Heartstrings Interview

Close Knit Rockers: An Interview with Israel Nash and His Band

When I interviewed Greg Vandy, of American Standard Time and host of KEXP’s Roadhouse, I had asked him: “Who and what kind of music is currently playing on your iphone, ipod, radio, or in your car on your own time?” His response, simply and immediately, was “Israel Nash’s Rain Plans. Best album of 2014. If you like Neil Young at all…” As most do, I take Greg’s recommendations and leisurely listenings very seriously. I quickly turned to Rain Plans, the album I kept on hearing about, and fell under that 70s-inspired, yet modern and irresistible spell. Vandy was right — if you want to relive your Neil Young past time, Israel Nash is your ticket to reminisce, while also engage in what is distinctly current and trailblazing. Therefore, I jumped at the opportunity to interview them.

I met with Israel Nash at The Hatchery, located on the second level of the 4-story Acme Feed & Seed in Nashville, TN. We were joined by his band members, including Joey McClellan (guitar), Aaron McClellan (bass), Eric Swanson (pedal steel) and Josh Fleischman (drums).

The entire second floor is one enormous room with several bars and multiple groupings of comfortable, eclectic seating, from church pews to living room couches to high-back restaurant-style booths, and more. The decor is rural/industrial, if you can imagine it. The walls are covered in old metal printing plates with varied subject matter, pieced together like a mosaic. Old windows hang like pieces of art from the ceiling. It was a bright and comfortable setting for our meeting. We grabbed some refreshments from the bar and settled our large group into one of the booths. I was eager to speak directly with each of the band members to discover their personal thoughts and experiences during their time at AmericanaFest and beyond.

Lauren Jahoda: What I love about this album is that it has the versatility to be played either really gentle or really soft, but when you’re live you have the ability to blow it out and play really loud. Do you agree with that? Is this intentional?

Israel Nash: That’s cool. Um. There is such a difference between making a record and playing live. They don’t have the same energy. I think it’s two different things, ya know. I mean live, we are louder, a lot louder than we are in the studio.

Band: At heart we’re all rock and rollers, so we all want to tear it up live.

LJ: Do you all come from a rock and roll background?

IN: Yeah! Classic rock, 70s era … these ideas of albums and legendary shows or whatever that is, we all kind of have a deep obsession with that.

LJ: That inspiration definitely comes through on the albums and during your shows.

IN: Yeah. Before we made the record we were obsessed with old records and had conversations when listening to those old records, like, “How do you make it sound like that?!” A lot of it is also comfort in a studio and being an artist and an understanding of how all this works. That changes a lot, ya know, from being a kid playing the guitar and making albums in a serious way, when it’s a committed project, ya know. So I think it was about discovering all these albums that we all liked and figuring out how to make it all come together somehow and in some way. We recorded the album to a 16-track Studer tape machine we got. We’re very much about the session. We all stayed at the house for two and a half weeks and just lived there and made the album.

LJ: So you just live and breathe the album for that period of time?

IN: Yeah and that’s how the guys used to do it. When you had these big legends who can just rent out these big spaces. And I feel like now in studios, you get your 10 hour block and you go back home and I like the idea of committing to it being all about the project. So that’s what we did.

LJ: Where did you record Rain Plans?

IN: In my house in Dripping Springs, Texas.

LJ: Did you build a studio?

IN: No. We did it in my living room. We basically just took all the furniture out. It’s a really big living room with tall ceilings and stuff and our engineer is in the room with us, Ted, and so we had a lot of gear but it looks like a studio…in the pictures and stuff (laughs). But, it was the house. The kitchen was behind a big tapestry that we put up. The idea was that we could all be there and chill out, it’s out in the country.

LJ: That’s great. I’m sure devoting that time together and creating the album makes the experience that much more meaningful. You recorded your second album, Barn Doors & Concrete Floors, in a barn in the Catskills, correct?

IN: Yeah.

LJ: We’re from New York, so we’re familiar with the area and love the Catskills.

IN: Oh really?

Aaron: It was right on the border of where Pennsylvania kind of bumps into New York. Right near the town of Liberty.

IN: I know that was a small town close by.

LJ: Yeah. Right by Route 17, I know it well.

IN: Yeah! The diner over there…what is it? The Liberty Diner?

Band: The Roscoe Diner.

