A better fit
In his 1964 song, “Boots of Spanish Leather,” Bob Dylan writes “Oh, but I just thought you might want something fine / Made of silver or of golden / Either from the mountains of Madrid / Or from the coast of Barcelona.” It’s a classic song about (on a surface level) simple souvenir hunting.
When junior Dexter Nelson traveled to Spain last year to study abroad, he didn’t need boots necessarily; rather, his priority was a obtaining an authentic Spanish nylon-string classical guitar.
He had been listening to the likes of José González (a confusing name for the Icelandic, nylon-touting singer/songwriter) and Silvio Rodríguez (a Cuban guitarist and songwriter) and decided that instead of paying the outlandish fees to transport one of his guitars overseas, he would leave the steel-stringed counterparts at home in Minneapolis and buy one in Spain, the land of the guitar’s origin.
“I told myself I was going to go on this grand quest to find the nylon-string guitar, the Spanish guitar,” Nelson said. “After a week of not having a guitar, I just caved and bought the best one I could find for my buck at the time and just started playing right away.”
This is perhaps a case of instant gratification, but Nelson said once he gets hooked on doing something, he obsesses over it and impulse-buying a classical guitar in Spain may be a symptom of that.
“I love extremes,” he said. “I love focusing on one thing, and I thrive best when I put all my energy into one thing.”
This is certainly a pattern in Nelson’s life from writing entire monographs about the nylon-string guitar while abroad to admitting how incredibly picky he is while recording his own music.
But it’s certainly put to good use.
Growing up with it
Nelson said his dad might not admit that this is fully true, but the name “Dexter” was inspired by his father’s favorite jazz saxophonist, Dexter Gordon.
His father was a saxophonist and bassist and played jazz, so from early on in his life, Nelson was surrounded by music.
There were instruments all over the house and when Nelson was 7 or 8, he started on piano. In middle school, Nelson decided to pick up the saxophone himself.
But to his father’s apparent dismay, Nelson gave it up for the guitar when he reached high school and started filling his ears with licks from Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Van Halen.
“I just started listening to classic rock and I knew that’s what I wanted to be,” he said. “I wanted to be a guitarist and play Jimmy Page and John Lennon.”
Nelson started dabbling a little on guitar, and he and some friends that were also learning would swap tricks and tips and learn together as opposed to teaching themselves separately.
“I had other friends that were starting to play the guitar around the same time and they taught me what they knew, and I taught them what I knew. So it’s this reciprocal, this sharing of whatever guitar knowledge we’d picked up at that point,” Nelson said.
When his father noticed Nelson was getting into playing guitar, he took his son to the basement and taught him basic open chords and bar chords. For the next five hours, Nelson stayed down there, teaching himself “Blackbird” by The Beatles, an ambitious choice for a fresh beginner.
“I sat there until my fingers were practically raw and hurt like crazy, but I could get through it,” Nelson said.
Doing it himself
During that time, Nelson started playing with a few of his best friends who were also listening to mostly classic rock, and they wrote a song about algebra. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to make it huge.
For two years after, Nelson went to South High School in Minneapolis, and while he didn’t study music through school, a friend of his father’s, Tom Cravens, taught Nelson jazz guitar privately. Nelson still admires Cravens and lists him as an inspiration.
“He taught me so many things early on that changed the way that I think about playing music in general, especially the guitar,” Nelson said. “He’s a fabulous teacher.”
At South High, he met Ben Stein (not the Ben Stein you’re thinking of) and the two formed a new band called Loud+2 after being inspired by the documentary “Dig!” which is about feuding Portland bands The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Nelson described his and Stein’s music as being “weird indie rock.”
After two years of high school, Nelson and Stein applied to the Perpich Center for Arts Education, one of the nation’s only publicly funded arts education schools. After being accepted, the two changed the band’s name to The Van Goes.
The new name saw moderate success. They were nominated for Artist of the Year in the Minneapolis City Pages, they performed at the Walker Art Center as part of a “20 under 20” arts competition, and they earned a gig at the 400 Bar, the venue famous for hosting The Replacements, Elliott Smith and Mason Jennings.
Playing the 400 Bar was a special moment for Nelson, who’d seen these famous acts go through all his life and could now play there himself.
