Tuesday, 13 June, 2023 in Music

Into Music Interview: Nicole Atkins & Jim Sclavunos

Nicole Atkins hails from New Jersey and is a singer-songwriter mixing a host of genres from Americana to folk, pop, krautrock, psychedelia and soul. Impressive? Hell yes! A versatile artist, equally at ease channeling her inner Stevie Nicks/Roy Orbison/Brenda Lee vibe, with five solo albums including the majestic Italian Ice, Atkins has just concluded a U.K. tour alongside Jim Sclavunos

Scalvunos is of course the drummer/percussionist in Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds for going on thirty years. A look back at his resume shows stints recording with some of the most significant and influential bands in the nascent NYC scene including Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Sonic Youth and The Cramps. Production duties have followed (The Horrors, Beth Orton) as have remixing (Depeche Mode, Grinderman) as well as a monthly show on Soho Radio. 

Nicole and Jim (and band) recently played a fantastic show at Broadcast in Glasgow (see review here) and both were kind enough to take some time out for an interview with Into Creative’s John Welsh.

 Into Creative (IC): You’ve just come off stage. How was the gig? 

Jim: It was a bit of a bumpy ride, it’s a funny layout here. I’ve played Broadcast many, many times with all sorts of people. They’ve changed the stage around and it’s a challenging space to play in but I like the challenge! I’ve not been back since the pandemic was over so it was new to me, it was loose so I liked it. 

Nicole: It was interesting, the crowd and band were great.

IC: Was the the first time you’ve been able to play some of the songs from Nicole’s album Italian Ice in the U.K.

Nicole: This was one of the first gigs over here (U.K.) that we’ve played those songs though we did tour them in the States last year and that was good and really crazy. The crowds knew the words to the songs which was a relief. We’d done a TV show online during the pandemic and I guess people watched it. I had so much fun doing it, my husband does sound production and our neighbour did the Rush documentary. Amazon ended up buying 10 episodes so that was cool. I went shark fishing with Dean Ween as part of it. 

Jim: Yeah, it was the first time we’ve played some of those songs and hopefully we played enough of them, it’s a great album. We got to record it at Muscle Shoals and it was fantastic opportunity to work with some excellent, veteran players like Spooner Oldham. Nicole assembled a really star-studded team and we went in there, old school style playing live. It was fantastic. Muscle Shoals is such a legendary space with legendary people in it, incredible. The history is really evident, while there is still a functioning studio there is also a museum. 

IC: Places like Muscle Shoals and Sun Studio have such a rich history. 

Nicole: It was an amazing experience to record there. David Hood was on the record. He does sessions most days but he said we felt like a band. That was awesome.

Jim: Sun Studio has been deeply refurbished and I’ve not been there since the refurb. I lived in Memphis for a while and it was open as a museum/tourist attraction but so sad to see the space not being used as a recording studio. Having places being public as well as available for private hire, if that makes it work in this day and age, then great. There are too many great studios that have closed in the U.K. such as Olympic. I had the pleasure to work there with the Bad Seeds, a fantastic studio. Don’t get me wrong though, I also love working at home. You can do so much at home now which in some ways is an incredible leap forward but there are some certain things you can only get in a studio, with people playing together. That’s something special and it shouldn’t be undervalued, it should be deeply, deeply cherished. 

IC: You’ve recorded a number of duets together, how did you meet and what was the recording process for those songs? 

Nicole: We met at a benefit show for our friend Jonathan Toubin in New York. Jonathan was run over by a cab while sleeping in his hotel room. I then went to London where I had a friend suggest I should meet Jim as he co-writes. We met and we wrote three songs on the first day and it’s so fun and easy to write with Jim. We’ve been working on the album remotely and whenever we can get together. We did two days in New York and recorded with Little Jack from The Dead Weather and Patti Smith’s son Jackson on guitar. I saw Jon Spencer walking down the street and asked him “hey, will you come be on this record” and he was like “Yeah. Okay “. So, it’s turned out really good.

Jim: It’s a kinda funny history and I hope Nicole won’t contradict me on the details! The way I remember it, we were writing songs together for her solo stuff and that’s how we started. On the first day, in the space of three hours we had written three songs, so there was some sort of odd chemistry going on which neither of us expected and we just complemented each other somehow. The songs began to pile up very quickly and some weren’t right for the album. Nicole mentioned to my wife that she’d really like to do a duet with a male singer who said, ‘Why don’t you just ask Jim?’ It was like hiding in plain sight and that’s how it started. 

The process was very fragmentary as we could only get together occasionally whether to write or record. We did the basic tracks in two places. In Asbury Park, New Jersey and in Electric Lady, New York. Another fantastic experience where we had some great musicians in on both sessions. Then there were a lot of overdubs. Nicole might be in Nashville, Asbury Park or New York and I might be in London or Brooklyn but never in the same place. We kept sending stuff and eventually I got a chance to mix it all and now it’s ready to go. 

IC: What’s the next steps in getting the album out? 

