By Jeb Wright
Gunnar and Matthew Nelson are third generation entertainers. Their roots reach back to the television show that featured their grandparents and father, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It was their pops, Ricky Nelson, who had the tune "Garden Party," a true American classic if there ever was one. Together, the twins carried the musical legacy forward and were Hair Band Heroes in the 1990s. While teenage girls loved them, they were also ridiculed by the press and hated by all heterosexual teenaged males. They were pinup boys against their will and became teen heartthrobs across the world.
Now it's time to say goodbye to the Hair Band Nelson. The boys are taking a page out of their dad's musical playbook and changing things around, mixing it up and preparing to head into a new era. They will be an acoustic duo.
Before that happens, however, they are back with one last hard rocker titled "Peace Out."
In the interview that follows, Gunnar Nelson took time to discuss why he wrote one more Hair Band era album, how they overcame being pop stars and their struggle with being viewed as legitimate singers and songwriters. He also opens up about surviving his alcoholic mother as a child and how rock and roll ultimately saved his life.
Jeb: I am a pretty honest guy, Gunnar. I know who you are… who the hell doesn’t? I remember the big hits and when I heard you had a new album I thought, ‘hmm.’ Your publicist, Bruce Pilato, kept on me to listen to it and I kept blowing him off. Finally, he got me to check it out and I have to admit, it ain’t half bad, Gunnar.
Gunnar: [laughter] We’ve grown up with the Karma where we are guilty until be proven innocent! I appreciate that the image was a lot to take, but that was the goal. We were like, ‘love us or hate us, you’re going to know who we are.’
There was a lot of traffic going on at the time and we went out there and peacocked that kind of an image and it overshadowed the fact that we’ve always written and produced all of our own tunes. We’ve always done that, and it was always a lot more legitimate than most of the other acts that were out at the time, who had a lot of stuff done for them.
Basically, it comes down to being twenty-five years later. The reason that the record is called Peace Out is that after a 25 year career of constantly being made to feel like we have to say, “I promise we are good enough and tough enough” you get to the point where you go “Screw it and screw everybody, I am going to make the kind of record that I would want to make and that I would want to buy.” I just wanted to shoot from the heart and that is what we did on this. I am very proud of this. Since this is going to be the last Nelson arena rock record, I wanted it to be a sonic ‘thank you note’ to the fans that stuck by us for the last twenty five years.
Jeb: I was guilty of your image turning me off. I was more of Zeppelin and Sabbath guy and Nelson was not the look I associated with. There is no denying your success, but I felt guilty if I liked your music.
Gunnar: It took a lot of maturity for some guy back in the day to go to a Nelson show because it was 20,000 screaming chicks and he would be one of only two guys at the show. The smart guys went to our shows because there were highly motivated girls that were there and leaving single. Aside from that, I get that, and I understand.
It has taken this long for me to realize what was really different about what we did. First off, we were the kind of a band that fit a really interesting niche. We were too heavy for pop radio and we were too light for metal radio. I grew up on bands like Boston and Queen, who navigated those rough waters pretty elegantly. I really honestly liked that, but growing up in Southern California the really interesting thing was being down the hall from my dad when he was putting the Stone Canyon Band together… in SoCal we were coming from a melodic background. All of our influences from that generation were like the Beach Boys and California Country or Folk. Our contemporaries, our competition, were bands like Guns N Roses, who were a straight up blues bar band; that’s what those guys did.
I think in the early years of rock, it was tougher to misinterpret what rock really was because it wasn’t just all basic blues. You would hear a bunch of stuff. You could hear The Hollies and The Buffalo Springfield, Poco, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne and that was every bit on the same bill touring together as what you would listen to on the radio because Top 40 wasn’t formatted.
I think the older that we get it is natural for us to open up our minds and realize that is every bit as cool and as valid as Led Zeppelin. Look, no one loves Zeppelin as much as I do, but if you look a little deeper into it, one of Jimmy Page’s number one influences were the early Ricky Nelson records with James Burton. Jimmy will readily say that. I love Zeppelin, but there wouldn’t necessarily be Zeppelin, as we know it today, if it were not for Ricky Nelson. He was not a blues guy, but he wasn’t on the dirty side of rock like Elvis. No one is ever going to believe that Ricky Nelson grew up in a shotgun shack outside of Tupelo. He grew up on a TV show, but man his records were awesome. They just came from a different inspiration, but it is every bit as valid.
