Interview: Q&A with NEQ
By Greg Haymes
Photograph by James Orr
The adventurous instrumental trio of Todd Nelson, bassist Kyle Esposito and Manuel Quintana has been making some rather unclassifiable music for several years now. Is it jazz? Is it rock? Is it something in between?
Their website describes their sound as “exploratory instrumental compositions, thick grooves and spacey encounters.”
The trio made their recording debut with 2010’s Here (credited to Todd Nelson) before settling on the moniker of the Todd Nelson Trio (or TN3 for short). By the time they dropped their 2015 sophomore album, None of the Above, their name had changed to Nelson Esposito Quintana (or NEQ for short).
Now they’re making another change – expanding from a trio to a quintet with the addition of percussionist Carlos Valdez and Greater Nippertown keyboard stalwart Mike Kelley. The band is making their debut as a quintet on Friday (June 16) at the Hangar on the Hudson in Troy. Average Bear opens the show at 8pm. Admission is $10.
Two founding members of the band – Todd Nelson and Manuel Quintana – recently took some time to chat with Nippertown about the newly expanded band and their plans for the future:
Q: Why did you decide to expand the sonic palette of band at this time?
TN: Kyle, Manuel and I have been playing as a trio for six or seven years now and it feels like we’ve explored every possible texture that configuration offers, from ambient sound to straight ahead rhythms, even with the use of looping and other effects. The addition of other players, on whatever instruments, adds a dimension not possible with three players. I also have been thinking for a while about going back to the first few years that I started playing the guitar and some of the songs that inspired me then but couldn’t yet play, like “Albatross” by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. An expanded line-up seemed like a good way to go there.
MQ: I think it happened quite naturally. In the process of the None of the Above album, we found ourselves coming up with lots of additional parts and textures. In live trio performances – while we do have our knobs, pedals and electronics – we found we wanted to hear some of those elements with the creativity that another player can bring.
Q: Do you think that the expanded band will open up new venue opportunities?
MQ: Not sure. We can hope so.
TN: It seems to be already. A bigger group requires a bigger stage, and Mike’s and Carlos’ instruments take up more space than a singer or horn player would. The five-piece repertoire has more emphasis on rock, reggae and Latin rhythms, which have always been present in our music. So other venues are more open to it.
Q: How did you first hook up with the new members?
MQ: Both Kyle and I played with Carlos in one of his projects for a few years, so we were already bonded both as friends and musically when we asked him to play percussion on None of the Above. When we decided to expand the trio it made sense to bring him in. Todd introduced us to Mike as we were looking for a keyboard collaborator.
TN: Although we’ve known each other for some time, I first started playing with Mike in the Cutaways and asked him to join the band for the Lonesome Val & the Toddfellows show at the Hangar on the Hudson last June, when Michael Eck had a conflict. That went well, so I asked him to fill out the sound for the Fear of Strangers reunion last September at the Hollow Bar + Kitchen. So I was well acquainted with his talent and potential by that time. Carlos, Kyle and Manuel played together in Mambo Kikongo, a Latin dance band based in the central Hudson Valley. I was impressed with Carlos’ energy and sound.
Q: Musically speaking, what qualities do you expect the new members to bring to the NEQ sound?
TN: Having more instrumentation inspires new arrangements. For instance, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms and chord progressions have always been a stealth influence in American pop and rock music. You can find many examples in the Beatles’ music if you are attuned to it. We are playing an arrangement of “The Night Before” that emphasizes that element. Carlos, Manuel and Kyle are well-versed in this department. We also throw in some mash-ups of Santana, Traffic and early McLaughlin. We have a lively arrangement of the melody from the second movement of Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez.” This is the same melodic material that Gil Evans drew on for Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain and “Spain” by Chick Corea. The addition of keyboards and percussion makes these arrangements a little lusher. We have also added new original songs.
