It often seems some of the best music is hard to pigeonhole in one genre.
Such is the case with LA Americana psych-roots band, Nocona. The band has a number of influences from Hank Sr. to Chopin to stoner metal. “We don’t neatly fit into any pop, country or ‘alt’ country category,” Chris Isom says. “We tip our hats to a lot of traditional music and have a tremendous amount of respect for the varied and storied forms of Americana music, but we also do a lot of weird far out stuff. We take a lot of chances musically and we like it that way.”
Nocona is the anything-but-typical product of husband and wife Chris and Adrienne Isom, which took flight in Texas and settled in Southern California. They take pride in exploring rarely chartered sonic depths, and never succumbing to one common avenue of sound. Their third album, Los Dos, produced by Adrienne’s label Mule Kick Records, is a testament to this. Along with this husband and wife duo, Nocona is comprised of Justin Smith on drums, Elan Glasser on harmonica, Dan Wistrom on steel guitar, and Xander Hitzig on fiddle.
We had the chance to talk to Chris about their roots, the new tracks, and much more.
So I was hoping you could talk about the inception of Nocona and how y’all came together?
Shortly after Adrienne and I [Chris Isom] first moved to LA, we went to the Grand Ole Echo and saw Justin Smith playing with Old Californio. We were playing in a band called Paladino at the time, but I remember seeing Justin and thinking, “what a great drummer, I would love to play music with that guy some time”. The members of Paladino sort of went their separate ways after about a year and there was an opportunity to play with new people, we had met Justin’s girlfriend, Kim Grant through the GOE and it just turned out that while Old Californio was taking a hiatus we had an opportunity to get together and play in our garage. We hit it off, and started arranging songs and that was pretty much the first record with me, Adrienne, Annie Rothschilde, Elan Glasser and Justin Smith.
Did you and your wife meet through music, or did music stem from your relationship?
We did actually meet through mutual friends in NYC who were musicians when we were teenagers. She went to summer camp with one of my friends I played in a band with who went on to form NYC’s Mooney Suzuki, Sammy James Junior. We met at a long defunct club called Nightengale’s on the Lower East Side that used to feature everything from jam bands to punk, hardcore, no wave stuff and everything in between. It was a dive but also sort of an institution. It was a relatively easy place to get a gig if you were an underage teen.
During that time, we just hung out a few times, Adrienne was in LA and I was in NYC, so I would just see her when she was visiting NYC, then I went to college at Texas Tech in Lubbock for a year before transferring to U.T Austin, she was traveling through Texas on a cross country trip with some friends and we hooked up and she moved to Texas, and we’ve kind of been together ever since. We’ve played in various punk one-off outfits over the years, moved to Toronto for a while, and Adrienne played in a band “The Luvulator”, which I would guest star in every once in a while. Then we moved back to NYC and we occasionally did shows in a kind of experimental garage rock band “Ben Wah Fiesta”, but she was pursuing photography and I was busy with a day job and playing in other bands in NY.
When we had kids and moved out to L.A., we started just playing music in the garage together and Nocona sort of came out of that. We didn’t start the band with any big plan in mind, it was more of a low key thing. One reason I named the band Nocona is because we’ve always gone to my family reunion at Thanksgiving out there in Texas, and a lot of people in my family play guitar or a little drums or sing and we invariably have this big sorta chaotic family luau where we play Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Hank Sr. and ventures into limbo and stuff all night. I kinda wanted to keep that laid back vibe in mind.
So it was your song, “Post Apocalyptic Blues” that caught our ear. Can you talk about the influence and inspiration behind this track?
Well, I grew up during the Cold War, and I think we sort of grew up with this “Post Apocalyptic” idea looming large in our collective unconsciousness, ya know? We had movies like “The Day After”, “V”, “Red Dawn”, “Back to the Future II” and other movies. And books of course, like “1984”, “Brave New World” the competing ways a bunch of things from both of those seem to actually be transpiring now are always looming large. I guess it’s actually been carried into the present day with the whole “Zombie ” genre, strangely we don’t seem to worry about nukes as much as Zombies, pandemics and environmental catastrophe.
I wrote this song a while back with more of a tongue in cheek aesthetic with a bunch of stuff about our favorite diner in Venice closing down (“The 50’s Diner”, Venetians know what we’re talking about), Adrienne and I had gone there just about every Sunday with our kids since we moved to Venice, so it sort of seemed like the end of the world when that place closed down. It was the last quality greasy spoon in our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where you could get a plate of eggs and bacon for under $15, so when they closed it, I wrote a song about it, but the band rarely played it.
Fast forward to recording the album, this is before the covid-19 outbreak, and me and my friend Jay Braun were revisiting this tune thinking we might want to put it on the album. Jay’s a vegan, and he didn’t like some of the references to hamburgers and french fries and the end of the world and all. It had always bothered me also, I’m usually not a big fan of songs about food, so we changed some lyrics which were previously things like “looking for a greasy spoon” with “looking for some easy doom” and we were off to the races with some lyrics we ended up being happier with, even though they do give the song a bit of a darker dimension. It also seemed like we were being inundated with rather ominous apocryphal news even before this pandemic, so the song is kind of reflecting that back out into the world.
Do you usually like to get involved in co-writes, or do you prefer writing alone? Perhaps with your wife?
