Detroit power-pop singer-songwriter Nick Piunti’s new album has an apt title for these days of global lockdown – it’s called Downtime.
“It’s a bit too timely. My daughter, Megan, actually came up with it after listening to the record. In the song Never Belonged To Me there’s a lyric that says: “Don’t know what to do with the downtime.”
“The word ‘time’ also shows up in a few of the other songs,” says Nick, whose latest record – his sixth – is the first with his new band, The Complicated Men.
The album has all the usual Piunti hallmarks – raw vocals, infectious melodies, crunching guitar riffs and sweet, ’60s-style harmonies – but, this time around, the sound is fleshed out with Hammond organ.
First single, All This Time, is anthemic and urgent indie rock ‘n’ roll, the opening track, Upper Hand, is chugging and New Wavey, while Going Nowhere has some breezy ‘doo-doo-doo’ backing vocals and a killer, fuzzed-up, melodic guitar solo. There are also some quieter and more reflective moments – the ballads All Over Again and Good Intentions.
So what is Nick doing with his downtime and how’s he coping with lockdown and the COVID-19 crisis?
“For the first three weeks, I was working at our restaurant, as we transitioned into ‘carry-out’ orders only. The staff did a great job, but, as time went on, the stress was getting to everyone, so we decided to close up shop until we’re able to be a full-service restaurant again,” he says.
“I admit that I brought my amp and guitar to work and was making quite a bit of noise between orders. I’m happy to say that not one person on our staff became ill while we were still in business, and, so far, everyone has remained healthy.
“I’ve been trying not to watch too much news. I want to stay informed, but it can take a lot out of you. I’ve been playing a lot of guitar, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. I have our restaurant to worry about, as well as keeping our family safe.”
He adds: “Our oldest daughter has moved back in temporarily, as she’s working from home, and that’s been really nice. We’re hardly fighting at all! Our middle daughter is out-of-state, finishing up her senior year, so it’s been hard being away from her.
“Our youngest is running the household as usual, watching too much TV and telling us what she wants for dinner every night. I’m the only male in the house, so I look for a corner I can hide away in, to work on new songs.
“Back in February, when the consensus was that the virus was only dangerous for a portion of the population, it seemed manageable, but it really hit home when my friend, Chris Plum, came down with it.
“He contributed to the new album as a special guest, adding some great harmonies on a few of the songs and synth on another. He’s a super-talented guy. He became very ill with COVID-19, but, luckily, he’s recovered – he actually followed some alternative methods that saved his life.”
Let’s talk about your new band, The Complicated Men. What’s the line-up?
Nick Piunti: The Complicated Men are officially: Jeff Hupp (bass); Ron Vensko (drums) and Kevin Darnall (keys), plus special guests Ryan Allen (harmony vocals, guitar, percussion) and Chris Plum (harmony vocals, synth, percussion).
It was cool having both Ryan and Chris guest on the album. Side one of the record is more Chris and side two’s more Ryan. Both of them are super-talented musicians who work really quickly. I loved hearing what they would add to the songs.
Where did the band name come from?
NP: Ryan came up with it – I think he had it in his back pocket for one of his bands, but he never used it. Are they really that complicated? Well, they’re a bunch of middle-aged dudes playing rock stars, so, yeah, I guess so.
Jeff Hupp actually brought the band together. Donny Brown and Andy Reed were my band for several albums, but we all live quite a distance from each other, so rehearsals rarely happened and we didn’t play many shows. Jeff asked if I wanted a bass player for an upcoming solo show. He then brought Ron in and, a bit later, Kevin. Ryan was in the band for a minute, but realised he couldn’t put the time in for rehearsals and shows.
‘With the addition of a keyboard player, I knew it would cover more sonic territory, but I still wanted the record to rock. That’s what I do’
How did you approach the writing and the recording for the new album?
NP: I wrote the songs pretty much like I always do, except I refrained from recording any demos – I worked them out with the band before we hit the studio.
