Suburban Cowboy, the debut solo album by Oregon singer-songwriter Nick Gamer, was one of my favourite albums of last year.
It was written during the Covid lockdown of 2020 and the peak of the West Coast’s wildfire season.
Reviewing it for Americana UK last summer, I said: ‘Set in a world of midnight truck stops and neon signs, Suburban Cowboy raises a glass to classic Americana and country, but every so often, Gamer slips in a shot of something extra that gives it a dark edge and keeps it fresh, like on Cenote Saloon, which is spacey, cinematic and psychedelic, with wonderful Lynchian twangy guitar, or the short, vaguely jazzy instrumental, Sidereal.’
‘Suburban Cowboy was one of my favourite albums of last year. It was written during the Covid lockdown of 2020 and the peak of the West Coast’s wildfire season’
I singled out some of the highlights, saying: ‘The ghost of Gram Parsons hangs over the barstool prayer, Midnight Angel, as well as the pedal steel and fiddle-laced trad country of Ballad of the Suburban Cowboy’, described Riverbed as a ‘raw and dark rocker, with thundering, doomy bass’ and said the widescreen Sedona, which is about driving all night through the Arizona desert, had shades of Springsteen and Jason Isbell.
I likened the stripped-down and intimate Any Neon Sign, which starts with the noise of a train, to early Ryan Adams, and said the mid-paced country rocker, Tennessee, had a similar feel, with Gamer, former guitarist for Japanese Breakfast and frontman of Le Rev, singing: ‘We drank our way from Memphis down to New Orleans – got kicked out of every honky tonk in-between.”
On Ballad of the Suburban Cowboy, he sings: “You can find me at a tavern, chasin’ bourbon with beer/ In some strip mall sprawl at the edge of the western frontier…”
But I tracked him down to his home in Eugene, and, in an exclusive chat – only his second interview ever – he told me about writing and recording his debut album, moving on from his chaotic twenties, getting away from where he grew up, the moody sound of Pacific North West country music and the crumbling American dream.
The album was written in 2020, during the Covid lockdown and the wildfire season. How was that?
Nick Gamer: There were six months of being locked down and then the wildfires came – it was sepia sky and a neon sun. It was bizarro – it felt like you were on Mars. The fires came up to just outside of Eugene. It was crazy – an apocalyptic feeling.
I was cooped up. I’ve been playing music in bands for 20 years and my friend was like, ‘Hey – you’ve never put out your own album’… so I took him up on that. I booked a date, with my friend Bryan [Wollen – producer], who’s up in Portland, and it forced me to write some songs.
So, all the songs on the record were new and written for it?
NG: They’re all new songs – I had all of them except for Sedona, Riverbed and Fever Valley Pitch…
Those songs stand out because they’re the heavier, poppier or rockier tracks…
NG: Yeah – I thought that the record didn’t have singles. If I had a record label, they would probably have said I needed some three-minute, up-tempo songs, so I kind of had a writing project. The recording was delayed because of Covid – it happened in intervals, so it took a lot longer than we wanted, but those songs came later.
What was the studio like?
NG: Bryan calls his studio Cat/Man-Do – it’s an old office on the edge of Portland. There used to be this old town called Vanport, where all the black Americans lived, working on the docks. It got flooded – all the houses are up on stilts.
Bryan has this bizarre, abandoned office space which he turned into a studio house. It has a big basement and it’s right by the train tracks – you can hear a train on the record. He just stuck a microphone out of the window to get that.
You’ve got some guests on the record, including Bryan on guitar, drums and bass, Rick Pedrosa playing pedal steel, Lauren Hay on vocals, Jimmy “Jazz” Prescott on electric and upright bass, James West on drums and Garrett Brown on bass. Did you all meet up in the studio as a band to make the record?
NG: No. My buddy James, who is kind of like a hip-jop/jazz drummer, pulled in his buddy, Jimmy Prescott – he plays bass in G.Love & Special Sauce. I sent them the tracks. No rehearsal – we just went in the studio and went through all the songs in one day. We got a lot of them – they added a whole other flavour to the songs. The other songs Bryan and I single-tracked – he played drums and I tracked the rhythm guitar. There were a couple of different methods going on.
