Legendary Rock Interviews: Q & A with Miles Nielsen — part one
Editor’s note: The following originally appeared on the locally-produced Legendary Rock Interviews Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/Legendaryrockinterviewsdotcom. The interview was conducted by a husband-and-wife team, and is presented here with the combined byline of M.J. Parks. The following is part one of the interview.
By M.J. Parks
Miles Nielsen is already a seasoned touring vet and a familiar fixture on the music scene, despite the scene itself being radically different than the one his father, Rick Nielsen, encountered in the mid-’70s with Cheap Trick.
It has been well documented that Miles Nielsen’s music is certainly a different breed than the raucous hard rock power pop of his dad, and this is true. The truth is, however, there are some similarities between father and son, including a great sense of humor and, yes, an affinity for Beatles-inspired melodies.
I am happier than anyone to say the new album, Miles Nielsen Presents the Rusted Hearts (which became available everywhere Valentine’s Day Feb. 14) is the sound of a man and a band completely coming into their own. This latest album is the end result of endless road gigs, hours of recording time logged, and a lifetime of crafting songs that deserve the production and attention they have finally received.
Miles called to talk about his songwriting, his band’s new album and much more. Read on …
LRI: Thanks for calling us this afternoon, Miles. I know you have some shows coming up out of state and an album that comes out Valentine’s Day. Nothing against any of your earlier material, but the album is, to my ears, a huge step in production and songwriting from your last album, Miles. Did you have a clue it was shaping up that way as you were working on it?
MN: Oh, well, thanks so much, first of all. I think the last album was sort of an accident in the sense that it happened as a result of having some time off from playing with a couple other projects and having a studio and some songs. We were sort of like “Well, we have this studio, why not record some songs?” and the next thing we knew, we had Bun E. (Carlos, Cheap Trick drummer) playing on some tunes and Marc Ford (ex-Black Crowes) playing on some tunes, and we had about 13 songs. So, we figured that’s pretty much a record, and we should put it out.
We didn’t really have any concrete aspirations or goals for it. We just kind of put it out and were like, “Well, that’s cool, people seem to like some of the songs.” And then we reordered it twice and kept selling it still to this day at shows, and it was like, “Well, we’ve sold a decent amount of that record, and it’s been about two years, maybe we should make a NEW record.”
In that time, we had also really developed a group of players that were always consistent and always together and gelling, and I had grown more focused on writing an ALBUM as opposed to just writing some songs, you know, for no reason in particular. I had actually started writing songs that go together, that make sense together and blend into a more cohesive album.
I’m glad that you feel that it’s a huge step from the last album, and I think a lot of that stems from the fact that we’ve really grown into being a band, which is what led me to the title “Presents the Rusted Hearts.” I really wanted to make it clear that we had a real band and that it wasn’t just a singer/songwriter project.
I really hated that term singer/songwriter being applied to us because while I am a singer and I am a songwriter, that’s really limiting and not really descriptive because we are a band (laughs). We are a group of musicians that go on the road and play as a band, and that is the mainstay of what I do.
I play an occasional stripped-down acoustic show here and there, but I don’t really feel like I excel at that singer/songwriter format. I’m much more comfortable writing music where I can orchestrate things and put together an actual band sound than just myself and a guitar.
LRI: Anyone who has even spent a few minutes reading my interviews knows I am a massive Cheap Trick fan and bring them up constantly and often out of context. I think in some ways I can relate more to this album because it has more of that band feel. It’s not like you’re making classic arena rock, but it feels closer to the influences you actually do resemble, such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Jeff Buckley, or dare I say, the Beatles. Is that difficult when people draw such lofty comparisons?
MN: Is it lofty, yes. Is it off base? Maybe a bit, but I don’t know. I know musicians are not supposed to make sports references or like sports or be coordinated enough to play sports (laughs), but I love sports and have played sports and been good at some and not at others, so I say to hell with it, I will make a sports reference. There’s a comparison to be drawn in the sense that a baseball player doesn’t want to stay mired in Single A ball their whole career. If Single A is my goal or aspiration, then I should get out of the game and get a different job. If I don’t want to make it to the big leagues, then I should get out and do something else. So, I am glad that you can draw a comparison between my stuff and Tom Petty’s or Jeff Buckley’s or, as lofty as they are, the Beatles. I know my place in the grand scheme of things, and I am not at that place of those people. But then again, few are. Do I feel like I can hang or nip at the heels of some of the artists I admire like the Jayhawks? Absolutely.
LRI: The first album certainly had some hooky songs like “Gravity Girl,” but I do think the band has allowed you the opportunity to maybe explore a little bit more than just the upfront vocals and acoustic guitar afforded. The songs are just as accessible, but there is a lot more going on sonically, and I would have to imagine a lot of the tunes grew from skeletons to more fleshed-out compositions based on all these shows you play. Were most of these songs developed and built simply by being road dogs?
MN: Absolutely. I think whenever you are a live band, you are always tweaking and varying things up as you go along. I think as a writer and an artist, the biggest complaint is when you go see a band and it’s like, “OK, that was nice, but that literally felt like the same song for an hour and a half.” No one wants to see that. It’s important to vary it up some, add some different instrumentation to some of the material. Hell, use a shaker or tambourine on a song even (laughs). Vary it up a little bit so that people’s ears don’t get bored and complacent.
I can’t listen to ANYTHING for more than 15 minutes if it all sounds the same, even my own stuff. If I used the same guitar sound, the same chord progressions and the same tempo on song after song, I would be miserable. We all would because it would be awful. With this band, I definitely have the ability to go from highs to lows, from clarinets to organs, to keyboards to distorted guitar, to lap steel to Dobro. We can go from full drum kit to just shakers to hand clapping because all of those things eventually come into play when you are trying to orchestrate a tune live with this band because there are only five of us.
