In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, narrator Sal Paradise reflects on his transitory, improvised existence: “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” A similar affection for the road and its ramshackle spontaneity informs Lord Nelson’s latest offering, Transmission. After two albums defined by studio polish and meticulous songcraft– The County (2015) and Through The Night (2018)– the Charlottesville rock band wanted a project that reflected the rowdy, lived-in ferocity of their live show. The result is an honest and elemental record full of first-take audacity. Big choruses and melodies abound, whether they celebrate allegiances and love or belie gritty outlaw narratives where happy endings were never an option.
The last few months have given listeners shelves of gentle, pensive music timestamped as lockdown records, but Transmission is not a COVID album. Lord Nelson recorded it in 2019, only to see its release derailed by the pandemic. The best art is malleable, somehow relevant no matter the circumstances. Such is the case with Transmission. Commemorations of devotion like “Tooth and Nail” and “Hell Or High Water” or the heartbreak survival of “Drag Me Down” now seem powered by a larger, more crucial purpose. Suddenly, these are songs of witness.
In anticipation of Transmission’s release, I spoke with Lord Nelson frontman Kai Crowe-Getty about bar bands, Song Exploder, poetry, and dive bars.
CF- I read that you wanted to “make a record sound like a bar show.” Can you elaborate on what a “bar show” means to you?
I guess there are several ways to look at that, but for us, some bands are studio acts– they hone their craft and put their songs out in the world. For us, we’ve always been a live band, first. We have two previous records, both done to the best of our abilities. The second one we did was much more consciously a studio record, Through The Night, and we were happy with that, but we also felt when people came up to us at a show to buy a record, that it wasn’t really representative of the show that they just saw– this is our projection, not theirs. We had this batch of songs we’d been playing since 2019 or so, and we decided, “Let’s go in the studio and cut something quickly, get a record out. It won’t be quite a live show, but it won’t feel like a studio record. It will feel like you’re hanging at the bar with your friends, and the band is playing while you’re having a beer or catching up.” It’s not a high-concept album. We just wanted to feel accessible and upbeat and bring people together. The goal was to put that out, and then go in the studio and do a bigger, fuller record a year or two after that, but as the way the pandemic hit and the timing, we just ended up sitting on this, and so here we are now.
The vibe on Transmission is incredibly loose, off-the-cuff. …
I think you hit the nail on the head there. I think it’s intentionally a looser record in every respect. There’s three different songwriters, even though I do a good deal of it on this one. The Band has sort of been my model, the touchstone for operating in this world. I love having different people writing, contributing, taking ownership, and feeling involved. For this to feel more like our live show, we had different people step up and do different stuff. It was intentionally a little looser, a little more upbeat. I think on Through The Night, we got in our heads a little bit about making a studio record and getting the songs together. With this one, since the songs had all been played live as a set, for the most part, they came naturally. We knew what to do when we got in the studio and cut them pretty quickly.
The band and personnel have shifted over the years, like any group that’s been doing it for a while. But I think that the intention with this– we didn’t overanalyze too much. We wanted everything to be good, and we demoed out a lot more songs than we ended up recording. But that was an intention to say, “Hey, this is a live show. There will be some serious moments. But we want this to feel welcoming and a little bit rowdy,” not quite like you’re listening to a full solemn studio record, which we kind of got into with the last one. So yeah, just pivoting a little different, but I think your ears are spot on there.
Is that style of production, the looser feel, something you want to pursue again on future projects?
I think it’s that happy medium. I think we’ve done different types of things, and I’m always curious and trying different things out. I feel like I rarely get to do one thing and say, “Okay, this is how I’m going to operate from now on. This is my workflow,” because it can feel a little static. But this record presented an interesting challenge in that we tracked it together with mostly all the takes that were live in the studio, and then over the pandemic, we were shuffling it back and forth, sending each other files. It was a weird studio-live/ at-home experience, so we had lots of different experiences, but I think our next one will probably be a little more studio-driven, just for something different so that we can pay someone to help us out and not be fretting over tones in our home studios (laughs)!
Was it difficult to maintain that vibe given the state of the world right now?
