The Popdose Interview: Gunnar Nelson
Face facts: at some point during the years 1990 and 1991, whether you wanted to or not, you heard – and possibly even hummed along with – at least one song by Nelson.
Gunnar Nelson and his brother Matthew, the twin sons of Rick Nelson (and grandsons of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson), released their debut album, After the Rain, in 1990. It was a long time coming, with the guys having gone through several musical incarnations before finally settling on this one, but by the time After the Rain had run its course, it had spawned no less than four top-40 singles: “Only Time Will Tell” (#28), “More Than Ever” (#14), the title track (#6), and, of course, Nelson’s signature song, “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection,” which, in case you’ve forgotten, made it all the way to the top of the charts.
It’s the post-After the Rain era where things got a little dodgy for Matthew and Gunnar: when the guys got back in the studio, their label (Geffen) wasn’t digging their new direction, resulting in a rejected record and a ridiculous amount of time spent writing and recording further material. By the time they got around to releasing their next album, 1995’s Because They Can, the ship of success had sailed elsewhere, leaving Nelson high, dry, and more or less on their own. Not that that stopped them from self-releasing records: for the next five years, Nelson put out a new album annually, including Imaginator (1996), The Silence is Broken (1997), Brother Harmony (1998), Life (1999), and Like Father, Like Sons (2000), the latter offering a live performance where the brothers performed a set composed strictly of Rick Nelson numbers. It would also be the last album to bear the Nelson name for more than a decade.
At the tail end of 2010, however, Nelson returned with what can only be called a full freaking vengeance, thanks to the fine folks at Frontiers Records, who – in addition to releasing a collection of After the Rain demos (Before the Rain) and a live album from the band’s 1991 tour (Perfect Storm) – have given the guys the opportunity to release a new studio album, Lightning Strikes Twice, which will make it very hard for you to believe that 20 years have passed since Nelson’s debut. As a result of this reemergence, Gunnar has been making the press rounds, and Popdose couldn’t resist the opportunity to get as many details as possible about the struggles and successes of Nelson.
Oh, and also their hair care regimen. There’s a very good reason those gorgeous platinum manes were so silky and shiny … but you’ll have to keep reading to find out what it was.
Just as a quick housekeeping note, I should mention that the first thing I did when Gunnar and I started chatting was to observe that, by coincidence, I received the pitch to talk to him on the very same day that my interview with his uncle, Mark Harmon (yes, that Mark Harmon), ran in the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia. I bring this up only because he makes reference to my interview with “Uncle Mark” later in the conversation.
Lightning Strikes Twice is Nelson’s first album of original material since Life, but hot on its heels we also got Before the Rain and Perfect Storm. I know you and Matthew had been in the studio several times over the past few years, but was the decision to go vault-diving directly responsible for you guys starting to write new material?
Gunnar Nelson: It was wild! The way I look at it, we got a very rare opportunity for a second chance. Our career was unfairly truncated the first time around, with the rise of grunge on our own label. We were signed to David Geffen’s label, and we’d gone out to tour on our debut, which had sold a few million copies. We were out on the road for 202 shows … and they signed Nirvana. We got off the road 11 months later, and the entire agenda of the label had changed, as well as MTV’s and radio’s. The only thing they could do, really, was put us in the studio forever. They didn’t want to let us go to another label that was still backing that style of music, they didn’t want to be embarrassed with us having success with someone else like that, so they basically kept us in the studio forever. For five years. We came out with the second record, Because They Can, which, actually, I’m really proud of, but our fanbase had gone away. Everybody had changed their musical tastes, and … (Offers a humorless chuckle) … it was really kind of a drag, man! But warp forward 20 years, and I was approached by a European label to make the follow-up record to After the Rain that they felt we should’ve been allowed to make. It was surprising to me how easy it was for me to get back in that headspace, but I think it’s due in no small part to the fact that I always felt kind of cheated out of the opportunity to make that record back then, and I always, creatively speaking, had that record inside me, waiting to get out. It was nothing but a joy to do.
So can you speak at all to the business model of Frontiers Records? You guys already had your own label (Stone Canyon), so I presume that this is a case where you’re proud of the album and feel that their marketing and distribution is better than what you might accomplish if you did it yourselves.
Well, there’s a couple of ways to do it. What happened was … this was back when it wasn’t the fashion for everybody to have their own labels. We really didn’t have a choice. We were signed to a major independent, we were signed to Geffen back in the day, and, like I mentioned, the whole flannel paradigm shift happened. What we realized was that, for all of these years while we were working our way up, people were telling us, “Oh, well, we’re taking 88% of all of your sales because for every one of you that’s successful, we’ve got 15 others that are unsuccessful, and we’ve got to pay for them,” and all that kind of crap. And it turned out to be a bunch of lies. It’s not true. Major labels have sublicensing deals with labels all over the world who are specialists in a particular kind of music. For example, with Geffen, we were not released on Geffen in Japan back in the day. We were released on MCA. And MCA had a sublicensing deal in place with Geffen, so anything Geffen signed in the States, MCA had to release, and, basically, MCA had to pay tribute back to Geffen for every band they threw to MCA through their deal. Let’s say that Japan pays 50 grand for Nelson, and then South Korea pays 15K, and then Indonesia pays 10K, and so on and forth throughout the whole Pacific Rim. To make a long story short, Geffen had made money off of us before we’d even released our album, just based on their advances that they had in place with all of their sublicensees.
