With almost 3 decades together as a musical duo, Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, have continued to not only defy the odds but also to expand their musical horizon. In 2018, they are are finally bringing the entire Nelson catalogue – representing every album released by Matthew and Gunnar Nelson in the course of their 28-year-career – to all digital retailers and streaming services including Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon and Pandora, among others. The announcement follows the re-release of Nelson’s remastered 1990, multi-platinum debut album, ‘After the Rain,’ on 180g vinyl by Universal Music Enterprises. This treasure trove of music features collectors items such as ‘Imaginator,’ the prophetic 1996 release which was originally supposed to be the follow-up to ‘After the Rain;’ ‘Brother Harmony,’ the 1998 country album the brothers recorded in Nashville which is now a coveted collectible, and ‘Ricky Nelson Remembered,’ an album featuring studio recorded versions of Matthew and Gunnar performing their father’s biggest career hits, previously available only at Nelson concerts. While this epic release serves as an incredible opportunity to reflect on their own careers and family’s undeniable legacy, Matthew and Gunnar remained focused on the many productive years ahead of them.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Matthew Nelson to discuss bringing Nelson’s entire digital catalogue to the masses, the challenges they have faced as “analog men in a digital world,” and what the future holds for the duo.
You and your brother put in a lot of hard work through the years, which resulted in Nelson becoming one of the most successful sibling duos of all-time. What are your earliest memories of playing together?
Wow! Thank you for saying that. My musical memories go way back. We started in a hayloft in a barn outside of my parents’ house in Studio City, California, probably because it was a way for getting us away from the house! [laughs] Gunnar and I got our first instruments when we were pretty young. Gunnar was about 6 and I was 7. He got a drum set and I got a little bass. We wanted to be like our dad, of course. I think our parents, when we asked for instruments, thought it was a little hobby but we just didn’t stop. We taught ourselves to play to records and by watching people. By the time we were 12, we had our first recording session as a surprise birthday present from our dad. We thought we were going to get some fillings done and it turned out to be a recording studio. He produced the first song that I ever wrote, and it was pretty awesome! The whole family came over and some really cool chicks sang backup. I didn’t know until after they left that they were The Pointer Sisters! Then we started playing nightclubs around LA from the time we were 12 years old. We played a lot and it was kind of fun to grow up in that world of punk and new wave in Los Angeles, playing at clubs like Madam Wong’s West in Chinatown, Blue Lagoon Saloon, FM Station and things like that! We had a really good time growing up constantly playing music!
You are still out there doing it. What did you bring out in each other creatively?
It’s interesting you are saying that today. Gunnar and I are true brothers. We are very similar, but we have decided differences. There is obviously a little bit of a sweet and sour thing that happens. Gunnar tends to be a little bit more sour than I am, and he would probably say that. It’s the whole good twin, evil twin thing but I think that works! I don’t think there is anybody else in the world who has been through exactly what he has been through and vice versa as far as our career, the highs and lows. I can call him on his crap and vice versa. Today, we had a really, really deep philosophical and musical conversation having to do with everything from song selection to direction to marketing and all that kind of stuff. Frankly, I got more done in one hour long yelling in a “Settle down. Okay, now what are we going to do with this thing” session than I would in a year with another band. I’ve been in other bands, so I know! I think that’s what’s happened. I think we’ve streamlined the process and gotten very comfortable with knowing where our strengths and weaknesses are.
The career and body of work you built through the years is impressive. What are the keys to longevity in the music industry?
There is a good deal of luck that goes into it, but I think it really comes down to this — As long as you love what you are doing and truly know how fortunate you are to be able to do what you love, it’s going to be passionate. I’m not going to say it will be good! [laughs] We genuinely love making music. If you really love what you do, then it’s going to have a piece of you in it and it’s not just going to be some job you show up for and punch a clock. I think that’s what it is. If there is a secret to it, LOVE IT! If you don’t, then don’t do it anymore and make the change that will make you happy. It’s a ripple effect.
