On stage, Detroit’s afro-beat/free-jazz ensemble Nomo is an energetic, eight-person outfit that shifts shapes into various combinations of horns, keys and rhythms. The band — which has apparently had more than sixty contributors but now comprises a core of Eliot Bergman, bandleader, composer, saxophone and keyboard player; Dan Bennett on baritone sax; Jamie Register on bass and vocals; Justin Walker and Ingrid Racine on trumpet; Dan Piccolo on drums; Erik Hall on guitar and cymbals; and Olman Piedra on congas — was miscast between a pair of indie-rock bands at a recent performance at New York City’s Mercury Lounge, but it’s likely that Nomo’s performance was the one people left talking about.
The group was playing alongside friend and producer Warren DeFever’s His Name Is Alive in support of its first focused studio record, New Tones, released by Ubiquity in May. The album stands strong with a big, confident sound matched with an intelligence that is rare in bands so intent on making its listeners’ feet move. The sound coming from the stage is serious, but the members give the impression that they’re having a whole lot of fun making it. That spirit proves infectious as they move a standstill New York City crowd into a bouncing dance circle by set’s end.
Hardly industry insiders, Nomo’s fans include BBC sound-selectors Gilles Peterson and Benji B, who have had tracks from New Tones in regular rotation for more than a month, as well as one of afro-beat’s official torch carriers, Rich Medina, who brokered the band a four-song vinyl release on his Kindred Spirits label earlier this year. We sat down with Bergman before the Mercury Lounge show to talk about the origins of the band, how its songs develop, and why killing the PA system is sometimes a risk worth taking.
Can you talk a little bit about how you put this band together?
Bergman: Well, we tallied it up about a year ago and I think there’s been around sixty people who have played with the band at one time or another. I lived in the same house in Ann Arbor for a number of years in college, and I was kind of the constant member, then there would be four or five people rotating in and out, all musicians. So the band really started as a loose conglomerate of everyone we knew in Ann Arbor. So it started really loose at first and then began to take shape over time. Warren [Defever], who does His Name Is Alive, was moving out of his studio and he just said, “Why don’t you bring over everyone you can find, we’ll set up all the microphones I own and we’ll sit down and record whatever we do and then pack it up and move out.” That was really the first time we all got together and formed anything that resembled a band. And also I had hurt my jaw and couldn’t really play my saxophone, so my friend gave me his Rhodes and I started writing a lot of music on that. So it started out as a band simple enough that I could play keyboards for. I would play a saxophone solo once in a while, but I’m still having trouble with my jaw so I try to do other things. But saxophone will always be my first instinct.
So what’s the writing process like with that many people?
Bergman: Well, usually I come up with a germ of the composition where I have an idea for the drums and have the bass line and the guitar parts figured out.
And do you always build off the rhythm?
Bergman: Yeah, a lot of it is built off the bass, actually, and then the guitar. Because I feel like if you have those two in place, it should be fairly obvious what the drums should be doing. But sometimes it’s easier for someone other than the drummer to hear that part more clearly. The truth is a lot of this music doesn’t appeal to the drummer or the sax player or the musician in you because it is very repetitive, so people have to kind of get over themselves in this band because it’s all pretty specific and in order for it to work it has to be a certain way. It takes a certain amount of selflessness and restraint. You almost have to be invisible in this band because the texture of what everyone is doing together is what’s important; it’s not any one player. That’s not to say there isn’t room for solo voice and individual personality, because there are a lot of strong players in the band. But everyone has to stay dedicated to the bigger sound that we’re going for.
Is the recording process difficult?
Bergman: The first record we did in two nights with fifteen people in the room. We did two or three takes of every song, but all the solos were live, so if it was a bad solo it was a bad take. That was pretty fun because how it sounds is kind of what it was, you know? Just a big party in a room. But this one we did at many different studios — primarily at United Sound in Detroit and Key Club in Ann Arbor, but also in my basement and at Warren’s house — so we were trying more to get the basic tracks and then we overdubbed the solos. Then there’s other added stuff, like percussion and electronics, that we added later for texture — the kind of stuff you might only pick up on a closer listen. I liked that there were more highlights and things dropping out and there’s shifting layers and a lot of subtle stuff that if you were paying attention you could find.
