How An Unconventional Path Got Nabil Ayers To President Of One Of The Most Influential Music Labels
Hey everybody, what's up? It's Chase. Welcome to another episode of The Chase Jarvis Live Show here on CreativeLive, the show where I sit down with incredible humans, and I do everything I can to unpack their brain with the goal of helping you live your dreams. Today's guest is Nabil Ayers. Now Nabil is many things, among them, an author, an entrepreneur, a record executive, and that's where I'd like to sort of focus in why you should care about this episode. We all are multi-hyphenates and you are gonna hear about the person who is now the president of Beggars Group, the label that has legendary bands like Radiohead and the National Grimes and dozens more that are absolutely legendary and impactful in the music world. But where Nabil really stands out is his ability to talk about, share stories and insights from his childhood through a mixed race, where he knew, despite being at a small liberal arts college in Washington, that his life was meant to be different than many of those in h...
is peer class. It's a very fascinating story how we unpack the labels that we carry, how we truly ought to be able to pursue the things that we know are what we see for ourselves in our hearts, the ability to manage all this, to cut his way from starting a record store at a very young age in Seattle to now being one of the top executives in a music industry, and having what I believe will be a New York Times bestseller on his hands. It's a brilliant book, tons of insights. If you were raised with a single mother, if you are of mixed race, if you are a person who put your dreams on hold in order to fulfill the life that someone else had for you or the other way around, if you were managed to flip the script, this book and this particular show is definitely for you. So I confess that I am long time friends with Nabil. I think that makes this conversation even more interesting and I can't wait for you to tap into it. So again, I'm going to get out of the way. Yours truly in conversation with Nabil Ayers. (upbeat music) (audience clapping) We love you. Nabil, thank you so much for joining us, rejoining us again. Second appearance on the show. Thanks for being here, bud.
Thank you for having me again. It's nice to be inside without dogs this time.
For those of you that didn't hear his last episode recorded a couple years ago, we had a good privilege of being outside with, you were dogsitting or something at the time? I don't remember.
I was in LA. That was early days pandemic, summer when I still didn't know what I was doing with the computer and all that. I was at my father-in-law's house in LA and he has two crazy dogs and I was like, "Oh, I'll just do it outside where it's mellow," and they were just all over me the whole time. It was super crazy and distracting.
It made for fun. Well, just by way of introduction, I will confess that we've been friends, I'm guessing, I don't know, 10 or 15 years. I don't know what the actual number is. And there are another, a number rather, of reasons that I'm always excited to have you as a guest, whenever you are willing to come on the show. One is, you have led a wildly creative life from birth to current, which is captured in most recently in your memoir, which is called "My Life in the Sunshine," which is an incredible, absolute page-turner. It's fun to know someone socially, as we know each other, and then to read the details of your life has been extraordinary for me as the host here. But not only have you lived a creative life, you talk a lot in this book and we've talked previously about things racial tension, about music, about your job in the music industry helping other musicians and creators of a bunch of different walks of life find their way. You are a very accomplished entrepreneur in your own right having built an amazing record store brand in Seattle, a legendary. So I find the people that I'm most attracted with and connect with have these crazy backgrounds that don't fit in a box and they are multi-hyphenates. So for those who don't know, that's the background. But on my side, but I'd like to put a pin in that. And how do you, let's say you're gonna be on the NPR podcast or Conan O'Brien or all these other various places where you appear, how do you introduce yourself in those universes?
Interesting. I mean, if I had to just choose a word, I've usually said entrepreneur because to me, it's not all as capitalist as it sounds, but it's definitely all related to business, if that makes sense, but in a very creative way. But being in a band was absolutely a business even from the youngest age where I was trying to charge a dollar for people to come to my show. That's a business. A record store is obviously a business. A record company is a business. So all these things, while they're creative and fun and cool, they're businesses. And so to me, I'm an entrepreneur, I think.
Awesome. Let's hit on a number of those things in a little bit more detail. I rattled a few off. You just rattled a few off there. But maybe let's work backwards, or let's work the other way around. Let's start from charging a dollar. We've all got these stories, not all of us, but many of us, especially guests on the show, have some story of, I did the same thing with the film. I made a film with the Super 8 camera, put flyers up around the neighborhood. So let's go from these early, can I get a dollar for you to come to my show to you also have what would ostensibly referred to as a day job in the record industry. But walk me through all those again for orientation, and then we'll get into some of these very nuanced topics that you talk about in your new book and things that I've been dying to ask you since you were on the show last time.
Sure, yeah. I mean, I think early days when I was a kid, I loved music, was always into music. My mom and my uncle played records all the time. Went to concerts from a super early age, started buying records myself when I was five, I think, which is pretty young and was definitely young then. And also always understood in some way that there was a business to it, not literally understood, but I noticed that my "Kiss" records and my "Village People" records both had a Casablanca logo on them, and I didn't know what that meant or how they were connected, but I knew that there was something there and I paid attention to it. And I think out of the story I was just telling where I wanted to play music, wanted to play in a band, and tried to put on a concert in my living room with friends and also charged a dollar, and at the end of the concert, we split money, and that is a smaller version of what I do now running a record company. I mean, it's really a very remedial version of the same thing. So I think I always somehow understood the marriage of the business and the creative parts and was interested in both and ended up chasing both throughout my life. Same thing in high school; playing in bands, trying to sell our demo tape at school the next day. But in college is when it really started to come together more. There was more opportunity. This is early '90s outside of Seattle, so great time and place. I had an incredible record company internship, which is hugely valuable where I learned a ton. Played in a band that wasn't successful or anything, but like played in real clubs and put out a CD and learned a lot about the business from that. And even just going to college and the social aspects of that and putting on parties and hiring bands and all that stuff, to me, it all fed into to what I do now, even though I think a lot of people see me as having done a lot of different things, but I think I've just done one thing, which is that. It's all of these music and business things that tie together. So I think my first real job was working at a record store, which is maybe hardly a real job, but that really, really fit into the next phase of my life, which has led me to where I am now.
