Interview by Adam McKibbin
When it came time to name his studio—which has since hosted the likes of Rhett Miller and Deathray Davies—Salim Nourallah chose “Pleasantry Lane,” which seems an appropriate choice for a man who is a devout Beatles fan and, frankly, is probably due for a nice, long stretch of pleasantness in his life. Beautiful Noise is a coping mechanism of sorts for Nourallah, one that is intensely personal and yet also deliberately universal. It is an album with its guard lowered completely; Nourallah wrote the album while his young son, Gavin, grappled with craniosynostosis, and subsequently recorded the album under exhausting, after-hours conditions. The result is a collection of songs that are, in turn, ornately poppy and starkly somber, but always full of heart.
I was recently talking with John Vanderslice about his new album, which, like yours, delves into some painful autobiographical territory. He surprised me, though, by saying that the process wasn’t cathartic; that it was, in fact, somewhat exacerbating. What was your experience?
It definitely helped me. I wrote the songs when I was going through a hard time, then things had kind of gotten better by the time I got around to recording them. The weird thing for me, now that the record is done and people are reacting to it, is that I’ve already gotten a lot out of it by writing the songs and making the record. I kind of feel like I’ve already gotten when I need out of the record. It’s nice, because if people like it, I’m obviously happy, but if they don’t, it really doesn’t matter.
Do you think when you’re on tour five years from now that you won’t want to revisit these songs because they capture such a precise period of time?
I don’t know. That’s a really good question. Right now, I’m going and playing the songs, and I’ve had gigs where I’ve been extremely uncomfortable, actually. I’m most uncomfortable when I’m playing with other performers who I feel are working a shtick or entertainment angle. I feel self-conscious then because I feel like the audience is sitting there going, “What’s up with this guy? Where’s the entertainment value?” It’s not even their fault; it’s me disappearing into my own head.
But I’m feeling better now. I’ve had enough shows in Texas where people have come out and they already have the record and they want to hear the songs. That’s helped me feel not so self-conscious about it. But sometimes playing in Texas is kind of strange and…darkly comedic.
Have you turned down a gig because you think, “Oh, that audience isn’t my audience. That bill isn’t my bill?”
Definitely. But in the earlier days, that was always hard. Musicians have to learn how to say “No,” because most of us are just enthusiastic about playing. You start to realize that if you put yourself in enough bad situations because of your enthusiasm, it will really start to do damage. I think my brother, Faris, is a good example of how years of those gigs can do a lot of damage. He’s never really recovered from it.
You also keep pretty busy with your studio. Were you working on other projects throughout working on your own album?
Yeah. It made it kind of difficult. I don’t really remember a whole lot of recording Beautiful Noise because most of it was done after other people had finished sessions late at night—usually when I was pretty tired. In a way, it’s cool because I wrote it in the same state as I recorded it: I was kind of out of it. Now I’ve got this record and not a lot of concrete memories of writing and recording. That might sound strange to some people, but it’s strange to me, too.
It’s almost like you’re in Guns N’ Roses.
Backing up a second – what are some projects that have come through your studio that you’re especially excited about?
I’m really excited about a record that I just made by a band called I Love Math. Do you know Deathray Davies?
Well, John, the lead singer, is a good friend of mine, and he has this alter ego called I Love Math. We’ve been working on a record for eight months and we just finished. I’m really excited about that record.
How does it differ from Deathray Davies?
It’s a lot mellower. Sonically, it’s got a little 60s Bob Dylan in it, a little Rubber Soul, even, if you can believe that. It’s not as much of a rock band experience.
Is that out?
No, they’re kind of in the process of getting the artwork together and mastering it and all of that stuff.
Cool. So, back to your album, when you brought in the other players to record, did the songs remain pretty intact?
I guess they did. Because of the difficulty of getting people to come in—because of their schedules and my schedule—I would start just about every song with just me and an acoustic guitar and a click track, just to get the song down. In fact, on “The World Is Full Of People Who Want To Hurt You,” I got kind of careless one night and did what I thought would be a scratch vocal and acoustic guitar, but that ended up being the keeper lead vocal and rhythm guitar part on the final recorded version. I ended up liking the way the acoustic guitar reared its head every now and then, and then got buried again. Sometimes little accidents like that would happen.
I think the most difficult song to record was “The Other Side.” That was one of my favorite songs coming into the record, but it was such a hassle to record. I ended up chopping it up and messing around with it—and I almost left it off the record because I was so sick of it. I hated it.
Lyrically speaking, the album has a lot of lessons or warnings to be passed down. Is that something that someone was able to do for you when you were a kid? Or something you wished someone had done?
That’s an interesting and good question, too. I got a lot of warnings as a child, but they were probably a lot of different kind of warnings. I probably did wish that I got a different kind of thing, maybe, from my father. I didn’t want him to ever end up preaching or saying, “Listen, I know this is the way it is.” But there were a couple of things that I wanted to say, hopefully in a gentle way, not ramming it down anyone’s throat.
