Mike Nicolai – He’s about a mover
Five years ago, Minnesota native Mike Nicolai jumped on an Amtrak train departing Minneapolis in search of something new. With only 200 bucks and a ten-song demo tape in his pocket, the former member of Minneapolis rock band the Draghounds was on his way. Destination: Austin, Texas.
Now Nicolai has uprooted once again, this time to Seattle. This move was a bit more focused, with some family issues taking part in the decision; but for the most part, it was Nicolai’s adventurous and restless spirit leading the way in search of new musical endeavors.
“I was beginning to feel like I’ve pretty much done what I could get done in Austin; it was time to move on and try somewhere else,” Nicolai says. “Austin’s great, but I just felt like I was stagnating there.”
On Nicolai’s newest project, a six-song EP appropriately titled Balloon Race, he picks up where his self-titled debut left off: telling stories galore with an ensemble of colorful characters. Subjects of the songs on Nicolai’s first record ranged from the weather to lovesick parties where Cupid could be found vomiting in a kitchen to blowing up frogs with his childhood friend Grover.
Balloon Race is much along the same lines. Nicolai’s obvious knack for storytelling is clearly visible on “The Last Great Balloon Race”, in which his endearingly out-of-tune vocals deliver the story of a bizarre balloon race filled with mishaps. “We Got Fooled Again” is a soul-baring ballad with lyrics that hit hard: “Tears on the counter/With a sponge you wipe it clean/Soak up much indignity until it makes you mean.”
The lone cover, the Cars’ “Just What I Needed”, is delivered in a haunting manner at a tortoise pace. But the highlight of the record is the lazy, laid-back “Johnny Goblin”, where Nicolai uses vivid descriptions to paint his canvas, “He shot him a couple beavers and a raccoon/And he smeared guts and blood all over his dormitory room.”
Balloon Race reveals Nicolai’s connections to both the Austin and Minneapolis scenes. The disc was produced by Twin Cities veteran Tom Herbers (Gear Daddies, Honeydogs) and features Son Volt’s Dave Boquist on violin on one track. Austinites who contributed include Gourds drummer Jimmy Smith and Damnations bassist Amy Boone; the Damnations returned the favor by covering Nicolai’s “Catch You Alive” on their upcoming album.
In Seattle, Nicolai has found a new and unusual source of inspiration — his day job as a cook. “It’s a crazy job, but it’s fun,” he says. “It’s funny, it’s kind of like being in a Tom Waits song. These guys are all down and out and broke. Half of them don’t even have a place to live. It’s kind of inspiring.”