For the past 15 years Nick 13 has been following the artistic vision of a contemporary punk rocker while at the same time staying true to the rockabilly music that he loves as the leader of the band Tiger Army. Now Nick has shifted his focus to another genre and is recording a solo project in that vein. His official biography says that this solo work is partly inspired by his love of the country music of the '30s through the '60s, although he is quick to point out that he is doing more than paying tribute to his influences.
"It’s not that the music is in the exact style of those decades," he says, "but it is drawing on them for inspiration. I wouldn’t want someone picking up the album thinking they’re going to hear something that literally sounds like it’s from another time. There are musicians that do that, but I’m not one of them. There’s a song that’s very Hank Williams-influenced, although it has drums which he didn’t. There’s definitely some Bakersfield sound stuff on the record as well. I feel it carries on the tradition of California country. We’ve covered Ernest Tubb and Johnny Cash live...[and] the album also has an element of '60s California country rock on a few songs, as well as '50s/early '60s rock ’n roll and pop – [Roy] Orbison, Ricky Nelson kind of stuff. But as important as that bygone era is to me, I’m trying to do more than simply recreate it. My voice is my own, both literally and as a songwriter. I’m not doing my job if I don’t bring something new to the table."
Nick formed Tiger Army- a three-piece band where he serves as the guitarist and vocalist as well as the principal songwriter and producer- in 1995. Since that time they have released four albums, with the last two reaching the Billboard charts. The band performs in the psychobilly genre which Nick defines as "essentially either punk with a rockabilly influence or vice versa, depending on the artist". But not all rockabilly fans accepted Tiger Army's music.
"The rockabilly scene at that time was very purist and a bit snobby," he says, "I think priorities got a little out of whack for a while with too much emphasis on appearance and trying to be 'authentic'. I don’t really know what the people who were a part of it at that time thought. By the time Tiger Army was actually happening, I was kind of off doing my own thing, touring and putting a lot of work into every aspect of the band to get it going. The punk scene embraced it to a large extent."
He also mentioned that not everybody who likes his solo work will be a Tiger Army fan.
"Tiger Army has an emphasis on songwriting as well as certain threads of roots music (rockabilly, country, rhythm & blues) that No Depression readers might connect with. They might not. There are a lot of other non-roots elements from things like rock, punk, hardcore, British pop and darkwave as well. With the solo stuff, I can definitely see people digging that who wouldn’t be into Tiger Army. In fact, there were Ray Price fans in their 70s at Stagecoach who enjoyed my set that I’m almost certain would be appalled by Tiger Army. At the same time, most people who are into Tiger Army have at least a basic appreciation of roots music and dig the quieter, country-influenced stuff whether it’s in the context of Tiger Army or me solo, so that’s a nice thing."
Nick mentions Price as a major influence and earlier this year had a chance to open for him as well as Merle Haggard at California's Stagecoach Festival.
"I met Ray Price at Stagecoach, who’s a big influence and inspiration." Nick recalls, "He was very cool and wished me luck with my career. He’d heard some of the set as he was going on right after me. Getting to meet and share a stage with him was a pretty amazing way to have my first solo gig! Merle Haggard was stellar that night, he played right after Ray. I didn’t meet him but I was told he asked who we were which is very cool in and of itself. "
But Haggard, Price, Bobby Bare, and other veteran performers weren't the only artists who impressed Nick at the Stagecoach Festival, nor at The Hootenanny, an Orange County music festival earlier this month where he shared the stage with Chuck Berry, Shooter Jennings, and the Old 97's (Jerry Lee Lewis was also scheduled to perform, but illness prevented it).
"I saw a lot of great stuff live at Stagecoach," he declares "and during the many weeks I’ve spent in Nashville in the past year. I always listened to the old stuff and I’ve just in recent years started becoming aware of many of the like-minded musicians who are using roots music in new and interesting ways that fall outside the mainstream country machine. Have Faith by James Intveld is a great album, I dig Carryin’ On by Dale Watson which comes out next month, Raul Malo’s latest… I like Old 97s, Ryan Bingham, I’m still becoming aware of some the current Americana that’s out there. I’ve been digging even more deeply into 1920s-'60s country as well, that’s mostly what I’ve been listening to in the past couple of years."
Growing up with the punk rock of the '70s and early '80s Nick never imagined his career taking this path and came to discover rockabilly through bands like X, The Cramps, and The Sex Pistols.
"I was always intrigued by the connections between '70s punk and '50s rock ’n roll and rockabilly" he explains, "You saw that with both British and American groups – overtly in the case of someone like The Cramps, sometimes it was buried under more distortion with others but it was there. The Sex Pistols’ covers of Eddie Cochran on the The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle soundtrack led me to him."
Rockabilly naturally led him to discover classic country.
