Mark Nelson – “When I was in college I studied literature and got more than enough theory. Now I try to be direct and emotional”

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It’s not easy to see the albums, but I guess you have many Deutsche Grammophon CDs in the drawers. Do you have a classical background as a listener and/or as musician? It’s not evident in your music… Which composers you like?

I listen to a lot of classical music, and most of those Deutsche Grammophon CD’s came from my father. Either as gifts or later when we were cleaning out his house and I took some. My parents loved opera and symphonic music and went to concerts almost every month. I’ve never learned to like (or honestly even stand) opera, but symphonic music has passed through the generation to me. A bit like free jazz though, I like the big romantic and symphony composers much better live than on record or CD. Chamber music is nice on CD or records though, and solo music of course. I like string quartets a lot: Bach or Franz Schubert. I like solo piano: we saw Mitsuko Uchida play a solo recital in Chicago last year. It’s just amazing how – even in the very back of the hall – when she played the first chord there was a gasp because we could feel it was instantly her sound.

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What is the “1650” record near the turntable? I don’t know it but has an intriguing cover.

That’s “Brill Building Book #2” a colaboration between the guitarist Bill Frisell and a guy named Kramer. I don’t know if he’s well known in Europe but he was a pretty big indie figure in the US in the 90’s. Mostly known as a producer, as he did the Galaxie 500 records and the first Low record. He also had a band called Bongwater that has a record called “Too Much Sleep” that I really like. The Brill Building record (as you might guess) is a collection of versions of classic American pop from the 50’s and 60’s. Although not strictly all from the songwriters associated with the Brill Building scene. I got it mostly to hear Bill Frisell in an extended context playing pop music, and his playing is just spectacular on this record, so subtle and supportive but still so sophisticated and fun. It’s a cool record! Their version of “America” by Simon and Garfunkel and also Smokie’s “Needles and Pins” are my favorites. The latter has been one of my all time favorite songs since I has probably about nine years old.

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I knew Kramer from an Alternative Tentacles compilation “Virus 100”, where his track was largely the best one, but I didn’t explore his music further. Listening to “The Brill Building”, I realize made a huge mistake! It’s beautiful, and I appreciate a lot the arrangements and the way “America” is transformed. I grew up listening to quite pompous music, so I like dramatic music (and I loved Simon & Garfunkel too, especially this song!). But now I need something more discreet, less direct.
You, both with Labradford, but even more with Pan American, managed – in my opinion – to find a rare balance between melancholy and minimalism. Most of your composition have a rather melancholic feeling, but almost never dramatic, never too direct. Something I hear also in these covered “Brill Building” cover songs. Do you agree with this vision of your musical attitude?

Yes, I think I agree. When I was in college I studied literature and got more than enough theory. I certainly think there is plenty of value in treating texts with different lenses, but for the most part I’m looking for an emotional connection with what I do and with books or other art that is in my life. Kramer sometimes veers into a little too much irony for me, but I’m very sensitive to this! It was (to me) kind of disease in the us during the 90’s especially. I pretty much hate irony and its slightly cheaper cousin-sarcasm. For so many boys my age that was the default setting, as they grew into adults and it’s in a lot of the music from that time. I’m trying to answer your question… I would say even with Labradford we were never interested in being an “experimental” band. Obviously that word can mean many different things, but for me experimental usually means you have to know something about it before you hear it, as there’s a concept or a process that informs what happens next. Great results can of course come from this, but it’s not what I love. I try to be direct and emotional. I’d rather be too sentimental or nostalgic than ironic.

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I notice the photo over the drawers: two children playing in what seems to be a garden. This is a subject I like to explore with the conversations here on Concrete Shelves, as I know that the family life clashes sometimes with the musical one. When I recently saw you live, you showed simple and beautiful videos of places in America, including a short one with your daughter. I know you don’t tour that often, but how do you manage the balance with the family life? Does your children like the music you play, are they interested in that?

It’s actually of my wife with our son strapped to her in one of those Baby Bjorn holders. That was taken when he was still a baby, the first time we took him somewhere overnight. We went up to Wisconsin for a weekend and stayed in a hotel and walked in the woods and ate in restaurants. It was the first time we felt like “ok, maybe we can figure out how to do this!” So a truly joyful time and a powerful memory! I stopped touring when our first child was born and am only now getting back to it. 13 years later. But it was important for me to not be gone when they were little. Now, though, they’re interested that I have that side, as it’s never been something I’ve emphasized at home.

I can understand what you say about your first week end off to Wisconsin with your new born, me and my wife had similar feelings with our first daughter… But I’m curious about the decision of stopping touring when your first child was born and now getting back to it 13 years later. I think it’s a hard and wise decision (we missed you!), and brings me to ask you what did you see changed after all these years in playing live… I saw you in Milan in 1999 in a dark underground club (in every sense, as it was built under the Central Station, the glorious “Tunnel”), and recently in the modern context of Fondazione Feltrinelli. How is touring now after all these years?

