Slow Ride

Listening to the Nerves’ third album, if you’re familiar with their first two, is like watching a horse race in slow motion. The local trio’s 1998 debut, Nerves, crammed 13 songs into 27 minutes with the trebly tension of the Stooges’ original Raw Power mix. And while the 1999 follow-up, New Animal, cranked up the bottom and let a little air in, the pace was still frenetic–12 songs in 32 minutes. At 38 minutes the new World of Gold is the band’s longest LP yet, but it contains only eight tunes. “I don’t think that we’ve really changed as much as we’ve grown,” says bassist Seth Skundrick. “I think everything’s coming from the same place, but we’re learning how to articulate ourselves better.”

The Nerves’ original appeal, though, lay in a certain inarticulateness: the new album is the first Nerves record where I’ve been able to make out entire lines instead of just words here and there. The old records were dominated by the flailing rhythms of drummer Elliot Dicks and the unholy howl of guitarist Rob Datum, which revisited the connection between the maximum R & B of the Who and the Yardbirds and the snarling apolitical whoosh of early punk rock. “The biggest thing was learning how to write songs with space,” says Skundrick, and indeed, the wonderfully claustrophobic buzz of the group’s first two albums has stretched into longer grooves. Datum’s guitar sounds less strangled now, and in slo-mo his howl is an eerie quaver that takes Tom Verlaine’s thin timbre into a house of mirrors.

Despite this fairly extreme shift, there’s still no other band in town that brings quite the same sensibility to rock. In fact, when Skundrick and Datum first met, working as art movers in 1996, it was a void they perceived in the Chicago music scene that led them to start playing together. “We’d talk about music and the lack of bands we liked here,” says Skundrick. “I kept going to shows here and asking people around town for recommendations of local music that I might like and not finding anything at all. So Rob and I started playing Damned covers and Seeds covers.”

They went through a handful of drummers, but it wasn’t until Dicks joined them later that year that the band found its feet. His ferocious punk style played well against the spare aggression Datum and Skundrick favored, and what’s more, he had connections. For most of the 90s the eminently likable Dicks, a sound engineer by trade, had been hauling his PA system around to underground venues like Czar Bar and the Fireside Bowl. He ran an eight-track recording studio out of his Hubbard Street loft. And his most recent band had been the short-lived post-rock trio Rome, which had made a record for Thrill Jockey.

The trio began landing better gigs, and it didn’t take long for them to attract a rabid local following. Onstage they’d rip through the tunes without so much as introducing themselves. “There were a lot of bands at the time that weren’t rocking very much. We tried to play each show like it was the only one that mattered,” says Dicks. “We’d play a set as if it was just one long song,” adds Datum. Thrill Jockey owner Bettina Richards was one of the converts, and offered to put out their records.

“I don’t think Bettina would’ve looked twice at us if it wasn’t for the fact that the drummer in one of her bands joined a rock band,” says Skundrick. Actually Richards’s roster used to be full of rock bands–including the organ-pounding garage band Gorilla, a trio called Sugarshock that featured future Butchies drummer Melissa York, and the fast-and-furious Columbus outfit Gaunt. But by the time the Nerves joined, the label’s premier bands were Tortoise, the Sea and Cake, Mouse on Mars, and the like–bands widely credited with dismantling rock convention.

The affiliation brought the Nerves a new set of problems. For instance: the band’s second album opened with Skundrick rubbing his fingers along the rim of a martini glass to get a sort of Eastern-sounding drone, but according to Datum music writers went looking for a deeper meaning. “He was trying to get this guttural sound, and writers were asking if it was a comment about the electronic music movement,” he says. “The last thing we would ever think about is reacting to being on this record label.”

After touring behind New Animal, the band retreated a bit from live performance, and in February began recording World of Gold. New Animal, for which the band called in Sub Pop house engineer Jack Endino, had been recorded and mixed in a whirlwind ten days, but this time around the tracking alone, done with local whiz Casey Rice, took twice that long. The first sessions were in part a test run for Semaphore Recording Studios, the new affordable 24-track facility Dicks had started with partners Jeremy Lemos and Scott Adamson. Lemos, who’s also the head engineer at Acme Studio on Belmont, mixed the album there.

This gave the Nerves the luxury of recording numerous takes of their songs and, for the first time in their career, to record more material than they needed to put on the album. “We’d been playing some of these songs live for months, but they weren’t quite there for the record,” says Skundrick. They also had time to rearrange songs to accommodate the contributions of keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen (who’s played with Rebecca Gates, among others). There were keyboards on New Animal, too–courtesy of Jeremy Jacobsen, aka the Lonesome Organist–but they’d simply been overdubbed after the basic tracks were written and recorded. Jorgensen’s spare, dark lines on vibes, organ, and piano allow Datum to use his guitar more coloristically or, in some moments, not to use it at all.

Datum works full-time as a painting conservator, Skundrick is a freelance film and video editor, and Dicks has his hands full between his own businesses and a third job at a larger PA rental company. The Nerves have done relatively little touring behind their previous records, which have sold modestly–and the new album is different enough that it may cost them some of the fans they do have. But they don’t find any of this discouraging. “We’re all in our 30s and we’re not desperate to be rock stars,” says Skundrick. “We all have our jobs, and the whole reason we started this band was just because we love this type of music. That hasn’t changed.”

The Nerves perform twice this weekend in celebration of the release of World of Gold: Friday, September 21, at the Empty Bottle, they’ll play the new record in its entirety, joined by Jorgensen; on Saturday, September 22, at the Fireside Bowl they’ll play a trio set that spans their career.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.