Nick Waterhouse: In The Nick of Time
A young rocker out and about in Los Angeles at 10 am may be an odd sighting, akin perhaps to seeing a polar bear in the sweaty Congo, but nevertheless here is 25 year old Nick Waterhouse, approaching a downtown diner on a sunny weekday morning to discuss his new album, Time's All Gone (Innovative Leisure, 2012). Looking as though he's just jumped from the pages of GQ (specifically the June 2012 issue), with a crisp new short-sleeved shirt tucked tightly into his firm fitting dress trousers, along with plastic framed glasses and businessman's shined leather shoes and neatly placed wristwatch, he takes a seat and greets his hosts. To the unsuspecting, Waterhouse might seem to have been headed to an accountants position in one of the many high rises that dot the congested cityscape or perhaps a government clerk's desk job, yet at this date Los Angeles is still part of America and in America not all is what it first appears to be.
A pile of metal apparently stacked in the distance is actually the Frank Ghery-designed concert hall. A flophouse motel in West Hollywood once passed for The Doors' Jim Morrison's digs. And a large pothole in the midst of the city's streets is actually the La Brea tar pits, which still spew forth their rank, primordial stew into the contemporary Los Angeles atmosphere. Here, too, Waterhouse is a musician who defies simple categorizations. In his case, with a degree in literature, it is literally and quite figuratively impossible to read a book by its cover.
"So much of the attention that's been given [regarding Time's All Gone] is about the influences," says Waterhouse, "but I feel the scrutiny of influence is never as strong on people that have a different sound. The record, those tunes, the subject matter, that's my emotional and spiritual art. And all that is actually intertwined with what actually happened in my life. It's an attempt to communicate something beyond language, and that's what I've always loved about music; that it was a way to communicate something deeper."
Raised in Huntington Beach, California, Waterhouse was fortunate enough to recognize his calling at an early age and became involved in the local music scene. Soon he was spotted round about town with guitar in hand heading towards school gymnasiums and bowling alleys fronting dance bands with edgy punk ambitions. It was after one particularly furious set that the teenager was approached by someone on the punk scene and told, "You outta cut a 45, you guys sound like The Animals!" Like keys that would open a graffiti-coated leaden door to another world, these words were to bring Waterhouse, still a teenager at this time, a mere seven blocks from his parents home to a recording studio named The Distillery. And like a truck load of potatoes or a burlap sack heaping with Midwestern corn, the young man underwent a process that after all of its twists and turns, heat and sweat, and ups and downs would produce an end product as clear and strong as a well-honed handmade premium Vodka.
"I started hangin' out at The Distillery when I was a teenager and later in my life I realized that that place is about as real as it gets compared to other studio environments. Like, it's lawless in there! People don't go in there and fuckin' play X Box in between songs and do coke and have girls come and hang out. It's just a place where you go to work and it's kinda like you're in a cave and sometimes it's like, when I made this record, comin' out of that cave was real hard. It's like [Wolfgang Petersen's 1981 film] Das Boot-you're down there and you're plummin' serious depths"
With The Distillery's army surplus filing cabinets, army grade microphones, green hued walls, dimly lit tight quarters and brimming with vintage analog equipment, it looked like a bomb -proof military bunker and proved to be a proper training ground for the budding musician. Working alongside studio owner, mentor, and the album's engineer, Mike Mchugh, Waterhouse learned the ins and outs of the recording process with all the knob turning, mike placement, meter reading and plain hard work that would transform him into a gifted producer who would one day fashion not only his own album in this environment, but also that of his fellow Innovative Leisure stable mates, The Allah Lahs.
Looking back, it all seems to have been preordained, for as Waterhouse delved into the eternal rhythms of American roots music at a very tender age, lying in wait for him was the pulsating, funky heart deep within the core of his local neighborhood studio, namely the soundboard yanked out of the legendary Muscle Shoals Alabama recording center and subsequently transplanted into the waiting corpse of Costa Mesa's Distillery.
Soon, the smog-strewn air of the Los Angeles area was left behind for the more rarified air of San Francisco, where the young man, seeking a university degree, once again found himself out of his element and searching out the local music scene. And love of music again led to close quarters on one of the cities hilly side streets where Rooky Ricardo's Records, spinning a large dose of hot Soul and R & B 45s from turntables lined up, paramilitary style, became a way station for Waterhouse. Submersing himself in the funky offerings that proprietor Dick Vivian had in store broadened the guitarist's love of roots music and furthered the desire to record his own singles. The lines between a wealthy southern California beach community and the poor southern Mississippi delta began to blur as Waterhouse, after a seven-year absence and several harrowing experiences, returned to the city of angels with a heavenly calling and renewed inspiration.
"Man, I remember bein' at a bus stop in San Francisco when I was 21 and I was homeless! I'd just gotten back from England where I'd studied for a year and I remember feelin' totally adrift, like really losin' my rudder."
