March 27, 2013

NICK VIVID & FRAULEIN: Deep Into The Creative Process of The Sound Engineer, Producer and Music Community Caretaker of The Lower East Side

The story of Nick Vivid continues. You can catch up with how I met him and who he is here.

I was still in LA the last time I blogged about Nick. The NASA machine I talked about (his recording and mixing gear + his sound board and supercomputer) moved out from the apartment and into his own shop at Orchard and Stanton at the Lower East Side of New York City. Conveniently located next to LES live music venues Piano's, Tammany Hall, Arlene's Grocery, Cake Shop, etc. If you're on your way to St. Jerome's or Hotel Chantelle or Johnson's or wherever, it's very nearby if you wanna visit. He fixes instruments, pedals and records, mixes and masters both digital and analog.

 Every time I'm at the LES to shop for fabrics or to alter my clothes at the tailor I find all the bands setting up their gear and carrying around their drums and amplifiers around the area. Amidst all this bustle is Nick Vivid outside his shop for his cigarette break. It feels like he's the community's caretaker. Always there if anyone needs him. After I'm done with my pizza or burger I always ring his doorbell and pay him a visit. Nick was one of my favorite interview subjects for my documentary series. I could listen to his insights for hours and never get bored.

In one particular visit he engaged me in a very conspiratorial way. "Wanna see something cool?", he teased. He typed and clicked away in his NASA station and a recording file in mid-mix appeared before me on his giant computer monitor. He pressed play and I grinned. I thought it was a discovery of his, maybe one of his clients that he wanted to turn me on to. "That's one of my own songs", he announced, "I'm doing a whole album. I played all the instruments and I sing in it. I'm calling it Fräulein".

"You HAVE TO let me have the scoop on my blog!" I yelled. "Not now! Don't tell anybody I'm doing this yet!". It felt really cool being one of the only guys to listen to it before it's release. A cool thing about being a music impresario and journalist is that I get to hear all the goods before anyone else does. I hope that encourages all you aspiring ones out there to do the same.

The Nuclears
I felt so suppressed keeping in that excitement for two months. And now I finally get to spread the news. I got the email with an attachment of the rest of the album. And I couldn't process what my reaction was. I resonated with a bunch of songs. “Krav Maga,” “Animals” and “Time River” struck me very powerfully.

Drag Citizen

"I like the trumpets in Krav Maga" I praised. "What trumpets? I did that with a guitar". How the hell did he make a guitar sound like a trumpet?! The whole album was very hard to categorize. Is it 70's influenced? 90's influenced? It doesn't sound like anything in the 00's. It sounded very unprecedented to me. Very uncategorizable. Nick Vivid was in a glitter band with Blitch 66 in Drag Citizen. He was in an energetic Who / Clash / Stooges influenced band with The Nuclears. So my initial response to the album was that it violated my expectations a little. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. Any step towards the unfamiliar or the unknown is very daring.

I read the "About" section in the Fräulein website and it states: "I don’t know where they came from but they’ve been haunting me for decades. I had dozens of these songs by the time I was 11.” When Nick was 11 it was still the 90's. I feel like Soundgarden is the closest resemblance of what Fräulein is but Fräulein is much less sinister and much more upbeat. It can't be lumped under the Coachella stuff either because every song has a skillful guitar solo in it and the riffs are very well crafted.

I didn't know how to go about it. My mission statement is clear. I champion elements like madness, glamor, sex, spectacle and party spirit in the bands I curate. It's tough for me to know whether Fräulein is ever gonna play out that way because it's purely a sonic body of work with no stage presentation. That's because Nick wrote everything by himself and he didn't assemble a band yet. But there's this one piece of band art which does present a fresh fantasy realm: Samurais.

I wonder. If this ever plays out, what are the band members gonna wear? What are the music videos gonna look like? Is Nick gonna come out with a Samurai sword on stage? Maybe with the branding decisions and the presentation the whole experience of Fräulein will all make sense. I initially wanted to campaign Nick because he fit my music activism goals with the nature of his previous glitter/rock n roll bands. So instead of all this speculation on what Fräulein is or what Fräulein will be. Let's ask Mr. Nick Vivid himself.


