Weekend Nachos’ Andy Nelson Tackles Belonger With Sincerity
It’s dusty, but it’s not dirty; and while it’s messy, it’s not unorganized. A decade’s worth of cigarettes sweeten the strange space that was once a furniture showroom, converted to a countertop construction business, with the addition of a recording studio: Bricktop Recording Studio, Chicago, IL, 60616.
Hazy light filters through aged windows, providing light to sink templates and faded paintings on unfinished walls. To the left, at the northwest corner of the building, there are scattered guitars and a coffee station, while between the live room and mixing room is a refrigerator with a collection of takeout menus. Even with heavy-hitting outfits such as Harms Way, Foundation and Lord Mantis working here, the ambiance is tranquil, the energy potent.
Producer Andy Nelson occupies this space. He's the longtime guitar player of powerviolence outfit Weekend Nachos, bass player for Southern Lord’s Like Rats, and singer/guitarist of newly formed alternative rock band Belonger. There’s much to talk about — self-abusive pasts not yet forgotten, the retirement of a revered, longstanding band, and the nerve-wracking vulnerability inherent in writing lyrics for the first time.
To start off, are you from Illinois? Downers Grove?
I’m from near there. I grew up for the most part in a suburb called Darien. It’s like 20 miles west of the city [Chicago], right by Downers Grove.
I hadn’t known this until after I had worked with you on a recording, but you played in a sort of pop-rock band called 2*Sweet. I don’t mean to get too far into that or anything, but I saw that was Downers Grove.
Well, two of the guys were Downers Grove, and then Pete [Grossmann] and Dan [Polak] — Pete who works at Bricktop and Dan who’s in Like Rats and Belonger — they’re both from Westchester.
Was that your first legitimate band?
Um, no, but that was the first band that actually went for it. Like “tried,” finger quotes. I wasn’t an original member; they started and then they sort of broke up, and then they wanted to reform and do stuff differently, because it was sort of like a joke band when they started. “We’re called 2*Sweet and we sound like a bad New Found Glory / early Saves the Day band.” And it was just fun. Then I joined, and I became the primary songwriter and we kept the dumb name. There was a lot of serious interest from labels early on, so we were like, “Oh shit, maybe we should try.” This was also during the time that everybody in Chicago was getting signed. Fall Out Boy, the Academy Is ..., some earlier bands like Knockout and Spitalfield and all of those bands were playing.
That sort of already answers what I wanted to get at — how the guys from where you came from became a part of what you do now. I didn’t realize that Belonger is entirely guys out of that. I thought Drew Brown might have been from there, seeing as you’ve worked together so much for Weekend Nachos and Like Rats.
I think Drew grew up in Glen Ellyn or thereabouts. But all of our friend connections are just all of the nearby Chicago suburbs. Actually, the reason I know a lot of people is because of this website, this message board. I’m sure you remember the message board days.
That was where you found out about shows and stuff. You go to shows and get fliers, but then I heard about this thing through a friend who was getting me into hardcore and more extreme metal. He said, “You should go to this website.” It was a bunch of show postings, but also a bunch of people from bands and who go to shows from the Chicagoland area. And everyone was too smart for their own good, so they’re also very mean and sarcastic, but then they’re extremely funny. So, it was sort of like a weird socializing experience. You know when you’re 18 and typing on the internet and you’re an idiot. Maybe kids aren’t now, but back then …
No, they surely are now.
Yeah, true. So, instead of Tumblr, it was posting about, “Oh, I actually really like this Pantera song,” and then they’re like, “You’re a fucking idiot, you don’t know anything,” and then you’re like, "Whatever." Pantera is great, so fuck everyone else.
It’s funny the way humor stretches across bands. Personally speaking, I grew up in Dayton, where the scene stretched down to Cincinnati, but the general sarcasm and extremely dry sense of humor is inherent. Coming from those circumstances, it’s faux-elitism on message boards …
Yeah, totally. I don’t know if it’s the kind of music, because we’re playing extreme music and we’re not going to go anywhere with this. So, to do it, it’s to embrace this life-suffering. Which you have to be aware of to a degree. You can’t just be totally delusional. Like, “Why isn’t my grindcore band playing fucking Jimmy Fallon’s show?”
You have to know that if you want to do this, you’re probably not going to make money. So, there’s that self-abuse that’s coupled with it. If you don’t have a sense of humor about it, then you will just actually kill yourself.
