Tuesday, January 29, 2008
THE NEW NATION
from Bootleg Magazine April 2007
It’s a chilly St. Paddy’s Day. Inside a large white tent outside Fibber McGee’s stands a shaky rented stage. Like a circus tent, two large poles point to the cold, near spring sky. Green balloons rest against the top as if waiting to escape. Down front is a checkerboard black and white dance floor, squares large as if a human sized chessboard. People dance at the foot of it, mostly girls with tans that are early for this time of year. They dance with each other, bare stomachs and hair tied up. A few have green balloons tied to their head like characters from Dr. Seuss’s playful world.
They are dancing to rock and roll music, not classic rock, but blistering and funky rock and roll. The New Nation is into their third set for the day, opening with an original tune, ‘Freedom.’ The band moves, both musically and literally, setting fire to both their original songs and the ones they cover. But cover is a loose term. Of the covers, save for ‘Red House,’ they are reinterpretations of the original version. ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ is made funkier, devoid of its marching rhythm, replaced with a laid back swagger. The same could be said of ‘Midnight Rambler,’ but their take, while funkier, also benefits from blistering guitar interplay between guitarists Callaway Rich and Rob Ronner. Whereas Ronner is upfront in his playing, Callaway is content play along soulfully, letting his playing burn feverishly and do the talking.
The band feeds off one another, moving around a lot. They like to open with ‘Freedom’ because it tends to loosen people up, letting a crowd know they mean business. The cross between funk and rock is where the band is moving towards. One minute it can melt a crowd and cools them back down the next.
The stage is swaying back and forth slightly. Ronner plays the guitar high up on his chest, belts out lyrics and steps away to play more intensely. Drummer Brian Collins is complete power, hammering away behind the kit as well as singing on some songs. Bassist Brennan Simmons is the most sedate of the band, strumming along, enjoying the groove. But as the sets play on his energy comes from somewhere hidden, half jumping up and down and bobbing his head to the rhythm. The New Nation is band who moves around the stage a lot. The music is not necessarily performed, but experienced, taken to a place, if you are willing, to go with them.
One need only listen to the breakdown at the heart of ‘She’s Got to Go,’ an implosion of funk and rock powerful enough to make Humble Pie and Sly Stone proud. The breakdown brings the song to its knees and then right back up. Those brief silences make it all the more intense, Zeppelin-esque (think ‘Bring It On Home’) without sounding anything like Zeppelin.
The New Nation is many different things, rock, funk, a little jam band and intent on finding something in the music. The point is to make music that isn’t disposable, that is soulful and unflinchingly honest. There is no gimmicks, no packaging, no pretensions, just the belief that music is not disposable but a part of living.
Ronner, whose height is a minor characteristic until he steps off the stage, sits his guitar down and approaches, his shirt soaked with sweat. He is a good foot taller than the average six foot tall person. His voice is raspy but unnoticeable while singing.
Callaway steps off stage and breaks a wide grin. Onstage he appears serious. From behind long black hair a single eye is visible and looks utterly focused. Once it’s done, after he pulls away his guitar from the speaker and places it down he changes. He loves music. He comes over and mentions The Red Devils, a band we both share a rabid interest in. He tells me he’s trying to get a copy of The Red Devils’ singer, Lester Butler’s other band called 13. It’s a strange name for a band given Butler’s demise. But if you ever heard The Red Devil’s only album, King King, you’d bare witness to the power of a band, of how playing live can melt your mind in the best way. Inside the tent at Fibber’s was evidence of that power, melding rock and funk and soul with heavy playing. Sheer power.
The band leaves long enough to grab a beer before the next set. It’s been a busy weekend, playing the night before outside in the cold, today’s set in the warmth of the tent and another show in only a few hours outside in the cold again.
The New Nation started coming together less than a year ago when Ronner and fellow guitar player Callaway, who moved to Wilmington from Ohio after finishing college, started playing around Wilmington. Ronner played solo for a while, doing semi acoustic sets around town for several hours at a stretch. That went on for months with friend Jake on Congas.
It was just over a year ago I Interviewed Ronner for Avenue and he was talking then about forming a band. He was doing well for himself at the time but there was the sense he wanted more, that he wanted to play with other musicians. “It’s fun to play with a band,” he said at the time. “I’m more into rocking now,” he says today.
Sunday afternoon, after the St. Paddy’s gig, a black cat slinks through the back yard of Ronner’s home. It’s chilly out, the sun is full and a gentle southern blue sky hangs over. The band sits on lawn furniture, sipping cold beers, while brushed with a cold breeze that makes new leaves cackle softly. They all get along like brothers, cutting up and pushing and shoving at each other.
“Some shows we play by the seat of our pants, no set list,” Brennan says. “We’ll look at each other and say, “Hey, what do you want to start with?”
“We know our set list front to back,” Brian says. “So we don’t need one.”
“Opening for someone we have a set list,” Brennan adds. The band opened for Tishamingo recently at Front Street Music Hall. “Those are great guys, fun dudes who play damn good music.”
