“Most tunes I wrote on the first two records, I heard all these parts and it was this very dense, sort of abstract arrangement in my head,” Nick Waterhouse tells us. “But then when it starts being played, it’s almost like you’re running across the top of water.” That territory, of skimming an unsound surface, is palpable in Waterhouse’s music. The 30-year-old from Huntington Beach, California plays rhythm and blues, and is skilled to the point of his ability seeming innate. But of course, what one hears is rooted in his extensive musical knowledge (he began working at a record store at age 15) and his relationships with impressive collaborators, such as Carol Hatchett (vocals), Paula Henderson (baritone saxophone), and Eric Jackowitz (percussion and vocals). The combination is entrancing—itching to be listened to live.
Last week, Waterhouse released his third album, Never Twice (Innovative Leisure), and now he’s on a U.S. tour, which stops in New York tomorrow at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Before he left Los Angeles for the road, Interview spoke to Waterhouse over the phone. He seemed eager to start performing. “Now I see familiar faces, now I see new faces, now I see how people engage with it,” he says. “It’s making me pretty happy … and I want people to feel the same way.
HALEY WEISS: It’s been two years since you released Holly, which you described as a dark record for you. So what was your mindset going in to make this record?
NICK WATERHOUSE: This record’s interesting because I was totally untethered; I didn’t live anywhere. I kind of made it through the other side into nothingness. I’ve been living in this weird limbo. I went back to San Francisco for a while, I wrote a lot of it in Texas, actually, where I was staying on friends’ couches, kind of itinerant. This was like trying to get what I wanted out of the situation, where I feel like making Holly was a huge production where I was living in L.A., and I finally had access to all these players and these places, but I was sort of living in a twilight nightmare. This is like a heist movie where I was like, “I’m going to get all the players that I really liked and have met over the years, and we don’t have to go to a studio—we’ll make a studio of our own—and I’m going to get the engineer [Mike McHugh] that I started [out] working with.” His recording studio, he shut it down and he disappeared. He kind of had a giant mental breakdown and was in jail. So as soon as he got out of jail it was like the Blues Brothers or something—we’re getting the band back together.
WEISS: That state of limbo—was it an intentional thing, going from friends’ to friends’ couches?
WATERHOUSE: It was a little intentional. It was more like things had not moved the way that they were supposed to after I toured a lot on Holly. I came home, I didn’t have a ton of money, and I had to give up my apartment. It was this thing where every time I’ve done something in my career, I’ve realized that I’m taking larger and larger leaps of faith. With the very first record I made, I remember I spent my rent money, which was 1,000 dollars. [laughs] And now the stakes seem to quintuple by the time I got to here. So I just let it go and moved out of my place in L.A., and embraced the fact that I wasn’t going to be in any secure spot for at least a couple years.
WEISS: How do you think that attitude of not being in a secure place, of taking risks, informs the kind of songs you write?
WATERHOUSE: All my songs and a lot of my shows, and the way that I arrange things with the band, are about being in it. You’re all the way in. I’d say especially on the new record, a lot of these tunes were, subject matter wise, about liminality and gray areas and the divide between getting what you want and getting what is.
And also just the playing—this record I think is also most emblematic of how things are actually played in my world. The first record was really a document of me and a bunch of first timers, and that was made so breakneck. There was not a lot of thought behind getting it done; it was just like, “This is how it’s played in a basement in San Francisco.” And now this record is much more representative of how I run my organization, like my band, the combo, players, how I feature players, how the songs move, how the energy is—all that stuff.
WEISS: How did you choose who would be in the band for this record? Did you let them collaborate and contribute in different ways or was it pretty set, like, “You’ll be playing XYZ”?
WATERHOUSE: The whole thing started as really a lot of scribbling in a notebook where I said, “This is my dream team. If I could record this stuff, I’d get with these people, I’d do it with this equipment, and I would do it in this kind of room.” And at a certain point I just got to this “fuck it” place, because making the record we actually rented a room in this really historic studio in San Francisco that was abandoned, [Hyde Street Studios,] so there was no equipment in it. The people there said, “Well, you can have it, but there’s nothing there.” And I was like, “Yeah, I don’t want any of your stuff. We’re bringing it all in.” So we loaded a U-Haul with all this gear from the studio that I grew up working in, that was in storage, and kind of lost time and brought my old engineer up. I rented a house and put up all these players from L.A., New York, and all over the country. And we just banged it out in ten days. In that sense, it was like I created this community, this commune thing. Whenever you’re working on a record, at least in my experience, you get in this weird submarine lifestyle where you’re all in this space for hours on end and there’s no clocks and no windows, so you start to dwell together.
