Last of the Blacksmiths are one of the most talented and moving bands here in the Bay Area. Comprised of Nathan Wanta, Nigel Pavao and Bert Garibay, who play everything from mandolin to keys to guitar to drums, the band's sound rolls from The Band-like harmonies and depth to deep fried Southern- sounding funky interplay and heaviness. To check out their music, visit the band's Myspace page. Their latest record, Young Family Song, is available at Amoeba. I chatted with Nathan and Nigel recently about their visit to Levon Helm's farm, how Bikini Kill makes them cry, and the charm of a Wurlitzer.
Miss Ess: So, what have you been listening to lately?
NATHAN: Seems that this can change so drastically from day to day, but thinking of albums that I’ve listened to most in the past year or so, I’d say Allen Toussaint’s first three records probably win, followed by Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, the Amazing Visions Black Fiction cd that Bert gave me,Terry Allen’s Juarez, Candi Staton’s Candi, Clifford Coulter’s, East Side San Jose, and I can’t leave out Eugene McDaniel’s Outlaw. Was pretty obsessed with the song “Cherrystones” for a while.
NIGEL: I agree with Nathan, it changes all the time, but off the top of my head, Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label (compilation), Quasimoto The Unseen, Blonde Redhead 23, Curtis Mayfield Curtis, Portishead Third, Bill and Kim “their home recordings”, The Smiths…. I can go on forever. I’m at home a lot with my daughter and no matter what we’re doing we always have music on.
ME: What song or record reminds you of childhood?
NATHAN: Man, there are so many...So many classic rock songs bring me back to driving around with my Dad listening to the radio, all the tapes he had, and 80’s hits of the day. With the stuff from my Dad’s collection, it was Led Zeppelin III, seeing the cover, being blown away by “Immigrant Song.” Or if I hear a something like the verse melody for “I don’t want to lose your love tonight,” or something like that, there’s a memory of being struck by such a sweet melody.
NIGEL: When I hear John Lennon’s “Mind Games” I feel like a child again. It’s a powerful experience… love that song.
ME: There's a song from that album actually, "One Day (At A Time)," that reminds me of being about 12, a very specific time and place. I love it. When did you first pick up instruments?
NATHAN: My parents gave me a guitar for Christmas around age 5 or so, and a little Casio as well. I started up on guitar lessons again around 4th grade, but didn’t have the patience to stick with it until high school.
NIGEL: When I was 4 I got my first drum set, by the time I was 7 I was taking piano lessons. My folks didn’t want me to play guitar in fear of some “rock star mentality” or something. At the time I thought it was cruel, but now I’m thankful for all those years of piano lessons. I was able to pick up most instruments after that with some kind of understanding.
Same goes for me with piano lessons! How did you all come together and form your sound? What were your main influences?
NATHAN: Well, Nigel and I had been playing together in a louder indie rock band for a while, before this band started. Close to the time the other band ended, we started working on songs that we didn’t think we could play in that band, and personally, I started feeling more courageous about playing whatever kind of music that popped into my head.
NIGEL: Yeah, I guess it’s hard to say how we formed our sound. We had guitars and we knew we wanted to be a full band with piano, drums, and bass. I initially set out to buy a Fender Rhoads piano, but while I was playing one at this store, Emma [Nigel's wife] started playing this Wurlitzer they had hiding in the corner of the room. I was sold from that point on; then Nathan bought one too. I like the Rhoads sound too, but the Wurlitzer just sounded better on a wider variety of styles and songs. As a band I feel like our tastes and desires are constantly changing, but then our songs and sounds all end up sounding like us. I’m guessing that’s just natural. Maybe an outside perspective would say differently.
What is the band's songwriting process like?
NATHAN: Usually someone brings a song to the group, and then we work on it from there. Sometimes the person has really specific ideas of how the song should be, and other times, it ends up being a lot different then you would have expected. But that’s one of the main reasons for being in a band in the first place-- not only having your bandmates help realize a vision, but sometimes when they make the song better than that optimal recording you heard in your head.
What's your most prized piece of musical gear?
NATHAN: Definitely my old parlor guitar. Out of any possessions I have, no one thing really comes close. It’s probably because finding the “right” acoustic guitar is such a tough process, and once you find it, you never want to let it go. Same as a girl, I guess. I mean, my Wurlitzer would be my easy second, and I even enjoy playing it more, because I enjoy piano more, but there’s just something about that guitar…
What is your favorite local band besides yourselves?
NATHAN: I have several favorites, but overall El Capitan is probably my favorite band that I know of that’s still playing in San Francisco or anywhere. Ryan’s songs, the sincerity, the places they take you to, and those shows where the band takes you to that special place that’s harder and harder to come by as you get older...not every show, but those magic ones, where everything just falls into place.
