For Micah Nelson and Insects vs Robots, it’s Venice that makes the band
By Ian Joulain
The evening is taking shape, and upstairs in The Townhouse all the barstools are occupied. At the edge of the bar, I can faintly hear the bluesy sounds of Runson Willis coming from the Del Monte Speakeasy below.
It’s March 1 —a Tuesday. Venice locals Insects vs Robots, a Del Monte mainstay, are set to go on at 11 p.m. and most of the band is still down the street at their creative sanctuary.
The psychedelic, acid, avant-garde outfit lures audiences in with accessible melodies and familiar sounds then proceed to push the sonic conventions of taste and genre. They drift off. Hints of folk, jazz, a few seconds of punk and then extended moments of spacy, tripped out weirdness.
Tonight the five-piece celebrate the release of their “Stupid Dreams” EP and kick off a tour of the same name that will take them to Austin for South by Southwest gigs on March 19 and 20.
IVR’s Micah Nelson, who contributes charango, guitar, vocals, percussion, piano and drums, is outside. Tallish, wearing a beanie and chill, he suggests we go meet the others at what’s been the band’s home away from home lately.
Plus, he has a burrito from Tacos Por Favor waiting for him there.
During the short walk, Nelson touches on the historical aspects of the venue he and his mates are performing at tonight and has a sense of pride while pointing out other fixtures in the area that have clearly ingrained themselves into him.
“There are so many people making life here so dope … everybody [in Venice] is just unapologetically doing their thing,” says Nelson, whose brother Lukas Nelson fronts the Promise of the Real and whose father, Willie Nelson, needs no introduction. “Sometimes it can get really intense and gnarly, but it’s the people that make life fantastic.”
Upon arrival we are met by a big black gate and are buzzed in. Waiting for us at the front door is the group’s unofficial sixth member, producer and mentor — Harlan Steinberger. We’re at Hen House Studios and it’s a palace. Early ‘60s Bob Marley is playing on vinyl as members of the band and others are milling about the dining room and kitchen. The place has a very homey feeling despite the high ceilings and seemingly custom-made everything.
As Nelson sits down to lay waste to his burrito, Steinberger giddily takes me for a tour of the studio. It’s been up and running for just under a year after relocating from a smaller space where it had been since 2001. The new spot was designed by Vincent Amaury van Hauff, founder of Waterland Design, who has built over 300 studios worldwide for everyone from pop hitmaker Max Martin to the venerable Rick Rubin.
Even the bathroom has a spot to plug in.
“This tile bathroom is an echo chamber, and it’s all wired into the patch bay,” Steinberger says.
You never know when you’re going to need some reverb mid-tinkle, but music is art and to roll our collective eyes at the thought of such a gratuitous recording spot shouldn’t be knocked; it could end up being where your next favorite song is recorded.
Hen House Studio is for hire, but it is priced out of market range. If you know Steinberger though or are a friend, he’s the type that if he has time he’ll make something work. He tells me HBO rented the place once, but outside of that usage has been minimal.
Back in the living area, IVR bassist/groove provider Jeff Smith describes Steinberger’s place with a smile and an exhale: “Dreamland.” Hard to disagree with him.
“We’re one of the first bands to record here,” Smith says, but that’s not to say the recording of the new EP and a yet-to-be released full album was done in one concurrent run. Nelson and his brother Lukas went out on the road with Neil Young in support of his album “The Monsanto Years,” which the brothers also collaborated on last year.
A direct descendant of the Red Headed Stranger, Nelson has had music in the periphery his entire life. What he has now with his band and the people who comprise it though is what really puts things in perspective for the 25 year-old multi-talent.
When asked how long he’s spent at Steinberger’s Hen House the last six months, Nelson’s deadpan response: “Six months.” He laughs, but he’s likely serious. It’s outlets like these that allow Nelson to search for the next feeling or moment where “it” happens. “It energizes us to have that collective muse in each other,” Nelson says.
The “Stupid Dreams” EP features the single “Infection,” with guitarist Milo Gonzalez’s trickling guitar and ambient sounds leading the way. The other three tracks, “Star Gnoir,” “Stupid Dream” and “Beyond Measurement” are B-sides. Groovy when they want to be and other times inaccessible, it’s the byproduct of moving toward the edges of what they bring out in one another. With the music they create it’s as if they are pushing against some invisible force, never letting the listener get a grasp of what’s going to happen before moving in another far-off direction.
There was an extended hiatus five years ago where IVR needed to regroup, refuel and pursue other creative endeavors. Nelson reflects on this time and realized, as did everybody else, that the collective spirit, chemistry and camaraderie of their group — not only as musicians, but as friends and people — is something many never find let alone walk away from. In one another lies the unseen glue that holds their musical fort together so that they can continue trying to find the end of the beginning.
“We don’t think we’ll be running out of inspiration. We can’t keep up with our ideas.” Nelson says.
The most important thing is that no one is a detriment to themselves or to the group as a whole. “I think we’re all pretty good about getting out of our own way,” he says.
They view Venice as their lab, and between the characters that lie 10 feet in any given direction IVR are positioned to be as prolific as they want to be.
Nelson and company are summoned as it’s getting close to showtime. Heading out the door, the Russian born Nikita Sorokin (violin, guitar, banjo and vocals) leads us out to the street.
“It’s hard to talk about music,” he says. “It’s like dancing about architecture. It [can be] so abstract and ephemeral.”
Sorokin’s not wrong, and it’s as if he is describing what he and his tribe set off to create and the sounds they cultivate.
Before long the group is downstairs. As drummer Tony Pelusa is setting up, a big white canvas is being raised to the left of the stage. Venice street artist Jules Muck will be doing some painting during IVR’s set, and she’s brought a model to pose topless as she paints.
I ask Sorokin if this sort of thing is normal occurrence at an IVR show.
He pauses, then grins. “For sure.”