Trip: Hello Nick, what's your response to the aforementioned intro?

Nick: Thanks Trip. Very kind words. The idea that I am viewed as a "community caretaker" in anyone's eyes is a very high compliment. I get tremendous satisfaction out of helping bands achieve the next level and realize their vision in the studio. Some dude walks out of the shop with his amp after I've fixed it - he's gonna use it on stage that night. I see it as my job to make sure that his amp is the one thing he doesn't have to worry about. These are big responsibilities in my eyes. There's a lot of trust put in me by others with all of these things and I take it seriously. Paying my bills is good, but helping people out is the most fulfilling part of the gig for me. No question.

As for Fräulein, it all started when I was thinking what I was gonna do next. I didn’t have a band but I wanted to do something of my own since I had the studio. So I said to myself "OK, Nick, put yourself in this scenario. Picture this: You have 5 months to live. You have time to make one last album. What would it be?". And I said "Man, I feel like I've been cheating myself for years. I've been holding myself back. I haven't been doing what I'm supposed to do." A month later I was recording it. I wasn't expecting anyone to like it. I didn't even know if I was going to like it. I just felt compelled to do it. Now that it's done, I'm so grateful I did it. From an audience/fan standpoint, I love how the guitar tones came out. I'm most pleasantly surprised with the drumming. The drums came across much more musical than I thought they would. It's a big drum record. It's a big guitar record. It's a big vocal record. The production was meant to sound like you were hearing it on the radio, and that took a lot of work to get that sound, but when I found it I was like "Yeah this is it! This is the sound I've heard in my head for decades!"

You're right - what do you label it as? I hear every one of my rock influences in there, but it doesn't sound like any of them. I don't hear anything outside of melody, harmony, and basic pop music structure that signifies it as anything familiar. So I believe it's very accessible music, but that's where the similarities probably end. Again, these were songs that I've had that I would always hear in my head, but they never fit into any band I've been in. They're born out of a place that has no limits and no rules, which is what rock n roll is supposed to be about anyway. For a group of people who say "Fuck the rules", music fans live by a very strict set of them. Most bands just copy what came before without digging into their hearts to find their true selves and letting that shine. 

And that goes for rock, indie, punk, whatever. Which is why this is probably not for the masses. But that was never part of the deal.

That said, I can understand and empathize with people not liking or understanding it. Certainly when you start a band, there's a pressure to align your band to other things so you can find your potential audience. There's a pressure of some sense of conformity. For instance, when I was in Drag Citizen, it was "If you dig Kiss and Motley Crue you'll probably like us". I guess that's always a safe starting point, but it wasn't enough for me. Every band I'd been in, we would hit that critical
Drag Citizen
juncture and I could see the writing on the wall. I used to think that the limitations of 4 or 5 people all using their common ground as a sandbox to work in was good for keeping me focused, but now I see that wasn't the case. Cause eventually I'd always say to myself "This band is not going to progress. This is not going to dig deeper and change and get more to the heart of the music we're trying to convey. We won’t become ourselves. We won’t realize our own identity. And that truth will ultimately leave me unsatisfied." This is the point where I'd typically become estranged from my band mates. I'd get bored. They'd get confused by me. They'd see me as a bit too weird at best, or at worst a tyrant.  I'd get frustrated with us not having the ability to reach what I saw as our potential. That intangible potential. With Fräulein I finally feel free, complete, and content. Fräulein is doing that thing that is bravely going into uncharted territory. And not for the sake of going to uncharted territory, but going there because I was intending to do the most honest thing I could do and it led me there. And regardless of the outcome or if people dig it or not, it's got a place in this world because it's got that clear sense of purpose.

As for what it looks like on stage, no idea. Again, this is a project born in inspiration. If and when Fräulein performs live, it'll be what it'll be. I take myself out of these decisions as much as possible. I gotta get out of my own way in order for this thing to work. My visions are the boss. I just work the tools. There's a music video being made, and my friend who is making it - I told him "You pick a song that inspires a vision in your mind, and make that video. I don't wanna see it until it's done." I'm letting other people I trust take this record and add their interpretation to it. And I'm excited to see what it means to them.

