A conversation with Caleb Nichols

 

    We spoke with Caleb Nichols (Soft People, ex-Port O’Brien) about working as a librarian across the United States, why democratic socialism might be the cure to the world’s ills, the cosmic lessons we can learn from the Beatles and his journey to overcome a fear of flying.

    Sometimes things work out and they aren’t at all what you wanted them to be. I suppose that’s when things can get truly interesting.

    1

    Morgan Enos

    You’ve always had one of the most interesting stories in music I’ve ever heard. Can you tell me about your career playing all over the world in the bands Grand Lake, Port O’Brien and Churches, and how they all led to the work you do now? What was it like being just behind the curtain of the mid-2000s indie scene?

    Caleb Nichols

    I could write a book about that experience, so I’ll try and condense it a bit. I started playing music as a teenager in the late ’90s. My reference points were The Beatles, followed by MTV buzz bands like Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, etc. along with their Britpop counterparts Blur and Oasis, followed by Radiohead, followed by my obsessions with Morrissey, the Cure, 80’s new wave/college rock and finally modern indie rock.

    The first indie bands I was really exposed to in any meaningful way were Pinback, Black Heart Procession, Modest Mouse and Belle & Sebastian. Throw Blonde Redhead in there and Stereolab as well. I’m sure there were others, but when I was turning 17, 18, 19, this was the music that was happening, and I’m always so glad that I got to be that age for all of that. And all of these discoveries were word-of-mouth. I was not in any way connected to the Internet, I wasn’t a huge regular at the local record store. I shopped there and I went to some shows, but really I found out about stuff through friends. I was clueless.

    Fast-forward a few years to 2007. I had played in bands, was writing my own songs, had played some out-of-town shows, had opened for some awesome bands locally (Black Heart Procession and Mark Mulcahy top my list), and was playing pretty full time with friends in a band called Port O’Brien which was the brainchild of Van Pierszalowski and Cambria Goodwin. The music was rooted in an indie-folk tradition I wasn’t that familiar with yet. Jason Molina, Sun Kil Moon, M. Ward and Little Wings were all big influences, and I discovered this music through Van and Cammi. We played cafés and house shows mostly. Sometimes we’d play impromptu acoustic shows in a park or from the boughs of a tree in some nature spot. It was really real and felt true and good.

    In early 2007, we went from this sort of naïve, pastoral existence to the center of the mid-2000s internet hype machine when Pitchfork gave our track “I Woke Up Today” a Best New Track review and M. Ward mentioned us being his favorite new band on the same site. I want to point out just how naïve I was at this stage: my college roommate at Humboldt State University woke me up in the morning and was freaking out about how we were on Pitchfork. I had to ask him what Pitchfork was and to show it to me on the internet. Seriously. I had no idea.

    Port O’Brien rode a strange wave of hype that was partly a byproduct of the “freak folk” played by Devendra Banhart and Vetiver in the Bay Area, but I think was also part of an indie-music industry hunt for “the next Arcade Fire” or something like that. Whatever was going on, it was quite the experience to be playing Bay Area house shows in January and then find ourselves opening for Modest Mouse at the Forum in London by September.

    So we were in the hype machine, and lots of things happened. We opened for lots of people. We played with every buzz band from the time, it seems like. MGMT? Check. Fleet Foxes? They actually opened for us, which was really embarrassing because they were so fucking good. There were really good times, shitty times, and surreal times. It is decidedly strange to be suddenly smoking weed with people whose records you’ve been idolizing since high school. Music business people became involved quickly. Things got weird and amazing in equal measure very, very, very fast. And we were all very young, and being actual outsiders (none of our parents were involved in music, TV, or the arts in any way) we had no one to turn to to ask questions and figure out what was normal and OK. So mistakes were made. Egos were quickly inflated all around. And we self-destructed just a couple of years later. I think the last official show was in 2010. I bowed out in 2008.

