As cofounder of the funk/experimental rock ensemble NOMO, Elliot Bergman has worked day-and-night to refine what has already been heralded as a unique and forward-thinking sound. In the time that Bergman has spent with NOMO, the collective has released four well-crafted albums, three of which have been released under the famed Ubiquity Records imprint. Each project explores a wide range of sounds, and combines a warm blend of rhythms from a diverse catalogue of inspirationsófrom the pulsating afro-centric backbone of New Tones
to the wonderfully melodic haze of Invisible Cities
. And whether heís firing emails back and forth with producer Shawn Lee or hunkered in his workshop making kalimbas
, Bergman is always looking to continue that expansive march forward for both NOMO and himself. Bergmanís DIY attitude has quite a history behind it and itís no surprise that a big part of his creative development started here in Chicago. Centerstage recently caught up with Elliot to discuss his past, and the many projects that await him in the future.
Could you tell me a little bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in music?
I grew up outside of Chicago in a musical family. My mom played the piano and guitar, so lots of my first experiences with music were playing with her. We played hymns and standards and some classical repertoire. She would play the piano and I would play the clarinet. She really pushed me to play until I came to love it on my own in high school. I remember a moment when we played through Gershwinís jazz preludes, and after finishing it, I said ďmusic really is the best thing in life.Ē She just smiled and nodded.
You and members of NOMO studied at the University of Michigan, what was the learning environment like while you guys were there?
U of M was a great place to be. I had amazing teachers, and the learning environment is very open and supportive. It was a great mix of structure and freedom. My teacher Ed Sarath has a wonderful approach to collective improvisation, and he implements those ideas in the Creative Arts Orchestra, which is a large ensemble that only plays improvised music. I also had amazing experiences working with Antoinette Kudoto, who was a visiting master drummer from Ghana, and Wasi Bantolo, who led the Gamelan orchestra.
Stylistically NOMO has been strongly associated with afro-beat and afro-rock, but you guys have been known to incorporate a lot of different influences and sounds. How would you best describe the groupís style?
We donít like to get stuck in those afro-whatever sub-genres. Itís such a small part of music. There are so many sounds and structures to explore, so we are trying to expand our sonic vocabulary all of the time. We play instrumental dance music thatís rhythmic and uplifting.
When you guys perform live itís a pretty visceral experience, whatís the process like for you in terms of translating that experience onto a recorded album?
The band does have a great energy live, and so we try to catch that spirit when we are in the studio. On the past few records, weíve been arranging as we go, so the record almost comes together before the band has really played the song live. Then you go out and play the music hundreds of times, and you wish you could record your album all over again with some of that new energy. We work on the records to make them sound like a record, rather than a document of the live performance, so I like to think of it as two distinct facets of what NOMO does.
Youíve had the opportunity to work with Shawn Lee. Heís pretty prolific, what was it like working with him?
Shawn is great. Weíve actually never met face to face, and weíve just been emailing tracks back and forth across the pond. Iím looking forward to meeting him at SXSW this week. He is incredibly prolific. I sent him a kalimba loop, and within a few days he sent me back an amazing track where he had added drums, synth, bass, steel drums etc. Iím hoping that we can get some more music happening soon.
Your sister Natalie adds some amazing vocals on ďUpside Down,Ē are you guys going to collaborate more often?
We have been working on a new record. We thought it was going to be the new NOMO record, but it has turned into something completely different. Itís more song based, and all of the tunes are vocally driven. Iím very excited about it. Lots of drum machines and synthesizers, plus some of the more organic sounds we usually work with.
In addition to you and your sister being talented artists your other sister Elise has strong roots in Chicago as a designer. Did you grow up in a household that really embraced the arts?
Yeah, we are all involved in the arts. Weíre very close, and itís really fun to collaborate with all of my siblings. Elise is working on some new NOMO shirts.
How has Chicago influenced you personally as a musician?
There is such an amazing jazz scene in Chicago and the history is so compelling. I grew up admiring the AACM and listening to the music of the Art Ensemble, Roscoe Mitchell, as well as Ken Vandermark and Tortoise. There is an amazing work ethic and integrity in a lot of the music I love that comes out of Chicago. Itís constantly inspiring to me. Iíve had the honor of working with some of my favorite Chicago musicians. NOMO was able to play with Fred Anderson and Nicole Mitchell at the Hideout Block Party, and then Nicole played on our New Tones record, and Hamid Drake played on our Ghost Rock album. Heís really a hero of mine. Heís one of the most amazing drummers, and also one of the warmest people you could meet.
Outside of NOMO you all stay pretty busy with solo projects and various collaborations, whatís it like when you guys come back together from those efforts? Is there a melding of styles or do you give NOMO its own space to breathe?
Everybody in NOMO is developing their own music, and we are all growing as musicians. We definitely try to make space for people to have their own distinct voice, so naturally the music will evolve as we all change. That said, weíre not trying to synthesize the sounds of all of the bands we are in. NOMO has a realm of possibilities that we are excited to explore for years to come.
Itís been around two years since NOMO released a full length, what have you been working on in between and is there a new album in sight for 2011?
I moved to Brooklyn, and have been keeping very busy out there. Iím playing with lots of new people and trying to get some new projects going. Iíve been playing as Metal Tongues, which is a band thatís centered around kalimba loops and tends to be a bit more free and experimental. Iíve also been touring a bit with Iron and Wine, and right now Iím on tour with Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang. I need to get back to work on the new NOMO record!