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Nelson - 2000 Interview with Gunnar Nelson

Interview with: Gunnar Nelson

Written By: Andrew Ellis
Date: 10 November 2000

Matthew and Gunnar Nelson have been through all the highs and lows that a musical career can bring. They have not only had to deal with the pressures of coming from a famous family, (their father was Rick Nelson) but have also had to contend with all the dirty tricks a major record label can come up with. Despite this, Nelson have sold well over two million records all over the world, and to the delight of rock fans everywhere, are still making records over a decade after their debut 'After The Rain'. On the eve of the release of 'Like Father Like Sons', Matthew and Gunnar's interpretations of some of their father's most famous songs, Andrew Ellis gets the lowdown on all things Nelson from none other than Gunnar himself.

First and foremost, you must be extremely excited about the release of 'Like Father, Like Sons'. I think it's a great concept, but what feedback do you expect from longtime Nelson fans?
Well, we really don't know. As a matter of fact, we hope that they get out of it what we get out of it. It's a great peek into where Matthew and I come from musically. This is music that Matthew and I grew up listening to, obviously, it having been around the house while we were growing up. But it's just great kick ass rock n' roll.

Even though you must be honored to be able to bring a new flavour to your Dad's songs, to do a whole record of cover versions must be a bit of a departure for you both, since you are prolific songwriters and performers in your own right. Was this a difficult barrier to overcome?
Well, it was definitely a challenge, but we just treated it for what it was. Something different. We will always be songwriters, first and foremost and we love doing that, but this departure is actually a lot of fun for us.

Of course, you have already covered one of your Dad's songs on last year's 'Life' record (the title track). Was this what spawned the idea of a full length record?
Actually, partially we were initially asked to do a special tribute concert for a promoter friend of ours, just as kind of a goof. We rehearsed the set and went and did it and not only had so much fun, but such a great response from our audience that we decided to actually record a show and see how it came out. And funny enough, it actually turned out much better than we even expected.

Who makes up the band for the record? Did you involve John Boylan (who also produced 'Because They Can' and who also produced your Dad's music) in producing the record? That would have been a nice touch.
Well, I will take the first part of that question. Who makes up the band on that record is, Matthew Nelson is actually playing acoustic guitar and singing lead and I am actually playing the drums and singing as well. I am actually playing stand-up drums, I am not sitting down. I actually designed a special kit that enables me to stand up, like the drummer in Jellyfish and like Slim Jim Phantom, and actually do the drumming. Which was a lot of fun! On lead guitar, is a gentleman named Mike Turner from Tulsa, OK. And on stand-up bass is James Intveld. Now, part B of that we did not choose to involve John Boylan in producing this record because John actually came on board with our father's music well after the majority of the stuff from the 50's was recorded. He actually came on board in the late 60's during our father's Stone Canyon Band phase. The appropriate person to actually have co-produce this record would have been our father. Obviously, that was impossible, but he was definitely co-producing it in spirit.

I imagine there will be a large market for those people who want to hear your Dad's music as well as your own, but what do you say to those critics that may accuse you of becoming a mere nostalgia act to draw in the crowds?
Critics are critics for a reason, if they could really do it they would be doing it. I think that the point is what we wanted to do something, one... that meant a lot to us... two... do something that was fun and that's what music is supposed to be in the first place and three... to give people what they want. This is definitely not our future. This is definitely something we are doing as a one off record but I think the fact that it is a one off record makes it even more special. This is something that we wanted to do for all the fans of our father's, who grew up with his music, who miss our father and want to get a peek into his past. And also to our fans who want to get a glimpse into the songs and the music that actually inspired us to take up music in the first place.

So do you plan to come over to Europe/Japan/Australia with this record?
Absolutely, yes! We are working on putting a tour together right now.

Unfortunately, living in the UK, I have never had the opportunity to see you perform live. Although my Dad tells me he remembers seeing your father play the Liverpool Empire in the late 70's when there was a power strike and the whole show was kept going by outside generators! Apart from a similar willingness to carry on against all odds, what else do you think you have learned musically and about life in general from your Dad?
Man, that's a really nice question and it really implies a lot that I thank you for. But other than tenacity, other than to never give up, I think what we learned from our Dad can best be summed up in his song 'Garden Party.' Which is the quote 'You can't please everybody, so you got to please yourself'. And that's what we have been committed to doing. Is really following the beat of our own drum, having integrity with our music and not giving up, no matter what.