    I can’t possibly tell you in this space about all the things that I took from this experience, all the people I met, the good, bad and ugly of being at that level. But it was all there in equal measure. I guess that the most relevant takeaway for me, at this point in my life, is that sometimes things work out and they aren’t at all what you wanted them to be. I suppose that’s when things can get truly interesting.

    As for my work since then, it’s so unrelated to Port O’Brien that I don’t really think about the two in the same headspace. I was a member of Port O’Brien, and I’ve since been a player in other bands (Zach from Rogue Wave’s solo project, and Van from Port O’Brien’s band WATERS) but Grand Lake and Churches were vehicles for my songwriting. Totally different. And, of course, not nearly as successful, although Grand Lake’s album Blood Sea Dream cracked the CMJ top 200 and both bands played some amazing shows (most fulfilling: Churches opening for Imperial Teen and Bob Mould). But I never got back there fully, and that has been a source of real pain and frustration for me. A lot of this struggle is very tied to my struggle with anxiety and panic disorder, a lot of it is just about luck, and a lot of it is about money and the way the whole “indie” world has changed and/or evaporated.

    Now, 10 years after Port O’Brien had its break, I’ve started a new project with my husband called Soft People completely from scratch. We’ve recorded a record, but we haven’t even booked a show. And I expect our first shows to be at this donut shop in town, or possibly a bar. There won’t likely be many people in attendance. But I’m reminded of the time I saw the Breeders in 2002, just after Title TK came out, in Santa Barbara. There were maybe 10 people there. No one cared. Kim had been one of the most famous women in music, at least in indie/college rock, and here she was, playing for nearly no one in a weird bourgeois college town. And of course, now she’s extremely famous again. So you never know, I guess, and my thing these days is that it’s all about the work. The hype is a garbage-expression of the most toxic economic system man has ever devised: late-stage capitalism.

    2

    Over the last few years, you and your husband John have relocated from San Luis Obispo, CA, to Brooklyn, NY, to Atlanta, GA, and back again. What spurred all these moves, and what have you learned from your time in each city?

    These moves were about my day job. Nothing to do with music, although the experiences certainly fed into my writing and really informed my process. Maybe there is a deeper thing – moving to avoid really being anywhere – but honestly, all of my recent moves have been about earning a paycheck. In 2015 I finished a master’s degree in library science and I’ve been trying out different roles in that world. I was a librarian in Brooklyn and Atlanta in public libraries, and now I’m in California working at a large university library. It’s its own thing.

    New York is amazing and I’d love to live there as an artist, but not as a guy with a day job. And one thing I am is a guy with a job. I find I’m still drawn to New York – I have dreams about it, and I have family in the city that I wish I was closer with. But it wasn’t the place for me and John. Atlanta was also great (the people!), but I love California, I love San Luis Obispo, and I’ve come to terms with loving living in a place that isn’t a cultural hub. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with loving the place where I grew up — all that emotional baggage. But I love it: there is something in the landscape that is actually unique, and there is just a powerful feeling for me there. I also love no weather now. SLO has almost zero weather – just sunshine and rain. And the Pacific Ocean. There is nothing as good as the hills and the ocean and watching my little pup running towards me on an empty, misty beach. I mean, that’s really it, right?

    My time in Atlanta really drove home to me that I still need to write and record music. It’s the thing I do when presented with a blank slate. Like, moving to a new city with no friends in it – that’s sort of like a blank canvas. And so much about an artist is revealed with what they build when they are building from scratch. And what I did in Atlanta was hole up in my weird little brick house in East Atlanta and write and record a record. That’s all I wanted to do. I went to some shows – Parquet Courts at Terminal West was really inspiring, as was the ever-transcendent Laetitia Sadier at Athens Popfest. I went to see Bernie Sanders speak for the third time, and I tried to find decent vegan food, which is hard in ATL. But 99% of the time I wasn’t working, John and I were just in our house making weird shit. And that’s just where we’re at.

