The first of two excellent interviews conducted ten years apart. Part 1 is from way back now in 2010 and in Part 2, tomorrow, you can read a brand new continuation of that interview done this month. DV
Texas based singer, songwriter, musician and producer Salim Nourallah has long been a favourite with lovers of top class gravitas pop both Stateside and on the continent. He has remained relatively unknown in this country except by those willing to search below the radar for their listening sustenance. Over the last few years he has released a quartet of beautiful albums awash with perfect melodies, glorious pop harmonies and intelligent emotive songs wrapped in breathless and passionate musical invention.
An output that effortlessly puts him firmly alongside the likes of Jason Falkner, Michael Penn, Philip B Price and other purveyors of such high end creativity. Recent years have also seen the growth of Pleasantry Lane recording studios from its humble garage beginnings to become a studio of choice in Dallas. It is owned and is operated by Salim and his long term friend Rip Rowan. With the release of his last album, Constellation, garnering such critical acclaim and Rhett Miller and The Old 97’s calling on his award winning production skills it was high time we sat down with the man and find out how he got here.
What’s your first music memory?
“My earliest vivid memory is of seeing Johnny Cash dressed all in black standing in the boxcar of a train singing and playing guitar. It left quite an impression on me, I must’ve been only four or five at the time. Later as my interest in music grew there were many nights spent holding an AM radio to my ear under the sheets of my bed. I remember calling a radio station over and over again to request Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” I also remember asking our Mom to put the White Album on over and over again because my younger brother Faris and I were too young to work the turntable, then singing along loudly to “Rocky Raccoon” and “Bungalow Bill.”
When did you decide you could make music?
“I don’t know when or if I ever actually decided I could do it myself. I just started hearing these melodies in my head and I wanted to find a way to get them out. Having The Beatles as heroes was actually quite daunting because they were so good. It was depressing to hear how bad I was in comparison, The first song I ever finished was called “She’s Mine,” it was my teenage attempt at being Paddy McAloon from Prefab Sprout. Other early songs I remember were “I Hate Rock’n’Roll” which included the mission statement: "We're rippin' through twenty years of noise, drugs and sex". “Everything About Her” which was an early Beatles skiffle influenced tune and “Only When I Dream,” a 50s style Everly Brothers type ballad.
Our first band was called the Crying Dymes. My brother Faris’s girlfriend, Gretchen Clapp, had a sister named Heidi who was dating a musician. His name was Bobby Schneider and he was one cool dude. He had devilish charm and a quick wit, kind of mysterious and world weary, never really revealed too much. We instantly hit it off because he was a rebel and we were aspiring rebels The sisters got us all together and Bobby started coming over and jamming in the front bedroom of our red brick house on Constellation. He played keyboards, Faris played drums and I did my best to try to play guitar and sing. I bought a cherry red Rickenbacker like Paul Weller had on the back of the first Jam record.
We spent a few months working on songs without a bass player. We eventually made a 4-track cassette demo with my schoolmate Jack Thompson filling in on bass. Jack was a giant with huge hands who told me that he figured he was one of the world’s top five bassists. Pretty funny…The downfall of the Dymes was we couldn’t find a bass player and there was nowhere to even play original music in El Paso had we landed one. So we decided to all move to Austin and keep playing together. But when Bobby returned from a trip to Germany that summer of ‘87 I'd up and changed the plan on him.
I decided to move myself and Faris to Denton, not Austin and this moronic decision plagued me for years after. Bobby moved on to eventually find success as Bob Schneider, King of Austin, while we spent the next five years languishing in obscurity in Denton (a place we both hated.)”
Tell us about your first band with your brother.
“When we first got to Denton, my brother was hell bent on finding band members. He started going out almost every night. Fry Street, The Flying Tomato, Doctor Smith's (an old Pizza Hut that had been converted in to a bizarre nightclub). He came home late one really excited. "I think I've found our first band member! He's a bass player, his name is Brian Lux and he looks exactly like Paul Simonon from the Clash!!" Sure enough Brian really did. I couldn't believe it. He had copped every single one of his moves too, it was freakish. He'd obviously spent half his lifetime in front of a full-length mirror perfecting every nuance of Simonon's slithery groove
So there he was in our living room, above the leasing office, bobbing and weaving, jerking and jumping, bass guitar slung almost down to his ankles. The band was called Heathen Town. We never played a single show, just made a horrible demo tape at Inside Track, Denton and then promptly disbanded when Lux stole all our gear in the middle of the night and skipped town to be a Cadet at Texas A & M.
