A VERY NELSON CHRISTMAS
An EXCLUSIVE Q&A
(An edited version of this interview appears in Issue of Discussions Magazine)
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: THIS CHRISTMAS TOO, the new holiday release by Matthew And Gunnar Nelson, is just about to be released. How are you feeling about the album and the journey it took to create it?
GUNNAR NELSON: I'm actually feeling fabulous about it — very accomplished and proud of the result. It's been an incredible journey so far. Honestly it's taken about four years to get to this point with this record. THIS CHRISTMAS TOO is a photo negative of the first release of last year. Allow me to explain: when we recorded this record we intentionally overcut by double. On last year's release, half of the record had instrumental versions of these Christmas classics. The other half had vocal versions. This year, THIS CHRISTMAS TOO has the songs flipped. What was an instrumental track last year is now the vocal version and vice versa. Plus we've added two bonus tracks that were not on the first album, as well as the completely new take on our original Christmas hit single 'This Christmas' featuring Carnie and Wendy Wilson, who are driving the whole effort. The good news is, if you bought 2015's THIS CHRISTMAS album, you're not going to get a single duplicate on THIS CHRISTMAS TOO — they're designed to complement each other perfectly.
SPAZ: What inspired you to return to Christmas music again? Do you consider this a sequel, as the title suggests, or just an extension of the original 2015 release?
GUNNAR: Well, I think it's a little bit of both actually. As I mentioned in the previous answer, this record was always planned for from the second we started recording this project. Part One and Part Two — no duplications. We actually offer special collector’s edition packaging for folks who buy both albums that makes it a proper double album. Good times!
SPAZ: In a sense, you’ve returned to your musical roots, exploring the Country and holiday music of your youth. Do you feel that, in going back to the beginning, you’re more connected to your music than ever before?
GUNNAR: That's pretty astute. Yes, as a matter of fact, sonically looking fondly back on what we grew up with in Southern California... watching our father's Stone Canyon Band rehearse down the hallway from us as babies... growing up in the Los Angeles clubs like the Troubadour and the Palomino during the ‘70s and ‘80s... it all feeds into this record as far as the creative approach goes. We're really proud of owning that whole California Country Rock/Folk/Pop thing that we do. Matthew and I realized that we've been actually playing country music with our Ricky Nelson Remembered show for twenty years — far longer than we ever played the Arena Rock from when we started.
SPAZ: How did you choose which direction to take each song? Did you base your decisions on your favorite recordings of these classics?
GUNNAR: Actually, we went out of our way to try to take a fresh approach with all of these classics. We didn't want to pull at all from anything that had already been done. What we wanted to do was make a very honest, heartfelt record regardless of the fact that it was Christmas music — we just wanted to make a great album that stood on its own. How did we decide which approach to take with each song? We let the way each song made us feel in the moment dictate that individual song's direction. All the songs seemed to take on a life of their own, and they bloomed from there. It's important to note that we didn't cut any corners during the process. Each song was recorded individually, meaning that we didn't just sit down and record all the drum tracks in one day, then come back and play all the bass parts the next day, etc. Every song was approached one at a time as if it was its own musical statement.
I guess the gold standard we tried to aspire to was imagining what it would be like if our heroes in America, The Eagles, or Crosby, Stills & Nash were to ever sit down and make a Christmas album. We wanted it to be timeless. Organic instruments. Real musicianship. Real playing and singing. All recorded through our vintage (circa 1972) class A Neve console. So cool. We want you to be able to sit down thirty years from now and put this record on, and have it sound every bit as contemporary and fresh as the day it was recorded.
SPAZ: Who thought of the idea of re-recording the title track with the Wilson sisters (Carnie and Wendy), and how quickly did the collaboration come together?
GUNNAR: Matthew and I have been working on putting that collaboration together for the past twenty-five years! We've known the girls for a long, long time — ever since we were babies actually — but our schedules never aligned. We've always been huge fans of the way the girls sang together... the way they stayed together through all of the highs and lows that life and this crazy business in particular can throw at you. Every year I'd be at Carnie trying to break her down and get her to get in the studio with us. I just had this feeling that if and when we ever made that happen, it would be magical. I was right. I couldn't be more proud of how it sounds... how it makes you feel. This was always meant to be. It sounds like a modern Mommas and Papas to me. Rock on.
SPAZ: When putting together both Christmas releases, did the memories of past Nelson family Christmas gatherings come flooding back?
GUNNAR: There's no way we could've taken all of the time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears to put this project together that we did, if Christmas wasn't a wonderful time for us when we were kids growing up. Our father worked so hard. He was gone so much of the time. But Christmas was special. It was sacred. It was the time when our father got off the road, got together with his family, and counted his blessings. It was always a safe time in a safe place. Christmas has always been that for me and my brother. And in checking with the girls, it's always been the same for them too. That's what makes this project so special. Nothing but enjoying warm feelings, making inspired music with people that you love and admire. I felt our ancestors (the real ghosts of Christmas past?) with us in the studio every step of the way… and they were grooving like sewer rats.
