Before relocating to New York, ranking 7th on Brooklyn Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture, and stepping up as president of Beggars Group US (a collection of record labels including 4AD, Rough Trade, Matador, and XL Recordings), Nabil Ayers also earned legendary status in Seattle’s music scene.
He co-owned and operated indie record store Sonic Boom along with Jason Hughes, founded the record label the Control Group, and released albums by Cate Le Bon, Lykke Li, and—for you '00s kids—Schoolyard Heroes. He played drums in bands such as the Long Winters, Alien Crime Syndicate, and—for your ‘90s kids—the Lemons. All throughout his career, he was an enthusiastic cheerleader for local music.
Now, Nabil can add critically acclaimed author to his impressive resume. Last year he released his debut book, My Life in the Sunshine, a memoir about being raised by a white, Jewish mother who chose to have a child with famous Black jazz musician Roy Ayers with the understanding that Roy would never be a part of the child's life. Of course, Roy is a huge part of Nabil's life. Even if he's not physically present, his music follows Nabil everywhere. My Life in the Sunshine presents a beautiful story about Nabil's search for identity and family, and it stands as a testament to the power of music, offering some pretty entertaining music biz and Seattle stories along the way.
Ahead of his appearance at Thing 2023—he’ll be at Wheeler Theater with John Roderick at 12:45 pm on Friday—I gave Nabil a call to learn more about how he accidentally became an author, the difference between book and rock tours, and to talk about how cool his mom is.
My Life in the Sunshine has been out for more than a year, and you have been on tour for what seems like much of that time. Now that you've done both a book tour and toured with bands, which do you prefer?
You're the first person to ask me that! I’ve thought about it a ton because it’s so similar. [Book tours are] certainly easier. I get to decide everything—I get to decide where to stay, where I’m eating, when I’m leaving, all that stuff. That’s all really fun and, especially as a 51-year-old, I don’t really want to be, like, sharing a bed with some dude. But at the same time, the time that I always miss [band touring] is after the book event, which is typically 7-8 pm, and unless it’s a town where I have friends, then suddenly it’s 8:45 pm and I’m in the hotel room with like Thai takeaway watching Law & Order, and it’s like, "Ah, man, I really miss band tour!”
In the book you write a bit about some of the racism you faced in Seattle, as a business owner and as a musician. It’s not something people talked about in the music scene, back then especially. You didn’t name names and you didn’t say which mayoral candidate used you but…
[Laughs] That was so amazing.
If you did tell me who it was, I wouldn’t be mad. [Laughs] But have you heard anything back from anybody who recognized their behavior and was like, “Oh, shit, I’m so sorry.”
You know what’s funny? I haven’t heard a single thing back from anyone who actually has one of those stories. I’ve heard tons from people, I mean so many texts and emails and phone calls from even people I barely know, that are like, “You know, that was a long time ago. I was a kid, I hope I never did anything that offended you.” No one blatantly said, “Were you talking about me?” But I think people probably thought, “Oh, I must have done or said something.” [Laughs]
So much of that time in Seattle, too, I remember hearing white people say “Seattle isn’t racist.”
[Laughs] Seattle’s just so weird. When I was a kid I lived in New York and Amherst, but then lived in Salt Lake City for a long time, and then went to college in Tacoma, and then Seattle—Seattle, to me, was always very white. Especially the indie music scene, and customers and bands at Sonic Boom. But even things like Mariners games and Sonics games still felt very white to me. I would imagine there are a lot of Black Lives Matter signs in Wallingford right now.
There are so many, Nabil.
[Laughs] But I lived in Wallingford and I loved it!
I have to ask, since the book has been out, have you heard anything from your dad? Has he read it? Does he have a copy? Do you know?
That’s the number one question. No, or I don’t know. When we announced the book a lot of people—friends, relatives—were asking me, “Are you gonna send it to Roy?” It was really driving me crazy. In my head, it was like, “If he hears about it, or if his immediate family, who I am not in touch with, hear about it, the assumption will be that it’s a takedown.” There was a several-month period where I thought, “Wow, they could be unnecessarily pissed about this.” That’s not what it is, it’s actually pretty positive in the end about him.
