Last weekend, Portland-based trio Nurses returned to play their fourth show at the Mercury Lounge on what was their first trip to New York in almost a year. The band—comprised of friends Aaron Chapman, James Mitchell and John Bowers—began gaining attention in 2009 with the almost-accidental release of the ‘Apple’s Acre’ LP.
“The original recordings for that record weren’t necessarily meant to be released,” Aaron told us when we sat down to talk before their show on Friday night. “John and I made it and then we started playing the songs with James while it was being finished. Initially, when we started working on it, it was just recording ideas.”
Aaron and John grew up together in Idaho, playing in bands throughout their teenage years and moving away to California to make music post-college. It was there that they met James, who offered them a couch to crash on when they moved to Portland, Oregon three years ago. “We had a show coming up and just started playing together. It came together really naturally.” Once their trifecta was complete, the guys began conceiving melodies, effects and ideas that would culminate in their praised and infectious 2011 record, ‘Dracula’.
“We all did a little bit of everything on the record,” Aaron explained. “We didn’t record as a full band. We had some sketches of songs and we started recording ideas and layering and all collaborating on every part. Whether it was somebody trading instruments or giving input, it was just really collaborative. We were sort of limited in how we record because we didn’t have a proper studio; we were doing everything ourselves in the computer…It was kind of just non-stop recording for it for five weeks while we were at the cabin (a place they rented on the coast of Oregon). If somebody was tired, someone else would step in and start recording.”
“It was like ‘Alright, how do we do this? How do we record a guitar?’,” James adds, of their experimental and innovative recording methods. “So we’d stick it in the bathtub and put the microphone in the bathtub to see what it sounded like. And someone would play that, then someone else would have an idea, and we’d switch. I can’t even remember who did what parts most of the time.”
While these process made for a wholly collaborative and immersive recording period, it has—as is the case with many experimental acts—made transitioning the sound to the stage a little more difficult. “We’ve joked about how different it would be if we were just a rock band, cos it would be more of the same thing—performing and recording—but this is a lot different…Sometimes, we try to do exactly what was on the record and that’s not the best, and then we do what seems more fun and that’s the best live version.” James told us.
“Most of the songs we hadn’t played live as a band before we recorded them, so it definitely takes a lot of figuring out to do it as a band,” added Aaron. “John and James are both playing multiple things on each song so it’s definitely a juggling act to figure out how to translate it to a live setting. The live show is pretty similar to the record, I would say.”
John prefers the improvised element to their live shows, as it allows the sound to shift during each performance: “That’s something you can’t do on a record; change every night.”
The differences between ‘Apple’s Acre’ and ‘Dracula’ are both aural and practical. “I think this record is more focussed on beats and rhythm and groove—that’s what we were really emphasizing—but still the same attention on melody and songwriting,” Aaron told us, to which James added, “It was probably different because we knew it was going to be a record before we started.”
Since recently featuring Nurses’ self-made video for album opener Fever Dreams, we’ve been eager to ask the guys about the role these visual accompaniments—their press shots are equally as dreamy, hyper and in sync with their sound—play in their process.
“We usually end up doing a lot of stuff ourselves,” Aaron explained. “Whether it’s because we have a specific idea or for timing purposes. But we’re totally open to working with other people.”
“It was never intentional, it just kind of happened [that we would do everything],” added James.
“We’ve all spent a lot of time in the same headspace, while making this record,” John says, of their collaborative relationship. “Just being friends means we’ve gone really deep into this place where all these songs come from and that place ends up producing the artwork and all the aesthetic aspects of our band.”
Of their cohesive creative direction, Aaron simply told us, “It’s what feels most natural. It comes from the same place as where we’re making music. It’s not so much that we’re going for a conceptual thing than following what feels natural and exciting to us. Whether it’s pictures or a video, it’s coming from the same source.”
That source is occasionally confused with others of the same name; we discovered while doing research for this interview that another band with the same name with two unreleased records to their name.
Portable: There’s another band called Nurses, did you know that?
Aaron: Is it the one that spells it N-R-S-Z or something?
Portable: No, it’s exactly the same. They’re a Gestalt band from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
John: So there’s three Nurses!
Aaron: We actually played a show or two and it was supposed to be the other Nurses—from San Francisco—asked to play the show. There was also a guy that went by Nurses in the 70s and he released a super-unlimited run of vinyl and we didn’t find out about that until we were already well into being Nurses.
James: We actually drove down to San Francisco to play a show that we got billed for and we got there and there was kind of no-one around—and this was when we first started playing together. We looked around at the other bands and we were like, “Hey, there’s no-one around. Do you have any idea why?” And they were like, “Well, we though you’d bring the people. Aren’t you guys from here?” And we figured out that no-one was from that town and one of the other bands was also the “wrong” band of that name that was supposed to be from that town and wasn’t.
Aaron: It was kind of embarrassing. Even though it wasn’t our fault, we were like, “Sorry for being the wrong band!”
John: It was with that band Blood on the Wall and I think they’re a cool band so when they asked us to play I was like, “Really!?”
Aaron: Yeah, we were all surprised.
John: “I can’t really see them being fans of our band, but alright!” And then it became clear because they started asking questions that we couldn’t answer. It didn’t make any sense until we realised it was a mistake.
Portable: Of anyone, they would understand the mix-up. But two on one bill?
Aaron: I remember when we realised, I hid in the van for a while because I didn’t want to face it. I was like, “Oh shit, we’re the wrong band!”
Portable: Meanwhile the other Nurses are sitting at home wondering why they weren’t asking to play.
James: I actually got in touch with them and told them that story.
James: Yeah, but they never responded.
Portable: Because they had broken up by then because no-one wanted them to play.
John: Yeah, they’re like, “Let’s give it one more week, guys! If Blood on the Wall doesn’t ask us to play, I’m outta here!”