Sunday, November 27, 2016

Boomchucks Drummer Brad Nelson Talks About Life, Music and Duluth Dylan Fest

I met Brad Nelson through our mutual involvement with Duluth Dylan Fest. It's interesting how much we interact with people without really knowing them. I'd known of his former involvement with the Brewhouse, of course, and that he was the younger brother of Tim Nelson, former co-owner of the same (and several other local eating establishments) with Rod Raymond. I knew he was also a drummer with the Boomchucks, who annually changed their name to The Freewheelers to entertain during Duluth Dylan Fest. But when I learned recently about his involvement with the U.S. Olympic Skiing Team, I suddenly felt a desire to share his story, in part that I would myself learn more about this Director of Information & Propaganda and all things publicity for Duluth Does Dylan.

EN: Where did you and Tim grow up and how did you end up in Duluth?
Brad Nelson: We were born in Duluth. My dad is from here and my mom moved here to take a social work position. But we moved to Brainerd when I was six and we grew up there. My dad took a job teaching auto mechanics at the Brainerd Technical College. My parents bought a little farm where we kept a horse, rabbits, chickens, a dog and cat, and several veggie gardens.

EN: Were you both skiers?
BN: Yes, we are both skiers. I decided to join the ski team when I was in 7th grade and talked my brother into doing it with me. The sport ended up changing both of our lives. I still think of it as the most "punk rock" of sports because it's hard as can be, arguably the most physically demanding sport there is, but kids at school used to make fun of us, calling us "forest fairies" and stuff like that. Taking on that challenge made us the opposite of cool. I guess that fit me. 

EN: How did you come to be involved with the Duluth Dylan Fest committee? 
BN: Jamie (Ness), Jim Hall and I played a couple of the early Bob Dylan birthday parties, which were simple gatherings at a brewpub with birthday cake and us playing Dylan covers in the corner. I don't know why, but I approached the organizing committee and asked them for their thoughts about growing the event into a weeklong festival. It was just one of those things where I thought something should happen and seeing the idea come to life was the drive. Everyone on the committee was on board and the rest is history.

EN: You're also a drummer in the Boomchucks, with Jamie Ness. When did you take up drums and how did the Boomchucks get started?
BN: When Tim was in 7th grade and I was in 4th he asked for a drum kit for his birthday. He was gifted a beat up two-piece drum kit that changed our lives. We spent hours in our shared bedroom learning the beats to songs, just playing along. But we also started writing our own songs from the start and called ourselves The Apollo Rockers. We would write songs and put on concerts for our parents, sister, aunts, uncles, pets... anyone that would listen. I still remember some of the songs we wrote. At first Tim usually played the drums and I was the singer. But after a while we started taking turns.

I played the trumpet in the school band. Drums were something I enjoyed because they belonged completely to me. I didn't have to worry about being correct, I could just play. I still think of myself as more of a "musician" than a "drummer," if that makes any sense. I really care more about the song and how to breathe life into it than I do about being a technically great drummer. Of course those things overlap all over the place, but that's how I approach it.

I've known Jamie a long time, I think we met in 1999. We crossed paths musically a couple times early on, even though he was living in Minneapolis and starting to stand out in that scene as a City Pages "Picked to Click" artist. We recorded together for the first time on the first Duluth Does Dylan CD 15 years ago. In 2006, after Jamie had moved back to his hometown (Duluth). We somehow started talking about musical influences and decided we should play together. We sort of had in mind Johnny Cash "Live at Folsom Prison," lots of train beats, almost a punk-rock country sound. The collaboration has been important to me on a lot of levels. Jamie remains one of my most important friends and playing music with him has been a huge part of my life for the past decade.

Who have been the prime movers behind the Duluth Does Dylan CDs?
BN: Tim somehow came up with that idea as a way to document and market the Duluth music scene. Tom Fabjance jumped on board right away and the two worked together on it. That was 2001. They have consistently created a CD every five years since, for a total of four. I wrote the liner notes for the first CD as the publisher of the Ripsaw, Duluth's alt weekly at the time. I helped Tim and Tom more on the latest effort, "Bringing It All Back To Duluth Does Dylan."

Tom has been a huge but quiet influence on Duluth's music community. Few people realize he has a gold record as the engineer for the Smashing Pumpkins "Gish" record. He moved to Ashland to start his family and has since worked for Big Top Chautauqua, Trampled By Turtles, and many more. He's going out on the road with the Manhattan Transfer this winter. We're lucky to have him involved.

Midpoint, BOTT Express, "home" of the Freewheelers.*
Where did the idea for the Blood On The Tracks Express come from?
BN: When the Duluth Dylan Fest was coming up with ideas to extend the festival I stole the idea from previous chartered trains, like the Halloween "Terror Train." Creating a Dylan-themed train seemed like an ideal fit as trains loom large in Americana music—and Dylan's songs are no exception.

EN: Why is Dylan important to you personally?
I was weened on Americana music, it's just incredibly sentimental to me. My dad had an awesome record collection of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and stuff like that. Dylan wasn't played as much but it was around. As I started to grow beyond 80s punk rock and then 90s indie rock and was able to understand Dylan's music better, it occurred to me that he was as punk rock as they come only with less distortion. "Masters of War," for example, is a punch in the face. It just blew me away by how hard it was. But a lot of my Dylan discovery has been through playing his music with Jamie, listening to John Bushey's radio show "Highway 61 Revisited," and being a part of the Duluth Dylan Fest. Of course the more I've delved in the more important his music has become for different reasons at different times, like "Threw It All Away" a couple years back.

Besides being artistically inspiring, Dylan is a legend that was born where I was born, he drank the same water and breathed the same air. It's helpful to remember that everyone comes from somewhere. I hate the term "local musician" because it lowers the bar for the musician and the listener in terms of what's expected, like the audience should prepare to hear mediocrity. I guess Dylan turns the term "local musician" on its head in an inspiring way. I try to bring that mindset to everything I tackle, that it's possible to contribute to what's come before no matter who you are and where you come from.

* * * *
Thanks, Brad. May you stay forever young.

* One evening each year the Boomchucks perform as The Freewheelers during Duluth Dylan Fest.

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