Nina Gordon

With Nina Gordon With David Bowie With Sir Millard Mulch: An Interview with Nina Gordon (2000)

This article was originally published by INK19 in October 2000.

by Sir Millard Mulch

Late one night (before I was a rock star), I was having a living nightmare that I was walking around in a real-life set of Suburbia (the new one, not that old punk one), and out of sheer, pathetic boredom, I wandered into Wal-Mart in South Venice. It’s the only thing open late at night in Venice besides really horrible restaurants.

I went over to the music section and looked through the freakin’ CDs. I was pissed off, irritated that I lived in Venice, and was really, really, really hungry for something new. I found some really old heavy metal albums and kind of chuckled, but ended up finding a copy of Veruca Salt’s Eight Arms to Hold You. I had never heard it, but I remembered liking some of the chord changes on “Seether” a million years ago on MTV.

At first, it sounded like sloppy rock girl music (that’s an opinion coming from a skinny dork surviving thus far on an anal-retentive diet of Ayn Rand and prog rock), but after a few days, I started remembering a few of the melodies and liking some of the words. After about six months straight of listening to it, it grew to be one of my favorite albums of all time, and Nina Gordon grew to be one of my favorite vocalists and songwriters of all time.

I got so damn excited about and inspired about that album, the song “With David Bowie” in particular (which I listened to over and over on the way to and from my real estate job, which I was fired from for not knowing how to write in cursive), that I felt I needed to write a tribute to it. There used to be actual verses to the song, which described me driving around happily listening to Nina Gordon in my crappy mini-van, but the fact that her song was so short and the amount of times I listened to it just made me realize it didn’t need verses.

Then I got on this whole philosophical trip, which led me to wonder if a good song should ever end. My answer to this is no, so I guess the universe isn’t benevolent after all. So I wanted to pay tribute to this idea and loop the song over and over, which I do live (in the rare instances that I play it live) until people go insane. Of course, no one goes insane, they just sit there and stare at me wondering why I keep repeating the same verse. Screw them.

So when I heard Nina Gordon was gonna put out a solo album about a year ago, I started hounding the guys at Ink 19 to let me interview her, if there is any chance in hell. And there was.

Q: Are you going around doing radio stuff, or…

A: I did about two months of promo, as they say. And I’ve got a couple more stops to make. I’m going to Minneapolis and Seattle this week to do some stuff for the radio stations there, and then I’m gonna come home and have a little bit of time off and chill for the rest of the summer, and then maybe September/October, I’ll start to hit the road for real.

Q: Are you doing any live shows at all, as far as smaller acoustic things?

A: Well that’s what I’m doing this week in Minneapolis and Seattle, but I’m really looking forward to playing a rock show.

Q: Do you already have your band all put together and all that?

A: I do.

Q: (Me thinking: DAMN!) How much do you guys have to rehearse for that kind of thing to go on a tour?

A: Well, I dunno, we haven’t done it yet. But my guess is probably about two weeks. Ideally it would be like three weeks, but we could probably get it together in two weeks.

Q: Is that solid eight-hour days?

A: Probably not, maybe five hours. Because everyone is really good, everyone can play really well. Most of these people that I’m talking about played on the album, so they know all the songs. Really the only weak link is me, remembering the chords to all my songs, but I think I’m in pretty good shape, ’cause I’m doing this acoustic thing, so with the exception of maybe two songs on the album. I’m pretty fluent.

Q: How do you end up constructing these songs when you come up with them, like what do you usually start with?

A: I generally play some chords and sing over them and a number of things can happen — either I will sing something and I will think, “wow, that’s really cool, I’m gonna keep going,” or I’ll think, “that’s really stupid, I’m worthless, I’m gonna go watch TV,” or I think, “wow, that’s really good, but it sounds exactly like a Smashing Pumpkins song,” then I go watch TV… no, I go read a book or call a friend or do something different for a while, but on the really sort of special occasions when things are really happening and the stars are all aligned, I’ll play some chords, I’ll sing, and something real will happen and I will enjoy myself enough to complete the song.

Q: Do you actually have any music theory training, or is it just experimenting?

A: I took some voice lessons when I was a teenager and sang a lot of classical music in school and stuff, and teachers were constantly trying get me to learn all the music theory stuff, but I just hated it, ’cause to me it was just math, and I hated math. Probably ’cause I was no good at it, and I’m the kind of person that unfortunately only likes to do the things I’m really good at. So I would just give up and just wanna sing, which is something I could do without thinking about it

So I kind of gave up right when I was on the verge of actually learning something about music theory, and I do think there are advantages and disadvantages to that. Sometimes I feel limited and wish I understood the technical aspects of music a little better, but then I think, in a lot of ways, I end up relying more on melody and something a little more creative and tangible than people that are heavily schooled in music theory.