What album do you absolutely love that you think more people should listen to?
NATHAN: If we're already on the subject of El Capitan, I may as well mention their last album, Stickeen. It’s not just that every song is good, or great, but I do often think while listening to it that if more people heard these songs they could have the people singing along at some show like the Bridge School Benefit or something like that. The song "Black Ice" is one I think any skateboarder would relate to, get a little misty-eyed from. If Bill Withers has the best Grandma song and Guy Clark has the best Grandpa song, El Capitan definitely has the best skateboarding song.
What record or song can make you cry?
NATHAN: There are several that come to mind, like the Guy Clark song I just mentioned, but the one that always seems to get me is “From Your Boy,” by the Queers. Just thinking of that sweet melody is starting to get me right now. So many memories that go along with the song, and the time.
NIGEL: The first song that comes to mind is “R.I.P.” by Bikini Kill. For me, that song feels so raw and real, it still gets me. But I think the lasting impact has a lot to do with my memory of first hearing that song and how it just tore me apart. There are others by Curtis Mayfield, The Smiths, and it all depends on the listening moment, but some artists really know how to stick it to you (anywhere on the emotional spectrum) and those artists often end up being my favorites.
Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?
NATHAN: Recently (and thankfully the obsession has died down in the last month), I’ve been a bit obsessed with Lionel Richie, but the more I listened to the whole record, and the more I thought of it, the less funny I started feeling about putting it on. I mean, that record is one of the first records I ever remember seeing, in the music aisle at the Payless Drugs in Tracy, right up there with Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Maybe it’s only fitting that I come to appreciate it after all these years and how many thousand albums that came in between.
NIGEL: Sometimes I get on a top 40 hip-hop kick and then after a while I’ll get bored of the mostly shallow content. Even though I’d agree that a big booty looks good on a woman, I just don’t know how many songs I need to hear talking about that. But some of the arrangements, singing, and sounds keep me interested for a while.
I have been unashamedly listening to a lot of Kenny Rogers lately! It's all about nostalgia. Speaking of old days, I know you guys got to go to Levon Helm's farm and swim and record there...can you retell the story of that experience here? When are you going back to record there?
NATHAN: It was pretty surreal, and when [we] talk about it, it seems that the consensus is that everyone’s still kinda in disbelief that it actually happened. Just going to the Ramble was an experience in itself. Seeing Levon play up close like that, and how when he hits his snare, the air seems to get sucked right out of the room. But really, if it wasn’t for Eva [Nathan's wife] having the nerve to go up to talk to him, we never would have been invited back to hang out the next day. That was the most surreal part, but the music was the highlight.
It would be nice to go back and record there, sure, but oh man, that would be expensive.
What is the best live show you have ever seen?
NATHAN: The one I think that will forever stand out in my mind, and I don’t know if it’s just something like a fairy tale at this point, but seeing Fugazi at the Trocoder in maybe '94 or '95 seems to be the one that left the biggest imprint. Just being a part of the energy that was created that night. It’s hard to explain. The ultimate combination of music and energy from the people surrounding you and leaving you feeling speechess.
NIGEL: Bjork in 1998 on her Homogenic tour.
You guys have opened for artists like Smog and Okkervil River, so who would be your dream headliner that you got to open up for?
NATHAN: Opening up for Smog was probably the neatest show we’ve gotten to open thus far. But if you’re asking who would be a dream person to open for, man, that’s tough to say. Maybe Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Then in the next part of the dream, he’d sing my grandpa’s song of ours, "Pick a Song."
NIGEL: I think it would great to play with Bjork, Yo La Tengo, Joel RL Phelps and the Downer Trio, or with Allen Toussaint. Like these artists, there are a bunch more that have inspired me that I’d love to play with. Lately I’ve been wanting to set up shows in “non-club-like” environments, no age groups excluded, somewhere you can set up the room, the feel, and run with it.
What has been your peak musical experience thus far?
NATHAN: Aside from the magic moments that I’ve experienced every once and a while at our shows, it’s probably just getting to play with these guys for so long. It’s a special thing, I’d say.
What has been your best find at Amoeba?
NATHAN: Anita Carter’s So Much Love probably takes it. Her records are so hard to find, and you never know what you might find in the Carter section at Amoeba. That record has become one of my favorites, and her voice, oh man… it’s hard to find one sweeter. It’s like your mom singing you to sleep when your sick as a kid.
NIGEL: Sarah Rogers.
Ai, you make me blush! What live dates do you have coming up?
NATHAN: The next one isn’t until October 6th, actually. Should be a neat show though, at 111 Minna. An art gallery show and benefit.
Thanks so much for your time!