David Nance: A Voice in the River, Letting it Rip

David Nance is into some far out art, what he might call “primitive music.” Hang around Omaha’s house shows and smaller rock clubs long enough and you’ll probably catch his band going to town on a jagged rock song, its frontman delivering lyrics at a froth and writhing about the stage.

The Omaha-native was somewhat of a hired gun until recently, in the past playing with The Prairies, Simon Joyner and the Ghosts and Brimstone Howl. After once seeing The Ghosts, Conor Oberst told Joyner that Nance was “the best bad guitarist” he had ever seen.

To Joyner, it was the highest form of compliment.

“‘Good’ guitarists are those slick guys doing scales at Guitar Center,” Joyner says. “That’s all fine for certain types of music but Lou Reed and D. Boon were what you might call bad guitarists and Nance is definitely in that lineage. Which is to say, he’s a great guitarist.”

The creativity in Nance as a cast member, recognized locally by so many, has come to light in the wake of his most recent solo album More Than Enough. Nance’s songs often feel as though they have been unearthed from a record bin, the black truffle at the end of the hog’s nose, mucked with the influence of Reed, Skip Spence and Keith Richards and filled with roughened characters that exist on their own fringes. The 2016 record, though not his first, was enough to court attention from Vice’s music branch Noisey and to score a follow up on Brooklyn-based Ba Da Bing Records.

The Omaha native songwriter answers the door to his Midtown home with a grin one cold January afternoon, his shaggy hair falling across his mustached and spectacled face. His dog runs to greet as well, taking the first 10 minutes to jovially acclimate its guest into their home. He offers an unflavored La Croix (“You drink this shit? Oh man, I’m fucking hooked.”) During the next couple of hours, he burns through records by The Bruces and Jessie Mae Hemphill — low-quality recordings by songwriters from whom he takes influence.

In a way, he sees himself as part of a link in that chain, making aesthetically-similar music because it appeals to him. He says “I’m all about the rock” as if it were an argument. And, more intensely, he speaks at length and in admiration of the scene around him as if he were an observer.

“There’s a lot of really cool people in Omaha who are doing stuff,” Nance says. “It’s not even a scene kind of thing; there are a lot of singular voices in Omaha that are holding their own shit.”

One can count him among that crop after More Than Enough, a record originated during his time in Los Angeles. Nance followed his wife (then, girlfriend) Anna to Highland Park in December 2012 to a house barely the size of his current living room. She and a collaborator (Christine, who was sleeping in the guest room, in town working on a mural for the Union for Contemporary Arts) ran a boutique-like evolving art installation called Dog Show USA while Nance worked long hours catering photo shoots and special events.

Though the move wasn’t musically motivated, a consistently creative Nance made it work. He packed his recording setup, drums and amp into a 5-by-4-foot closet space; a photo Anna had taken shows David seated at the drumset, bushy hair flowing from his head, a jacket hanging from a hook, draped over his right shoulder.

“[It was tough to] be able to record in your home out there because everyone’s ass to elbows,” says Nance, whose landlord at the time lived immediately behind him. “I was happy I had a place to record music.”

Despite multiple efforts, it wasn’t until Nance moved back to Omaha in 2015 that More Than Enough came together — by design, in short order. He enlisted the likes of Jim Schroeder (UUVVWWZ, MR 1986), fellow songwriter Noah Sterba (Yuppies, The Tarnished Angels) and current bandmate Kevin Donahue to record a chunk of it at Joyner’s warehouse, where he had done its predecessor Actor’s Diary. A few home sessions and a live iPhone recording (“Fully Automatic”) from an Almost Music show rounded out the album. The approach was simply to get together and lay the songs to tape, polish be damned.

“I like it when it’s off the cuff and everyone is still figuring out what they’re doing,” Nance says, in what could double as a description his band’s live performances. “Usually, I’m playing with people that are really good, so it’s like trying to not let them know what’s going on, so there’s the chaos in that. I like chaos.”

While a common face throughout Nebraska music before and after his return, it was only recently that Nance had been recognized away from home. After playing a session at New York’s WFMU this past summer, Noisey writer Tim Scott caught wind of More Than Enough and tracked Nance down for a Q&A. That eventually led to his album’s inclusion inside the top 30 on that publication’s end-of-year 100 list, an occurrence he seems to appreciate while shrugging off.

“You do something for a while and someone starts talking about it, it’s like oh, shit,” Nance says. “It’s nice to get a little attention for it.”

The direct praise, largely absent while Nance was a hired hand, is quite new across the board. In reality, his Omaha music scene presence dates back more than 15 years, then a guitarist for Noah Sterba and The Cocktails. He, Sterba, Donahue and Mike Marasco later formed The Prairies, and at one point he even played the Glen Campbell to John Ziegler’s Brian Wilson for Brimstone Howl.

Joyner, a legendary Omaha songwriter, remembers attending those early Cocktails shows at his brother Jesse’s home. Nance reminded him of D. Boon from the Minutemen, his technical knowledge dwarfed by his creativity and instincts.

The first time I saw him play guitar I started plotting how I’d steal him away from Noah because he was so good,” Joyner says.