When we parted ways with Geffen, we went back to all of those other individual labels internationally that we’d had success with, because when we went on international press tours or proper concert tours, we were dealing with all the local guys of all those labels over there … and I kept all those business cards! When our deal with Geffen was over and done, I called my friends overseas at the individual record companies and said, “Hey, Watanabe-san at MCA! Would you like to work directly with my own label and continue to release Nelson records, cutting out Geffen?” And they were, like, “Yeah, let’s do it!” So we’ve been doing that for about 20 years, and Matt and I have been kind of focusing on different musical styles. But what Frontiers has been doing is one style of music: melodic hard rock. That’s all they do. It was probably not until they worked with Journey, they were working with my friends in Whitesnake, they’d done the new Mr. Big record, and they were upping their game that I really started to take them seriously. And they also told me they were doing a distribution deal in the States with EMI, and I also know all those guys, too, ‘cause I do my father’s Legacy career through Capitol. So it just seemed to be synergy, and it seemed to work. Honestly, what I really wanted, selfishly speaking and creatively speaking, was to be with a label again that really supported what it is I really do effortlessly, where I’m not making excuses or anything like that. They came to me and said, “Hey, we’re fans, and we want to give you the support that we felt Geffen should’ve given you back in the day. If we do, can you make this kind of record?” And I was, like, “Yeah!” So it was a lot of fun. I had a blast!
After I heard “You’re All I Need Tonight,” I named it the Best Song of 2010 That Should’ve Come Out in 1990. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that it actually dates back to before 1990.
(Laughs) Yeah, it’s a time warp when you listen to that, isn’t it?
It is! And, yet, I have to think that there’s got to be a story about how a song with a chorus that soars as high as that one does didn’t end up making the cut for After the Rain.
Well, you know, we co-wrote that song with Marc Tanner back in the day. We wrote a ton of songs for the After the Rain record, back when we were first starting out. A lot of that was just to get officially signed to the label. We targeted John Kalodner at Geffen because we realized it was going to take awhile for us to develop this unique sound that we were going for, and all of those labels back then, chances are that if you didn’t release your record right away or get it made right away, your A&R guy was going to get fired, and you were going to be a man without a country. So we went for John Kalodner because with his resume, he wasn’t going anywhere. And it did take about three records to write all the songs that were accepted for the After the Rain record. It wasn’t that John rejected that song “You’re All I Need Tonight” for the first record. We were just saving it for the second record we were never allowed to make. Because of the space limitation of the medium at the time, your album could only hold so much material, and that was going to be set for the next record. But, of course, that never really happened. But that’s why it sounds the most like a song that was written back then: because it was!
Actually, I’d been planning to ask how your collaboration with Marc Tanner for After the Rain came about in the first place.
Well, it’s interesting. We actually we turned onto Marc Tanner by a gentleman called Tom Vickers, and Tom actually worked over at A&M at the time. He’s a music publisher, and he worked over at A&M, and Matthew and I were working with some management at the time that was really big on the writing side of things. They said … and I agree with this, too … they said, “There are so many bands out that have a really strong image or a really large fanbase or they tour a lot or something, but most of those bands have no songs, so here’s what we’re going to do. You guys aren’t going to be hair metal. You’re going to be a hard pop band, and we’re going to center everything around the strength of your songwriting. In order to do that, you really need to stop writing good and start writing great.” So they hooked us up with some publishers around L.A., and when we met Tom Vickers, he played us a ton of material. We sat in his office for four or five hours, and he didn’t tell us who had written the songs, but it seemed like all of the songs that Matthew and I were gravitating towards had one writer in common, even if they were all co-written. The one writer in common was Marc Tanner. So Marc Tanner had … I guess he had his own artist deal. He was kind of a Boz Scaggs-sounding guy and had a record released back in the early ‘80s that didn’t really do much, but we met with Marc, and it was just really, really cool. And I’m glad we met Marc at the time that we did. We were only 18, 19 years old when we met him. And Marc was really frustrated because, at that time, even when we started writing with him, Kalodner said, “Ah, man, he’s not even the B-Team. He’s the D-Team!” But when we all got together and started to write, something magical started to happen. Marc was very supportive of our own instincts and our melodic sense, and we found ourselves in a self environment where we could create. And here we are 20 years later! I really enjoyed writing with Marc back in the day, but what’s really cool being 20 years older now is that we realize that our own instincts and what we brought to the pie, so to speak, was really what gave Nelson its sound. We didn’t really need a co-writer, and we didn’t really need a producer, given the 20 years of experience, so we decided to do this new one on our own.