I have his phone number, I could have reached out to him, but the whole thing for me, and what a lot of the book is about, is how terrible it feels when I do that and don’t hear back. This is supposed to be one of the best parts of my life. So I emailed my half-brother to say I wrote this book, our father’s a big part of it, you’re in it, everyone’s in it. I’m not in touch with anyone, so if you want to let them know, you should, and if you want me to send you a copy, I will. And he replied, “LOL congrats.” [Laughs] I was like, okay, he didn’t ask for it, he didn’t ask anything. I’m surprised I haven’t talked to anyone who’s like, “Yeah, I’ve talked to your father. He knows about it.” But he has to know about it.
I was surprised to see how much of the book is also a testament to your mom and her mothering. It's so much more about how she was such a good parent! Did you realize before writing it that, as much as it was going to be about you and your father, it was also going to be about her?
I don't think I realized that. Everything that’s in there about her just came naturally. It wasn't like, "Oh, I need to say good things about her." That was actually just my childhood, and those are the things that I remember, so it's not like I was even trying, in a good way. And it turned out, absolutely, I mean, she’s the hero.
The most gratifying moment, maybe, of all this, a few months in I did an event at a bookstore in Philadelphia, and my mother lives in Brooklyn, so she and her husband came. At the end of it, there were a few women lined up to get her to sign their copy of the book. It was pretty amazing.
Oh, noooo! Did you cry? I would've started crying!
Oh yeah. I have this great picture of her signing the book in Philadelphia. So cool.
Obviously, you were raised in a very unique situation, but in publishing the book, have you heard from other people who grew up in similar situations, even if the biological parent wasn't famous?
A lot! And those are my favorite emails. That's what's funny. I kind of cover a lot in the book—there's band stuff, there's Seattle, there's labels, and all these things, but the thing that I get the most emails about... I got a DM from someone in Detroit, and he was saying we have the exact, exact, exact same upbringing. This person was, like, "My mother was a lesbian and chose to have me with a Black father I didn't know, I lived in North Village, she went to UMass," it's really fascinating. That's the real thing. There's been a lot of email from people who lived in that specific family housing development and everyone says, "I lived there in the 90s," "I lived there in the 70s," "I lived there in the 80s," and they all say "it was the exact same when I was there." It's really crazy. There's a magical place.
I read the anecdote about how you started writing on a long flight because you were bored, which, first of all, I would just like to say 'fuck you' as somebody who has been a writer for 20 years and still finds it very hard to motivate myself.
[Laughs] I know, I know, I've heard a lot of that, don't worry.
You've written some articles, but this was your first time writing anything even close to this magnitude. What was your mindset? Were you thinking of who would read it and writing it for them? Or was it just, these stories were in you and you wanted to get them out?
I tried really, really hard to not sound like I was writing a book, if that makes sense. I've published, I don't know, 15-20 shorter pieces, the first of which was in The Stranger when we sold Sonic Boom. I got the book deal based on a good chunk of this book—it wasn't done, and then I had these articles and in my head and, without sounding too arrogant, I was like, "The way I'm doing it seems to be working, so I don't want to mess with it too much and try to sound like someone I'm not." The way I started writing all those things was just to act like I'm telling a friend what happened, that's how I thought about it. I tried not to think too much about who would read it. But that's different than focusing on someone getting some particular kind of message from this. I don't think I thought about it too much because I had no idea what to expect. If I were to write another book I know I would think about it way too much.
The best question I ever had, which relates to this: I did a book tour in Japan and Tokyo, which was so fun, and I had translators, and this journalist asked, "Marvin Gaye, in his music, wrote a lot of messages to his father. What messages did you include in this book to your father?" That's wild, because I never thought about it. I wasn't trying to write messages to him, but I definitely, I think, was. And the message was really like, everything's okay. This all went great. There's sort of a thank you at the very end, but there definitely was something there that I didn't know I was trying to do. I was trying to tell my father, like, even though you weren't a part of this, you were and it went great.