Trip: That was beautiful. It's like the Kerouac theory of not editing your own stream of consciousness. So this is the journey of manifesting your own uninhibited authenticity without judgement.

Did that journey end or did it just start? Is there more to explore?

Nick: Right. I knew that if i was going to go where I needed to go with it, it had to be done that way. The nice thing about music in the stream of consciousness, at least how I am approaching it, is that once something comes to me a certain way, it doesn't seem to change. Like the song will come to me and I'll always hear it like that - even years later. So in that sense, it was very easy to manifest. I look at it now and realize this is the first time I could really do this. I didn't have the ability in the studio before to interpret these things correctly. But now that I've been recording for the past year and a half non-stop with all these bands with different needs and styles and amassed so much better gear than I ever had and tuned my ear to tones and whatnot, I could finally get the sound I was hearing. Now I can hear a sound in my head and say "Oh I need to play that riff through a guitar with P-90 pickups and a Marshall JCM 800 to make that sound" or whatever it is. Before, it was like "I hear this sound, it's an awesome sound, and I have no idea how to get it."

I'm definitely in the midst of the journey. For one, there's many many many songs left to record. But I've already been involved in performing on 16 albums. Some solo, some with bands, some EPs, some finished demos. Those all lead me here. As long as I keep my mind free to interpret what my soul's telling me, there will always be more to explore for sure. That's what makes it exciting. But I do feel like this path has many miles ahead of it. Again, no limits, so I'm curious to see what happens next.

Trip: Do you feel that the outcome of your work is gonna get more and more defined as you go deeper into that journey?

Nick: Well, if it's a reflection of me, then as I go deeper into knowing myself or understanding myself on a spiritual level, the music will follow suit in theory. That's kinda heady, but yeah the horse goes before the cart in that sense. But also, I have no control over what songs come to me. I can't tell what’s going to happen. I already have a few things I'm pretty sure will be on the next album. Maybe if I have some kind of spirit guide or something on the other side - who knows how that stuff works - but maybe they're planning some really badass tunes for me to play and are waiting for me to build this particular compressor unit for the studio before they give 'em to me or something. Heh. Who knows for sure.

Trip: Can I challenge you about that theory? The way my creative process works is like this: I'm pretty sure I have a lot of dimensions to me. I have a deep side, I have a wacky side, I have an obnoxious side, an angry side, a party spirited side, a soulful side. All of those "sides" are either part of my life experiences or part of my personality. They're all authentic.

I know if I ONLY tap into the party side the whole album will be shallow. If I ONLY tap into the angry and sad side the album will be too self indulgent and overbearing.

Are you conscious about how many "sides" or dimensions your authenticity has? Are you addicted to only exploring one of them? Did you unearth the other dimensions to who you are? Are you aware of how many dimensions your authenticity has?

Nick: That's just keeping things in balance. To be honest, I try not to think about it too much. I think at this point in my life I trust myself to be in balance with things.I do that by just taking care of the next thing on the list in my day-to-day life. What's next? "Stay calm Nick and do the next thing on the list." Just put one foot in front of the other and see what happens. That's how we get through life without going crazy, right? I'm approaching the music from Fräulein the same way. "What's the next song I have to record? What's the next batch of tunes?" I trust that somewhere in there all of those "sides" will be addressed naturally if I'm keeping things in balance.

Trip: What inspired you to call it Fräulein?

Nick: I came up with it in 2008 when I was thinking what my ultimate music project would be. I liked the feminine word that was harsh sounding. There was this really cool band from Montreal called Lady. And they were heavy. And I was like "Such a heavy band with such an ironically feminine name." Something about that duality really stuck with me. Like Queen or Kiss or whatever. The one-two syllable harsh sounding word with a nice pretty definition. The name came back to me as I was working on this. And it fit. "Yeah, this is that idea I had in 2008 - but it’s real now."

Trip: I read the lyrics. My reading is that it's about taking action and not fucking around. It's about liberation from things holding you back and it's about sobriety. Was that your intention?

