INTERMISSION INQUISITION: "Awesome" player David Nixon

Self-described as "Absurdist Garage Art-Pop with Indie-Prog Sensibilities" and forming "a triangulation between the Beatles, They Might Be Giants and Ween," Seattle's seven-member "Awesome" (name spelled with the quotes) are a rising phenomenon. Opening for the likes of The Presidents of the United States of America, The Long Winters and Harvey Danger, "Awesome" pulls no punches, combining pop music, theatrics, comedy and anything that comes to mind or hand to create the most fun-filled listening experience possible. This week, Intermission Inquisition picks apart the brain of "Awesome" banjo player and UW-Bothell Philosophy Professor David Nixon.

Christian Nelson: How did you become involved with "Awesome"?

David Nixon: I had been in this late-night show called Carlotta's Late Night Wing-Ding (I played a character named Slaw), and I met John Osebold through that. He and I played some songs together, and then through him I met John Ackermann and Evan Moser. The four of us started playing together at little cabaret theater shows and whatnot, and finally decided to be a real band, and we called ourselves "Awesome." For our first big show we invited a bunch of other musicians to play with us, and three of them — Basil Harris, Kirk Anderson and Rob Witmer — were so great, they joined the band, and that's how we became seven.

CN: In addition to being a professional musician, you hold a Ph.D. in philosophy. Which came first, your passion for the banjo or abstract thinking? Do you play any other instruments?

DN: I took piano lessons when I was a kid and then some guitar lessons in high school too. I bought a banjo and started taking lessons in about 1989 or 1990; I guess I was a junior in high school. I was playing with a friend of mine I'd known since kindergarten, Sadiq Lew, and we just called ourselves Sadiq & David. We did music and abstract skits. It was a strange duo. When I went to college I was a theater major for the first year and a half, but I'd been taking philosophy classes and I really liked them too. I had a really cool TA for my first philosophy class, Audre, and she sort of inspired me to change my major to philosophy. Then when college was over I wasn't really excited about getting a job in the real world so I applied to graduate school. Eight years later, presto! A Ph.D!

CN: Are you currently teaching any classes or do you have any plans to do so again in the near future? Are there any other projects on your plate besides music and teaching?

DN: Spring quarter I'll be teaching at Cascadia Community College. Then in the summer I'll be back at UW-Bothell teaching a class called Philosophy & Music. I think it'll focus on creativity and improvisation. Other projects ... well, I paint and do a lot of visual art too. And I write, some fiction, some philosophy. I sometimes do computer programming projects. I was the Web master for a local theatre for a while. And I created kunjabunja.com, where you can listen to over 1,000 improvised songs (called "kunjabunjas") created by Sadiq and I, and "Awesome" and others. There's always something creative going on. Last night I was working on creating some songs for an event with Miranda July that "Awesome" is doing in May. Plus, I have another band that I'm in, The Half Brothers, which is sort of an alt-bluegrass trio.

CN: "Awesome" has utilized such exotic instruments as the typewriter and theremin (played without being touched, the theremin is famous for its spooky "music from the ether;" learn more at www.thereminworld.com). Are there any other instruments and/or appliances you would like to add to the mix in the near future?

DN: Gosh, it's already so unwieldy having to haul a billion instruments to all of our gigs! I'm happy to stick to the banjo most of the time. However, I also dance and do art, and we've been trying to incorporate more of this kind of stuff, into our shows. For example, there's a song called "When It Rains In The Middle of The Ocean" where instead of playing an instrument, I put on a lab coat and then do live on-stage drawings that incorporate my knowledge of symbolic logic. It's fun for the audience to watch as well as to listen. As they say, we're a very theatrical band.

CN: Speaking of "Awesome," the band's Web site has a few unique features such as Choose Your Own Adventure stories (a guilty pleasure of mine as a child, a fact which may betray my status as a 10th-year senior). Any chance you guys might bring back the Mad Lib? And, while we're on the subject of adventures, if you could Quantum Leap into the life of any historical figure, who would it be and why?