I think I finally had refined the way that I was going to deal with these players, which—tying into your question about having them contribute or what my direction was for them—is like most of what I’ve done live in that I treat it kind of like a jazz band: “Okay, you have sixteen bars to do whatever here.” I give people a skeleton of what they’re supposed to play and then I encourage everybody who’s accompanying me. I didn’t write out heavy parts for the most part. There’s certain tunes where I definitely have melodies or bits that I want, but everyone is functioning at such a level, that I just give them a sandbox to play in. That’s more of what I’m about. It’s funny to be the guy playing guitar and singing when I’m running back and forth between the control booth to listen to this band and then go back to be in the band.
WEISS: I’m curious as to how growing up in Huntington Beach informed your musical tastes. What was the music scene like when you were growing up?
WATERHOUSE: Well, it was probably the peak of counterculture being half-marketed; punk rock and grunge were being sold wholesale, and Huntington Beach physically was kind of this ground zero for that. If you watch the documentary American Hardcore they talk about Huntington Beach punks as being the militant jocks of the hardcore scene. [laughs] So they were the Adolescents and T.S.O.L., and Black Flag was from just north of there, and that was what my dad grew up going to see when he was a teenager. Not because he was like, “Punk rocked saved my life.” He was just like, “Hey, I used to see these bands when I was a kid, here’s some cassettes.” That was when I was about six. I took that stuff—not for granted—but it was just an interesting thing to be born into, that that was seen as the bedrock of culture in the world that I was living. And that was seen to be an alternative to pop music, which is what the majority of Orange County types were interested in. I think that there was this DIY scene that was really, really small, and that was when I was 14, 15 playing in a band, when I met people like Lee [Rickard] and Sean [Bohrman] who started Burger Records and Mike McHugh … It was a really funny world because it was literally 50 weirdos in this place. Now it really seems to have informed an aesthetic for thousands of young kids, but at the time I think if anything all it did was show me what I didn’t want out of life. So I kind of felt really disconnected, I felt beamed in from outer space here. It maybe made me more militant in seeking other stuff.
WEISS: When did rhythm and blues come into the picture for you?
WATERHOUSE: It just happened naturally. It’s one of those things where as I got older, I realized that the songs that I always liked when I was a kid were really rooted in the delivery and structure; a lot of the vocabulary of R&B was in it. I’ve talked before about “Here Comes The Night” by Them, and my mom had a John Lee Hooker compilation that she would always play in the car, and I remember loving that. Especially when I started playing instruments, I recognized that that’s what felt really good to me, and that my brain automatically thought in that scale of notes, in that feel, in that way that you interact with rhythm. Those are definitely things that I sort of unwittingly fell into. As I got older and started being able to buy my own records and stuff—and I started really early, and I got a job when I was 15 at a record shop–I was just really, really curious. And this is funny because it shows how on the cusp of the internet I was a child: I would go to the library to get books and rent CDs to investigate things that I was interested in. It was like, “Oh, this rock ‘‘n’ roll guy says he really loves Muddy Waters, I’ve got to check this guy out.” Or I loved this Aretha Franklin song, and I looked in the liner notes of the CD when I was a little kid, and it said Don Covay wrote this tune and I thought, “Who’s that guy?” Then Don Covay has three really amazing records. So I guess my natural curiosity just helped guide me. I was just following my ears and what I was turned on by.
WEISS: I know you said you played in a band when you were younger, but did playing instruments come as early as singing? Does one predate the other?
WATERHOUSE: I had to start singing because I was in two bands that weren’t my own when I was 14. It’s the classic thing of you’re in the band, and you think, “I could organize this better. I could write better songs.” And I had to sing, but sing backup or group parts in that band, and then two of the members of that came with me and we started our own group. We couldn’t find a lead singer, so I had to start singing. I never considered myself a singer, I’m very reluctant to, but now I recognize that I’m like a stylist. I think that in the early ‘70s it was a big deal when they said, “James Taylor, Carole King, these are singer-songwriters.” It was, “This is insane,” because they’re songwriters and they’re singing their own material—and also, “Well, they’re not a front person, they’re not a performer.” I think of myself in that vein as a producer I guess; I’m a producer-singer-songwriter? [laughs] I don’t know. I’m just doing it because I have to. I considered most of my first record as demos for a real singer to come and sing my parts—that never happened.
WEISS: Have you always felt like it’s something you have to do beyond just liking it?
WATERHOUSE: Yes, at least singing. Singing is like, “If I don’t do this, it’s not going to get done, and time’s going to go by and it’s going to keep not getting done.” It’s one of those things in life where you think, “Man, I should really go to the gym,” and it’s a year later. That’s what most of my music career has been—it’s, “I have this idea, nobody’s going to do it if I don’t do it.” And I feel strangely compelled; don’t ask me why. It feels like if I don’t do it, I recognize that it’s not going to happen, so I might as well just take a leap of faith and do it.
NEVER TWICE (INNOVATIVE LEISURE) IS OUT NOW. NICK WATERHOUSE PERFORMS AT THE MUSIC HALL OF WILLIAMSBURG IN NEW YORK TOMORROW, OCTOBER 8, 2016. FOR MORE ON WATERHOUSE, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.