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With 'Neon Brown,' Velvet Negroni plunges into even wilder electronic depths

Velvet Negroni

Velvet Negroni Colin Michael Simmons

Jeremy Nutzman should not be this chill. It’s mid-July and the Minnesotan who calls himself Velvet Negroni is killing time in a back booth at Icehouse, not far from the stage where he’ll soon be performing for the first time with his new band. Stakes are high: He’s set to hit the road shortly with these musicians in support of psych-synth indie titans Tame Impala.

When Nutzman received news of the high-profile opening slot (including two nights at the Surly Brewing Festival Field in Minneapolis) he was in L.A., finishing his new album, Neon Brown (which comes out August 30). The task of assembling a touring band fell to the album’s two producers (and Nutzman’s friends) Elliott Kozel (aka Tickle Torture) and Psymun. “The first time I rehearsed with the band was yesterday, so we’re playing it by ear,” says Nutzman. “It’s not ideal.”

Despite all this background hubbub, Nutzman answers questions slowly and deliberately, though not dispassionately. Charismatic and languid, the 34-year-old attracts attention without seeming to expend effort, and admirers tend to pass their enthusiasm on to others. It was Ryan Olson who shared Nutzman’s music with his buddy Justin Vernon, who invited the singer to open for Bon Iver on a couple dates and to record at his studio, April Base, in Wisconsin. (Nutzman appears on the new Bon Iver album, i,i.) Vernon, in turn, played Velvet Negroni’s “Waves” for an even more famous listener: Kanye West dug the melody so much he adapted it for the hook on “Feel the Love,” the opening track on his 2018 collaborative album with Kid Cudi, Kids See Ghosts.

As his rep has blossomed, though, Nutzman has been dormant: It’s been two years since Velvet Negroni’s debut album, T.C.O.D. “I had an eight-month hiatus from anything and anybody, especially music. I just went off the map,” the singer says, and there was apparently good reason. “I was just out of my mind. I was not good to be around. My friends were like ‘Yo, fucking chill out. We can’t deal with you.’”

The man Nutzman had become by 2018 was a long way from the kid who grew up in Andover, Minnesota, as the adopted son of a white evangelical family. Shortly after Nutzman moved to St. Paul to attend a Christian college, University of Northwestern, his father died, and his mother moved to Texas to be closer to her family. Entranced by the freedom of living in the Cities, Nutzman stayed behind. “I was wide-eyed, like ‘This is amazing—you can just do whatever you want?”

And Nutzman did just that. First he abandoned his disciplined musical background. “I was classically trained, so I was athletically playing music but never did much composition,” he says. Soon he was playing in screamo bands and writing conventional songs on acoustic guitar. Still, it was only after his friend Danny Wolf suggested he rap and left him for a week with a Macbook loaded with recording software that Nutzman exploded creatively.

“That was a special time,” he says now. “I strive to get back to that mind state, listening to things I recorded that long ago, reading things that I wrote that long ago. It was kind of a magical time. I still had a capacity for amazement and wonder. I was making music, but I would still go to a live show and think ‘How do they do this?’ I wasn’t able to compare myself to anything else. Anything I made, I was like ‘Sick. I made this.’”

Soon Nutzman started calling himself Spyder Baybie Raw Dog and built up the wild rep such a name would suggest. When he formed Pony Bwoy with producer Hunter Morley, promotional materials billed the project as a departure from Nutzman’s “usual antics as a drugged-up after-party boy late to the club,” but drugs were still very much on the duo’s agenda. Pony Bwoy fizzled out, and Nutzman settled on the Velvet Negroni moniker, adapted from the name of an overpriced cocktail he downed while playing with Marijuana Deathsquads in Austin. “I don’t think I particularly liked it,” he recalls.

But sometime in 2018, Nutzman had reached the end of the line. “It was at the end of an eight- or nine-year stretch of homelessness, where I was just surviving on my social currency,” Nutzman says. “Wherever I was staying, whatever I contributed was definitely not money. That was just how I existed.”

With help from an old pal, he pulled out of this way of life. “My friend Daniel brought me back to his house and I just stayed with his family, worked with his tree removal company, drank beer at night, watched football—I lived his life, basically, while I got my mind right.”

And then, early this year, a newly rejuvenated and reoriented Nutzman embarked upon his most disciplined recording process to date. “I got together with Psymun and Elliot and we just started a regimen—from 2 p.m. to 10 or 11 at night, at least five days a week for a couple months,” he says.

You can hear the three musicians form a symbiotic creative gestalt on Neon Brown, as the music emerges with an improvisatory sense of possibility, but with a structural integrity to it. The depths of these tracks are as haunted as anyone familiar with Psymun’s dubby productions would expect, but these poltergeists sound as harmless as they are tricky, squiggles of friendly ghosts peeking from the shadows. Beats skitter away into dark corners of a track like insects when you flick on the light switch, and you can hear the squeak of guitar strings reminding you this was all crafted by humans.

But it’s Nutzman’s vocals, sensual but not overtly seductive, that define the mood. His voice shapeshifts as it flows, often aching upwards soulfully, sometimes dissipating in deep echo or electronic crackles, and his lyrics are playful and allusive—“I ride a Taurus, my eye a Horus/Can’t buy divorce/La-la-la-la,” a characteristic bit goes. Imagine where the Weeknd’s albums might have gone if Abel Tesfaye wasn’t so hung up on cartoon decadence (and was a warmer singer) and you’ll get a sense of what’s up.

Though Nutzman has worked with plenty of producers and musicians, he describes Neon Brown as his first “true collaboration.” By that he means, “Music by committee. Lyrics by committee. It was an egoless situation where we all agreed that this was the goal we were working toward.” And he credits that collaborative spirit for jumpstarting his music. “For one thing it’s just simple accountability. If we’re going to build this fucking popsicle-stick house, I can plan to do that, but it’s hard to just wake up by yourself and clock in for the day.”

It seems as though the onetime provocateur has embraced structure: accountability, discipline, even deadlines. “You can channel all that adrenaline anxiety into helping you make decisions,” he says. “Deadlines are the new Adderall.”

Velvet Negroni
With: Kamilla Love, Muja Messiah, Slauson Malone (DJ set)
Where: 7th St Entry
When: 8 p.m. Mon. Sept. 2
Tickets: 18+; $13/$15; more info here