Feature: Elliot Bergman

Picture of Elliot Bergman

Interview by Marc Kets

Michigan's NOMO have been making waves with prominent taste-makers and record collectors the world over with their take on the afrobeat sound in the tradition of the foundations lay down by the likes of the great Fela Kuti and Francis Bebey. NOMO is based around a core of eight multi-instrumentalists lead by Elliot Bergman and comprising Erik Hall, Jamie Register, Dan Piccolo, Olman Piedra, Dan Bennett, Ingrid Racine and Justin Walter. After previous releases on Kindred Spirits and Ypsilanti Records they have now found a home on Ubiquity Records on which they released the superb ‘New Tones' - easily my album of 2006 - and on which they are set to drop their next album in the spring of 2008. They've already garnered plaudits from the likes of Urb who chose them as one of their coveted ‘Next 100' in 2005 as well as from the sadly defunct jazz bible Straight No Chaser who said, ‘If you're a fan of Antibalas, Daktaris, Tortoise, YNQ and post-Fela funkiness, then this should fit very nicely in your get-up-and-dance collection.' With a future that is looking increasingly bright and a schedule that is getting fuller by the passing day, band-leader Elliot Bergman kindly took the time to answer a few questions for us here at Basic Soul.

How did the band come together and where does the inspiration behind the music and the name come from?

The band came together towards the end of my time at the University of Michigan. There is a great jazz department in the music school, and so a lot of open-minded improvising musicians gravitate towards the school.I had been working with many of the players in NOMO in different contexts, and wanted to organize a large group that played dance music. Ann Arbor had great venues for experimental jazz and a community to support it, but I thought we could capture that open approach to improvising, and the searching quality that I love and put it over a groove. We needed a party.Many of us were living together in a house at the time and it was a great forum for checking out new music. We were all pretty enamored with afrobeat at the time, and we were checking out a lot of stuff from Fela, Ebenezer Obey, Francis Bebey, and a host of other music ranging from electric Miles, to Can to Javanese Gamelan music. We wanted to bring these elements together and do something that was uplifting, joyous, challenging and new.The name is slippery. I like that. Is it Yoruba? Greek? Japanese? English slang? An acronym? The ancient space gods of the Dogon people? A Gary Bartz tune that dispels bad spirits? I think it might have something to do with all of those.

How did you get to work with Warn Defever and how did he help to define the NOMO sound?

Warn has been a great friend of mine since we first worked together at his Brown Rice studio about 6 years ago. He has been instrumental in the development of the band and its sound. He is a constant source of inspiration both in the music that he makes, and the music that he has exposed us to. He's constantly feeding us mix tapes and rare musical finds that somehow filter into the sound that we are going for. So, in effect he is managing to "produce" the band long before we enter the studio. Once the recording process is underway, he always has a clear vision of how each instrument should sound both on its own and as it fits into the larger spectrum of the group sound.

What role did Sam Valenti IV have in getting your album signed to Ubiquity?

Sam was an intermediary between Ubiquity and NOMO. The Ghostly offices were about 100 yards from the old NOMO house, so I would pop in and bounce ideas off Sam, or get his opinion on certain ideas, tunes etc. He was really supportive once we had finished New Tones, and I think he felt compelled to help us find a good label home.  He really put in a good word for us with Andrew Jervis, and vouched for us on many levels. I think that Ubiquity was still making up their minds about us and Sam acted as a nice catalyst.

What was the difference in approach to your self-titled first album and the follow-up 'New Tones'?

The first record was recorded in two nights in Detroit. Warn had a studio on Woodward Avenue at the time, Brown Rice studio by night and Young Soul Rebel Records by day.  We had 15 people playing live in that room, and then we spent a couple of days mixing, and the album was done. Very little was added or changed from those initial live sessions, and I think that the spirit of those two nights was captured on tape in a really nice way. The sound is a bit more raw, but you can really get a sense of the feeling and sound of 15 people playing together in the room. New Tones combined large live sessions, with a bit more studio trickery. We spent a few days at United Sound in Detroit home to many Parliament and Funkadelic sessions, and then finished the record at Key Club in Benton Harbor. In between, there were numerous overdubbing sessions at our home studios, and we really tried to integrate a layer of electronic textures into the live sound. We had a bit more time to sit with the music and shape the way that it would sound on the disc.