You just released a treasure trove of music with the digital release of your entire catalog. What made now the time for the release and what took so long?[laughs] What took so long? Gunnar and I are analog men in a digital world! We’re kind of like a revolution of two guys and it was time to embrace the facts. I’m not going to say that music is devalued to the point of where it’s so instant that if people can’t get it they move on but there is that factor. You have a couple of generations of kids now that don’t even pay for music. As long as I’ve been doing this, I’ve realized that there’s a commerce element of making music for a living but there is also the fact that you just want your music to be heard and accessible. I found out that there was one of our albums, a country album, that we did a very short run of selling online for $1,100 per copy. I thought, “Well, we should probably make this accessible to people because after a certain amount of time, it just seems like we are the jerks behind it.” We are hearing back that people are very happy that they are going to be able to access some things that were previously too exclusive for people.
I’m sure it wasn’t as easy as flipping a switch to make the music accessible. What are some challenges you faced with bringing your catalog to the masses?
A lot of it really has to do with the technical stuff. From my point of view, I’m the product manager for Gunnar and my stuff. He took on certain roles, as did I. Things like packaging and distribution falls in my court, so I’m the guy who is inputting ISRC codes and things like that, which I had to learn about. For me, there was a little bit of a learning curve, when there is that do-it-yourself element. I’m not saying it was a do-it-yourself thing, we had a team, but in comparison to things like when we were signed in the early days to DGC, they had an entire building staffed with people that did this stuff. I would rather be a hands-on guy and kinda know where my bread is buttered, so I embraced it. With that said, it is tedious and difficult work, especially with the volume of work that we had dealing with things writers, if we did co-writes, and their publishing companies have changed over the course of the years. It was that type of stuff. It was really a labor of love! As I said, I’m really glad the job is done now and finally people can access it!
Is there an album that resonates with you more today than it did upon its release?
Good question on that one. There were a few. We’ve done a lot of different works since our debut with “After The Rain” came out. For me, “After The Rain” is going to have a longer lasting resonance, not only because it was our first big success, but also because we went back and finally found the analog two-track master tapes. They had been missing for almost 30 years, so I could go into the Capitol Tower and remaster the album. It started out as an issue on 180-gram vinyl on the Friday Music label, but it became bigger than that because I not only got a chance to finally EQ the record with 30 years more technology but bring it back to what it was when we were creating it. All of that missing bottom end, as a bass player I had always wondered, “Where did it go?” I heard it in the studio when we made the album but when the actual final product arrived way back when, it wasn’t as satisfying as I knew that it could be. Now, I’m actually really with that! As a matter of fact, the digital of the “After The Rain” album is the remaster and it’s much better, in my opinion, than the original master was.
I imagine looking back on your body of work gives you a unique perspective on your career and how far you have come. How have you evolved along the way?
So many ways! My brother and I have done many different styles of music. I think we’ve worked really hard at making sure we are proficient at different types of things. I always joke and say, “We might have cut our teeth in clubs in Los Angeles, but we really learned how to move an audience, right off the bat, in arenas and big theaters when Nelson broke. As seemingly quick as it shot up to success, the entire grunge and Seattle movement ended it immediately, so we had to reinvent ourselves. We spent a lot of time doing that with different forms of music, whether it be more Americana/Country leaning stuff or the live celebration of our dad’s legacy called “Ricky Nelson Remembered.” We’ve been playing that off and on between our gigs for years. I think what it did was bring us to our center, where we come from, but also really helped us expand our musical vocabulary. Gunnar, for instance, when we started playing guitar with Nelson, he was a great rhythm guitar player but now he is super proficient lead guitar player. Frankly, when you’re playing country-inspired James Burton type lyrics on a Telecaster, you can’t hide behind distortion. It’s naked and people can tell if you can’t throw down. As a singer, frontman and a bass player, I have come a long way. The thing that is great about music is that I still feel like I’m starting! I still have a wonderful love affair with something that I intend to do forever, until I can’t anymore!