Yeah, there’s some of that late on a breakdown in “One to One” I was noticing on the train today.
Bergman: With this record I wanted to make something that felt like a dance party as far as being exuberant and joyful but would also stand up to repeat listens, and that takes time. Obviously it took more than two nights this time, but I had a lot of fun really working on it. Because the band hadn’t been something we had to work very hard at because the people that are in it, the players, we get in the same room and it just feels good to play together
And they’re talented musicians.
Bergman: Oh, yeah, nobody is ever struggling. The music is pretty straight forward so a lot of times playing can just be fun. But when you’re making a record you have to say what the important parts of this composition are or what makes this music interesting or makes you move or makes you feel something. And I think after you spend enough time with the songs that stuff starts to reveal itself.
And you guys recorded the whole record and put it together yourselves and then started the process of shopping it around to labels?
Bergman: Yeah, we sent it out initially to like fifteen labels, but Ubiquity was the one that I really kept hounding to listen and respond.
I can’t think of another label where this record would feel more at home.
Bergman: Especially in the States, there’s really not a lot of options.
Let’s talk about some of the influences on the record. Obviously you could say Fela Kuti right off the bat, but were there other things that were in your mind or in your speakers leading up to making this record?
Bergman: Fela is always the first thing out of people’s mouths. And I think that’s fair, but at the same time it’s a little too easy.
I just think if you’re going to talk about Afro-beat every conversation is going to start with Fela.
Bergman: Definitely the overlap is there when you have congas and keyboards and a big horn section, and Fela’s music is always going to be something that is close to me. But compositionally I have more of a jazz background. I grew up with Coltrane and Wayne Shorter and Pharaoh Sanders, and I feel like they are always close to the spirit of what we’re trying to capture. Sun Ra is also a big influence, and I’ve been trying to get my hands on as much of his music as possible.
What about some of the Strata East stuff?
Bergman: Oh, yeah, I like that stuff a lot. But then at the same time I’ve been really into the M.I.A. record and LCD Soundsystem and some of the more interesting things that are being done with dance music. So I wanted to show some of that same energy without having things sound too electronic. I want it to sound like a band and be a band.
But did you have a sound-system mentality with it, where you wanted it to be able to push a system a little harder than your average jazz record?
Bergman: Yeah, exactly. I wanted it to make people dance and hit them in the body but speak to the mind as well.
Bergman: Just keep it in the red! I love that and I definitely like to take Nomo there sometimes. But you have to have the system to support it. Last night I actually had to have them turn off the PA.
Bergman: The band plays really well together in the sense that everyone’s a good listener in terms of being perceptive to not being too loud, and we were just having insurmountable feedback issues last night. I just told the guy to kill the sound system and told everyone to come closer and just play without microphones. And it got people dancing and sounded a lot better and just kind of worked. And the soundman, I thought he was going to be pissed, because that’s kind of a slap in the face, but he came up to me afterward and said, “You know, man, that was a gutsy move and it worked. I think Miles would have approved.”
There’s no higher compliment than that is there?
Bergman: Not really.
What about the Detroit influence? There are a lot of beat-makers and musicians coming out of there.
Bergman: Oh, definitely. Even if that’s not a direct influence on what I’m doing, it’s all around me. I work at a record store with Dabrye, and even just the history there. We recorded at United Sound, which is where the first Motown forty-five was cut. So I feel like even genetically we’re a little disposed to some of that sound and feeling. Also Tribe Records, like Wendell Harrison and Marcus Belgrave, they made stuff in sort of the mid-’70s funky, modal jazz kind of vein. I think some of Phil Ranelin’s stuff got re-issued on Soul Jazz. Also a lot of ASPN stuff like Art Ensemble . Do you know Nicole Mitchell?
