There’s just something about the Detroit music scene that strikes a chord with Neil Nathan.
It’s not just one genre or era, either: Nathan, a New York-based singer/guitarist, digs Detroit rock, pop, R&B and soul from various decades. And his list of favorite acts includes legends (The Stooges, Alice Cooper) and contemporary names (Brendan Benson, The Go), plus artists who might not immediately come to mind when thinking about the Motor City’s music scene (such as Glenn Frey and Marshall Crenshaw).
Looking for a little “Midwest working-class grit and purity of soul without pretense,” Nathan recorded nearly all of The Distance Calls, his debut album (which follows a series of EPs), at Tempermill in Ferndale, Mich. Joining Nathan at the studio, which is about 12 miles from Detroit, was a cast of Motor City-area musicians recruited by producer Bobby Harlow of The Go.
“I just knew in my gut I could trust him with my stuff,” Nathan says of Harlow. “And I was really interested in totally immersing myself in the experience, ripping myself out of my daily existence and letting go of control in the studio.
“When he told me the backing band would consist of Kenny Tudrick and Joey Mazzola from the Detroit Cobras and John Krautner from The Go,” Nathan adds, “I nearly lost my cookies. It was such a treat to play with guys whose work I’ve respected for years — rock fantasy camp all the way.
“I’ve worked with lots of great New York City musicians, but [doing that] just wasn’t right for this record,” he says. “New York is filled with neurotic pretense and attitude; that’s what we do here. It’s the greatest city in the world — I ain’t knocking it — but I was taking a risk on this one and pushing myself to experience something new.”
But working with Harlow wasn’t a new experience for Nathan. They previously spent a few days together recording the two-song Nathan EP called Motor City Recordings; one of its songs, “Gone (Fly Away),” was featured in the film Descent (released in 2007 and starring his friend Rosario Dawson).
“I thought [Harlow and I] hit it off pretty well that weekend,” Nathan says, “and I sent him about 25 demos to check out to see if he might be interested in doing a full record together. He picked 14, and a year later, I was back, this time for 10 days.”
Aside from the acoustic cover of Electric Light Orchestra‘s “Do Ya” that opens the album and the bonus track “To You (A Happy Birthday Song),” the rest of The Distance Calls was recorded with Harlow at Tempermill.
Nathan says he and Harlow had numerous conversations about the vocal approach to the songs on The Distance Calls, which was released Aug. 24.
“That was a lot of fun for me,” Nathan says. “As a rock singer, Bobby knew what buttons to push and when to leave me to fish around on my own. On ‘Highways’ and ‘When the Rain Falls,’ that freedom worked well. On a tune like ‘Never Enough,’ I was just not finding it, so we had a loony pow-wow about the largesse of Marlon Brando and the New York cool of Lou Reed. It was hilarious, but it actually jogged something in me, and I found the tone immediately thereafter.”
In the end, destiny may have played a role in Nathan recording at Tempermill. On his first day there, Nathan, a longtime Detroit Tigers fan, noticed the studio had two seats from Tiger Stadium, the team’s former home.
“One of the seats had number 11 on it — my favorite number,” Nathan recalls. “That clinched it. I just knew I was meant to be there. I don’t know why. Just call me a new-age hippie-dippie, I guess.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Neil Nathan on tour (schedule subject to change):
* Sept. 17: P&G Bar — New York
* Sept. 25: North Star Bar — Philadelphia
* Nov. 9: Kenny’s Castaways — New York
Photo by Fabrizio Costantini