Nate Walcott’s Red Hot Return to Lincoln | Q&A

[This Q&A previews Nate Walcott’s appearance with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ at Lincoln’s Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday, Jan 20. Find tickets here.

Right off the bat, an admission: Nate Walcott’s new gig surprised me a bit. Pleasantly so, but given his musical history, I would not have guessed the Bright Eyes multi-instrumentalist would be continent-hopping on multiple arena tours with one of the most recognizable bands in pop music.

When I offer this, Walcott seems unfazed. First of all, he has known the band’s new guitarist for more than a decade, so the connection was always there. But he is also a consummate professional with a laundry list of accomplishments. Assimilating himself into 35 years of a titanic band’s relationship would take a moment, sure, but as he says, it’s still about the music.

“Over time, your perception kinda morphs a little bit and … the experience becomes more intimate,” Walcott says. “The rooms start to shrink a little bit as you start to feel more comfortable. The basic gist is … that you’re up there playing with your friends and people you love.”

Those people are the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the internationally famous and notably exuberant rock band with which Walcott has been touring since May 2016, in support of the band’s 11th studio album The Getaway. He returns to Lincoln, where he experienced the genesis of his musical career, on Friday as the band swoops through Pinnacle Bank Arena.

As he chats via telephone before Wednesday’s St. Louis concert, Walcott is humble and grateful, both for his current opportunity and as he reminisces on the ones his former town has afforded him. He graduated from Lincoln High School in 1996, leaving for Chicago until his 2006 return to Nebraska to play in Bright Eyes. Since his move to Los Angeles in 2009, Walcott’s body of work has become vast; aside from multiple projects with Conor Oberst, there’s Broken Bells and The Shins, Rilo Kiley and She & Him, Jason Mraz and Maroon 5 and an impressive batch of film scores.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise that the Chili Peppers gig feels like another challenge to tackle, and another way to express himself as a musician. Walcott talks about the touring experience, juggling work on a new film in the process, and his return to Lincoln in the following Q&A.

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Hear Nebraska: This is cool, Nate! I have to admit, I didn’t know until [recently] about or expect this pairing, judging by your [musical] history. So I’m curious about how you got hooked up with Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Nate Walcott: I met [guitarist] Josh [Klinghoffer] some time ago on a Bright Eyes Europe tour in 2003. He was playing guitar with Beck at the time on the Sea Change tour and we kept in touch over the years. He’s lived in L.A. for pretty much most of his life. So when I moved to L.A. in 2009, I saw him more regularly then, and we have a lot of mutual friends. He’s actually the one who hooked me up with the Broken Bells gig, he recommended me to Brian Burton and James Mercer for that, he was friends with those guys. So we’ve just been friends over the years and he’s been playing with the Chili Peppers for some time. They put out a new record [The Getaway] in 2016 and there’s some keyboards on the record. and when they started to play shows, they realized they needed a keyboard player. Josh called me.

HN: What was that first meeting or rehearsal like? How does that go when you’re sort of being contracted by a band?

NW: Just like anything else, really, it wasn’t too different than a lot of experiences that I’ve had in the past. They were looking for somebody for some shows, Josh sent me some of the material ahead of time. I learned it, came in, played it, it was cool. There wasn’t really too much out of the ordinary. Knowing Josh and being pals with him, that really sort of made the whole experience relatively easy, honestly. And everybody is down to earth and welcoming. Between those two things, I can’t say that it was very different than any other experience.

HN: You’ve kinda been all over the world with this band, all of a sudden, within the past year. What’s different about touring with these guys, in a band that has been playing together for years now, than maybe anything else you’ve done.

NW: In a lot of ways, what strikes me is more the similarities. There’s actually a lot of through lines, but as far as the differences, ultimately … there is that aspect of the history and the fact that they have been developing this musical vocabulary and language for 35 years, which is really remarkable and I’m really honored to be brought into that. It’s really wonderful. Of course, there are some differences, just sheer sizes of audiences. With Bright Eyes, we’ve done some similar things. We played similar sized rooms on, say, the Vote For Change Tour, but being first and actually headlining is a different feeling. Over time, your perception kinda morphs a little bit and … the experience becomes more intimate. The rooms start to shrink a little bit as you start to feel more comfortable. In that way, it also becomes very, you know, a similar experience to other things. The basic gist is kind of, in a lot of ways, it’s the same, which is that you’re up there playing with your friends and people you love and you’re using the language of music to spread love [and] at times to inspire change, create a joyful experience. It’s kind of the same idea.

HN: There’s this video of you and Flea on YouTube playing trumpet, in a green room or practice space or something. What is that chemistry like? Like how you’ve developed or assimilated into that musical vocabulary that they have.

NW: I have a background in jazz music and improvised music, and that works very well with what they’re doing. They’re very much a band about improvisation and spontaneity and liveness and listening and communication. Those things are very important to them and that is a language I understand, having that background in jazz and improvised music, that has allowed me to integrate somewhat seamlessly with what they’re doing. Those elements don’t always come into play. It’s not a jam band, we’re not up there for an hour and a half jamming. And you mentioned Flea … he is an excellent trumpet player. I share with him a love for jazz, the classic jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s. We talk a lot about music and jazz and it’s nice to have that shared interested and love in that music. That might not reveal itself every night in a direct way but somehow those ideas manifest themselves in subtle, maybe not directly audible ways.

