Nelson’s double-platinum 1990 debut LP After the Rain turns 30 Friday (June 26), but the masterminds behind it — twins Matthew and Gunnar Nelson — don’t have big plans for celebrating the milestone.
“I haven’t planned on lighting any candles on a cake or anything,” Gunnar tells Billboard, though they are working on a “really special” commemorative 30th anniversary release. “I actually didn’t even know when the specific day was! We kind of celebrate it every day … we’re really proud of the record.”
And they should be. The twins — recognizable in the early ‘90s for their good looks and flowing, long blond manes — overcame struggles you wouldn’t necessarily expect the children of a celebrity family to face in order to make their musical dreams a reality. But fight they did, and their debut record, a catchy hybrid of power-pop and hard rock, ultimately went on to become a massive hit on its own strengths.
Being the sons of rock royalty — dad was ‘50s and ‘60s rock and TV heartthrob Ricky Nelson — the grandsons of entertainers Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, and the nephews of celebrated actor Mark Harmon, didn’t grease the doors to success. And as the Nelson twins reflect on the making of the album, it became clear that it was perseverance that helped After the Rain get made. Not only that, but to become a big success: The record went on to sell more than 2 million copies, generate four hit singles that each made the Billboard Hot 100 (including “Love and Affection,” their debut single and the band’s only No. 1), and lead to a sold-out headlining tour.
The roadblocks the twins faced in their late teens were not insignificant. Their dad’s sudden death at age 45 on Dec. 31, 1985, in a plane crash left the then 18-year-olds stunned and in a financial hole. (“[Our dad] was millions of dollars in debt when he died,” notes Matthew. “Gunnar and I assumed the debt.”) And what had been set aside for their college education disappeared. According to Gunnar, mom Kristin Harmon was “drug-addicted” and “snorted” their college fund. This left the twins with little more than big dreams and $26 in the bank as they surfed couches and lived out of their car.
“The reality of our situation has been f–king dark,” admits Gunnar of their youth. “But the entire time, Matt and I were making music together. And we’re going, ‘We’re going to do this; one day it’s going to work.’”
“You Gotta Grow Your Hair Out”
Landing a contract was one step toward eventual fame and success, but like everything else for the brother duo, it wasn’t easy. “[We were] turned down by everybody everywhere for a recording contract,” Matthew begins of their initial efforts. “What got us our recording contract at Geffen was walking into that office and saying, ‘Sit down and listen to this.’ Gunnar and I sang and played the songs we’d written — namely ‘Love and Affection’ — and the A&R guy said, ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ That’s it — two guys and two guitars singing a great song.”
Another was putting together their unique image, which consisted of colorful outfits and the aforementioned golden locks that sent teen girls swooning. The visual package, the twins share, was something they had thought about even before landing a deal with Geffen.
“My impetus for the whole thing was … back then, it was an MTV culture,” Gunnar says of going for an eye-catching look. “Video crushed a lot of radio stars’ careers that were not telegenic. We realized that video presentation was key to everything, image was key to everything, and we wanted to make an anti-statement.”
Some unexpected sources ended up helping them make that statement.
“The genesis of [the long hair] was a dinner that Gunnar and I had with Richie Sambora,” Matthew reveals, explaining that prior to landing their record deal, a manager introduced them and advised the two to pick the Bon Jovi guitarist’s brain. “He looked at the two of us and said, ‘You know you guys have to grow your hair out, right?’ I don’t know why that stuck with us the way that it did, but when one of your musical heroes looks at you and says, ‘You gotta grow your hair out,’ boy, did we take that to heart!”
“If you want to get chicks, you have long hair! That was about as deep as that conversation could go,” adds Gunnar of their lengthy locks, which was a pre-grunge staple carried over from ‘80s hair metal.
Another piece of advice came when the twins were writing music in England just after being signed. “A stylist walked up to us at a record industry party,” recalls Matthew. “She looked at the two of us standing there, kind of soaking it in, and said in her British accent, ‘What are you two doing here?’ We said, ‘We’re recording artists.’ She said, ‘You guys have to get a look. If you plan on releasing anything that’s going to be international, you have to understand, in England, your image is more important by far than the music.’”
