Bob Nanna has surpassed geographical recognition. His efforts and accomplishments in Midwestern “underground” outfits Braid and Hey Mercedes are revered and admired to many, myself included. It seemed nearly logical to me (and a dream come true) to interview the man. There may never be another Braid reunion tour, but hopefully this will be enough to fill you up for now. Bob has also crafted a “mix tape” that you can download for free in our Mix Tapes forum. I hope you all enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
How did you get into music? Is there a certain band or genre that can be held be responsible for drawing you into the underground music community?
I remember liking music from the very beginning, and as soon as I could figure out how to work a radio, I was listening to top 40 music. Around the age of 15, I was introduced to what was then basically called punk. Bands like Minor Threat, Naked Raygun, and Murphy's Law. It wasn't until I found myself at a local suburban basement show seeing a band called Target that I realized that this was something I could do. I immediately started a band and started writing songs.
When first writing and performing, which bands and albums did you call upon for motivation and inspiration?
It was the influence of DC bands like Shudder To Think, Jawbox, & Fugazi mixed in with west coast bands: Operation Ivy, Green Day, Jawbreaker, Samiam. I loved them all equally, so they all played an influential role in the writing/performing process. In terms of writing, I was drawn to the very upfront and personal storytelling aspects of Jawbreaker's music. It was all first-person but it wasn't straight up pretty. It was beautiful to me, but it wasn't something that was ever going to be played on the radio. The performance aspect was truly important as well, since that was what originally put the urge in me to stop listening and start doing. There seemed to be no pretension, even with bands like Fugazi who were packing in 1000+ people a night. You still felt like you could talk to them. And you could.
What are your pet peeves or quirks as a musician? Do you have any rituals before a performance?
It's a pet peeve and a quirk I guess that I really have to be in a mood to write music. It's a very specific kind of mood. I've spent 31 years getting to know my ups and downs and figuring out when to best ride the creative wave, so to speak. Sometimes I just want to sleep and not think about anything. Sometimes I want to write an entire album in a night. It happens... And I used to have a TON of pre-performance rituals. I laid them all out in a not-so-brief essay for the Revolution On Canvas book. Nowadays, I've scaled down a bit. I no longer use a steam inhaler, but I do refrain from dairy a few days before. I still sing scales, but I no longer spend 30 minutes saying "ha ha ha" with my tongue out. If I'm particularly nervous or stiff, I'll stretch a little. And I'd like to say that I don't drink too much before a set but well...it happens.
What have you been up to as of late? Do you have a day job? Are you still pursuing music full time?
I've been working a lot for Threadless.com in their sponsorships and promotions department. It's the best day job I've ever had, dare I say the best one ever. A good part of my day is spent giving away things to friends. I'm everyone's favorite friend now! Just kidding. I still pursue music as much as I used to. It's just that now I email all day as opposed to laying in bed moaning for hours. I still find time to write songs and even to tour. I just finished recording the Threadless album and hope to have another City On Film record out before the end of the year.
I think it's fair to say that you've had a successful run as a musician in terms of popularity and cultural impact, but what personal goals would you still like to accomplish, waiting to be checked off your list?
Thanks. There are still places I'd like to travel to. I never had a chance to go to Australia or Spain. I hope to hit those up this year. Fingers crossed.
Is there a story or significance behind the name City On Film? How did the project come about?
I started it around 1996 during a break from Braid tours. I had just moved back to Chicago, so I must have had this quaint romantic notion of being some acoustic jerk who could muse about the goings on in the city in song as if it was being played out on film. It sounded cool at the time! I still like it, even though I barely sing about Chicago.
Idealistically, where do you want City On Film to go? What future goals do have for the project?
My future goal is to keep it going as long as I want it to go. I don't think there will ever be a time when I hang up the guitar and call it a day. I'll always want to write songs, record albums, and play shows. I don't have any grandiose dreams of singer-songwriter stardom. The genre is well-worn and increasingly well...not what I'm into so much anymore. I'd like to do another full rock album or two, provided my voice can handle it.
Why did you decide to pursue a solo project instead of another full outfit?
Ease of implementation. I have nowhere to practice with a full band. It's much easier to sit in my room and write songs at my leisure. I'm feeling the urge to get a full band together again, though.
For those who don't know, you write Threadless Jingles for the Threadless Clothing Company. How did this come about and what attracted you to the project?
