Athens, Georgia-based guitarist Dan Nettles knows that his music can be a hard sell.
The name of Nettles’ long-running band, the knotty Athens instrumental outfit Kenosha Kid, is a deep-cut reference to Thomas Pynchon’s canonically difficult Gravity’s Rainbow, the platonic ideal of the postmodern novel. The earliest works from the group (of which Nettles is the sole constant member) were conceived and performed as live scores to silent films and stage plays inspired by classic dystopian sci-fi novels. Its mercurial music sits somewhere in the Schrödinger’s nexus of jazz, post-rock and improvised music — at once all of the above and none of the above, marked by an erudite rhythmic vocabulary and a sapient harmonic language.
“Nothing I do is fashionable,” Nettles tells Free Times. “I’m making this music for a small slice of life. It’s not for everybody. I think about it as being one percent of people who are into it, and I just have to reach them. But you make a record and you have to create a marketing campaign and you have to create a video and you have to do all this smoke and mirrors, and I’m just like, ‘I don’t know.’ I’d rather put out music that means something.”
Pynchon never made things easy on the reader. Nettles takes it easier on the listener. Despite the heady approach, the results are simultaneously thrilling and approachable — brainy and sure, but also humorous and humanist. Consider last year’s Missing Pieces, which resonates with a universal notion: the transience of life, and how we learn to live with the holes left when our loved ones leave this world for the next.
Though it’s lyricless, Missing Pieces is autobiographical, born out of personal loss. Nettles’ mother died. He was left reeling after a long-term relationship dissolved. Nettles’ grief and isolation were punctuated by the death by suicide of the Athens musician Carl Lindberg, a dear friend and a frequent collaborator.
To cope — and to move forward — Nettles retreated deeper into his art.
“I was writing to stay alive, more or less,” Nettles says. “I was trying not to think about anything other than what I was playing at the moment. I kind of put myself to work writing this music. I kind of just made it my job.”
He wrote the bulk of the first draft of Missing Pieces in about two weeks, finishing that first spurt by cutting a series of demos in his Athens home. He shelved the demos for several months; when he returned to them, he found that they still resonated. He’d spend the next few years revising, augmenting and occasionally rewriting the songs before reconfiguring the makeup of his band — shedding the horn section and adding a second guitarist — and recording the songs in four separate sessions over two years. After that came yet another year of careful editing.
“I decided that the music and its message was my job,” Nettles reflects. “It was the thing in my life that I thought had the most value and made the most sense. So I threw myself into it.”
Missing Pieces evokes the enormity of grief. The off-kilter rhythms — a Morse code-like figure comprising three sections of an eighth note and a quarter note bookended by a section of two eighth notes and a quarter note on either side — of “How Would It All Fit?” gird the longing implied by the melancholy melody and moody, delay-washed atmosphere. “After This,” all pealing slide guitar melodies and pounding floor toms, sags with weariness. “Waiting on the Dam to Break” moves at a brisk, bright gallop, but its smeared guitar swells suggest a tired mind drained of emotion.
On the title track, Nettles incorporates a field recording of an a cappella song sung by Lindberg. Lindberg’s windswept voice drifts in and out the liminal ether, haunting Nettles’ dolorous chord vamps. (The song, Nettles writes in Missing Pieces’ Bandcamp liner notes, plumbs “how the hell to keep losing people and go on.”)
But Nettles processes loss not simply as an anchor but as a catalyst, and the guitarist finds brightness among the darkness, a salve for psychic wounds. The coruscant melodies “Lift This Stone” rise toward the heavens, like hands upturned in prayer. The steady march of “(Don’t Listen to the) Static” is four-square; its melodic figures repeat like a mantra, as if to impart the need to focus on the here and now. It is resolute and hopeful, its suggestion clear, even without the aid of words: Times may be tough, but the only way out is through.
“Nobody wants to hear manufactured, insincere music,” Nettles posits. “If you can’t embrace your voice and who you are and follow through with it, you’re going to be lost as an artist. No, [Missing Pieces] doesn’t have words, but so what? Neither do really great paintings. Words fail. Words fail in so many ways. They fail for me over and over again, in terms of the satisfaction I get from writing a sentence versus writing or playing a song. Words fail so frequently that the music wins every time for me.”
What Kenosha Kid
Where: Curiosity Coffee Bar, 2327 Main St.
When: Saturday, Jan. 25, 7 p.m.
With: Michael Crawford + Nic Jenkins
More: 803-357-2889, curiositycoffeebar.com