Who exactly is Nick Waterhouse?
His music is imbued with the landscape of the San Francisco nightclubs where he began as a DJ, playing 45s of old-school rhythm and blues. His live shows have the energy of bootleg punk show recordings you’d find in a YouTube hole, but with the smoothness and instrumentation of seasoned big band conductor.
Essentially, Waterhouse makes party music. His tracks wouldn’t be out of place at a vinyl-only night at neighborhood dives like U Street’s Velvet Lounge or Showtime in Bloomingdale on the weekends. Fans and casual listeners know this already. But behind the jazzy horn breaks, the female-sung catchy hooks, the driving percussion, the guitar licks and the sweaty dance party vibes is a sardonic wit, which I witnessed firsthand on a recent call with the artist from his L.A. home.
Waterhouse was fresh off the heels of the European leg of his tour and gearing up for his U.S. dates when we chatted, which includes a stop at Rock & Roll Hotel on May 17 with his seven-piece band. But before international tours were the norm, the musician was recording his first single with a ragtag group of players and some of his own savings.
The limited-run 45s of 2010’s “Some Place” sold for $7 a pop and were passed around among DJs, eventually becoming a dance party success. One 45 turned into a bunch of 45s, which turned into his debut album Time’s All Gone. His current tour is in promotion of his self-titled fourth album, released in March.
“The first three records sound more like a trilogy,” he tells me on the call. “I know they seem spread out to listeners, but they were all like one long thread of a period of time that started in December 2010 and just didn’t really stop. I didn’t get a chance to get my footing, I guess.”
He says Nick Waterhouse felt like a reintroduction to listeners.
“I’d be fine if somebody had never heard of me and picked up this record and this was their introduction. This is the first record where I felt like I could really square up and make it.”
Waterhouse’s latest album doesn’t stray far from the vintage R&B sound he’s known for. But, more on display this time around is his perspective as an individual. He says he doesn’t like being a public person or talking about himself, but this new album highlights the concepts and ideas that he grapples with as a musician working in an industry that he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable navigating.
Behind the glasses and his iconic midcentury aesthetic is a guy that’s perhaps finally comfortable making music the way he wants. It helps that Waterhouse has either worked with – or become friends with – many of the musicians and artists he grew up listening to and admiring.
His song “Wreck the Rod” off the new album was inspired by a personal conversation with Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans. He also covered his friend Jo Armstead’s 1967 single “I Feel an Urge Coming On,” and toured with and produced music for the soul legend (a former Ikette and background singer for icons James Brown and B.B. King).
“I got really emotional recently because we were on tour and in a big jam-packed bar in Athens, the DJ put on my song ‘Katchi.’ Ralph Carney plays the tenor sax solo on that. He died last year in an accident. And Ralph was somebody that came to the session blind. He was like, ‘Man, I really dig your sh-t. You got a f–king cool thing going on.’”
Carney was a prolific multi-instrumentalist that worked with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, The B-52s and The Black Keys.
“He was giving me a vote of confidence. It’s like he came through time and dropped in like he belonged in my band for two days. It was like when I was young and fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll and jazz and playing music. That’s what the magic thing is.”
Catch Waterhouse and his band on Friday, May 17 at Rock & Roll Hotel. Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17.50 in advance, $20 day of. Learn more about him at www.nickwaterhouse.com.
Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; 202-388-7625; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com