Nick Piunti’s new album 13 In My Head is an instant power pop classic. High on harmonies, hooks and killer choruses, and with nods to The Beatles, Cheap Trick, Redd Kross, The Replacements, vintage Rod Stewart and Fountains of Wayne, it’s guitar-heavy heaven. I spoke to Nick about the making of the album and why when a song just seems to fall out of the sky, you need to be there to catch it…
Congratulations on your latest album 13 In My Head, which is one of my favourite records of this year. I only stumbled across it recently, when I heard your song It All Comes Down on the Paul McCartney-inspired, power pop compilation CD, Songs In The Key of Paul, which came free with the November issue of Mojo magazine. It made me want to track you down and find out more. And here we are…
Nick Piunti: Thanks so much. The CD received the reception I was hoping for. I definitely was pleasantly surprised when Mojo contacted me.
You’re in great company on the Mojo CD – Squeeze, Robyn Hitchcock, Cotton Mather, Redd Kross… Not bad, eh?
NP: Yes, great company indeed. When we were making 13 In My Head, I would bring different CDs in for my producer Geoff Michael to listen to. Cotton Mather’s Kontiki and Redd Kross’s Researching the Blues were two I remembered. To be included on a compilation disc with both bands from albums that we listened to in the studio was pretty cool.
So, first things first, are you still 13 in your head?
NP: Well, I would say anyone my age that still has the nerve to write and record a rock record probably still has some of his teenage years left in him. I’m a lot nicer and mellower than I was at 13, though. The title actually came from a comment from one of my friends on Facebook. I posted something about working on a song with my buddy Ryan Allen, in his basement, and my friend commented, “What? Are you 13?” And my response was: “In my head”. Twenty minutes later, the song was born…
Can you tell me more about the background to the album?
NP: Well, The Respectables [Nick’s old band] called it a day and I went on a bit of a writing spree. A good friend of mine – Ryan Allen – and I got together at my place and I shared some songs with him, which led to some quick collaborations.
For a brief moment we toyed with the idea of having a band, rather than a recording project. We were going to be called Two Eugenes, but Ryan was rather busy with his other band and solo project and was soon to become a father for the first time. So I continued to map out the songs, but was successful in getting Ryan in the studio for half the songs on the record.
When were the songs, written, demoed and recorded?
NP: All of the songs were written between spring 2011 and early 2012, with the exception of the title track, which was written in early 2013. I actually demoed the songs on Garageband, using my iPad. The same tempos were used for the final recordings, but instead of my crude drum loops, Donny Brown (The Verve Pipe) came in to play drums. I sent him my demos – there were no rehearsals – and he just nailed it.
I think we did six songs on the first day (in May 2012), then recorded another six in July of 2012. The song 13 In My Head was recorded in early 2013. I felt like I needed one more rocker for the album. As songwriters, we always think the latest song is the best one…
What’s your songwriting process like?
NP: Songwriting is something I’ve been doing since I was 13, or younger. I write everything with my acoustic guitar, at my kitchen table. I find that when I pick my guitar up, the first thing that I stumble across usually leads to the next song. And when a riff and melody is accompanied with a lyrical idea at the same time, well, those are usually the best and easiest songs to write. When the song just seems to fall out of the sky, you need to be there to catch it. Sitting down trying to force a song doesn’t usually work for me. What I would get is something ordinary and uninspired.
Who are you main influences?
NP: Since I’ve been making music for so long, my influences change throughout the years. Of course, there’s some music that sticks with you forever, like The Beatles and The Stones, but I’ve also been knocked out by The Raspberries, Slade, Cheap Trick, Tom Petty – I used to sound way too much like him – Crowded House, The Plimsouls, The Replacements and Fountains of Wayne. The list goes on….
What are you into at the moment?
NP: I’m currently listening to the new Superchunk album, I Hate Music. Frank Turner’s new one is great, but I’ve got to watch out playing that one in front of my ten-year-old because of all the ‘f bombs’ he drops! I’m a big Mike Viola fan – he’s one of the best pop singer songwriters in my book. Redd Kross’s last record was great, but I would have liked to hear the vocals a touch louder in the mix.
Sometimes your singing voice sounds like Rod Stewart. Is that a compliment? I’m reminded of Paul Westerberg at times, too…
NP: I get the Rod Stewart comparison quite a bit. It’s a compliment if they’re thinking Maggie May, but not if they’re thinking Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? Paul Westerberg is one of my big influences for sure. I also get Bryan and Ryan Adams – no relation – as comparisons. I like the latter. I’ve also heard Mike Viola and Ian Lloyd (The Stories, Brother Louie). So any comparison means they’ve listened to my music, which is the idea.
Where did you record the new album?
NP: Almost all of the recording was done at Big Sky Recording in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with Geoff Michael. I did make a one-day excursion to Andy Reed’s studio in Bay City to do some harmonies with Donny Brown and Andy Reed in early 2013. I felt like a few of the songs could use some of their input. The vocal harmonies for Good Thing Going and Farewell, Goodbye were recorded there, as well as some keys and a couple of guitar overdubs.
What was your approach to this record? What did you set out to achieve?
NP: Well, my approach was to record the best recent songs that I had at the time. I knew there was a small community of power pop music lovers that would get what I was trying to achieve. I had some success in that market with The Respectables and since I was heading into a bit more of a pop direction with the new record, I figured it would be well received.
