Busy Nelson progeny establishes own path
Micah makes his mark with creative streak
In between recording and touring with Neil Young as a member of Promise of the Real, the Particle Kid, aka Micah Nelson, spends his time outside the mainstream of rock, creating innovative hybrid music which is often both edgy and sweet, experimental and familiar.
On a creative roll beginning last year, he released two albums as Particle Kid, recorded a new duo album with L.A. punk/folk artist Sunny War (as well as contributing to her solo album), played on his dad’s record “Willie Nelson and the Boys,” acted and played in a film directed by actress Daryl Hannah and recorded two new albums with Young.
In late June, he will play with the rock legend at the Arroyo Seco Weekend festival in Southern California, and he’s working on an animated film in conjunction with a re-release of Young’s 1982 album “Trans.”
At 9 p.m. Friday, Micah returns to Charley’s Restaurant & Saloon in Paia as Particle Kid, performing with The Matt Del Olmo Band at a show featuring opening guest Pat Simmons Jr.
“The past couple of years have been a new plateau of where I am at as an artist,” Micah says. “I feel more confident at this point, though it’s not like I haven’t been constantly putting stuff out for years. I had a Bandcamp page and SoundCloud where you can release stuff, but nobody’s really going to hear it. When I was still cultivating what I am doing, it was more comfortable.
“I just finished working on a new record with the trio I’m playing with at Charley’s. This is the first Particle Kid album with a cohesive group of people throughout the record. We did it live to a 24-track tape machine.”
Describing his debut album as “a love letter to the cosmos,” “Particle Kid,” is a remarkable, original work. Released last year, this unique recording, to quote his website, “sounds both familiar and oddly modern, with the spirits of future folk, low rider funk, riff rock, power pop, lysergic Americana, flower punk and progressive jazz fusion all somehow woven together with deep-rooted melodies, unique improvisational elements and remarkably intricate arrangements.”
The opening track, “Forever Friend,” begins with a droning Beatles’ “Within You Without You” feel, colored with washes of swirling harmonies, and then delves deeper in complexity with off-kilter tempos. From there, the horn-laced, mournful “Slips Away” sounds like John Coltrane briefly walked into the session, which morphs into a Santana-ish Latin groove, and then we encounter the dreamy, hauntingly beautiful “The Ocean.”
The country folk of “Wheels” could have laced a Neil Young or Grateful Dead album, while the most ambitious, densely layered track, “The River,” reflects various influences from Frank Zappa, tinged with Spanish guitar, to India raga, electronica and psychedelia, culminating in a spoken-voice coda about peace taken from Jimi Hendrix’s “Rainbow Bridge” movie. That Nelson’s able to perform this song solo (see his YouTube video) speaks to his genius.
“I sampled it from ‘Rainbow Bridge’,” he explains. “It was shot where my brother used to go — at Seabury Hall. The whole intro is this voice talking about new age concepts. I grabbed a moment I resonated with as a powerful thing to close the record. Jimi has been a huge influence on me forever. I thought it was a nice tribute and a cool Maui connection.”
Helping him on “Particle Kid” are bassist Paul Bushnell (Neil Young, Faith Hill, Phil Collins) and most of the members of Promise of the Real, and his Venice Beach experimental band Insects vs Robots (which Rolling Stone has praised for their “epic time-shifting prog jams”).
“That record was a beginning of a journey into minimalism,” he says. “I wrote the whole record on acoustic guitar or piano, and I wanted to make sure I could play all the songs stripped down and they would still hold up. Then I knew I could layer all this fun stuff on it and it would still work. I’ve been moving further into the realm of ‘less is more.’ My addiction is trying ideas and marrying those ideas and thinking of new ideas to add.”
After recording “Particle Kid” in a professional studio, Nelson went low-fi, purchasing a Tascam four-track cassette recorder to release the follow up album, “Everything Is Bull***.” Highlights included the Dylan-esque “Gun Show Loophole Blues.”
