On September 29, 1990, the number one song in America was the debut single by melodic hard rock band Nelson – (Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection. The leaders of the group were identical twins Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, and their overnight success was part of a bigger story: that of a legendary showbiz family dynasty. The twins’ father was rock’n’roll singer and actor Ricky Nelson, who died in a plane crash in 1985. Their grandparents had the title roles in long-running US sitcom The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet.
Matthew and Gunnar were among the last stars of the hair metal era. Their luxuriant platinum-blond coiffures had them nicknamed ‘The Timotei Twins’, and like many of their big-haired peers, their career was derailed by grunge. But they never stopped making music – be it AOR or country rock. And with their new album Peace Out they’ve returned to the classic sound of their 1990 debut After The Rain.
Speaking to Classic Rock from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, Gunnar Nelson talks about the new album and the highs and lows in his life: the loss of his father, the relationship with his twin brother, the perils of rock’n’roll decadence, and how Cindy Crawford inspired their biggest hit.
Was it a conscious decision to make this new album in the style of your first one?
It’s what Nelson does. It’s melodic hard rock with two brothers singing it. It’s song-centric and guitar-oriented, with elements of that great arena rock that I admired when I was growing up: Boston, Queen, Bad Company, Heart, Foreigner. But it’s also got lots of vocal harmonies in that Southern California country rock style. It’s definitely ‘a sound’. It’s really unique. But hey, I’m biased.
Besides you and Matthew, who else is in the band now?
There really is no band. When we tour we always ‘band up’, and one of the foundations has always been [original member] Bobby Rock on drums. But when we’re writing and recording, it’s just Matthew and I. Matt did some singing and a little bit of bass and I did the rest, apart from some incredible guitar solos from my friend Neil Zaza. I started out as a drummer, so I love playing drums.
The album cover has a girl baring her ass. Very cheeky…
Literally! Good pun, my man. The first cover we had was a couple of skeletons with one photo-bombing the other with a peace sign. Lo and behold, the people at our record company Frontiers, all Italian guys, preferred the cover with a girl with a great tush. Go figure…
What does that cover say about you?
It’s what we got into music for – having a great time, playing good tunes and pulling chicks. If anybody tells you different, they’re lying.
Is this something you learned from your father?
Yeah! He said as soon as he picked up a guitar, the chicks wanted to rip his pants off. I said, ‘Hey, that’s what I wanna do too!’
As the sons of a rock’n’roll legend, do you feel you were destined to become a rock star?
I don’t think I’d say it was destiny, but it did inspire me to know that making music at the highest level was possible. For me it was normal growing up around famous people. I didn’t have any other perspective.
Presumably it was your father who taught you to play guitar?
No, he didn’t. My dad always had a guitar in his hand. He was always writing songs. But my twin brother taught me how to play. He started out being a bass player, and I played drums. We were a rhythm section. But around twelve years old, Matt realised that if you add a couple of strings you get thirty per cent more chicks. So he changed to guitar.
Did it work?
Oh my God! Of course it did.
And being identical twins, did you like to play tricks on girls?
If you had the ability to do that, wouldn’t you? The problem was we had really different taste in women.
Matthew always attracted the good girls. He liked the prom queens. I liked the girls who were on the edge: girls that were constantly in trouble and wore way too much make-up. I liked the hookers, what can I say?
Your wife might not enjoy reading that.
Oh, it’s cool – that’s why she’s my wife. She’s the female version of me. That’s why we get along so well.
Your father was such a huge star – what was he really like as a person?
As a dad, he was gone a lot of the time. Up until he died he was playing three hundred shows a year. When I did see him, he was very gentle, soft-spoken, funny.
When he died, how did you and Matthew cope with that loss?
It’s tragic for any kids to lose their dad, and in our situation it was public. The press was horrible and irresponsible. There were rumours that drug abuse had something to do with the plane crash – which it didn’t. That was adding insult to injury. Within the family, we kind of circled the wagons. We dealt with it in different ways. Matthew spent money he didn’t have, impressing people that didn’t matter. That was his method of distracting himself. I just shagged a ton of chicks. I spent an entire year with that sort of addiction. We both really turned into people that we never wanted to be. After that year we were both just miserable. So we decided to change our lives. That’s where the title of the first Nelson record came from: After The Rain.
Was the success of Nelson bittersweet, because your dad never lived to see it?
I suppose it was. But – not to get too spiritual – we really felt like our dad was around when we made that first album. We’d hear his songs on the radio. In a sense, the music made him immortal. A cold comfort, but a comfort nonetheless.
**When you had a number one record with _(Can’t Live Without Your)__ Love And Affection__, _how did you celebrate?**
It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. I just thought, oh shit, now what? And I guess the rest of my life has been focused on answering that particular question.
Did you know as soon as you wrote that song that it was a hit?
I thought so. The record company didn’t. The song almost didn’t make the record.
It’s been said that this song was inspired by a crush you had on supermodel Cindy Crawford.
It was. Matthew wrote the riff in a kind of in a trance, playing an acoustic guitar, staring at a Vogue magazine with Cindy Crawford on the cover. After the record popped, Matthew and Cindy became good friends. When I told her the song was about her, she said, ‘What do you want, a medal?’ I said, ‘No, a plaque!’
At the height of that success, did you take advantage of your celebrity status?
I was in a relationship with a great girl. We were thinking about getting married. But the realities of being on tour kind of interfered with that… I was a dog again for a while. Remember, this was a time before cellphones and Instagram and getting busted. So I had total culpable deniability. I highly recommend it. It was great going out on a hedonistic, decadent tour when I was 22. I look back on that and I’m just happy to be alive.
You were nicknamed The Timotei Twins – can you laugh about that?
Oh come on, man! Of course! You Brits, you’re tough. But it was cool. Yes, we were The Timotei Twins, and if only we had done a Timotei commercial back then, we’d have made a mint. Listen, that image was a lot to take – I admit. But love us or hate us, you knew who we were.
Were you ever thanked by Timotei for the free PR?
Never even got a free bottle of shampoo. What’s up with that?
Were Nelson killed by grunge?
It was the single largest paradigm shift in music history – and that includes the death of disco. Suddenly, everyone was wearing flannel, and we had no idea what was going on. I think all of us from that ‘confidence rock’ era were victims of what happened.
It’s the best way I can say it. In that whole era, everyone was livin’ on a prayer. Then with grunge, the whole attitude changed to: life sucks, and everyone owes me. That’s not how we felt. We had chicks coming to our shows in lingerie. Just lingerie. It was awesome.
During the lean years that followed, did you ever consider getting out of the music business?
Never. There was a long period of time when no one gave a shit about us. In those dark days, the only thing that kept us going was our love of music. But in the end, people rediscovered the kind of music we make.
And now that you and Matthew have kids of your own, could there be a fourth generation of famous Nelsons?
I have three daughters, and Matthew’s got a six year-old son named Ozzie, after his grandfather. My youngest, Asia, is eight, and she’s been on stage with us before. So who knows what will happen? If they end up making music, that would be cool.
Peace Out is out now via Frontiers.