A Lucky Man

Michael P. Nordberg keeps busy with numerous bands and gigs

Over the last 20-plus years, local journeyman musician Michael P. Nordberg has played punk, garage rock, jazz, rockabilly, blues, country, funk, old-time rock 'n' roll and polkas with dozens of groups.

"There's no way I can count how many bands I've played in or projects I was with," said Nordberg recently over brunch at a downtown bistro.

Although he grew up in Tucson, he lived for a decade in New York City, playing with the late Sam Taylor's blues band and countless other combos. "We would play funky songs from the '70s, a lot of that Latin rock-disco style, boogaloo, a lot of reggae. There is no kind of music I wouldn't play."

Born in Kansas 42 years ago, Nordberg moved with his family to San Diego when he was 7. They came to Tucson when he was 14. He started playing music in the school band at Santa Rita High School.

He started as a drummer, and still plays percussion to this day, as well as bass, guitar, vibes and kazoo.

"In school, there were, like, four people who wanted to play drums, one person who played flute, and one person who played trombone. That was the band. All year, we went through each song in the book of John Philip Sousa marches."

That experience laid the foundation for Nordberg's life in music, including his experiences in jazz and funk, he said.

"Everybody's heard those Sousa marches since they were born, but I just really liked it. They're totally constructed like a jazz song. They have their A section, B section, bridge—the whole thing. Then you start listening to James Brown, and he's calling out the bridge. And it all makes sense."

He also found inspiration in the Santa Rita record library, listening for hours to vinyl LPs by Dizzy Gillespie, Muddy Waters, Son House, Howlin' Wolf, the Marsalis brothers and Herbie Hancock. "At the same time, I was into AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones."

The next year, he joined the school jazz band as drummer. Soon, he was playing with other musicians outside of school. "First, we started playing some heavy rock, and then punk rock, and on and on. It was a process of defining who I was, depending on what band I was in at the time."

His first gigs in public, though, were arranged through school.

"My teacher would field these corporate gigs. They'd call and ask for some of us kids to play at a function at the (Tucson Convention Center) or someplace like that, so he'd take a few of us down there. We'd make, like, 50 bucks each!" he remembered.

"Battle of the bands" events followed, and he began attracting better-paying gigs with more professional bands such as The Rhythm Squids and Pulse, and in real nightclubs.

Nordberg got a scholarship to study percussion performance at the University of Arizona, but dropped out so he could play more frequently. "I love classical music, but at the time, I thought, 'I'm not going to go another four years learning how to play triangle on Porgy and Bess.'"

Within three weeks, he was in Sam Taylor's band. That was in 1990. "The first thing we did was a three-week tour, and I had to learn at least 60 numbers really fast."

He found Taylor especially inspirational. "When you were onstage with Sam, he was just plugging you into him. He was basically playing the bass with your fingers."

These days, Nordberg convenes his funky Michael P. Big Band whenever he can get all nine players together. He plays restaurant gigs and private parties with singer Katherine Byrnes, occasionally sits in with The Carnivaleros, and has been known to toss together an ad hoc band called the Imperial Blue Bloods.

But the focus of his current efforts is The El Camino Royales, a blues-rockabilly-surf trio, in which he plays guitar. With bassist Andrew See and the Mighty Joel Ford on drums, The El Camino Royales is a true democracy. "It's not always me just calling the shots," Nordberg said.

The El Camino Royales have released one stellar album, Ladies and Gentlemen ... (2009), and they have a second one in the can. It's in post-production, and he expects it to be out by the end of year.

"Everybody who does this knows there are months—and years—of thankless gigs," he said. "But when I come home and think about it, I'm grateful for the chance to play music with other players who are as good or better than me on a constant basis. And I make a living at it? I'm the luckiest man in the world."