In some ways, getting fired might have been the best thing that ever happened to BOB NANNA. The prolific musician was laid off from his longtime job at T-shirt company Threadless in the beginning of 2014. But instead of wallowing in misery like so many of us might, he became über-inspired artistically. First came the release of Threadless Songs, a solo album comprised of his favorite T-shirt jingles he’d written throughout the past number of years. Next came No Coast, the first full-length from his seminal emo band Braid in 16 years. More recently, his other band, Lifted Bells, released a new 7-inch called Lights Out. In between all of that, Nanna was hard at work growing Downwrite, his songwriter-for-hire business he created with former Spitalfield frontman Mark Rose.
Now, Nanna is capping off his most prolific year yet with La Vella, the first new full-length in nine years from his other–other band, THE CITY ON FILM, coming out Dec. 16 on Topshelf Records. Nanna used Downwrite to create the album, and the results are something unlike anything else in the songwriter’s two-decade-deep catalog.
Before you dive into our interview with Nanna, we have “Stray,” an exclusive new track from La Vella, here for your listening pleasure.
This year’s been a pretty busy year for you. I can’t recall another year in your musical career where you’ve put out as much material between all your projects as you have in 2014, between putting out your Threadless jingles solo record in the beginning of the year, the Braid record, the Lifted Bells 7-inch and now this City On Film record, which was borne out of what you’re doing with your new website Downwrite. Looking back on this year, does it seem as busy as it was when you were in the middle of everything?
BOB NANNA: It really does. I knew pretty early in the year that this was going to be the craziest year of my life. Outside of music, too: In January, I got laid off from my job at Threadless and went through this phase of trying to figure out whether I wanted to find another full-time job or try to work on music full time. Plus, I got married in September, so it was a whole lot of planning and stress about that. The City On Film record came together once I got laid off. I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll write another record.” It’s been crazy and it’s gone really, really fast.
In most cases, musicians have managers and tour managers to help them keep everything straight, but you’ve always been someone who is very meticulously organized. How have you maintained composure over this year, and how do you shift your brain back and forth?
It’s a little bit of struggle. I give off the impression of being organized, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me. I’ve always been a little scatterbrained. I’ve been working really hard on separating all these things in terms of my schedule and my life. It hasn’t really been too frustrating. I kind of have this fear of being done with anything. I don’t want to be finished doing anything, because then, I dunno, I might as well go to sleep forever. I always need to be working on something new and for the future.
Let’s talk about La Vella. It’s an interesting record because the bulk of the songs were not inspired through personal experience, but through Downwrite, where people had commissioned you to create songs.
Nine of the songs on La Vella were commissioned specifically for this record. It was going to be an EP at first, but it was so much fun and people were into it, I decided to make it a full-length. It’s an amazing exercise. It was very exhilarating writing songs from other folks’ perspectives, because I sometimes feel like people are sick of hearing what I have to say—I’m sometimes sick of it. I like going into other peoples’ heads. It was very, very inspiring to me. One of the things I kept talking about on the Braid record was I don’t want us to sound like old men and sing about old-men stuff. It’s not interesting: It’s boring and it’s lazy. That was definitely something we kept in mind for the Braid record. Being able to take someone’s stories from Downwrite made that process a lot easier and fun.
There are certainly many musicians who write from a fictionalized perspective, but this is something totally different, where you’re writing about someone else’s true stories. How much work went into getting to the bottom of each person’s inspiration?
There really wasn’t a ton of [extra] communication at all. When we get requests on Downwrite, the people give you a ton of information right up front. A few times, I’ll have to write back to ask what a person’s name is or where you met someone or whatever, but for the most part, all the information is there for me and I can go with it. There was one person who got a song and said he didn’t care what the song was about, and to just write a song. [Laughs.] That was “Noise Machine.” It probably doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that song is about getting laid off.
So for the people who are commissioning these songs—do they get any sort of veto power over it? Can they offer suggestions or input once you’ve given it to them?
In terms of Downwrite, out of the hundreds of songs we’ve created for people, there have been less than five instances where someone got a song and wanted a change or didn’t like it. It hasn’t been an issue yet. But this was very unique even for Downwrite, to have songs commissioned specifically for an album to be released. That’s a little bit different than, “I’m gonna write a song for your wedding.” That’s personal. For this, it’s still a City On Film record. Regardless, no one was like, “Bob, that song sucks. Don’t you dare release it.”
Out of those nine songs that were crowdsourced, to which are you most attached?
In terms of playing, it’s “You Wild Thing (An Illuminous Life).” I love the story; the story takes place in cities I’m very familiar with—Urbana, Chicago and Milwaukee—so it was super-fun to put myself back in those cities. I know Wicker Park, you know what I mean? But in terms of my favorite, it’s a song called “Easy Living Rooms.” The requester wanted a song for him and his wife’s anniversary, something they could listen to in 10 years or 20 years and always remember. He had mentioned slow-dancing in their living room, and maybe it’s because I just got married so it’s a little emotional and on-the-dot for me, but I like that song. It’s sweet. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about my personal love story, so to speak.
The other two songs on the album have a little more of a personal tie to you. “Kill It!” is about fighting cancer, which is something you went through a few years back when you battled lymphoma. That’s a topic you’ve avoided in recent years musically; what made you comfortable enough now to share it?
