Those who have been following the site for a while might have realized that at Listen Before You Buy we are big fans of a man from San Francisco by the name of Nick Waterhouse. Not only did we think he was One To Watch for this year, but his debut album, “Time’s All Gone” (out now via Innovative Leisure), one my most anticipated releases of the year, was an incredibly strong showing of what embracing the past should be.
I had the opportunity to call Nick a few weeks ago, and he was nice enough to chat with me for over half an hour. The man’s an encylopedia of knowledge of music from the 50′s and 60′s, fully embracing everything the had to offer both musically and technologically. In fact, he records everything in analog, claiming that digital just “doesn’t make sense” to him, and “distrusts” it, claiming that it all exists for a matter of convenience.
Read below for his full thoughts on that, his reasons for feeling out of place, as well as the return of the Beach Boys, and talks of vinyl, lots and lots of vinyl.
For those that don’t know, who is Nick Waterhouse? How would you describe yourself in maybe one or two sentences?
I hate that question, because obviously I walk around and I don’t even think of myself as a musician or anything at all, I never liked to sell myself, I’m just a guy that likes records a lot, and I made one; that’s how I describe myself.
And if you had to describe your music in a sentence, what would you use?
Listen to it, I don’t know. Sounds like American music to me.
Yeah. It’s definitely the type of music that’s not really around any more…
I’d say it’s around, I’m playing it.
Well, yeah, but obviously it’s the type of music that was very big back in the 50s and a bit of the early 60s and it has kind of been lost. What made you want to make that kind of music?
I just like how it sounds, I’m just playing music that I think sounds good and I don’t really think what I’m doing is that much different than what a lot of other musicians are doing, but I guess I don’t really talk to a lot of musicians, so…
I bought [1962 debut album by Booker T. & The M.G,’s] “Green Onions” when I was a teenager and I thought that that was a really great record and it kind of went from there. I’ve always been very curious and I think listening to forty-fives, that sound helps spur on my curiosity, you know?
Was there a particular artist or album or maybe even a moment that kind of made you think, I want to make music for the rest of my life—or at least, for a while?
No, I didn’t, I mean, sure—there are those, but I’ve always tempered it with a really conservative attitude about being a musician. It’s not a very logical or safe or credible pursuit, at least in the world that I was brought up in.
I would say hearing Van Morrison with [former band] Them and “Baby Please Don’t Go”, is something I heard from a really early age that I thought, I like that, I want to do that. Same with John Lee Hooker’s, “I’m Bad like Jesse James”. like I remember hearing that when I was really little and being really hung up on it.
Can you see this as a career path for the rest of your life or is this more of a temporary stage?
I don’t know, I’m just taking things as they come right now, I feel like I made the 45 I wanted to make, I made the album I wanted to make…
Yeah…a good one, by the way.
Thank you very much. I don’t know if I have more in me, but it’s kind of too soon to know that. And I’m trying to not count on anything, but also continue to do things with meaning and with feeling, you know, being honest, what I feel.
Is that where you find the inspiration for your music and for your lyrics? Where do you go when you go to write down songs, what’s the process like for that?
It’s really just everything that’s in my head. It’s the way that little fragments and other works, the kinds of experiences that I have all together. I always think of it as a weird chop-shop of the mind; sometimes it’ll be like a Bobby Bland phrase and like P.S. Eliot rhyme and rhythm from a Joe Cuba record, or a person that I met or something that I did or a walk home, you know?
“Some Place” was a song that I started writing, I wrote down the words, just a little phrase when I was working at a coffee shop in San Francisco, and then I realized, you know, do you look at something and then you start to realize it has bigger meaning to you than just the superficial words that you wrote, and maybe this phrase takes on a lot of levels of meaning and then I had a little figure I was fooling around on the piano and it kind of melted together, and that was how that song ended up being what it was.
I’d say a lot of that record is about my life from like age—from I was a kid up until I was 25, I think it’s everything that was going on in my life.
