30 years ago, twin brothers Matthew and Gunnar Nelson conquered radio and MTV with After The Rain, their debut album as Nelson. That they came from a family of music royalty might lead you to believe that the industry accepted them with open arms. But the reality was the brothers ended up succeeding in spite of a spate of obstacles thrown up, in part, because of who they were.
As Matthew Nelson told American Songwriter in a wide-ranging interview, the fact that he and Gunnar were Ricky Nelson’s sons and grandsons of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson created some natural skepticism about their qualifications. “It was almost as if it were a dinner,” Matthew recalls. “The fact that we were related to who were related to was the hors d’ouevre. And the main course was the opposite of what you would think. Everybody would talk about it and take a meeting, but people would just run away from it in terms of giving us a shot.”
“If I had a nickel for every time somebody was going to ‘teach us about reality’ or ‘show us what the real world was like.’ We really knew what the real world was like. Personally, we didn’t grow up in the Ozzie and Harriet household. Our parents had a world-record Hollywood divorce. Our Mom drank and our Dad was gone. Gunnar and I really wanted to play music professionally and starting working it when we were six and started playing in clubs when we were 12. We always laugh and say it was the world’s longest overnight success. Nobody would sign us because nobody wanted to be on the record for the failure.”
Despite their early start in the business, they had a hard time convincing anyone that they could sell records, at least until they followed some sage advice. “We focused on writing,” Matthew says. “Because our Dad’s producer, John Boylan, was the first guy to sit us down and say, ‘Listen, I gotta tell you the truth. It’s really about songs. It doesn’t matter what gear you play, how many people come to your shows, who you guys are. If you have great songs, people will listen to them. If you have bad songs, nobody is going to care.’ Gunnar and I really took that to heart.”
Things began to gel when Gunnar made the switch from behind the drum kit, learning guitar in record time to come out front with his brother. The pair hooked up with songwriter Marc Tanner and began demoing material until lightning struck. “I was in my house one day and Gunnar was in the other room getting a bowl of cereal,” Matthew remembers. “I started zoning out with the guitar in my hand and picking something, a little lick. And Gunnar came running in from the other room and said, ‘What is that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, man.’ I was zoning out looking at the picture of a girl in a magazine.”
“We called Mark Tanner and said, ‘You got to come over, we have something.’ Within an hour we had written ‘(Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection.’ We went right into the Green Room (recording studio) and recorded this thing and a couple of other tunes, one of which was ‘After The Rain,’ and we had our sound. Our sound was the two brothers singing. It was a little folky, very pop. You could definitely hear the harmonies and the California DNA in what we were doing. It was decidedly anti-blues and definitely fresh-sounding.”
But they still had to convince a record exec. John Kalodner of Geffen had been consulting the brothers on their careers. Against their managers’ advice, the brothers decided on an unusual way of pitching Kalodner their new material. “Without an appointment, we drove over to Geffen with our guitars, not even with a demo,” Matthew recalls. “I remember with Kalodner, he usually dressed all in white. If he was wearing any other color than white, we rescheduled the meeting, ‘cause we realized it didn’t matter how good the song was, he would shitcan it. We knew his thing, but we were so desperate, and we just felt like we had a hit song. We had our definitive ‘This is us’ song. We could handle it if we failed trying, but we couldn’t handle it if we failed by listening to idiots saying, ‘Oh, don’t do anything to upset the apple cart.’
“We went to the office on Sunset Boulevard, walked up to the secretary and said we needed to see John, which you just didn’t do because it was kind of like going to see the Wizard. Gunnar and I walked in with our guitars and he said, ‘You don’t have an appointment, what are you doing?’ We said, ‘John, just shut up and sit down. We have something to play for you.’ And we did and we played and sang ‘Love And Affection’ for him. And he didn’t really do anything, he just closed his eyes. When we were done, it was like a movie. He opened his eyes, he looked at Gunnar, he looked at me and he said, ‘That’s what I’ve been waiting on for two fucking years from you guys. I just wanted to see if you had the balls to do that, because I knew you were gonna need that for what they’re gonna put you through.’ He picked up the phone and he called business affairs and said, ‘The Nelson deal goes through.’
From there, Nelson still had to endure some false starts with label-assigned producers before convincing Geffen to trust their collaborator Tanner, who co-produced with David Thoener. “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection” shot to #1 in the summer of 1990, boosted by a ubiquitous video on MTV which gave the wider world their first look at the duo and their flowing golden tresses (“like hot Swedish chicks,” jokes Matthew about their looks.)
But it didn’t stop there, as hit after hit kept coming (four in the Top 30 in all) and the album soared to double-platinum status, which was vindication for the brothers after facing so many doubters. “We did get a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, they’ll never back it up,’ Matthew Nelson says. “I remember we had the #1 song and nobody would take us out on tour, because they didn’t think it was real. We came with ‘After The Rain’ and I insisted that there had to be some live component to the video. And it worked. The first time that we put tickets out on sale for a tour after ‘Love And Affection’ came out, nobody bought them. And that was a really uncomfortable feeling. And then when ‘After The Rain’ came out, we put tickets on sale and a run of 40 theaters sold out in five minutes. It just exploded.”
After The Rain had such legs, in fact, that it inadvertently sprinted into an era where it was suddenly no longer fashionable. “By that time, the tides had turned,” Matthew says. “Music had changed and there was a huge paradigm shift. MTV decided that they were going to do either grunge or hip hop, and anybody that wasn’t a part of that Seattle or New York thing was done.”
On top of that, the band lost support when their original attempt at a sophomore album didn’t fit the label’s plans. The momentum was already broken when they released Because They Can in 1995. But none of that dulls the impact of the debut. “I still have people that I either run into or hit me up on Cameo or something like that saying, ‘Hey, it was my first concert’ or ‘It was my first cassette,’” Matthew says. “What a cool time to be a rock and pop star. It was the dying gasp of the golden age of MTV, where that was the world’s biggest radio station. We had something in common with our Dad, in that he was probably one of the most important visual artists with his performances on Ozzie & Harriet, and we had a little run on MTV and dominated for a couple of years.”
These days, the brothers stay active as in-demand songwriters and performers. Their live shows are based on the music of their Dad. In the new year, they have plans for a country rock project called First Born Sons, as well as the potential release of a long-shelved Nelson album that Matthew says fits in with the contemporary pop scene quite well. As for After The Rain, the fact that they had to earn every bit of its success made it all the sweeter to the Nelson brothers.
“We never got that push that people get,” Matthew says. “It was fan-driven. Looking back, you might think it was huge, it was phenomenal. But we were paying for it. I can say we were one of those proverbial bands that came home after that 13-month tour more broke than when we left. However, we lived our wildest dreams. And if somebody said, ‘Hey, it’s going to cost you a million dollars, would do you this all over again?’ I’d say, ‘Hey, where do I sign?’”