The Musicians' Musicians: An Interview With Todd Nance & Friends August 15, 2018 10:33
Interview by Erika Rasmussen
Photos by Christan Newman
In every industry, there are the consummate professionals that others seek out. In the world of tunes, these are the musicians’ musicians. The people that highly talented and creative artists listen to and with whom they want to collaborate. The people who write the music that us nerds can all bliss out to. Folks like Col. Bruce Hampton (Retired), Big Star, Leon Russell, and the luminary like.
I had the rare and fortunate opportunity to sit down with six of these examples in the modern era. These gentlemen share a body of work that has interwoven over the years in such acts as Bloodkin, Widespread Panic, Drive-By Truckers, Barbara Cue, Blueground Undergrass, Aquarium Rescue Unit, brute., and a number of others. And that’s quite a formidable résumé. When the group of friends and peers were all in Asheville recently to perform under the moniker of “Todd Nance and Friends”, I got to sit down with them and geek out about all things music. Here’s how that all went down.
Ok, so I do I want to warn you guys that I was quite the talented drummer in sixth grade when we all had to choose chorus or band so I don't want the legend of my “Wipeout” performance to intimidate any of you going into this. You just have to forget about the reputation I built up at Bragtown sixth grade.
So, when you guys come here to Asheville is there anywhere that you like to go? I know during the day you gotta rest, but is there anything that you hit here with all the fatty food and heady breweries and hipster hangouts?
MOSIER: We went to Sierra Nevada today. It was cool.
We couldn't get in; it was, like an hour and a half wait.
MARTINEZ: We went kinda early and there was still a decent line.
You’re troopers. We gave up and went to the seedy BBQ joint instead and it was pretty good.
NANCE: Luella's. That's good.
That’s my favorite. Imma steal that mirror ball disco pig one day. It’s going home with me.
MARTINEZ: I like Sunny Point. I don't make it there too often, though.
Yeah, you have to go up there early too.
MARTINEZ: I passed it.
So, if you guys are on the road and you stop at a gas station, what kind of junk food do you get?
NANCE: I get pistachios.
Shelled or lazy?
NANCE: Shelled. Salty shelled.
So it gives you something to do and...
NANCE: No, I just like pistachios (laughs). You can pick 'em out too quick if they're already shelled. You gotta pace yourself.
So what do you guys eat on the road? Like, not what you tell your wife you eat, but what you really eat when you stop at QuikTrip in Burlington.
MARTINEZ: My wife knows exactly what I eat. She watched me look at, and she tells the story all the time, we were at a kiosk of cinnamon buns and she said to Tori (Pater), "I wish he looked at me that way..." (laughter all around) I was like "damn, look at that!"
“Look at the curves on that thing…” Have you ever heard the Louis C.K. skit about people in line at Cinnabon? There's no one happy in line at Cinnabon?
JN: Yeah yeah yeah (laughs) he stopped at one when he was leaving the airport.
Yeah. Even better. If you have to get your fix on your way out, that's a whole new level of Cinnabon hell. (laughter) Speaking of on the road, when you get to go somewhere very "hallowed", like Muscle Shoals, or when you worked with Terry Manning and there was some guitar that was supposedly Robert Johnson’s, do you ever feel that, like, magic around those places and those instruments or is it "this is all hype that we've all built up in the urban legend folk persona?"
NANCE: In some places, it's actually documented, you know, the Robert Johnson guitar will, it's not officially documented but they're pretty damn sure
It stays in tune, right? You don't tune it?
NANCE: You don't tune it. If it stays in tune with itself, you just, well, that's what we did
And the sound at Muscle Shoals is hard to reproduce
NANCE: The whole vibe there, too, is just...
I just don't know if I get into that whole fan girl thing like this is magic and I watched the documentary which is so amazing and-
NANCE: I love that stuff
Yeah. Now. I have a theory that the guy who's the drummer in the band is the guy who "gets things done" and is the toughest and strongest in personality. This may be another stereotype, but think about Jon Bonham, right? Bill Kreutzmann used to be the guy that would punch people out if they didn't pay the band. Charlie Watts punched out Mick Jagger for saying, "where's my drummer?"