The Moon Festival was born shortly thereafter with me moving to Bass, Faris on guitar and Heathen Town drummer Rich Holden. Rich played only at our first show and then was sacked for Chris Adams. We recruited a young guitarist from El Paso named James Swenson who moved up to Denton just to be in the band. After only eight shows with us, poor James was sacked for the good looking, lean, long-haired Tommy Roberts, who I had poached from a Spinal Tap-esque band I saw at Doctor Smith’s called Mexican Chicken. Adams was then sacked a few months down the road when a local indie label, Dragon St. Records, approached us and said "If you get Shallow Reign’s Brad Robertson in your band we’ll sign you." Brad’s first show was Cadillac Jack’s in Addison in March of ’91.
So the definitive MF line-up was born, very much under the influence of The Church, who I was heavily into at the time. The name was even lifted from a Steve Kilbey song I dug called “My Birthday, The Moon Festival.” The curse of the Moon Festival ran from January 1990 to January 1999. along time. All in all, it was a bit like Spinal Tap without the hits. We did crack the CMJ Top 75 with our debut Shrine, but that was about it. A total of six different drummers sat behind the kit for us in those nine years!
By the time of Sugar Pill, our best and last record, we had undergone a complete musical transformation into a Kinksy retro-pop trio. We played our last show at the Satellite Lounge in Ft. Worth for $45 and then Faris quit in January of ‘99. I played the three remaining commitments by myself with an acoustic guitar. I was ill equipped to do that kind of thing back then. It was a baptism by fire. It was terrifying to have gone all those years with a band protecting you and then go out on stage by yourself. It’s funny to look back on it now, because I love playing solo acoustic shows now. I actually thrive on it.”
The Nourallah Brothers (2000)
“Faris rightfully recognised that recording on our own was where it was at and not continuing the beleaguered battle-axe of a band that we’d been in for all those years with nary an ounce of success! The two of us set about recording on 8 track in a converted garage that I christened Pleasantry Lane with a nod and a wink to the studio the Fab Four made famous. We were working kinda like The Beatles did on the White Album, by the end, mostly separately. Faris would work on his songs when he knew I wouldn't be around, then I'd show up and do mine.
There was no teamwork and no camaraderie, just a lot of tension. It was pretty obvious it was over between us. It had stopped being fun, it was a drag. The Nourallah Brothers album came out a couple of years after and by that time Faris had moved to Portland. Most of the tracks we recorded at those sessions are on the 28 song double disc re-issue of Nourallah Brothers from a few years back.”
The Happiness Factor (2001)
“After my brother and I went our separate ways, I quit playing music for a bit. My friend Paul Averitt encouraged me to start playing some acoustic shows. He’s the best harmony singer I’ve ever been around and we got into doing these power pop numbers with harmonies running throughout. His enthusiasm was pivotal in getting my confidence back to be in a band again. We played a few duo shows under the Glory Brothers moniker. We did some of my songs plus covers like “Misery” by The Beatles and “Sunny Afternoon” by The Kinks. Around the same time I became friends with a guy named John Jay Myers, who also happened to be a crazy Keith Moon styled high-energy drummer. We formed the band The Happiness Factor around this trio. It was a solid unit and felt like a "real" band based on friendships. I’d always wanted to be in a band like that.
When my brother moved back from Portland in the Spring of 2000, we were briefly on better terms and I asked him to join. He played our first show gripped by stage fright and never showed up for our second show. Although I was mad about it at the time, it was the right thing to have happened. The band’s chemistry revolved around me, John and Paul. Faris was the odd man out and he knew it. He does appear on some of the debut though. Steve Duncan joined on right after Faris bowed out and we finished Self-Improvement?
The Happiness Factor was a great rock’n’roll band I very fondly remember. When the band had run its course, I knew I was done playing that kind of music. I couldn’t possibly form a better band so what would be the point trying? Going solo and playing "softer" music made perfect sense to me”
What’s it like existing as an indie musician in Dallas, how tough is it?
