On his previous two albums as Particle Kid, Micah Nelson either recorded songs by himself, or invited a loose, rotating crew of friends into the studio to help. But after touring heavily with his rhythm section, drummer Tony Peluso and bassist Jeff Smith, Nelson decided to record an album with his trio entirely live in only four days. The result is Window Rock, which combines contagious pop hooks with deeply dissonant psychedelia.
“This was the first time that I challenged myself to have a consistent sound throughout the record, and have the same band the whole record, and just get some mics up and just capture what we do,” says Nelson.
One example: “Radio Flyer,” an ominous stomper that Nelson calls “a big crunchy collage of brain sneezes.” The “Radio Flyer” video, which RS is debuting here, has the band rocking out in a giant ball pit.
The ball pit is located at Hopscotch Light and Sound in Austin, an art installation that Nelson immediately loved once he stepped inside. “Each piece there contained some element of nostalgia, at least for my generation,” he says. “The gigantic psychedelic color changing ball pit was the kicker for me.”
The song would sound right at home onstage with Neil Young and Promise of the Real, which Micah plays with when he’s not on tour with Particle Kid. Particle Kid also just completed a tour with the Flaming Lips and the Claypool Lennon Delirium. “The Lips are so much fun, and that’s what we’re about too: having a great time,” Nelson explains. “But our music is also sincere, and I think that’s something the Lips and their fans connect with more than anything.”
You said you wanted to include the fuck-ups on the new Particle Kid album. It seems like that approach, embracing mistakes, is a place that takes years to.
Well, for me it has taken years to feel confident enough in my playing to commit like that. It’s taken years of DIY recording, playing shows and making records and trying all these different ways of doing it and also kind of looking back at my favorite albums and just seeing how they were made. Playing with Neil for the past several years, I’ve grown I’ve learned a lot in that regard. He’s totally fearless and he’s not afraid to fuck up. He loves the looseness, the chaos. It’s part of his sound. You can hear people playing the music and that’s much more exciting than a perfectly polished record. I really get off on hearing the human fragility, the sound of humans playing instruments. Even if it’s one of the elements of the record and the rest of it is totally on a grid, it gives it a life. So I felt like it was time to approach record making in that way.
I basically just took what we did with Neil. We record live to a two-inch tape machine, and don’t do more than three takes. [With Neil], sometimes we don’t even know we’re recording, we’re just learning the song and that’s what ends up on the tape. There’s an incredible lesson in that process, of letting go and stepping back and getting out of your own way. Because we’re our own worst critics. If we try to control or overanalyze it too much, it kills the art. You run the risk of overthinking it way too early on to the point where you’re blocking out all the creative channels, and none of the happy accidents are allowed to occur.
When do you think popular music drifted so far away from embracing those happy accidents?
I mean, I have an idea: I think a lot of it has to do with everything becoming so corporate that, if you’re trying to get to that level, there’s so much corporate culture involved and that’s a very sterile, overly cautious approach that’s terrible for making great art. But to feed the good wolf here, we live in a time where we are in a creative utopia. Everyone has access to the tools they need to make a record for very little money and they can do it however they want to do it, so the sky’s the limit when it comes to creativity and making your music sound how you want it. But then to get it out there and to have it be accessed by people, that’s where the real struggle comes in. I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is it requires a lot more than just being a band these days.
What have you learned about how to survive as a rock band in 2019?
If you want to survive and keep growing, you have to branch out into all these other creative avenues. It’s pretty Wild West, and there are a lot of tools at our disposal at the consumer level. For instance, this new record, we did a pre-order of the vinyl. And we had this idea to have a signed postcard in the first 100 pre-orders of the record. Our label manager asked me, “What do you think about signing 100 postcards and doing a little design that could go on the back of each postcard printed? I said, “Cool, that’s a good idea,” then I got the postcard. The back of it was just blank. It felt silly after signing a few of them, there was all this empty space, so I just started doing doodles on each one. It was so inspiring, this new medium, I just kept going and got in this trance and pretty soon I had 30 individual fully fleshed-out individual paintings on each one of these. I thought, “These are not just autographs, they’re original paintings.” It’s something I like to do in my free time anyway. And the second I posted on social media that I have these original painted artworks you can get with the first 100 pre-orders of the vinyl, we sold out of them in two days. I don’t feel like I’m selling my soul doing this. And it attracts people to the music too and it all “constellates” together. I feel really lucky that I have that situation. These days, it requires a lot of thinking outside the box in terms of you can’t just be making music, you’ve got to be thinking of all these other ways.
