This year has already seen its fair share of mighty supergroups, featuring various members of At The Drive-In, Melvins, Grandaddy, and Franz Ferdinand. Big Walnuts Yonder is a collection of similarly talented veteran musicians — Mike Watt (Minutemen, The Stooges), Nels Cline (Wilco, Nels Cline Singers), Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) and Nick Reinhart (Tera Melos) to be exact — but the chemistry and creative process behind the new outfit are decidedly of a different breed.
“It’s worlds colliding,” Watt explains of the four-piece, which draws in elements of “proto-punk, free jazz, power pop, experimental music, psych-rock and your first teenage acid trip all in one.” Big Walnuts Yonder’s beginnings date back to a 2008 conversation between Watt and Reinhart, but because of hectic, overlapping schedules, it hasn’t been easy to sit down and polish off an official album.
“We had planned it for so long,” recalls Saunier. “Then several years passed in which nothing occurred due to everyone’s schedules. It was 2-3 years of warm, leisurely prep time, then suddenly made in a panic with time and money on the line.” The resulting effort is the band’s self-titled debut, due out May 5th via Sargent House.
The LP was recorded in just three days over the summer of 2014 with the help of producer and former Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone engineering at his Studio G in Brooklyn. Its collects 10 songs, eight of which started as “song forms” on Watt’s bass, then later fleshed out and added to by other band members; Saunier and Cline each contributed one track of their own to the final product. “I’m pretty sure the other guys didn’t have parts set before going into the studio,” says Reinhart. “But it’s interesting how a lot of the songs began as Mike Watt basslines, and everyone was able to pull songs and melodies out of them.”
The whole thing seemed to materialize in a way that was spontaneous, but also quite focused — a “concentrated sort of freakout,” according to Saunier. “We basically had to invent a new band on the spot. And, people might have a stereotype of what each person does, but we all showed up to do what we’re prevented from doing in other groups.”
As a first look at Big Walnuts Yonder, the group has shared “Raise the Drawbridges”, a track that captures an instance of police brutality. “He [Watt] takes the voice of an officer acting too tough and provoking conflict,” Saunier explains, “and then comments on the transparency of the officer’s fear and the futility of this dynamic.” Stream it down below.
To accompany the song premiere, Consequence of Sound is happy to present an expansive interview with Saunier, Reinhart, and Cline, in which each talks at length about Big Walnut Yonder’s formation, the importance of each member’s contributions to the album, and the newly released lead single. (Note: All questions were submitted by our one and only News Editor Ben Kaye.)
You guys all come from pretty disparate musical backgrounds. When you were first forming the idea for Big Walnuts Yonder, what was it that drew you to go a little outside the box and bring such different styles together, and how did you figure out what sonic direction you’d be going in as a unit?
Greg Saunier: I sort of felt the opposite. Playing with Nick Nels and Watt was a piece of cake. Like coming home to a band you’ve never been in. I can think of musical projects each member has done that seems like way more of a stretch.
Nels Cline: I live in the cracks musically and always have. “Styles” and “genres” are not really my thing, so all I know is that I respect the musicians I play with and that I will do my best to participate in any endeavor in which we coalesce. It’s been my way since the late 70s! The sonic direction presents itself and demands respect more than we direct it when there is true collaboration in my opinion.
All the songs began with Mike’s basslines and then were built out from there, starting with NIck’s guitar riffs. What are some of the challenges writing in that way present, and how did you guys all figure out how to pull together a song from such basic starting points?
GS: I contributed one song, and its garageband demo was emailed to the gang the day before meeting up. I played all the parts myself but when I say parts you must understand I mean I played them on the computer with electronic sounds, using something called the “musical typing” feature in garageband. The funny thing about musical typing is that if your RAM isn’t up to scratch, some of the notes you type come out late. Like every note is a different amount late. The result is woeful. I hoped that even though my demo was so out of rhythm and discombobulated that they would still somehow glean what I’d meant, and come in the next day saying “no problem Greg, bad RAM, happens to the best of em” but actually I think they were really worried that I had no idea what rhythm was.
Nick Reinhart: I remember being really excited and nervous when my email dinged and there were mike watt bass demos sitting in my inbox. I listened through the 8 tracks and initially felt overwhelmed about how to approach adding guitars and doing justice to these bass parts. Watt’s musical language is so curious and unique. that’s part of the watt legacy — he sounds like himself. Finding interesting ways to dance around the bass and add to the conversation was really special.
NC: This is really the same way I recorded with Watt on “Contemplating the Engine Room” and Brother’s Sister’s Daughter (Japanese project). As Daevid Allen once sang with Gong, “Imagination is the key!”.
It sounds like a lot of the songs came together in a rather improvisational manner. How do you go from that to performing the songs in a live setting? Have you ever had to sit and re-listen to a track and sort of reverse engineer the music for yourself?
