An award-winning screenwriter at international film festivals and labs, Caitlin McCarthy has two feature films in development: “Wonder Drug” with director Tom Gilroy (“Spring Forward”); and “Resistance” with director Si Wall (“The Dinner Party,” premiering November 2010). She also has a TV series treatment, “Free Skate,” which is currently being considered by top production companies.
Part One of a Three Part Feature on NELSON By Caitlin McCarthy
Longtime readers here know that I am unabashed NELSON fan. Last year, I wrote a post about them deserving a second look, and also covered SCRAP METAL, the celebrity rock supergroup cofounded by Gunnar Nelson.
This year has been extremely busy and rewarding for NELSON. On February 15, 2011, the Frontiers Records label released not only a brand new NELSON album, LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE, but also two rare classic catalogue offerings: BEFORE THE RAIN; and PERFECT STORM – AFTER THE RAIN WORLD TOUR 1991 in North America.
The new album LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE finds twin rockers and frontmen Matthew and Gunnar Nelson seamlessly picking up where they left off with their multi-platinum debut AFTER THE RAIN, which sold nearly 7 million albums worldwide and featured the #1 smash hit single “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection.” That hit single made history, landing America’s iconic Nelson family (bandleader Ozzie Nelson, rock legend Rick Nelson, and twins Matthew & Gunnar) in the Guinness Book of World Records as the ONLY family in Entertainment with three successive generations of #1 hitmakers.
NELSON fans from the 1990s remember when the AFTER THE RAIN record and tour became a phenomenon just prior to the rise of grunge. The last major success of the good time rock’n’roll era, NELSON has had one Number One, four Top Ten, and five Top 40 Billboard Hot 100 hit singles, plus five #1 MTV videos and has sold over 6.5 million albums worldwide. NELSON recently headlined major rock festivals around the globe celebrating the 20th anniversary of AFTER THE RAIN, touring in China, the U.K., and of course the U.S., where they have also toured extensively with Peter Frampton and Styx.
With LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE, NELSON has received critical acclaim from press and fans alike. Click *HERE* to watch the brand new video for their first single “You’re All I Need Tonight.”
Matthew Nelson graciously did a phone interview with me to discuss all things NELSON. His honesty about LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE, the music industry, and NELSON’s much-appreciated fans was so refreshing that this post has been turned into a three part feature on NELSON. You’ll notice below that Matthew is quoted extensively. I transcribed exactly what he said. It was like participating in a Master Class on music and made me think of Peter Bogdanovich, who is renowned for his thoughts on film.
So without further adieu, I give you Part One. NELSON fans, imagine Matthew talking directly to you.…I know. I died, too!
Caitlin McCarthy (CM): Many people forget that you and Gunnar were incredibly young when AFTER THE RAIN came out and achieved massive success. The two of you are still young, but already seasoned veterans in the music industry. How are you “wiser” about the music industry? What were some of the biggest lessons learned?
Matthew Nelson (MN): Oh my god. That’s a senior thesis for a book. (Both Matthew and Caitlin laugh.) I mean, there’s so much I’ve experienced. (Pause.) Wow. Well, that’s a heavy one.
I have a lot of friends who are in, you know, quote “modern bands,” and I’ve worked with a lot of younger artists and things like that, and it’s so different than it was 20 years ago when NELSON happened. The Internet, of course, is the game changer. For instance, when we wanted to communicate with our fans [20 years ago], it cost us thousands personally every time we sent out a mailer. Now you hit a button and it’s instant – and it’s free.
The Internet is so amazingly powerful that it’s changed the entire industry. There was such a lock on the creativity process from a record company standpoint. It was basically, “If you want to play the game, you’re going to do it our way. And especially if it’s your first album, you’re going to do it our way and you’re going to take it in the rear. If you’re successful, then we’ll talk about renegotiating, yadda yadda yadda.”
All of those companies now are going under, and the power is now in the hands of the artist.
I’m most proud of the lesson that I learned being signed to Geffen Records when they were the hottest label in pop music with some of the biggest rock bands going. We signed our contract with John Coladner, who was in charge of Whitesnake, Aerosmith, Cher, Elton John, and us. We were obviously, you know, the punk guys who had to wait an extra three years to release a record just because of how full his plate was. But that went amazing, as you know. For us, it was the world’s longest overnight success. We were playing clubs, we were paying dues – more than I think we even needed to because of who were related to. It was hard for us to get a shot, actually, because people didn’t think it was real. So it made us better.
Five years after that initial success, we were not allowed to release our own record for five years because they [Geffen Records] had sold too many records and their agenda had changed. I guess what I’m proudest of is that Gunnar and I were one of the first artists to have our own independent label called Stone Canyon that we started back in 1995. We just have a philosophy that even if we sell 10 copies to our hardcore fans, there’s freedom in that. We’re at least not going to be stopped from doing what we want to do, whatever that is. It kind of has grown from there.
