[Ed. note – This is part 1 in a series of stories about the evolution of Carey Nordstrand from shy high school sax player to world class bass builder and pickup maker.]
Carey Nordstrand unknowingly took the first steps onto his luthier career path at the most unlikeliest of places—a Kenny G concert in Costa Mesa … with his parents. He was a 20-year-old alto sax player with a decade of single-reeds under his band geek belt. So his parents wanted him to see a sax player who cashed in big time making John Tesh clones in generic Hawaiian shirts sway their torsos like no one’s business.
Yes, Carey went to a Kenny G concert with his parents. It was 1990. Get over it. “It wasn’t a cool thing to do,” Carey says with a sheepish shoulder shrug. Carey, who puts the Nordstrand in Nordstrand Guitars and Pickups, doesn’t try to hipster-coat things. It’s part of his charm. We’re also not sure whether he’s making up the entire story just for kicks. That’s part of his appeal, as well.
The Nordstrands always supported their son’s dream of a music-related career, but Carey knew he was no virtuoso on sax. He had already set his sites on a more behind-the-scenes type of gig by the time the Kenny G show rolled into town. He just wasn’t sure what that career would be yet. “The idea was to do something in the field so I could be around music and keep playing without having to rely on it for income,” Carey says.
That night at the concert, Carey started mentally pawning his sax as he watched Kenny G’s bassist Vail Johnson, a rhythmic and powerful player. Vail, who has played with Herbie Hancock, Stevie Nicks, Keb’ Mo’ and Whitney Houston, earned a reputation as a bit of a showoff.
In the 1990s, Vail often performed on “The Arsenio Hall Show” slapping his headless Kubicki Ex-Factor bass as part of the house band. “Work them thin,” Arsenio would say, egging on Vail while dancing and riffing on air bass alongside him. Vail impacted Carey so much, the next day he headed to a music store, traded up for his first bass—a black and orange Washburn—and booked some lessons.
His is not a story as old as time. Carey was not born into a rock ‘n roll dynasty. He didn’t grow up in the heart of Laurel Canyon with hippy parents who wife swapped with members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. He is not the love child of a jazz virtuoso. His parents never went to a Beatles concert. Carey started at square one, finding his musical identity without much outside influence.
As a sheltered Midwest kid during the 1980s, Carey had listened to what was on the local mainstream radio station at the time, KS95 FM in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. You had your “Funky Town,” a lot of BeeGees and other pop mainstays. “It was just mainstream Midwestern American music,” Nordstrand says. In other words, he was not only feeling Minnesota, he was extremely Minnesota.
“Growing up in Minnesota, there was a limited-approach-to-the-world mentality,” Carey says. “I didn’t feel like I could like whatever I wanted. I had to be careful not to like anything that I perceived my parents would be upset about, like anything with distorted guitar. That was dangerous.”
After the family moved to Anchorage when Carey was about 13—Sarah Palin land with moose, dog sledding and all—a culture-shocked Carey turned to Genesis. Not the book in the Old Testament, the Phil Collins-led one and the band’s album ABACAB. Carey’s taste in music developed after he got his first job delivering newspapers. With his newfound cash flow, he bought his first CD player and those Genesis CDs.
“The music made me feel connected to someone,” Carey says. Collins’ 1983 song “I Don’t Care Anymore” from Hello, I Must Be Going particularly resonated with him during that chapter of his life. “Alaska was so huge. It made me feel kind of small. I already felt small coming from Minnesota. We had moved right at the beginning of the summer and not having any friends or ways to make friends for the whole summer, it was like moving to another planet in some ways. It was so alien and I felt deeply alone.”
Carey spent much of that year in his bedroom, commiserating with Collins’ lonely, forlorn lyrics. “I was an angsty teen who moved away from all his friends,” he continues. “I didn’t know anyone. I was in this bizarre, remote place. That whole summer I was in a really depressed space, and the music is what kept me going through it. It became really important through that experience.”