More Than Enough taps into that ethos, driven by jangly guitars and a bounding rhythm section and given life by Nance’s raw storytelling. For most of our conversation, Spence’s Oar hums through the stereo speakers. While Spence is perhaps most famous for fronting Moby Grape, one of the biggest near-miss bands of countercultural rock, this album is the songwriter at his most infamous. Written immediately after his release from Bellevue Hospital Center, where he was committed after attempting to cut down bandmate Don Stevenson with an axe in his hotel room, Oar was his seminal, near-legendary work.

“It’s just some cosmic fucking music, man,” Nance says, his dog seated next to him on the wrap around sofa. “Half the time you can’t understand what he’s saying, but it’s great.”

Nance isn’t totally innocent of that himself, the mixes (or straight up one-track recordings) often obscuring his own words. But there’s intention and thoughtfulness, the frayed instrumental edges mirroring his subjects’ lives as they attempt to hold them together. “Pure Evil” serves as the album’s de facto mission statement, an advanced context for the misdeeds of his characters.

“Never Gonna Fall” describes a cocky, prideful man of experience, juxtaposed with the following track “Unamused,” the hero of which has also seen it all, emerging beaten but fulfilled. It gets as heavy as the potentially deadly relationship conflict in the screeching “Fully Automatic” or the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the epic, droning “Stuck on the Funny Side of Hell,” and as light as staring straight through a boring party conversation partner in “Isn’t That The Case?” united only by the beer and the changing weather.

It’s a series of exchanges between oneself and the person in one’s immediate space, always turning up to the light from some shortcoming or downfall. The passion in Nance’s voice gives them validity; they are all as the album’s title suggests.

“Isn’t that just living?” Nance says, laughing at himself for delving into the philosophical. “It’s good and bad at the same time? To say things are black and white is naive. It’s both things at once.”

It’s true, and it’s what makes Nance such a sharp songwriter. Even a casual listener can feel the work, which for him is constant. Squeeze the fruit often enough and something is bound to drizzle out. Poetically, it’s what he falls back on.

“I’m all about the rock,” Nance says before continuing more thoughtfully. “But I guess I don’t want [the lyrics] to be a throwaway. The “oooo”s like Led Zeppelin or some shit. I can’t stand that stuff.”

Those songs seem to materialize in a different form night to night. You can hear the variance in his iPhone recordings — available as part of his self-released Dragging Across The Eastall threaded by a distinct energy. Nance, Donahue, Tom May and Megan Siebe formed the a recent iteration of the David Nance Band for this past summer’s tour with Brooklyn-based Itasca. Some nights they vibed, while others found them messing around with “Low Rider” for 30 minutes. Sometimes making tour interesting means letting it rip.

“There’s so many people that play and it seems like they get too locked into something and it’s too repetitious and it’s not human anymore,” Nance says. “I get bored watching shit like that. It could be a really tight band and good at their songs, but if … there’s nothing alive about their songs, I’d rather watch a band that’s horrible but fucking going for it.”

In the current downtime, Nance juggles a couple different projects with shows around town. The band recently recorded during a three-day session at ARC Studios — which Nance says was his first in a proper studio — cutting what will eventually be his next Ba Da Bing release. The label, with which Joyner connected him through his own Grapefruit Records, helped get him in with Ben Brodin, about whom Nance raves.

“Ben is a total master at what he’s doing,” Nance says. “You’re like, ‘Make these drums sound like cardboard boxes,’ and he’ll go, ‘OK.’. Some engineers are picky and he doesn’t have a problem with saying, ‘Yeah let’s ruin it.’”

Perhaps to balance that out, Nance is also mixing an at-home project on the side and collaborating with Joyner on a recreation of the Rolling Stones’ Goat’s Head Soup. While he seems to favor the latter method, he isn’t anti-studio for aesthetic sake — anything to get the right result.

“I know there’s a lot of people that are analog only,” Nance says, gesturing at his home setup, which presently looks like the aftermath of an all-night Nintendo 64 marathon. “[They say] ‘That’s the only true sound.’ I really don’t believe in that. Any means necessary to make something good is fine. I use these tape machines because that’s what I used growing up and it was cheap.”

By the end of our conversation, I got the sense that David Nance does this because he has to. There’s a hunger there, not unlike the drive he describes throughout the afternoon in bands lighting their drum kits on fire or screaming into a house show for five minutes before tossing everything aside and stomping away. But it’s something he stays ahead of by constantly pursuing it.

Indeed, Joyner calls Nance “a voracious listener,” able to blend all his influences into something uniquely his own. He suspects Nance appreciated quality song construction before he was doing it himself, creating the rock song and then figuring out what to say later.

“He’s great at absorbing his influences, so even if he totally ripped a part from a famous Velvet Underground song, it would seem like his own part in the context of his song,” Joyner says. “Not everybody can do that and get away with it.”

That seems to be OK with Nance, who’s just filtering life experiences and inspirations through his own lens. It’s unique not because of its newness, but because he owns it.

“You’re just a part of a lineage that are doing it, and you’re just another voice in this fucking river,” Nance says. “There will be people after you, there were people before you. I feel good to be a part of that. I’m nothing special.”

Andrew Stellmon is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. Reach him with news tips and story ideas at news@hearnebraska.org.