Nick: Yeah I've always been more into lyrics that can be a little open to interpretation. They're about my experiences in life but I've always been into lyrics about “triumph in the face of adversity” and all that. I like lyrics that are cryptic, yet powerful. So that tends to be what gets written. Most times, a lyric will come with a vision or a thought, and I try to fill in the holes to have it make sense. I try to figure out what the song is trying to say and translate it.

Trip: I understand the songs were in your head for decades but were the lyrics there for decades too or were they inspired from recent experiences?

Nick: A lot of the lyrics were there already. In the Garden for example was written 10 years ago "In the Garden I walked all alone". That line was already there.. The chorus break: "And then she comes round something something. She gives me hugs and kisses. Welcome home." That was all there from the beginning. Finishing them in many ways was more like a concentrated effort to do some archaeological digging to uncover the rest. Like doing a research project. I actually sat down in October and November and tried to concentrate on seeing the things that weren't already obvious to me. So I was a little more methodical at that point when it came to finishing them.

Trip: Yeah but are you the same person you were 10 years ago? Do the lyrics and statements still hold true to who you are now?

Nick: I am definitely not the same person I was 10 years ago. But yeah these lyrics definitely vibe with who I am today.

Trip: Do you feel that Fräulein II can be accomplished very soon since you have more of it archived already?

Nick: That depends on time. I would like a little rest from it as it was a very intense process, but yeah I see Fräulein II happening before the end of the year. I need to be pragmatic and put paying gigs at the studio first, but when it's the right time it'll happen.

Trip: What's your stance on finding band members for this and playing live?

Nick: I would do it if I think I could pull it off. The fact that there's 12 layers of guitars and 3 part harmony vocals on some songs really makes me wonder if it's possible in a club environment to do it. I'd be able to strip some parts and keep the intent. Sampling vocals perhaps? I don't know if I am comfortable with sampling the backup vocals and piping in the harmonies through a trigger and making a drummer play to a click. It might be what has to happen to do it. Maybe 2 other guitar players besides myself. There's a bunch of considerations. I'm not sure. That answer hasn't presented itself to me yet.

Trip: Maybe if you write more songs and assembled a bunch of playable live numbers?

Nick: Maybe, we'll see I guess. I have no idea. I might just end up putting even more layered hard-to-play-live songs out.

Trip: Well if you do eventually end up being able to play live, what kind of band members are you looking for?

Nick: I think I'd prefer rounding up some of my favorite players and friends I trust - ex-bandmates, etc. People I already know would be preferred.

Trip: Are there any other creative things you’re working on besides Fräulein these days?

Nick: I put a lot of creativity into engineering the albums I record for other bands in my studio. That's a lot of fun. No two bands are the same, so I always try to keep things fresh by trying something new at every session. There's the non-profit Kiss archive project I work on with a few friends. We're attempting to catalog every known photo, audio recording, and video recording of the band in the 70's. It's an ongoing thing that provides many hours of insanity and pays zero dollars. That's just a labor of love. The repair part of the business not only takes skill but a lot of creativity and problem solving skills, and that's a whole other outlet for me. I'm pretty fulfilled. I do envision a day when I will miss playing on stage. It hasn't happened yet, but I know that urge will strike me again. I love performing, but I'm not lacking it in my creative diet right now.

Trip: I'd love to do a separate detailed interview about your shop, but can you give us a brief about it now?

Nick: Yes, it's my mad scientist lab basically. I get to come in every day and work on projects. I guess it's no different than what you would visualize an artists' studio to look like, mine just has electronics instead of paint.

Trip: What's your ambitions on where to take it?

Nick: Well, to break even, and then to make money. Right now I'm eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and toast for most meals. I've got some debt I'd like to pay off. Until I can breathe easy on the financial front, the plan is to keep recording bands, repairing gear, making Fräulein records, and building my reputation on all fronts. The next place I'm supposed to go will present itself after that. As long as things are growing steadily, then I'm happy.

Trip: I have a feeling your real ambition is to be a Jedi sound/engineer producer.
Like do you ever see yourself as becoming a Bob Ezrin or a an Eddie Kramer someday?