Amazing. I think there's wisdom in that. On the outset, you would look at working at a record company and going to college and, creating experiences, parties, whatever, hiring a band, those, I think, on the outside, those might seem as all different activities. But that's, to me, the insight is you can look backwards and connect the dots, and it's seemingly obvious now looking backwards how it is all connected, and that is the thing I would encourage a lot of people to do. They think they've not really been on a path, but when you start to look backwards, you can see a path. And so by extension, that is my question. If you were to describe the path that you've been on now, I mean, I don't, again, know, do you identify as a writer now? Is this the new career for you despite running a record label? And if so, is this a twist in the path or is this just another experience of manifesting your creativity within the industry that you cited was influential to you from the age of five?
Yeah, I think it's both. Definitely, it's a twist, but it's not a deviation, if that makes sense. It's a cool new opportunity to branch off and explore something new. But I would say it took me a while to describe myself as a writer, which I do sometimes now because I've been lucky enough to write for the New York Times and Rolling Stone and some crazy big outlets. So I think once I had a few of those under my belt, that's when I said, oh, I can actually say I'm a writer. But what I haven't said yet and what I will say when this book is actually out is that I'm an author which apparently is different. So that's exciting. But to me, it's more similar every day. And to your point about kind of, you don't always necessarily know what you're doing when you're doing it, but I think the key is to just go with your gut and think about, does this feel right? Does it feel good? Not always thinking about the end goal. I wasn't thinking about those things when I was DJing at a college radio station or spending more time booking parties and booking bands than I was studying in college. But now, my friends who are doctors and lawyers, they did what they needed to do to get to where they were, and I did what I needed to do to get where I was, and they both worked. Mine was just a little more looked down upon because I was spending money to go someplace and not do what I was ostensibly there to do. But it's all fine now. Yeah, I think the key is to, really, to stop and look back sometimes and realize, oh, interesting. These are the things that got me here so maybe I should worry less about these specific little things ahead of me and just think where I wanna be, and if I'm doing something that I like, and that is important, and that is creative, and that satisfies me and makes me happy. And hopefully that will get me to a place where I'm, whatever, blank, making money, or getting whatever it is that you want sort of. Not always easy, but try to think of those as the secondary goals to just doing what you love.
So if I'm one of the listeners and I'm sitting in traffic or I'm on the subway, or on a walking path somewhere right now listening to this, maybe at my desk, one of the things that I'm curious about is how strong was this signal? You talked about a thread being music, loved it as a young age. And then we fast forwarded to you now and you're able to look backwards and see that even your writing is connected to your love of music and your passion around it. You called yourself an entrepreneur. So how strong was that signal and how aware of it in the moment were you? And I ask this advice for someone who's on this walking path, they're sitting in traffic right now because presumably, there are signals that are in their life that they're not listening to. As someone who, I think, has had just this incredible both career and life arc, which you chronicle, again, in your new book called "My Life in the Sunshine," how strong was that signal? And I'm gonna have many follow up questions to this, so, choose wisely.
I think I was really lucky and that signal was an 11 out of 10. I think it was impossible for me to even ever consider doing something that didn't have to do with music, and that's from as far back as I can possibly remember. My uncle gave me a drum set when I was two. I've been playing music every day since. But it's not just that the playing of me. Actually, sorry, I take that back. So I'm not playing music right now. But again, the fact that music and working with and around music are tied together to me, but that was it. When I went to college, the reason I went to college near Seattle is because Seattle felt really musical. There are venues everywhere, and there are incredible record stores, and you could just tell like, oh, this is a place where there's a lot going on. That's why I'm gonna go here. I went to normal classes like everybody else, but still, every choice I made like interning at a record company or DJing at the radio station or playing in a band, there's nothing else I ever thought about doing. And when I finished college, this was '93, which it's funny to explain this to people now, but it was a relatively easy time to get a "real job." I mean, lots of my friends coming out of college went to go work for Boeing or Microsoft or accounting firms, or went to grad school or whatever. But I could have gotten a decent paying normal job after college, and I knew that, and it scared the shit out of me. I was like, I can't do that. If I do that, that's gonna stop me from doing what I wanna do. I don't know exactly what it is I wanna do. I know I wanna play in a band. I know I wanna work in the music business. I'm not doing either right now, but what I am gonna do is work at a record store 'cause that will probably get me closer to at least figuring out those two goals. And I was lucky that's exactly what happened. But that was a big moment to decide, wow, my friends are moving into nice apartments and buying suits and doing all the things they're supposed to do, and I am living with roommates in a pretty crappy place working at a record store.
How about the dissonance there? I think that keeps a lot of people. That moment keeps a lot of people from their dreams. Or right now, people are looking back at the moment where they chose to go that different path. Did you have some special fortitude? Was there just a blind faith? Was it, oh, I have a plan B? Help us explore this a little bit. If you were aware of it, what gave you the strength to persevere or did you even? Did you have what I might call a relapse? I mean, I don't know.
