by: Lisa Morgan
The first time I saw Micah Nelson (son of legend, Willie Nelson) was at the Troubadour when big brother Lukas Nelson’s band, Promise of the Real, sold out and wowed the place. Micah was on stage painting as the band played. It was all pretty awe inspiring. A few years later, at Pappy and Harriet’s, I saw him open for Lukas with his own band, Insects vs Robots, and was endearingly smacked in the face with a kaleidoscope of sound and dimension played by a group of guys who were simply pouring out a love offering. Between the two brothers’ band’s performances, the soul candy, originality and authenticity were edible, and all present consumed it gratefully. Meeting Micah in person however, who was chatting it up under the stars with all the locals, sealed the deal for me; his gracious demeanor, genuine hug and deep yet easy going, insightful conversation made me a fan not only of the music, but of the being who bled it. It is a beautiful thing when the depth and quality of the person mirrors the music, and it is rarer than you might want to think.
The newest album, TheyllKillYaa, is set to release October 11th, and after giving it a listen (actually several), I should warn you; this album has the capacity to symphonically deliver the truth to your soul and open your perspective, if you allow it. Don’t worry, they make it extremely enjoyable. In a world of corporate, homogenized, capital driven music, the music of Insects vs Robots has the potential of removing the veil from our eyes and the crust from our heart, and help us see things as if the lights in the building just got turned up by some hidden dimmer switch. Songs like the title track, “They’ll Kill Ya!,” “Fukushima,” and “Time Grows Thin,” are significantly powerful – simultaneously painful and healing. This new generation of eclectic troubadours is a beacon of hope for those longing to digest music that is relevant, real and fearless, and like their forefathers, has the capacity to influence the world for the better.
This weekend and next, Micah Nelson will again be performing with Lukas Nelson as Promise of the Real backing up Neil Young at the history making Desert Tip Music Festival. I had the good fortune to chat with him about the upcoming gig, his band and their new album, and how he found his own strikingly eclectic musical path among some of the world’s most influential musicians.
CVW: “Of all your musically gifted siblings, you seem to be the most eclectic. What was your path to the music you’re making now with Insect vs Robots?”
Nelson: “I spent years growing up on the bus that I’m on right now, talking to you. I started out playing in my dad’s band since I was three years old. I played harmonica on stage with Raphael, his harmonica player. That’s where I started to develop a sense of rhythm and harmony. Later, when I was 8 or 9, my brother picked up the guitar, so I picked up the drums. I learned from Tato (Melgar), my brother’s percussionist in Promise of the Real. Tato has been a big brother for almost 20 years now. He taught me African root rhythms which really expanded my pallet musically and rhythmically. For a long time, my brother and I were way into classic rock, psychedelic rock, and folk rock from the 60s and 70s. Later I discovered funk music, and contemporary music that wasn’t on the radio. We just weren’t interested in what was mainstream when we were growing up. Independent music started popping up all over the internet, and I got excited about new music and rediscovering my own generation. I started writing my own songs and branching out on different instruments and teaching myself as much as I could, learning from the masses of brilliant talented people that I’ve been lucky enough to have been surrounded by. I absorbed as much as I could, playing in different bands and jamming with as many people as I possible.”
“When I moved to LA, I felt pretty alienated, and didn’t really like it that much until I met my friends in Insects vs Robots. The rest is history. I feel like I’ve dreamed so many things that have come to pass. It just makes me feel like telling everyone, if you feel a big magnet from the future pulling at your solar plexus toward something, follow it! Be patient and work hard – you might end up in a surprisingly and sometimes shockingly familiar place; like realizing something that has always been in your deep subconscious and now it’s here in tangible reality. It’s quite a trip.”
CVW: “How did this new album come about?”
Nelson: “We made a serious effort to capture the energy of our live show in the studio because we realize that’s where we shine. The whole record is pretty much recorded live, at Hen House Studios in Venice, CA. Harlan mixed it so beautifully. It all happened so organically. We met Harlan through a mutual friend. He liked our band and invited us over to record a few songs – to just hang and see what happened. That afternoon turned into several, and we got this great record out of it. We’re excited to share it. We’ve been sitting on it for a while because I’ve been touring with Neil so much that we haven’t had time to sit down and figure out how we were going to release it.”
“Our band is an organic reaction to this apocalypse era we’ve grown up in, this age of chaos, where the world is always ending.”
CVW : “Rolling Stone Magazine and LA Weekly have come up with some pretty creative hyphenates for your music. What do YOU call your music?”
Nelson: “I prefer other people’s wild descriptions and adjectives; I just call it ‘Insects vs Robots music.’ We’re not trying to tap into a theme or invent a genre, we’re just doing our thing. One time we called it Gnome Thrash but as we’ve evolved the music has moved out of that box. Sometimes it’s very psychedelic and classic, sometimes it’s very other-worldly, Spanish, Flamenco-esque, sometimes we have some swampy New Orleans funk, or even some jungle funk…I don’t know…I feel all those things apply. It’s fun to just make up words. When people ask, I usually stare blankly, ask them a different question that’s equally impossible to answer like, you know… ‘Which one of your children do you love the most.’ I don’t know how to answer that question. I just say, ‘Here, listen!’”
