Salim Nourallah
Photo: Gavin Nourallah

Salim Nourallah Goes Nuclear

PopMatters has checked in with songwriter Salim Nourallah over the years, and in a world where Covid ravaged so many plans, he gives us reams of insight.

A Nuclear Winter
Salim Nourallah
State Fair
23 June 2023

When PopMatters last talked with songwriter and producer Salim Nourallah in 2018, we explored the ideas of chapters in life and career. Since then, the world has gone sideways, and few parts of life have remained constant. It’s time to check back in with Nourallah and see what this new era looks like and whether or not we can even understand it yet.

“Everybody entered a whole new chapter in all kinds of various ways,” Salim Nourallah said, “For me … it was about to shift radically.”

Even before the release of 2018’s double album Somewhere South of Sane, Nourallah began work on his next projects, but everything was upended, largely due to the pandemic, but also through the capricious nature of the business. The last five years would be circuitous and eventful, including new ways of releasing music and, eventually, to his new album, A Nuclear Winter. To give this record context, we have to back up.

As early as 2017, Nourallah had begun recording a considerable amount of music with Billy Harvey (they play together in NHD with Alex Dezen while Harvey has produced Nourallah’s Constellation). Nourallah intended to do everything as “a duo situation but under the umbrella of me” rather than a large band production. It wouldn’t make sense to do another double album immediately, so Nourallah devised the plan to release the material across four EPs that would eventually come together as a box set, available only through him. In talking about this plan, Nourallah references the writing of David Lowery (best known for Cracker and Camper van Beethoven, though his “Letter to Emily White” still feels like essential reading) on changes in the music industry.

In an era when “every normal person has a platform”, he said, “it’s impossible to be heard through all of the noise.” Patreon is an option for financing and selling music, but that comes with “pressure to generate content” and the steady fear of letting people down. Any way you look at it, you see “the insanity of all of the time, effort, and money that independent artists put into their records and then give them away”.

Our culture hasn’t recognized that playing pop doesn’t make you famous. There are those who are “truly artists, doing it for love, no health insurance, compromising their future, it’s not to be on a big screen or play the Super Bowl halftime show. Our country has had a hard time recognizing that. The people that [are] recognizing it are the fans supporting the DIY artists.”

Thinking specifically of Lowery, Nourallah points out his new approach: “Use Bandcamp. Sell it beforehand to your fanbase; exhaust everything before you go to Spotify.”

If you give your record a seven- or eight-month rollout, you can keep some financial stability in the mix, and Nourallah found that experience to be “tons of fun”. Normally the excitement from a new album release “only lasts a brief amount of time”, but you can enjoy the process by spreading it out and staying involved in the process. It’s been working for Nourallah (“I’m satisfied that the people who follow me [to] gladly participate”), and by the time his music reaches streaming platforms, he’s done okay. A careful plan lets you have your largest, most direct sales before the broader industry gets involved.

But, like Robert Burns, we know how the best-laid plans go. The plan said: put out the first of the EPs, Jesus of Sad, in early 2020 to coincide with East Coast tour dates. Follow that up with an EP release in April while touring with Rhett Miller. The EPs would come out in 2020, become a box set, and everyone would enjoy it. Reality said: Covid will shut everything down before the second EP. Eventually, Nourallah released it as a Bandcamp-only collection. “It’s not any less significant to me because of the way the world shifted,” he said.

Another story runs parallel to this one (and eventually, the two connect) but requires going back even further. A man named Bucks Burnett owns the shop 14 Records (now in Dallas, formerly in Denton), and he helped Nourallah and his brother Faris get their first record deal in the early 1990s. Nourallah and Burnett have remained friends ever since. Burnett has an odd knack for connecting with musicians, and he became friends with the Church‘s Marty Willson-Piper and Steve Kilbey after meeting them at the band’s first show in Dallas.

Salim Nourallah
Photo: Gavin Nourallah

In 2018 Willson-Piper (who’d left his band in 2013) was looking for a spot for a show in Dallas. Burnett connected him with Nourallah, and the two artists hit it off. As Nourallah explains, “Marty is easy to get along with.”

