BY BOB DOERSCHUK | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
What you hear on Nerve’s most recent album is more or less the opposite of everything they’ve done previously. After The Flare is, first of all, acoustic—radically acoustic, one could say. Known for their incendiary command of electronic instrumentation, driven by Jojo Mayer’s ferocious drumming, the band recorded this time on vintage instruments, including a 60-year-old bass and a Steinway piano built in the 1870s. They used only two ambient mikes to capture their sound. They didn’t even wear headphones. They damped down their dynamics from the usual roar to a whisper.
And what they laid down under these circumstances proved a revelation—not just to their fans, but especially to themselves.
Their mission, according to drummer and bandleader Mayer, was ambitious: “Let’s take all our toys away and play instruments as they were built to be played.”
The most incredible thing about After The Flare, released in June last year, is that it happened more or less by accident. Flash back a few years to when they were wrapping up their latest electronic project. With mixdown underway, Mayer wandered into an adjacent room at Brooklyn’s Bunker Studios, where some acoustic instruments were set up in anticipation for a jazz trio date the next day.
“I started tinkering around on the drum kit,” he remembers. “Then John (Davis) came in and began playing the bass. Jacob (Bergson) came in and sat at the piano. We were tired—it was the middle of the night—but we started jamming. We played for 15 or 20 minutes and then went back inside our studio, where Aaron (Nevezie, the band’s engineer and owner of Bunker Studios) said, ‘That sounded really good. In fact, I recorded it. You want to hear it?’”
They listened. And, Mayer continues, “we decided to make a record that we would approach the same way as our electronic setup, which is very improvisational. We would play everything in real-time to two-track, warts and all.”
This was the first of a number of steps the band took in exploring a side of their musicianship they realized they had somewhat neglected. “Everybody in the band has a jazz background: We’re all jazz dropouts,” Mayer explains. “So going acoustic put us into a time zone, like the late ’50s or ’60s. That meant we had to find a way to approach the vocabulary of jazz, using our own syntax. How could we do that? By eliminating common structures, like 32 bars, blues forms, certain harmonic projections, soloing… all of that stuff was off the table. But we didn’t just want to play stoner jazz. We had to create the shape as we went along.”
To pursue their vision of improvised composition, they agreed to strip the process down to basics, leaving nothing but the players and the instruments. Mayer eschewed his usual setup in order to blend with his colleagues. Instead he hauled in his 1937 Slingerland cloud badge Radio Kings—26″ bass drum, 13″ mounted tom, 16″ floor tom, a snare that was 7 1/2″ deep—and a few Turkish cymbals from the 1920s. Only two modern pieces, a pair of maple sticks and a prototype cymbal he’s working on with Sabian, came along for the ride.
Once they’d set up, another issue arose. Without headphones, Mayer says, “I had to play really, really quietly so I could hear the acoustic piano. And I had to set up far enough away so that my drumstick wouldn’t mess up the piano sound. In the end, we achieved an intimacy that translated into the recording.”
How? It came down to focus. “If you listen to some of the old recordings by (producer) Rudy Van Gelder in the mid ’50s and early ’60s, or the Miles quintet or the Coltrane stuff, what made them sound so great was that those guys could calibrate against each other,” Mayer points out. “It wasn’t about this microphone or that studio; it was about the playing. Some guys can still play that way but it’s mainly a lost art because everything is much more compressed on jazz records, with the exception of ECM and other labels that cultivate their own philosophy and ideology.”
With communication a higher priority than individual showcasing, the members of Nerve had to cultivate a different intention as they improvised. “For example, we did one recording where Jacob played a great piano solo. I mean, he killed it! But we decided not to put it on the record because it sounded like taking the path of least resistance. Now, imagine telling any jazz musician, ‘You can go onstage tonight but you can’t play any songs you know and you can’t solo.’”
Mayer laughs and then makes his point. “We didn’t want to just showcase stuff we already knew, knowing it would have an effect. Instead, it was all about vulnerability, especially because the sound of this record comes mainly from our phrasing. In a jazz setting I usually play with an 18″ bass drum, so I can just rattle around without worrying because I know the bass is amplified and it’ll come through the front speaker. On this one, with a 26″ bass drum, if we tuned too low, I’d sponge up all the low end from the bass. If I tuned too high, I’d disguise all the tonal information from the bass. We had to tinker around with that for a while—and I had to play more sparsely. That was the most difficult thing because usually I’m a busy bass drum guy!”
Ultimately, Mayer insists, the self-examination behind After The Flare is probably even more important than the music itself. “We continuously need to create new language because every great idea, over time—socialism, Christianity, jazz, hip-hop, rock and roll—will become corrupted by different interests. Of course, when you create new language, you run the risk of not being understood. But between security and freedom, you have to decide for yourself where you want to dial it in.
“Without deviation from the norm, there can’t be anything new.”