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Full Throttle Rock

Interview: Gunnar Nelson - Nelson

Posted on June 1, 2015 at 10:10 PM


Since the 1930s the name Nelson has been synonymous with American Entertainment. In those days Ozzie Nelson was enjoying success as the band leader of the Ozzie Nelson Band. During the 1940s he and his family would be heard on radio and then seen across American TV screens weekly on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”. In the 1950s and ‘60s his son Ricky Nelson would become a Pop Idol, with popularity second only to Elvis Presley. So with the success of the entertainment business running through their veins, it is hardly a surprise that Ricky’s twin boys Matthew and Gunnar Nelson would follow in the family trade. In 1990 their band known simply as Nelson released their debut album After The Rain which was a runaway hit. The next 25 years however would be a difficult and bumpy journey; nevertheless they would survive and at the end comes their final melodic hard rock album titled Peace Out. I was fortunate enough to catch up with vocalist/songwriter and guitarist Gunnar Nelson for a lengthy chat about the band’s turbulent history, family history and the new record Peace Out.

 

Rock Man: Congratulations on what has been an amazing 25 year journey. When you released your debut album back in 1990 did you harbour any thoughts your career would survive for so long?


Gunnar Nelson: I think when you are 18/19 years old you don’t really think that far into the future, you just kind of focus on what you are doing at the time but you can only hope. I was really lucky I came from a family that has been entertaining for 100 years and I had a father that had a long career, so I had some good social proof that it was definitely possible to do. You know, I suppose when you are that young you really don’t realise that a whole career is probably more than a series of comebacks and that 25 years later to be still doing what you always wanted to do which is make great records, I feel very lucky.


RM: 2015 sees the band release a new studio record titled Peace Out. I would imagine that you and Matthew are very pleased with the final result?


GN: Yeah, thank you. I think it is totally normal for an artist to be most in love with their last project. But this one is actually pretty special, because this is a record we wanted to make; we did not necessarily have to make. We had made a very particular statement with the album which came out before, Lightning Strikes Twice, which was really actually made as a record which should have been made or allowed to be made after the debut record, had the world not discovered grunge and the Seattle sound. Basically everything changed and shifted quickly. But this record was really made as a ‘Thank You’ note to our fans who have been really incredibly supportive for the last 25 years, through times where it was not all that cool to be into melodic hard rock and stuff, and certainly not the Nelson boys. That is why we made this record; it was kind of our way of signalling that we were going to be moving on to a different kind of music, a different kind of push in our lives but before we left we wanted to give those people that have been so great to us for 25 years a little parting gift.


RM: So, more often than not when an artist releases new material you will hear them say things like “This is the album we have always wanted to make”, like you have just stated. Is that really the case here for the both of you with this record or are we just towing the company line?


GN: Oh no, not at all. As a matter of fact this was a record that took us; it took the record company a lot of work to talk us into doing this. Because on the one hand when you are approached by a label who is negotiating one side of a contract and they are saying ‘Well the industry is not what it used to be’ and ‘Woe is me’ and ‘Blah,blah,blah’; in a sense what they are asking us to do is make the same quality record that we made back in 1990, with a budget of half a million dollars for pennies. And when you sit there and go ‘Well we are out there touring, we are doing 100 dates a year and that is how most bands are making their income at this time and you want us to put on the brakes and spend a year or two making an orchestrated, well thought out record and you want us to basically do it for free?’. It is just really hard. If you are thinking about a business decision there is just not enough juice to be worth the squeeze. In this particular case, the reason we made this record was about the opposite to towing the company line; we really honestly wanted to do whatever it took to make the best last record we possibly could.


RM: From start to finish I got the feeling listening to this new record that you had a fun time making it. Was that the case or did it present its share of challenges?


