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Nabil Ayers Searches for Identity, Explores Race and Family in His New Memoir

The musician/entrepreneur's memoir traces a life in music with a famous last name and a never-present father
Nabil Ayers
(Credit: Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times)

Nabil Ayers has always been surrounded by music. He played drums in Seattle indie rock band  The Long Winters, co-founded Seattle’s Sonic Boom Records, and is currently the U.S. president of the Beggars Group, which distributes 4AD, Rough Trade Records, Matador Records, XL Recordings, and Young.

It’s his last name, however, that has always attracted attention.

In his memoir, My Life in the Sunshine: Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family, Ayers traces his unorthodox upbringing. His mother, Louise Braufman, met and had a child with jazz musician Roy Ayers — with the understanding that he would never have to be involved in his son’s life. The younger Ayers chronicles impersonal meetings with his father, like watching him at a show in Massachusetts, sharing an uncomfortable encounter at Electric Lady Studios, and finally meeting for lunch a decade and a half ago.

The book’s title nods to his father’s signature song — but in this context, the phrase is more personal. Throughout, the 50-year-old recounts a childhood that saw him criss-cross the country with his mother; he also shares how he maintained a positive outlook, even during the most difficult times.

We sat down with Ayers in Austin earlier this year to discuss his book, how KISS inspired him to pursue music, and how being bored on an international flight prompted him to discover his talent as an author.

SPIN: At the beginning of the book, the way you describe how you were conceived and it was a pretty powerful moment that set the tone for things to come. Was it hard to relive that?
Nabil Ayers: Kind of. It wasn’t so much reliving it, but I never asked my mother about it. She’s been so open, and she was like, ‘Finally, you’re asking me, I’ve always wanted you to say this.’ That was really interesting, not only talking to her more and getting more info, but that would open her up more. She would call the next day, or she would send me a text or shoot something and have all these other memories. Hoth her and my uncle never drank and never did, so their memories are crazy clear.

Was it hard to relive it with her?
It was emotional to watch her go through it and I think slowly realized how much she was protecting me with this kind of like, ‘everything’s fine, we did it!’ which is true. But, I think as I got more into with her over the last few years, she realized, and I watched her realize, it was actually harder for her than she ever knew or told me.

The whole beginning feels like a positive spin on what could have easily been a not-so-good situation. But the writing is focused on the positive, no matter what the situation is, even during the tough times. It was interesting to see you focus in that be your lens for this whole thing.
That’s the funny thing. The title is obviously a lyric from my father’s song. But it’s also why I liked it so much. At first, I was like, “Oh, I’ll call it everybody loves the sunshine.” But then I was listening to the song is like, oh, no, my life in the sunshine is much better. That’s how the song begins. And that it is this super optimistic title, right? So it’s this dual thing. It would have been very easy to focus on other shit. But that’s not how I remember my life. Like when we were on welfare. It wasn’t like, oh, we’re on welfare. It’s like everyone’s on welfare. Right? So it’s fine.

A fun moment is when you heard KISS for the first time. What was it about them, and then and the timing of it all during what felt like KISSmania that drew you in?
The weird thing is that I don’t actually remember first hearing them. To me as a 7-year-old, KISS was an idea. It was something people talked about. I knew they existed and what they look like before I ever heard that. And I was fascinated by that. I knew they were a rock band, which I already liked. And so I think the day that I went in and bought that album I probably hadn’t actually ever heard them. I just knew that this was a thing to have and I would like it. You’re just so impressionable at that age, and they just got me in every way. And it was crazy how much I was into them. And I still remember what it felt like to think they were that good.

Nabil Ayers
(Credit: Courtesy of Nabil Ayers)

Why was now the right time to write this? You’re still young.
I can always have a sequel!

[Laughs.] I guess that is true!
It’s weird. I didn’t set out to write a book. The whole writing thing is so weird. I liked writing in college, and then I started playing in bands and working in record stores and other than emails, never wrote at all. The thing that’s a paragraph in the book about me going to jail…It’s a really, really long story. And it’s really weird. There’s tons of ins and outs and interesting characters. There’s so much to it, and I’ve told that story so many times. But, I was on a flight to London, maybe six years ago and was totally bored and wide awake. I weirdly felt like I should just type that story. For no reason. I don’t want to publish it. No one even needs to see it. I just feel like that seems like a fun thing to do right now. I wasn’t online, which was kind of fun. So it’s all just me on the computer. I had this really crazy, great time doing it [writing]. Then I was up all night writing and piecing together dates. When I got back, I had written about 80 or 90 pages, which is crazy. It wasn’t just about getting arrested, but how I joined the band and it turned into a year-long thing. It gave me a new interest in writing.

So then what?
I ended up doing a memoir class on Mondays. So I was writing about bands, my record store, and fun shit. When we sold Sonic put in the record store, I published something in [Seattle alt-weekly] The Stranger, like a short version of Sonic Boom chapter [from the book]. And my wife was like, “Yeah, that’s all great. Write about your father and your race, because that’s what people care about. And that’s what you care about.” So, I was like “OK, I’ll try that.” I would just like on weekends or whatever. As I was writing, I realized that if I could fill in these blanks [between his writing], it could be a book. It ended up being easy because I had so much done.

Nabil Ayers
(Credit: Hutton Supancic/Getty Images for SXSW)

What was the hardest thing about reliving some of those early years in particular?
I think realizing that because so much of the story is in my head and that I think is true is that none of those events when I was meeting my father ever had an effect on me. I remember being in Electric Lady Studios [with his father in New York City] that’s the one that was probably the hardest because I remember it really well. I walked by it all the time and think about it. In my head that was I was like, Yeah, I met him that time. But when I started writing, it was weird how physical it can be. That one I was feeling a little heat in my chest was a thing in my stomach. And I remember noticing and being like, “oh, fuck,” I think this was more than I’ve told myself or told anyone over the years. It’s hard. It finally got to the point where I was like, “Oh, this actually is a weird feeling” because I tried to talk about in the book and it wasn’t even necessarily like I feel bad or I feel rejected. It’s just I know something is wrong and something is off. I’m 8 years old and I can’t sit here and say what it is, but there’s something.

What’s the big takeaway you want people to get from this?
I’m not totally sure. I think this kind of goes to what we were just talking about a minute ago, where could have been a dark story about you’re on welfare, and a biracial kid has a single mother who’s 21 and I never met my father. And that is the story, but that’s not the story. It’s about all the great things that also happened during that time. I guess I want people to take away a lot of optimism. I hope there is a weird positive way to look at things that might not have always been positive to it.