4AD’s Nabil Ayers explores identity and family in his new book My Life in the Sunshine


Nabil Ayers. // Photo by Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

In his varied career, Nabil Ayers co-founded Seattle record store Sonic Boom Records, drummed for bands like Alien Crime Syndicate and the Long Winters, was U.S. General Manager for 4AD Records, and is now the U.S. President of Beggars Group, which covers 4AD, Matador, and Rough Trade Records, among others.

As if that wasn’t enough, he’s now an author, with his first book, My Life in the Sunshine: Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family, due out June 7 via Viking Books.

The book takes a journey through Ayers’ life in music, while also focusing on his interactions–or rather, lack thereof–with his father, jazz musician Roy Ayers:

“In 1971, a white, Jewish, former ballerina, chose to have a child with the famous Black jazz musician Roy Ayers, fully expecting and agreeing that he would not be involved in the child’s life. In this highly original memoir, their son, Nabil Ayers, recounts a life spent living with the aftermath of that decision, and his journey to build an identity of his own despite and in spite of his father’s absence.”

It’s emotionally hefty, but through Ayers’ writing, one finds that family can mean many, many different things, with an ultimately uplifting message of discovery.

We spoke with Nabil Ayers ahead of My Life in the Sunshine‘s release about all of this and more.

Nabil Ayers My Life In The Sunshine Book CoverThe Pitch: Reading the book was intense. One can only imagine that writing it was the same, if on a much greater level.

Nabil Ayers: Yeah, sometimes intense, very difficult, and emotional–like in the parts where I talk about my arms getting numb, or my stomach hurting, or my chest feeling hot. All those things.

I actually think I remembered so well that they were actually happening as I was writing at that time.

I was really trying hard to put myself back in the moment and for better or for worse, sometimes it worked. But also what was fun was the intense parts. I would consider it equally intense, like remembering that Alien Crime Syndicates/Sugar Ray tour, which is just so much fun. That’s a different kind of intensity.

And that’s what was really fun about the book overall–intensity doesn’t just have to mean things that make you feel bad or that are really serious. I think it was a huge range of intense emotions.

You make a really concerted effort to point out the fact that you’ve had a good life and really acknowledge everybody in your life who has helped you reach the point where you are now, while also acknowledging feeling a loss. When did you decide that you wanted to sit down and write your memoirs?

I mean, it’s weird, ’cause like it didn’t really happen that way. I don’t know that I could have sat down and said, “Okay, I think I’m going to write a 300-page book: ‘Chapter One.’” It actually came in a much more natural way that I think allowed it to happen more easily.

I loved writing in college. I’ve never been a writer, though, since then, which is a long time. Just for some reason–I was in the band before ACS called the Lemons.

It’s funny because this is a very short part of the book–maybe at the paragraph–where we went to jail with a bunch of weed in the desert in Utah in the ’90s. It was fine. We got out and there and it ended up being not that big of a deal, but it actually wasn’t a huge, really long story.

I was on a flight to London five or six years ago, and I told the story so many times, I just decided I wanted to write it just for fun–not to publish, just for myself–and so, I typed for the entire flight. Then the rest of the trip, I was staying up late every night, remembering things and getting into all the characters and all this stuff and I’d written 80 or 90 pages when I got home. I just realized “Wow, what a weird, crazy thing to have come out of nowhere”–and I still don’t want anyone to see this.

It’s not that I don’t think it’s that good but more just the idea that it feels like I have this new passion or this new something I want to do, so I took a memoir writing class and just started writing about fun stories about my bands and about record stores and that stuff. There are always prompts at the beginning of these classes. They love to write about the most scared you ever were, the funniest thing, all these things to get the juices flowing and it really worked.

That’s when I started writing about more. I was scared to do it, even though no one was going to see it, but writing about my father and my race and that stuff. At the end of that class, I just have lots of little bits and kind of just kept going, but still without a goal. At the same time, I was lucky enough to start publishing. When we sold Sonic Boom, I wrote a piece that they published in The Stranger, and that was all stuff that came up in that writing class.

It’s fun record store memories, and that was super positive and felt great. That gave me the confidence to think like, “Oh, wow, okay. I guess I should keep doing this and writing more,” so I was writing a lot about my father just in the way that there wasn’t that much to write–or so I thought at the time. I wrote out the five times I can remember meeting him and wrote the Electric Lady story came from that and that one time I had lunch with him in Seattle.

Then I wrote about the other times my mother had told me about meeting him, but I didn’t remember. I wrote more about the times that I heard his song and it surprised me and how that made me feel.

Eventually, I had–I don’t know, 10 or 15?–of these short stories that all spanned several decades and I realized, “Oh, weird. I wonder if I could assemble this into a bigger thing.” That’s the point at which I decided I would try to write a book, but so much of it was done and so much in a weird way and so much of the hard stuff was done and some of the fun stuff was done. I mean, not done, but started, I guess. Sort of done.

