Aside from Julian Lynch and Zola Jesus, Madison’s most talked about musician since last fall has been Jeremiah Nelson. Before his Drugs to Make You Sober was released, then-leafless trees were rustling throughout Wisconsin with whispers of how good it was. March 26th rolled in with the album dropping via Bandcamp, and since then garnered praise from The A.V. Club to Muzzle of Bees. Why isn’t he bigger? Well, it’s because he hasn’t toured much…which he’s about to fix in September as he hits the West Coast and Pacific Northwest for a string of shows. We sat down at Cafe Zoma in Madison’s Atwood neighborhood to talk about why he’s ready to head out and hit the road.
How’d you get started playing music?
My mom played ragtime piano. I grew up listening to that and loving it. I started playing piano, guitar, started recording. I was probably 15 when I started playing guitar. Recording came shortly after. I borrowed my first multi-track when I was 17 or 18. I have a mountain of really embarrassing early recordings, pre-Internet-which I’m thankful for. And some embarrassing ones online.
Would you ever release those?
No! Never! No way man.
No deluxe edition later in life of the early recordings?
Like the Conor Oberst-style, release all the stuff you did when you were 14 or 15. For diehard fans, that stuff is cool to hear. You can hear their process as a writer evolving. Some things are always consistent; what they’re good or bad at. But that’s not happening for me. I’ll destroy it first!
Are you originally from Madison? You have Minnesota roots.
Yes, I grew up in Rochester, Minnesota. I lived at a bunch of places over there, lived in the Twin Cities. I studied recording in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and then eventually ended up in Madison.
Why’d you go to Madison instead of Minneapolis?
That’s a good question. Minneapolis was a plan for a long time, but I started playing with some musicians that were here or moving here. It seemed like a natural course of action. At the time, it felt like the band [The Achilles Heel] had momentum. It was the beginnings of that.
Is that related to how 2010 was a rough year according to The Onion’s A.V. Interview?
Yeah, it was awful. This year, it’s kicking ass! It’s weird how you can say that about an entire year. I feel that you can.
It’s really surprising that in a short amount of time you can create such a buzz around you and your solo work. What made you decide to do Drugs to Make You Sober?
That band imploded. There’s ton of half finished mixes and sessions that got trashed. It’s just a necessary thing. The whole thing was born out of this weird place I was in. I had no idea what I wanted to do, what I was supposed to do. I had no forethought into how it would be marketed, and I did a totally piss poor job of doing any of that. [laughs] I basically just posted stuff on Bandcamp. But that’s the way it goes. I’m looking forward to writing new stuff.
I was surprised because the album is very cohesive given the transition, including with the “Soundscape 082510” at the end.
That’s interesting because that thing was the last thing I added on, but was the first I recorded. I was having this writer’s block happening with songwriting so I started these ambient guitar meditations with lots of delay. I wanted to improvise. It’s weird because forever it was the only music of my own that I could listen to-droning, ambient things. And then that shaped the sound of it. I was just mixing one [tune] earlier today that doesn’t sound anything like that, but was recorded around the same time. I’m trying to figure out how to go about that.
As you go along, how are the soundscapes going to be incorporated?
I don’t know, man. There’s so many people doing that now. I feel like there’s this wave coming from the northwest of this ambient, processed soundscape music. Live visuals. I don’t know. I really dig it but I’ve been feeling more like The Tallest Man On Earth stuff lately; the really stripped down folk. But that’s just today.
At least with your album, it seems like transition is a key theme to your album. Like “cut my hair” in “Skin to Touch”, is that related to 2010 or…?
That tune wasn’t written last year, but long before that. Some of those songs….they all seem so old to me. That tune, I was living in a different place. For whatever reason when I was writing tunes, I’d get to a certain point where “Does it need a bridge? Does it need chords? What’s going on?” I’d turn the news on, and then keep playing with the song. Every song I wrote in that period had this crazy rant of a middle section or bridge as a rant. “Drugs To Make You Sober” has that ranty middle section. Another song called “Bourbon Street” has that scroll of lyrics for the bridge. “Skin” was one of those too.
Honestly I didn’t feel like it fit on this record because it was a lot more of this stuff where I was coming from-folky, Americana stuff. But it was also that people seemed interested in it.
via Urban Agrarian
What about “Good As Gone”?
That was written at the same place. That was just some pop tune with words to this catchy guitar line.
Because the guitar on that one is different from the rest of the album.
Yeah, if I could delete a song, it’d be that one. [laughs]
Since we’ve been talking about how you want to expand outside of Wisconsin, how tricky has that been?
