Connoisseurs of the Madison music scene may know Jeremiah Nelson as the leader of the on-again, off-again lo-fi band Patchwork or as the host of the Tuesday-night tunes at Mickey's Tavern. One-time Minnesotans may even remember him as the mandolinist from the gig-happy gypsy-folk group Ian Hilmer's Stagefright, which played bars, parks and everything in between.
Now fans can re-revise their descriptions of the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist as he releases a solo album, Drugs to Make You Sober, March 26 at the Frequency.
The recording is, in essence, a beautiful mistake. After another one of Nelson's bands, the Achilles Heel, imploded in early 2010, he began making soundscapes to ease his mind and sharpen his creative impulses. "A band breakup is like a divorce with three other people," he says. "So when I'm making something new, a lot of times my motivation is to bury the last project I did."
Nelson started crafting long, morphing tones and stacking them to create sandwiches of sonic poetry. When he realized his atmospheric material was more than a passing fancy, he paired it with the shapes and sounds of pop songs and recorded the results.
"I approached the album as a kid with a four-track would, running around putting a banjo here and a vocal there and a piano here," he says. "It's like what I've always done, but even more lo-fi. It's got flaws, but they're interesting flaws."
As it turns out, Nelson was a kid who ran around with a four-track while growing up in Rochester, Minn., and Drugs to Make You Sober is a meditation on growing up and finding one's bearings. "I was forced to take piano lessons when I was 7 or 8," he recalls, "and I hated it until one of my teachers gave me an assignment: to write a song. I had no idea what that meant, but I loved it and latched onto it."
His fondness for ragtime piano sparked his improvisational tendencies and shaped his write-tweak-record-repeat cycle. "I loved to play Scott Joplin's songs," he says, "and my uncle was really into swing from the '40s, especially Glenn Miller, who I thought was the greatest. I still do."
But it was boogie-woogie that transformed his musical hobby into a full-time pursuit. "In the church where I grew up, there were pianos everywhere," he says. "You could wander into a room and find one. I'd do that and play boogie-woogie blues on it until a church lady would walk in and say, 'You really shouldn't be playing that here. You should play for the Lord.' That made me want to do it even more."
Though Nelson's quest to discover his path and shake up his sound is quite personal, the Drugs experiment was highly collaborative thanks to his Blogspot sounding board, Song Whiners Diner.
"The album's almost like a greatest hits of the blog," he says. "The readership just kept building up. People would tell me what they thought of the songs, and pretty soon, I had an album."
Some of the most useful feedback came from Nelson's roommate, videographer Ryan Heraly of Manic Eye Media. "At first, I was apprehensive about making something soundscapey and mega-layered, but he convinced me to keep going,'" Nelson says.
The collaboration even resulted in a video for the album's first track, "Nothing to Lose." A collage of vintage carnival footage and home movies, it gives the song a dreamy veneer that brings out hints of Beck's Sea Change and Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The video and its story will join TheDailyPage.com's MadTracks collection this weekend. In the meantime, fans can find the digital version of Drugs on Bandcamp.com.