Nick Waterhouse orders breakfast while en route to Little Rock from Oklahoma City. The songwriter and bandleader — whose third album, 2016's Never Twice, channels his classic pop literacy shaped by deep dives into the brains and bins at Haight Street's Rooky Ricardo's record store — performs Monday, Dec. 12 at One Eyed Jacks.
On this tour, Waterhouse's rich arrangements are stripped down to a four-piece ("because the music business is cruel, and management is illogical," he jokes). But he'll be joined on piano by Anthony Polizzi, Waterhouse's songwriting partner and a mathematics professor at LSU. Waterhouse met "Doc" their first day of high school in California when they were 14.
"We write in a really modern way, I suppose," Waterhouse says on the phone. "We write over iMessage. We're trading lyrics and chord ideas and then voice memos. He has a piano and I have a guitar."
Waterhouse recorded the album live to tape in a mobile studio with engineer Mike McHugh, who mentored Waterhouse as a teenager hanger-on at California's Distillery Studios. Waterhouse steps aside from an anachronistic tractor beam, one that spans the stylish "retro" soul of contemporaries like Leon Bridges (who appears on Never Twice), while lovingly resurrecting the building blocks of rhythm and blues, with textured percussion, vibrant horns and distinctly New Orleans R&B-influenced piano rolls with cues from Van Morrison's miniature jazz.
He talked to Gambit about the album and his record store education.
Gambit: New Orleans R&B is essential to the history of rock 'n' roll. Have you dug into any of that? Do you have any favorites?
Waterhouse: Deep and rich. Oh God, yeah. Cosimo Matassa, everything he worked on was a huge influence on me from the very beginning. I grew up listening to a ton of that stuff — anything Allen Toussaint touched was a huge influence on me. I dig a lot of — a lot, a lot of — the Minit Records side. From '61-'64 there's a really great sweet spot. Someone like Earl King is a huge influence on me — his phrasing, his bass, the attention to rhythm. I got a lot of dotted quarter notes in my music, and that's definitely a New Orleans thing.
You were probably surrounded by a lot of the California alt-rock radio of the 1990s. How did you dig into these records?
I was a really curious kid. In a way, that stuff felt way more underground as the alternative to that alternative thing. I was eager to chase influences ... If I found out [Creedence Clearwater Revival] was covering "Suzie Q," most people wouldn't wonder who wrote "Suzie Q" and who did it. You chase things. I quickly learned through reading, that labels helped define the sound. "If anything sounds this way on the Chess label, I'm going to buy that, no matter what it is." It's like being in the antichambers of a pyramid. You break a wall and stumble into a whole other room full of stuff.
How important was working at the record store in shaping your music brain?
That was huge. I worked in a record store all through high school ... but going to Rooky's was like studying in a liberal arts program in terms of music. I got to really focus on what I was interested in, and be around what I was interested in, that had a level of depth that maybe wasn't revealed to me in high school.
I can't get over Rooky's. The thing about Rooky's, it was a community thing. It was really special. Rooky's reminded me so much of what I liked about Matassa's studio, J&M, where people are always hanging around. When I'd read more about the ways music was made, what I liked, R&B, it was people dropping by, people hanging out, people talking to each other. It becomes almost like a salon in the '20s ... It created an energy that wouldn't exist otherwise. You're there for the thing, but the thing doesn't define it. There's some record stores where people are going in for a strictly transactional manner. Rooky's was a really funky place where a lot of paths crossed. A social place. It's like a good bookstore. It's antithetical to the drone-strike purchasing of collectible records online.
Recording for the album seemed pretty laborious, if that's the right word, with using the mobile studio. What kind of gear were you using in there?
The funny thing about this record, again, it's about some objects — they don't define what it is, but they work well in doing it. Not to be too superstitious, but it was all the same equipment I used on my first record and the first Allah-Las record I produced. When I grew up, when I was a teenager, I was a little hang-around cable rat, when I was 15, 16, 17, at the studio The Distillery. The owner Mike, who was a mentor to me, has been through some really hard times since my career started. He was in jail, he had to close the studio, he lost custody of his kid — all this crazy shit. When he got out of jail, I really wanted to get working again. I wanted to work with him, and I wanted to use the stuff, kind of like my 10 fingers on two hands.
