Who and what are you? Nigel Walsh can answer both with astounding alacrity in ten words as he does to start our conversation: “I am Nigel Walsh and the Last Band on Earth.” I got to talk with Walsh about his history growing into Nigel Walsh & the Last Band on Earth, who Walsh is as a component of that larger group, as well as the road there and still being traveled.
Unfortunately, there’s a story that doesn’t make it past the editorial cutting room floor. Walsh concluded our nighttime conversation recalling the tale and advising me, “We should probably keep that out for the sake of everything holy and decent in society.” Even short of that story (which I’ll note had me rolling in laughter), there is still a wealth of insight into his approach to songwriting, and music in general:
OI: Let’s start with your background in piano and your training in it, was it more classical?
NW: I’m a classically trained pianist, I took lessons starting when I was nine all the way till I was 17. I learned everything they teach you in basic piano classes- you learn classical, you learn contemporary, you learn to play the Can Can, and Jazz. I would branch out, because I would get pretty restless pretty quickly so I would pull sheet music books my mom would give me, I would learn things by ear.
I was writing really early on, probably in the first year I was playing. There was all that classical training, but I was branching out a lot into playing music in an ensemble or in bands rather than learning it out of a book.I started playing in my first school bands- a school sanctioned reggae band from when I was 15 to 17. I had been in other smaller bands before that, but that was one of the more structured experiences and that had nothing to do with sheet music or classical training.
OI: Listening to “Live at the Mint,” one song jumps out with some reggae influence, can you expand a little more on how composition works between you and The Last Band on Earth?
NW: Well, first, do you care if I ask you a question?
OI: By all means.
NW: What influences were jumping out at you?
OI: I’ll just throw some names out there: Sublime because of that reggae upstroke I pointed out, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy. Maybe also a bit of Johnny Cash in the rhythm guitar sections.
NW: I love Buddy guy, I’ve seen him live- he’s such a delight.
OI: You have a very Buddy Guy ‘let’s have a good time,’ energy. When I saw him, he walked off the stage while continuing a solo, went to the bar, poured and slammed a shot, then walked back on stage while never missing a note. I was hoping I could inspire you to try something similar.
NW: It wouldn’t be out of place at one of our shows, honestly.
OI: So aside from impromptu shots, how do you aim to engage your audience on most nights?
NW: Honestly, I don’t think about it that much. If you could ever hear what the hell I’m saying- wait, do you mind if I curse?
OI: Not even a little.
NW: Okay, good, so if you can hear whatever the hell I’m saying through whatever bad PA we’re playing through that evening in whatever dive bar wherever we are, if people pay attention to what the lyrics are they’ll appreciate it if they’re into that sort of thing. I’m not designing it to land any kind of way. I just -and this is delving into a topic you touched on earlier- when I write I usually write almost completely stream of consciousness. I don’t do any editing after it’s down. It’s important to me that it comes from a place that’s unadulterated and unfiltered as much as possible.
What you’re doing when you’re songwriting, at least for me, I’m just kind of vomiting the human spirit. I try not to put anything on. I just don’t think it helps, you can really end up gilding the lily with that stuff.
I like to think about it like food, I like to eat really simple home cooked meals like my grandma made and I try to make music like that. It’s not high falutin’, fancy haute cuisine that’s been tortured and designed to death. It’s just something that *blop* here it is!
OI: Entertain and comfort, or share a moment.
NW: Yeah, I guess. I’ve been doing it so long I really don’t try to think about it too much. I would probably think about that stuff more when I was a teenager, but it’s been so long and my memory’s so bad I can’t even remember thinking about that stuff anymore. You perform for so long. I don’t know what it’s like for journalists like you, but you write for so long and I don’t know if you could even recite the beginnings of the foundations of how you do what you do.
OI: Like running scales after a certain amount of time. At that point the basics are down, we’re just doing what we love.
NW: Which is great, that’s awesome.