GN: I think it is hard making any project where you are trying to push yourself, but man, this really was a blast to make. But I really wanted to make the statement, what I wanted simply was this: Nelson has always been a positive band, have always written really uplifting lyrics and at times I suppose, it is funny, some of the reviews I have read throughout the years, they have very little to do with the actual music itself. But if any of them had been negative most of them had been commenting on ‘Those guys smile too much in their video’ and ‘Their songs are just too upbeat to be rock’ and I do not think like that. I grew up with Boston and Queen and these bands that made me feel ten feet tall and bulletproof and when I started making music that is what I wanted to do. That is all I wanted to do. I wanted to listen to something that I had made that sounds like I plugged in a ten foot tall Marshall and let it roast, and I got my fist in the air and I am ready to take on the world. I always felt that life was dark enough without me helping it along. Whether that is rock or not, I wanted to make an honest Nelson record with Peace Out and I wanted to make a record that is confident after all these years. To let everybody know this is what we do ‘Hey man, this is what we do!’ and this is what we do better than anybody else on planet Earth. If we are going to be the guys that smile in videos or write songs like this then we are actually proud to have that mantle and that little space in music.


RM: So let’s talk about a couple of the standout tracks on Peace Out. Let’s start with Back In The Day. This song really struck a chord with me reflecting on a time when music and the entertainment industry was just better. Can you talk me through that track?


GN: You are talking about a time when people gave a shit. Is that what you are saying?


RM: Yeah, that’s right.


GM: Yeah, me too. And that is where that song came from. When I was a little boy, my first memory was sitting off to the side of the stage watching my father perform. I was not any more than two/two and a half years of age and I made that connection at that early age that whatever is going on here makes me feel great, I want to do that. And from that point on during a pretty rough childhood man, you know, through all the uncertain times, through all the times a teenager feels like a dork and they are lost and they are insecure and all that stuff, my music, they were always my friends. You know, when I wanted to feel a certain way, at the time, I would plug in a cassette or something. I would put on a band that I would want to hear and it would get me through those tough times and then what happened was I watched the accountants and the bean counters get involved with the industry that I loved. Very quickly after we released our first record the industry itself started to change and it was less about supporting bands over the long run and therefore supporting the fans who were investing in those bands and careers. I started to bemoan the fact that I don’t think that an Aerosmith would be allowed to happen were it to start now, Led Zeppelin would not be cultivated, The Eagles would never break, all that stuff, and I realised I was listening to my old friends more and more during those lost years when the world started wearing flannel and turning northwards to Seattle. Here we are 25 years later and I realised everything from the songs that were written to the image and everything they stood for seems to be put together with so much more care back in the day, so to speak. And I think that is why we all, my kids turn to the classic rock stuff, it is because people gave a shit about music and their bands and their songs and they were protective of the place in their lives that the music really took. And so when I started writing Back In The Day I just wanted to make a comment when I was doing interviews over the years and people would in a derogatory way go “Oh well, I wonder what it was like back in the day with you guys” and they said it as a slag. But what I really want to make as a statement in this song is, ‘I tell you what, back in the day, we are talking about a time when music was allow to be creative and it was allowed to thrive and it was allowed to prosper because it was great art is A-Okay in my book’. All of these changes between then and now, I do not know, it might be newer but it might not necessarily be better.


RM: Autograph deals with celebrity infatuation and really, who hasn’t done that in their life. Did you have someone in mind when writing that song?


GN: Well, you know, some songs are written from experience and some songs are written when you ask yourself the question “What if?”, and we have definitely had our share of psycho fans. 99% of the fans out there are really cool, but there are some out there that really live in a parallel universe that has nothing to do with the world we all live in. I have got some that still write letters to this day that feel that they got a very personal relationship with me based on nothing more than lyrics I have written in songs they have listened to. So I kind of imagined “What would it be like?” to be that person who is 35 years old and been following the band since she was a teenager and still had the posters on the wall and all that stuff. There are still a couple of people who are like that, and so I wanted to write a kind of tongue-in-cheek lyric from a fan point of view.


RM: Earlier on, we kind of touched on your whole ‘live life to the full’ mantra. On Peace Out that quota is covered adequately with songs like On The Bright Side, What’s Not To Love and others. How important is spreading that positive message?