NANCE: I love that story!
MARTINEZ: In his suit! Got dressed in his suit.
Yeah! Got dressed in his Savile Row suit first.
NANCE: Are we talking about punching people out as gettin' shit done? (laughter)
Hahaha. Or just being tough mentally.
NANCE: Gettin' shit done! (laughter)
I mean, even Animal in the Muppets, they modeled him after that stereotype. He's the toughest in the band. If no one paid the Muppets, they'd definitely send in Animal. (laughter). Do you see that in drummers or that could be anyone and they just get that...?
NANCE: That could be anyone.
Do you see that in you?
NANCE: I just wanna play my drums and take it easy. I'm not looking for trouble. (smiles)
MOSIER: He's one of the most mild mannered drummers I’ve ever seen.
I was gonna bring that up. You don't tear through your kit like Bonham and other drummers...
And he never thought they were precious. Do you keep your kits?
NANCE: Oh yeah.
Do you collect other kits?
NANCE: (laughs) I’ve got enough of my own.
That's true. You collect guitars, right?
NANCE: Yeah, I do have a guitar collection, it's not a huge collection, but-
MARTINEZ: He's got some badass guitars.
I know I’ve heard you talk about a hollow body Gibson?
NANCE: Yeah, I’ve got an ES-330
That's interesting! I'm listening to Clapton's autobiography now-
NANCE: There ya go! (laughs) But it belongs to my brother, it's on permanent loan.
Ahhhhh. I see. In your storage facility, yeah. So I am actually listening now to Clapton's autobiography talk about how he had the generic mock-off of the 335 was the k-something? And when he knew I’ve really made it was when he could buy an es-335. He was "holy shit, I’m a professional".
And I don't know a lot about guitars so I don't even know that was such a big deal til recently. Any other really notable in your collection? Or, to you, they're all notable. They're in your collection....
NANCE: Yeah, John Neff gave me a lap steel, which I’m kind of fond of.
Oh really? Do you get to play that often?
NANCE: At home, but I’ve been so lazy lately that I haven't really touched my guitars very much.
Yeah. It seems like, even for a guitar player, the lap steel is such a different instrument. I can't imagine knowing all the layers of that. Do you guys collect your own instruments? Different instruments other than what you play?
What is your weird and freaky “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” instrument?
JN: I don't know...I have an electric sitar.
I don't think I even knew that was a thing. Is that like Beatles psychedelia Indian electric sitar?
JN: It's not as exotic as a real sitar. But it sounds buzzy it has a bridge, it's strung tuned just like an electric guitar but the bridge is a buzz bridge and it gives it that buzzy sound.
I could see that. Do you guys have any interesting instruments in your collection, collecting dust at home?
HUTCHENS: I don't think of it as a collection, I have a number of guitars at home, but I play 'em-
That's true. If you play it, it's not a "collection".
HUTCHENS: They don't hang on the wall. Although there are a few that hang on the wall....
JN: I hang 'em on the wall but I play 'em (laughter all around)
HUTCHENS: Mine have just been hangin' on the wall recently...But you know, it's not like a museum piece, and I beat the hell out of 'em and they get dirty and sweaty and scratched up.
MOSIER: It's a weapon of mass construction. (laughter)
I like that. That'll be my next t-shirt I make (referencing our earlier discussion about the stuff I’d made and worn that weekend).
MOSIER: Yeah! That's what it is.
Don't let me hear anything witty I’m just like "I want that on a t-shirt!" (laughter) Do y'all collect anything else? Does anybody have any quirky-
MOSIER: I don't have to collect banjos. I'm really blessed to the extent that I leave my window cracked on my car and I leave a banjo in there and always somebody in the public will come by and leave another banjo (laughter) with my banjo, so I’ve got like 150 thousand banjos that I’ve collected over 30 years of parking lots all over the country (laughter).
