Miles Nielsen at the Naperville Ale Fest
Miles Nielsen is no stranger to the rock and roll lifestyle. He spent much of his youth on a tour bus traveling the country with his father, Rick Nielsen, who is best known as the wild guitar player from Rockford, IL, power-pop legends, Cheap Trick. While that always-on-the-road ethos stuck with Miles, his musical sensibilities drifted more towards the roots rock and folk spectrum. In 2009, he released his first full-length, Miles, which featured strong Wilco-esque hooks and warm Midwestern sensibilities. But this past April, Miles Nielsen and his band the Rusted Hearts dropped their newest LP, Heavy Metal, and its Miles’ biggest, tightest and most confident record to date. There’s a certain pop-refinement to Heavy Metal, which works all the way through from the loose groove of “Is This Life” to the bouncy backbeat of “Sarah” to the playful guitar antics of the album’s first single, “Strangers.” Miles Nielsen and his band, the Rusted Hearts, are currently on tour in support of Heavy Metal through the end of the summer, but will be making a stop at Naperville Ale Fest on July 16. We recently caught up with Miles to talk about his songwriting process, the recording of Heavy Metal, his father’s influence on him and more.
NAF: Let’s start at the beginning. Talk to me about when you first started playing music.
Miles: I started playing music because that’s what you do when you’re in the seventh grade. You have to decide what you want to play in band. I chose trumpet. I played trumpet for two years. Then I was in eighth grade jazz band, and the guitar player played [Guns N Roses’] “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on guitar. I thought that was just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen someone my age do. The next day I asked my dad about playing guitar. And that was it. I had a guitar. At the age of 14, I decided it would be a good idea to play out, and I played at a local all ages club. Two girls that would never talk to me ended up talking to me that night. They thought it was a pretty cool thing that I played music. The rest is kind of history, honestly. It’s been a whole bunch of nonsense travelling around the country and making records.
NAF: I’m always interested to know a musician’s songwriting process. What’s yours like?
Miles: It’s always a little different. Sometimes a song shows up from A to Z, and you knock it out in 10 minutes. You just try and get it on paper as fast as possible. Other times, it doesn’t show up as quickly. I’ll end up showing a bit of a verse or chorus to the band, and we end up putting it together. So, the writing process is really just that. It’s a process, and it depends on the song. The writing process on every song has been different.
NAF: Let’s talk about your new record Heavy Metal. First off, I think it’s a really great record. I really enjoyed how refined it is in terms of mood and the production value in comparison to your earlier works. It also feels tighter and more confident. Is that what you were going for?
Miles: I definitely think there’s more of a confident sound on this one. We worked with producer Duane Lundy on it. Before we recorded it, we talked a lot about the low end. We wanted the bass and drums to be bigger, fatter and warmer than the last recording. Beginning on the ground floor with [Lundy] was a big thing. Stemming from that, we were really focused on not necessarily stacking things on to make it sound big. It was actually the opposite. We took things away and leaned on a really good drum sound, a really good bass sound or a really good vocal tone. We leaned heavier on the primary instruments, and then we used colors to enhance the tunes. Storyboarding was a big thing too for really looking at the song, and how we built it and dissected it. It was either making it grow or shrinking it back down. That was definitely something we were conscious about. Once we got about five songs down, we had a pretty clear vision of how the record was sounding. A big part of the record’s sound comes from singing in [Lundy]’s bathroom. That may sound a little weird, but he has a bathroom at the studio that has an amazing natural reverb to it. We did a lot of the background vocals in there gathered around one microphone. So, it definitely has a distinct tone. We committed to that, and I think that shaped how some of the record sounds.
NAF: In 2015, you released a live record, Live In Rockford. I’m always curious about what goes into making a live record that sounds as good as yours. Tell me why you decided to do a live record in the first place, and what went into its recording.
Miles: We multi-track recorded it at this place called Veteran’s Memorial Hall. It was a hall built in 1912 or somewhere around there. It’s a great space in downtown Rockford. The nice thing is we turned it around in less than a month. It was a Thanksgiving show, and we released it at Christmas. That was sort of our goal. We weren’t going to go in and fine-tune anything. We weren’t going to go in and rerecord anything. We cut two songs because there were some tuning issues. But it’s just what we sound like in that hall on that night. Our biggest thing is that we wanted to focus on how quickly we could turn it around. It was like let’s put that pressure on ourselves to get that record out within three and a half weeks of it being recorded, and we did. We were pleasantly surprised about people’s reactions. People love the way it sounds. It sounds big, and that’s just how we sound live.
NAF: You play with your dad, Rick Nielsen, on the Live in Rockford track “Hey Hey Hey.” Tell be about playing with your dad, and his influence on you as a musician.
Miles: His playing is pretty schizophrenic. I can usually count on him to remember one of our songs. He’ll get up and crush the guitar for four minutes and then he’s out the door. He gets up, showboats, throws picks at people’s faces and then goes home. His influence on me is more than a musical influence. It was more about travelling with him and being on the road. It was the lifestyle of being along with a touring band than the actual musical part of it. For my entire life, being on a tour bus was all I ever wanted to do. There’s still something romantic about being on the road in a different city every day or every other day. You can pop in and play a show, and then pop out and onto the next city. To me, it’s fun that way.
NAF: Finally, you’re playing at the Naperville Ale Fest on Saturday, July 16. Have you ever played Naperville before? Are you excited to try some delicious craft beers?
Miles: Well, I think we play at the festival at 1:30 p.m., so…
NAF: Then you’ll have plenty of time to indulge!
Miles: Yeah, I’m not really a beer connoisseur. Our bass player Dave [McClellan] likes the craft beers a lot. But when in Rome! [laughs] We’ll definitely have to sample them. And we’re definitely looking forward to playing in Naperville. We don’t play Naperville very much. Musically speaking, there’s not a whole lot of original live music clubs in Naperville, so it’s nice they reached out to us for the fest.
The fourth annual Naperville Ale Fest will take place on Saturday, July 16, 2016 and will showcase over 200 unique beers from craft breweries around the country. The fest will also feature live music and food from some of the area’s favorite restaurants and food trucks. Situated on the grounds of the Naper Settlement, with downtown Naperville as a backdrop, it is the ideal setting to experience craft beer. A portion of the proceeds from the Naperville Ale Fest will benefit the Naper Settlement and the Naperville Heritage Society.
Naperville Ale Fest
Saturday, July 16th