GN: That is a great question. I personally think it is my life’s mission to do that. There was a time after my father died when I was 18 years old where I really had to make a concrete decision what kind of human I wanted to grow up to be. Funny enough, it was at that time that my manager determined that the best thing to do for young artist was to get them to travel, he happened to be Australian. He managed the Little River Band at the time and worked with John Farnham for years and sent us over, we were there for World Expo when it was in Brisbane and then Sydney and 4/5 other cities there and it was wonderful to get a world view. But what really impressed me about the country was how different, in a good way, Australians are as a whole than Americans. Americans tend to be incredibly competitive but in a really negative way. I made more friends in a very short trip to Australia than I had in a life time, at that point, living in the United States. It was inspiring to me and I realised through that whole journey that I have every right or reason, according to the press, to have wound up a statistic, another son that wound up dead or drug addicted or hateful or spiteful or, you know, our industry is littered with people like that. But I realised my place starting from the very first record with a title like After The Rain, that was really what I was born to do and it is not, to me I would like it to be a universal message but as long as 5% of the fans connect with it that is what we are all about. You know, the music was going to be a means to my end, and so writing this particular record it really puts an exclamation point on the sentence that was begun 25 years ago exactly with songs like On The Bright Side and What’s Not To Love. That is what Nelson has always been at its best and at its core is a band that does not say what a lot of the grunge guys say or the other metal bands which was that ‘life sucks’ and ‘you owe me’ that is not what we were about, our thing is like ‘yeah, life might suck, hard sometimes, from time to time but really the quality of your life and what you do with it is going to be up to you’. I do not want to sound like Tony Robbins (motivational speaker), but I really genuinely believe in this and as a result here we are 25 years later, you know, life is different I am still living the dream, I still get to do 100 dates a year, make the music that I want to make, I have got the love of a great woman and beautiful kids and all that stuff. So I was really set up to fail after my father died and I was not going to give anybody the satisfaction and I am happy to say this as I am talking to you right now, that Peace Out is definitely the statement I wanted to make but it was not a statement of ‘hey you will be sorry when we are gone’ it is really like ‘hey, I hope you get what I was trying to say this entire time, it works for me and I hope it works for you too’.


RM: Yeah, for sure. Can I take you back to 1990 and the release of the debut album After The Rain. What do you recall about that time and making that record?


GN: Well, it is a fascinating thing. They say that you have your entire life to make your first record and 20 minutes to make your second, so Nelson really was the world’s longest overnight success. Here is what I remember. I started playing music when I was 6 years old, I got my first drum set when I was 6 and I was a drummer all the way until I was 18. I had my first recording session when I was 12, the same year we started playing the L.A. club scene professionally, five nights a week. And we were holding our own with bands like The Knack and The Go-Gos, all those skinny tie bands that were hot at the time, The Romantics, all the bands that started with the word ‘The’. And, you know, we were a bunch of kids but it forced us to grow up and get our chops together, and we got our first record deal at 19 and made the record and had our first Number One hit on my 22nd Birthday. But that entire time here is what I remember: taking the music incredibly seriously I knew that was the only thing I wanted to do, I never knew the ‘When’, I always knew the ‘What’ and I always knew the ‘Why’, I just did not know the ‘When’. So when all my friends were going away and graduating and going to college and doing that whole thing all my well meaning friends were saying “Oh God man, give it up Gunn. You gotta get a day job, get yourself a career”, but I was so committed to what I was doing that to me there was not any choice. I think the thing that really got us through those dark times of doubt and fear was really tapping into feeling like we had the ‘mission’ that we spoke about before, without being preachy, we kind of felt we wanted to be the antidote to the “I hate the world!” bands that were out at the time. So what I remember at the time, I really felt like when we were making that first record and writing those songs, you know, what is great about being signed at that time and developing and doing all that is you have not had any hits yet so you really have no expectations. The record company does not care because they have got a lot of bands that, they need their cash deductions too, their tax write offs, if your band does not really work it does not really matter to them. They will write you off on the taxes and move on to the next one, they only really care after you have sold five million records and they need a follow up and that is what I remember. I remember working with John Kalodner who was brilliant and difficult at the same time, but you have to respect the guy who actually signed AC/DC, the guy clearly knew his shit. But making a record with John, especially building a trip from the ground up was anything but easy. But what it did was, he was so set in the industry he was able to inspire us to keep on pushing ourselves and do something that was different from everything else that was out there. With us he did not want us to chase anything that was out at the time, he wanted us to be the heavy metal Hollies and I suppose back in that day I was more resistant than I probably should have been but I was a kid. I remember wanting that first record to break so badly and have it be great and be different and I suppose everybody when they come out with their first record they want the same thing. But this was never a hobby for me, you know, Matthew and I, despite what some people may think were never ‘Trust Fund Kids’. When our Dad died he was $4.5 million in debt and it took ten years to pay everything back he had done, and the only way for me to do that is really be successful in music because I was not qualified to do anything else. I put all my eggs in that one basket and I am really grateful that at least before the world turned to grunge we were able to have one giant record. It was a great time, I have to be honest with you, those last couple of years of the ‘80s were really decadent in a pretty cool way.