Tagged onto the End of 'The Silence Is Broken' CD is a recording of you performing one of your earliest songs, 'Feelings Of Love' and you have been performing since the age of 6. Did your Dad ever advise you to go in a certain direction, or were you always left to your own devices musically?
Actually, we were always left to our own devices musically. Our father was very supportive but he wasn't specific whenever he gave advice. And at the time we thought he was 'copping out'. But in hindsight what we felt he gave us, as far as advice, was really something that we could carry through our entire lives. Which was 'Fellas, believe in what you are doing and keep doing it'. And that is what we've always done.

You both shot to fame in the early 1990's with the phenomenal success of 'After The Rain'. What are your recollections of that time?
Wow, a lot of it was kind of a blur. I remember a lot of the milestones. I remember the song 'Love and Affection' going to number one on my 22nd birthday. Which was a true joy. I also remember the touring. I remember it being an awful lot of work. We would stay out on the road for 13 months without a break. I remember the fact that we had, what I felt, was the best live band in the history of rock n roll and I will go out on limb and say that. These guys that we played with where so unbelievably overqualified for the music that we were playing that I knew that when I hit the stage every night, that I could kick ass in front of any crowd and these guys would make me look so unbelievably good with their incredible talent. That's what I really remember. I really remember being in the best band out there, with the best bunch of guys and having great crowds every night.

Do you still keep in touch with what Bobby Rock, Brett Garsed, Paul Mirkovich and Joey Cathcart are up too?
Yeah, we talk to Bobby all the time. Bobby has remained a very, very close friend and he's still out on the road, he actually does clinics and tours every now and then. Brett we've actually been discussing getting together and making some music with and we are looking forward to approaching that in January when he gets back from Australia. Paul has been out on the road quite a bit with some other acts. He's musical director for Cher and for Hanson, he's incredibly talented. I actually haven't talked to Paul in a little while but I have been keeping tabs on him through mutual friends. And I wish him a ton of success. And Joey Cathcart just actually moved back to Los Angeles and we have been talking to him as well. He is such a great guy and such a great talent. He is still dealing with his health challenges and he's surrounded himself with his family and friends that love him and we like to lump ourselves in there too. So we want him to be as happy as possible.

I am an identical twin myself and understand the extra pressure this can bring even in everyday life. Do you think as twin sons of Rick Nelson that you had to work twice as hard to prove yourselves in the industry?
Well, I think that a twinship can be a double-edged sword, as I am sure you have found. What we try to strive for is a symbiotic relationship rather than a parasitic one and sometimes the pendulum swings a little more in one direction than the other and that's where resentment can build. But I think as long as we can communicate clearly as twins and as brothers and as peers, we can diffuse any situation that might be a real problem before it gets to be a 'Don Everly and Phil Everly' sort of problem. As far as being the sons of Rick Nelson, and how that's really been a help or a hindrance in the industry, I am sure that that too has been a double-edged sword. But I think what you can do is...well, our grandmother Harriet summed it up best when she said 'you know, boys it might be your name that gets you in the door, but its your talent that's going to keep you inside the room'. And that's really what its all about man, is making sure that we hone our skills and our talent and our craft to make sure that that talent keeps us in the room for the rest of our lives.

Of course, right after your first record, you had one or two disagreements with the label when they forced you to shelve 'Imaginator' and then make 'Because They Can'. How do you look back on your treatment by the label and in particular John Kalodner?
Umm, well, I am tempted to not be political and be brutally honest, but what I can say is, it was an impossibly difficult situation for me and Matthew to have been put through. And I think that in hindsight we dealt with it the best way we possibly could have and with as much class and grace as we could have. I won't make any comment on John Kalodner, who basically, the best I can say is he was doing the best he could at the time. And Geffen was actually having a very difficult time trying to figure out what exactly to do with us in the first place.

You know, the music industry had really changed since the release of our first record and now alternative rock was really the big thing. And they didn't really know what to do with us, so the only thing that they felt that they could do with us was do exactly the same kind of record that we initially released. Now that was their guess. I guess hindsight being 20-20, I guess they were wrong but its ok, we all make mistakes ya know and I can say that we were all doing the best we knew how to do.