Right. No, it was blind faith. It was the ability, and I mean, I kept things within my means. So I moved into this house in a crappy neighborhood in Seattle, like deep, scary part of West Seattle back then, which was not nice at all. And five of us lived in a five-bedroom house with one bathroom. We each paid $154 a month rent. And I worked at a record store probably making $8 an hour. And because I worked at the store, I got to go to every show for free, got tons of free music, got to go to lots of parties and eat and drink. So I designed my life around I can do what I want, I don't need to make very much money, and everything's fine. And so oddly, the fallback was to just get a job. But I never had to, which is a funny way to look at it 'cause that's what you're supposed to do.
Yeah, but see, this is the thread that I'm pulling on, and I find that it's helpful, hopefully, to orient the most, the largest number of listeners that didn't always know, or it wasn't this certitude, or this certitude was filled with doubts. And it's clear from your book that there were doubts that you had along the way, experiences that made you pause, some of them related to the business, the viability, whether you're going to be a musician or in the music industry. You talked a lot about your experience with race. And I think it's interesting I should share the subhead to "My Life in the Sunshine" is "Searching For My Father and Discovering My Family." I'm gonna put a pin in that also as we wrap this loop up, but that's maybe I call that foreshadow. So we'll foreshadow this. But the last bit of exploration on your path of working for $8 an hour, not working above your means, having a strong signal being, it sounds like, willing to do what it took because it was a very different path than most of your friends, and yet, you said, I'm gonna play your own words back to you, the band you played, "We weren't a success." But was that really the goal? You said a number of times in the book and here in the show already, I wanted to be in a band, and yet, you ended up owning a record store and you ended up as a music executive. So this is part of what I find when you trace anybody's journeys is like, hey, look, if you just get as close as you can to the things that you love, you might discover that the thing that you thought might not be the golden goose and something else near, adjacent, just close to it is a home run, but you don't know unless you're in the suit.
Right, you have to get close.
In the suit. So I wanna hear that in your words versus my jumbled.
Yeah, I mean, that's the thing. I mean, I think that it's always been clear in my life and I think it's clear in the book that I wanted to play in a band, and I wanted to be in the music industry. And in my head, of course, it made sense that I would play in a band first and be in the music industry later because I'm less likely to be wanting to drive around and set up drums every night, or even have somebody set up drums for me if I were so lucky. That's the path most people take. You play in a band, then later you go work for a label. So that felt logical to me. The interesting thing about it is, I was in bands until mid 30s, actively touring and playing and recording but the business part was always happening. I opened a record store. I have my own small record label. The one thing that I regret but not fully regret is that I never fully committed myself to playing music. I don't feel like I actually did. I felt like the bands that I joined, I loved, still good friends with all the people in those bands, but I got lucky and fell into all of those bands, which was great, and that's an easy thing. I'm a drummer and that's a very common thing. Drummers leave bands. Drummers get replaced. So I fell into really great situations, but I never had to really try super hard. I never said I'm gonna move down to LA and find the best band in the world, or I'm gonna steal people from this band and together we're gonna start the best band in the world. That I'm gonna move to New York and do it, or I'm gonna do something. I still kept it comfortable enough that I could keep a foot in the music industry stuff. I was lucky enough to have a record store. I'll probably always wonder if I could have just been in the best band in the world. I don't mean the biggest band in the world. I mean, a band that I thought was the best band in the world. But, the big but is, if I'd done that, there's no way I'd be doing what I'm doing now, and I do work for the best label in the world, and I work with some of the best bands in the world. And I think I have less regret now doing what I'm doing about not playing music than I think I would have if I had chased music, and we're looking at this wishing I'd done this, if that's not too complicated.
No, no, it's thoughtful, and I think a very interesting response. So for those who are, obviously, very curious right now, you've piqued their interest. Please share a little bit about the label, some of the bands that you work with. I know these names and these people and love them. But share, if you would, because I know people are going like, you get to work with some of the best bands in the world. Tell me more, Nabil.
I know, right? I will, and there's a development that you might not even know since the last time we talked. But I started working for the label 4AD, legendary British label, who when I was in high school, put out records by Pixies and Cocteau Twins and really important groundbreaking bands back then. And later, Breeders and so many great bands. And I started in 2008 in New York as the head of 4AD US, which is a pretty amazing place to start, at the top, basically. And so I've been there 13 years, which is crazy; same job, same boss, many of the same bands. We've put out, I think, four National records since I've been there, five Tune-Yards records, three Grimes records, three Future Islands records, three Big Thief records, really, several Deerhunter records. I don't even know how many, so much great music. Four St. Vincent records. I mean, lots and lots of music that I feel so lucky to have anything to do with and to have met and spent time with these people. And the crazy thing is, this is what you might not know. So 4AD is one of five labels that are part of the Beggars Group, and Beggars is this parent company, which is not some crazy corporate entity. It's owned by one person. It's very private and independent, truly, but the other labels are. It's 4AD, Matador Records, XL Recordings, Rough Trade Records, and Young, which is especially group wide, just an incredible roster. But I worked for 4AD specifically until my good friend, Matt, who was the president of Beggars US and worked there for 24 years stepped down in January and I jumped into his spot. So I'm now the president of Beggars Group.
Yes, meaning I work across all five labels with even more bands than everybody; Radiohead, and Arkha. I mean, it's insane.
Wow, congratulations, man.
Thank you. That just happened a couple months ago.
I don't remember getting a text. Congrats.
Sorry about that. I had to drop something on the podcast.
Yeah, just bring some secret in here. Wow, that's huge. So right now, there's people googling your email address who are listening right now. They wanna get their records for you.
