Gunnar Nelson of Nelson and Scrap Metal
On April 26th Scrap Metal played to a sold out Wolf’s Den at Mohegan Sun Casino to what has seemingly become their hometown crowd. Since Scrap Metal’s inception, the band has played at Mohegan on several occasions and each show seems to surpass the show before in energy, passion and of course kickass special guests. Scrap Metal, the brainchild of Mark Slaughter (of Slaughter) and the brothers Nelson (Matthew and Gunnar) is a mix and match all star lineup of amazing vocalists singing their smash hit songs while the all star band backs them up. On this particular evening fans would be treated to the hits from Slaughter and Nelson and then from special guests C.J. Snare of Firehouse, Jimi Jamison of Survivor and Jeff Scott Soto, Journey’s recently departed frontman. The crowd was treated to an array of Journey, Survivor, Slaughter, Nelson and Firehouse songs and to top it all off a Queen encore.
For those of you who have yet to experience the phenomenon that is Scrap Metal, think about your favorite mixtape coming to life, walking out of your headphones and hopping on to a stage, right in front of you. That’s right, all of your favorite songs by all of your favorite artists, all at the same show! It’s a lot to take in but for Scrap Metal, word of mouth is starting to pay off and people are starting to get it, really get it. It might not be too long before The Scraps come to your town so start preparing now! It’s definitely been a labor of love but considering the fun these guys have on stage at every show, none of them consider it work.
With other big news on the horizon including an upcoming Nelson tour with Firehouse and Great White (Nelson’s first tour in FIFTEEN years!), Gunnar Nelson took some time pre-show to let us pick his brain about Scrap Metal, growing up Nelson, and all things in between.
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette | May 2008
So let’s start right at the beginning, for music fans who are unfamiliar with Scrap Metal, can you tell us a little bit about the band, the core members and the general idea of what you have going on?
It started coming together about two years ago as a response to my going to concerts and being tired of going to see a band play, paying a ton of dollars to rearrange my night to see the two or three songs I knew and have to sit and suffer through another hour and a half of stuff I didn’t really care about. So I started talking with Mark Slaughter and he said he was approached to perform at the National Songwriters Association. He said how about you and me throwing together a band that has nothing but lead singers from bands that people know and love. So I thought, let me get this straight. Basically the concept is these lead singers are up there and everybody gets to sing their three or four major MTV, pop cross over, radio hits. And then we’d back everybody else up on their songs. So we tried it, and it was awesome. It was like a live version of your favorite 80s hairband mixtape and it just worked great.
Since then we’ve just been building upon that and the process has been twofold. One you have to get what we call Scrap Metal cast members, members that people care about. Not just people on the rock charts but people who have crossed over to the hot 100. They have to be names and faces that people recognize and they have to look like they still care about making music and how they look. They can’t be inundated with egos or substance abuse issues. So, when that’s all factored in you’ve got a relatively small group of people but in the few years that we’ve been doing it it’s down to a core group of guys who are very cool, sing great songs, and as a guy who’s on stage I’m not only the architect of it but I’m also a fan of all the core members stuff as well as the guests that we have from time to time. It keeps me on my game, I’m learning new songs all of the time when we have different cast members coming in and it’s just great.
So when you did start this, did you ever think it would turn into something as big as it has?
The thing that’s funny is that everyone I told about this project told me it would never work and it would never happen. All the managers, agents and promoters all said that it was an ego quagmire, and trying to coordinate everyone’s schedules is going to be impossible logistically and if you’ve got six lead singers at any one show that’s six different egos, six different sets of songs to learn, six different schedules, all of that. I thought, I can do it. I’m not saying it’s not challenging. It’s an unbelievable amount of scheduling and logistics. I can go out and do a show with my brother and he and I have been playing those songs for fifteen years so I could get a call and be in Wisconsin tomorrow for a show and I go. Scrap Metal is not like that but that’s what makes it fun. For me, I could get a call from somebody who says “Nuno Bettencourt is going to be at the next show, you need to learn four Extreme songs in three days..” and that’s really the magic of it.
A lot of our potential cast members are huge in Asia and we’ve also had a lot of success over there, but not as much as Mr. Big and not as much as Firehouse, those guys are huge over there. So when Scrap Metal goes over to Asia I’ll tell you what Eric Martin and C.J. Snare are going to be featured. We get to rotate it around, it’s a lot of work but it is so worth it because we’re having fun with our friends, we take the music seriously but we don’t take ourselves seriously. You can tell, you’ve been to a show, we really care and we want it to be and sound great.
You’ve touched on this a bit already but like you said pretty much everyone who has participated has had a very successful past, is there any ego clashing on the stage?
What it comes down to is that we all have great respect for one another, I know it sounds cliché but it’s really true. Mark and I live in Nashville and I think Nashville musicians take things a lot more seriously than anywhere else, we actually break things down, we chart things out and we get things right. So when you roll into a Scrap Metal rehearsal it’s not a bunch of guys sitting around on couches swilling beer, it’s guys methodically breaking things down, going through the vocal parts, deciding who’s playing what solo on what song and they see that level of musicianship and if they were ever concerned as new guys coming in about how they were going to be backed by a band they lose all of that concern right away. A lot of people have told us, and I won’t mention any names, but their experience working with Scrap Metal is far superior to the bands that they normally play with.
