Identical twins Gunnar and Matthew Nelson reflect on 30 years of third generation pop stardom
Thirty years ago, Nelson’s exuberant, romantic single “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection” (from their debut album After the Rain) hit the number one spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart.
It might seem obvious that the rock band – fronted by identical twins Matthew and Gunnar Nelson – should find such success. After all, the brothers come from a true musical dynasty.
Their grandfather, Ozzie Nelson, was a hugely successful big band leader in the 1930s before he and his family starred in one of the biggest early television sitcoms, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which ran from 1952-1966. Besides appearing in that show, their father, Ricky Nelson, was also a pop pioneer in the late 1950s, becoming one of the most popular musicians of that era; he later fronted the groundbreaking country rock group Stone Canyon Band in the 1970s.
VIDEO: Ozzie Nelson Orchestra “Dream A Little Dream”
VIDEO: Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band “Garden Party”
But, calling from their Nashville-area homes, the Nelson twins explain how their experiences prove that having an impressive bloodline is no guarantee that success in the entertainment business will follow – and, sometimes, it can even make things much harder.
“I think that being from the family I’m from, it’s a double-edged sword,” Gunnar says. “Because, on the one hand, it’s super cool because you actually get great proof right in front of your eyes that making music for a living at the highest of levels is absolutely possible.” But on the flip side, he adds, “As you’re working your way up, you have people think there might be some nepotism at play. You have to be so outstanding in what you do that it can’t be [seen as] a fluke.”
“We knew that nothing was going to be given to us,” Matthew says of their decision to follow their family members into the music business. “Matter of fact, our experience was, we always felt as though we were treated as guilty until proven innocent.”
And it wasn’t just strangers who tried to dissuade the twins from a music career. “The truth was, our mother made it so difficult for us to do what we do,” Matthew says. “She honest to God wanted us to do anything but do what our dad did, because she endured the rock and roll ‘70s. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Cocaine, people stealing your money, all the pitfalls that are involved with musicians that are famous. It was terrifying for her. I think she resented my dad a lot for being gone.”
The twins’ parents finally divorced in 1982. “My parents’ marriage didn’t survive the music business,” Gunnar says, though he adds, “I can’t really wholly blame the music industry. Obviously, they made some shitty choices. My dad was gone all the time, and my mom started to resent the fact that he was gone all the time. It snowballed, and then it didn’t work. So from the inside, I got to learn firsthand how to not have a marriage when you’re a musician.”
Things got even more difficult with their mother after the split. “I think she kind of exiled us because she said, ‘I don’t want you playing music in my house, you have to move your instruments up to your father’s house.’ Which was 25 miles away across town,” Matthew says. The twins were in their early teens at the time.
This new reality forced the brothers to become resourceful. “Even though we were too young to work, we figured out ways of getting jobs that would pay under the table, and paying people to drive us where our instruments were so we could play,” Matthew says. “Our mother didn’t know that when our father was home, which was rare, we made up for tons of lost time when we were together. So she basically helped us get closer to our dad by doing that, and it really actually backfired and made us work so much harder just to be able to play.”
Gunnar agrees that this time would prove to be invaluable: “I got to see with my own eyes how much dedication you needed to have, and how diligently you had to work at your craft, rehearsing and writing and perfecting [songs]. All of these things, I learned at a very early age, and I’m glad for that. I really honestly am.”
But once they had written songs and were ready to perform them, the twins discovered that being a Nelson was little help in getting them slots at the local music venues. “Grandma Harriet said, ‘About your name, boys – it might get your foot in the door, but it’s going to be your talent that keeps you in the room,’” Gunnar says.
None of this dampened the brothers’ enthusiasm for their chosen career path. They formed a band, named it simply Nelson, and soon became popular on the L.A.’s Sunset Strip circuit.
Success finally seemed at hand when Nelson signed a major label record deal. But, once again, the twins were faced with a significant setback: namely, once the contract was signed, label execs showed no inclination to actually give the young band much support. Showing their tenacity once more, the twins took matters into their own hands: “We went around and did a lot of acoustic shows at radio stations all over the world, but mainly in the Midwest,” Matthew says. “And I’m talking the tiny stations: college stations and rural radio stations.”
They also crashed a conference for radio station employees, where they busked by the hotel elevators so all the attendees going to and from their rooms would notice them. “We sat there and played and sang our music for hours,” Matthew says.
All this persistence paid off once Nelson’s debut single, “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection,” was released in 1990. “When our single came out, all of these radio people had seen us for months, and we started getting airplay,” Matthew says.
At the same time, MTV brought the brothers in to guest host Dial MTV, a call-in video request show. The twins used this opportunity to play and sing their acoustic set. “Nobody had been doing that unplugged thing yet, so people really started catching on to that,” Matthew says. Soon after that hosting gig, when Nelson released their video for “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection,” it debuted as the number one video in the U.S.
VIDEO: Nelson “(I Can’tLive Without Your) Love and Affection)”
“We basically blew up overnight,” Matthew says. He recalls how, at their next appearance at a record store in L.A., “The cops had to be called because all three levels of the mall had been mobbed by teenage girls. You can’t prepare yourself for that.”
