Suplecs Interview with Danny Nick: How to Build an Engine While the World’s on Fire

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Following more personal trials, in 2008, they recorded their fourth album again through Nocturnal, but work, real life and other such considerations got in the way, and when Suplecs finally approached Small Stone about a deal the next year, label honcho Scott Hamilton sent them northward to Mad Oak Studios to re-record their latest batch of material with engineer Benny Grotto. The resulting and appropriately-titled Mad Oak Redoux (review here), is a crowning achievement for the simple fact that it finally got released. For a while there, it was looking kind of grim.

The songs on Mad Oak Redoux contain the sort of cathartic release one would have to expect. Tracks like “FEMA Man” deal with the aftermath of Katrina, while “Tried to Build an Engine” tackles some of the more human elements that can bring a person down. If nothing else, Mad Oak Redoux is a triumph for Suplecs on the level of the persistence it took to realize it. More importantly, though, it rocks.

Danny Nick — joined in Suplecs by guitarist/vocalist Durel Yates and drummer Andy Preen — took time out for a phoner before the band’s trip to this year’s South by Southwest in Austin. We discussed what they and what he personally had been through in the six years since the release of the third album, everything it took to get the new one out, the band’s Mardi Gras rock and roll drive-bys, signing to Small Stone, and much more.

Complete 4,800-word Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy. Special thanks to Larry Stern for the photos from SXSW.

When were the songs originally recorded?

Originally… God, you’d think I’d have the answer for that right off the top of my head. Originally it was, I wanna say 2008. Yeah. The summer of 2008. That was when we recorded. It was originally for the Nocturnal label, as you might know, that was the same guy that put out our third album. He was a local guy. That was a weird deal for us, because I think ever since Man’s Ruin went under, we were searching. Everybody was getting picked up on different labels. Back then, Scott had approached us with Small Stone. We had released our second album out on This Dark Reign, this label out of California, out of Long Beach, and we were having a horrible experience with the guy. He was being a horrible shyster. To this day, we are vowing to sue him (laughs), because he’s still selling our album on iTunes and he doesn’t have the rights to it. Anyway, we ended up hooking up with the guy who owned the studio that did our second album. First the whole thing was, “Hey man, can we record a few songs and shop it around?” At the time, we were touring with Clutch a lot, and we had some pretty cool, high profile tours – this was back before Katrina and stuff – and it turned into, “Hey, I’m gonna put your album out,” and that’s probably when we should have been like, “Hey, you’re not really a record label.” But you know, he’s a local dude, and he’d get us really high, and before you know it, we put an album out on his label, which I think to this day is not really ever recognized as a record label. And when it came to Katrina and all that years later, we kind of went to him with the same proposition, like, “Hey, can we just record a few songs?” and he was like, “Shit, man, y’all might as well record a whole record.” He had this big studio he owned, a million-dollar studio, but with a bunch of dudes in there who half-assed running the equipment. They know high-end gear and all that stuff, but you know, we’re a three-piece rock band (laughs). We didn’t need all the toys they were trying to… and it got weird, and we never finished it. At first, we were going in there, we really just wanted to cut three songs, and it turned into, we tracked everything, essentially the record we did now, but it was never finished. And they were kicking us out. We work. Everyone’s got jobs, and we can’t just make time to go over there, and it’s over an hour away, and it just never got done, and eventually, as the turn of events came, we finally said, “Man, we gotta hook up with Small Stone. Why haven’t we done this years ago?” We finally hooked up with him and re-recorded it, plain and simple.

So you did. You re-recorded the entire thing.

The entire thing. From scratch, yeah. We knew the songs pretty well by that point, obviously (laughs). We weren’t happy with the way the recordings were sounding from the first versions anyway. When we met with Scott – it was actually a year ago at South by Southwest – it was Trinidad [Leal], the drummer from Dixie Witch. He set the whole thing up. I said, “Look, we’ve got the whole thing tracked already and I’m sure we could get the recordings from this guy,” and he was like, “I don’t want those. You’re gonna go to Boston and re-record the whole thing with my guy Benny [Grotto].” And we were like, “How are we gonna get to Boston?” and it was one of those things. Scott’s a very straight shooter. That’s one thing I love about Scott, he doesn’t bullshit you. There’s too many people in this world who bullshit you, and he’s not one of them. He tells you exactly what he’s gonna do, whether you like it or not. Of course, we were like, “Oh man, Boston,” and all this stuff, but it ended up being the greatest experience for us. First off, to get out of New Orleans and record, because New Orleans doesn’t really have studios that cater to our kind of music. This million-dollar studio, if you heard those versions of the songs, they sounded thin, and real digital. Real digital-sounding, because that’s the kind of equipment – the new, high-end tech shit that they use to record mainstream albums, which is nothing of what we’re like. So to go to Boston – we were nervous and all about the whole thing – it was a great experience. We knew the songs, so we knew it was all about business and laying them down, and we did it in five days’ tracking. We trusted him for the mixing, and I think he did a great job.