Jim: Somebody better put it out!! Otherwise we will put it out ourselves as we’ve done with the single Strange Weather. On that, we’d recorded it for a benefit album for Marianne Faithfull. It’s a Tom Waits cover which Marianne had covered too. We recorded it both as a tribute to her but also for our album. We put it out as we wanted something out there as part of this tour. So, it’s out as a single along with a track A Man Like Me via Bandcamp. 

IC: That track was incredible tonight, you were drumming like your life depended on it! 

Jim: Thanks. I hate drums so I like to hit ’em hard, punish them!

IC: On that release, you’ve enlisted the help of some great musicians such as George Vjestica, Dave Sharman and Terry Edwards…

Jim: Yeah, A Man Like Me also features Dean Ween from the band Ween. They had a bunch of quirky hits in the 1980s and Dean plays guitar on it. We liked the song okay, but I asked Terry to do a couple of takes, see what it sounds like and then wow, his saxophone really lifted it to another dimension for us. 

Nicole: A Man Like Me is my favourite song to sing. It makes me feel ‘not like myself’, which is fun.

IC: Did you have any specific influences that helped shape the duet songs? 

Nicole: All my records are different sounding and it really depends on what I am into at the time. The first record where I had to find my sound was movie soundtracks and doo-wop. Real old music that Italian families listened to. For my second record I got into the Bad Seeds and old blues music. On my third, I was listening to prog rock. I then wanted to make soul music but that didn’t sound too generic and so I took my songs the way I write them and thought about a groove separately, like a bass and drum groove and sang over it. A bit like ‘The Muppets do soul’!

Jim: I wouldn’t say there were any specific music influences, per se. Both Nicole and I have such eclectic tastes and we reference so many different things. For example some of Nicole’s influences I’ll be like “What?“. I would never listen to that while on other stuff we are totally in synch together. In terms of duets and looking at the most obvious classic influences, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, that sort of thing. They were the touchstones as far as I’m concerned. We wanted that vibe but we had to do it all the way. 

IC: Jim, you’re up front of stage when singing Strange Weather, do you enjoy taking the lead like that? 

Jim: I do, though I’m a bit rusty. It’s good fun. 

IC: What next? 

Nicole: I’m making two records at the same time right now. One is sharp pop rock, like The Pretenders. Rock-a-ballads with that doo-wop element … and FAST. The other is called High Standards and it’s songs that sound like old standards but they’re about new things, but without saying new things, like Twitter is the bird. You’ll still be able to sing it in fifty years even though the technology will be out of date by then. I like singing in that 1940s/1950s style like Patsy Cline and I also love singing rock. I want to do both. On the track A Night Of Serious Drinking, I feel like Dean Martin in that song, it’s old school. I’ve been listening to a lot of Rockabilly recently. We sit on Chris Isaak’s porch in Nashville and write a bunch of songs together. It’s fun to put your own spin on it. I’ve also been touring as support with Stevie Nicks and we are playing together again at the end of the month. It’s the best time of my life. There are 15,000 in the audience but I treat it like a club show. It’s just my drummer on a snare, my guitarist on a baritone guitar and me singing. It just sounded huge. It was amazing. 

Jim: Newcastle is next on the tour at The Cluny where I’ve played before with an English singer-songwriter, Joe Gideon. Great people there. Hopefully we can then get the album out, that’s pretty important for us both. It’s nice to tour with your friends and we have a great little band. They’re amazing musicians. 

IC: What’s in the tour rider? 

Jim: (laughing), I can guarantee you it’s nothing exciting! 

IC: Out of all the gigs you’ve attended, what’s the most memorable one and why? 

Nicole: I saw a really weird band called Sugarlife with Jim in a basement in Brooklyn. It was like performance art mixed with krautrock, real beatnik stuff. We didn’t know what to expect and the lead was really in your face, it kept me on my toes for the whole show. I like that. Also, I don’t listen to Slipknot but they were one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. There is so much going on. The best band I’ve seen consistently though would be The Hives. Without a doubt. Spoon are great too. The greatest American rock band. Their lyrics are so sharp. 

Jim: I’d say it’s the first gig I went to. It was this kinda hippish R’n’B band called Pacific Gas & Electric and I don’t remember why I was there. Maybe my mom prevailed on my dad to take me to a rock concert. Somehow this one was arbitrarily chosen. I may have even chosen it because as a kid I used to love going to the Museum of Modern Art in New York where they had a sculpture outside and they used to do outdoor concerts there. I must have noticed there was a concert and asked my mom to take me, though I was quite young. My dad was saddled with the job of going to the rock concert with me and while the band bored me to death, I loved the sculpture and the vibe of being outdoors at a rock concert. The fact that the band kinda left me cold didn’t matter. That was my first exposure to the experience of a concert ever. It was the first time I’d experienced any sort of musical performance even though I can’t remember a thing about the band.

……………………..

The two track single Strange Weather/A Man Like Me is out now – head over to the Bandcamp page here for more details. 

John Welsh
@welshjb

 

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