The last four albums began with me in the studio, laying down a rough rhythm guitar track and a guide vocal, building the songs from there. It would usually be just Geoff Michael – the producer – and I to start with, and then Donny Brown would lay down the drums.
We’d work on the guitars and vocals and Andy Reed would add the bass guitar towards the end. I kind of have a sound – guitars and a few more guitars, and this voice I was born with. I said born, not blessed. And I like what I like, so there’s not a reinvention of the wheel by any means.
With the addition of a keyboard player I knew it would cover more sonic territory, but I still wanted the record to rock. That’s what I do, for the most part. Although I wrote the songs, the band were definitely integral to the arrangements and they all composed the parts they played on the record.
Some of the songs were more of a group effort in their arrangements, while others were pretty much like I wrote them. Ryan, who’s been a long-time contributor, had quite a bit to do with the first batch of songs we recorded as The Complicated Men.
Where did you make the album?
NP: Once again we did it with Geoff Michael at Big Sky Recording in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We started the record in March last year, took a break, recorded five more songs in late spring, added some overdubs in the fall, and mixed it at the end of 2019. You could make a baby quicker than I make an album!
Geoff and The Complicated Men are listed as producers. It was a team effort, but I know when to stay out of Geoff’s way.
The first single from the album was All This Time. It sounds like another classic Piunti ‘relationship gone wrong’ song. It has a great rock ‘n’ roll feel – the organ has really filled out your sound.
NP: Yeah! All This Time was written on a Sunday and recorded the following weekend, if I remember correctly. The band took to it really fast.
Yes – love gone wrong. Not that I know anything about that, as I’ve been happily married for 25 years. The song is not autobiographical – it’s actually about a friend of mine who was going through a tough time.
In fact, a few of the songs on the album were written standing in someone else’s shoes – enough to make my wife request a disclaimer on the album stating: ‘These songs are not about my wife.’ I forgot to add it, but all of the love songs on the album are about her. There are a few…
Kevin played a Hammond B3 on that song. There’s nothing like the real thing.
The latest single, Upper Hand, has a bit of a New Wave sound, with its chugging guitar. Where did that song come from?
NP: I actually wrote the chorus in the shower. It’s best not to picture that! I think it was the first song I wrote for the new album, so it was appropriate to kick the record off with it.
It’s about giving up control, which is something I’m getting better at as I get older. If you’re going to stay married for 25 years, I find that’s it not healthy to try and control everything.
New Wave? Yeah – I do like to rely on guitar riffs for a lot of my songs. I grew up in the ‘70s – it’s in my DNA.
You rock out on Going Nowhere, which is one of the heavier and ‘crunchier’ tracks on the album. I love the ‘doo-doo-doo’ backing vocals, the harmonies and the organ. It has a nice, melodic guitar solo, too.
What’s the song about? You sing: “The ship was going down… it looks like we might drown…. I’m the captain of this ship and we’re all on the same trip – going nowhere.” It sounds like it’s a comment on the state of US politics and the Trump presidency, or am I reading too much into it?
NP: That song was a total team effort. Chris came up with the harmonies, which were possibly suggested by Jeff, if I remember correctly.
I had the guitar solo in my head, but it still needed something, so we added some fuzz and an octave to it. I need to do more of that!
‘I actually wrote the chorus to Upper Hand in the shower. It’s best not to picture that!’
Going Nowhere was the last song on the album that needed lyrics. I was stuck, so I asked Ryan if he could help me with it. I sent him the basic tracks and hummed the melody and phrasing, and in about 15 minutes he came up with the first verse in a text. Half an hour later he sent me the rest of the lyrics. They were perfect – I didn’t need to change a word.
It does sound like it could be a Trump-inspired song, but Ryan says it’s about dealing with depression and trying to navigate your way through it, with some days better than others. I could see a video with a cartoon Trump singing it, but we’ll leave it to the listener’s imagination instead.
