Train kept a-wreckin’
Despite head injuries, brake failure and personnel changes, Nevada Backwards will not be derailed
Three lessons you can learn from Nevada Backwards: First, when your thumb breaks, you can tape a fork to your hand and still fret the guitar with it. Second, when getting back onstage a month after a near-fatal head injury, a crash helmet is your best protection against a raucous frontman. And, third, when an axle busts on your tour bus, the brakes stop working.
Ensconced in the relative safety of his downtown Sacramento living room—where a well-stocked bar, a full drum kit and an overly friendly Doberman/pit-bull mutt are the most conspicuous furnishings—Nevada Backwards frontman Brian Ballentine was telling tales from the road. The most recent was a near-death incident starring the band’s temperamental tour bus.
“Just about a week ago, right before we were going up to Nevada City, I was going down the 80, and all of a sudden, the brakes just went out,” said Ballentine. “I heard a pop, and basically, the wheel came off. We’d hit that turn, and the axle broke. We were that close. … But we’re not dead yet.”
Ballentine shook his head and smiled. “We have an angel. There’s definitely some fucked up angel around us.”
The strangely star-crossed band’s live performances are an appropriately shambolic mix of revival show and runaway train. High on adrenaline, Ballentine dives from PA stacks, bashes an already-battered guitar and sings his lungs out. Mick Stevenson, a friendly banjo-wielding skinhead who frequently carries Ballentine around on his shoulders, looks about twice his size onstage. Violinist Nikelle Gessner typically looks on in wry amusement, as she and backup vocalist Rachel Fowler drive home propulsive rhythms laid down by drummer Troy Kimura and bassist Rodg. Somehow, they manage to keep it all from flying off the tracks and, along the way, make some beautiful noise.
Adaven, released last month on the band’s Grandma’s Phonograph Co. label, captures the band’s full fury on record. A critic might place the sound somewhere between the Southern gothic rock of 16 Horsepower and the medicine-show shamanism of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue.
“I hear 16 Horsepower a lot,” said Ballentine of the band’s theoretical influences. “And I hear people saying my voice is kinda like, what’s that guy … ‘The Boss’ … what’s that guy’s name?”
Um, Bruce Springsteen.
“Yeah, and Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins. People try to compare us, but I don’t pay attention to it,” he said.
As for his banjo and mandolin fixation, Ballentine cited an unexpected influence. “Who’s that other really popular old guy? All the girls like him. He had that song ‘Maggie’? Yeah, Rod Stewart. His old stuff sounded really cool, and the reason was the backing band. I like banjo and mandolin, but I don’t listen to country. I just enjoy those instruments. The feel of the banjo in the background is a warm feeling. It’s like home.”
For Ballentine, home was, is and shall remain Sacramento. “At one point, I was thinking, ‘Man, we should just move to Seattle. We could just take off here and actually make money and just do the music thing,’” said Ballentine, who supports himself through carpentry work. “But we have it easy here in Sacramento. And I like Sacramento. I was raised here, and my family’s here. And I just bought a house here, and I’m going to stay here.”
After a junior-high-school flirtation with hip-hop—Ballentine is still known to break-dance when the mood strikes—he began playing the punk circuit. It was just him and his acoustic guitar opening for bands like the Secretions. “I started writing music during my junior year in high school with my friend Troy,” he said, referring to Nevada Backwards’ drummer and co-founder, Kimura. “He’s played with me virtually all my life. He’s the one that showed me how to play.”
In 1996, teenagers Ballentine and Kimura made their debut at The Press Club. They called their band—an off-kilter power trio featuring acoustic guitar, drums and lead bass—the Little Lost Monkeys. The name came to Ballentine in a dream: “I was a guy looking for monkeys,” he said, holding up a pair of imaginary binoculars. “Like these little lost monkeys were running around Orangevale—you know that Frisbee golf course out there?”
But fate, in the form of college, soon split the Little Lost Monkeys. “When they went off to school, I went off to go find myself,” said Ballentine, who relocated to Mount Hood, Ore., to snowboard year-round. “I just lived on the hill and snowboarded and chilled in the woods and wrote songs. I did that for a year, and then my brother ended up getting sick, and I had to come back.”