“Whenever I’m on the road with my dad, he either has the news on, to see how everyone’s spinning all the bull****, or the Western’s channel,” he says, explaining the song. “There came a point where the lines between the old Western gun fight movies and what was happening on the news was very blurred. I wrote that song on the bus. It’s a happy sounding melody, but a really depressing song.”
Last year Micah joined his dad and brother Lukas on a selection of country music standards and classics, including seven composed by Hank Williams Sr. The country icon described the “Willie Nelson and the Boys” album as, “kinda like the country version of ‘Stardust.’ “
“A lot of those songs me and my brother and my dad used to sing together for fun, and do three part harmonies,” he notes. “We always wanted to do an album together. It was really satisfying.”
In April he released the album project “Particle War,” a collaboration with Sunny War, who the L.A. Weekly hailed as, “one of Los Angeles’ great renegade phenomena.”
War is known for her dazzling, unique finger-style guitar playing, involving the thumb and index finger of her right hand. Her vocal style recalls British singer Joan Armatrading.
War previously released “With the Sun,” which featured Micah on drums and piano. The Los Angeles Times praised: “War can likely outplay your favorite guitar god, and the proof is all over ‘With the Sun.’ “
Since 2015, Micah has played with rock legend Young in Promise of the Real fronted by Lukas Nelson. They became his backing band, first performing on “The Monsanto Years,” which vilified the growing of genetically modified food. Subsequent albums with Young have included the live “Earth” and “The Visitor.”
Most recently, the members of Promise of the Real starred in a new feature-length film called “Paradox,” directed by Young’s partner, actress Hannah.
Available on Netflix, it’s been described as “a fantasy, a loud poem and a whimsical tale of music and love,” and “an eco-sci-fi-Western.”
“It’s like a home movie,” says Micah. “We weren’t trying to win an Emmy. We were rehearsing in Colorado and ‘Let’s make a Western.’ Daryl and I got really excited about the idea of a post-apocalyptic Western. There was a script and it was about a page long, and the rest was made up on the spot.”
The soundtrack, which has also been released, includes the new song “Peace Trail” (performed in a revival tent with Micah on a 100-year old organ), and a phenomenal 10 minute “Cowgirl Jam,” shot at the historic 2016 Desert Trip festival in Indio, Calif.
“That was the first time we ever played that song with Neil,” he says about “Peace Trail.” “We were all figuring it out, and that’s what ended up in the movie.”
The ferocity of “Cowgirl Jam” featured in the movie has to be seen to be believed.
“Working with Neil has reminded me how important rock and roll is and how powerful it can be,” he says. “It’s supposed to be kind of terrifying. It’s supposed to be dangerous. A lot of music that calls itself rock has a big condom over it. It’s so safe with no sense of danger at all.”
Micah is currently creating an animated short film based on Young’s 1982 album, “Trans.”
“He wanted to put the record out in 1982 and his record company sued him and they said it was uncharacteristic of Neil Young. They wanted ‘Heart of Gold.’ He counter-sued them and won. They made him put other songs on it that he recorded in Hawaii, but they didn’t really fit.
“It’s a dystopian, futuristic, science fiction album with synthesizers. It was way ahead of its time. He wants to put it out as originally intended and have this visual accompaniment, so people can grasp it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s cool. It’s still relevant. I think it will resonate with my generation.”
Besides his various musical endeavors, this multi-talented artist last year released a set of hand drawn, Space Gnome playing cards to benefit the Bridge School, which educates children with severe speech and physical impairments.
“I wanted to make a piece of functional art like playing cards because it’s hard to survive in the physical world just making art for art’s sake all the time, and it seemed like a great way to help the Bridge School,” he explains. “The space gnomes for me are like a spirit totem. The space gnomes seemed like fitting symbols for a piece of functional art to help the children. So far, they have helped raise a nice chunk of change for the school and hopefully they will continue to do so.”