GS: I wouldn’t quite call it improv but it was pretty crazy how quick everybody came up with their parts even if they didn’t know the song. Particularly Nels hadn’t prepared any parts before recording but within seconds of hearing stuff he was playing stuff that sounded etched in stone like it had always been there.
NC: In this case I will definitely have to listen to stems or something to re-learn my parts! How we end up playing this ‘live’ is still a mystery and will be a fun challenge. I hope!
There’s a pretty big age gap between members of the band. What was surprising or inspiring about working with people from different generations? Any tips or tricks you picked up from the opposite end of the generational spectrum that you weren’t expecting?
GS: When everybody is able to quote Buddy Rich bus tape insults, age disappears.
NR: The creative wisdom these guys possess is totally amazing and being able to make art with musical giants is a real pleasure. I had previously learned so much from them from a distance, so being able to see it all from the inside out was super inspiring. They’re still ripping and learning. For me it was like looking into a crystal ball and seeing my future. It’d be like if I saw a newborn baby today and said, “Hi, in 30 years we’ll have a band and do something cool.”
NC: I play with people from their 20s to 70s. I don’t really think about age unless someone mentions it or brings up a reference that I am unaware of that is of their generation, so to speak. But in this case I think we all like sound and rock music, so…”
Most of the album was actually recorded in 2014, after some years of trying to get everyone in the same room together. Why has it taken three years to go from there to here? How does it feel to finally have it coming out and what’s it like having to talk about a project that’s, in a way, three years old already?
GS: Well I mixed this record so even though there was a gap after we did it, that was kind of useful. Came back to it ultra-fresh. And just finished the mixes recently, like three months ago or something. Stuff takes time especially when you’re DIY.
NC: My massive record from last year “Lovers” also took forever to come out and I am performing it this year. I don’t know… In this case it was Nick’s lyric writing/vocal recording that seemed to take some time. But we didn’t do an “Obama Suite” or anything, so I guess time isn’t really an important factor, really. “No wine before its time”! The music sounds fresh to me.
Watt, you wrote the lyrics for “Raise the Drawbridges” — can you tell me a little bit about what the track is about? It sounds to me like it’s about people too afraid to take charge of their life and face down challenges or those who try to stand in their way. Am I far off?
GS: I’m going to answer this because who says the person who wrote it is the only one who knows what something is about? This vocal moved me deeply when Watt first sent it to me. In the instrumental version this is probably the goofiest one we did, but the meaning completely changed once this portrait of police brutality was recorded. He takes the voice of an officer acting too tough and provoking conflict, and then comments on the transparency of the officer’s fear and the futility of this dynamic.
In his own words, Watt offered up a very detailed account of how Big Walnuts Yonder the album came together from start to finish:
“Eight of the ten songs started w/ Watt composition via bass only and he sent these out. nick worked on his developing his parts in response. this all happened well before ever getting into studio g in brooklyn. what I presented the band for my compositions were bass only (deliberately, to let Nick, nels and greg bring in their own for the collab) but they are what I would call SONG FORMS and not just bass lines. what I mean by that is there’s this part so many times and then it goes to this part so many times and so on. it’s supposed to be a foundation for a song form which I guess is made out of bass lines.
all four of us together for first time in brooklyn, we first attack these eight tunes as a team. the only titles they had were letters like song a, song b and so on. I’m re-enacting what I did at my pad by myself but w/these guys, I’m using tony maimone’s bass. nick’s doing the same except I think w/some of his solos cuz he’s interacting w/nels in real time. I remember greg asking me for a tiny bit of direction explanation for what was to become “I’ve got marty feldman’s eyes” when I put out a statement like, “I was influenced a little bit here by doing stuff from the clash’s first singles and album” cuz yeah, I had just done a benefit gig for the strummerville foundation and had to
learn some of those tunes but it was still just a pure musical ref – I ended up using that confusion (sorry to confuse you, greg!) for the gist of my spiel when laster nick asked me to do spiel for it… I thought that point was very relevant! it was “dreamed up by committee” but still very connected to the cats on this proj.
nels brought his tune and explained what he wanted from each of us and made out a brief
sketch roadmap the piece. we all four acted on that in real time, being it our first time for all of us – no “demo” to hear beforehand. same thing ‘pert-near happened w/greg’s tune. so there was actually two processes used: 1) eight had the watt, then nick and then all of us together and 2) two had their composers show us (the other three in each case) in the studio and then we went at it. to examine further, here’s my take. we got ten tunes recorded the way I just described and then were given roughs. down the road nick asks me to get spiel for two of the tunes, he gives me which ones, I think they might’ve been song t and song u. then he starts recording from his pad his spiel for seven
of the other ones.
nels tune he decided was gonna remain instrumental. greg decided he would mix everything which is what we all wanted from the git-go and were very happy excited. I sent my two spiels but screwed up somehow so he mixed my two as instrumentals ’til I got him my spiels proper. he had gotten nick’s spiels from him. he had a few runs of mixes, each run being sent to us all and then he’d hear our opinions and do another run of mixes under those influences. I think there were four runs maybe altogether.”