Former punk rocker forges new career as self-taught composer

James Rodriguez

Nathan Felix, a punk rocker who spent his first three post-grad years touring with his band, could feel himself getting antsy. So he did what any other person in his position would do: He decided to compose a symphony. 

“We were touring and playing our same songs every night, and we weren’t back learning our craft and different styles,” UT alumnus Felix said. “I saw a lot of different styles on tour, and that’s when I fell in love with other kinds of music. I thought, ‘Man, I want to do something bigger or better.’” 

With no formal education in music ­— he was rejected from the music school at the University of North Texas because he could not read or write sheet music — Felix crafted his own crash course in composing. He pored over library books and scoured the internet for instructional videos, driven by a newfound fascination with classical music.

Over a decade later, Felix is an accomplished composer on the verge of releasing his second symphony, Neon Heaven, a follow-up effort to 2013’s critically acclaimed The Curse the Cross & the Lion. While his boredom with punk eventually led him to classical music, he said the conversion wasn’t something he would’ve predicted.

“I hated classical music,” Felix said. “I hated it with a passion, because I thought it was super anti-punk to like classical music. We started listening to classical music in the van just to chill out and not be mad at each other, and I started to hear some cool things going on in there. I’d hear all these other different pieces and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really interesting.’ There’s so many things moving around and arranging, and I just got captivated.”

Felix spent five years composing The Curse the Cross & the Lion, combining his pop and punk sensibilities with classical music. He can point to the spot in his living room where he spent every night between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. on the couch writing music. Once the composition was completed, he emailed every orchestra he could find, offering to pay them to play and record his music. 

In 2012, André Lousada, a conductor from New York, said yes.  

“[Nathan] seemed like a person that was very driven,” Lousada said. “That was the thing that makes him special. He was not bound to rules and things that we learn that we can and cannot do when we are studying at the conservatory.” 

Once Lousada’s orchestra completed the recording, Felix leveraged a network of friends in media to promote the work. Riding the wave of good press, the album gained traction on classical music stations. 

Stephen Felix, his older brother and a former member of his band, said Nathan has always possessed a do-it-yourself attitude. 

“He’s been blessed with this understanding of music that’s not quite like everybody else,” Stephen said. “I remember at the time when people were like, ‘You can’t do this; this is not the way it’s supposed to be done.’ And then others were like, ‘This is fascinating.’ He was really pushing the boundaries of classical music.”

Before Felix completed Neon Heaven, he was approached by an orchestra in Denmark that wanted to be the first to play it. Now, as he works on his third symphony, a one-act opera, he said he looks forward to the experiments yet to come.  

“I want to write an opera. I want to write everything,” Felix said. “I want to do everything and cover every genre. It’s fun. Life is short.”