But the funny thing is, this is the funnies thing about that. So I ran 4AD for 13 years and my job wasn't to sign bands, but I was very involved in that 'cause it's not that big of a label and I ran the American office. So whenever we were signing, somebody I would talk with them about how the office worked and explain everything. Bu now that I'm the president of Beggars, it's actually a lot more, it's a big step away from the creative stuff. I'm not working as closely with artists, not working as closely on record campaigns. It's a lot more finance and people management with just hiring people, all that stuff. It's a bit more businessy. I mean, it's still in the same building with all these incredible people and even more artists, but a big step removed. So I'm getting way more like, oh, you need to sign this band emails because I have a president title but I'm in a way smaller position to do so, which is the funny part of it. So I'm like, yeah, you should talk to the labels, they're the people who sign bands. I oversee how all the records come out and how it works, but I'm not really doing that.
Do you lament that step forward? It's ostensibly a step forward in your career, but a step...
It's a step forward and I feel incredibly lucky to have been at this amazing company for 13 years where I thought, I mean, I started as the head of the label. So in my head, there was nowhere else to go, and weirdly, there was. Turned into this crazy left turn, into this different role. So I'm in the same place with the same people, but doing something completely different, which is great. It's challenging and super interesting and really hard at times, and that's what I like about it.
I think fondly of a couple things. One, I don't remember. We were sitting in a hotel bar somewhere in New York together.
Oh, I remember, at The Bowery Hotel in New York.
Yeah. Was it St. Vincent or was it Grimes or someone just walked in.
It was Annie, that was St. Vincent.
Yeah, St. Vincent walks up and leave. It just was fun. I'm like, I know this person.
Yeah, very New York moment, right?
Yeah, and then we went out to Sushi afterwards. Where was that? I forget who we bumped into in Sushi.
We saw Jake Gyllenhaal there. He pointed at my wife over my shoulder and I couldn't see who he was 'cause he was right above me, but I saw his hand like this and he pointed at her and he said, "Are you ready for the revolution?" And she just had this crazy look.
I remember Ally was like and I was like, "Who was that?" And she was like, "Oh, it's Jake Gyllenhaal."
That was a trip. I remember that, too. She joined, too, that was fun.
Great New York night.
Yeah. So you do get to work with a lot of people who are at the pinnacle of let's call it the craft of music, maybe even the craft and the business, right? They're at the intersection of those things, which is part of why they are. What are some characteristics of the pinnacle that you have witnessed from your, what I would consider very unique perspective of getting to see so much music, the intersection between art and commerce? What are the characteristics? And in a weird way, you do talk about some of these characteristics that are recurring themes. Even though the book is ostensibly about your life, there are these things that emerge. I'm wondering if you can share some.
Yeah, I think there's one big one that I get into a lot with people because having worked at a pretty big independent record label for a long time but never really at a major label, which is a totally different thing, and I can't say that all independents operate one way and all majors operate in a different way. But by and large, the thing that I've noticed, and not just at the labels that I work with, but a lot of the independent labels are completely driven by music and the love of music. And of course, that's not to say people don't like hits and selling records and making money and doing all that. Of course, everybody loves that. But most of the labels that I know, independent labels, would never go out and say, this band is gonna be huge. I don't really it, but I think they're gonna be huge. So I think we should work with them. People will certainly recognize, oh, I think this band might be big, but we don't like it. So we shouldn't be involved. That wouldn't make any sense. Whereas I think there are some major labels that are absolutely in the business of, this is gonna be big, that's what we do. Let's just figure out how to make it work. Who cares? I'm not saying that's not possible. I think it works every day. But the interesting thing about these independent labels is, I think, and really, the people who work for them in the kind of, this tradition that's been handed down almost is like you shouldn't involve yourself with anything you don't love. I'm talking about working with bands and signing artists. And, of course, the best case scenario is you sign something you like and it does well. But even if we sign something we like and it doesn't do well, at least we put out a great record and we gave somebody hopefully a shot, or hopefully somehow helped them in their career to whatever the next thing is. Whereas if we put out something that we didn't like that we thought was gonna do well and it didn't, well, then what do you have? You just have this thing that no one liked that also failed, which is the worst possible scenario. So I feel really lucky to have been, I've had that really ingrained in me in the 13 years that I've been here, and I've also seen it a lot in my peers and in people that have been in parallel positions where it's really all about just working with things that you think are great and hopefully that working and doing it for that reason.
Small leap here. We're gonna go from that statement of, working with greatness, wanting to do things with great people, and let's go to a moment in the book that we were speaking about before we started recording, which there's a small twist in here that a girl I dated in high school was actually in the room, and you were referring to, you're standing in this room at college and having, I don't know if you would orient that around a different set of values than other people who are also winning, getting pats on the back from the college. And so in many ways, you're the same, right? You're all at college and doing your thing, but in many ways, you are different. You have chosen a different path. This is a pathway to us getting to some of the race issues that you share about in the book. And how are you both on the inside and the outside, and what can we learn from that moment?
Yeah, that's funny, that parallel. I hadn't thought of it that way, but it completely makes sense, the conversation we just had to that moment. That moment in the book is toward the end of my senior year.
In college, yeah. My, whatever, advisor pulled me aside and was like, look, you've not been a very good student, which was true. I was a terrible student, but I did all. I said, yeah, I know, but I've DJed at the college radio station. I started this thing called the campus music network where I found all the bands on campus and got a budget, put them in the studio and put on concerts, and did all these things and had a record company internship and put on parties, and that's what I've been doing for the last four years. I know my grades, they do reflect that because I was spending my time on all these things that actually being here gave me the opportunity to do. It's just not exactly what the prescription was to do. So he said, yeah, I know, and I'm putting you up for this award, which is, of course, reserved for 4.0 students and people who are doing the thing you're supposed to do. So I went to the ceremony and I remember looking around and thinking like, oh, I don't even know these people. These are the cream of the crop 4.0 students who they're not at the parties I go to, they're studying, and your high school girlfriend was one of them. I remember that. And I won this award and it was called the Ox Home Award for Superior Service to the University Community. Normally, I wouldn't care that much about something like that. But what I loved was that there was this person there who actually did recognize 'cause I think in college I spent a lot of time struggling knowing I was doing the right thing, and how hard it was to do the right thing because I'm getting Cs and really stressing and staying up all night to write a paper that's just okay, all of that, just so I can keep doing the thing that I think is right. So it was really validating to actually get that and have someone say, hey, I saw what you were doing and you were doing the right thing. That's what it felt like.
