Gunnar Nelson of Nelson
In 1990 Nelson introduced themselves to the music world via their debut album After The Rain with infectious harmonies, soaring melodies and of course a whole lotta hair. Now, over twenty years later the band returns with their latest album Lightning Strikes Twice which has been heralded as a return to that signature sound that we all fell in love with so long ago.
It’s been a long but fruitful road for Matthew and Gunnar Nelson and they’ve learned many lessons along the way but the one thing that has never wavered is their inherent passion to write and perform music – much like their father – the late, great, Ricky Nelson. Both accomplished songwriters and musicians, Lightning Strikes Twice was written and recorded entirely by Matthew and Gunnar, with a few guest musicians contributing along the way. In what they’ve considered unfinished business in many ways Nelson has channeled their full collective energies to produce some of their most dynamic songs to date.
We recently had a chance to chat with Gunnar Nelson who talked about the new album, the path they’ve traveled, and of course, their beloved family.
Interviewed by: Roger Scales
Lightning Strikes Twice (due out on February 15th) really is more than just a comeback album for Nelson it’s a return to the sound that fans of your first album came to know and enjoy about the band – big multi level harmonies, tight musicianship and over the top fist pumping high energy arena rock. Being with Frontiers Records must be a match made in heaven?
Yes it is, I really think they are getting serious about the direction they want to go in. They just hired Derek Shulman a guy who signed Bon Jovi, the Dan Reed Network, and Cinderella among others back in his Mercury Records days. I think the thing you are seeing is that it’s not quite so un-hip to be a creature from the 80’s. Bands are starting to get more support than they got over the past 10 years. I think if Frontiers plays their cards right, if they truly support their bands like they can I think the label can actually really thrive here in the States and actually have some good success. We have been working steadily recently with Scrap Metal, Ricky Nelson Remembered and some other various solo projects but it wasn’t until Serafino (Perugino-President of Frontiers Records) called me up and told me I’m going to give you all the support that you will need and encouragement to get back to basics and to the mindset and style of songwriting that made After The Rain the great record that it was.
How was working with Frontiers different than past experiences?
Think about this: everybody sights After The Rain as Nelson’s benchmark. When we made that record we hadn’t had any success before. Granted we were signed to a major label (Geffen) but that didn’t mean they gave a shit about us. We hadn’t sold any records yet so they really didn’t care. When bands are making their first record they don’t have any pressure on them. The only pressure they have is self imposed. Bands are much freer to create when no one cares. Serafino and I were able to negotiate a deal so that we could have the financial resources made available to make a real record. Unlike some of the other labels where a lot of the bands will just give them there demos and put it in a nice pretty package and call it their record that’s not at all what we did. This is a real record. I told Serafino listen, we have not made that follow up record ever that was supposed to be made to follow up After The Rain. People will tell me to this day that they remember that record as a classic statement for the time. Matthew and I didn’t want to allow the memory of After The Rain to be tarnished by putting out a half ass effort. We told Serafino that when you are serious about doing this for real, let us know when you’re ready to go, this is what I need to do it, this is the time I’m going to need to do it. If you can support me in both ways and be respectful with the whole creative process like song selection we can create something really great together. It wasn’t easy. It was rather difficult. It was difficult when we made a record with John Kalodner for Afer The Rain. He did make a lot of comments on things along the way. John is known throughout the world as being a very opinionated type of guy. Serafino is a very opinionated type of guy and he’s Italian on top of it!! So he will go for the throat! But once I realized his critique was coming from passion and if he had something negative to say it wasn’t a personal attack I realized we were both coming from the same point of view: we both wanted to make a brilliant record. I know it’s fairly par for the course for any artist to fall in love with his latest project but I feel we succeed in that particular respect.
The first single and video “Your All I Need Tonight” almost sounds as if it could have been on After The Rain? When were the majority of these songs written?
