By Andy Downing
RedEye special contributor
6:50 AM CST, February 7, 2014
Martin Van Ruin might borrow its name from President Martin Van Buren--whose critics dubbed him “Van Ruin” since he presided over a long, painful economic recession--but frontman Derek Nelson, 27, insists the band’s music is rooted in the here and now.
The Wicker Park band’s debut, “Every Man a King,” is also a folk-rock monster worthy of its majestic title, swinging from prettier acoustic laments (“Give Me Flowers (While I’m Living)”) to stormier numbers that conjure images of Neil Young shredding alongside Crazy Horse (“Wilderness”). All of these facets and more will be on full display when the seven-piece performs Feb. 21 at the Hideout.
Van Buren was the President during a long period of recession where there were problems with the banks and unemployment numbers were high. That all sounds vaguely familiar…
As unique as times can feel, I guess as a country we’ve been through these things before, and it’s good to remember that.
This idea that history repeats itself surfaces more explicitly on a song like “American Moon.”
Yeah. That’s really what it’s about. I don’t know the specific things that led me to write that song, but my grandpa was a WWII vet, and you see what’s happening abroad now and you can help but think we’re always sending 18-year-olds off [to war].
Are you a history buff?
I would say most of what I read — and it’s funny that you called me out on that — but most of what I read day-to-day is non-fiction. I like reading about history, and I think that bleeds into what I write. Right now I’m reading “The Bully Pulpit” [by Doris Kearns Goodwin], which is a book about Teddy Roosevelt and [William] Taft. Going back to a time that, again, it sounds kind of like now. Huge companies were conglomerating and people were wondering, “What’s left for us?” You can’t read a book like that and not draw parallels to now.
You seem particularly drawn to the idea of the presidency. Have you ever had political aspirations of your own?
[Laughs] No, none of that.
There seem to be a number of characters on this record who are searching for a new life or cutting ties with the past.
Yeah, and I think that’s a product of where we are as a band and where I am just being my age. You start nearing your 30s and asking questions like, “What am I doing?” Then you start thinking about your youth, and however long it might last. It wasn’t a decision. It’s just what came out on the page.
You also released a solo record in January. How did you know whether a song was a better fit on the Derek Nelson album or with Martin Van Ruin?
I was always in two different mindsets when I was writing songs. One was more introspective and solo songwriter-y, and the other felt like a foundation for something bigger. There was definitely a sound that was in all of our heads with this project. We have that folk underpinning, but we also love noise and we love ambitiousness and we love songs that have a lot of energy. Whenever I was writing solo stuff it felt like I was just trying to get thoughts off my chest about my family or whatever it might have been. With [Van Ruin] there was a wider worldview.
On “Wilderness” you rail about broken promises. How good are you at keeping a promise?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I guess that’s up to the people in my life and my loved ones. And, there you go, there’s that history again. I read somewhere where somebody called America, “a walk into the wilderness,” and I liked that image: just sort of walking in the wilderness and that being our story.
There’s a line on the record where you sing, “The cemetery is filled with invincible men.” Have you ever had that moment in your own life where you felt unbeatable?
[Laughs] Probably not. I think you can get knocked on your ass pretty easily in those times you do feel like that.
Martin Van Ruin, 10 p.m. Feb. 21 at Hideout. $15.
Derek Nelson Personality Test
Last album you bought? “I think it was the Vampire Weekend album [‘Modern Vampires of the City’].”
Song you've listened to on repeat recently? “Tell ‘Em All to Go to Hell” by Ezra Furman
Song you never want to hear again? “I respect his game, but that Bruno Mars song [‘Just the Way You Are’] bothers me because it’s very pandering. Every year another song comes out where a pop artist says, ‘You’re beautiful just the way you are.’”
Best concert you've seen in the last year? “There have been some good ones. I’m going to say a tie: Paul McCartney and David Byrne with St. Vincent, both at Bonnaroo.”
New band you don't know personally that deserves to be big? Ezra Furman
Favorite movie ever? “Pulp Fiction”
Chicago's best music venue? Empty Bottle
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC