Micah Nelson: Expect the Unexpected (Texas Music Magazine) (Fall 2014)

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Texas Music

November 2014

Micah Nelson:  When It Comes to Willie Nelson’s Youngest Son, expect the unexpected
by Steve Uhler

Micah Nelson has been screwing with everyone’s expectations since before he was even born.

His dad originally wanted to name him Jake — a “cowboy name” — but the still-gestating prodigy had other ideas.  “Apparently, when my mother was pregnant with me, she had a dream in which I came to her and said, “Hey, listen.  I’m gonna be showing up soon, so I want to let you know ahead of time.  My name is Micah.  You can call me whatever you want, but that’s my name.  Micah.  OK, great — see you soon.”  Then she woke up and turned to my dad and said, ‘Hey, uh… so his name is Micah, apparently.”

“That wasn’t enough convincing, however.  “They settled on Jacob, Jake for short,” he continues.  “But then I showed up and said my name is Micah.  Only doctors and cops and people at the DMV call me Jacob.”

Anyone expecting Willie Nelson’s youngest son to reflect the spitting image of his iconic father is likely to be simultaneously disappointed and amazed.  Flying in the face of preconceptions — ore -re-anything — is a lifelong motif for the 24-year-old musician.  his music is as similar to his dad’s as John Cage is to Johnny Cash.  Same canvas, wildly different colors.  “Micah has never followed the herd in anything he odes,” says his older brother, Lukas.  “To follow any formula would limit him, which he knows.  He’s as unique as he is creative.”

Even as a toddler, Nelson was messing with people’s heads.  “I started playing harmonica in my dad’s band when I was about three,” he recalls.  “I thought I was just getting harmonica lessons.  I was oblivious to the thousands of people watching.  My Aunt Robyn asked me if I was nervous in front of all those people?  I said, “If I don’t see them, they can’t see me.’  Eventually I got pretty decent at the harmonica, and my dad would throw me the nod to take a solo or two.”

Like his iconoclastic father, Nelson does things his own way — and he does a lot of things.  In addition to being a full-time musician, both with his band, Insects vs Robots, and as a solo artist, he’s an accomplished painter, photographer, filmmaker and animator.  Imagine H.R. Giger channeling John Audobon at a seance with David Lynch, and you’ll get some idea of Nelson’s vision.

As a musician, he eschews the formulaic and polished in favor of the ragged, unformed and spontaneous.  As such a conduit as a creator, Nelson conjures “found sounds” into complex musical works of astonishing depth, imagery and surprising humor.  An intuitive sonic forager, he finds inspiration in serendipitous places:  the rhythm drip of a leaky faucet, the arthritic, groan of an old rocking chair, the distant howl of hungry coyotes in the night.  “When I was in high school, every morning on Maui I’d wake up to the most psychedelic bird calls right outside my window,” he recalls.  “the weirdest riffs.  A human couldn’t write those melodies.  I had a growing suspicion that all birds were just musical robots flying around with little tape decks built into them with old warped tapes that would loop the strangest, tweekiest sounds.”

So do inanimate objects, “I know a guy named Lewellyn with an old creaky rusty cat,” he continues.  “Every time he opens his door it sings the strangest creaky melodies.  I”ve ripped his car’s riffs off countless times.  Sometimes I see music as this mysterious forest to be explored.  Or like archeaology.  You never know what treasures and artifacts you might find, but you can’t know unless you start digging.”

Nelson meticulously builds layers of tracks, weaving a tapestry of songs that are often otherworldly.  Anyone expecting echoes of his dad’s distinctive voice and mainstream op sensibilities will find Nelson’s oeuvre disorienting.  It’s a beguiling mash-up of traditional folk, psychedelia and world beat, peppered with guileless vocals, dissonant chordings and shifting time signatures.  It’s musical Chaos Theory.

“A lot of popular music is so safe, so predictable, like it was processed in a factory,” he explains.  “You can literally go in and buy it at Target next to the Tupperware.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that .. except that a lot of it tends to sound like Tupperware.  Some folks want ot make a pop hit that sells deodorant and plays every five minutes at Walgreens and gets them a Super Bowl halftime show.  I tend to get bored with that intention.  It spooks my horse.”  Perhaps the closest he’s ever come to a traditional love song is “Mosquito,” his bizarre ode to the pesky insect.

