Elliot Bergman can't count how many times he has taken Route 94 east to Ann Arbor, Michigan and back. The 26-year-old Barrington native is the bandleader of NOMO, an eight-piece collective inspired by afrobeat, groove, big-band jazz, funk, and electronic music. However, most of his bandmates—whom he met while attending the University of Michigan—reside in The Great Lakes State. Bergman, the group's lead saxophonist, makes the trips so regularly that on a few of his recent journeys east, he found time to tear into a massive 29-disc box set of live Sun Ra recordings.
NOMO's third album, Ghost Rock (June 17, Ubiquity Records), escalates the band's stylistic fusion, emphasizing the use of synth loops and unorthodox equipment. Many of the group's new tracks are entirely underpinned by Bergman's electronics, allowing the young saxophonist to wail while the other members build musical steam over the circling patterns.
Much of Bergman's recent inspiration comes from the early albums of electronic composer Morton Subotnick. The creative crossover, however, was also borne of necessity; compounded by the stress of losing his mother two years ago, Bergman's intermittent tension problems with his jaw worsened. As a saxophonist, he had to fill time with something other than practicing for six hours a day, so with the help of producer Warren Defever, Bergman created homemade electric instruments based on the African mbira and kalimba.
Centerstage spoke with Bergman in advance of the group's record release show at the Hideout on June 15.
Do you feel that the term "afrobeat" is too restrictive of your sound?
I think that it's positive that people can listen to us and say, 'This is really cool afrobeat music.' You don't want to tell people what to hear in your music, but at the same time, you don’t want to feel misrepresented. If someone says, 'You should go check out this African band,' I would want to see a band from Zimbabwe.
There's this notion of authenticity, and whether you're really doing it. 'Have you really studied African mbira music?' That all just makes me cringe; it's so prohibitive. I also feel that there is a reason to study and deal with the traditional in a reverent way, but that's not what we are. We're not a reparatory band. We're not trying to preserve anything, and we're not cultural ambassadors for anybody. But some people want to see that. Everybody wants you to be something that's easy to understand.
What created the undulating electronic sounds on "Brainwave," the album's overture? Do you feel that the electronics on Ghost Rock were a logical extension of New Tones?
I found a brainwave monitor at a Unique Thrift Store location, and it looked like a little guitar effects pedal. I took it home and plugged it into a bunch of other pedals, and it started making this absolutely wild sound. It's not a logical extension of our last record, but we were all really excited about it.
Analog synthesis is an interesting way to put you in a different mindset when building music. NOMO is kind of modular. There aren't long, flowing melodies; it's mostly riff-based. It's about the interplay between the drums, the guitar and the bass, and the horns kind of fit in the cracks. [Using the brainwave monitor] was a weird thing, and it doesn't really make sense in the context of afrobeat or a New Orleans street parade.
Do you find yourself rejecting ideas that don't fit the NOMO aesthetic?
There is some stuff that I write that I think is going to be a great NOMO thing, but it ends up not working for the band. There has to be a certain level of 'oomph' to the tune. Even for a slower song, it has to have a driving rhythmic energy.
The idea for NOMO, when we started, was that we were a party band. We're still that in some ways, but I feel that there's more to it now. The core of NOMO is rhythms and how they fit together, but [on Ghost Rock] there are more subtleties in the compositions; some of the arrangements are more subdued. I feel like everyone was freed up a little bit on this album.
Can you touch on your belief that performances should be social events and not commodities?
I've played in a lot of bands, and there's a big difference when the band is connecting with the audience. Audiences and bands can have a lot of different roles; sometimes there is a passive/active relationship. More and more, I feel that people are just casual observers. So many young people watch TV or surf the internet for eight hours a day, and actually getting out and being a part of something can be daunting.
We definitely play differently depending on how the audience is responding. If people are freaking out and jumping around, the band plays harder. We try to create an unspoken dialogue with the audience.
What are your favorite hidden gems in Chicago?
I love the Mexican food in Chicago. I think it's better than almost anywhere in the States, and it's usually better than the Mexican food I've had in Mexico. My favorites are La Pasadita–if I'm going for cheapness—and El Barco if I want to have a seafood feast. The mahi mahi tacos are amazing, and so are the margaritas. I also think that Chicago has some of the best thrift stores in the country, and Unique tops it off. On Mondays, everything is half off. They open up the store at 6 a.m. and everybody scrambles in there to find their half-priced treasures.
What are your favorite venues for performing or for seeing live music in Chicago?
I've played at Schubas more than any other venue, and most of the bands that I'm involved with seem to end up there. Saturday Looks Good to Me, His Name is Alive and NOMO have all played there a number of times, and it's always great. Their staff is always friendly. The sound is great, and the food is about the best food you'll find in a rock club in America. For seeing shows, I always find myself at the Hideout. I love their Immediate Sound series on Wednesday nights, and I'm excited to have NOMO play there for the first time. We played at the Hideout Block Party a few years back with Nicole Mitchell and Fred Anderson, but we've never played inside. I love that room.