It was really weird because when we cut it, we’d been touring a ton, so the touring band was really tight. We did the whole thing in about two weekends, for the most part. Just went in on a Thursday, demoed out, then Friday we tracked, and on Saturday did some overdubs. We did that two weekends in a row and had the bulk of the record. And then as the way the world turns, we sat on it for a while. We thought this would be a more light-hearted offering, a sort of a calling card for playing more shows when we’re out on the road, and then we’d put out the more serious thing. But as we sat on it through the pandemic, and on the other side of it now, it’s been interesting to me, listening back to some of the songs that have a slightly different tenor and meaning in this context. That was surprising to me because I intentionally didn’t dig into it for a little while until we had a rough idea of when we could put it out. I didn’t want to be inundated and get excited again from putting out a record that we’d been waiting to do for a little bit.
How much are you influenced by your surroundings– Charlottesville, the South at large? It’s been interesting the last few months talking with bands about their southern heritage. Some bands even bring it up before I can get to the question. Is it an identity that you embrace? I’m thinking of your song “Southern Discomfort”…
Yeah, we had a hard time with that for a while because people would describe us as “southern rock”, and that has a very specific connotation to most people’s minds. There’s a lot of weight in that for many reasons, but I think we’re a rock band from the South, which is just the way that I recontextualize a little bit, personally, but I do identify as being a southerner. Both my parents settled here in Virginia– both my grandparents were from military families, so they moved all over, and my parents really wanted to make sure we grew up in one place and had a sense of home and belonging. I grew up here with sort of knowing that this is home, this is my identity, but also feeling sort of between worlds at times because my family hasn’t been in the same place for hundreds of years.
I think that’s something I’ve definitely tried to address on these records at times. We’ve definitely had some people who can misconstrue what southern rock is and what some of the lyrics are. We’ve had to have a few of those conversations, but overall, we’re a rock band from the south, and I think that’s our identity. It’s how you choose to express that and what you put out in the world these days that’s really important. Not all the music is political or heavy-hitting, but there are usually a track or two on each record that lean that way. “How do we join that conversation?” is always a question we try to be aware of.
You mentioned collaborating this time around, something you hadn’t done a lot of. How was sharing songwriting duties?
I think like a lot of people who front a band or run that side of it, you can have the need to control how things flow and work, and that’s just general band dynamics. I think I’ve learned a lot over years of the give-and-take that necessitates a healthy band dynamic and relationship. Part of it is that I’m just excited to hear some of my bandmates’ songs and what they’re doing creatively. And we’re all at the point now where we can say, “This song doesn’t fit the band,” or “This one will work with the vibe.” It’s nice that everyone can have their own creative space but know what will fit Lord Nelson. Going into this was consciously letting go of control of things and believing the best songs will all rise to the surface here, and we’ll all find ways to get excited involved and to this conversation.
Lord Nelson features two brothers, Henry and Calloway Jones. What’s it like having siblings in the band?
You know, at one point, the band was two sets of brothers– myself and my brother and then Calloway and Harry played guitar, keyboards, and horns. It was definitely a learning experience for all of us. It’s funny because my brother has moved on to other things professionally, and Henry has moved on geographically, but he did the artwork for Transmission, and he has a song, “Burn It Down” on there, and he played keys all over it. We cut it knowing he may or may not be able to keep going, but everyone’s still part of the family whether they want to be or not, whether they can tour, and all that. When you’re young men and there’s rock ‘n’ roll roll and alcohol on the road, that can definitely be quite the cocktail, but I think as we’ve all grown up and learned how to work creatively and personally together, it’s been a huge experience for everyone.
I’m curious about your choruses. So many of them leap out from the song. Are big hooks a goal, or do they just fall in your lap?
That’s a good question. It’s funny that you ask. I have thought about songwriting a lot. I’ve been stuck at home, trying to give myself exercises. I think Lady Gaga recently said, “If you don’t have a good chorus, you don’t have a song,” and it’s funny how I never really thought about that. I grew up with my father as a songwriter, and he was when he was a young man, so I kind of grew up having a good idea of structure and what works and what doesn’t, hearing that at an early age. Ultimately, I never intentionally try to write for the big chorus, but it’s like, “Okay, what statement do I want to make, and how will people be able to connect to it? What manner will they find it acceptable?” And not that you need to spoon-feed an audience every time, but we’re a loud rock ‘n’ roll band! It’s not an introspective folk record (laughs)! I think from the Tom Petty school of songwriting– that’s been my guideposts.
Have you checked out that podcast Song Exploder?
Aw, I love it! Yeah!
I discovered it about six months ago, and I’m hooked, even the episodes about artists I’d never heard of.
My music nerd, studio side gets really activated by that, which I love, hearing them pull things apart track-by-track. Whether it’s your favorite band or someone you’ve never heard of, like you said, there’s always something to pick up there, which is so cool.
Any episodes that resonated with you?
