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Across the Universe

After three decades, iconoclastic rockers Nod still ‘get it’

Nod band members playing in a spooky venue with skeletons hanging from the roof above.
Jimmy Fillengerri
/
Photo provided
The members of Nod, from left: Joe Sorriero, Brian Shafer and Tim Poland.

In the early ’90s, back when I was just starting to write about the arts in Rochester, someone -- sorry, I’ve forgotten who -- invited me to a house party. I’ve forgotten where.

It was a typical Rochester city home. With a basement, where the bands were playing. One trio in particular was making a lot of noise, in a manner that suggested it wasn’t much concerned with the rules of standard music composition. It was dark down there, and I watched as the guitarist crept up to the gas-fueled water heater, getting closer and closer as he coaxed discordant notes from his instrument. And then he was just a few inches from the water heater, a silhouette hunched over in the dark, guitar neck pointing down, a duet of guitarist collaborating with the fluttering blue gas flame.

The guitarist was Joe Sorriero. The band -- with bassist Tim Poland and drummer Brian Shafer -- was Nod.

Three decades later, Nod remains a moth drawn to the flame.

A handful of additional musicians have come and gone from the band. But the core of Nod remains Sorriero, Poland and Shafer. That’s remarkable for a band to remain unchanged for so long.

“Is it a stubbornness, you know?” Sorriero muses.

The next stop for stubbornness is Friday’s 9:15 p.m. show at Abilene Bar and Lounge with fellow ’90s survivors Will Veeder -- who will play some psychedelic folk guitar -- and Beastview Maul, which is Joe Tunis and John Schoen of Pengo, another denizen of that decade.

It was Schoen, Sorriero says, who named this show “Apparitions in the Wasteland.” Sorriero is not sure what that means.

But it does seem to fit.

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The three men of Nod first began playing together in 1990. “Music styles have changed a lot,” Sorriero says. “When we were playing, everything had to be outlandish. An edgy, experimental, vibe to it. People would like to go to the shows and be scared at the shows.”

Not afraid for their lives, he’s saying. But feeling uncertain, because you’d go to a Nod show and not know what you were getting into. “Unhinged,” Sorriero says of the band. “Unpredictable.”

“I think there’s a jazz ethic to it,” says Shafer. “Even though we really can’t play real jazz. We’re not schooled in that.”

He glances at his bandmates. “Am I saying too much? Tell me if you agree with any of this.”

They neither agree nor disagree. It’s as if no one’s asked them this question before: “What the hell are you guys doing?” Sometimes they call it “omnipunk,” if you can find that section in your local record store.

The Nod lair is in the basement of one of those turn-of-the-last century warehouses and manufacturing spaces off East Main Street. Dusty, rusty buildings now repurposed and rented out as workshops and artist studios. Trendy spaces in an irreverent way. You wouldn’t even notice these old buildings unless you were looking for a specific one. Perhaps looking for bands that once prowled the Rochester indie-rock scene of the ’90s. Bands such as Muler and Pengo, which still live after all these years and share this rehearsal space with Nod.

Like the music that comes out of this room, the furnishing is mismatched. Chairs perhaps rescued from the curb. Exposed pipes, a dartboard, strings of Christmas lights. All casually arranged like flotsam that spilled from a sinking cruise ship as it settled to the ocean floor. Yards and yards of the cables that power rock bands.

This is a rock band. There is beer.

“How do we not do the same thing over and over again?” Poland asks rhetorically, before reconsidering: “Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, though.”

Get used to that: Nod frequently contradicts itself. The three guys have regular families. And regular jobs. And then they have Nod.

Shafer is an English teacher at Pittsford Sutherland High School. Years ago, one of his students found a photo online of Nod, and shared it with the class. There was Mr. Shafer, with hair three times as long as it is now, and wearing a motorcycle helmet backward on his head, covering half his face.

“I’m more open to it now,” Shafer says when confronted with evidence of his secret life: “‘Do you know what this guy does at night?’”

“Yeah, I play in a couple of bands.”

Nod’s music is a tight rhythm section with Sorriero’s vocals on top. His words have the thin quality of a groundhog scratching through the dirt for grubs.

“It’s changed a lot and stayed the same,” Poland says. “The core mission hasn’t, per se. The song forms have changed.”

It’s more jam based, the guys suggest.

“It’s loose, and tight,” Shafer says.

Contradictions, contradictions. “Lately, the past couple records,” Poland says, “I’ve seen a reference to The Talking Heads. Which kind of makes sense, they have kind of tight songs.”

