Interview by Scott Preston
Their songs transcend time. Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, revered for unforgettable past hits, explore fresh creative territory in the present. Magically melodic songwriting and soaring sibling harmonies ensure that this pair will be a vital part of the music scene’s future.
“After the Rain” was the hit debut album by Nelson, the band Matthew and Gunnar led in the early 1990s. They zoomed to number one with “(I Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection,” had three Top 10 singles, four #1 MTV videos, and became massively popular overseas.
Every magazine from Rolling Stone to People did cover stories, and the twins performed on television shows like “Late Night With David Letterman” and “Saturday Night Live.” Critics tended to unfairly overlook Nelson, however, because of the brothers’ pin-up good looks… but that didn’t stop millions of fans from ‘getting’ what all the excitement was about.
With the rise of grunge rock in the mid-90s, pop music grew dark and foreboding. Matthew and Gunnar chose not to compromise their positive, drug-free posture to suit the trend. Those who continued to follow the brothers’ musical progress were rewarded with numerous gems on their seven subsequent albums on their own Stone Canyon Records label.
Cincy Groove: Tell me about the new Nelson album, Lightning Strikes Twice.
Gunnar Nelson: Well it was really great for us when we were approached by the Frontiers record label (from Europe), who really have been keeping melodic hard rock alive. The owners of the company were big Nelson fans of the After The Rain record. They contacted us through the internet and asked us if we were interested in a record deal provided we were willing to pretend that we went right back into the studio after the After The Rain tour and did After The Rain part 2. It was a real challenge but was quite remarkable. The writing of the tunes is something that even before we heard from those cats that we had been working on for about 2 years. It was just a great opportunity and a great marriage of people that are going in the same direction. I think the record is one that we can be really, really proud of. I know of a lot of people who are approached by overseas labels and who are perfectly fine with giving up their demos and taking the money and run, but that’s not what we did here. We are taking some serious time and going into the studio and making this sound real. It sounds like the big dollar record that it is.
Cincy Groove: Are their any special guests on the new record?
Gunnar Nelson: We basically have decided to do the same thing we did on the first record. Matthew and I actually did about 90 percent of all the music on the record. We had a couple people in like our guitar player to do some lead guitar parts. But in the 15 years since the first record I have done a lot of work on my guitar playing and I’m finding we don’t need a lot of outside help, we are pretty much self contained.
Cincy Groove: Isn’t the record label also releasing a few other Nelson projects?
Gunnar Nelson: Yes, there are 2 other titles as part of the deal, both things have never been done before with the Nelson band. One is a live recording of the After The Rain tour and that was when we were out there with Bobby Rock, Frank Garcin, and Paul Merkovich. We were really in our stride and the recording is from about 3/4 of the way through the tour. People really get to hear how we took so much time and care in going beyond what was just on the record in hiring musicians that were way over qualified for the style of pop music that Matthew and I write. It was also the first we ever had the presence of mind to film our concert from that first tour. The second record is called Before The Rain, its actually pretty cool. Its a collection of the original record quality demos that got us signed to Geffen Records for the After The Rain album. People will get to hear what Love and Affection sounded like just after we first wrote it. There are actually 8 other songs that we were saving for the second record basically because we ran out of space on the first record. It wasn’t because they weren’t good songs, we just ran out of physical room.
Cincy Groove: How did the idea come about to have a fan be the Nelson assistant for the day?
Gunnar Nelson: That actually came about after I talked to Gene Simmons (KISS). We were sitting around brainstorming one day about 15 years ago and I came up with the idea of having a 1-900 fan line. At that point there really wasn’t an internet, especially like we know it today. Matthew and I had just come off of having a traditional through the mail fan club with 40,000 members who paid dues. It also obligated us to having to send out mailers quarterly. The stamps alone were breaking us, we were spending $60,000 in postage and stationary alone each quarter. Eventually email just took over for all of that, which was wonderful. But at the time I put together the 1-900 line and it gave people all kinds of options to choose from. Through the service bureau I could see where people were spending their time. People were spending 95 percent of their time listening to the crappy little voice mail message I would leave everyday. I realized for these people it wasn’t all about the music, and when I was talking to Gene Simmons, he said it is all about having a connection. The fans don’t necessarily want a t-shirt or cd, they want to feel as closely connected to their favorite artist as they can get. That’s where the inspiration for the Personal Assistant came from. We offer people a behind the scenes view of what we go through everyday from the second we get up in the morning on a show day, to sound checks, to interviews, to writing set lists, picking stage clothes, and the personal assistant is there through everything. There are times when we need to copy twenty set lists 5 minutes before the show because Matthew forgot to do it and there is the personal assistant to save the day. We really hang out with our assistant, they come to lunch with us after sound check, chat etc.
