The Magic of Beat Night. An Interview with Mike Nelson
By Christopher Hislop
February 20, 2014
Beat Night at the Press Room in Portsmouth has been an ongoing monthly tradition that occurs on the third Thursday of every month since before the turn of this century — just before: 1999. If you’ve experienced it, you know that magic that occurs at this staple of community-driven culture.
Mike Nelson is trying to capture a bit of that magic with the release of a new recording he has put together entitled, “View from the Mic,” which features the Beat Night Band, and pays tribute to the historic Portsmouth tradition that he’s been contributing to for the last decade. The collection also serves as a companion soundtrack to the book of poetry he’s simultaneously releasing at the upcoming installment of Beat Night, “Another Forty Years.”
Nelson graciously took some time out of his schedule to answer a few questions regarding the upcoming engagement on Feb. 20, and how Beat Night inspired him to create these works.
Hislop: Let’s talk about the record. What was the goal behind the project? Did those goals shift at all during the recording process? Are you happy with the finished result?
Mike Nelson: I wanted to capture the magic of what happens at Beat Night. The band improvises something new to go with every poem, and the results range from fun to amazing. We stuck with that formula in the studio. One take, no rehearsing. The recording speaks for itself as to what’s possible with this band. I couldn’t be more thrilled with how it all turned out.
Hislop: What does Beat Night mean to you?
Nelson: The art of storytelling with music goes way back into our tribal history. I think we all have an innate need to tell our story — to be heard and to listen. Music is like air and water: we need it. Beat Night is a modern version of those ancient rites being served. The fact that anyone in the audience can get up to that microphone and speak the words they’ve written with the music behind them sets Beat Night apart from any other kind of show, and make it a truly communal experience.
Hislop: What does Beat Night mean to the community?
Nelson: For the regulars who have been going for 15 years, and for the people who are new to it, Beat Night is a familial scene. There’s no judgment there at all. Just love and support. I’ve seen a lot of poets evolve in that space. I’ve watched the band grow in their abilities and with their comfort with each other and the poets. It’s always open, always new, and always fun. I can hardly think of anything more indispensable for any community.
Hislop: What are you hoping people take with them when they experience the record?
Nelson: I hope they get the spontaneous joy of it. When someone learns that every track on there was done without rehearsal, in one take, their jaw drops. The album is a testament to the talent of everyone in that band and to the beauty and aliveness that happens when you don’t try to control creativity towards a preconceived outcome, but rather give everybody the space to be themselves and do their thing. We all feel that magic at Beat Night. We felt it in the studio, and I hope others will feel it too when they hear it.
Hislop: What’s planned for the 20th? What can folks expect?
Nelson: The album was made to accompany my new book, “Another Forty Years.” The upcoming Beat Night at the Press Room is a full-on release party for the book, and the album. I have two hours, and we plan on doing what we do at every Beat Night. I’ll be reading poems from the new book and the band will be playing along. Every poem requires a different mood or style. How it works is, I give a few words about the tone and style I want for the poem and the band does the rest. Whatever they come up with, that’s what it is for that poem. Often what the band is doing changes the way I planned on reading the poem. But that’s the beauty of it. The poems are often directed by the music and are expressed in some way I never imagined before. I invited six other regular Beat Night poets to also be on the album and to read at the release party. Another reason I did all this was to show that poetry can have a lot more life to it than people usually expect. If you’ve never seen this sort of thing before then you’re going to be very surprised and entertained and maybe even blown away!