OI: So your songs are stream of consciousness attempts at capturing a feeling-
NW: Or a moment.
OI: You want that moment to entertain?
NW: I don’t worry about if it’s entertaining or not, I guess the theory on that is I’m just trying to capture a moment or an emotion. An experience of whatever the hell it is that I’m inside right then and you just blurt that onto a page, you put the chords to it, and you make a song out of it.
The entertainment part, I don’t know how to even think about that part of it. What I want to communicate is just capturing that moment. That’s why I write it all right there, right then. I try not to make it over multiple days, I try to write an entire song in an hour and a half and just be done with it, shove it out the door and move onto the next thing.
OI: You know who that reminds me of? Jay-Z famously only ever does one take in the booth.
NW: I love that. There’s an urgency to working like that. It keeps everything fresh. I don’t even know if I want to accomplish anything in particular, it’s like taking a photograph. That’s what I think of when I think of how I’m writing these songs and putting them out. It’s a bunch of photographs and people are going to make out of it whatever they’re going to make out of it.
OI: You don’t set out to write a song and say ‘I’m going to write a song that’s going to make the room dance,’
NW: Well, sometimes you think about that. Sometimes I want it to be dancey, but that’s more in the arrangement side of things rather than the lyric writing. Most of the work for me is taking place in the lyric writing side of things. The arrangements- you were asking about how I make songs with the band? I will bring the band a more or less fully fleshed out song idea, and then we’ll create all the drum, bass, and piano parts right there, right then. Usually just whatever the first thing is they play unless it doesn’t make sense to me, but they’re so seasoned we just make it all up like that and go.
We recorded 28 songs a few years ago that I’ve been working at chopping up and putting into different records. Half those songs the band had never heard before they walked into the studio. Those guys are such pros, I was just bringing them songs. They’ve done it with me so many times, we’ve played over a hundred shows and we were playing one or two shows a week for a time, which not for every band is much but for a bunch of working dudes that’s a lot.
I was prepping them on my style of creating all that stuff so that when we walk in the studio they know exactly what to do. There’s nothing new for them. They know I expect them to come up with a part right then and figure out the bells and whistles they want to do and it’s go time. We’re literally recording takes five minutes after they’re learning the song. They’re used to working really fast with me like that. It’s important to me to work fast, otherwise i lose interest, it gets stale, or something goes wrong. I can’t keep my train of thought so I just have to work really fast.
OI: Another artist that brings to mind, Frank Zappa.
NW: Oh yeah, I love Frank. Strange dude.
OI: Zappa had high expectations of his band at a technical and capability level. It seems like there’s a parallel comfort and expectation level there for you and the Last Band on Earth.
NW: Yeah, definitely. We cross a few different genres- not as wide ranging as Zappa did, but certainly within American music genres they’re all well versed. A lot of them are reggae guys too from way back with me. My bass player, Brandon [Niznik], we’ve been playing together since we were 12 years old. We’ve played a million different styles, so all that stuff helps out so much when you’re blazing through an arrangement.
There’s so much for them to draw from that they know exactly what to put where. They can do something experimental and interesting because they know such a wide range of things, to pull a reggae influence out to put in a country song. I was learning from our engineer, Johnny Gates that a lot of country guys used to be reggae guys apparently. I had no idea. He was telling me it’s fairly common, a lot of the Nashville guys have played reggae. It makes sense to me.
OI: I did point out the reggae influence in one of the songs, so maybe.
NW: The thing about that song is it’s not a reggae song [laughter]. Our drummer John played reggae with us too, and he got some of the feel from that, but he’s from rock, alternative and almost bordering on progressive rock world. He’ll do anything, he’s such a good sport, but he went out of his way to learn reggae and country to play in this band.
OI: Blues, Folk and Country seem to be the major genres you span, but are there any others I might be missing?