RM: So here is where things get interesting. After the runaway success of After The Rain you go back into the studio to record the follow up album Imaginator, which was reported as being an edgy, heavier album. However, the powers that be at Geffen Records don’t like it and tell you to record something else. The result is the very acoustic driven Because They Can. You put in all this time and work on Imaginator, were you offended or hurt when Geffen told you they thought it was rubbish?


GN: Well, it was crushing but see here is the problem: it was not our fault. I am the first guy to raise my hand and say we delivered a shitty record but that is not what happened. What was going on is this: the label, because of the success of Nirvana, all of this stuff was financially driven, all these years looking back on it this was not a natural cultural thing where the people stood up and said “I am tired of all that hair band stuff”, “I am tired of Living On A Prayer, I want to develop a heroine problem and wear flannel”, that is not what happened. What happened was the six biggest guys in the music industry secretly got together and they had a meeting and they said “Boys we have a problem. Records have become way too expensive to make, the process is bloated. Whitesnake wants one million dollars to make a video, Aerosmith are spending three million every time they go into the studio and don’t get me started on Def Leppard. So what are we going to do here?”. One of those guys said “What we can do is we can go up and we can get some of those independent labels and buy them out, we can buy completed records and those people will make music for a song”. The same exact thing happened when disco died; Donna Summer was talking in those dollars, back then one million to make a record, all those guys got together back then and said “We are going to shift things up, we are going to England and sign these punkers who will work for a fifth of Jack Daniels and a Happy Meal”. And everything shifted and records were cheap to make. Same thing happened with the rap thing, rap is very inexpensive to make, people actually make it on their computer at home and these cool “Producers” go out and find people to make their “beat”. They spend pennies on the dollar for the people, they basically steal all their work and they put some price to it and they are done. So bang for the buck is far more cost effective to make, let’s say, a punk record or a grunge record that was already done. So this industry has survived a lot of financial paradigm shifts that had been devastating. I mean, think about this, back in the day what was your video outlet say 1990? What was the big video channel you used to watch in Australia?

 

RM: I remember MTV was pretty big here still and we had a few of our own locally produced show like Video Hits, for example.


GN: Okay cool, so I am sure the same thing happened; it seemed like overnight if you were not from Seattle they were not playing you. It just changed overnight, this was not like a gentle, gradual thing we are like talking within the same week, a mandate literally went out saying “Spread the word, we had our meeting and we are not playing any of these bands anymore”. So at the time MTV Worldwide was the world’s largest radio station and when you actually lose the ability to reach you audience there is really nothing the band can do, bands just implode. Now for us, we were in a situation where our label literally tied us to a post and whipped us for not running, there was nothing we could do. The problem for them was that Nelson had sold so many records; we had already made them 25 million dollars so they could not just drop us off the label when their agenda changed. So they had to keep us, it would have been embarrassing if they let us go and we got signed by Polygram and had another big hit, they would not allow that to happen. But they were not going to come out and say “Hey you guys, guess what? You guys are uncool and our agenda has changed”, so there was nothing we could do. So what they did was they just kept sending us back into the studio, they just kept sending us in and sending us in. Because here is the thing, if we had quit they would not owe us any severance but we refused to quit. So they had a three album deal and kept sending us back into the studio and what we thought was when John Kalodner’s record deal timed out he was going to take Aerosmith and us and move over to Sony, which is where he went to go. But I guess I had said too many things out of frustration to John Kalodner and I guess I was not worth the squeeze so he kind of left Matthew and I at Geffen to rot. And he took Aerosmith and those guys still had a couple more records, but it still was not the same as it was with Pump and Get A Grip, the times had changed, everything had really changed. So for us those lost years, you are right, it got interesting.


