Interview Week Concludes: Michael Nordby, Percussionist/Songwriter
Originally published in Poplitiko
Monday, January 12, 2022
Interview by Alex Ness
I have previously interviewed Jeff Crandall, Tyson Allison, Aaron Kerr Of JBriozo, Dissonant Creatures and The Swallows… And I like their music and mindset, talents and outlooks very much.
In this interview I present a discussion with percussionist, mandolinist, and song writer Mike Nordby, a member of the same creative projects as the three talents mentioned above. He is impressive similarly, and I appreciate his willingness to be interviewed here.
How did you enter the world of music? Did you start as a child? How did you identify the traits that led you to become the successful creative artist you are now?
I’ve always been into music but I didn’t become a performer until about ten years ago. I was a huge rock fan when I was a kid so I fell in love with the guitar. I took lessons when I was in junior high but I didn’t have friends that were into playing. Without that outlet, I could only noodle around with it and never progressed. Eventually in college I picked it up again, learned to play a few songs, and got better, but didn’t seek out performing or recording at the time.
I continued to mess around with it for years until I met Jeff Crandall around 2008 and started going to some of the Swallows shows. They took a break to figure out what they wanted to do next after the Songs For Strippers record. Jeff mentioned he was thinking about doing some coffee house shows and asked if I wouldn’t mind backing him up with some simple percussion. I had never performed before but I figured what the hell, it’ll be fun to play these songs that I really enjoy with an incredible songwriter. So we practiced for a couple sessions and I could see Jeff get a little twinkle in his eye and he said he wanted to bring Aaron Kerr into what we were doing. So we practiced with Aaron, and at the end of a session he looked at us and said “yeah, I can hear it,” and either he or Jeff said we should get Tyson Allison in on it too.
So I started performing with Swallows around 2010 and took a crash course in performing and recording in those first couple years. Luckily, I found that the ear that I had built up listening to music all my life was perfect for the band and the style of music we played. It took a long while for me to pick up the creative side of it. I did so by watching Jeff, Aaron, and Tyson approach the craft of songwriting, arranging, and recording. These guys each had decades in the game by the time I started playing with them and by just diving into the process I was able to get some experience as a recording artist. Now its ten years later and I feel I can hang with the group in the creative realm. In fact, the thing I’m most proud of is that one of my songs made the Seven Stars record alongside the great songs by Jeff and Aaron.
Do you see music talents as gifts of birth that can be fine tuned, or can anyone eventually learn an instrument or vocal talent that reaches professional level? Why is that?
I think it depends on the person. Perhaps some folks are born with extra sensitive ears or super dexterity in their fingers but nobody writes a great song or plays a great solo on their first try. All the people whose songs or performances that I admire spent decades at the craft. It seems to me that there is something to the additive method at building your talents.
It’s interesting that you ask about the professional level. I wondered about that myself when I started. How is it that a person with limited ability (to be generous) can step in and hang with experienced musicians? It isn’t an easy thing to do but I was able to hold my own at the beginning. I recognized right away that I could find my own space in the performances among the sonic wonderland that is happening. I also dared to try just about anything. I have made a habit of learning on the fly by just picking up any instrument or item that makes a noise that fits the music.
I think the real requirement to being a professional is you have to be a bulldog when it comes to wanting to make something great. What I like about our collective is we aim higher than we probably should. We attempt to make our records as compelling as our favorites. To do that we have to be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings so we can push past them to make the record we want to hear. I felt a great sense of accomplishment when I listened to Witching and Divining sandwiched in between Led Zeppelin II and Sticky Fingers and it didn’t seem out of place. Without the professional attitude, and probably a little bit of delusion, we wouldn’t have been as successful with that record.
Among other instruments you play drums. I am often in awe and perhaps some envy, of people able to express themselves with musical instruments or voice talents. But drums are something I could never do, as I have no rhythm whatsoever in this flesh. (To use D&D terms, I probably have a 3 in dexterity on a 3-18 scale). Are the drums one of those gifts of birth instrument come easy to those so inclined? Why do you think that is the case?
Actually, I’m just as amazed as you are at great drummers. I play mixed percussion among other things but not a full drum kit. That is well beyond my skill level. I think we all have our own sense of rhythm but it takes a special skill to play other styles that aren’t natural to us. Even playing one rhythm with a tambourine and another with maracas at the same time takes a lot of repetition to get right.
We’ve been lucky to have Justin DeLeon in the Swallows family. He is a very talented drummer and I’ve learned a lot working my percussion parts to partner with his playing on our recordings and performing live.