NW: Yeah there is- I try not to put into too much of a box. I just say that I’m deeply folk music influenced and the way that I borrow from that tradition is very much a cornerstone of what I do. We touch on so much stuff it almost becomes irrelevant at a certain point. There’s psychedelic 60’s rock, and even funk music, and pre-rock American music like Western swing or whatever. It’s all on the table as far as American music for what I’m doing in this band.
OI: Nothing wrong with pulling from Parliament Funkadelic, Bootsy is legendary.
NW: I tell my drummer, he jokes with me sometimes because the main core of my band worked in the rehearsal scene for a bunch of fancy, A List pop and R&B acts for a long time, so he’ll say ‘why don’t you put that in a sample and play it over the PA,’ because they do that all the time at a modern pop concert. Half the sound you’re hearing is samples from the record being put through a PA, but I look at him like, ‘John, I will never fucking have a drum machine in this band, and I am never playing a fucking sample through the PA.’ He knows that, he’s just doing it to poke me.
OI: I want to travel down the road of your history playing live gigs, and some of your ‘war stories,’ so let’s start with what was your first gig?
NW: I’ve been doing piano recitals since I was nine years old, but I don’t know where that qualifies, I’d only been playing a few months. At that point you’re playing Hot Cross Buns for your mom.
OI: Apparently you played it well enough to keep it up.
NW: Yeah, yeah [laughter]. I can tell you one of the very first gigs I remember vividly was playing at The Knitting Factory. I was 15 years old, our parents brought our ska band down there. House was packed, we were opening for a band called ‘Let’s Go Bowling,’ which were medium heavy in the L.A. ska world, and it was huge for us because we’d never played a show out of town. We were all super excited of course, it was huge for us.
This was back in the days when message boards online were the big thing, especially in the ska world so we could go online the next day and see everyone’s appreciations and criticisms of us which was really cool. Our parents came down with us, and it’s a real club with booze and sexual intensity in the air, all the things that make a good club. It was a blast to feel like an adult and get a taste of what touring life is, and how cool it is being in the green room and BSing with the guys in the other band. Feeling like you really belong early on.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Brian Wallace who was the music teacher at my high school, Atascadero High School. He was the reason we had a ska band, he was the one who pushed for us to go out and play real shows, pushed for us to have weird arrangements, and lots of different instruments, doing recordings. I was making records in his studio when I was 15 years old. It became a force of habit, a very natural thing doing it that early on.
I’ll get back to your original question: one of the other ones I can remember early on was playing at our high school in a band called Well In. How to put this, it was like a surrealist band and the music was heavily influenced by Primus, Rage Against the Machine.
OI: Les Claypool is awesome, I don’t know why you’re saying that like it’s shameful!
NW: Oh it’s not to be ashamed of, it’s just the kind of band that gets you put on the Principal’s short list of people to suspend when you play at your high school. They wanted to suspend us all after we did this first show because I was throwing out condoms to the audience. We’re playing all this funk metal music, like Red Hot Chili Peppers shit, and I was the frontman. It was the first band I ever fronted. I had no idea how to sing or do anything, but I was very energetic so they told me ‘you’re gonna be the front man,’ and I said, ‘all right, what do I have to do?’
We played “Let’s Get it On” after all of our brutal metal fucking funk music, it was Valentine’s Day so I was throwing out condoms to the audience. The first song in the set and the first song we wrote was called “Tipper Gore Can Suck My Dick,” which actually ties in nicely to the Frank Zappa part of our conversation earlier.
I don’t know if the readers will be familiar with Frank’s legal battles with Tipper Gore regarding censorship in music and the Parental Advisory labels that they started putting on records in the 90s. I was a young fiery lad who was very much in the Zappa corner of that debate, so I decided to write an homage to my hatred of Tipper Gore’s censorship.
I was asking Wallace before the show, what do I say? I can’t say Tipper Gore can suck my dick in front of the entire high school. He’s like, ‘just change it, just say Tipper Gore can have my kids,’ That was brilliant.
