In their 25 years as a musical duo, Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, collectively known as Nelson, grew from pop music idols to seasoned songwriters and performers. Music and entertaining was in their blood. From the start the brothers had a challenging road to travel as the third generation in one of America’s most celebrated entertainment families, who came into U.S. households every week from 1952 to 1966 on the ABC sitcom, “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet.” Their grandfather, Ozzie Nelson, was a celebrated big band leader, whose orchestra featured their grandmother, Harriet. Their late father, Ricky, was one of rock ’n’ roll’s earliest superstars, a member of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and generally credited with creating the country-rock format.
When the Nelson twins burst onto the music scene with the Billboard #1 hit “(I Can’t Live Without Your) Love & Affection” in 1990, they set a Guinness World Record by being the only family to have three generations of #1 hits on the charts! Nelson went on to release a half dozen rock albums selling nearly 7 million records, beginning with the multi-platinum “After The Rain.”
Now they return with “Peace Out,” their most ambitious studio album to date. This incredible collection of music marks a return to the well crafted pop songs that put the band at the top of the Billboard charts in the 1990s. From the anthemic “Invincible” to the rollicking “Back in the Day,” “Peace Out” is quintessential Nelson from start to finish. The album also marks a turning point from the brothers as it serves as their last rock driven album and they forge ahead into new musical territories.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Matthew Nelson to discuss his early memories of music, Nelson’s rise to fame, it’s impact on him as an artist, the creation of ‘Peace Out’ and what the future holds for the duo.
Music played a huge role in your life and your family’s history. Going back to your early years, what are some of your first memories of music?
The first memories of music for me are when my dad his band rehearsing down the hallway at the house in the Hollywood Hills. We had a little music room set up in the pool house. I didn’t know anything about music at that point but he always had people over. When he formed The Stone Canyon Band, he would always rehearse in there. I was super, super, super little watching people play live music. I think the first time I ever realized that what he did was special was at one of his concerts. We had gone on a vacation to Hawaii. I think I was around 2-and-a-half years old or 3. I remember we went to this room and there were a lot of people around in these tufted leather booths in a huge hotel ballroom. There was a big stage and I remember looking out and saying, “That looks like Papa!” Everyone was applauding and smiling and I realized it was Papa! [laughs] That kind of impressed on me how cool it was and I have wanted to do that ever since! I just wanted to join dad!
Was it tough for you early on to live in the shadow of your family’s name and come up as an artist?
Yes and no. I think I would be really arrogant and off-base by saying that it didn’t bring with it certain assets. My grandmother Harriet always used to say, “Your name might get you through the door but it’s going to be your talent that keeps you there.” What she didn’t tell me about was when you come from someone as famous as our Pop or grandparents, they reality of it is people treat you like you don’t need the break. That is number one. Number two is people expect you to be better than someone of your age and experience. There are just those expectations. People just don’t feel like you need the break. Gunnar and I started playing clubs in Los Angeles when we were 12 years old. We started really young and had been playing music for years before that. That is all we really wanted to do. It is an interesting challenge coming from any family who has had success in a prior generation. Let’s say you come from a family of athletes like my Uncle Mark (Harmon). His dad won the Heisman Trophy at Michigan in 1940. When he was coming up playing football, everyone would ask, “Are you going to be like your dad?” He would up being first string quarterback at UCLA and he was a fine quarterback for a number of years. However, he also determined that he would do his own thing and went into acting because it was what he wanted to do. Now he is the star of “NCIS” and has been doing it for years! I think having that background of knowing that it is possible to achieve the highest of goals if you set your mind to it and work at it is very important. No one is ever going to hand it to you. That has been my reality. No one hands you anything. You just have to go and make it happen for yourself. Hopefully, if you satisfy your integrity in what you want to do, along the way you will find some people out there who enjoy what you do and you can make a nice living at it.
It’s hard to believe it has been 25 years since you made a big splash with your debut album, “After The Rain.” How did that success impact you and what lessons did you learn along the way?
