Detroit power pop supremo Nick Piunti tells me about the writing and recording of his new album Beyond The Static – the follow-up to his critically acclaimed record 13 In My Head.
It’s great to chat to you again, Nick. When we last spoke, back in 2013, you’d just released 13 In My Head – your second solo album. It was one of my favourite records of that year. And now you’re back with the follow-up – Beyond The Static. Did you feel any pressure when you were writing and recording the new album?
Nick Piunti: Thanks, Sean. I think there’s always the hope that the next album will be better than the previous one, but I wouldn’t call it pressure, just the desire to make a good album. And, of course, the hope is that the new album will be as well received as the last one, but, ultimately, we made an album that I like and am proud of.
13 In My Head really raised your profile in the UK, didn’t it? It picked up some great press…
NP: The attention and press that 13 In My Head received in the UK and Europe was amazing. And there are a lot of people to thank for that. Having a song on the Mojo magazine compilation CD Songs in the Key of Paul definitely raised my profile in the UK and beyond.
And for Markus Holler from Sugarbush Records to release the album on vinyl, that was a boost as well. Yourself, Robin Wills, Wayne Lundqvist Ford, the Madrid power pop community, Luis deOry, Power Pop Pedro and Rock and Roll Circus – all were instrumental in spreading the word.
Rest assured, fans of 13 In My Head will definitely love Beyond The Static – it’s more of the same; infectious power pop songs, with big guitars, harmonies and strong melodies, isn’t it? Like its predecessor, it’s very instant. The first three tracks don’t mess around – Things don’t really slow down until track four, Six Bands…
NP: I’ve been recording for so long and have pretty much stayed true to the music that initially inspired me. I think the trick is to not be too obvious with your influences, but to meld them into something of your own. If it’s not catchy it doesn’t usually end up on one of my albums.
I noticed a country influence on Six Bands – is that pedal steel on it? Musically, it reminds me of REM. Can you tell me more about that song? I love the opening lines: ‘’She’s in six bands – none of them good. Tries to sing, only if she could. But she’s drowning in a talent pool – chasing dreams can be so cruel.”
Is it aimed at anyone in particular? Is it a comment on the shallow and ruthless nature of the music industry?
NP: Thanks – yep, pedal steel courtesy of Dave Feeny, who owns a great studio called The Tempermill. He’s produced some of my favourite Detroit artists who also are my friends (Chris Richards, Ryan Allen, Friendly Foes, American Mars) and he plays pedal steel. I felt that he could add a cool vibe to the song, which he obviously did.
The song isn’t about anyone in particular. I was reading a local paper, The Metro Times, and there was an article with a story about a girl who was in four bands. So I exaggerated it a bit. But the song isn’t about her – it’s about the struggle that bands and artists have these days and how many are a bit delusional. When I was in my early twenties I moved to L.A. with my childhood band, so maybe some of the lyrics were autobiographical, but I only had one band and we were pretty good.
Where did the album title – Beyond The Static – come from?
NP: Well, I was struggling to find the right title for the album. The phrase “beyond the static” comes from the song Something’s Wrong. My daughter Megan picked up on that line, so there you go.
I love the song Time Machine – I had a sneak preview of it last year, as a teaser to the new album. If you had a time machine, where would you travel to?
NP: That’s a good question. It would have to be the future, wouldn’t it? If we travelled too far back in time, I think we would find that the good old days weren’t what we thought they would be. Except for maybe seeing The Beatles at The Cavern.
Your song Heart Stops Beating has some vintage synth sounds on it, doesn’t it? It has a bit of a New Wave feel to it. Did you wear a skinny tie while you were recording it?
NP: My skinny tie days are behind me, but, yeah, I think I was going for a Cars feel with the muted guitar – Rickenbacker – and the synth, which is actually doubled with guitars, as well. It also has a Weezer vibe, which makes sense since Ric Ocasek [from The Cars] produced a few of their albums.
Something’s Wrong is a rocker. It has a swagger to it, with heavy guitars and plenty of attitude…
NP: I almost left that one off the album, because I thought it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the songs, but I’m glad my rock side prevailed.
There’s some jangly, chiming guitar pop on the album, too – like Quicksand. Didn’t you record an alternative version of Time Machine, with a different guitar sound? Will that alternative take come out in the future?
