Tuesday, 30 June 2015 09:37

Nathan Kalish toughens up on the road, releases new LP at Founders

Written by  Rich Tupica
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Nathan Kalish Nathan Kalish COURTESY PHOTO

Nathan Kalish & The Lastcallers
w/ Mike Blair and the Stonewalls, Benjamin Riley
Founders Tap Room
July 2, FREE, 9:30 p.m.

Buzzing down a long, lonesome highway east of Kansas City, singer-guitarist Nathan Kalish and his upright bassist, Eric Soules, are en route to a honky-tonk bar.

The duo, which performs as Nathan Kalish and the Lastcallers, is headed to a bar that’s known as ground zero for Kansas City’s roots music scene, the Westport Saloon. Over the past year, they’ve played the Westport “four or five” times on a tour that has seen them zig-zag across the country several times, performing their unique brew of Americana, rockabilly and outlaw country music. In all, they’ve played nearly 260 shows in about 14 months.

“We found these places that worked and kept going back,” says Kalish about his latest tour regimen. “We played bars, a few restaurants and hotels everywhere from Vermont to Southern California.”

While Kalish, 31, has been a fixture on Grand Rapids’ music scene over the last decade, his rusty minivan and extended stays in Nashville feel more like home these days. He’s been a road warrior, averaging 250 shows per year for three years running.

“We did 14 months straight for this last album, Alpine Way,” he says. “Before that, I did a month-long solo tour and [then toured] in Europe with the Wildfire band. Prior to that I was out drumming with the Deadstring Brothers for over two years — and I’d tour with the Wildfire on my breaks from that.”

After drumming in a series of bands since his teens, Kalish’s career got serious in 2007 with the release of his debut solo record, Desert Love. Since then, he’s surely earned his keep. Aside from the incessant touring, he recently completed work on his new album, How am I Supposed to Get Back Home, his seventh studio album and first as the Lastcallers.

The disc is an even further departure from his earlier, Replacements and Tom Petty-influenced rock‘n’roll. How am I Supposed to Get Back Home echoes more rustic American icons like Merle Haggard, John Prine, Gram Parsons and the Sun Records’ rockabilly roster, circa 1956. Kalish describes it as “a hard honky-tonk band without drums.” A free album-release show happens July 2 at Founders Tap Room.

“We did the record in Nashville — we’d been touring, doing honky tonks and bars all year,” he says. “We were doing a lot of classic country and a little bit of Americana and bluegrass. That’s what shaped the sound of the record, being on the road. We didn’t tour with a drummer. We used Eric’s slap bass. A lot of people say, ‘I can’t believe how full you sound without drums.’ After a while it just developed into its own sound. I had some ballads and sadder music we incorporated in — more desert country.”

Since his split from the Deadstring Brothers, Kalish has remained hyper focused on his own music — and that means a lot of touring, for better or for worse.

“It’s always an adventure,” he says. “There are always things going wrong and things going right. I’ve been broke down on the side road, but I’ve also stayed in mansions in the Hollywood Hills. I’ve had all sorts of ups and downs. You might have a great night and make $1,500, but you may not have another good show for a month. You have to constantly be working. That’s just the way it is for people who weren’t born rich.”

Life on the road seems to agree with Kalish, but being disconnected from his hometown has its emotional drawbacks. Coming home can be difficult these days for the wayfaring songwriter.

“It’s pretty hard actually,” he says. “Everybody kind of moves on, but when you’re on tour you don’t get to move on. Your life isn’t a personal life — it’s a professional life when you’re on tour. You have personal moments. You meet people and have relationships, but they only go as far as one day. I don’t really appreciate being (in Grand Rapids) much anymore. Every time I come back, there seems to be one less friend.”

The long-term departure from West Michigan has also slowly isolated him from the local music scene as well.

“In my mind I’ve grown and changed as an artist, but I haven’t been changing here,” he says. “A lot of times a scene develops and it’s all linked together. The music that’s developed in Grand Rapids is good, but I don’t really feel like a part of it.”

After one local called Kalish a “hick” following a recent hometown gig showcasing his country-tinged tunes, he was reminded of the negative facets often associated with any music scene.

“You get a lot of weird people that want to f**k with you because they’re jealous or they think you have an attitude,” he says. “You do get an attitude. Yeah, I got a chip on my shoulder. I’ve been on the road for three or four years. You have to get a f***ing attitude if you want to survive. You can’t be Mr. Nice Guy all the time.”

On a positive note: Being a weathered veteran has left him stocked full of solid tour advice, relationships with booking agents around the country, and tales from the road.

“I try to live smart and meagerly,” he says. “I try to not spend money on hotels and just meet friends everywhere, which is fun.

“I’ve had crazy nights in both directions. I’m sure if I was sitting down and drinking I could come up with some wild stories, but a lot of those I would not want in print until my parents are dead.”

And while the new Lastcallers record is completed, Kalish knows the work is far from over.

“You have to be out working all of the time — an album doesn’t work by itself,” he says. “To support an album you have to put down over 200 shows a year just to be able to feed everyone in the band.”

And it’s not like he’s complaining. The Lastcallers got its band name from the duo’s drive to play from dusk ’til closing time at any bar with a budget and a crowd.

“Eric and I had just finished up the first run of shows — but we went out and picked up some more. We didn’t feel like coming home yet so we drove up to Green Bay — it was a Sunday — and picked up a ‘tips gig’ at this hippie jam bar. We played all night. We started at like 6 o’clock and played until close at 2 a.m. We just decided that was going to be the premise of the band: Play songs all night until last call.”

Luckily for Kalish, sometimes hard work actually pays off. Nathan Kalish & the Lastcallers recently inked a record deal with Little Class Records, locking in support on its upcoming LPs.

“We’re probably going to cut a record fairly fast, a follow up to this one,” he says. “I’ve written a bunch of songs for it already. When we cut the Lastcallers record, I didn’t even know what we sounded like — now I know what the band sounds like.”

As for the near future, Kalish will remain transient and focused. The steady upsurge he’s experiencing in the music biz keeps his drive alive.

“I’m living my life and having a good time. I’m successful enough right now. If it grows — great. If it doesn’t, I may have to figure something else out. But when it’s growing, you know it. You can feel it.”

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