That song was written for After The Rain and didn’t make it. In fact it was really destined for the follow up to After The Rain but the music industry had shifted and changed so that didn’t happen. Serafino had heard the original demo and insisted we go into the studio and record it because he loved that track so much. Everything else was written specifically for this record over the last 2 years.
The cast of supporting players on Lightning Strikes Twice is different than what older fans may remember from After The Rain. Was there at any point where you thought to reach out to Brett, Joey, Paul or Bobby or because of where everybody is in their respective careers that just wasn’t feasible?
It’s interesting, a couple of things have happened. I would always work with Brett Garsed anytime or anywhere. He’s just brilliant and a lovely guy. I’m really lucky because that band (for After The Rain) we always got along really great. Paul is a very busy guy out of the road and being a musical director. We actually did reach out to Bobby to tour with us and that’s when we realized that some things are best left in the past, only because the industry has changed. The way bands tour now is very different. Back in the day everybody was on a big bus, every guy had his own crew or technician that worked specifically for and with them, basically we were spoiled because that’s what the time supported. Nowadays bands are doing fly ins, moving their own gear doing whatever they need to do to bring the music to the people. Bobby just couldn’t make that adjustment. That whole ninja touring thing that we all have to do and have had to do for the past 15 years I don’t think is really his cup of tea. We did do a couple of dates with Bobby in Nelson. We did Rocklahoma and a few other festivals and he just told us that he is not cut out for this kind of touring. I’m out. That was right before we started making Lightning Strikes Twice. Nelson is and has always been Matthew and Gunnar Nelson. We are the heavy metal Roxette. It is misleading when you actually look at album credits when you see multiple names on there. I’m not trying to take away anything away from anybody but realize when we actually made After The Rain that it was just Gunnar and Matt, we played all the instruments. When you listen to the demos for After The Rain that’s what you’re going to hear just Matt and I playing everything. Geffen at the time insisted that we go back into this monster studio and spend monster dollars and basically recreate note for note what the demos recorded in a bigger studio. This time around I know Frontiers is big on listing everybody involved. They like to see an all star lineup of who played on the record. That’s not the type of record this was. Matt and I were free to make this record ourselves at our studio in seclusion in Nashville. When I compose a song I hear it in my head finished. My job then is to go into the studio and chip away at the marble and make it what I hear in my head. That’s what we did on After The Rain. This time around I actually saved a step. I played all the drums, all the guitar parts and Matt did all the bass. Gary Corbett did the keyboards and piano stuff on the ballads but he is recording note for note what I had already done.
There are some guest appearances on the album too..
Yes, Steve Lukather came in and did add a brilliant guitar solo on “To Get Back To You” and we had wanted to work with him for a long time. But make no bones about it this record was not really a collaboration of musicians at all it was Matthew and I left to our own devices. Much like when we recorded After The Rain, which is why they both sound so similar.
You have 2 other Nelson releases set for 2011 as well Before The Rain and Perfect Storm. What can fans expect from these?
For fans of the first record Before the Rain will give you an opportunity to get behind the scenes and really hear the level that we had to bring our craft to in order to get the band signed. We got turned down by every label in LA and in NY a couple of times. We had to develop our sound on our own to such a point where it really sounded like a finished product. Let me give you an example from my point of you as a music fan. There is an announcement that Boston was coming out with a record that was their original demos that got them signed to Epic that then turned into the first Boston album. I’d love to hear that record as a huge Boston fan!! I’d love to hear as a songwriter and producer when inspiration struck the first time what “More Than A Feeling” sounded like when Tom Scholtz sat down with an acoustic guitar and started to put things together in the studio. What Nelson fans will get is what Geffen finally listened to that pushed John K over the edge and said I think I want to do something with this so let’s go! It also showcases some of the songs that didn’t make that first record that for space and time limitations we couldn’t do. Perfect Storm is the first live Nelson record recorded during the first tour for After The Rain. Nelson had not done any touring at all up to that point so we really put together a group of guys that were a well overqualified band for a simple pop record. This is sonic proof to how good those shows actually were.