"I never thought I’d listen to country music as a teenager, but when I began checking out the catalogs of a lot of the Sun Records guys, hearing songs like 'Sure To Fall' by Carl Perkins or 'I’d Rather Be Safe Than Sorry' by Warren Smith. Those songs aren’t rockabilly, they’re straight-up hillbilly honky-tonk. I fell in love with that sound then and it opened up a new world for me. The new songs I’ve written for this record aren’t rockabilly either; it’s alt-country, country, Americana, whatever you’d like to call it."
He also mentioned Jerry Lee Lewis' version of "Crazy Arms" as pivotal in leading to his discovery of Ray Price. However, not all of his influences are quite as obvious. Take for instance his passion for film.
"I’m definitely a fan of classic horror," he says "which for me ends around 1963. I’m a huge noir fan as well, I have a large collection of both. I use what I listen to and watch to help create different mindsets when I’m trying to write or create. Certain things relate more to Tiger Army in my mind, and certain things to solo. Noir relates more closely to the solo project for me, it’s a different kind of darkness than Tiger Army deals with, more internal. Western and road imagery, gambling imagery, '40s music and the themes of noir are all subtle influences on the writing that have resulted in part from watching these movies all the time. Some of the noir directors moved into Westerns in the '50s, so I’ve been getting into that too."
According to Nick, most of the Tiger Army albums have contained at least one track in the country music vein, but he says that the idea of recording an entire album in the genre began with a trip to Nashville.
"In January ’08 we spent about two and a half days in Nashville on tour and that experience – the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, seeing stuff like Bill Monroe’s mandolin right in front of me; the honky-tonks on Broadway, the armload of CD’s I bought at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, it all made me feel very strongly that recording an album of country or country-influenced songs was the next thing I needed to do. Tiger Army wrapped up touring for our latest record at the end of 2008 and since that time my focus has been almost entirely on the writing and recording of this record, as well as the few shows that I’ve done solo so far. I’ve returned to Nashville a few times this year and last to write and soak up inspiration."
He has recorded most of the album in California with an excellent group of musicians that includes Greg Leisz, Eddie Perez, Lloyd Green, Joshua Grange, and Mitch Marine. He briefly discussed his expectations for the album.
"Artistically, it was something I needed to do. I couldn’t really be happier with how things have gone in the studio so far, the tracks are sounding great and they’re not far from being done, so anything I hoped for there has all but happened. Commercially, I don’t really have many expectations. This has already gone beyond being a project for me, I hope to continue recording and performing this music for many years to come. It would be nice if it reached some people that wouldn’t be interested in Tiger Army, or at least wouldn’t think they would be right now. Of course I hope the people who already like what I do will check this out, I think they’ll dig it. I’ll get the word out somehow, even if it’s person by person, show by show, which is the way I’m used to doing things anyhow."
Yet he points out that this isn't the end for Tiger Army.
"Tiger Army hasn’t done a lot since I turned my attention to this, just a handful of shows, but the band hasn’t broken up and is not going anywhere in the foreseeable future – I’d like to do both as long as possible, two sides of the same coin.... At some point, I’ll shift gears to writing and recording the next Tiger Army album, although that’s not exactly right around the corner. The process of my travels and research, playing with all the new people for this record and the live shows has helped me grow both as a songwriter and musician and that will feed back into Tiger Army eventually. It can’t be a bad thing."
He also mentioned that the band will be playing at Octoberflame, an annual festival organized by Tiger Army that has been going strong for the past three years and that he will be re-interpreting one of the band's tunes, "Cupid's Victim" on his upcoming album.
"That’s one of the songs that Lloyd Green is on," Nick says, "I’m really happy with how it came together. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a 45 that would come out before the record with that track as the b-side but I don’t know if that will be possible to get it all together time wise. I’m not really sure when everything will be finished yet. I’m hoping to hit the road either way solo this September."
With all the recent talk within the music industry about the death of the CD and the rise of digital formats Nick weighed in with his thoughts as well.
"I’ve started getting back into vinyl lately," he says, "I have a fifties RCA hi-fi. I still buy CD’s, but it’s nice to be able to have hundreds of albums on the iPod, especially for touring and travel. CD’s have better sound quality than MP3’s, which some people overlook. I still like buying and holding a physical thing."
But he was quick to point out that the music industry's biggest problem isn't the format. It's the music itself.
"There was a lot more sincerity in the music of decades past. Everything feels so calculated and phony now." he says, "Heartfelt is an adjective that gets tossed around a lot, but fewer and fewer artists today sound like they mean it. The public’s to blame. As long as they keep swallowing the crap someone will be there to dish it out. All the rest of us can do is try to find the good stuff where we can and support it."
With Nick 13 and Tiger Army we have found the good stuff. Let's hope that both of them stay around for a long time.
Photo by Patrick Moore
Here's Nick doing "Cupid's Victim" live at the Stagecoach Festival as well as the original Tiger Army version for comparison.