their lives and Patreon bringing pledgers deeper into the creation process, Johnson has found his own way to connect one-on-one. When he transitioned from metal to darkpop, Johnson knew his followers would be on board. They were already deeply embedded in his work.
“All of my fans and listeners are accustomed to a level of experimentation in what I do,” he says. “As people, we’re not one-dimensional characters. We’re not just one character mold. We’re multi-dimensional, and we have lots of different facets of our personality.”
As LOYA’s music becomes a more acute representation of Johnson’s anxieties and vulnerabilities, he’s inviting his fans to participate more deeply. He’s now recording what he calls “the most ‘LOYA thing’ that [he’s] ever created”—his re-debut album Komaglass.
On Thursday, Johnson launched a PledgeMusic campaign to finance the mixing and mastering of Komaglass. By pre-ordering the album and purchasing exclusive LOLA merch, pledges can gain insider access. For the first time, the fans that’ve been keeping up with LOYA’s Facebook will be able to see into that Eagan bedroom as Johnson finalizes his reintroduction to the music world.
Johnson’s already cut 10 demos for the album (along with two bonus Deftones covers that have already been released), all loosely inspired by the Denis Villeneuve sci-fi love story Arrival and the novella “Story of Your Life” from which it was adapted. The campaign will run until March 2, and Johnson anticipates that Komaglass will be ready for listeners by May.
“It digests different variations of a lot of different kinds of suffering, but at the same time, the album is tied off by making an optimistic statement about all of that,” Johnson says. “It’s a metaphor for knowing that you’re going to suffer but choosing to follow yourself into your fate. Because you’re possessed of the ability to see bigger than the pain of your present.
“I’m extremely impatient,” he add. “I just feed off of whatever’s inspiring me at the time. I’m really excited about these songs right now. Six months from now, I’ll be onto different stuff.”
It’s a good thing Johnson isn’t touring the record—a few shows is all it might have taken to run the 10 Arrival-inspired songs into the ground. LOYA is about disparate moments, and the present is the best place to be if you’re a LOYA fan.