OI: For being off the cuff, that’s an amazingly subtle edit.
NW: Wallace is like that. He’s one of those guys who’s been around so long, he’s so savvy. He doesn’t even think twice in a moment like that.
OI: Did you learn how to keep your cool for that kind of performance and being a frontman from him or did that develop over time?
NW: Keeping my cool, I don’t know if I’m exactly the best example of keeping one’s cool [Laughter]. He taught us how to be weird and how to be totally confident about it.
OI: It’s solidarity in your presence, whether that presence is somber, or energetic, or angry depending on the moment and song you’re communicating.
NW: Wait till you hear the 28 songs that we did in the studio, it’s an even wider span than that. There’s an EP that’s all minor chord, Tom Waits-y kind of music, like the “Devil’s Got Me Now,” that’s on this EP. The first album is not rock, it’s a country-folk record and then the second record is like big rock and roll, classic 70s rock kind of feel, and lots of stuff in between all that. I’m flying to Nashville on Friday [May 10] to wrap up the first record. The EP’s already done, first record will be out sometime this year.
OI: Following the story about the condom throwing gig, I hope that’s the most raucous gig you’ve ever played, or else you’re going to make me regret getting into writing and not guitar.
NW: [Laughter] Whoo, we’ve had some crazy ones. There’s situations that happen all the the time, there’s just that X factor of magic that you don’t control. You step into it and it happens. For instance, the other day I wasn’t clear in our communication and even though we’ve been playing the same gig at the Park Bar in Burbank forever and ever and ever, I didn’t talk to our drummer and remind him that we were playing it, so he didn’t show up one day. So, fifteen minutes before we go on, I’m like ‘you think John’s coming?’ I called him and he wasn’t coming, and I’m like, ‘all right, I guess I’ll grab an acoustic guitar and do an acoustic set then.’
The bartender, who’s just a doll, Kendra Jaymes-Champeau over at the Park Bar, she goes ‘oh my God, John’s not here? My drum instructor is here, he’s amazing, he’ll play with you guys!’ I just looked at Brandon and I go, ‘fuck it! Great! Sure, we have a new drummer now.’ He rocked it, he kicked ass. He didn’t even want us to tell him what we were doing. We just reconfigured the set a little bit to some real straight forward songs with one feel, and I was trying to explain ‘this one goes like this,’ and he would say, ‘I don’t care.’ Great, so we’re gonna do amazing. So we walked on stage, did a whole forty five minute set with an improvised drummer and come to find out there’s a guy in the audience who really liked it and wrote a review of the show. It’s just hilarious because that’s the show somebody is writing a review on, is when the guy who plays with me every show for the last four years doesn’t show up.
OI: I feel like that ‘yeah I don’t care, I’ll find a way to bang something good out,’ is the most stereotypically ‘drummer’ attitude you can have.
NW: Exactly. It’s great.
OI: You’ve had raucous, thrilling, and even tense, has there ever been a gig you were scared at?
NW: Absolutely, that first gig I played with my band, I was terrified. Well I never used to get stage fright because there’s not that much on the line when you’re a side man. Especially if you know the material and you know how to finagle your way out of any mistake that you make, but a lot of my piano training was learning how to cover up improv mistakes and play my way out of stuff. I was comfortable with that, and I was never concerned when I was the frontman in that first high school band. There was a very deep air of nobody gives a damn in that band, you can do anything and it’ll fly.
When it was my band and my music and stuff I wanted to present in a certain way, I was totally terrified. You were asking why? Because it means so much when you lock yourself in your room writing songs, and you labor over every little moment and every chord change and how this should be played and you know, you get a little drunk, you forget some lyrics and then you kick yourself the next day. That kind of stuff you can’t forgive yourself for sometimes. You just want to present it in exactly the way you want it done and you don’t want to do something stupid and make an ass out of yourself.
OI: No, most of us don’t.
