By Andy Turner   Published Oct 06, 2005 at 5:17 AM

{image1}The Nelsonics, Milwaukee's foremost purveyors of surf and soul music, tried something different for their latest album, "Ruins of Rome:" words.

After the band's all-instrumental self-titled debut -- recently reissued on Hammond Beat -- drummer and group namesake Don Nelson says band members wanted to mix things up a bit. Eight of the 12 songs on "Ruins of Rome" feature vocals.

"I think any artist or musician, you're going to want to grow and change. Nobody wants to keep making the same record," Nelson says. "So we said, hey, let's sing a couple. And it got so we were singing a third of the set. Now half of all the songs are vocals and two-thirds of a live set will be vocal songs."

Performing more than instrumentals has allowed The Nelsonics -- Nelson (drums), Terry Vittone (guitar), Jon Ziegler (bass) and Don Turner (organ, sax and theramin) -- to deliver a more exciting live show as well, Nelson says.

"To be honest, I think having vocals is more engaging with an audience than guys just playing, their mouths not moving all night long," he says.

The Nelsonics' predecessor, The Exotics, in which Nelson still performs periodically, also plays instrumental surf music, with fewer R&B/garage touches.

Nelson, a veteran of the Milwaukee music scene for more than 20 years, says he opted to go instrumental because he was sick of dealing with whiney singers.

"The lead singer would always be the biggest diaper in the band and biggest hassle to deal with," he says. "I grew up listening to The Ventures; my dad had all the Ventures records. It occurred to me one day: What if I play instrumental music?"

"Ruins of Rome," with songs like "International Jet Set," "Go Go Motorscooter," and the title track, has a travelogue theme inspired by Nelson's European adventures. Nelson says he also liked the idea of carrying a theme throughout an album and in its packaging, in the spirit of records from the 1950s and 1960s by Frank Sinatra. His former Nerve Twins band mate, Damian Strigens, designed the cover with him. Strigens did the same for The Nelsonics' 2002 debut CD.

Nelson and the other members are sharing singing duties.

"Everybody sings one or two or three songs and we mix that with instrumentals. It's really got a nice variety," he says. "You know if ever have a party, you don't always want to play an entire CD. You try to play a compilation or a band with a variety of songs."

Nelson's Tiki Tone label -- home to his bands past and present, as well as Ziegler's Uptown Savages ("Crazy," that group's first album in four years, is due soon) -- was down to fewer than 50 copies of the debut CD when Hammond Beat, which had been selling the disc in its online store, suggested re-releasing it. The reissue includes a bonus track, "Dousman Street," that was previously available only on 45.

According to Nelson, the Portland, Ore.-based label does 75 percent of its business overseas, which excites him.

"It's always been goal of mine to try to get the band more international because I would like to go on tour overseas," he says. "I think with these guys getting behind us, that's probably a step in the right direction."

For the most part, however, The Nelsonics don't really have grand plans for the future, Nelson says. The days of "randomly sending off hundreds of CDs to every college radio station, begging them to play it" are over, he says.

Nelson says the band has a niche audience, but one that is willing to seek out surf- and mod-inspired music.

"We just cross our fingers and hope that people that like this kind of music will discover us," he says. "We're not trying to make a lot of money. We're just trying to have the satisfaction of having our music circulating the globe and possibly being able to play in some of those places."

The band is not scheduled to perform live around here again until Saturday, Dec. 17 at Café Lulu in Bay View. It's hard to book shows due to band members' busy slates, he says.

Besides Ziegler in the Uptown Savages, Vittone (who has played with Paul Cebar for many years) performs solo, and Turner is a member of the Riverwest Accordion Club. Nelson and Ziegler still play with The Exotics, and Nelson and Turner also perform as part of Sarah K. and the Dangerous Dons.

"That makes it more challenging," Nelson says. "But our goal isn't to play all the time. I did that in my last couple of bands. Play four nights a week and drive all over in a junky van, sleeping wherever and playing after whatever they would give you."

Nelson says life these days in a band is much easier.

"When you're 20 and you're in a band, there are always problems. There's always some guy stealing your gear or who can't remember the songs. Once you get to be in your 30s or 40, you've weeded out all the (jerks). Anyone who is still playing at that age, it's just a lot less bullshit. I don't have to worry about any of that."

The band's Web site is