That’s funny that you brought up John Kalodner. A friend of mine actually talked to Matthew around the time you guys self-released Imaginator, and he told me about the whole “I un-apologize” thing.
(Sidebar: The friend in question is Marc Allan, an Indianapolis-based writer, and the “I un-apologize” story goes a little something like this …
There had been suggestions by critics that, as a band, Nelson was little more than Kalodner’s creation, and in an interview with a magazine called Music Connection, Gunnar and Matthew were asked to clarify what role Kalodner played in their career. Gunnar replied diplomatically that he and Matthew had been writing and playing music since they were six years old, and that although Kalodner had given them a recording contract, he had only spent 20 minutes in the studio when they recorded After the Rain. In relating the story, Matthew recalled Gunnar clarifying the point, explaining, “I think he was smart enough to stay out of our way once we got into the studio. We were left pretty much to make our record.” After Kalodner read the interview, however, Matthew says that the executive picked up the phone and told Gunnar that unless he apologized with a 10-page, handwritten letter for his comments, he would drop Nelson from the label and end their career. Kalodner didn’t respond to Allan’s requests for a reaction to Matthew’s recollection, so this remains only one side of the story, but the end result was that Gunnar did indeed break down and apologize, having learned the hard truth that sometimes the truth is the last thing anyone in the music business wants to hear.
Post-script: when Nelson retrieved the rights to Imaginator from Geffen – which was intended as a follow-up to After the Rain – and were finally able to release the record, Gunnar tucked a little message to Kalodner into the CD booklet, simply saying, “I un-apologize.”)
Oh, yeah. Well, that was me when I was young and full of piss and vinegar. You know, it’s funny, ‘cause on this record, in the liner notes, I actually kind of reversed course on that, because with a little bit more maturity, what I was realized was … (Hesitates) It was very important for me to actually take my balls back when we did Imaginator. But I think that record was a very painful record for me, creatively speaking. It was like therapy. I listen to it, and I’m, like, “Man, that is just not me at my best.” That’s definitely a side of my personality that I’m not all that proud of. It’s the side of your personality that, like, you know it’s in there when you black out and get into a bar fight, but when you’re feeling like your best self, you don’t unleash the beast, so to speak.
This record is very, very different. This record was really made from a place of strength, and it’s kind of the same kind of emotional headspace that a person gets in when they’re making their first record, ‘cause back then … when you finally get signed and you’re making your first record, you’re swinging for the fences. You have no limitations on yourself other than the ones that you put on yourself. You don’t have a record company that gives a shit, you don’t have fans that are breathing down your neck. You are just basically shooting from the hip and doing the best that you possibly know how to do, and you’re following your instincts. It’s the same thing with this record. 20 years have gone by, so now we’re back in that same place where no one gives a shit, and what that does is enable you to do what my father was able to do when he came up with the Stone Canyon Band and recorded “Garden Party.” He was in a unique place for the first time in his life where he was allowed to fail, where people had stopped caring and he was allowed to dare to fail. And that’s what we were able to do with this one. We were able to swing for the fences because no one gave a shit.
It’s really cool to be in that place where we were at emotionally when we made the first record, where we weren’t trying to live up to any standard other than the ones that we’d placed on ourselves, and I think that was the balance that we really had to strike with the label, because we had Serafina (Perugino), who runs Frontiers, who was a huge Nelson fan and loved that first record. The only times that we got really into it was when he said, “I basically want you to rewrite ‘Love and Affection’ and just call it something else.” And it was, like, “You know, I don’t think you get that, 1) I wouldn’t do that, and 2) that’s just not the way it works.” I appreciated the enthusiasm, but … (Trails off) But I think what we’ve got here in Lightning Strikes Twice is a record that’s my vision, but it’s one that they still really responded to, and I’m pretty jazzed about that.
So when you went back and rescued “You’re All I Need Tonight” from the After the Rain demos, was that the wellspring from which the writing of the new material emerged?
They were really done separately. This new record was really a blank canvas. I don’t want you to think that I sat down for a second and put on the old tunes or the After the Rain record and tried to write …
I’m not suggesting that you were trying to rewrite the old material. I’m just wondering if listening to the demos helped you get back into the right headspace. Like, “Okay, so that’s how that sound went …”
No, not at all, because, you know, what was really cool was that the Nelson sound, the way we actually produced records back in the day, is the same way that I produce records now, because I produced that first record. So for me, there’s a particular way that I do it. It’s not like I can go into a studio with the band and jam it out and have something in a couple few days that’s finished. It’s more constructed and layered and composed, like, I suppose, a record by Queen or Boston is made. Perhaps the creative process is less organic and more strategized, but the end results are a very particular sound, and there’s no way to really rush that. And I think throughout the years, where we’ve gone in the studio and tried to make a Nelson record in different ways, the reason why it has not really sounded like a Nelson record is because, man, you know what, there’s no easy way to do it. It takes the time it takes, and, I mean, there’s a lot of work that’s put into it. But, hopefully, the listener, when they listen to it, doesn’t feel exhausted, doesn’t feel like things were really thought out way too much, that it really rolls off the ear. But no bones about it, there’s a lot of planning that goes into it.
