The Search For Geek: Nerds With Guitars
Errol is very social. He has been trying to find as many geek bands as possible hoping to make more friends. Join Debs & Errol as they interview a lot of geek musicians YOU should know about.
When Debs & Errol first started, Errol was so excited about performing that he wanted to find other geek bands to gig with. That search lead him to Nerds With Guitars. Errol didn’t scare them off and they have performed a number of times together.
Band Name: Nerds With Guitars
Members/Instruments: “Guitar” Sean May (lead electric / acoustic guitar, bass, egg shaker), Alex James (rhythm electric / acoustic guitar, bass, harmonica, kazoo)
Location: Toronto, Canada
Favourite Fandom: Star Trek (Alex), Videogames/Technology (Sean)
What are your geek origin stories?
Alex: It turns out eating olives and watching Star Trek: The Next Generation isn’t something most kids do. I don’t know if I got any powers out of it, but I know a hell of a lot about warp field geometry now.
Sean: I think that IS a power. And it might not have been a pastime for many 10 year olds, but it certainly was for me.
Alex: What, the olives too?
Sean: I’ve got an Italian uncle.
Alex: …in his trunk.
How did you two meet?
Alex: The same way most musicians meet. “I have a friend who’s also a musician. You guys would be best of friends based on that single criterion!”
Sean: That’s how a lot of crazy combinations come together… I mean, we’re kind of like the Spork of the alt-nerd-folk rock-comedy scene, all thanks to the… foresight(?) of my closest friend from high school, who happened to be dating one of Alex’s friends at the time.
Alex: We have his email address if you want to “thank” him.
Before you became Nerds with Guitars, you were actually a cover band. How did the move into musical nerdom come about?
Alex: Sean and I have been musicians (with delusions of being ‘professional’) for many years, and we come from diverse backgrounds.
Sean: And little talent.
Alex: So covers were an easy start.
Sean: We’ve both had legitimate projects, and things that we’ve been proud of, outside of the realm of comedy or general-nerdery.
Alex: Ah, the halcyon days of yore, when we were *real* musicians.
Sean: But like most “real-musicians”, it’s really hard to make a name for yourself, or leave a lasting impression on people; even when you’re not looking for fame or fortune, it’s hard enough to give away your work for free.
Alex: But that process becomes markedly easier when you’re giving away other people’s work for free. Just ask the people who make GLEE.
Sean: Indeed. So the nerd-quotient of the band was always there. Some of our songs are now many, many years old, at this point. What has really changed is the ratio of time we’ve devoted to playing nerd-tunes, versus playing covers, or playing more serious stuff. Part of that is due to how much we love being our geeky selves, and part of it is due to the depressing reality of making it as “legitimate musicians”, but the upshot is that there’s plenty of nerd-love for all.
Tell us about your songwriting process. Who wears the pants?
Alex: We don’t typically wear pants while writing. Seriously – for the first few years we were writing together it was all done remotely because Sean lived in Port Perry and I lived everywhere from Bradford to Toronto to Dallas, Texas.
Sean: Thankfully, we didn’t use webcams while writing, either.
And to our geek credit, a lot of the early stuff was done (or otherwise collaboratively-polished) during the very beta days of what would eventually become Google Docs (which is now rolling up into Google Drive). So we (I) really do go geek, in regard to our processes.
Alex: Ultimately it’s a pretty evenly-divided process. Many of our ideas are borne of Sean’s deeply bent pseudo-conscious, where “wouldn’t it be funny if” has a home. Then I figure out how to make “wouldn’t it be funny” into “this has to sort of rhyme and have a bit of structure”, Sean comes up with musical arrangements to make it sound pretty, and then we fill in our trademark banter as we go.
Sean: That’s largely the extent of it; I’ll say something stupid, Alex will run with it, I’ll help clean up punchlines… I’ll write a melody and a progression and Alex will make it sound good, and then we polish…
…off a bottle of whiskey…
…and then practice a lot.