IN: Yeah! The Roscoe Diner — it was probably only just a few miles from that place. Yeah, we found it on Craig’s List and it was just a house that had an old barn. We went up to the studio, or the house, with the engineer and we were like “we can make a record here.” So we just got all the stuff together and just lived there. So that was the first experience that I had with that. It was all these guys, except for Josh (laughs)…he’s forgiven me…but that was the first time to get into that for us.

LJ: Recording and being in an unconventional space like that…

IN: Yeah. It’s very serious to me. Ya know, I don’t care too much to be in the studio to make a record. I feel so much more comfortable in that setting. I feel the comfort. The comforts you have individually and shared…it goes into that. The spirit and good time. Making good music and being at ease.

LJ: I agree. That’s important. You will probably never do it the other way again.

IN: No way. Like “Joey’s gonna come in and lay guitar parts down at 3 or 4 o’clock!” – I know people make great records like that, but it’s just not me.

LJ: Since having done one album in a barn in the Catskills and Rain Plans at your home in Dripping Springs, TX, do you think you will do the next one in your home again or somewhere new?

IN: No. I’m going to build a studio on the land. That’s the plan for the next few months.

LJ: What kind of vision do you have for that studio?

IN: Well I don’t have very much money, so I’m building the cheapest building I can. There are these quonset arch buildings that come in kits, you can make one for 12 grand or something and all you need is a slab of concrete and a bunch of guys.

(laughs)

Band: (laughs) We’re still looking for those.

IN: The plan is to build a studio space that you could live in and eventually it would hopefully become open to other artists as well. We like analog-type studios that have places for people to live and we have 15 acres in the hill country, so just to be there for a week or whatever, and make records.

LJ: Israel, you’re originally from Missouri. Where are the rest of you guys from? How did you all meet?

Band: We’re all from different areas but we all lived in New York at the same time. That’s where we met. The three of us have all known each other for a long time, we’re from Texas originally…

IN: (joking) They used to be brothers.

Joey: We’re still brothers.

(laughs)

Band: Then we all moved to New York and we met Israel. We needed a drummer and that’s when we met Josh.

IN: It was close knit and ya know, these guys were all from Texas originally and we had played SXSW a few years ago and I just really liked the weather and the vibe. There comes a point when you’re in New York when you’re like “What do we do now?”…ya know. All of us had the same idea originally…like, we’re going to go to New York, live in the big city, which was great at the time.

LJ: Was your move from Missouri to New York spontaneous or planned?

IN: It was very short-planned (laughs). It was fairly spontaneous. I mean, we had enough time to plan for a garage sale and a few other things. So yeah, it was.

LJ: Did you feel there would be more opportunity for you in New York?

IN: Yeah…

LJ: You did find your band there.

Joey: We all had a fantasy of New York. Bob Dylan and all of the bands we loved were there…that’s like the pinnacle…New York is the place you want to be. It’s mysterious and all that so, we all kind of had a vision of what New York was.

Eric: It’s magnetic. I never had been to New York until 3 months before I moved there and I went there and I was like okay, I have to be here.

IN: I mean, it is a cool place to be, especially during that period of my life. Especially after you’ve been there for awhile, you know the city and you’ve developed friendships and that’s the most rewarding thing…developing the friendships and relationships that I’ve had the opportunity to get close to people you know and love. It kind of makes everything else easier.

LJ: We’re you guys on the first two albums as well?

Band: Not on the first album, but on the second one, yeah.

LJ: I watched your performance on KEXP and I remember that you were picked up by a small label in Holland and that the reception of your first two albums was a lot stronger in Europe than in the US. And with Rain Plans, there has been a tremendous and positive response from the US. Why do you think that is?

Joey: It’s like the age-old question – no one really knows the answer. We played in another band and we did well in Europe and we had the same issues as well. It’s like, ya know, you always want to make it in America.. it’s like the big prize. I don’t know why it is.

IN: I mean I think partially for what we’ve been doing, the team was evolving in Europe. There wasn’t really a team evolving in the states. There’s always the other side of what we’re doing, ya know, it’s not just playing music and writing songs, there are so many other people involved in Europe that had a team that hadn’t been developed in the states until the second album. I was just like, well, I got work in Europe and I play music for a living so I’m going to go there. I’m hoping to play a little more in the states and get a little work and I’ll be alright.

LJ: It definitely takes patience.

IN: There’s not much left (laughs).

