Brad Hallen Talks The Nervous Eaters’ Past And Present And The Rise Of ‘Monsters + Angels’ From Wicked Cool Records

The Nervous Eaters have announced a new album, Monsters + Angels, coming up from Wicked Cool Records on November 11th, 2022 in digital and CD format, with vinyl format arriving on January 13, 2023. So far, they’ve released the singles and videos for “Wild Eyes” and “Superman’s Hands” from the record, and also unleashed a 7 inch red transparent vinyl single featuring the A side: “Wild Eyes” and B side: The Nervous Eaters’ 1976 hit, “Loretta”. There’s plenty to take in so far to gauge where their sound is headed on this new collection and the verdict is solid Rock ‘n Roll with plenty of underlying Blues influences.

The Nervous Eaters were founded in the mid-70s as a Boston-based independent band with a very steady live presence and they were the contemporaries of the Punk movement coming out of New York featuring The Ramones. While there have been different lineups over the years, founder and songwriter Steve Cataldo has always been at the helm, and the current group includes bassist Brad Hallen (Ministry, Ric Ocasek and The Joneses), drummer David McLean (Willie Alexander’s Boom Boom Band) and guitarist/vocalist Adam Sherman (Private Lightning). Among them, they have recorded and/or toured with such artists as Ministry, Iggy Pop, Aimee Mann, Jane Wiedlin, Susan Tedeschi, Jimmie Vaughan, Lenny Kaye and many others. Monsters + Angels is their Wicked Cool Records debut after Stevie Van Zandt took a big interest in this new work from these seasoned all-stars.

I spoke with bassist and album co-Producer Brad Hallen about his wide-ranging musical background, his eventful history with The Nervous Eaters, past and present, and what he sees in songs from the Eaters over time, including “Wild Eyes” and “Superman’s Hands”.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I understand that you joined the band in 2018, but weren’t you also involved at an earlier stage, too?

Brad Hallen: I did about a year and a half with the Eaters in 1986 and 1987.

HMS: What was your own musical context coming into that? I know that, since then, you have a really broad musical life, having as much to do with Blues and Jazz as with heavier music.

BH: I wouldn’t say I’m really a Jazz musician, although I really love it. I’m a full-time bass player, and I have been since 1975, so in order to keep the lights on, and work, you have to have a lot of experience with many genres. I’m a freelancer and I’ve played on over 200 recordings, as well as touring the world with many national artists. But I’m a full-time student, first and foremost. I study all the time and practice all the time.

HMS: Do you go through certain eras where you’re pursuing certain eras or artists who interest you?

BH: American music is a very deep reservoir. If you start with Louis Armstrong, you go into Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Nat Cole. All those Jazz musicians from the 20s and 30s onwards were part of live music territories because people didn’t even have telephones back then. When my mother was growing up, the great swing bands played her dances.

If you came to my house and saw my record collection, I have over 10,000 records. I like a lot of different kinds of music and I listen to them all the time. But I’ve been on a real Bowie kick lately, listening to the later part of his career. I also love Southern Soul and all the R&B stuff that was happening in the 60s and 70s. For an electric bass player, that stuff’s the holy grail.

HMS: What was your impression of The Nervous Eaters when you encountered them in the 80s?

BH: When I joined that band in the 80s, I noticed that Steve Cataldo was a very deep guy. The Eaters are labelled a Punk band, but it’s only because the band was around during that time. They certainly played loud and fast, but he’s more influenced by British Invasion stuff like The Kinks, The Animals, The Beatles, The Stones, but also, the American Blues, like the Chess catalog. When I heard that the chair for the bassist with the Eaters was open, I was very excited. I knew the guitar player and he called me and asked if I wanted to audition.

I’ve always admired Steve’s songwriting, and I think he’s criminally unknown to the world at large as a songwriter. I talked to him on the phone and he said, “Alright, before you audition for the Eaters, you have to play with my Blues band.” He wanted to see what my intuitive take was on that music, since that was an important thing to him, especially in the rhythm section. So he made me a cassette tape of some Howlin’ Wolf tunes and a bunch of Chess stuff. I did okay and he gave me the gig. Since then, I’ve worked with lots of heavy guys from the past, but the first time I played with many of those guys was with Steve, since he knew those guys. Steve is a very eclectic musician.

HMS: Thank you so much for sharing that. The thing about Punk music, and how that’s seen now, looking back, is that it’s largely a group of self-motivated people. Often the backgrounds are so incredibly different behind how the bands formed and what traditions people come from. But not everyone has those deep roots, so incredible to learn that about Steve and the Eaters.

BH: I’ll give my feelings on the term “Punk”. That thing that happened with The Ramones and The New York Dolls in 1975 and 1976 that started all that stuff emerging was a necessary thing because Rock music had become very bloated. But to me, Punk is not having green hair. It was cool that it gave people the ability to play or write songs who didn’t have a lot of technical skills, but it’s not that either. Punk is an attitude. Louis Armstrong, you could say, had a Punk attitude, or Ray Charles, or Muddy Waters, or The Beatles.

Those bands did something different, and they took a chance. A lot of times they were ostracized as a result of taking chances. To me, the Punk Rock movement was just a continuation of change. I hope it happens again because we need it right now. But I dig artists who keep their sound. People who hear us now can tell we’re the Eaters, but they also say, “Wow, that’s really different!”

