Nightmares on J Street
Las Pesadillas reinvent a peculiarly Northern Californian strain of neo-psychedelic rock
You know, we sincerely apologize for ever calling Las Pesadillas a “country” band. For some reason unbeknownst to us, when some idiot, and we still can’t figure out who, nominated these four guys for a Sammie as Sacramento’s answer to Toby Keith, none of us stepped forward to slap the idea down into the wastebasket of the dangerously stupid.
Nevertheless, Las Pesadillas is a country band—as long as the country you’re describing is somewhere between the Balkan Peninsula and the Caucasus Mountains, or near 3 Mustaphas 3’s mythical land of Szegerely. Never mind that band singer-guitarist Noah Nelson is a big fan of the late Bob Wills, the king of Western swing who once owned a club out near American River College, and that he’s also big on Johnny Cash. Nelson also happens to love Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, the Cure and Beck. And forget that three of the four band members—Nelson, violinist Damian Sol and drummer Jason Cox—hail from Orangevale, where you might expect any country band in the area to be found; bassist Jonathan Mack grew up in nearby Fair Oaks.
The band, in its current incarnation, has been together since 1999, although its roots go back to “Madison House,” a party pad with a revolving cast of roommates that was located on Madison Avenue in Orangevale, next to a Department of Public Assistance office, where everyone would get bent, play video games and listen to Mack’s old band the Delectable Ripple Trees. “We partied a lot,” Nelson recalled, while sitting with his bandmates around a table in front of the soon-to-be-shuttered True Love Coffeehouse.
Nelson, Sol and Cox had been playing together since at least 1995, when Cox translated “the nightmares” one night into Spanish: Las Pesadillas. Then, one day in 1999, their bass player quit to go on a Mormon mission. “Two hours later, Jon was a member,” Nelson said.
Las Pesadillas’ recorded output consists of a debut full-length CD from 2001, Dear Customer; an EP in 2002, House of a Thousand Grassfires; and the just-released Quantum Immortality. The band’s music is an amalgam of indie rock smashed together with other influences—country, jazz, folk, Mexican, Eastern European, cartoon music and more. It’s coming from the same hyper-smart, left-of-center place that spawned Primus, Frank Zappa, It’s a Beautiful Day, Pavement and Camper Van Beethoven. The latter reference made the band laugh: “Everybody brings up Camper Van Beethoven,” Cox explained with a grimace, “and I know someone played them for me one time, but I don’t really remember them.”
“I’ve never really listened to them,” Nelson said. “I probably should.”
Factor in the band’s warped lyric sense—which takes an old statement by film director Akira Kurosawa, “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes,” and adds a new caveat, “but keep looking until you find something wickedly funny”—and you have the makings of an intriguing sonic adventure. Las Pesadillas’ lyrics contain the kind of imagery someone who’s plowed through stacks of books, from ancient myths to futuristic sci-fi novels, might come up with—which is entirely fitting, given the eclectic, sharply turning and constantly surprising nature of the music.
Las Pesadillas also provided the soundtrack to The Midnight of My Life, a low-budget zombie thriller by local filmmaker Bob Moricz, who sometimes performs as musician Bob Barango. [Disclosure: This writer appears briefly in the film, as the president of the United States, before being assassinated.]
The new CD has been picked up by local indie label The Americans Are Coming Recordings, which will see to it that Quantum Immortality gets heard outside of the Sacramento Valley. And Las Pesadillas plan a West Coast tour this fall, which should bring their Terence McKenna-influenced reinvention of Western swing music to a much wider audience.
“Country and eastern,” Sol joked, as the rest of the band fell out laughing. “That’s what we should call ourselves.”