With the sort of interchangeable parts of the band, are musicians coming out of the woodwork asking to be a part of it?
I think a lot of people were sitting back and waiting for the dust to clear. They wanted to see if this was really going to fall on its ass or not. And I respect that. In all fairness, every band handles it’s business differently, and I’ve just found that some of these guys are coming from bands that are just drama centers, nexuses of drama and I think social proof holds a lot of weight so they they actually just want to talk to talk to their friends who have been with us on a gig to say hey how was it, did it work out great, did it sound good, were the guys cool, that kind of thing. And now word of mouth is getting out that it’s really a pleasure to do this kind of thing. All of us are taking fee reductions to be in Scrap Metal, if you think about it, the pie can only be so big and you’ve got that many bodies you’ve got to fly to a one off date and after paying out all of the expenses and splitting up that pie we’re all making a lot less per man than we do in our regular bands but it’s so much fun to do that we’re all going “Yeah! I’ve got a Scrap Metal date coming up!”
I think one of the things fans take away from your show is reconnecting with the music of their past and seeing how it can really live on forever, with that in mind, have you guys considered writing any original material together?
We actually have started writing an original record, we’ve got 12 songs already and we’ve heard two schools of thought about it. One school of thought is what you’re selling is memories so people really only want to hear the hits. I don’t subscribe to that though. We’ve got all the new material ready to rock. The first Scrap Metal record will be an album of twelve to fifteen great songs played by all the guys and each song will be sung by a different cast member. So you’ll be able to hear all of your favorite artists on one album and each guy will pick and write the song they want to do, but if you’re an Eric Martin fan there will be a great Eric Martin song on there and the same band backing everyone throughout. It’s going to be fun.
Who have been some of your favorite musicians to jam with, or particular songs to perform outside of the Nelson songs?
As I’m standing there onstage I have those “A-ha” moments all of the time. I’m grooving with the flying V, everything is rockin’ and then I’ll start Eye of the Tiger for example, and it’s a great guitar part struttin my stuff and then Jimi opens his mouth and I realize that I’m on stage with THAT guy, the real guy! I’m looking over Matt and he’s looking over at me with that “Can you believe we’re doing this” look on his face. We’re like a bunch of kids, it happens all the time. As far as favorite people, obviously there’s no doubt that Mark Slaughter is one of my closest friends for a reason. He’s one of the most humble and cordial people I’ve met in this business and that’s saying a lot. But I will tell you, everybody has been cool, Eric Martin is a gem, a true gentleman. As I’m sitting there in the same room listening to him sing it’s humbling, the guy just has the most amazing voice ever and I’m a fan. I listen to him doing his thing and it makes me want to practice. Everybody has been so cool, C.J. Snare, could a guy get nicer? I don’t think so.
Given the obstacles of pulling a Scrap Metal show together, do you foresee doing a string of tour dates or do you think you have to keep within the constraints of one off shows?
Well, word is out on Scrap Metal and promoters are starting to call. Our one challenge was trying to convince the buyers and promoters exactly what Scrap Metal was because it’s a brand new brand and people didn’t know what they were buying. So I knew that it was going to be an educational process and this has been very organic, it had to be word of mouth. If you notice at the Mohegan Sun we really haven’t done much promotion but every time we play there you’re getting double the people showing up and word is spreading. That’s what counts more than anything but it just takes more time. It takes two to five years to actually get the buzz. We have to make the Scrap Metal brand stand for a certain level of quality. No matter what you’re going to see when you see Scrap Metal you’re going to see something that’s going to blow your mind and people have to know that.
The last time I saw you live, you were doing a tribute to your father and singing a lot of his songs as well as your own which really seemed to meld the audience together by mixing Nelson fans with Ricky Nelson fans, what did that tour mean to you? What do you take away from that?
To be honest with you, getting people in our audience with the age range from 8 to 80 is awesome. It’s very unique and not a lot of people can reach that broad spread of family – three or four generations, which is really wonderful. In the last three years we’ve really learned to segregate things. I’ve learned the power of focus and branding. What we have now is a new show called Ricky Nelson Remembered and it’s very specific. It’s awesome; it’s got video screens, because our family was documented on television so it’s got video screens that tell the whole Rick Nelson story that goes through his life. We have great people like original members of The Stone Canyon Band, Jeff Skunk Baxter from the Doobies plays pedal steel for us, it’s a great show but it’s a very specific show. Its two hours long and people love it. But that’s its own thing. And I’ve got a newsflash for you, you’re the first person I’m telling this to but for the first time in fifteen years Nelson the arena band is getting together again and going out on tour with Firehouse and Great White.
We’re putting it together right now and we’re going to go into rehearsals next month.
So it’s going to be a summer 2008 tour?
