Comes with a Smile # webexclusives
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search Whilst far from disconcerting, having ones resume sat among the requisite photo gallery and message board is at odds with regulation rock web site protocol. But, with a CV as impressive as that of Nick Luca, perhaps such a perfunctory musical history is an apt addition. Whether adding instrumental know-how to the likes of Giant Sand's 'Chore of Enchantment', Howe Gelb's 'Confluence', Calexico's 'The Black Light' and 'Hot Rail', and Steve Wynn's 'Here Come The Miracles', or his engineering skills to Richard Buckner's 'Devotion and Doubt' and Bill Janovitz's 'Lonesome Billy', it's safe to assume that Luca's name crops up amid the CD racks of most every CwaS reader. Despite years treading the boards with various local heroes the multi-instrumentalist looks set to follow in the footsteps of his wider-known desert-dwellers and cross the ocean to promote his decidedly laid back debut solo album, 'Little Town' (Loose).

Does the Nick Luca Trio signal the end of Interlocking Grip, or will you continue to work with both bands?
Two of the guys from IG moved to San Francisco so that pretty much put 'The Grip' on permanent hiatus They might come back though... everyone comes back to Tucson - the vortex! NLT is definitely a departure from IG, stylistically speaking, sort of the yin to the yang or vice versa? The Grip was pretty loud and rockin', whereas the Trio is more mellow, vibey and organic. I've enjoyed being able to genre jump and write for various groups and musicians, but I guess I'm going through a calm phase right now. The slow, quiet and groovy tunes seem to sound good. Jim Kober on drums and Chris Giambelluca on bass are generally pretty mellow too, I'm always influenced by the people I'm working with.

Considering your 'academic' approach to music via University, with a variety of genres and disciplines 'learned' have you found it more difficult to develop your own distinct style than if you were entirely self-taught? And have you made any effort to 'unlearn' certain disciplines in order to approach composition and arranging with a more instinctive feel?
Well, let's see... I got into guitar and piano as a kid and started playing along to classic rock records. My father has a lot of blues and rockabilly, so the blues is probably what I learned first. I was always writing tunes, most were pretty silly then, sometimes they still are. When I got to college I simply wanted to know about music, classical, jazz, avant-garde, theory and composition, all the while still playing in rock bands. I loved learning scales and chords and meters and such. I figured I should know as much as I can about the field that I hope to be in the rest of my life. Although I loved every minute of it, Beethoven, serialism, Ragas etc. my focus was always on my own music with its own quirks. Now, many years later, I find that 'training' to be invaluable, especially when coming up with melodic/harmonic/rhythmic options, but the ideas still come from the heart - or somewhere. Improvisation and the element of chance are a big part of my recording process - lots of things on the album just landed that way, some more planned than others.

Keys are prominent on the NLT record. Were the songs written primarily on the keyboard or transposed from guitar?
A little of both. I think that some tunes lend themselves more to one instrument or the other, but a good song can be transcribed to anything really. I can play our repertoire on either keys or guitar. Wavelab has a lot of funky vintage keyboards that are either classic, weird or interesting, lots of options there.

Was the sound of NLT predetermined, a specific aesthetic that you aimed for when formulating ideas for the album?
In a lot of ways it was. I was doing a lot of late night walks through downtown, from the studio to home in the Barrio. A lot of things pass through one's mind on those simple strolls - childhood memories, lost love, new dreams and old dreams. Occasionally, there's someone else out there and I wonder what they could be thinking about. It's mind boggling to think that everyone, everywhere has a lifetime of stories they could tell. I tried to reflect those ideas with a certain feeling in the music. Chris and Jim picked up on it right away, the overall sound came together pretty quick.

Do you have set methods for writing? How might they differ for scoring films?
Not really 'set methods' per se. Sometimes I'll sit at the piano or pick up a guitar and play and sing along and, lo and behold, it's a song, so I hurry to write down the words before I forget. Other times I'll think of a chord progression or a melody or a bass-line or a beat and then bring it to the band and it becomes a tune. Sometimes I won't write for two weeks, if I'm on the road, especially. I don't worry about it though, I'll get home and five songs will come out in one day, then a couple more the next day, they just keep on coming. Scoring films is a bit more involved. I watch the film a few times, then watch with the director and figure out the general direction we're going. I'll do some sketch ideas either with midi or just a guitar or piano, a lot of times the sketches become the final soundtrack. I've been lucky to do several fun film projects with friends, that's always the best. I'm not sure how much soundtrack work I'll do in the future, I like music for music's sake and making albums the most.