It was really like this kind of framework existed without me trying to get it there and then once it did, I think it was easier to start and to do it. It still took a couple of years, but it was different than sitting down and saying, “I’m going to write a book,” which might not have been doable.

The latter chapters where you start to connect with your father’s side of the family aspects of it really convey the nervousness and trepidation you have at that time really well, but what ultimately comes through is the joy at discovering all of these people that you had never known who are now part of your family. How have those relationships changed or otherwise since you finished the book?

At this exact moment, I’m trying to think who I’ve sent the book to: Rory, who is my cousin. A lot of those people haven’t read it yet, so there still exists to me–and hopefully for them–an incredibly positive feeling about everyone on the right side, but there’s still this nervousness and this trepidation that they’re going to read it and be like, “Wait a minute, what is this? You can’t say this or that,” or they’re going to think, “Oh, he was using us so he could write this book.”

All these things have always been in my head and kind of still are. Deep down, I know it’s going to be okay. We’ve gotten close. We talk. We see each other. We visit. They know about the book and they know what I’m writing about, but there’s still definitely this worry. I think, I think it’ll change for me for the better in a few weeks, once we get past the point where they’ve read it and everything’s okay, but I think I kind of need that to happen to feel fully comfortable.

Given your time in the music industry over the years and dealing with so many musicians over the years, has that affected how you see your father? Also, being a musician yourself, has that affected how you see him now versus how you might have perceived him when you were younger?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I sort of explored throughout the book that I think my father and I–and some of this is guesswork still–but I think we have a lot in common and I think we have a lot that’s totally different about us. I think working with so many of these things over the years taught me more about that because there’s not one musician mindset.

I think I’m in a unique place. I mean, sometimes I wish I’d worked harder at playing drums and being a musician and less on the business stuff, because I think I could’ve been a better musician and could have been a more successful musician if I’d done that. However, there’s no way I would be as good at, or as successful as I am now, in the music business if I had.

You can’t do it all and I’ve sort of figured out a weird way to do some version of it all, but where I’m going with this is that I think my brain is less of a musician brain and more of a business brain and maybe that’s why I was a drummer. I was able to jump between bands and when someone fell out of a band, I could just jump in and fit in because I was that kind of a musician, as opposed to the really creative musical musician, if that makes sense.

I think my father is. I’ve realized over the years that those types of musicians that are really super creative–like, “This is the only thing I can do”–those musicians live for it and get lost in it in a way that I think he does and that a lot of people I know do, but in a way that I don’t.

I think maybe when I was younger, I might’ve seen it as, “Wow. We’re both musicians. This is how I feel. I can’t believe he doesn’t feel just like this,” but now I think I absolutely realize, “Well, we’re both musicians, but we’re different kinds of musicians and I have more of this brain and he has more of that brain,” so it actually makes sense that I think the conclusion I come to at the end of the book is that, by him not returning my calls or not being in touch, he’s not actually doing that. It’s not an active thing. It’s because he does what he does and that’s not part of it. It’s more passive.

How was it for you, once you had it all laid out, to look at your 40-plus years?

What was so crazy was that a huge part of the project was covering everything that had happened and another huge part was all the things that surprised me and it really felt like the work of chronicling the first 40-something years was feeding the stuff that was happening in real-time while I was doing it.

It felt like this crazy loop where the more I explored and wrote about the things that had already happened, the more it caused new things to happen and caused me to connect with new people. I actually created the end of the book in real-time and the way I feel at the end of all of that is directly related to things that were happening then, not 40 years ago or 20 years ago or 10 years ago.

We’ve been hearing about this book for a good long while. With the ramp-up in terms of publicity, has it been difficult, to get it all out on the page and then having to constantly revisit it? Or is it letting you have new perspectives on what you’ve written?

So far, it’s been more new perspectives. I think when I finished it and it was literally done and my editor and I agreed and everything, there was a huge, “Phew, it’s done. I had to do so much digging and thinking and exploring and now that part of this is done.

That will be out there and for the first time in my life, I actually won’t have to either explain, be worried about explaining, or think about why I don’t want to explain all those things that I talked about in the book. Maybe then people can just–even if they don’t read the book, maybe they’ll hear about it or maybe a friend will tell them, and I just won’t have to deal with all the like, ‘Hey, have you talked to your dad lately?’ Maybe some of that will calm down.”

So far, it’s been the opposite. I think what I didn’t expect was that people like yourself would actually really read the book, think about it, and have questions about it, but I just never even considered or addressed that when I was writing it.

Much like the book, it’s still this process of things developing where I’m doing this book tour in June and my father is touring in June and I’m just thinking like, “Wow, that’s crazy that’s happening at the same time,” and I wonder what it’s going to be like for him, if he shows up in LA and someone’s like, “Oh, I went to your son’s book reading the other night.”

All of these things are new, so it’s sort of this never-ending loop of thoughts and information, which is also kind of cool.

Nabil Ayers’ My Life in the Sunshine: Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family, is out June 7 via Viking Books.