To talk for a second about some of the albums that came out post-Geffen that most people haven’t heard, I discovered Life in a used CD store, but what first caused me to fall in love with it was your cover of The Producers’ “She Sheila.”
Oh, man, I love those guys!
I was curious how it came about that you tackled a song by them.
Oh, man, they were my high school band! I loved those guys. They were great. I didn’t know they were produced by Tom Werman. They were a big MTV band, they had three or four power-pop hits..and, honestly, I can’t even think of a better word to describe their sound. It is power pop at its finest. Great drummer, great singer. It just never really caught fire, which I always thought was a real shame. But when I was high school, shoot, man, going through all of the tough times that all of us guys do, “She Sheila” was the one that made me want to drop the top on the car … if I could’ve afforded a convertible in high school! … and just got down the PCH with it cranked at full volume. I just loved it, and I always thought it was a great pop song. It was just one of those things where we were making a very specific record when we made the Life record and wanted to pull from some great songs, and … we were not really in the habit of doing any covers, but I thought, “Well, what’s that going to hurt? No one’s heard ‘She Sheila.’” But what’s really cool is that guys such as yourself, real music people, remember The Producers and remember that particular song. I always loved it. Hopefully we did a good enough version of it, given how good the first one was.
Oh, yeah, you guys did a really nice take on it. And I definitely remember The Producers. I live in Hampton Roads, and they used to play Norfolk and Virginia Beach, like, every other weekend. They’re still playing shows, in fact.
Fantastic! Yeah, it’s really weird, ‘cause this band, even given the internet and the accessibility that we have, just trying to find current information on The Producers is just about impossible. They’re, like, this stealth band. You never know who’s doing what, who’s in the band, when are they playing … it’s just crazy. I had some E-mail correspondence with the drummer not two months ago, actually. He still lives down in Atlanta.
Brother Harmony is relatively unlike anything else in your catalog, though not in a bad way, but it very much feels like an intentional bid for country success.
It was intentional, because what we were trying to do was … well, all of these records you’re mentioning, they’re parts of our personality that we decided to concentrate and focus on. When we were growing up in southern California, we grew up with my dad’s Stone Canyon Band, so people who were just hanging out at the house were, like, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the Byrds, the Hollies … all these people were coming over and hanging out. That’s what Matthew and I grew up listening to, and when our dad was actually inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for inventing country rock, it was pretty cool. He was the first guy to put a Marshall amplifier and a steel guitar together, and it was during a time in his life where it was the least commercially successful he’d ever been, but he was really creatively fulfilled. We grew up around that, and it was always a big part of what we loved, those harmony vocals and steel guitar. We grew up with Tom Brumley, in our dad’s band, who was one of the greats of all time. And we wanted to make a California-sounding record. That’s what we were trying to do. Not necessarily a straight-ahead country thing, but make it sound like what we grew up with around the house. It’s a very rare record. It’s hard to find. You can’t really find that very easily at all.
I have to admit that the copy I have is MP3s that were sent to me by someone who knew I was doing this interview.
Yeah, it’s hard to find, man! I think we might’ve sold maybe a thousand copies total at our shows over one month. What we decided was not to go in that direction at that particular time, but it’s really something that has a siren’s call to us. I mean, it’s something that I really do respond to, but, you know, like I was talking about different sides of our personality and stuff like that, the other side is … it’s weird, because I grew up with the Stone Canyon Band and that whole California folk/country thing, but then I discovered arena rock when I was 12 years old. (Laughs) So the real Nelson sound we first came out with on Geffen and that we have right now, if you listen to it deeply enough, you can hear the blending of the two. You’ve got the harmony vocals of southern California folk and the guitar of arena rock in one band, and that’s what made us different. A lot of other bands were coming from a blues background, and we were coming from a folk background, ‘cause that’s what we knew.
In fact, speaking of the arena rock, and you obviously enjoy a good power pop song as well, you kind of blended the two when you did the cover of The Sweet’s “Action” on Imaginator.
Oh, yeah, well, I grew up with AM ‘70s radio, man. Back then, it was before radio got formatted. Basically, depending on how much the jocks were getting paid under the table and how much was listener requests, AM ‘70s top-40 was awesome. It was incredibly eclectic. You could have T. Rex right next to John Denver, back to back. That’s just what it was. So to me, it was all about a single and all about writing a hit song, which is where the term “pop” comes from, I guess. Yeah, man, I like something with a hook. I really honestly do. I like something that annoys people because it keeps on coming back to them in the shower. (Laughs)
I’ve got a co-writing question for you, and I’ll tie both Imaginator and Lightning Strikes Twice into it. On the former, you did a couple of songs with the guys from Enuff Z’Nuff, and on the latter, you wrote a song with Mark Slaughter. I’m just wondering about those experiences and how they came about.
