The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world

The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world
Gasoline Inc Gab O'Brien Interview





photo courtesy

Gunnar Nelson is a man on a mission. With 2010 being the 20th anniversary of Nelson the Rock Band there is a huge amount going on. For starters there is the tour that sees him and his brother Matthew and the band play numerous festival dates across the US including the awesome M3 Rock Festival. There are also one off dates in China and a first visit to England to play live.


But it doesn’t stop there! There are not one but three new Albums from the band; a reality TV show documenting the anniversary year and just because there is so much time to spare Gunnar is also working on a very special book. For Nelson fans like me this is a very big year indeed!


Its early evening in the US, and the crack of dawn in Australia when the calls.


Mark: My exposure to Nelson, all started, with the song “Two Heads are Better Than One” on the Bill and Ted soundtrack, which was done under the name Powertool. Even though it didn’t have your vocals, it was a pretty cool song. Allegedly you had about 56 demos before you went in to record the first album, have there ever been opportunities to put some of those older songs out?


Gunnar: Well, yes, they actually just presented themselves, we’re doing business now with Frontiers in Italy, and they just did the latest Whitesnake and Journey records. They have been really supportive of music, from “back in the day!” and especially interested in songs that for some reason didn’t get released back then when perhaps they should have. We are doing a record with them right now, which is pretty exciting, well 2 actually, but one in particular which is called “Before The Rain”, and it’s actually the record quality demos, that wound up getting us signed to the Geffen label, and wound up becoming the “After The Rain” record. We did over cut quite a bit for the album, and we did write a whole lot of songs, somewhere around the 60-70 range. They were songs we considered ‘keepers’ and so there were a lot that were left over, and fortunately with Frontiers, they are now going to see the light of day!


Mark: That’s fantastic, I knew you were recording a new album with them, and I knew there had been talk of a live album from the “After The Rain” period.


Gunnar: Right, there are 3 records in that deal which is pretty exciting for me and Matthew. One is “Before The Rain”, which are the demos from the “After The Rain” record, and we have a record called “Perfect Storm”, which is our first ever live recording from the After The Rain tour, we’re playing with Brett Garsed on guitar, Paul Mirkovich on keyboards, and Bobby Rock on drums. Then a new record, brand new songs, and  going on this whole weather theme called “Lightening Strikes Twice”, but I think we’re going to be changing the title of the record, to “The Blond Leading The Blond”


Mark: Yes, your publicist told me that was probably going to be the new title. Another great play on words!


Gunnar: When you see the album cover, you’ll see where we’re going! We have spent a lot of time in Australia; we had an Australian manager when we first put Nelson together. He introduced us to Brett Garsed who at the time had just come off the road with John Farnham.


Mark: That Geoffrey Shorecraft?


Gunnar: Yes, Geoffrey was really supportive of me and Matthew, and helped us get our record deal back in the day, with Geffen. He really helped us in the initial set up, and then we parted ways when we all got in the studio and we were actually making the record. The label was stalling, with getting things finished, so we had to bring in a “closer” so to speak, so we brought in Larry Major, as our manager, who was managing Cinderella and Kiss at the time. He was a really straight ahead, can do kinda guy! Larry was good for us at that time. At the time we spent a lot of time down there in Oz and what we learned, which was that it’s really important, especially if you are on a world wide stage, to take the music seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously!  So, that’s really the approach we’ve always had with our music, you can tell from our “Because They Can” record cover, the two dogs, the William Whiteman photo. I know everyone is in love with the last project that they’ve done, but I can honestly say the next record is by far and above, the finest Nelson record that has ever been made!


Mark: Wow, I think my favourite at the moment, after listening to them all again recently is “Life”.


Gunnar: Thanks, man, I really like the way that record turned out too. When we made that record, we sat down before we went near the studio, and said ok, what kind of record are we going to make, lets assemble the songs that are really condusive for that, we approached it just like a focussed project. We did the same thing with this new record, we sat down before we started, and the challenge that was issued was, I want you to imagine it’s 1991, and grunge has never been discovered.


Mark: If only!