In the press release about the digital releases, I noticed a promising quote from Gunnar. He said, “For the first time in a while, we’re talking about making a new Nelson album.” Where are you headed?
That’s another interesting question. Part of my discussion today with my brother was going through material. As you know, we’re songwriters before anything, and we were going through material today. We have an honest four or five albums worth of super-solid, single-level material. We were just kind of discussing the realities of being us in this world. We are very, very fortunate that people recognize us immediately. We have that kind of thing. When you hear “Nelson,” you might think of a lot of things. Most people think of long blonde hair and 1990! That was that time and we looked like hot Swedish chicks! So, we were kinda embedded in people’s minds that way. Our dad went through that too. It’s much the same way as when you say, Hanson, Rick Springfield, Tiffany or the other people who were iconic for the era. It’s kinda hard for people to get past that era, ya know? We are getting a lot of calls to go out and do nostalgia type tours now because we haven’t done those things. What Gunnar and I were just discussing was, “What do you do when you are fortunate enough to occupy that place in people’s minds? Do people really want to hear new music from an old group?” I have to be realistic about that. We were just discussing that. “Do we integrate the new songs with the older songs or do we separate them and call it another project, but everyone will know it’s The Nelson Twins with their new thing.” We were just discussing that. The long answer is that we absolutely have new material that we want to release. We just don’t know if we’re going to make a right turn doing it. That’s it! It’s more of me being realistic and honest with coming to terms with an old success. If we released something new that was incredible, would people give it an unbiased or unslanted listen?
I can see where you are coming from. No matter what route, as a fan, it’s exciting to know you two are hard at work! You both built something unique over the years and people can look to you as an inspiration as there have been ups and downs along the way, yet you persevered. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey?
Don’t lose your sense of humor. That’s the best advice that my dad ever gave me, and he didn’t give me a whole lot of advice. [laughs] He said, “Believe in what you’re doing and keep doing it.” So, integrity and persistence, even if you are writing pop songs and having fun doing that! Don’t lose your sense of humor because in this world, my dad was right, you’re gonna need it! In today’s music business or whatever is left of it, you have people who have number one records because they are YouTube stars, which is great, whatever. You also have a lot of things that come along with that territory. Internet trolls, for example. Everyone has a voice and all of that kind of stuff. Sometimes that’s not a great thing. Just laugh at it. Move forward. Move past it. You know, obviously, it separates the weak from the chaff. All I can say, looking back on this thing so many years later, is that I always knew I was going to do music first. That made it good for me. Gunnar and I were the same way. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not we would be successful, it’s when we got our shot. Frankly, it’s been a blessing and a curse coming from the legacy that we come from. There are expectations associated with that, but it also motivated us, and we are really proud of that. We are really proud of carrying on that tradition. Who knows, I have a 3-year-old little boy and maybe he will as well. He’s already playing drums, keeping time and singing, so probably! I just have to say that, in this world, one thing that hasn’t changed is that I would personally be a whole lot less happy if I didn’t have music around me all the time. Just keep music as your soundtrack and I think you’ll be groovin’!
Awesome! Thanks for your time today, Matthew. It’s been a pleasure following your career and experiencing the different styles you brought to the table! I wish you and Gunnar continued success.
Thank you, Jason! I really appreciate that! Have a great day and take care!
For all the latest news and information on Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, visit www.matthewandgunnarnelson.com.
Imaginator (1996): Originally intended as the follow-up to After the Rain, but turned down by DGC/Geffen, Nelson finally put out the prescient album as the first release on their own Stone Canyon Records label. An edgy, acerbic record which took aim at their unfair media treatment and the threat of the Internet in the days of dial-up, Matthew recalls, “It was not the fun, sunshine pop formula the label thought they were getting.” Adds Gunnar, “It was so cathartic and honest, it’s emotionally painful for me to listen to now. It brings me back to a time when I felt we were misunderstood by the industry.”