Looking through the lens of producer versus musician, is it weird to go from one mode to the other? Or is it not really a thing at all?
They both inform each other. Even before I was that interested in recording, I still thought about songwriting from a production kind of standpoint. I can even remember playing in my first nü-metal band when I was 14 or 15 or something. We recorded a demo or something, and I was like, “Oh yeah, I really like how the drums sound on this Deftones album. Or certain effects that happen, where a snare happens and it sounds like a gunshot.” I would be thinking about things like that even writing songs, so that’s always been mixed in with the songwriting process for me. I can’t imagine doing production or engineering without being a musician. Recording my own band does feel weird, though.
I’ve thought about that, too. Band members are all even in making an album, so when is the “I'm the producer” move made?
It depends, for Nachos, I feel like I am not the primary visionary at all. Even though John [Hoffman] and I started the band, John is still the guy. Over time, we’ve had a more equal share of songwriting, though. I’m pretty open to collaboration and compromise, because I like their ideas. I have some riffs; I rarely come in with how exactly a song goes because I actually want those guys. Rather than me bullshit something for a part, I’d rather they come up with something cool. With Belonger being a new band, the roles are still establishing themselves. I’m definitely the primary songwriter, but it’s still just coming in with two or three riffs and a melody, and then we hash it out at practice. When I was younger, I would come in with a song, down to the drum fills, and it would have to be that way, but now I’m more collaborative.
Weekend Nachos put out Apology a few months ago, and now you have your last shows coming up, including a stint across Europe. I’ve watched some of my favorite bands play their last gigs, and compared to speaking with you and Drew, your situation doesn’t feel as resentful or bitter. Do you think that’s because you guys have always been intent on not taking yourselves too seriously?
It’s not bitter, for sure. We all butt heads at times, like any relationship. John and I tend to grind at each other a little harder. There’s been times when he’s been really pissed at me, and there’s been times I’ve been really pissed at him, but it’s never a thing that’s lasted that long. We can get over our bullshit enough to be okay and be sorry and be cool. Ultimately, no one wants us to feel shitty when we’re together. That’s the worst feeling in the world: to be playing in a crazy loud band and be on stage with people you hate. I’ve almost been there before with previous bands, and it’s terrible.
Is a part of Weekend Nachos’ retirement so that things never get to that point?
Yeah, at least for me, that’s a part. Honestly, I’m super proud of the band. The life cycle of bands that sound like us is short. I think it’s gotten a little longer now since the style of hardcore we play has gotten a little more in vogue over the past 12 or 13 years, however [the] fuck long we’ve been a band. But even when we started, all you did was put out a demo, a couple splits, and maybe an LP. And that was it. The life cycle past that is going to just start sucking. So, the fact that we’ve put out five LPs that I don’t think suck …
… is awesome.
Yeah, and I want to play other stuff. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m phoning in riffs or playing songs that I don’t want to play live. I don’t want it to get to that point. If we actually started putting out records that I’m not proud of, then that’s the opposite goal.
You just fucked up something good.
Right! That is the opposite goal of being in a band. That’s not cool to me.
Nachos are very abrupt. I was reading some interviews with John, and he mentions lyrics never being too deep. Is Belonger attractive to you because it's an opportunity to explore something considered deep?
Yeah. It’s extremely nerve-wracking. Throughout my creative life, I’ve toyed with writing. There was a point as an angsty teenager where I didn’t write poetry, but I wrote down my feelings, and I’d look at it a day later and be like, “Oh my god, this is fucking stupid, you sound like such an idiot!” And that’s kind of my litmus test now. I’ll write down something, and if I read it a day later and don’t get douche chills, then it’s probably okay.
Douche chills? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah. But it’s cool. It’s sort of the same thing as playing guitar. I really like when I listen to a band and hear riffs and how that makes me feel, and I think it’d be so awesome to make that myself and play that. If other people feel that way, too, then it’s amazing. If other people can feel the way I feel when listening to records I love when [they're] listening to my music, then that’s fucking crazy. Doing that now from a vocal / lyric perspective, it’s kind of the same thing. It’s like, “I listen to this song and I hear this melody and I just love it.” You’re just totally in this universe of that song. Now, instead of thinking about that from a guitar or riff perspective, I’m starting to think about it more in a big-picture perspective. Riffs and vocal melodies. The lyrics so far have been a little more collaborative because I’ll come up with a line that I think will be cool for a chorus, and then the other guys will chime in. I think there are only one or two songs that I wrote lyrics for [completely].