I will go on record to say that it was a mistake for them not to allow us to release the record that we wanted to release, which was 'Imaginator', that was the record that we made. I personally feel in my heart that it would have been a very successful record for us at the time. If you look back on it, the funny thing is, after Geffen turned down the 'Imaginator' record, Metallica came out with their black album four months later and had a huge success with it. I think 'Imaginator' is definitely more along that sort of line and I think it could have been a big record for us, so, it's kind of a shame, but it is what it is and you move forward.

Despite the fact that in some respects you were 'forced' to make it 'Because They Can' is still regarded by me as one of your finest records and hints at what you would later achieve on 'Life'. Are you still proud of that record?
You know what? I will tell you something. I am not proud of the process of making that record. The fact that they shelved the 'Imaginator' record and made us go into the studio and make another record, was a drag. And I know basically what we were going through emotionally with the people at the label at the time was very, very challenging. However, one must separate the end result from the process. The end result is a record I am very, very proud of. I love the 'Because They Can' record. It's not like a record that needs any conditions, like under the circumstances it was a great record by any means. It really stands on its own and to me has some of the heart in it, emotionally, that we would reflect in our later records. So, yes, I definitely love that record and I agree with you, thank you very much.

When 'Imaginator' did come out to wide acclaim, you made a point of 'unapologizing' to John Kalodner in the liner notes. What was the story behind that?
Well, I think its something both John and I laugh about now. But basically it represented my 'taking my power back' as a person and as an artist. I guess, I mean there has been a lot of mileage in that story and I guess controversy makes for good copy. But I will go record as saying, if it weren't for John Kalodner, I wouldn't have a career at all. John was really the first and only guy that gave me a shot in the industry and the beginning of our relationship, working together, was, as a lot of job relationships are with his artists, he has a love-hate relationship with artists. He loves artists and he hates them at the same time. And I think laughing about it later, I think the pendulum is pretty much in the second direction as far as me.

But I think what it has to do with is the fact that we are both very strong-willed human beings with definite opinions on music and so on, well hey look at my career, I just felt that a certain point it was really important for me to be honest about my process and about my career, even if that meant doing that at the risk of not being political about it. And that's basically what that was. That 'I unapologize' comment has since gotten me into a lot of trouble but it's something that I don't regret because it was me taking my power and my control back on my life and on my career for better or for worse.

And the better or for worse part is really open to interpretation and opinion, but I will say that there was a point there where I was really unhappy making music for the executives I was making music for and the process that I was being put through in order to make my music. It's supposed to be fun and certain people turned it into a job for me, and I resented that. So that was just my way of rebelling.

Do you think that given the circumstances, eventually securing the release of 'Imaginator' eclipsed the joy of selling two million copies of 'After The Rain'?
I did proverbial backflips when 'Imaginator' was officially released. It was really a personal victory for me and you know, there are different sorts of victories. I think that having the 'After The Rain' record be so successful and being a part of so many peoples lives and memories is something that is absolutely invaluable and that I would like to duplicate in my career from time to time as much as possible. Having the 'Imaginator' record released is really a comment on what our father started for us which is 'You can't please everyone so you gotta please yourself' and never give up. And basically both of those two expressions were brought to life when that record was released.

Precious few rock bands can make concept albums such as 'Imaginator' and make a success of it. You managed it, and even managed to shed the 'Timotei Twins' stereotype in the process. But what led you to make a concept record in the first place?
Well, we had just gotten off the road from the 'After The Rain' tour and we had been out for thirteen months. The band was completely fried and completely worn out from having those kind of expressions coined about us like, the 'Timotei Twins' and things that would belittle us. The band that we were with, we felt copied. Let's face it. When we came off the road we knew we were the best live band in the world. And we wanted to make a record that would not only prove that with the musicianship, but also exorcise some of the demons we had built up with the change of the industry, with the change of the subconscious climate or the undercurrent that was in the industry at the time.

It was really our statement of the machine that helped build us up, being television and MTV, was also responsible for helping tear us down. And how much power the individual seemed to be giving the media to make up their own minds. It was really a combination of exorcising all of those demons and making that statement both musically and personally and I think it was a difficult process but a record that really managed to do that.

You now have your own record label, Stone Canyon Records. How important is it for you, after your bad experiences in the past, to have your own label? Do you think it's a route up and coming artists should take to avoid getting their fingers burned by the majors?
Well, having Stone Canyon Records is incredibly important to both me and Matthew and it is something that we will always do. Even if we decide in the future to work in collaboration with a major label, it will always be as a cooperative effort between Stone Canyon Records and a major label. They will be licensing our product from us. They will not own our product. It's very important for up and coming artists to realize the more oppressive major label contract proposals are, and the more bands that are willing to accept those more and more oppressive contract proposals, the worse the industry is going to get for the new generations of up and coming artists.

