Nate Wilson: Schools Out For Summer
Nate Wilson first cut his teeth playing in Percy Hill, a seminal jazz-rock outfit which rose to promise at the start of the third-generation jamband movement. Since that time, the prodigal keyboardist has balanced his love of rock and jazz like ying-and-yang, studying jazz at New England Conservatory and serving as Reid Genauer’s primary foil in the rock-based Assembly of Dust. Later this summer, Wilson will also launch a tour under his own name, focusing on his latest batch of original compositions. Below, Wilson discusses his new project, the status of AOD’s next album and the future of Percy Hill as well his plans while “school’s out for the summer”
MG- Who exactly is in the Nate Wilson Group?
NW- The usual suspects: Adam Terrell, John Leccesse, Yahuba Garcia and Tom Arey. John and I have been playing together since we were teenagers. I met Yahuba Garcia a few years ago at some random club gig in Northern Massachusetts after a Strangefolk show. I had gone down to see them play and actually missed their show [laughs]. We all went to a bar afterwards and Yahuba was playing in this band and I just really dug his playing, so I went up and asked for his card. He probably thought I was nuts! We hit it off and I had him do a lot of studio session work with Percy Hill and he played some live shows with us too. Tom used to play in Uncle Sammy. Playing with him has actually been a really great surprise. I had played with him once with Sam Kininger, but I didn’t quite realize how versatile he was. He’s just done a really nice job of learning all the music.
MG- What initially sparked your interest in starting a solo band?
NW- I’m at the New England Conservatory studying jazz and I just went through this songwriting binge and I was itching to get out and play this material live. So, half the stuff we are playing is new material that I have written and the other half is stuff that I have written for Percy Hill or AOD. Steve Kimock is playing some of these dates with us so we are also going try to play some of his material too.
MG- Your latest batch of songs definitely has a more pronounced rock feel. Do you see yourself moving away from Percy Hill’s more jazz-driven textures?
NW- Lately, I have been going back to the music I grew up on—-rock and roll from the Woodstock-era for lack of better term. You can’t ever shake that sound. There was so much great music that came from the sixties and seventies. It was the original stuff and it’s hard to break away from that. I go on tangents where I will listen to nothing but jazz for two years, but, for some reason, I always go back to that stuff that I listened to when I was 15. So, I’ve been revisiting that stuff and it’s definitely changed the way I have been writing. I guess I could say it’s “a simpler sort of approach,” less complex or sophisticated, but in a good way. School is so intensive, it’s a straight jazz program. I love that stuff, I thrive on it . But, by the end of the year, I’m so ready to rock. It’s like “school’s out for summer.” Just don’t tell any of my professors!
MG- After spending so many years playing club gigs, what is it like studying music in an academic environment again?
NW- It’s a two year program and I just finished my first year. More than anything it is an incredible program. There are people there from all around the world there and it’s just so productive to be absorbed in that kind of environment. Everybody is so focused and concentrated on practicing and studying all the time. I have been studying with Danilo Perez who played with Wayne Shorter. It’s just great to be there. I always describe it as a fantasy band camp.
MG- Earlier, you mentioned that Steve Kimock would be joining you for several dates on your upcoming tour. How did that relationship develop?
NW- We met at moe.’s snoe.down festival earlier this year. AOD was playing and I got a chance to play with Kimock as part of the Everyone Orchestra. It’s kind of funny. We were soundchecking and I was getting my keyboards ready and Kimock’s head popped up me. He was just really interested in what I was playing. He had this sort of inquisitive sort of look for lack of better term. I was doing my best McCoy Tyner impression at the moment and it seemed to have really struck a chord with him. So, we just started a conversation and we’ve been talking regularly. I got a chance to play with him and Reed Mathis during Green Apple. It was a last minute thing. I just jumped in a cab and went over to the Blue Note. It was all sort of improvised, but everybody in that group is just such a great listener. They are able to really make sense of all these sounds and make it sound really cohesive.
MG- What Percy Hill songs do you plan to rearrange for your new group?
NW- A lot of the songs from Color and Bloom, like “Beneath the Cover” and “Sun Machine,” and some of the stuff from Percy Hill’s last record like “Door Number Five.” The big difference is that I’m singing all my own songs now. This is the first time I’ve done that and that’s been a really great development for me. For so many years, I’ve always had other people sing my song and interpret them in certain ways which has been cool because that’s another way for it to take its own turn. As a songwriter, you always have your own voice in that composition somewhere, but it’s easy for some things to get lost.
MG- Have you had a chance to rehearse with Kimock yet?
NW- We will get a little chance to rehearse before the first show with him, but, basically, my attitude is that if the rest of us know exactly what we are doing it will make it easier for him to step in and play when he hears it. He’s so tasteful and good at knowing when not to play too, so I think that will work itself out easily.
MG- Do you have a favorite memory from Green Apple?
NW- Yeah, I really enjoyed playing with Martin Sexton. I had never done that before. We really hit it off and then I got a chance to perform with him at Tarrytown Music Hall a few months later. We’ve been talking about trying to do some recording. It was really fun. We just played some songs we all knew, like CSNY tunes. He’s so talented and so easy to work with. I had only met him once, at the Gathering Vibes last year, and, for whatever reason, I didn’t get a chance to hear him play. I think the first time I really saw him was at that Joni Mitchell tribute we did at Carnegie Hall.
