Big Walnuts Yonder–an incredible supergroup featuring Minutemen’s Mike Watt, Wilco’s Nels Cline, Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier, and Tera Melos’ Nick Reinhart–just put out one of the most powerful and marvelously eclectic rock records of the year. Even though the band formed way back in 2008 and didn’t record the album until 2014, it still sounds raw and fresh as hell. The dirty funk of opener “All Against All” accurately portrays the LP’s unique blend of lo-fi math rock and noisy, throwback ‘90s skate punk, while the energetic “Raise the Drawbridges?” gloriously flaunts ear-piercing guitar licks and groove-heavy percussion.
Aside from recording seriously great music with Watt, Cline, and Saunier, Nick Reinhart has proved himself to be one of the most strikingly innovative guitarists in recent memory with his countless other bands and side projects. He is best known as the frontman of Sacramento-based experimental rock trio Tera Melos, who explored complex, mind-bending indie-math zones on their most recent release, 2013′s X’ed Out.
Reinhart has also worked with drummer Zach Hill in Bygones and Death Grips; played live in Rob Crow’s band Goblin Cock; and performed a series of engrossing, entirely improvised live sets with Dot Hacker’s Eric Gardner as Swollen Brain, all of which are discussed in our interview below (the power of collaboration is definitely key here).
You and Eric Gardner from Dot Hacker just played some shows as Swollen Brain. How did this whole project come about?
I met Eric through my friend Jonathan Hischke, who plays bass in Dot Hacker. When I originally moved down to Los Angeles I lived in a duplex next door to Eric. I would house sit his Vietnamese pot bellied pig, Francis, a lot. I was a big fan of his drumming in Dot Hacker and at some point it came up that we should play music together for fun. We had a pretty immediate chemistry in playing free, improvised stuff. We played our first show in September 2015 and we had a nice response, so we figured make it a regular thing. No intense band practices, no songs, no rules. It’s a really fun musical project to be a part of.
How do you feel playing improvised sets?
I really enjoy improvising. While I’ve done solo improvised sets, it’s a lot more fun having someone else to connect with on previously unpaved musical roads.
With my band Tera Melos we take practice and preparing for a set/tour pretty seriously. We usually need around 12 full days, give or take, of long band rehearsals before we’re comfortable enough to play a show. We even dump lots of brain power into designing the set and which songs or transitions go where. For me practice is usually fairly stressful, as I wear a few different hats- playing guitar, singing and running some sort of sampler/keyboard rig all while doing the pedal tap dancing thing, and I want it all to sound cohesive and thoughtful. there’s a lot of work that goes into that.
So as far as improvising goes- it’s amazing to ditch all the preparation and just play music without preconception. It’s very liberating. With Swollen Brain we do play together in our rehearsal studio, but it’s less “practice” and more just playing little sets. We’ll generally do 20 minute bursts of sound just to keep our improv brains fresh, which after 2 rounds of bursts our brains are actually very not-fresh haha. To get better at improvising it seems you just need to do it often. So in a way it’s sort of practicing, but not really…
“Practicing” is also a way of familiarizing ourselves with whatever gear we happen to be using at the time. In my case it’s usually a freshly constructed pedal board. I like to have time to see what works sonically and what doesn’t before we play a show. The other thing I like to consider when playing a free-form set is how to keep things flowing and interesting- for me and the audience. Obviously you can’t force magical moments to appear in that context, but I want to set myself up for those moments to occur. Generally that means having the tools that will allow me to make little musical stories with dynamics and tension. One of my favorite parts of an improvised performance is when someone walks up to you afterwards and asks, “so how much of that was improvised?” and the answer is, “well, all of it.” I’ve been the person asking that question and when you get that answer it’s a magical moment in and of itself.
Do you think Swollen Brain will remain solely a live band? Would you ever be interested in recording studio material?
We actually just started making a record. The process of how to go about capturing our vibe was hard for me to envision. It took me a second to wrap my mind around how we could best accomplish a recording. Because it’s very much a live, organic process of improvising it would make sense to just set up some mics and hit record on a bunch of sound bursts, but we felt that it should be sonically more interesting than just drums and a single guitar track. When we play live I end up looping layers of sounds and then repurposing the loops to relate to what I’m doing with the live guitar sounds. Then once we land on something that works we turn that into a little mini song. So one of the recording methods was playing until we landed on some interesting loops, then capturing the performance of drums + loop action, and then overdub myself improvising over that. We did variations of that method for a couple of days. The next step is sifting through all of that and making sense of it.
You also played in Rob Crow’s band Goblin Cock on a tour of theirs late last year. What was that like?
It was great. I love Rob Crow. He’s one of my favorite musicians. Tera Melos toured with Pinback a couple years ago and it was one the my favorite tours we’ve ever done. He’s super thoughtful and just a really great person all around. I was stoked when he asked if I wanted to do the Goblin Cock tour. It was challenging because i had to learn a style of music that I wasn’t really familiar with- whatever brand of metal Goblin Cock is I guess. He uses alternate tunings and B.C. Rich Warlock guitars exclusively. So I had to relearn chord shapes and which notes went where on a really weird guitar, then apply all that to a kind of music I’d never played. Oh and we wore cloaks and face masks that were very hard to see out of, plus all fog machines and strobe lights raging. So there’s actually just about zero visibility on stage. But yea, it was strange and really fun.