Bergman: She plays flute on three tracks, and I wasn’t sure if people were getting that. But Nicole Mitchell, she’s one of the directors of the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. It was one of the great sources for free jazz in the ’60s. It was like Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Fred Anderson. And there’s a younger generation now, with Nicole Mitchell and David Boykin. It’s based in Chicago and it’s a community initiative that does things like give free music lessons for kids, and it’s just a really cool Afrocentric community center run by all these really heavy free-jazz musicians. I grew up around Chicago, so for me that was always the epitome of people coming together, living together, who cared about each other and made really adventurous and challenging music. It seemed like such a radical idea to me to have this challenging avant-garde music and also to realize the importance and power of community as something sustainable. You know? People who care about not only each other but fostering a younger generation too. So for me, having Nicole, who is emerging as the leader of the next generation, is a pretty big honor. We got to play a show in Chicago with her and Fred Anderson, and for me it was really unbelievable.
How did you hook up with her?
Bergman: Just talking to her after shows. They had a big concert at this Chicago cultural center for the organization’s 40th birthday and this was like the 5th time I’d seen her. And I hear so much music and go to so many shows that you get saturated and it becomes harder for something to really cut through to you. And honestly I could get chills just thinking about it. It was really heavy, and I know that sometimes people don’t have that immediate connection with instrumental music, but she had so many levels of feeling within this one particular solo that I was on the verge of crying almost. So I knew I had to at least try and work with her at some point. Then we got asked to do this music festival in Chicago, and I guess to try and differentiate them a little they asked us if we were to have any guests play with us, who would it be? And right away I said Nicole Mitchell and Fred Anderson. And the guy is like, “Okay, well why don’t you just give them a call.” So he got me Nicole’s number and she was into it and then I went down to the Velvet Lounge, which is Fred Anderson’s club, and asked him and he said sure. So it ended up that we had this legitimizing body, the musical mayor’s office backing us up, and that was just great.
It’s got to be hard to get people’s attention without a lead singer, but do you have trouble differentiating yourself from like college-town jam bands too?
Bergman: I think there’s a lot of things that make it easy to say no to us. You know, there’s no lead singer. Although Jamie, who plays bass, sings for us sometimes, but when this record came together it seemed like vocals didn’t really fit, but at the same time I think there might be room for some vocals in the future. But hopefully with touring we’ll clear up some misconceptions, and if you catch us on a good night you’ll figure it out.
Right, I was thinking more in terms of the challenge of getting people there to begin with.
Bergman: Things happen slowly. And you want them to happen fast because you’re so ready. You’ve been thinking about this stuff for ten years, so why is it taking so long to build? I mean, people have to read about you five, sometimes ten times, before they’ll ever think about coming to a show, and there’s really not a lot you can do about that. You have to be sincere and you have to work hard.
And have quality output. Manage what you can manage.
Bergman: Exactly. It’s all worth it in the end, but everyone (in the band) is always pulling in a slightly different direction. I think that’s a part of what makes it good, but it also makes it hard because there is that constant tension. It’s tough, too, because working with Ubiquity is great and they can potentially have a much bigger impact than I can have by myself, but I also have to try and convince five people to want to work as hard on my project as I want to work, and nobody is ever going to put in the effort that you will or think about it as obsessively — like laying in bed worrying about album artwork or if your mom is going to like it or whatever.
We live in a world of show and prove, and all Bergman wants for his band is a chance to do just that. As we pass through various record stores in downtown New York we talk about music and travel, and he tells me about a record store in Paris with some particularly tough Frenchmen behind the counter.
“I asked them if they had any Francis Bebey records, which I know are pretty rare and everything, but the guy gives me a real flat ‘No.’ Then I asked if I could leave some CDs and he wants to know what kind of music it is. So I said Afro-beat. That got a laugh. So then he asks me, ‘From where?’ And when I said America, that really got them going,” Bergman said. “So I figured I had nothing to lose at that point, so I asked them to put it on, and neither guy moves. So I ask him again, and he puts it in the player like he’s doing me this huge personal favor. But then the music starts and he and his friend start to move a little bit, and after the first wave of horns they’re both fully gyrating, and the main guy throws up his hand and shouts, ‘Super funky!’ He ended up buying all the CDs I had and bringing down a signed copy of Francis Bebey’s La Conditione Masculine for me.”
I guess that’s how the story goes when you’re trying to sell a mostly white afro-beat band on an American indie. Bergman might have a hard time getting the record on the turntable, but once the needle touches down, the music will speak for itself.
Band (with streaming audio): http://www.nomomusic.com/