Carey moved once again to Redlands in the spring of 1988 as a junior in high school. He was plucked from his friends and any familiarity with Alaska he had mustered. One thing remained constant though. He continued playing sax, joining the high school’s jazz band. That experience culminated in an awards ceremony and a plaque for Most Outstanding Soloist, which sadly he did not show up to accept because he did not know he was receiving it.
“The band director was very insulted,” Carey explains. “It was supposed to be a surprise or something. But then this is the guy who got in trouble for fornicating with a student. He was kind of a mess. Still, I felt bad about that.”
After graduating from Redlands High School, Carey attended UC Riverside and played sax in the school’s jazz ensemble. That’s when he met his next volatile band teacher. Around the same time as that Kenny G concert with Vail, the University’s jazz ensemble went on a retreat in Arrowbear. While there, the group worked to polish parts for an upcoming recording of a big band-type of recording. Two weeks later back down the mountain, the teacher cut the entire sax section before they recorded the tracks.
“He basically dropped us all from the class,” Carey says. “We were standing there like, Can he do that?” Turned out he brought in some ringers he knew to record the parts. “I guess we weren’t taking it seriously enough. That was the last straw.” The instrument was losing its sax appeal for Carey.
Vail Johnson and his bass couldn’t have happened at a better time, just as he was starting to sour on sax and longed to change his tone. “Looking back, I have no bitterness about it because it got me where I am now,” Carey says. “It was the beginning of this whole change.” He never bought into the school band stiffness, eschewing such structure.
“At that point, I embraced that I wasn’t really digging it anyway,” Carey says. “I just wanted to create music for fun. That is what drew me toward the bass because it’s the underpinnings of mainstream music.”
Not long before being relieved of his sax duties, the jazz ensemble’s bass player had struck a chord with Carey. He couldn’t help but be fascinated when the guy brought in a bass guitar he made from a kit. “I remember watching him play this flamed-maple fretless bass,” Carey says. “I was a little bit blown away. I realized I needed to play bass. It looked like a lot of fun. I think that really coincided with Vail’s slap-o-rama ringing in my head.”
As he matured, Carey gravitated toward harder music, songs with the much-maligned distorted guitar. The power and high energy of electric guitar grew on him with its possibilities for tone and the endless potential with pedals and an amp. But having spent so many years playing sax, Carey got a late start to rock music. “I had missed the formative growing-up, garage-band years noodling and playing with friends,” Carey says. He preferred solo gigs at home where stage fright and inexperience didn’t hamper him.
But eventually, Carey had to leave his room and be around people and music at the same time. Carey attended the Grove Center for Contemporary Music for a recording engineering certificate, as well as worked as an entry-level runner and tech assistant for Devonshire Sound in North Hollywood from 1993 to ’94. Artists such as Earth, Wind and Fire, Motley Crue, and Green Day worked at Devonshire while he was there. From there, Carey joined Tim Benge at Camerata Recording, a smallish project studio in Anaheim where he helped teach a class on recording engineering.
On the side, he began to hang out at his friend Ryan Ramirez’s place of employment, Caleb’s Guitar in Redlands, soaking up every bit of instrument knowledge possible. “ I guess I was kind of a guitar store groupie in a way,” he recalls. Once he saved up enough money, he ordered a custom Ibanez bass. That bass changed everything for Carey, and sent him on a career trajectory he had no idea would unfold, helped along by serendipity, drive and a borderline unhealthy pursuit of excellence.
Fast forward to the 2010 NAMM Show where Carey got to meet Vail in person and relate his story of how Vail helped turn Carey from sax to bass at that Kenny G concert so many years before. Prior to that show, Vail had contacted Nordstrand Pickups to purchase a pickup for his Fender P5 bass and he wanted to stop by and say hi. “That was awesome,” Carey says, admittedly a bit star-struck, “definitely one of the highlights of my career so far.”
“It was kind of like a full circle validation,” Carey says. “At that moment I really felt like I’d done something pretty cool.”
To be continued...