Miles Nielsen is already a seasoned touring vet and a familiar fixture on the music scene despite the scene itself being radically different than the one his father Rick encountered in the mid seventies with Cheap Trick. It has been well documented that Miles Nielsen’s music is certainly a different breed than the raucous hard rock power pop of his dad and this is true. The truth is, however, there are some similarities between father and son including as a great sense of humor and yes, an affinity for Beatles inspired melodies. I am happier than anyone to say that the new album, Miles Nielsen Presents the Rusted Hearts (which is available everywhere Valentines Day) is the sound of a man and a band completely coming into their own. This latest album is the end result of endless road gigs, hours of recording time logged and a lifetime of crafting songs that deserve the production and attention they have finally received. Miles called to talk about the his songwriting, his band’s new album and much more. Read on..
LRI: Thanks for calling us this afternoon Miles. I know you have some shows coming up out of state and album which comes out Valentines Day. Nothing against any of your earlier material but the album is to my ears a huge step in production and songwriting from your last album titled “Miles”. Did you have a clue that it was shaping up that way as you were working on it?
MN: Oh well, thanks so much first of all. I think the last album was sort of an accident in the sense that it happened as a result of having some time off from playing with a couple other projects and having a studio and some songs. We were sort of like “Well, we have this studio, why not record some songs” and the next thing we knew we had Bun E playing on some tunes and Marc Ford ( ex Black Crowes) playing on some tunes and we had about thirteen songs. So we figured that’s pretty much a record and we should put it out. We didn’t really have any concrete aspirations or goals for it we just kind of put it out and were like “Well, that’s cool, people seem to like some of the songs” and then we reordered it twice and kept selling it still to this day at shows and it was like “Well, we’ve sold a decent amount of that record and it’s been about two years maybe we should make a NEW record”. In that time we had also really developed a group of players that were always consistent and always together and gelling and I had grown more focused on writing an ALBUM as opposed to just writing some songs you know, for no reason in particular. I had actually started writing songs that go together, that make sense together and blend into a more cohesive album. I’m glad that you feel that it’s a huge step from the last album and I think a lot of that stems from the fact that we’ve really grown into being a band which is what led me to the title, “PRESENTS THE RUSTED HEARTS”. I really wanted to make it clear that we had a real band and that it wasn’t just a singer/songwriter project. I really hated that term singer/songwriter being applied to us because while I am a singer and I am a songwriter that’s really limiting and not really descriptive because we are a band (laughs). We are a group of musicians that go on the road and play as a band and that is the mainstay of what I do. I play an occasional stripped down acoustic show here and there but I don’t really feel like I excel at that singer/songwriter format. I’m much more comfortable writing music where I can orchestrating things and put together an actual band sound than just myself and a guitar.
LRI: Anyone who has even spent a few minutes reading my interviews knows I am a massive Cheap Trick fan and bring them up constantly and often out of context. I think in some ways I can relate more to this album because it has more of that band feel. It’s not like you’re making classic arena rock but it feels closer to the influences you actually do resemble such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Jeff Buckley or dare I say the Beatles. Is that difficult when people draw such lofty comparisons?
MN: Is it lofty, yes, is it off base? Maybe a bit but I don’t know John…..I know musicians are not supposed to make sports references or like sports or be coordinated enough to play sports (laughs) but I love sports and have played sports and been good at some and not at others so I say to hell with it, I will make a sports reference. There’s a comparison to be drawn in the sense that a baseball player doesn’t want to stay mired in Single A ball their whole career. If Single A is my goal or aspiration than I should get out of the game and get a different job. If I don’t want to make it to the Big Leagues than I should get out and do something else so I am glad that you can draw a comparison between my stuff and Tom Petty’s or Jeff Buckley’s or as lofty as they are the Beatles. I know my place in the grand scheme of things and I am not at that place of those people but then again, few are. Do I feel like I can hang or nip at the heels of some of the artists I admire like the Jayhawks? Absolutely.
LRI: The first album certainly had some hooky songs like “Gravity Girl” but I do think the band has allowed you the opportunity to maybe explore a little bit more than just the upfront vocals and acoustic guitar afforded. The songs are just as accessible but there is a lot more going on sonically and and I would have to imagine a lot of the tunes grew from skeletons to more fleshed out compositions based on all these shows you play. Were most of these songs developed and built simply by being road dogs?
