Pan•American :: Catching Up With Mark Nelson

Mark Nelson has been spinning out the subtlest webs of drone and atmosphere since the late 1990s first with the ground-breaking LaBradford (with Robert Donne and Carter Brown), whose slow moving ambient soundscapes influenced a generation of slo-core, post-rock and electro-acoustic experimenters. LaBradford’s debut was the inaugural release for Kranky, which has since grown to define a cerebral sort of electronically enhanced drone music very much in line with the LaBradford aesthetic.

Nelson launched his solo Pan•American project in 1998, as a way to explore a life-long fascination with dub. His early albums plumbed the deep resonances of dub, while also playing with glitchy electronic sounds of house and techno. His music is minimalist but complex, quiet but engrossing, and it has evolved over the years to fit his interests.

Nelson’s latest album as Pan•American, A Son, dives more directly into traditional melody and structure than any of his previous work, using guitar, hammered dulcimer and lap steel to distill sustained tones into liquid clarity. Though largely instrumental (two songs have vocals), the album wrestles with the concept of home, the influence of the past and the frightening shifts in American culture and discourse. Nelson spoke to Aquarium Drunkard about his new album, the music and events that shaped it and the challenges of removing clutter from already serene and uncrowded sounds. words / j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: This album is called A Son, and it taps into traditional folk and blues more directly than you usually do. Were you looking towards older music traditions in this album?

Mark Nelson: Yes. I definitely was. I found myself listening to more of that type of thing and less concerned with keeping up with contemporary music. That’s always been a thread. I started with older early rock and roll and country. It was the first stuff that really appealed to me.

AD: Starting with LaBradford, your work has really been focused on drone and atmosphere, and you can certainly hear that in this album, but there’s also quite a bit of melody and structure to it. Can you talk a little bit about how this album is different from what you were doing before and also how it connects?

Mark Nelson: Yeah. I think both elements have been present throughout. I think in the past I was more willing and maybe more curious about obscuring melody and obscuring vocals and not necessarily hiding them but not foregrounding them. I liked the atmosphere that surrounds melody. Like when a song is ending or when it’s beginning. If just that part could continue. And then it’s sort of like the moment happens, the drums come in, the singer’s there, and to some degree the spell can be broken.

In this case, for this record, though, I was thinking of clarity and how to remove clutter. Remove things that didn’t feel necessary and to kind of revisit what I’m trying to do.

AD: What is clutter in music?

Mark Nelson: Clutter could be anything that isn’t necessary to the emotion of the song. I think I’ve always been aspirational in what I was trying to do. I wanted to be reaching for something. I think maybe that sounds like I was always reaching beyond what I really was. Which is a good thing to do. But I think in this case, I was just trying to be more centered and these are the things that I can do, that I’m comfortable with and that I think I do well. Not trying to push into things. Not asking questions like, what if it’s a nine minute song instead of the essence?

AD: Interesting. I saw your show in Chicago about a month ago, and it was great. It was really beautiful.

Mark Nelson: Oh, thank you. The one at Constellation? Thank you. Thanks so much for coming.

AD: But what I was going to say was that you were switching pretty seamlessly between electric guitar and hammered dulcimer and pedal steel, I think?

Mark Nelson: Lap steel.

AD: Lap steel. I was wondering if you could tell me about how you see and how you use each of those instruments, their different personalities, so to speak, and how that shapes the music that you make?

Mark Nelson: That show was trying some new things. I haven’t played a lot in Chicago or really anywhere in the last years, so not doing that as a Pan•American show allowed me to just play around with some things that I’ve been doing more recently.

To answer your question, when I’m standing up with the guitar, that’s kind of the most centered, stable part of what I do. Or like what I think of in terms of music. That’s my most natural state, if you will.

The dulcimer, I got interested in a couple of years ago. Even going back to LaBradford, we had a friend in Richmond who played the hammered dulcimer on one of our records. It’s an instrument that’s always kind of intrigued me. It seems underrepresented in any tradition other than very folk. It’s really the only place you see it. But it works for me, because it has a natural acoustic resonance and properties that are very similar to the way my electric guitar sounds. It has so much sustain. All those resonating strings create this atmosphere even just playing a very simple pattern of notes. In its own way, it’s a very naked kind of thing. It’s just the string that you hit. There are no pedals and no mystery to what’s happening, and that appeals to me as well.

The steel guitar is something I’ve always loved and been drawn towards. It’s relatively new to me to be trying to play more seriously.

