Nick Waterhouse: "I Have No Interest In Becoming A Star or An Act."
A condensed version of this interview appeared on concertguidelive.com
Consider this the director's cut.
Nick Waterhouse is trying to keep it together.
When I call him on the phone, he's jet-lagged and annoyed, trying to load up the van for his next string of dates—a van much smaller and more beat-up than the rental place promised. Par for the course. “I project elegance with very primitive tools,” he explains, the slightest hint of self-mockery in his voice.
I can tell he’s not looking forward to slogging it, or “facing the realities of hitting the road on a low-to-mid-size budget,” as he put it, in support of his latest record, Never Twice.
It quickly becomes clear that the last year has been hard on Waterhouse. He’s nomadic, routinely going back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles, while all his friends are settling down and “domesticating.” “I’m the only one who doesn’t know where I’m going to live next month,” he explains, the weariness in his voice suggesting that bachelorhood may be losing some of its charm.
The difficulties of making Never Twice, due to Waterhouse’s insistence on working with his old mentor Mike McHugh, have also taken their toll. McHugh—the patron saint of The Distillery in Costa Mesa and an important figure in Waterhouse's career—had recently gotten out of jail and was in the midst of a psychotic break, making the process a waking nightmare. “When you’re the subject of a paranoid fixation, and if you’re a sensitive person like I am, it’s really challenging when somebody is having a full-fledged episode. I was being threatened, and it was really difficult. Maybe it was naive of me. I thought I could help and reestablish a relationship.” Due to those difficulties, Waterhouse has been hesitant to jump back into the studio, quietly collaborating on new material with long-time friend Doc Polizzi in between tours.
For now, Waterhouse is making things work with that “low-to-mid-size budget”—something that has permeated and dictated his entire career. From the single he self-released on a whim that led to his record deal with Innovative Leisure (“Some Place”) to the number of musicians he can take on tour with him (anywhere from four to twelve), “It’s always finance,” he explains, stating that in a dream world his band would be a 13-piece. A full complement to what he fleshes out so beautifully on his albums.
It’s been during the making of those records that Waterhouse has refused to compromise, budget be damned. Time’s All Gone (2012), Holly (2014), and Never Twice (2016) were all recorded with big bands (full horn section, two drummers, back-up singers), in addition to being created the old-fashioned way—all-analog. I ask how supportive Innovative Leisure—a successful but still independent label—is of his approach.
“They’re supportive, I guess.” I press him about the “I guess”, and he explains that they do the best they can to meet what he wants, but not without a fight. He explains further that the artless joys of well-oiled bureaucracy are always the top priority, even for a small label. “When you’re a very hands-on and principled artist, you become the bottleneck.”
The son of a fireman, Waterhouse grew up in Huntington Beach, a place he has always felt at odds with, even stating in a 2011 interview with LA Record, “Huntington never gave me anything.” “It was really, really hard,” he explains to me. “It was almost like a Rebel Without a Cause-type thing. I didn’t feel alpha enough. But it also caused me to double down on things I liked and things I believed. I wanted out. Bad.”
“When you’re a very hands-on and principled artist, you become the bottleneck.”
Eventually he did get out, moving to San Francisco where he started working in Dick Vivian’s eccentric record store called Rooky Ricardo’s—a very influential and well-treaded piece of Waterhouse’s story, but I press him further. Growing up, some part of his hometown must have influenced his sound.
The obvious answer is his time spent at McHugh's all-analog Distillery—the foundation for the in-studio musician he would become. His time spent there and at the nearby Wayfarer led to friendships with other musicians, including members of the Allah-las and one Ty Segall—people he’s still friends and collaborators with to this day.
Suddenly he remembers a drumstick—recently found, saved since childhood, signed by the drummer of the band that would play every year at the Fireman’s Sailboat Race to Catalina. Something about that band infatuated him, and it wasn’t until years later that he realized how they shaped a major part of his ethos as a musician. “The job of the player was really a journeyman's, not a hot shit, pro thing. Just being effective at making a large group of firemen, their dates, their families dance for hours.”
