Under the Underground

Feb 18, 2004 at 12:00 am

If you’re a social climber, it’s best to keep John Nelson at arm’s length. At a time when the local cool club carries a nearly exclusive subscription to ’60s soul rock, John Nelson is singing the praises of Canadian alternative bands from the ’90s. At a time when the up-and-coming scene cowers in the two-fisted shadow of abusive Uncle Jack, John Nelson seems blissfully unconcerned with garage revisionism. Stay away from John Nelson, your reputation might depend on it.

In fact, almost nothing about Nelson jibes with Detroit’s most visible hipster criteria. He’s 29; that’s too old (well, for a major label deal anyway). He doesn’t live in the 313; his house is in Royal Oak. His parents don’t support him; he’s a gainfully employed art teacher. He doesn’t own a single thing that says “I (heart) Cass Corridor,” and for fun he watches public access TV and eats cereal.

But maybe that’s why John Nelson’s band, New Granada, is one of the most interesting underdogs in Detroit’s pop subculture.

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” Nelson says. “My old band, Cloudcar, wasn’t that far removed from the inner circle of cool Detroit bands. Sure, we weren’t playing shows with the Wildbunch every weekend at the Gold Dollar, but I never felt outcast.” He talks about playing shows with yesterday’s darlings like They Come in Threes, Fletcher Pratt, 57 Waltz and even (gasp!) Jack White’s Two Star Tabernacle.

But the rising stock of candy-striped siblings and their disciples divided Detroit’s rock underground into two camps: garage bands (aka “bands the whole world cares about”) and every one else. When Nelson disbanded his sugar-tuned project, Cloudcar, in 2000 and started up New Grenada, they were instantly regarded as the latter. It wasn’t the fault of the music as much as bad timing; when Nelson started the new project to play rough-cut power pop with label owner-turned-girlfriend Nicole Allie, “Detroit” was becoming a musical adjective for rock revivalism. He describes the band’s humble beginnings simply as “trying to do catchy songs that weren’t real complicated,” and three years (and five drummers) later they’re still around.

“Obviously we’re not a garage band; we’re an indie pop and rock band,” Nelson says. “We could have been doing ’60s pop or garage, but we’re not into it. Maybe it is like a generational thing. The people who are into a lot of that music, who play it and who listen to it are so much older. Maybe they don’t care so much about the music; it’s more about hanging out at the bar, checking out their friends’ bands play the same three chords and drinking. For the younger bands it’s about doing something different and exciting. We stayed true to what we were brought up with.”

At present New Grenada — Nelson (guitar), Allie (bass), Shawn Knight (guitar), and Andy Roy (drums) — is “staying true” to its pedigree on two fronts. The first, New Grenada’s recently released Hot War EP, is a six-song offering of refreshingly off-kilter pop music — combining wordy (and at times slightly nerdy) narratives with a reverbed-out SST guitar crunch. It’s a record that wears its ’90s influence on its sleeve — bands like Dinosaur Jr., Pavement and Hüsker Dü. The record comes with the nugget “Concussion,” where Nelson spells out a twentysomething miscommunication problem with appropriately slack-jawed snottiness. “I know how it feels to be twentysomething,” he whines. “Feels like I had a bad concussion.” The EP ends too soon with “Emulated,” a soaring, mid-tempo banger that’s about to burst with heavy-hearted suburban angst. Nelson’s voice cracks on the high notes and the band’s performance is messy enough to feel just right.

The other front is something that has already perked ears across the river: A yet-to-be-named compilation of Detroit-area bands paying homage to the Canadian influences of their youth. John Nelson is going international.

“Since the Julie Doiron record, Plumline hasn’t really done anything except our band.” Nelson explains of the label that Allie started with New Grenada’s founding guitarist Mike Chavarria. “Its been used as a vehicle to put out our band, but Nicole wanted to start it up again. Maybe I’m kind of speaking for them, so I hope I get it right, but they grew up on Sloan, Thrush Hermit and Hayden, and Superfriendz — all those Canadian indie rock bands from the early ’90s. They would go to London, Ontario, or Toronto and see all these bands play.”

Not into Thrush Hermit? Don’t worry about it, champ. “Canadian Indie Pop” would be a nightmare-come-true category for most Yank “Jeopardy!” contestants. But cross the bridge and it’s a different world. Only a week or so after John and Nicole started e-mailing their buddies about the idea do a Canadian tribute, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) came calling for an interview.

“Maybe it isn’t the biggest influence on Detroit’s garage scene but, at the time [Canadian] bands like Eric’s Trip and Elevator to Hell were really important to me and the Eric Weirs [Tiny Steps] and Ryan Allens [Thunderbirds Are Now!],” Nelson says. “It felt like a lot of people would be into the idea, so Nicole started e-mailing people about it a month ago. Every single band was interested and excited about doing it.”

So far the project involves 15 of Detroit’s garage outsiders and is slated for a summer release. At press time the list of confirmed contributors includes The Trembling (Sloan’s “Deeper Than Beauty”), The Pop Project (Zumpano’s “The Only Reason Under the Sun”), Thunderbirds Are Now! (Hardship Post’s “Watchin’ You”) and Tiny Steps (Superfriendz’s “10 lbs.”). Nelson and New Grenada are going to put their hand to Elevator To Hell’s “Why I Didn’t Like August ’93.”

“A lot of people might see it as kind of unfashionable to like that stuff,” Nelson concedes. “But those bands were really important to me and the relationship between a lot of kids in Detroit and Canadian bands is really unique.”

Judging by early buzz alone, Plumline’s Canadian covers project might serve to introduce many Detroit pop underdogs to a wider international audience. But it’s not the first time that New Grenada has paid tribute to somewhat unfashionable sources. Take Iron Lung for instance, the 3-inch mini-CD that the band released a year and a half ago to capture their affection for ’70s and ’80s punk icons like the Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains and the Buzzcocks. Didn’t hear that one either? For a paltry $4 (available at www.madmerch.com) it is a powder keg of spirited interpretations of punk gems.

“For some reason, that era of music was something that everyone in the band was into at the same time,” Nelson explains. “It started as a way to just play faster and get better at playing our instruments and play high energy songs. We all had different ideas of what punk was all about and we each picked some of our favorites and paid homage to them and did them the best way we could.”

Maybe that’s what punk is all about. Maybe by ignoring trendy convention and doing what he wants to do, Nelson is as punk and as legit and as vital to Detroit’s music community as anyone. Maybe more.

Next, Nelson tells a story about one of New Grenada’s short tours when the band rolled into Ralph’s bar in Fargo, N.D. “We were trying to fill in days with the gig. But it surprised us. All these young kids showed up and knew all our songs and were requesting them. It’s where you don’t expect anything that things really happen.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.


New Grenada will perform on Saturday, Feb. 21, at a house party open to the public (118 N. Ingalls, Ann Arbor) with The Trembling and A Thousand Times Yes. The band will also perform on Saturday, Feb. 28, at the Third Street Saloon (701 W. Forest, Detroit, 313-831-3434) with Ten Words For Snow and Pop Project.

Nate Cavalieri is an itinerant writer for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]