Jeb: Kids of a famous person kind of had a curse… Being that your dad had been through that, did he help you with that? You guys never had that public meltdown…
Gunnar: No, we never did. My dad’s dad had a number one song, too. That was big band and it was appropriate for Ozzie’s generation when he was growing up. The Country Rock was our dad, and for our stuff, it was appropriate for that particular generation. For us, unlike a lot of other sons or daughters, we are three generations in, and that is over one hundred years of entertainment. It is basically what our family always did. The good thing was that it showed me that achieving at the highest of levels in this business was possible. We had great proof all around us. It wasn’t like some pipe dream because it was what pop did, or it is what our granddad did; it was possible for us.
The best advice my dad ever gave me was that he told us to learn from his career. He had a career in reverse in the beginning of his rock and roll career. It was the ‘50s and it was totally normal for there to be professional songwriters to write songs for the artist to interpret. Elvis never wrote his songs. When the whole singer/songwriter happened in 1963 or 1964 you were expected to write you own tunes.
When I was starting out, we started playing when I was six, he told us that while the other kids are playing covers we needed to learn how to write and do our own stuff and to make our own music. He said to learn from his life. He said he got more joy out of a part of him connecting with people -like “Garden Party” did- than he did from all of his number one’s that other people had written during his early years. It was the best advice we could have ever gotten. He said, “Boys, you can go to any town on any given night and chances are you will find someone who looks better than you, has a bigger following that you and plays better than you, but if you’re lucky and you write a song that connects with people, then people are going to come to you the rest of their life to uniquely get that, for the rest of your life.” It is a really powerful experience. When I look out over an audience of twenty-thousand people, and they are singing words back to songs that I wrote, it is a really serious high and it is pretty cool. I got addicted to that at a very early age. Other kids were in garage bands, or in high school bands playing covers, but we were out there playing really bad originals that, fortunately, over time, got better.
Jeb: It is refreshing that you’re so honest. On one hand you had an advantage, but on another hand you had to prove yourself. The easy cash grab would have been to take these two cute young guys and have someone write a bunch of pop songs written by pros and throw them out there and get them on the cover of teen mags.
Gunnar: It is not like Geffen Records didn’t try to do that. You have to think from a business perspective from those guys… they are in the business of making money. All of the teen magazines were clamoring for pictures. Matthew and Gunnar Nelson never did a single interview for a single teen magazine, ever. All of those pictures you saw were sold to those magazines by the label and by the photographers.
It was great promotion for the label. They didn’t have to go out and do tour support, or any of that. The teen magazines paid them a fortune for that crap. The problem was that no one at the label was concerned, whatsoever, in telling the truth that these guys put their entire trip together themselves. They didn’t say that we wrote, recorded and produced their records themselves. No one mentioned that, ever. For us, I didn’t want to be a hostile, I wanted to go out there and have success and I was really grateful for what we had. They steered into this teen thing because it was the easy sell. For me, honestly, I am not going to bemoan the fact that we sold eight million records, but it certainly didn’t help us when we had a lot of guys like you who were haters back in the day because your girlfriend had a poster of us in her locker. Man, I get it. I married the woman of my dreams, who had the same situation. She had my poster on her wall back in the day and her boyfriend hated us. It is no different than what my father went through with his Karma. He married my mother and she had his poster on her wall and all her boyfriends hated him and they never even met him. To me, it is a noble thing to be a teen idol. You’re a safe crush for a generation of chicks. You’re also a safe person for their boyfriends to hate.
I grew up playing the L.A. clubs from the time I was an eleven year old. I went in there and held my own from the time I was a kid on the same stages with the same bands that had the word THE before their names, like The Knack. They were all great bands from that L.A. scene. That scene was a lot tougher and more aggressive and more competitive than the Sunset Strip Hair Band scene five or six years later.
There was something sinister about these guys who were totally addicted to heroin that were playing these skinny tie sweet songs. Five seconds later, they would have no problem sticking a shank in you and then going out there and singing about a girl that left them blue. In the Hair Band days the worst you would get is maybe a bar fight, or someone would steal your girlfriend.
During those early years of the ‘80s you were taking your life in your hands. We cut our teeth on that. We were in those clubs playing with those bands. I am really grateful that we actually came up during that time, so later on, when some reviewer thought he was going to be the funniest guy with the best way he could blast us… I mean shit, man… I went out there and I played with the most brutal of them so that ‘review’ was nothing to me. I needed that fortification to have the kind of career I was able to have. Now I am 47 years old, and I am still making new music when most have hung up their spurs and are playing on their past from the glory days.
