ELIZABETH NELSON IS frontwoman for the DC based garage-punk band the Paranoid Style and belongs on any short list of the most gifted contemporary songwriters. While essentially grafting Warren Zevon’s dark aura and indelible hooks onto Sleater-Kinney’s punk and political heft, she has produced a laudatory share of the best music of her era, most recently on 2016’s funny and desperate full-length LP Rolling Disclosure. Angry, literary and sonically profane in equal measure, Nelson’s work often feels like the explosive socialist rage of David Mamet’s early plays set to song. Tunes like the joyously-crazed “National Sunday Law” or the judiciously wry rave-up “The Thrill Is Back” are spiky life-rafts on the rocky sea of Trump’s America.
In the run-up to the 10/27 release of the band’s remarkable new EP Underworld U.S.A. I had a chance to sit down and interview Nelson regarding her background, inspirations, and eventual endgame.
OWEN KING: How has it come to this? How did our country get here?
ELIZABETH NELSON: Well, there obviously is no one simple answer. You know what they say: practice, practice, practice.
OK: Can you talk a little bit about “Hawk vs. Prez,” and especially about the upbeat shape of the tune? It’s a song that I find cheering, in spite of the fact that it includes lines like, Ain’t it just grand when you stop growing old?/ And then the noise just ends and you’re restored to the ground. The voice of the song seems to be a step away from leaping, in the best possible mood, off the edge of a deathly precipice. In that way it reminds of Harry Nilsson’s great “Don’t Forget Me.” And when we’re old and full of cancer/ It doesn’t matter now, come on get happy!
EN: In many ways it’s a song I intended as a celebration of things that are beautiful in the world or at least to me, things that are restorative. In the case of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who the song is named after, they were these two saxophonists who were friends and rivals and just made the most beautiful music I can imagine in the middle part of the 20th century. And it’s sort of their story and sort of the band’s story all set against the backdrop of how our culture becomes commodified and degraded and packaged and sold. But you can’t diminish things that are authentically beautiful. Certain things transcend the pursuit of wealth and vanity. When Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, he said, “My father’s house is not a market.” Some things aren’t for sale, you know? As for Nilsson, that moment in “Don’t Forget Me” is so powerful. It gives me chills just thinking about it. And it’s kind of true, right? The promise of our lives and our struggles is peace at the end, don’t you think? At least that’s what I like to think.
OK: “I Believe U Believe U Can Fly” really captures the moment: it seems like our country is on the verge of collapsing beneath the weight of bullshit conviction – i.e. there are people who earnestly believe that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and so on. Did any particular thing inspire the song?
EN: Our country has a weird fetish for upbeat maxims that mean literally nothing. I first noticed this growing up in the 80’s where there was this bizarre, very artificial Reagan-era positivism that felt incredibly stage managed, and seemed to be barely masking a profound cultural despair. And that sense has only deepened and become almost omnipresent in our political culture. Trump is really kind of the apotheosis of this – having run an historically successful campaign that literally consisted of nothing other than vague slogans. It’s comical really. But by and large I don’t think the Clinton campaign did much better. It’s often remarked that at no point was she ever able to articulate in a specific way why she should be president, other than that it was “her turn” and she wasn’t Trump. And certainly I voted for her and would do again without a moment’s hesitation. She was self-evidently the better choice. But I still don’t know what “I’m With Her” is supposed to mean. I wasn’t with her when she was taking those speaking fees from Wall Street. I wasn’t with her when she was abandoning the industrial base to try and pull in the investor class. I wasn’t on board with a lot of that stuff. Anyway, long way around to saying the song was just wanting to have some fun with the longstanding tradition of delusional songs masquerading as inspirational anthems.
But it was also about complacency. When I was writing the Rolling Disclosure record, my feeling as a person of the left was that we were becoming inured to the rising tide of nationalism and corporatism. It wasn’t that I had any special insight, lots of people were saying this, but to me it wasn’t being heard. Sleater-Kinney is my favorite band, and they made an album in 2015 called No Cities To Love. I wrote a review of that album in The Stranger – it’s a great album – and I talked about how they were trying to wake us up. Because this threat was looming. And everyone ridiculed Trump – everyone thought he was so asinine – but that’s the way it always is with these guys. They seem ridiculous until they don’t. Elvis Costello has a song about this called “Night Rally”. He says, You think they’re so dumb/ you think they’re so funny/ wait until they got you running/ to the night rally. Some people thought Rolling Disclosure was too cynical, but I didn’t mean it to be cynical. I meant it to be alarming. I keep hearing about how we need all these punk rock albums now that Trump is in power. Talk about closing the barn gate after the cows are out! I mean, sure, we still need protest music. But where were these people before? Coachella?
OK: There’s a lot fat, swaggering sound on this album. This album really feels like it’s buying a round for the whole bar. Will you walk us through how you got from rough demos to these big burly things?
