Expatriate's Adam Nero on switching from hardcore to Americana, and a new EP
Photo by Christopher Mishek
Adam Nero does not immediately come across as the type of guy who would get behind a guitar and play some folky, genuine Americana. He's a clean-shaven, bespectacled fellow, dressed down in a sweater and dark denim -- the look is a little more "off-duty lawyer" than "grungy, tobacco-rolling country artist." (To be fair, Nero is actually a student at the William Mitchell College of Law and moonlights as a law clerk.) Sitting in a sunny corner of an Uptown café, Nero smiles calmly, coffee in hand, and presents a beautifully pressed 10" vinyl.
"I believe this is what they in the music business call an 'advanced copy,'" says Nero wryly, offering the brand new self-titled EP from his band Expatriate. He and Gimme Noise spoke about the EP ahead of its release Friday at the Beat Coffeehouse.
Nero, despite appearances, is no stranger to the music business, though he has certainly never encountered it before as an Americana musician. The Milwaukee-raised 25-year-old has been through the circuit a few times before, a half-decade ago, as a guitarist in various touring hardcore bands. It's a big leap from that genre to the incredibly traditional, dusty sound that is Expatriate -- and Nero accomplishes the transition as convincingly as if he had just sprung up from the ground with this year's crops, guitar in hand. New Expatriate fans would never guess at Nero's past life.
"It was a fun thing, but it was never totally my kind of music," explains Nero of his early days. "I was in it to travel and to make friends and have fun, and it was really fun, but it wasn't creatively gratifying. This band, Expatriate, is, because they're my songs. I'm writing the songs, putting parts to my words, and there's something really cool about that."
There is something that seems permanently carefree about Nero's demeanor, from the crooked half-smile as he speaks to his open-handed gestures. This is fitting, given the way he comes across on record: straightforward singing, with Nero's dry, ambling vocals walking easily alongside up-tempo, acoustic songs. Expatriate is the kind of album you would easily find squeezed in between a little Levon Helm and early Cash, and that's really not too far off from Nero's earliest influences.
"I've always loved country music," says Nero, ticking off his favorites -- Chet Atkins, Townes Van Zandt, Mississippi John Hurt. "My dad really raised me on John Prine and older bluegrass music, and those songs have kind of stuck with me over the years. I always just liked steel guitar and three part harmonies... This EP is a culmination of two years of work."
For Nero -- a graduate of UW-Oshkosh's music program, trained in classical guitar -- the EP is also a step forward. What Nero does with Expatriate is far more eloquent than simple bluegrass with a banjo thoughtlessly thrown in on a hoedown tune. While Nero appears to be starting fresh, he sure doesn't sound like it on record.
It is often said that there is no reinventing the genre: Americana is relatable and reliable because it is so familiar, because every song has been derived from another. Nero doesn't exactly argue that on Expatriate, but he does challenge the insinuation that nothing is new and country music is boring. The eight-song EP spans just under 20 minutes, and there is enough variety in instrumentation to entertain even the most irresponsible listener: guitar, drums, national baritone tricone, pedal steel, organ, violin, even a dobro for crying out loud.
"Her name is Cindy Cashdollar, a name you can't even make up," laughs Nero, speaking of the dobro player. "She's a Grammy award-winning dobro player that I tricked into playing on my record. My dad was friends with her in Woodstock, back in the early seventies, and they just remained friends. When I started playing roots and country music, my dad put me in touch with her."
There are seven different musical contributors to Expatriate, in addition to Ms. Cashdollar, and together, they make for an astounding debut on behalf of Nero. Songs like "Scott Walker Blues" and "Simple Pain" are effortlessly expressive and deceptively simple; they draw you in with their relaxed foot-tapping before you've realized how completely Nero controls his sound. The song "TWILTD (The Ways I'd Like To Die)" is an artful original on an old subject, with Nero's cactus-and-sand voice perfectly suited to contemplating his ideal end. It's easy enough to imagine a joyful exit, with Nero's sobering lyrics set to an upbeat jig:
"So I'd drive to the sea
But the moon can't comfort me
The city's lights dumbed out the sky
So I'd drive to morning
The winter's here are warm
And I couldn't thumb my way back even if I tried
I wanna die in the country
I wanna die with a love in my life
I wanna die in the sunshine
I wanna die in the middle of the night"
"I think I got, like, six songs into it before I realized that they were all sad songs, and then I was like, 'Oh, shit," smiled Nero, with little trace of regret on his face.
As a musician, Nero has the kind of approachability that signals longevity. When asked about his plans following the official release of Expatriate on August 24, Nero shrugs with the same nonchalant half-smile. He has some ideas, of course, but it's not really time for that yet.
"You always like your newest songs best," admits Nero. "I have a couple more in the trunk that I'm waiting to do something with, when it makes sense."
For now, the young artist -- who starts his second year of law school next week, following the conclusion of his small regional tour and homecoming album release show at the Beat Coffeehouse this Friday evening--is just enjoying the moment. And, we hope, there will be many more to come.
You can--and should--catch Expatriate at their album release show on Friday, August 24, at the Beat Coffeehouse. Doors are at 7 p.m. $5 cover.
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