Well, Mark is a really good friend. I live out in Nashville right now, and that just happened really naturally. We were over at the house one day, and I was telling him that I was writing a new record for Frontiers, and I said, “I’ve got something about half-finished that I want to play for you.” And it was a ballad, a song called “To Get Back To You.” And before you knew it, man, two hours later, the song was done. It wasn’t like we had a planned writing session. It just kind of happened, and it was really nice and really effortless … unlike the sessions that we did with Enuff Z’Nuff for the Imaginator record.
First off, I love Chip Z’Nuff. I think he’s just such a sweet guy and an incredible talent. And I’ve never seen anyone who’s more of his own worst enemy than Donnie Vie. It’s really sad, man. When we went out on our first tour, we had to headline because no one thought we were real, and we couldn’t really get an opening gig on anyone’s tour. So we went out and did theaters at first, and we picked Enuff Z’Nuff as our opening band, not because we thought they were going to put a single ass in the seats, but because we loved their music and were fans. We just loved what they did. The whole heavy-metal Beatles thing was just cool. And the thing was, we were out there on tour, and, you know, a lot of our fans were young girls, so the one condition – and it was really hard for those guys – was that there were no drugs allowed. We said, “If you’re going to come out on tour with us, you’re just not allowed to do it. All it’s going to take is one 14-year-old’s mom to say, ‘Oh, I saw so-and-so turning on or lighting up or whatever,’ and we’re hosed.” That was the deal. So we got really close to Chip, and we had a couple of experiences with Donnie that were just really dark and not cool. Then, we were back in L.A. a couple of years later, and we were writing for the Imaginator record, and Donnie needed a couch to surf. So we let him stay on our couch for a couple of weeks, and during that period of time, we wrote a couple of songs together … and during that same couple of weeks, Donnie crashed our car and disappeared for days on end and all this stuff. And we, uh, kind of parted ways. I know he’s been in Enuff Z’Nuff and out of Enuff Z’Nuff and so on and so forth. But I helped him find Ricky Parent, their drummer. I was producing a band called Jailhouse at the time, and Ricky was playing with them. So they went on to touring for a lot of years together, and Ricky was great until he passed away. It’s kind of like this brotherhood. I would like to say that … Chip’s different, but Donnie’s like that Cousin Eddie that we all have in our family, who we all try to love and want to love, but he’s really hard to love. That’s Donnie … and I can’t believe he’s still alive. What can I say?
So what you’re saying is that he’s the kind of guy who would pull up in front of your house in an R.V. and empty the septic tank out front, saying, “Shitter’s full.”
Yes. Exactly right. And when I leave here next month for the tour, we’re going to be taking the R.V. with us. (Laughs)
[Donnie Vie’s response: “Are those crybabies still whining about all that bullshit? You should know better than to lend Donnie Vie your car! (Ha, ha.) The only reason they got us on the tour was so cool people would take them seriously, because the only ones who liked them were 12-year-old girls. As far as the drugs, yeah, they had a drug policy, but it was their road crew who supplied all the drugs. All anyone ever did was patronize them. As far as writing together, they took the Enuff Z’Nuff song ‘We’re All Alright,’ rewrote their own words, added a lame bridge, and put their name on it ... which I didn't know you were allowed to do. In all fairness to Gunnar and Matthew, they were always nice to me, but I saw right through their bullshit and knew they thought I was a piece of shit. And I hate to break it to them, but I liked them a hell of a lot more than Chip did. No one is as surprised as me that I'm still alive. I wish them the best of luck.”]
You guys appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live in 1986, when you were still being billed as the Nelsons. How did that appearance come about?
We were working with a manager at the time that was really tight with Lorne Michaels, and it also turned out that … they actually just really didn’t have anybody booked that week. Our manager was talking to Lorne for about a year to try and get us on the show, and Lorne said, “Look, we’ve never had an unsigned band as a musical guest in the history of Saturday Night Live.” And he kept on going back to Lorne, saying, “Their father was not only a musical guest, but he also hosted the show,” and all that stuff … and as they were talking, our dad had his accident, and he died. So Lorne thought, “Okay, well, I’ll put them on the show, and we’ll give them a shot,” and we actually went down in history as the only unsigned band to ever be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. And it was also the episode that Ron Reagan Jr. was the host of, and Ron was a family friend. I think Ron used to date my mom! So it was just kind of like this weird reunion. It was funny, man. It was a really good Saturday Night Live. You really rolled the dice as far as hosts were concerned, but that was a good one.