It takes a lot to go out there and make a record nowadays, as you don’t have the financial support that you once had. The music industry is broke and no one is paying for music anymore. Something has got to give. I am certainly not making music like the record you just heard to make a fortune… I made it because I fucking love rock and roll. I am not a ‘trust fund kid’ and I’ve never been one. I could pick a far easier way to make a living than doing this, but I do this because I wouldn’t want to know what it was like to not do it. Does that make any sense?
Jeb: Sure it does. Why is this album the farewell to your classic sound? Why?
Gunnar: Well, for a couple of reasons. The juice is just not worth the squeeze anymore. When the only label that I can work with is telling me how broke the music industry is… in the same breath they want a record yesterday. I spent a year and a half of my life that I will never get back working on this album. It would be different, perhaps, if this particular record has been released in 1989. It would be a completely different ballgame, but times are different now.
The statement that I wanted to make again was that I could make these records forever, but I have got something else in mind that I want to do… and basically focusing in on what really made my brother and I unique and strong, even back in the day, when we were actually doing the Hair Metal and all of that stuff. The thing that really set us apart was, long before MTV, was doing acoustic songs. Matthew and I, in order to prove that we were real, had to go out to the radio stations with a couple of acoustic guitars and throw down. That is what we did. We did that for thirty months before we went out on our first tour.
This new sound that we have in mind is going to be centered on stripping it back and focusing on what makes us really unique and special, which is the two brothers with two guitars and singing. It is similar to what we did when we went out with Styx and Frampton and it takes balls to do that. Every opportunity we have ever had boiled down to something like that. I remember walking into John Kalodner’s office back in the day, who wouldn’t actually sign us, and saying, “Look, you’re going to sit back and you’re going to listen to this.” We had just written the song “Love and Affection.”
Jeb: Is that true?
Gunnar: Yeah, it’s true. You mentioned earlier that being related to who we were related to was a big advantage, but it actually wasn’t an advantage at all, to be honest with you. Don’t kid yourself, we were turned down by every single label in New York and Los Angeles… twice.
If you think about the guys that work for labels, the way they keep their job and the way they keep on getting promoted is by making sure they are at every showcase and every meeting but they are never the ones putting their balls on the chopping block. They never want to be the one saying, “I believe in THIS.” These are the guys who get fired because the first time something does not ‘hit’ they are gone.
The successful guys in labels are the ones who don’t want to put their name on a high profile signing. The one thing that Matthew and I would have been to an A&R guy was a high profile signing because of who we are related to. If it were to crash and burn then that guy would lose his gig. No one had the guts to say they believed in us and that they wanted to do this. It wasn’t until we sat down with John after a year and a half of courting him for a record deal and we broke out the acoustics and just blew his mind that we got anywhere. That was the only way he was able to say he believed in us to sign us.
You won’t find a magazine picture of us signing our contract like everybody else had. They bailed on that in case it failed, they wanted culpable deniability. It wasn’t an industry-made success. This is something that the fans made. The industry didn’t want us. Geffen’s priority band at the time was a band called Little Caesar.
Every quarter, every label sits down and they have their conference meeting and they basically go, “We’re going to wave our magic wand at this particular band for this quarter. This is the band that is going to get all of our marketing and all of our PR staff. They are going to get blessed.” Nelson was not the band that got the nod, it was Little Caesar.
Matthew and I broke out the acoustics and hosted on Dial MTV… we were guest hosts for Daisy Fuentes, who was on vacation. We did a week’s worth of guesting. I guess the kids that saw us on -that loved it so much- that by the time the record dropped, with no promotion from the label at the time… it sold out of the fifty thousand copy first run in the first day. Geffen was really behind the eight ball for three weeks while they rushed to reprint. Nelson was fan-made and not industry made at all.
Jeb: So how did you finally make it all come together?
Gunnar: The thing that made this work is that we were men on a mission. We embraced and celebrated the fact that we were different. At the time there we so many bands who were making black and white warehouse videos and spilling beer on their girlfriends and going, “Life sucks. Give me a dime bag…” but that is not who we were. We were the opposite of that, as we thought that while life may suck, you should blast the tunes, drop the top on the car and have a great time. That is what we wanted to do and what we wanted to be.