Gunnar: …and  you have been afforded the luxury of all the record company and industry support, having come off of selling 3 and a half million records of “After The Rain”. Going back in to the studio, and making the follow up to that multi platinum debut, what kind of record would you make? We realised that the essence of what we do, is we are song writers first and foremost. We made sure the songs were strong and of course the guitar driven, dual vocal thing, that we’ve always done. If you like the “After The Rain record or any of the cuts from it, then you’re really going to love this one.


photo courtesy


Mark: So, are you saying then in a roundabout way that “Imaginator” wasn’t really the best follow up album to do?


Gunnar: Well, “Imaginator” was a really more of a catharsis than anything. We had just done 305 dates straight, and were back in LA after being on the road for ever, and we discovered, not only the record companies agenda, but the planets agenda had really changed again with everyone wearing flannel and listening to stuff from Seattle. Honestly if you weren’t alternative rock, and from Seattle, you weren’t happening, and it was a whole generation of folks that I was making records with, back in the time, that woke up one day and had gone from heroes to zeroes! They didn’t do anything wrong, it was just the single largest shift in music history, and it just happened! And so at that particular point, if you were not in to music because it was your calling, but you were in it because you thought you could score some chicks, and open up for some big bands that were coming in to your town then that was when you found something else to do with your time! But if you were really born to make the music that you are making, I mean you weren’t all of a sudden going to put on a lumberjack shirt, and write songs that were completely different, and so you had to figure out something else to do! So we went over to the countries where we’d had no. 1 hits, over in the Pacific Rim. Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and did a whole tour over there, and basically spent that time trying to get away from Geffen, and forming our own label. We ended up with our Stone Canyon record label. Going back to the Imaginator record, it was a record we brought in to Geffen, on the back of the “After The Rain” album. We were feeling pretty angry, that the agenda of the label had changed, and they were aggressive towards us for no reason, we’d made them a lot of money, and we just felt they were turning their backs on us.

So we made a concept record that made an aggressive statement, about the media, about how it can make you or break you. We turned it in about 4 months before Metallica turned in their “Black” record, and we made an artistic statement, instead of doing the ‘pop’ thing we’re going to go this route, and it was completely rejected by Geffen! They said absolutely not, they didn’t know what to do with us, because it was so heavy! They said we can’t release this and we want you to go back in to the studio. So we made a choice to work with the label, and the bottom line was we probably would have been better served going to another label at that time that had not had Nirvana! Another place that was still making rock! It was not in their interests to let us go and have success elsewhere, so they kept us in the studio for ever! We were stuck in a studio for 3,4,5, years, and by the time we came out with what to the fans was the second record, “Because They Can”, our fans had moved on. It was a matter of timing, so Matt and I put our heads to the grindstone, and kept on turning out records. But I think the most successful we’ve ever been is when we’ve conceived a record, and as a team have decided which way we want it to go and got as focused as possible. Fortunately working with Frontiers has allowed us the insulation to get a fund upfront, then left alone to get past the pre-production stage and do the best work we could do, and surprise ourselves. I cant wait to send you a couple of these tunes to show you what I’m talking about!


Mark: That would be great, but just going back to Imaginator for a second, there were some great songs on there too, the ones you wrote with Chip and Donny from Enuff Z’ Nuff for example.


Gunnar: Ah yes! “It’s All Alright” and all that stuff! I really enjoyed writing with those guys!


Mark: Did you ever write anything more with them?


Gunnar: I would like to, I think we did a couple of writing sessions and that’s what it all came out of. If you ask Donny, or if you ask us, the story is very different! Donny’s like, “Yeah, those boys stole our songs”. But that’s not what really happened, we all got together and we all wrote that song together. It was funny at that time, Donny was staying at our house, he wound up getting pissed and wrapping my classic Mustang round a telephone pole, last I saw of Donny for a couple of years, he’d left the keys to the wrecked car on my doorstep! Basically a friend drove him up the street, and I didn’t see him and then his manager called and said Donny can’t afford to pay for the car, so why don’t you work something out with the publishing of that song “We’re all Alright”, and so that’s what we did!