Alex: I was going to say. “Polish” is one of those terms that can be taken wildly out of context, and there are enough rumors circulating about us as it is.
Sean: For the record: neither of us are from Poland, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Which song is your personal favourite?
Alex: Anything that works with a crowd makes me all kinds of happy, and honestly that depends on the crowd. Serious gamers of a certain age love “Hero” (in fact that seems to be our most popular tune to date) but Sympathy for the Daleks is just so darned catchy it seems to get a lot of one-ups too. My favorite song is the one people cheered the most for at the end of the night.
Sean: I think my favourite song is always the one which is never quite done. I remember falling in love with the first NwG song we wrote (“Princess”), while coming up with arrangement ideas for it. Originally, I thought it would be a Steve Cropper/Otis Redding “Dock of the Bay” type sound, which never happened, and it went a different route, instead. But there’s a quirky, jazzy little harmony in there that I forced Alex to learn (and forced myself to not screw up), during the second verse. Similarly, some of the rhythmic delivery of Hero, where the music-nerds might point out that “suck on this vein” is part of a tuplet… …or where we “GLEE”d Trent Reznor (out of love and respect, so I guess that’s the opposite of GLEE?) at the end of Sympathy for the Daleks, or how Love in the Basement manically “devolves”(?) in the character’s head, until it ends up sounding almost like a Donovan tune by the end. I have a love affair with all of that little stuff which nobody cares about, more than for any song in particular. Maybe that’s a copout, but I’m more drawn to ideas and ideals and the details of any particular thing, rather than being drawn to anything as a “whole”, I think.
You released your first EP, “For the Record” last April. Why did you make us wait so long?
Sean: You know how it is…anticipation just makes the payoff that much more mind-blowing…
It certainly had nothing to do with starving-artistry or day-jobs. We just like making people wait for our songs, written to poke fun of our favourite pastimes (and occasionally, the people who love them). I guess that just makes us a couple of mock-teases.
Alex: And with that, let us never use the term “mock-tease” again. We had originally intended to do an entire full-length album, but what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it meant prohibitive expenses, and we were running out of time because Sean was getting married and my son was slated to be born in March. So we ran a Kickstarter campaign that raised a remarkable $2500 at the worst time of year to ask for money (December), but since we didn’t hit our goal, Kickstarter gave us not a thing. Thankfully, our exceptional producer Theo Posthumus agreed to meet us halfway and do a 3-song EP at a very reasonable, almost criminal price, because he recognized that I would have to take some time off from the band once the little guy was born and he wanted us to have something to release in the interim. He’s a great guy, and very talented – we got it done in one marathon session over the last weekend of February 2012. Of course, we were running on the “get Alex home so he doesn’t miss the birth of his child” contingency plan, because my partner was so close to her due date. It was a great time, and that recording session alone could be the topic of its own interview.
You went to Hollywood last October to shoot a music video for “Hero”. Can you tell us more about that?
Sean: I can tell you that as far as failed Kickstarter drives go, this was one awesome outcome, half a year later. I can also tell you that while it’s still being polished, it’s coming soon, and it was an absolute blast to make.
Alex: We actually just found out last night that we’re well on our way…after our poor director finishes going through the almost 30 hours of footage. That’s too much of us in anybody’s language.
Sean: I can ALSO tell you that every single person on the project, from the casting director, to the director, to the producer, the stage-hands, makeup-artist, the personal-assistant and junior-PA, PLUS all of the people who came out, dressed in costume and prepared to be unprepared for the 10-hour day of improvised shooting… …every single one of them was INCREDIBLE. It was not the Hollywood reception we were anticipating.
Alex: I was a bit floored when the casting director told me this was the most challenging video he’s had to cast since – and I’m not kidding – “Losing My Religion”.
