Miles Nielsen slips out of his dad’s shadow 

click to enlarge Nielsen is in a good place right now. Can he describe it with his eyes closed?
  • Nielsen is in a good place right now. Can he describe it with his eyes closed?

Although parents are expected to be proud of their own kids, the reverse isn’t always true. But Miles Nielsen was definitely proud when his father’s band, Cheap Trick, turned down a $100,000 offer to play the 2016 Republican Convention. With the wry wit that often finds its way into the power-pop band’s lyrics, they explained to an interviewer that they didn’t feel like going out and buying swastika-shaped guitars.

“In today’s world, if you stick up for yourself in any fashion, I’m proud of you,” says the son of guitarist Rick Nielsen. “As a band who stayed out of politics, they definitely took a stand. And if there’s $100,000 waiting on the other end of it, I don’t think everybody’s gonna make that decision.”

Of course, not everyone has the kind of money that Cheap Trick made through decades of hit singles and relentless touring. Take, for instance, Miles Nielsen and The Rusted Hearts.

“I’m a blue-collar musician,” says Nielsen, who was born, raised and continues to live in Rockford, Illinois. “You know, I balance my checkbook, sometimes down to the last few hundred dollars, before I get another check. And if someone offered me $100,000, I’m not going to say that it would be an immediate no.”

That’s a decision Nielsen shouldn’t have to worry about, given songs like his most recent single “Revolution Day,” which focuses on the corruption in our current political and corporate culture.
“The song isn’t a Trump thing, it’s about politics as a whole,” says the singer-songwriter. “I feel like, generally, politicians these days aren’t the most believable people.”

While his brother Daxx has been Cheap Trick’s drummer for nearly a decade, Miles clearly fell farther from the family tree. His band has been together for six years now, aligning themselves more with contemporary Americana and mid-period Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers than they do with the power-pop that Nielsen grew up around. Their repertoire also includes its fair share of character-driven songs that are less than light-hearted.

But on the band’s forthcoming album OHBAHOY, which the artist named after an imaginary childhood friend, that approach will change. At least to a degree.

“Musically,” he says, “we made a concerted effort to make it a little more upbeat.” And the lyrics? “Lyrically speaking, some of the narratives are about mortality and how fast life goes by.”

That thematic through-line wasn’t obvious to Nielsen until the album was nearly complete. “I really enjoy my current life, says the musician, who also records and performs under the name Weep & Willow with his wife, singer-songwriter Kelly Steward. “This is the best time, you know? My kids are good, my wife is good, my dogs are good, my band is good. Things are good, so you kind of just want to hold on to that.”

That wouldn’t necessarily have been the case when Nielsen was writing early songs like “Tokyo,” which came to him while observing strangers in an airport.

“I saw these two people walking through the airport, and I’m like, man, I don’t know if they’re together, but it’d be really fun if they sat next to each other on the plane, and he whispered in her ear, and they just kind of fell in love. And then, it would turn out that they were both going to study abroad in Tokyo and, the next thing you know, they’re like mixed up with heroin.”
Nielsen finds his fascination with the world around him invaluable when it comes time to fill in the details of a song’s characters and settings.

“I lecture at eighth-grade creative writing classes a couple times a year here in my hometown,” he says, “and I’ll tell the kids to look around their classroom. And they’re like, ‘Well, yeah, I’m in this room every day, what am I supposed to be looking for?’ And then I tell them to close their eyes and tell me what’s in this room. And most kids can’t tell me anything about it.”

So how well would the musician fare on his own test? Much like his father, Nielsen has a thing for collecting guitars. And since he’s conducting this interview by phone from his home studio, it shouldn’t be difficult for him to close his eyes and visualize the ones around him.

“Well,” he says with zero hesitation, “there’s a green guitar hanging on the wall, there’s an upright bass in the corner, there’s an acoustic guitar in front of that, there’s a baritone guitar laying on a case that I need to restring, there’s a three-quarter classical sitting in the chair, and there’s one hanging on the wall over my left shoulder. I think that’s it.”

Nielsen opens his eyes to check his work. “Shit, I missed one,” he says, clearly disappointed with his performance. “There’s a Kay acoustic guitar that doesn’t play very well. We put it in front of the fireplace so that our dog ZZ can’t go in there and get soot all over the mantel. So yeah, I guess I failed.”


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