When you were a kid, how did you seek out music?
My brother and I grew up in El Paso, and it was a pretty horrible environment for seeking out new music. I remember being threatened in high school, almost on a daily basis, because I was listening to weird bands that no one in that city even knew. The Clash was completely subversive in El Paso. It was all heavy metal and classic rock.
I would get this magazine in the early 80s called Trouser Press. I would read it religiously and mail order records. I remember one time, in particular, when my mom took me to the post office with a big money order for records. She asked me what I was doing, why I had to mail order records. There was none of it to be found where we lived. But it was exciting—it was fun. Now, with the Internet, things are a lot easier than that. I would often order records just based from reviews.
Now that I think about it, that’s left a lasting impression on me about the music press. As a child, that was all I had. There wasn’t radio, there wasn’t Internet—it was just what a writer said about a record.
I had a similar experience. Sometimes I’d even buy an album just on the cover art.
Totally. I did the same thing.
Now there are a lot of bands that are probably judged on the strength of 30-second clips on iTunes. Not to be too curmudgeonly about it, but when you had to drive an hour and spend a week’s allowance to get a record, you’d listen to the whole thing ten times straight through, even if you hated it—and sometimes end up loving it because of that.
That’s a really good point. iTunes and the 30-second clip, that’s just an extension of our fast food culture—everything is quick, everything is instant, everything has to bludgeon you over the head immediately to make a sale. A lot of great records take a while to sink in. The best books ever written aren’t necessarily wham-bam.
There’s a line in the Stylus review of Beautiful Noise that plainly expresses the famous conflict for indie music fans: “I want everyone in the world to know about this music, and I want to keep it all for myself.” Can you relate to that as a music fan? Or does that get washed away when you’re trying to make a living with music?
Well, that’s a hard thing to put a finger on, too. My favorite band is The Beatles. They were the most popular band of all time, and that didn’t make me love them any less. But there is that feeling that I think all music fans have when they find something that a lot of people don’t know about. It’s special, and it’s a secret.
As far as how that affects me now—recording other people and going into production has taken all the pressure off needing my music to support my life. I think that, accidentally, it was one of the best things I ever did. No musician can dictate whether their music is going to allow them to live the rest of their lives and be supported by it. I think that’s why there are so many musicians who are touring even though they don’t necessarily want to tour: they have to. If you want your music to keep supporting you, you have to get out on the road and keep spitting out the records, whether you feel it or not.
When you’re playing with Rhett [Miller], and getting a bird’s eye view of his career, do you think that’s a level you’d like to reach? Or are there too many sacrifices?
Yeah, I’m really glad being me. I don’t think I’d want to trade with Rhett. He’s got a great career, but he works so hard—he’s always flying here or there, doing things, and I don’t think I have the constitution to do that. He’s been able to step up and do everything he needs to do to be at that level. I question whether I have that in me.
Is he a family man, too?
Yeah, he has a son, Max, who’s just a couple months behind our son, Gavin. When we were in Los Angeles together, he brought his wife and son and I did the same with mine. That’s been one reason, I think, that Rhett and I have a friendship that’s pretty strong. We’re both trying to do the same thing with having kids and not being gone all the time. He wants to be a well-adjusted rock and roller and not just be Axl Rose, to reference Guns N’ Roses again. So we both relate to each other in that way, and there aren’t a lot of blueprints for that. There are a lot more from the other side, the sex, drugs and rock and roll side.
Absolutely. While we’re on the topic of families—when I set up this interview, I had both of your solo albums, two of your brother’s solo albums, and then the double-disc Nourallah Brothers reissue…but I didn’t know anything about either of you, aside from what I could guess or glean from the songs. Is that ideal? I know now that there is a complicated backstory.
No, it doesn’t matter, really. It’s my life, and he’s my brother. It’s part of both of our stories. Also, I think sometimes, actually, people have been finding me through his records and vice versa. It’s been a good way for us to pick up some new fans.
To change pace again for our last question, I was wondering whether you have a pet cause that you feel may be neglected by the public.
It’s something I don’t really talk about much, but I guess being an Arab-American, especially in Texas, it’s always been difficult. I think America’s lack of awareness about the Middle East has always been a troubling thing, although I also have to say I’m disgusted with the way that the Arab nations have behaved and acted. It’s a very difficult thing. The ignorance, especially in Texas, seems to be somewhat outrageous to me. I’m obviously making generalizations about “the masses.”
But is that something you encounter on a personal, face-to-face level as well?
It affects me. I’ve had people tell me that if I ever wanted to make it in the music biz that I should change my name. Don’t I know better? Look at who the runs the industry, things like that. I just have this name; I’m not pro-Arab or pro-anything. I’m an American just like anybody else. I think my life has been easier, in a way, because people were never able to look at me or my brother and tell what we were. A lot of people thought we might be European or something. But there probably is a good chance that, with the kind of name that my brother and I have, we’ll never sneak out of cult obscurity, especially in America. The good part for me is that, for the first time in my life, I’m in an extremely good place.