The 1990s are often name-checked as a high point in the Burlington music scene, but the following decade proved equally fertile for local music. Some of the city’s most memorable and beloved acts emerged during the early 2000s, including Swale, the Cush, the Jazz Guys, RAQ and even a bar band called Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.
About halfway through that decade, a slowly fermenting underground scene started bubbling up. Art spaces such as the Narthex House and the Green Door Studio began hosting shows that felt more like intimate parties with live music. Later, the Fifth Element, the Bakery and other nontraditional venues offered solace to outsider acts that had much smaller audiences than, say, Grateful Dead cover bands at Nectar’s.
A band called Nest Material was at the center of those early days of Burlington’s creative music underground. (According to some sources, they may have been the entire creative music underground.)
Started by a group of friends who wanted to make something “chaotic” together, Nest Material aimed to play — and listen — in the moment. The seven-person collective played traditional rock instruments, as well as bassoons, oboes, saxophones, synthesizers, percussion, loops, turntables and various other noisemakers. They drew from krautrock, psych folk, free jazz, contemporary classical, noise rock and beyond to produce an unclassifiable riot of sound. Their complex and challenging music often displayed breathtaking openness and visceral emotion — with dulcimer. Nest Material recorded the madness on several albums, including two 2006 long players, Metaphysical Graffiti and Radio Kinetics.
While their music was unlike that of any other Burlington band, Nest Material’s story arc is familiar: A bunch of friends practiced and gigged around town for a couple of years, did some recording and then slowly fell apart. Some members moved to far-off cities. Others stayed in Burlington.
This Friday, November 11, they’ll reunite for a one-off gig to celebrate drummer JB Ledoux’s 30th birthday.
Several band members recently answered questions about their collaborative creative process and what they learned from the experience. What follows is a short oral history of Nest Material from members of the band, as well as insight from friends and musicians Greg Davis and Toby Aronson, and former Seven Days music editor Casey Rae-Hunter, who wrote about the band during its heyday.
“I don’t remember how the band came together exactly, but I do remember we were very intent on making something chaotic. I know someone was playing an alarm clock radio at the first practice.” —Ben Hedstrom, guitar
“… It seemed that every practice we had was a type of musical discussion.” — Sarah Rubbins-Breen, trombone
“Everybody just went into it with their own influences and their own idea of what they wanted to do, and kind of threw it all together in a pot and let it duke its way out.” — Tanner McCuin, synthesizers
“They just wanted to run a turntable backwards and fart on a synthesizer for hours at a time, and I was like, ‘Well, I have a drum set. What am I supposed to do?’” — JB Ledoux, drums, percussion
“There was absolutely no experimental music scene at all. ... The closest thing was maybe some of [Signal to Noise editor] Pete Gershon’s free jazz concerts that he did from time to time.” — Greg Davis, electronic composer and musician
“I think a very small percentage of the DJ community was exploring out-electronica, but it was by and large beat-driven sound collage and nothing terribly out there ... Some portions of the jazz scene were pretty progressive, but there was really no center to things.” — Casey Rae-Hunter, former Seven Days music editor
“They could play a really mellow, beautiful acoustic set in the 1/2 Lounge, where people were playing slide whistles, and then they could have these freak-out things where they’re throwing shit around and screaming and getting naked.” —Toby Aronson
“I felt like I never really existed in the physical realm of Nest Material. I was always like a little birdie floating above. All [the] guys were, like, doing beats and rhythms and chords and stuff, and I was just like bee-de-be-dee-dee [makes bird saxophone sounds].” — Sara-Paule Koeller
“Playing alongside both really learned and experienced musicians, as well as amateur noisemakers, made me realize that emotion was at least as important as talent, maybe more so.” — JB Ledoux
“Once it became a thing, we all started to have an idea of what that thing was, and it was a little different for everybody. Instead of listening more, we all tried to direct more.” — Tanner McCuin
“In retrospect, it’s fairly obvious that even the littlest amount of conscious thought that made its way into our music probably damaged it to some degree. Controlling the indulgence of consciousness in our music played heavily into the creative process for better and worse.” — Ben Hedstrom
“When there’s seven people in a band, one of them is always moving for school.” — JB Ledoux
“Nest Material changed the way I listen to music, because I no longer needed a four-on-the-floor rock band to get me off. I could listen to complex improv or simple synth drones and still get the same enjoyment.” — JB Ledoux
“It affirmed a lot of what I suspected about music: That it’s difficult, that it challenges you, takes you out of your comfort zone. It could be a lot to do with the type of music we were playing: improvisational noise/rock in front of a live audience. Sometimes you’d hit your stride and it was like you couldn’t hit a bad note, other times it was nothing but sour notes ... It could be unnerving.” — Tanner McCuin
“I felt like there was a really nice spirit and community around what they were doing at the time. They were all good friends of mine and they’ve mostly all moved away since then, so I have fond memories. But really there wasn’t much of an experimental music scene in Burlington, before or after Nest Material.” — Greg Davis
Nest Material plays the Monkey House this Friday, November 11, at 8:30 p.m. $5.