‘Peace Out’: Guitarist Gunnar Nelson Talks New Nelson Album, Guitars and ‘After the Rain’

Twenty-five years ago, two long-haired blond twins set the world on fire with their debut album, After the Rain.

At a time when glam metal was giving way to grunge, Nelson touched a nerve with the album's hook-laden title track and “(Can't Live Without Your) Love and Affection," a Number 1 single.

Today, Gunnar and Matthew Nelson are still going strong. They perform full-band shows as Nelson, pay tribute to their father with their Ricky Nelson Remembered shows and take part in all-star Scrap Metal performances across the country.

While Nelson’s upcoming album, Peace Out [set to be released May 19] might be considered the rock band’s swan song, it might also be their best album, ever. Peace Out is an infectious collection of songs showcasing the maturity of the songwriting as well as Gunnar’s guitar prowess.

Next year, Gunnar and Matthew will begin a new duo project focusing on guitars and vocals. So if Peace Out truly is the end of the rock version of Nelson, Gunnar and Matthew are certainly going out in style.

I recently spoke with Gunnar about Peace Out and his gear and got his thoughts on the 25th anniversary of After the Rain.

GUITAR WORLD: How does Peace Out compare to some of Nelson’s previous records?

Honestly, if I were to recommend a Nelson record to someone who has never heard the band before, it wouldn’t be our first record [After the Rain]. It would be this one. This one features the best of the songwriting, guitar work and vocals. Most of all, the theme of the record is positive, and that’s what this band is 25 years in. When most everyone else is trying to be tough and rock, we want to make people feel good about listening to music.

Why the title, Peace Out?

As Nelson the rock band, this will most likely be the last album that will ever be made. Next year, Matthew and I are going in a new direction that focuses more on two guys with guitars. So we really wanted to do an album that punctuates our career in the same way After the Rain heralded it. If this is going to be our swan song as Nelson, I want it to be done on our terms and to the best of our ability.

What was the songwriting process like for the album?

For guitar-centric things, most people start off with a riff, but that never worked for me. For me, it’s all about melody. Years ago, I remember reading an interview where Paul McCartney said he wants to write melodies that people can’t get out of their head and ones they can hum in the shower. That really made an impact on me. For this album, the ideas started with the melody first. It’s very organic.

Let’s talk about a few tracks from the album, starting with "Rockstar."

Being a rock star is a state of mind. I wrote that song after I pulled up to a stoplight one day. I looked over and saw this guy in the car next to me just blissfully banging his head to AC/DC. He literally looked like he was fresh out of 1985. As far as he was concerned, he was in his limo on his way to play a concert. I thought, “Man, that guy’s got it all!"

"Let it Ride"

I remember I was making a comment on something I saw while watching TV. I thought it was ironic that the poker championships were being broadcast on a sports network. Then the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be cool to make metaphoric reference to a poker game as far as how to live your life. Basically, you can quit halfway through the game or bet all of your chips on your instincts.

What are your tour plans like for this year?

This year, we’ll primarily be focusing on Nelson rock band and Ricky Nelson Remembered shows. We also have six shows already on the books for Scrap Metal where we’ll be doing some gigs with Lita Ford and Stephen Pearcy. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

After the Rain was released 25 years ago this year. When you think about that album and era, what comes to mind?

I feel two different things. On one hand, I feel grateful that we were able to experience that kind of success so young. That was the end of a musical era. In fact, our record label actually signed Nirvana halfway through our tour cycle. I do wish our record company had released the record two years earlier, because that’s when we turned it in and they just sat on it. Had they have done that, we might have had the opportunity to release a few more records that would have defined our career a whole lot more indelibly.

What was the inspiration behind the title track?

It started out just being a typical relationship song, but then halfway into it I realized it had a greater meaning. I wrote a line that I really loved and it dictated my philosophy: “Don’t be afraid to lose what was never meant to be." That’s when I realized the title of the album was After the Rain. It was an autobiographical theme we were going for. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what your past was. You can always dictate your present and future.

What can you tell me about the song “Love and Affection”?

The interesting thing about that song was that at one point it was actually dropped from the album. Fortunately, we had some managers at the time who took the demo to David Holman [mixer] who said, “This is really special. Let’s work on it." So we spent a week working on it and giving it a pop level remix, and it became a Number 1 single!

What’s your guitar setup like these days?

My number one axe was made for me by John Cruz in the Fender Custom Shop. He made me a Mary Kay Telecaster. It’s got a Jeff Beck-style cutout and a set of Abigail hand wounds in it. It’s a beautiful guitar and matches my Mary Kay Strat perfectly. John also made me a Fender P Bass Mary Kay. My favorite thing to bring out is my Tele and a Mark Sampson DC30. It doesn’t matter if it’s for Ricky Nelson Remembered, Scrap Metal or Nelson. That’s my sound.

If Peace Out is to be the last go around as Nelson the rock band, how would you like the band to be remembered?

I would love to be remembered for our uniqueness, the strength of the songwriting and vocalizing and how we used our Southern California influences. Unlike many other artists, we didn’t grow up around the blues. We grew up around the Eagles, the Beach Boys, the Hollies and my dad’s Stone Canyon Band. So when I look back on our career, the thing I’m most proud of is how different we sounded and how unique our trip was.

For better or worse. Back then, when people mentioned Nelson they’d always say, “Oh, you mean the guys with the long blond hair!” But that was planned too. Now here we are all these years later. The hair’s a lot shorter but I hope the songs are even catchier than when we started out.

For more about Nelson, visit matthewandgunnarnelson.com.

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James Wood

James is a guitarist and freelance writer who's interviewed some of the biggest names in music. He is the author of four books and his writing credits include work for Guitar World, AXS and Yahoo! as well as for his hometown newspaper where he writes on a variety of topics with both passion and humor. As a guitarist, he's performed everywhere from local bars and nightclubs to some of the biggest stages in front of thousands of music fans.