Brennan lived in New Orleans and left before Hurricane Katrina. He lived in Chaumet, the only place not covered by the levee system. It doesn’t exist anymore. Eight miles from French Quarter, Brenna bartended there, but did not play music.
“It’s all the same, Zydeco. Pretty cool jazz scene, though.”
His musical influence came from the heart, his mom, who played in an eighteen piece Big Band. Not being able to afford a baby sitter she brought Brennan along to the gigs. His mother, Donna Merritt, plays locally as a professional pianist at Circa 1922 and Costello’s. Brennan grew up playing drums listening to Big Band and Swing music. At 18, still in high school, he went on a tour playing in an Elvis impersonation band in casinos.
“She got me the gig. She played piano for them and they just canned their drummer,” Brennan says. “That’s where I learned to just go and do it. I rather fail miserably rather than looking back.”
Ronner first met Callaway at The Rusty Nail, heard him play a solo and was impressed. The two hit it off and when Callaway moved to Wilmington to live with his girlfriend the germination of the band started. Callaway played most of last summer’s gigs with Ronner. After one at the Ale House, Brennan sent an e-mail. The bassist came over and Ronner felt good about it.
“I said we’re getting somewhere now and then Brennan suggested Brian for drums,” Ronner says. “He obviously paid attention to what was on the record (Ronner’s solo disc All in Time). Everything came together really well for a first practice.”
“We went and played that night,” Brennan says. “Just flew by the seat of our pants.”
Ronner played an acoustic set and then brought the rest of the band on and they played for an hour and a half. In the last six months The New Nation has been moving towards its own sound.
“I like jam bands but we don’t go into a twelve minute opus, we do it within reason, keep it tight but interesting for ourselves,” Callaway explains. “With originals we try to keep them going for a little bit unless there’s something in the moment that sparks our interest to explore more. I want to continue to look for our sound. Right now its still rock but it has a different groove to it. There’s a Meters influence, Dr. John, its groove rock.”
The songs on All in Time sound nothing like the band now. They don’t play acoustic much because the momentum tends to drop out when they play it.
“They’re good tunes,” Brennan says.
“The energy just falls out,” Ronner “You open up with ‘Freedom’ or ‘She’s Got To Go’ and the walls start melting. ‘She’s a Dime’ is all wah peddle and funked out, a heads up to the Meters.”
“Yeah, exactly,” Brennan says. “When we started out we still played ‘Candy Cane’ like it was on the record. Now, it sounds so much smarter, edgier, we jam it out much longer than it was.”
“On the album, it was a pretty funk tune,” Ronner adds. “Everything we do is funky and we add a raw dog feel to it. Nothing we do is overly pretty, but it’s together.”
Everyone’s school of playing is a little different. Brennan is at the opposite end coming with a background of pop college music like Toad the Wet Sprocket or Duncan Sheik. “Our sound is polished but it’s not pretty,” Brennan says. “Rob and Callaway are jam guitarists and Brian beating the hell out of it, throwing down Bonham style.”
In addition to more up-tempo sounds and guitar players is the addition of drums. Brian came from a metal background, playing in bands doing a lot of cover tunes. Bands like Audacity where he met Brennan, seeing the bassist play at the Mellow Mushroom.
“I found Rob and it’s been great ever since. Brennan and I met at an open mic night and got along really well. “Brennan saw Rob at the Ale House and his then girlfriend said for me to go and audition. But I didn’t right away.”
“He was playing hard to get,” Ronner jokes. “We started out doing covers. You have to do them at bars. Not that I don’t dig the songs I just don’t dig copping someone else’s song. I’d rather do our own stuff.”
The songs they cover are well known but they sound different. The band just bakes differently when playing other people’s music. “We don’t really try, it’s just the way it comes out,” Brennan says.
‘Feeling Alright’ is an old stand by and their version of ‘One Way Out’ ignores the double time on the drums. Both Ronner and Callaway are strong guitar players and at some point it begs the question, do they run over one another, clashing in their interplay on stage?
“Callaway and I are real good at staying out of each other’s way. He’s a big fan of playing big chords and I used to play jazz all the time. If he’s on the low end then I’m high. We just have a good sense of that, especially solos. We came from the same school of guitar players for the most part. Our top ten guitar players probably varies by two people. We’re into the same kind of cats, born with the same kind of style. If he’s been rockin somewhere in a position for enough time you can feel it coming. We kind of think the same way.”
While that may be true the learning came from two different ways of educating. “Rob is more of a songwriter type but also in terms of his guitar playing he tends to have a little more technique on me, taking jazz classes in college,” Callaway says. “I’m more of a go straight for the jugular type. I never really did that. I learned the basic chords and definitely more of a harder type, more aggressive than he is. He definitely has some great technique to him.”
Just a forty-five minute drive from Detroit, Callaway Rich grew up in Toledo, Ohio. The influence of the music spilled over, introducing Callaway to blues rock by the likes of Bob Seger and the energy of Ted Nugent.
His father was into Allman Brothers, southern rock and the British wave of blues rock while his mother is from South America to which Callaway lived in a house filled with a lot of Hispanic music growing up. Between the two he found common ground. Whenever he needs to reevaluate his guitar playing it’s the early albums of Santana that put things in perspective.