Mark: That’s a great story, I’ve never heard that, and there were some great songs that you wrote on there with Jack Ponti.


Gunnar: I loved working with Jack! Jack’s a big deal over at EMI right now, he’s helped open up a whole new division at EMI America, which is great and I wish him all kinds of success. New Jersey, where Jack is, is where the Nelson family is originally from, and we met him before the record deal with Geffen. We went to New Jersey to work with Jack and really hit it off, he’s a real ‘salt of the earth’ guy. He believed in us and it was a safe place to go, after the whole craze of “After The Rain” had died down, we went back to New Jersey and wrote with Jack.


Mark: On to more recent times for a second, we met Matthew on the plane coming back from Rocklahoma, flying to Dallas last year. We were talking to him about when you went over to Yorkshire, in England, and recording with Russ Ballard. I know “Is That How it Is” made it on to the “Life” album, a song I particularly liked. Did anything else ever come out of that session?


Gunnar: We did two songs when we were there with Russ, “Is That How it Is” was one, and I’m trying to remember what the other one was! That’s posing a really good question, I will have to go back and look through all my songs from back in the day! I’ve always been a big fan of Russ and all the stuff he did with Argent. Our publisher hooked us up with him, he lived in this old manor house out in the country, and he was old school man, driving around in his Rolls Royce. It was a very good time for us, we were finding our feet with the Nelson sound, and we hadn’t actually recorded anything for the record yet, but we were doing all our demos, and getting our sound together. It was a really important time for us. I think as far as that time goes he was a really important person for us, who had a great conversation about how important it is to be unique and to have a message that people want to come to you to get. I am really grateful for that time. I really honestly wish “Is That How It Is” could have had a better platform to be heard from; I think it would be a really nice soundtrack for a movie.


photo by Mark Rockpit


Mark: Going back to Rocklahoma, which was the first time I saw you, because you never came to England, while I lived over there! Were you surprised by the reaction? It seemed to go down really well.


Gunnar: It did, I don’t think it hurt at all that our entire audience were cooked like lobsters!! I don’t know if you remember, how hot it was that day, but I’ll never forget it!


Mark: I have the photographs to remind me!


Gunnar: Oh my God man! It was ridiculous; you could’ve fried an egg on my forehead! I really had a good time, it’s changed a lot. Back in the day, Nelson always had a really interesting place in Rock ‘n’ Roll. We definitely weren’t Heavy Metal, and we were definitely not just pop, we were like this band who were too melodic for metal radio and rock radio, and too heavy for pop radio, so we created our own category. We were never really welcomed in to the fold, with the Winger’s and the Warrant’s, and the Poisons and the Slaughters and all that. That’s fine and we’re all good friends, and we do shows with them. But, what I’m most proud of is that, when you put on a Nelson single, it doesn’t sound like anything else that was out at the time. To be honest I didn’t really listen to the radio at that point, to see what was current and contemporary at the time, I wanted to make something that was timeless, and that is what we were able to accomplish with the first record, and with this record we’ve just made, we were able to accomplish the same thing. I think it is going to sound contemporary to itself no matter when you listen to it.


photo by Mark Rockpit


Mark: Your sound is very uplifting, definitely, and it is very different, as you say. Is there a dark side to Nelson at all?


Gunnar: Yes, I definitely think we touched on that, on the album you mentioned earlier, on “Imaginator”. I think with anything in life we all have a light side and a dark side, and to me it’s about finding a balance. We had to make a conscious decision about what it was we stood for, and when the first record came out there were a lot of bands doing the whole doom and gloom, black and white warehouse videos, and that’s cool, but we kind of wanted to be the opposite of that with lots of colour and vibrancy. To be honest with you, it was our time in Australia that encouraged us that you could be unique and you didn’t necessarily have to fall in to the whole blues/rock mould that so many people had fallen into, in the States. When I was growing up, I loved Bad Company, Foreigner and Heart, and all that stuff, but I also loved Queen, who were brilliant, and absolutely unique. They were the only guys to take opera and turn it into Rock ‘n’ Roll, and make it cool. I’ve got two sides to me, one is very, very theatrical, and I think of the productions I grew up listening to, and loving, like the first and second Boston records and the Queen records, they were very theatrical in their presentation, it sounded larger than life, you put it on, and there really was not much intimacy in it, it just sounded like you were going to the theatre, and I loved that. But, I also actually love sitting there with an acoustic guitar and my voice and just doing that, so I think that’s finding the balance between the light and the dark side as an artist. I think I definitely have both things pulling at me I have the 80’s metal that I grew up with on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood back in its heyday, as well as the California country folk rock that my dad was making when I was a baby, and it’s all made for a unique sound.