Sean: I can ALSO tell you that this was all thanks to:
- Cindi Rice of Epic Level for finding us on Kickstarter, and agreeing to produce us
- Steven Goldmann of Collective Films for directing, doing much of the editing, and putting together an amazing team of people who all somehow agreed to work leagues under their paygrade…
- Stephen Snyder, the ultimate music-video casting-director and acting-coach who found all of the absolutely incredible talent to make up for all of the talent we don’t have…
- …and the awesome team of people at Red 5, makers of the Firefall MMO (get your beta access now), who agreed to pay for all of this to happen
Alex: There are many stories from that weekend – like our experiences recording “For The Record” we could do a whole interview just on that. But suffice to say we were fortunate enough to work with what appeared to be every single hardworking, honest, friendly individual in Hollywood.
Most memorable gig?
Sean: Memorably-bad? Just before Christmas a couple of years ago. I sounded like Tim Armstrong; covering “Ruby Soho” or “Timebomb” would have been perfect for me. Instead, I was stuck attempting to squawk out smooth harmonies for the other guy who was just starting to get over a chest-cold.
Alex: Yeah, that was dreadful. Our buddy Dan Wolovick, who does promotion over at Rancho Relaxo, asked us to do this pre-Christmas show, and we weren’t about to back out two days before the gig, so we powered through it and cut the set short because I sounded like somebody was repeatedly kicking Billy Corgan in the throat and nuts, respectively. Thankfully, our manful attempt at professionalism didn’t go unnoticed and Dan gave us kudos for not ditching the show. He’s even hired us since, that poor masochist.
Sean: Memorably-good? The Questies the summer thereafter. Meeting the minds (and the musician) behind Kirby Krackle was awesome. Playing with Kyle was fantastic fun. Getting riffed on by Ed the Sock, after our set was enough to complete that nerdgasmic experience.
Alex: The Questies was a good time… for those who don’t know it’s a Fan Expo event put on by Kat Curtis from Naked News and the guys from the Watchtower Podcast (if you listen to the ‘cast you’ll get why the name is funny). Kat asked us to perform and I wound up helping her plan the event, so I knew it was going to be a good time going in, but definitely the highlight of the year was playing with Kyle (he and his bandmate Jim are two of the nicest guys in the business, hands down) and having Ed do a mini-Fromage about our performance (that’s how you know you’ve made it in Canadian music if you’re from a certain generation)[Sean: the right generation]. He and his partner-in-crime Liana K actually approached us after the show and told us how much they liked it, which was almost even better.
Most memorable interaction with a listener/fan?
Sean: I’m never going to forget “all of our fan” in Cuba. He wasn’t even a fan of Nerds with Guitars, per se.
Cutting a very long(/-winded) story short, Alex and I were in Cuba for a wedding, right around the time we were writing our first NwG material (I was best-man and he was maid of honour… no kidding).
Alex: Man of honour. Come on. Incidentally the couple getting married were the guy who introduced us and my friend who became his wife. Serendipity, no?
Sean: One of the Cuban bartenders recognized us from YouTube videos, posted of us playing covers of Tragically Hip / 54-40 songs, recorded whilst performing at my roommate’s then mildly-infamous house parties. He wanted to know what Canadians listened to, when they were at home, and instead, he found us… …and recognized us months later. We were internationally-renowned before we ever played our nerd-material in a public venue, and to this day he is still “all our fan” in Cuba, and I guess it makes him the ultimate hipster.
Alex: I damn near broke my neck running back down to the beach to tell everybody we were “famous”.
What will 2013 bring for Nerds with Guitars?
Sean: A lot of fun, for sure. We’re going to see that video happen. I’m personally excited to feel like I’ve made it as a Canadian indie-rock artist of the mid-’90s, with a very indie “meta-concept of a concept” video.
Alex: Yup, us and the Crash Test Dummies.
