If you've ever been to an event like Raleigh Downtown Live, you know how we tend to handle our history: Learn it. Dilute it. Sell it. Sadly, Afrobeat, a genre pioneered by late Nigerian mastermind Fela Kuti to—by its nature—lash out against the norm and combine divergent elements, has often fallen prey to the same policy. Plenty of American bands claiming to play Afrobeat play it too lightly or too tightly, simply reading those old charts and cashing in the day's check. But on its new record, Ghost Rock, Ann Arbor, Mich.-based band Nomo bends the form in obvious and subtle ways. "My Dear," one of the record's more orthodox but finessed tracks, is a perfect introduction.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Your new record, Ghost Rock, has been out a month. How have people been responding to the new material live in advance of the release?
ELLIOTT BERGMAN: The response has been really good so far. We haven't been playing this stuff for too long, so it's still developing. That's one of the things that I really love about this band. Everyone is a really good improviser and a great listener. Night after night on the road, things develop and morph and change into something different than it was on the record.
Recording this record was a little bit of a different process: It happened in a number of different sessions, and some of the people who played on the record hadn't really even met before. There's a lot of layers on this record, so it almost got ahead of the band a little. Once the record was finished, we had to go back and figure out how we were going to perform everything live. We're still kind of getting some of these things under our belt, but it's really feeling solid and everyone in the band is feeling great. The audiences are starting to know the songs a little bit. It always takes a couple of weeks' time after a record is out for an audience to hear it. It's always good when you're playing something familiar for people.
I'd read that parts of the record were written and played by the band around a set of loops. For how much of the record did you use that method?
Not for the entire record, but there are a few tracks that have a rhythmic loop that served almost as a click track as we were recording. That was established before anything else was. Some of these looping rhythmic ideas are present in the songs: Some are real present and pumping, and some are more ethereal and background-ish. The tracks that use those the most are like the first track, "Brainwave," which has a synth loop that's driving things along. Then the second track, "All the Stars," uses a mbira-type instrument that we call the Electric Sawblade Gamelan. It's sort of a metallic sound, like a chime or a gong. Some people often think it's a vibraphone, actually. It can be ringing and bell-like or it can be harsh and abrasive, depending on how you treat the instrument. The song "Rings" also has one of those, and "Three Shades" also has a loop like that going throughout. But "My Dear" is kind of the band playing all together live in the room.
Even without a loop, "My Dear" had to have some sort of origin. What was it?
The bass line was the start. I woke up one morning with that ... Actually, I think I thought of that in the bathtub. [Laughs.] I think I was underwater when I ... This is a very strange story, and it's funny that you asked this. I hadn't actually thought about it before. I distinctly remember that I was in the bathtub with my head underwater singing that song. I don't want to scare anybody, but if you kind of submerge your ears underwater and your jaw and most of your head, you can leave your nose out to breath. It makes a very strongly resonating sound, so you all the sudden have a very powerful voice even at very low volume. It's kind of a fun way to sing. I got into the habit of doing this for a little while every night, and "My Dear" was one of the tunes that came out of my bathtub singing sessions.
Coming up with anything underwater naturally presents a problem with capturing it. Did you hum it until you could dry off or what?
[Laughs.] The bassline is pretty simple. It's just a rhythmic idea, so I'll usually sing something into my cell phone—I have a little recording device on my cell phone—and I'll record it quickly before I forget it. I recorded that on my cell phone. I think I listened to it that next morning and wrote the horn melodies after I woke up.
How much of the stuff do you arrange before the band gets together? Do you write the music out into charts?
Well, we never write out charts. Everything we do in the band we learn by ear, so that people remember it better. If you learn something by ear, it's generally in there for good. There's a lot of material that the band performs, so charts would be kind of a mess, and I feel like having music stands onstage is a barrier between the band and the audience. We try to learn everything by memory as soon as it's ready to play. A lot of it is pre-composed, but the band members are very instrumental in terms of figuring out harmonies and background figures. We sort of have the main melody and bass line and guitar part: Those are the elements that get figured out first, and we add flourishes. Backgrounds and other sorts of sonic textures come into the mix down the line.
Nomo's songs themselves are worth the listen, but those flourishes you mention—surprising guitar lines or electronics—separate you from a lot of peers who seem fine with something that sounds like heavy funk or Afrobeat.
We all love Afrobeat records and funk records, but I do feel like there's a little spirit lately of, "Hey, let's have a band that plays hard funk," or "Let's have a band that plays Afrobeat in the style of the Africa 70 band." That's not really what we're trying to do. We're trying to carve out our own voice and figure out what we really want to say as a group of musicians. That's one of the things that goes into making the record and how we play live onstage—figuring out what we sound like and how that's different from the records we love. We're trying to push the envelope a little bit. We work a lot, and we're on tour a lot. It's not really worth it unless you're doing something that's fully your own.
What are the flourishes on "My Dear"?
There's a lot of synthesizer stuff on there that got added at a later date. The Prophet-5 is one of my favorite synthesizers, and I was able to get my hands on one a few years back. We dialed in the sound that we like and ended up running it through this other Moog synthesizer and dirtying it up a lot. I think the synth adds a little bit of edge to the song that might not have been there. We tried to deepen up the percussion section. We added another layer of congas and added some tambourine and shakers and that kind of thing. That thickened up the groove a little bit. Then there's another synth that's playing along with the bass that keeps things moving forward. If you're talking about layers, "My Dear" is actually one of the more straightforward songs on the album, but there are those elements that do color the sound on the album.
You mentioned earlier that these songs stretch and fill themselves out in the live setting. What's been happening with "My Dear" onstage?
The drum break is great. It starts as an open drum break, and that's been a really nice element of the live show. People are always responsive to just hearing the drums go at it for a little bit. On this tour, we've got three full drum sets. Well, one of them is more of a percussion rig, but effectively there are three drummers playing on a lot of stuff. The second half of the tune has that guitar riff that comes in that's kind of funky and slippery. The drum break in the middle leads into that. That's a really nice open area where there's room for anything to happen on any given night. We have holes in these songs ... Maybe the horns carry on and have an extended solo through that, or maybe I'm doing some atmospheric keyboard sounds throughout the drum break. There's a lot of different things, but we're definitely not the kind of band that tries to play the same set every night. We're pretty flexible and we like to play the appropriate set for the space we're in. Sometimes, we're in a tiny club. Sometimes, we're in a really big room or a theater or something. There's a lot of different ways the music can go on any given night.
It's an instrumental titled "My Dear." Who's it for, or what's it about?
Well, the title comes from a couple of different places. It's sort of a song for my girlfriend, Betty, but we have a number of members in the band that play in a band called My Dear Disco. This is sort of a shout-out to them as well. I don't want my girlfriend to hear about that, though. I'm just teasing. [Laughs.] I also love Thelonious Monk, and he has a song called "Ruby, My Dear." I wouldn't say this takes too many cues from Monk, but that was a beautiful song and a cool title. It's a little bit of a shout-out to my girlfriend, our friend's band and Thelonious Monk at the same time.
Nomo plays Local 506 Wednesday, July 16, with Polynya at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $8.