Is that a recipe you would prescribe? I'll share an anecdote so that we have not just your illustration, but yours plus another. And I think they're talking about the same thing and then I'd like you to reflect on it. So there's a character, a friend of mine named James Altucher, also lives in New York, and he told me a story about his daughter did not get into a bunch of the colleges that she wanted to. So rather than taking a different path of going to a college that would maybe accept her but that she didn't want to go to. She said, "Great," and said, "I'm gonna go become a race car driver," which is the craziest thing that she could think of. And so in training and taking driving lessons, and not dissimilar to yours, working in the industry, at some point, it was either continue in race car or she said, "You know what? I think I've learned that I don't wanna be a race car driver, but this experience, that might be interesting to talk about. And so she shows up then at college and in her college essay it's about becoming a race car driver. And every college, when she applied the second time, was like, I want some of that because that is unique and different. And if you look at that story versus the one that you just or I guess not versus, but alongside the one that you just shared about the distinguished service to the university being something that did not look like someone who did not look most of the other people in that room looked. A profile of what you spent time doing, your grades relative to that profile, all these things you weren't supposed to do. But the punchline that I always like to say is you can't stand out and fit in at the same time. So which do you want? And I'm wondering if you can reflect on that moment of being an insider, outsider. In a way, it's hacking the system and the way you hacked the system was you trusted this instinct that you had.
Yeah, I think hacking the system is a really good way of putting it. It was there to do whatever, A, B and C, and I struggled with those things, but did them well enough to allow me to do whatever, D, E, F or whatever you wanna call it. But I think that's an important thing to recognize. I think there are a lot of people who are at my college who are like, well, this is what I'm supposed to do so this is what I'm doing. I wish I were doing something else, but I'm here. So I'm gonna go to class and study. I don't think you have to do that. I think you can do somewhere between that and what I did. I might have been extreme in that I really stressed myself out. When I think about college, I still have school anxiety dreams. I remember showing up. I have the dream where, I mean, it's a common dream, but the dream where it's the last day of semester and you haven't been there for four months and it's time for the final. Like all that stuff happens to me all the time and that's a result of literally doing exactly that of really just scraping by. So I think there might be some middle ground. I don't know if I do it exactly the same way. But I think that's a really important thing to recognize and to try to recognize while you're in a situation is that, whatever it is, a job, a school, you don't have to do it exactly the way it's supposed to be done. You don't have to completely reject it. You can try to figure out some middle ground where you do what you need to do and also make it work for you and make it yours more.
I think the biggest mystery around what you were able to do through that lens, this is the personal journey lens, if you will, was to maintain this belief, this awareness that you were doing. You said it three or four times in the show, the right thing. Was that an implicit? Was that trust implicit in you? Was that something that you got from your relationship with your mom? Where did that come from? Because so many people lack this moral true north or this intuition that they can trust themselves and that everything will work out. Where did that come from you? Was that part of your childhood or was that a learned belief? Where did that come from?
I think, and I can only answer this now this way, I think it came from my father, which is a segue into a whole another story 'cause a lot of the book is about he's my father, but I've never really known him. We only met a few times when I was a kid. This was always the plan. My mother was young. She was 21 and she said to my father who she dated a few times, they were not together, she said, "I want you to be the father of my child. You don't have to be around. I just think you'd give me an amazing kid." And he said, "Yes," and I've always known that. That's been the deal. My mother's incredible. I have tons of respect for her. I had an amazing childhood, and my father remains not part of my life. I've met him a few times. But in writing the book, and not so much as a research project, but part of what got me and kept me going in writing the book was that all these things started unfolding in the last few years. And one of them is when I started meeting a lot of his relatives, my relatives; my aunt, his sister, who was obviously very close to him and who I've become close with cousins and people. And all the stories they tell me about him, especially as a kid, are so similar to the way that my mom will talk about me as a kid. Things like he had this job at a department store and everyone loved him, but he would go play music at night and show up the next day late and so he got fired but everyone really... Lots of stories like that that sound to me like, and I wasn't there and these are secondhand, but he knew that that's what he wanted to do. And he tried to live in this normal system. But whenever it didn't work for him, he didn't say, "I'm gonna quit music and get to work on time the next day." He went to music instead of the job, obviously. That was the obvious choice. I don't know this for sure, but it sounds like and feels like, literally feels like that was the only thing he knew how to do. He didn't even have to question it. And so I think it came from him. And I also think that my mother doesn't have that drive. She's amazing, but that's not who she is.
That is, I guess, therein lies the genius of this book and why I absolutely recommend that our listeners and watchers get a copy of "My Life in the Sunshine: Searching For My Father and Discovering My Family." The genius of being able to look backwards and connect the dots about some of the things that the father that you didn't physically have but now you're able to say, oh, I definitely had a father 'cause he had all these influences on me. The story unfolds in what feels like a very... It's obviously genuine and authentic. People can get that just from hearing you speak. But I expected it to be more dramatic, and you have this matter of fact. And again, these are expectations that I know just enough about your backstory. Even the matter of fact way that you approach and it's revealed in the book that your mom said, "Hey, look, I'd love to get pregnant with your baby, and there's no strings attached. I think you'd just be incredible." And they essentially agree like, "Yeah, sure, that seems like a good plan." And she gets pregnant and goes off and has you. So the casual matter of fact approach to it, I'm wondering if you masked some of your true feelings about this or if that is how it has been for you, and in either case, why?