How important is the live aspect to NOMO? How would you describe a NOMO show?

The live show is where people seem to really connect with the music. Records are great, but the experience is much more total when you are seeing a band live, there is a big visual element and also the physical element of movement. This is music that should make people move and it does, so I think people need to check out a show if they want to get the complete picture.

How do you go about writing music? Does it all come from an initial jam session?

Not really. Most of the time I come in with some ideas about how the song should go. A bass line and a drum beat, or a guitar part and a horn line, and we all try to play along. Everyone in the band is a great player and also a great listener, so a lot of the music can fall into place from these simple cells. After we get a sense of what it feels like to play a given groove, the music generally flows pretty easily and a new NOMO song is born pretty quickly. So maybe the answer to your question is yes?

You've said that you hoped that NOMO would envision a 'transcendent, elemental sound'. What do you mean by this?

The music should speak to people on multiple levels. I think that music is hugely powerful, and in ways that we don't always consciously understand. I hope that the music we play can lift people up emotionally or spiritually, but also connect with them in a physical way, rhythms that you can feel in your body.

You've also released records through Kindred Spirits. How do the records you release differ, if at all, for Ubiquity and Kindred Spirits?

Not in any intentional way. Kindred Spirits discovered our first album through Rich Medina a couple of years after it came out in the states, and then re-released 4 tracks from that record on a 12". We had already finished New Tones, and so the Kindred Spirits stuff came out right before New Tones did. It's funny because somehow, people didn't realize that the music was the same, and would review it again, or somehow listen to it in a different way.

What was the inspiration behind 'Better Than That'? You must have been honored to have been on the same release as the likes of Dwight Trible, Steve Reid and Francisco Mora Catlett.

It was really cool to be a part of that compilation, and quite an honor to have a track alongside some of our heroes. As far as inspiration...I love the 12-8 time signature, and always like to try to write in that meter. We wanted to get a really deep percussion section sound, and the horns are playing in a percussive manner as well. The stacatto repeated notes end up emphasizing rhythm over melody, and I like it when instruments switch roles - drummers playing melodically, woodwinds acting like drummers etc.

Tell us about some of the unique instrumentation that the band uses in its recordings.

Warn and I have built over a hundred mbira-like instruments in the past few years, and some of those end up on the record. Our new record, which should be out in spring of 2008 uses even more of these homemade instruments. We also have constructed a bunch of metallic percussion objects, that we then amplify, such as the electric saw-blade gamelan.

Why did you choose to cover Joanna Newsom's 'The Book of Right On'?

I love the song. She has such an amazing vocal approach and such a great way of playing the harp as well. I always felt like there was something kinda funky about this tune...it seemed like it could be done in a brass band styling, or even with a dance hall feel. It's the way she plays the bass notes on the harp. I thought it would be surprising and fun.

You've also covered Sun Ra on 'Rocket #9'. Why did you choose this particular Sun Ra track and were you worried that the hard-core Sun Ra fans would disapprove?

I think most Sun Ra fans have to be pretty open-minded, and the song has already been covered by a number of artists. It's a classic, and we thought it could use an update.

What does the future hold for NOMO?

We are finishing up our new record, and we'll hopefully be able to tour for a good portion of 2008. I'm hoping that we are able to spend more time in Europe this time around, but the financial strain of having such a large group makes it hard.

What influence does the work of the sadly departed Ali Farka Toure have in the NOMO sound?

His music is very close to me, and I love the endless feeling he gets. The music is so free, but so funky. I think that's something that we strive for, but I'm not sure how much you can emulate that sort of thing. He was a master.

At the same time as being Afrobeat you definitely have some avant-garde jazz leanings. How do the likes of Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane influence the band and could you see yourselves recording a jazz album in the future?

You mentioned several of my heroes. I don't see things as strictly afrobeat, or strictly jazz. The stylistic limitations implied by those terms are certainly not a part of our creative process. We're trying to make a music that doesn't hark back to the past, but moves forward. Maybe our roots are planted in the same soil?

What other projects are you involved in?

I play in Warn's group His Name is Alive, and we have just released two new albums. One is called Xmmer, and the other is a tribute to Marion Brown called Sweet Earth Flower. You should check them out!


Marc Kets, Feb 2008

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