The progressive-rock elder statesman has survived life-threatening medical issues to celebrate his iconic band’s fiftieth anniversary with a fine new album.
Throughout its five-decades-long lifespan, Nektar has generated a cult following, sending music listeners on mind-bending conceptual sojourns. Likewise, the last fifty years have been quite a trip for the band: Nektar has witnessed various personnel shake-ups, key bandmembers migrating from Europe to the U.S., and the birth of classics on the psychedelic edge of the progressive-rock wedge, including A Tab in the Ocean, Recycled, and the U.S. Top-20 album Remember the Future.
When Nektar’s original vocalist/guitarist, Roye Albrighton, passed in 2016, founding drummer/support vocalist Ron Howden and bassist/vocalist Derek “Mo” Moore steered the band toward uncharted escapist vistas. Recently they spearheaded the recording of a freshly minted studio offering, The Other Side, a partial tribute to fallen frontman Albrighton encompassing brand-new as well as bits of repurposed material.
Inventive, at times even emotional, The Other Side should satiate, if not surprise, longtime Nektar fans. Howden negotiates tricky time changes with syncopated footwork and uncluttered fills, rooting the multidimensional songs “Skywriter,” “Drifting,” “Y Can’t I B More Like U (2020),” and the nearly eighteen-minute “Love Is/The Other Side” in driving, digestible rhythmic tears.
Prior to the production of the record, Howden experienced his own brush with “the other side.” He had been diagnosed with stage-four cancer, and is now in remission with the introduction of chemotherapy. Behind-the-scenes turmoil, be it brewing legal entanglements or life-threatening medical issues, hasn’t preempted Howden or his bandmates from celebrating Nektar’s fiftieth anniversary. Until coronavirus shut performances down, the group was touring through it all with Mick Brockett, Nektar’s lighting designer from the 1970s, who has updated his analog liquid light experiments for the digital age.
Howden, a native of England, spoke with MD from his longtime home in New Jersey.
MD: Tell us about the making of The Other Side.
Ron: It was recorded at Shorefire Recording Studios in Long Branch, New Jersey. We’d booked ten days. It took about eight days to finish and get all the tracks down. We had a little ear refreshment, or break, and came back to mix it. The studio owner, Joe DeMaio, is a fantastic engineer and knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. We just jammed straight through and got a real good drum sound. No click track, no cut and paste. Nearly all the tracks were first takes. There may have been a couple that we did a couple of times, mainly because we wanted to change the arrangement.
MD: There are two bass players in Nektar.
Ron: If it’s all interwoven correctly, nothing gets in the way. Mo [Derek “Mo” Moore] is great about coming up with harmonic lines and countermelodies. Randy [Dembo] is a great bass player, too. He’s also playing twelve-string guitar. Drummers love playing with bass players, right? And I was happy to get back to playing. Prior to this record I was diagnosed with cancer. Stage four, actually. Lymphoma, which is blood cancer. I went through a very tough time in the hospital for a couple of years, and then I had a bone marrow transplant. Before I was diagnosed I was playing with the guy from The Sopranos, “Big Pussy” [Salvatore Bonpensiero]. I did shows with him at casinos, and that was one of the last gigs I did before I went into the hospital.
MD: How did you rehabilitate yourself?
Ron: I started from scratch, doing rudiments. I also played with local blues bands. I was practicing, especially in my room downstairs, but there is nothing like playing with a band. I used to jam a lot with different people. Do you know guitar player Billy Hector?
MD: He used to play on occasion with Hubert Sumlin….
Ron: He told me about that. Billy has a great drummer, Sim Cain. Sometimes Sim does Ween gigs or whatever, and I’ll sub for him. Still, at one point I couldn’t even pick up a stick. My arms were so thin after the chemotherapy. I had an absolute ton of chemo.
MD: Talk about being intimate with “the other side.”
Ron: Absolutely. I came so close to it. It gave me a new lease on life.
MD: Guitarist/vocalist Ryche Chlanda of Renaissance and Fireballet has been recruited as frontman. Interestingly, Ryche first came aboard in the late 1970s after Roye temporarily exited Nektar. How did Roye’s death impact the band?
Ron: It was a huge loss. Ryche is doing a fantastic job, but they’re big shoes to fill. Roye was a kind of focal point for the band.
Tools of the Trade
Ron Howden uses Ellis drums, Ludwig timpani, a DW kit for recording, various cymbal brands (Paiste whenever available), and any sticks of the 5B variety.
MD: There was another Nektar band touring around.
Ron: We’re going through the right steps to make it better.
MD: When you say “make it better”….
Ron: We’re trying to correct the situation. I don’t want to say too much and get in the way of anything legal.
MD: Let’s talk about a couple of songs from The Other Side that are in odd times, such as “Devil’s Door” and “Drifting.” “Devil’s Door” contains Roye’s opening guitar riff from a 1974 soundboard recording.
Ron: “Devil’s Door” goes back and forth between seven and four. “Love Is/The Other Side,” has parts in five, but because the whole rhythmic structure is ’round the melody, you don’t really feel the time. For “Drifting,” which is in 9/4, my ideology was, “If I go crazy with it, you would be ‘drifting.’” I tried to get a Nick Mason feel in odd time.
MD: How does the recording process for The Other Side compare with classics A Tab in the Ocean and Remember the Future?
Ron: The way Nektar wrote music in the early days, we would get to a gig and instead of doing soundcheck we would play for three hours. Doing that five or six nights a week for any length of time, you’ll get to know the songs. For Remember the Future, which is one long song in two parts, we were in a 12×12 room, all four of us, and we did the whole album from start to finish. If anyone made a mistake, we had to go back to the beginning to start again. We must have done it about nine or ten times.
By Will Romano