Nebraska were a South London based four(sometime five) piece who never achieved the attention they deserved. Forged around the axis of singer Michael J Hall and guitarist Benjamin Todd, they producing only one album 2005’s ‘The Path to the Silent country.’ A long player jam packed with fiercely emotionally scorched space rock, orbit spinning chorus’ and a urgent need to be heard, that it was only followed up by a few singles was tragic and despite the talk of a follow up they parted way too soon. Now nearly three years since they played their last gig they’re set to play a (one off?) reunion show in London this Saturday the 22nd of October at The Fox & Firkin. I caught up with their energetic front man Michael J Hall he of the booming vocals and Merthyr background, for a delve into the history of a band that ‘might have’ and ‘should have’ been much more well known.

How did Nebraska get together, you formed in London and you’re from Merthyr orginally right?

I’m from Merthyr Tydfil originally yes. It’s one of the most beautiful, deprived, destroyed places in Britain. My family’s still there so I’m there quite a lot but I felt like I had to be in London to be in a band. Of course, that’s nonsense but that’s what I thought when I was eighteen. It was truer then than it is now. Bands should stop coming to London – the music scene’s a horrible shambles here – billions of awful bands clogging every spare corner of every shoddy bar and club across the capital, all clawing each other’s eyes out to get ahead. And for almost all of them there IS no getting ahead. You’re better off working on your music wherever it is that you come from without the distractions of the bottom end of the industry, then, when you’re ready you can let people hear what you’ve made, online. If people want you they’ll come to you – and what does it matter if they don’t as long as you are making what you want to make? I think if I’d stayed in Wales I would have got to understand what kind of music I wanted to make a lot more quickly than I actually have. It’s taken forever for me to understand what I wanted to do artistically, partly because the London scene fucked with my head, made me think I wanted things I didn’t want. Ben, the guitarist, came from Wales originally too. We met in London through a mutual friend. I’d been out of a band for a while and Ben had started a band with this drummer Jon. They needed a bassist. I can’t really play the bass but I told them I could cos they had a gig booked and I wanted to join because I’d heard them discussing ‘At the Drive-in’. I had to go and buy a bass, this little blue half-sized thing, and a ‘How to Play Bass’ book and we had the gig a couple of weeks later. I’d love to tell you it was a massive success but it wasn’t. We were terrible. But we finished with a cover of ‘Don’t Wanna Know If You Are Lonely’ by Husker Du so, bad as we were, at least we were setting our stall out in a way.

How would you describe Nebraska for those that never go the chance to hear you?!


A deeply flawed stab at greatness that started on it’s knees and ended up face down in the gutter. Or, you know, we sounded a lot like Elbow to a lot of people so that’ll do as far as descriptions go.

Did you have any vocal inspirations? Some people mentioned Morrissey, some Tiny from Ultrasound and others Jamie from Marion when describing your vocal range? Were you self taught or not?


I was completely obsessed with Morrissey on and off throughout my twenties. I imitated him endlessly. Stole from him, his lyrics, mannerisms, everything. I didn’t know who I was at all – but I knew who he was so I just did that a lot. The full-on frontman stuff was all nicked from either him or, strangely, David Yow from Jesus Lizard or, stranger still, Freddie Mercury. I had a vocal lesson once relatively late on in my time with the band. Ben told me to get voice lessons because he didn’t think I was singing well enough live. That was absolutely crushing, but I did it. The vocal trainer was nice though, she said I could have been an opera singer if she’d got hold of me a lot earlier – I think she meant before I started smoking and drinking! I only lasted the one lesson though cos my ego wouldn’t let me go back. These days I’d want to go back every day, just to learn.

Lyrically I always got the impression that Nebraska songs were very a deep place, am I overplaying that or were they a mixture of personal and fictional narratives?

A lot of it was very, very personal and about specific people too. That was hard, having to explain to people who the songs were about that I’d written about our relationships, our friendships and not necessarily in a positive way. Some people I didn’t bother to explain to so some people still don’t know that certain songs were about situations that involved them. I’m sure it wouldn’t matter to them anyway. I don’t know about ‘fictional’ though. They were either diary entries, intensely personal stuff or just, you know, waffle – nonsense, meaningless stuff that rhymed, things that sounded ‘cool’ to whatever sensibility I was subscribing to that week!

Your debut album was a fierce record looking back now are you kind of proud of it?What would you have changed given the chance?