NANCE: Mosier Depository. (laughs)
MOSIER: It's just they all…they usually just put a little note on there, "Good luck".
NANCE: "I hope you give it more life than I did!" (laughs)
MOSIER: Yeah. "Take this outta my life..." (laughter)
"Take this pain!" I just keep imagining these little banjos just popping up all over the country... (laughter)
MOSIER: It's marvelous.
I love it. Does anybody have any quirky collections? Or when you're on the road is there any random thing you collect?
NANCE: I had a friend and she always wanted a refrigerator magnet from whatever state I was in or city, so I would go out on a little quest at these truck stops.
MOSIER: (laughs) I did that for my kids.
NANCE: Did you?
It's nice to have a thing to look for. It gives you a reason to get out and look and interact. You're like "Man, I gotta find another magnet. I have five skylines of cities, gimme something new."
NANCE: Yeah. I don't have to do it anymore because I think she got all of the states I go to, she got one from there already.
Nice. When I was a kid and we had the pens that you tilt and they'd slide and the picture'd be revealed? Like of a lady’s boobs? That was my thing.... (laughter)
So, I find the drum-guitar crossover interesting. I always hear blues guitarists talking about "bending the note" with their string and I’ve wondered before, is that something you can or want to or tried to bring to percussion? Like with a flick of the wrist or inner-to-outer edge?
NANCE: You can do it with timpani, the foot pedal.
NANCE: And there are other-
MOSIER: What's the talking drum?
NANCE: The talking drum is where there are cords that hold the heads together and then they're on the same cord and you squeeze it and tightens the tension on it and you got this little curl stick that looks like a walking cane. Actually, I’ve seen one that was a floor tom and you would, it had like a kick pedal or a high hat pedal you would step on and it would change the pitch. I can't remember where I saw it. But I have seen one of those.
Have you found other guitar or other instrument tricks that you've found you could translate over? I think that's fascinating all the subtleties that everyone in the audience isn't even aware of. Or have you now fine-tuned your set-up? What defines your sound? Do you have one with what you've refined over the years as your set-up, do you think?
NANCE: Yeah, I think all of us could answer and say 'yes' to that. It's like these guys, it's easier for me to play a rental kit, it's not as hard as if you've got a certain amplifier or certain outboard gear you use and stuff like that. So, yeah, everybody tries to keep their general sound about them and have that available now.
Yeah, cause I’m in my Clapton phase now and he was talking about how his sound was modeled after Freddie King and that high thin sound, but because he brought his amplifier closer and had more distortion, it became the Clapton sound. So, have you ever, maybe when you were starting out, modeled your sound after someone do you think? Even consciously or subconsciously?
NANCE: No, not, no...
MARTINEZ: I’ve been trying to copy Eric Carter since day one. (laughter)
HUTCHENS: Can't be done.
MARTINEZ: I’ve been trying.
MOSIER: I’ve tried to sound like Bela Fleck and after five attempted suicides, I quit trying. (laughter) He's just the master. Amazing. He's just great. I’ve met him and he's a great guy, too. But he helped the banjo more than, in this kinda world, I could even say.
I’ve just started learning more about banjo. I know a luthier outside of Raleigh who's taught me more about banjo and strings, James Griggs.
MOSIER: I know who you're talking about. I’ve heard the name.
I figured. He's taught me more of the ways because he realized how poor my education was in the banjo arts. So have you guys learned any tricks that translated over from another instrument or have you invented anything like 'Oh, this is the Hutchens English Flick of the Wrist'?
HUTCHENS: No, I don't think so. I think you just, or to me, find what you're comfortable with. Not looking for a trick. And I think with a lot of us it's just a kind of second nature, like you know what works for you.
Like, what doesn't give you carpal tunnel syndrome? (murmured agreement)
HUTCHENS: All the experimentation, I could know pretty quickly when I play a certain guitar if it suits me.
