Fred Nicolaus is a busy man.
When he’s not out rummaging through the stacks in New York City’s used bookstores to find every copy of his literary hero John Cheever’s collected stories, or collaborating with longtime friend and Department of Eagles conspirator Daniel Rossen (also of Grizzly Bear), or plucking his way through melancholic Leonard Cohen melodies at famed rock journalist Sylvie Simmons’ underground story and song sessions, he’s also somehow finding the time to embark on a solo career.
The result is the exquisite and surprisingly buoyant Golden Suits (eponymous, technically; Nicolaus is going the stage name route on this one), so warmly produced and devoid of hipster irony that it may just loop around and qualify as edgy. The album, inspired by a tumultuous year in Nicolaus’ life, possesses a kind of approximate familiarity, moments that alternately recall a non-depressive Elliot Smith, an earthbound Stuart Murdoch, or what Art Garfunkel might have achieved as solo artist had he been born four decades later. These sonic signposts, though, are little more than insufficient points of entry into Nicolaus’ singular sound, one that finds and holds its balance between assured and humble from its very first note.
PopMatters recently sat down with Nicolaus to discuss his upcoming tour, the making of Golden Suits, his evolving sound, and of course, John Cheever.
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First, I have to ask: why the Golden Suits moniker? Fred Nicolaus is a pretty dashing name.
“Golden Suits” is a reference to John Cheever. It’s from my favorite sentence in all of his writing, the last line in the story “The Country Husband”. And I chose a band name because people often have a hard time [pronouncing] “Nicolaus.”
Fair enough. And speaking of Cheever, the “Swimming in ’99” video chronicles your attempts to buy every copy of The Stories of John Cheever in Manhattan in a single day, a concept you’ve said was inspired by the Cheever story “The Swimmer,” in which a man attempts to make his way home via all the swimming pools in his neighborhood. Tell me about this Cheever conceptual framing you’ve got going on. Also, I haven’t read much Cheever — am I screwed?
[laughs] Not at all. It’s not a Cheever concept album for sure. The connection to his writing is strong for me personally, but it’s not something like The Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon, where if you read his book backwards while listening to my album, there’s a secret message. The conceptual framing is just an acknowledgment of the fact that Cheever’s stories have meant a lot to me. I read them when I was 20, and they made a really strong, deep impression — I think about them all the time, both in relation to my real life and in trying to write songs. Sometimes there are little snippets of his actual prose in the lyrics, like the song “Swimming in ’99” lifts a piece from a story of his called “Goodbye My Brother”. But more often than that, it’s more vague and vibey — trying to write a song that feels the way a John Cheever story feels to me.
I also can’t help but notice this watch imagery that features on the album cover art and in the respective lyric and official videos for “Swimming”. Care to divulge?
I bought the red and gold watch on my 27th birthday, and the leather one shortly after my 28th. During the span of that year I had this crazy time, involving a breakup, a rat infestation, some intense family stuff. A lot of the songs were either written during that year, or are vaguely about it. So the watches are like bookends on this strange year.
Listening to this record, my ears were most intrigued by the percussion work. In particular there’s something about them that alternately makes me think of clapping or applause, and the movement of a locomotive. I think that’s the commonality there — a sense of forward movement, one that holds everything together sonically, as opposed to drums on songs that often seem to have their own agenda against the rest of the content because, you know, radio loves a canned beat they can remix to death. Is there something to this or am I just hearing strange?
Maybe what you’re hearing is the fact that a lot of the drum parts are based around percussive loops, as opposed to one guy in a room bashing away on a drum kit. When I first started making music with Department of Eagles, we made it all on computers, taking little samples and looping them across the length of a song. Even though I don’t really use samples anymore, my brain still thinks of drums that way — loops, not parts. I play the drums on this record for the most part, but I would often just play a little phrase and then have the producer copy and paste it, and we’d layer loops and accents on top of that. It’s similar to the way people make beats for hip-hop actually. Just a totally different kind of end result — but the method is roughly the same. I wish I could say it was a super meaningful choice, but it’s just the way I think of drums. I do think that having really simple, propulsive drum parts frees me up to obsess over lyrics, which is maybe what I’m most excited by in songwriting.
