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‘I’m like a schizophrenic monomaniac if I’m making a record’: Nick Waterhouse

Dan Webb
Nick Waterhouse is a talented rhythm and blues singer, songwriter and producer from California. His fifth studio album Promenade Blue will be released April 9 via Innovative Leisure.

Congrats on the upcoming album. How, in your words, would you say this album differs from your previous one?
Well, every record I make has just a little bit more than the last one and so this one, I guess, this has male vocals and strings on it but it’s like it’s more of the same sentiment, I’m the same artist. I just keep rolling down the path that I started out on all these years ago. I’m really excited about the collaborations on this record… Every album is a large collaborative process. I almost think of it like making a film where I’m a director and there’s a different cast and maybe I have the same director of photography or cinematographer but nothing’s ever going to be the same because it’s a totally different story. And I’d say the collaborations on this were really rewarding in parallel to previous experiences. But this is just more and better, that’s all. This is also the first time I went out of town to make a record. We recorded this in Memphis, Tennessee at a studio called Magnetic. I had never made my own album outside of the state of California. So, that was a whole new experience, just being in a different Southern atmosphere. I’ve been traveling for a long time now so it’s not like I felt that out of water there but it was just cool. It’s a different scene. And it also meant that me and the band were all cohabiting for seven days when we were cutting this.

Was that an interesting experience?
Oh yeah. It’s really surreal because quite literally, this was the week before COVID became an international crisis. We were talking every morning over coffee, “What do you guys think is going to happen?” And then a week later, none of us would ever be the same, we just missed it. But it was really good. When I work on a record, it’s an incredibly intense – It’s almost round the clock. If I’m not sleeping, I’m doing prep or doing posts for the day. It’s like 16 hour to 18 hour days to really make the most of the time I have and the people that I have working. So reflecting on it now… the only free time I had is like 30 minutes when I get my coffee in the morning and I was walking from this funky old warehouse we were staying in in downtown Memphis, right past the Lorraine Hotel where they have the Martin Luther King Memorial and up Main Street which even more than Beale Street to me is what I think of when I was reading, growing up about people like Ike Turner or Bobby Bland or Mose Allison who used to go to Memphis in the ’50s to see the big city. Because for hundreds of miles around that was the most urbane place that you could go. So it was cool. It wasn’t necessarily like I was trying to connect with the spirit of Memphis or anything, that’s already deeply in my DNA, but it was a great experience. And we were doing it in a new studio that’s probably more old school than most of the old school classic historic studios there in terms of the gear and the process by which they make things.

It takes 80 hours of work and all these layers of things to make a computer sound like what tape does in a second when you just record something to it.

I actually wanted to ask you about that. One of the questions that I had prepared was in regard to your vintage sound. What’s the key to it? How important is the actual equipment to you? Or is it the recording space or more so the recording techniques?
It’s really all those things working together… I don’t want to be dramatic, but the disease of our time is that it’s so easy to get things now, right? Our consumerised culture has led to like, if I buy this thing, it’s going to make it this way. If I wear these clothes, if I cut my hair a certain way… And it’s so easy to get it. But I think about when I was young and I had friends – I had a friend who talked about being a mod in the late ’70s. I would have the same four photos for 10 years of some piece of clothing, like a suit jacket and I’d never be able to find it anywhere. And I had to have a tailor make it. And now I think about how quick you Google something and you buy it and you obtain it but you don’t really internalise maybe. I don’t believe in assigning great meaning to objects but you don’t have the dedication that leads to that being your only option. And I think the same way about recording… I’m influenced by, and I like records that were made a long time ago. And the main reason that I like them is because that was when it was a bunch of people in a room gathered around sometimes one microphone or two. You hear a room and you hear a communal experience between a bunch of players reacting to each other in realtime and you’re capturing something really exciting that would have been different even if you recorded it at 10:00 AM instead of 2:00 PM or 10:00 PM or the next day. And there’s something black magic about that. So I could make you a vintage-sounding recording with two $60 Shure SM57s that you buy at Guitar Center and maybe it would sound ’50s-ish to you. There are differing degrees of what it is about. It’s like paint. So at a certain point you’re not doing a charcoal sketch of a flower. You’re trying to render a whole world… For me, it’s like recording to tape does a thing. I’ve seen people approximate on computers but the funny thing is it takes 80 hours of work and all these layers of things to make a computer sound like what tape does in a second when you just record something to it. And that was how I grew up recording music. I learned on tape machines. So I’m really more comfortable with that means of which to make a record. So you get a bunch of great players in a room, you have some pretty nice mics and you get a tape machine. I don’t think I need much else, honestly. And it’s almost like the way that farm to table cooking was like, “What if we pull it all back and it’s just about fresh ingredients?” That’s how I feel about making music and that’s really what it is about my own recordings that I think differentiates me from other artists.

