Wrong Place, Right Time
The Nevers get signed.
By Grant Alden
MARCH 30, 1998: Such nice young men, wearing suits and ties and pressed white shirts, but did anybody think to tell the Nevers that Music City is exactly the wrong place to ferment a band?
Evidently not. Exactly one year after their 1997 debut at the NEA Extravaganza--all springy knees, dapper suits, and fast songs--the Nevers joined the small legion of acts signed to the rejuvenated Sire imprint. New labelmate Tim Carroll says Nashville's a five-year town; the Nevers did it in one.
That would be the exception that proves some kind of unwritten rule, for astonishingly few local bands take the stages in Nashville. I'm talking real bands--groups of musicians committed to the collective expression of their vision, not a roving cast of supporting players backing a songwriter for the night's gig. There's a huge difference. The dominance of the studio player on Music Row has established an odd aesthetic. Live music has become less important, somehow, than what might be crafted in a state-of-the-art studio, and this trend permeates even the city's modest rock scene.
The trick for the Nevers, however, is that leader John Paul Keith accidentally imported his mates (Rick Tiller on rhythm guitar, Paul Noe on bass, Dave Jenkins on drums) from down Knoxville way, and they got signed before the infection could set in. The rhythm section had played in the final incarnation of the Judybats, while Keith was a founding member of the V-Roys (né Viceroys).
"I knew a couple people here from when I was in the Viceroys," Keith explains one afternoon over coffee. "I didn't really know anybody in, say, Atlanta or somewhere else. I definitely didn't know anybody in New York or L.A., so it was the obvious move. I was born in Knoxville, I've never lived anywhere else, and I didn't want to get too far from the umbilical cord yet."
Jenkins and Noe were playing in a post-Judybats outfit called the Doubter's Club. "Rick and I weren't in a band, but we had been planning to form a band if we could find a bass player and drummer. It just came up one time when I ran into Paul and Dave, and they were thinking about moving too, so we agreed to get a house so that our bands would have a place to practice and whatnot. The rest of the guys that were in the Doubter's Club didn't move, so it ended up we just started playing."
Judybats manager Dennis Oppenheimer had flown in from Washington, D.C., during last year's Extravaganza to see the Doubter's Club and stumbled on the Nevers. Hard to miss them in those suits, playing that ebullient pop. That, and the eight-track studio Jenkins installed in the basement of the band's Nashville home, gave them an edge. Mostly, though, the Nevers' edge comes from their songwriter and youngest member, John Paul Keith, and his fascination with mid-'60s British Invasion pop: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, and especially mod-period Who. Hence the suits.
"We had a picture before we had a show," chuckles Keith. "You go see a band, and they look like they just got out of bed. I'm sorry, I'm just old-school showbiz. I like the lights and some aura of presentation. I like entertainment. I mean, my favorite performer is Jerry Lewis, and he's the biggest showoff ever."
Make no mistake, the Nevers are Keith's band, and they're playing his songs. But they are still very much a band, not a hired supporting cast. "Well, those guys are older than me, and they make sure I don't get carried away with anything," Keith says. "It doesn't even cross my mind that there's any sort of power structure. I think [writing all the songs] is a weight off their shoulders so they can focus more on arrangement and the actual playing of it, which I think is their forte."
Whatever works. The Nevers play a particularly limber sort of garage pop, delivered punk-rock short and fast, festooned with crunchy pop nuggets. And though there are fragments of a garage-rock scene in Tennessee (particularly in Memphis), Keith proves oblivious to the existence of a far-flung garage-rock underground emanating from the West Coast. He blinks, draws upon his post-high-school education in assorted used-record shops, and draws a blank: Never heard of Estrus Records, nor the exquisitely named Sympathy for the Record Industry label, nor the Makers, the Mono Men, or Japanese garage icons like Guitar Wolf and the 5,6,7,8's. Never heard any of it.
"I have no idea," he laughs. "The scene I came out of was in Knoxville. It was the Viceroys, R.B. Morris, this band called the Holy Ghosts that were doing this kind of thing, Shinola, the Dirt Clods. The most rocking thing in Knoxville was Superdrag."
He's not interested in some obscure West Coast retro subculture--even though the Nevers' thin-lapel suits and three-minute songs could fit right in. No, Keith has his eyes on the great Satan of popular music: radio.
"I think if you put our music on the radio, it'll work," he says. "I mean, I listen to radio music. I listen to Motown, Stax, the Beatles. I like three-minute songs with a hook that rock. And I think we have that. It's not like it's difficult to understand or cerebral or anything like that. Those elements might be there, maybe if you pay a lot of attention to it, but I just like singles."
Of course, the best of Motown, Stax, and the Beatles is played on oldies radio. The songs were all cut long before John Paul Keith was even born. But anybody crazy enough to move to Nashville to start a rock band--and to pull it off--well, maybe he's onto something.
"It's kinda ridiculous," he admits. "Why did we move to Nashville? We moved to Nashville to drive farther to New York." It is suggested that Nashville is equidistant, by car, from New York and Austin. He brightens. "That's sort of the Nevers--somewhere between Austin and New York City."
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