Where does one really start when writing of Bob Nanna? His influence has been felt on the indie rock scene for more than 15 years as a songwriter, frontman, guitarist, and drummer for the likes of Friction, Sky Corvair, Braid, Hey Mercedes, City On Film, and now his newest project, Certain People I Know. It’s this latest project, featuring Nanna’s songwriting and the drumming of former Braid/Hey Mercedes whiz Damon Atkinson, who will share a bill tonight, Feb. 13, with headliner and pop-punk darlings Smoking Popes at the Courtyard Café.
If you spent any time in Champaign-Urbana in the mid-to-late 1990s and you had an inkling of interest in the local music scene, then you knew Braid as a jaw-droppingly intense live band. They were one of a handful of pioneers who shifted emocore from its ’80s hardcore roots into pop-punk territory. Yet, unlike some of their pioneering peers, Braid never sacrificed their fervor or fierceness for the sake of a little melody. You could sing along to their songs, sure, but you did so with your fist punching the air.
Nanna, who fronted Braid along with Chris Broach, went on to greater national notoriety with Hey Mercedes around the turn of the century. He has since remained busy with a variety of musical projects, although his recording output has dropped off considerably from the torrid pace he set with Braid and Hey Mercedes. Smile Politely caught up with him via e-mail for the following exchange.
Smile Politely: Who is playing with you on Friday, and what can both seasoned veterans and newcomers to your music look forward to at the show?
Bob Nanna: The band Certain People I Know (pictured right) is myself, Damon Atkinson (Hey Mercedes/Braid), Lauren LoPiccolo (an occasional City On Film contributor), Jeff Dean (Four Star Alarm, The Bomb), and Matt Schussler (This is Me Smiling). It’s definitely rock music and that’s a good thing because it’s awkward to jump around with an acoustic guitar on stage … alone.
SP: Most people know you from Braid, Hey Mercedes, and the City On Film, and might not realize just how many other music projects you’ve been a huge part of over the years. Are there some that just really stand out as a rock-solid good time?
BN: Well, City On Film for sure, in that I was given freedom to tour at a moment’s notice and with little equipment … or if a band was needed, I always had friends willing to help out. … That was fun for me. I also simply sang for a while in a band called Orwell. Our shows were always sloppy and unorganized, but hey, it was fun.
SP: I know you’ve toured extensively over the past 15-plus years. How many live shows have you played altogether? And how many countries have you toured?
BN: Between Braid, Hey Mercedes, and City On Film, easily 1,000-plus shows. I kept track of the Braid and Hey Mercedes shows, but it will take some work to gather up the City on Film shows … or Sky Corvair, even tougher. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to all 50 states, Japan, Europe, Australia, and Singapore.
SP: What sort of work do you do at Threadless Tees? What neat things can we expect to see from Threadless in the months to come?
BN: I manage many of the promotions at Threadless, the “Loves design” challenges, e-mail marketing, band interviews, and general press relations. I get to do a lot of creative, fun stuff, so that’s important. So much is happening! In fact, on Monday something big is going down on one of our sister sites, but I didn’t just tell you that.
SP: I am so in love with your Never Ending Polaroid project (and, admittedly, bummed that I am not a part of it). The world needs to know about this. Give us a little of the history behind it, plus what you have been doing with NEP as of late.
BN: You are a part of it! And you’re coming up soon, too! It was just this joint idea that my friend Brian Shortall and I had on one of the first City On Film tours. We started taking Polaroids of Polaroids to see how far back we could see. We tacked it to our fridge and it lived there for about a year until we decided that it was a cool enough idea to get more people involved in, and for me to take it on tour. Now, I’m in the process of scanning and posting them all. I didn’t want to build a fancy Web site so I’m just posting ’em to Flickr and Facebook. That way people can enjoy it in their own spaces and comment or whathaveyou. There was a gallery showing of them last year at Threadless, so I decided to start it up again after a four-year pause! Hey, it’s never-ending!
SP: Who are your top five most influential songwriters, and why?
BN: Wow, that’s one of those questions you always hope to get asked, yet never do. And now that it’s been asked, I’m not sure how to answer! But here goes.
1. Blake Schwarzenbach
From the very first day I heard Jawbreaker’s “Equalized,” I was hooked. And it just kept getting better and better. I love the stark, brutal storytelling of his lyrics and that even translates into his newest Thorns of Life project. There’s a song called “My First Time” about losing his virginity and it has “Blake classic” written all over it. If I write just one song in my life that one person can like as much as I like “Chesterfield King,” then it’s all been worth it.
2. Bob Dylan
Again, there’s the storytelling aspect, but what I love about Dylan is this: it doesn’t matter if the song has to be 12 minutes long, he’s going to say everything he needs to say whether you like it or not.
3. J. Robbins
Even though I’m indebted to his skills as a vocalist and he is 100% responsible for a lot of the amazing harmonies on (Hey Mercedes’) Everynight Fire Works, it’s the way he marries practical, classic songwriting with interesting way-out-of-the-box guitar lines. “A Song With No Words” by Burning Airlines or “68” by Jawbox are perfect examples.
4. Will Oldham
Certainly on the solo singer/songwriter tip, he’s a huge influence. So much so that I actually have a Will Oldham tattoo. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from him it is that less can be more, and if you absolutely feel like you have to say something weird to get a point across, you have to do it. You have no choice.
There are many candidates for No. 5 but, haha, given that my new band is named after one of his songs, he won out! Aside from his lyrics and voice, if there’s one thing I take away from his work it is to never underestimate the power of a good, strong song title.
Certain People I Know play with Smoking Popes (headliner) and Light Pollution (opener) at the Courtyard Café tonight, Feb. 13, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students and $7 for the public. Smile Politely is giving away two pairs of tickets to the show. Enter to win here. Winners will be notified by 3 p.m. today.
Check back on Monday for our review of the concert.