“I Really Think That I Try to Get Into That Zone”: An Interview With Nick Waterhouse

Ross Olson speaks to the singer-songwriter about his creative process, the conceptualization of his new album The Fooler, preserving aesthetics from mid-century art forms and more.
By    April 26, 2023

Image via Ben Heath

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Ross Olson played Chief Keef’s “See Through” for his family on Xmas eve; they were only moderately horrified.

The reaction of the party’s guests left a lasting impression on Nick Waterhouse. As a young child, Waterhouse would frequent his father’s firemen parties, where normally stoic adults became entranced by the magic of the hired band. Waterhouse would cozy up to the main suppliers of the collective dopamine – the rhythm section – and study the unspoken synergy between the drummer and guitar player. From there on, a subconscious determination was born to induce similar bodily escapes for audiences far and wide.

After stumbling upon an old guitar belonging to his father, Waterhouse became a devoted student of the craft. Rhythmic-based rock bands like The Kinks and Creedence Clearwater Revival were early inspirations. Equally important were luminaries like Mose Allison and Van Morrison. After moving to San Francisco for college, Waterhouse hung around record shops and vinyl collectors while continuing to play music. The formative experience led him to record an early 45 that elicited a strong reception around the City. Soon thereafter, Waterhouse retreated to a studio in his hometown, The Distillery in Costa Mesa, to cut what would become his first full-length project, 2012’s Time’s All Gone.

Waterhouse’s sixth LP The Fooler, which arrived fittingly on April 1st via Innovative Leisure, sees his strengths as a songwriter reach imaginative new heights. For the first time in his discography, Waterhouse occupied a more hands-off role, yielding creative control to producer Mark Neill, whose Soil of the South studio in Valdosta, Georgia, served as fertile terrain for the record. Neill, a veteran of analog production who won a Grammy for his work with The Black Keys, stressed the importance of studio presentation and makeup when capturing an imagined world through sound. Soil’s claustrophobic set up meant the manpower behind the record had to be concentrated, leading to a singularly-focused vision shared by its creators.

Instead of orchestrating a nine-piece band or tinkering behind the boards – as he’s done on previous projects – Waterhouse focused on narrative voice and storytelling techniques. The result was a transportive body of work equivalent to a Twilight Zone episode, where time, space, and other celestial properties were immaterial to the character’s quest for deeper meaning and human connection.

The charming mystique of the record is palpable through its cover art: a spectral black-and-white photograph taken by Jim Marshall of the iconic City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. While The Fooler resembles The City in nature, the creative spirit of the project is better understood through the lens of interchanging cities, interesting people, lost loves, ineradicable anxieties and legendary studios that left a profound impact on Waterhouse as an artist and songwriter.

“If it’s strong enough and it’s welded to your heart, you can actually pull it up and the sort of memory image becomes even more searing and powerful than when you were living in it in real time,” Waterhouse says.

Regardless of place or time period, the yearning for love and spiritual connection lies at the heart of The Fooler. “Play to Win” is a rejection of back-and-forth games over pensive piano keys and a swinging groove. Album highlight and rockabilly callback “(No) Commitment” is infectious enough to belie the vexed nature of its narrator, who’s upset over a significant other’s lack of seriousness in their relationship. The title track poignantly reflects on a city that Waterhouse no longer recognizes, with its empty roads and street lamp shadows, along with a relationship that previously existed within it.

I caught up with Nick to talk about his writing process, relinquishing creative control in the studio, channeling evocative memories, and much more.

How did it compare recording this album in Valdosta, Georgia, to Promenade Blue in Memphis?

Nick Waterhouse: It was a totally different world. Promenade Blue was a part of a thread of my process of production going back to my first record, Time’s All Gone. So it’s sort of like five albums in a row with a rotating cast of a lot of characters. And The Fooler and Valdosta was so much more concentrated. Like it was really just Mark [Neill] as the producer. That was the first time I ever like yielded – I surrendered having someone else produce so I could just be the artist. It was much more small bore. It was just me, Mark, my buddy Doc, and then a rhythm section at first.