When you say the record, do you mean the whole album?
Yeah, the whole album, that whole album. I think “Some Place” was a sign that I always was trying to write since I was like fourteen, and I was always trying to write my own songs.
Speaking of “Some Place”, when it was made—and it’s been selling—I don’t know if you’re aware—but it’s been selling on eBay for upwards of $300, what do you think of that?
Yeah, I’ve heard that.
What, as an artist that just kind of made a song that you were proud of and you thought was pretty cool and you put it on a 7” and then you see it on eBay for like $300, what do you think?
It’s like a real mind-blower for me, and honestly, I know artists or musicians that judge the value of their work by—oh, I want a platinum record, I want to sell 100,000 records or I want everybody to like me, or I want to play in front of 10,000 people. And that eBay thing, is to me, that’s like my mile-marker for the level of success that I wanted, which was, I was making a record as a guy who’s a DJ that plays R&B and ‘popcorn’ and ‘latin’ and whatever, this vein of music, it’s all informed by the blues, but there’s a big scene and it’s not exactly related to northern soul, but it’s very similar and I know that’s what’s going on… So the people that are buying that are DJ’s, and those are the DJs that are playing my records that I respect and I like their programming—those are the nights that I would go to dance to, and to know that my record is being dropped between like a Young Jesse record and Robins tune, that’s my measure of success, like, I was happy. That, to me, is getting in a fucking hall of fame or something, you know?
I’m sure to many people, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference that you weren’t when—from when those people were out recording and playing.
Right, right, and that…
Would you ever pay $300?
Yeah, not for yours, obviously, but is there…
Yeah, I would, I’ve paid $250 for a 45…
Care to share the name?
Yes, it’s called “Hard Times” by Jacke Ross; it’s on SAR. It’s like a really, it’s a pretty rare SAR release, it was Sam Cook’s label in L.A. and the tune is like – it’s so unusual, it’s the kind of record that I like and the kind of record that I wanted to make. There are these tunes that are by people like Jackie Ross, who’s one of these kinds of breezy, like poppy, Betty-Everett, it’s in his kiss-style songs and then there’s always that one weird record, like Junior Bells has one, where you’re just like, everything is hitting – it’s a certain rhythm and this certain sound that’s not a genre, but you’re just like, “How did you have this crazy tough record?” It’s a weird moment in time for…
These are the 45’s I look for, you know? And I can’t even describe them to people. It’s like the way people talk about looking for a Northern Soul record, but Northern Soul collectors are all looking for this record that sounds like a lost Motown hit, and really what I’m looking for is a sound that I don’t even know how to describe it, and that’s why I also don’t like describing my own sound, because I know the elements that make it up, but I don’t know what it’s called, and “Hard Times” is one of those tunes. In theory, that record shouldn’t sound as rugged as it does, because it’s a girl who basically has this squeaky little 16 year old voice, but the kick drum was mic’ed just right that day or something, but it just rocks and it sounds so rad, I highly recommend you looking it up.
Is that your most prized vinyl, or is there some other gem…
No, no, I have some other stuff that’s worth a lot of money that I haven’t paid much for, but I don’t like to sit around and count my gold bars and my record collection…
Not necessarily even monetarily, but like—maybe you can have a record that you’re really glad that you managed to get.
Yeah, I have this copy of Bobby Bland’s “Two Steps From the Blues” that a good friend of mine, Dick Vivian, who owns [San Francisco record store] Rooky Ricardo’s, gave to me, and it’s on [record label] Duke, it’s Mono, it’s like a sentimental thing as much as it is a valuable thing, because that’s like a record if you get that, it’s $150, but you know, he gave it to me and Bobby Bland, that LP, it’s like insane. That’s like a mind blower and Dick always knew that, and when he got a copy he gave it to me and – you know, I love Dick, and I have a really good relationship with him, and so all those things swirl together.
