Bob Nastanovich has plenty of stories that he’ll gladly tell you. Want to know about how he played on albums by Will Oldham or Tall Dwarves? Sure. His time as a tour manager for bands like Huggy Bear and the Frogs? Absolutely. Want to know about the bands he’s been a member of, Pavement and Silver Jews? Totally. The guy who saw basically everything there was to see during the rise of indie rock will gladly talk to you about any of that stuff.
But get him started on the subject of horses, and that’s a whole other conversation. He really loves horses.
“When I was a boy, and I was living south of Richmond in Midlothian [Virginia], the elementary school I went to, the principal’s cousin owned Secretariat,” he recalls.
If you had any connection to the famous Triple Crown–winning horse in the State of Virginia, no matter how slight, Nastanovich says you let people know about it. “Plastered all over our elementary school were pictures of Secretariat,” he says. The famous horse, “was just some sorta like Pegasus who’s some equine hero, the likes of which we’d never come across. I remember that as a child. It made a huge impact on me as somebody that was raised in sport’s fan to the max.”
His love for horse racing didn’t really get fired up until he was 19. That’s when, in 1986, he successfully picked Bill Shoemaker riding Ferdinand to take home the Kentucky Derby, because no matter how much or little you cared about ponies racing around a track, you had to weigh in on the Derby. “At that point I was sorta hooked,” he says.
Nastanovich’s newfound obsession coincided with another important milestone in his life. When he wasn’t in school or taking two-and-a-half-hour drives with a mathematician friend who thought he could win big by using his math skills to pick winners, and another “who just wanted to have beers and bet on horses,” to the Charles Town track in West Virginia, he made friends with two people his name would go on to be forever linked with: Stephen Malkmus and David Berman.
What came next is legend that has been written and mythologized a million times over. The three would become tight, all move to Hoboken, New Jersey, together after college and record a bunch of really crude, lo-fi sounding songs. Malkmus went off and started Pavement with his childhood friend Scott Kannberg. Pavement would go on to become a generation-defining band. Berman, meanwhile, would start releasing records under the name Silver Jews, leading the press to believe it was just a lo-fi Pavement side project.
Nastanovich, meanwhile, was driving a New York City bus. He wasn’t in a full-time band, but he made sure that he always had time for the ponies.
“I started going every Saturday to Aqueduct and Belmont,“ he says. “Every opportunity I had, I’d actually park my transit bus in Manhattan and run into OTBs, and place bets for the entire day, and then follow the results on the radio. It was a good way to get me through the day. Sorta went well with bus driving.”
Eventually, Nastanovich would join his old college friend Malkmus in Pavement as the band started drawing in new fans and selling more records aided by an overly enthusiastic music press. A musical Swiss Army knife, he performed multiple live functions for the band from backing vocals to keyboard effects, before finally starting to record with the band on the 1992 Watery, Domestic EP.
Pavement started getting bigger, selling more records and playing to larger crowds. They weren’t making millions, but they were pulling in enough to live and put some money aside. Nastanovich saved up with the idea of someday owning horses, but at 26, he also had to think practically. He was now mostly living off the band, and New York City was too expensive for a person who lived life mostly on the road to buy a place. So in 1993, he purchased a house at 907 Central Avenue in Louisville, Kentucky. It was directly across the street from the mecca of thoroughbred racing, Churchill Downs.
“I thought about three or four different places I’d be willing to move in the U.S., and obviously Louisville was at the top of the list because of the racing,” he says. But it was after meeting Britt Walford of the band Slint when Walford was playing with Kim Deal’s new band the Breeders, and taking a trip to Walford’s hometown with fellow Pavement member Mark Ibold to the 1991 Breeders’ Cup, that Nastanovich says he was hooked on the city for its affordability and “its access to world class horse racing.” He moved there and “set up shop,” as he says. Living at first with Walford, Will Oldham and Jason Loewenstein from the band Sebadoh, it didn’t take long for Nastanovich to settle in and pick the house he wanted to buy.
While he admits that he’s a “very poor real-estate investor” who bought the house for $42,000, “and subsequently sold it for the same price,” the place he describes as a “cottage” quickly became a hub not just for members of local bands like Rodan, Rachel’s and Crain to hang out at, but for touring bands and people from the race track as well.
“It was the kind of a situation where if people were just kind of broke, got evicted or just for friends of mine just trying to save money for 90 days, to pay for musical projects,” Nastanovich says. “Or they got fired and their source of income was gone, they were always welcome to stay there. Whether it be for 30 days, or a hundred days. Yeah I’d say just pay me whatever, or put beer in the fridge. I think the most I ever charged anybody for rent would’ve been a hundred,” he says. “And we had a dog. He was one of those special dogs that he was smarter than all the rest of us. His name was Mr. Twinkles and he kinda ran the household. A Corgi. Just a fantastic dog.”