I think it's a little bit of both. There's certainly some masking. I think there's this protective element growing up. I mean, the first 10 years of my life I lived in really... So my father's Black, my mother's white, single mother, only child, which would've been weird some places. But we lived in these really incredible, safe, diverse communities in New York City and Amherst, Massachusetts, and places where I wasn't a weird kid in any way. There are plenty of mixed race kids. There are plenty of kids of color. There are plenty of kids without fathers. It really was not a thing. So that was an incredible base to have for my first 10 years. But I think after that when we moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, which was not that, then suddenly I definitely stood out in lots of ways.
Juxtaposed. Yeah, Juxtaposed.
Where mostly White people with five kids and both parents and everything. So I think there I started to developed a protective shield that I felt I had to. I don't know if enough things happened, but I would just say, "Oh, yeah, my parents were divorced." Like things like that that don't seem like a big deal at the time. But I always knew the whole story about my mother and my father and I started to feel really bad. I think it wasn't until college that I finally started telling people the truth, which takes so much more energy and leads to so much more conversation when really just they're divorced is easy 'cause no one asks more questions after that. Whereas the real story just it takes time. But as much as I got tired of telling it, I think it was important and is important to tell because it's a testament to my mother and I felt like not telling that story was a discredit to her. There was a long time, there's a lot of masking and I think I'm sure there's still is some. But at the same time, the matter of factness partially comes from my mother and uncle, the way that she talks about it as if it was just like, yeah, I knew what I wanted to do. I met him. The second I met him, I knew he was amazing, and I knew he'd give me an incredible child. I didn't want a relationship. That was the whole thing. I saw him and I felt it and we did it and everything was great and here we are. And it wasn't quite that simple, but she's always told it as if it was. So I think I inherited some of that where it's just like, well, it might be a crazy story, but didn't ever seem like it to me.
That's part of the beauty of the book. It does a great job and does so very expeditiously with just writing that chapter, it's like great and then onward. I think mostly that...
As you know, it might not have been that easy to get to that point, but I'm glad it comes across that way.
No, but Brené Brown calls it gold-plated grit, right? That was so easy. You'd tell the hard part and then you're like and then right onto the next best stuff. So you're implicitly aware that there's more there and that is what creates this page-turning book, which is also now you talked about your childhood. I think it's an interesting moment for us to bring up, obviously, the juxtaposition between very diverse, inclusive neighborhoods in New York and your experience as a mixed race kid living with only your mom in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Yeah, which was, I mean, I think looking back was really good. I mean, I point out in the book and I think this is a strange point, but I think it's true, but Salt Lake was so family-oriented and so relatively safe, even though there are some weird things that happened there. Generally, really beautiful, great place and people were so open and so accepting and so kind. I think I expected worse and I was always afraid some overt, horrible racist thing would happen to me, plenty of little things. Meaning whatever, people messing with my name, or wanting to touch my Afro, which unfortunately I don't have anymore. But lots of that, but no serious, serious stuff. And part of that might have just been luck, but I also always thought that because there were so few Black people in Salt Lake City that that weirdly made it so that people weren't scared of Black people in Salt Lake City. I think that the stigmas and the things you saw on TV didn't exist, and it's certainly not a good thing or a bad thing, I think, but I do think it was a thing. I think I was just like, oh, he looks interesting. I don't think people were threatened by me. So I think it could have been a lot worse in Salt Lake. I think Seattle was worse, which is a much bigger, you would think, cooler city. But because it is slightly more diverse than Salt Lake, I think it was a little weirder there.
Well, let's keep pulling on that thread because I think your relationship with your history and your ability to talk about it it unfolds so seemingly effortlessly in the book and that's part of why I wanted to speak with you about it. There's an incredible power that I haven't experienced before in the storytelling that you've shared with us in this book. So juxtapose this yet again from New York to Salt Lake and let's go Salt Lake to Seattle, and we can work in there Tacoma, which is a city that's South of Seattle, where you went to college. But handle that as you wish. But juxtapose it yet again in a new environment where you mentioned race being amplified.