At the time, I was the drummer and Matthew was the lead singer and the bassist, and it was on the plane home from playing Saturday Night Live when … I’d fallen asleep in my seat, and I had … (Hesitates) I wouldn’t go so far as to say I had a vision, but I had an epiphany, definitely, and went up a couple of rows to where Matthew was sitting and said, “Listen, we’re breaking up the band, and we’re doing things differently.” And he thought I was just on glue. (Laughs) I said, “Listen, I just saw it in my head: in order for us to be what I think we can be, we both need to be up front. We both need to be singing together. I love playing drums, but that’s not my role. I don’t want to be back there.” And Matt was, like, “Listen, you’ve never played guitar ever in your life. Ever! Things are happening for us. You’re crazy! This is total sabotage!” To which I said, “Listen, I’ve been thinking about this, but … for people who say they’ve been playing guitar for ten years, if they’re lucky, they have the instrument in their hands for an hour a day. So what if, since I don’t have a job right now, I sit down with instructional tapes and videos and do nothing but play guitar for 10 hours a day for a year?” And he said, “Well, you know, I don’t think you’re going to do it, but fine.” And that’s exactly what I did. I basically locked myself in my house for a year and did nothing but play guitar and take lessons and do all that stuff. And a year and a half later, the After the Rain record was all me.
You’ve talked to my uncle Mark. It’s the power of focus. I do have entertainment on one side of my family, and I’ve got sports on the other. You can do anything when you put your mind to it, for real. And that concentration and focus really worked for me. And that was it: Saturday Night Live was the last appearance of not only my high school band but the band I worked myself up in L.A. clubs with.
So whose decision was it to go the route of calling yourselves Power Tool?
Well, you know, Matthew and I, we were in the middle of doing all of our writing for the first record with Geffen, we were trying to impress John Kalodner, and the manager that we were working with at the time knew a music supervisor who had caught wind of a new movie that we just thought had the dumbest title we’d ever heard of: “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” (Laughs) And they came to us and said, “You guys have been doing a lot of writing and stuff. Would you like to contribute a song?” And we had just written a song for our first Nelson record called “Two Heads Are Better Than One.” And this was at least a year before Kalodner said “yes” and before we had our deal, but we were courting him and all that stuff, and he just said, “Listen, if you want me to continue to consider you guys, if you use this song in the movie, you can’t call it Nelson. You can’t call it Matthew and Gunnar Nelson. Nothing having to do with you guys. It has to be under an assumed name.” So Matthew and I and Dweezil (Zappa), who we co-wrote the song with, came up with Power Tool. So it was a one-off sort of thing that happened, but it wound up being the theme song of the movie!
With Dweezil, I was wondering if that was another family-friend situation, as far as how you guys hooked up.
Totally. It was, yeah. We were hanging out with his sister Moon, and all those guys used to hang out right up here off of Mulholland, which is where my dad’s house was. Honestly, I think we met each other at some Hollywood party or something, but I’d always been intrigued by Moon. I always thought that she was a sweet girl from the interviews that I’d seen, and we became instant friends. We became really good friends. And at that time, Dweezil … who’s an incredibly underrated guitar player, by the way. The guy’s amazing. He’s really a great player. I mean, freakishly good. He had gotten signed to a major label deal, and the one thing he could not do very well was write songs. So since we were hanging out at the house up there quite a bit, at the Napa house, we just sat down with Dweezil, who was completely free-form like his dad was, and kind of talked to him about the virtues of how, if he was going to be doing a major-label release, he should at least have one or two songs on the record that would follow a verse-chorus, verse-chorus sort of thing. And we were able to teach him structure, and he actually taught me guitar. So it was a pretty cool exchange. We helped him arrange his first album, My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama, and we became friends. That’s how it happened.
One more Imaginator question, and then I’ll wrap that subject altogether, but … how proud were you when you delivered that record to Geffen, and how frustrated were you when you discovered that they did not share your excitement?
Imaginator scared the shit out of them, frankly. I mean, it really did. I don’t know what they were expecting, but Kalodner at the time was basically … he was doing nothing but working full-time with Aerosmith, and Aerosmith was making their Pump record, And it turned out to be a brilliant record, but John was in this habit at the time of making bands re-record their albums two, three, four times. And he sent us back into the studio once, and he really hadn’t given us any love, and, plus, we were in the middle of this huge paradigm shift with grunge that I mentioned. We were trying to navigate that, and the same press that we’d done all these favors for, the free backyard barbecue jam sessions for the radio station listeners and all that stuff, all those same people completely turned their backs on us. And the written press … I mean, it was incredible.
Because They Can, which ended up being our second record for Geffen, still to this day has the best bad review in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, it’s kind of like the review of “Shark Sandwich” for Spinal Tap. (Laughs) This one was great. It was People magazine … who put us on the cover for the first album, by the way … and after it said, “Nelson: Because They Can,” the review said, “Maybe they shouldn’t.”
(Laughs) That’s actually kind of awesome.