Upon returning to Mount Hood, Ballentine realized he could no longer continue along the same course. “I’d been breaking bones snowboarding … and I realized that if I break my elbow again, I won’t be able to use my hands. So, I just said, ‘Fuck that.’ I wanted to continue doing music.”
Ballentine threw together a solo album and, in 1999, toured the United States in a Ford diesel truck. In Albuquerque, N.M., he broke his thumb in a skateboarding accident. “I couldn’t move my thumb, so, in order to make up for the loss of pressure, I put a fork right here between my middle fingers to stabilize it and just played power chords up and down the neck,” he recalled. “It shortened my set up, but people felt sorry for me, and I ended up selling some CDs.”
After the tour, he played locally as Brian Ballentine and Friends. The group underwent a variety of personnel changes, during which Kimura returned from college, and the two old friends started up Nevada Backwards. The new group recorded a debut album, Ignorant.
Ballentine credits the addition of North Carolina natives Stevenson and Rodg with helping Nevada Backwards find its sound. “I got Mick into the band, and I said, ‘If I buy a banjo, will you play it? Because there are these songs I hear, where I know a banjo would sound good.’ And so I bought him a banjo. I’m like, ‘You’re from North Carolina; you should be able to learn this.’”
Stevenson learned the banjo and ended up buying himself a mandolin. He acquits himself well on both, though he still looks a bit anomalous—especially with the crash helmet.
“It looks like a gimmick, but he actually needed that because of the surgery,” said Ballentine. “It’s for when I get up on his shoulders and stuff. If he were to fall and hit his head again, it would be fucked.”
Stevenson took to wearing a helmet onstage after a scooter accident last year. “He cracked his head, but he didn’t know it,” Ballentine explained. “He thought it was just his leg, so he was at home for a while, and it did something to his brain. We had to take him to the hospital, and they had to drain the blood out of his head. It hit right in his head where it could have paralyzed him.
“He’s like me, in that if we get sick, we’ll still work, you know?” Ballentine continued. “I never cancel a show. Even when our bus broke down, we ended up just getting in our pickups, and we shot up the hill. We were a half-hour late, but we’ll get there somehow.”
The bus is up and running now, and the band plans to take it to Denver in March. The last time Nevada Backwards was out that way, it traveled by Amtrak, earning free fare in exchange for performing in the bar car. Needless to say, there were mishaps along the way. “When the train broke down, we’d go out there and make people happy playing music,” said Ballentine.
On Adaven, Ballentine continues to grow as a songwriter while reprising the theme of pushing forward through troubled times. Over the years, he’s studied history and political science at a few colleges on and off, and he is thinking about finishing up his degree. “My grandpa, he got involved with the Potawatomi tribe, and I’m a member now, so I can go to school for nothing now,” he said with a laugh.
Ballentine is also part Cherokee, the discovery of which prompted him to write “Andrew Jackson,” Nevada Backwards’ most overtly political song. “It’s about the trail of tears, Andrew Jackson ordering the Indians to walk all the way to Oklahoma,” he explained. “The children and the elderly died out on the big trail, and he had no remorse for that order he gave.”
Ballentine’s lyrics tend to be more oblique, though they’re always grounded in experience. “People come up and tell me that a song totally brings back their ex-girlfriend, and I hate to tell them that it’s actually about something completely different. People think I’m singing about a girl, but it’s really about my brother dying or the band breaking up.”
Not to say that Nevada Backwards doesn’t have uplifting songs. Ballentine has a whole arsenal of what he calls “crowd songs”—“Billy Bob,” “Drinking a Beer” and the totally infectious “Baby I’m Not What You Think I Am”—that still haven’t found their record.
Of course, Nevada Backwards fans are just as happy to sing along with Adaven tracks like “Bombfire,” with its catchy refrain, “Prepare yourself, we’re all born to die.”
“It’s sad, but it’s also positive,” Ballentine said of the track. “We don’t live in a perfect world, and there’s a lot more shit that’s going to happen. And it’s true we’re all gonna die, so you just live your life while you’re here.”
After the interview, a small truck hurtled backward down the street just outside Ballentine’s house. It turned onto the main road—still in reverse—causing an oncoming car to halt abruptly. As traffic began to converge around him, Ballentine waved from inside the pickup truck and drove off.
That must be one busy angel.