Also, with The Respectables we landed a couple of song placements – one in a network television drama and another in the film Jeff Who Lives at Home. So the thought of future song placements was also one of the reasons to make another record. Writing songs and recording them is what I do. I was happy with how easy it was writing the songs for this album. It doesn’t always come so easily. And I guess I felt like I wanted to prove that I could get better with age. Being in a band is great, but sometimes it’s better to grab the wheel and take charge. Of course, I was smart enough to have some great musicians bring the songs to life.
There are so many records released these days, because the technology is available and because it can be relatively cheap, but to get any attention and actually sell music is another thing. So, realistically, I’m not going to quit my day job – we have a restaurant, so it’s a night job as well. Spreading the word about my music without a publicist is a challenge, but I’ve been lucky in that regard. Selling CDs around the world is awesome. With all the free music out there, for someone to pay for it is quite a compliment.
The new album has a great sound – instant killer melodies and big, bold production that grabs you straight away. Can you tell me more about the band, the playing and your guitar sound, etc?
NP: Hey, thanks. Yeah. I like melodies, lyrics that don’t embarrass, and for things to sound good. It’s a fine line on production. I still want it to sound real – not too slick and with a touch of rawness – but lo-fi recordings with vocals buried in the mix are hard to listen to over and over for me.
Geoff Michael was responsible for the sound of the album. Having a drummer like Donny makes certain that the drums are going to sound good. I definitely wanted the drums a bit more up in the mix than on The Respectables records. I feel we were a bit too guitar-heavy on those releases.
I used my Rickenbacker 360 and Les Paul Junior for the majority of the record. Ryan also used those guitars for his parts as well. I used an old Matchless amp – it sounds like a Vox AC 30 on steroids.
Sleeping On The Pavement is a big, snarling rock tune, with lots of attitude. It’s one of the heavier tracks on the album…
NP: It’s the hardest rocking tune for sure. A real simple riff with a lot of overdrive double tracked. That song is kind of a knock to the whiners out there with their hands out, wondering when they’re going to get their due. Work for it, man. I sound like an old man now, don’t I? For a time I thought it was a bit too heavy for the album, but I’m glad I included it.
On The Way Out is pop perfection – one of my favourite songs on the album. I love the ‘bah-bah-bah backing vocals…
NP: I wanted to see how poppy I could get without being too over the top. The ‘bah bah bahs’ make everything more pop. The first line was about a friend who’s always on the cutting edge of what’s hip, but I changed the theme into a relationship thing. Hopefully everyone has a cool friend that can turn you on to new things, bands, etc. So, even though the song has a negative vibe, it started out as an observation about a friend.
You used to be in The Respectables. What can you tell us about those days? You split up in 2011…
NP: The Respectables began as a songwriting and demo project with Joey Gaydos and myself. Joey has been around the Detroit scene for years and played with Rob Tyner (MC5), Cub Koda (Brownsville Station) and had some success with his own bands. Joey played guitar on my solo album from 2002 and we became good friends. Some thought Joey and I were an unlikely match, as his previous bands were much heavier than mine, but his tastes are varied and with me he could bring out his pop chops. So we recorded a couple of CDs. The second one, Sibley Gardens, was the one that caught the ear of the power pop geeks.
Our drummer Donn Deniston helped bring that record closer to power pop territory. It was also the first time I worked with Geoff Michael at Big Sky. We did some overdubs there and he mixed it. The three of us would hash the songs out together and it was a fruitful, creative time. We recorded a three-song EP in 2010, but it was obvious that we creatively peaked with Sibley Gardens and that we were probably better suited as being a recording project than to try to make a buzz playing live. There wasn’t anywhere to go by bashing out in the small clubs. Been there, done that…
You started out by playing in Dwarf and The Take. Were they good times?
NP: Well, Dwarf was my first band. We started out as sixth graders at a talent show and ended up moving to California, as The Take. We were thinking we’d be the next Plimsouls, while the next big thing was actually Poison. We were disillusioned to say the least. We were the wrong band for the times. So, yeah, we starved in L.A, but we didn’t want to give up too early. After two years, I came back to Michigan. Michigan looked a lot better after two years in L.A, which is a great place if you’re rich, but not if you’re another struggling rock band. So, Dwarf was my youth and The Take was us becoming adults and getting a big dose of reality.
Dwarf started out playing Junior High school dances, with little girls screaming and love letters from fans – we were learning to play our instruments. It was a great time and I wouldn’t have missed it, but we were like so many other young bands that thought ‘no way would we not make it big one day’.
So what’s next for Nick Piunti? Are there any new songs on the horizon? Can we expect another solo album soon?
NP: Well I have a family – three girls and the most amazing, awesome, gorgeous, understanding and (did I mention gorgeous?) wife ever, who encourages me to keep doing what I love. So yeah, if the songs keep coming to me, I’ll keep making records. I have a few songs left over from the last album that will make a good start for the next. And I have a lot of unfinished tunes that are a bit softer – more pop, less rock – which may see the light of day. Winter is usually my creative time – it’s too cold in Michigan to play golf, so we’ll see what the winter brings…
13 In My Head by Nick Piunti is out now.
For more information, go to www.nickpiunti.com