I guess I didn’t avoid it purposely, but I’m always worried about sounding like a complainer. “Bob, give it a rest, we all have problems.” I never want to come across that way in song. So in the back of my head, I was thinking, “No one wants to hear about chemo. No one wants to hear about that shit.” The woman who got “Kill It!” is going to use it as her theme song for her cancer-charity bike ride she’s doing. I thought, “This is great! I’m going to be writing a song to help them raise money for this cause, and I can speak about this. I’m not going to be a poseur about it. I’ve got some background story here to work with.”
It’s the shortest track on the record by a pretty significant margin. Was that important to you, to make it energetic, get it out of the way and not brood about it?
To be perfectly honest, I was thinking about the video [Stephanie is making to raise money]. I didn’t want it to be something super-long that would lose someone’s attention.
So are you completely cancer free at this point?
No more worries. I go for a checkup every year, and they poke and prod, and go, “You’re good, see you next year.” [Laughs.] I try not to worry about that as much, because worrying makes it worse.
The last song on the album, “Andorra La Vella,” is the capital of the European microcountry Andorra. But it’s also the name of a book from your parents’ house?
There was as dictionary in my parents’ house—a red dictionary that looks a lot like the cover of the record, actually—it was a normal dictionary, but it had countries listed in it, for some reason. What I would do is I would look through the dictionary starting at the beginning, and flip until I got to a picture of a country, then I would read a little bit about the country. The first one was Afghanistan, then Algeria or Albania, then there was Andorra. It was so fascinating to me that this country even existed. Probably a lot of people don’t even know it exists.
It’s a principality. A lot of people, when they think of a small country, they think of Luxembourg, but this is even smaller than that.
Exactly. So I was very fascinated by Andorra, and its capital, Andorra La Vella, which means “the city Andorra.” I used this book to think about parts of growing up and being a kid and how that relates to where I am now, in a way. I talk [in the song] about another book on the shelf that is about, “Hey, you’re adopted, that’s cool!”—it was a kids book about being adopted. And then I talk about songs I like that I can’t listen to anymore. Believe me, I don’t want to start a war with Mark Kozelek, but I’ve been a Mark Kozelek fan forever, but the last two Sun Kil Moon records, I kind of hated. I really don’t like this new one [Benji] at all, it’s very rambly and a little lazy to me. Anyway, so what it inspired me to do was not think about the song package as a whole. What I decided I was going to do was write a very simple guitar line and break up the verses—I suppose it’s, like, a Bob Dylan-y thing to do—and not be super-nitpicky about them.
You mentioned Mark Kozelek; that’s because in “Andorra La Vella,” you reference Red House Painters’ “Make Like Paper,” as well as Bill Callahan’s “Riding For The Feeling” and New Order’s “Love Vigilantes.” You said in the song that you can’t listen to those three songs; why is that?
I have nothing against those people; it’s just the memories tied to [those songs]. When I first heard “Love Vigilantes,” I was really hooked into the story, so I wasn’t aware how it was going to end. I was maybe in a point where I was sucked in, and when it got to the end, I was like, “Oh my God!” What’s crazy is that it’s such a dancey, upbeat song!
There’s a lot of full-on rock on La Vella, I think more than people might be expecting given, “Oh, emo guy’s solo record.” But “Stray” is more reminiscent of your early City On Film 7-inches from the ’90s; it’s sparse and acoustic.
It’s sort of a wanderlust type of song. The requester is from New York and wants to get out of New York because it’s depressing and it’s dark, and they want to just get in their car and drive away to a better place, a nicer place, a prettier place. This is something I could really identify with, because I love touring so much, but I also love Chicago the same way this person loves New York. It seemed a little more personal than some of the other requests. Honestly, I was aware that there were no straight acoustic songs on the record, so I put those two things together to make it what it is.
You’re someone who has toured heavily for nearly 20 years. Have you ever been able to visit Andorra?
[Sighs.] It is still on the bucket list. When I was out with Owen in 2007, we played Barcelona, which is the closest I’ve been to Andorra. We talked about driving there, but we just didn’t have the time. We could’ve done it, but it would’ve been a real tough stretch to make it to our next show—which I think got canceled anyway. So I got pretty close. To be honest, I’m a little worried that I’ll be disappointed. I built up this place in my head so much. It’s a pretty big ski town, and I don’t ski. When we were in Barcelona, talking to people about Andorra, they were like, “Yeah, it’s all skiing there,” and I went, “Ugh, I don’t wanna ski.” I think of it as this Shangri-La or something. I want to go, but I’m not going to go crazy trying to book a show there or something.
You’re turning 40 next year, which is a pretty big life milestone. Do you have anything special planned yet?
I don’t particularly like celebrating birthdays. I don’t make a big deal out of them; I don’t know if anyone else is going to make a big deal out of this next one. But I’m not trying to avoid it; I just like keeping busy, so as long as my body holds up, I have no problem with being 40 or 45 or whatever. As long as I can keep doing what I’m doing, with any band, making music—and with Downwrite, too—I’m happy. As long as I’m not making people unhappy, I’ll be good to go. ALT