Q: When you’re working with [producer] Bob Rock, does he know that sort of stuff or contribute that sort of thing?

A: He does a little more than I do, but he’s also someone who has made a career based on his ears, as opposed to based on technical music theory. He is more based in his ears and his heart and his gut and his instincts more than music theory. There were a couple of guys I played with on the record who had gone to the Berklee School of Music, and they’d all studied music, so they knew a little bit more, and it was always refreshing to be like, “oh, you mean there’s a reason that that sounds as great as it does?” You know, it doesn’t really matter to me, it sort of matters what the emotional content behind it is.

Q: What is it like working with Bob Rock, as opposed to working with other people?

A: Well, I have now done two albums with him, and they’re both my most recent experiences with recording, and obviously I chose to work with him again because I really felt a great connection with him musically. It felt like we just could collaborate really well together, and I haven’t really worked with anybody else in a really long time. I know it’s a really cool experience to work with somebody that you really see eye to eye with, so it’s a good thing.

Q: What kind of schedule were you working on when you were recording the new album, as far as during the day or night?

A: A little of both, but mostly we didn’t work the full-on hardcore rock and roll hours, ’cause Bob has a family. His studio is attached to his home, he’s got seven kids.

Q: Wow.

A: And also, neither one of us wanted to be in the studio until four in the morning. So we usually started around noon, worked until dinner, took a little break, came back and worked until 11 or midnight, or something like that. Some days were more intense and some days were more relaxed, so it kind of depended. Obviously, towards the end, when we were in the crunch period, we were there around the clock.

Q: So was the story that you recorded the whole album as a demo or for a different label or something like that true?

A: Not as a demo, it was for a different label at the time. When I was recording, I was on Outpost/Geffen, which was the label we were on when I was in Veruca Salt, so I stayed with them, and then about a month or so before I finished up the record, there was this whole corporate merger, and Interscope was to absorb all the Geffen labels and A&M Records, and so my fate was sort of undecided and it made me really uncomfortable to be finishing the record and not knowing who was gonna put it out and when. You form relationships with the people at your record label, the people who you trust, and they believe in you and you believe in them. So I started getting kind of nervous about that, and it just kept going back and forth and back and forth whether or not Interscope was gonna put it out and whether Outpost was gonna break off and put it out, and it was really this mess that really bummed me out. Then I was finished with the record, and I was really excited about it and I wanted the world to hear it, so after a couple months of chaos, I decided I had to jump ship, so with the help of my lawyers and managers, I was able to do that, and luckily Warner Brothers was there to catch me.

Q: I’m gonna go backwards here: the song “With David Bowie”… what is the background behind that?

A: It’s just really a song about listening to music on my Walkman as a teenager, you know, bopping to school, and loving life and loving music and dreaming of being with a rock star and being a rock star. You know, it’s funny, because a lot of kids don’t remember what it was like before you had a Walkman, but it was a really big deal when Walkmans first came out, because you couldn’t just walk around and have a soundtrack to your life and you couldn’t just listen to music on the street unless you had a big boombox, and then everyone else was hearing it, too. So it was a huge deal the first time you could walk around and listen to your favorite music, like out in public, and just cruise along with your favorite music in your head. So that song was just sort of about that kind of idolization as a teenager and happiness about music and excitement about music.

Q: Well, I’ve got this song that’s about that song, and my friends have bugged me about playing it to you during the interview…

A: Oh my God!

Q: Would you mind hearing that?

A: Of course not! What do you mean, it’s a song about that song?

Q: Yeah, I actually recorded a song about that song.

A: What’s it called, “About With David Bowie”?

Q: No, it’s called “With Nina Gordon With David Bowie.”

A: A threesome with Nina and David Bowie?

Q: Something like that. Here it is. [Plays song] And there it is.

A: That’s awesome! That’s so funny. I hope it’s not like a Chumbawumba thing, I hope its not a song that drove you insane because you hated it so bad and it was stuck in your head.

Q: No, I listened to that song over and over ’cause I really, really liked it.

A: Oh, well that’s cool.

Q: It was weird, because I picked up that Veruca Salt album just at random at Wal-Mart. And then I popped it in and kept listening to that song forever.

A: Oh, that’s cool, that’s really cool. ‘Cause when you said, “she sang that fucking song,” I was like, “oh my god, is that like Chumbawumba?” Somebody starts to sing it and you’re like, “NO, it will get stuck in my head!”

Q: No, I totally love it, it’s my second favorite song.

A: Oh, OK cool, that’s awesome, that’s really cool. I’m honored.

Q: Thanks.

A: Flattered.

Q: What kind of stuff are you listening to these days?