Because They Can (1995): After the rejection of Imaginator, Matthew and Gunnar went back into the studio with legendary producer and mentor John Boylan (Boston, Little River Band, Edie Brickell) for an album that epitomized the California country-rock sound, featuring contributions from Eagles’ Don Felder and Timothy B. Schmit, America’s Gerry Beckley and the Cars’ Elliot Easton. It also features the famed William Wegman cover photo of his Man Ray Weimaraner dogs with long, blonde hair, showing the Nelson brothers were in on the joke. “It was like a Crosby, Stills & Nash Laurel Canyon record when nobody was doing that,” says Matthew.
Silence is Broken (1997): Recorded for JVC Victor Japan, the album was intended to be a bridge between Imaginator and Life, according to Matthew. “We were just learning how to record digitally,” he says of the record, produced in various studios in West L.A. and Valencia. “It really pushed the stylistic envelope in terms of its diversity.”
Brother Harmony (1998): After playing several acoustic shows in Nashville, Matthew and Gunnar signed to Warner-Reprise, and began recording songs for a new, never released album as the Nelsons with some of Nashville’s finest musicians.
Life (1999): Another JVC Victor Japan import, the album was recorded in a Nashville basement, but remains one of Gunnar’s favorites. “I have a particular affection for it,” he says. “We just wanted to make ear candy. It’s a real take-no-prisoners pop/rock album.” Matthew adds: “We recorded everyone in a room playing at the same time, which gave it some real energy.” Life features “Is That How It Is?” co-written with Russ Ballard. “We went a little bit more Vox than Marshall,” laughs Matthew.
Like Father, Like Sons (2000): The brothers’ initial tribute to their father was recorded live at the Date Festival in Indio, California, site of the Coachella festival, with James Intveld on upright bass, Gunnar on stand-up drums and Matthew on acoustic guitar. The group delved into affectionate, authentic rockabilly takes on some of Ricky’s greatest hits, including “Garden Party,” “Milk Cow Blues,” “Travelin’ Man” and “Hello Mary Lou.”
Lightning Strikes Twice (2010): After signing a new deal with Frontier Records, this was one of three separate releases to come out during the year. Nelson’s first album of new material in nearly 11 years, it featured guitarist Steve Lukather, and was recorded at Gunnar’s home Nashville studio and mixed in L.A. by top recording engineer Jay Ruston (Metallica, Anthrax). “The label challenged us to make the follow-up to After the Rain, except with modern technology and their full support,” recalls Gunnar. “It represented a personal victory.” The album went on to become the most critically acclaimed album of their career behind, “After the Rain,” with a rare 7 of 7 diamond rating from Metal Hammer Magazine.
Before the Rain: The Demos 1986-1990 (2010): A collection of the recordings which led up to their debut, After the Rain, this album shows how Nelson’s songwriting evolved, representing the band’s attempt to convince DGC/Geffen A&R legend John David Kalodner they were ready to record. Explained Matthew, “It’s a great way for the fans to hear how the songs from that first album started and eventually came together.”
Perfect Storm – After the Rain World Tour 1991 (2010): Recorded during their whirlwind, 13-month-long tour, which ended with four shows in Japan, the album captures the band as it begins to feel its strength as a live attraction, thanks to the efforts of live engineer Toby Francis. “We were very loud, but he got it to sound clean,” says Matthew. “The band we had for that tour was just ridiculously talented.”
Peace Out (2015): Another favorite of Gunnar’s for its razor-sharp focus and stylistic consistency, the song “Back in the Day” describes Nelson’s populist, crowd-pleasing aim perfectly. “The radio was our saving grace/Our heroes showed the way/Back in the day.”
“Getting these records out has been extremely satisfying because, up until now, they haven’t been available,” says Gunnar. “For the first time in a while, we’re talking about making a new Nelson album.”
Until then, Nelson will continue to inspire their fans live, with a planned summer 2018 tour on the horizon.
“Up to this point, these songs are our legacy,” adds Matthew. “I’m just happy people can find and hear them now.”
These albums are now available via Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon and More!
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.