Nan is one half, (the awesome drumming and vox half) of New York based band, Schwervon! alongside her partner Matt who runs Olive Juice records, Schwervon’s home.
Nan has also previously performed in the bands ‘Pantsuit’ and ‘Bionic Finger’, and solo as ‘Nan and the One Night Stands’. All of these bands make my stomach somersault with joy.
Back in 2006 after a Schwervon! show in Leeds I got to talking with Nan back at my friends’ house and revelled in the warmth and support she showed me throughout our chatting, (as well as us randomly stumbling onto discussing the relative merits of David Hasslehoff and Liz Phair (separately!)… Nan is so much fun!)
Subsequent to us meeting up Nan has put me in touch with a host of her friends from back home whom I have been able to meet up with when they have toured the UK; Lisa Lui and Renminbi, Phoebe Kreutz, Toby Goodshank, Chris Maher etc; and meeting up with these people and hearing their love for Nan makes me realise just how special Nan is as a friend and inspiration to so many.
Speaking with Nan feels like catching up with an old friend, and as such it was a joy to speak with her this September (2007) for this interview.
Hi Nan, how are you? What are you up to at the moment?
I’m at work right now, procrastinating. And drinking coffee trying to wake up. Me and Matt played a friend's cd release last night and got home around 1ish - but then we're all amped up eating toast and cupcakes so I didn't really get to sleep till much later. Oy. Where am I?
How's your upcoming European tour schedule looking? Are you excited about coming over to play more shows?
What is it about Europe that encourages you and Matt to tour as frequently as you do?
I’m really excited to come over to play more shows in Europe! Yes we love coming to Europe to play! On a practical level, it's easier to tour in Europe than in the states....we have a little more support for our music there (not to mention the towns are so close together). Shoeshine records (Francis Macdonald - teenage fanclub drummer) released our first two records in the UK and our last record "I dream of teeth" is being released on Berlin label ‘haute areal’. They are able to provide a little more distribution and promotion than we can do on our own. One thing that makes touring Europe possible for us is we get paid for the shows so we can help cover our costs of transportation.....
Without sounding like a total creep, but you're one of the kindest and most gracious people I've ever met who have been on tour here, and whom I have booked shows for.
Do you find that you are able to 'be yourself' on tour, or do you find that you have to aim at 'pleasing' - either audiences, or promoters, or those you are staying with all the time. Is there a pressure to be everything to everybody when touring?
That is a sweet thing to say, I know what it takes to put together a show, having done it in New York a fair amount--and I know that a little kindness goes a long way in making it a good experience.
Also I think no one HAS to do anything for you and if they like your music enough to create a space for you to play it then why wouldn't you be gracious to them? That said, the second part of your question hits a nerve with me because yes sometimes I do feel pressure to be everything to everyone and if I’m giving to people around me and not enough to myself I can get cranky. This has happened on tour just ask my tourmates! I have a "people pleaser" quality to my personality –I want everyone to like me all the time! Which is impossible of course. Maybe promoters/audiences don't see it as much as the people really close to me-- I am learning to chill out a little, it's sort of like the oxygen mask on the airplane scenario, they always say to put the mask on yourself first, and THEN to put the mask on the child. If you don't take care of yourself how do you have anything left to give to other people? I am slowly learning it's okay to set boundaries for what I need - like for me it's little stuff, taking a walk before a show or go spend a half hour by myself writing in my journal, maybe forcing myself to leave and take a nap or do yoga stretches instead of worrying about things I can't control.... and believe me I like to worry!
Is it important to you to socialise with, and share time with those that you are involved with your shows?
I ask this, as it's not unusual for some touring artists to feel like they owe you nothing (which of course is true, as they don't really -- nobody should ever feel indebted to anybody really if it's not where they're coming from), and thus act accordingly, meaning you never really get 'to know' anything about them other than their performance.