CVW: “You’ve been touring with “Uncle Neil” a lot over the past year. Does the Desert Trip Festival feel bigger than normal? Is it a trippy thing for you?”
Nelson: “Playing with Neil alone is a trippy thing, and a special thing. But we’re just making our noise, and we play what we play. We try not to think about it really. You don’t want to think about it too much or you’re fucked. We’re just treating it like any other show except the stage is like 500 times bigger and there’s this massive screen… we don’t want to think about it. Our show is never the same show anyway. We never know what is going to happen.”
CVW: “Is there a set list?”
Nelson: “There’s a list! But it’s a list of 100 something songs, and he’ll just pick something and we’ll just go. We go with whatever Neil is feeling or whatever is floating in the air. Sometimes he’ll just look over to me or Luke and ask, ‘Are ya hearing anything? What song’s floating around?’ Or he’ll say, ‘Wait, I know,’ and we’ll do that. There’s not a whole lot to mentally prepare for more so than any other show. Every show with Neil, you have to be so in the moment. Every show with him is a unique experience. I think it’ll be great. It will be really cool to see Bob and the Stones and Roger Waters, The Who and Sir Paul.”
CVW: “Have you played or met the stars of Desert Trip before?”
Nelson: “I’ve met a few of these people. We (my dad and his band) did a couple of Triple A Ball Park tours with Dylan in 2005. Some nights, Dylan would have us come up and do ‘I Shall Be Released,’ or ‘Highway 61.’ That was a trip. One night, I realized half way through ‘I Shall Be Released’ that I was the tambourine man, and I started laughing so hard I almost lost the rhythm. I had to try really hard to keep it together… it was pretty funny. I saw Paul play at the Hollywood Bowl once and got to meet him. He was very, very nice. I was playing in a band at the time called the Reflecticals, and we had these paper glasses that we’d throw out into the audience. When you put them on, they would refract the light into rainbows. Paul put them on and said, ‘Whoa, these are giving me flashbacks!’ There’s a great picture of my dad, Paul and me wearing those ‘reflecticals’. I saw Roger Waters at Coachella, but haven’t seen The Who yet.”
CVW: “How do you feel about music then and now?”
Nelson: “We live in a time where everything that Rock and Roll was up against back then, is an even bigger beast now. It’s 50 times more gnarly and terrifying, greedy and sociopathic. If that rock and roll spirit of rebelliousness is reduced to a marketing product, a target ad or fuckin’ deodorant jingle and becomes just background noise, then what do we have?”
“The best way to honor these legendary artists is to keep their spirit alive and have no fear… zero fear! We must radically subtract the amount of fucks we give about the things that don’t matter, like social status, whether we look like a plastic mannequin or a photo-shopped magazine cover, or what the other guys at work will say, whether you like this band or that band, what’s going to happen after you die, and anything that takes us out of enjoying each moment to its fullest. Life is too short not to be happy and express ourselves fully, regardless of whether some stuck up asshole says that we are heathens according to their own mental enslavement. Pity them. It’s not our problem what someone else’s ideology says about us. All that matters is NOT being an asshole. Bring no harm. Keep your dogma to yourself.”
“On the other hand, I say give a million fucks about the things that DO matter…like the fate of our species for instance; Care about the fact that if we don’t radically alter our current paradigm of rampant morally bankrupt capitalism, it is going to cost us all way more than ‘the economy.’ The economy is completely fucking irrelevant when there’s no clean water, air or soil. Somewhere along the line, giant corporations decided that they are somehow above the ecosystem and our one and only planet Earth is a giant disposable diaper. Well it’s not. It’s a living organism that we have exploited for too long. We are beyond the tipping point. If we don’t start giving way more fucks about the planet we live on and investing in what’s tangible and real, it is not just speculation that we will annihilate ourselves. This is it. What’s more valuable; a dollar bill or a breath of fresh oxygen?”
Follow Insects vs Robots at insectsvsrobots.com
Look for their album, TheyllKillYaa October 11th. CDs will be available at shows Micah will be performing at with Neil Young in between Desert Trip Weekends. www.neilyoung.com
Album Credits: Micah Nelson (charango, guitar, vocals, percussion, piano, drums), Jeff “FEJ” Smith (bass, grooves), Tony “Grandma” Peluso (drums, percussion, synths), Milo Gonzalez (electric and acoustic guitars, vocals) and Nikita Sorokin (violin, guitar, banjo, vocals)
Also check out previously released albums: Geryl and the Great Homunculous (2009), Tales from the Blue House (2011) and Insects vs Robots (2014), each an inspiration to free thinkers and listeners.
If you liked this post, say thanks by sharing it