From the very beginning we were that way. Our first album was called After the Rain. We’d lost our dad and our mother; that was horrible. We were facing things like a lot of other kids, but our message was, to quote the song, “don’t be afraid to lose what was never meant to be.” It might sound trite now, but we really fucking believed it. For Matthew and me, we would have wound up Hollywood statistics, two sons of a star who were drug addicted and losers. That is not what we wanted our karma to be.
The older I get -even though I knew it back then- if you come out with a new project and you don’t believe you’re the best in the world, then you have no business doing it. This is a tough way to make a living. Every stupid hater was out there, writing horrible reviews and saying awful things that get in front of more people than the million people you toured in front of on that first tour. Some guy writes an article in Rolling Stone and thinks he’s being really clever, but he has never listened to our music or seen our show, but he kicks us in the dot because it’s fun to do.
It takes 25 years of being out there and not going away and being incredibly annoying to people who want to dismiss it, to where they finally listen to a record and realize they were being an asshole because this stuff is really good. He is the last one on the train, but unfortunately the train has left the station and time has moved on. All I want to be able to do, as a guy who is continuing to make music and will for the rest of his life -and will continue to tour- I want to be able to look back on my catalog and my career and hold my head high and say it was great music and that, at the time, I could not have made a better record than I made.
Artists are always most in love with what they last released, but I really love this record and I think it is really strong. I made the strongest record that I possibly could for any amount of money. This has been a labor of love and it is really self-funded in a lot of ways. I did it because I had one final thing to say which was, ‘Thanks to all the fans for believing when no one else did.” Rather than not making any records any more, like a lot of people are choosing to do, I really wanted to make a quality record like we did back in the day when we had half a million dollar budgets.
Jeb: I had to be nudged to listen to this. “Hello Everybody” kind of opened my eyes and I thought, “This ain’t half bad.” This music makes you feel good.
Gunnar: [laughter] Nowadays, there is something noble about knowing that your place is unapologetically going out there and making people feel good. That might not be rock and roll to some, but they can stuff-it as far as I am concerned. Seriously, I put on Boston’s first album when I want to feel good. “More Than a Feeling” makes me go, “Hell yeah.” If I’m am bummed out I will listen to The Cure, but when I want to feel good I listen to Bad Company, or Queen, or Heart, or Foreigner or something like that.
I appreciate that it took some nudging to get you to listen to it. I will quote what John Fogerty said when he inducted our father into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “For a lot of critics to finally admit that Ricky Nelson actually had the talent he had would be like having to admit that the prom queen had a brain.” The really stuck with me, for whatever reason that has really been our karma.
The thing is that I never made records for critics. My dad didn’t either and his dad didn’t either. We made records that we wanted to make that we heard in our heart. We made it for the fans that would respond to it. I think you are chasing a bad rabbit if you’re constantly going for critical acclaim. If you’re self-esteem hinges on what some writer, holed up in his studio, is going to write about you, then you’re missing out on a lot of really good times.
If I look back on my career, the one thing that I did wrong on the first record is that I was so focused on the one asshole in an audience of twenty thousand screaming kids that I didn’t see the other nineteen thousand nine hundred and ninety nine who were cheering. That is growing up co-dependent with an alcoholic mom and being sensitive to the people who didn’t matter. I know it is really important now, at age 47, to not let the good reviews in as much, and not letting the bad review in, and just go out and try to be undeniably good and let the pieces fall where they may. That is kind of where we are.
Jeb: Are these all new songs?
Gunnar: This is all brand new stuff.
Jeb: How does writing work with you guys?
Gunnar: This record is kind of different. This is really a record I did pretty much by myself. I am not patting myself on the back. My brother just had a baby and his wife was pregnant during the making of this and then he had a newborn. Life happened and Matthew was really busy dealing with what is more important, which that was. He trusted me enough to actually do the heavy lifting on this one. He still came in and gave his annoyingly powerful five percent input, or this wouldn’t have been a Nelson record. That was really important. He came in and did the final polish and tweaked things with me. I love the recording studio and everything about it. Matthew is looking at his watch the second he walks into a recording studio, which has been a great dynamic for us.
Jeb: You are going out on tour, I hear…
Gunnar: We are going to play out the rest of this year before the Christmas season. We’ve got new management and we are talking about doing some dates in Europe and then some dates here with Loverboy. That is what we are looking at doing.