I don’t know. I feel like I haven’t really tried. I think a lot of independent artists relate to the balance between how much of your energy you’re going to invest in your self-promo and how much you’re going to invest into booking, into writing, into production and all those things. You can’t do an amazing job at all of them. It’s difficult. You kind’ve have to choose your battles. I’ve always been, “I’d rather go back to the drawing board and work on new stuff.” So I haven’t expanded or toured in a long time. This September will be the first tour I’ve done in two years. I’m a little apprehensive about calling it a tour even, because it’s really just a trip to see some of the country I haven’t seen. I want to go out to the redwoods. See some friends. So I feel like if you’re going to go out and tour, I feel there’s a right way to do it and that’s to get some money, do some publicity and have a reason for you to drive around and do shows.
How are you going about preparing?
For the tour and the trip, I’m reaching out to people that I know-putting feelers out.
Going back to Wisconsin, how has Mickey‘s helped in figuring out where you want your music career to go?
That’s a good question. I love Mickey’s so much, it’s such a great place. And they’ve had that Tuesday night series forever. I didn’t know how long that event was going on, but it’s been happening for over 15 years. There’s like four of my friends who had cycled through that gig. Everyone just does it for as long as they can until they’re burnt out but it’s a great gig. It’s really hard to change it up enough every week to play at the same room to the same audience. But it’s a killer residency.
I recently turned it into a showcase for touring friends and local artists. It’s been good, but I’m ready to move around after being stationary forever. I just didn’t want to go out and hit the pavement until I had something recent to promote. It didn’t make sense to go out and do that on that Interstate album, which was already a couple years old. I guess it’s helped and, in some ways, held me back too.
Photo by Jess Denis
Where’s your inspiration coming from these days now that you have it out?
I don’t know. I haven’t finished a song in a long time. It’s driving me nuts. But lately I’ve been trying to bring it back to as simple as possible, to do really stripped down stuff. Those last couple records were really layered, especially Drugs. I’ve been learning some stuff in Ableton Live and trying to decide if I should start a new project with that sort of electronic stuff.
I noticed some electronic drums on “Show To Show.”
Yeah, that was the first thing that I programmed ever. That was really simple.
Actually, it fit in. You don’t notice it unless you’re listening closely.
That’s cool. That’s good to hear. In the past, I’ve always felt like there was a certain way to record. Drums…build it up from there. It’s liberating to start with a guitar track, or a keyboard track.
What are your plans for after this tour?
I really want to get back to writing and maybe tour twice a year, and do it when material is fresh and you’re excited about it. Some of these songs are getting old. It seems like they still stand up and I’m not embarrassed by them. But it’s more fun to play things when they’re fresh.
Anything else to add? What should people expect in seeing you out on the West Coast who haven’t seen Jeremiah Nelson before?
Yeah, I’ve been keeping that blog with postings of things I’ve been working on for a while. It’s SongWhiners Diner.
I’m going to try and recreate the arrangements on the record as much as possible. Doing looping, soundscapey-kind of texturey stuff and that with more traditional acoustic. To try and make it as interesting as a one-man show as possible.
Without it being a one-man show?
It’s not a one man band! That’s a whole another category.
You stay out there for long enough maybe that’ll happen!
Yeah! I’ve got friends who are hardcore into that. I can’t do it. I’ve tried once at Mickey’s. Do you know Luke from Asumaya? He plays bass, kick drum, hi-hat and marimba and he loops all this stuff and plays it all at once. I thought it’d be a good idea one night during the second set to try and arrange a song for that set-up…it was a nightmare! Those things are special about Mickey’s.
8/31 – Madison, WI at Mickey’s Tavern
9/1 – Rochester, MN at Thursdays on 1st (4:30 PM Peace Plaza Stage)
9/2 – Iowa City, IA at The Mill
9/3 – Omaha, NE at Barely St. Tavern
9/4 – Lincoln, NE at Zoo Bar
9/6 – Denver, CO at Walnut Room
9/7 – Boulder, CO at Laughing Goat
9/9 – Laramie, WY at Coal Creek Coffee
9/10 – Provo, UT at Muse
9/14 – San Francisco, CA (House Show)
9/16 – Redding, CA at Vintage Wine Bar
9/17 – Eureka, CA at Little Red Lion
9/21 – Eugene, OR (House Show with Right On John)
9/22 – Portland, OR at Alberta St Pub
9/23 – Portland, OR at The Knife Shop
9/24 – Seattle, WA at Healthy Times Fun Club
9/25 – Seattle, WA at Tiger Lounge
9/27 – Missoula, MT at Flatlake Brewing Co.
9/28 – Bismark, ND (TBA)
9/29 – Fargo, ND (TBA)
9/30 – Minneapolis, MN at Republic
10/1 – Minneapolis, MN (TBA with Brianna Lane)