By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Walt Disney was amazing," says Johnny Wohlfahrt of nervesandgel without a hint of irony. "His whole motto was, 'If I want something done and people tell me it can't be done, I'm going to figure out a way to do it.' Everything that he did that was a milestone, everyone told him he couldn't do it. I've been told that quite a bit in my life. So he's a big role model for me."
Wohlfahrt's artless demeanor is probably a bit unusual for someone involved in the avant-garde side of music. But he came to and developed within the scene in an unusual way. Born in factory-laden Cumberland, Rhode Island, Wohlfahrt moved with his family to wide-open Grand Junction, Colorado, in 1987, when he was nine years old. Like any child of the '80s, his first memorable experiences with music came with the advent of MTV. Wohlfahrt first became aware of his own taste in music when he randomly discovered a Kill Rock Stars compilation. "I found it in a record store," he recalls. "I found a Nation of Ulysses tape — they were on that comp — and I had no idea what the hell it was doing in Grand Junction, but it changed my life."
Even as he was discovering the world of underground music outside of his home town, Wohlfahrt had been going to punk shows and had already witnessed the likes of Grand Junction's Old Bull's Needle and Boulder's Angel Hair. In middle school, he met Chris Adolf of Bad Weather California and John Golter, curator of the DIY space Glob. "Me and Chris hung out with a group of people when we were teenagers," Wohlfahrt remembers. "We used to hang out on Main Street and cause trouble or whatever. There wasn't really a hell of a lot to do. Any time you tried to do a show, the cops would break it up."
Wohlfahrt describes his first band, Pink Pajama Party SOS, as "pop punk," only "I didn't use distortion," he points out. "For some reason, I wanted to try punk without distortion." That group was heavily influenced by Nation of Ulysses and singer Ian Svenonius's later band, garage-rock terrorists the Make-Up.
Eventually, pop punk was something Wohlfahrt no longer wanted to do, so he started making electronic music in 1997. Initially, he called the project Stoic Effect, but decided he hated the name and changed it to "nervesandgel."
"I have bad problems with being nervous all the time," Wohlfahrt explains. "I saw a bottle of hair gel in my bathroom, and it kind of came together." The dada-esque source of the project's new moniker reflects Wohlfahrt's penchant for mixing the dark with the comically absurd. Heavily influenced by the mind-bending psychedelia of the Legendary Pink Dots, the electronic noise experiments of cEvin Key, the playful yet dark humor of Laurie Anderson and the psych pop of early Bee Gees, nervesandgel never really fit into any particular genre of music — especially in Grand Junction.
Somewhat inspired by this fact, Wohlfahrt left his home town in 2000 to live in Denver. He had been kicked out of his house in the former, and saw the latter as a place where he knew he had friends and where his chances of meeting kindred artists were far greater. Before the move, he'd been in contact with a friend who frequented then-active goth hot spot Club Onyx (now Bender's Tavern) and became something of a regular from hanging out with that friend. "I never felt goth, ever," Wohlfahrt confesses. "Every once in a while, a song would come on that I liked. I think I tried dancing once, and I felt like an asshole, so I stopped."
A year after moving to the Mile High City, Wohlfahrt played his first live show as nervesandgel at Two Fisted Mario's, where he worked at the time. It was at that job that he met Amy Fantastic, who, when he had Boyd Rice on the stereo, asked what he was listening to and if he was going to an upcoming electronic-music show. This led to Wohlfahrt's being on a bill at Revoluciones Art Collective alongside Hypnogogic Orchestra and In Ether.
Not one to limit himself to a hermetic artistic niche, Wohlfahrt ultimately became disillusioned with the scene most seemingly welcoming of his dark, ambient music. "There was one show that I played where this guy was hanging himself from the ceiling and cutting himself, and it was so elaborate and fake," Wohlfahrt recalls with a chuckle. "I don't know why my music's dark. I don't write with the intention of it being dark. A lot of it just turns out that way. I love a lot of those kids, like In Ether. But shit like that guy I mentioned, I thought that it wasn't my scene at all." It was then that Wohlfahrt became friends with some luminaries of the local indie-pop scene.
He met Katrin Davis and Al Adams — people with whom he shared a love for Olivia Tremor Control — at an Of Montreal show at the 15th Street Tavern. Davis and Mike Moran, one of Wohlfahrt's old friends, had started the DIY space Lost Lake, and Al Adams was the drummer of the twee-pop outfit the Maybellines. At the time, Wohlfahrt gave away CD-Rs of his early recordings, and Adams loved what he heard. He asked if he could put out a double CD of Wohlfahrt's music on his Best Friends Records imprint. Unfortunately, by the time the album came out in 2004, Best Friends Records was no longer as active as it had once been, and the album received scant attention.