AD: It’s hard to play, isn’t it?

Mark Nelson: It’s hard to play with a band. I have some advantages, because I’m not playing with a band. It’s hard to play it in tune. It’s hard to get it intonated properly.

AD: Because there are no frets?

Mark Nelson: Exactly, you just have to feel it and hear it. So, if you’re playing with a bass or another melodic instrument, you have to be in tune.

AD: But there’s a really ghostly vibe to the sound.

Mark Nelson: Yeah, and I try to avoid too much sweeping around on it. The long slides. It has a really nice open sound when you kind of leave it alone. There’s a temptation to go overboard with it. Because that’s the effect.

AD: Can you tell me a little bit about how you recorded this? Am I right that it’s all you?

Mark Nelson: Yeah, and I did it all here. I did one day with a friend of mine, Greg Norman who is an engineer in Chicago. We did some guitar stuff at his house. But it was all done kind of piece by piece here. Just on a laptop and a couple of microphones. It’s the first time I’ve done it that way. And ultimately it did get done in a relatively concise period of time, maybe like six weeks. Although the songs had been developing longer than that. When I actually started focusing on it, it went pretty quickly.

AD: It seems very ruminative to me.

Mark Nelson: Oh, well, thank you. That sounds good.

AD: The first track is named after two mid-century blues musicians, Ivory Joe Hunter and Little Walter. What do they mean to you?

Mark Nelson: Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you where that title comes from and it will ruin the mystique a little bit. I’m asking myself, should I tell her the real story? I have a weakness for that show, The Rockford Files. Do you know Jim Rockford’s con man buddy Angel, do you know him?

AD: It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that show.

Mark Nelson: Stuart Margolin. Well there’s one episode where he was talking about getting his records stolen, and he’s trying to tell Jim how bad his problems are, and he says, “Yeah, they took my records, Little Walter, Ivory Joe Hunter, I’ve got to get them back.” That caught my ear.

AD: But you are into that kind of music, aren’t you?

Mark Nelson: Oh definitely. When I was in Northern Virginia in high school, there was a DJ who would play blues on Saturday and Sunday morning out of Howard University. They had a public radio station. This guy sounded older, probably in his 60s in the late 1980s. He was playing his own records. And he would tell these stories about his neighborhood and the community stuff and his own life and talk to his friends and then play this ancient music that was obviously such a huge part of his life. I made tapes of those shows. And I carried them around for years and then eventually they just sort of disappeared.

I’ve tried to do some research to find out more about him. I would think that people in DC would know him. He must have been like a legend. The way he presented the music was so intimate, yet he had so much authority.

He did really weird things with the programming, too. He did one show where he played Jimmy Reed and Jimmy Witherspoon, back to back, one then the other, one then the other. And they were very different. They don’t go together in some ways. Jimmy Witherspoon is a big band, big city blues shouter and Jimmy Reed is like a very low key, more of a John Lee Hooker, spooky singer.

AD: Did he explain why he was pairing them?

Mark Nelson: No, he never really talked about the music that much. He’d say who it was and maybe talk about an experience he had seeing something, but then he’d be talking to Fred the mailman, and we were wandering about, this and that. It was a very abstract way of presenting it, I guess. But it lent this atmosphere to his show that was really so special. And it was slow. He just took his time with everything. The music just kind of unfolded. I could be misremembering a lot of this. But it seemed like it was three or four hours on Saturday and Sunday. It was like a college radio station. There were no commercial breaks.

AD: Taping things off the radio is a lost art.

Mark Nelson: I know. I did a couple of those, like waiting up to midnight and they would play, maybe when The River, the Bruce Springsteen album came out, they were going to play the first song at midnight, and I stayed up to tape that.

AD: I remember staying up late to tape the King Biscuit Flower Hour.

So “Memphis Helena” is one of the songs where you sing. The lyric “I’m away from home,” is about as bluesy as it can get, but you don’t sing it in a blues style. Is this an homage to the blues?

Mark Nelson: That’s a combination of two things. That title came from Nick Tosches’ biography of Jerry Lee Lewis. Memphis Helena was the train line that went by this tiny little town, not even a town, but this shack where Jerry Lee Lewis grew up between Memphis and Helena, Arkansas. I was thinking about what how rural America used to be. Where people were living off the land. Hunting and chopping down trees and hoping to get through the winter having enough food. There’d be these revival meetings, and that was where he heard music for the first time. These crazy preachers would come and bring a weird combination of religious fervor and abandon.