With the combination of musicians, late-night party people and Mr. Twinkles, “that house sort of had a reputation. If you went to the races, which a lot of people from the music scene did. I’d always have food made. And we’d always have beer in the fridge. It would just be a place to come and hang out and watch sports after the races.” One local described it as “kind of like indie rock Animal House.”
Kentucky Derby time, however, was a totally different story. There was no way you could live within spitting distance of the most famous racetrack on the planet and not throw a huge party. While the idea of indie-rock luminaries sipping mint juleps and wearing elaborate hats or seersucker suits that are normally associated with Derby parties is a funny mental image, Nastanovich had other plans. He just wanted to throw a party his friends would have fun at. It started out with just a handful of people, but then it grew.
“The word got out,” he says. People would come to town, and then they’d be looking for something to do after the Derby, before and after the races. And sort of the place to hatch your plans became my house. People came over, and it was really fun. They’d sorta stay put. If they figured there were cool bands to go see, they always would. They’d have a few drinks or eat. Just about every Derby of the 14 I was in that house I’d make a traditional stew called burgoo. Which is just a meat-and-vegetable stew. But I had a really old recipe.” Nastanovich says he got it from the 1949 cookbook Out of Kentucky Kitchens. He claims to have made around six gallons of it for the Derby.
“Britt would always say, ‘What do you have in that burgoo?'” he remembers. “I would say, ‘I dunno,’ and he would say, ‘Well, tell ’em you have, in that batch, you’ve got cat, bat, rat and frog, and in that one you’ve got cat, bat, rat and dog.”
The party even had a house drink.
“I’d special order this real spicy ginger ale from South Carolina, called Blenheim,” Nastanovich says. “Our house drink was bourbon and Maker’s and this real spicy ginger ale on the rocks. We’d just kind of serve it all up for free until it ran out. But mostly we didn’t have to worry about that cause there’s gas stations and such on the corner where people could add to the beer collection at all times. And it was just kind of a free for all. I remember waiting in line behind 10 people for my own bathroom.”
The party’s stature grew, and so did the list of guests that attended, including members of Pavement and Silver Jews, along with nearly every person from the local indie-rock community, and out-of-towners. Some people who spent time on Derby Day at Nastanovich’s house remember seeing David Yow of Jesus Lizard one year, while another swears they saw Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore there. While a look through Sonic Youth’s concert history doesn’t place them near Churchill Downs during Derby weekend in the early 1990s, it’s not far-fetched that the duo would have made the trip down since “Bull in The Heather,” a track off 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, got its name from a bumper sticker Nastanovich gifted the band. It’s also the name of a racehorse, the great son of 1986 Derby winner Ferdinand.
The problem with a great party is that, if you throw it enough – the way Nastanovich did – people start to find out about it. As he recalls, on the day of the big race, there’d be more than 15 people sleeping on his floor, and he couldn’t even name five of them.
Fitting nearly a hundred people into a house like that also meant that cleanup was hell.
“I’d find old cans and all kinds of,” he pauses, “memorabilia, shall we say. Three, four, five years old, would just turn up and stuff like that. Things would go missing in that house. It was just a little out of control. And it got to the point for me when I moved out of Louisville, moved to Nashville. After about a dozen years of it, I sorta had enough.”
Nastanovich left Louisvielle, but still had an invite to the yearly party he created in the house that was once his, but it wasn’t really the same anymore. He eventually got to start buying horses, but quickly found they weren’t the greatest investment.
“The biggest mistake I ever made was breeding them. You gotta be a millionaire to do that. I was trying to do that on the cheap, and you just can’t do that. So that cost me some money. Finally bred one decent horse, a filly called Hercilia, who ran out a lot of money. She won over $200,000, but I sold her for five like a fool.”
The party, however, still lives on. The new owner of the house just runs it differently. “He puts on a Zydeco band,” Nastanovich says. “He’s got banners and such. It’s basically a whole different turnover. The folks that I know that used to go, don’t really go anymore.”
And that includes Nastanovich.
After finally ending up in Des Moines, Iowa, Nastanovich still has his hand in horses – that’s something that will never change. He’s done everything from win (and lose) money betting, to owning, managing and chart calling. But his Derby Day parties are long behind him.
“It’s the kind of thing where I did Derby so hard, that I don’t really miss it,” he says. “Just like Pavement, or Silver Jews, it was great thing to do in your twenties, and a hard thing to do. I had a wonderful time in 2010 on the [Pavement] reunion, but it’s a lot easier to do that kind of thing in your twenties. The horse racing, and the Derby, living on 907 Central was a great way to go for your thirties.”