Well, I have done some light touring. But I’ve never looked for it, unless if someone asked me directly I’d do it. I’ve worked a lot of weird jobs in the last 14 years. Usually retail jobs, because I could work weekends and have days off during the week to take care of the children. We set it up to have the absolute minimum of time they would spend with baby sitters or in child care. So my wife worked as an architect from Monday to Friday, with Wednesday off, I’d be off Thursday and Friday and work the weekends. So the kids only had two days a week when one of us wasn’t home. So my wife and I did not have a consistent day off together for all that time until the last year really. How children are raised in this country is a big issue, and very frustrating. Let’s get back to talking about records!

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Ok, sure! Your pictures are the first ones when I cannot see any title on the CDs or LPs. As said, this is not a problem, but reminds me to the fact that some of your albums have ‘strange’ titles for the songs: single letters of the alphabet (“Mi Media Naraja”), long sentences sliced into pieces (“White Bird Release”), or the CD notes (“E Luxo So”). You sing, but only from time to time… How’s your relationship with the voice and the words? What influences it?

I did choose to not have anything easy to spot! That green record (Kit Clayton, “Mimic and model”) I pulled out totally randomly from the 12″s to put in front of a Lee Morgan LP. I don’t know why I felt like I should do that – maybe afraid of seeming like a cliche, with the well-placed blue note LP! But it made me listen to that Kit Clayton, 12″ which I really don’t think I’ve heard in 15 years. Sounds really great! I wonder what he’s doing now.

As for the words/song titles in Labradford, we got the idea that song titles were really more an element of the design of the LP sleeve than any discreet message about the music. So that’s why we did it like that – we tried to incorporate it into the graphics – that was the main function of song titles. That’s a bit of a dated idea now – playlists being more (I guess) how people listen. So it probably makes sense to have more direct titles. In general, I think the times call for a bit of a more direct approach. I’m trying to be clearer and more direct with all my communication lately. It’s my nature to see things in abstraction. I’ll never not have that as big part of who I am, but sometimes it can also just feel like a place to hide. I’m Working on it.

I see… you answered to the lyrics stuff but not about the use of your voice… And you speak of ‘a place to hide’. Also during your live set, one of the things that I noticed was the fact that you sung, but seldom. In Labradford you sung in the early albums, then you progressively ‘hid’ the voice. It’s strange, I don’t know many other artist that made such a ‘distilled’ use of the voice.

I want to sing more and am developing more confidence. In Labradford we were always quite loud on stage so it was impossible to hear myself because I sing very quietly and you can’t get the monitor to work well when the stage volume is so high. We didn’t realize this at the time: we were just naive and coming from a background that encouraged bands to turn up. We also never had our own sound technician, so we were relying on the venue staff, and the art of the soundman has really improved in the last 20 years. Now I find these technicians to be really excellent. But I like different strategies with vocals: I recently heard for the first time a Bill Callahan dub record, and I have never been a huge fan of his music before, but I loved this approach with less of a narrative. The record is called “Have Fun With God”.  It’s great! And I felt happy because I’ve never really connected with his music before but this one. It really works for me and gives me some inspiration for what I can do with vocals as well.

PS: in case it’s better to have a photo with a recognizable lp, here is one with Bob Dylan.

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So are you a huge Dylan fan, that’s why you asked to add this photo at they last minute? I didn’t expect this!

No, not a huge Dylan fan, but I like alot of his music. I added this photo only because we had discussed in the earlier questions why I had not included any photos with records one could identify. So this picture is a natural one: I noticed it and hadn’t thought in advance that I might take a picture of it, but I liked how it looks. It’s a really great photo of him I think.

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I am also curious about “Concrete Shelves pets” (we have a series on the blog: John Black, Andrea Marutti, Simon Balestrazzi, Yan Jun): you took two pictures of your dog. How’s he (or she) named? Did you ever noticed any reaction to music, maybe to some of the high frequencies we can hear in some of your compositions?

The dog is Saki, she’s a little over a year old. There’s a cat named James in the house as well, but he’s usually hiding. Saki doesn’t seem affected by music one way or the other, but I think in the picture you can see her with her front paws on my speaker, looking out the window. The audiofile in me (who lives in a dark and shameful part of my heart) is bothered when she does this! Like she doesn’t respect my speakers! So, including that picture is my more rational side attempting to accept that it’s ok and even very cute when she does that.

Also – and this goes back to an earlier question about not seeing specific records in my photos – my favorite part of looking at Concrete Shelves is the rooms, not the records.  I’m much more interested in seeing Tony Buck living room than what records he has!

Mark Nelson livesin Boston, US. He’s recording under the name Pan•American. He contributed to the band Labradford as the trio’s guitarist and singer.

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Mark Nelson with his wife

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