Right. I mean, Tacoma almost didn't count because I was UPS where I went. University of Puget Sound was this small liberal arts college of 2,800 students in this beautiful little green campus in the corner of town. This was in the early '90s. So Tacoma was a pretty scary city, with real gangs and real crime and things, but I wasn't part of that. I was on this 90 something percent White campus just living my preppy life, putting on shows and playing in bands. So it almost didn't count. But Seattle, I lived in Fremont and Wallingford and Phinney Ridge and these very white liberal neighborhoods, which were great. But what was interesting, the way it comes out in the book and what made me finally think about it as I was writing about Sonic Boom records, the record store that I opened with my partner, Jason, which we opened in 1997, God. And I started thinking somehow about incidents of race or microaggressions that I experienced as a non-white store owner in a pretty white city. The first draft of that chapter, there was a line in there that said something as simple as, I didn't experience a lot of racism as a business owner in Seattle. And then I was like, huh, let me just think if I can think of any times. Oh, there's that time when the mayor came in, who was white, and his aid pulled me aside to take a picture of me and the mayor, but not Jason, and that ended up in their campaign flyer. Racism is so interesting 'cause that wasn't anybody calling me a name or doing anything bad, but it was certainly a racial incident where it was to that mayor's benefit to have a picture with me going as campaign flyer to these liberal neighborhoods. So there were things that. There was the time when the store was broken into once and I showed up in the middle of the night and the cash register is broken in pieces on the floor and the cops are on the way. And I had this internal voice that said, don't be standing here over the cash register. They'll shoot you. Go outside, meet the police when they pull up, introduce yourself, show your ID. That's what I think to do. That's probably not what Jason, my white partner, would've thought to do. That's not his fault, but he would've been like, oh, this is my store, but I had a different thought process. So I was just going through making lists of these things that I thought about, and there were so many of them. So the first thing I did is I crossed out, deleted the top sentence that said, not much happened, and then I just started going into it. The number that's in the book is it's small, you can't include everything. But I just think it's really easy to live in the moment and protect yourself, and whenever someone came in and was like, "Hey, Nabil, where are all the Black women in Seattle?" And I would just think, "Well, first of all, I don't know. I don't think there are any, but why are you asking me as if I should know something?" There were so many things that, and it was really easy for me to just say, oh, whatever, they didn't mean anything. They're a nice person or whatever, which all might be true. But when you sit back 10 or 20 years later and say, let me try to think of every incident, and then you come up with a huge list, that's when I really realized, oh, actually, a lot more happened at least than I remember allowing to affect me.
It's so beautifully laid out in the book. The storytelling is incredible.
Just the treatment is very special. What was your creative process? As a musician, I know you as the drummer from the Long Winters, another friend of ours, John Roderick. That was the band that basically had, some member of every band that's ever been in Seattle has been with the Long Winters.
As someone who I think of you as a musician first, and you started sharing your writing with me long before you ever had a book deal and I was like, "Fuck, man, this is really good."
First of all, I think it's so cool that you're able to jump genres and bring new things to the new genre, which is what I love, and it is a very consistent pattern of all the people that have been on the show. They're bending genres and combining them. So, you fit right in there. Yet, the creative process for everybody is different. And I always like to ask guests like talk to me about your creative process in writing this book. Why a memoir and not a... Why didn't you take the rock doc angle 'cause you were a rocker? Why didn't you take the... My life...
There are plenty of those stories that didn't make it.
Right, my life as a music executive. Why the path that you chose? So creative process, and then I think a lot of people you were bold just say, this is my life, and whether it was interesting or not interesting, or all those things, they never seem to be a piece of the puzzle that I know behind the scenes know of your experience. You just started writing your life as if it's obvious that any life is interesting. My life is interesting because it has... But it could be argued that, shit, when you look closely, everybody has a fucking story.
So try and make some sense of, first, the creative process and then what I'll just call this soup that I've now poured out over the table.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean. I mean, it started about... Weirdly, I'd never been a writer. I mean, I loved writing in college and, actually, the only A I got was in a writing class in college, and that wasn't because I really applied myself. It was probably because it was more creative and maybe felt more like music. It was really fun. I really loved it. I went to every class. I did every assignment and I got an A. It was amazing. So it's always been there, but then I didn't write for 20 something years. And weirdly, it's a long story, but when I was in a band called The Lemons, and this amazingly is only a paragraph in the book, it's not a big part of it. But this is in 1995 when I was super young. The band went to jail in the middle of the desert in Utah with three and a half ounces of pot, which was a lot. It was felony possession with intent to distribute. It was a ton. We had real jail time hanging over our heads. It's a long, long story. We got off, everything's good 'cause we were able to hire this incredible attorney that a high school friend put me in touch with. So I told the long version of the story a hundred times since then and told it so many times that it was really, really fresh in my memory. I could remember what the handcuffs felt like and what the desert smelled like, all of that as if it happened yesterday. So I was in a flight from New York to London maybe five, six years ago now and was bored and wide awake and had a lot of time, and something told me, I thought to myself, I just need to write that story. It exists. It's so fresh in my memory. I feel like I'm just gonna start typing and just see what happens. I'm not trying to publish it. No one ever even needs to see it. I just wanna write this for myself and for fun so it exists. And I did, and I had so much fun while I was writing it. I spent the next few days in London. I would stay up late and research things. And I would find, oh, weird, that's the date that the EP came out, and we were in St. Louis. I could find things online. It turned into this crazy research project. And when I got home, I had written 80 or 90 pages, which is a lot. And I remember thinking like huh, well, I still don't want anyone to see this, but I think I have a new interest or a new hobby, or a new something. So I went to a memoir writing class, this thing that met every Monday night from 7:00 to 10:00, and loved that, too. It was a lot of reading other people's writing and a lot of reading. But the first part of the class always started with a 30-minute free write where you had to sit there, you could not stop writing no matter what you did. And so after 10 weeks of that, I just had tons of stuff and it was stuff about Sonic Boom, my record store, stuff about my bands. It was a lot of fun things. And it was right about the time I started dating my now wife, AJ, and she used to be an editor and was deep in the publishing world. She was the one who's like, yeah, yeah, yeah, this is all fine. You need to write about your father and you need to write about your race because that's what people will care about, and that's what you care about. And I remember thinking like ugh, first of all, I know she is right, and that's what the ugh is for 'cause that's the hard stuff. That's personal, that's deep, that's revealing things. That's not like, oh, I went to jail and I opened a record store, which are fun and they're all in the book, too but that stuff. So I was in a phase where I was into writing that I just started going to this beautiful library space near our apartment called the Brooklyn Historical Society. I would go there every Saturday afternoon and write for five or six hours and just write about my father and think about like, well, we've only met five times, but let me write each of those times up and try to really remember what I felt like and what he looked like and where we were and what was going on, and did that. And then when I ran out of those, I started writing about all the times I could remember hearing his music and being surprised by it, and what it felt like, and all that. And eventually, this is all just on a laptop, but in my head, creatively, it was super visual. What I imagined was this really long wooden thin table, like a 20-person dinner table with little stacks of papers and each stack was one of those stories. So there's one from when I was two years old that my mom had told me about. There's one from when I was 10 years old and I met him. There was one from when I was and we finally had lunch in Seattle. And I saw them all with these gaps between them and I thought, oh, if I were to fill in those gaps, then I would have a book. I wasn't trying to write a book, but I realized, I think, oh, I've done so much of it already and I'm having such a good time doing it that I feel like that should be the goal. And so that's really where it came from. I don't think I could have sat down and said, I'm gonna write a 300-page book, chapter one. I think that would've been impossible. I think the fact that I'd tricked myself into starting it is what made it work.
