TRAITS OF DISTINCTION
Words: James Frostick
Ryan, Sam and Blair of Nikko, talk about their enthralling new album, Gold & Red.
Australian music (that is, the music that reflects the issues and emotions inherent in modern Australian living) is something that is never particularly cheerful. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but the Australiana-rock bands that pop up every now and then seem to be weighed down by some kind of small country blues. The Drones made a name for themselves thanks to their contorted twang and commentary of the Australian condition (colonial era and onwards) and their songs make this country seem like it was built on a foundation of frustration and inconsistency. Even a band like Midnight Oil fuelled their lyrics with disillusionment with the Australian political system and the emerging ‘excessive’ way of living. This differs greatly from the current trends in Australian rock music that may be seen as more optimistic but perhaps less realistic.
I’m not sure what would constitute a typical Australian ‘sound’; perhaps that label is claimed by country musicians with a sort of ‘true blue’ mindset. For me, I think a sound that can echo the expansiveness and desolation of the majority of this nation’s landmass might actually be the best representation of Australia. We were built through colonial expansion and have a history of desperation and struggle, topics that are abundant in blues music and the more sorrowful side of folk. Yet it is rock music which seems to match the wide-open nature of the countryside and has the tools to render those tangible landscapes into appropriate soundscapes and them combine them with emotionality.
Nikko is a band that has created such soundscapes on their new album, Gold & Red. I found this album thrilling and unsettling, an interesting mixture. A combination of post-rock expansiveness and claustrophobia inducing, all-encompassing heaviness would be my way of describing it. The sound created over the past few years by Nikko’s four members somewhat reflects the modern condition of life and finally combines it with an oppressive slow-burn of intrinsic instrumentation that I have been longing to hear.
The four members of Nikko, singer and guitarist Ryan Potter, guitarist Jackson Briggs, bassist Sam Whiting and drummer Blair Westbrook have produced a stunning album, a true highlight for me personally. When I spoke to the band, I gathered that this release was a long time coming, but not wholly intentionally. This band has been together for a long time. Sam, Ryan and Blair first started playing together when they were 11; meaning that the trio have been jamming in some form for almost 12 years, so the waiting game probably isn’t new to them.
“We got Jacko on board in 2005,” says Sam. “I think we were in grade 11. Me, Ryan and Jackson went to Hillbrook together. I’d known Blair since I was a kid and he was the only drummer I knew in high school. So we formed Nikko around 2005, but the sound we have now didn’t emerge until 2008 or 2009. We were really sixties influenced for a while – a lot of Velvet Underground and The Modern Lovers.”
“Then it just evolved from, like, a shitty high school band and kept going and we kept getting more serious about music, eventually we evolved into something serious as a band.”
That evolution was a rather dynamic process as all four members of the band changed considerably when it came to their tastes in music. While they may have all loved raising their fists to Rage Against The Machine in the early days, each cultivated different tastes as they grew older – a natural process but a complicated one as they were still trying to write songs together.
“We have completely different tastes now,” says Sam. “I think what happened was we started with similar tastes and then we kept playing together as a band but our tastes split. It kind of helped give us the musical ingenuity to keep playing together.”
“If we were all the same it would be fucking boring,” adds Blair. “It would just be the same shit and we would get frustrated with each other. We all listen to different stuff, it just opens us up. It opens us up to different ways of thinking about music and looking at music from a few different angles rather than all having this straight ahead, down the line thing.”
It seems like this was for the best. Gold & Red brought together folk and rock in a way that hasn’t really been done in Brisbane, possibly even in Australia. Twin guitar melodies and thumping bass lines and intricate drum beats are added to by strings and harmonica interludes. The effect is haunting and lingering. I want to say panic-attack inducing if only for the fact that if my panic-attacks had a soundtrack it might feature some of the more contorted elements of Nikko’s interweaving compositions. This is a good thing, I suppose, and reflects that desperation element that reflects early Australiana balladry. It’s a true testament to the group’s song writing ability.
“We don’t try to sound like anyone in particular,” says Sam. “I think the main reason why we don’t sound like anyone is because we grew up playing together but our musical tastes went all over the place, so we get our inspiration from every little corner. Because we have been playing together for so long, we can turn it into something distinct.”
Distinct would have to be a key word in the vernacular used to describe the sound cultivated here. Differing tastes harmonised into a coherent package. That is what Gold & Red is. But how does Nikko actually make their music distinct?
“I think it’s just experimentation,” says Sam. “We aren’t afraid to get heavy sometimes. We play this sort of dark folk sometimes, but a lot of bands that play that music don’t crank distortion pedals. We aren’t afraid of getting into it, getting loud and heavy. Jackson and I like that sort of stuff, so that is what we bring to it. Ryan is really into that straight ahead, classic song writing. We can mould his song writing into something a bit more intense, you would typically hear that with most singer song writers.”