LJ: (laughs) Well, you’ve played AmericanaFest so I feel like that’s pretty good.

Band: It was a great way to start off the tour for us.

LJ: You just played at the High Watt, and you’re playing again tomorrow at the Bootleg BBQ, right?

Band: Yeah.

LJ: I’m really looking forward to that. Where are you headed next?

IN: In terms of the tour or in terms of today?

LJ: (laughs) Both!

IN: I think we head to Knoxville on Sunday and then we are on tour until late October and then today…

LJ: Drink?

Band: It’s certainly a possibility (laughs).

IN: What day is it?

LJ: Friday.

IN: Yep, we’ll be right here (laughs).

LJ: It’s very clear with Rain Plans, that your move to Texas was a big inspiration for the album. What’s motivating your next album?

IN: I’m working on new stuff and we’re planning on getting into the studio in February or so for the new album. I think that move for me was way bigger than just a move…it was a life-changing thing for me on many levels, which has so much to do with the move but also so little to do with the move. As an artist, it definitely changes the music and what’s going on but I don’t think I need to move again to make an album or anything. The bigger thing is having the confidence and knowledge, I don’t know, I just have a much clearer idea of how it is…the expectations and different roles. Rain Plans was very much written with these guys in mind and the songs were very much about coming together and each of us giving pieces of ourselves to it and if you listen to the album and listen to each of these guys play and you’ll hear something completely different. It’s like wow, it’s someone owning their…it’s amazing to work with people who are serious about the craft…it’s part of you. Whatever it is…your passion. It’s fed by nothing else.

LJ: You look at people in the audience and they get it, the don’t take that for granted. It’s very much appreciated here at AmericanaFest.

IN: I think there is something really cool about…ya know, like last night and even today, there are people giving you compliments…it’s not like “hey, bad ass show. Cool guitar part.” It’s appreciative. That was our experience in Europe too. People thanking us for giving them something. It’s really great.

LJ: I really enjoy the song “Iron Of the Mountain,” can you tell me about creating that song?

IN: Um…I’m gonna make up something really cool (laughs). No, “Iron Of the Mountain” is a song about… iron represents blood and blood of the land and family and being married to the land in some way that’s bigger than us. That’s kind of what that song is about – and being on the road and being in the country and making up for lost time. It’s so simple, to me, ya know. As a songwriter, I like to just be honest…So that song is just about family.

LJ: It’s a great song.

IN: I’ll make some demos of ideas and share it with the guys and then before we make a record, like with Rain Plans, I sent them the songs and then re-sent the songs with just me on guitar because I don’t want to be like overly…I did these things so you should do those things. I don’t like to get into that. That’s the reason you have players here and all these guys like to play their instruments better than I can play their instruments, ya know. I feel like there’s some magic that comes together when people prepare music fresh and just kind of collaborate. I think with that song…(to the band) do you remember recording that song? I remember Eric because he has a big solo at the end.

LJ: Pedal steel is my favorite. It just stings you, ya know…

IN: Yeah…church in a box.

Eric: If you try playing one, it will quickly become not your favorite instrument (laughs).

LJ: I’ve heard it’s extremely difficult to play.

IN: Our European fans asked, is that a keyboard? (laughs)

LJ: How did you get into playing pedal steel?

Eric: Um, I’ve only played for three years. Basically, with Barn Doors, he had some pedal steel on it that I didn’t play on and when we went on tour and he said well hey, I’d love to have a pedal steel player and it was something I had always considered doing anyways, so I just learned it.

IN: Yeah. I didn’t even know he bought one. He said he got one and I was like, what?? With Rain Plans, I had this idea that I wanted pedal steel on every song because with Barn Doors, it was a post-album thing. It was like $150 for every song to get this guy on pedal steel. I thought, it’s almost done, we don’t need it yet. I really wanted pedal steel on this album and Eric does it in a way that’s really unique.

Eric: They don’t know that I really don’t know what I’m doing (laughs).

LJ: It adds a lot. It seems like you guys have a great dynamic going.

IN: I don’t like the idea of hired guns and these guys are changing… These guys are my friends and I just like making music and hanging out with them. Ya know it’s so easy for someone to make music and it be all about me. No one’s more important here. From you guys, to fans, we’re all here. People are just doing things. You need people around you that you care about and who care about you. I think once you find that, it’s alright.

LJ: That’s what it’s all about.

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