NP: I love jangly guitars – there’s a bit of 12-string on the album, but mostly capos and the right kind of six strings – Matchless and Vox amps get the job done. We did record another version of Time Machine with a more jangly feel, and I was going to include it on the album, but I didn’t want one song to be featured more than once.
Can you tell me about the writing and the recording of the new album? How did you approach making Beyond The Static? What did you want to achieve with it?
NP: World domination – ha! The writing process stays the same. Some days you hammer away for a couple of hours and nothing comes of it, while on other occasions the minute I pick up my guitar a lyric, melody or a riff come together at the same time, and those are the songs that make it on the album. I wrote all the songs, but Geoff Michael [producer] spent some time deconstructing a couple of the songs, so he was credited as a co-writer on those.
Donny Brown re-arranged It’s A Trap – he turned the second part of the original chorus into the bridge, so he’s credited on that song as well. And the other co-writer is my 16-year-old daughter Megan. She didn’t actually sit down and write with me, but I stole her line, “I fell for you and I can’t get up” and turned it into a song [Fell For You]. I didn’t want her to be denied the writing credit like Ringo – he came up with the phrases “hard day’s night” and “eight days a week”. That’s what I think I read anyway.
Who was involved with the record this time around? Was it the same guys who worked with you on 13 In My Head?
NP: Once again, Geoff Michael produced the album – at Big Sky Recording in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He also added guitar and keyboards on two songs. Donny Brown – again – played drums on all but one song. He also recorded the drums for a couple of the tracks at his home studio, as well as adding some awesome background vocals and synth lines on Time Machine.
For this album, Andy Reed played bass on every track, which he recorded at his own studio, Reed Recording Company. Andy’s studio is a two and a half hour drive for me, so it’s easier to send the tracks to him. He lays down the perfect basslines and sends them back to Geoff – they’re always great.
Andy and I also tracked some guitars, keyboards and noises on Head in the Clouds, at his studio. Ryan Allen sang on four songs and added guitar on Something’s Wrong.
Chris Richards also sang on a couple songs as well. Steve Mullan played keys on a song and a young drummer named Billy Harrington appears on Anything But Easy.
One thing that I don’t do is to tell any of these amazing guys what to play. I like to see what they bring to my songs. Since they’re such great songwriters in their own right, they instinctively know what can make a good song better.
I didn’t actually rehearse with anyone individually before the recording. I would either send demos or tracks from the studio and they each came up with their own parts. Despite what some may say, I’m really not that much of a control freak. For this album I even decided not to be there for the mixing sessions. Geoff did the mixing, would send the tracks to me, and I would make a few minor suggestions and he would tweak away. So, ultimately, I had the last word, but relied on the talents of many.
Which albums and bands were you listening to when you were writing and recording the new album. Have you heard anything new that you’d recommend?
NP: I’m always looking for something new that inspires me. My friend Ryan Allen has just released a new solo album called Heart String Soul that I love. He sent me the original demos as he was writing them, so I was there for the inception.
Chris Richards, Andy Reed, and Keith Klingensmith recorded their debut album, The Legal Matters, which is a great pop album that found its way on to a lot of Best of 2014 lists. I even played guitar on a couple of songs.
There’s a Brooklyn band called Nude Beach that I really dig. Their new album is called 77 and, yeah, it sounds like it could have been recorded in 1977. The new Spoon album, New Pornographers, The Both, New Mendicants (a handsome chap named Sean Hannam introduced me to them!) and Jason Narducy’s band/solo project Split Single is right up my alley. It’s indie-rock and power pop influenced, as well.
Will you be playing some gigs to promote your new album? Do you think that you’ll get to play in the UK? We’d love to have you over here…
NP: There will be a few shows – for sure. The UK and Europe would be awesome, but it would have to make financial sense. Making music and financially responsibility don’t usually mesh in the independent music world, unfortunately.
Good luck with the new album – it’s a great record. What are your plans for the rest of the year?
NP: I’m halfway done with songs for the next album and maybe I’ll collaborate with a friend or two on something new as well.
I’m fortunate to be able to keep making new music and really lucky to be hitting my stride when most sane people would have given up years ago.
I still have the passion and I have friends that inspire me, so why would I stop? Oh, and most importantly, I have the most incredible wife in the world. That is not to be underestimated.
Beyond The Static will be released on March 14 (Two Brains Recording Co.). There are plans for a vinyl version later this year.