I'm gonna use a loaded word here and then I will contextualize it. The word is trauma and we've all got it. We've got small T trauma, like not getting picked for the sophomore basketball team or big T trauma, all of the things that you can imagine go along with big T trauma. And we've all got all of those things. I'm guessing if you search the manuscript, that word probably doesn't come up at all. And yet, there's this undertone of managing, in this case, you managing your awareness of just the story that you told about, oh, yeah, I never was treated badly as a person of color and a business owner, and you're like, well, wait a minute. So there's this peeling of the onion and starting to reveal all of the spicier bits inside. But I'm wondering, has the writing process, do you believe that that has been therapeutic and/or helpful? So by extension, I'm making the question, has your art, the writing piece of your art beyond music, the writing, has that been therapeutic? And if so, what can you say about it?
Yeah, it absolutely has, and the trauma thing is interesting 'cause you're right. The word trauma is not anywhere in the book, but the vibe and the feeling absolutely exists throughout. And I think there's a point when I'm about and I live in Seattle, I finally decided I wanna get ahold of my father, we meet. He replies and we have this amazing lunch and we get along really well. I see all these similarities in him and it's incredible. I'm 35 and already successful and independent and certainly don't want or need anything from him. And so in my head it's like, wow, this is great. Not that there was a problem before, but now there's really no problem. Now, we should do this once a year. Not like, oh, let's talk every week. But in my head I was like, oh, this is great. We could actually connect every once in a while. That would be fun. And what happens is that doesn't happen, and that is the first time I start to feel truly upset and rejected and all the trauma stuff starts to come out that I've never felt but absolutely felt then. And I remember feeling it, but I don't remember feeling it nearly as much until I wrote about it. And so writing those two chapters, which I don't think I did at the same time. I think I wrote the happy like, wow, we met, and it was a great chapter, and then it took a while to write the next one, which immediately follows it 'cause it was soon after that he comes back to Seattle but totally blows me off. And so it's really the opposite. But writing about it made it feel much, much worse. Meaning like I think I did the protective brush off thing in real life. But when you dig into it and force yourself to be back in it and really, I mean, all the writing tricks that I either knew or invented, which are like, remember what that room looked like? Who were you there with? What were you wearing? What did it smell like? What did you drink? These are all the things I would try to do just to put myself back in the moment. And doing all that made me feel terrible, but I also loved it 'cause it was this weird act almost of like, wow, it's incredible that you can put yourself or that I can put myself back in this space. And I think, in the end, it's a happy book and it's very up and I'm thankful to my father for everything that I got from him. So all of these things, having the ups and downs and writing about them helped me get to that point. So that's the long-winded answers; absolutely therapeutic, absolutely difficult, and absolutely worthwhile.
"My Life in the Sunshine." Congratulations on an absolute gem of a book. I can't remember the last memoir that I read that was so touching on so many different, and it's probably certainly because we have a relationship, but I know for a fact that this will do very, very well in the market, and it was incredibly fun to read. And there is so much insight in the storytelling, especially for the particular audience that listens to this show, people who identify as creators and entrepreneurs and are curious about following their love and passion, and who have been insiders or outsiders, and many combinations therein of where you're an outsider where you wanna be an insider and you're insider where you don't give a shit. So many of these permutations. It's just incredible. And it's always a treat to have you on the show. For those who might want to learn more, obviously, you can get this wherever books are sold. Where else would you steer folks? I know you do write for the New York Times and the Rolling Stone.
The easiest places is just my website, which is nabilayers.com. That just has a super simple in order, most recent to oldest of all the pieces I've written. That's all cataloged in one place. So that's probably the best place.
Yeah, thank you for having me. It's always a pleasure. It's great to hang and talk to you. I appreciate it.
I wish we could it do it in-person, dang!
I know, we will. Let's do it soon. I want to be traveling.
I know you're out here for a wedding not too long ago. I saw a post-facto. I actually was here either. So would've been nice to see then, but the next time, looking forward to seeing you and AJ. And enjoy your book tour, too. So for folks out there, we're gonna release this episode the week of your publication which tends to help authors the most. And you will, at that point, be talking book tours. So just why don't you read off the cities where you will be showing up in case people wanna...
Oh, let me think. They're not in front of me, but it starts on June 7th in Brooklyn, where I live, and it hits LA, and Palm Springs, and Seattle, and Milwaukee, Chicago. Salt Lake City has to be in there, and then London, and Paris. That's what I know now. We're adding more dates, but that's the meat of it in June.
Awesome, awesome. Well, again, congratulations.
It's a staggering work of genius. Grateful to have you on the show. And until next time.
Hope to see you soon.
Until next time. To everybody out there who's listening and watching, just wanna take a second to say, check out Nabil's work. And until next time, from he and I, we both bid you adieu. (upbeat music)