“ I’ve joked before that any musician who makes it past the five year mark playing music in Dallas deserves some sort of medal of honour. I’m very happy here, but for the most part this is a sports and commerce town, so getting support for playing music can be quite difficult. That being said, things have never been better in Dallas, especially with the recent addition of a superb public radio station called KXT. We also have some great old historic venues like the Granada Theater and Sons of Hermann Hall.
I’ve never had a label fund any of my own records, so if I hadn’t started my own recording studio they could have never been made. So almost everything I’ve done has been born out of necessity, to survive as an indie musician with no money coming in from outside sources. It’s been very gratifying but also, as the years roll on, increasingly difficult to balance raising a family and continuing to play music. I’ve seen so many talented musicians over the past 20 years eventually give up or just self destruct out of frustration. It can be very disheartening”
Your debut album Polaroid is the one that first put you on the map for many people, though what had come before was nothing to be sniffed at.
“My solo debut, Polaroid, was mainly done on a 16 track recorder when Pleasantry Lane was still just a single room. With no isolation, tracking drums is always the challenge, so due to these restrictions I cut “1978” and “Nothing Ever Goes Right” at a friend’s studio. I spent a lot of time working on the album in the wee hours of the morning. My ex-wife, Jayme, was pregnant with our son Gavin so she would go to bed and I’d go out to the studio saying “I’ll be back in around midnight”. Most nights midnight ended up being more like 6am.
I’d come in and sleep a couple of hours, then get up and go to work at a record shop. “We Did Some Things” was one of those all-night benders. I wrote and recorded it right at the console singing the lead vocal into a SM57, while listening to the playback through the speakers. ”Missing Funerals” is a favourite of mine. I manipulated a compressor feeding back on itself to make this insect-like drone. The words are for my grandfather, whose funeral I couldn’t make. “1978” is of course the big hit I never had,quite possibly my most popular song among fans.”
Beautiful Noise (2006)
“The next album, Beautiful Noise, came along right after our son was born. He was diagnosed with craniosynostosis, a congenital birth defect that causes sutures on a baby's head to close earlier than normal. At three months old, he had to have major surgery on his head. It was absolutely terrifying. I wrote the bulk of the record during those trying times. It’s still a very special record to me. I know I’ll never make another one like it. For some it may be lyrically too dark or heavy. To me it’s all about being in love with life so much that you can’t bear the thought of letting go of it or your loved ones.
“Montreal” was inspired by a Polaroid of my wife taken in Canada while on tour with Rhett Miller. “The World Is Full of People (Who Want To Hurt You)” was written on an old ‘50s couch while baby Gavin happily cooed before me. “Never Say Never” celebrates my son’s successful surgery and offers up some sage-like parental advice, like love is for heroes and hate is for fools. “Life In A Split Second” was drawn from words my grandfather, Robert E. Severs, once said that have haunted me since childhood: “No matter how old you live to be, someday you’ll look back and it will seem like your entire life was over in a split second.”
Snowing In My Heart (2007)
“Around the time of my third record, Snowing In My Heart, I was really getting into utilising the talents of all of these incredible musicians I know here in Dallaa. They are world class musicians, as good as any in London, New York, Austin or whatever Music Mecca you’d like. I’d sort of dabbled with this idea on the last Happiness Factor record by arranging the coolest group of musicians I could think of to fit each individual song. On Snowing, I sort of went bonkers with the concept. There are no less than six different guitar players on “Days Disappear.” Even though the theme loosely running through the record is the struggle to overcome the things that continually drag us down, I thought I’d actually ended up making my most “commercial” record to date. Beautiful Noise sold better than any record I’d ever made and I won Best Producer, Best Song and Best Record in the Dallas Observer awards of 2006. So rolling into 2007, I felt like I finally had some actual momentum on my side.
A few years ago I was discovered by a great indie label based out of Hamburg Germany called Tapete Records. It is run by two musicians, Dirk Darmstaedter and Gunther Buskies. They’ve been incredibly supportive and a big reason why I criss-crossed Europe three times. The first tour was to promote Beautiful Noise in September of 2006 and the most recent was last May.