RM: Eventually Imaginator was released on your own label Stone Canyon. For the record let me say I thought it was a damn good album. I wish it had been released when it was first recorded.


GN: Well thank you man, I do agree. See the funny thing was when we had the meeting with all the people at the label and I do not know what they were hoping for, you know, maybe After The Rain Pt. II maybe what they really wanted to hear was like Lightning Strikes Twice, that is probably what they wanted, if they were going to give it any push at all because their agenda changed. But I will tell you what, when we played that record and the look on their faces was so different from what they expected, they said “This is never going to work” and “This kind of music is never going to work and the kids are going to hate it” and “Blah, blah, blah” and then seven months later the Metallica ‘Black’ album came out. So I mean hindsight being 20/20, they should have released the damn record when we tried to.


RM: More and more artists are coming out saying that it is getting to the point where it is not worth making full length albums anymore, given the decline in record sales, the popularity of iTunes and downloading. What are your thoughts? Are full length albums still valid in this day and age?


GN: Well, I mean it really depends. I think what we are seeing is a return to the way the industry was when my father started making music in the ‘50s, it was really more of a singles market. He and Elvis were the only two people in the ‘50s to have Number One albums because it was so singles driven, but I think back in that day you had to be a huge established artist to make whole length albums really worth it because other acts at the time were selling a single and a B-side. I understand where people are coming from with that kind of a statement, I mean look, straight up there are labels out there and I am not going to name any of them because I know some of them way too intimately unfortunately, that would be completely happy with a band like ours giving them a collection of demos, they put a pre-package on it and they sell it to the fans like it is a new so and so record. There have been lots of arguments between our side and their side and, you know, we do not shit in public man, that is not what we do because our music will live a lot longer than we will. There is going to be a point in time when people are going to go back, this is what I imagine anyway, people are going to listen the albums and they are going to be great pieces of work or they are not. I only did one cash grab in my life and only one album that I would not have done, if I could take it back there was one great song on it that I absolutely love, so that was kind of the saving grace of that record. But I would never ever do The Silence Is Broken record again. That was a time when we had been starved out by Geffen and we were really in bad straights and so much time had gone by and we hadn’t started touring again. But that was one of those things where honestly, that record was not ready to be released it was not strong enough, not to my quality standards. I really do love the song Ghost Dance, I think that is the saving grace.....


RM: Wow that is interesting to hear because I really love that record too [laughs].


GN: Cool man, I am so glad you do. I could have made that record better but the label at the time was like “We need this quick” and half the tracks on there I would have taken back into the studio and I would have got a better mixer and I would have got the sound better, I could do better work. After I did that I just realised from that point on it does not matter what I am working on I am going to give it my best and it does not matter if anybody buys these thing I want to be proud of the music I make. And I think that would be the industry turning to more of a singles oriented industry and downloads, here is what I think, I think the future is not really going to be in singles anymore, it is going to be in videos. Just like people use to do demos and all that stuff, man I think nowadays you can spend a reasonable amount of money and make a great video, I am really proud of our Rockstar video which just came out. It is a great video and we did not break the bank to make it but I think it looks great, you get a great director of photography and stuff, to me I think the legacy that is going to last in going into the future is a large collection of really well made videos. And I know that is what Matthew and I are really talking about right now because all those album titles from The Silence Is Broken to Lightning Strikes Twice and Peace Out, we are going to revisit our catalogue and just because we are not going to be making new Nelson records does not mean we are not going to go back and making videos for some of those songs we really feel should have seen the light of day. There are going to be at least five cuts off Lightning Strikes Twice and another five cuts of Peace Out that we are going to do videos for and I am excited about that.


RM: Look once again, congratulations on the release of the album Peace Out. On behalf of everyone here at Full Throttle Rock I would like to wish you the best of luck for the record and many years of continued success.


GN: Hey thank you so much and thank you for all the support.



 

For more information about Nelson visit the official website at www.matthewandgunnarnelson.com/

 

Nelson – Peace Out is available on Frontiers Records.

 


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