So when you finally finished this record, after two years, minimum, of just a recording process, never mind writing the songs, how did that feel? To hold the finished product in your hand?

It was finally putting it on the shelf. When you write songs, you put a lot into the songs, and from the time you’re writing the songs to the time you have a finished recording of it – one of the songs, that song “Coward,” I wrote eight years ago, around the time we did our second album. I just never did have the arrangement right. I kept forgetting at practice how it went, and it never did get onto one of these last records. So it’s just a way to close a chapter, like, “Wow, it’s done.” It’s great, because we weren’t liking the way it sounded the first time. Our third album, we ended up settling on a lot of things. The guy owned the studio, and he was like, “Yeah, it sounds great,” and we were like, “I don’t know man, I don’t think it does,” but there’s only so much you can argue when the dude’s putting it out and he’s paying, whereas, with Scott, and with Benny and them, it was like, “Ah, yeah,” immediately. “This is the way it needs to sound.” We recorded through vintage amps, and I recorded through a Hiwatt bass amp, and Durel played through a Vox, and they got the tone immediately. It was easy to record, because it was sounding so good. The tones. He was getting us the right sounds, and they understood it a lot better. I hate to say that about New Orleans. There’s so many bands out of New Orleans and stuff, but it’s just not a good recording setup for the kind of music we do down here. It’s all geared towards blues and jazz and funk music. And they don’t get it.

A lot of these songs are very emotional and very upfront about that. Have your feelings about the subject matter in the songs changed since you wrote them?

Well, no. Not really. A lot of the songs do deal with specific things that took place along the journey between Katrina and now. They were a very integral part of it. There was a song in there that I wrote about a girl I was engaged to. She left me for an actor (laughs). I work on movie sets. It was a real horrible thing that happened. I was on a tour. She gave me a “Dear John” on the tour, a phone call breaking it off, and so I wrote a really mean, heartfelt song. Now, years later, do I hate the girl that much anymore, as in the song “Tried to Build an Engine?” No. I’m married to somebody else who’s way better. It’s probably the best thing that could’ve happened to me, in retrospect, but it’s a song that deals with a certain emotion I was dealing with at the time. But then you talk about a song like “FEMA Man,” I still stand behind the lyrics to that song 100 percent. I wrote that song a few days after Katrina, while I was still in Austin, Texas, couch-surfing, trying to get my measly $2,000 that FEMA was giving out, that I never did get. I never did get it. Everybody got it. I knew people who didn’t even lose anything, that cheated the government, and got their money. I’m a regular, hard-working guy, just trying to get what I’m supposed to get, and I got fed through circles and circles and never did get it. Never did. To this day, never got the money. So “FEMA Man,” every time I sing it, I think on that, reflect on it, and put it into playing the song.

Has the time since Katrina given you a different perspective on everything you guys went through?

It’s definitely forced us to grow up a lot. We always – typical New Orleanians – very “The Big Easy,” as everybody says. Everybody’s easygoing and “Hey, how ya doing?” and very laid back. And then after Katrina – I think it was Anthony Bourdain, or all people – I know that’s a strange reference. He did a show on New Orleans, and he said, “The people down here seem like, when they hug each other, they hug each other a little tighter.” And it’s true. Now I know what it’s like to be like, “Wow, my city might not come back at all. We might all have to go live somewhere else.” Like an explosion goes off. It’s like your house burns down, only it’s everybody’s house. If only your house burns down, your neighborhood’s still there. Your neighbors are still there. Your friends are still living in their houses. Something like this, it’s like, “Man, what if nobody comes back?” The rebuilding process, obviously it slowed our band down, but the band is all from here, we knew we could always come back to that. We were never gonna give up on playing music. Music was our sanity, but having to deal with a lot of the unforeseen issues that we had to definitely gives you a whole different perspective. Lets you know too who cares and who doesn’t. There was bands like Clutch, who immediately contacted us and said, “Drop what you’re doing, come fly out to where we’re on tour, and y’all can just open for us and play on our gear.” Wow, really? We didn’t do that. We couldn’t. We have lives and families and houses, and we couldn’t. But just the fact that you see who really cares and who’s offering a helping hand. A lot of people, especially from our community, didn’t. Didn’t offer a helping hand or try to help us the best they could.

I guess if there’s anything positive to take from it, you take that.

