An Interview with Les Nuby

Les Nuby has left his mark on some of the best records to come out of Birmingham recently.

Les Nuby has left his mark on some of the best records to come out of Birmingham recently.

Spend just one hour with Les Nuby and you will learn several things, the most important being that you should do your best to explore and discover every nook and cranny of Birmingham, especially when it comes to its vibrant, yet underrated music scene.

Nuby began playing music in his teens in the early 90s.  He split his time playing with the alternative rock outfit Verbena (which also included another musical Birmingham resident, Duquette Johnston) and exploring sonic territory with the other acts in the area.

“It was a good pick in 1991 and 1992 who wanted to play music.  I mean, there were a zilliion people, but it was like ‘I mesh well with three to five people.’  There were a ton of great musicians. It was good to have people a phone call away,” he recalls.  “That’s the beauty in a town like Birmingham.  You kind of know everybody.”

Birmingham’s scene during that period seems to have resembled Seattle’s alternative rock movement in the early 90s.  They were not trying to compete with the leaders of music such as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but forged ahead based on the underground music they came to know, love and obsess over.

“There weren’t too many people doing it or at least trying to play out as teenagers. Beyond that, there were a nice group of people trying to do the same thing at the same time,” Nuby says.  “It was an alternative rock thing influenced by what was underground at the time, which was everything from early Nirvana to Sonic Youth.  And there were a good number of bands like Swervedriver and My Bloody Valentine.  We wanted to sound that way in playing music. Recording music is a different beast.”

After ten years of playing in Verbena and continuing on in Vulture Whale, Nuby had a vision a few years ago to start a studio (and eventually a label) in the Birmingham area.

“About two years ago, I said that my job was going to be to engineer and produce records.  That’s what it was going to be. It was one of those liberating moments, but nothing was really different because I was always the guy in junior high who had a four-track, then a reel-to-reel eight-track recorder, and then some kind of HD software, then recording on computer and then finally ProTools,” he says.

Nuby says that he has stopped concentrating on writing in order to help produce the growing amount of artists in the city.

“Two years ago of drawing a line in the sand and saying this is what I do and what I’ve always done.  Now I’m not going to concentrate on writing as much as I am recording other people.  I think I’ve always had a good time facilitating other musicians and creating a good atmosphere for it as opposed to “I’m going to write the next ‘With or Without You.’  Pushing somebody to do something good musically became a lot more fun. If it’s not fun now, it’s not going to get fun,” he says.

Nuby’s projects at his studio, Ol Elegante, include such diverse artists as Beitthemeans, Christian Herring and Tru Blues, Wooden Wand, Jackie Lo and Saint Paul and the Broken Bones.

“I have this studio based in Homewood, but I’ll work anywhere. However, all the bands who’ve worked in the room at Ol Elegante in Homewood, there’s this certain vibe that comes out.  They’re not married sounds, they’re more cousinly.  Beitthemeans is just a great band.  Recording them taps into a certain part of my brain.  Verbena was a relatively heavy rock band and they have the same setup.  Being on the other side of the glass…it’s really to slip into that mindset of liking really heavy music. I mean, I like beautiful acoustic music as well.  It just taps into a different part of the brain,” he says.

That “different part of the brain” worked very well for the eclectic, yet incredibly enticing Wooden Wand record, which featured several Birmingham artists, a testament to the collaborative nature of the city.

“It ties in perfectly with how Birmingham has this amazing group of musicians and there is not this air of competition. On Wooden Wand recordings, you have members of Broken Letters, Delicate Cutters, Jody Nelson of Through The Sparks and then you have me playing a bunch of weird instruments.  In the middle of all this, you have this songwriter James Toth and literally between the three records that we have tracked now, all three of them sound dramatically different.  It can be pushed and pulled in so many directions,” Nuby says.

Nuby also spoke high praise of Christian Herring, a 16-year-old guitar prodigy who has already started playing at venues such as Workplay.

“I mean, it is luckily underrated. There’s always some new band of teenage kids who are just going to be amazing. And I recorded a bunch of teenagers a few weeks ago, Christian Herring and True Blues. That kid is 16 years old. He’s obviously influenced by Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix. He has a Strat and can do all of those tricks. What’s he going to be at 26? Maybe he’ll listen to My Bloody Valentine. He already has the chops. He and the drummer are already prodigies. It will be interesting to see where that goes. Birmingham really is an economically sound town for recording music and there is not always the pressures of a bigger city like Nashville or Atlanta or LA or New York,” he says.

Nuby is confident in the city of Birmingham and its ability to maintain a fantastic, thriving musical community.

“I think all of the music here and the music that comes out of my studio comes from all of the surroundings of a town similar to Portland, which has always been cool. The first time I went to Portland, it reminded me of Birmingham.  It’s because Birmingham has always had this chip on its shoulder that we’re not Atlanta.  We’re the other cool city that’s not as well-known.  We don’t have a major airport.  Just like Portland to Seattle.  It’s a smaller market with a longer gestation period and I think there’s a lot of things here musically that you don’t have to go away to find all of the bands that sound like you in a bigger city and that’s what Birmingham is good for and that’s the vibe I try to push for in the studio.  Yeah, you could record somewhere better or you could record somewhere worse.  I just want to be the place in Birmingham for everybody that’s not exclusive to anybody.  It’s like book the time and come and hopefully what we come up with will be special,” he says.

However, he does have some criticism for some of the scene.

“I’m sick of bands moving away. I’m 38 years old and had a pretty exciting time in music. I was in a band in my late teens and early twenties that was fairly successful.  We toured in a van, maxed out our credit cards and played as much as possible. Pre-internet and no cell phones. It wasn’t an all-out party. We had fun, but we had to work hard. It’s a lot of hard work to play 45 minutes to an hour every night. You better love the people you’re with and do the thing. There’s no guy showing up with a suitcase of money. Those days are gone and if you don’t invest in yourself, it’s not going to work. Why would you move somewhere more expensive to do it?” he says.

“Trust somebody locally to [produce your music]. Maybe they’re the guy or I’m the guy who records you for the rest of your life and you release it straight to Bandcamp or you get signed to a major label or an indie label or you make your own label. There is a way to do it without leaving town and we can make Birmingham a great town. We have great music, we have great art, we have a ton of amazing food and a ton of great magazines.  The cure for AIDS is going to found at UAB. What’s not to love about this town?  And it’s inexpensive. There’s a way to do the things here…why are you going to be nobody in a huge town when you can make a splash here?” he concludes.

About Chris K. Davidson

Chris K. Davidson is a contributing writer for You Hear This. He has written for Birmingham Box Set, AL.com, among others.

6 comments
AABrasfield
AABrasfield

I played harp on one track with Christian Herring at Ol Elegante and really enjoyed working with Les. Great article.