Cincy Groove: I think that’s really cool you guys do something like that because you don’t see very many bands doing it.
Gunnar Nelson: Honestly its because a lot of bands hate their fans. Fans to some bands are a necessary evil, there is a very firm line dividing the artist from their fans. They want to deal with their fans as little as possible. I sometimes can’t believe the disdain that some artists have for their fans. The Nelson family hasn’t been in the music or entertainment business for the last 100 years, we have been in the connection business. If these young bands can realize that the key ingredient to longevity and long term success in the music business is taking your personal time to look eye to eye, shake hands, with somebody who is supporting your music and your dreams. Matthew and I say our show really begins when the music ends. We are down there trading stories, taking pictures, and that’s the kind of stuff that people remember.
My dad (Ricky Nelson) was constantly late to things and it took me a while to figure out why. One day we were on the way to the airport for a plane he had to catch, this was when I was a little kid. He stopped to talk to somebody who had recognized him in the market. He stopped what he was doing, shook the persons hand, and listened to the person tell him stories about their childhood and how they were fans of the show (Ozzie and Harriet show) and my dad would listen very patiently. When he was done talking with this person, he told me when we got into the car that if you choose to be a musician for a living, please realize to me this is just a Thursday. But to the person I was just talking to , he will never forget that moment. It’s those little moments that matter and he was right.
Cincy Groove: What was it like when you recorded with Cat Stevens and Paul McCartney? That’s just way over the top no matter who you are.
Gunnar Nelson: It was just amazing, Cat Stevens has been a huge influence on my acoustic guitar playing, he is really one of my idols. I remember getting the phone call that Cat Stevens was in town and we want you to come up to the studio and do all the backgrounds. I also got to sing with Michelle Branch. The part I was doing originally was supposed to be replaced by Paul McCartney. Paul was over in London recording and heard the tracks and he wouldn’t let them replace my parts with his. He said who is that kid that’s singing that high? They told him it was Gunnar Nelson, Ricky’s kid. Paul said “You mean the one with hair?” (laughing). Just from that exchange I ended getting a call from him a few weeks later , he was performing on the Chris Issacs show. He needed a lead guitar player, Alan his longtime guitar player had decided it was time to retire. The problem was that I needed to learn 13 songs in 18 hours. The way Paul operated was that he never wrote out a set list ahead of time. Basically 5 minutes before he’s ready to go on he’ll say I want to do this song, this song, this song. Fortunately I’m also in a band Scrap Metal, which has lead singers from 80’s hair metal bands and we have to learn songs very, very quickly depending who our guest are. It got my chops up to the point where I could pull it off. I just had an amazing time working with Paul and also being able to look over to my left and say “I’m fucking playing Moon Shadow with Cat Stevens, holy crap!” was equally amazing. People would see me playing lead guitar with Paul and couldn’t believe it was me, because they think of me as the kid with the long hair, spandex, and glitter coat. I love having to make people redefine what their pre conceived ideas were. I take my music very seriously but I don’t take myself seriously. You’ll never see me being overly concerned about the geeky neighbor on Beavis and Butthead wearing a Nelson t-shirt. I think that’s fucking great. Saturday Night Live did parodies on Matthew and myself, that’s when you know you have made it.
Cincy Groove: When did you start your charity The Rock Postcard Project?
Gunnar Nelson: I got that started about a year ago. Proceeds goto St Jude Hospital. What people do is put together a piece of art on a standard postcard and send it in. The questions each person is to answer with their creation is what has Rock and Roll done for you? what has it made you do? the crazy and the cool. For every postcard that is accepted there is a contribution made to St Jude and at the end of the year we are going to put together all the postcards in a coffee table book with all the proceeds benefiting St Jude. Some of the postcards are amazing, looking like a professional artist made them.
Nelson will be performing Friday August 14 at The Riverstar Entertainment Complex, 5994 Linneman St, Cincinnati, OH. Doors open at 8:00pm. Tickets are just $15 or (2) for $25. VIP section available. Call (513) 624-0020 for tickets.