What attracted you to Hatch in particular from the Gelb catalogue?
Howe wrote Hatch while Giant Sand was on tour a couple years back. We did a pretty rockin' version with dual lead guitar solos, it was real fun. Not surprisingly, it was very different from the version on 'Confluence'. The melody stuck with me for a while and I did a little re-harmonization to it and made it an NLT song. I felt the words fit the 'little town' theme and vibe as well. Howe came in to the studio and recorded the casio part, a piano track and the Walkman vocal. He was very happy about it when we were done and so was I. There's lots of great Howe tunes I'd love to play - and to hear others play as well.

Does Howe encourage experimentation within your own work?
Howe's experimenting a lot of the time. He'll have ten elements to the song, all of them very loose. I prefer just one or two 'out there' elements over a more structured backdrop - most of the time, that is. Giant Sand has a lot of fun experimenting in the studio, lots of times there's laughter on the track somewhere or something funny going on. One time, Howe, Tom Larkins and I went to this funky cafe before recording. They were playing some techno and we were enjoying ourselves, goofing around. When we got back to the studio we completely blew off what we were working on and made our own version of 'techno', albeit much more loose and improvisational. Lots of fun that day. We dubbed the project 'Gecko Pipe', I'm still trying to convince Howe to try to put it out, we'll see...

What does he look for from you when you're engineering or performing live and in the studio with him?
When I toured with Giant Sand Howe said, "don't play too good", no problem there. Then one gig we were doing a song, might have been Hatch actually, and I was staring blankly into space and starting going off on a guitar solo. After a couple minutes he turned to me and said, "there it is, you got it! You weren't thinking, you just played - like you were discovering it for the first time!" I was like, "huh? Oh yeah, I guess I was." Howe works in a cool way and I understand it more and more as we work together, it's pretty different from 'standard' studio practice. He'll come in with all his stuff and we'll mic up everything - drums, bass, two or three guitars, effects pedals, two vocal mics, piano, organ and other keyboards etc., a lot of stuff ready to go to tape. Then we roll and he plays whatever he plays and the other musicians play along. Often, he'll do the same song three, four or five times in a row, non-stop. After we run out of tape, we'll go through and listen. Maybe take three is the best so we overdub on that, if necessary. We'll do the same thing at mix, get three, four or five different mixes and pick the best one, maybe mix five, but he'll like the solo in mix two, so we'll edit that together - pretty smart really, captures the 'magic/first-take/live' kind of vibe, but he gets the most out of it. Did I give away the magician's secrets?

Would the same apply to Calexico?
Well, it's a little different. Howe generally has songs pre-written in his little book or some kind of version he recorded at home on one of his several hand-held recording devices. Joey often comes in with no idea at all and creates on the spot or picks out a snippet of an idea from his hand-held recording device and then works on it right in the studio. Joey and John are great musicians and sometimes an idea becomes a full-blown song at the end of the day, but others never really come to fruition. A lot of experimenting we do in Calexico is with instrumentation and sound manipulation, which is fun. Howe usually brings in a guest or two or three to track live, you never know who it will be. Calexico is usually just Joe and John and then they'll bring in others to overdub later.

On the surface the likes of Brokeback, Steve Wynn and Giant Sand/Calexico would all seem to require very different approaches - is this where your versatility helps? Which have been your most enjoyable 'sessions' and why?
Well, they do all have different aesthetics, needs and ways of working in the studio, but they all want to get good sound going to tape. Or rather, the 'right' sound going to tape, which might be hi-fi or lo-fi, good, bad or whatever. We try to hear their vision and help realise that, keep an open mind and try anything. There's really no wrong answer, only what the artist wants to hear. I suppose that my versatility does help around the studio, I've played guitar, keyboards, accordion, sang, whatever, on all kinds of stuff, jazz, reggae, alt. country, electronica. I'll be writing some string arrangements for a folk singer and working with a noise-punk band soon too, who knew? Obviously, the most enjoyable sessions are when I'm working on my own music, but aside from that I like the great song writers that come in with great songs and use their time wisely and keep everybody fed and excited, which is hard work sometimes. Steve Wynn is great at that, Richard Buckner and Evan Dando too, all fun sessions and great recordings!

Does NLT's release on Loose mean this is your first concerted solo promotion outside of the US? Will this be your primary focus for now, is an overseas tour in the pipeline?
Yes, this will be my first European release, I'm thrilled! This is absolutely my main focus and tour ideas are being tossed around at this time, we'll get over there one way or another. If I could get up everyday and write, record or perform and survive somehow, I'd be happy forever. So far, so good.

Matt Dornan
March-April 2003