All Over Again is one of the album’s slower and more laid-back moments – it’s a ballad…
NP: I actually recorded that song in the studio with just Geoff and myself. It was in November – a couple of months before the first Complicated Men studio date.
I wrote it really quickly and wanted to record it before the feeling passed. The song is different to the rest of the album, but I wanted to include it – it’s kind of sad, but still hopeful. It’s one of my songs that someone half my age should cover.
The final song on the record, Good Intentions, is another slowie. It’s lovely – a reflective way to end the album…
NP: I wrote that song as my mom was nearing the end of her life. She passed away in February 2019. I don’t know if I was writing it from her viewpoint, or from what I might want to say when the time came. It’s a song to my daughters, maybe? I intended to write a second verse, but the song really felt complete with just the one verse and chorus.
On that note, sadly, one of your musical heroes and influences, Adam Scheslinger, from Fountains of Wayne, recently died as a result of COVID-19 complications? How are you feeling about his passing? What did his music mean to you?
NP: I didn’t know Adam personally, but I met him at a show and actually asked if he would mix my album, 13 In My Head, to which he said “sure”…
Fountains of Wayne are not only one of my favourite bands, but it was the one group that my wife Kelli and I both loved to the same degree. The night we met Fountains of Wayne, Adam brought Kelli on stage to play tambourine during Hey Julie.
Their songwriting is ridiculously clever – the funny lyrics, the sound, the hooks, Chris’s Collingwood’s vocals, the whole band… I love [guitarist] Jody Porter’s playing. I don’t have his chops, but I often find myself thinking: “what would Jody play?”
I loved every record Fountains of Wayne did. I admit I can’t always tell which is a Chris song and which is an Adam song, as they usually wrote separately, but it’s obvious they were both influenced by each other.
Adam was only 52. I heard that he was in hospital but would recover. It stopped me in my tracks when I read the news that he passed. I’ve been listening to a lot of Fountains of Wayne lately. I never tried to do what they were doing, but I’m sure being such a big fan helped me to become a better songwriter and recording artist.
Other than Fountains of Wayne, what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying? What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?
NP: Before my recent Fountains of Wayne listening binge, my favourite recent album was Mo Troper’s Natural Beauty. He’s a fantastic indie-pop artist from Portland, Oregon. I was planning to see him on tour until he had to cancel.
‘I’ve been listening to a lot of Fountains of Wayne. I never tried to do what they were doing, but I’m sure being such a big fan helped me to become a better songwriter and recording artist’
The latest Pernice Brothers album is great. A new Chicago band called Rookie has been getting some spins and I also dig White Reaper. I love the new Brendan Benson single, Richest Man, and, of course, I’ve been going back to listen to John Prine.
Did you have any live shows planned around the launch of the new album? If so, what’s happened to those?
NP: We had two record release shows planned in May. We were going to do a ‘Side A’ and a ‘Side B’ show. It looks like those will have to be postponed for the time being. I don’t think anyone wants to be packed in like sardines for a while.
What are you most looking forward to doing once lockdown has been lifted?
NP: I miss making noise at rehearsals with the band. I miss going outside without wearing a mask. I miss seeing people walk through the door of my restaurant. I’m hoping we all appreciate the little things we take for granted.
I’m praying they find a cure or vaccine for COVID-19, and also find out why some people are susceptible while others may not even be aware they have contracted the virus.
I hope to keep writing and being inspired. I have a few dozen new songs in the works and I’m looking forward to seeing what the band can do with them. I really hope we can have a show soon and we’re really looking forward to May 22, when the album is finally released.
I’m really happy I get to share this release with the band, as I’m really proud of it. It sounds like me, but I can hear the difference in the way it was recorded, with all of us tracking together. It really sounds like a band.
Downtime by Nick Piunti & The Complicated Men is released on May 22 (Jem Records).