Gunnar Nelson was born into show business. As the son of actor/pop star/rock icon Ricky Nelson and grandson of TV mogul Ozzie Nelson, it made sense that he and his twin brother, Matthew, would end up as entertainers — it was in their blood.
As the band Nelson, the platinum-locked brothers captured a platinum album on their debut and broke wide in the halcyon days of Sunset Strip hair metal. Since then, the brothers have toured the world playing original material and paying tribute to their father’s legacy.
Mr. Nelson reflects on the failure of his famous father, how a “Star Trek” marathon created his band and why the brothers’ new album, “Peace Out,” will be their last.
Question: Was there any trepidation going into music with your dad being Ricky Nelson?
Answer: When you’re a kid, you honestly don’t understand what kind of an impact that someone who is just your dad had on people. My first memory of him was when I was 2 watching him onstage having a great time and people loving him. I thought, “That is the greatest job in the world. I want do that.” That is all I wanted to do my whole life. This is what I do. It’s like breathing.
Q: Did your dad give you advice about going into show business?
A: He said, “Keep your sense of humor because, in this business, you’re going to need it.” And “Do yourself a favor: Be a songwriter first and foremost.” He loved the feeling that he got when a song that came from him connected with people.
Q: What was your relationship like with your dad?
A: My dad was an awesome guy.
Let me clarify: My dad was my best friend. I never doubted he loved me. He was very supportive of our music. But he was a perpetual child. He grew up famous and never had to do things for himself. I’m out there now, especially doing the “Ricky Nelson Remembered” show, playing the exact same venues he played for the audiences that saw him.
A few years ago, as I was plugging in onstage at this old theater I knew my dad had played, I looked over at the wall and noticed a change in the color of the brick where there used to be a pay phone 10 feet away [from the stage]. I thought, “How hard would it have been to walk that 10 feet, pick up the phone and ask how my day was?” At that moment, I realized my dad really didn’t have balance in his life.
Q: Where did Nelson’s signature sound come from?
A: We had our first real demo at this tiny studio in the [San Fernando] Valley. Matthew was waiting for his turn to sing. Unfortunately, there was a “Star Trek” marathon on. When it was time for Matt to do his vocals, he couldn’t be bothered to get off the couch in the other room and sing his vocals.
The producer said, “Gunnar, why don’t you just throw down a lead vocal?” The first pass was quick, and after that, the producer said, “Your brother is not the lead singer of this band; you are. What do we do?” I threw down two more lead vocals. Forty-five minutes later, Matt came in [and] the producer said, “I want to try this modern Everly Brothers thing. Just flip roles.”
Matthew sang the harmony for the first time. That was the moment the Nelson sound was born. I owe it all to James T. Kirk.
Q: Was there a backlash because you guys were stylish?
A: A stylist told us, “You guys are brand-new. If and when your video does come out on MTV, you have a nanosecond to capture the attention of the viewers before they move on to something else. If you don’t capture their attention, you are not going to get the second shot. Make sure you peacock enough [so] that, love or hate you, the people are going to know who you are.” It worked.
Q: How much of a pain was the superlong hair to maintain, and when did you decide to lose the hair?
A: A year or two after we broke [out], the private school kid in me sat down one day and did the math on how much my hair upkeep cost me timewise. It ended up being a full 14 days spent just on doing the hair. That was when I decided to cut the hair.
Q: Why did you name the new Nelson CD “Peace Out”?
A: Because this is the last one, the last Nelson record. I can no longer make the kind of records that Nelson needs to make for it to be a Nelson record. The industry doesn’t support it anymore.
When we first started making music, our budgets were $300,000 to $500,000 to make a record. That’s gone. I spent literally thousands of hours making “Peace Out” by myself. It felt like giving birth. The juice has got to be worth the squeeze. The only thing we really get out of it now is the knowledge that the music we love is connecting with people.
• Nelson’s CD, “Peace Out,” is available now.