It was like in a way, the economy focused more on the writing and me as an artist, versus almost like the broad spectrum of a massive cast of people and room, sound, and feel. Making Promenade Blue, it was like nine people all staying together in an apartment and going to the studio all day. It was like how I always made records, or learned how to make records. Mark was the one in charge at Valdosta, and it was like work-a-day. Ascetic-like. It was really about Mark drilling down on concepts with me that I was revealing in my writing. Much more of a singer-songwriter record than a producer-songwriting record.

What kind of conversations were you having with Mark that led to the conceptualization of The Fooler?

Nick Waterhouse: They were almost metaphysical. A lot of it was philosophical. A big part of our connection was stuff like production, records we loved, studios, techniques. He’s the holder of a lot of sacred information because he was around in the 70s meeting all the guys making the records we loved. Beyond that, we started talking about, like the psychic geography of records. Not just ‘well there was a bossanova trend in drumming on these records that we’re talking about,’ but like ‘what does that mean? And how does that feel?’ How does the record make me feel?’ And what do I associate it with?’ And what do we both know that the writer, or composer, or the engineer knew at the time?’

The French have a term in cinema ‘mise en scene.’ This notion of, like the composition within a frame. It’s not quite set design, it’s not quite art direction, it’s not quite coloration, but it’s like all of that at once. Creating like a sum total, almost like a spirit. We were really angling to get there in relation to my own writing and storytelling. And I had some breakthroughs in writing in terms of perspective, and the narrative voice, and like perception in writing. I got to that in “The Fooler,” “Late in the Garden,” and “Was it You,” where the language, and the storytelling, and the whole record were all related to these things that Mark and I were talking about.

Definitely. How did you know it was time to leave San Francisco when you lived there?

Nick Waterhouse: I could just sense, I could feel it. A big part of this record too is like, it’s related to The City, but it’s also – I’ve been in so many other cities since then. It’s like a dream where you’re walking down the hall and the wallpaper changes, and the door changes. Like this unreal city. It’s just the stuff that I lived in the meat of my human experience was in SF at a certain place and time where it was this energy. In a way it relates to that photo on the cover, the Jim Marshall photo. There’s a certain energy to that where that could be the West Village, that could be the Moreau in Paris, but North Beach on that corner was it for me. And there was this time slip where it could have been – when Jim was taking that picture – it could have been when I was 22-years-old in 2008, you know?

For sure. How do you manage to sort of teleport yourself to different moments in time or musical eras while you’re writing a song or writing the music?

Nick Waterhouse: Again, I relate much less to technical music pop producers who talk about like ‘well, I wanted it to be Motowny so I did this.’ But for me, it’s actually much more like when you hear a novelist or a writer talk about like ‘I was writing this poem about the Spanish Revolution so I had to imagine not just what it would feel like, but what it would smell like.’ It’s sensory almost. That’s also why I love sound so much. Two weeks ago, I was working on this record in a really famous studio here in LA. Western One, like East West. That room is like the Lee Hazelwood, Nancy Sinatra records. Or some of the Lou Rawls records. Or the David Axelrod stuff.

Something on an unconscious level occurs if you’re really familiar with those songs when a drummer hits a snare drum in that room, your deep brain is like ‘wow, that’s a sound that I know, and I feel. But not that I tried to manipulate.’ Like a smell almost. I really think that I try to get into that zone when people ask me about other times. My lizard brain knows what it wants, and it happens to be something from another time, but I also have to try to relate to it and not just imagine it as a template but like a real physical thing.

Is there also a sentimental component to the album since San Fran is where you recorded some of your first 45s?

Nick Waterhouse: I realized when I was working on it, the premise is that fiction is like you’re conflabulating something in order to tell a deeper truth and so you’re manipulating real experiences that you had. But you’re not reading deeply if you’re reading this Virgina Woolf book and saying ‘who is that character based on?’ Sure that’s contextual, but it’s like what’s she saying? For me, the raw material I took was from SF. So I was touching these parts of me, but having the distance now it was easier for me to relate to it and be compassionate and have perspective. In a funny way, the city that my first album Time’s All Gone is in, those songs are almost like dialogues between people on the street on like street level where you can’t pull out into a wide lens, and this record is like the wide lens version that also goes into the stream of consciousness of those people living in the city.

So would you say it’s more on a macro level? Both real and imagined?

