Nick Sanborn and the sideman spotlight
Milwaukee-turned-North Carolina musician Nick Sanborn speaks with TCD about his "Lend Me Your Voice" project, premiering this weekend through Alverno Presents and featuring the talents of Sanborn's varied friends and collaborators.
Former Milwaukeean Nick Sanborn teams up with Alverno Presents this weekend to bring his story to the stage: the often glanced-over talent of a sideman. Sanborn has collaborated with a slew of creative bands, including but not limited to Decibully, Headlights, Buffalo, Cedar AV, Collections of Colonies of Bees, and Megafaun (he also has a solo outfit, Made of Oak). He now resides in The Triangle of North Carolina. Sanborn spoke about his Lend Me Your Voice project, and the steps that led him to it:
Danielle McClune: I know that Megafaun is out of Raleigh, and so it makes sense that you moved there, but can I still ask why you left Milwaukee?
Nick Sanborn: I was with Megafaun one and a half years before leaving Milwaukee, and it was just time for me to not be there anymore. I moved [to MKE] when I was 18; it was the kind of place that fostered all of my initial adult growth. I’ll defend the city until the day I die, but I kind of had this moment where I realized I knew exactly where I’d be in 5 years if I stayed there. And I didn’t love that picture. It was a convenient time for me to leave; I hadn’t had a non-music job for awhile, or an apartment, I had just gotten out of a relationship. I thought ‘I could just go…’ I knew I had to make a personal change to take hold of the next step in my life. There are a lot of places I think I could’ve moved, but The Triangle was the obvious choice. All of my work was coming from there, I have a huge group of friends here. I wouldn’t have to start totally from scratch. So far, it’s been taking off immeasurably well.
DM: It seems that there’s sort of an Eau Claire—Milwaukee—North Carolina connection, in regards to music. Is that an actual thing?
NS: You can center it around cities, but there really is a Wisconsin—North Carolina thing. I definitely hang out with a lot of Wisconsin people here. I think the states have a weird kinship. Years ago when I first started coming here on tour, I mentioned that it felt like a southern version of Wisconsin. There’s a very similar vibe with the people and the landscape, and I think any job where you travel a lot, you start to figure out what makes the kind of place you could live, what elements you need. And for me they’re pretty specific, and North Carolina seemed like a really easy place to move, because it’s so similar to Wisconsin in a lot of ways. The underlying nature of the state is very similar, which you can’t say about a lot of places. Everyone’s friendly, no one’s pretentious, everyone’s really chill but also very productive. The landscape is rolling hills, agriculture, that kind of feeling.
I had done some stuff with Brent Gohde and his past Alverno shows. I had written some music for him before, for [Cedar Block’s] Dig for the Higgs, one of which was a song about Higgs asking to be found, an American tale somewhere-out-there kind of vibe that actually went over really well. David Ravel used it to close the show. He asked me to do my own project and I said well, I can’t, I’m moving. But he buddies with Aaron Greenwald [of Duke Performances, where Lend Me Your Voice premiered last weekend], who got in touch with me when I came here and said he’d really love it if I pitched a project that we can do both here and in Milwaukee. It was exciting and intimidating, being in a new town, and he was just immensely supportive and kept at me. I had this idea that I thought would be big enough and he reassured me it was exactly what I should do. He helped me develop it, supported by David, and here we are a year later.
DM: I know there’s a description of the show on the Alverno site, but would you describe it, in your own words?
NS: Yeah, it doesn’t really fit well into a blurb (laughs). You know, I moved here and Megafaun was taking a break, and I was thinking a lot about the last few years of my life, most of it being a sideman. Supporting somebody else’s vision, and trying to live in that, and how that affected my playing and my writing, and how invaluable those things have been. I was just really realizing how much that shaped me as a person and a player, and so that was on my mind a lot. The show is basically me and a lot of people like me, who spend a lot of their time being sidemen but also have their own projects, with varying degrees of success and completion and all that. I thought it would be interesting just to gather people like that together and have them kind of take turns being a leader, and then stepping right back into the band and supporting someone else’s vision. I will introduce somebody, they’ll play something totally alone, and then I will back them up for one of their songs, then someone else, the band slowly grows by one each time I introduce a new person. It’s a whole evening of music like that. So it’s just a concert of people who do what I do, and it’s nice to have this excuse to gather a bunch of friends together and play some songs. Everyone is playing all new stuff, it will be like a weird catalogue series; everyone is doing something no one has heard before.
DM: With all these projects and creative juices going on, how do you keep yourself organized?
NS: I kind of gave up on that (laughs). It’s come down to deadlines—trying to not be too much of a space cadet. I mean I’m lucky enough to have so many things going on right now, lucky to get overwhelmed and distracted. It’s a struggle as somebody who is very difficult to keep focused on a good day. It comes down to stuff needing to get done on a certain day; I keep my mind on that and then move on. If I didn’t have timelines, I’d be screwed. Forget it.
DM: When are you happiest? Playing alone in your room? Rehearsal? Performance? What do you like the best about what you do?
It depends on the day for me. The easy answer is “whatever I didn’t do yesterday” but what gets me most excited, overall, is just making stuff. Feeling like I created something is an extremely rewarding feeling, even if that’s just being on stage and apart of an improvisation that only happens once. Any person in a field where your work amounts to something at the end of it, I think creatives would agree that thinking ‘oh there’s something there now that wasn’t there before’ is an extremely rewarding feeling. But I mean, shit, I’m lucky enough that for most of my time, I get to be hanging out with friends and making music. I don’t really give a shit what it is. If we’re in the studio? Yahtzee. If we’re on tour? Yahtzee. You know? If I’m playing bass in my friend’s band? Yahtzee. To even have those things as an option in my life is such an amazing, lucky thing. I don’t ever take it for granted. It’s all great, following your bliss and all that.
Nick Sanborn: Lend Me Your Voice takes place at Alverno’s Pitman Theatre, this Friday, Nov. 8 and Saturday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20, available online.