Nate Nelson explores his improvisational side

Nate Nelson is proud to be an American
Sharyn Morrow

For STNNNG guitarist Nate Nelson, recording a sprawling double album mere months after the birth of his first child seemed like perfect, if a bit foolish, timing. Even if we never know how he found the time and the creative energy to assemble 24 area musicians to record American Cream's debut record, Nathan, no one can question the untamed finished product.

"It was just a matter of putting these really talented people together, and then me," jokes Nelson modestly, regarding the multiple recording sessions at the Old Blackberry Way studio in Dinkytown. "I just tried to let whatever happened, happen."

Over drinks at Ngon bistro in St. Paul on a frigid Monday evening, a vinyl copy of Talking Heads' Speaking in Tongues fittingly fills the room. Nelson and longtime producer (and owner of the Old Blackberry Way) Neil Weir reflect fondly on the organized chaos of the Nathan sessions, which mainly took place over the past six months.

"No one said 'no,'" Nelson says. "I worked at the Turf Club for a long time and I've seen lots of bands, and anytime I'd see someone play and think they were awesome, I'd file it away in my head thinking, 'I want to play with that person someday.' I didn't get to play with every single person on that list for this project, but pretty much."

That list is a veritable who's who of talented Twin Cities musicians, including Poliça's Ben Ivascu (who also plays drums in STNNNG and Marijuana Deathsquads) and Chris Bierden, Gay Witch Abortion's Shawn Walker, Is/Is's Sarah Rose, Seawhores' Adam Marx, Flavor Crystals' Josh Richardson, STNNNG bandmates Adam Burt and Chris Besinger, and many more. Throughout, Nelson tried to assemble disparate artists who hadn't played together before as much as possible.

The 11 songs brazenly swing from pulsing, guitar-driven numbers reminiscent of Liars ("Disguises," "Don't Buy It"), to minimalist noise jams ("Leonids," "Brother") alongside wildly experimental, electric jazz excursions ("Distinguished Pets," "No Byte"). Despite this eclecticism, the album feels seamless due to Nelson's meticulous editing and Weir's expert mixing.

The groups, typically composed of three or four different musicians at a time, would meet to rehearse for a day before recording later that same week, with the direction of the songs still mostly up in the air even as they assembled in the studio.

"I realized that there was this power in improvisational music a long time ago," Nelson explains. "STNNNG would do improvised sections in our songs, and when I listened back to the recordings, I'd think that those parts were my favorite moments of the song. But when you do improvised music in a rock setting, people automatically assume you're a jam band or something like that, and it's really important to me that it doesn't get thought of in that light."

"It seems like with this stuff, there's rarely a lead voice," Weir adds. "To me, it reminds me more of the idea behind Brian Eno's Another Green World or something like that — where there are different people on the different songs, but it's not there to showcase any particular thing that someone is doing, it's more of a sum of the parts sort of thing."

Nelson himself deftly alternates between guitar, piano, bass, and vocals — whatever the song calls for — but ultimately his main contributions to most of these numbers came through his Farfisa keyboard.

But as far as who was leading the show, Nelson stressed that ego would be completely removed from the sessions, and things would proceed free and loose. "I kind of would just let the drummer conduct things, since they are always sort of conducting things anyway," says Nelson. "I definitely wanted all the songs to have a pronounced groove, and we'd decide on a key before starting the recording, and I tried to get each song set in a different key. But other than that, there really weren't any hard rules to the sessions."

A week after our meeting, Nelson was preparing to take American Cream on the road for a series of 14 West Coast shows before his Nathan release show at the Kitty Cat Klub on Saturday. Nelson's live band will include improvisational veteran Adam Patterson along with Vampire Hands' Colin Johnson, who currently lives in Missoula, Montana, as well as various musicians who live in the different cities where they are playing, a fluctuating prospect that Nelson is understandably excited about.

"I could tour off this for another five years, even if I don't make another record," Nelson says longingly. "American Cream is never going to break up, and I can do this whenever I want. Even if I tour this record five years from now, I've made something that I feel really happy with, that I don't feel will sound dated or weird in five years. We'll see, I guess. It just doesn't seem like I'll end up losing money and having like 400 records sitting in my closet or something — because 25 people played on it, and there's 25 records gone right there."

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