I remember Jim James [of My Morning Jacket] talking about “Spring (Among the Living)” and how he basically built the song. My Morning Jacket is a band I really like and admire– they’re another kick-ass, live rock band. It was interesting hearing this one particular track, how much he built it up in the box from stuff they’d done at rehearsals–which I had assumed was them jamming in a room– and built meticulously in the edit, which seemed crazy to me. I remember it in particular because he has an acoustic guitar on there that he played through an amp. He said it was the worst sound. It sounded so terrible that it was good. That stuck with me but sometimes there’s things that are conventionally bad but in context are a great idea.
What about your lyric writing process? You seem to strike a fine balance between the autobiographical and the narrative. How do you juggle the two?
This is a good songwriting question; I love it! (Laughs]) I’m from the school where I’ve never been a confessional songwriter, but there’s definitely autobiographical elements and traces in all my work, so there’s a point of departure that allows me to get into whatever character’s perspective. I’m writing from my need to believe it and feel it in some capacity, so there’s always some kernel that I can find agency with or connect to, or draw from personal experience that helps me build out the narrative. Rarely is any song ever completely based on actual events. There’s “Putting In The Time,” on Transmission. It’s pretty darn close because it’s comprised of things people said to us after shows. People always love coming up to the band after shows and giving advice, so we built a song around that idea.
I guess that’s my ethos with writing– people have to believe the character you’re talking from. James McMurtry is one of my all-time favorite songwriters, and I heard him interviewed recently, saying how everything he does is fiction, but people always assume [they’re autobiographical] because his worlds are so well-crafted and lived-in, and the details are so exact. Even if they’re fictional, he has a working knowledge of these worlds he creates. That’s how I try to think about things– you could inhabit this world if you had to, and you wouldn’t feel too out of place.
How easy is it to step into a character’s mind when you step in front of a mic or put pen to paper?
I find that it’s a joy to discover as I’m writing because I never know. I have a general idea, like I’ll get a chorus, like the song “Hell Or High Water” on Transmission, for example, and “Tooth and Nail,” our first single, where I had the chorus, but didn’t quite know what the verses were going to be, so I didn’t know what the characters were. It was sitting down there, working through the chords, singing the chorus. I do a lot of work in my head, whether it’s walking the woods or going for a run or just anything repetitive that’s not around a book or a screen where I can just let my mind wander. I will play with those things for a little while until I until it all snaps in. It may just be one line or one image that can allow me to get there. But I love that part of discovery, not knowing where it’s going to take you, just being open to it.
What about influences outside music? Again, your narratives have such a literary quality. Who are you reading?
The poet Gary Snyder…
Oh yeah! I love him, too. There’s actually a collected works of his coming out next year, published by the Library of America. I’ve been excited about it for a bit…
I’m actually named after his son.
Yeah, my dad is a big hippie beat poet guy, so I’ve always had a close connection to his work, which is neat. Whenever I bring it up, 90% of the time, I get just a blank look, and then every now and then someone says, “Okay!” It’s a good connecting point. So yeah, his work is very, very important to me. I almost went back to school to get an MFA in creative writing in poetry. Are you familiar with Claudia Emerson, by chance?
Oh, yeah. Definitely.
She won the Pulitzer when I was her student, actually, which was pretty cool, and she was helping advise me. I went to Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a tiny little liberal arts school, but she was there at the time. I really thought that was what I was going to do, teach poetry. She actually kind of talked me out of going to grad school. At the time, I didn’t know what to do. But she said look, “If you want to write, go write. If you need community, find that. If you want to teach, you can go to school, or you can come back and do this whenever, but first thing you should do is start writing.” That really helped to tie it together. I was not feeling particularly inspired musically, so I just took a couple of writing courses to get my brain firing. I’m sure you come across this too– how many people will conflate poetry and lyrics?
And they’re just such completely different worlds. They don’t even exist.
Yeah, that’s a difficult conversation to have. There’s the risk of coming off as pretentious or condescending.
I remember being at some wedding and someone read some lyrics out loud for it, and you know… But yeah, I love poetry. I think it’s the economy of words that has served my lyric writing, being very careful with that.
I was going to ask if this was your COVID record, but you recorded it prior to the pandemic. What’s it like playing these songs in a different context than they were written? They seem to have taken on a new life. The themes now sound so much more than lovelorn or romantic.
Yeah, that’s really great to hear because I rarely tell people what a song is directly about because I feel like you’re taking away that experience, how they interpret it, whether it’s your intention or not. (Laughs) So I think what’s been interesting is that these songs were all written around 2018-2019 roughly, some a little later, but well before the pandemic, so they had a completely different meaning.
