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Photo: Andrew Mishko

Nick Waterhouse Squares Up and Makes It

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

Photo: Greg Pallante

Meet The Exploratory Mercy Union

The first chord explodes like a glitter bomb, igniting a stream of surging guitar, driving drums and anthem-style lyrics that shine like the sun on the Jersey Shore.

This is the sound of “Young Dionysians,” the song that kicks off The Quarry, the debut album by New Jersey rock quartet Mercy Union.

“Dionysians” trumpets part of the band’s sound, firmly rooted in the heartland rock meets punk – a kind of Tom Petty mixed with Jimmy Eat World vibe – sound that’s been kicking around North and Central Jersey for the past two decades. But this fist-pumping, body-and-soul liberating rock and roll sound is only a piece of Mercy Union’s repertoire. Truthfully, the group does not want listeners to enter with any preconceived notions; that was part of how the members decided on their name.

“We didn’t want the name to give away any style of music,” says Jared Hart, Mercy Union’s front man and principal songwriter. “That’s what we started with, with trying to find things so that when people heard it they wouldn’t jump and go: ‘That’s a hardcore band’ or ‘That’s an indie band.’”

This mentality is also helpful when most of your band consists of members from some of the most prolific bands from the Jersey punk scene in the past 10 years. Mercy Union is, by popular parlance, a supergroup: Hart is the founder of The Scandals, guitarist Rocky Catanese hails from Let Me Run and drummer Benny Horowitz also anchors the kit for The Gaslight Anthem, the biggest rock group to blossom from the garden state in the new millennium. These are much-beloved bands in their circles of the music world, with dedicated fanbases enamored with those groups’ distinct, personal sounds.

The sounds of Mercy Union do not sever ties with all that history.

“I wanted everyone listening to it to have as much of an open mind I had when I was writing it,” Hart says. “Keeping the labels off of it and all the past stuff – it’s there, those will be our influences, but I didn’t want it to be the skeleton of the whole thing.”

“[We wanted] something catchy, [with] energy but also restraint in the smart ways. I kind of wanted to capture the energy of all our punk bands in the past and use our new knowledge in songwriting and life experience in general, smash it all together and see what we came up with.”

That last ingredient in the sound reflects all four musicians’ drive to explore beyond their previously well-traveled roads and to have space to “get weird.”

The band’s brand of weird may not be apparent on first listen; the group does not play in a crazy tempo, the guitars are not tuned to some alien setting and Hart sings as he does, with bellowing thrust but also choir-boy soaring.

“I think weird is just taking risks,” Hart says. “Changing time signatures, changing song structures in ways that you’re not comfortable with and more just challenging who you are as a musician and taking a leap and not worrying about it.”

“Layovers,” another track on The Quarry, exemplifies this ethos. The six-minute, acoustic roadhouse ballad of remembrance and regret directly contrasts with the group’s tight rock anthems like “Dionysians” or “Chips and Vic,” but contrast is the point.

Hart points to mixtapes in the hip-hop world – he was mainlining Chance the Rapper’s multi-Grammy winning mixtape Coloring Book while he was writing the first batch of Mercy Union songs – as a primary influence in shaping the band’s sound.

“The idea of a mixtape kind of blew me away,” he says. “Different songs that didn’t necessarily feel like they fit on a record, but when put into context as a whole, they do. That was a big part of where the songs on The Quarry went to and how we bounced around in genres.”

Looking at other tracks in Mercy Union’s live set, “A Lot From Me” drifts calmly along with an almost reggae vibe; “Silver Dollars” is classic Tom Petty, gritty and grooving rock and roll; while “Accessory” and “Baggy” mix 70s soft rock with a harder and more ambient modern approach.

Hart says the band’s name was intended to reflect the members’ strong feelings of unity tied to the vulnerability of starting this new project that would stretch them as musicians. It also reflects the group’s sound; a united body of gentle but energetic and empowering songs. There’s a couplet in “Chips and Vics,” the band’s debut single, another swelling anthem, that sums up what the band offers: “Can I be all that you need? / Can you see, maybe, if you can stand to stand by me?”

Mercy Union opens for Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers with Control Top at Rock & Roll Hotel on Tuesday, April 23. Visit here for more information on the show. For more information on Mercy Union, check the band out on Facebook and Twitter.

Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; 202-388-7625; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com

Photo: Johan Bergmark Medium

Darker Days, Brighter Sounds: A Conversation with Peter Bjorn & John

Keeping up with anything for 20 years is impressive. Crafting joyful, jangly pop songs with incredible technical precision for that long is an otherworldly feat. And yet here are Peter Bjorn and John who have done just that, especially with the release of Darker Days, their eighth full length album.

An insular recording experience, the band stepped away from using outside producers and built everything as a trio. This style lent itself perfectly to the lyrical themes of the album too – each member writes about different perspectives on darkness. Personal, political and environmental ideas of darkness are explored, all set to the trio’s signature sound.

We caught up with Peter Morén, guitarist and vocalist, on the writing and recording process for Darker Days, playing DC and the pride that comes with eight years of producing indie pop perfection.

On Tap: Darker Days is your eighth full length studio album – from a technical perspective, how did the recording process differ from previous albums? 
Peter Morén: We split up the production and songwriting between us. We have written a lot separately before, too, but also mixed it up, helping out and adding parts or changing them if one member wasn’t happy. This time we were three dictators. Maybe that was even more clear when it came to the production. We all played on the backing tracks of each other’s songs and arranged that together. Then we went off on our own and decided how to finish up the songs with edits and overdubs. Often, we brought in the other two as studio musicians to work on parts. But the end result of a song was up to its auteur. I think the album holds together because it’s us playing mostly in the same studio, and also that we have a lot of similar taste aurally.