All three have been solo acoustic tours that I’ve brought my family along on. My son was only three years old on the first one. They’ve been some of the best times of my entire life and I’ve become addicted to the feeling of travelling over there with Jayme and Gavin. Last year’s highlight was spending three days in the South of France with Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby. They live there now and Eric (whom I’ve been a fan of for many years) was kind enough to take us under his wing and get me a couple of wonderful shows there.
That being said, Western Vinyl, who had released my first two solo records and The Nourallah Brothers record, over here basically dropped me. “Don’t Be Afraid” ended up on HBO’s The Wire though and “So Down” on the popular TV show Smallville. The Wire was nice. It partly funded my last record, Constellation. The record still managed to push it all along for me even without an American Record label helping. We had a wonderful CD release show at the Granada Theater, an historic Dallas venue and were getting ready to embark on our second European tour. Then my close friend, Carter Albrecht, who had played on just about everything I’d ever done, was killed four days before we were to leave for Hamburg. It was as if the heart of our music scene here was ripped right out.”
Constellation your latest is yet another dazzling creation.
“Thank you. Constellation might be my favourite record to date. It’s the first record I’ve made away from home and it’s kind of a reaction to Snowing In My Heart. Snowing felt like the end of a chapter for me and I very much wanted to redesign the blueprint with this album. So I went to Austin and recorded it at my friend Billy Harvey’s studio. The plan was for Billy and I to play and sing everything ourselves, kind of like a Nourallah Brothers record, but with Billy playing the role of my brother. He is one of the most genuine, talented and brilliant people I’ve ever known. He should be incredibly rich and famous for what he does. If only I had control of the pop music universe.
We made Constellation over three separate eight day stints in the spring and summer of 2008. I have so much admiration for Billy as a songwriter and producer that I didn’t want to show up with songs I felt iffy about. Just knowing I would have to play these songs for him inspired me to write some of the best material of my career. Many of the songs reach back into my childhood in El Paso. “Stranger in My Own Skin” documents the isolation I felt living there that was only made tolerable by losing myself in music. “Western Hills” (named after the grade school I attended) is a song for anyone who has ever felt like they never quite fit in.
“Saint Georges” reunited me with Bob Schneider from the Crying Dymes days. Bob is the person who actually first introduced me to Billy and I thought it would be fitting to finally get him to play on one of my records. Playing “Saint Georges” with Billy and Bob on the afternoon it was recorded was a very profound experience for me. “Endless Dream Days” is a love song to my brother Faris and The Nourallah Brothers epic that never was. If there’s any single disc that I’ve ever done that I feel like I could hand over to the staunchest critic and be okay with their reaction it’s Constellation.”
You mentioned Rhett Miller just then. You’ve been working with him consistently both playing with and now producing.
“ I got a call from Rhett Miller in 2002 asking me if I’d tour with him in support of The Instigator, which he’d just finished in L.A. with Jon Brion. I’ve been involved in just about everything he’s done ever since, playing Bass on the George Drakoulias produced "The Believer" and producing The Old 97s’ "Blame It On Gravity" and Rhett’s last self-titled album. The Old 97s are a legendary Texas band now. I still pinch myself every now and then over the fact that I get to make records with them. On "Blame It On Gravity", they used Jayme’s fantastic painting for the cover. She’s always photographed, painted or designed my CDs. It was really cool to get to collaborate with her on someone else’s record.
Rhett is truly one of the kindest, most considerate, positive people I’ve ever been around. It was all easy. I’ve never once seen him lose his cool or be a drag to be around, even when things got tough. He’s an awesome person, the hardest worker I know and a great friend. I haven’t gotten to spend as much time with Jon Brion as I would’ve liked, but every time he’s been part of the action he’s come through with pure genius. Patrick Warren played keys on "The Believer", we spent a day in Sunset Sound, Hollywood, with him. It was like going to keyboard school, completely awesome!”
Things seem to be going well down at Pleasantry Lane
“Although the studio was kind of launched in ’98, when my brother and I started The Nourallah Brother sessions, I hadn’t actually considered recording others for hire until 2003 when we were expecting the arrival of our first child, Gavin. That’s when I got the hair-brained idea to put a bit of money into the building, tack on a small control room and see if I could make a bit of money doing this instead of breaking down and getting a “real” job. It’s been more successful than I had ever imagined at the time. I’ve never advertised, I don’t have a manager out there seeking jobs, it’s all word of mouth and pretty casual.
