“It was incredibly surreal,” laughs Nick Waterhouse, recalling his appearance last week on Jools Holland’s live music BBC TV show, Later. “That’s one of the only television shows I’ve always wanted to perform on and, on top of that, because of the lighting, in my sight line was José Feliciano, who I was playing to for the whole song. I’ve had some moments of strange eye contact with audience members but never have I watched somebody like him bopping his head and playing along to one of my tunes.“
Evidently, then, the veteran Puerto Rican singer was digging Waterhouse’s distinctive brand of music, which taps into a ’60s-influenced, retro-soul and vintage R&B vibe that’s in tune with a growing band of soul revivalists like Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Eli Reed, Leon Bridges, and the UK’s James Hunter Six. 30-year-old Waterhouse who hails from Orange County, Los Angeles, released his first record back in 2010, called ‘Some Place,’ which was a limited edition, private-pressing 45 that he put out on his own PRES label and which quickly became a collector’s item.
After that, Waterhouse – who has also been in demand as a producer, helming records for Ural Thomas, The Boogaloo Assassins and Allah-Las – released his debut LP, ‘Time’s All Gone,’ via the Innovative Leisure label. Amassing a growing army of followers, in 2014 the bespectacled, clean-cut auteur released his sophomore album, ‘Holly,’ and now follows it up with his third long player, ‘Never Twice,’ whose highlights include ‘Straight Love,’ and ‘Katchi,’ the latter featuring Leon Bridges.
In a revealing interview with SJF’s Charles Waring, Nick Waterhouse discusses his latest album and also talks about the musicians, singers and records that helped shape his own musical sensibility…
Your new album is called ‘Never Twice.’ What’s the story behind it?
It’s a continuation of where my head’s at and a reflection of the company I keep and the places I go. I wrote a lot of it in Texas, where I hadn’t spent much time in the last year or two. I would say that ‘Holly,’ my last record, was a record that was really written in need and jumping fully into moving down to LA and San Francisco but this one was different. Part of my career has been about leveraging things I think are cool, like using the situations, so that means getting to play with people like the organist, Will Blades, and flute player, Bob Kenmotsu. First and foremost most of these players are my friends. But I’m just so turned on by what all those cats do that I really wanted to make a record with them so I assembled a crew like it was a caper film. I got ten people together and rented a house in San Francisco and then rented an empty room in Wally Heider Studios.
That’s a legendary studio…
Yeah, in fact, it’s a really historic room which is now abandoned. The studio C that I was in was where Santana cut ‘Abraxas’ and Cal Tjader was cutting a lot of his late sixties stuff. It’s a clone of United Western Recorders in Hollywood, which in itself is a pretty classic room. I could have picked the easy route and gone for a functioning studio but instead, I turned it into this sort of Gypsy camp for about a week and brought my engineer from the first record on board.
Did you use analogue or digital?
It was all to tape. All of it. And actually, this time, while we were cutting, we didn’t use a board. We cut straight to machine.
It must have seemed like going back in time almost?
Yeah, it’s just that there were so many records I love that were cut in that spur of the moment feel. It wasn’t about being precious but setting up properly and making sure the energy was there from all the players.
Michael McHugh was your co-producer and engineer.
He was my mentor. This is his first credit that he’s ever gotten as a producer, he’s always been known as an engineer. He’s who I learned to record with. He’s where I did my first record, ‘Time’s All Gone,’ at The Distillery, which is now closed. And it’s kind of an interesting story because he got a bit of a full-blown psychotic nervous collapse which led to the demise of his studio so I brought him or attempted to bring him out of it. He was kind of losing his mind while we were making this record (laughs). He crashed two cars and set some things on fire and would disappear for hours. He’s okay now, he’s a little rough, but it was the first project he’d been on since he got out of prison (for brandishing a firearm).
You collaborated with Leon Bridges (pictured right) on ‘Katchi’ – how did that come about?
Leon and I were just hanging around a lot last year and we wrote a couple of tunes and in the true spirit of things we were both in town at the same time and cut that tune at 3 am. It wasn’t meant to be anything serious but it sounds to me like a real 45. ‘Katchi’ is old New Orleans Indian slang like a massage or when you touch somebody and show affection.
The song ‘Straight Love’ from your new album has been getting a lot of attention.
Yeah, love that tune. We’ve been doing it with an alternate arrangement on the road too, so that’s a lot of fun.
How have you changed it?
We’ve done it sort of like cut-time, and brought a New Orleans, Latin-tinged, tick-tock thing to it. Sometimes we’ll do it as a shuffle, like real B3 heavy, but lately on the road, because we didn’t have a proper organ, sometimes it sounds a little jive through a sound system (laughs). So now we doing more of a mid-tempo, popcorn feel to it.
Going right back, what first drew you to music?
I guess it was that thing that seemed to make adults who had no imagination seem imaginative. It was like normal people could be hypnotised by music. It could demand the attention of every kind of adult and when you’re a kid that seems really powerful to you, right? Just the magic, the third space of it. It’s not physical but it’s mental. I’d go to bed with my radio and just imagine where all these places were, sort of the soundscape aspect of it..and I didn’t like sports too much (laughs).
What drew you to the guitar in particular?
I started on trumpet actually and I wish that my folks hadn’t made the executive decision of trading the trumpet in when I was getting a guitar. If I could get in a time machine I’d go back and tell them ‘let me do both.’ I’d probably be much more capable, though I don’t know how my embouchure would be. I started on the guitar when I was 12 and it seemed like the logical step. I don’t think I even thought about it much; it just seemed the thing to do and my best friend played the bass. So that was easy. That made the decision for me. When you have a bass, you need a guitar.