I don't feel obligated to spend time with people involved with the shows, but at the same time if I feel a connection with them then I WANT to hang out with them. Also with the way Matt and I set up our tours we are already friends with a lot of the promoters and people that come to our shows so it's pretty natural that we'll have dinner together or talk to people at least a little bit before and after the show. I’ve never been the kind of "let's go out and rage all night and get to know everyone in this town" kind of person (well except on the dance floor in Dresden but that's a whole other story) but having a meal or coffee and chatting with people is one of the perks of touring! It kind of goes along with what I was saying before---you can be gracious and social but still respect your own needs too - I think there's a balance.
Is building a community of friends across the world important to you - (both in terms of future band/tour contacts, as well as friendships)?
Yes - it's totally life-affirming to travel and make friends and share music with them. A few years ago we played with this band, ‘Vermont’ at a London festival and a couple weeks later thought, "let's ask them to tour with us". So many great friendships and opportunities have resulted from that tour we did together....
Our friend Maes (who was the bassist in Vermont) has driven our asses across Europe 3 or 4 times now!
Also setting up bigger tours with Kimya Dawson and Jeff Lewis have opened the door for opportunities. Just getting out there and playing we met our booker in Germany who led us to our Berlin label...
I think if you're open to trying things and if you really want to do something - just go for it. You can't wait and think someone is going to "discover" you or pluck you out of obscurity. Matt and I were talking last night and we realized all the amazing opportunities we've had we have been pro-active about all of them. It was us making the first move, being DIY –taking risks.....saying "why not? let's try it".
My friend wrote to me recently after interviewing The Gossip at their Frankfurt show. She writes, 'The gossip prefer not to have any personal contact with the promoters, or promoting shows, the explanation being: "Kathleen Hanna said it best: 'I'm getting sick of having to do everything myself'." From the times I met Kathleen, it translates to: oh my god, I actually have to TALK to people if I want anything from them, I actually have to SMILE and say THANK YOU and PLEASE?'
And while I don't want to misquote anybody, or bash The Gossip, or Kathleen Hanna all of this seems so sad - especially given the whole ethos of DIY and what can be gained from interacting with those who you're working with.
I know that Schwervon! book their own shows (and you have done so previously with Bionic Finger, Pantsuit, Nan & the one night stands, and solo); what for you are the upsides, and downsides of working this way, and applying a DIY ethos to your touring; is it sometimes tough having to do everything yourself?
Yes it IS tough doing everything yourself. I can understand why Kathleen was burnt out and the gossip too.....it's stressful worrying about where to play and how much you can ask for guarantee and thinking about business and logistical details beyond making the actual music. Matt and I were thrilled to get some help booking German tour dates from a booking agent - it's a relief not to have to worry about booking so many of our shows there. Maybe at the level the gossip and Kathleen are at it really is just too much for them to have to deal with more than playing? We haven't gotten so much of the overwhelming attention for our art so it keeps me pretty grounded in pleases and thank you's and not taking things for granted. I mean also for us living in New York where there are a zillion bands playing every night sometimes you get 50 people to a show sometimes 5 people so it's pretty humbling.
Given the opportunity would I want a manager and help with more business stuff? YES absolutely. But I like keeping one foot in all that stuff too. I really treasure the personal connection me and Matt have to promoters & show organizers in Europe. It's awesome to play Wetzlar in Germany and have our friend Siegmar the promoter feed us fancy cheeses and apple wine and give us bear hugs. Or to go to Bristol and visit the local kids and eat at their vegan café, or drive in the mountains of Annecy with the coming soon band, or to see you in Leeds. I look forward to so many places we play and the people and community in those places is the primary reason. If we were at a "bigger level" would I have that? Would I want to or be able to give as much to people? Hmm I don't know- I'm sure it would be different, but because these friend connections are so important to me I would like to think I would maintain them.
Speaking of all things DIY, your records in the US are put out by the independent label, Olive Juice, a label which appears to be a labour of love and highly community spirited.
Kristin Hersh has recently spoken out about the music industry, suggesting that from now on instead of working with corporate labels she's, 'committed to not holding music hostage, the music will be free. The business of music clearly needs an overhaul. We're going to present our ideas - and with your help, we'll endeavor to create a sustainable, fair-trade music business model. This will be a strictly independent and self-sustaining venture - for better or for worse. No record label, no distributor, no middle-man just Kristin, the songs and you. We're hoping to finally take the leap and see what all of us together, as a small but enthusiastic community can do for ourselves.'
