Modern communication

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The greeting comes from within the house: "Come on in!" New Grenada's frontman John Nelson welcomes a visitor, who enters to find the singer eating a bowl of cereal with a plastic spoon, a box of rice milk sitting on the table beside him. Nelson says that bandmate Dave Melkonian, New Grenada's longtime drummer, has run to the store and will return shortly. Finishing his food, Nelson smiles and says, "Hey, watch this," as he sets his bowl down on the floor. He calls to his dogs, Layla and Keelie, who bound in and lap up the remaining milk from the bowl.

"They love it," he says, looking content. "It's their treat."

Melkonian steps in a couple minutes later, carrying a 40-ounce can of Coors Light, which he offers to share with his guest, who politely declines, as the drummer starts digging though Nelson's kitchen cupboard for snacks.

There's something exceptionally fitting about this picture. It's the new core of New Grenada (whose third member will be joining the get-together shortly) — comfortable and at ease with each other, though it wasn't always this way.

New Grenada has been on the Detroit scene for more than seven years; although there've been lineup shuffles, Nelson and Nicole Allie were the constant force. The two — a married couple — worked as the backbone of New Grenada's perfect and fuzzy indie-rock and lo-fi pop blend. But it's different these days. See, New Grenada's about to release Energy Shortage — its first record since Allie's departure from the band and subsequent divorce from Nelson.

The new album's a concise, crunchy, guitar-filled trip through Nelson's recent personal journey, chronicling how he got from there to here. It's also packed with catchy hooks, '90s indie rock nods, clever lyrics and Nelson's distinctive, straightforward delivery — all clocking in at a proper and concise 28 minutes and some change. But different band members and broken hearts aside, it still sounds like a straight-up New Grenada record.

"It's like we're already so established that it doesn't make sense to change the name or start a new project," Nelson says. "It didn't feel right to do that.

"This record is more personal, though — more so than any of the other New Grenada records. It's about a lot of different things in my life." Nelson smiles slightly and adds: "But I guess I really had something to write about this time."

The album was written and recorded quickly, in a matter of months. "It really wrote itself pretty easily," Nelson continues. "Two of the songs ["Years of Decay" and "Pitfall"] are older. But the other eight tracks came from ideas happening really quickly, just playing chords and singing the first thing that came to mind."

The album will be released on Nelson's own label, Jack Holmes Recording Company, named after his grandfather, whose smiling face graces the label's logo. It'll also be dually released on vinyl with a digital download code. There's no CD this time around.

"We're really excited because we just got the records, actually," Nelson says, motioning to some boxes by the front door. The band was able to finance the project, thanks to a Microsoft/Ford SYNC ad, which uses their song, "Modern Communication."

"That was what we were hoping for, really — just enough to cover the pressing of the record," Nelson says. "And that worked out perfectly."

Rounding out the "new" trio is bassist Monday Busque, formerly of the Trembling. "I was hesitant to get back into playing [in a band] after the Trembling," says Busque, who has now joined the discussion, "but my wife actually pushed me to do it. I guess she recognized I needed something to get me out of the house!"

Busque has the "wife-and-kids thing" in common with drummer Melkonian, who describes himself as being "more or less in this band the whole time but full time since 2005."

What's more, Busque and Nelson are teetotalers, a rarity among area indie rockers. "I was one of those assholes who declared himself 'straight edge,'" Busque says, laughing.

"It's just not something that ever appealed to me," Nelson adds with a shrug.

Melkonian immediately jumps in: "Even when we were underage and used to go to Blondies and get pitchers of cheap beer, John never drank." The three laugh, which prompts more of the drummer's memories: "I remember playing Blondies right after high school in a band that opened for Morbid Angel!"

It's obvious these guys are relaxed around each other, but the phrase "all fun and no stress" isn't easily applied to earlier New Grenada lineups.

"Oh, we could be really hit or miss!" Nelson says, referencing some of their more memorable — and ultimately highly controversial — live shows. "Breaking things onstage. Shit falling on top of people. Band members clearly not getting along. Using homemade flashpots the week after the Great White show tragedy and permanently singeing the stage. ... Yeah, if we went in with a bad attitude, it always manifested itself onstage."

Nelson recalls supporting Thunderbirds Are Now! a couple of years ago, and says, "That gig was horrible — we were all over the place. [Former member] Shawn [Knight, now in Child Bite] had a brand-new keyboard, and at one point, I just pulled a Pete Townshend and bashed my guitar right into it. Everybody was threatening to quit right onstage that night. It was out of control." He pauses. "I hope people who saw us at one of those shows will give us a chance and come out to see us again."

In fact, the new lineup's September debut show at the Pike Room was a totally different scene.

"I felt really good about it," Nelson says. "It was a lot of fun and we heard from a lot of people that they really dug it. It just felt right."

With all three band members now in their 30s, there's that risk that they've settled down and lost their musical edge. But one listen to Energy Shortage and it's clear the album's title isn't referring to the members of New Grenada. If anything, they've just gotten smarter regarding how to use that energy, channeling it all into a concise, hyper-charged slice of indie rock goodness that surely ranks as one of the best records out of Detroit this year.

Nelson hesitates to call this new line-up the "kinder, gentler" New Grenada, but it's clear that those days of bad mojo stage antics are not really up his alley at this point. "Even though those stories are funny, I can't imagine doing that kind of stuff now," he reflects.

Suddenly Nelson's dog Layla, a petite rescued greyhound, climbs up into his lap and turns upside down, her feet in the air. "You know what that's called?" he asks, pointing to Layla's seemingly awkward position. "That's called cockroach-style. Did you know that?"

Nelson looks at Layla, smiles and pets her belly. It's more proof that, despite this band's somewhat rough trip, there's no shortage of real energy here.

New Grenada's record release show is Friday, Dec. 5, at PJ's Lager House, 1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668. With Allan James & the Cold Wave, Friendly Foes and Art Fag DJs. No cover ($7 at the door buys a copy of the record).

Laura Witkowski writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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