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Nelson grew up all over the map — and that’s reflected in his art. Splitting his boyhood between Texas and being on the road with his dad exposed the budding artist to an array of influences. “My mom always played oldies in the car — you know, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Supremes. Somewhere around there I was somehow introduced to Mozart and Beethoven and Bach.”\

During summers on tour with his dad, Nelson and older brother Lukas often found themselves jamming together backstage. “We did a couple of tours with Bob Dylan, Micah recounts. “My brother had picked up a guitar when eh was about 10. I was younger, so I figured, ‘Well I guess I’ll play drums.’ I was his rhythm section, basically. We learned by jamming with each other. That was a lot of my musical education, learning through observation and playing with each other.”
As he grew older, Nelson’s appetite for more exotic musical fare expanded, encompassing such diverse artists as Brian Eno, Danny Elfmana nd the Incredible String Band. “And, of course, my father’s music. My dad is like a punk rocker to the — in the true sense of of punk. Red Headed Stranger to me, is a punk rock album in the context of the popular country music scene of the time.”
In late 2008 Nelson traveled to Venice, California, to attend film school, where he met up with a coterie of bohemians, sketch artists and circus performers, which ultimately became the cult experimental band Insects vs Robots. The band continues to be an ongoing passion for Nelson who divides his time between touring and art projects. For his solo work, he often adopts the nom-de-plume, “Particle Kid.” More on that later.

During his time on the West Coast, he began indulging his obsession with DIY production.  “It started as convenience and necessity,” he says, “but now my process has developed largely around it, and it’s become my preference in a lot of ways.  I love the immediacy of it.  Also, when I have an idea, I don’t want to wait until I can afford to book a fancy studio to record it.  Often by that time the muse has probably galloped away to sunnier shores anyway, and then it’s a big waste of money and time.”

The sterile digital perfectionism of studio recording is anathema to Nelson; he prefers the warmth of analogue recorded on  he fly while the muse is still feverishly panting in his hear.  “I have a serious case of ‘demo-itis’.  It’s a rare disease where one gets so used to the low-fi demo version of one’s song that hearing a  more professionally recorded version just doesn’t ever quite sound right.  It lacks the purity, the imperfections, the spontaneity of the original moment of conception.  Those imperfection start to grow on you.  The little dents and scratches are part of what make it unique and human.”

For almost four years, Nelson used his van — a retired city service vehicle — as a mobile recording studio.  “It’s where i recorded the SHAPES EP,” he says.  “His name was Vincent Van Gogh, a big yellow 1990 Ford Econoline with beacons on the roof and the sliding side door and everything.”  Nelson and a friend rigged the interior into a rudimentary studio.  “sometimes I’d just live in the van for weeks at a time and adventure of the coast.  I could park and sleep on the coast highway ’cause I looked like a service vehicle doing work.  Nobody expected it.”

Nelson’s preference for the unkempt virtues of spontaneity over formal technique is a modus operendi he share with hsi friend and mentor, Neil Young.  “I bought a tape machine earlier this year when Insects vs Robots played Farm Aid in upstate New York,” he relates.  “After our set, Neil brought us on hii bus, and we were all having a fantastic audiophile music nerd session.  He was adamant that we get a decent ape machine and make a record using just one mic with all of us in a room, mixing ourselves spatially.  Not only did we all dig that idea immediately, but the way we see it is if Uncle Neil takes you on his bus and says you should do something , you fucking od it. Not that I think every word that comes form Neil’s mouth is the word of God or anything…”  Nelson catches himself and grins.  “But except, yes — I actually kind of do.”

His latest solo effort, Demo-itis, was recorded in his bedroom over a period of months, squeaky chairs and all.  Naturally, Nelson played most of the instruments, composed,produced, mixed and designed the cover.  Its a dense but accessible work — at once whimisical and dark, cavernous and intimate, and some kind of masterpiece.  Still, its creator has his moments of self-doubt.

“I’m not even sure if anything I do is very original,” he confesses.  “Sometimes I wonder if most people only fund my music interesting because they are comparing it to what my father does, ro juxtaposed, it seems strange and different.  Nobody expects it.”

These are busy days for Nelson.  In addition to touring with IvR and his solo shows, he’s constantly doing new art projects, often integrating his visual talents with his music.  “Like life-painting,” he says.  “I love painting on stage with my brother’s band  I try not to have much of an idea of what I’m going to paint beforehand and just let the music take me places.  It’s good ‘go-ing’ practice, trying to finish a painting in two hours start to finish on stage in front of hundreds of people surrounded by an epic live rock band.  Completely in the moment.  You’re not allowed to think too much in that scenario.  You just start a painting and roll with it.  that way it’s always unique.  It’s fresh.  Literally the paint is still drying when the show is over.”

O yes, that name — “Particle Kid.”

“That’s kind of a funny story,” Nelson says.  “I was like 12 years old playing Mario Kart on Nintendo.  Suddenly the strong fragrance of cannabis fills the room.  i turn around and my father is standing in the doorway with a shit-eating grin on his face.  I pause the game and look up, waiting for him to say something.  He looks at me and says, “Well…welcome home, Particle Kid” and walks out.  I asked him years later what the hell that was all about.  He didn’t remember at first, but then later he called me back because eh remembered. He meant to say, “Welcome home, prodigal Son,” but was so high that what actually came out was ‘Particle Kid.’  Naturally, that’s what I named my solo project.”

That’s Micah Nelson.  Always messing with peoples mindsets.  Who would’ve expected?

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