Mark:  It must be great to have that freedom, and I suppose a lot of that may come from not being signed to a major label for a while. They’re not pushing you in a certain direction. You can make what ever music you want to.

Gunnar: I think so, there are two kind of directions, the one made to placate the powers that be, and the records that are made in response to what is current at the time, if you are trying to get airplay or whatever. Then there’s another kind of record which is really made truly from the heart, and made because of the passion that an artist had when they were playing for nothing in a garage band, toting their own gear, playing parties and clubs and doing whatever because not doing it would be like asking them not to breathe! Personally, I can hear the difference, I really can. If I download a single or I buy a record, I can hear if something is phoned in. If someone is faking it, I can hear it in two seconds, and I think fans of music can really hear that. But, if something comes across your stereo that is inspired, it’s encouraging, because there’s a lot of shit out there! I can understand it, because I don’t think the world is very kind to artists and musicians nowadays, and it’s difficult to make a living and difficult to get the respect for the amount of sacrifice that goes into this lifestyle. So, I think the only thing that got me through, creatively speaking, the last 16 months was being able to rush home from recording, knowing I was working on a record that I was absolutely 100% passionate about, that I was not phoning in, that I was not trying to cut corners, I was trying to do the best I could. I’ve only been in that place one time before and that’s when I was making the “After The Rain” record, before I was famous, because before you’re famous, no one gives a shit anyway!


Then you have a hit and all of a sudden you have these record company guys over your should saying you know, you gotta do it this way! But those guys weren’t there in the first place! This situation is really great: it’s the same thing, you have light at the end of the tunnel; and you have a fund that is generous enough to allow you to make records out of inspiration rather than desperation! I suppose there are a lot of people with the same circumstances. I’ve spoken to people who have taken the money and run, even with Frontiers. They’ve taken the money and sent in their demos, and been OK with that. That’s not my legacy, I’m not in the habit of crapping in public, I took every penny from the record and then some out of my own pocket, and put that right in to the songs that you’re going to hear. I think you are going to dig it man seriously!


Mark: I think I am: I can’t wait! On to more recent things, you’ve got some great festival dates coming up this year, what can people expect at the M3 Rock Festival?


Gunnar: Well, this is pretty exciting news.  Mark Slaughter, is playing lead guitar for us now.


Mark: Yeah with the Scrap Metal connection and all.


Gunnar: Yeah, Mark lives here in Nashville, and we are really good friends, and a lot of people are not aware that Mark was a guitar instructor, and lead guitarist, before he was asked to be the lead vocalist for Slaughter (or before that Vinnie Vincent Invasion). When we’ve been doing the Scrap Metal dates, he’s been playing a lot of the lead guitar and been brilliant. I’m going to go out there and show off my buddy, and show that he’s not just a brilliant lead singer and front-man, but that he is a great guitar player! He’s also the nicest guy in the world and he deserves whatever kudos he gets. We also have Howie Simon playing with us, and Howie is absolutely brilliant. We will always have, in Nelson, from now on, other than me; as I’m playing a lot of the leads too. We will always have two other lead guitar players. The reason for that is in order to pull off the record that we just made, we are going to need three guitar players! In order to really bring it to people that’s what we are gonna need and we need to be really, really good, as the guitar work on the record is really great!


Mark: 2010 is a big year for you, not only being the 25th anniversary of your father’s death, but also the 20th anniversary of Nelson, the Rock Band as well. Do you find yourself reflecting a lot on life, when anniversaries like that come around?