“We freaked out,” he said. “We felt like it was really magical.”
But come senior year of high school, The Van Goes broke up for good, which allowed Nelson to start playing music differently and with different folks.
Really doing it himself
Nelson started writing music and playing with drummer Charlie Garetz and separately with multi-instrumentalist Jordan Morantez.
Nelson had never fully written songs; he’s either shared writing duties or hadn’t at all, but he had a wild idea to pull Garetz and Morantez together to form Sky Lion in February of 2009. And he was the one doing the bulk of the writing.
“I had wanted to do my own thing,” he said. “I wanted to lead a project.”
Playing together was a little strange at the start, but a few months later, Sky Lion was able to record a five-song EP in the summer of 2009 and play a few shows before Nelson moved to Eau Claire to attend the university. Nelson’s absence did, however, complicate things a bit.
He didn’t have reliable transportation back to the Twin Cities, so Sky Lion played together only about four times during that entire year.
During the summer, the band pressed 1,100 EPs and tried playing shows, but it didn’t go well. Garetz started arriving to practices late and sometimes not at all and the live show suffered because of it.
“It was discouraging,” Nelson said. “If you can’t practice, you can’t be a band.”
Nelson thought the nail in the coffin was his plan to study abroad for a full year the next year in Spain. Sky Lion definitely seemed and felt like it was done, Nelson said.
But Garetz’s replacement, Kevin Goff, a friend from Perpich, played drums with the group a couple of times before Nelson left for Spain. Morantez said that adding Goff on the drums was huge to Sky Lion.
“It was the best thing to ever happen to the band having Kevin join, and I mean that completely honestly,” Morantez said.
Goff said that learning the parts wasn’t as difficult as learning the chemistry between Nelson and Morantez.
“They definitely had a whole system set up between them of how they wrote songs, how they played together,” Goff said. “I just sat in and listened and played what felt right. It just felt good.”
Goff’s inclusion was exciting, but Spain was looming.
Doing it differently
With his new nylon-string guitar in hand, along with a love for Elliott Smith and José González, Nelson was coming into his own. He explained that the classical guitar helped him appreciate those artists more.
“There’s something about touching the strings,” Nelson said.
He remarked that having long fingers always made playing a steel-stringed guitar difficult, but the wider neck of the nylon-string made playing easier, literally a better fit.
In Spain and without the idea of writing for Sky Lion in his head, Nelson said he was able to write his monograph, learn José González covers and become more independent as a songwriter.
When he got back from Spain, he found the experience changed the way he thought about writing music.
“I hadn’t written anything for Sky Lion because it wasn’t in my mind anymore. I lost passion for writing rock music and band arrangements for that matter,” Nelson said. “It was all acoustic guitar and, ‘What can I do on my own?’”
Ultimately, playing with Goff won out for Sky Lion once Nelson returned.
Both Morantez and Goff said that Nelson is the backbone of Sky Lion, though the band is a hugely collaborative effort.
“Dexter’s our Dylan,” Goff joked. “He comes in with a blueprint, and we all mold it into what becomes a song.”
Morantez echoed the sentiment.
“Dexter’s the songwriter,” Morantez remarked. “He writes the base of everything, but it’s certainly a democracy.”
Last year, once Nelson returned, the band finally released the EP they had recorded two years earlier. Nelson said the band hasn’t nailed down a definitive sound quite yet, but they are certainly more driven than ever.
Continuing to do it
Nelson is in the process of converting many of the songs he wrote in Spain into an album. Nelson said the tracklist of the album will be completely chronological in order to reflect the transitions in his life. Nelson said it translates pretty well.
Before going to Spain, he approached Colin Carey (the brother of Sean Carey, drummer of Bon Iver) about possibly playing drums with him on some of his solo songs and Carey agreed. Currently, the duo is recording an album that Nelson hopes to be put out later this year.
As for Sky Lion, they too are recording. After all, the songs they recorded previously are over two years old.
Though his instincts to be perfect might make recording tedious, Nelson said it’s the mistakes that make some songs excellent and he’s learning
to embrace it.
“Everyone makes mistakes as a musician, and those mistakes are what make us human.”