Photo by Joey Martinez
There is something endearing about the way J. Micah Nelson talks about his acoustic guitar, describing it in ways that are far from geeky. He says his Martin, whose model number he doesn’t know, is “three-quarters size,” with “a lot of frets on it” and that it’s made from “kind of a darker wood.” An internet search reveals that the Martin is in fact the full-size 000-15M, with the standard 14th-fret neck junction and mahogany soundboard, back, and sides.
Given the sharp songcraft and uncanny guitar moves on Nelson’s latest album, Window Rock, which he recorded under the name Particle Kid, it’s clear that the singer-songwriter places far more importance on his musical vision than the technical specifics of his instruments. And the depth of Nelson’s music makes sense when you consider where he came from.
Micah, who is 29, is the youngest son of Willie Nelson, and he and his older brother Lukas pretty much grew up on their father’s tour bus. Micah made his live debut at the age of 3, when he joined the elder Nelson onstage, playing the harmonica. He has since pursued a musical life that, while for the most part is outside of the outlaw country tradition that his father helped establish, shares an iconoclastic edge.
Some of Micah Nelson’s earliest recordings were with the experimental Los Angeles-area band Insects Vs Robots. He’s also teamed forces with Lukas Nelson in the band Promise of the Real and has toured and recorded with Neil Young, who has acted as a mentor to both brothers. But at the moment, Particle Kid is Micah’s main project.
While Particle Kid’s previous albums had a sort of bedroom-recording feeling with their sonic collages, Window Rock has more of a live-band feel, as Nelson’s Insect Vs Robots colleagues Jeff Smith and Tony Peluso handle bass and drum duties, respectively. The album’s psychedelic vibe is enhanced by nonstandard guitar tunings, some choice effects pedals, and the occasional sounds of overdubbed cassettes.
During a recent European tour, Nelson connected via Skype to talk about the lessons he’s learned from his father and from Neil Young, his growing collection of EarthQuaker stompboxes, and the musical applications of frog calls.
What has your father taught you about playing guitar?
When it came to guitar, one thing that we both really connected on is Django Reinhardt. My dad worshiped Django Reinhardt, and his whole guitar sound was modeled after Django’s—those Gypsy jazz scales, those kind of weird jazzy Django chords, and these different songs, “Nuages,” “I Never Cared for You”… my dad taught me how to play those songs, and that kind of feel has definitely influenced everything I’ve done.
So that had a big influence on my playing, and that kind of thinking-outside-the-box approach that Django had, my dad has. I play in his band sometimes, and I just start laughing, listening to his playing. It’s so ridiculous. He’s like the Jackson Pollock of guitar. He’s just flying around like you never know. It doesn’t make any sense what he’s doing, but it works somehow. It’s really kind of punk rock, actually, the way he plays, which I love.
Window Rock has so many compelling guitar sounds, both acoustic and electric. What instruments did you use to record it?
The acoustic I played is a Martin. It’s made in Nazareth. Honestly, I don’t even know what model it is. It’s three-quarters size, it’s got a lot of frets on it, and it’s kind of a darker wood. What happened is my brother has one, and I was hanging out in the back of the tour bus one night and just started playing it. And I was like, man, this feels so good. I got to get one of these. And I went into Truetone Music in Santa Monica to get something completely different, and I saw one on the wall, and I was like, “Oh, yeah.” And I picked it up and I played a song that I had just written and realized that there was nothing resisting anything to me. It just felt so effortless, and the feel of the neck, and the action, and the amount of frets on it. It was exactly what I needed, because I’d been playing this Taylor GS Mini for years, and I just felt like I was at a point where I needed to get a somewhat normal-sized guitar. And I got this Seymour Duncan pickup, and it’s the one that has the blend between the condenser mic and the pickup. And it’s one of those guitars where I have to try to make it feed back, which is rare for me.
The electric guitars I used are Gandalf the Grey, which is a Gibson Melody Maker, with those P-90s in it. It’s not a really old guitar—I think it’s probably from 1990—it’s just been through a lot ever since I got a hold of it. A former girlfriend of mine got it from her sister, whose friend won it on a TV show, or something. She was trying to sell it on Craigslist, because she needed some money. And she said, “Hey, could you pose with this guitar? I’ll take a picture for a Craigslist ad.” And I was sitting there noodling on it, and I just looked up at her. I was like, “How much do you want for this thing?”
