August 3rd, 2008 | Interviews


Nomo “Brainwave”


Is it true that Ypsilanti has the most dick-shaped water tower in the united states?

Elliott Bergman (saxophone): It is true! I can speak from experience. I drive by it quite often. It’s definitely in my top five—I’ll give it that!

Was [Ghanian master drummer and visiting professor] Antoinette Kudoto the most highly educated Nomo member?

There are a couple of guys that would give her a run for the money. One of our percussionists has a master’s degree. Pretty much everyone in Nomo is working on or has a master’s in the band. There are some highly educated folks—I’m just slumming it with a bachelor’s.

Do you think you’ll ever do a Ghana tour?

We’ve been trying to do something, but it’s been cost-prohibitive. We hope to set something up in the near future. There’s a guy doing a documentary about her. He’s trying to get the wheels turning. She has a drumming school for street kids—teaches them traditional ewe drumming, She’s had amazing success with these kids! We’d like to be a part of that—have like an educational exchange.

What was playing with Earth, Wind & Fire like?

It was amazing! They were just totally crazy! Philip Bailey has his own private dressing room where he just jams along—for like two hours—he was just jamming along with the entire Herbie Hancock Head Hunters record. He was masterfully playing every solo on the album. And he doesn’t even play keyboards during the show—he just sings! It was mind blowing! Their production is huge, too: two busses, two semi trucks. They’re a machine—They play forever! Justin [Walter, trumpet], who’s like the most stoic member of the band, famously shed a tear during a version of one of their ballads.

How do you make music with a brainwave monitor?

It must be some like quack medical device. It just puts out this harsh frequency. I use it kind of as a source isolator, and then I put it through this Moog synth pedal.

Was ‘Brainwave’ written around the monitor, or was it added in later?

It was entirely written around the monitor. The brainwave is the boss. You can’t make it do anything it doesn’t want to do. Everybody has to fall in line with the wave!

Has Nomo considered introducing more medical equipment into your repertoire?

Not at the current moment, but we’re keeping our options open!

Is there any big advantage to touring with eight people on the road that nobody knows about?

It’s not all pain and suffering! Like if you get sick of four people in the band, there are still three people in the band that you can enjoy and hang out with! But the sincere answer is everybody is actually fully capable of running a band in their own right. We do everything co-op style. People take turns doing their things. Last night we were driving out of St. Louis and we wanted to stay at a Quality Inn and we were bartering for the price. Erik [Hall, guitarist] called, found one, and got it for 79.99. So Justin immediately got on his phone and tried to hardball the chain hotels! It’s sort of a competition as to who can hardball the hotels the hardest. Everyone has different styles.

What kind of styles are there?

You got ‘good cop, bad cop,’ and eight other versions of that same thing.

Who’s the best hotel price negotiator?

Erik’s a little bit of a softy. Justin gets hung up on but he’s tough. I get some sweet deals—can’t say I’m the best, though.

How do you get the best hotel prices?

First you ask what the best available rate is. Then you ask for the AAA discount. Then if it’s still bad you call the worst hotel in the city, get their rate, and call back. ‘But the America’s Best Value Inn can do it for this much—we don’t want to stay there, but we will if we have to.’

Did Joanna Newsom ever hear you cover her song?

I think she did! I gave her some copies of it at one of her shows. I’ve met her a couple of times now, but I never heard if she liked it nor not. I hope she didn’t throw it in the garbage! We’re hoping that if she decides that the Chicago symphony isn’t cutting it, she’ll hire Nomo as her backing band.

Where did you learn how to make your own instruments?

I checked out a bunch of books on instrument building. I also checked out a bunch of people’s different instruments. Like Harry Partch’s instruments were really cool. There’s a guy named David Bellinger in Portland that makes electric kalimbas. I bought one of his instruments and learned a lot from his design. A lot of it is just experimentation: using different materials, woods, bridge and bar materials, different electronic pickups. There’s lots of trial and error. It’s not a science—it’s more of a black art. I’ll still make instruments that are total duds. And there are ones that you think are gonna be totally crappy but sound amazing. There’s a little bit of hit and miss. We’ve played a few shows opening for Konono N°1 and I got to check out a few of their instruments.

You opened for Konono N°1?

It was amazing! I got to have sort of a mini-lesson with the guy. We were comparing instruments—he was playing mine and I was playing his. He thought that our instruments were kind of flimsy—they’d immediately go out of tune if Konono was playing them!

Have you ever tried to replicate any of Moondog’s instruments?

I love Moondog! All of the first loops that I made sound exactly like Moondog. It was almost like my fake Moondog solo project! It’s nice that you picked that out. I haven’t recreated any of his but some of our instruments are Moondog-esque. I’ll have to show you some instruments—some of them definitely have the spirit of Moondog!

You said once that there’s an elaborate algorithm in determining who drives. Why do you end up driving so much then?

Somehow it usually works out to be me. If you want the full rundown: it’s me, then Erik, Dan [Piccolo] the drummer, Justin, Jamie Register the bass player, then Quin Kirchner the congo player/new guy. Ingrid has never driven the van—she’s afraid! When it’s fully loaded, though you can never see around the stuff. I should take pictures! Also the driver not only has the responsibility of driving these seven people around safely, but those seven other people are critiquing every turn, lane change, stop, making fun of you. It’s really a high-stress position!

Was the show with the swing-dancing seniors the oldest audience you’ve played for?

We play for a wide range of ages! We’ve done workshops in school where we’re basically riling up a bunch of sixth and seventh graders to the point that they’ll be completely uncontrollable for the rest of the day. It was a full-on freaky dance party with 11- and 12-year-olds!