DN: Ha! I designed and built the Web site myself, so I'm glad to see that someone is enjoying it. Sure, I'll bring back the Mad Lib. We used to have a whole bunch more weird Web-art stuff up there, a lot of randomly created visual pieces or word-jumble type stuff, but a while back we had a server crash and lost a bunch of it.

Hm... Historical figure eh? I was going to say Socrates (one of my favorite philosophers, at least of the more famous ones), but they made him drink hemlock, so ... can I just go back and talk to him instead of having to BE him? I'm a big David Byrne and Talking Heads fan and I never got to see Talking Heads live, so I wouldn't mind jumping back to the early '80s to see that...

CN: For its next album, Beehive Sessions, "Awesome" teamed up with Jon Auer (The Posies, Big Star) and Sean Nelson (Harvey Danger). Was this an enjoyable and/or productive collaboration, or should we expect to see you all on a VH1 Behind the Music special in the near future? Do you anticipate a long-term collaboration on future albums and/or performances?

DN: Both Jon and Sean were fantastic. I'd never met Jon, before but it turns out he has a very similar sense of humor to the band, so we all got along great. In the studio, he's a total perfectionist, and he's got a great ear. There were certainly some grueling sessions where he made sure we got it just right, but damn, listening to the rough mixes makes me really excited about what we've created. Also, because we play so many instruments, (and we even hired a string section for one of the songs!), we totally maxed out the mixing board and his poor little computer just about melted. He had to get a bunch of upgrades just to handle us! And Sean of course, we've known since the beginning and he sings with us all the time. It's very much fun having them both on the project.

CN: Beehive Sessions is apparently somehow related to last year's noSIGNAL show at On the Boards. What can listeners expect to hear on this album? How will it differ from your 2005 release, Delaware?

DN: A few of the songs on Beehive Sessions were in noSIGNAL in some version or other. But there are new ones too. So mostly the material from noSIGNAL just served as an inspiration for the material on the Beehive Sessions. But whereas Delaware is more like a soundtrack to a theater show, Beehive Sessions is definitely a stand-alone album. You don't have to have seen nS to enjoy it. I think the production value on Beehive Sessions is probably a bit higher (it certainly cost quite a bit more!) than Delaware. But it's hard to say specifically how they differ. There's still great full harmonies. There's even some songs on the new album where all seven of us have vocal parts, which is a new thing, since usually only five of us sing.

CN: Last fall, your students created a song about Islam. Was this part of the course requirements or how did it come about?

DN: In my experience, students learn more and retain the knowledge better when there is some creative aspect to their learning. So, in my classes, a large part of their grade comes from these big creative projects that they put together toward the end of the quarter. Some of them are put into bands and write and perform songs, others write and perform plays; some make visual art pieces, or poems, or videos, etc. etc. A person is a lot more likely to remember a catchy song about Islam than they are to remember a boring lecture about it. It's funny to see people humming to themselves in the final exam, remembering lyrics that will help them write their essays. So I've seen it be really beneficial for the learning process. But honestly, the classes are just a lot more fun to teach when we're doing all that creative stuff. Students are definitely not expecting their philosophy professor to bring a banjo to class.

CN: Are many of your students aware of just how "Awesome" you are? Has the band's growing popularity increased demand for your classes?

DN: I always feel a little shy about telling my students, "Hey, I'm in this weird band/theater/art collective thingy called 'Awesome' — you should come check us out!" I'm always worried they're going to think I'm a total dork. But then inevitably halfway through the quarter, someone will end up seeing us and tell the whole class, "Hey, our professor is in 'Awesome'!" and then I have to fess up. I do occasionally get students clamoring to take my classes or wanting to know what I'm teaching next quarter, but I think it's as much because of the fun creative projects as it is that I'm a secret rock star.

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