MN: Absolutely. I think whenever you are a live band you are always tweaking and varying things up as you go along. I think as a writer and an artist the biggest complaint is when you go see a band and it’s like “Okay, that was nice but that literally felt like the same song for an hour and a half”. No one wants to see that, it’s important to vary it up some, add some different instrumentation to some of the material, hell use a shaker or tambourine on a song even (laughs). Vary it up a little bit so that people’s ears don’t get bored and complacent. I can’t listen to ANYTHING for more than 15 minutes if it all sounds the same, even my own stuff. If I used the same guitar sound, the same chord progressions and the same tempo on song after song I would be miserable, we all would because it would be awful. With this band I definitely have the ability to go from highs to lows from clarinets to organs to keyboards to distorted guitar to lap steel to Dobro. We can go from full drum kit to just shakers to hand clapping because all of those things eventually come into play when you are trying to orchestrate a tune live with this band because there are only five of us.
LRI: It does feel like you are exploring a few more emotions on this album also, one of my favorite tracks on the album is “Disease” which features some heavier guitar and a passionate vocal. How did that song come together?
MN: “Disease” is actually a song written about a man with Alzheimer’s Disease. I have had someone in my life struggle with that who was actually a female and has since passed but it was arresting to me. To see someone who has lived a full and complete life and just FORGOTTEN that entire life is just unbelievable to witness. To see someone forget their own husband of forty plus years or their own children is just astounding. To me it was just the saddest thing I had ever witnessed. People always say cherish every moment make the most of your life because you never know when it will be taken from you but that disease is just insidious because it takes everything from you slowly to the point of where you don’t even realize it’s slipping away. To me it was like watching in slow motion like “There it was….there went every memory of like learning to play the organ that I ever knew”. There are lines in that song that really speak to what happens in that person’s mind and how they’re really young again if only in terms of their mind. All the wisdom, knowledge and experience you’ve ever known from them is not only out of your life but it’s no longer a part of their mind, it’s like none of it ever happened, they don’t remember any of it and they are starting all over again as kid almost.
LRI: My grandma died of it so I can totally relate, it’s such a inexplicable feeling did some of that frustration and anger bleed into not only the lyrics but the sound of the song?
MN: Absolutely. There’s a moment where I sing “All we have are photographs” which is kind of something that mattered a lot to me lyrically but also just a moment in the song structure that was important for me to have pop and be the arc of that tune. I really wanted that moment to stand out. I think it’s sadly something a lot of people can relate to. You could have lived every day with this person and woken up to them in your house and your life every day of your existence only to walk past them in the care center and have them not recognize you and just move right past you. It’s horrible.
LRI: Another song that really stands out is a track called “The Grain”. Is that really about what it seems to be about which is just that you have a different way of going about things or approaching your art?
MN: Yeah and also kind of about the fact that it’s okay to go about things a different way and not give a shit about it, there’s nothing wrong with that. People are going to criticize you and give you hell over it no matter what so it’s really about how you stand up to their reaction. In a lot of my songs I tend to use the bridge of the song to sort of make the overall point . I say “I’ll be waiting there on judgment day to say that I’m sorry but I’ll be alone” which is sort of a reference to a lot of people’s pride. A lot of people will NEVER say they’re sorry.
LRI: It sounds like you are REALLY into the lyric writing on your songs which is kind of a lost art these days.
MN: Man, I just HAVE to be, I have to be into the lyrics or the song will never come to be. They have to mean something to me and they have to tell a story or there will never be a song at all. I am working already on some new songs and those lyrics are absolutely the framework of the songs themselves. I start from that point and they are really the driving force behind the whole thing. I will say I don’t run into too many people who are writers or musicians who aren’t into their stuff, I think you sort of have to be. No one would do what we do for the amount of money we make if they weren’t all about the creative process (laughs).
LRI: The other songs I mentioned stand out to me musically but one that stands out lyrically in my mind is “Overrated” which is again delivered with a hint of aggression.
MN: “Overrated” is very much a bitch slap to popular music these days and mostly to Rolling Stone magazine putting “American Idol” winners on their covers which to me, says a lot. If you listen to the lyrics it just says “I’ve put my time in, it happened again, it looks like you’re gonna win” which is like saying okay, I’ve worked at this for years and years and this person gets on American Idol and there you go, it happens again, they’re a star just like that. It’s like “You’re overrated but you’re no better than I am, just better looking” and “You can only smile your way through” which is like, of course you’re going to get through the next round with such a pretty smile (laughs). You’re gonna get through life just based on that pretty smile.