The members of Nod in the 1990s, photographed tight together from the shoulders up.
Photo provided
The three original members of Nod, who still perform today, in the 1990s. From left: Brian Shafer, Joe Sorriero and Tim Poland.

But loose, as Shafer says. “I think people who like us say that, you know, it sounds almost made up a lot of the time, even if it’s a song we’ve played for 30 years.” He compares Nod to NRBQ, which has played a wide range of rock styles for a half-century. “They might not play the start of a song the same way two nights in a row, or 10 nights in a row. But then the song kind of kicks in and they do what they do.

“I think we’ve maintained a sort of unpredictability, despite the fact that we have quite a few set songs. Quite a few songs that are … songs. Recorded and … does that make sense?”

Songs that are … songs. Of course.

But in the alternate reality, Nod songs are neither The Talking Heads nor NRBQ.

“Nod-like,” Poland says. Garage-rock, “with some experimentation within the songs.”

Even experimentation calls for some rehearsal. The band begins rehearsing for the Abilene gig. First, a percussion-built jam. Then a bouncy number with vocals, kind of a hillbilly prog rock, followed by an improvised wheedling guitar over space rock. Then an ancient piece from Sorriero’s pre-Nod days, “I Only Want to See You.” It is feral, and honest.

And uncategorizable, perhaps suggesting the need for wider boundaries. At one point, the Nod guys were recording a side project they called The Band Room Janitors. As Shafer explains, “We thought that those recordings sounded like the janitors at your high school, under whatever influence, broke into the band room and hung out for a couple hours…”

Sorriero interrupts: “Starting playing around with the instruments.”

“Cause that’s what it kind of sounds like,” Shafer says. “So, it’s not for everyone.”

There is madness to their mischief. Most Nod songs are originals, although an occasional cover has emerged. In 1993, the band contributed a song to “Chairman of the Board: Interpretations of Songs Made Famous by Frank Sinatra,” a two-CD collection of Sinatra songs as done by indie rock bands.

The most familiar name on the list is The Flaming Lips. But mostly, it’s bands such as Babe the Blue Ox and Screeching Weasel. Nod’s version of “Strangers in the Night” is unrecognizable. Shafer imitates Sorriero’s lead vocals, which sound like a man trying to flag down a passing car:

“Hey stranger, HEY! Stranger!”

Want another Nod success story? The guys recall how the band played one night of a three-night series of New York City shows curated by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Before Nod went on, someone they hadn’t met before sat down at Shafer’s drum kit and started playing. “You’d think that guy was homeless,” Poland says, “not walking out of The Dakota and coming down to a show at the Irving Plaza.”

Yeah. Sean Lennon. “He’s John Lennon’s kid,” Poland says, “he’ll do whatever he wants.”

And the rest of the night evidently went pretty well. “You guys sounded like swamp rock,” Lennon told Nod at the after-party. Sorriero recalls a “Village Voice” review of the three-night stand articulating something like, “we seemed like a pretty good band to drink with.”

And then the final two words of the review: “Nod wins.”

And Nod survives. But it’s a different wasteland now. As Sorriero notes, the Monroe Avenue scene has evolved. No more Big Hair or Shop Class Squares. No more Koo-Koo Boy’s mix-and-match New-Wave transgenderism. Or Garage Pop bands like The Thundergods. At least three generations of indie-minded acts have migrated across the stages of clubs such as the Bug Jar.

In the ’90s, everyone here was in their 20s.

“There wasn’t dudes in their mid- to late 50s playing in bands in the same places we were playing back then,” Poland says. “If they were even playing at all. Right? We didn’t have people like that to look up to.”

Now, the scene looks up to new bands, like Rochester’s Joywave, “I think in some ways we’re out of touch,” Shafer says. “Out of touch with the scene. We’re not part of the Joywave scene.”

That scene is more conservative, he says. “Or just tastes got a lot more conservative.”

That’s not a criticism, the band insists. It’s just new audiences will seek their own sound.

And Nod’s sound? “Sometimes people just don’t get it,” Shafer says. “And that’s OK. We’re kind of used to that.”

“People used to have to declare that they ‘got it’ or not,” Sorriero says. “What I don’t understand is, why you would have to ‘get it.’ You don’t have to ‘get it.’ It’s not a prerequisite for listening to music, or being into music.”

“I think the best Nod shows,” Shafer says, “are the ones where people said they didn’t know what was going to happen next. And they were OK with that.”