March 28th, 2011 | Interviews

Photography by Lauren Everett

Nick Waterhouse and the Turn-Keys “Some Place”
[audio:nickwaterhouse-someplace.mp3|titles=Someplace|artists=Nick Waterhouse]
(from “Some Place” 7″ out now on Pres)

Nick Waterhouse makes vintage R&B records like Dam-Funk makes funk records and he does it on his own label PRES Records Co. with the help of the Tarots, the Naturelles, and Mike McHugh’s Distillery in Costa Mesa. He speaks now from a curb outside of the Black Boar in Eagle Rock after a long day of recording and right before DJing a set of killer soul and R&B 45s that made people go crazy. This interview by Lainna Fader.

What’s special about the Distillery? Why do you record there?
It’s the only place where I can do what I really want to do. Mike and I really connected when I was 16, when I met him. Before I met him, I was like, ‘Fuck! All this music that I’m into … there’s nothing like this in Southern California right now, period. I will never find it!’ But then there was the Distillery, six blocks from the house I grew up in. I went in and recorded there and just started hanging around. He was so tickled that I would go out and buy these books about recording studios like Muscle Shoals and come in and be like, ‘MIKE! This is your board! This is your mic pre-amp!’ He’d give it back to me and say, ‘I never knew that Bill Putnam built this board for whoever.’ I was very fortunate. I could’ve been the kid who bought a ProTools setup when I was 17. Everyone I know was telling me to do that. I just forced myself to not know any other way. I fooled around with digital recording when I was a teenager and I hated it all. I just wanted to go back to the Distillery. If I buy a record that was recorded at J&M Studios in New Orleans, I can pick it out by the sound of the snare drum cuz the room has a certain reverb. I can pick out Distillery recordings, too. And the Distillery is sentimental to me. Whenever I came home for Christmas or Thanksgiving I went to the Distillery the same way I went and saw my parents. A year before I made ‘Some Place,’ I was super depressed and I just decided to reread that Peter Guralnick Sweet Soul Music book again. I was gonna think about Dan Penn. I re-listened to a bunch of James & Bobby Purify and was like, ‘Man, Dan Penn was one of the best white guy songwriters.’ I got real excited about him and started reading all this shit. ‘We were just a bunch of white guys, driving around in my car. I didn’t have any friends in high school. I was totally delusional thinking I was Bobby “Blue” Bland. During the day I was this weird little honky white boy and at night I’m driving around and it’s like Danny “Blue” Penn and his Pallbearers doing R&B songs and we didn’t know any better. We’re just in the middle of nowhere. We had this studio we hung out at and all we cared about was playing music.’ They’re in a cultural wasteland with a bunch of hicks who hate them. Total weirdos. And they had this studio Muscle Shoals. And I was like, ‘I’m in Orange County, I have no friends except for my band, all I care about is playing music, and this is also a cultural wasteland.’ Then I got this studio—the Distillery—that has a Muscle Shoals board and I’m like, ‘Shit! This is a sign! I gotta go back!’
Why did your mom’s soul influence win over your dad’s punk influence?
There’s like a certain breed of R&B records that—it’s like when people say, ‘I will always be in love with my wife. It was just a matter of time before I met her.’ There was always this one sound that was always hinted at all these records. You hear it on ‘Chain of Fools’ by Aretha Franklin. You hear it on all these old John Lee Hooker tracks. When I was 17, I finally heard the original version of ‘Watch Your Step’ by Bobby Parker—there’s slightly distorted guitar and a heavy back beat, but I always liked the groove instead of out-and-out rocking songs. It has the energy of what appeals to people who like punk rock music. I think there’s this big hang-up on people talking about genres or eras. The best advice I got was in high school when I had this teacher who said, ‘If you want to be a writer, read a bunch of books and decide what you really like and just read those books over and over again and you’ll gestate that.’ You should never think you’re imitating it—it’s more like you learn to speak that vocabulary.
What is this vocabulary? What can you say with it that you can’t say any other way?
I didn’t choose it—it just kind of happened to me. It just started happening to me one day because one day I wanted to see this guy Gene Ludwig who was a white organist from Pittsburgh: the Jimmy Smith disciple. He was like 60 or 70. I was like 19. I remember—this was such an elevating moment for me—he said, ‘I guess I’m going to put my stamp on this because everyone else has,’ and he played ‘I’ve Got a Woman’ by Ray Charles. It’s very similar to the Jimmy McGriff arrangement and he never recorded it, but it was this thing that was live, in front of me, and it hit such a spot for me. He was doing all these things—he was using all these licks that weren’t imitations but in the same scale and it was so fucking deep and so insane. I felt like I—I got the chills. I was shaking. The adrenaline—my pupils probably dilated. I was so ready and I felt so happy and it just felt so life-affirming. After that happened, even when I talk to people about it, I start beaming. I’m smiling right now. It was such an amazing moment. It still feels that way for me. I’m sure I could’ve gone and seen Radiohead play a show if I was some other kid and had the same feeling, but it didn’t happen that way for me. That’s one of those moments where you’re being formed without knowing it. You feel it but you don’t know why it’s happening. That’s how I ended up with my vocabulary. I wanted to find that feeling again.
