Nelson is slight of stature and unassuming. He’s one of the only members of Cake still living in Sacramento, and when he’s not making music he’s teaching it at Kline Music.
He moved to Sacramento from Orange County to live with his mother at age 12. Nelson said he actually moved around a lot and it was his tumultuous childhood that caused him to devote himself to music.
“I had kind of a screwy childhood,” Nelson said. “I didn’t have a lot of friends. That’s when I turned to music; it was a friend. It’s really given me direction and kept me out of trouble. It was something to throw my life into.”
He said he started playing bass because, “there are only eight bass players in Sacramento.” Nelson’s played in a lot of bands.
“I never cared about the success or the money. I just figured if I don’t [make music] I’ll get depressed,” Nelson said.
When he was 25, he joined Cake’s line-up and recorded with them on four of their six studio albums and still plays with them today.
When Cake isn’t super busy Nelson has time to write his own songs.
“I’ve always written songs, it’s just something I like to do,” he said. He has a home recording system and just started putting together material.
“I like to sing. I like to write. Cake’s got some great songs, no two ways about it, but they aren’t my songs. They’re John [McCrea]’s,” explained Nelson. “He has his own expression. That’s good for him, I’m proud of him. It’s not my outlet.”
Eventually a friend heard some of his work and encouraged Nelson to go play somewhere. So in April 2012 he debuted his brand of poppy rock ‘n’ roll known as Bellygunner.
Nelson writes all the songs, sings lead and plays guitar. His wife, Peggy Lanza, plays keyboard. Thomas Monson is on drums, Shawn Hale serves as the bassist and Steve Randall plays guitar. Everyone lends vocals to round out the Bellygunner sound.
Jerry Perry met Nelson in the late ‘80s when he was running the Cattle Club and Nelson was coming through with a different band every other night. Perry still promotes concerts and puts together Hot Italian’s Hot Lunch series, at which Bellygunner is playing on July 31.
“[Nelson] is such a good songwriter. He writes really unpredictable pop melodies. They’re really catchy but you don’t know exactly where they’re going to go,” said Perry. “He’s also a very clever lyricist and has a really quirky stage presence.”
Writing songs for Bellygunner is completely different from writing with Cake, Nelson said. At this point there’s no collaboration: Nelson writes all the parts and the band members play them. Nelson said when Cake is putting together a song the band members get very competitive.
“I would write a bass line and someone else would say, ‘I don’t like it, I’m going to write the bass line,’ and my bass line would get thrown in the trash.”
So he’d write a guitar riff.
“I think it’s healthy,” Nelson said. “It’s frustrating at the time, but in the end you listen to the album and it paid off. It’s a high pressure situation.”
When it comes to producing songs for Bellygunner, Nelson gets to do whatever he wants. He goes through the competitive songwriting in his head, hears the other band members critiquing his work and applies that to what he does.
“You got to be really hard on yourself. You can’t just noodle around in the studio and say that’s good enough.”
Nelson said when he first started playing music he wanted to be a front man and had the drive, but not the know-how. His advice for people just starting out: get a tape recorder, learn how to edit and develop very thick skin.
“Nobody’s going to roll out the red carpet for you,” said Nelson. “You’re going to get beat up and you have to decide each time if you’re going to soldier on.”
Nelson said he’s paid his dues and isn’t getting beat up anymore, but it took time. “I’m short, I’m soft spoken. People will talk over me a lot,” Nelson explained. “So if I have an idea of a song that’s not fully worked out, it’s hard for me to convince people to play it.”
When Perry asked Nelson to play Hot Lunch Nelson said, “Sure,” against his better judgment.
“I think Bellygunner is more of a night-time-drinky-dark-club kind of a band, than a sunshiny-afternoon family sort of band, but what the heck might as well try it,” said Nelson. “I’ve avoided this sort of thing in the past, you know being outside in the daytime.”
Perry begs to differ.
“When I think about any outdoor park show, I like things that feel festive and nice in a park setting and I think his music is going to be very wonderful for the 90 minutes we’re out there.”
You be the judge. Bellygunner plays Hot Lunch at 11:30 a.m. on July 31 in Sacramento’s Fremont Park.