LRI: Alice Cooper said something really intelligent on the news about how he’d like to just once see a show like American Idol that was based on songwriting or strength of original bands rather than who can sing the best cover or who’s cutest.
MN: I would ultimately like to have a competition like that which was judged by blind people or a radio show similar to American Idol where all you can judge them on is the voice and the song itself rather than the crap that show is. I think the outcomes of who would win would be a great deal different.
LRI: I wanted to ask you specifically about one more song. I know it’s coming out early in the year but I hope the album is remembered on all the top ten lists at the end of the year because there are so many strong tracks. They always say the first track should be one of the strongest of the bunch and the song “Rusted Hearts” certainly is. Is that kind of a salute to your band?
MN: That’s a tune about the power of music actually. “If I come crawling back to you would you take me as I am, would you play me for a fool?” I’ve seen a lot of people in my life who are like “Man, I’m giving up….when are you gonna give up doin this man?”. To me, as a musician or an artist if you are even thinking in terms like that, of some ultimate goal or landmark of fame that you set out to achieve by the time you are 35 or something then you are just a poser.
LRI: Speaking of landmarks, I wanted to ask you what you guys did for your parents recent wedding anniversary. 42 years is a long time for any marriage but it’s almost unheard of in the rock and roll world. Obviously you can’t celebrate the occasion by giving your dad a guitar since he owns every guitar known to man. Do you just bake a cake and smile?
MN: We just all got together for food and we cooked THEM dinner. All of us siblings got together and cooked them dinner and cleaned up so they didn’t have to lift a finger or do anything really. I think the biggest thing for them is that they were just happy to have all of us together. What do you get somebody that HAS everything? What do you get for someone who when he wants something just buys it on the spot? If I tried to tell the guy like “Hold off on that cause I think we’re gonna get you that for Christmas or something” he would never have it, he’d just have two (laughs).
LRI: We talked to Tod Howarth who played keyboards for a lot of years for Cheap Trick and he indicated that he really enjoyed getting to know you when you were younger and out on the road with them. There’s a book that came out recently called “How’s Your Dad” which chronicles the lives of a lot of the rock star kids who grow up on the road and have to adjust to that lifestyle and the pressure involved with being Jack Bruce’s kid or Alice Cooper’s kid. A lot of the stories are funny but some are just messed up. Do you think your parents tried to keep things as normal as possible for you growing up?
MN: Not really. I think people will say things like “I can’t believe your parents did this or that” and I think they all forget that at the end of the day my parents were just people. My dad was a normal guy from Rockford, Illinois who played music ever since he could remember and all of a sudden was becoming famous and making money and selling records and I think in many respects he was just trying to hold on for the ride at some points. I think thankfully we not only had some good folks but we also had some good folks around us you know? Some of the friends we had and some of the people in our lives really were there for us also. It’s Rockford man and you know how that is, people are just down to earth and there are plenty of good people no matter what. To say that they had the premeditated thought to say “Oh yeah, we’re going to keep our children away from that” or whatever was probably not the case. I think they just tried to do the best they could and react the best they could to whatever situation would come at them. I don’t think they really had any real drawn out plan or conscious effort and if there was then…..wow (laughs).
LRI: Rockford is so much a part of the identity of your dad but also you and your career. I always have to explain to people just how anonymous and working class the area is or that Cheap Trick is so much bigger in California or Chicago than in town here. I don’t think ANYONE is a big deal in Rockford including Cheap Trick….(laughs).
MN: No, they’re not. I also think that’s great. People that come into Rockford and try to act like a big deal are the ones who ended up getting thrown out of the bar on their ass. They just don’t put up with it and it’s because of the fact that most everyone you meet expects you to treat them like real people and most of them are real good people. I know that was my experience growing up and being a kid in town sneaking onto Sinissippi Golf Course and playing a few holes before being caught by a Forest Ranger who was like “Oh, I know where you live, just don’t tear up the ground and go home after a few, the course’s closed.” or riding up to Highcrest Lanes and being a dollar short on your cheeseburger and Tyler just lets you eat it and pay him the next time you’re in. Things like that are just indicative of how Rockford treats people as long as you don’t act like a big deal. On the rare occasion that someone tries to act like “Oh you’re Miles and you’re royalty or whatever” it’s just like “Really, I thought I was Miles who just got yelled at by the people at the YMCA for messing around on their basketball court..” (laughs). It is the definition of a “humbling” place by nature.