Well we’ll do 15-20 dates this year throughout the summer and fall and then going into next year will go out on some proper tours. It’s going to be highly interactive with the big Diamond vision screens and videos playing behind us. It’s going to be off the hook, we’re going to embarrass all those bands who have been out there just phoning it in for years.
So with that tour, do you think you’ll be writing new Nelson material?
Yes, we’ve been writing for 15 years so we’ve got some new stuff but it’s going to sound like it would fit right after the “After the Rain” record. We’ve improved as writers and I think you’ll like it. I promise you that we’ll make sure that it’s a kickass show.
What is the greatest life lesson that your Dad left you with?
There are two different lessons. One was one that he told us and the other was by example. He always told us that no matter what, be songwriters first and foremost because you can go to any town and find someone who looks better than you, plays better than you, sings better than you, but if you’re a songwriter and your songs connect with your audience, they are going to connect your song with a certain time in their life for the rest of their life. You’re not in the music business, you’re in the connection business and the best way to stay connected to people who love what you do is your songs. That was really a great lesson for us because our Dad had his career in reverse. He had is career in the fifties when people wrote songs for him and then he had to learn how to be a writer in the late sixties/early seventies when the singer/songwriter thing happened so he spared us all of that pain and by the time we were six we were writing our own material. So that was really helpful.
As far as an example, the greatest legacy he left, the greatest lesson he taught me was one about tenacity. My Dad was a lot of things but he was not a quitter. People will say whatever they want to say, and you can catch slack and be the brunt of jokes, all of that stuff, but if you don’t give up and you have your vision, after awhile you turn into someone who is iconic for being a survivor, for being tough, for having that vision. Matt and I have been doing this since we were six and we’re forty now and I’ve got more passion for my music now than I ever did before. Styles come and go, fads change but my love for music will always be there and if anything by example I’d like to be the person when someone is going to quit and they say “but what about that Gunnar Nelson guy, he’s been through more ups and down than a yo-yo and he still stayed in there and he still swung and he won in the end.” And so that’s what I’d like.
I’ve read your fan club blogs and both you and Matthew are very articulate and talented writers, ever considered penning a book about your life?
I actually have a writer and a book agent right now and we’re going to put out a treatment to market but it’s all dependent on other things we have going on. It is definitely something we intend on doing at some point.
Matthew & Gunnar after the Mohegan Sun show
You chose to release your music under your own label after you left Geffen, it seems that a lot more bands are doing that now, do you think that’s a reflection of the current state of the music industry and do you think it’s a sign of the future?
I definitely think that it is the future; I don’t think record companies are going to be around for long. I think before the reason there were record companies was because there was no other way to distribute your product, the record labels owned the trucks. There were record stores and that’s where people bought their music and the only way people were turned on to new music was through MTV (which we enjoyed some support from) and the radio, and that was basically it. Now with the technology, it’s both a blessing and a curse because the blessing is people have instant access to anybody at any time and the curse is that there’s so much shit out there that it’s hard to weed through it all, there’s just an avalanche of content and all these bands who in the past had to work their way up and go from playing in their garage to the local scene to the regional scene to the national scene can now just put themselves up on YouTube or MySpace and get their coverage. You’re inundated with too much I think. The blessing is that if you’re stuff is good, the cream will rise to the top and word of mouth will get out and people will have access to your music.
The reason why the major labels are closing down and consolidating is because they are dinosaurs. They’ve been ripping off artists for 70 years and they wonder why the artists on their labels didn’t come to their rescue. In all their tricky accounting all these old blues artists and Motown artists who are dying destitute and alone and you have the same people who ran their labels owning wineries, it’s just a travesty. Again, we’re all in the connection business, music is the best medium to get connected with people, music is vital to people. To me, if I didn’t have music in my life, no joke, it really truly would be a colorless existence and I think a lot of people feel that way. If you want to earn more money add more value, it really is that simple. If you’re a band and you want to be more successful than add more value for people. Go the extra mile, care, practice a little more, make sure you stand out, reinvest in your success, reinvest in yourself.
Matthew and I both would be very happy with very little material stuff. Give me some good food to eat, a guitar in my hand and a roof over my head and I’m fine. I don’t need anything more than that, the rest of that gets reinvested back into the trip and our projects because that’s going to be our legacy and frankly that’s what adds fun to our lives.
Okay, last question, and I have to ask this because two of my best friends are twins and I’m always amazed by them, what is the coolest thing about being a twin?
For me, having a best friend who’s my age and grew up the same way I did and is into the same things I am is pretty awesome. I’ve found that identical twins either really get along or really hate each other and we dig each other so that’s cool. But yeah it’s actually just having a pal, that’s the best thing…that and having extra body parts if I ever get into an accident.
Any parting words?
I think we really covered it, spread the word about Scrap Metal and Nelson the arena band is going to kick your ass, first time in fifteen years!
Check out the full gallery from the Scrap Metal Show at Mohegan Sun’s Wolf Den here.
Visit Scrap Metal on MySpace here
Visit The Nelson Brothers Website here.