You know, it’s kind of like what my music is about, too. It’s all those feelings, it’s not just the superficial appreciation of something for its aesthetic, it’s that that thing begins to grow and roots into how I feel and the relationships I have and it’s stuff that’s going on in the background, and that’s – it’s not about nostalgia for me and it’s not about pretending I’m in another time. It’s kind of about forming my own experience with music that is new to me for the most part, you know? I get into these conversations with people about being regressive and retro, and I think that what people forget is that recorded music is about summoning a time that is gone.
You can listen, people who can talk to me and scoff, for me being backward looking can say, “Oh, I love Ariel Pink,” well, you love that Ariel Pink record that was recorded in 2001, and that came out in 2005, so it’s non-linear time. I hear a f**king Robin’s record for the first time that I’ve never heard before, that’s what’s magical about music.
I figured out what sounds I like and are appealing to my ear and I’m not afraid to embrace those. I think a lot of people are afraid of that or they switch off, I don’t know. How many people refuse to go to a movie because it’s edited the same way they edited movies in 1970? And you can’t do much more. I don’t know, I’m on a tangent…Let’s see if…
Well, no, no! I have a question that can tie into this, because you recorded it all old-school, right? With analog equipment?
Did you use any digital at all?
No, there was no digital. There’s no computers in the studio that I worked at.
See, that’s something that a lot of people—there’s a lot now, more, with kind of the resurgence of vinyl, that people are paying more attention to that, but did you feel out of place? Do you feel out of place?
Yeah, I do feel out of place. I mean, I’m not – I don’t know, I never really cared that much. It’s funny, I didn’t – I see the outside world, suddenly people want to talk to me now, and people want to judge what I’m doing, and yeah, I put myself out there…
For a long time, it just didn’t come. It didn’t matter to me; I was just doing my thing and not thinking about it too hard. You know, it’s important for me to do it a certain way. For my own reasons, like a man has a code. You don’t often have to explain to people why you make moral or ethical decisions, you just do what is right to you and that’s what I was doing.
And I used a lot of that equipment a) because it sounds good to me and b) because it’s what I know. I can’t, I’ve look at a pro-tools thing at somebody’s house and I’m like, “what the f**k? Why would you ever use this?” It doesn’t seem like it makes sense. I like working in that studio because even though I don’t have engineering knowledge – and I work with a great engineer, Mike McCue, who runs that place – eventually the logic of recording analog, it’s so direct. It’s as direct as the way that you record sound. It makes sense; you’re following a signal, you know that if you plug this thing into this, and this thing into this, and then you control it with a fader, it’s like – it’s the difference between handling money and just wiring made-up numbers, you know? You can look at your bank account and what happened to this $20,000? Like some binary code has changed. Well, all of sudden, that’s gone, and you don’t know how. It doesn’t make sense.
I also don’t trust digital technology because it is based on the fundamental fallacy that convenience is better. And convenience does not have anything to do with sound for me; those are two different things. Convenience was invented because f**king Steely Dan wanted to add a 56th track to their recording. I don’t care about that.
I want seven people to play music in a room, because that’s what feels good. Those are the moments in music when I have seen the light and heard the holy gospel or whatever. I want to cry and I want to laugh at the same time and I feel like – the shivers moments, you can create that stuff on digital, but I have no idea how to do that. I just want to capture what’s happening, and I think you give yourself too many choices and you set yourself up for this weird mousetrap maze if you end up going to digital. And maybe if I would’ve started younger I could have figured that out, but it never sounded good to me and I don’t trust it.
Fair enough. Is that like the 50s and 60s back when pretty much – well, not pretty much – when analog was the only option? If you could make music then is that something that you’d want to do? If you could transport to any decade, where would you go?
What? To go back?
To go live, make music, listen to music, explore music, whatever…to experience music in all its forms.
