What do you remember about 2011? Scratch your head for a minute and you might come up with a major personal event and the song connected to it. Do a Google search and the results might trigger some memories of the meme you thought was the funniest thing ever on one particularly uneventful day that year. In the viral, fame-driven world of pop culture, four years can feel like four lifetimes and, in the career spans of musicians, that's not necessarily beneficial.
"If you wait four years between album releases, you're basically gone," says Daniel Stephens. Stephens' band, Nero, did just that. The British three-piece released its hit-laden debut, Welcome Reality, on Aug. 12, 2011. It wasn't until late last summer that the follow-up, Between II Worlds, was released. Yet Nero didn't fade away during the gap between albums.
Stephens speaks by phone from a hotel in Aspen, Colorado, where Nero had headed for a three-day trip — one DJ gig included — in between two consecutive weekends at Austin City Limits. In the following weeks, they will go to New York for an intimate club gig, as well as a full stage performance in an undisclosed warehouse. By Halloween, they'll be in Los Angeles, playing on the same bill as Deadmau5, Hot Chip and Flying Lotus for HARD Day of the Dead. In between, they will cover a lot of ground. Clearly, they've got staying power.
Back in 2011, Nero put forth a massive full-length debut with Welcome Reality. In the party world, the hits kept coming, with major DJs dropping single after single from the trio. The album's shelf life was so long that Nero actually won a Grammy, for a remix of the hit track "Promises" done in connection with Skrillex, nearly two years after the album dropped.
Nero kept touring. They played theaters and festivals. "We never really stopped being on the road and gigging," says Stephens, "which also means that it's hard to find the time to get into the studio and really get into the zone."
But it was more than a lack of time. "In one respect, the first album blew up way beyond our expectations and what we ever thought we would do," Stephens says. That, he says, can make creating a follow-up album a high-pressure experience. "You set the bar very high without really meaning to, so you end up driving yourselves a little bit mad."
Nero took their time to make an album that would be a departure from the first. "We wanted to make sure that everything was right," Stephens says. "We didn't want to release it until we knew that we had the right sort of collection of songs that would work on an album."
The trio headed out to Los Angeles and settled into a Hollywood Hills home where Orson Welles once lived. For their stint on the West Coast, they lived surrounded by references to the famed director and Citizen Kane. For a group that takes a lot of inspiration from the big screen, the house was a good fit.
"We're big film buffs and we always utilized a lot of our love for film into what we do with music as well," says Stephens, adding that Nero is "hands on" when it comes to making their music videos. "We just sort of created a bit of a world, which was really a fictional movie set, a fictional universe that everything takes place in," he says. "We're probably more influenced by visual stuff and putting that into a visual context."
Nero continued to find inspiration in the same films that helped shape Welcome Reality, mainly dystopian science fiction flicks, with a heavy emphasis on Blade Runner. Stephens chats for a bit about the 1982 film. It's obvious that he's a fan, but that love of sci-fi noir is particularly evident in the recent for video for "Two Minds," where an unusual figure emerges from retro-looking TV sets and the action happens on gritty city streets.
They scaled back on heavy touring for the year and a half leading up to Between II Worlds but didn't leave the stage entirely. Instead, Nero focused on high-profile festival dates, including a primo slot at Coachella this past spring that Stephens calls a "career-defining moment."
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Now that the album is out, the band is ready to make their home on the road again. This time, though, there have been some changes in the live show. Previously, they had performed in a booth above the crowd, which Stephens feels led to a "slight disconnect" with the audience. Now they, and their gear, are moving to the front of the stage. "It looks and feels more live," he says, "and we can connect with the crowd a bit more."
Nero play HARD Day of the Dead at the Pomona Fairplex on Saturday, Oct. 31.