Well, I prefer to not think of them as jingles since I don't expect them to help sell any product. Whether that's actually true or not, I came up with the idea at work (packing shirts at the time). I was looking at all of this amazing artwork and thought it would be a great challenge to write little ditties about each one. We churn out 6 or 7 new designs each week, so I had my work cut out for me. No one asked me to do it. I just did it. It's SO much fun to be able to dabble in other genres, collaborate with friends, and generally goof off.
What other projects have you worked on in the music industry besides making music, whether it be producing, label work, etc.?
I tried to run the label Grand Theft Autumn after we started it, but I am absolutely horrible with money, so now Todd & Roy (of Braid) take care of it. I'm turned off by at least 90% of the industry because it is so focused on making money at any cost, usually at the cost of really talented artists who get crushed under the system. I've thought about producing and I've been asked a few times but...I dunno. Just never panned out.
I believe many young bands list it as a goal or dream of theirs to tour internationally. Being that you have played on stages beyond the United States, what was this experience like? What surprised you the most about performing overseas?
It's truly amazing, and it's so much easier now for bands to go! I've done both ends of international touring from the relatively posh to the sleep on a dirty floor kind, and there are vast benefits to both. I'd suggest a sprinkling of both if you can make it happen. I guess the most surprising thing was how the scenery and architecture and climate and language is totally different yet when you're at the show it's exactly the same as a show here. And that's impressive.
When you reminisce about your previous endeavors in music, what memories, good or bad, come to mind first?
I really enjoyed all of the misadventures. The ones that we can laugh about now. The fights, the drunken shenanigans, the long conversations with strangers. I really loved it. I tried to write about it as it was happening so I could go back and relive everything. It's all in a drawer somewhere just waiting for the right time. Oh yeah, in something I'd like to accomplish...I'd like to write a book. I think it might be interesting! I've seen a lot and I could always make up some great stuff as well.
Instead of pulling a surprise halt, Braid decided to give their fans a three-month notice of the breakup. At the end of the three months, there would be five finals shows 'round your home parts. Although I'm sure it was a momentous five shows for you guys and fans alike, why not just end it? Why drag it out?
We still loved playing the songs. We just couldn't really stand the thought of writing anymore together! And we had made SO many friends around the world during our bands existence, so we thought we'd throw a party more or less. For us and for all of our friends. We had it in 3 different cities because we had three different hometowns and we wanted to give everyone a chance to check it out. I know that Bifocal ended up filming it and doing the DVD, but we really had no idea if that would even turn out. They were just some friends of ours from North Carolina and they ended up doing a remarkable job. It's really touching. As for the live album, I have this to say: I love the layout.
Is there a possibility of a Hey Mercedes reunion tour? What about another Braid reunion tour? Even if not, has the thought ever crossed your mind?
The thought of doing a reunion tour with HM or another Braid one has not crossed my mind.
Which was more moving and monumental for you – Doing what you love successfully in Braid or Hey Mercedes or your 2004 reunion tour?
Out of those three, I'd have to choose the first few years of Braid when it finally dawned on us that what we were doing was being appreciated, and we could stay on the road for months at a time if we so pleased. The most moving/monumental experience ever was the most recent City On Film tour of the UK. It was just so intimate.
From Everynight Fire Works to Loses Control, was there a different approach to songwriting?
There wasn't a change in songwriting but there was a distinct change in recording/production styles. For Everynight, I went through each song and wrote out how I thought parts should sound. I mapped out every little vocal harmony and every small tweak that I thought would make the album an interesting listen. When I presented it to J, he had his own blueprint, so we merged ‘em together, made some compromises, came up with some new ideas, and clicked on the mics. For Loses Control, we were working with engineers unfamiliar to us. We admired their work on previous records, so instead of handing them a gameplan, I assumed they would have one all ready to go. And the truth is, they really didn't. So I found myself scrambling to put things together in the middle of recording. I don't think it turned out terrible, I just think it could have been better if I did a little more pre-production at home.
If you had to do only one again, which would it be - Braid or Hey Mercedes?
Thankfully, I now play shows solo and can sprinkle in Braid or HM songs at will... so I don't really have to make that choice, do I?
How often do you stay in touch with your old band members? What have they been up to?
I keep in touch with them all the time. Damon is tour managing Senses Fail. Todd is running Grand Theft Autumn and is happily married in Milwaukee. Mike is actually doing sound for Senses Fail. Chris is running Lucid Records and Mark Dawursk is doing well as a photographer/occasional tour manager. We're all still involved.
