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January 18-24, 2006

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Celluloid Hero

Ex-Braid and Hey Mercedes singer Robert Nanna begins anew in The City on Film

By Yoshi Kato

JUST AS most working-class stiffs answer to seven employers in a lifetime, musicians, too, are likely to play in a variety of bands with different musicians over the course of a career. Less common is the experience of playing in multiple successful bands. Chicago native Robert Nanna could write the FAQ on the experience. He was already a member of local heroes Friction when he co-founded the proto-emo unit Braid in 1993. The drummer-vocalist turned singer-guitarist then started up the Vagrant label-signed Hey Mercedes in 1999 with fellow Braid mates following the departure of guitarist Chris Broach.

Now Nanna pursues his musical muse as The City on Film. He released the American Diary EP in late October and is currently on a West Coast tour, which includes a stop at the Portable in San Jose.

The City on Film is a solo project with dividends. He recorded his debut EP I'd Rather Be Wine Drunk by himself over a long night at a hotel room in Utah during a Hey Mercedes tour, with the help of his then-road manager Chris Common, who is also an accomplished sound engineer.

He'll also be performing solo on this tour, with perhaps a bit of pre-planned and extemporaneous technological help along the way. "Since I'm just flying out, it's going to be just acoustic. But I may incorporate some electronics in there," he says. "I've got prerecorded stuff I might use. But a big part of the show is loops that are created with a pedal on the fly.

"I've done tours with a different band and a different setup. I did one solo, and I did one with a full kind of rock band," he continues. "And I did one with kind of a more electronic band—drum machine, keyboards, bass and guitar. I just like having the freedom to do weird stuff like that."

Just as band members can grow apart within a group, they can also change in other aspects of life, which may ultimately conflict with music making. Nanna has seen all of the above throughout his career. It wasn't creative differences that lead to Hey Mercedes closing it out in early 2005.

"There were differences in direction, but not musically speaking," he replies. "We all lived in different cities and decided that it would be just too hard to keep the band together. And we kind of felt that it had run its course. There was no animosity between any of us. It was a mutual decision, and everyone had their own things that they wanted to focus on a little more."

For Nanna, that meant exploring stylistically diverse music through The City on Film. The half dozen tracks of American Diary boast a feature film's worth of sonic exploration. With its stereo harmonizing vocals and recording of his dog at the outro, "Mary, I'm Ready" opens American Diary. A hauntingly experimental lullaby, it's revisited and further examined as "Conclusion," an ever-expanding instrumental that concludes the EP. "Pony's Last Trick" is a spirited modern rocker, mirrored in spirit, punch and catchiness by "You're Gonna Need That Patience Soon." With its syncopated cymbal work, the reflective and laid-back "Well, It Goes Like This" is one of the most surprising. The other is the infectious "Astray! Astray!," which pounds forward in rollicking 2/4 time.

As an artist with a multiple band background, Nanna realizes that folks in the audience will have first heard him at various stages in his career. And that's just fine with him.

"I've come across people that come because of Braid or Hey Mercedes and a very, very small few that maybe have only heard of City on Film," he says. "I think it's great to play to, great to have the opportunity to play to, all different people wherever they sit on the music timeline."

The City on Film plays Friday, Jan. 20, at 8pm at the Portable inside South Valley Church, 590 Shawnee Lane, San Jose.

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