SPAZ: What are your earliest Christmas music memories?
GUNNAR: Turkey dinner the night before at Ozzie and Harriet's house with all of our cousins. Rankin & Bass stop frame animated classics in the background on TV on endless loop. Not being able to sleep on Christmas Eve. Waking up at the crack of dawn to go downstairs and seeing what Santa brought. Being relentlessly excited and loud until Mom and Pop zombie-walked out of their room and went straight for the Mr. Coffee. The content yet weary look on our Pop's face as we opened presents — because there was always 'some assembly required'.
SPAZ: Your transition to Roots/Country began two decades ago. Is it frustrating to think that there may be some critics that will accuse you of hopping on the current Country bandwagon? In your defense, your music is rooted in a more traditional sound while modern Top 40 Country has moved in a Pop-influenced direction.
GUNNAR: Let's get real here. I would have to accuse the current country artists of hopping on our original 80s band wagon... back when spandex was still a privilege and not a right. There's nothing country about what's coming out in country music these days. It's bad ‘80s music with fiddles and mohawks, for crying out loud. Hell, pedal steel guitar is an outlaw instrument now, and that's what we grew up with — Tom Brumley (an original Buckaroo) on the pedal steel with the Stone Canyon Band. I love pedal steel on our records. Our California country is more legitimately country than contemporary Nashville is at the moment by far, and it's OURS. It belongs to us. Our father invented country rock with the SCB, and we've been playing this music legitimately since the Dead Sea was just sick. We're not trying to 'aim' things here. This is who we are to our core. We are California country. :)
SPAZ: You’ve released some of your Country-flavored tracks under the name The Nelsons and now you are recording under your actual names: Matthew And Gunnar Nelson. Does this signify a definite break from the Nelson recordings of the ‘90s?
GUNNAR: Originally that was the intention, but after all is said and done, people are always going to look at me and Matthew as Nelson. The original band name and image was just too impactful to ever be able to fully diverge from. I suppose it's kind of the same thing that happened when our father dropped the 'Y' from his name and tried to go from 'Ricky' to 'Rick' Nelson when he put the Stone Canyon Band together. It was a legitimate move signifying a completely different musical trip, and I understand how he felt. But people always did and always will refer to him as Ricky. It's the same with me and Matthew. No matter what we've tried to call ourselves over the years to try to delineate our forays into different musical expressions, the fact is we will always be simply Nelson in the hearts and minds of millions of people... and I'm totally OK with that now. It's going to be the music that dictates what people think about us and our relevancy in any given moment. And that's a liberating thought, because we'll never stop creating and pushing our limits.
SPAZ: Have you been working on new original material in the studio? And are those recordings traveling the same musical path as THIS CHRISTMAS TOO (sans the holiday theme)?
GUNNAR: Absolutely. Matthew and I do tour about 100 dates a year, so it doesn't leave as much time as we'd like for studio work. But I love, love, love the recording studio. Any chance I get when I'm not on the road, you can find me in the studio until the wee hours of the morning. 11 PM until 5 AM are really my hours of power, and when I get most of my recording work done. We've got all of the songs written for the next record. I have three more that I need to record to make it an even twelve. I'm incredibly excited at how good it's sounding. It sounds so unique — California country pop folk rock led by two lead singers. Kind of like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with George Harrison guesting on lead guitar, fronted by the Everly Brothers. Trust me — it's going to make perfect sense for you when you hear it.
SPAZ: What is next for Matthew and Gunnar Nelson?
GUNNAR: Well, right now I can't focus on anything other than promoting this Christmas album and single with Carnie and Wendy Wilson. Once we get through that, we're gonna be focusing on some TV work in 2017, a new Nelson record, and perhaps the first of several records that we hope to make with Carnie and Wendy as a 'double duet', featuring our takes on the singer-songwriter classics that we all grew up to as kids in SoCal (Orleans, Ambrosia, Seals and Crofts, America, Firefall, Todd Rundgren, Paul Davis, Dan Fogelberg, Andrew Gold, Atlanta Rhythm Section, etc.). I can't wait. I LOVE that stuff. Of course, we're going to be doing at least 100 tour dates next year. All pretty exciting stuff.
SPAZ: What are you currently spinning on your CD/record players?
GUNNAR: Our answer would be different if you were to ask me or if you were to ask Matthew. For me it's all the bands from the ‘70s that I mentioned above. I just simply can't get enough of that music. It not only calms me down, but it keeps me creative as a writer and recording artist. I think that era was a time in music when musicians didn't have any of the tricks that they rely on too much today. No autotune. No ProTools. No computers or synthesizers. To stand above the crowd of the day, you had to have great arrangements guiding great songs, sung by great vocalists and great musicians. That's my jam. Matt would probably tell you that he's into more current music, but The Foos are his all-time favorite.
Thanks to Gunnar Nelson
Special thanks to Steve Dixon, Dave Rayburn and Nick Kominitsky
MATTHEW AND GUNNAR NELSON
THIS CHRISTMAS TOO