I honestly think there is a book in there somewhere because it is not something you can prepare for. Even though I came from the legacy I came from, I thought I was prepared for that type of success because like Gunnar and I used to say, “It’s not a matter of if but of when.” You have to have that in your mind otherwise you will never succeed. We always joke and say, “It’s the world’s longest overnight success.” Our success came after years of playing clubs, writing songs, making demos, seeking a deal and having it almost fail. There were so many high and lows with it that when it finally worked it turned the world upside down. I always tell people that, when I lived in the valley, I used to go to get my socks and underwear at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. I remember I went with my brother and it was smooth sailing. Two weeks later, we did a short stint on MTV as guest hosts when our first video debuted and exploded. We find ourselves at the same mall for an autograph signing that the record company set up at the local record store and the cops had to come to close the mall down! They shut the entire mall down because all three levels were zoo’d with very anxious and excited young girls. All I remember thinking was, “This is amazing but two weeks ago nobody gave a crap. Wow!” It was literally like it exploded. My dad’s career kind of did the same thing. Even though he was successful and famous on television, he was always a famous guy, when he sang on the television show for the first time people realized he was really good and there was something there. That took his career to a whole new level. I think that is a family karma.
What I learned from that is that you go along for the ride and soak it up but my brother and I worked really hard before that happened and during that whole run of exhaustive record promotion. They don’t tell you that when you have a number one record every radio station in the country wants you at the same time and it is really hard. We wore ourselves out! We went on a world tour and when we came back music had changed with Nirvana breaking on our label. As fast is it came, it went away. I was prepared for that but it was shocking to get nothing but support from the people closest to you and then no one will answer your calls. What it did was really teach me balance. I think that is where I am at 25 years later. We started our own record company called Stone Canyon so we could release our own records when we want to. We license albums to other labels instead of doing deals with them. I think that works. I think we learned one thing that is truly important, which is your ability as an artist and as a man to have the freedom of choice and to be able to do what you want to do when you want to do it. It is worth everything and I think that is what this country is based on and as an artist I have lived it. I am happy to say that now we really do enjoy that type of freedom. I think it makes us much more fulfilled in certain respects than being along for the ride that someone else is dictating.
That brings us to the latest chapter in your story. Nelson released a new album, “Peace Out,” which makes the end of an era in a way. What can you tell us about the album and where you are as a band?
I always say that when you are a performer and are lucky to have a lot of songs that people know and hits, you have a certain amount of time to put on a show. If you are opening for somebody, you might get 20 to 30 minutes or maybe 60 minutes if you are doing a double bill. If you are headlining you get 90 minutes. Gunnar and I already have 13 albums to our credit. That is a lot of music! Once you get by the songs from the first album that everybody wants to hear, you are halfway done. We enjoy recording and being in the studio putting together music but we only have a certain amount of time on this planet. I think, with Nelson, we have said some really nice things and have kind of been there and done that. If we play concerts, we definitely have more than enough material to really rock a house with that sound. It’s interesting, I see some artists who go out there and have had long runs. I am not saying it is guaranteed but when any legacy artist says, “OK, here’s something brand new!” That is when you go out to get the T-shirt. As an artist, you hope they are paying attention. If you write something really excellent, it might break through and be as impressive as some big monster hit from the past but generally that isn’t the case. You have to keep growing and Gunnar and I thought the way we could grow the best way was to do something completely different. That is what we plan on doing. This album was more of a surprise to me than anybody. Gunnar had pretty much finished it when he brought it to me. I would say it was about 80% complete when he brought it in and said, “Hey, I’ve got another album finished.” I said, “I thought we weren’t going to do another one.” He said, “I thought we would just sign off with this one before we do other things.” As you said, it is the 25th anniversary of our debut. I had actually been working with Universal Music Group on a re-issue of “After The Rain” with some extra bonus cuts and a remaster, which I think it deserves. So we are actually going to have the first album and the last album come out this year!
That is awesome! What can you tell us about your songwriting process and how it changed through the years for both Nelson and your other outlets?
Gunnar wrote most of the songs on this particular album alone. We collaborated on three of the songs at the end. I do a lot of songwriting and I have side projects and write for other people. I think it has really grown through the years. It is like flexing a muscle and a matter of going to the gym every day and doing it. I wish I wrote more but I feel, lately, that my songs have gotten better. I think Gunnar’s songs have to. Hopefully, that is what happens as you get older! Speaking for myself, I have written songs in a bunch of different genres ranging from heavy metal to EDM. I prefer living somewhere in between there. I will always have pop sensibilities and I like to tell stories but I am always a sucker for a great melody. I think anybody would be lying if they said they didn’t wish they were Paul McCartney. I do!
I imagine you learn a little bit with each new record you put out. Does that hold true with this album?