But of course, around us and in spite of us, the music industry blew up because of that philosophy of control – of self-control – and of, perhaps, you’re not going to sell 9 million records because, frankly, nobody buys records anymore. Kids are filesharing, they’re downloading, whatever.
My best friend is in Lifehouse, which is a great band and I love them. They have huge hit records and even he says, “You’d be surprised at how few copies we sell” – but, they get 10,000 people at their shows every night. And that’s where it [the music industry] has changed. It’s not about selling huge amounts of units. It’s about building a fanbase.
Back when NELSON was touring [20 years ago], and we did 14 months on the road, our tickets were $18. When was the last time you paid $18 to go see a headline concert? Now tickets are…you know, I was looking into seeing some shows, and tickets are starting at $130.
Music has become a commercial for the band. I hate that word “branding,” but basically what I would say, and what I do say, to people starting is, Get out there. Play. Work on your social networking stuff. Work on your own fanbase, which fortunately we [NELSON] do have.
For LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE, we were given a challenge by a specific record company that wanted us to basically make a modern retro album. Which is what we did. Kind of tough to do 20 years after you did something like that, but easier in the sense that technology has come so far that…I’ve got to say that this album is 75 percent my brother. Every guitar on the album, save one guitar solo, is my brother. I’m very proud of him for that. Musically speaking, it’s a very capable album. It takes you back to a different time. It’s really important for me to sound like it could hold up sonically with anything you could find nowadays, that it doesn’t sound like it was 20 years old. And I think we did that.
What is my advice for anybody doing this now? I would say, Take control and carve your own niche in your own corner of the musical universe and be happy with that. I don’t think that’s honestly anything that’s changed. It’s just…maybe on a different scale for us [NELSON]. I mean, we experienced stuff in 1990 and 1991 that was on a level that very few people will ever experience. I’m really glad to have had that experience. But here I am years later and I’m now playing with, writing songs with, touring with the heroes that I grew up with – as a contemporary. That, to me, is the greatest joy, and truthfully I still love what I do. Gunnar and I choose to stay after every show and meet every fan that wants to meet us. We talk to them. We couldn’t do that 20 years ago, to be honest with you.
My girlfriend gave me a great quote from Carrie Fisher that I want to put on a t-shirt: “Celebrity is just obscurity biding its time.” It’s an awesome quote and it’s so true. What is celebrity? To me, it’s all about being unapologetic about who you are and what you’re doing. I’ve got to say there’s nothing I’m ashamed of from my musical past or anything that I’ve done except for one album that I knew wasn’t good enough. It was an indie release that Gunnar and I did. He knows which one it was. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted it to be and he agreed. It was a great learning experience for us, though, as a band because it made us look at each other and say, We will never do that again. And we haven’t.
For anybody starting out, it’s not like it was. It was a ladder of success before. You went out. You played an infinite amount of shows and honed your chops. There was no technology. You had to be that good just on one take. It’s different now. You have a lot of people who, quite frankly, don’t play out. They can sing the general vicinity of pitch and make it work. I’ve worked with acts like that. So, what I would say to anybody is, Just keep it real. Be real and be the real deal. More important nowadays, more than ever, is the live aspect — if you’re in rock and roll, at least, not if you’re a dance-oriented band. If you’re in anything that has to do with real, organic instruments, you have to be able to play live.
The Internet, the downloads, they’re going to drive people to your shows. And if you suck, you’re done. There’s too much traffic, too many people, too many choices. That’s where I’m actually happy with the way things have gone musically because whether it be this album, or another project that I working on or Gunnar’s working on – even Scrap Metal, we get it, that’s fun, that’s a goof, that’s where we just play our hits and kind of relive that time. It’s really great to be able to do different things now that are focused onto themselves.
I know with this new album, I guess what I’m proudest of is, we were given a task by a certain label to make an album that sounded like the step-off from a huge, monster hit record we had 20 years ago – and we accomplished it. Now, is that the direction we’re going to go in forever? Well, if you know us, no. But, it actually does achieve what it set out to do, and it does it really well. I’m really proud of it. We’ve gotten better reviews on this record [LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE] than we’ve gotten on any record we’ve ever released, which is really ironic to me. I’m going to be honest with you. It makes me laugh.
What I’m proudest of, honestly, is there are some great songs on this record. We’re a song-oriented band, we always have been. People that know us *know* us. We came from, and still do come from, more of a pop and folk background, like a California sound kind of background. What I’m proudest of is after all of these years, you can generally listen to 10 seconds of any one of our songs and know it’s us. We have a sound. And that’s great.
The most important thing is that I’m still having fun. When I question what I’m doing, I always seem to find a fan or somebody that contacts me and I just kind of get a message: “Thank you for this” or “Hey, this song really meant something to me.” That’s why Gun and I meet everyone after shows now. We’re giving back to them as much as they’ve given to us….
Stay tuned for Part Two of the Three Part Feature on NELSON!
(photos: Caitlin McCarthy, Brian Lowe Photography, nelsonkicksass.com)