Little more than a year ago, life for Nurses appeared to be a raw deal. If future mirrored past, it would be creatively fulfilling but outwardly bleak. Trying to make it as artists in city after city, they began in Idaho, made a few stops in California, then spent time in Chicago living in a van before winding up in Portland. And while waking up in the Windy City's summer heat on a bench seat was rough, Temecula, California, hadn't been much better.
"We couldn't walk down the street without being called 'weirdos' or 'fags,'" says lead singer Aaron Chapman, who is shoeless. "Or having eggs thrown at us," adds the grizzly-bearded but baby-faced John Bowers. So mostly, the co-songwriters say, they spent time indoors, burying themselves creatively.
"We had almost no friends at all," Chapman remembers. "It was good and bad, because we went kind of crazy. We were just shut-ins. But we made so much music. We'd come home from work and make tapes." Other times it was building art installations in the living room. Bowers finishes Chapman's thought, "That was a very important period."
Indeed, many of the improvised guitar and vocal-heavy recordings became the guiding aesthetic foundations for Nurses' new record, Apple's Acre. It's a warped take on summertime pop—like opening your eyes underwater. And while the instrumental sources are swirled and sampled beyond recognition—running together like watercolors—the compositions, relying on swift, clever chord changes and well-fitting parts, are pure and classic pop. In the midst of the album's creation, and for no clear reason (they say it "just sort of happened"), Bowers and Chapman moved to Portland. Quickly things began to change.
The duo couch surfed into the home of James Mitchell, a drummer who they developed an immediate kinship with. Along with a bassist—who has since left—Nurses' hooky, technicolor gems sprinkled all throughout town, hopscotching through basements and, more recently, the town's top venues. Portland's bubbly music scene was welcoming, embracing the group.
"Within two months of moving to Portland I had more friends then I've ever had," says Bowers. "And we all relate on a level that I only have had with a few people in my life."
Certainly the cheap, bohemian, art-chasing life Portland enables is part of the draw, but the underlying hippie culture of native Oregonians suits Nurses perfectly—they are peaceful, happy-go-lucky souls full of wonder. Through music, these life-affirming qualities are easily apparent, perhaps explaining why they've made so many friends—the hooks smile as wide as the mouths singing them.
Of course, success has been relative. Bowers spent the first three months of this year sleeping on couches. Hoping to give his housemates space, he often went on long walks. Eventually he found a hotel piano where he played—and was kicked out—daily. But sacrifice for the art was always the plan, and things have gotten better organically.
"We've followed that gut feeling, and that's how everything has fallen into place," says Bowers. "All of our decisions haven't seemed like decisions, they seemed like the most obvious path." The band's new label, Dead Oceans, also home to Akron/Family and Califone, found them "randomly" on the internet, just after Nurses had completed Apple's Acre. And Mitchell has been able to penetrate the tight-knit bond between Bowers and Chapman like no other.
"John and Aaron probably click in a certain way more than most people do," says Mitchell in an almost Spicoli-esque surfer drawl. "We've never had a single argument about anything. I can't even imagine what we would argue about."
Again on instinct, Nurses eschewed the traditional studio, recording Apple's Acre at home with GarageBand. And while the amateur production mostly works, even enhancing the sound's character at times, there are moments where a wider frequency range—like an enveloping bass rumble or a clearer, cutting snare—would've helped. In the end, though, Nurses are about song construction and cleverly designed chord changes and choruses so catchy they'd live in your frontal lobe even if projected out of a tin can.
The coming months for Nurses should be pivotal. Their name is becoming more frequently heard in national circles, and the label seems to provide good backing. Success seems somewhat shocking to the band, or at least they're staying humble. "I still feel like somebody's playing a joke on us," says Mitchell, half-joking that the whole thing could yet come tumbling down. They all laugh as he continues, "I'm waiting for the punch line."