Nourallah had songs dating back to the early 2010s that he was looking to record with his band (apart from the duo set-up with Harvey), and Willson-Piper came in to “augment” the group and to help with the production. Nourallah does plenty of producing (some of his most notable work has been with the Old 97’s) and can rarely turn off “producer brain”, but it helps to have an outside perspective on your own music.

“When you’re producing someone else, certain things seem more obvious,” Nourallah explained. “That’s why I turned to Marty and Billy Harvey [who helped finish this record] for help.”

All the music coming from Nourallah needed to find the right home. The varied material with Harvey ended up on coherent EPs. A standout track like “Hold on to the Night” didn’t fit the album’s tone, so it went to yet another EP, See You in Marfa.

“Albums,” he notes, “I want to feel like the collection of songs belongs together for some reason. Those did not fit with what I was seeing as the sound of the album, which has a darker tonality.” Some of that feeling comes from the fact that the older songs came from the end of Nourallah’s marriage. With some wryness, he added, “All of those songs have now been released. People can feel relief.”

Nourallah describes this process as “songherding”. He has different “pens” for music for his solo work, NHD, or his band, the Travoltas, and he needs to get each song into the right pen. Some tracks that started life much earlier weren’t right for any of the other projects, but now they could find a home.

With the right batch of songs, the band began recording. Nourallah had a new experience in the process. “I do really admire him. I love his ex-band,” Nourallah said of Willson-Piper. “I didn’t realize how much pressure I put on myself for A Nuclear Winter to be good because Marty’s involvement somehow… I had the 19-year-old in there going, ‘It has to be better than that.’ It led to a lot of hardship. The single most difficult, crappy experience I ever had, a lot of it coming from inside my own head.”

The hardship wasn’t all internal. Yet again, plans go astray. Nourallah planned to record this album with Willson-Piper in 2018, release it in 2019, and then tour. The EPs would have their rollout during 2020. You can see where this is all going. “It all got shifted. It’s like throwing a deck of cards up in the air,” Nourallah said. “The pandemic for me was three years. The studio dried up – local bands weren’t making records. I didn’t really get back to gigging and traveling until early this year. World’s Weakest Man came out Bandcamp-only at the beginning of 2021, and then A Nuclear Winter went on indefinite hold and is now just finally coming out in June of 2023. That’s a solid four years.”

A Nuclear Winter is excellent, and an interesting production note may influence how a listener should approach it. Typically, guitarist Joe Reyes is in the left channel, and Willson-Piper is in the right. “I wanted the album mixed like that,” Nourallah said, “so people could get a kick out of it. It really informed the sound of the record.”

The record’s title suits the songs’ sense of fallout and struggle, starting with the decade-old breakup songs but offset my more optimistic cuts like “Loved By You” or the surprisingly mellow “You Are Beautiful.” The title – as you can probably now guess – goes back a ways, and ties everything so far together.

Nourallah’s partner said something “years ago that started this”. She said, “When you’ve survived an emotional apocalypse, even a nuclear winter feels warm.” The phrase led to its own song, which, because why do anything simply, ended up not here but in the Weakest Man series. It gave this album its appropriate title. Nourallah plans to make t-shirts with the phrase. As Nourallah points out, “We’ve survived some sort of apocalyptic thing.”

Salim Nourallah
Marty Willson-Piper and Salim Nourallah / Photo: Olivia Willson-Piper

A Nuclear Winter closes with “Let Go”, in which Nourallah addresses all the lost dreams and broken plans by realizing the need to “surrender to the things I can’t control”.

He started writing the song in 2012 but says, “It’s taken on even more than I ever thought it would. Music is this determination and stubbornness never to let go. I thought if I went longer than six months, I’d never play again. No matter how tough it gets, the one thing I refused to let go of was this determination to plow forward. In 2020, we all let go. You could not will yourself to play a gig or go on tour. I had to accept that for the greater good, you stayed to yourself and wait it out. Part of the cosmic joke – we try to control everything and can control very little. Collectively, we all faced this thing. It didn’t matter whether you were a musician, policeman, or teacher. You had to accept it.”