The only time people will be able to see Nelson playing our hits will be on this tour, after that if you want to hear them then you will have to see a Scrap Metal show, which is where a lot of singers from Hair Bands get together and jam. We will then do a kind of Everly Brothers thing after that.
We will draw a line in the sand and not do those songs. If we were raised by someone other than our dad, it might be different. Our dad always put together brand new musical trips and had the balls to walk away from the certainty of his early successes. The promoters wanted him to play the oldies, but he wouldn’t do that. He would say, “I have a brand new band together and we are going to do our songs.” He was doing his brand new thing.
I think at a certain point, if you don’t feel as an artist like you’ve said everything you want to say, and you want to move forward with something new- you either do it or you don’t do it. You can half-ass it, but you will get half-assed results.
When Matt and I are out, we are fortunate that we have three or four different brands. One of them is Ricky Nelson Remembered, which is a celebration of our dad’s music and you’re not going to hear a Nelson Brothers rock song. You get us celebrating our father’s life and times with his music. When you go see a Scrap Metal show, it is the hits from the original singers, so there you hear our hits from back in the day. Come January 1 of next year, when you come out to see a Matthew and Gunnar show, it will be all new stuff.
We are ready to go. I’ve got to tell you the tunes are fucking awesome. It is going to blow people’s minds. It is going to hit people where they ain’t. There is no modern day Everly Brothers nowadays. There is nothing like two brothers singing together and that is what we’re going to focus on from this point on.
Jeb: You have gone through a lot of shit in your life. Your dad died tragically and you’re mother had issues. I have some respect for you after doing this interview.
Jeb: I am clean and sober and went through all of that stuff a long time ago. I have not gone through what you went through with losing your dad. In all seriousness, how didn’t you guys let the negativity destroy you?
Gunnar: The tagline in my family, when everybody was acting crazy, and mom was being abusive and drinking, and pop was gone all the time with his problems and all of that, was that The Twins Always Have Each Other. I think God brought us into the world because it was going to take two people to deal with all of the stuff that we had to deal with.
Being a twin saved my life, but rock and roll also saved my life. While the other kids were doing whatever they were doing, I couldn’t wait to get home and sit down on the drum set and play. I have done that since I was a baby. If I didn’t have rock and roll as ‘true north’ in my compass, I would have wound up a statistic. I wouldn’t have a level head on my shoulders and I may have gone the road that I suppose my mother went down.
I grew up in a household where my parents were not sober at all. My mom was not a happy drunk. My mom was a mean and abusive drunk. She was horrible. It is really hard now, after all of these years, going back to somebody who is sober and them not remembering any of the trauma. Those were our formative years, from eight to eighteen; we were developing our personality.
I can’t credit my attitude, or my success at all to what was going on in my household. I really can credit it to music always being there for me like it has been there for millions of people. I suppose that’s what the attraction is for someone who goes into this line of work… not just a listener or a fan. I will tell you there are far easier ways to earn a living than to be in a rock and roll band. We don’t get paid for the times we are on stage, we get paid for the travels and for the bad food and for playing sick and for missing the ballgames and graduations of your kids and for not sleeping on our bed and missing your family. That is what we get paid for.
Nowadays, the money is just not there, so you do it for some other reason. For me, honestly, I am there for the music, as it is my best friend. It has always been as close to magic as we get. It is my time machine. I can listen to a tune I grew up with and I am transformed to that time and place. It was a time when the bedroom door was closed and the screaming parents were on the other side of it and I had my headphones on and my musical friends were taking me away. Music was my drug. I saw so many other sons and daughters, who were my friends, going down roads and a lot of them are not here anymore because they made bad choices. All I can say is that it is all a personal decision, but the only thing that I have found that is more powerful than the good example is the bad example. I feel that life is complicated enough without me putting something in my path that was going to screw me up out of choice. Fortunately, I had something else to obsess over. That is really where I found my high. I am not trying to preach, I am just saying that is how it was for me; it is an honest answer.
Jeb: Music is you, I can tell from the passion in your voice. I am glad you opened up and talked about this stuff.
Gunnar: Thanks man. To quote Jeff Spicoli, “It’s not a hobby; it’s a way of life. It’s a way of looking at that wave and saying ‘Hey bud… let’s party!’” That is what it has always been. Thank you for your time and thank you for listening to our music. That is really, honestly, what it is all about. Maybe I will catch you on the road one day.
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