Obviously, Kristin is coming to this idea from the position of never having worked with a truly independent label.
How has working with a label like OJ enabled you as a musician?
What are your thoughts on Kristin's ideas of music production as a self-sustaining venture? Do you think the idea is an idealistic utopia?
I don't think for someone like Kristin Hersh that is an idealistic utopia idea for her to sustain herself without the help of a big label. She can totally do it--she has enough of a following I think--but also she has help. You're always going to need help! At any level you are at you sustain yourself and exist as an performing artist with the help of other people.....your fans, people who help to book your shows, people that help you sell merch help with websites, driving, etc.... however you get your music out there whether money is involved or not you need other people's help to do it!
Maybe the way corporate labels exist is not the kind of help that feels as good as your friends pitching in to help put on a festival or people you know coming and buying your cds directly from you after shows...?
I've never had a major label experience so I don't know what it would entail...though I’m curious.
Olive Juice is definitely about people helping each other and sharing resources. It's not a traditional label in that there is no money for releases or distribution (other than mail order). But the way Matt set up & runs the mail order distro and website it's a platform for people to get their music out there more than they could on their own.... certainly it has benefited me to be a part of it. Would I have had the courage to record my music if I didn't see the example of other OJ acts doing it themselves? Probably not! Also because Matt is an engineer he's worked on all our Schwervon releases which is a huge advantage for us financially & artistically (being able to take our time and not worry about rushing in the studio cause it's costing so much). There is a wide net of community support and artists helping each other around olive juice that fuels us and inspires us....a group of OJ volunteers put on a successful festival this past spring and there's even going to be an OJ zine soon which I’m excited about!
I know that alongside Schwervon! and your other music ventures you also work temp work in New York.
To be honest, knowing people like yourself who are able to combine doing the things you love (music making, touring, and other creativities) with a job that you may not love, but one which gets you by (however 'just'!) gives me so much more faith in myself and the fact that I may be bobbing along without following any sort of work or career 'conventions' or 'stabilities' or 'securities' but yet am somehow able to do some of the things that are important to me.
How do you find juggling these two aspects of your life; these two forms of 'work'?
Well fuck convention. You have to listen to the voice inside you that says, "I’d like to do …." (fill in the blank with heart's desire).
This is not to say it's not a challenge to listen to that voice. It’s kind of an insane life to lug your drum kit up four flights of stairs late at night after a show only to get up at the ass crack of dawn to work your day job in an office. I mean, who does that? Oh, I do! I was saying before how New York is humbling for bands and it is in the sense that it teaches me not to rely as much on external validation with music and art - like an acting teacher once said to me, "you have to be in it for the process, for the craft of it. That has to be enough to carry you."
Or my drum teacher Paula, another mentor of mine, "you have to REALLY love it or it's not worth it." And I feel lucky, because I do love it. Even the WORK of it. And it is work it's not like songs fall out of the sky for me or that I can magically play an instrument brilliantly....I have to practice and spend time on it.
But I don't know what else I can do that feels as complete...as much like I’m really living...as much like I’m really DOING something worthwhile....
And what I do to make money - to survive day to day - I never felt like it was as important as my creative life. I don't define myself by my day job. it's nice to get money for creative work but I can't always expect it...
Temp work has been great for me in that sense because I can book tours and write a little while doing it. It actually has taught me a lot about organization and ease in talking with all kinds of people. And I can leave temp jobs and go on tour and get another temp job fairly easily when I’m back. Would I love to just play music as my job? Of course!
But I haven't figured out a way to make ends meet doing that...though certainly touring helps a bit. I’m really trying to figure out a better balance - a lot of it is me learning to budget my money better to not waste money on things I don't need....
Perhaps we all need to move to a more affordable town,--Kimya keeps telling us to move to Olympia!
Last night a friend said "Jersey City baby".
Do you ever (as I do, often daily) catch yourself in one of those, 'oh god, what am I doing with my life? am I still gonna be able to afford to do this in X number of years?' sort of dilemmas? (usually associated with parental or external gazes, I find!)