I can’t pretend to feel proud of it because I don’t. there are moments on it where I think ‘that’s good, I like that’ and there are stirring, emotive moments that really get to me, you know? But I don’t feel pride over it, no. It’s too tied in with a lot of negative things that happened in my life for me to ever really feel that cleanly and concertedly about it. Of the few people who got to hear it, many of them liked it a great deal and I’m really happy that that’s the case. Genuinely, I am. How warming is the idea that your album is on a couple of people’s cd rack and that once in a while they crack it out, play a couple of tunes from it and enjoy what you wrote? That’s lovely. In fact it’s only just struck me how lovely that is – so thanks! I would have changed so much about that record. I don’t know where to start. It cost a fortune – more to the point it cost Ben personally an enormous amount of money and we never made a penny back on it. We really went to town. We made a major label record without even having an indie deal. Very Nebraska thing to do, that. Reaching for the absolute heights but landing directly on our necks. Given my time over I would have made a rough, ragged DIY record for starters. It wouldn’t have broken everyone down financially, mentally. We had it in us to make a rough and ready rock album with big fucking tunes on it but we made this epic thing that ended up like an albatross around our necks in a way. If we were gonna do the big, blustering record maybe we should have waited for the big bastard record deal – which never came. Ben, Stax and Don all played brilliantly on that record though – and our producer Adrian was tremendous too. There’s no doubting that once we’d committed to making an epic we stuck to our guns and went a full ten!

Your last single the ‘Great divide’ appeared to be reaching for some kind of expression of how people felt disconnected from politics after the lies that lead us into the Iraq war?


That’s absolutely right but don’t take it as a genuine political statement. The crux of the song comes from me joking that certain types of people would be ‘first against the wall’ come the revolution. That’s where the chorus comes from. So it’s based around a joke. The lyrics fell together nicely and I read them back to myself and thought – yeah, I agree with a lot of that. It’s often how it worked for me – I’d write the lyric then try to decipher it later. I wonder if that’s cheating. I’m a politicised person and all art is political but I rarely address it. Almost all political lyrics sound ludicrous and clunky when you set them against Billy Bragg anyway.

Musically I always thought Nebraska’s sound rippled with an emotionally charged almost American rock ambition laced with a very British sensibility where do you think that came from?

It’s very simple that – we just wanted to sound like Trail of Dead and At The Drive-In and everyone wants to be Springsteen don’t they? We soon worked out that we either couldn’t or just didn’t so we played a bit more to our strengths while holding on very very tight to our influences. It was basically the sound of a thousand brilliant US bands filtered through an appreciation of The Smiths!


Your live shows were very physical affairs do you think to truly appreciate Nebraska you had to see you guys live?


On our night we were magnificent live. We played some of the shows of our lives to less than five people in Stoke, or less then ten in Oxford. We could also be terrible. If we’d been drinking it could go either way, sometimes both ways in the one show. Particularly once Dexy was in the band, he and I were pretty out of control for a little while and you know, we got barred from venues and we fell out with people and it was sort of fun at the time but seems like it may have damaged us a bit as a band. I don’t know. Our album launch was great and our single launch was superb – as objective as I can be about these things – when we played to a packed room the energy was awesome. The last gig we played, nearly three years ago now – that was grand. It was on my birthday at my favourite venue and we went out with a bang there. Not that we knew it was our last gig but it was a decent full stop.  All the getting in the crowd stuff, the climbing up on the bars and things like that – it just made life more interesting for everyone. Yeah, we were fucking brilliant live – on our day.

I think its a tough call but ‘The Sounds that stars make’ was always my favourite Nebraska song, what inspired it? Hope through struggle?

Really?I don’t know about that. Is it disappointing if I say it’s not about anything? Sorry. It’s just a load of words that hung together nicely and fit the rhyme scheme that the guitar part dictated. It fit the little sort of manifesto that we had too of things sounding a bit tragic but having a bit of hope off there in the distance. We were trying to make songs that sounded like the light at the end of a tunnel looks.

So you did you used to write down the words before hand?

Ben would bring in parts on guitar, we’d work out what I had in note from that might fit and we’d elaborate from there usually. Sometimes he’d come in with a full song and I’d just tailor lyrics to it. Rarely, on songs like Peggy Sue or Brief History I’d have the guitar part and vocal already written and that was that done. But that was just on the very odd occasion. I almost always wrote to what Ben brought in.

When you talk about songs being about experiences are you talking about any in particular? ‘One Cold Kiss’ ‘All These Conversations Contain Lies’ struck me as some kind of meditations upon an aspect of a relationship?The vocal performance on the latter is impressive did it take many takes because you sound almost out of breath by the end!?

There are specific songs about very specific situations, yes. ‘One Cold Kiss’ is about growing up in Merthyr, it name checks the people I grew up with, the pubs we used to go to, the places we’d hang out. It’s about losing that teenage passion, losing but remembering. it’s the remembering that makes it beautiful cos i know for sure i wasn’t happy at the time. ‘One Cold Kiss’ is musical rose-tinted glasses. Conversations is about a specific person and a specific type of person but I can’t say who as they will in all probability read this and i wouldn’t want to wish them any more hurt. That person may have changed, you never know!