‘I’d been playing in indie bands, like Japanese Breakfast, but my last band, Le Rev, had a moody, cinematic sound – I love soundtracks’
The record has classic country influences, like Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Emmylou Harris, but it’s also dark, edgy, cinematic, psychedelic and even slightly jazzy – it sometimes does things you’re not expecting it to. What did you want it to sound like?
NG: I’d been playing in indie bands, like Japanese Breakfast, but my last band, Le Rev, had a moody, cinematic sound – I love soundtracks. Growing up, I liked Eternal Sunshine… the John Brion stuff, so it was a combination of that and getting back to songwriting. I’d always wanted to write a more country album, so it just kind of came out like that – it’s me trying to write country.
Are you a big Gram Parsons fan?
NG: I didn’t get into country music until I was of drinking age – Bryan got me into it and and we had a country covers band that we played in bars with. It was like Sweetheart of the Rodeo – that album was the bridge. I think it was for a lot of people – then Gram Parsons. I got heavily into him and that led into everything else, like George Jones and all the rest of ’em.
The album often has a barroom feel. On Pale Horse, you’re “roaming the streets, after the bars close, with no place to go…”
NG: A lot of the songs I like just happen to be barroom songs and songs about fucking up and creating chaos. I’ve done my share of that. The songs all come from an honest place.
‘A lot of the record is looking back on my chaotic twenties – that was wild and I’m moving forward from there’
I turned 30, then Covid happened and the next thing you know I’m in my mid-thirties… What the hell happened? A lot of the record is looking back on my chaotic twenties – that was wild and I’m moving forward from there.
Did you grow up in Eugene?
NG: I was born in Long Beach, California – we moved to Portland pretty soon after that. I grew up in Portland then we moved to Eugene when I was in grade school. As soon as I turned 18, I went back to Portland and pretty much played in bands for ten years.
I like to think of the sound of the record as Pacific North West country – it’s so moody out here and a lot of the bands that come from here have that darker edge.
Your song Sedona is about driving through the desert at night – it reminds me of Springsteen and Jason Isbell. It has a widescreen rock sound…
NG: I was going for that purposefully. I wanted to write something that was simple and relatable – I don’t often try to write something that’s a little bit more poppy.
It’s a song about being stuck in the same place and trying to get away. I still live in the place I grew up, pretty much. It’s about picking a random spot on the map and just getting out – I feel the need to do that probably once a week.
That’s one of the themes of the album – escaping from a small town…
NG: Yeah. It’s part of the concept – it’s a bastardisation of Urban Cowboy. Thirty five to 40 years after Urban Cowboy, instead of all these oil workers dressing up as cowboys, there are people who work in minimum wage jobs in restaurants and are getting into country music, but they can’t afford to put a downpayment on a house in their own town because everything’s so expensive, with inflation and all that shit. It’s the crumbling American dream.
Any plans for a follow-up record?
NG: I have another record that I’ve started recording in the same spot – Bryan’s studio.It’s going to be single-tracked – eight songs. It’s called Oregoner – it’s all Oregon-themed. It’s Americana / country stuff and it’s a compatible album with Suburban Cowboy.
When I wrote Suburban Cowboy, I didn’t have any parameters in mind – I just wrote. This has a little bit more structure and I’ve been sitting on the songs a lot longer.
Will Oregoner come out this year?
NG: Absolutely. I’m hoping to record a couple of albums and put at least one out.
‘I have another record that I’ve started recording. It’s called Oregoner – it’s all Oregon-themed’
Are you a prolific songwriter?
NG: I try to write every day. It’s so easy to put an album out now, but you want people to get as much out of them as they can. I like to do a couple of tours, send an album out and see what happens, but you don’t want to do that too much, because if you get too caught up in it, you stop writing music.
Suburban Cowboy by Nick Gamer is out now (Professional Guest Records).