Much as they enjoyed this success, the twins were also wary. “When [the hit single] happened, it’s amazing how many friends you find out you have all of the sudden,” Gunnar says wryly. “How many people say, ‘I believed in you!’ Where were you when I was playing on a Wednesday night to no one but the sound man?”
Despite all the obstacles, the Nelson twins had proved they were driven and determined, just like their dad. “I found an interview that someone did with my father in the ‘50s,” Gunnar says. “The interviewer said, ‘Well, Ricky, what if people think that you’re only getting into music because of nepotism? What if you don’t have the success that your father had?’ He answered, ‘All I can do is the best I can do, and hope people like what it is that I do. I love rock and roll, so I’m going to do it my way.’ And then the guy winds up selling 250 million singles in his career.”
Unfortunately, Nelson’s time at the top was short-lived. Their 1990 debut album, After the Rain, had only been out for a year when their label-mates, Nirvana, ushered in the grunge era that would effectively obliterate all of the hard rock bands’ careers. “It didn’t happen gradually,” Gunnar says of the changing era. “It was violent. On a Tuesday we were watching [Warrant’s] ‘Cherry Pie.’ On a Wednesday, we were watching [Nirvana’s] ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ And nothing else.”
“So Gunnar and I were basically put on ice,” Matthew says. Their record label refused to release Nelson’s follow up album, Imaginator, which Matthew describes as “a concept album about the media and how it brainwashes people.”
The brothers went back into the studio and emerged with Because They Can, which was released in 1995. But five years between albums is an eternity in the music business, even without a paradigm-shifting event like the grunge revolution happening at the same time. So, despite being at the top of the charts with their debut, the brothers say that their record label did nothing to help promote this second release.
It was a bewildering time for the twins. “We thought we’re building a career, so it was excruciating to watch all these fans that we had made drift away without us being able to do anything about it,” Matthew says.
True to form, though, the brothers were not going to give up without a fight. Now that they’d fulfilled their obligations under their major label contract, they were free agents – and they promptly started their own independent record label, Stone Canyon Records. Their first release, in 1996, was Imaginator, the album that their previous label had shelved. Since then, Nelson have released four more albums, and they have become known for their relentless touring.
Through all the ups and downs, both brothers agree that having each other has been the most important motivating factor. “Fortunately, Matthew is as into music as I am – he shares [that] absolute primary passion and joy in life, and is as enthusiastic as I am. That really helps as you actually go through the peaks and valleys that any career has,” Gunnar says.
Another important point to the twins’ relationship, Gunnar says, is the inherent trust they have in each other, “The one thing I know is, no matter what, my brother is never going to screw me over. I don’t have to watch my back when it comes to him. And that is a relief, because this [music] business is a business of liars and thieves. It really is. You’ve got people who are professional advantage takers.”
They also, Gunnar says, draw strength from their father’s advice: “My dad always said, ‘A career is nothing more than a series of comebacks.’ It’s really true, especially in the music business. Because the times when you’re flush are so rare, and the times when it’s all about famine, it’s so prevalent. You have got to have this joy creating music. Being a musician is not just something that you do – it’s really who you are.”
Now, the twins have long ago left their native L.A., living with their families in the Nashville area. They say the Music City suits them because the lower cost of living, laid back lifestyle, and shorter travel time to their gigs, which tend to be in the Midwest and East Coast.
Nashville also seems like a good fit for their latest musical effort – a new band, which they’ve named First Born Sons. They chose not to go with the “Nelson” name for this band because it is such a different musical style. “Think The Eagles with Joe Walsh meets Lynyrd Skynyrd meets Tom Petty. Like twin [John] Mellencamps!” Matthew says with a laugh. He says they’re in the middle of finishing an album now.
Gunnar says that it actually makes perfect sense for them to play this type of music because “When I was born, there was a whole Southern California scene that was happening in the clubs, and my dad was at the epicenter of it. He was actually credited [with Stone Canyon Band] as having the first true country rock band in history. That’s what I grew up with. It’s always been an influence on everything we’ve done. We’ve been honing and developing a unique sound that we’re really proud of.”
The twins also have another project, Ricky Nelson Remembered, which is a tribute show where they play their father’s songs. (Ricky Nelson died in a plane crash in 1985.) “To me, it’s a labor of love and an enduring communication I have with my father,” Matthew says. “I think that’s why we’ve been doing it about 20 years now. And we’ve actually become far better musicians and singers and entertainers because of that show.”
Now, Matthew admits that the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the brothers to stop touring, has made him reflect on his own status as a father. “My little boy is five years old. When he says, ‘Papa, I like it that you’re not working right now because you get to be home with me,’ it’s crushing because it’s exactly the same thing that my dad did. It gave me pause.” He says this has caused him to reflect on what he’ll do when the lockdown restrictions ease. “I’m actually being more deliberate with what I’m choosing to do with the rest of my life.”
Gunnar, too, is taking stock of things now that he and his brother are off the road. “We were doing so many shows that I had gotten to the point where I was pretty much living to work, not working to live,” he says. “I was able to turn that around through this whole [pandemic] thing. So I’m actually really grateful for everything that comes our way. I truly believe in always finding an opportunity in the challenges. Always finding the positive in the negative. Always. My brother and I have always been that way. That’s just who we are.”
VIDEO: Nelson “After The Rain”