Out of breath at the end of Conversations? I was always out of breath mate – I was constantly singing well above my natural register. It was a killer to be honest. Conversations I dont remember taking any more takes than anything else – we probably used the take where i sound most tired to emphasise the length of the song, make it more dramatic. i don’t know. i havent heard that one in a long time.

Also the likes of ‘Faded Photograph’ , and ‘You are Safe. You are Home’ appeared to contain that feeling of nostalgia and conflict with where you grew up or live, were you tring to approach these themes?Or again were they just words that hung together?

Faded Photography was just a series of mental images i liked that hung across the guitar part nicely and was a message of general encouragement to the people around me – ‘if cracks appear in the walls / don’t worry’ – it’s simple stuff really but nice and properly positive – rare for us.
You are Safe was called ‘Constantine’ for ages. Can’t remember why. That was just a case of writing words that mirrored the tone of the music – a bit filmic. I remember feeling like it was an apology to my family for not being successful, though that’s probably not evident at all in the lyrics, just something I heard.


What was your favourite Nebraska song?

Our next record would have been a lot better. It was about half written I suppose. It was going to be fairly heavy going I expect – most of the songs were either about my grandfather’s death or very dark, tragic narratives – I’d started writing these storyline lyrics to match these filmic guitar parts Ben was writing. We weren’t writing the big choruses any more necessarily but we were getting better and better as a song writing team at the point we finished. Which is quite beautiful in it’s own way. We were really moving forward and I think we were ready to do more substantial, more meaningful things and strip away the pomp and nonsense. Become a bit harder, more real. My favourite Nebraska song would be one of the ones we did last and hardly anyone’s heard – ‘Hymns and Sunglasses’ maybe or the song that that actually had the title ‘Path to the Silent Country’. We played this great song called ‘The Saints’ live once and people told us it was the best of our songs but for whatever reason we never played it again. We were always doing silly things like that though.
You changed line ups a few times was there any reason for that?

People lack commitment. There was never any money in being in Nebraska and it turned out there wasn’t any future in it either so people left, and they were right to. Why not leave?

I hear you’re reforming for a few shows any chance of a longer stay or is this another parting gift to fans?

Just the one show. We haven’t played for nearly three years since the split and we were going to do something for Ben’s 30th in August. That didn’t quite come off – as disorganised now as we ever were – so it’ll happen on October 22nd. There are those in the band who feel like we need a proper goodbye we still work our day jobs and struggle to make the rent, same as it ever was. Not quite true actually now I think about it – Stax has always made money from his covers band – they’re one of the most highly regarded functions bands in Europe so there’s that. I always imagine Don like Hunter S Thompson but with drums – drinking rum in Cuba, on the run from the authorities, playing drums in an illegal bar. The truth is probably far from it.


 There are very many very good reasons why the band finished, none of which are really worth going into but to quote Pet Semetery ‘Sometimes dead is better’. I think that’s the case with Nebraska. Unless we all want to die an early death. Which, you know, some of us might…

I’ve heard a couple of unreleased tracks including ‘The Replacements’ I presume you’re a big fan of the band?

I adore The Replacements. Their songs were as big as their legend and for a band with a legend that size, that’s a remarkable thing. They were superb songwriters, brilliant musicians and best of all they sabotaged themselves at every step of the way, on every level. They were the ultimate ‘fuck you’ band. I don’t even know how they made it into the public eye at all, they were so self-destructive. So funny too, not enough bands can find themselves funny – The Replacements seemed to understand how silly and borderline pathetic it is to be in a band and expect people to listen to you. They knew how weak they were and they challenged that notion. They’re heroes to me.

Nebraska rehearsing ‘The Replacements’ 2011:


If you had to escape to a desert island what five records would you take with you and why?

I can only give you what my answer would be today – it’ll be different tomorrow:
1-Neutral Milk Hotel – On Avery Island. Anyone else wold say ‘In An Aeroplane…’ but that doesn’t have Gardenhead on it, which is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I saw him play live last week and it was a transcendent experience and he was a properly lovely human being.

2-Lemonheads – Shame About Ray. I’ve listened to it at least once a week since it came out in 1992. It’s a rare thing – a perfect pop record.
3- Bruce Springsteen – Darkness On The Edge Of Town. No explanation needed I wouldn’t have thought. But I’ll try anyway. This and ‘The River’ are these dark, sprawling chunks of Americana that are so evocative, chilling, moving. Modern folk tales that haven’t been bettered.
4- Superchunk – all. You’d have to put all of their records on a vast slab of vinyl cos I’m not leaving any of them behind. My favourite band.
5- Slint – Spiderland. The beginning of everything being post-something, it’s true. So they’ve got a lot to answer for. But it’s an endlessly enjoyable record. It’s a true modern masterpiece.
You have your own band now, what are the members of Nebraska up to now?