What were the challenges and delights of making a solo record coming off of your Department of Eagles work? What was the process of developing and nurturing your own sound when you’ve been creating a collective one for so long?
I had gotten so used to working with Daniel [Rossen] that it felt really frustrating at first, like having to learn how to tie your shoes with one hand. There were so many problems — I had gotten used to writing in Daniel’s vocal range, so I had to figure that out. I had gotten used to relying on his skills as an arranger and finisher of songs, so I had to really see things all the way through, which I had rarely done before. I feel like I’m still figuring these things out a little bit. The best part, I think, was being able to go wherever I wanted with the lyrics. When you’re writing for someone else to sing, sometimes lines get thrown away just because they don’t feel natural for the singer. I liked being able to have dictatorial control over that.
Tell me more about the contributions of other musicians on the record. It would seem the decision of who to invite to play on your debut solo album was one you had to be careful about making.
I went into it thinking “I’m going to do everything myself,” but then I quickly realized how insane that was. The most important collaborator was Fraser McCuloch, who engineered and co-produced the record, and really helped me organize the songs in a way that I could actually finish them. It was also really nice to be able to work with people I’ve known through Department of Eagles: the producer and bassist of Grizzly Bear, Chris Taylor, used to be a jazz saxophonist, and he recorded a saxophone arrangement for one of the songs. More than anything, it’s nice to work with people who understand your language — I told Chris that I wanted the arrangement to sound like Duke Ellington’s band on Quaaludes at 4AM. He understood exactly what I meant and did it perfectly.
Speaking of collaborations, you’re the go-to musician for Leonard Cohen biographer and rock journalism doyenne Sylvie Simmons, often playing beside her during her hybrid book reading/Cohen cover sets. Given the content and introspection of this record, did you find yourself going to Cohen as a source of inspiration at all? I can’t help but be very fondly transported to Cohen-ville when I listen to “I Think You Would Have Been Mine”, incidentally my favorite tune on the record.
Thanks, and it’s funny because I was thinking of Leonard Cohen on that song in particular. He’s so good at conjuring up these songs that feel like they’re taking place in a narrative context, but without any of the cheesiness of a “story song.” You feel like you’re part of a world, populated by vivid people, but it’s never like “this happened then this happened then this happened.” I try to write songs like that. The “voice of god” gravitas is something I’m still working on.
How are you prepping to go out on the road?
I cobbled together a band by just emailing everyone I knew and asking if they wanted to play, or knew someone who wanted to play, and going from there. The live incarnation is a standard “rock” group — two guitars, bass and drums. It’s been really fun to try and make these recordings into performable live songs. I kind of wish I’d done it the other way around. Sometimes you only figure out how a song “should” go after you play it with three people in a dirty practice room.
Does being out on the road tend to influence or develop your evolution as a musician, or are you too steeped in the current catalog to really think beyond it?
Definitely. Doing this album outside of Department of Eagles forced me to confront a lot of weaknesses I never had to deal with. I knew that I could generate ideas for songs, but I wasn’t at all sure I could turn them into finished recordings without Daniel. This record captured the process of me figuring out how to do that. I feel like whatever I do next, good or bad, the process will be plagued less by doubt.
And after the tour?
When I get back I’m making a music video for the song “Under Your Wing”. The director and I painted a giant backdrop for it which is currently sitting in his apartment in Astoria, so I’m hoping we can film it quickly so he can get back to using his living room. I also write pretty much all the time, so I have a new batch of songs I’ve written since the album was finished. I don’t know where they’ll end up — either on a new Department of Eagles record, or more Golden Suits stuff, but either way I want to make another album next year. I took too long to make this record, I feel like I did enough overthinking for an entire career.
Any ideas where you might go sonically or stylistically?
I want the songs to be simpler and more stripped down. And I want to make songs that feel more visceral. I think too often my stuff is “nostalgic and wistful.” It’d be cool to write a really angry song, or something really joyful. One thing I’ve kind of enjoyed thinking about recently is the fact that the two of the people who I feel most influenced by on this record, John Cheever and Randy Newman, are both national punchlines because they’ve been famously parodied on popular comedy shows — Seinfeld and Family Guy, respectively. Not quite sure what that says about my own prospects, but it’s a fun coincidence.