Distant Horizons Nomo on Handmade Instruments and Far-Out Sounds

Ann Arbor, Michigan, is not the most exotic city in the world, but that hasn’t deterred NOMO bandleader Elliot Bergman from tapping into music from distant destinations. After graduating from the University of Michigan Jazz Studies program, the saxophone and keyboard player started NOMO, paying homage to the musicality of African groups such as Konono No.1 and Fela Kuti.
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On the band’s fourth full-length album, Invisible Cities [Ubiquity], Bergman sought out even more inspiration from afar. After a few years of constant touring, he drew on a connection he had to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities—a book wherein Venetian explorer Marco Polo regales Mongol ruler Kublai Khan with stories of fantastic, bizarre cities he encounters on his travels.

“In the course of the book, the emperor becomes skeptical, and thinks that Marco Polo is making it all up, and it becomes clear that Marco Polo is really just describing Venice,” Bergman says. “It’s a very layered understanding of how a city might work—or how traveling works—and the various personalities of one place. We’re just roving bandits looping around the country, and so we’ve started to understand places in different ways.”

Outside of touring with NOMO (which features six to nine musicians onstage), Bergman has traveled to places such as Kenya and India, bringing back exotic instruments and lots of inspiration. Although traditional Western instruments such as horns, guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums figure prominently into the music, several songs on Invisible Cities got their start on homemade instruments.

Bergman and producer Warren Defever (of the band His Name Is Alive) both have an affinity for the electric kalimba—so much so that they’ve made over 200 of them in various sizes, shapes, and sounds, and they sell them on the road and online (twentyseven kalimbas.blogspot.com). The materials they use are mostly junkyard treasures.

“Street-sweeper tines are one of the things we used,” Bergman says. “We also used a plumber’s rod that you’d use to clean out a clogged shower or toilet. There’s a great flea market right outside of Chicago in the parking lot of the Allstate Arena, and I find a lot of stuff for the kalimbas there—such as plumber’s snakes. There’s also this stuff called fish tape that electricians use to thread wire through dry wall.”

The day after a long tour, Bergman and his band mates went to Defever’s allsilver studio in Detroit—UFO Factory—for a kalimba jam session that yielded hours of rhythmic loops for Invisible Cities.

“Everything was set up, miked, and the levels checked before they walked in, so we started recording immediately,” Defever says. “There was super-deep kalimba going through the Ampeg Rocket Bass amp, lead kalimbas through a GDS 18-watt combo and a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV, and a couple of kalimbas with long tines that were played with mallets going through a Shure Vocal Master P.A. system. The guitars amps were close-miked with Shure SM57s, Beyerdynamic M130 ribbon mics, and the bass amp was miked with a RCA 44 ribbon mic. AKG C414s were used for room mics.”

There were guitar pedals in the mix, too—a Vox wah, a Dunlop Fuzz Face, an Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth, and an Ibanez AD9 Analog Delay for lead kalimbas, and an Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synth and a Boss SYB-5 Bass Synthesizer for the bass kalimbas. A Boomerang Phrase Sampler was used to record and play back kalimba loops in half- or double-time.

The effort paid off in the songwriting process.

“There’s so much musical information in those little loops,” Bergman says. “You can come up with 50 different loops in a night, and then you go back and listen, and a couple of them will jump out as being really interesting. So the process is to excavate these loops, and then ask, ‘What would the horns do over this? What kind of melody do we need here? Is it slow? Is it repetitive? Is it rhythmic? Is it jumping all around? Is it intervallic? Is it slippery? Is it angular?’ You just try to think about what works in what context.”

Bergman then added sounds from Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, ARP 2600, Rhodes and Wurlitzer keyboards.

“Rhodes and Wurlitzers are like modern versions of a kalimba,” Bergman says. “There’s obviously a more well-designed hammer system, and they’re more evenly balanced and probably better in tune than my kalimbas, but it’s that same principle, so there can be some nice sonic overlaps between kalimbas and electric pianos.”

Also playing parts on Invisible Cities are bamboo flutes (on “Crescent,” which also features one of the kalimba jams), log drums, bell trees, electric mbira (African thumb piano), and an electric saw-blade gamelan—which you won’t see onstage.

“It’s too dangerous,” Bergman confesses with a laugh. “It’s made of saw blades, and they’re mounted on bolts into this wooden resonating box. It’s kind of like chimes and gongs, but it’s giant and unwieldy and prone to cutting people.”

Instead, Bergman samples sounds into his Boss Dr. Sample, and takes that along with his Yamaha Custom tenor saxophone and Clavia Nord Lead and Nord Electro keyboards on the road.

As for recording the horns—trumpets, tenor, and baritone saxophones, and trombone—it starts out very straightforward. Defever records the horns dry, and then groups and compresses them as a whole with a Valley People 610 stereo compressor/expander. The fun part begins with a crusty-old Maestro Echoplex EP3.

“You get a little bit of tape compression, and it dirties up the sound, thickens everything, and smears it. There’s a little bit of shimmer from the tape, and the pitch warbles a little bit,” Bergman says. “It just gives it a hazy, woozy, smoky, and mysterious feeling.”

Defever’s description is less sexy. “People go to tape when they’re looking for ‘warmth,’ but this offers something more like ‘charred remains,’” Defever says. “The warped, distorted, and gnarled tone that comes back from this machine is a ridiculous, horrifying version that only barely resembles the original track that went into it. This ‘echo’ is then re-synced with the original signal so there’s no actual echo, just distortion. We mixed at Keyclub with Bill Skibbe, and he’s got a really nice Echoplex EP4, so we took our original Echoplex signal and added echo with his machine for the solo on ‘Invisible Cities.’”

Meanwhile, the drums on the album have a nice upfront presence, but the kit was only recorded with four or five mics.

“The fifth mic is for when I forget that Dan Piccolo is going to be hitting the snare really hard, and I quickly stick a Shure SM57 underneath,” Defever says. “And the overheads aren’t really over the drums. It’s more like a fake British-style arrangement where the left overhead is in front of the rack tom, vaguely pointing at the snare, and the right overhead is near the floortom rim, more or less pointed at the drummer’s stomach.

“My mix philosophy for NOMO is basically that everything is a guitar. All the drums are just midrange-y, heavy hits that should be loud—plain and simple. And I dislike subtlety in the tambourines and shakers. I just want to hear every attack, and have the percussive hits land in the same simple place and with the same volume level. No fancy business on tambourine, please!”