If so, how do you stop that negative, worrying voice; and resolve things in your own mind to the point that you can simply get on with living life and doing what you're doing?
(I wanna hear *any* suggestions you may have!!!)
Are you inside my head? Um, yes. I think about that stuff. I worry about money too much. I worry about the fact I don't have health insurance. I’ve noticed it now I’m in my 30's a separation that sort of develops between people who are in the creative life for the long haul and those who get tired and want comfort (comfort being a well paying job, material stuff, etc). I’m in it for the long haul - I think I knew I would be when I was 19 and studying theatre - the creative life/community was for me and it's not been easy-it's a sacrifice in a way. Of course I don't want to be struggling financially forever, but I also don't want a job that impedes on my creative time or my spirit.....
Yes sure it's probably much easier to just work a well-paying job and have a house and watch TV every night. The bottom line for me is I would not be happy doing that.
I think it might be an every day resolve to quiet that worrying voice. Asking yourself, "okay what can I do today to follow this dream I have, to work on my art?" And the steps can be small. Maybe it's "I will write for a half hour". Or "I will email so and so and ask their advice about playing a show in such and such town..."
I've spoken with you in the past about confidence, and the cursed anxiety/depression vicious circle. In a society & culture that is seemingly set up to see many of us fail, or one that pushes people in the opposite direction of accessing their abilities and confidences, I'm hugely interested in the ways in which people acquire their confidence(s) in order to be active, creative participants in society, and thus able to push-on-through with a sense of assurance.
As a way of sharing and learning coping techniques for when crashes of confidence occur, what do you find works for you to remain / gain positivism and confidence?
Well I definitely have anxiety and depression at times too. One thing that has helped me get a sense of equilibrium has been therapy. It has really helped me to talk to someone in dealing with my past and a lot of pain from my childhood. I grew up in a home where I never really felt safe and I felt a lot of anxiety from a young age. I feel really fortunate in that there was something in me that valued myself and knew that I could do something creative with my life. It's like this little kernel of hope that I always felt inside myself-- and for me the act of creativity is about that - it feels hopeful and cathartic and necessary....like me rooting for me ....and that is probably my biggest coping tool. To keep writing and playing and being creative...lately I’m in a pattern of trying to do a little bit every day whether it's drum practice or playing keys or writing. That "being creative" that I talk about is mostly music for me but it can also be other art forms – like this past year discovering how much I had missed dancing. And I’ve always written loads mostly paper journals but poetry too.
Someone said to me once "art is not therapy". And it's not. But it does help lessen the noise in my head, and makes me feel more positive....
Yoga also helps and I totally recommend it to everyone! Me and Matt go to a weekly yoga class and our teacher is so great-- she's this sunshiney Swiss woman who comes around to everyone before class starts and asks us "how is your body today?" and she'll base the class around where people have tension or sore muscles.
I always feel better after going.
I read on your Live Journal (which seems almost like spying; but I guess that's the nature of online blogs, or perzines, or lyrics, I guess!!), the following:
'I was watching myself from the outside and this light bulb went off in my head as I mouthed the words "cop out".
I wasn't trying. I didn't want to try. And then I started thinking about how I do this in other areas in my life.
Job/ negative thought patterns/ creative work. I will just go through things like someone is making me do it....even though it was my choice to be there. I'm all eye rolls and poor attitude.
I'm like a kid in the corner resenting that I'm being punished not realizing that I'M THE ONE doing the punishing. oh.’
I guess it's a question similar to that of confidence and self-belief, but how important to you is the ability to maintain/regain perspective in order to continue your creative journeyings?
Perspective is important, and as you can tell from my journal I don't always have it! I have this tendency to take things really personally after shows or in rehearsals. I want to be able to tell myself, "okay Nan you played well there's just a couple things you know you can work on" and then happily go on my way. But sometimes there is a part of me that wants to feel bad about myself and wallow. I think part of my growth process the past few years has been to develop a healthier sense of perspective. Like to be able to look at my work critically without bashing myself in the head shouting dramatically "I’m the worst!"