LRI: The gigs you have been involved with recently for the DREAM POLICE shows are obviously not the first time you’ve worked with Cheap Trick onstage. You and your brother Daxx have also worked with your dad in the studio on demos and things over the years but still…..did these symphony shows feel different?
MN: Yeah definitely as far as I’m aware and thinking of how I’m very much a part of the show and the sound of the DREAM POLICE stuff. To tell you the truth it was work you know? It was one of those things where Robin wasn’t expected to sing for the whole soundcheck so he would leave and the orchestra still had to be rehearsed and a lot of those rehearsals would fall on me. I would basically fill in for my dad and Robin in those rehearsals and sing lead and play lead guitar so it was WORK which made it feel great to get paid (laughs). For instance, I think I played guitar for about 6 and a half hours this past New Years Eve at the show in Florida. We did something like a four and a half hour soundcheck and rehearsal and then a 2 hour plus show. Daxx and I and actually Tom stayed for the entire duration of that day and it really is a lot of work but you can’t expect Robin to sing that much in a day because he’d have no voice by showtime.
LRI: Is it fair to say that your dad’s work ethic and those sessions in the studio working on sounds and setting up sound environments were as influential or more influential to you or Daxx than any individual songs in the catalog?
MN: Probably, yeah. I think the songwriting thing is something you just have to find on your own or develop on your own. Sometimes people will say things like “Oh, you write like your dad” or whatever and it’s funny because I don’t write anything like my dad. He’s got much more of a mad scientist approach than I do.
I think that those studio elements that you mentioned or even just talking to him as a member of the band like and asking well, why did you write “Hello There”?” and he goes “Well, we needed an opening song” or why did you write “Auf Weidersehen”? And he’s like “Well, we needed a NEW good night song.” or why did you write “Just Got Back”? “Well, of course we needed a new opening song” (laughs). I was just like “Wow, what a cool idea and way of looking at things, you base your songwriting on your needs for the live show…..how cool is that?” Those are things that I try to take from him and that’s sort of where we’re at now because we’re going to be doing a TON of shows this year and I’ve noticed that there’s a couple tunes where it’s like I find myself thinking “people love that tune, we need a couple more tunes like that to open the show” or we need something to really tie a bow on the ending or put a stamp on the end of the show.
LRI: That’s just another aspect of taking the performance and the overall career to a major league level don’t you think?
MN: Absolutely. I think I’ve been guilty of it in the past and many have been guilty of just simply going up there and without a proper game plan or show presentation. You can’t honestly expect people in a paying audience to really take that seriously.
LRI: Just kind of going through the motions and playing your songs to pay your bar tab?
MN: Or just simply playing to drink (laughs). People will be like “Hey let’s do a shot” and I’m thinking “During the show or after the show?” because after the show would be a much better idea. I’ve also heard people say things like “Well, I play much better when I drink”and it’s like “No you don’t actually, you just THINK you do”.
LRI: I hear that the Nielsen family entertainment legacy is truly secure because your DAUGHTER is already breathing down your neck and writing songs before making the leap out of elementary school. Does that blow your mind?
MN: It does. She’s pretty amazing. That actually blows my mind much more than anything I’ve ever written. I think the fact that I found I could procreate and that stuff actually works is also pretty amazing too but that girl is something else. It’s pretty wild that she wrote a song and that it just came out of the blue. I was like “Oh, you wrote a song, Ok” and of course I listened to it and was like “And you wrote a GOOD song, ok.” Now, of course, her whole thing is that there was a guy in Milwaukee who books shows for me and heard me on a radio station up there when I played her song on the air during an interview and jokingly said “Hey Miles, I’d like to book your daughter as well” so I told her that and she was like “Oh great….well, I’ve gotta write more songs because I can’t just get up there and play one song” so now she’s really adamant about writing more tunes. She said she’s just having trouble with the words so….
LRI: What’s going on with your soundtrack and film work? I heard the film score you were involved with for the movie “UNDEFEATED” was nominated for an Oscar.