I don’t actually think that we know what was really going on. I’ve read a lot of books and you know, it’s like reading any history book. It’s just a fragment of what was happening. So I could say I’d love to be in Memphis, but I don’t know, maybe I f**king wouldn’t get along with Steve Cropper, or maybe – what I like is that reading about these things is the individuality of the people and the situation and the equipment that all – it wasn’t so standardized. It was like these weird, cobbled together situations and that mix of things creates something unique.
I would love to be around L.A., I would love to be around New York. Sh*t, I would love to just sit in on a Burt Berns and Jerry Ragovoy session. I would cut off my hand to hang out at a Garnett Ben session for like a week, just see what that was like, just see how they were working.
I’m sure Bell Sounds Studios, it was, just spending a year there would be amazing to be, but on the same note, it’d be rad to be in Houston, Texas and go to the Peacock Club and see most of Don Roby’s stable, like Joe Scott’s band and then – here comes Babby Bland! Like here comes Junior Parker.
I don’t know. I just, you know, it’s really easy to read these summaries of time, and pop culture and think that you could run into somebody walking down the street, but the reality is the fact that they’re probably just as average as being alive now, you know?
Yeah, sometimes we glorify the past, and that’s when…
Yeah, I’m not a big advocate of that. I think it’s good to be realistic about it and understand and enjoy it the same way I enjoy records: I enjoy it for what it was and acknowledge that you don’t understand it and have total understanding.
So when you say that you don’t like digital music, do you not listen to anything digital or, is it only records?
I hear some digital things, I have a giant iTunes library. It’s all lossless though.
Are there any modern bands or artists that you’re especially digging?
Sure, the Allah-Las. You know I really enjoy what White Fence and Ty Segall are doing…
You recorded with him, right?
With Ty? Yeah, Ty played drums on my record. I don’t know. I think I like James Hunter, I think that he’s doing some interesting stuff, but no, I don’t really buy much music from people that are performing music right now. Mose Allison is still alive, I’d support him.
How about the Beach Boys? They’re coming back.
I like the Beach Boys, although I think that I don’t want to see them, now.
Yeah, I saw their performance on Fallon the other day, it was just kind of sad for me. I’m twenty years old, I wasn’t around when they first started, but it’s just really sad to see Brian Wilson just sitting limp on a piano. It was kind of…
Yeah, I think that it’s, rather than being a fun thing, it’s like a grim reminder of your mortality… I just really like the Beach Boy’s “Today” records, you know? I’d rather listen to that. That’s the point of making a record, you’re leaving your legacy.
Yeah, they certainly left a big one, and I’m sure that if there weren’t millions [of dollars] involved they wouldn’t have returned, but, you know, it’s kind of sad in all the reunions, because they’re definitely bit out of tune and out of shape and just… I don’t know.
Well, I mean, I’m young, I don’t understand what it will be like to be old and be a musician. This is what I was talking about when I was saying that being a musician as a career is not necessarily… maybe a good idea.
Obviously the music industry has changed a lot and now a bog part of artists getting exposure, music sites and music blogs, do you see them as important? Have you seen them as important to you personally? Do you follow them at all?
For me, personally, no. I think that they’re important for a certain type of music, I think that music blogs are for certain kinds of music, and I don’t think I play that type of music.
Well, I mean, we’ve given you support and another blog (which you may or may not have heard of) Aquarium Drunkard has also…
Yeah, no, [Aquarium Drunkard creator] Justin’s really cool, I know that he – he talked to me a couple times. Like, I like, appreciate what people are doing with blogs but I feel like a lot of blogs are paper tigers, I feel like they are – I feel like it’s kind of funny, that ideal is to deconstruct and make… It’s this fallacy of the internet, it’s an internet that’s designed by engineers who don’t really have human feeling, and they think that immediate flow of information is going to solve the littlest problem and they opened up like a whole philosophical world that they can’t possibly think about that’s affecting the development of social practices and how you think about things, and how you digest things and how you take things in, and I think – I’m not shaking my first at the blogging world, but I do think that blogs, like Gorilla vs. Bear and Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan and these sorts of things, they’re not for all music, and the fact of the matter is that they make themselves to be the word on the mountain to a new generation of people, so it’s like “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” type of world where there is this boy’s club, like secret society of hip, new PR agencies that represent these labels, Mexican Summer, f**king True Panther, all this shit, and that’s blog music, that’s what blogs are for, they’re for those people.