It's a bunch of tube outboard gear — two racks of microphone pre-amps, some of which are renowned. Record collecting can be such a stupid, fetish-y thing, where people attach value in a dumb way. But we were using these CBS compressors from the '70s that people were paying $150 for. And other audio engineers are like, "I want an Altec, the $60,000 Beatles compressor." On the one hand, we had some really amazing, rich, harmonically, tube gear, a couple rad modified Longevin pre-amps, Ampex outboard gear, Altec mixers, a couple Spectra Sonics compressors, and then almost all tube condensers on every instrument. That can be hard, but it really worked, when you're doing it right. And a lot of tube and ribbon mics.
We actually didn't have a mixing board, which I was kind of proud of. We were like a pirate radio station. We rolled in with a couple of racks of gear, a mess of cables and a bunch of microphones, plugged into whatever tape machine we had at the time, and that's kind of why it was really complicated.
What kinds of instruments were you playing? Did you have a lot of the equipment you used on your other records?
Yeah. I always write records with a piano and a Hammond B3 and a drumkit in mind. Everything else kind of rotates. This record, we had quite a few horn players, we swapped between a standup bass and a Fender bass. Obviously I was playing a lot of guitar. I was really excited because on the first record — I didn't have it, but I had written a couple songs with Latin percussion in mind, so by the second record and this record I had Andres Renteria playing congas and timbales and a bunch pf hand percussion, which my writing mind really writes with that, and I really love what he brings to it. It creates a pulse that moves through it, which the money men in this business feel you can do without but I think that's the thing that gives it some lifeblood.
"Stanyan Street" I wouldn't do without the timbale pattern in that. That song has three drummers. Never Twice has four or five songs where there's at least two drummers.
And you did all that live?
Yeah. Every tune is everybody all at once. We dub solos or do an overdub, but even the percussion stuff — what I love is the depth and dimension of having like, if I'm going to have a tambourine player or a güiro player, I'd actually sit him just over shoulder of drummer, so he's showing up in his mic. It creates this blend that's really different than if you're like, "OK, let's overdub the Latin thing."
When you started playing again, in your early 20s, and putting these songs together, did you feel it took some time to kick the rust off?
Since I started by "career," I think I've grown a lot as a singer and a bandleader, but I think what happened was that period of time was exactly right. I made [a] record, I didn't intend to be an act, I didn't want to play shows, I didn't want to give people flyers and tell them to come check me out. I just made this record. And out of that organically grew this weird, ragtag group of musicians who were even greener than me ... And a lot of that came out of the record shop.
As soon as I had a band, it was almost like that weird superhero movie thing, where you punch a wall, and look at your hand, shocked. I had all these ideas in me that I hadn't had an outlet for, for a couple years. I was getting that band together every night or every other night ... By having these people who were willing to play what I told them to, and having the space to do it in, those two things were impossible to me at the time ... A rehearsal space costs as much as an apartment. Getting someone to focus on something long enough to play is impossible in that goddamn city. It was less I felt rusty than I was tapping into something that was running really deep that I had ignored for a while.
It gets a kind of Land of the Lotus Eaters vibe. You see everybody down at the bar all the time, but to get them to show up at anything is impossible.
There's an instrumental on the album, "Lucky Once," that kind of serves as an answer to the album title.
That song means a lot to me, and that title, "Never Twice," comes from the chorus of that song. That's something I wrote with Doc Polizzi. We actually have a lot of material like that. This is the record where I was like, "Am I going to try to cut one of these?" 'Cause they're kind of sophisticated for what I think people normally like.
We did it a couple different ways. There was one with a vocal, we were talking about putting strings on it — it was really one of those that was circumstantial, which is kind of what that song's about. The tune made in sense in context of the record, and I thought it was a really nice transition on side B — if I'm making an LP, I'm thinking about it in terms of an LP.
But there's a lot of material like that that me and Doc have written, and that's the first thing I recorded along those lines.