Nick Waterhouse: Yes, and the first record is so rooted in this raw, mostly from a male perspective. These tunes, I wanted to write songs that either person in this relationship – like it transcends gender or perspective of a single character. Like both roles can be reversed in all these lyrics and in the storytelling. It’s fleshing out the world around it and how these characters perceive the world. Like what the world doesn’t offer them.

You see that in songs “No Commitment” and “Unreal,” and also the world they’re creating between themselves, and also their inner epiphanies, and also the conflict of how two people can strive for human connection and fail. I think that Time’s All Gone’s like nothing but visceral feelings. It’s all like reactant, but you know that’s the energy of what happens when you’re 24 years old and wanting to make a 45. That’s kind of like where I was coming from without over-literalizing the story because to me, The Fooler became something else, not just the story of the city for me.

The press release says how it could be seen as the perspective from the observer and also the observed too. I like how it keeps you on your toes with the perspective constantly changing.

Nick Waterhouse: I always really liked headphone albums when I was young. Like even records that have rhythmic feelings that I like, like records that make you want to dance. There’s some headphones records, I think of like Astral Weeks or even the Stones’ Aftermath or like Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces or even the sequencing on the second Irma Thomas LP. Those are like headphone records. You can get lost in it on your floor. I wanted that to be what this record felt like.

Are you motivated at all or have a desire to try and preserve the sounds, styles, and aesthetics from the mid-century artforms and the kind of stuff that you grew up on?

Nick Waterhouse: I think it’s really important and I think a big part is, if we’re in 50 to 100 years from now, it’s gonna be a lot like how modern art was treated. I look at other artforms and it’s really ignored because the industry, to survive and be an industry, just reduced it to like, product. And a lot of stuff was made as product, but we’re sitting on a lot of like, folk art in America that we don’t have an appreciation for because we also deny with psychotic optimism our past. I think of like, techniques of painting and crafts. There’s a craft element. A lot of mid-century stuff was a balance between technology and craft and expression. It’s actually more important to like teach or preserve the techniques to have like a dialogue of the past. Not a regurgitation of it as a product or a consumable good. I think that’s how you enrich the future, and also like, honor the people that gave us this stuff, you know?

I got the opportunity to work with people that I consider legends of the world that I’ve lived in. Somebody like Joe Armstead who is a giant of cowriting and performing and production, but it’s like she’s just like living out her basic American life in her 80s now. And that’s a woman who should be teaching other people how to write songs. Everybody has something if they participated in that Golden Era that they could pass on to younger musicians or aspiring producers just to not let the fruit die on the vine. We’re still so close to it in history. It’s gonna be a shame in 100 years if people are still going to be like trying to just find scraps of this stuff. I’m by no means trying to also live in the past. I think that if you look at any other practice, whether it’s religious or cultural, I think it’s really culture and it bears preserving for lack of better terms. Really to me it’s like perpetuating.

I think people worry that certain traditions of the past might get lost or forgotten about with the passage of time or with the advancement of technology, but you talked about that balance and passing down things and teaching about the craft.

Nick Waterhouse: I mean for me, a huge thing I think that’s crazy is that knowing I grew up in record stores since I was 15 and what a social function that was and what an educational function that was and now I meet kids that are 19 and will never know what that was like. That it’s almost like a salon where you’re not going to school, not formal, but if you spend 20 hours a week your brain is growing and your taste and your curiosity and concurrently there’s a reason for that, that isn’t just reduced to like a transactional relationship. That’s the best way I can describe why I advocate for relating to this stuff.

I read that you’ve recorded on tape since you were growing up. Have you ever had a desire to fully transition into digital?

Nick Waterhouse: It’s less of a desire and more of a ‘I’ll believe it when it’s happening.’ I’m also not precious in the way that many would possibly conceive that I would be, but there is stuff sonically that occurs that can’t be replicated even with the strongest AI. And psychologically there are things that occur because you start making decisions differently with the economy of, you have limitations. A lot of artists have talked about this. Sometimes limitations help you because you don’t get the option of anxiety. You don’t get the endless scroll. If you’re looking at 100 dropdown windows it’s different than being like ‘well we just have to play it again until it feels good.’ And that’s kind of what tape teaches you as well.

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