And now you guys have better guitars and they're not strung as high and you're not having to kill yourself hopefully...
HUTCHENS: I’ve definitely had worse guitars.
I honestly didn't even realize til a few years ago the difference that that made and I think it's so hard to play a good guitar-
I just don't have the hands to fit it, so I can't imagine having to really grab up there.
HUTCHENS: I play heavy strings, anyway.
HUTCHENS: I’m used to playing rhythm, and like, a solid chord, so-
So they don't snap as often but it's gonna be harder to play?
HUTCHENS: Yeah, there's a difference, but you know. It's all relevant to what you do.
I'm such a nerd about that stuff. (To Todd) I noticed how low your drum kit is and Ashley was saying that's a jazz kit and Chris was saying it's also adjusted for your back to not hurt to be-
NANCE: Well, also it's low, too, cause it's just a 20" kick drum and my big ass behind it makes it look small.
Like Bonham aping it up behind the drum!
MOSIER: You really are bigger than it seems. When we were in the car, I was like, "How tall are you?!?" (laughter)
Yeah. We always see you sitting! You know we have these big dogs in the hotel this weekend that are way over 25 pounds? The joke is that if we get busted, we're standing them beside Big Jimmy for scale so they seem tiny. (laughter, as the dogs have been the running entertainment of the weekend)
So another thing I find interesting is the technology interface that's kind of coming about. You've come a long way from having the phone receiver tied to your head with a bathroom belt (for phone rehearsals) to Bluetooth headsets and ears and all that. Does that make it easier for you guys? Do you miss the simplicity of not having so much?
NANCE: Saved my hearing.
NANCE: If I hadn't started wearing "in-ears" 20 years ago, I’d be deaf as a post.
Right. What about the social media?
NANCE: I don't...I haven't looked at it.
It's not your thing. And, full disclosure, I work in technology and my company works in making concerts more interactive and that's something I may get into, but the thing is how interactive does...? Because the audience wants interactivity, the venue wants interactivity because that feeds sales, but is the band like "Jesus, another point of interactivity? Can we not have the green room sacred space?” Or, is it interesting to see the interactivity during that? I think that's such a controversial issue. Some bands are "Gimme all the data you can" and-
NANCE: But that's not the music.
Right. Even when I’m writing a show up, I don't take my phone out, I don't take notes, I think it's very distracting. And I get paid a whole buncha money to push technology, but in the show, I think that's sacred. I dim my watch (laughter at my Apple watch), I put my phone away, so that's what I worry about. Are we pushing it too far? Is it one more burden when you have so much going on already in your headspace?
MOSIER: There's no replacing being there.
MOSIER: You get the most pixels when you're there. We're the highest definition. So, that's what it's for. It's a medicine we made for ourselves and we purvey these things called songs and package this wonderful material of polyrhythms, lyrics, melodies, and hopefully help the people feel better than they did when they got here. If they had a gun in their mouth, they'll pull it out. They'll just feel more hopeful. Now more than ever, even with all the technology, it's the need for just standing in the shower of sound coming off that stage is something that I need, we need it, and the people out there need it. It's just an amazing powerfully magical life-changing substance, and that's music. It's just incredible and there's no technology, there's nothing that could come up that could jazz up the jazz.
Yeah! That's a good way to put it.
MOSIER: You can't jazz up the jazz. And music is truly…it doesn't need to be jazzed up.
I think that's a good point that it's so unifying and there's very few places that you can go to today like that. You can go to a sports arena and even a fan of the same team may argue with you about a referee's call. If you go to church, there's controversy about who made the pound cake. This is one of the few places that we can just come together and just openly, freakily love each other. (laughter). So, what do you see on the horizon for y'all? Each of you or together?
NANCE: We're just gonna see how this goes and if it keeps rolling down the hill then we'll just keep riding it. If the wheels don’t come off. We've all got to a place now where we've got time to get together and do this and before we were all a little too busy, you know?