It’s not kind of. It is awesome! (Laughs) It’s genius! That is the best! But that’s how much vinegar and piss was focused in our direction for no reason. All the reviews that we were getting … I mean, even on the first record, what was nice was that it was enough of a popular success to override critics and all that stuff. But at least the criticism that we had gotten, it had nothing to do with the music. Ever. It was always about the image or the lineage or any of the stuff that we thought was ancillary … and that was really frustrating, because we worked really fucking hard on the music, you know? But this new one, Lightning Strikes Twice, is the first record that we’ve ever released to critical acclaim. So it’s really different for me. I’m kind of used to being guilty until proven innocent, for some weird ass reason, but the reviews for this that are coming out of Europe are truly awesome, which is nice. But when we were making that Imaginator record, it was more of a creative catharsis. We had felt like we were under attack for so long that we were exorcising our demos, and we brought it into Geffen – who clearly didn’t know what the hell to do with us, anyway – but I think they were expecting After the Rain, Pt. II, and what they got was Metallica’s Black Album … and it freaked them out!
It was a very uncomfortable meeting, being in the board room, and those guys, their eyes are lighting up and … I could see the conversation they were having inside their heads, and it was, like, “What the fuck are we supposed to do with this?” And the head of the label said, “Listen, if you insist, we’ll put it out. But we’re not going to support it, because we built your fan base on pop radio, and this is a rock / metal record. You’d be starting all over again, and no one will perceive you that way. We’re just not going to put our financial resources behind that when we know we can spend less money on Nirvana and all the alternative bands that we’re signing out of Seattle. We basically go up and buy out somebody’s independently produced record for ten grand, and we make millions of dollars on it.” So everything had really changed. And they gave us the option. They said, “You can either scrap this record and go back in the studio and make another one that is more of what we feel you should be making, or you let us release this thing, and it’s going to die.” So it was really a tough decision to make, and that’s when we went back in the studio and made Because They Can. And I’m proud of that record. I think it’s a great record for what it is. But I was given the mandate by John Kalodner, “You’re not allowed to play any crunchy guitar on this record at all. It’s got to be acoustic and organic, and that’s it.” And you know what? The drag is, all those years I spent teaching myself how to play, that was the kind of guitar I played! That’s what I did! That’s what gave the Nelson record its sound!
So Because They Can came out, it was a great record for what it was, but it didn’t sound like us. It sounded like a folk act. And that wasn’t us, because it wasn’t really our vision. And Imaginator wasn’t really us, because it was our dark side. And I guess it takes 20 years now, with this new record, for us to come full circle, back to this place where we realize that it’s not so un-hip to be yourself, to do the best work you can and not pull any punches. Who gives a shit if radio picks up on it or not? I want to be able to look back at the end of my life and go, “Hey, you know, you want some representative Nelson records? Then buy After the Rain and buy Lightning Strikes Twice. And that will tell you what we are when we’re at our best.”
You were talking about how critics were lambasting the image at the time, but … (Laughs) … I have to ask you about this: I’m looking at the credits for After the Rain on AllMusic.com, and there are credits for “clothes design” and “image concept.” Just how much packaging did go into the Nelson image for that record?
We put a lot of time into it! And it came about as a result of our going to England on the writing junket that we did. Kalodner sent us over there to write with Russ Ballard from Argent. And we were sitting at a London nightclub, and … they’re very fashion-oriented over there, especially 20 years ago. When the bands were coming out then, it was all about image. That’s just the way the Europeans did it. And I remember that one of the top clothes designers in the country came up to us and … well, basically, she ripped us a new one. It was, like, “What the hell are you guys going for? It’s some kind of weird rock ‘n’ roll cowboy mish-mosh thing …” And she was right! And we sat and had a conversation with her that was enlightening, and we decided that, y’know, we’re going to work hard on this music, but image is going to be everything, because you only have one chance to make that first impression, and love us or hate us, we want you to know who we are. So we did put a lot of time and energy into thinking, “Okay, well, what’s going to make us stand apart?” We went down to Western Costume in Los Angeles and did some research in the archives, just like we were picking our first co-writer, Marc Tanner. The image that we kept gravitating towards was something regal and something that was congruent with the kind of sonic impression that we wanted to make was 18th century French court. And so the long jackets and all that kind of stuff that we had in the first videos were really a response to that. It was really kind of an artistic statement we were trying to make. And it got everybody talking, which was really great, but the funny thing is that, shit, man, it turned out that the hair was more powerful than the clothes! (Laughs) And that’s why we eventually cut the hair. Nobody was listening to the music. They were just making comments on the hair and not on the music at all. So, you know, we’ve been spending all this time finding a balance, but as far as being the bookends on the whole ’80s rock thing, the two twin boys with the long blonde hair … it was kind of iconic, you know?
It’s funny: a friend of mine who actually had a mane himself back in that era kiddingly wanted me to ask you about your hair regimen back then.
