“We never set our sights on making a record or being a band,” Salim Nourallah says of NHD, his new collaboration with fellow songwriters Billy Harvey and Alex Dezen. “There was just something about the three of us coming together that created this weird explosion of energy. We could tell right away from the very first song that there was some kind of special chemistry happening.”
That chemistry is the joyous heart of ‘And The Devil Went Up To Portland,’ the trio’s riotous debut record. Born out of a series of freewheeling and collaborative live tours, the album showcases a band built on equal parts humor and heart, one blessed with an embarrassment of artistic riches. Spare and direct in its production, the record captures the infectious lyrical wit and remarkably engaging presence of NHD’s three kindred frontmen, who, according to Austin NPR station KUTX, have already developed the kind of “depth and polish you would expect to find in long-running bands.” Each member of the group is a successful solo artist and bandleader in his own right, but the magic of NHD lies in its playful, Rat Pack-esque interplay. With nothing to prove, they made an album for the sheer fun of it, and the result is a whole that’s far greater than the sum of its already-remarkable parts.
Nourallah got his start nearly three decades ago in Texas, where he built up a reputation as something of a Lone Star Nick Lowe for his steady output of stellar solo and band material (Rolling Stone called him “a singer-songwriter who can stop time”) as well as his acclaimed work as a producer (he’s taken the wheel for four Old 97’s albums, as well as Rhett Miller’s self-titled album and The Damnwells’ eponymous reunion LP among others). Harvey, meanwhile, is more of a post-modern pop shapeshifter, a singer and songwriter and filmmaker and animator and producer and actor and poet who’s too eclectic to pin down for long. He’s played guitar for Patty Griffin and The Courtyard Hounds, produced records for Bob Schneider and Slaid Cleaves, and had his own songs hailed by the Austin Chronicle for their “pop patina and singer-songwriter essence.” Dezen, the youngest of the three, first came to international attention as the frontman of “charming” (NPR) Brooklyn indie rockers The Damnwells, who released five celebrated studio albums and shared stages with everyone from Cheap Trick to Bob Dylan. As a songwriter and guitarist on his own, Dezen has contributed to music released by a slew of stars, including Justin Bieber, The Dixie Chicks, Dave Grohl, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, Jason Derulo, Christina Perri, and Company of Thieves’ Genevieve Schatz.
Though their various paths had crissed and crossed during their long and winding careers, the three had never shared a bill until Nourallah “accidentally” set up a trio tour in Texas a few years back.
“I remember talking to Billy about doing some dates together, and then I thought that I’d better run them by Alex, too, expecting that one or the other would flake out on me,” laughs Nourallah. “It turned out they were both all in, and suddenly there were three of us for these shows. Billy and Alex had never met, but within 24 hours on the road, they were in the grips of a full-on mega bromance.”
“When you really connect with somebody, it can feel like you’ve known them for a long time,” reflects Harvey. “That’s what I experienced with Alex. I love his songs and we make each other laugh, and the same goes for Salim. That first tour was controlled chaos between fast friends.”
Their musical road trip was such a blast, in fact, that they did it again, and again after that. All three would sit onstage together for the duration of the shows, playing on each other’s songs and riffing on each other’s jokes. When Dixie Chicks fiddler Martie McGuire invited the trio to cut an album out of her HEK studio in Austin, it was too good of an offer to pass up.
“We only had a week to record because of each of our collective crazy schedules,” says Nourallah, “and several of the songs weren’t even written until we got into the studio. But I think while we were writing and recording there, that’s when it truly hit us that we had something real on our hands. We discovered this collective power as a group that none of us had had on our own.”
The album opens with a lighthearted, guitar-and-mandolin take on 70’s hit “The Boys Are Back In Town,” which has become something of an NHD theme song. With each member taking a verse and sharing call-and-response duties on the choruses, it sets the stage perfectly for what’s to come: a truly collaborative, blissful journey through the collective consciousness of three adventurous, inventive artists, each in possession of an endless supply of creativity both in front of and behind the microphone.
“We were all producing and throwing things at the wall,” says Dezen of the whirlwind recording sessions. “We were plugging stuff directly in, turning stuff up too loud, putting microphones in bathrooms.”
Nourallah’s songwriting contributions featured tracks that pre-dated NHD but had never found a home, like the beautifully off-kilter “I Sent A Postcard” and banjo-driven “You’re The Light,” and the same went for many of Harvey’s tracks, including the meditative “Complicatedness” and funky “Lose Or Take It All,” which were both drawn from a deep back catalog that Nourallah had always hoped would see the light of day.
“The songs I brought in didn’t change too drastically at their core,” says Harvey, “but they were definitely made better by the group. We traded instruments a lot and there’s something like voodoo in that.
Dezen’s entries in the NHD catalog were the most spontaneous of the bunch, with tracks like the cinematic “Hello From An Emergency Room In Hollywood” and clever “Somebody Loves Me” written primarily in a burst of inspiration in and around the studio, albeit with a healthy dose of collaboration with both of his bandmates.
“It’s fun to write and record that quickly because it doesn’t give you time to second guess,” Dezen explains. “Salim contributed a lot on the lyrical side, taking an idea or title of mine and whipping it into a story, and then Billy would tear the songs open and put a heart inside.”
In the end, heart is what it’s all about for a band like NHD. Without the weight of expectation or pressure, they were free to follow their collective muse and create an album that channeled all the joy and madness they’d experienced on the road. ‘And The Devil Went Up To Portland’ is a pure product of friendship and mutual artistic respect, but more than that, it’s a much-needed reminder of just how much fun making music can—and should—be.