NANCE: To do just a couple single shows here or there or wherever....
Right...half-assedly? Not that y'all would do anything half-assedly...
NANCE: What were you gonna say?
Mills: I was just agreeing about the half-assed part. (laughter)
Mosier: I’m just hired; I’m not on the board of directors.
Mosier: I’m a hired gun.
Martinez: He's our gunslinger. "Banjo...Banjo..." (sung in a western tv show style)
What kind of recordings have you not released? Isn't there a kids recording?
HUTCHENS: Yes. A bunch. A bunch.
Mills: We had a whole record that we never did anything with.
Which one? Do I know of it?
Mills: No, because nobody's heard of it.
Nance: The Romper Stompers?
No, I know that. I’ve heard of that.
Mills: Yeah, that was me and him and Danny and Neff.
Yeah. And I have two children so we're your target demographic.
Hutchens: There's a number of things. That's always on the-
You just wanna finish post processing or are you still recording or...?
HUTCHENS: It's just, things get backed up. I want them out. You know, you have to find the right way to do it. You have to find financing, and then the Bloodkin world, Romper Stompers, recordings with Interstellar Boys. There's a bunch of stuff, it's just not released and it's, you know, it's always something coming in the pipeline.
Where do you like to play? Music halls like this? Do you see yourself outdoors? Do you see yourself doing some sweaty festival? I'm getting ready to go to Lockn and avoid heat stroke as hard as I can.
Nance: We talked about trying to get on some festivals.
I didn't know if you enjoyed that anymore.
Nance: You get a huge crowd, you get paid, you get exposure, you're on a big ass stage, and they accommodate everything you need.
Mosier: Great way to see music, too. You get to see your friends. Kind of like the watercooler for musicians. Otherwise, we don't get to see each other. So, there's a lot of magic that happens with sit-ins and collaborations and workshops. It's just more heady and sweet and nice and it's very lucrative. And you get word of mouth, like Todd said. It's a very human way to present music. It's very communal.
I like that about Jam Cruise. I got to do that once, and just all the random impromptu set-ups. You know, they're sitting on the deck, the guys from Love Canon.
Mosier: They're great.
Imma let you guys relax before the show, I really appreciate your time. I hope they weren't questions you've been asked a million times.
Nance: Those were better questions than most.
Nance: "What's your favorite color? How'd you name your band?" (laughter)
I listen to music audiobooks all day long and interviews. And I get bored of that. First of all, if you're a fan, you'd know the basic facts and second of all, that doesn't really speak to YOU. Like "tell me your favorite color", unless it was the blue of your grandmother's eyes.
Mosier: The great Col Bruce Hampton, one of the things that he taught us on some level, it IS all the same. If you're playing Danny Boy in a nursing home, or if you're in Madison Square Garden, the gigs are the same. The tenets of music. It requires the exact same attention no matter what the crowd. It's easy to look at the crowd and the budget and the hype and the delusion and all that, but, that's why I'm here because I know why they're here and how they play and we're on the same page that way.
It's a thoughtful interaction, like what he had. He (Col Bruce) was on that Jam Cruise of course. He was on all of 'em. And my last conversation with him was about this framed artwork where they took all the Jam Cruise luggage tags and put 'em together for all the years he'd been there and he wanted me to bring that back with me. He's like "Shug, how am I gonna get this back?" And I go "How am I gonna get this back?!? What are you talkin' about? Col, they'll ship that for you." He goes "That's right...they will..." and we leave Jam Cruise and I go party on a sailboat for a night and I just remember thinking "Thank God I don't have Col Bruce's framed artwork on this boat right now." (laughter)
Mosier: That's right!
And I had very many wonderful interactions with that man which I'm very grateful for. I'm a lucky, lucky soul. Thank you gentlemen. I'm gonna wrap this up.
Listen to Todd Nance & Friends' show at Isis Music Hall (08.10.18) here:
Listen to Todd Nance & Friends' show at Isis Music Hall (08.11.18) here: