By Kevin Alan Lamb
For the second time, I caught up with another being whose inspiration has been imprinted upon the very way I think, feel, breathe and medicate. Nahko Bear of Nahko & Medicine for the People is a medicine man fresh off his latest prescription, Hoka. Bears figure prominently in the mythology of nearly every Native American tribe. In most Native cultures, Bear is considered a medicine being with impressive magical powers. Bears are symbols of strength and wisdom to many Native Americans, and are often associated with healing and medicine (since bears continue fighting after being seriously injured, Native Americans often believed they were capable of healing their wounds.) Nahko is no exception: he is simultaneously my friend and hero, reminding his Warrior People to hold courage close, and those you love by your side while we collectively trace a ladder to the stars to shine light upon practiced indifference and darkness. Here’s our exclusive conversation inside Electric Forest with the man made myth by moving men and women to perform miracles, because he reminded them that they could.
Nahko Bear: I love to spoon, you feeling it?
Sound & Silence: Yeah, fancy seeing you here, Mr. Bear. My last name’s Lamb, so we’ve got a Shaggy Lamb and a Bear.
Nahko Bear: Whaaaat? [laughing] That’s rad. Mr. Lamb… I’ve got a friend whose last name is Fox, so whenever I see him it’s “Hello again Mr. Fox, Mr. Bear.” [laughing]
Sound & Silence: Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Nahko Bear: [Laughing]
S&S: Nahko, welcome back. Is this your third time in the Forest?
Nahko Bear: Third time, yeah.
S&S: Do you remember your first Forest? And can you walk us through some of that whirlwind?
Nahko Bear: [Laughing] Yes I do, and I will say I am a little embarrassed because there’s this really awesome video of me from the first time I was here… I went pretty hard the first time I was here, and I learned my lesson about saving the party until after I play, also being more aware when I’m doing media, not to be really messed up, but yeah, some things I remember and some things I don’t.
S&S: It’s great to be human, though.
Nahko Bear: I feel like I needed to have that experience to know what not to do, you know what I mean?
S&S: Yeah, it’s better to make the mistake early than late…
Nahko Bear: Yeah.
S&S: Then you can be like, alright, and it sets that standard going forward.
Nahko Bear: I could have had that video taken down but I think it’s really painfully funny to watch and I think it’s necessary for myself to look back on it and be like, “Don’t ever do that again.”
S&S: So, when we’re all searching for this video, what are we looking for?
Nahko Bear: Nahko in a nest, Electric Forest. I was really feeling it, though. Like I watch the video, and the first comment was, “Is this guy off his face?”
S&S: [laughing intensely]
Nahko Bear: I was like, “Ohhh man”. But when I watch it I stop after every sentence I sing and say “Guess what happened next?” But it was cool, I was feeling it, whatever.
S&S: And that’s good because best of all it shows that you’re human. I think too many people forget that musicians on stage need the fans dancing to the music, there is that circularity, it’s fluid.
Nahko Bear: I think work mode is important to maintain your personality but also just be yourself.
S&S: Who are some of your music mentors?
Nahko Bear: You know, my piano teacher when I was a kid…
S&S: Mrs. Parrot!
Nahko Bear: Wow! Good memory. She was the first one yeah. She’s actually Jerry Garcia’s horn teacher in middle school. After her, was Corina Catur, my teacher in Oregon, and she just recently passed away, so bless her soul. She was a big influence in classical music, and jazz, all that stuff, and my dad as well who kept me in that realm of 20’s and 40’s music which eventually got me a job music directing for a theater for a couple years.
S&S: Nice, where’s that theater?
Nahko Bear: One is in Oregon, Portland, the other is in Alaska.
S&S: Where in Alaska?
Nahko Bear: Denali. Have you been there?
S&S: My brother lives in Juneau.
Nahko Bear: Cool.
S&S: I’ve been to Juneau quite a few times.
Nahko Bear: Denali is way up there, in central Alaska. So those are some of my mentors, but even outside of music I’ve had so many really important team members, Jedi Council kind of thing, keeping me on track with the teachings of life. Wookiefoot, you like Wookiefoot?
Nahko Bear: Jojo Lash, definitely some really good uncles keeping me in check there.
S&S: I saw them at Waka the year I saw you for the first time.
Nahko Bear: Yeah Yeah. Peter Yarrow from Peter Paul and Mary, another really good teacher. So many good people that are still in the cornering, still offering feedback, recognizing what an interesting world we’re navigating.
S&S: Yeah, one of my favorite things about you that I always tell people who don’t know you or your music is how you tell your story of incredible loss, your family, but the song is titled “So Thankful” because despite it all it still is what produced you and gave you life and to be able to find gratitude and even that closure of letting it go are super special and it says a lot about you and it’s ever-present in your music and your life philosophy.
Nahko Bear: Yeah, facing your fears is really hard. And also standing in front of those fears and saying, “No more,” and saying “I’m more than this,” it’s not easy and I think that everyone’s in their cycle and you can’t force them to break their cycle either. But I was gifted a way to tell those stories of my own process and able to watch the magic of them be processed by everyone differently too. But yeah I’d rather be in that way, you know, living in my gratitude rather than sitting in that pain.
S&S: Yep. One of my favorite things from our last conversation we had is, you said, everyone’s as evolved as they need to be, and some people just aren’t going to be there and…
Nahko Bear: You can’t force them to be.
S&S: If it’s really bothering you it comes down to an issue you have.
Nahko Bear: Those are the times when you really learn to be compassionate with people and their process, and how to meet people where they’re at.
S&S: I feel like I asked you this last time but I don’t know that I understood the answer over the phone. What’s the last song you’d like to hear before you die?
Nahko Bear: What I’d say!?
S&S: That’s what I’m saying, I don’t remember. You said something and it was one of those phoners so I was writing everything down and you gave long great answers and I didn’t write it down so I think I just cut it out.
Nahko Bear: Well, that’s such a great question because there are so many good ones right? I would say, off the top of my head there would be like “Sound of Silence,” Simon and Garfunkel, then “Amazing Grace.” Or “Blessings” by Chance The Rapper.
S&S: New album, Hoka, do you have a song that you love the most?
Nahko Bear: Yeah, it’s a toss up between “We Are on Time” and “Love Letters to God.” I get really emotional every time I play Love Letters because I’m speaking to myself, and every time I’m saying it to myself and I’m like, “It’s the best, [pretending to joyfully cry] I know! Isn’t it amazing? It’s so crazy.”
S&S: So my best friend and lesbian soulmate, she’s Bosnian, she left Bosnia in the early 90’s because of genocide, moved to Munich, then came here and she reached out to me after the album came out and she’s just like “Love Letters to God”…
Nahko Bear: Really!?
S&S: Yeah. Hell yeah. I love it, it’s beautiful.
Nahko Bear: It was one of those songs that was difficult because I often time will have a rounding out story, but I left that open and I appreciate that about myself, “Good job,” leaving it open, leave it up to interpretation for yourself, you know what I mean?
Nahko Bear: And the other one, “We Are on Time,” hits me every time too because it’s me, obviously I have the experience to write the song, but then I think about how many times I’ve met an old soul and you have that connection and it’s totally okay to have multiple times in your life to have that connection where you’re just like “This is hella-deep” and those to me are those old soul connections to a past life, like, who were you before? But it’s okay if I don’t know because right now, this is perfect timing, and I’m on your side. It’s interesting stuff.
S&S: Another thing that I learned about you from the first time is that through your loss, you’ve been gathering family in the world, and that is your Medicine Tribe, and you’ve been offering people family through that same process, through music, people that have family might not love the, they may not get along great, or they may have lost family, and through music, through being vulnerable you are offering people medicine through connectivity, through belonging…
Nahko Bear: Yeah… how cool is it to go to a show and obviously be with friends, but connect with new people who could potentially become lifelong friends who you can share obviously music with, but then the cool thing about Medicine Tribe is that the fans created their own community through it and that’s very powerful.
S&S: Are you going to be attending Tim Snyder’s solo set?
Nahko Bear: I won’t be able to because it’s happening right now [laughing].
S&S: It’s okay, life happens like that sometimes. His solo set at Pyro De Mayo was very powerful… there was lightning, rain clouds, I’ve seen you guys a few times now but that was the most…
Nahko Bear: I feel like we always play sets during crazy weather.
Nahko Bear: I love that because I feel like we are speaking to nature as well, why not, nature sings.
S&S: Yeah nature sings, we just need to learn to better listen. Talk a little less, listen a little more.
Nahko Bear: Yeah baby! [laughing]
S&S: Do you remember the first song you fell in love with? Like, listen on repeat.
Nahko Bear: Yeah, it was probably “This is the first day of my life, I wasn’t alive before I met you…” (Bright Eyes) Also, that Broken Social Scene Song where he’s like “I got shot, right in the back, you weren’t there, you weren’t there,” you remember that song? [laughing]
S&S: Yeah, yeah.
Nahko Bear: It was a dope song!
S&S: That’s fuckin’ rad. You’ve got your set today, is there anything new you’re unleashing, anything silly?
Nahko Bear: Well we’re always kinda silly and serious at the same time, I fuckin’ hung out with Patch Adams last weekend.
S&S: Are you serious!? [laughing]
Nahko Bear: At Harmony Park with Wookiefoot.
S&S: That’s amazing.
Nahko Bear: I was just like, “Dude, like you know the full embodiment of the sacred clown, somebody who can maintain silliness and joy through very complex and serious situations, yeah so, I just love that kind of impressionable figure who can inspire our guys as well to always be in that joy but also be serious, and for set today we’re going to play a lot of stuff off the new record and Tim’s going to do his thing, and we actually have, Pato has his kora, an African harp, it’s nice when we have the space to let everyone flex a bit because everyone’s so freaking talented.
S&S: Yeah you guys have a lot going on and this album, I feel like more than ever you’re kind of able to show that off and be the best versions of yourselves.
Nahko Bear: Yeah everyone’s so talented we’ve gotta figure out how to move all that stuff into there.
S&S: Is there any performer you’re most excited to see in the Forest this year?
Nahko Bear: STS9 because I know those guys.
S&S: If I could make one recommendation for who to see Sunday, will you still be here or you already out of town?
Nahko Bear: Leaving in the morning, who were you going to recommend?
S&S: Greensky Bluegrass, they’re spectacular, from Kalamazoo, friends of the family, they have a Good Sign taped on their amp in their Greensky Green Room.
Nahko Bear: Yeah I’ve missed them multiple times.
S&S: Yeah I think you guys could do some wild, fun, weird shit together…
Nahko Bear: We played at their festival in Colorado .
S&S: They play at a festival in Colorado, yeah Wintergrass. Their festival is called Hoxeyville, it’s here in August in the Manistee National Forest where you guys would vibe really well with.
Nahko Bear: Ohh is it a folk fest?
Nahko Bear: Sick. Hoxeyville.
S&S: Hoxeyville. Yeah, a lot of Michigan’s best fests are like cool, family reunions, where everyone is super talented musicians, sitting around the fire, tons of kids.
Nahko Bear: A lot of local tri-state…?
S&S: Yeah yeah.
Nahko Bear: That’s dope.
S&S: Yeah it’s good stuff. One more question, if you could cover any Avett Brothers song, what would it be?
Nahko Bear: Ohh man! “Brooklyn Brooklyn take me in…”
S&S: “I and Love and You”.
Nahko Bear: Yeah, that’s what it is, I and Love and You.
S&S: “Three hard words to say to you, I and love and you.”
Nahko Bear: I love that song so much, “I and love and you.”
S&S: Yeah that was the first song I heard by them on the radio and then I just dove into them and fell in love and I’ve seen them like eight or nine times.
Nahko Bear: When I first saw Scott, it was at this little folk festival in Oregon actually, like 20 blocks from my house, Pickathon, I was probably 21 I think, and I had never heard of them, it was just when they started, when they put out Emo…
Nahko Bear: Emotionalism yeah, and I was standing at the edge of the door at this barn, and Langhorne Slim was about to play.
S&S: Love Langhorne Slim.
Nahko Bear: Scott Avett walks towards me and I look, and I was like “Is that Johnny Cash?”
Nahko Bear: You know, because he was in all black, long hair, big beard, he just looked super like epic, and I was just like “That guy’s a rockstar, who the fuck is that guy?” Then he gets on the stage with Langhorne and shreds and I was like, “You can play like that? You can rock out on acoustic guitars like that? He set the bar that night, you know what I mean!?
S&S: That’s beautiful.
Nahko Bear: That’s dope.
Sound & Silence: I love you, man.
Nahko Bear: I love you too.
S&S: Thank you. Keep on rockin’ your mission and we’ll keep spreading the word. This is Nahko Bear with Nahko & Medicine for the People, and just in case you were looking for one, This is a Good Sound.
By my side, I keep humans who I fight to seek peace for. Some of them have been there since I was a child, while others have grown to be family in recent days, weeks, months and years. I will not tolerate indifference towards others. I will not let negative energy penetrate, taint or consume the spirit that is collectively inspiring, uniting, and moving a distracted and oppressed species towards a true community, love, and compassion. I will ensure my mistakes continue to refine, and never define me. I will persevere and not only seek but find the light of the North Star amidst the darkest nights. I will look not only to the sun but the moon when loneliness looms in my life. I will speak up when you act out and I hope you do the same. I will tell the stories of those mapping the road to righteousness. I will believe in the present and coming good like the fortified wood in the forests we must explore and protect. I will be better than I was yesterday, and find compassion for others who cannot claim the same. I will remind myself to listen before I speak; to grow stronger for those withering weak; practice courage for those programmed meek; an informed student made teacher without the ego of a preacher; I will slow my rapidly-beating heart to find cadence in my breath, lift the burden of an anxious mind from my chest, and charge loudly into the night, banging my drum for all to hear who choose to join our fight.
“Love Letters to God”
“A home in a forest nest
Universal test, feel the weight of my love
Put your hand on my chest
And rest, in the cradle of my arms
The battle that we face is a place where our scars come from
And to pick up that gun
My love we are destined to teach these ones to be brave
And never run away
Courage is birthed from the womb on the first light of day
Yeah, the day you were born, you came out perfect never meant to be torn
In silence, never been so loud in the violence
Never been so proud of a people
When we’re fighting for a change, not afraid to lose it all despite all the rage
We are animals
And we cannot be caged
Provoke us to fight
So we burn a little sage and write poetry
Wiser than the enemy will ever be