When they got home, the twins interviewed stylists, and eventually landed on the richly hued head-to-toe outfits that included bright lapeled jackets that sometimes featured prints, sequins and tails. The flamboyant overall look stood in stark contrast to their rocker contemporaries, who sported black leather outfits and teased hair on the covers of metal magazines — which the twins ultimately ended up gracing as well.
“Our thing was, love us or hate us, you’re going to know who we are,” Gunnar says not only of their image, but also the equally colorful and quirky videos that captured eyeballs on MTV. “We were totally cool with pissing off a lot of people.”
“We Got Dropped for Two Days”
For the twins, who have been making music together since they were 6, songwriting has been as essential as breathing. “I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be sane without songwriting,” notes Gunnar, who calls it his form of therapy. “Songwriting is my greatest joy.”
And so, when they were penning the songs for After the Rain (the duo are credited for every one minus the instrumental interlude by keyboardist Paul Mirkovich) in their late teens and early 20s, they drew from their life experiences. This resulted in compositions that they still hold dear for capturing specific moments in their lives. “I remember exactly where I was when I wrote them,” says Gunnar. “I remember what I was feeling when I did.”
The “first real song” for the album was power ballad “Everywhere I Go,” shares Gunnar. He recalls that the song — the tenth track on the album — came about during his first trip abroad to Australia, which came at the urging of a manager because at 18, they had little life experience. “I was in a hellacious part of town; I remember feeling really lonely and my girlfriend at the time was back in America, and it wasn’t easy to call home. … I was kind of zoned out and feeling melancholy, and you can hear it in ‘Everywhere I Go.’”
As for “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection,” which ended up being the album’s first single instead of the originally planned “Bits and Pieces,” Gunnar clarifies that contrary to popular belief, the song is not about supermodel Cindy Crawford, but reflects on their time as “outsiders” in high school.
“We were the ones all the hot chicks in high school would come to when their dirtbag boyfriends would treat them like s–t and make them feel horrible. They’d come to us and we’d make them feel better. Of course, they’d go right back to their boyfriends after we got done with that,” he explains. “That’s where the lyrics to ‘Love and Affection’ came from, was that: ‘I’ve been on the outside looking in/ Let me into your heart.’ It was truly from our life experience.”
Though the model didn’t inspire the lyrics, she did play a role in the music. Gunnar says that Matthew had “zoned out” during one of their writing sessions as Gunnar was getting some food in the other room. “I heard a really cool guitar riff coming down the hallway,” he recalls, adding that he hit “record” on the recorder he had in his pocket to capture the music. “I walked in and it broke Matthew’s trance. … He had gone into that zone because he happened to be looking at a magazine that had Cindy Crawford on it. The inspiration for that riff that starts the song definitely had to do with that.”
When it finally came time to start the recording process, Matthew shares that the brothers still heard “no” a lot despite having a record deal. “We started recording After the Rain with the other producers that completely s–t the bed,” he recalls of their frustrations. “These guys were big deals at the time.”
According to Matthew, things got so bad that they even briefly lost their contract. “We got dropped for two days because we showed up at a meeting, and the company wanted to hear the mixes,” he says. “[The producers] had nothing to play for them, so these guys sat at the table and pointed the finger at us!”
But again, they pushed ahead with their project — and ran into new challenges. One of them was “Love and Affection,” which ended up becoming Nelson’s biggest hit, peaking at No. 1 on the Hot 100. According to the twins, it almost wasn’t included on After the Rain.
“We had trouble with ‘Love and Affection.’ [It] was one of those things that we had a lot of hopes for when we heard it, but our first attempt at recording it, we had a couple different recording teams. It felt really flat,” explains Gunnar. “So much so that the song actually did for a short time wind up on the cutting-room floor. It wasn’t even going to make the album.”
But the twins, who thought “Love and Affection” would be “a great calling card,” didn’t throw in the towel. “We just weren’t going to give up on that song,” says Matthew.
Overall, “it took three years to get the songs we have on the After the Rain record,” according to Gunnar. “That’s a lot of songs we had to go through, a lot of songs we had to write.”
Besides the writing, the pair say they produced the album mostly by themselves, with Matthew selecting the song order, though others ended up getting credit for a lot of their work. “There were certain people that never showed up, or went out on a date then came back to take a listen after we’ve been there 18 hours,” according to Matthew. “Gunnar should’ve gotten at least credit for a lot of the technical stuff.”