Did you come from a family that was really musical?
Not really, no. We were a blue-collar family. My dad was a fireman. So they were very practical and I think music was seen as a little impractical but it didn’t mean they didn’t have an appreciation for it. I grew up being around a lot of parties and that’s what I mean; like even if none of those adults played music, that seemed to be the thing that made them disconnect from the dreary shit.
What was the allure of vintage soul and R&B because that to me seems like a key element in your own style.
Yeah, it’s the feeling, man. Sometimes you can’t totally put a finger on what it is that moves you but I began to recognise, especially when I began to play the guitar, that I liked that vocabulary. It wasn’t like I consciously did it. I was doing it automatically. So you start to play that way and go oh, I didn’t know I had that in me. I always found when I had friends trying to teach me modern rock licks – like a Pavement riff, or some very angular, indie rock – that that shit would really bore me whereas the R&B stuff was so much fun and made my mind curious. I just sort of followed what was turning my head out at the time.
Which singers and musicians have been your biggest inspirations and influences?
Steve Cropper, John Lee Hooker, Don Covay. And the first two or three Stones’ records were pretty big for me. I got those LPs from my uncle. ‘Out Of Our Heads’ and ‘Aftermath.’ What I liked about those was that they sounded really amateurish to me, compared with the proper rhythm and blues records that I heard. It was almost like Henry Rollins talking about getting on stage with Black Flag. I was like: I could do that. (Laughs) But of course, now, I recognise that it has its own charm and it’s a legendary thing, obviously, but Keith Richards’ playing is pretty ramshackle on those recordings, which kinds makes it so cool, right?
Aside from those records, is there any one album that you couldn’t live without and you have to take wherever you go?
That would be the Nat King Cole Trio recordings on Capitol, Ray Charles’s Atlantic stuff and probably a double LP by Them, Van Morrison’s band. That is probably the thing I listen to most consistently. It’s got ‘One Two Brown Eyes,’ ‘Here Comes The Night’ and ‘Baby Please Don’t Go,’ which was a huge one for me – all those tunes with Bert Berns and Jimmy Page and the triangulation of a bit of rock ‘n’ roll history…
I read somewhere that you’re a fan of songwriter/producer Bert Berns.
I’m a huge Bert Berns fan. He’s my guy. I just love him. There are people where you can get behind their work and their philosophy that led to their work and that’s where I’m at with him.
There’s a film coming out about him soon called BANG: The Bert Berns Story…
I’ve heard that, yeah. Actually I’m pretty good friends with Joel Selvin, who wrote the book on him (Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul Of Bert Berns And The Dirty Business Of Rhythm & Blues). So I get periodic Berns updates, which is great.
Your first single, ‘Some Place’ – which is now a collector’s item – you manufactured yourself on your own PRES label. How hard was it doing everything yourself in those days?
Well, to be honest, it’s not too far from what I’m doing now. (Laughs). I just tend to get other people to write the cheques. That was really important to me to have every level of my vision covered. I didn’t want to compromise and I didn’t want to make something look good that sounded bad or that played poorly and looked good or that was playing all right and the labels were garbage. That always bothered me so in a way it was like we’re going to experiment but it was a notion of “fuck it, I can do this! I haven’t seen anybody else do it.”
So is creative control paramount to you?
It’s less about control. It’s important but to me, it seems like a foregone conclusion, it’s just like that’s how it’s supposed to be. I’m always struck by how many corners people want to cut on every level. I understand it’s a business, and as a selling business, it’s a dying business. To me, the records are the things that always mattered to me and it would seem foolish not to honour that.
You’ve worked as a producer yourself. Would you like to continue to do outside production work?
Yeah, but it’s just like my own work: it’s got to really do it for me for me to work on it. I’m not just for hire. I guess I don’t consider any of this a business and that’s always been my approach.
Do you have to like what you’re doing then?
Yeah, if you want me to stick around and focus my mind on it. That’s my rationale and what’s got me to where I am now. I have to trust myself. I believe in things too much to let them fall by the wayside and if that stands as my true North then it’s served me well so far.
If you can look ahead beyond touring and promoting this album, what future plans do you have?
I’ve been working with Jon Batiste, a piano player from New Orleans via New York and that’s been really exciting. We’ve actually been cutting so much material that we have no idea what we’re going to do with it. It might be three records-worth. I just want to keep putting out 45s and streamline the process even more, which means dealing with promotional cycles and the way that things are changing in the business. It’s more frightening but for me, I almost feel like going further off the grid. I want to buy my own lathes and pressing plant and do it by myself. I want to cut out this notion of waiting for production. I think that’s maybe what I really want in the future.
I can see why: the demand for vinyl at the moment outstrips production and that means long delays in getting your product manufactured and out there…
In the five years since I began, I could get a turnaround on a 45 in four weeks and now it’s four to five months. It’s all just promotional garbage, half of it. Like, do we really need 25,000 Taylor Swift LPs? No, but the money is there and the space and time and resources so, like I said, I’m tempted to go even further afield and maybe look back around and become an even more militant version of the thing that I started out as. (Laughs).
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions musically speaking?
I would love to score a film, I really would. I love those Lalo Schifrin scores and even the score for Chinatown (by Jerry Goldsmith). I love the notion of doing ambient scores and proper themes, not like a John Williams’ score, but if I found the right partner – maybe meeting a director that visually aligns with the auditory thing – that could be amazing but that’s the most ambitious thing I have.