Gunnar: Yes, you know, I think it’s natural to do that. They are two different things, we’ve got two very different shows that Matthew and I are able to do, one is Ricky Nelson remembered, where we go out and pay tribute to our dad, life and times, and that’s the show we do because we want to. We get to share our dads great music with people, and keep his name out there, and keep the music alive. And we miss him a lot less with every single song we play. And that is absolutely killer.


Mark: It must be great to play your fathers songs, and then play your own songs, and see the audience reaction to both of those sets of songs.


Gunnar: Yes, we’ve always had a wide demographic of people who come to our shows, everyone from 8 to 80! I’m grateful to my father and my grandparents for entertaining for 100 years before I got here. I never wanted to play any of my father’s music, until we established ourselves. Our keyboard player says the Ricky Nelson Remembered gig, is a high integrity gig, it hits you as an artist and a human on all levels, and is truly a feel good show. As for the Nelson gigs, I had to really sit down and think about that because, it’s been a long time since the first record was released, and I think for the last year the public and the press especially has been really tough on a lot of bands from the 80’s.


Mark: Yes, and I think you actually had it tough from some sections of the press at the time, to be honest! Often based on stuff other than the music.


Gunnar: I agree, and what helped was, I knew when we played live we had the best live rock show on the planet! I didn’t care whose band you were in, I didn’t care who you we’re talking about, we could have kicked the crap out of any live band at the time! Everyone who came to see the show said the same thing. I don’t know why it was we were considered guilty until proved innocent. It was unfair, and now here we are 20 years later, the audience aren’t sitting at the back saying ‘I could do better’; they’re saying, ‘Oh man, I love that song’! The same guys who at the time wouldn’t admit they were listening to their girlfriend’s CDs are now saying ‘yeah man I always loved those guys’! It’s changed man, and not just for me and Matthew, but for a lot of our contemporaries as well. AQ lot of them are now getting the well-deserved respect that they never got back in the day, and never got until maybe a couple of years ago. It’s not just us; it’s actually pretty cool now to be a creature from the 80’s!


Mark: It’s funny you should say that, I was talking to Mili from Steelheart the other day and he said exactly the same.


Gunnar: We have had to suffer through 15 years, of no guitar solos in songs, and people who don’t like their own music, and people like Ashleigh Simpson, who lip sync on Saturday Night Live! We suffered through Rap, Hip Hop, and Grunge. Cream always rises to the top. I’m not saying there is not some good music out there, but if you grew up listening to the bands I mentioned before, like Queen, Heart, Foreigner, or the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, then you want something you can sink your teeth in to. You want guitars you can groove to, and lyrics you can relate to and things that make you feel a certain way. You want to connect, and it’s hard when the bands that are coming out are only supported by their record company for one single. How can you relate when bands are gone in three months!


Mark: I think one of my favourite quotes from your dad, was: “Life is a series of comebacks”.


Gunnar: It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, that totally applies and it’s true. He would know, he was the comeback master! One thing my Dad was, he was tough and he was not a quitter. So it’s kind of fun coming across some interviewers and reviewers, who say ‘Oh, what have you been doing for the last 15 years’? Do you still play music! I love that one! Play music? Yes, I still eat, breathe and go to the bathroom too! All those things are as optional to me as playing music!




Mark: Some of my friends in the UK are getting pretty excited about the Firefest show, where you headline on Sunday. You’ve never actually played live in the UK before have you?


Gunnar: No we’ve been over for press and promotion, and to do the writing of course, but we’ve never been lucky enough to go over and actually rock! I am so looking forward to it I cannot tell you! I know Mark Slaughter is going to be playing guitar for us, and Neil Zaza will be the second guitar player. It’s going to be killer, I’ve been talking to my friend Chris Green for years about going over and doing the Firefest, it’s something I’ve really wanted to do, and fortunately the planets are aligned and we get to go and do it.


Mark: It’s an amazing show; I went to a few of the earlier ones and they always tell you it’s going to be the last year! Though that may be a ticket sale thing! It takes place at a club where I spent most of my youth, Nottingham Rock City, my home town, so I’m sure you’ll really enjoy it over there!


