As nervesandgel, Johnny Wohlfahrt mixes the dark with the comically absurd
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.
Wohlfahrt wasn't disheartened by this fact, and in subsequent years, he released the Thomas Wayne-inspired What Have I Done? Another local imprint, Still Soft Records, put out Mouthful of Your Spit Helps the Medicine, which Wohlfahrt describes as a compilation of older material. In October 2007, he completed his most ambitious work up to that time, Cometcrash, an album whose story revolves around a man who is lost and confused in the second century A.D. but who ultimately turns his life around and accepts Christ.
"I'm not a Christian," Wohlfahrt notes. "I love the idea of religion. I think it's a beautiful thing that has turned sour, unfortunately. I think religion is the same thing as any kind of group of people. You get together because you have something in common. Whether you go to a show or you go to a service, it's the same thing to me." After the harrowing experience of writing and recording Cometcrash, Wohlfahrt went on a two-year hiatus from performing because he couldn't figure out how to execute the material live.
Since returning from that hiatus, he's been surprisingly prolific, with the release of It's All Just a Waste last summer and the three-and-a-half-hour-plus epic 333 last fall. Originally written to be a companion piece to an art show, 333 helped Wohlfahrt break through to a new level of his craft.
Wohlfahrt's latest album, All You Have Left Is a Dream, is the culmination of his musical development. The significance of the title? "We're all bombarded and work, work, work, keep going, keep going," he explains. "One thing that really pissed me off was when 9/11 happened and George Bush was like, 'Just get back to your lives, don't let it affect you.' And it's like, 'No, you have to let it affect you, you have to take this time, you have to feel pain, you have to be human.' You can't ignore these things in your life."
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