Gut instincts

Gabe Nelson follows his passion to (temporarily) trade in his Cake bass lines for a singer-songwriter gig fronting Bellygunner

Gabe Nelson (center) hopes people will be able to separate his new band, Bellygunner, from his other gig playing bass in Cake.

Gabe Nelson (center) hopes people will be able to separate his new band, Bellygunner, from his other gig playing bass in Cake.

photo by lisa baetz

Catch Bellygunner on Friday, December 13, at Marilyn's on K, located at 908 K Street. The cover is $5; see Bellygunner's Facebook page for more information.

When Gabe Nelson founded Bellygunner earlier this year, he wasn’t in need of just any old band. He already had a band, of course: Cake, arguably one of the best groups to ever come out of Sacramento.

Yet, as Cake’s bassist, Nelson still felt there was something lacking—he wanted to do more than just lay down rhythm: He wanted to be the songwriter.

“I don’t really write in Cake. I write bass lines and horn lines sometimes, [but] John [McCrea] writes all the songs,” Nelson says.

Nelson joined Cake in the early ’90s, but quit shortly before the release of the band’s 1994 debut album Motorcade of Generosity. He rejoined in 1997 at McCrea’s urging; by then, the single “The Distance” had been released, and Cake was all over radio and MTV, and touring consistently.

In the time between, however, Nelson had spent time in other bands, not just playing bass, but also trying his hand at songwriting, often hitting up local open-mics, acoustic guitar in tow. It was fun, he says now, but still left him wanting.

“I wasn’t satisfied. I don’t know if you’re ever satisfied,” Nelson says. “I don’t think I was good enough at the time to actually have been successful in any kind of professional way, [but] I’ve always wanted to write music. I kind of needed to learn how.”

Nelson back-burnered songwriting when he rejoined Cake. Still, the musician, who’s also played bass for bands such as Caboose and Jacuzzi, managed to work on his own songs here and there.

And that’s probably how it would have continued, but then, Nelson played some of the recordings he’d made over the years to a handful of friends. The reactions were positive. One friend liked them so much, in fact, that he asked Nelson to put together a band for a show he was booking. Nelson agreed, and Bellygunner was born in March.

Fast-forward several months and Bellygunner, also featuring Peggy Lanza (keyboards, vocals), Thomson Monson (drums, vocals) and Shawn Hale (bass, vocals), is now putting the finishing touches on an album, Machinegun Built for Two, set for a 2014 release.

In the band’s early incarnation, it mixed acoustic and electric guitars into a catchy combination of psychedelic sounds, garage rock and sunny surf pop. Now, the cuts on the record retain those elements, but are further refined, even taking some influence from Cake in how the songs seamlessly mix laid-back rock ’n’ roll riffs and dance beats.

Understandably, Nelson is a bit hesitant to discuss the connection to Cake. Ultimately, he says, he hopes others will be able to separate the two bands.

“The power of the familiar is quite significant. I have had people walk up to me while onstage and ask me to play Cake songs, which, of course, I can’t do, and it’s just a bit disheartening,” Nelson says. “That’s just the price of being a member of that band.”

Still, he’s not complaining. Nelson says he has a blast with Cake and has learned a lot about songwriting from McCrea—evident in the subtly complex arrangements that make up Bellygunner’s songs.

Nelson’s clearly honed his songwriting skills over the years, yet he says he still remains nervous about putting them front and center.

“It hard for me to say, ’I write music—I write songs.’ I feel like I’m automatically compared to so many people I’ve worked with, like, ’You must think you’re really good if you can stand beside these guys,’” Nelson says. “I’m not sure. I don’t feel so confident about that. All I know is that I try really hard.”