You’ve mentioned before that Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Underworld rank among your top influences when it comes to electronic music. What drew you to the sound of those artists and what impact did it ultimately have on your own playing style?
When I was 16 a friend showed me those artists. At that point I was really into punk rock. The electronic music that I was hearing had this relentless energy and all these really melodic sounds mixed with abrasive sound effects. That was really new and exciting to me. I had a super natural, positive reaction to it. The same friend had a Playstation and a game called MTV Music Generator. You could make your own songs by placing pre-recorded samples onto a timeline. It was a very dumbed down way to make something resembling the electronic music that we were listening to. So I’d mess around with that at his house after school. A couple years later I got a desktop computer and found the program Fruity Loops, which was the next step up in music programming from the video game. A couple years after that I got a program called Reason, which I have worked out of ever since. At that point I hadn’t really gotten into guitar pedals and sonic exploration. I mean, I had some pedals, but I was still playing in a punk-ish band and bedroom moonlighting as some electronic music poser. Eventually Tera Melos was created and the guitar pedals section of my brain expanded. I started to recognize the ability to recreate some of the sounds I had learned to make on the computer. Incorporating that sort of stuff into an outside-the-box rock band became really exciting, and still is for me. I should also mention that my knowledge of electronic music in general never really reached beyond those three artists. I think there was just something really special about them that opened my mind at the right time.
Do you think collaborating with other people allows you to think outside the box and push the limits of your own sound? I can sense an almost cosmic force from these Big Walnuts Yonder recordings.
Yes, 100%. Musical collaborations that take you outside your comfort zone are crucial for growth and creativity. When I began playing music with Zach Hill it was like my musical brain got super charged and started wandering in different directions that I previously hadn’t really explored. Rob Crow and I have been batting ideas back and forth for awhile now as well that will hopefully take shape soon. I’m excited to see where that collaboration will take me in terms of new musical territory. And yes, of course the Big Walnuts Yonder thing had a lot of cosmic force going for it. Those guys are all very big inspirations for me, so making that record was a big part of my creative timeline. I think it’s too soon and close to the album release to be able to recognize the greater impact it had on me, but what comes to mind immediately is exercising the ability to to maintain creativity and keep up with these musical giants, and for them to be stoked on what I was bringing to the table. It would be like an indie game dev that grew up playing Nintendo all of the sudden getting to work on a new game with Shigeru Miyamoto. And not only that, but Miyamoto is excited about your ideas and he’s reacting to them with new ideas. It’s sort of like that. Pretty crazy.
The other thing that comes to mind is that I had never written guitar parts to pre-existing bass parts in this capacity. 8 of the 10 Big Walnuts Yonder songs were born in Mike Watt’s brain and started with his bass as “song forms,” as he calls them. In other words, I was having to figure out how to write interesting guitar parts to songs that consisted of only bass. In Tera Melos I can probably count on one hand the amount of times where even just a small portion of a song’s construction started with bass. I can recall being very frustrated trying to come up with guitar parts that way because it’s so foreign to me. Of course out of that frustration comes great things. I was well prepared for this challenge though. It took me a while to understand Watt’s compositions (they’re pretty wild) but once I was comfortable with his approach to song writing I think some really cool, unique stuff came out of it.
What was it like recording the album in just three days?
When we started the process of creating Big Walnuts Yonder Mike had been sending me songs that were just bass compositions. So I would sit with them and contemplate different ways to compliment what Mike had written. Now Nels and Greg on the other hand- they had heard what Mike and I had worked on, but I don’t believe they had fully composed “parts” like me and Mike, that is to say I think they had “ideas” and then brought them to life in the studio. It was so crazy and inspiring to see it happen like that. So when we were all set up and ready to play we would jam a song through a few times, talk about the sections, iron out a thing or two and then hit record. It was 99% live. I was actually a little nervous because I hadn’t recorded live like that for many many years, since being in a crappy sounding punk band as a teenager. I mean, my bands usually record live, but then guitars are scratched and then redone. So this is truly a live record with all of us in the same room reacting to each other. I think that nervous energy really helped me pull it together personally.
I think Zach Hill is an artist who compliments your musical style and approach really well. You played on the last two Death Grips albums, Jenny Death and Bottomless Pit. Was that a particular collaboration that gave you the chance to explore new themes and ideas? What were the recording sessions for those records like?
Zach Hill is a very big inspiration for me. He’s one of my favorite musicians of all time and I think he’s contributed some really important things to music. The way I play and perceive music is directly related to him, so it makes sense that what we compliment each other. Contributing to Death Grips’ body of work was really special for me. I respect that band so much and to be able to help them shape their vision is a really cool thing. I think the reason it works well is because I understand where they’re coming from and where they want to go. I haven’t worked with anyone else in that context, so in that sense there are new ideas that appear that otherwise wouldn’t. A lot of the time our creative ideas are simpatico and feel really natural. It’s like as soon as I’m around those guys my brain’s bluetooth automatically connects to their system.
Aside from the recently announced tour with CHON, Covet and Little Tybee, does Tera Melos have any special plans for this year?
I think Tera Melos will probably start doing fun stuff pretty soon here.
Reinhart has a new band with Mike Watt (Minutemen), Nels Cline (Wilco), and Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) called Big Walnuts Yonder. Their self-titled debut is out now on Sargent House.