After the Flood
Israel Nash emerges from the Hill Country like a train coming through town
Standing on the dirt road in front of his house, located just outside Dripping Springs, Israel Nash choosing this over Brooklyn appears an obvious choice. Fall colors burst and the rolling hills stretch for miles and miles of Texas. A more picture-perfect postcard of Hill Country living hardly exists.
Nash calls his 15 acres "the compound." It includes a house his parents are building directly below his living quarters. Above both on the hill, a build-it-yourself Quonset hut serves as his recording studio.
"This whole place is cheaper than our rent was in Williamsburg," he claims.
All that land requires a golf cart for getting around, so Nash drives me up to the almost-completed studio. It's a large metal structure in the shape of an upside-down U. A stunning, unobstructed view of the surrounding area spreads out before us.
"When it arrived, this huge building fit on two wooden pallets," explains Nash, shaking his head in wonder. "And it came with 3,500 bolts."
Construction of the 1,400-square-foot space began early this year, but due to a pair of freakish acts of nature, the concrete floor was only recently completed. The Memorial Day floods that devastated the Hill Country filled the space with water, muck, and mud. The event was then repeated at the end of October with another record-breaking rain.
Today, it looks nearly complete and almost lived-in, with musical instruments, couches, and recording equipment. A small set of living quarters accommodates visitors. Nash built a space where someone can set up camp themselves and live while they record. It's also big enough for events or live recordings with a small audience.
The wheels of its owner are already spinning toward that possibility come South by Southwest.
Long, light brown hair, thick beard, aviator shades, tattooed arms, and heavy boots stamp Nash, 34, as the mountain man of his upbringing. Born in the Missouri Ozarks, his early diet of classic rock arrived courtesy of his father, a preacher. His mother bought him his first guitar for Valentine's Day when he was 11.
"Music was always my thing," he recalls, "but my parents said I had to go to college, so I did."
Nash earned a master's in political science from the University of Missouri. After graduating, he and his wife moved to New York City to pursue music.
"I didn't know what to do after college," he admits. "It's a weird life that seems so distant these days. I had always wanted to go to New York. I wanted to go to college there, but I think being where I was from, a small Missouri town, something like that was hard to grasp. Also, it was between Austin and New York when I graduated.
"My wife and I got married when I was 23. We had wrecked her car and got $3,000. Then we had a garage sale, made $700 more, and made our way to New York."
That was 2006. Originally, the pair lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan before taking the plunge into Brooklyn. Nash quickly found its music scene difficult to break into for someone without a track record. Nevertheless, he scored gigs at the Living Room and Rockwood Music Hall, then put together a quartet of Texans (as it turns out) that comprises his current band.
Three years later, the self-released debut by Israel Nash Gripka, New York Town, garnered attention from a small label in the Netherlands, Continental Record Services, which released the album in Europe. Barn Doors and Concrete Floors followed in 2011, co-produced by Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, who also played drums. This brought further attention in Europe, where the LP topped Euro Americana Charts.
The success of these first two discs led to a healthy touring schedule there, even though he was virtually unknown in the States.
"I remember a night after a show in Amsterdam," recalls Nash. "My wife was sitting on the bed in a hotel room counting the money we made that night and it came out to $1,700. She says, 'Maybe you can make a living at this!' That was an awesome moment. Since then, it was a growing thing in Europe. Playing there gave me a lot of confidence because we played a ton of shows."
Later that same year, the couple moved to Dripping Springs. Austin or New York was the dilemma when leaving Missouri, but Texas felt like the best place to raise children. Their daughter's now 2-and-a-half. Other big changes came with the relocation.
Most pointedly, Nash moved away from an Americana singer-songwriter style to a more expansive, even psychedelic sound. His first attempt at capturing that mood arrived on 2012's Rain Plans. He cut it in his new living room and decided to drop his last name, Gripka.
"I made a lot of changes in my life once I moved to Texas," he confirms. "Kind of spiritual, one might say. All my life and music changed, and I felt dropping the name was just a symbol of change and renewal."
Besides the prescient title, Rain Plans, the album captured its creator's joy of newfound settlement. A sun-streaked spin that earned raves from critics and fans alike, it makes even more sense once you've visited "the compound" and its God-graced surrounding.
"The production vision of it became making it sound like the hills look," nods Nash.
Rain Plans wasn't released in the U.S. initially. When the platter landed on a 2013 year-end list in British music magazine Uncut, it caught the eye of Kevin Cole, a jock at KEXP in Seattle. Cole tracked down a copy, began spinning it, and word-of-mouth among radio programmers allowed for a stateside release. Nash now felt staked in his home country, not just in Europe.
One tour stop included a hometown appearance at this year's Old Settler's Music Festival. Following it, Nash and band prepared their next batch of songs when the flood came. The Quonset hut was pretty rudimentary at that point, but suddenly there was a river running through it. They spent days digging a moat around the structure, hauling sandbags and scrubbing things clean.
After working so closely together, the quartet coalesced like never before on Silver Season (revisit "Texas Platters," Oct. 30). Unlike so many LPs these days, they produced a headphones album, a work to get immersed in. Silver Season's nine songs flow into one continuous suite, a heady swirl that's a throwback to his classic rock influences – along with mind-bending lyricism.
"I like the idea of listening to an album and being in that space," says Nash simply.
A November date inside at Stubb's sold out. Nash and company presented the album as a whole to great effect. A band-enveloping light show amped the proceedings further.
"I don't know if I'll do that every time," he admits. "We did it with Rain Plans too. I'm not a person that thinks the live show has to sound just like the record. I go back to listen to the records now and they sound kind of weak compared to what we do live."
"Sometimes we sound like a train coming through town."