OT: With a sizable catalog under your belt, what have you learned over the years that you were able to incorporate into the recording and production of this album?
PM: Every recording experience is different and we have tried a lot of different methods by now. We have a certain style and trademarks that we bring to every project even though they might differ vastly on the surface. I think it was empowering after working with all those producers on Breakin’ Point to find that we are more than able to pull it off in-house. For the first time, rather than take a stylistic left-turn, we looked back on our own catalog, got inspired by ourselves and what we’d done in the past and what we maybe are at the core, trying to act naturally. I think at this stage of the game it’s allowed!

OT: This album focuses on different types of darkness. Can you tell me more about how each of you incorporated your perspectives and ideas into the lyrics?
PM: A lot of the sketches and ideas for the songs were already started when we came up with the title, so it just tied in with that naturally. Songs usually dwell on what occupies you privately, at least it does for me. And for the last couple of years, the darkening political climate, the extremely dark threat of climate change and the planet’s eventual demise, if we’re unlucky, is constantly on my mind. Cheerful stuff! But that also ties in with personal doubts, midlife-crises, worries about the future for kids and family and maybe even the state of our band. It could also be a less negative darkness. Like the focus of black and white film, or the pleasant melancholia of the long dark Swedish winter. Those things maybe also inform how we went about playing and producing the sounds too. We all wrote about what we felt like, and took the songs that fit together best.

OT: What made you want to focus on darkness as the general overarching theme of the album? 
PM: We had this song called “Darker Days” which was about aging and death but also about the Swedish winter months in the North. That song isn’t even on the album, but we have recorded it now. So that was our starting point. We thought it was a good album title.

OT: What do you hope your listeners will gain or understand from this album? 
PM: If they just enjoy the music and get a vibe from the lyrics, that’s fine by me. Even a misunderstood lyric is a successful one. I like when people do their own readings or “mis”-interpretations. We’re not offering any solutions or great plans, we’re just as lost as everyone. But of course, if someone starts to think about issues they’re otherwise blocking out, that ain’t a bad thing.

OT: Any particular tracks you are most proud of?
PM: I’m really proud of “Living a Dream,” as a recording and as a song. I like all the little details in the arrangement and the sound of it. It’s a very “me” song. Especially considering I don’t see myself as a proper producer like maybe Bjorn. But you learn and it did work. Also I love “Heaven & Hell,” one of John’s. It’s really special and different, probably the best thing he ever wrote for the band. Even though it’s quite long, I could listen to it again and again. And I like that it’s [great] live too, with him really utilizing our improvised playing and ideas as a band, like my guitar stuff and Bjorn’s organ. It’s a performance and very us. But the whole record stands up. It’s one of our best. And the track-order is perfect. That makes for a good album.

OT: You’re embarking on a tour for Darker Days through this year and early next year – any place you are particularly excited to be playing?
PM: It’s always exciting to play cities you haven’t played before, and we have a couple of those on the European run. But then returning to places where we’ve always been [greeted] warmly, like DC, is exciting too. All-in-all we’re excited to play – new songs and old. Performing live only gets better every tour, I feel. We’re not old and tired just yet. More like semi-old, but on fire.

OT:  When was the last time you played DC? Any particular memories from a previous DC show or anything you’re looking forward to when you play Rock & Roll Hotel next month?
PM: It’s an intriguing name for a rock’n’roll-venue. Wonder what it looks like? And what goes on in the rooms? We came through DC on the Breakin’ Point tour in 2016 and played the beautiful, old Lincoln Theatre where you could feel the spirit of Duke Ellington. We have many great memories from the 9:30 Club. Their staff is the best. The first time we played there, our booked driver flaked and didn’t turn up with the bus. So they let us sleep in the venue and then drove us to New York the next morning. A terrible thing, but they handled it expertly and sweetly.

OT: With such an expansive catalog, how do you go about crafting your setlists?
PM: It’s a such a great feeling to have so much material to choose from. We usually try to bring in a couple of oldies that we didn’t do on the previous tour. And we enjoy changing the sets up almost nightly, even if it’s minor changes sometimes. I don’t feel you have to play your whole new album, it’s more important to get an overall good pace and vibe to a set. There are a bunch of songs that could fill the same role, so those you can swap around and play with. Also by changing the order of the same songs, it makes it feel fresh and adventurous. You might play them differently just because of that. Keeps you on your toes. Live should be totally live to make it work for us. In the moment, spontaneous. Too much planning, cues or choreography would spoil the fun. [Songs from] Writers Block and Gimme Some have always worked well for us live so we still play a lot of those tunes. But the Breakin’ Point songs work really well too. And now we have the new ones. It’s really only Living Thing (and more obviously Seaside Rock) that we don’t feature so much. It’s harder to play. And maybe the first two albums, since the audience doesn’t know them as well. But Falling Out turns up now and again. It’s one of my favorites of our albums.

OT: Any new songs you’re especially excited to debut live or older ones you want to revisit?
PM: “One For The Team” is really fun to do live, it’s one of PBJ’s faux soul funkers [that] gains from some clapping and audience-chanting. “Wrapped Around the Axle” is fun too. I love digging in to the back-catalog and picking golden oldies, sometimes rearranging them. We might do some Falling Out tracks we haven’t done in ages.

Peter Bjorn and John play the Rock & Roll Hotel on Sunday, December 2. Tickets are $20. Doors at 7 p.m. For more on the band and their new album, visit www.peterbjornandjohn.com.

Rock and Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com