Modern day soul man, Nick Waterhouse, plays the closing show at the Chevron Festival Gardens this Saturday, March 7. ALEX GRIFFIN reports.
As increasing Stax – sorry – of imitators mine the arcane past of soul music for new punchlines to old jokes, Nick Waterhouse has carved out an enviable reputation for his wiry, weary take on the classics.
The Californian native made waves in 2012 with his instant classic This Is A Game, and last year’s sophomore effort, Holly, was a great leap forward; a veiled, shifty beast, tightly packed with musical references to obscure b-sides and lyrical allusions to Shakespeare, Godard and Hart Crane. Suspicious of how technology changes us and wary of where misdirected energy can lead, the record packs a big message to decipher, setting him apart from most other contemporary soul revivalists, who tend to be around for a good time, not a deep one you can still dance to.
“I guess it seemed better than going in the opposite direction towards singles, which seems to be where everyone else has gone,” Waterhouse explains. “Like, you can say more now, to more people, with a social media profile, web content and viral videos – whatever the fuck you choose – than you could by making an album.”
In that case, what’s going to be the viral video that’s the Led Zeppelin IV of viral videos? “Whenever Kanye West next teams up with an art director to make a 10-minute short film that’s so successful everyone forgets there’s an album?” Waterhouse grimly chuckles.
On this, he’s a man of charming, but almost irascible conviction – it’s all about the song, not the singer. Coming from an extreme trainspotter record collector mentality (think endless mornings at swap meets, intricate networks of tape swapping and trawling web 1.0 message boards), Waterhouse is disdainful of anything that seeks out the image instead of the soul of the sound, something eternally and refreshingly present in his own music.
“I’m kind of rooted in a record swapper culture; once you have this object, it actually exists as a part of your life. We’re within this age of anxiety, this sprawl that we’re afraid will one day stop; like everyone is seeking a little cocaine bump of novelty, scraping the edges of everything before moving on to the next thing while it’s hot. I feel like this mentality has trickled down to a lot of artists, since the internet has turned everyone into a consumer of the rare and obscure.”
Waterhouse has always been an outlier, though. Growing up in the Orange County garage rock scene, playing shows with his teenage band The Intelligentsia alongside the likes of Ty Segall and the Cold War Kids, his obsessive predilection for more disciplined music set him apart. These days, the gap has been bridged by his immaculately fuzzy production work on the records of the region’s premier Nuggets-worshippers Allah-Las, but for Waterhouse, soul was the only sound that ever spoke to him.
“I’ve tried to explain it so many times to people and it’s like, they ask, ‘how do you get into this stuff?’ and it’s like, ‘I don’t know! How do you fall in love?’ I just keep finding myself compelled to find more. A sensibility in a lot of the work hit me on a visceral level, but I also identified with it philosophically, because the emotions in punk rock and hip hop – the things that were options at the time for kids growing up – none of it really seemed distinctly like what my internal life felt like.”
Live, Waterhouse and his rotating crew of jazzbos are a compelling set of party-starters, honed to a sharp by experiences like a hellish 2012 tour that took in 43 nonstop nights of zigzagging across America. Playing this year’s Perth International Arts Festival’s closing party with the last ever set at the Chevron Festival Gardens is a far less daunting challenge, but one they’re set to blow the lid off.
“We’ll be a sextet down under, with the same rhythm section that’s on Holly, my favourite sax player Paula Henderson – who’s actually from Australia but been in New York for the last 20 years – and Brit Manor singing. These guys are just amazing, and have all really dug it out on the road with me, so they get it right where I need it.”
Considering how long and how critically he’s been immersed in his craft, it feels wise to take Waterhouse’s word on that.