Photo: Patrick Moore
He may not look like he belongs on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, but after years of pioneering the psychobilly genre here in America, Tiger Army front man Nick 13 has taken some time to diverge from the world of fast-paced, hard-charging rock n’ roll to refocus his talents on country music. While anyone who follows Nick and Tiger Army knows that he has dabbled in this arena before, his first effort as solo artist is a complete departure from anything that he’s done previously. Elegant in its delivery and colorful in its tones, the self-titled debut, which was released this last May, sounds like it was created by a talented veteran of country music—cutting tunes that are stories of life, love and loss—the corner stones of any great country record.
As he enters this new chapter of his career, SLUG thought it was the right time to interview the man himself, and get his thoughts on the new record and going solo.
SLUG: How did you discover country music?
Nick 13: Listening to rockabilly as a teenager is what led me to country music. A lot of guys like Charlie Feathers and Carl Perkins would cut honky tonk sides along with rockabilly singles, and that was my first exposure to pure honky tonk music. I had a powerful emotional connection to the music that was very different. I started exploring that music and it quickly became a staple among the many different kinds of music I listen to.
SLUG: You’d played country songs with Tiger Army. What was it that made you want to do an entire solo country record?
Nick 13: At one point a few years ago, new music began seeming stale to me, and on a trip to Nashville while on tour, I just heard so much great roots music. I went into the Ernest Tubb record shop, on Broadway St. in Nashville, and got a lot of obscure stuff I hadn’t checked out, and it really was the greatest music surrounding me at the time, and it hit me that it was time to make this solo record that I’d been thinking about for years.
SLUG: How long had you been considering a solo record?
Nick 13: It’s something that was even possibly first suggested by fans, certainly 10 years ago when Power of Moonlite came out with the song “In the Orchard,” but possibly back in ’99 when Tiger Army did the first album with “Outlaw Heart,” and people would ask if I would ever do an entire album in the same genre as those songs. Recording that song was one of my favorite experiences of making that record. It really struck a chord with me having Greg Leisz, who would eventually co-produce this new solo record, play pedal steel on it.
SLUG: What is it about the addition of pedal steel guitar that is important to a country record?
Nick 13: I don’t know if I could put it into words. It’s probably the most emotional of instruments, especially in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. Steel guitar strikes emotional chords that only the human voice can. Even normal guitar generally doesn’t affect me the same way steel guitar does.
SLUG: It’s surprising how different the record sounds from anything Tiger Army has released. Was that a conscious effort?
Nick 13: I think a lot of people thought it would be a punk-infused or a rock-infused record. I know there are some people who wouldn’t want to listen to something like that, that are just now getting the idea that I’m drawing on roots music and that singer/songwriter stuff is more of what I’m doing. Obviously, I love aggressive music, but bringing the energy of Tiger Army to what I’m doing here isn’t what I’m interested in. We had a tech on tour that played pedal steel, so we finally had a chance to play the Tiger Army country songs as they were on the record. A couple of times, we put them in a row together and I noticed that there was a different energy in the room from the audience, and it was strange that every one was standing still and watching. In the world that Tiger Army comes from, it’s a bad thing, but I could feel that everyone was still with me there, connected and into it. It was peaceful and relaxing, and with the new record I wanted to get back to that zone I had found, and keep it coming from that place.
SLUG: The solo record has vintage qualities, but definitely sounds contemporary and fresh. How did you achieve that?
Nick 13: I’m not a purist. I’m not looking to write or record a song that sounds like it was recorded in 1961, note for note. I do believe that it is the role of music to evolve and change as time goes on. It has to be relevant to today’s world, but at the same time, when music reaches the point that the only concern is sales and it’s the driving factor behind everything, and there is no connection with the roots of what made this music what it is, something is lost. A lot of that music is timeless, and you can draw on that without completely looking backwards.
SLUG: Who else, other than yourself, do you think has that connection to the classic era of country and honky tonk?
Nick 13: There are a lot of great artists in the Americana underground that maintain that connection to the roots stuff. Guys like Dale Watson from Austin, Jim Lauderdale in Nashville, and James Intveld—who with Greg Leisz, produced my record—is a great solo artist doing original songs. [Intveld] was amazing to work with in the studio. I learned so much from him, and he plays every instrument: Lots of people play multiple instruments, but it’s rare that someone plays everything as well as he does. He’s a great drummer—he even played bass on the entire record. He was great at breaking down each song and getting what we wanted out of it.
SLUG: Given your past career history, your tattoos and the more alternative image that you’ve projected with Tiger Army, has there been any resistance from the traditional country market?
Nick 13: I don’t hear about that kind of thing directly, but I do get the sense that it has happened. I think the tattoos or the perception of what they think I would be doing musically has probably put some people off, but when they actually hear the record, or where I’m coming from and what my influences are, they tend to warm up to it pretty quickly.
SLUG: With Tiger Army, in the past, you’ve drawn on exterior influences like movies and books. The solo record, however, seems to come from a more personal place.
Nick 13: Things I come across, like movies or literature, do influence me, but one of the main differences from this record and Tiger Army is that the songs are more personal and more direct.
SLUG: While writing and recording, you made several pilgrimages to the country music capital, Nashville. What did you get out of spending time there?
Nick 13: I started writing and rehearsing in L.A., and something wasn’t clicking, and it just seemed like a natural thing to go back to [the]source of the inspiration and see what happens. It’s such a unique place in that there’s constantly music going on there, and you can just walk off the street and see legendary players just playing around town. You just don’t get a chance to see stuff like that randomly in California. Seeing all that great live music, there was a quality to seeing the music live for myself, which I just couldn’t get from a record. The incredible amount of history there, whether it’s going to the Ryman Auditorium where Johnny Cash and everyone was playing in the ’50s, or going to the Country Music Hall of Fame. There’s something about Nashville that made things all fall into place for me.
Anyone who’s been looking for true-to-the-heart country music has had to search in some seemingly strange places, but that’s just what they’ll find in Nick 13’s solo debut. Full of wanderlust, the record captures the spirit of authentic country music, while at the same time, delivering something completely new. Nick 13 will be playing his brand of honky tonk in Salt Lake at the State Room on Sat. Oct. 8.