(Laughs) Oh, man! Well, to be honest with you, there was a guy, and his name was George Michael, not to be confused with the Wham! singer, and he actually had a salon in New York at the time that specialized in long hair … and what this guy considered long hair, we would consider freakish, because long hair to this guy was hair that you could stand on. No joke! He’s the guy that Crystal Gayle went to, and all that kind of stuff. And that’s all he did. He specialized in long hair. And Matthew and I had hair that, at its longest, got down to mid-thigh, okay? He would consider that medium-length hair. He wrote a book, and what he basically said was, don’t get your hair trimmed, eat gelatin, and … there’s a kind of shampoo called Main ‘n’ Tail, which is actually designed for horses, and it has keratin in it. And he said, “Just do those three things, use a good brush, don’t brush your hair when it’s wet,” and there were a couple more little rules, but it was true: we grew our hair out in a three-year period of time.
A couple of quick questions about your dad. I’ve read about how you and Matthew took your time before deciding to record a tribute album of his songs, but then you ended up releasing a live album because you felt like the performance there was stronger than anything you could’ve done in the studio.
Did you ever hear Easy to Be Free, the tribute album to your dad that Planting Seeds Records put out?
They were actually sending me the dailies as they were making it! So, yeah, I was kind of being consulted. I thought my dad was a fabulous writer, and I loved that they actually came out with a tribute to him, particularly for those songs, because I think when most people think of Ricky Nelson, they think of the ‘50s. They think of all that stuff. But what I grew up with and had around the house and was musically conscious of was truly that whole Stone Canyon Band era stuff, all of those really obscure tunes that I personally think were way ahead of their time. And that’s what those guys focused on. For example, the song “Easy to Be Free” itself was a song that was so personal that Matthew and I actually sang that at my dad’s service. So a whole record of people doing tunes like that…? I loved it.
I know at one point you had said that “Palace Guard” was your favorite of your dad’s songs. Does that still hold true, or does it change anytime you think about it too hard?
It does still hold true, because I’m somewhat of a narcissist, and the Swedish translation of the name Gunnar is “palace guard.”
(Laughs) Well, there you go!
But I really do love the song! And I love it the most because, at the very end, there’s a moment where our dad is just kind of free-form riffing, and he’s singing, “It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s gonna be all right.” And to me, ever since I was a kid, I always kind of imagined he would sing that to me from wherever he was – he was on the road at the time – giving me some comfort. And after he died, of course, he was still singing it every time I heard the song.
I know that, at one time, there was some talk of doing a reboot of “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet,” but with you, Matthew, and Tracy. How serious did those discussions get?
Well, actually, we keep on going back and forth with that whole thing. I mean, we just lost Uncle David (Nelson) a couple of weeks ago …
Right. And I was sorry to hear that, by the way.
Thanks. And that’s focused a little more attention on that whole thing, but … you know, it’s weird: right before I started talking to you, I’d just gotten off the phone with my manager, talking about our next move. Things have changed so much, and it ain’t “Ozzie & Harriet” anymore, but walking that fine line between comedy and disrespect is really something that we haven’t been able to find, as far as that concept is concerned, with any producers we’ve talked to. So I don’t know, I think for now what we’re probably going to end up doing is … we’ve got so many irons in the fire that what I really want to do is get a lot more focused over the next year, narrow in on what really makes me happy as a creative force, and really just focus in on that kind of music only. And if I’m going to be visual, I want to put together a TV show around that process of, you know, knocking on the door of middle age and making conscious decisions about what kind of art I want to make. And hopefully I’ll make those decisions from inspiration rather than desperation.
Okay, final two questions. First, there’s a quote from you on the Nelson website where you say, “Lightning Strikes Twice is the creative masterpiece that Nelson has waited over 20 years to unveil.” Um, do you feel that you may be setting the bar a little too high, given that there are people who haven’t necessarily even been aware of you for the last 20 years?
Well, that is definitely a quote that came from some press person somewhere. (Laughs) I mean, I wanted this record to be called The Blonde Leading the Blonde. But the Italians didn’t get that, so, okay, we’ll stick with the pretentious weather-themed title. But to be honest with you, yeah, this is truly, for me personally, the record that I should have been allowed to make back in the day. But falling under the whole “everything happens for a reason” thing, back in the day, I didn’t have the 20 years of songwriting, performing, producing, and recording experience that I have now. So this is the first record that I can honestly listen to – and this includes our debut – and would not change a single note, a single song selection, the order of the songs, the mastering job, anything. There’s not a thing I would change.
And, finally, whose idea was it to buy the domain name NelsonKicksAss.com?
That was mine. (Laughs) That was mine, but, you know, I can’t take full credit for it. I was actually inspired by my friends who are in a band called Steel Panther. They used to be Metal School…? But in that vein, they have SteelPantherKicksAss.com. And I thought, “You know what? If you can’t remember that, then you’re a moron.” So NelsonKicksAss.com it is. And we’d tried everything. We tried TheNelsonBrothers.com, we tried MatthewAndGunnarNelson.com, all that crap. Nope. So, NelsonKicksAss.com. There you go. And it looks good on a t-shirt, too. (Laughs)