Robert Gordon said in It Came From Memphis that if people are meant to find a certain kind of music, they will. How does that connect to what you’re saying?
Yeah! I agree. That’s why I don’t believe in trying to oversell anything. I can’t tell you how many people talk to me about pressing 45s. It’ll happen—you have to trust it’ll happen. Like look at the Penny & the Quarters song ‘You and Me.’ Numero Group issued it on one of their comps and it’s a pretty beautiful but kind of standard vocal rehearsal from an unmarked tape they found in Cleveland. They put it on a CD, and now you can find it in that Blue Valentine movie. On YouTube it’s got like 400,000 listens and they still don’t know who the artist even is. It’s a one-microphone rehearsal tape, probably recorded in someone’s living room. It’s an amazing song—but did anyone, at the time they were making that, think anyone would ever hear it? No, probably not.
When you were driving around L.A. dropping off your 45, did you get them in any freak record stores no one knows about?
No. We were trying to find those. It’s really funny to be selling to record nerds. ‘Arguably, dude, I’m doing the same thing that you liked that was out like 50 years ago and done the same way, but you’re afraid?’ I still don’t understand it. It’s been a 60/40 thing where shops say, ‘We don’t do that.’
Why are people so resistant to believing this kind of music can be made today?
I don’t know. I had a terrible night the other night because I had a really big argument with someone who’s known me for some time and it helped me realize they didn’t understand me at all. They were going to a certain show for a contemporary group that I will not name and saying things to me about how I’m incredibly close-minded or stuck in blah blah blah. Well, what’s the difference? People now are like, ‘Well, this sounds like a mid-90s record or this is an early 80s record or this is a cool shoegaze band.’ All those people wanna be like, ‘Oh, you’re a fucking retro dude.’ Something that happened in 1962 is pretty much the same thing as something that happened in 1986 because both of them are OVER! Even if it was made last year, it’s still over, it’s done. Everything is done. I don’t believe in linear time. It’s a language—it’s all a language that continues to exist. To have someone that’s really into a group that sounds like Siouxsie and the Banshees tell me that I’m stuck in the past is so misguided and so confusing. If you’re doing it now, and you’re doing it with feeling, there’s nothing that’s not new about it. Arguing this whole myth new vs. old is such faulty logic. Like I said, I didn’t choose to work in this method, it chose me. For people to get hung up on that is so silly. It’s like in high school when someone says to you, ‘I’m really into existentialism.’ It’s such a shallow philosophy and it really diverts from the actual issue at hand—what the result is. For people to be scared of something for being old, or for the methodology being different, it’s very alienating to me. Among anybody that’s around now, I identify most with Dam-Funk. The ideal. It’s really funny for me to hear people say, ‘Man, that guy’s such a biter—he thinks it’s cool to do blah blah blah in 2011.’ You are seeing a very small fraction of what his entire career and life has been like. Uninformed and unengaged people who are gonna take something like that and try to be negative. He’s trying to do something in a vocabulary that some people wanna call ‘dated’—or ‘outdated’—but as long as he’s generating new music it’s not going to be outdated! That’s not how it works!
Is it hard to find people who want to make this kind of music with you?
I kind of have to bait everyone to do stuff with me. I seem like the crazy person on the corner, I guess.
You seem pretty calm to me.
I’m really calm, but nobody ever believes me! I had to make the record to even get a band. It was Matt and Pedrum from the Allah-Las and [my friend] Kyle and I just dubbed everything else. I hired Ira, the sax player. I had to pay him to show up. And I produced it. I just made the record cuz I wanted to make one record. I was not real happy with that situation up in San Francisco. I felt like I was trying to push something over a hill. I’d get people that I’d meet them at an R&B or a soul night and they’d be like, ‘I’m super into this music!’ ‘Well, let’s make some music then!’ And they’d show up and lay out their guitar pedals and say, ‘I’m really into the Jesus and Mary Chain.’ I have eclectic taste but I’m also really only focused on this one way. My ex-girlfriend said I drove her insane because I have unreal expectations for myself.
What are your expectations for yourself?
How do I say this? I kind of like this because it maybe makes me sound like one of those crazy Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson guys from the old days who are like, ‘I have no peers.’ I just don’t really see anyone I can compare myself to. I compare what I want to do to the works that I really admire. I want to make a record that will challenge Ray Charles. I’ve really taken things apart and felt all these things. I don’t want to do it unless I’m doing it the right way. I guess I figured out the right way, so now it’s about finding people who will go the right way with me.
Your sax player Ira is Ira Raibon from the Fabulous Souls—how did you get him?