HMS: Is there anything that you picked up on back then that you still think is characteristic of the Eaters? I’m sure plenty of that has to do with Steve’s songwriting.

BH: Going back to Steve’s roots, his vocal phrasing is not in the Punk Rock mold. You can tell he’s listening to James Brown and Muddy Waters alongside the Rock stuff, and that’s always been prevalent. He writes a lot of songs about relationships. In “Superman’s Hands”, you’ll see that it’s a song about having a relationship with yourself, though. If you look at all the problems in the world now, they are all based on people having a crappy relationship with themselves. I think that’s part of the human condition, and it’s our responsibility to learn to have a healthy relationship with ourselves, otherwise it just turns into transference and you just put all your issues onto other people. That could be your lover or anyone else.

HMS: I do feel like “Superman’s Hands” is a song that’s pretty different in that way. You don’t hear a lot of songs asking, essentially, “How do I view myself? Do I look for the best in myself?” Do you feel that song has to do with accepting yourself or knowing your potential?

BH: I’ll read you what Steve wrote to the label when they asked for a synopsis.

“’Superman’s Hands’ is a metaphor to relay the thought to every person that, no matter what your lot in life may turn out to be, or the condition in life that you find yourself in, even the weakest of us can summon up the power of Superman to help those in distress. The lyrics in the bridge are this, ‘You don’t need a cape to fly, or shoot lasers from your eyes’…as long as your heart has the capability of love, and a true desire to help your fellow man, then any person can possess the strength and dependability within Superman’s hands.”

HMS: That’s even more altruistic than I assumed, going beyond one’s own life, to the bigger implications of the world.

BH: When I heard that song the first time, co-Producing the record, I always thought it was about learning to have a relationship with yourself in a simple way. But the songs that move us personally relate to parts of our lives and are universal in their interpretation. I think that’s why Tom Petty was  such a great songwriter, because his concepts and lyrical statements were all based on relationships, with ourselves, with others, with any sort of spiritual entity, whether nature or through religion. Steve has that thing, too. He has the depth to convey, in a simple song, very deep concepts.

HMS: The past ten years have been really big for superhero films, and the past couple years have been really big for superhero metaphors, for instance celebrating first responders and nurses, so the song feels particularly true to the times. Can you tell anything about the musical development on that song?

BH: The way that Steve works is that he demos all his tunes, since he has a home studio, as do I. He’s a very good bass player, and programs drums on a drum machine. He has a lot of parts already integral to the tune and the reason that he has us as a band is that he trusts us all with his interpretation. There are certain things that you know that you need to play, since they are integral to the tune, but he’s also very open to interpretation from us.

The Production side of it for me was asking where we were putting certain vocal parts, getting the right musicians, deciding when we’d gotten the take and could move on, that kind of stuff. Adam Sherman, who is a guitarist in the band, is also a very good songwriter, and we’re doing one of his songs in the live set right now. On the next record, we will have some of his tunes, for sure.

HMS: By the way, I noticed a British Invasion tinge to these songs, so thanks for confirming that’s true of the Eaters.

BH: “British Invasion” is a very broad blanket. Aside from the bands we’ve already mentioned, the bands we always talk about in the Eaters include The Dave Clark Five, The Zombies, all those groups that came out from that time period.

HMS: I saw a quote that indicated that Stevie Van Zandt chose “Wild Eyes” to be the first single off of this album, and I can certainly see why. It’s a very accessible song, but it’s also a little softer and melodic while still being Rock ‘n Roll.

BH: It’s a song that still rocks plenty hard. Steve’s a huge fan of The Byrds, as I am, so that’s where the twelve-string approach comes from on that song. The twelve-string is pretty prevalent, and it’s also on “Superman’s Hands.”

HMS: I think the video is rather sweet. As a woman myself, I really thought it was great that the actress in the video was not a 20-year-old and is someone who’s more mature.

BH: We did that on purpose, because we’re not 20-year-olds, and it would look foolish. She’s also a very dear friend of ours, Kelly Knapp, who was in a band in Boston for a long time called The Bristols, an all-female group. It’s all about a woman who’s seen many different facets of a relationship through her eyes.

HMS: Actually, now knowing that she’s also a musician adds another aspect to the video for me. It’s also that she’s seeing the world through music. That’s another aspect of her experience. In the video, we have a great symbol of viewing the world through the use of photography.

BH: The song is about a relationship between two lovers, really, and you can interpret it however you want, but all the elements are in there, whether it’s the joy of a relationship, the heartbreak of losing one, the difficulty of maintaining one. It’s all those things.

HMS: It seems like there’s a tone of respect for the autonomy of that other person, and I think that’s something that anyone can relate to as significant in a relationship. The question comes up, “How do I relate to this other person? How can I make sure that I don’t just see them as an extension of myself?” I feel like that comes out in the song.

BH: That’s a beautiful sentiment. That goes back to universal interpretations, like we were talking about, and no one else has actually said that yet about the song. I think that sentiment is true, and I think it’s one of the hardest things in a relationship, that sometimes we don’t allow the other person to be who they are. We’ve all had trials and tribulations in relationships, especially if you’ve been in one for an extended period of time. That’s when the rubber really hits the road, so to speak. That’s when you really have got to trust, and you’ve really got to be able to let go.

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