Yeah, I think so. Gunnar and I are brothers and even though we have some clear similarities, we are very different men. I think that is what makes it work. I had certain disagreements with certain directions he took on in this album and vice versa. I think the compromise ended up to be something really great. I know that my specialty is really in the polish and mastering. We had to get the right guy. A lot of people right now are just using their computers and plugins and saying, “It’s good enough.” I’m old school and I think there are people who are better at that then we are. You have to know when to bring in the right people. I think that happened with this record. I say this a lot, and I am fine with it, I think a lot of this has more to do with Gunnar musically than it has to do with me.
The music industry changed drastically from the time Nelson debuted and now. What excites you about music today and what are the obstacles you face as an artist today?
I don’t think there is an industry. I think the record business is done to be honest. I hate to say it but it is true. The reality of it is that songs and albums have become more of a commercial for the live show than anything. Fortunately, for Gunnar and myself, we are live performers. Be it two guys with acoustic guitars or a big arena rock setting, that’s what we do. We are show people and we come from a legacy of people who have done that. I grew up recording things on analog recording tape and cutting tape with a razor blade, doing it really old school. You really had to commit and make choices because you had 24 tracks, if you were lucky. Now, you have unlimited tracks, you can fix it in the mix, you don’t have to make decisions and can cut it together frame by frame or word by word. A lot has changed and I am really fortunate in the sense that I had to learn to do things the hard way.
Now, I will be honest with you, things are a lot easier. I’d be a fool to say it wasn’t easier to make a record these days. It is! Before, an album used to cost $250,000 to make. A video cost a quarter of a million dollars. Now, you can shoot it on an iPhone. One thing that won’t change is that it is all about having a great song. You have quicker and broader reach than you used to have. At one point we had 90,000 active members in a fan club. I remember it cost $35,000 every time we sent a letter to our fans. Now, you press send on your phone and everybody gets it! That is a good thing! Contrarily, just because you can make a record doesn’t necessarily mean you should make a record. There is a glut of stuff out there. I have noticed kids today, my stepson for example, are actually going back to older music because it seems to have been made with more care. Those are his words. People actually cared about the music more and it wasn’t just a loop they yelled at you on. It was a real song. You talk to other kids and ask, “What’s your favorite band?” They say, “I don’t know. I just kinda listen to whatever is there.” I remember, growing up, we all had our favorite bands. We would be excited waiting for an album to come out and for a band to come to town. Today it’s a whole different thing. I think that having access, as quick and broad as we do, is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing that we can get to everybody but it is a curse because there is so much more to filter through.
I think the future is finding a balance between all of that and staying on top of the new technologies from a recording and distribution standpoint. I am a real advocate for legacy music because I really feel that people, especially kids, need to know where all this stuff came from and how it started. I am fortunate to have my dad’s whole thing to go back on for my son to look at. I went to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and they have a display with Beyonce in it. No discredit to Beyonce because she’s amazing. I said, “Is she in the Rock Hall?” They said, “No but we have to get kids to care.” I am looking around and seeing all the forefathers of this amazing art form and thinking “Wow. It is really disappointing that kids don’t care anymore.” They are just feed a whole bunch of stuff. Hopefully, the good stuff will always rise to the top and people will care about this stuff and have reverence for it because it deserves it.
What can you tell us about where you are headed in the future musically? Is there anything you can tell us there?
Yeah! It’s not a government secret! [laughs] Gunnar and I, if we continue to make music together, we begin and end with two brothers singing with acoustic guitars. That is really our strength. The genesis of Nelson was not unlike the band Heart, get songs, acoustics and singing family harmonies. With us, we are going to be doing the same thing just in a meliora. I think it is going to have more of an Americana touch to it. We have done the arena rock thing and clearly we have a history as rock and rollers but we did that on our own terms as well. It was the antithesis of your blues oriented rock bands like Guns ‘N Roses type of thing. When everybody was black leather, we were color! I think with two brothers singing, the two main instruments being acoustic guitars and building around that is really what we are going for. I think it is something along the lines of, if you can imagine, The Everly’s making records today using today’s technologies, song structure and undeniable sibling harmony and great songs. That is what we plan on doing!
That is awesome to hear, Matthew. As a fan, I can’t wait to see where the next leg of your journey takes you! Keep up the great work!
Thank you! I will and we will be talking again, I assure you! Thank you very much!
‘Peace Out’ is available now! For all the latest news and information on Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, visit www.matthewandgunnarnelson.com.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.