One listen to Waterhouse’s rhythm-driven, heavy-swinging tunes and you recognize the influence. His is music to dance to, music to entertain, to create a mood—not music to be over-analyzed or deified. He doesn’t like a lot of attention, referring to himself as a “player” rather than an “entertainer,” cringing whenever he sees videos of himself performing live, and stating multiple times that he has no interest in being a “star or an act.”
“My ambition lies in my ideas and executing those. That’s secondary to me as a consumable good.” Becoming an “act” would mean positioning himself to be successful, even if that means straying from who he knows he is as an artist. “I refuse to do that. I wouldn’t even know how,” he maintains. He points out that “even the most indie, Pitchfork-y thing you can find” is still commercialized and manufactured for consumption. “Everybody’s just getting dumber. It’s like Monsanto and food. It becomes really niche and hard to find something that’s unprocessed.”
It’s clear that to Waterhouse, “Pitchfork-y” doesn’t even really mean anything anymore, as he points out that the website is now owned by a conglomerate and likens it to “Rolling Stone in the 90’s,” still retaining clout from years past, but now a corporate entity. A cog in the machine. It’s very clear that Waterhouse is making the music he wants, the best way he knows how, with no intention of making it palatable or cool for anyone else, but that’s not to say Waterhouse is in denial about the way people consume his work. “10% of what’s being sold is my music, and 90% is is visual branding. The image.”
“Everybody’s just getting dumber. It’s like Monsanto and food. It becomes really niche and hard to find something that’s unprocessed.”
And what exactly is that image? Perhaps the title of his 2011 LA Weekly interview best sums up the box Waterhouse is constantly shoved into: “The Young Man Who Makes Old R&B.” With his horn-rim glasses, penchant for vintage clothing, and a super-slick Instagram presence that looks like Don Draper got a job as a social media manager, Waterhouse is held up as an anachronism—someone who was born at the wrong time, trying desperately to recreate an era of music he’s too young to have been a part of. When I ask Waterhouse if he ever feels pigeonholed, he sounds tired but manages a laugh. “Sure. All the time. I’m a prisoner.”
As someone who writes about music, I can say that referencing genres and influences are important. It’s the only sure-fire way to explain how music sounds—to let the reader know what they can expect from a record, short of them actually taking the time to listen to it. The truth of the matter is, everything sounds like something else, everything has been done, everyone is influenced by something. Why Waterhouse is continually treated as a nostalgia act who’s playing at music instead of being given the same attention and distinction as anyone else on the scene is something he’s obviously thought about.
“I don’t have a huge peer group, so I always get grouped in with Mayer Hawthorne, Amy Winehouse, Leon Bridges,” even though they’re not doing the same thing at all. He explains that Amy Winehouse was chewed up and spit out by a pop machine that would have changed her sound in a second if it would sell more records, and there’s no denying the distinction between the soul music of Bridges, and the rug-cutting, raw, pre-Beatles R&B vocabulary that Waterhouse speaks fluently.
I hedge that pre-rock-with-a-capital-R music isn’t treated with the same amount of— “Reverence?” he finishes for me. “It’s like saying Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway write the same. That’s not how it works. [Music writers and fans] are able to distinguish between hundreds of bands that are four white males with guitar pedals that all sound the fucking same to me, but they can’t tell the difference between me and four other people?”
“It’s like saying Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway write the same. That’s not how it works.
Whether it’s stupidity, laziness, or the fact that there are probably few people on earth who know more about R&B than him, he certainly has a point. One of many great ones. “A lot of times when I actually do see an interview I do,” he explains, “I’m surprised at how few of my points actually make it in.” A shame considering Waterhouse is extremely smart, jaw-droppingly well-versed in music history, and clearly enjoys discussion—beginning thoughts by saying things like, “To get really esoteric…”. I wish I could have just published the interview verbatim, but my damn recorder kept cutting out, leaving me with about three minutes of our 40-minute conversation.
If you’re reading this, Nick—I’m sorry. I did my best.