“People Wanted to Dismiss Us”
After various setbacks, the album was finally ready, and yet, it was still difficult to get the label support Nelson wanted. “They put no effort into promoting it,” recalls Matthew, who says another band — which he did not name — “got the push and all the money and all the support.”
Ahead of the release of “Love and Affection” as their debut single in May 1990, Matthew says he and Gunnar hit up radio and music conventions, where they performed at the elevators — because, as he put it, Geffen didn’t spend the money to “wine and dine” industry folks to introduce the band as one of the label’s new artists.
“It was one of those radio programmers at those stations that played our song first, because he saw us at the elevators busking,” explains Matthew. “We had to do what we had to do. We weren’t going to sit around and wait for it to happen.”
He also remembers the first time they heard “Love and Affection” on the radio. “I’m listening in my car,” he remembers of the moment. “The first time we did, Gunnar and I were crying — we were so happy about it.”
There was more to be happy about. After the single came out but before the album’s release, Matthew recalls returning to a Los Angeles-area mall for an in-store signing, the same shopping center they were at the week before buying socks and underwear. “The police had to be called to shut it down 20 minutes into it because all three floors of the Sherman Oaks Galleria were filled with girls wanting to get a piece of us,” he exclaims. “It was really crazy!”
Despite the lack of label support, After the Rain succeeded — and quickly. “When it was originally released, the album sold out all of its copies nationwide in the first day,” says Matthew, who credits fans for buying the album at a rate of 40,000 units a day. “It took the record company three weeks to figure out what happened, and to get more albums into stores.”
But their colorful look and pop-rock sound also confused people, though it was pop radio where Nelson ultimately found more success. “The album was too lightweight for hard-rock radio, and too heavy for pop radio. People wanted to dismiss us,” says Matthew.
Even their contemporaries shied away from Nelson. “No one would take us on f–king tour! We tried to go out with everybody and nobody would take us!” Gunnar says. “Maybe they thought we were fake or wimpy or whatever they thought it was. All of those metal bands — that, ironically, I’m really good friends with now — would never take us out on a tour because they thought it was bad for their brand.”
So on the strength of their first three singles — after “Love and Affection” topped the Hot 100, the title track hit No. 6, and “More Than Ever” peaked at No. 14 — they self-funded their own tour because Geffen, per Matthew, “never actually gave us tour support.” He added: “We invested our own money that we made off of T-shirt sales into that tour.” After the U.S tour — which sold out in 20 minutes, according to Gunnar — they went on to play concerts around the world. They did more than 300 shows before returning home to find themselves almost a million dollars in debt after tour expenses.
Times would get tougher for Nelson from there, as the music scene had changed rapidly while the twins were on the road. “[Geffen] had engineered a cultural shift,” says Gunnar of the grunge era and the band’s label, which signed game-changing alt-rockers Nirvana in April 1991. “When grunge was in full swing, Matt and I felt like pariahs.”
“We kind of became a bookend on an entire era of music, fairly or unfairly,” adds Matthew. “The people who wouldn’t let us into the club [in the days when we played on the Sunset Strip], we got lumped in with them and pretty much flushed. We had to regroup — and did it. We survived.”
“A Whole New Generation of Fans”
Three decades after the release of After the Rain, the Nelson twins have kept the music going. They’ve since released 12 other albums as Nelson, many on their own Stone Canyon Records label.
Not only that, they’re now toiling away on First Born Sons, the new project they’re preparing to release an EP for soon. “It’s a country project we’ve been working on for years,” says Matthew — though he clarifies that sonically, the project is “not where country music is right now.”
“It’s going to incorporate all the best elements that you love about the early Nelson records into something that’s evolved quite a bit,” Gunnar explains of the project. “It’s great American country rock. It’s guitar driven, it’s vocal driven. The songs are deep and catchy.”
“The stuff that we’re working on now hopefully is going to make the Nelson era look like the stepping-off point,” he continues. “I’m really proud of what we’ve done with Nelson. Nelson, in that first record After the Rain, at that moment, was the very best that I could do at the time with the experience I had under my belt.”
But with First Born Sons, the twins won’t be courting their fans from the early ‘90s to start. “What I want is to get a whole new generation of fans for our new stuff,” says Gunnar. “Letting fans discover this new music and organically discover the fact that once upon a time, we were those guys with long hair and the spandex. And then they’ll listen to After the Rain and go, ‘I really like this!’ That would be cool.”