Thursday, May 8, 2008

Friends in Thai Places: Steven Nistor, Drummer



It seemed natural to continue my blazing new segment, Friends in Thai Places, by moving on to Steven Nistor, older brother of Matthew Nistor, the subject of the inaugural post. You might say this is a Nistorical occasion, the featuring of two Nistors in one week. You might even want to call this Black Nistory Week on Wingstroke. Whatever you call it, just make sure there's wordplay involved, as wordplay is the lowest form of humor and therefore also the greatest.

Man, where do I even begin with Steven Nistor. The original Gorilla in the Nist. With Nists of Fury. The man is an institution in my circles. A living legend, famous for his sensational potty mouth, hair, love of Taco Bell and, of course, unforgivably sick drumming skills. I liked Steven the first time we met. He was lanky then, and shy, his fro approaching 2-feet in circumference and glowing red like the flaming shrub through which God spoke to Moses (it was exactly that righteous). He was going through a vegan phase, as well as a reflective, Buddhist phase that he tempered with a steady diet of Chomsky and other angry left-wing literature. The result was that he emitted a beam of calmly loving but anxious energy. It was like being around a nervous Care Bear. Fittingly, he had an American flag patch sewn onto one shoulder of his jean jacket, a pink butterfly on the other. The message: both thick-headed patriotism and effete flower-childlikeness - just to mess with people. That was classic Steve.

Steven played keyboards in my band and I now know that this was preposterous. Not because he couldn't play keys - he could. No, I now know that it was preposterous because unbeknownst to me, the soft-spoken, led-zep lookin' guy singing the high harmonies, shaking the tambourine and pounding out the block chords on my little songs was a world-class drummer. And by world-class, I mean world-class. Which was just ridiculous because we already had Charlie Koltak, who was like the wondrous rock smoothie of my dreams, blending all of my favorite drummers into one. The fact that, in addition to having the next Phil Selway already at the kit, the next Matt Chamberlain was camping out incognito behind the Rhodes is just silly to think about now. Just silly. But I had no idea about Steven's triple black belt in drums and, like a fool, spent those years urging him to work more on his intonation and do something about his hair. If I had only known the truth... if we had changed the ensemble to feature two drums, the way Fugazi and Fela used to....

Sorry. My brain burst and ran out my nose.

As I was saying... I'm not sure how this happened, but during my stint in the trenches of the Detroit band wasteland I played with some seriously good fucking musicians. I like to think I played with the best. Guys like Steven. Charlie. Rodrigo Palma. Dudes dripping with invention, with the the technical chops to do it right, and then show you how to do it wrong. My ass was constantly being handed to me and I loved it. The joy of being able to play with like-minded musicians who wanted to be able to play well, but wrong, was our heavenly reward, I would tell myself, since, at least for a time, our projects seemed to do nothing but run into ceilings. But ultimately we were spinning our wheels and it wasn't long before the migration to better music cities began.

Steven was the first, and left for LA. I was sad to see him go, but happy he had decided to stop slumming it in Detroit and take a chance on something better. Before he left I finally got to make some music with him behind the kit, in the somewhat more experimental project, also featuring Rodrigo, we called DR SAX.

Here's an excerpt from the DR SAX sessions that features both me and Steven on the drums, in separate sections. It's a good illustration of the differences between someone who can make a decent racket on a drum kit (me), and someone who really knows how to make the drums sing (Steven). I'm playing up until the 15 second mark, where we spliced Steven in. If you listen closely, you can hear the scientifically verified sound of The Men Being Separated From The Boys - which occurs rarely in nature and happens at around 200 °F. It's also the sound of me being handed my ass again.

DR SAX - "West Nihl" (Excerpt)

Steven finally left for California in the fall of 2004, but stopped on his way out to cut drums on the last Judah Johnson record, Be Where I Be. This is Steven playing as if he has eight limbs. Like the DR SAX excerpt above, it's a first take:

Judah Johnson - "Tommi" (instrumental version)

When Steven gets to LA, the story turns surreal because the next thing I know he's touring with Daniel Lanois. If this blog had sound effects, this is where I'd drop in the sound of a record player screeching to a halt.

Scrrrreeeeeooowwwwkkkk!

What, you ask, is so remarkable about Steven playing with Daniel Lanois - and who is Daniel Lanois anyway? Daniel Lanois is a producer and musician that has created a lot of classic records which you may have heard of, like U2's Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby and Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind. He has a sound, a mix of americana and atmosphere. Lots of reverb, lots of pedal steel, lots of scraping and twanging instruments and a black gospel subtext. And when Lanois is not producing canonical rock records for other bands, he makes solo music under his own name that distills his production ideas into concentrate form. And in all my days of obsessively collecting, making and talking about music, I've never met a bigger fan of Lanois than Steven. He had all the Laonis records, used to burn me Lanois mixes, and loved to bitch about everything U2 did post-Lanois. Even more remarkable, Steven's drumming style is basically something Lanois would custom-order if it were possible to select drummers from a menu: it's loose but finessed, earthy, warm and with a pocket so deep and neverending you might as well call it quicksand. In other words the universe conspired to drop in Lanois' lap the single most perfect drummer for his music in all the world – a chance connection here, a phone call there, and suddenly Steven is standing there Weird Science-style, naked and dripping wet in Lanois' shower. So to speak.

Once this tear in the fabric of reality had occurred, I suspended all disbelief. So when, for instance, Steven would call me to tell me that he had eaten Thanksgiving dinner with PJ Harvey, or that he was going to be on Letterman with Brandi Carlile, or that he was playing on the new collaboration between Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse (who he refers to as "Brian") and on retainer for the next Gnarls Barkley album... I nodded and accepted these things as perfectly normal. Right now Steven's on a plane headed for England where he's going to perform a month-long engagement with Sparks, who are performing each of their 21 intricate albums, in their entirety, one night a piece. This, too, is perfectly normal.

Here are a few examples of what my friend has been up to in LA studios the past few years. "April Grove" is off the new Martina Topley Bird album, produced by Danger Mouse. "Where Will I Be" is an unreleased version of a song on the latest Daniel Lanois album.

Martina Topley Bird - "April Grove"

Daniel Lanois - "Where Will I Be"

Steven would never admit to having "made it." That kind of blanket positive sentiment is not how he does. But he's touring the world with successful artists and playing with his heroes. He can pay rent in Los Angeles, by doing something he loves to do. And he even has a girlfriend, which is a terrific boon for Steven, even if she only loves him for his heavy metal thunder. Superficially, Steven is a different man than the one I befriended years ago. In addition to bulking up his career, he started lifting weights and scarfing steak, which, I have to admit, did wonders for his appearance. He's filled out, more confident. And I'm proud to see any way in which he's changing for the better. But to me, he'll always be this guy:

1 comment:

Marie Lasferatu said...

That's totally bad ass. I don't know Steven as well as you do, by any means, but I am proud too. He deserves it.