Gunnar: I hope so, I’m sure you’ll let all the women know that it is definitely clothing optional night when Nelson plays!!


Mark: I will, but unfortunately the ones I know are now a bit old, like me now!




Gunnar: So maybe not a good thing then!


Mark: I have to say they are all still hot!


Mark: You’ve also got a date planned for China in July, how did that come about?


Gunnar: That was through Neil Zaza, he’s done a few dates with us, and he has a solo act that he has toured with in the Pacific Rim. His promoter then heard we were playing Firefest, and said might we be interested in coming over to China. Those kind of opportunities, I don’t turn down! I don’t care if the money is upside down it’s not about that! Music has blessed me by putting food on my table and my family’s table my whole life, which is awesome! It’s also been my passport to all these incredible opportunities and experiences that I would never have had the chance to do, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I knew how to play guitar. So rock on man!


Mark: Outside of music, you seem to have a lot of interests, restoring old houses, classic cars, classic guitars, Harley riding, martial arts and plenty of other stuff! What’s taking up most of your free time at the moment?


Gunnar: It’s actually a building project, funny you should mention that. We’re actually doing an addition to the back of my house right now. I had some minor surgery done that forced me off the road. So I’ve had a couple of weeks off, and It’s the first 2 weeks I’ve had off fin maybe 3 or 4 years!


Mark: I know recently you played with Rick Springfield. That was solo wasn’t it?


Gunnar: Yes it was, and that was a last minute thing. I loved playing with Rick and I got a chance to do that as ‘Half Nelson’ that was a lot of fun!


Mark: I heard rumours a while ago about a show that you had successfully sold to Fox a while ago; and also about a reality show that you were planning with Matthew and your younger brother Sam. How are things progressing?


Gunnar: I think that Sam has kind of phased out of that one and it’s just gonna be me and Matthew. It’s going to be following the two of us- a year in the life of the whole thing, the twentieth anniversary of Nelson. All the shows that we are doing the cameras will be following us around; they’ll be coming over to China!


Mark: So that is definitely going to happen? Do you have a company involved!


Gunnar: Oh yes, there is a company involved that has put up the money but I don’t want to jinx it!


Mark: I look forward to seeing that. I just have two very quick final questions the first I’ve heard you answer in the negative in the past but I’m sure one day the answer will be yes! Are you planning a book?


Gunnar: Yes, as a matter of fact, that’s a great question. I am actually writing a book right now and it’s called “What Happened to Your Hair”




Mark: That’s a great title for a book!


Gunnar: It’s cool! It’s actually a great story and it explains what happen in those eighteen month period of time between 1990 and 1992 with the rise of Grunge and the fall of ‘confidence rock’.


Mark: Wow, that’s a great subject. I don’t think anyone has really tackled that subject properly before.


Gunnar: And I’m sure that a lot of the recording artists from back in the day would have their 2c to add to that too. 


Mark: Definitely, that is so cool! Our final question that we ask all of our interviewees; and it’s a really easy one; is… what is the meaning of life?


The Pause is only brief…


Gunnar: Ah the meaning of life! Balance.


Mark: Brilliant! That’s great; you know everyone has a really different answer to that! Thank you so much for spending so much of your time with us. It’s been an absolute pleasure to speak with you.


Gunnar: Same here , thank you for calling all the way from across the pond, and I hope our paths cross again, stay in close touch and if you do make it to Firefest come back and say Hi. I’d love for you to hear some of the new songs and get your opinion a bit closer to release date too.


Mark: It’s been great, thank you so much for talking to the Rockpit!


Gunnar: Thank you for the twenty years of patience, I really appreciate it. Take care mate! Bye.


Mark Rockpit spoke with Gunnar Nelson

Many thanks to the wonderful people at the M3 Rock Festival and Liz from the Nelson Team for setting up the interview. Thanks also to Jo Rockpit for the transcription.

There is plenty going on in the Nelson camp this year and you can keep up to date with all things Nelson at the great new site

Take a minute to also check out the M3 site and book those tickets now!
Mark Rockpit

Gunnar Nelson