What artists inspired you in your life that made you most understand music and the arts, and why?
Kiss was my favorite band when I was a kid. Now I gravitate toward music with a lot of vibe and groove. The Rolling Stones are probably my favorite rock band of all time. The atmosphere of the old Delta Blues recordings are great too. I’m also drawn to cinematic styles found in pop music or Ennio Morricone’s or John Barry’s movie scores.
There’s no question Jeff, Aaron, and Tyson have had the most influence on my growth as an artist. Not only through the work we put in for our records but I watch them as they approach their own music in very different ways. They have given me tools to try as I have tried to figure out my own style and approach.
Having said that, I’m not certain I understand what an artist is. I just like to make music. I like finding elements that compliment the songs we are recording to create a unique vibe that draws the listener in. I recently read something from James Baldwin about the artist being a witness and that struck me as very true. Artists that I’ve admired seem to be the people that almost hold up a mirror and say “hey this is who we are and what we look like.” When successful, their audience, to some degree, will see themselves reflected in their work. It takes some serious skill to do that. So I suppose I aspire to be one of those people someday.
I’ve met a number of famous creative people, and I am always curious about what makes them function. Some, to my surprise want to talk about anything but the realm in which they are famous and creative. To what extent does playing music enhance your appreciation of it, or do you find music to be fine but, it is more like speaking about the day job by discussing and listening to music. Do you find music to still be an attraction for your interests, or by doing what burns in you, do you now feel free to pursue other creative or otherwise fun endeavors?
I’m still very fascinated by music. Mostly the craftmanship involved in the writing and recording of it. There is a great deal that goes into the production of our favorite songs and records and I love being part of that process. There’s a composer, performers, sound engineer, mixer, and mastering engineer just to name some of the talents involved. Each of those roles requires a distinct set of skills and abilities but all require a great deal of creativity to be an additive part of the process.
Hearing about all the details that go into creating music is usually not interesting to folks that aren’t artists. But one thing that is particularly relatable is the process of bringing a project from a nugget of an idea to a finished product. I’ve learned over a couple of records that each one is it’s own unique odyssey that can take strange and difficult turns. Whether we make records or develop software or design furniture, I think that we all embark on a similar journey every time we endeavor to create something new. For me it’s encouraging because it’s a repeatable process and I feel more freedom to pursue ideas as a result.
If you were given unlimited resources, what creative project would you attempt and why? Who would be on board?
I want to make another record. Not sure what that project would be yet but I want my partners in Swallows and Dissonant Creatures involved. Even the new folks in our little cooperative have a couple records under our belt now, with Aaron and Jeff going on a couple decades of working together. That kind of longevity doesn’t happen often with bands and our artistic partnerships are pretty strong at this point. We are good friends and it feels like we challenge each other to grow while working toward making each others vision a reality.
How hard is it for a drummer to be a lead singer or even a back up singer on any song? Who would you list as the best lead singers who are also drummers?
In my case, I wouldn’t be able to sing a lead part while performing as part of the rhythmic bed of the song. I’m so focused on the interplay between me, the drummer, the bass, and rhythm guitars that I wouldn’t be an effective front man at the same time. I imagine that drummers that also play a full kit would have a hard time stepping out and engaging an audience as the front man or woman. Perhaps there is someone out there that can do it but none come to mind.
As a poet I am aware of a need for a rhythm in my words. But without music to accompany my words, I can argue that the work is meant to be literature over that of a part of a whole. Are the drums a part of the whole, or are there times when drums take the role of lead voice, or louder component of the whole?
Drums and percussion elements can certainly step out and perform a lead voice in a rock or pop setting. Keith Moon’s work with The Who comes to mind. His drums are as powerful as the bass and guitar in some of those records. More recently, percussion sounds are now used for hooks, almost melodically, in electronic and pop music genres. I don’t think the old rules apply any more, particularly in heavily produced styles of music.
Is there a western equivalent to the Taiko drums of Japanese culture?
Good question. For me, Taiko drums are very specific to the Japanese culture and have a spiritual element over and above the utility of making sound during a performance. Native American cultures certainly have a similar relationship to some instruments but I struggle to think of a western equivalent to that. Frankly, as much as we like our electric guitars they don’t hold the spiritual importance of traditional instruments that are meant to be much more than just music makers. Although, I would suggest that in the hands of Jimi Hendrix it can come pretty close!
Thanks to Mike Nordby for his thoughtful answers.