“When I’m getting in a rut, not really pushing my self, I listen to the stuff that excited me and inspired me to play,” he says. Albums like Santana’s Abraxas or tracks like ‘Samba Pa Ti.’ “The first album by Santana had the Latin drums I was used to hearing growing up…and kick ass guitar. “
The budding guitarist took lessons until his instructor told said that he didn’t feel like teaching Callaway anymore. The instructor was saying the only way Callaway would get better came meant playing with other musicians.
“In bands, you learned what was gonna work or what didn’t,” Callaway says.
“That’s your college,” Brennan adds.
By the late teens he was trying to play more blues stuff. Some local musicians took him in but he still had to earn a spot. The alternative music scene in clubs downtown offered experience but it didn’t satisfy.
“It still had a classic guitar sound but I wanted to learn something for myself. I wanted someone to teach me something.” While many of his friends were getting into Korn he began jamming with harmonica players and singers….learning. “I respect it (Korn) for what it was but I was gonna go listen to Muddy Waters.”
Instead of playing with people his own age, Callaway found himself in a world of much older guys.
“It’s like, if I’m gonna go to war, I’m gonna go with a guy who’s been in a war as opposed to someone who’s studied warfare. I played with a lot of old blues guys who’ve been around, playing with some gruff motherfuckers, so I always tried to look hard being fifteen, sixteen, playing with a 65 year old black guy in a pin striped suit, trying not to look like I should be sitting outside of the club on breaks hoping somebody will buy me a beer. It developed to where I look mean. My girlfriend says I look mean all the time.”
Mean or not, what he learned about playing was subtlety and command, knowing when it’s required for you to do something and not do something.
“It’s about subtlety. I can remember being sixteen on stage trying to rip the guitar solo and play behind my head and some mean sonofabitch telling me if I did it again he was gonna kick my ass off the stage. Restraint is definitely a missing art form in music.”
Those experiences shaped him as a player and a musician, not just performing with humbleness and dexterity but knowing what he wants in a band. The New Nation is the most focused of any group he’s played with, as far as what all the members want.
“I’ve been playing with Rob for a year now. On top of practicing we were out in front of people several nights a week. When you’re in front of people, you have to sink or swim.”
Callaway’s plan was to play lead guitar with Ronner as a side man at first, as a member of Ronner’s backing band. Now, Ronner still writes the bulk of material but it is developed by the band. He comes in with a skeleton of a song and the band completes it.
“He comes in with a melody and it gets all banged out when we play it together,” Callaway says.
Originally, the band started out as Rob Ronner and Creation Nation. Ronner left his name on so people who liked him would know it was still him with aiming to take his name off later. But the alliteration was too much. Sitting around a bar one night someone said “how about the New Nation?”
It spoke to an idea Ronner has held since that interview a year ago, that it was time for everything come full circle again in these times of American Idol. There’s always been that, been a Star Search and pop music. But Ronner is aware of what’s being sold to the public and how easily it’s consumed, with little questioning. He speaks plainly about it but his comments are brimming with passion for a new direction.
“It’s got to give; it’s coming to a head. The New Nation is a new approach, where people aren’t eating what they’re being fed anymore. They want to look for things, get more out of music than what they’re getting right now. Not putting it on just to bob your head or work out…a new age of where bubblegum stuff moves out. There are a so many great people out there that are being overlooked for what’s packaged and easy. When I see a lot of these new bands being signed, not to take away from them, but there’s quite a few I’d put ahead of them. Our tunes are playful but have something serious. Vonnegut said you kill yourself if you start putting politics in your art (from Wampeters, Foma & Granfallons) I’m cool with that, that makes a lot of sense. It hit me hard; to not make this a political thing, but to bring people together, make them happy. “
It’s not that the band isn’t looking for a catchy song to get people to remember them; the importance is to create something to put on a shelf and want to listen to over the years, music that means something and has a place.
“We have songs like ‘Goodbye to Rain’ that’s been going over real well because the sound,” Brian says.
“When I was writing it, I hit that chorus the first time even before the band got together. I thought that’s gonna be big. Callaway plays slide on it which I wouldn’t thought would have worked,” Ronner says. “Really good choice.”
As a drummer, Brian gets to see the band gel. “I get to watch the three of them, feed off watching everyone playing, it helps me keep my momentum the way Rob and Callaway feed off one another, Rob leaning back and Callaway’s eyes rolling back in his head. We do a Dead tune, ‘Franklin’s Tower’ and they both take a solo then incorporate together and it’s amazing to see.” Brian adds. “My playing has evolved, coming from a metal crowd; I take my playing in stride, having evolved into a whole different style. Local drummer Sam Bryant, who played with Kenny Wayne Sheppard, has been a lot of help to me.”
Ronner is equally admiring. “You add a color that wouldn’t be there otherwise. We were playing an acoustic show and the way Brian was playing a guy came up and said we should cover Jethro Tull. That’s what Brian’s drumming is, it’s pretty heavy. He’s good, when he wants to lay back he can lay back but he can pepper the shit when he wants to,” Ronner says.