    If Brian Epstein would have lived, we’d have an even more insanely realized Beatles and perhaps Donald Trump would not be President. Yoko Ono would be President, and the world will live as one…

    3

    I spent lots of time this year thinking about how The Beatles might not only be the most beloved rock band in the world, but kind of at the quantum essence of everything. I still learn mind-blowing things about their lives and work all the time. What do you think we can still learn from who the Fab Four were as people, and what they created?

    We can definitely learn that they were better together than apart. I wonder if they ever felt that way. Like, did George Harrison every really feel that as a non-Beatle? That the thing they made together, painful as it was, was just this glorious fucking amazing cosmic thing? At least that’s my take.

    And there are lessons in there sort of based on all of their personalities: particularly in the way that band ended. Like, if you are a Paul-type person, beware your ego! The truth is that you are not as good alone as with the others! If you are a John-type person, beware of how you treat others when you feel hurt! There are things you can’t un-say. If you are George-like, make sure people know you are secretly hiding a trove of perfect music! And to the Ringos in the world: just keep on keeping on, I guess.

    I have spent a lot of time thinking about what the Beatles could have been in the ’70s and ’80s. The kinds of albums they could have made and live shows they could have done. My whole thing is that if Brian Epstein would have lived, we’d have an even more insanely realized Beatles and perhaps Donald Trump would not be President. Yoko Ono would be President, and the world will live as one

    But let’s just be grateful that we have the music, and two living Beatles still. A dream would be to meet Yoko Ono and have some serious face time with her. People often say I look a lot like Sean Lennon, particularly when I wear a certain wig. I’d like to ask her her opinion. Also: her Twitter feed is truly important.

    I’ve seen Paul twice, and both times were an incredible experience. If you go to my Instagram, you can find the most insane video of his pyrotechnic display. It gave me a heart palpitation! The largest explosion I’ve ever seen. The whole arena was filled with smoke after – I think someone miscalculated something actually. It was nuts. And I’m very jealous of Van from Port O’Brien, because WATERS played Conan when Ringo was a guest and they got to meet him. I begged him to let me come down and he wasn’t having it.

    There is nothing like the spectacle of a bearded, 200-pound 32-year-old man with sunglasses on at 7:30in the morning sobbing as he boards the plane with his rather younger husband quietly pushing him into his seat.

    4

    Would you like to talk about your fear of flying?

    I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks and have since I was about 19. I honestly didn’t know what these things were until 2012, in my late 20s. So all through my time touring I was just sort of dealing with that, through drinking and taking Atavan. My flying phobia is part of this and has been really tough to manage. It was definitely part of the reason I left Port O’Brien, though not the only reason. And it has definitely affected the business part of my music career. It’s really hard to be a financially successful musician without getting on an airplane these days. And it’s tough to do the things you need to do if you are having chronic panic attacks. In 2012 I was playing with my band Churches, and started having panic attacks on stage. I didn’t really talk about it too much, but it got to the point where I couldn’t really play for a while. I cancelled a bunch of shows around then and that really upset a few people. I don’t know why but I was embarrassed to tell the people involved that it was due to mental health issues. So I think I probably damaged if not burned some bridges. If you’re reading this (and you know who you are), sorry if I fucked you over, but every time I got on stage back then I thought I was going to die.

    So these days I’m in therapy. I find talking helps a lot. I also practice Transcendental Meditation and that helps me manage my shit, although it’s not much help when my panic is really out of control, which is just something that happens to me sometimes. Mindfulness can help. It’s very one-step-at-a-time for me sometimes, and then sometimes it isn’t an issue. The last shows I played, in support of a little EP I put out last year, were rough in the same way. I had a pretty bad attack on stage in San Francisco. I got through it, but that’s the problem – I was just getting through it. It’s pretty sad, but I keep trying.