Not to get too far from Belonger, but looking at your work as singer / guitar player, guitar player, bassist and producer — does it feel like guitar player is at the top of the order? Does prioritizing matter?
It sort of doesn’t matter to me. I’m always a song person, ultimately. Like earlier on, when I was first playing guitar and being in bands, it was “this riff” or “this tone,” but now a lot of those details have fallen out in lieu of the big picture. For Like Rats, I want my tone to sound this way. Todd [Nief] is the songwriter for that band. I think I wrote, like, two riffs, which I’m totally cool with because I just want to play what he writes. It feels good that way. I almost feel like I have a more utility role in that band. It’s not going to sound heavy without a bass player, y’know? But yeah in terms of prioritizing these things, it’s maybe that producing is the bigger thing because that’s what I care about more: the bigger picture and how the song feels.
We were talking about being self-aware — in that one has to be self-aware to play such extreme music as Nachos — and in turn, the ambitions that creates. To be ambitious is to be self-aware. As for Belonger, what would you consider the band’s ambitions?
Ultimately, I’m the one that needs to like it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. You hear a lot of bands asking if you’re writing a song for yourself to like or other people, and just about all bands will say, “We write the songs for ourselves.” It goes back to being younger and listening to music and wanting a song to evoke a certain universe. It makes my neurons trip or whatever, and I want to create that so I can make my own universe to enjoy. But there’s still a roundabout thinking about the external perception, if that makes sense?
Yeah, 100 percent.
We have that song “Feel Nothing,” which I think was the first that we really hashed out the vocals for. And when I came up with the chorus melody, I knew it felt really good. And it felt good in a way that I wanted to listen to the demo of it. I wanted to listen to my own band and what we had done. So, in a way, you become your own audience. And I knew when I was sending that song to people that it would be the song that people like the most, and that’s kind of been the case. It’s also the one I like the most, vocally. That’s how the roundabout who-am-I-writing-songs-for thing works. If I write a song that I like so much, I feel more confident other people will like it, too.
You described it as “tuned-weird Nirvana,” and I was really excited for such an apt description!
Everyone is so conceited and pompous when it comes to describing their own band, when really every band can be labeled as something. With that said, some of the other songs have a Sonic Youth vibe.
Okay, so, it’s funny, because Nirvana was not a primary influence for the band. Not in a direct way. Me saying that is more what other people said. There are people that absolutely won’t say what they sound like. They won’t just say that they sound like Converge. They’ll say that they just came from nothing. Or they’ll put some way far back influence that might be real, but you’d never hear it in the music. They don’t want to admit what their actual influences are, or their actual influences become so filtered and extrapolated that an outside person would have no idea what they are. The primary reason that Belonger started was because I wanted a band that sounded like Bailter Space, which no one has really heard of, and we don’t really sound like them. At first it was kind of there, but figuring out how we write songs and factoring in all the other influences trickling together made something different. I forgot who it was ... I think it was my friend Dave who said, “Your vocal melodies are great. It kinda sounds like Nirvana.” I was like, “Oh, really?” So, I went back and was listening to Nirvana, whom I’ve obviously loved forever. I was like, “I can hear why people say that, and this is probably an influence.” I had just never tried to outright make it like that. But yeah, Sonic Youth is another one of my favorite bands. I definitely wanted it to come from a weirder [tuning]. Dan and I had a band called Beautiful Mother …
That was my last question.
Oh, okay, cool! We never played any shows; we just recorded some songs and my friend put out a tape of it. I was really into fucked-up tunings and wanted to make something totally abrasive and atonal, and then Belonger was a growth of that. It’s like, “It’d be cool to have a weird tuning that I can sing over and make more melodic chords and progressions.”
I was listening to Beautiful Mother today, and the noise influence really stood out to me, specifically with Belonger coming to fruition now. Is Beautiful Mother going to do anything again?
Every few years I get a kind of bug, and I want to write some songs and play a show, but it just never happens. The years keep going, and that thing came out in, like, 2010 — five coming up on six years ago. I have this dream that when I have a bunch of downtime, when I’m feeling the momentum, I’ll bring in Dan for a few days and just write 10 songs, which is a lot of songs, but given how quickly they come together, I think we could do it. But who knows? The trajectory of that band was why I was like, “Ah, I wonder if Belonger is just going to be like that and record some songs, eventually put it out ... ”
Well, Belonger is already playing live…
Yeah! Which is why things came together.