The loquacious Nick Waterhouse is a cool, brainy cat. His songs are drenched in as much allegory and indecipherable Raymond Chandler references as they are in upbeat stabs of horns and surf guitar. And how he manages to marry stark, sophisticated insights to a swinging, light-hearted sound in each song on his new album was a mystery I was determined to unravel when I spoke with him over the phone last Thursday. During our 15 minutes Nick chatted with me about Shakespeare, the follies of California twentysomethings, and the imperfect protagonist of his new album, Holly.
How’s your morning?
It’s good! On my way over to Fairfax studio now.
They just moved into Sound City right? It must’ve been pretty cool to record there.
Yeah, it’s in that unit. It’s a very good, large, live room. Kevin Augunas who bought it did a wonderful job rebuilding it. He didn’t mess with the room but he completely gutted it and redid all of the equipment there, which you know, I didn’t exactly listen to Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes and want that drum sound or anything.
So did most of the legendary acoustics stay intact?
Yes, they didn’t mess with that. So as you listen to that record you can consider the fact that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was also cut in the same room that I did “Let It Come Down.”
I read that you recorded most of Holly in one cut as opposed to doing it two to three songs here and there like you did on Time’s All Gone. What effect did that have on the outcome of the album?
Okay, I’ll preface this by saying, usually when I make a record it’s under duress but Time’s All Gone was under more duress than Holly was. I don’t want to give the impression that Time’s All Gone was thrown together, but it was cut maniacally. It was a sleep deprivation, cutting for 48 hours, driving back to San Francisco to make work on Monday kind of record, ya know? AndHolly I feel like is a cross between “Raina” and “Say I Wanna Know” from Time’s All Gone in terms of bigness, concept and atmosphere. Those were my two most ambitious tracks fromTime’s All Gone. On Holly I just started to be able to edit a little more. Not edit my recording, edit my material. Holly is made up of songs I was writing over a period of time. Even when I tried to record “This Is a Game” and “Ain’t There Something Money Can’t Buy” like 45s, the wheels fell off twice. I didn’t like the studio and there was personal trauma occurring. I just was lost and a lot of this record is me working through that.
I want to go back to what you said about Holly being a concept album, because I listened to it as a whole over and over again and it really felt like the entire album told a single narrative. Each track worked together. Was that intentional?
Yeah, everything is with great intent on this record. From the sequencing to the covers to the references. What I think is funny is that people love to pick the wrong aesthetic references. Like people will say, “You must really love Chubby Checker” and it’s like, “Well, no.” You missed the Hart Crane reference and the Shakespeare quote. I don’t wanna sit around and academically jerk off. I’m not gonna talk to anyone about those influences, but if you pick up on them then great because that’s what was on my mind. Holly the album is like my Madame Bovary, orMulholland Drive. It’s not who killed her, it’s what killed her.
The title track makes Holly the character seem a little chaotic and reckless. Then more details are added to her life through other songs like “Sleeping Pills” to create a full portrait.
Yeah, I’m looking forward to people’s interpretations. It’s a work of fiction so it’s silly when people are like “Who is Holly?” because it’s not exactly an allegory. It’s a character. Her details are out of sequence, but that’s intentionally so. Then there’s also just the atmosphere of the album. When I first started reading Raymond Chandler I just wanted to wallow around in his atmosphere. I didn’t like the guns or any of that stuff. It was more just his descriptions like the details in the room, or the soft rain on the foothills that I enjoyed.
Part of Holly was tracking your experiences of life in young LA. Could you elaborate on that?
I was sort of speaking in a double entendre when I said “young LA.” On one hand, I’ve always been fascinated by Carey McWilliams writings on Los Angeles and finding out the history of this place because a lot of LA is about eradicating history whether it’s through demolishing or moving urban centers. And on the other hand, I’m out at Footsies in Highland Park among a bunch of twentysomethings who are living in this new east side community that’s grown out of Silverlake. Holly is a sympathetic portrait of this not entirely perfect protagonist set in this LA atmosphere that is really familiar to me. And the song “Holly” is about personal responsibility. There are Hollys everywhere, I was just writing about a Los Angeles version. Everything is a game to young people. They have a low risk attitude in a high risk environment. I’m not gonna say it’s about gentrification or drunk driving, but those are things that are relevant.
Tell me about your cover choices. Were you able to work with the great Mose Allison?
I didn’t work with him, but his people let me cover “Let It Come Down.” I had a lot of material on a list for this record. I made decisions based on telling a story and what would be fun for me to do and “Let It Come Down” felt very relevant. “Sleeping Pills” is kind of like a nightclub version of when Banquo’s ghost appears at the dining table, and “Let it Come Down” is a reference to the previous scene when he is murdered by Macbeth so those two tracks fit together.
I saw on your list of upcoming shows that one venue you are playing is the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia and I thought that was pretty interesting.
I have explicit instructions to my booking agent that I don’t want to play rock ‘n’ roll venues so at the beginning of every year he’ll give me a list of places to play. That one was on the list, and I thought why not? I’m almost playing gospel music.
I’d love to find a recording of that show.
That would be fun to do a “Live from the Church” type thing.
So you’re coming to Chicago and I know you’re a cocktail guy. Any plans to hit up one of our speakeasies while you’re here?
Every city I’m in someone will give me a good recommendation for a place to drink. I’m more about the quiet bar with a good single or two than the latest and noisiest place to hang out.
Nick Waterhouse will bring his brassy, sophisticated, soul sound to Chicago on Friday, Feb. 21. The show starts at 10pm Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at Lincoln Hall’s website. 21+