    I’ll get on a plane now, which is good, but I’d like to get to the point where I can book a flight without checking to see how much Ativan I’ve got on hand. And honestly, if I woke up in 2018 and my newest recording was somehow a viral sensation, I’m not sure I’d be able to deal with that sort of pressure. But I’d try, and that’s all anyone can do – try the best you can. For me it’s like: can you get in the car? Good. Can you park in long-term parking? Great! Made it through security without crying? You are doing great.

    The last time I flew was in 2015 from SFO to JFK. My husband had to basically push me on to the plane as I was crying and telling him to go fuck himself. He’s really a very good person. There is nothing like the spectacle of a bearded, 200-pound 32-year-old man with sunglasses on at 7:30 in the morning sobbing as he boards the plane with his rather younger husband quietly pushing him into his seat. I think I probably was the topic of a lot of people’s travel stories after that.

    Last thought: read anything Matt Haig has to say on the topic of anxiety and depression if you are suffering or taking care of someone who is. He is great at communicating how it feels.

    5

    Please tell me more about the new project you and John have got coming up. What’s the deal with it? What do you feel you have to say with this new music?

    We’re called Soft People. We recorded a new album of 12 songs at home in Atlanta, GA from January to July 2017. The album is called American Men and is an exploration of patriarchy, late-stage capitalism, American imperialism, and other more personal stuff like loss and anxiety, both of which have been at the forefront of our lives in the last couple of years, and of course were the big themes of 2016. I think the album is basically a musical hot take on our 2016 experience. Trump, of course, but also John’s mom passing away very suddenly. Our world basically collapsed last year, and creating this album, I think, has been our way of beginning to rebuild something for ourselves.

    We met in 2009 when he became the drummer of Grand Lake. We got married in 2014, shortly after it became legal to do that in California. We’ve never collaborated on writing and recording outside of Grand Lake, which ended seven years ago, so this was a big risk for our relationship. It’s strange to have a new intimate experience with someone you’ve been with for 8 years. But that’s the payoff, I think, for investing in a long term relationship. It can grow and change, and this experience of making art together is evidence of that. It’s fresh.

    And we have a lot of stories to tell with this music, and sonic places to explore. We’re adventuring together and it’s weird and cool. I want us to be the gay White Stripes, but not get divorced, and also not sound anything like that, but you know what I’m saying. I want us to be the gay White Stripes who sound like early Midlake had a baby with Broadcast and Clinic and Deerhoof and Boards of Canada, with the sorts of lyrical themes favored by Laetitia Sadier. I’d like us to be America’s Best Gay Socialist Band™. Or at least San Luis Obispo’s.

    6

    Generally, where do you think the planet is heading? What developments have you seen in your life that give you pause, anxiety or optimism?

    This is what our new album is about, mostly. That things are fucked. The cause is capitalism. The cure may be democratic socialism. Donald Trump is a symptom, not a disease. Climate change will kill a lot of our children. We’re all despairing pretty hard right now. But I do actually wonder, in my more optimistic moments, if this is how capitalism ends and something else happens. Certainly it feels like there is a paradigm shift happening. I hope we get a better paradigm, but we could just as easily end up with something far worse than the 20th century global order.

    My truly innovative idea: not doing a Kickstarter or asking anyone for money at all. I’m just gonna punch the clock, fund my own shit, and die honest.

    7

    What necessary, obvious device hasn’t been invented but should be? How would it improve our lives? Would you be willing to invent it?

    Teleporting, obviously. Would solve almost every problem. Particularly if this was achieved with some sort of cold-fusion-type free energy?

    I would not know where to begin, but apparently it’s a quantum physics thing? I work at a college library at a school that produces a lot of engineers, so maybe I’ll help the future inventor of teleportation find a book at some point.

    8

    Beyond music, it’s been fun observing all the projects and ideas you’ve come up with. I think the first time I ever wrote music journalism was for your (now-defunct) local arts and entertainment blog, and I remember a clever crowdfunding idea you had, where you tried to collect one dollar from a million people. As far as crafty online stuff, what’s your next move?