The song writing is definitely a strong point on Gold & Red, the foundations laid by Ryan and fleshed out by the others have resulted in some of the better crafted songs heard this year. Influenced by some of the great song writers of the past century, Ryan has worked on his story telling ability to combine gripping music with intelligent wordplay.
“I don’t listen to that much new music,” admits Ryan. “I like the songwriters like Johnny Cash and Nick Cave and Lee Hazelwood and Roky Erickson. Sometimes some songs take ages to write the lyrics and sometimes they are just really quick and I don’t even know what they are about yet. It’s about something one week and something else the others. Other times I know exactly what I want to say but not really how to say it.”
The combination of lyricism and musicianship results in the aforementioned dark and ominous feel of the record. Although many of the lyrics are fictional and are an exercise in storying, the band must be conscious of the vibe they are presenting. They don’t see themselves as a particularly sad band, just one trying to put together enthralling songs.
“This last album, I don’t know why, there are some songs that I thought were kind of funny at the time and now they seem really depressing,” admits Ryan. “Sometimes when I listen to the stuff, I do think ‘yeah, that sounds really whiny and down’, I don’t know why it turns out like that”.
“Maybe I just need to harden up,” jokes Ryan.
“It’s the kind of music I would listen to, so I’m happy to keep playing it,” says Sam. “It’s pretty dark, but I like that kind of stuff.”
“I think there are bright sections to it too,” says Blair.
“Especially on the new album there are a few really bright moments,” adds Sam. “Musically they still sound dark, but when you listen to the lyrics they are pretty beautiful.”
It is interesting to note that this album could have been out nearly six months ago, yet Nikko faced delays thanks to budget constraints. As a result, this release and their previous one, The Warm Side, are separated by a large time-gap, one a lot longer than many independent bands are able to take without being forgotten. As an example of the situation many independent bands face, Nikko were hampered by the necessities of the distribution process.
“Being an independent band, it’s hard to get stuff going quickly because you don’t have the money behind you,” says Sam. “We got distracted with tours, we had to come up with the money to get it mastered and then we had to find a label to put it out.”
A result of the delay was the assumption made by many that Nikko were overhauling their sound and reinventing their style. A lot of reviews for Gold & Red have mentioned the drastic shift in style or tone between Nikko’s new album and their previous effort. This 2010 release was a combination of the songs written between 2007 and 2009.
“In terms of the change from the first album to this one; there was never really any break in the writing process and there was never any conscious decision to change our direction, it was just the way the songs kept going,” says Sam.
“We never stopped writing songs for one album and started writing for the next one, we just kept going,” agrees Ryan.
“Nothing is really conscious with this band,” says Sam. “Everything is very natural in terms of our progression. We never decide on a direction, we just keep writing and see what sticks. The stuff on the new album was easier to write than the stuff on The Warm Side, because we weren’t trying to be technical. There is a lot of stuff on The Warm Side where we were trying to put too much into each song. People have noticed a change, but for us it was just gradual.”
I don’t think I am alone is saying that Gold & Red is a great album. People may disagree with me as well, that’s fine. I asked the guys what they thought people would get out of their album, and if they had any expectations in terms of its reception when released.
“There are a lot of layers happening and the production is really good,” says Ryan. “It’s hard to tell when you know the songs so well it’s hard to think about it objectively. You can tell we’ve spent a lot of time on it and it is well crafted, a lot of people will appreciate that.”
“A lot of thought and love and time was put into this album,” adds Sam. “It’s not too much of a break from the first album. It’s not like we had a break between albums either – we released a live record and a seven inch as well. I think people will like this one a lot more because it’s straight down the line and has classic song writing. It’s already getting a lot more airplay than the first one maybe because of the fact that there is so much more vocals than on the first one.”
I think a lot of people will appreciate this album too. Maybe not for the same reasons as me, but I personally think that Gold & Red sets itself a part as a great piece of Australian music. If Australia were represented by colours that truly reflected the soil of the country, it would be gold and red, not gold and green. Maybe I’m reading way too much into it all. This music is far from being played as an anthem or a rallying cry to bring on Australian spirit, but like others have mentioned before me, this is a great piece of contemporary Australiana and hopefully will be considered quintessential in the future.
Nikko tells me they hope to get back to writing new material in the summer, a welcome prospect for the band after sitting on Gold & Red for so long. One hopes that the next record will bring on just as much emotionality as their latest effort.
Maybe this music isn’t for everyone, if it was there would far more airplay and far fewer delays in distribution. I say most people should give the album a chance just to hear the sound of true music that tries to honestly portray the more unsettling side of human nature.
Blair gave Nikko’s view on their own music the best:
“I suppose if we didn’t like to listen to it, we wouldn’t play it really. Just listen to it, enjoy it. Or don’t enjoy it. It’s just us doing our thing.”