I usually just lock myself in the garage and write alone. I like the idea of writing with people, but it just usually works out that I feel most like writing after I’ve been playing guitar for a few hours with no intention of writing, but just playing, and then something will sprout up and I’ll just go where it takes me. Although Adrienne and I don’t sit down and write songs together, usually whatever is going on in our life or what we’re talking about is informing the subject matter of the writing in some manner. We listen to the same AM station in the car, and we’re always talking about the same music and talking about what we like and don’t like. We also have a long history of listening to the same bands together, so I’m often trying to pitch something over home plate at her. If we’re working out a tune and I say something obtuse like “we should make this part a little bit more like when we were back in Austin”, she knows what I’m talking about. We both spent a lot of time at Antone’s way back when listening to old 45’s and LP’s on the KTEL record players they had in the back of the store back then.. imagine sharing headphones with strangers now?
Is it safe to assume this track will be on y’alls upcoming and third album Los Dos?
It is! Play it! Stream it! Dance to it!
What can fans expect from this album compared to previous releases?
We’re definitely a band that sticks to it’s guns, but we’re also always a work in progress and growing musically, and branching out into new directions. My general guiding principle is informed by, even though we don’t live there anymore, the “Keep Austin Weird” proposal. We’re trying to “Keep Nocona Weird.” It’s our north star or south star or west star or however you want to see it. We hope we bend some ear drums with this release, but we hope people who dug the band previously are still going to dig it.
Now I know it may be like picking a favorite child, but what song or few songs are you most excited for the public to hear/most proud of?
I like ’em all, on a level, and it kind of changes depending on what kind of mood I’m in. I generally also pretty strongly subscribe to John Prine’s adage I heard him say one time in an interview: “Be careful when you write a song, make sure you like it, ya never know, it might be a hit”. We haven’t had any big hits, but I try to keep that in mind and try not to write songs that I don’t think I’m going to still like singing years and years down the line. Right now I’m probably enjoying playing “Chasing Your Shadows”, “Tabernacle Woes”, “Chester” and “Unseen Hand” the most.
What artists have y’all been digging lately that might inspire your sound?
That’s a hard question to answer, as we have some pretty eclectic tastes. It’s kind of all over the place. I mean, there’s always a pretty ambient level of traditional American music whether it’s bluegrass, blues, jazz, folk, r&b, country or garage psychedelia, but I’ve also been enjoying some Augustus Pablo, that guy does amazing things with the melodica. I like Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, stoner metal, old 80’s punk, pop, hardcore, tango, gypsy jazz, American Indian pan flute and some new indie stuff also. I always try to keep an open mind for whatever comes down the pike.
How have you been keeping busy and trying to maintain momentum for your music during the pandemic?
I’ve never had to worry about “momentum” so much regarding music. I’d always rather be playing guitar or writing songs, pretty much period. The pandemic has probably provided some more time to practice guitar and work on some different technical aspects of the instrument, with no gigs there’s been some time that might not normally be around to revisit things like Mauro Guliani’s 120 arpeggios for right hand technique and Nicolas Slominsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns and just trying to get better in all aspects of everything finger picking.
Do you feel the pandemic has helped or hurt your creative process? (or perhaps neither)
Well, they say necessity is the mother of all invention? I think there is probably an element of truth in this for many creative artists during the pandemic. If nothing else, it’s been interesting if painful. There’s no substitute for the inspiration that comes from getting to perform in front of an audience and how good that makes you feel, and how you take that back to the process, but I think the pandemic has forced a lot of musicians to maybe dig a little deeper in some way that they might not have had this not happened.
The financial difficulties brought on by the pandemic have definitely had a harrowing effect on the music community in general. I heard someone say that the pandemic is basically a little bit like Mother Nature telling the human race to go to their room before supper and think about what they’ve done. There’s no denying it feels like some form of punishment or atonement, but that also engenders thought and new perspectives. There have been beautiful moments of reflection mixed with horrible moments of stress and anxiety I think for most of us. We all know we are living through something historic during this time. The pandemic, the social upheaval, the political and macroeconomic dimensions to all this, these are historic events, it’s overwhelming and it’s easy to become overwhelmed in the midst of them and throw one’s hands in the air and think, “How can this music/art possibly make a difference?” But I think these times also make the act of making music and art that much more vital and that much more of an important statement of hope.
What’s one of your proudest/accomplished moments as a band thus far?
Finishing this record was a pretty proud moment. We set out to record it in the manner of some of our heroes, stripped down, no metronome, just people playing music in a room together. There’s some bleeding, there’s some rough bits around the edges, but ya know, we’re hoping that’s what people will like about it. In the age of super slick production, maybe it’s The Velveteen Rabbit kind of record. We’ve had some pretty good gigs and tours as a band the last few years, playing Bonnaroo and Outside Lands a few years ago was a lot of fun, and we’d like to get back to touring and playing festivals, but we’d like to think the best is yet ahead.
What LA establishments do you most look forward to frequenting and supporting again once it’s deemed safe and acceptable? (pretty much a shout out to your favorite local spots)
We look forward to as many of them reopening as possible, we are all extremely worried about the future of live independent music venues in our town. We know they are suffering. We’re prayerful for a vaccine to come along and allow a more full reopening as soon as possible. We look forward to playing The Echo again, The Satellite, Hotel Cafe, The Bootleg, Pappy and Harriets, Godmother’s in Pedro, and so many more we are keeping in our thoughts through all this.