A: I don’t listen to much that is recent, with the exception of the new Aimee Mann record. I really liked the Macy Gray record, but other than that, I stick to my old record collection. Occasionally, something will be called to my attention that’s really good. I can’t think of anything really recent. I’m always hoping someone will pass something on to me and I’ll get really excited about it.

Q: [Opportunistically] Could I send you a CD?

A: Sure you can.

Q: What part of the country are you living in now?

A: I live in Chicago.

Q: OK, and what are some other cities that you’ve liked around the US?

A: I’ve always liked playing in Minneapolis, ’cause they’re really hardcore music fans and they’re always real appreciative and make great audiences. I love going to LA, not because I like the audiences, ’cause they kinda suck, but I have a good time there. I think I was just having a dream about cruising around in LA, but I’m not sure where I was. Yeah, I think I was just dreaming about hopping. But anyway, I dunno. I love going to New York, I love going to San Francisco.

Q: I have a friend who just moved to San Francisco yesterday.

A: Oh really? Yeah, it’s a great place.

Q: Yeah, I love that place.

A: But most of all, as far as shows go, it’s the most fun to play in Canada, ’cause Canadian music fans are just way more knowledgeable about your music than anywhere else. They don’t just jump up and down when you play the single, they know everything and every word to every song, and they’re just really respectful and cool. So it’s best to play in Canada, for sure.

Q: What about that song “2003”?

A: That’s sort of the wish of having your cake and eating it too, and being able to break up with somebody and imagine at least, but keep the hope alive that you might get back together someday, and this is sort of taking it one step further and saying, “I wanna break up now because there’s some other things I wanna do, but can we please meet in 3 years so that I won’t be losing you completely?” Of course it’s an unrealistic wish, but…

Q: Now that you mention it, I know a girl that said that to one of my friends,

A: That’s terrible, you could never say that to somebody…

Q: She actually told him that and he was like, uh… then he moved across the United States somewhere else.

A: I don’t think it works that way.

Q: Yeah.

A: No, it doesn’t work that way, but it would be nice if it did.

Q: About all this Napster stuff…

A: Well, I’m really glad that Metallica are raising the issues that they are raising and they have the gall to, because there is something inherently exploitative about it, and yet I think it’s something you can’t really resist or control. I do think as an artist, not really in terms of money, but it feels wrong… I had a record coming out, and I was really proud of the record in its entirety — the whole package and the sequence of the songs and the quality of the mastering and the sound of the CD — and I know that plenty of people out there [are] downloading the songs and heard the whole record before it ever came out, and that’s sort of disappointing, because it takes away from some of the anticipation and the excitement.

As a teenager, for me, when an album came out from one of my favorite artists, it was a really huge deal, because you haven’t heard anything from then in two years. When I did demos, I know there were songs from my demo tapes, like my crappy little demo tapes, and that freaks me out. So definitely, there’s an issue of privacy and control that makes me really nervous, but I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do about it…

As far as the financial thing, yeah, I mean, artists are totally exploited from the beginning, and there’s really no way an artist can make any money having a record contract unless you sell millions and millions of records, but if you sell under a million records, you’re just gonna recoup, you’re just gonna have to pay the record label back whatever it was that you spent on making your record, on making your video, on touring, so you can’t really make a living doing this unless you sell a lot of records, and if Napster is keeping people from buying records, then artists are kind of in bad shape. Now, Metallica aren’t in bad shape. But they’re the only ones who can actually risk fighting this. They don’t have to worry about money, but in a way, they’re fighting the battle for everybody else. I’m not against being able to download stuff from the Internet, that’s something that could be really cool, but there’s gotta be a way that everyone can be accommodated and paid for their work.

Q: Was that you that was posting things on that United Nina Federations site?

A: Yeah, that was me. Yeah, but now I have my own Web site, although my computer has been out of commission for the last two weeks, so I haven’t been able to anything with it, but I’ll start posting to my own Web site instead of going to clubs. But that was me, I had just gotten my computer, and I was looking around, and I found it or somebody had told me about it, and I was like “oh, I’m gonna say hi to these guys.”

Q: What kind of computer did you get?

A: An iBook.

Q: And you like it?

A: I love it.

Q: You like that better than PC stuff?

A: Yeah, I just am used to the Mac stuff, like the graphics and the way you move around the whole thing, it just kinda made sense to me. So I got the iBook, but there’s something wrong with it, so it’s back at Apple being fixed.

Q: You read any books at all?

A: No, never. Yeah, I’m always reading.

Q: What kind of stuff?

A: A woman named Iris Murdoch. And I’m constantly reading her books, but I try not to read them in a row, because then they kind of blur together, and also because I don’t ever read anything else.

And right now I’m actually reading a book about meditation, because I feel like I need something in my life that keeps me grounded when I’m traveling all the time.