The whole album is rooted in ideas about home. As for the lyrics themselves, I was thinking about the migrant caravans. It was one of those crazy fear tactics that get thrown up for five minutes and then they’re gone. There were these bands of migrants that were coming to invade essentially, but then what must those people be? They’re leaving everything they have with just what they can carry. What an emotional journey they must be on.

I don’t know who I’m quoting here, because I’ve heard this from so many people. But you don’t get on a boat with 100 other people hoping to make it to the coast of Italy unless you have to. The way that they’re used to drum up fear and anger at some unfocused force that’s not ours, you know, is just …it’s kind of the worst of all of it.

AD: I don’t know how you can look at those people and not think, well, that could be me. That could be my family. All you need is one flood or one explosion or one fire and there you are. You’re right in the middle of it.

Mark Nelson: Yeah. The resources are there. I’m lucky enough to have resources of family and things like that around me, but it wouldn’t…you don’t have to try very hard to imagine what if you didn’t?

AD: There’s an empathy crisis in America right now. People just don’t see themselves in other people. They can’t imagine that happening to them.

Mark Nelson: And that kind of just like gleeful cruelty that the President…that’s his secret weapon. People seem to love that.

AD: I know. I know. Anyway…back to the record. “Dark Birds, Empty Fields,” I really like the way the bells work in that one. I was wondering if you could tell me about writing that song and when did you decide to put the bells in?

Mark Nelson: There’s a drummer in Chicago named Hamid Drake.

AD: Oh yeah.

Mark Nelson: I saw him do a solo performance maybe three years ago, and he did this thing that I thought was really effective. He played for a little bit, and he had this string of bells. At one point, he stood up and he was flinging the bells and walked up to the microphone and just started talking. He introduced himself and talked a little bit, while gently his arm moved back and forth, swinging these bells. It was a cool way to bridge between playing and talking. He talks a lot. But he would stop and then it kind of alleviated some of that awkwardness that can happen when musicians talk and they forget …this happens to me all the time…kind of forget what you’re trying to say, but you’re trying to say some sort of thank you and I’m glad you’re here.

AD: I don’t think there was any banter in your show in Chicago.

Mark Nelson: No. There wasn’t. But sometimes, I’ve tried to do that. When I was in Europe last year, I took a moment to do that. We never did it in LaBradford either, which is kind of a regret. We had this idea that we just wanted to start and finish, and it would be all one thing. Playing less and seeing more shows, I sort of see it in the last five years more from the audience perspective. Or just maybe a more generous perspective in general. I kind of like it when people do that, make that effort, even if it’s awkward. I like to make that effort even if it’s awkward myself.

But anyway, bells were in my head from that. And then, I ended up at some point playing a show, maybe a year ago, at this Korean Buddhist Temple in Chicago. This friend of mine puts on shows there every once in a while. We were trying to think what can we do to make the show interesting? Can we do something different given the venue? I bought a bunch of these little brass bells from India. I had maybe 100 of them, and we passed them out and people rang them all at the same time for an ending of the thing.

AD: Neat.

Mark Nelson: It didn’t work perfectly, because we didn’t explain it. Just all of the sudden there were these baskets of bells. One person put money in it.

AD: Score.

Mark Nelson: Yeah. Well, in retrospect, I should have explained it. But then I think people felt that they were all of the sudden, here are these bells, and they were like, what are we supposed to do with them? But by the end, it kind of worked.

So, I had all these bells. I was recording. And that song, it’s very repetitive, and I was trying to think of a way to break it up and to introduce something different. The record itself is minimal, and it’s got a lot of the same textures. I wanted something where there was just a single, more naturalistic sound, so I used the bells.

AD: I also wanted to ask you about “Shenandoah,” which is so beautiful. I’ve always loved that song anyway and I like the way you do it. Can you tell me how you decided to do that song? What was it about it that interested you?

Mark Nelson: Yeah. I’ve always loved it, too, and there’s a thread of guitar players who have played versions of it that I really like, starting with Johnny Smith, who is a jazz guitarist, plays a beautiful solo version of it. Just unaccompanied electric guitar version of it. I’d always loved it. I never really played it or played any kind of traditional music really. It’s not something that entered into my practice for most of the time I’ve been playing. But I don’t even know, frankly, it’s a song without a clear history in some ways. No one really knows where it came from and there’s a lot of different stories. I associate Shenandoah with the valley and the mountains in Virginia, and I have a lot of connection with Virginia, both old friends who are there, friends who have died who I associate with Virginia.