When Braid and HM were in their prime, how often were you tagged as "emo?"
A few hundred times daily.
Braid and HM are considered pioneers in the emo genre. Do you think this is a valid argument? What are your thoughts and opinions on emo as a musical form and/or subculture, especially in recent years?
I don't know if I'd use the term pioneers because we basically tried to emulate the music we loved, which at the time we called "emo." Bands like Indian Summer, Hoover, Current, Gauge... Maybe we helped bring those sounds around to people because we toured so damn much, but we certainly didn't invent anything new. Lately, it's a total joke but I don't let it get me down. I leave the argument in the hands of people who have the time and will to argue about that kind of stuff.
Some consider you to be an icon of the 90's Midwestern underground music scene. Many bands, the Midwest and beyond, cite your music as an important influence in their own music. What do you think about this?
It's very flattering but really the only thing I have going for me is tenacity. If some of my heroes stuck with it and toured more, I’m sure they'd be icons as well. If someone says they are influenced by Braid, awesome! But in reality, they've been influenced by Fugazi, Jawbox, Jawbreaker, and all of the bands that influenced us.
Do you still keep up to date with the Midwest music scene? What has changed and where you would you like to see it go?
Yes, I still go to a lot of shows, but rarely just to go. I'm always going to see someone in particular and if I happen to catch something new, it's because they happen to be playing the same show. Happens a lot, though. The biggest change is the venue. When Braid was starting, the Chicago clubs wouldn't touch any of us with a ten-foot pole so we had to set up our own shows in area halls. Nowadays, the clubs have opened their doors to smaller bands. I think it's overall a great thing but there's something to be gained from a tour of halls and basements as well. If you can learn to play shows with no p.a., then you'll be able to handle a poor sounding stage at a club. I'd like to see more community/collectives pop up. You know, say, a group of 30 or so musicians who create bands, share musicians, play shows and make records for fun. Not to get big and known, but just for fun. Because making music is fun, remember?
What recently released albums have you been pumping on repeat?
I really love the Velvet Teen "Cum Laude!" record because it sounds so different, yet so good. I think the new Arcade Fire is something special and for some reason, I can't stop listening to Editors. And also the new Owen & Of Montreal records. And Sondre Lerche.
User Submitted Questions:
What is your personal favorite Hey Mercedes song?
If hard pressed, I'd have to say "Que Shiraz." It was a very open sounding song and it was fun to play live.
What ever happened to the 100 cover songs in 100 days project?
I'm still doing the 100 songs. In fact, I plan on having the next one done by the end of the week. If I ever thought I would finish ‘em in 100 days, I must have figured out quickly that I was fucking crazy.
Could you explain what inspired the song "A Dozen Roses" and how you went about writing it?
I hate trying to explain or philosophize over songs, preferring to just let them live in the moment. But, looking back, I'd probably say I was unsuccessfully trying to seek out a more meaningful relationship while my peers were not. That was probably it. I remember writing the music in my parents’ basement and it being the first song we ever wrote with Damon but I don't remember writing the lyrics. I'm sure they are in a box somewhere. Perhaps with further explanation.
Does your weekend really start on Wednesday?
It actually starts on Thursday now. That's when my girlfriend gets into town. If it started on Thursday back then, it still would have been called "Our Weekend Starts on Wednesday" because of the “w” sound. Such liberties are often taken.
What is the story behind the clip included on "Unorchestrated (live)" on Unorchestrated EP?
It's a clip from the movie Waking The Dead. It's such a powerful scene/performance by Billy Crudup. As soon as I saw that movie I knew I had to sample it somewhere since it works so well out of context. In fact it works better out of context.
Do you still keep in touch with Tim Kinsella?
I see him about 2-3 times a year and we chat like we're best friends. I probably shouldn't say anything but last time we talked we joked about doing another Sky Corvair record. I talk with Mike Kinsella a lot more and even played paintball at his bachelor party. Ouch.
Any last words?
great interview. bob nanna is one of my favorite lyricists and musicians. he seems like a cool mellow guy... and i would looove to see a book from him. the thing is wrote in Revolution was really good.
Excellent interview Julia! I'd say him and Chris Broach are tied for my favorite musician of all time and this was a very informative interview. I am jealous you got to interview him hahah. The mixtape is a nice touch as well.