LRI: It does feel like you are exploring a few more emotions on this album? Also, one of my favorite tracks on the album is “Disease,” which features some heavier guitar and a passionate vocal. How did that song come together?
MN: “Disease” is actually a song written about a man with Alzheimer’s disease. I have had someone in my life struggle with that who was actually a female and has since passed, but it was arresting to me. To see someone who has lived a full and complete life and just FORGOTTEN that entire life is just unbelievable to witness. To see someone forget their own husband of 40-plus years or their own children is just astounding. To me, it was just the saddest thing I had ever witnessed.
People always say cherish every moment, make the most of your life because you never know when it will be taken from you. But that disease is just insidious because it takes everything from you slowly to the point of where you don’t even realize it’s slipping away. To me, it was like watching in slow motion like, “There it was … there went every memory of like learning to play the organ that I ever knew.” There are lines in that song that really speak to what happens in that person’s mind and how they’re really young again, if only in terms of their mind.
All the wisdom, knowledge and experience you’ve ever known from them is not only out of your life, but it’s no longer a part of their mind. It’s like none of it ever happened. They don’t remember any of it, and they are starting all over again as a kid almost.
LRI: My grandma died of Alzheimer’s disease, so I can totally relate. It’s such an inexplicable feeling. Did some of that frustration and anger bleed into not only the lyrics but the sound of the song?
MN: Absolutely. There’s a moment where I sing “All we have are photographs,” which is kind of something that mattered a lot to me lyrically but also just a moment in the song structure that was important for me to have pop and be the arc of that tune. I really wanted that moment to stand out. I think it’s, sadly, something a lot of people can relate to. You could have lived every day with this person and woken up to them in your house and your life every day of your existence, only to walk past them in the care center and have them not recognize you and just move right past you. It’s horrible.
LRI: Another song that really stands out is a track called “The Grain.” Is that really about what it seems to be about, which is just that you have a different way of going about things or approaching your art?
MN: Yeah, and also kind of about the fact that it’s OK to go about things a different way and not give a s— about it. There’s nothing wrong with that. People are going to criticize you and give you hell over it no matter what, so it’s really about how you stand up to their reaction. In a lot of my songs, I tend to use the bridge of the song to sort of make the overall point. I say “I’ll be waiting there on judgment day to say that I’m sorry, but I’ll be alone,” which is sort of a reference to a lot of people’s pride. A lot of people will NEVER say they’re sorry.
LRI: It sounds like you are REALLY into the lyric writing on your songs, which is kind of a lost art these days.
MN: Man, I just HAVE to be. I have to be into the lyrics, or the song will never come to be. They have to mean something to me, and they have to tell a story, or there will never be a song at all. I am working already on some new songs, and those lyrics are absolutely the framework of the songs themselves. I start from that point, and they are really the driving force behind the whole thing. I will say I don’t run into too many people who are writers or musicians who aren’t into their stuff. I think you sort of have to be. No one would do what we do for the amount of money we make if they weren’t all about the creative process (laughs).
LRI: The other songs I mentioned stand out to me musically, but one that stands out lyrically in my mind is “Overrated,” which is, again, delivered with a hint of aggression.
MN: “Overrated” is very much a b—- slap to popular music these days and mostly to Rolling Stone magazine putting American Idol winners on their covers which, to me, says a lot. If you listen to the lyrics, it just says, “I’ve put my time in, it happened again, it looks like you’re gonna win,” which is like saying, “OK, I’ve worked at this for years and years, and this person gets on American Idol, and there you go. It happens again, they’re a star just like that.” It’s like “You’re overrated, but you’re no better than I am, just better looking” and “You can only smile your way through,” which is like, of course, you’re going to get through the next round with such a pretty smile (laughs). You’re gonna get through life just based on that pretty smile.
LRI: Alice Cooper said something really intelligent on the news about how he’d like to just once see a show like American Idol that was based on songwriting or strength of original bands rather than who can sing the best cover or who’s cutest.
MN: I would ultimately like to have a competition like that which was judged by blind people or a radio show similar to American Idol where all you can judge them on is the voice and the song itself rather than the crap that show is. I think the outcomes of who would win would be a great deal different.
LRI: I wanted to ask you specifically about one more song. I know it’s coming out early in the year, but I hope the album is remembered on all the top 10 lists at the end of the year because there are so many strong tracks. They always say the first track should be one of the strongest of the bunch and the song “Rusted Hearts” certainly is. Is that kind of a salute to your band?
MN: That’s a tune about the power of music, actually. “If I come crawling back to you, would you take me as I am, would you play me for a fool?” I’ve seen a lot of people in my life who are like, “Man, I’m giving up. When are you gonna give up doin’ this, man?” To me, as a musician or an artist, if you are even thinking in terms like that, of some ultimate goal or landmark of fame that you set out to achieve by the time you are 35 or something, then you are just a poser.
LRI: Speaking of landmarks, I wanted to ask you what you guys did for your parents’ recent wedding anniversary. Forty-two years is a long time for any marriage, but it’s almost unheard of in the rock and roll world. Obviously, you can’t celebrate the occasion by giving your dad a guitar since he owns every guitar known to man. Do you just bake a cake and smile?
MN: We just all got together for food, and we cooked THEM dinner. All of us siblings got together and cooked them dinner and cleaned up so they didn’t have to lift a finger or do anything really. I think the biggest thing for them is that they were just happy to have all of us together. What do you get somebody that HAS everything? What do you get for someone who when he wants something just buys it on the spot? If I tried to tell the guy like, “Hold off on that ’cause I think we’re gonna get you that for Christmas or something,” he would never have it … he’d just have two (laughs).
From the Feb. 15-21, 2012, issue
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