Nick Waterhouse on the Blues and the Abstract Truth


  • Naj Jamai

If we take the physicists at their science, then yes, you can get something out of nothing. The cosmos, for starters. Music is another matter. Ex nihilo might be fine for the Big Bang or God or John Cage's "4'33" -- nothing out of nothing -- but if music makes you move, think, feel or dream, it's never by chance, and it's never really sui generis.

LA songwriter, producer and bandleader Nick Waterhouse doesn't pretend to be a music scholar, but he understands his sources, and he knows what he wants to do with them. Words like "retro" and "revival" simply don't apply. He claims to be a modernist, and so he is. He steals and alludes and recombines and builds soundscapes and rhythms, picking and pulling and twisting from '40s and '50s blues, jazz, R&B and Latin music. In his own way, he's sampling as masterfully as DJ Shadow, and he's creating something truly new out of his sources. His records, for all their muscular swing, funky guitar and wild saxophone are as atmospheric as a Brian Eno concept album.

Waterhouse's second album, Holly, unfolds as a noir-ish trip through some lost LA of the songwriter's mind. The characters, including the elusive Holly of the album's title, drift, dream and play dangerous games in the bars and "dead rooms" where one is always one's own greatest enemy, and "Love Is a Losing Game" goes round and around on repeat. "When you meet your destiny face to face, there'll be no more wrong or right," he wails on a brilliantly reimagined cover of Mose Allison's "Let It Come Down." Waterhouse has been known to reference both Chinatown and Mulholland Drive as touchstones as inevitable as the records of Van Morrison or Bobby Bland. In Waterhouse's world, as for his hero Ray Charles, jazz and R&B tell the same story. "Feel music" he calls it, and feel it you can.

Nick Waterhouse brings his modernist rhythm and the blues to the Firebird on Monday, July 28.

Roy Kasten: You had some pretty difficult career moments last year, in terms of touring and finances.

Nick Waterhouse: It always is. I toured a lot, and I was trying to sort out what I wanted to do with the second record. It took a lot of different attempts at getting my approach right. It was busy and hectic. The studio I'd grown up in and that I made my first record in closed. But I sorted it out.

You've got a pretty aggressive summer and fall tour lined up. Are there things that you're doing differently this time around on the road?

No, I've just adjusted. I just show up and play where they tell me to. That's my philosophy. I'm learning to let go. Touring can be kind of hard, but I still love to play.

You decided to make the new record in Fairfax Studio [the previous location of the famed Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California]. Was there a reason you wanted to do it there?

I was very much in tune with how Kevin Augunas operates that place. It's hard to find someone you're simpatico with just as far as operating. When I went in to check it out, it just felt really good. I don't need the fanciest components or the most collectible components, but there is something very specific I want out of equipment and the experience of recording, which is a live in a room recording experience. I just felt good there, which I think shaped the sound of the record.

At one level it would seem easy: You get a room, get the microphones and the tape machine, and get somebody to run it. You could do it anywhere.

Sure. That's true and untrue. It's like looking at somebody playing something and saying, "I could do that." It's easy to say when it's already being done. I was just particularly comfortable with the aesthetic there.

What's your sense of the relationship between jazz and R&B? In terms of the major figures in the history, they weren't so separate, as they are now.

I think things are kind of enshrined now. People don't think in terms of non-linearity. I don't really think of those two things as separate genres. I realize the academic world needs to do so. There's this great book called Hard Bop by David Rosenthal, which pretty well lays out how porous the walls between those two worlds were. It's all just feel music. I don't pretend to be doing one or the other. I take a lot of influences from them, but I can't control that. I'm not fit to make any grand statements about them, but people hold them to be so precious. I think it was Grant Green who said, "It's all just blues." I always liked that quote.

Speaking of great St. Louis musicians.

Yeah, yeah.

In a song like "Dead Room" on the new album, it has one of my favorite bass sounds on any track this year, and then there's this part where it just breaks into a fierce jazz solo.

Yeah, the middle section.

It goes from cool to hot in a flash. Are you an obsessive arranger, or do you let the musicians figure out something like that?

I believe in having a nice balance between controlled grip and keeping it loose. That song was something I had a concept for. I got a lot of takes from the tenor player [Jason Freese] on that. I had a specific sound I wanted from that solo, and I wanted it to transition a certain way. That's part of producing, producing a player, conjuring up a performance out of them. For that tune I knew how all of that would sound, how I wanted the drums and the bass sound, how that section should move, how the verses would go, and it was about finding that feel. I played electric piano on that one live, with the rhythm section. That lends an idiosyncratic feel that's unique, I think. [Laughs]

You've said that you're not interested in recreating a certain style, but it's hard to deny that there's an atmosphere and a sonic palette that's as different from contemporary R&B as anything could be. When you were recording a song like "Sleepin' Pills," with the great female backing vocals, did you ever think, "OK this sounds too much like a Ray Charles song," or too much like some other major figure you admire?

No, not at all. The backing line on that is an allusion to a Ray Charles tune. The line "I had a dream" is also in a Ray Charles tune. I wanted to reference that. That's part of the atmosphere of the song. When people are listening they need to be aware that there are layers. I believe in a modern approach to things, and that means quotations and references, without being recreations. The notes are different, but the girls singing "I had a dream" is supposed to evoke that record in its own way. But I wouldn't read too much into that.

That tune is very close to my heart. I've been having to address questions like these for a long time. A song is a song. Does it sound too much like the Coasters, too much like Ray Chrles, or this or that? There are all these parts. It's like watching a Jean-Luc Godard movie and complaining that he's trying to recreate a 1940s crime film. That misses the point.

If he had just recreated the crime film we wouldn't be watching his movies.

My point is that there might be something else couched in there that you're supposed to hear, so you don't lose the forest for the trees. If you think about all these aesthetics or subgenres or artists, how many other acts do people focus on who they sound like, as opposed to what themes are there, the significance of their work.

There's a nice Latin feel on a couple of tracks, especially the title track.

I've just always listened to a lot of records that had a Latin feel. On the last record I had a song with rumba section on the chorus. I think this record has more of a Southern California feel; it's a Los Angeles story kind of. So, "Holly," that tune just came to me. It had this very bolero guitar rhythm when I was writing it. That came out when I was working up the arrangement for the song.

For a guy that's really into 45s, the new album is quite thematically cohesive. Do you listen to 45s that way, as chapters in a story from a certain period?

I don't, which is why this record was fun for me. It was the first time I had thought about things in a bigger picture form. I figured I should have fun with the format I knew I was going to be making. The first record I didn't think of as an album; I was just recording songs. This one I knew I was making an album, so there were larger conceptual things to draw on.