I really value my musical partnership with Matt I think working with him has helped me develop more perspective. He honestly inspires me to write more and be a better player. Of course we fight but I’ve learned that can be good too. We trust each other enough to get mad and work through it. Also I’ve learned in working with him about breaking parts down - I think I used to gloss over stuff afraid to look at my limitations or exactly what I was doing cause I didn't want to feel bad about myself but I’m learning it's okay to examine yourself and accept where you are - cause then you have a place to work from to make the part better...
I find it amazing that so many people who struggle with confidence or self-belief become performers. Does playing live provide you with something that makes you get up on stage despite what you may feel day-to-day?
Yeah it's kind of nutty right? Like I struggle with self-confidence all the time yet something compels me to get up on stage and perform. I was explaining this to my friend Dawn (a theatre director) after our last tour. I feel more alive and at times like the best version of me when I’m performing....something about performing makes me feel free and I give myself more permission on the stage - to be however I will be. Maybe I don't give myself as much permission in day to day life to be as big as i want, or to express what I want...
Definitely I have grown in terms of feeling more confident as a performer-the best cure for that is experience and just to get back on the horse if you fall off. I just love what Twyla Tharp said about how after she feels like she had a flop of a performance she begins work the very next day on a new piece. Just keep going and try not to put so much pressure on it...
What's all this I hear about you going to Hip Hop dance classes?
I love it! I feel like a little kid in a way rediscovering things that make me happy. I did a lot of modern dance in college. I haven't danced in years and one day last winter I was like "it's time to dance". I choreographed a dance with other musical friends of mine to "eye of the tiger". Which was hilarious. I thought I should do some dance "research" so I ended up going to hip hop classes and dragging my cohorts with me!
Next, I want my friend Angela from the Baby Skins to teach me how to tap dance.
Are you currently working on any recordings?
Hmmm no. But SOON. Matt and I are actually writing new schwervon songs at the moment though which is exciting and I think after this tour we will start recording our next record. Also, I gotta get off my ass and start recording new solo stuff too -I’ve written a lot the past year with one night stands backing me up and I want to get that documented.
What's your favourite part of the song writing / recording / playing process?
I love playing live. And writing lyrics.
Also I like it when I find a melody that won't stay out of my head that I have to keep singing. I love to sing melodies to Matt's guitar playing.
I love playing drums too, though sometimes recording them is nerve-wracking...but I think the key might be for me to do more preparation (which I admit I can be lazy about).
The 'Anti-folk' movement, and musician base within New York seems to be hugely community-spirited and supportive.
What do your bunch of friends, peers, and members of your community mean to you, both personally and as a musician?
What does 'community' mean to you?
It's everything to me to have a creative community around! People that you feel see you - and get what you're trying to do. Sort of a family. I feel lucky. A lot of our creative community are my good friends too –I can call up Dave End and be like "wanna sing on a rap song I wrote?" or form a dance troupe or set up shows together or cook dinners and just hang out together. Actually today I just had lunch with the "midtown anti-folk lunch association" which is a bunch of musicians I know who work in the same area as I do - Dina from Prewar Yardsale was there and Anders, who used to drum with Jeff Lewis...
I don't think I would be in New York without this amazing community of artists. I feel people are making things happen here, it's a pretty stimulating environment, even our apartment, which we call OJ headquarters. Matt may be recording someone in the music room one night and I’m working out a dance piece in the kitchen and we're having parties on our rooftop and then there's so and so's show to go to....
And people asking each other constantly "what are you working on?" There’s no place I’d rather be! It sustains and nourishes me.
Are there any (local? national?) bands that you're loving right now and would like to share with me?
The Leader are one of my favourite bands. Julie’s voice kills me.
And Double Fantasy - I’m really digging their new record. Babs (in double fantasy) is a great songwriter....
I’ve rediscovered Babes in Toyland and PJ Harvey too. Have been watching you tube videos of them obsessively. Kat Bjelland's voice! She is so in her gut. She makes me want to play noisy feedbackey guitar.
Oh and X-ray Spex! I JUST discovered them, I’m so late.