Yet, after finding his way, developing his material and assembling a band, many members of whom had never before recorded, Waterhouse entered the familiar confines of McHugh's Distillery to document what would become Time's All Gone. Recorded over a 10-day period which stretched over approximately six months, the effort was recorded with all analog equipment and, remaining true to the guitarist's purist ideals, in mono. The resulting sound is raw and real and captures the feel of a medium-sized band sitting in a studio playing live and having a time at it. As unpolished as an aging pewter vase, Time's All Gone reflects its authors truest sensibilities and sounds unlike many of today's overly refined and highly compressed recordings.
Opening with the shocker "Say I Wanna Know," which chronicles the criminal escapades of a former friend and the tough times Waterhouse himself has experienced, the tune sets the tone of the album from the outset with a couple of simple alternating guitar chords that lay a foundation for the band. Cascading in forcefully with a deep rhythm section and punching horns, the band makes its presence known and the track leads to a crescendo, introducing the superlative female backup singers, The Naturelles. Led by Natalie Alyse, The Naturelles cries out the mystical response to the protagonist's dilemma-filled call, with its "I wanna know" surfacing to express the angst-driven demand for a universally sought resolution.
"That tune [ "Say I Wanna Know"] is all real," Waterhouse relates, "They're struggles that I, or people that I know, have gone through. The music is about this deeper wanting; it's about a quest for understanding. You're looking inward, you're looking outward. 'What does the world mean to me?' This album is about arriving to the conclusion that it's the songs, in the end, that provide the response-in their feel. The questions are all there, but it's like this infinite loop where you have this question but at the end of the day you have like four seconds of a song where you feel like everything makes sense and everything is right with the world. When I listened to it on playback I felt like, 'I did it! I did it!'; I gave myself chills! It's beyond language or superficial appreciation; it's something you feel when you react involuntarily to something."
With truckloads of soulful swagger and power, "Say, I Wanna Know" ends on a dramatic note and sets the stage for the next selection, "Some Place." The deep grooves that the band strikes changes the tempo significantly and turns the tune into a raucous party anthem with all the bells and whistles blearing at once. "I can only give you everything" again features The Naturelles, with ringing harmonies that offset the masculine, adrenaline-infused rhythms. Another change leads to the beautiful ballad "Raina," which Waterhouse describes as the sound of his driving on the Pacific Coast Highway to a late night performance when he was only 17. It is, perhaps, the best composition and most thoughtful arrangement on the disc, with castanets, shakers and tambourines all adding to the mix. The title track blazes with saxophones, guitar and rock steady bass summoning ancient American dance rhythms that could rattle and roll any self-respecting rent party during any era. Waterhouse's mature, Gibson 335 guitar sound anchors the vintage approach and accentuates the overall feel with great color and texture. His vocals are also chameleon like in the way they blend with the various grooves in the music.
Though all the players are capable and carry their weight, special attention must be paid to backup singers, The Naturelles. Ray Charles may have had his "Raelette"; Dr. John may have had his "Creolettes"; Leon Russell, too, had a great set of background singers in "Black Grass," on his early '70s tours-but The Naturelles are truly something special. Sensual, seductive, and powerful, the singers envelope the music with beautiful harmonies and a certain elusive, collective ringing quality to their voices that truly propels the masculine-sounding project forwards with a contrapuntal sweet and everlasting feminine touch.
"Do you believe in destiny?" Waterhouse inquires, "'Cause those girls knew exactly what I wanted!"
When time's all gone, the restraints within which we normally function also vanish. Reminiscences, memories, historical references all pale in comparison to gritty present day realities. And with each generation comes another set of priorities, experiences and the emotions which naturally follow. Waterhouse, on his trek down America's soul laden musical road, has found his own path forged by a traditional set of sonic tools yet imbued with his own unique and 21st century approach. Though the ghosts of Ike Turner, Ray Charles, and Otis Rush may be boogying in the background, Waterhouse's brand of American holy music winds its way past the Chittlin' Circuit, up the Mississippi delta, on through Memphis and finds its home in such unlikely and disparate communities as Huntington Beach, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But this is the new America, a place where books cannot be read by their covers and where genuinely soulful offerings are being proffered by young authors in the midst of rewriting the hallowed encyclopedia of soul. With the afternoon light streaming in around him and into the darkened diner, the singer, sporting a wry and knowing smile, announces that he is on his way to purchase a piano. He stands, bids his interviewer farewell and leaves. Walking out, he checks his messages while strolling down one of L.A.'s wide, busy boulevard's, without ever looking back.
Nick Waterhouse, Time's All Gone (Innovative Leisure, 2012)
Nick Waterhouse, Is That Clear EP (Innovative Leisure, 2011)
Allah-Las, Allah-Las (Innovative Leisure, 2012)
Courtesy of Nick Waterhouse