MQ: The NEQ fusion means we need players who have a wide range, are really creative, and know how to both deconstruct songs – and get weird – but also stay in the pocket. Mike has a sweet blues background, and Carlos brings a heavy Afro-Cuban and Latin sound, so I’m excited to see what the music becomes.
Q: And while we’re at it, how do you describe the sound of NEQ?
MQ: It’s like Miles Davis on a trip to the Caribbean with a handful of gas station drugs. Minus the horn and the genius that is Miles.
TN: Most labels seem insufficient to me. I know they’re a necessary marketing tool. I guess you might call us progressive instrumental rock. But I think we are more accessible than a lot of that music. We have always mixed genres. That’s one of the things that makes playing music interesting to me, the places where styles converge and overlap. We don’t combine these things to be cheeky; but to explore the connections. Nor do we shy away from sounding beautiful at times. I like to think that we aim straight for the emotional parts of the brain.
Q: Will NEQ remain an instrumental band, or are there possibilities of adding vocals? Todd, you sing, and Mike Kelley sings…
MQ: It’s possible we could add some vocals. Kyle is also a singer. The special thing about the NEQ project is our jazz-form instrumental interpretation – improv and jamming and psychedelic sounds.
TN: Mike Kelley is a wonderful singer and so is Kyle. We’re not ruling it out in the future. The question is, what would the material be? I’m not writing lyrics these days, and don’t consider myself much of a lyricist. Kyle writes great songs that are more in the Americana vein. Maybe a few choice covers, or a collaboration with a singer/songwriter. There’s room for us to expand in that direction.
Q: Does this mark the end of NEQ as a trio? Or will you be playing sometimes as a quintet and sometimes as a trio?
MQ: Certainly not. I’m sure we will play in as many formats as we can – trio, quartet or quintet.
TN: We will continue playing some venues as a trio. Or possibly as a quartet, space and other factors permitting. In April Carlos joined us at 9 Maple Avenue in Saratoga Springs. It was fun. Carlos adds a lot of sonic colors and excitement.
Q: Which brings us to the question of the band name. Will it remain NEQ or will it be NEQ5 or NEQ+2 or something else?
MQ: We’ve gone through a couple name changes already. To be determined, I guess.
TN: What do you think? I’m partial to NEQ& myself. It indicates unlimited growth. Or NEQ&2. For now we are just using NEQ and trying to indicate with a photo or somehow that it is the expanded version.
Q: Do you foresee a further expansion somewhere down the line?
TN: We are open to it, absolutely.
MQ: Perhaps, maybe a small string section, hahaha…
Q: Todd, as a veteran of the Greater Nippertown music scene since the days of Silver Chicken and the Units/Fear of Strangers, what’s your assessment of the current scene?
TN: The current local music scene, like entertainment in general has exploded into a million parts; few of which are big enough to make a serious impact on audience size or the culture. It’s challenging.
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but NEQ has been playing primarily around the Capital Region. Do you see the new line-up touring beyond the Local 518, geographically
TN: We have played occasionally down the river in Woodstock, Hudson, Beacon and Newburgh. Also on Block Island a couple of times. Travelling is expensive, so it needs to be worthwhile either because it’s a good opportunity or the pay is decent. I’m aiming for sustainability.
MQ: We will be stretching out as soon as we nail down all the logistics and fully establish the new band.
Q: You’ve recorded two albums as a trio. With the addition of two new members, are there any new recording prospects on the horizon?
TN: There’s no plan as yet. Once this gets off the ground as a live act I think we will focus on that. I think live music is where it’s at. Recorded music has been devalued so much. We practice mostly at Manuel’s home studio which gets better all the time. He and Kyle have the recording skills that I lack, and I think we could produce something of quality relatively quickly and cheaply. After spending three years recording None of the Above, I think I would like to try a live in the studio approach.
MQ: Well, there is actually some new music already in the works. We will be performing a couple at Friday’s show at The Hanger.