Are there any touring plans for 2011 set for the band at this time? Who will be joining you and Matthew on the road this year?
We are actually putting that together with management right now. My plan always with Nelson the rock band was to go out and tour with a classic rock lineup. Opening up for Heart, or Foreigner or somebody like that, that would be my dream gig. In a perfect world I would like to focus on those types of dates. Rather than doing the festivals with Warrant, Poison, Winger etc. No disrespect intended to those guys they are all my friends but we never wanted to be a hair band. We had always intended to be more of a pop and classic rock act. Going out with Styx and Peter Frampton like Matthew and I have we have developed more of a taste for that type of touring and those types of bands. It will really depend on timing and when an opportunity may arise to support one of those types of acts. Nelson has never been a club band so we will not be doing that type of touring. The touring lineup is really up for grabs right now. We really enjoyed playing with Neil Zaza on guitar in 2010 on some Nelson dates. Lightning Strikes Twice really features a lot of double and triple guitar parts so more than likely we will tour with two lead guitar players so that I can concentrate on the vocals. We have some drummer auditions coming up in Nashville very soon. Matt will be playing bass and Gary Corbett will be playing keys.
Can we expect a decent dose of Lightning Strikes Twice on this tour (depending upon set length) or will you dig into the back catalog and play some other Nelson favorites and maybe a surprise or two like “Kiss Me When I Cry” for instance?
You like that song Roger?? Funny we do get requests for that. I like “Two Heads Are Better Than One” which we did as Power Tool” before we were even called Nelson. (Which was on the soundtrack to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in 1989). We are actually almost finished for the basic tracks to the follow up to Lightning Strikes Twice so I wouldn’t be surprised if we do something brand new and preview material off our next record.
Your “Scrap Metal” shows at Mohegan Sun in CT have been a blast to attend. The supporting vocalists, the different set lists at each show and the high energy because it’s all hits all night long. Are there any immediate plans for additional shows at this time or is Nelson your top priority currently?
We have a date in June at the Wolf Den booked for Scrap Metal. It’s a lot of work to put together but we have so much fun doing it. We will probably change up the guest list which we really like to do for each show. Getting people Steve Plunkett (Autograph) and Janet Gardner (Vixen) to come down have been amazing. That was the first gig Steve had done in 15 years!! Janet was retired and had to actually start a search mission and she did great!! We have some more surprises in mind to keep it fresh.
I wanted to pass along my condolences to you and Matt and the rest of the Nelson family on the passing of your Uncle David Nelson. He was the last surving member of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” which ran for 14 seasons which makes it one of the longest running sitcoms ever. Did he speak fondly of the show and did he have any idea on the lasting impact the show had as a vital piece of American TV history during the 50’s and 60’s?
Thank you very much, the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. David was a very humble guy and he sort of flew under the radar just in general; both his character and his real life persona. David was the straight guy and my dad delivered the one liners! I know he was very proud of the work he had done and deep down inside he did realize how much people loved the show. I think for the whole family during that time period they were just trying to keep their heads above water!! They had a job to do and they would just show up on the set every day and work. They had lines to learn and scenes to film and edits to be made and before you knew it 14 seasons and 435 episodes had gone by and it does define in a way a whole period in American history. I don’t think anyone had anything harsh to say to David because he was everyone’s sort of surrogate big brother. I think he would be okay with it as his lasting legacy.
Besides the impact your dad Rick must have had on your musical endeavors what other major influences did you and your brother have growing up in the 1970’s?