I believe in the terroir of really straightforward, rhythmic based music with the American tinge to it.

Sure. Now you mentioned painting there. Salvador Dalí was stopped by a journalist at a train station in London in 1959. The journalist asked Dalí for a self-definition, to which he replied that he’s a monarchist and an anarchist at the same time. How might you might define yourself?
Well, I think that’s pretty good definition for how I feel. I would say that I’m like an all American Frenchman. I believe in the terroir of really straightforward, rhythmic based music with the American tinge to it. And I am aware I’m like a schizophrenic monomaniac if I’m making a record. I can split myself into several different roles but I’m totally compulsively focused when I’m making something. If I’m playing, it’s like there’s space for one thing in the moment if I’m performing. And that’s the way that I still try to keep things incredibly lively with my own work.

What significance does the role of a backbeat play in your music?
Well, a huge one. The first instrument that defined most of the music that we know now was the drum, West African drums. And the core, the beating heart of popular music globally really, which is the result of Black American vernacular music fused – If you want to get into the rock and roll aspect, it fused with Scots Irish traditional folk stuff but… it’s rhythms to me first. It’s almost like if I’m writing a song 90% of the time I’m writing the drums or the beat in my head or at least a vague notion of how the beat must feel… Even the lyrics come out on a cadence that has to do with where the drum will be occurring and I’ve always had really close relationships even to the point of dictating drums to my drummers since I started working in music. Funny enough, the second guitar player on this entire album, name is Anthony Polizzi, he and I have been quite literally best friends for more than 20 years now. We met the first day of high school and we played in bands together and his role was the drummer in my band when we were teenagers. But he’s a genius at all other instruments and I think it just goes to show, I seem to have some longevity with my drummer friendships. And it’s probably because I comprehend that is the driving force of what makes all the records I was influenced by sound so great.

Have you seen the Framing Britney Spears documentary?
No. To be honest, I don’t engage in the content ecosystem. So if I didn’t like or listen to Britney Spears music, I don’t particularly care. The same way I can’t stand people who like – I personally cannot stand murder documentaries. I’m not entertained by other people’s suffering or gossip or the nexus between those two things which is becoming increasingly blurred in the world of entertainment and marketed as experiences that are portraying themselves as justice when really it’s just a company making money on a platform making money.

I’m not entertained by other people’s suffering or gossip or the nexus between those two things which is becoming increasingly blurred in the world of entertainment…

Sure. I guess a lot of people, especially given the pressures of lockdown, would be seeking refuge in escapism and would argue that all of these pieces of content are a form of escapism. So one of the questions I actually had prepared for you is whether you consider your music a form of escapism – especially given your vintage sound?
Well, I think that music is supposed to be a form of escapism. I think that other forms of – how do I put this? I think that society has grown increasingly ill in their fixation on supplanting their feelings of powerlessness with hard work style entertainment. Like, you have to watch this so it makes you feel like you’re doing activism… My dad’s a fireman and they were all working guys. It wasn’t rich people. And the thing that they all got to enjoy in their free time was listening to music together and having a communal experience together like hiring a band. And hiring a band as working class people, they pooled their money and they hired a band to play at their party. So when I’m a kid and I see that, it’s not that I see being a musician or playing music as aspiring to celebrity, it’s participating in a communal musical experience which is escape. Because all week my dad was dealing with ODs and people hit by cars and helping people, it was unpleasant. He never used words like PTSD or anything and neither did any of those guys but, hey, you want to go dance with your girlfriend or wife or significant other and enjoy music when you’re being entertained and that’s what entertainment is. I think that people can say things. I say things in my songs but conflating vintage sounds with escapism, I think is a red herring because inherently, when you think of music, I personally, I don’t know about you, when I grew up listening to music, I loved it because I wasn’t in my life for those three minutes that I was hearing a song. And it was a complicated process getting to reasons why I felt okay recording my own music. And I was thrown into having my music commercially available. But I think that music is for escape.