MG- In retrospect, what did you take from that Joni Mitchell tribute?
NW- It was really cool. One really interesting thing was to see Sonya Kitchell and where her career has gone since then. She has really blown up in the last six months. It really struck home when I was in the conservatory and walked across the street to Starbucks between classes to grab some coffee and her record was right there!
I can tell people that and they’ll be like, “You’re full of shit!” So that’s been cool. I’ve always been a huge Joni Mitchell fan. It was cool to see those different versions of her tunes. But, more than anything, playing at Carnegie Hall was a once in a lifetime experience. Just being in there with all that music soaked into the walls.
MG- A version of Percy Hill toured earlier this year. Do you have any plans to tour under that name again?
NW- No actually. That’s past for me. John and I have both decided to move on. For one reason or another, they’ve got some things happening. I don’t know if they’re planning on doing much in the future either, but it should be interesting to see.
More than anything, it’s just nice to be in another situation. I think the Percy Hill thing has sort of eroded on a personal and musical level for a while. It just gets to a point where you’re doing something just because you can or because it’s easy. You just take a look at some point, especially with everything that I’m doing with AOD and school and everything. If I’m going to make the time to do something on top of all of that it has got to be really gratifying. Plus, the new material I have been developing, and the fact that I’m trying to sing it myself, are signs that I am sort of moving into new places.
MG- What is the status of AOD’s next studio project?
NW- It’s all in a can. We are just waiting to get it out there. It looks like it’s going be close to Christmas when that comes out. We are doing a lot of work on that, just getting it out there. It’s a mix of new material and songs we have played on the road. One of my songs,
“Walking on Water,” is on the album. It’s kind of a ballad that hasn’t gotten a whole ton of time live. I think what’s really nice about the latest AOD thing is that it’s really our first studio project as a band. We made a record under Reid Genauer’ s name when we first got together, but there is some ambiguity as to whether that’s a band effort or a Reid solo album. At that time, I had played maybe 3 or 4 gigs with the band and Reid just called me to come in and do some session work. Since that point, we’ve written together, we’ve performed a lot, and we made that live album. It’s really our first chance to show where the band is at in the studio. I think it’s the most cohesive sort of snapshot of the band that we’ve been able to come up with. The songs are really strong and the production is where we want it to be.
MG- Did you work with an outside producer?
NW- We self-produced it and recorded it mostly up here in New Hampshire. And, actually, we did some of the basic tracks in the studio in Maine, which has been nice because I’ve been up in this area forever and it was comfortable for me. The record happened over a long span of time. It wasn’t like we just banged it out in a weekend. It’s great. I’m really happy with the way it’s come along. I’m expecting good things from it.
MG- How has your songwriting relationship with Reid evolved since the Assembly of Dust formed?
NW- We have continued to collaborate. It’s great and it’s been a really interesting thing. The songs always come out as something independent of what either of us would have come up with in the first place. It’s an interesting evolutionary process. It’s kind of neat because I have a lot of musical ideas that I come up with that I wind up abandoning further down the road just because I can’t get it together to finish it or it just doesn’t seem like it’s coming together. A lot of times, I’ll just send those ideas Reid’s way and he will kind of interpret them in his own way and suddenly, there it is.
The other thing that’s been cool is being able to write in a different setting. I write differently for AOD than I would for my own group. You have a certain style in mind or you have to think about what the strengths of the group are in general. It’s nice to have those parameters sometimes. It kind of reins you in.
MG- Do you find it difficult to practice with AOD given your busy schedule?
NW- We are all spread out geographically, so we don’t get together that often. But, when we do, we have these marathon rehearsals. We really try to get together that way and do as much preparation ahead of time as we can. I’ve been recently using my laptop and writing my songs just to get demo ideas to all the other guys that play so when they come into the rehearsal they basically know the tunes. Those kinds of things help. They cut down on what you have to do in a rehearsal when you’re dealing with limited time.
MG- In the future, would you hope to bring your new group into the studio?
NW- It’s just basically a pipe dream at this point, but it’s definitely something I intend to make happen at the right time. I’ve been working with Garage Band on my Mac to write this latest batch of songs. I put together these demos and threw them up on my MySpace account. What you hear there is basically robot music, but it gets the songs across. There’s a song called “Justify” that I wrote a few months ago which I like and there’s another song called “Breathe” which is a composition that’s a little more involved.
I think time is the best thing for a song. The more time you have between when you write a song and when you record it, especially if you can go out and play it, the better. There have been so many times where we will be out on the road playing a song, we might have played it 25 times already, and that 26th time it’s like suddenly, “aw man we should cut out half the second verse!” It’s just basically editing that happens after you play a song a lot of times. It’s like maybe we need something here, maybe we don’t need something there. So, for me, when I write songs they come out in varying degrees of completion, depending on how complete the thought was at the time. Some songs are just totally done and they never change at all. Other songs take completely different turns. I think time and playing live is the best thing for any musical endeavor.