One major reason my studio has been so successful is, whether the outside world knows it or not, Dallas has a thriving music scene. We’re in the top ten cities in America as far as size, so one would figure we’d have some talent here. There is a lot of talent but unfortunately, not many opportunities for these young musicians to reach people in other places. We’re pretty geographically isolated here.
Some of my current favourites are Gabrielle LaPlante (whom I’m convinced would make the cover of the NME if they only knew who she was) and Buttercup (a San Antonio band I adore). Chris Holt (Nick Drake meets Dark Side of the Moon) is great, The Cut-off are like Wilco meeting The Pixies in a dark alley fist fight) The Flat People are, I assure you, the very best band you’ve never heard of, The Shins meet Neil Young, great words and melodies. I’ve stayed as busy as I want to be for the past five years. So busy, in fact, it’s threatened to over-run my ability to spend time working on my own music. That’s why I signed on with Pledge Music London this year to try and raise some money so I can take a break and make another record.”
It was Alex Dezen of the Damnwells who first told you about Pledge Music.
“Another friendship born out of the Instigator tour of 2002. Jayme and I hit it off with Alex D. and the rest of The Damnwells when we got to spend a couple of weeks with them back then. Another set of friends for life, wonderful band, wonderful people. Alex told me about Pledge Music, because his band had a very successful run raising funds for their new record. I’m going to play a show in a few weeks with him, I can’t wait. I’d love to make a record with Alex at some point. Producing my old friend Bob Schneider might be interesting as well. I’d actually really love for Ethan Johns to produce one of my records someday. Tchad Blake would be nice too! Those guys cost a lot of money though,.so EMI can sign me up now….”
You helped produced John Lefler’s excellent Better By Design I noticed.
“Lefler and I became fast friends when Rhett opened a few dates for Dashboard Confessional in the fall of 2002. We hit it off with a shared obsession with classic power pop bands like Squeeze and Jellyfish. He decided to move to Dallas from Los Angeles at the beginning of 2006. That’s when we started working on Better by Design. John joins me for the occasional show here in Dallas.
Our first one together was pretty dubious, in L.A. at Room 5 in April 2005. I wish we could play more together in Texas, but he’s away from home a lot, always touring with Dashboard Confessional. Better was many years in the making and took a lot of courage from Lefler to do. I’m really proud of the work we did and feel honoured that he entrusted me to be part of it.”
What's in store ahead?
“Well, the plan for this year is to produce another Old 97s record in April and then take a month or so off to try and make my next record. I’m not sure how I’m going to do it yet, whether or not to use my backing band(s) or just rely on myself. It might end up being a combination of the two. Pledge Music helped me raise enough to take a bit of time off, but not enough to do anything extravagant, like hire Billy Harvey again (which I’d love to do) or go record somewhere else (which would be fun). I’ve been really inspired by the outpouring of love and support my friends and fans have given me through Pledge. It’s actually gotten me writing with the fervour of a man half my age.
I’ve got a bunch of new songs I’m pretty excited about recording, “Tokens of Your Cruelty,” “Unstoppable,” and “38 Rue de Sévigné” to name a few. I also want to keep pushing on the SN “formula” a bit. I don’t want to make something exactly like I’ve done in the past, I want to shake it up. I also have two records slated to come out with songs I’ve written over the past year or two, Gabrielle LaPlante’s debut and The Disappearing Act, which is a recording project I’m in with a childhood friend of mine from El Paso. There are also some archive releases in the pipeline such as the Salim vs. Shibboleth ‘70s cover record that I hope sees the light of day soon.
I’d also like to finally release "Delusions Of Grandeur", my two disc out-takes retrospective which effectively cleans out the Nourallah recording vaults from over the past ten years. I’ve also got an autobiography on the back burner culled from my blog "It’s Snowing In My Heart". This project almost prompted my wife to hit me over the head with a frying pan one afternoon. “A book? You’re kidding me and with whose time?” Okay, point taken…maybe I’ll get to the book in 2015”
You can find out more about Salim at his website here. You can listen to and buy Salim albums here.