I didn’t find out about that until the session. He mentioned that he had played with a bunch of people. Right after the Fabulous Souls he came back to L.A. and was already kind of buddies with Maurice White. He was in the first era of Earth Wind & Fire—right before they were doing the soundtrack for that Melvin Van Peebles blaxpoitation film. They were all from L.A. but when they went to Indiana, some club promoter hired them to do a residency—at the time it seemed like a really good idea to stay in Indiana for eight months but then he ran out of money and came back. I was looking for horn players and was just gonna hire a session guy but I have very specific things in mind and someone gave me Ira’s number. He had just done a session at the Distillery. Maybe he got set up when they were doing Andre Williams’ album. I decided to send him a little CD with some sample records. I put a Five Royals track and a Little Willie John song that I really like—I wanted that syncopated horn feel. He called me back and was so excited and said, ‘I was playing this for my wife! This is like what I used to play! When I was a kid, I used to see Johnny Otis in L.A. in the 50s and 60s!’ When he showed up we had a real good time. I brought a case of beer and he ended up hanging out far later than he probably should have. He’s definitely a part of the sound of the label. We did another session with him—the one you came to—and he was like ‘OK, call me when it’s time for the next one!’ When you first came in he was playing real sweet and smooth and it took ten or fifteen takes to get him into the mentality to play the way that he used to. I was like ‘No, Ira, we’re gonna play this harder. Shorter. Harder. Sharper. Get scarier.’ By nature he’s a real smooth motherfucker. He wants to do some lovemakin’ solos. But when it came time to cut the B-side, I said, ‘We’re just gonna do this live, man. Play how you play.’ It was really exciting to him, I think, because it was a club setting again. I think he had been doing a lot of session work where it’s like, ‘Play your sax in the midnight 8-bar solo here and that’s it.’ But on ‘Some Place’ I wanted to showcase him and he was in it. In the moment. It was very cool.
Did he give you any insight into making music from the ‘old world’?
No. Well, I’d ask him about things. The thing with asking older musicians ‘Tell me about the good old days’ can get pretty lame. Everybody’s sort of forward-moving if they’re doing anything worthwhile. You can tell that this guy is just a professional. He’s phenomenal. I almost feel bad because I went back and listened to his stuff he did on his own. His bio talks about how he has a vocal range of like six octaves. He’s a phenomenal, soulful singer. Totally in the vein of 70s breezy soul—very virtuosic. I can’t help but think, ‘Man, it must be weird for him to have this little white kid here howling away in front of him when he could sing that really easy.’ That’s part of the charm. That’s how it works. He’s an asset—a big part of it. Everybody kind of needs a little directing, and I think that’s where my talent comes in.
If the Turn-Keys are a studio invention, what can we expect from your live show?
I got this group called the Tarots together. This girl Natalie and me have this total platonic non-abusive Ike and Tina kind of relationship. We’re like musical soulmates. Mega-soulful Mexican girl from Oxnard or something who’s got such a hardcore background. She has it, and she doesn’t over sing, and she sings the right way and it’s not total bullshit like most contemporary R&B. And she runs the girls, the way it should be done.
Why is this the way it should be done?
When I say ‘should be done,’ I mean my vision—my ideal. I’m not saying it’s better than anyone else. The first hurdle is to break the mentality of what people are conditioned to operate within. I think about all these musicians, people aged 15 to 30 who are in a band. Ostensibly there’s this rote, standardized way of approaching being in a band. This attitude that’s being reinforced culturally that probably started in the 70s. It’s like when you’re a kid: ‘That person’s gonna be a doctor,’ ‘This kid’s gonna be a lawyer,’ ‘This one’s going to play rock ‘n’ roll.’ It’s really easy to not consider that you can go making music a different way, or living your life a different way. The first challenge is pushing past that. It’s the same way all contemporary R&B ends up sounding like the lovechild of Stevie Wonder’s vocal style and Luther Vandross—where everybody has to do like seven octaves. Like fuckin’ Mariah Carey or R. Kelly stuff. It doesn’t have to be that way for everyone, but nobody remembers that. When you listen to someone like Duffy or R. Kelly’s new album that’s ‘retro-soul’ or even Raphael Saadiq, there’s this vocal styling that got standardized in the 80s and then every artist that was supposed to sing ‘soulfully’ kept going with that. That’s how you end up with Christina Aguilera singing fucking ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.’ If you want to think about contemporary soul singers, the problem is they were all very individual singers but their approach became the standard to the point where no one ever thought about an Irma Thomas or a Little Willie John or a Garnet Mimms—those vocal stylings disappeared. It’s kind of like when you find—when you look at evolution, it’s like a breed of bird just died out. Instead of nature being at work, you had companies pouring insane amounts of money into artists who sounded like that and anyone who sounded like anything else was not acknowledged. So why is it right the way Natalie runs the Naturelles? It’s right because she has something—it’s not like she went to singer camp, or ‘American Idol.’ It’s like the difference between someone who’s technically good and someone who understands the feel.
You’re a very well-dressed man—what’s the nicest piece of clothing you ever found in a Huntington Beach thrift store?
I haven’t found shit in Huntington. In Long Beach though, I will say, at Meow—it’s really interesting. The other thing I really like about clothes is the regionalism of vintage shopping. In Huntington you don’t have shit but in Newport or if you go further up to Long Beach you have stuff I like—because you have people who had a little money to spend and usually that means people who have died probably in the 80s or 90s, and left their wardrobe from prime time. At Meow I got an amazing suit that was originally from a New York tailor that’s very famous named Chip. Charcoal three-button suit from Meow. Huntington never gave me anything.