Sean: Likewise, we’re going to try to get back into the studio, toward the end of the year. The EP was called “For the Record” for a reason, so hopefully 2013 will see the completion of our first proper album: “This is What You Get for Stealing Our Lunch Money”
Alex: We’ve already been in talks with some people we know as well as our globe-trotting producer who is currently busking and dishwashing his way across the Australian Outback with his lovely wife – he promises to return to do our album, which is good, because he’s always our first choice. Look forward to an album full of old favourites and new classics (new classics?) with a full band. Like we were proper musicians or something.
Sean: We’re really excited at the prospect of playing with our friends, Kirby Krackle, on their home-turf, for Emerald City Comic Con. The prospect of opening for such amazing acts on that bill is a little daunting.
Alex: ECCC is going to be a bit of a trip…we’re playing on a bill with Kirby (obviously) but also some of the biggest names in nerd rock including the Doubleclicks and Paul and Storm (best known for their regular appearances as the opening band for Jonathan Coulton).
Sean: We’re opening for THE openers.
Alex: Frankly I don’t know how we’re even on this bill, other than Kyle must feel sorry for us. He’s like the Mother Teresa of nerd rock.
Sean: Also daunting is the prospect of being in close-proximity to Patrick Stewart and Gillian Anderson, that weekend, without being arrested on charges of “Drooling Fanboyism” and “General Creepiness”.
Alex: If I play on that bill and then meet Sir Patrick on top of it, I think I’ll just fall on my sword, because it’s not going to get better than that.
…wait. If I do that, my wife will kill me.
Sean: Well, she’d need a Druid with Rebirth, first. I suppose a Shaman with Ancestral Spirit would do, if we were done with the events we were a part of.
Alex: Or, you know, rage. Just her rage would probably do it.
Sean: Bring you back from the dead to kill you?
Alex: Among other, less pleasant things.
Sean: Hooray for less-pleasantries.
Nerds With Guitars is the unholy love child borne from the dangerously fertile collective womb of tech-nerd / guitar wizard “Guitar” Sean May, and lit-nerd / geek-chic frontman Alex James.
N.W.G. is here to save the day with eclectic songs ranging from robots and Sith lords to bad fashion choices and revenge best served hot. These Nerd Folk Prophets deliver the good word of Nerd to the masses!
You can find them on Twitter, on their Facebook page, and their website: http://nerdswithguitars.ca. Their latest EP is also available on Bandcamp.
Still not enough? Check out their Kickstarter Video:
I have to say, I’m really impressed with the details of this interview. What a great article. I know way more about these guys than I ever did before. I say “Nicely done!” to all involved.
Huzzah! We fueled the stalkage! 😀
Great interview! I had the music playing in the background while I read it.. and then I got the album. XD Good stuff! I have a friend who’s Dalek obsessed that would love ‘Sympathy for the Daleks’
Huzzah! Our job here is DONE! 😀
*Immediately finds a version of Hero on youtube to listen to* From my perspective I prefer Hero over Sympathy because it goes into the driving riffs from the start, and keeps the momentum up from there…
Personally, I like anything to do with Lucasarts. 😀
Nice interview. All interviews should be simultaneously informative and hilarious, of course.
Of course! 😀
The responses to our really silly interview answers are nothing if not extremely heartening! eHermit: thanks for sticking around for the whole long, drawn-out thing (our fault, not D&E). Jezebel: I can only assume you’re the same Jezebel who just followed us on G+ and for that we are eternally in your debt. Well, mostly eternally…we don’t expect to live that long. Mercenary Pen: thanks! Hero seems to be a big favourite, though it’s funny because according to our wives it’s our least-strong song. To be fair, neither of them are fans of early 90s grunge (which was the joke from the beginning…we were going for a real Seattle feel).
Thanks to all for your delightful comments. We’ll try to live up to it in the future.
Alex, Frontman with Charisma
Nerds With Guitars
Cool! It’d be awesome to hear some of the crazy extended versions of some of these stories! Congrats on the gig! I would tell you to hug Patrick Stewart and tell him he’s sexy for me but…I don’t want you to get arrested.
Ah, so this is what Jez texted me about! Very cool. Awesome, guys!