It was an interesting blend which I think you can hear a lot of those influences in our sound. We had an equal dose of the California country rock thing (which basically had its roots in folk) and Dad a lot of his friends over the house all the time. People like Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, The Byrds and some other great California bands. I listened to all of those as a baby and then from age 9-13 I listened to whatever was popular on top 40 AM radio, basically singles. Singer-songwriter style pop stuff. Then around 13 a friend turned me on to melodic arena rock. Heart, Queen, Foreigner, Boston, Journey all of those bands. When you listen to After The Rain and “Because They Can” (2nd Nelson album) you hear a perfect blend of California Country rock and arena rock.
I recall seeing you in support of After The Rain at Hampton Beach NH with Enuff Z Nuff and also in Boston with House of Lords. What memories stand out for you when you think of that first tour?
Well that Hampton Beach Casino gig was special because Brad Delp from Boston showed up. I had never met him before. I let him know that we always did “More Than A Feeling” as our sound check song. I then asked him to join us on stage and sing that song with us that night and he agreed. We pulled him up out from the crowd did the tune and he sang it perfectly note for note and it was amazing. The first tour was kind of a blur because I had a real job to do in terms of keeping my voice in tip top condition. Every day was a different challenge and a different show and I was the guy that was responsible for the vocals so it was tough. If I lose my voice everybody goes home. It was the same thing every day: hotel, sound check, interviews, show, and hotel again with the tour bus in between. It was a whirlwind; we did 202 shows and really pulled out all the stops when it came to our gigs and really had our minds set at being a great rock n roll band. We were working very hard and then the whole grunge/flannel thing was happening literally while we were out on tour. The music climate was changing dramatically. We were unaware at first of all that stuff because our focus was solely on the next show.
Gunnar is it true that Imaginator was supposed to be the follow up to After The Rain but that Geffen thought it was “too heavy” and forced you back into the studio and produce what became Because They Can? How frustrating was that and do you think Because They Can suffered at all because of this?
I’m really proud of Because they Can, I think it’s a great record for what it is. That record is Geffen taking out of Nelson the arena rock element and becoming a California country rock band. For what was going on politically at the label at that time we could have made “The White Album” and they wouldn’t have been happy, the agenda at Geffen had changed. They were into that Seattle sound and it didn’t matter what we did. Putting us back in the studio was them getting us out of their hair contractually. It would have been a total embarrassment to them if they had released us from our contract after selling 4 million records. How can you cut a band from your roster that just sold 4 million records? In hindsight they probably should have.
But your right that “Imaginator” was supposed to be the follow up record but at that time we felt totally pushed in a corner. The label wasn’t supporting us. The media certainly wasn’t supporting us. We were feeling a lot heavier anyway because we were playing with all of these great musicians for like 14 months straight. I honestly think that the Imaginator record was really more of a representation of our live sound at that time. We tried to make it more of a democracy in terms of band input. The album is a very painful record for me to listen to because it’s a very angry record. We felt angry at the time. We were totally disrespected by Geffen after making them 23 million dollars. We sold a lot of Rock and Teen magazines by making these publishers tons of money by building us up and they were the first ones to shoot us down when grunge took over. I will never forget the amazing review we got in Rolling Stone magazine for After The Rain. When Because They Can came out it was the greatest bad review I had ever read of anybody in any magazine. “Nelson: Because They Can..Maybe they shouldn’t.” Awesome!! I love that shit!! I realize that a lot of the criticism we got back in the day very little of it had to do with the music. All the reviews you read they talk about the Nelson legacy, the hair, the image, the twinship, Hollywood girls, date for the week etc. but none of the guys ever actually sat down and listened to the fucking music. None of the Teen Beat and 16 magazines ever used any press releases that listed us as songwriters, producers and didn’t care to.
This time around I have a lot more control of what press releases are going out there and Frontiers has been very good about a focus on the music. It is important to me that fans know about how the record was made and who made it. I think the first time around we were so young, we didn’t know any better. I think a lot of people manipulated us and had their hands out when it came time to take credit for things that were not totally responsible for or earn money that they didn’t deserve. We are all 20 years older, 20 years wiser and more competent I think. Serafino was a fan who wanted to hear the real 2nd Nelson record that we were never allowed to make. Not the one that made from fear because the label was putting us on permanent hold (Imaginator). It wasn’t Because They Can which was not our vision but John Kalodner’s vision. This new record is our vision they way it always should have been. We pride ourselves as songwriters and Lightning Strikes Twice will show that.
