NOMO, the alternative Afrobeat collective from Ann Arbor, Michigan, marches to its own beat, or more accurately, to the beat of four different percussionists.
Led by the lanky, baby-faced founder and composer Elliot Bergman, the nine-piece multi-ethnic/gender brigade is a mash-up of cultural and musical influences.
Defying classification to create an Afrobeat/funk/electronic hybrid (think Remain in Light-era Talking Heads with the sensibilities of Fela Kuti), the band has old-school jazz purists, hipsters, and indie rockers cocking an ear and taking notice.
With choice gigs at Bonnaroo and the 2007 Chicago Pitchfork Festival, along with opening slots for Ozomatli and Earth, Wind, and Fire, the road warriors of NOMO warmly embrace any scene or genre that will have them. In an industry obsessed with genre profiling, the band defies categorization, opting simply to attract the uninitiated with freewheeling live shows and an “all are welcome” credo.
“NOMO is a big melting pot of ideas and influences,” explains Bergman from his home in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. “It started with a bunch of us getting together and saying, ‘Let’s have a big Afrobeat jam.’
“I met most of the band through the University of Michigan, and we unified the vision to have a sound that is mostly instrumental, with a lot of horns and percussion that would get people dancing. I was always into jazz, particularly electric Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, but when I got to college, the doors opened.
“Ann Arbor is a pretty arts-orientated community, and when I started working at crate-digger’s paradise Encore Records, I started getting parallel educations. I got really into Indian and African music, as well as European bands like Gang of Four and Can.”
During the early incarnations of NOMO, Bergman moonlighted as an active member of indie-pop darlings Saturday Looks Good to Me, which acted as an outlet for his rock leanings.
With the recording of New Tones (Ubiquity) in 2006, Bergman and co. harnessed the improvisation of their live shows by filtering rhythmic horn lines through a tight funk gauntlet. While the interlocking of horn, percussion, and thumping bass are tight, the arrangements never feel rigid, and the continuous groove ebbs and flows but rarely falls flat.
A large part of the album’s sound can be credited to His Name is Alive founder Warn Defever’s role as producer.
“He’s a Pro Tools genius who engineers from a moral and ethical standpoint,” explains Bergman. “He had very specific ideas about how every instrument should sound and how it all fit together. However, it’s a very collaborative process and I’m always sitting there with him when he’s mixing.”
Much of NOMO’s appeal stems from the raw energy of its live shows. “Since the music is mostly instrumental, it may be a bit more challenging to connect emotionally, but there can also be a very strong visceral and emotional response,” Bergman says. “We’ve had people come up crying and wanting to hug us after a show, so there can be a very powerful connection.”
Aided by the critical success of New Tones and the strong word of mouth generated by the live shows, NOMO landed a slot on the 2007 Pitchfork Festival. On a sweltering July afternoon in Chicago’s Union Park, NOMO dared the typically reserved crowd to resist the groove and shed hipster inhibitions.
“It was a weird day,” he says. “The stage sound was disastrous, but people didn’t seem to mind. It was like senior prom, where you wait and plan for it forever, and then it’s over and done so quickly. At the end of the day, I was like, ‘Shoot, I forget to check out all the other bands.’”
As for any tales of debauchery or star-struck moments, Bergman offers none except for a backstage mix-up. “If this is my chance, I’d like to apologize to Menomena for accidentally drinking all of their beer. There were ten of us on tour and it gets very confusing. I think we also ate their veggie trays.”
After the Pitchfork gig, the band headed directly into Key Club Studies in Benton Harbor, Michigan with Defever to start work on its third album, Ghost Rock.
“Our drummer was leaving for India, so we booked two days immediately after our five-week tour,” recalls Bergman. “The band was super tight but also burned out. Everyone’s chops were busted, but we laid down some good stuff.
“The next day we focused on loops and electronics. People talk about a natural progression in our records, and I feel that this is a big artistic, if not necessarily logical, step forward for us. It’s a lot more minimal.”
Set for a June 17th release on Ubiquity Records, Ghost Rock finds the band mining much of the same territory of New Tones, while diving deep into the European electro soundscapes of Can and Brian Eno. It is at once swirling and dense, but completely approachable and funky as all hell.
“World music, jazz, electronica, Afrobeat…I hope that we don’t get marginalized by any of these terms,” says Bergman. “We are an American band, and in our hearts, I think we’re more of a rock band than anything else, but we do love so many different types of music.”
What’s ultimately mystifying about the band is how it is able to deftly integrate itself into rigidly defined social scenes of music. In a crude summation: the jazz people get it, the indie rockers dig it, and the jam and electronic crowd feels it.
“In the same year, we played Pitchfork and the Montreal Jazz Festival,” says Bergman. “We played with Dan Deacon to a bunch of young kids, but we also played punk clubs. We played a gig in Iowa City for maybe ten people. One time we had a group of swing-dancing elderly couples at the show who heard about us on NPR. I don’t want to turn anyone away. I just want to get this music out to as many receptive people as possible.