    My truly innovative idea: not doing a Kickstarter or asking anyone for money at all. I’m just gonna punch the clock, fund my own shit, and die honest.

    I do wish that I had been given one million dollars in one dollar increments. Sad.

    9

    Who in the world, alive or dead, has influenced you as a person the most? How have they done so? How would you like to influence or inspire others in the long run?

    The answer has to be somewhere between John Lennon and Morrissey, I think. I don’t know if I can pin my deal on one person, but certainly those two come to mind. And I think both were/are flawed musical geniuses with enormous egos who said a lot of things to a lot of people and were basically unafraid of being themselves. That’s always been important to me – actually being myself, which is really hard to do. I don’t always live up to it. It’s hard to stay true to yourself in the midst of the zeitgeist. And it’s hard to honor that your self changes from time to time.

    Whenever I reflect on questions like this, I am reminded of how most of my favorite music has been produced by white British men. Huh.

    As far as influencing/inspiring others: I doubt that I will. But if I did, I would hope that I could influence artists to make good art for the world that does not bend to the shape of the marketplace. Fuck making art for the sake of selling things. Fuck being a brand. I’m so goddamn serious about this one thing. It is an unpopular opinion these days, I think. But I really really really feel it.

    It’s not wrong to make money from the thing you do. More power to you. But there is a disturbing trend in music, at least from my perspective, that is blurring the lines between licensing songs to companies and writing songs that you hope will be sale-able. Does that make sense? Like, people: stop ruining art just to make money and have status. If you just want to be famous and make money, start a business and be on a reality show or something. Get out of music.

    10

    Finally, what is the greatest work of art a human has ever produced? What about the second greatest? Do you think humanity has any more masterpieces left in it?

    I think that the answer to this must either be a symphony or a film, but I suspect it could be a film with an amazing score. I think film might be the pinnacle of human achievement, very possibly. And so for me it is probably a David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick film. Probably Kubrick. Maybe 2001. Although there are other directors.

    One of the most beautiful films I have seen might be Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. I mean – wow! The thing about film is that it contains everything: writing, visual art, sound. It’s all there. So that has to be the answer. But I also have profound relationships with novels, albums, paintings, and other visual art, particularly Edvard Munch’s prints. I think David Lynch may do the best job, for me, of making films that are art. Blue VelvetWild at HeartTwin Peaks: The Return. These are all masterpieces. Is it okay to say that a film starring Nicholas Cage might be one of humanity’s greatest works of art?

           

    And yes, I think we have so much more art to make. I think that’s the whole point of this existence: art. It has to be. Creating things is the only pure thing we do, isn’t it?

    NICHOLS’ CRUCIAL MOMENTS


    We asked Caleb to provide a list of ten of the most crucial moments in his life.


    1996

    Kissing a boy for the first time.


    1996

    Smoking my first cigarette.


    1997

    Radiohead releasing OK Computer.


    2000

    Telling my mom I was gay.


    2001

    Opening for Black Heart Procession in my hometown.


    2004

    Getting my heart really, brutally broken by someone.


    2007

    Playing my first sold-out show with Port O’Brien, opening for Bright Eyes at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.


    2007

    Playing “I Woke Up Today” in a tent at 1:00 AM at the End of the Road Festival in the UK, with tons of hot British dudes singing along, after consuming a lot of absinthe.


    2008

    Moving to Oakland to start my own band.


    2012

    The moment my husband proposed.

    Thank you.

    Data


    Conversation: 52
    Curated by: Morgan Enos
    Conducted by: Email
    Published: October 25, 2017
    Total questions: 10 + 10
    Word count: 4118
    Reading time: Fifteen minutes
    Hyperlinks: 17
    British men: Hot and/or inspiring
    John: Anger
    Paul: Ego
    George: Reservation
    Ringo: Reliability

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