Both that one and my Telecaster, Sister, had this stupid piss-yellow color, and I ended up painting both of them and staining them myself. And on the Gibson, on Gandalf the Grey, I put this [Seymour Duncan] Antiquity [II] Firebird bridge humbucker in the neck. I also took out the tone knob, and so it’s just a toggle switch and a volume knob. It’s really simple. There’s not a lot to think about, and it’s super light—it feels like a piece of balsa wood or something. But it’s sturdy.
Then Sister Lou is the Telecaster that Neil [Young] got me in France a few years ago, because I needed a backup guitar, as I was always breaking strings onstage. It’s such a great guitar, but I didn’t really play it for a long time. It was just sitting there in the studio. And when I started doing a lot of these alternate tunings in my show, I was like, “Well, I need an extra guitar that’s already in this tuning. Oh, yeah, I have that Telecaster.” And this is a guitar Nash makes—it’s a ’54 Tele relic with Lollars and this really fat C neck. I have these long, spindly, kind of old man fingers, and it’s really comfortable, that fat neck. Because if the neck’s too thin, I feel like I’m cramping up, or I get arthritis, or something. It actually has become my main guitar, whether I play with Neil or my band, and it’s all over this record. And it’s such a bright, clear, crisp tone. I’m doing a lot of fuzzed-out, kind of grungy-textured, psychedelic stuff. And even through all the dirt and fuzz, there’s clarity to it, which I really like.
TIDBIT: Micah Nelson’s previous Particle Kid releases were largely self-contained albums, solely arranged by Nelson. Window Rock represents the sound of Nelson’s touring trio, which is Nelson on vocals and guitar, Jeff Smith on bass, and Tony Peluso on drums.
And I think that’s all the guitars on the record. There might be moments of this PRS McCarty model. It’s a semi-hollowbody electric guitar that my friend gave me. I started the record on that guitar, and then kind of halfway through, I switched over to Gandalf the Grey. I think the solo on “Radio Flyer” is on the PRS.
What about amps and pedals?
On this album, I’m playing either a ’63 Princeton or a Magnatone Twilighter Stereo, one of those newer Magnatones. As far as pedals, for drive, I’ve been using the ZVEX Box of Rock. It’s a preamp boost and then it’s also got a button that’s straight-up distortion, like a Marshall cranked up to 10, and you can modulate it with a knob. I’ve recently been using stuff by EarthQuaker. I have the Pyramids, which is a flanger. You can get not only a classic flange but all kinds of laser-blast, sort of Star Wars video-game sounds. And I have the Bit Commander, which is a monophonic synth. It’s like an Atari video game on steroids and acid, and then it’s also a fuzz and an octave divider in one. And it’s got a sub-octave—everything. That one’s really fun, it breaks up in this 8-bit Nintendo sort of way.
And the Rainbow Machine, another EarthQuaker one, is a polyphonic synth delay that’s like this ridiculous madness, nonsense machine. If you just turned it on it’s like this delay and pitch modulator, but then if you hit this magic button, the second signal feeds back in on itself, and you can modulate the volume of each signal. So it does this crazy feedback and you can make it modulate up or down ... it’s totally absurd. That’s like the end-of-the-world-kind-of-trembling-away pedal.
I’ve also got the Strymon El Capistan, which is basically a space-echo kind of sound. It’s in this tiny pedal and you can make it sound like warbly tape, or a little cleaner, and then you can make it really get spacey or make it kind of a tight slapback. But it sounds really more tape-y, which I like. And sometimes I just leave it on, depending on the acoustics of the room.
Oh! I also have the Electro-Harmonix Mel9, which basically emulates a Mellotron. You’ve got a knob which lets you choose between different choirs and a cello, flute, brass, and an orchestra, and you can blend it with your guitar sound and modulate how long you want it to decay and sustain and everything. That’s a fun one. And then I have a Cry Baby wah and a TC Electronic Ditto X2 looper, which I occasionally use.