Ben has moved into scoring films – he worked on Tamara Drew a little while back and he’s been over in the States recently so he’s doing really well right now. Dexy is in his own band who I’m sure you are aware of – Dexy & The Hand Me Downs – who are one of my favourites around full stop. Dexy and I are still really close friends and I try to make it out to all the London shows. Stax plays bass for the Hand Me Downs and Jarrod, who was our drummer when we split is getting great work – playing with JTQ and things like that. He’s the only one of us making a living out of music though – the rest of us still work our day jobs and struggle to make the rent, same as it ever was. I’m really happy with my new band Grace Cathedral Park, we’ve got two records due out within the next few months – the more solo, studio one is done and the full band one is getting recorded next. We’ve got a mutually beneficial deal with a little label to put our stuff out – Mark who is our producer and is currently playing bass for us has a label set-up – and we’re just doing little vinyl runs. It’s a label called Marketstall and the idea behind it is that it’s a label for artists who don’t want to get involved in the industry as it’s known.I love that idea. It’s a really creative time for us- we rarely play live and we’ve no further ambition than enjoying ourselves and making great music. We’re together as a band because we’re very very good friends and we enjoy playing together – the only reason to be in a band. We’ll still play occasional shows but we only want to play when we have something new to do. It’s great to be off the hamster wheel. Reeking of desperation for success is not an attractive scent!

You talk about disliking big chorus’ now, do you think that’s a feeling you developed as you went along, in that a song doesn’t necessarily need that sky scraping chorus to be a good song? Also that’s kind of what Nebraska were known for in a way, so was that kind of part of the contradiction whithin the band?

I never thought a song needed a big chorus to be a good song but we couldn’t stay away from the big choruses – Ben and I were really good at them and we’d just end up doing it every time. That was great for a while but it became a bit formulaic, we moved away from it. People liked us for the big choruses. What would we have done without them? If that’s all we were then nobody would have been interested in what we were going to do next anyway. That would have been quite painful for us. Disinterest was always a painful thing and thing maybe in moving away from the big tunes we were purposely trying to engender it. More self sabotage! It was a contradiction within the band, yes. I don’t know that we necessarily would have bought our own records. Our tastes were mostly for things a lot less obvious. Sad that isn’t it?

I take from your previous reply that Grace Cathedral Park will be more muted in scope and more about the songwriting, than about some kind of mythical idea of making it?!

‘Making it’. Ah. The bane of my twenties. The number of relationships, friendships I sacrificed for the idea of making it. I never got a proper career for the sake of ‘making it’. I got myself in the worst kinds of actual and spiritual trouble trying to get over. It was 100%, no question, no doubt not worth it. I don’t regret it but it wasn’t the best idea i’ve ever had, no. Grace Cathedral Park or whatever we’re calling ourselves this week (as long as it has the initials GCP) is about writing songs, recording them, sometimes playing live, enjoying ourselves and being honest, forthright and productive. We make it a policy to try to implement the most outlandish ideas anyone in or around the band has. We are open to things and look for reasons to do things, not for reasons why they can’t be done. We’re going to do an improvised experimental album in the next few weeks and release it free online – it doesn’t matter if people don’t like it or listen to it, it’s an idea we had when we were out bowling so we’re doing it, fuck it. There is no making it. We’ve already made it because we can record and release when we want, play when we want, work with great people and then go and eat nachos and play air hockey. It’s amazing. The liberation is incredible.

Do you think Nebraska will almost always be a best kept secret in a way, that you never fulfilled your ambition at least on record?

We could have been a really good stadium band. It would have not been any good for the personalities in the band – it would have driven us all absolutely insane i would have thought. any level of success would have made us worse people in my opinion. We could have been really good at it though. It didnt happen and that’s that – it is what it is. It’s not a good or bad thing, just a thing. I would have liked to have made that second record though. There’s nothing wrong with being unknown, with being anonymous, it’s what almost everyone is – but try telling that to an arrogant idiot in his early twenties.

Nebraska rehearsing a new track ‘Dexy says’ in 2011:!/video/video.php?v=10150413939689603


Saturday 22nd October 2011
at The Fox & Firkin, Lewisham High Street, London SE13
NEBRASKA – full band reunion
MISS BLACK AMERICA – acoustic set
plus more tbc
9pm-2am, £tbc


God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.