Friday, September 13, 2019
It’s fair to say that Nick 13 has a deep love of the rock’n’roll and pop of the 1950s and ’60s. At the same time, the Tiger Army founder and frontman wrote the songs for new album Retrofuture with the idea of challenging the perception that people have of his band and its music. That’s because, more than 20 years after he started the band, Nick 13 is still on a journey of musical discovery and invention – one that’s perfectly captured by the title of the Los Angeles band’s sixth full-length.
“Retrofuturism is primarily known as a visual aesthetic,” he says, “but hearing the word it struck me that it’s the perfect way to describe our music. It’s always been a challenge to give a short answer on what we sound like in terms of genre, and there are certain things associated with our music that I don’t think necessarily reflect what it actually is. The music of the past is of great interest to me, and we use guitars, amps and effects – certain recording techniques from that time, but it’s not intended to be a recreation. It’s of the now and looking ahead as well.”
This sixth-full-length does exactly that. Recorded at Kingsize Soundlabs in Eagle Rock by Ted Hutt, who produced Tiger Army’s last record, 2016’s V •••–, and has worked with the likes of Lucero, The Gaslight Anthem and Old Crow Medicine Show, Retrofuture is a bold and audacious next step for the trio. While that last full-length was a homage to the more elaborate production found in the second wave of rock’n’roll, Nick wanted this to be a guitar record. That gave rise to a rawer, more stripped-down approach to writing these songs than on the album before, and because of that – although these 13 songs are disparate in sound – they’re also cohesive. Whether that’s the gentle lilt of “Valentina”, the frenetic chug of “The Devil That You Don’t Know”, the high-octane punk blast of “Eyes Of The Night”, the Spanish lyrics and mariachi lilt of “Mi Amor La Luna” or the joyful wistfulness of album closer “Shadowlight”, they’re all part of the same whole.
Yet while this album is another clear sonic evolution for the band – now completed by double-bassist Djordje Stijepovic and drummer Mike Fasano – it still brims with the band’s trademark dark romanticism and existential despair. Indeed, “Last Ride” is a song obsessed with the idea of impending mortality. As morbid as that may sound, it’s actually intended to serve as reminder that we need to make the most of the short time we have on this planet.
“Death is a part of life,” says Nick, “and, overall, I see it as a positive thing. I’ve always used death as a motivating factor to push myself along creatively and otherwise, to make sure we’re getting the most from life that we can and that we’re pursuing our dreams instead of just settling for something because it’s easy. Those are the kinds of things I think my songs encourage people to do if there is a message.”
One other big inspiration for Nick 13 was – as has always been the case for him – the allure of the night. In fact, the setting of the last seven songs on this record is long after the sun has gone down, something which gives this album an otherworldly atmosphere. For while these songs and certainly flow with real human emotions and feel like they’re inspired by the real world, they also feel like they exist outside of it.
“I think our music is part of this world,” says Nick, “but it’s also really part of a parallel world that’s either above or below or removed from daily life. Without being religious, it’s more spiritual in a sense – it’s to do with the human spirit and the things we all feel. It’s divorced from politics and daily life and all the things I don’t like in the daytime, which is why the music takes place, and feels best, at night.”
The end result is an album that very much lives up to its title. It’s a record that marches forwards, but with the occasional glance back at what has passed. Tiger Army’s continued evolution in recent years really took shape after the release, in 2011, of Nick’s eponymous solo record – a collection of gorgeous, country-tinged songs which he says certainly had a big impact on the way he writes. That’s not to say the influences that inspired Tiger Army’s earlier work don’t still exist here – “Devil That You Don’t Know” sprang to life after Nick tracked down the same kind of 1960s fuzz pedal The Cramps used in their early days (“Sometimes songs just come from nowhere,” he says, “as though they’ve been given to you by somebody or something, and that was a song like that. There was something magic about that pedal”) – but there’s a whole lot more to it at the same time.
“People are very anxious to put things in a genre box,” Nick says. “For me, there’s a family tree and a throughline in our music that probably starts in the ’30s or ’40s with hillbilly and rhythm and blues, and then of course rock’n’roll through surf and garage in the ’60s and punk in the ’70s. But it’s all an evolution of the same related things, and I think this record draws on all those things. I don’t know what kind of music that makes it other than rock’n’roll – but that’s where the retrofuture concept comes in as well – because it is all those things.”
And so, as much as this album is about looking ahead, it’s about doing so from a place in the past – a theme that ties these songs together from beginning to end and gives it a particularly anachronistic feel that exists in multiple temporal spaces at the same time.
“Much in the same way people looked ahead and tried to imagine what things would look like,” he explains, “part of the idea of this record was the way that people in the past might have imagined rock’n’roll sounding like decades in the future.”
It’s partly because these songs stretch across multiple decades and worlds that there’s a very palpable sense of magic within them. While some artists lose their zest when they’ve been doing the same thing for a long time, even after more than two decades of making music, Nick still fully believes in its power and beauty, and the profound impact that can have. His motivations for making it remain as simple and pure as ever, too.
“I just try to please myself and create something that’s good and valid and I create it the way I want to,” he says. “That’s something that hasn’t changed since the first album.”