I don’t think that applies to me. I like people that buy records and I think that people who read blogs – music blogs especially – there’s not the in-depth writing that I like in music journalism, you know? And I think there’s a lot of recycling and regurgitating and copying and pasting press releases from a certain group from a certain type of person who all know each other, and it’s not like a conspiracy, but it’s just a thing, and that’s the way of the world. You know, as you move to a city and there are 40 cool people who all do the cool thing, and they run that scene? That’s kind of what it is, but the problem with the internet is it makes it seem like it is the whole world, and I feel like – that’s a world that doesn’t apply to me.
So, do you try to stay away from reading stuff about yourself and reviews of your music…
Yes, yes I do. I don’t think that does anybody any good.
If you could create a musical genius Frankenstein, which parts would you pick from who? And why? Maybe you want Lennon’s voice and Zappa’s moustache and Michael Jackson’s feet? Just kind of, what would you choose?
He’d just be all Ray Charles, he’d be all Ray Charles.
Ray Charles, just…
Just Ray Charles’ voice and voice and face and his hands, arms, his torso, his legs, his feet, and his clothes… Just Ray Charles in 1968… Find him in Atlanta. That’s what it is.
Do you have favorite city to play in? Is it San Francisco, or do you prefer…?
I haven’t been around enough I don’t think. I liked Berlin a lot.
Yeah, Berlin’s a great city. And maybe at some point in the future, once you’ve been around more, you can go back to that question and see if you…how about a favorite record store. Do you have one that you would recommend?
Yeah, it’s Rooky Ricardo’s in San Francisco. I’m playing my record release show in San Francisco is the 25th anniversary of Rooky’s…
When you go to different cities on tour, do you always try to scope out the record stores there?
Yeah, of course, of course.
I read in an interview that was recently released that you kind of spent most of your paychecks on records. What kind of jobs were you working then?
Well, I worked in a record store for all of high-school, I worked in a kitchen for a restaurant, I worked in a doctor’s office as a filing clerk, I worked at Brooke’s Brothers as a shirt sales man and I worked as a doorman, I worked at a vintage store, I worked at a coffee place.
So, if the music thing kind of stopped working out for whatever the reason, would you go back to any of those jobs or would you want to explore something different?
No, I think I would go down a different road.
I read in that same interview (that was crazy to me) that you’re actually fluent in Mayan Hieroglyphics, I don’t know if that was a joke or not…
I don’t know what that…is that the Obey interview? Oh, I think that he was actually saying that my knowledge of music in San Francisco in 2010 is about as useful as being fluent in Mayan Hieroglyphics.
Okay, I must’ve read it wrong, then, but regardless…
The bottom line is there were a lot of people there they played music that I met that all wanted to make like shoegaze, dreamwave, Gorilla vs Bear music…
While still on the subject, what were your thoughts on the supposed end of the world? I don’t know if you saw it, but it was recently released that there was some translation issues with the scriptures and that the world is actually going to go on for octillions more years, however much that is, what was your whole mindset towards the supposed end of the world?
Well, I think that’s disappointing because I named my album [“Time’s All Gone”] for the Apocalypse, so I wanted it to be timely, and now they’re making me look like a fool.
Below, watch the video for “Some Place”, in which Nick shows some friendly Japanese gentlemen a good time. His debut album, “Time’s All Gone” is out now on Innovative Leisure. You can read our review if you want to find out just how much we liked it.