Nick Waterhouse does not make retro soul. He digs more on late ’50s and early ’60s rhythm and blues—Magic Sam, Ike Turner, British bands like The Premiers working out the American South—and writes bummed and bitter three-minute songs with horn stabs and maracas drenched in period aesthetics. Waterhouse is 25, a big music geek, and has been building an identity from an idealized past he spent his high school years exploring by way of vinyl stacking. His debut full-length, Time’s All Gone, is instantly likable and the sort of work that’ll have you garnishing a pearl onion with gin and a splash of vermouth between episodes of Mad Men Season 5.
Waterhouse is an enlightened cat, and he spoke on the phone from L.A.’s Little Tokyo after dropping off his drummer at a day gig. He rapped about German bootleggers, DJing parties, and his disdain for Pro Tools. He performs tonight at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.
Tell me about your band, The Tarots. Has it been the same group for a while? A new group for these shows? How did you put them together?
It’s been based around this core of people that got involved with me a while ago. Like Jeff, my drummer. And Page, who is one of the girls singing all over the record. And Kyle Stevens is on keys; whoever is willing to follow me, really.
I think it’s important to note that I’m DIY in the sense that it’s hard for me to get hired guns. I don’t make much money and I’m not like a lot of retro soul acts that can hire slick studio musicians for tours. We’ve pretty much done it ourselves.
My younger brother played with a guy named Black Joe Lewis. There’s no bad blood or anything, but similarly, as the band progressed they went from a younger sort of punk outfit to the label building a new horn section around Black Joe Lewis. How do you as the band leader instill a sense of ownership in this project with The Tarots? At the end of the day you’re the brand.
The fact of the matter is I am not just a front guy. I don’t delegate. I am playing along with everyone. I’ve worked alongside all of the people that played with me for years. It’s not all in my head and then I dictate it to someone else. We’ve all been on tours, we’ve struggled together. The people who have stuck around are invested, and that brings a sense of ownership that maybe isn’t present with other single-name artists and their backing group.
You have a cool Tumblr that posts old vinyl rips. Your mp3s are on SoundCloud and hosted by trendy blogs. It’s a well-tailored presence. How much time do you have to spend curating everything on the internet?
I try not to let it rule my life. If I set myself up with high standards, it’s the same as deciding to comb your hair shine your shoes every morning – eventually you don’t think about it. I spent a lot of time setting up the site; I believe in tasteful functionality. That’s my approach. I’m mostly out doing stuff now so it’s down to about an hour a week, but I’d be remise to ignore that aspect of being an artist in this day and age.
You’re all in with this style, these aesthetics. At the same time it’s lumped in with a broader fashion. Pitching this interview, for example, my editor had doubts about the relevancy of the retro-soul stuff. How do you deal with being in the context of fading trends?
Oh the retro soul thing…I do worry about how somebody who could give me a chance that’s not necessarily interested in the same things as me may dismiss me immediately. It’s so frustrating to field so many goddamn Amy Winehouse questions when you could have talked to me 10 years ago and gotten the same answers. I guess that’s bad timing on my part but a song is a song is a song and I’m not concerned with being out of vogue.
The other side of that is that I make no claim of being a soul artist. That’s not a genre I’m producing. A lot of retro soul is genre exercise and it’s a world away as far as I’m concerned. It’s like talking to a Salvadorian author about Mexican culture. I don’t know much about retro soul.
You posted a really cool Live in Berlin bootleg. Who did that?
That was a German fan. Someone taped it. And that’s what’s charming to me. I don’t particularly dig that sound but it’s what every bootleg concert I’ve ever heard sounds like: weirdly thin, certain things are higher in the mix. I got word that it was being passed around on torrent websites and we tracked down the guy. At first he thought we were gonna slap him with some sort of take down order but we just asked for the Wav files. People talk about the live show and it’s representative of what the band was like a few months ago.
I saw you’re going to be DJing in Philadelphia. How often do you DJ, and what type of stuff do you drop?
Whenever I can. It’s what I’ve been doing even more than playing music these last seven years. I had a couple nights that I regularly did in San Francisco, and I do parties. I hang out with record people and it’s really cool to share 45s. It all has a running thread of stuff I’d like to dance to. Everything from white pop to what Belgium folks would call “popcorn”—it has this Latin uptowny jazz feel—to early ‘50s rhythm and blues to Jamaican R&B. It’s mostly 45s I’ve been collecting.
Recent reviews described the album as a party record. And it is in many ways—fast, loose, playful. Tell me about the recording process. Seems like the thing came from a wild environment. There’s also songs we heard on the Internet last year. Did you use the same versions? If not, how did you approach re-recording tracks so dependent on their spontaneous feel?
Those were the same versions. I was only interested in releasing music on 45s and came around to the album as a compromise for the label. The reason it sounds like a party record is because it was cut live and late and with a lot of energy. I’m very good at setting up the circumstances and then letting spontaneity occur. I set parameters ahead of time and I setup the right equipment and then I don’t try to force anything. It was only about ten days of work. I was doing it all myself, with a day job, and I had no money. Tunes were cut between Friday evening and Monday morning.
I think it’s actually a dark record, but its aesthetics make people think it’s fun.
It pops. But it’s thematically sad. What did you record on? What sort of software?
Ha, you’re setting me up. There was no computer in the studio. It went all to tape. Mostly live with minimal overdubs; a lot of people in the same room; used a lot of ribbon and tube condenser microphones and a few directionals, and cutting that to magnetic tape, and I mixed down to quarter-inch tape. You get three layers of nice compression. A lot of records I really like get that sort of thickness to them and that to me is the most exciting way to record. It makes it sound as heavy as when you’re in a room with somebody playing live. I’ve not yet heard a digital recording that I like.
Nick Waterhouse performs tonight at 8 p.m. Sixth & I Historic Synagogue with his backing band The Tarots. $12.