As I was saying earlier, it’s been weird– I’ve never had that relationship with our music that by the time I wrote it, put it out, and listen back, it felt totally different, and all the lyrics could be interpreted in a very different way. I’ve done a few live streams, we’ve done a couple of bands shows, and a couple of acoustic shows here and there, so it’s been refinding these songs, seeing how people will interpret them a little differently. I’m grateful that the songs are resonating in whatever manner they do for folks. It’s definitely resonated in a very different way. So if it is a COVID record, so be it. You’ve probably spoken to many artists who had similar experiences.
Yes, all of them that I’ve talked to. Also, some critics argue that art occurs in a vacuum, that circumstances don’t dictate an interpretation. I’ve always found that approach ridiculous. Setting and context are inescapable. What about the album’s sequencing? How deliberate is the tracking order?
Yeah, I spent so much time on sequencing, and it’s so weird in this era. Me and Calloway, our guitarist, who engineered the whole thing, he and I just went back and forth on sequencing– in a constructive way of holding each other to task– but we both had strong feelings, which is great. I love that he does. I feel there needs to be a flow to it; there needs to be an energy flow. That sounds out there, but I feel like it leads to a lot of experience– there’ll be some ups and downs, some light and heavy moments. But also other things, like, you don’t want to put all the singles at the front. That feels silly just to sequence with that in mind and people hardly ever listen to full records. But yeah, sequencing is a big deal, and I’m glad for this sequencing question (laughs)!
It’s like you put so much effort into something… It’s not a very successful template to follow these days, but it’s the one that we all gravitate towards, and if we’re going to put all the attention and effort into putting out a piece that you want to represent your work, how would you not spend time to think about the artwork, the layout, sequencing, all these things? That may not be how different generations do it, but I guess we’re old school like that.
Speaking of old school, you mentioned Tom Petty earlier. Can you talk about him as an influence?
He was the very first show I went to. My folks took me to see them when we were really young. It was the Echo tour, and Lucinda Williams was opening, and that just blew my mind off. I know in his career, it was a really dark point, but he was just sort of coming out of it. He had just gotten divorced and was cleaned up and was dating again, had a good support system.
But yes, I’m a huge fan. That really helped show me rock ‘n’ roll with songs. That’s what I’ve always been attracted to. These are crafted songs, and they did a huge outro for “Don’t Come around Here No More”, which was different than the record. I was young and thought, “Oh, this is different. What are they doing?” It got my brain firing those directions.
What’s coming up for Lord Nelson’s live shows? What’s your itinerary looking like?
It is blank right now. We had multiple tours and shows canceled this fall. As you know, Delta and all that shit was flying around. The album comes out in January, and in March we’ll be on the road– March through the summer– and in the fall, we’ll see what happens. The big thing I’ve learned from the pandemic is I think I’m one who can try to plan, schedule, and figure out things concisely, but you can’t do that, especially in the music industry, which is a volatile world. At this point, whatever happens will be wonderful, and we’ll take every show with open arms and never take it for granted. We’re just really excited to go play music for an extended stretch again,
Before we go, I was hoping you could share some of your favorite, quintessential bar bands.
In England, they have pub bands, and I’ve heard people be disparaging saying, “Oh, you’re just a good bar band.” I think that Drive-By Truckers are a band that I listen to a lot that definitely have the bar band ethos. The guitar might not always be perfectly in tune, the vocals might not always be perfect, but there will be a real energy to it.
I actually just listened to it, so it’s on my mind– Unshaven, which is Billy Joe Shaver live at Smith’s Olde Bar. It’s a fantastic record. I think the Rolling Stones are– there’s that whole thing about them being the bar band, you could point out, and I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with that.
You’re right. I never stopped to consider “bar band” a pejorative or a slight, but come to think of it, I know a few bands who would find that label offensive.
It’s hard to say. I don’t want to project, but I think when you’ve been in bands and played a shitload of dive bars in your career, and there’s a difference for folks who haven’t gone that route, I guess, who have either found success very early or chose a different path, and that’s the crowd I’ve gotten that from. But there’s nothing more humbling than pulling into town and playing a dive bar and realizing that nobody there cares. I think that’s what’s great because that’s where you learn to do cool shit, where we’re like, “This one’s for us! What are we going to do tonight? Let’s have fun!” We play some of the finest dive bars in the southeast, which has been a blast.