AD: The song is about leaving Virginia, though.

Mark Nelson: It’s about leaving home. And then I did have another thought. Like most people, I was horrified by the White Nationalist riot in Charlottesville. I felt it as a Virginia person as well as just a human being. And then, there’s a connection there. The desire to tie it to Heather Heyer’s memory came afterward in the way that it had been in my head, that she mattered to me. I was reluctant in some ways to do it, because it’s easy for me…It just seems like it could be misconstrued. I’m not sure that it’s my place. Her memory and who she was belongs to her family and friends. So, it took a little bit of back and forth in my mind, but those pieces fit together, for me. I think she was in my mind when I was recording it and playing it, and I think it’s worth talking about things like that. Even at the risk of overstepping what I have a right to talk about.

AD: I think you have a right to talk about what you want to talk about. Everybody’s got the right to talk about things.

Mark Nelson: Yeah. Then maybe it’s at the risk of somebody making fun of me for it. If that’s all I’m hearing, I should speak.

AD: I wanted to back up and talk about your background and history. Where did you grow up?

Mark Nelson: My dad was a foreign service officer, so I was born in West Berlin and we lived in Europe, Switzerland and Germany and Belgium until I was in high school. I did come back and graduate from high school in Northern Virginia. So, I was there for a couple of years and that’s probably where I started listening to music. So, I don’t know. Maybe that’s part of trying to make sense of being in the States.

AD: We did talk about you growing up and listening to R&B on the radio in Virginia. Did you go off to college? Is that where you got involved in LaBradford?

Mark Nelson: Yes, I went to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. And Richmond, it was and is still regionally like a pretty prominent arts school, and certainly in the context of Virginia, Richmond was the place where there were weirdos and artists and stuff. It had a really great atmosphere. It’s different now, but I still really like it.

AD: How did you meet the other people from LaBradford?

Mark Nelson: You know, just like when you’re in college. I guess, none of us were in school. I was graduated. Bobby Donne and Carter Brown, neither one of them graduated. We weren’t actually in school, but in that sort of weightless post-college time and working at odd jobs. It seems so long ago that you could get away with this. Working four days a week at a bakery and paying $200 rent and the rest of the time was free. We had so much freedom. So, Bobby and Carter were friends of friends and part of the same community. There wasn’t really any formal introduction. We just all the sudden knew each other. And I was playing with Carter first, you know, just the two of us. He was playing synthesizers, and I was playing guitar. It was kind of an unusual set up for the time. It was definitely a rock and roll town. But we had a little niche right away. There was never anything, I don’t know, it was a very natural, organic coming together.

AD: Was it a band with a lot of rules about what you could and couldn’t do?

Mark Nelson: Musically?

AD: Yeah.

Mark Nelson: No. It wasn’t. We ended up doing something different with the confines of the sound. We always brought new things into it. We brought a couple of other musicians. String players and Pete Neff, who played hammered dulcimer. Bobby was probably the first one interested in digital sampling and sequencing, so that was a big part of what we did for a while. Carter was always looking for different synthesizers and he stayed pretty much in the pre-1982 world of technology. But no, there was nothing really. We even played with a drummer a couple of times. There was nothing strict about it. We were just looking for what felt organic.

AD: You started Pan•American while you were still doing that, right?

Mark Nelson: Yeah.

AD: I read that you were interested in exploring dub through Pan•American. Is that still a factor?

Mark Nelson: It’s not something I listen to a lot. I listen to more vocal reggae, roots reggae groups. That’s more where my listening is. I’m less drawn to the instrumental kind of thing recently. But that could change. An interest in that music led me into house and techno music and I was really caught up and obsessed with that for a decade or so. But that’s all kind of fallen away. But again, it might come back.

AD: Are you still in the band Anjou?

Mark Nelson: Yeah, that’s Bobby Donne from LaBradford and me, and that’s an extension of our friendship. As I’ve gone more toward traditional instrumentation and sounds and a simpler approach, he’s gone the opposite direction into more abstraction and modular synths. He’s a real adventurous person. Someone who puts the future first. I’m more past oriented and he’s more future oriented.

AD: Is there anything about you or your music that people misunderstand?

Mark Nelson: No, on a person to person basis, I’m happy with what people make of it. To do something that is quite subtle and wants to be subtle, I’m pretty happy it gets noticed.  

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