Some children of famous athletes, actors or musicians will try and distance themselves from their family’s heritage trying to create their own identity by not recognizing or identifying with the legacy that was built before them. You have not only embraced the Nelson legacy as 3rd generation performers but you actually pay special tribute to your dad by performing his songs in special “Ricky Nelson Remembered” shows. To what do you attribute your level of acceptance to that connection to the relationship you and Matt must have had with your dad and grandparents?
I think it’s very important to note that. I think that’s what makes our situation unique to some of the other situations you mentioned. Our family has been doing this for over 100 years now. Each generation of Nelson has down something noteworthy musically to their particular era and made their own mark. Hopefully it’s not done!! We have a few more surprises up our sleeves over the next few years. For me it helps that my dad was my best friend. Matt and I were 18 years old when he died. The critics during his lifetime knocked the piss out of him. They thought he was too rich, too spoiled, too good looking for music and had no real talent to go with his voice, too privileged having the tv show backing his musical endeavors. He was there at the beginning of rock n roll in the mid 1950’s by performing “I’m Walking” on an episode of the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. This was not Fabian. This was not something made for TV. This was a real genuine artist who made music his life’s path. He could have had an incredible career as a movie actor. After Rio Bravo (1959) with Dean Martin and John Wayne he had tons of film roles offered but he wanted to concentrate on music. This was a guy that was single handedly responsible for smuggling rock n roll into American living by making the art form mainstream when it very could have turned into a different direction. This was the first time anybody had used TV to market music. At the time it was often said that Elvis turned parents off..but Ricky didn’t. Pat Boone turned off a lot of kids..Ricky didn’t. He was the right guy at the right time. It took a lot of fuckin balls to do what he did. As his son I’m just really proud and honored to have the opportunity to spread the gospel that is Ricky Nelson and what this guy really did. It’s normal for any kid to deify your parents but this guy deserves every accolade he has received and then some. He totally reinvented himself with country rock at a time when the critics had written off as dead in the water and a has-been. He was the first guy to plug in a Marshall and put that to country. The guy was performing 300 shows a year up to the day he died…on his way to play another show. I had never seen anybody who was more dedicated to music and bringing that music to the people regardless of what it cost to him personally. To be able to perform these shows, and tell the truth and the stories and pull back the curtain on the wizard and remind people that he was not only a great guy but a totally passionate dedicated way ahead of his time artist. Matt and I love it.
Will we ever see a Nelson DVD compilation of all your music videos through the years or a vintage live concert perhaps or both?
I’ve actually been talking to Nelson’s first manager Larry Mazer because we actually filmed an entire concert when we shot the video for “More Than Ever” at the Olympic Auditorium. We spent a lot of money to bring in a mobile track, really kick ass audio system, 7 separate camera angles. I have checked with my old contacts at Geffen and they cannot locate the master tapes. We spent close to $200,000 on that video shoot and those tapes have to be in someone’s vault! I’m on the prowl for it as we speak.
Any final message to the Nelson fan base?
The fans are not going to have to wait a long time for the next Nelson record. There will be a new Nelson record on par with Lightning Strikes Twice every two years. It’s my small way of thanking the diehard fan base for being so patient. I cannot believe it’s been 20 years+ since After The Rain. I just really hope that they give this record a chance, long time fans and new ones as well. Maybe some newer fans thought we were a joke back in the day and maybe they have grown a sense of humor from then to now. Maybe they miss that simpler time when we all felt 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Maybe they want that fist in the air, great to listen to cd with the top down in the summertime arena rock…just may.
*Nelson press photos used courtesy of Brian Lowe