HN: Anthony and Flea are both notably and historically pretty animated during performances. What is the funniest onstage moment so far, if one comes to mind?

NW: The shows are dynamic and live and wonderful and spontaneous and those moments don’t really jump out to me in that way, if that makes any sense.

HN: Yeah it does. It sounds like, on my end, there’s some kind of awe, “It’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers!” and you seem unfazed by having been on tour with this kind of band, having experienced [similar shows] with Bright Eyes and some of your other work.

NW: Yeah, you know, it’s amazing. I don’t want to downplay it. It’s amazing and I’m very grateful and thankful for this experience. It’s really wonderful being a part of what they’re bringing to the world. I think the role of the artist, the creator, right now, and musician is really more important than possibly ever, or at least in recent times. It’s a very critical time and I think there’s something really important about creating and bringing a message of love and generosity to the world. As vague as it might sound, it’s a crazy time, as we all know, and I think there’s something very important about the role of the artist speaking up and taking responsibility to do whatever we can do to heal the world and inspire peace and equality. I’m thankful to be a part of that in any way, and in this case it’s this way, and in this case, it’s really wonderful to be doing that to such large audiences. So, I don’t mean to downplay that, but I try to keep everything in perspective.

HN: To switch gears, I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk about your film score work, most recently with Come And Find Me and perhaps most notably with The Fault In Our Stars. Does that work tap into a different part of your creative mind and if so, how?

NW: It does, to a degree. Certainly, it’s a different process, completely, than performing. It’s difficult to answer how (laughs). If I did, it’d be a little less daunting getting into a project, but usually that’s the first question that arises when you get a scene or the first scenes or the first cuts. What is this? That’s the discovery process that is the first four seconds or sometimes the entire stage of working on a film score. There’s that initial period of discovery of writing and demoing and composing. That’s typically me at the piano and kind of trying to crack the code of what the score is for this picture. So yeah, I actually finished a score earlier this year. I finished on tour with these guys, in Moscow, of all places. I was composing for the first two months of touring for these guys, so to make it work, I brought a rig out on tour with me and finished the score for this film called Midnight Sun that’s going to come out later this year. That was an interesting challenge.

HN: You were afforded enough downtime to dig into that?

NW: Yes. It’s hard, but I made it work. I did that [through] two Europe tours and … Moscow and Kiev. It was crazy.

HN: You mentioned that it can be kind of daunting. Is that especially so for Come And Find Me or Fault? The fact that the stories themselves are so emotionally powerful, does that add to how challenging you find a particular project?

NW: I think, in general, I personally respond better when a film is giving me a lot to work with, emotionally. So in some sense, it’s easier when it’s doing something, when it has an impact, whether it’s emotionally or statement-wise. There’s a lot to work with, and in the case of Fault, in some ways, the easiest material was the most powerful material, emotionally. The easiest score to get started with were the most emotionally powerful parts of the film. A lot of that is based on what the director or producers are looking for. That can get difficult when … and luckily that hasn’t happened much with me, and Josh [Boone], the Fault director is absolutely wonderful to work with. It helps when you are seeing eye to eye with the director because ultimately, it’s … marriage of a lot of ideas.

HN: Flipping back to tour, what has been the most interesting place to play so far?

NW: Oh, well, there have been so many wonderful places. I’ve traveled a lot over the past 20 years, but there have been a few places I hadn’t gotten to, and some of those places were Budapest … we actually did production rehearsals for the arena tour in Budapest so we were there for like a week. Russia, Moscow, Kiev, Seoul … these were places that … Bright Eyes had never gotten to, so I always enjoy going to places for the first time.

HN: You’re from Lincoln, Nate. What does it mean to be playing [here] again, with a new or different project like this one where you can reasonably expect the arena to be pretty full?

NW: It’s great to be coming back to Lincoln. I moved to Nebraska when I was eight, from upstate New York. My family has since moved back to upstate New York, which is kinda the Walcott homeland, but I will have a lot of friends and it’ll be great. Lincoln is not a city I get back to that much, but was a very nurturing environment. The Lincoln and Omaha music scenes were really nurturing when I started to get into music in Jr High and High School, and I’m very grateful for that, to have a lot of people to play with and great teachers. Which is something I think is also so important right now, as we are in a very transitional, critical time for our nation and our world. Really figuring out a lot about what are we going to be doing with our resources, in particular, as a country. It’s hard not to think about how thankful I am to have had a nurturing environment and to think about how important it is right now, at this moment, to support the arts and encourage young people to be creative and make sure that everybody has access to education and exposure to music. That’s very crucial right now. Lincoln was great in that way.

HN: After tour wraps up, what’s next?

NW: This tour will be going on for a little bit. There are some Josh Boone projects looming on the horizon, which I’ll be doing. That doesn’t really have a specific timeline but there’s that. Other than that, I have an eight-month old, almost nine-month old at home, and her name is Aurora and she’s really wonderful. Between these tours and trying to be present for her and my family, my partner, there’s an element of taking things day by day required. Things are a little nuts between all that.

HN: I image you feel torn being away.

NW: Sure, but luckily the legs of the tour are short enough for me to get home at least for 10 days or so. We’ve talked about them coming out to visit, but we’ve been out to Europe so much. Bringing a baby on tour is one thing but getting a baby on a flight for like 14 hours is another thing. So, yes, but the main thing is that she’s happy and healthy and everything’s going fine. We’re just taking it one day at a time.