Sure. And on the topic of commercialism with regards to music, I’m wondering what your personal feelings are about remixes? I noticed that the “Katchi” remix occupies the top space on your Spotify profile, for example. Do you find it frustrating that that may well be people’s first touch point when they discover your music?
That is frustrating but I’ve actually never made my own music for Spotify. And Spotify or the marketplace can’t take that away from me, right? So I’ve never written a song also intending it to be a remix. If somebody decides to do something with that song after I recorded it, they’re free to do that. Can I benefit from that? Sure. But the labour that went into conceiving that song is being rewarded by the marketplace. Did I ever dream or even want it? No, not really. But it’s just surreal more than anything. It’s the reality of functioning in a global, highly economised space, right? Now, I don’t feel pity but I feel bad for people who have to live only experiencing exposure to new artists through Spotify and looking at what the top five played songs are because that’s just really hard for me to identify with. The same way that I can’t identify with wanting to watch a documentary about Britney Spears.

What makes a good song in your opinion?
Well, it has to be honest to the human element in it which could be lyrical, could be performance, it could be singing the same word 58 times. It’s like the story about James Brown‘s “Please, Please, Please”, where the head of the label threw it out because he said, “He’s just screaming the same word over and over again.” And the A&R guy insisted that they put it out. It’s got to be human. It has to breathe and not just breath vocally, it breathes in the drums and the band. And I think when that element hits a listener, I know for me, it will take it to somewhere else besides just being something made for the sake of making something.

Sure. That’s a fantastic response.
Thank you. I mean it.

You’re not going to make a new movie if you talk about wanting to make a film of somebody who’s already made something. You’re daydreaming of the thing that already was made.

If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
If I could collaborate with any artist in any medium. I would love to work with my friend, Debra Moore Muñoz, who’s a writer and a screenwriter and show runner right now. But she has phenomenal taste and a real knack for storytelling and an understanding of the contours of contemporary American culture from a perspective that most people don’t have just being a young native of Southern California. And she knows my work and me well so she’s not going to treat me superficially. But I feel like a film in which I can score it but also be contributing to – like a movie that’s about real musicians maybe. Without it being vanity, I don’t even want to be in it. And I think Debra would probably create one of the most interesting and – it’s about looking at the future. There’s a lot of people who want to connect with something that already happened but the reality is, is you’re not going to make a new movie if you talk about wanting to make a film of somebody who’s already made something. You’re daydreaming of the thing that already was made. I deal with this with people talking to me about making records with them. And I don’t think people understand that I make records in the moment while I’m making that record and then that record can’t be repeated. So, that’s a dream. I also have made some really fascinating recordings with Jon Batiste, the jazz pianist from New York City. And continuing to work with him, I think that we have a lot to say to the world and he has the chops and endless vision and I think that I can create an atmosphere. And we’ve come up with some really cool stuff in the past and making stuff in the future could be really neat for me.

A lot of people around Texas in the year 2012, they got to see me with Jon Batiste in my band.

Oh, nice. I’m a huge fan of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Oh yeah. So you’re familiar?

Yeah. I see him pretty much every night.
Well, John and I go way back from before he was on the show. So it was kind of funny. We met right before my first album came out and he was playing around New York only and I called him cold after we met because we got along so well. And he played in my band for like nine shows. So I had a supergroup. So a lot of people around Texas in the year 2012, they got to see me with Jon Batiste in my band.

Have you seen the Disney/Pixar film Soul that he contributed towards?
I did. Yeah. I just watched it.

What did you think of it?
I thought it was pretty great. Did you see it?

Yeah. I watched it two or three times in a row. I loved it.
It was incredibly moving. And it’s really funny too because for me personally, having been in the room with him, working on music a lot, it’s like it triggers – it’s like when you smell something you remember cooking from your grandma’s house. I was like, “Jon’s playing, this part of my brain is activating right now.”