I suppose there are so many artists out there that are very selfish about their shot, when they get it, that they will sign anything. But what they need to realize is that it's the only industry that has contracts that are set up as to where they will advance you the money to make your record. If you have success, you pay back your advance and then that label that has loaned you the money still owns the masters that you have recorded. It's the same thing as if you took out a loan to buy a house and you paid off the house over time and finally had it paid off and the bank still owned your house. Now, it's worth questioning that system, that system is wrong. It is flawed for the artists. Artists must never give up their art, their art and their souls that they put down on tape and the time and the sacrifices through the years of playing clubs, that's worth something and that is your annuity. That is what is going to pay for your retirement. That is what is going to pay for your family's future.

With an independent label you can keep control of that. You can keep control of the house, the house belongs to you. Then you can then elect to license your product, to license your house, to basically rent your house out that you own to the record labels and let them live in it for awhile. Then once you are done with those tenants, you can actually have new tenants move in. It's the same exact analogy. And with an independent label you can do that. I think that new and up and coming artists should keep that in mind before they..well a lot of people go around chanting the mantra 'we gotta get a record deal, we gotta get a record deal' and you know, it is really good to get a record deal for making your band very, very well known but if you can accomplish both, if you can achieve both, starting your own label, getting success through your own label, through your local territory, building your following through your touring, through your website and having your records be hot property, then what's gonna happen is then you will have major labels coming to you asking to sign you.

Then you can say, well you know what? Why don't we do a pressing and distribution deal? We'll do a licensing deal instead. We will make the records, we will pay for it. Hey with the technology now you can make records cheap now, you know. So we will pay for it and you can license it. I hope that up and coming bands listen to my words and realize you don't have to go through the same experiences we went through to get to the promised land.

After 'The Silence Is Broken' came 'Life' which many believe is your finest record yet. It seems to me that you simply got a great band together, went in and really enjoyed the process of making that record. It really comes through on the album. Would you agree with that?
Very perceptive of you...Yes! What you hear in the grooves of the 'Life' record is exactly that. We went in with no fear, with the best band we could find, with the best songs we had written and we'd selected and made the best NELSON pop record we could possibly make. And what you hear is a whole lot of fun coming through there man, the whole record was a joy.

Presumably you will be returning to an album of original songs on your next release. Having made rock, AOR, metal and country albums during your career, no critic can accuse you of standing still musically. In the future do you see yourselves focusing more on the rock or country genre?
In the future, I think what we are gonna find is that we are going to take the best elements of all of the different forays into different musical forums that we have taken and incorporating them into one sound. And that's what we are going to stick with from that point on. It's going to have balls, it's going to have melody, it's going to have great lyrical content and it's going to have really slick arrangements. Most importantly, it's going to have a sound that is unique to Matthew and Gunnar Nelson. We hope that you dig it.

You have been writing songs recently with Steven McClintock, will these be featured on your next album?
Yeah, they definitely will. We love writing with Steven and we have a great chemistry with him. I am sure you will see more Nelson/Steven McClintock co-writes in the future.

Obviously, everyone knows you as the Nelson Brothers, and you seem to have a bond that shines through in your songwriting and vocal harmonies, but do you ever foresee a point where you will go your separate ways musically and do some solo stuff?
It's funny that you mention that. I have a feeling that we probably will. Which is great. Matthew has been stressing more of the production side of things and I definitely have some music that I would love to put together with my own band and go and do at least one record and see where it goes. That doesn't mean that I won't always be a partner of Matthew's and that we won't always do music together 'cause we always will.

Finally, you have a number of other interests outside music. You have your martial arts and I hear you have recently signed a deal with the Fox network to make a new version of your family's 1950'92s TV show 'The Adventures Of Ozzie and Harriet'. Do you ever stop?
Absolutely not! Being an entertainer is just that...being an entertainer! I know that we are going to be doing more and more work on television, which we think is important. And I am going to be writing a book that's basically a compendium of the different inspirational messages I put up on my website. There are a lot of things I want to do. And absolutely not over my career, I never want to stop and I know Matthew doesn't either.

Well, good luck with the new album guys and thanks again for the interview.
Cheers Andrew! Thanks for the opportunity.

Check out The Nelson Brothers website at

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