NW: Yeah, so it’s nerve wracking when it’s all your stuff and especially in that band I write all the songs, I’m the singer, I’m the guitar player, I’m the harmonica player. There’s so much riding on me and my performance and how much I’m paying attention and doing everything correctly, so there’s a lot of pressure there that you put on yourself. That’s what makes you nervous.
OI: The pressure isn’t just for your own work and its reception, but for your band and their appearance.
NW: Thank God I don’t have to think about it like that. Those guys are shouldering me. I’m doing my thing and they’re kind of working around me. I don’t have to worry about them. They know what to do. They’re brilliant and they also know how to work their way out of any situation if something goes wrong.
Thank God we’ve never had a full train wreck. I don’t know if I’d had this in any of my bands where something goes so wrong you have to stop the song and start over. There are little things where we’ll start the wrong song on accident, but we’ll just yell out and start a different song, but nothing where the band just completely forgot what the hell was going on or somebody came in totally wrong. I’ve never had that happen, luckily.
OI: Speaking of how your band supports you, I think this is a good time for the question from Lola Isabel Gonzalez: what are you doing and what will you do to uplift others during your journey?
NW: There’s so many aspects of what goes into making a community of art. I had to think of the Park Bar, I’ve played that space more than I’ve played any other spot on the planet. It’s right down the street from my apartment, and it’s just a neighborhood bar, totally unassuming. It’s a sports bar, it is the least L.A., L.A. bar that I’ve ever been to I think.
The booker, Kendra is so passionate and cool and funny, totally humble and takes the piss out of herself. It’s like being back home on the Central Coast. Except that she gets these world class talented people to come play her sports bar. It’s a whole community of people who are incredible and may or may not have places to play. They come into this regular old bar with one pool table, and there’s no airs. Nobody’s trying to be cool there and that’s what I love about it. That’s what I really position myself to be in line with and to attack that which thinks it’s cool from.
Kendra gave me a platform, and she gives a lot of people a platform, so I teach her lessons. She’s learning to play the drums, so I’ll show up to her house and say ‘I’ve got new songs, I know that you’re in your fifties and this is your first instrument and you’re going to learn how to play in a band now. You’re going to be working out my songs with me while I’m doing this. All right, here we go: one, two, three four.’ She’s hanging on for dear life, but that’s how you make a great musician, you chuck them into the fire, and once they flop around for a while you help them out.
The whole community is part of each other: I just went to the Grand Old Echo for the first time which is one of the best Country Music venues on the west coast of America. They’ve launched two or three different awesome artists who have gotten write ups in Rolling Stone, and it’s kinda humble. It’s at the Echo which is a well known venue, but the attitude of the people running the place and the people on stage is the most personal, honest, straight forward way of doing shit that it’s so un-L.A. to me, and that kind of community it takes everybody to make it move. Just as much as I’m contributing to anything in a music community like that, I’m getting it all back from them a hundred fold too.
OI: So last question: what should I ask my next interviewee?
NW: I’d like to know what the hardest thing anyone’s ever had to come back from is. I was reading a Muhammad Ali quote talking about defeat. He was basically saying, ‘you’re not defeated when you get knocked down, you’re defeated when you stay down.’ Even though it could be seen as a little kitschy to have a motivational saying like that, but there are some that do hit me because that’s coming from fucking Muhammad Ali.
There’s a lot of soul and intensity bearing down on that comment. It’s not just some guy on the street, the guy was a world champion heavyweight boxer for years. It’s just a great thing to think of: what is the hardest shit you ever had to endure and how’d you bounce back from it. I think it’s an important mark on somebody’s life. They may not feel comfortable answering that, but it could be a good moment of introspection to go down for them.
Nigel Walsh performs with the Last Band on Earth, you can look for his music and performance dates on his website, nigelwalsh.com, as well as updates on upcoming releases. You can follow Nigel on Twitter & Instagram @nigelwalshmusic