NOMO coming home to the Blind Pig, with a new offshoot band in tow
For a few years, four of them lived in Chicago, one stayed in Michigan, and one was in New York. Now, the members have dispersed even more, with three of them in NY and three of them still in Chicago.
But NOMO is still here in spirit, and the group is still a favorite among local fans of progressive-jazz-funk-rock-world-music.And if that description of their music sounds like a mouthful, they’ve recently embarked down another path—one that resulted in several of them forming an offshoot band, which they’ve dubbed Wild Belle. In fact, when they come to the Blind Pig on Saturday, Wild Belle will do a set, followed by a NOMO set.
And they’ve also finished recording a Wild Belle album, even as they continue laying down tracks “for what seems like about four different NOMO albums at the same time,” jokes Elliott Bergman, the band’s leader and tenor sax player, and who also plays the kalimba (thumb piano).
The Wild Belle project started out when Bergman, who now lives in Brooklyn, began talking to Shawn Lee—a drummer and producer who’s on Ubiquity Records, the same label as NOMO—about creating some music based on electronic kalimba loops. Bergman sent him some loops, Lee picked one, added some funky drumming, bass and steel drums, and sent it back to Bergman.
Bergman then played it for his younger sister, Natalie Bergman—who in recent years has mostly been a student at the Berklee School of Music but who also often performed with the band, playing tambourine or some other percussion instrument.
“Natalie said, ‘Oh, this needs some vocals and a melody,’ and that night, she went up to her room, wrote the lyrics and melody, and recorded them, using the GarageBand software on her computer,” says Bergman by phone from Brooklyn.
The result, “Upside Down,” was released as a single in January, credited to NOMO and Lee. And when NOMO went out on tour with Iron & Wine, they sold copies of the single at the live shows.
“We really liked the result, and it was fun to have this new energy, with Natalie, who has really come into her own as a singer and songwriter,” says Bergman. “So we kept doing more of those, and she kept writing more lyrics and melodies. At first we thought it would be a tangent for NOMO, but then decided it should be this separate entity, Wild Belle, which includes me, Natalie and a few of the other guys from NOMO.”
Bergman describes Wild Belle’s music as “having more of a pop-song structure, compared to NOMO, with verses and choruses, but it still draws on the driving rhythms, and the horns, and the kalimba loops from NOMO’s music, as well as some reggae, and some high-life (South African) music—it has a pretty diverse sonic palette.”
As for the many new NOMO tracks the band has laid down, “we’ve recorded so much that it’s now a matter or organizing them into different camps, and deciding what kind of sound we want for the next album, and which pieces seem to cohere together the best.”
Both the Wild Belle album and the new NOMO album will be released next year, he says.
And after going through some personnel changes in 2008-09, the lineup has remained relatively stable for the last two years. Currently joining Bergman in NOMO are Dan Bennett on baritone sax, Erik Hall on guitar and drums, Quin Kirchner on drums and percussion, Justin Walter on trumpet and percussion, and Jamie Register on bass. Register is the lone new member since 2009, having replaced Jake Vinsell.
Bergman, the band’s primary composer, has been employing a different songwriting method recently, which will likely give the band’s new music some new textures and direction.
“I used to start with a kalimba loop, or a bass line, and then we’d build it up from there with the horns,” says Bergman. “But I got my hands on one of those vintage Roland TR 808 drum machines, from the 1980s, and I’ve been working with that a lot—starting out with a sequenced drum track. So I’m trying to figure out new ways to bring the synthetic and the organic sounds together, and layering different kinds of rhythms and textures.
“So, we’ll see if the electronic drum sequences stay in the mix, or if it’s just a jumping-off point into something new. I’ve been in ‘kalimba world’ for a while”—Bergman also builds kalimbas, in addition to playing them—“so it’s nice to bring in a different element.”
The Roland aside, whether it stays or not, NOMO’s music has continued to evolve.
The members knew, early on, when they were still students, that, even though they were receiving a formal education in jazz, they didn’t want to form a band that hewed to a straight-jazz idiom, like bebop or trad-jazz. The various members were also inspired by jazz-rock fusionists Weather Report, avant-jazz space travler Sun Ra, the German prog-rock group Can, and the Brazilian - Tropicalia artist Tom Ze. And then they began drawing on gamelan music, Afro-Beat and South Indian styles as well.
And now, 8 years down the road, the group’s sound continues to expand due to having played so many live shows. Bergman says that “the live experience is where NOMO’s music really lives. We don’t worry too much about getting the ‘official’ version down in the studio. The energy we create onstage is much different, and greater, than how it comes together in the studio.
“As a result of creating that energy, 100 shows a year, every year, I think the music is now much tougher, and more visceral, and more muscular, than it used to be, and more so than what you’ve heard on our past records.
“It’s also got more personality, and is more exuberant,” says Bergman, before adding, with a laugh: “And it’s definitely more freaked-out.”
Kevin Ransom is a free-lance writer and critic who covers music for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.