That attitude resists resignation. In following Nourallah’s recording career over the last five years, we haven’t made space for his other work. A label he helped run, Palo Santo, collapsed due to the pandemic. A “business partner backer wanted out” after everything went sideways in 2020. The label had bands stranded before South by Southwest, other artists who couldn’t get together.

“All the good times, the momentum, the positivity…,” he explained. “It’s like Detroit booming in the 1920s to cut to downtown Detroit in 1970. You have no business anymore. Everything is gone. They wanted out, and I didn’t blame them.”

The closure allowed Nourallah to focus on his boutique label, Happiness, which will be putting on long-lost Seven Seven by Machine Translations, and he has plans for more, even if he may only “release one record a year”. “I’m thrilled with doing projects like this,” he said. “That I can continue in some way.”

The craziness of the past five years has led to a lot of reflection about what matters. “Even though things aren’t ideal, I’m at the point where I’m just thrilled that anything at all is happening,” he continued. “It’s lowered the bar. Maybe it’s not good. Musicians have had to accept a lot. Everybody’s just thrilled that we can congregate again. I don’t even care about anything else. I just want to see my friends. It was really poignant: we did a Texas tour in January, and I teared up just seeing people I hadn’t seen that I was used to seeing two or three times a year. The passing of time – it hit me in the face.

“I can see it very clearly now. It’s all about that. I can be perfectly happy playing a show in a living room to 15 people and not go, ‘Why aren’t I playing to 15,000?’ The connection is everything and easier to achieve with smaller numbers.”

Salim Nourallah
Photo: Paolo Minelli

So the music continues. Nourallah’s working on an album of Willson-Piper’s, and he’s got two more records of material with Harvey in the bag as they finish mixing. Nourallah’s learned to explore his various tendencies. He can embrace his rock “chaos energy”, but dive into the side that is ” very well manicured, like a hairdo perfectly in place,” as with Snowing in My Heart. It’s taken him years to learn such things about himself.

“I didn’t have that knowledge of myself as an artist 15 years ago,” he said. “I never thought I’d be fronting a band in a polyester suit with no guitar. It brought out a different side of me. I’ve been an extremely slow developer.”

These discoveries have led to an artistic “Renaissance”, though, in Nourallah’s case, it has less to do with rebirth (he never stopped) and more with increased flexibility. And what he feels more than anything is gratitude, “especially considering where I’m at, with my age, and how long I’ve been doing this”.

“The people around me are a massive part of it,” he said. “I’m surrounded by genius musicians. I’m just really grateful. When I look at all these albums over the years, the people that have contributed. These guys are all so ridiculously talented. John Dufilho and he’s just on the drums. Billy Harvey: I’ve never met anyone like him as far as musicality. That’s why the last like 50 songs I’ve recorded – I’m completely addicted to the experience of working with him.”

So where, after all this madness, does Nourallah find himself in? If he can section his career and life into somewhat coherent eras, what does he make of such a topsy-turvy stretch? “This chapter mashup is really interesting, and it all came out of 2020 and the pandemic. This is definitely a mashup situation. Maybe in five years, I’ll go back and go, ‘That’s where x ended.’ Right now, it’s a mashup.”

That makes sense. I look at my window and wildfire smoke and think that nothing about the world might be clear right now. Leave the era fluid. Nourallah’s overflowing with music right now, and he has the sense to know when to let it go in the chaos.

FROM THE POPMATTERS ARCHIVES
RESOURCES AROUND THE WEB

Publish with PopMatters

PopMatters Seeks Book Critics and Essayists

Call for Papers: All Things Reconsidered – FILM Winter 2023-24

Call for Papers: All Things Reconsidered – MUSIC Winter 2023-24

Submit an Essay, Review, Interview, or List to PopMatters

PopMatters Seeks Music Writers