MN: Yeah, that actually happened (laughs). Myself and Daniel James McMahon the Rusted Hearts guitar player and producer in my band did it together and my brother Daxx played drums on it and some of the other guys who appear on my record performed on that score as well. I had to cancel a show in Rockford actually so that we could make the trip out for the Oscars which is wild but I kind of downplay how much we have to do with all of it other than creating the music. It’s like a pretty cool opportunity to get out and also play some shows in L.A. so I figure what the heck, go with it and see what happens. I’m from Rockford which means you have to tend towards being pragmatic and opportunistic and this is definitely an opportunity for us.
LRI: You guys and your Van have definitely racked up some numbers on the odometer. You play pretty much whenever you can whether its a large festival or a small club. The environments can range from audiences that are really familiar with your stuff to places that are really quiet and unfamiliar, is that a challenge?
MN: It is but that’s kind of what’s fun. The quiet gigs are really challenging to a band.
LRI: I know you posted a clip on Facebook of people being the total opposite way and talking really loud over whoever’s in the room playing which is super annoying.
MN: It is. Yeah, that’s pretty much one of my biggest pet peeves when I go see someone live, having to struggle to hear over the top of everyone’s conversations. It’s really annoying and I just really don’t get it, like why would you pay to go out and engage in seeing someone play music live and totally just be oblivious to the performance. I know I’m not the only one who just finds that amazing and I can really say no more other than “Why are you DOING that???” (laughs).
LRI: Some would try and compensate by playing louder than the idiotic conversations and mingling.
MN: Not, me. I tend to do the exact opposite and make them struggle to listen by getting quieter and quieter so everyone in the room can hear them. “If you wanna talk rather than listen then I’m gonna make sure everyone can hear your story”.
LRI: Maybe you could mic them?
MN: (laughs). Perhaps.
LRI: The new material is pretty involved and has a lot going on with different instrumentation that lends kind of an almost ELO or Sgt. Pepper feel to it. I know you’re the principal songwriter but how important were the guys in the band in terms of what I’m hearing boom through the headphones?
MN: Oh very important John. On a scale of one to ten I’d say a solid nine with the tenth extra point going to our production and mastering team who did a fantastic job on their end.
LRI: It really lends itself to repeated listens BECAUSE of the fact that there are not only good songs but good production. I know some artists are concerned about doing too much, that it could be issue as far as pulling it off live. Are you guys worried that you’re going to have to invest in bigger vehicle just to lug around all the tympani and xylophones and instruments. Is this something you can translate live?
MN: Definitely and I’m not worried about it because I think that’s what’s so cool about working in the studio. You can make records solely to make records and play live solely to play live and those two entities can be different and cool in their own way. That’s what the recording studio and records are for, you can explore different things and at the same time there’s material on the new album which is much more sparse and there’s not nearly as much going on. You can have that freedom which is what’s so amazing. For the record though, we are always interested in upgrading from our van Blue but don’t tell him that.
LRI: There is a lyric on the new album that laments women holding doors for you. Does that really happen?
MN: Some have. Some have. I think that’s usually just when they’ve been out on the town and drinking in clubs and looking for someone to go home with but I’m not that guy (laughs).
LRI: I’d like to finish by playing a game of “OR’ if we have time. Axl or Slash?
MN: Oh Slash.
LRI: Analog or digital?
MN: That’s a trick question because the answer is Analog if I could afford it but my studio has digital so what can I say?
LRI: Ukelele or Xylophone?
MN: Oh..jeez. I’m gonna lean towards Xylophone.
LRI: Megadeth or Metallica?
MN: early Metallica hands down.
LRI: Leaf Lettuce or shred lettuce?
MN: Leaf lettuce for sure.
LRI: Loves Park or Central Park?
MN: I’m actually gonna go Loves Park on this one.
LRI: Conversion Van or Minivan? (keeping in mind there’s a lot of hot moms driving minivans)
MN: Definitely conversion van.
LRI: Spongebob or Squidward?
MN: Spongebob is my choice.
LRI: Taco Bell or Taco Johns?
MN: Ohh that’s a tough one there. If I could go with just one for the rest of my life I guess it would be Taco John’s just because of that apple bel grande thing.
LRI: Bed, Bath or Beyond?
MN: (long pause). Ahhhh…oh man…..I’m a fan of the bath.
LRI: Facebook or Twitter?
LRI: Triumph or Rush
MN: (laughs). RUSH!!