Nick: Well, again, I think things have been working out for me so far because I've followed my heart and didn't try to compare myself to these kinds of legends. They certainly have had an influence, but you need to remember, they paved the way. They had no inspirations other than their own imaginations and the talent they worked with to go on. I like to look at things that way instead of saying "Oh I wanna be the next Bob Ezrin, or the next Eddie Kramer." Thinking like that could only diminish my efforts. I'm already a person who has his own ideas about things. It’s too limiting for me to compare myself to anyone else. 40 years from now, we'll see if I made any kind of impact. But whether I make a difference in the world doesn’t really matter to me. I know it mattered to me when I was younger, but now I just want to be involved in things I can be proud of. I’m still just as ambitious, but I think I’m focused in the right way now.

Trip: Do you feel that the impact of those legends was because they were lucky to work with talented clients? A client that will make it huge will make the producer's name huge as well.

So as a sound engineer / producer, do you feel you're a talent scout as well?

Nick: To answer the first question, yeah I'm sure the right place at the right time, and the right opportunity and the right kind of open mind has everything to do with everything. Secondly, I like what I like, that's all I know. If I think something's good and marketable, maybe that makes me a talent scout. That said, there's certainly times that I just see things and see where they could go, and if I have the opportunity I try to take them there. If I am working with a band in the studio and they're rough around the edges, but I know given a little work they could reach a certain type of potential, I work towards making that a reality.

Trip: Marketable to who? And what do you like?

Nick: That's the thing, I have no idea if what I think is commercial is commercial to the rest of the world. Certainly pop culture has it's standards it's been molded with. That is in constant evolution. If I think something is commercial, it might not be commercial enough for today because pop culture is so strict. But maybe it comes into it's own some day. Maybe it'll get discovered. So then, yeah maybe I think a band I'm recording is good. Their song is good, the performance is good, it has a certain tangible energy that I can identify with and relate to - it makes me feel something - i wanna listen to it again. Makes me motivated to air guitar, makes me motivated to get in a car and hit the pedal, makes me feel free and alive and connected. But I don't know if the rest of the world has the same reaction to it. Maybe it doesn't touch someone else the same way. 

Luckily today, we're not completely limited by pop culture's standards. It's easier for like minded people to find each other. There may be one person in this town, and one in that town, and they can find each other now in a matter of minutes, and that would have been difficult 20 years ago. And maybe there's a market out there somewhere for some band I'm recording because I believe there should be. I think that answers your question.

Trip: I think it's perfect that your attitude is like that. And I think it's very rare to have someone with a strict principle of authenticity like you do. I know many bands that worked with certain producers and said producers want to make them sound like the closest resembling band to them that's topping the charts. Completely changing the band's identity in the process.

What you did with yourself in Fräulein is what I think you can bring out in other bands when they're trying to find their own authenticity. The mantra of not caring about making a hit, which consequently, might end up making a hit. Or better yet, set new trends.

I also think you're a work horse. And a straight and honest business man.

I think your constant experimentation to open new grounds with more Fräulein records is going to open new grounds in both the articulating of the creative process and in engineering techniques. That coupled with the principle that you respect your own authenticity and that of others are things that a client is dying to find in a working relationship with a producer.

Any closing words for this interview?

Nick: Yes thank you for everything and looking at the bigger picture with me. To bands: I agree with Trip, if you follow your heart and forget what everyone else is doing that is "successful", you might just make something great and timeless. If you make music that comes from that place, you'll at least have a fan in me.

Trip: Thank you, Nick.


Till the end of March, you can get the album at 100% off the cost by typing in the code FRAULEIN during checkout at the store. The download is of the entire album, in either mp3 or high quality FLAC formats.

I think we all know what the money quote is:

“Doing that thing that is bravely going into uncharted territory. And not for the sake of going to uncharted territory, but going there because I was intending to do the most honest thing I could do and it led me there”

Go to this link with the playlist of Fräulein. Put your headphones on. I recommend you start with Krav Maga, Time River and Animals.

I'm planning to interview Nick on his insights and experiences on Analog studio recording. What stocks and gear are discontinued? Are the specs of the current gear in the market the same? Can we trust the sales copy of companies? What kind of basic knowledge should a client have when collaborating with a sound engineer? That and more soon, only on The Dead Notes.



**Full Interview with New York City Booker & Promoter Ashley Moree


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