How was your most recent tour with Neil? They were the first shows that Elliot was not there for. [Eliot Roberts, Young’s manager for decades, died in June.]
It was really powerful, some of the best shows we’ve every played. And it was hard. We were dedicated to Elliot. Every memory of Elliot that any of us can think of is a great memory: He’s laughing a lot, or screaming from the side stage, hollering and cheering during the show, encouraging us all the time. To honor him would be to just keep each other laughing, play the best music we possibly could, stay positive, and push Neil. Lift Neil up as high as we can with the music. And that’s what we did. And Elliot was there. I would see him out of the corner of my eye every now and then. It was wild. And a couple of the other guys said they experienced the same thing. It think it was one of our greatest tours.
What other Neil projects are you working on right now?
I’ll be working on the animated film for Trans, which is a record that Neil Young made in 1982 and he was sued by David Geffen for making it, because it wasn’t a country rock album. Neil was playing synthesizers and singing through a vocoder, and it was this incredible dystopian rock opera with characters and everything … It’s so good. He’s re-releasing it, and he asked me to do this animated film for it. And it’s an ambitious project, but it’s coming along and I’m gonna be working on that most of the rest of the year.
Do you think Neil and Promise of the Real will play Trans in its entirety?
I would love to do that. That’s up to Neil. This film and this re-release of Trans 2020 is a seminal project and Neil wants it to be its own thing. But there’s been little rumors about [us] digging out the vocoders and things like that [onstage], but it’s really hard to say. Even if Neil said yes, next week he might change his mind, so I can’t really say anything about that. I hope so, because I think it would be epic.
“Variac” is probably my favorite song on the new Particle Kid album, with that gorgeous, spooky piano part and all the atmospheric sounds that come in later. How did you write that one?
We were on tour with Neil in Europe, and I had just started playing this 70s analog synth, the Stringman. I needed something to practice on when we were on tour, so I got a small Nord. I just started playing that little descending chord progression. I kept playing it over and over again. And I just kept going. Over the next few weeks, it just developed into this song. That song, and a handful of others on the album, the band had barely even heard before recording. I think I played that one just once for them before we went into the studio, so it was all super fresh There are so many times that a soundcheck or rehearsal will sound so great, and then the take during the actual show isn’t as good, but that’s when it counts. So capturing the freshest, most raw take where no one is thinking too much or still kinda finding their part is the best take.
On the song “Stroboscopic Light,” you ask, “Have we ever not been living in a time of mass reflection?” What do you mean by that?
It was partially in response to the Arcade Fire song “Reflektor.” I really loved that record, and I guess I was just commenting on, because we have social media, the constant feedback loop of humanity, if you will, has accelerated immensely. There’s so much information that even our adult brains can’t process. We’re so over-saturated with it all the time. I’m kind of relating it to not just technology becoming a mirror, but technology is an extension of these more abstract concepts that we already had, whether it’s God, or any other concept of a feedback loop.
Is that a concept you see running through Window Rock?
I wouldn’t disagree with that. Pretty much all of the songs are very stream-of-consciousness. When I paint these postcards, I never know what it’s going to be, I just start going and flowing along with what feels right. I go with the feeling, even if it doesn’t make much sense. It’s kind of the David Byrne method, where you start singing whatever phonetically feels right, and find the closest words they sound to and form sentences.
Often that process is tapping into a deep subconscious mind that is the most honest place we can express from. So a lot of these songs are coming from that place, so even if I don’t fully understand, or can articulate exactly what they’re saying in a sentence. I guess I could try to write an essay about all of these to articulate it in English, but one of the things I love about painting and making music is it’s outside of the confines of writing. You can express more dimensions of whatever that sentiment is.
What do you want to accomplish in the next year?
We keep talking about doing a tribute to Seal. I don’t remember how it actually started. We did the last Electric Ghoul-Aid Acid Test, a Space Jam-themed event. We did a bunch of songs from Space Jam, including “Fly Like an Eagle.” We also did “Kiss From a Rose” by Seal, but Particle Kid style. And we’re like, “Man, Seal is so great, we should just do a tribute to Seal.” So I think that’s something that should happen in the next year. A Record Store Day thing, maybe.
I feel like he’s a genius and underappreciated, and people might think it’s an ironic, kind of hipster thing we’re doing. But we listen to Seal all the time. He’s like the male Björk. In the context of the early Nineties, he was doing stuff with his arrangements and productions were just really advanced and creative. Very catchy, but with a weird psychedelic twist to it.