Nero has been tearing up the roads in Canada for a few years now, touring heavily from coast to coast. They have accumulated a dedicated fan base with their unique sound. This month they are descending into the U.S., with seven dates scheduled in July and early August for New York State and Massachusetts.
The Nero set-up is deceptively minimalist. They are an instrumental trio consisting of guitar, bass and drums. Their sound is much bigger than the sum of its parts, however. Technical chops and versatility give this band the ability to move hyper-dimensionally through various idioms of hard rock, jazz, and electronica. The result is a synthesis of danceable styles that takes the listener’s head on a journey while keeping the feet firmly in motion.
Founded five years ago, Nero originally featured guitarist David Lauzon and drummer Jay McConnery along with a bass player and female vocalist. As they evolved, they shed the female lead and went purely instrumental, simultaneously beginning a denser, deeper improvisational sound. Last September they switched bass players, welcoming P.E.I. native Chris Buote. All three in the current lineup are self-taught, having taken only occasional lessons.
I met with McConnery and Lauzon on Queen St. in Toronto before their gig at North By NorthEast, a local rock festival with little or no jammy content ."I’m not sure exactly what we’re doing at this festival," laughs Lauzon. "I was talking to another band, and they were saying, yeah, this festival is a great way for bands to meet each other to do exchanges, you know, play in each other’s markets, etc.’ But we don’t need to do that. Our fans know when and where we’re going to play."
Nero has benefited overwhelmingly from the Canadian Internet communities of jambands.ca and jamhub.ca . The need for separate Canadian boards is a function of that pesky border, and the fact that most American jam bands don’t tour on the north side of it. As a result Canadian heads have taken matters into their own hands, throwing their own prodigal sons and daughters up as jam icons. Bands like Nero, Grand Theft Bus, and Hiway Freeker number among the bands whose news and tour dates proliferate on these boards. Participants generously share tour information, rides, and places to stay. The bands themselves are all overwhelmingly supportive of each other, often touring together and performing "seamless sets" in which the musicians switch up one by one. One such collaborative jam took place on June 22 between Nero and the Montreal-based Freeker. It was an interesting mix, particularly because the two bands’ songs have such divergent styles.
Nero’s compositional process typically begins with Lauzon working on his own, developing melodies and riffs with his guitar, occasionally with the assistance of computer technology. "I used to write with my electric guitar, and then play around with the sounds on my computer using software like SoundForge," he says. "However recently I’ve been carrying around an acoustic guitar instead and using that. It has brought a new dimension to the process, allowed me to see the music in a new way."
Lauzon then brings his inspirations to the band to build upon and arrange. "It’s definitely a democratic process, with all three of us arranging and composing together," says McConnery.
Listening to Nero you can hear how triangulation affects their sound. At many points two of them are engaging in a partnership while the third adds fills or texture. Lauzon and Buote will engage in an intricate call and response between guitar and bass, with McConnery laying down a foundation on the drums. Elsewhere, McConnery and Buote will build a groove with an insistent, irresistible funk while Lauzon either plays harmonic arpeggios or loops spacey, spare effects with his guitar.
The looping guitar effects contribute to the sense of a trance-like groove, locked down by Mc Connery’s dexterous bounce and Buote’s compelling bass lines. The ultimate effect is hypnotic and psychedelic, evoking electronica as often as driving, fast, blues-based rock.
"We grew up with that music," says Lauzon, referring to the raves and dance parties that proliferated in Canada throughout the nineties. "So it’s not surprising that it shows up as an influence."
Lauzon’s finger work is blisteringly fast. His improvisational talent and sustained tone are raw, pure and unassailable; Hendrix comes to mind at times. He has the onstage quality embodied by many jam guitarists, which is to say corduroy long-haired comfort; he seems as calm and as unaware of the audience as he would be in his own living room. As he jams, his facial expressions change in tandem with the flow of his guitar. In contrast, Buote has a kinetic quality. Short haired and visor-clad, he sways back and forth spastically as he thwoks his bass, with one foot occasionally leaving the ground as he leans back. He brings a visual, palpable energy to the mix. McConnery emanates a happy quality from behind the drums, often smiling and closing his eyes as he lays down a solid, rapid-fire beat.
Perfecting the exchange of signals between band members is an ongoing process. "We’re getting better at it all the time," says McConnery. Is there any one member that sometimes doesn’t hear, that might be a bit stubborn or clued out as to the other two’s cues? "Dave [Lauzon]," says McConnery with a grin. "He goes out there sometimes and it’s hard to bring him back."
It’s the end of their hour-long, one o’clock set at the North by Northeast. It’s been a good set but not long enough for Nero to really stretch out. Lauzon addresses the audience, which is comprised of a hybrid of Nero loyalists and black-clad, emo-loving festival attendees. "Thanks for letting us pretend we’re part of the music industry for a night," he says sardonically, flashing a shy grin as the band begins to pack up.
Nero is touring in Canada over the next couple of weeks, and then beginning a short U.S. tour in late July with Grand Theft Bus, which will include dates in Boston and New York City. Their tour dates can be found on their website . Look for an upcoming release from Nero later this year.