EN: Well, a song usually starts on acoustic guitar and piano and I’ll record it in Garage Band and maybe embroider a few parts that I think are cool. But basically I present the band with the full skeleton of the music and then allow them to embroider during the tracking. I’m fortunate to be working with guys like Peter Holsapple from the dB’s and Bruce Bennett from the A-Bones and William Matheny from the Strange Constellations. These are heavy hitters, so I’m excited to let them go off the island and see what they come up with. It’s one of the true pleasures. It’s not the most common now, but we always record in a dedicated studio, with live playing and even some live singing on the albums. I tend to write ten verses for a song that only needs three, so I wait sometimes to decide which three on the fly. I really value spontaneity in recording. So much current stuff by other bands is done at home on Logic or whatever and overdubbed endless times and edited to a sort of flawlessness. That’s good too, but we aren’t that kind of band. As Ray Davies said: “I like the mistakes too.”
OK: What’s your approach to reimagining/reproducing the songs live? I think of “The Ambassador’s Morning Lift” from Rolling Disclosure, for example, and the wonderful call and response parts (You: My old friend had a saying. Chorus: What was that?) and I wonder how easy it is to make something like that happen without a huge band. On a related note, have you been cooking up any special treats for the road show? Jams? Covers?
EN: I always think that people coming to see a punk band like the Paranoid Style should expect an energetic, off hand version of the songs we play on the record. The way I grew up – if I went to see Pavement or, like, he Toasters or whomever – I didn’t consider that it would sound just like the album. I assumed the live shows should be pure Wild West. I spent my teens in the punk club ABC No Rio, where nobody ever seemed to know what they were doing. Having said that, with the Paranoid Style I’m lucky to be surrounded by some killer musicians and we don’t play bad shows. By which I mean: jams and covers.
OK: Everything is loaded with political meaning at this moment. It’s a dangerous time for a tenderhearted rock and roll record to venture out into the world. Is there anything you hope people don’t read into these songs?
EN: It’s okay for folks to read in whatever they want. We’re a political band and that won’t change. Sometimes I heard some people say around the last record “I like the sound okay, but I don’t like it when she theorizes about politics.” I remember one guy said that specifically. I won’t be calling him to apologize or anything. What I would say about the new release is that the idea of Underworld U.S.A. has two connotations. One is the corporate criminal cabal of monsters and mobsters like Trump and the Wall Street hucksters and the pharaohs building up the temples on the backs of the people. And then the second meaning is a positive connotation: the underground of artists and freedom fighters and working people and lowdowns on the social hierarchy that ultimately invest our world with so much meaning. Some songs are about the former and some are about the latter. That’s what Underworld U.S.A. is about.
OK: You come from a background in classical piano. How did you end up leading a rock and roll band?
EN: To be honest I never thought of that as a big lift. John Cale was a classically trained pianist who co-founded what is arguably the best rock group that ever was. I definitely studied classical but it’s not as if that was the extent of my exposure to music. On my off hours I was a full on, Two Tone and Moon Records-obsessed ska girl. I loved They Might Be Giants and X-Ray Spex. I always felt comfortable writing in the rock idiom. The bigger problem for me was getting my songs heard. I was around a lot of music scenes when I was younger: Louisville, San Francisco, Bloomington, Brooklyn. I knew a lot of pretty prominent songwriters and musicians who always wanted to play me their songs. But none of those guys ever asked to hear one of my songs. I finally realized no one was going to ask. I just had to start my own band and not worry about being asked.
OK: You’ve worked as a music critic, correct?
EN: I sure have. I’ve worked in that capacity for NPR, Washington Post, Stereogum, The Stranger, Aquarium Drunkard and many others.
OK: Let’s test your music crit skills, see if you still have the stuff. I sense that there’s been a renewed evaluation of Noel Gallagher’s merits as a songwriter, and the general view is trending upward. Where do you stand?
EN: I think he’s a good craftsman. The highs are very high. I like that one “Don’t Look Back In Anger.” That’s great. And the early Oasis records are great fun. I reviewed one of his solo records for the Washington Post, I think. It was pretty good. He’s sort of a hedgehog rather then a fox, but that’s okay. Lots of good songwriters are like that.
OK: I don’t want to take you too far afield, but what’s the difference between a hedgehog and fox in your eyes? These are both adorable animals. I mean, sometimes foxes are rabid, so there’s that. Who’s a songwriter that you would consider a fox?
EN: Basically, hedgehogs excel at doing one thing, while foxes can do a lot of things – even things like contracting mange or getting rabies – and this has been an imperfect theoretical distinction that has been around since time immemorial, so I hope no animal rights folks are offended here. As far as songwriters go, well, Bowie’s a fox. Bolan’s a hedgehog. Damon Albarn is the ultimate fox. And I’m not even trying to make this a Blur vs. Oasis thing; He’s just so creatively restless and experimental compared to so many of his contemporaries, including the Brothers Gallagher. Plus he’s foxy to me – is he foxy to you?
OK: Yes, Damon Albarn is foxy to me, but I’ll ask the questions here, damn it. What’s your favorite NRBQ song? You can only pick one.
EN: That’s a trick question and you know it is because there are so many great ones. I guess if I had to choose I’d go with “It Comes To Me Naturally,” just because it gets at something really important. To me this is a great opening couplet: All around town my name is mud/ But I can’t help it cause it’s in my blood. You know, Big Al can’t help it! He can’t!! You can only do what you can do. That’s a very poignant sentiment to me.