Yeah. It’s like, “What doesn’t kill ya makes ya stronger.” We had a t-shirt for a while that said, “Suplecs: 100 Percent Hurricane-Proof.” If that can’t break the band up, and break us as people, what else you got?

How has your relationship with Durel and Andrew changed over the years? I don’t specifically mean as it relates to Katrina. If you go from ’96, 2011 is 15 years of Suplecs.

Yeah. December of this year will be exactly 15 years. I think when we first started the band, we lived together. And Durel and I go back – we were in bands together all the way back in ’89, when we were little kids, getting on a skateboard and picking up guitars. Shitty punk rock band we had together called The Malignant Minds. So we’ve been doing it together a long time. And we picked up Andy and stuff. So many great bands in New Orleans, but only about 10 percent of them ever get out of New Orleans, and we were fortunate enough to be part of that. I played in Eyehategod for five years, and that helped us. There was a point where we went from playing through small amps, to where I joined Eyehategod, and they were like, “Dude, you gotta get a big amp,” so I had to go out and buy a big SVT, and if I had a big SVT, well then Durel had to get a big amp, so he got a Marshall, and our whole sound changed. We kind of just grew up together, growing into the music. The writing process, when we were younger, on our first album, there’s a lot more jam elements, and that’s because in the early days, before the word “stoner rock,” everyone used to call us a jam rock band. The reason we got that name is because we used to play a lot of blues bars in New Orleans where you play for free, but you get paid a percentage of the bar while you play, so the longer you play, the more you get paid. We would play these long jams, and we’d always incorporate blues jams, because that’s what a lot of people hanging out in these places would want to hear. That’s why Wrestlin’ with My Lady Friend has like four blues jams. You can pick them out. You can pick out where we break into a blues breakdown, and some of those jams have even been elaborated since we recorded that album and gotten longer and turned into eight-minute songs, and obviously back then, part of our writing was that kind of thing. As we get older, everybody’s got their own lives. Now, it’s more like Durel writes a song, I’ll write a song, and we bring them to the room and teach them to each other. When we were in Boston, the fact that we were living at the studio, we were forced to be together, whereas, everybody has gotten a little longer, and people’ve got house notes, and we don’t get to see each other as much, and we don’t get together and jam as much, but when we’re in that space, in Mad Oak Studios in Boston, it was like, all of a sudden we had nothing to do but collaborate and help each other out. He could help me with my vocals and I could help him with different parts, and that was really a big benefit. I wouldn’t say forced, but yeah, we’re stuck together. I thought it was brilliant that it worked out like that. Whether Scott intended for us to be in that situation or not, it helped a lot. And like I said, our third album, there’s a lot less collaboration, because if anyone’s working or whatever… Pepper Keenan produced that record, and it was weird. That’s all I’ll say about it. It was weird. A totally different experience. This one was way cooler.

Funny you mention the punk rock roots. I think that comes out a little bit on this album. Some of that anger coming through.

Yeah. Years of touring and stuff, and then the whole stoner rock thing, it got to a point where you go, “Ah, what for?” It got to a point where if you didn’t have a Green amp, and you didn’t have an Orange amp… I’ve actually had dudes tell me – because I play a Hartke, which is like a shitty ‘80s amp, not cool looking at all, but I can get this killer sound out of it. I like the sound, it’s this big, huge sound. I’ve got this vintage bass I play, but I had this one guy tell me – he had this old Ampeg thing that was on its last legs, thing wasn’t loud, it was terrible sounding – I was helping him load out at the end of the night – I won’t mention the band, by the way – the guy goes, “What kind of amp you got, bro?” and I said, “I got a Hartke.” And he’s like, “I’m sorry.” I’m like, “Ah, fuck you,” you know? Then I get on stage and it’s all warm and ridiculously loud. But anyway, but you get into that stereotype of what stoner rock is and what you should do. It’s like any genre of music. It gets pigeonholed. We always kind of try to break the pigeonhole. We love playing the kind of music we play, and we also like playing punk rock. And we also like doing jam-band stuff. That’s why every album always has some sort of instrumental, like that song, “2×4,” at least the first half of it, is the big instrumental ode to what we do. We always gotta throw a little punk rock in there, a little thrash. It’s all stuff we grew up on. I guess at this age, we’re just trying to prove to people we can still do it (laughs).

I’m glad you brought up “2×4,” because I wanted to bring up that song and where it came from, writing-wise. It seems like it’s a lot different from some of the other stuff on the album.

The first half of it was an actual collaborative jam. The mellow part. And when we get to the break, it very much turns into a thrash song. Durel wrote that first riff, and it was a collaboration. We wanted to write a song where the bass and the guitar were going in two different directions, but still in synch. I’m playing a walking bassline, kind of like a lot of ‘80s metal bands did. And he was doing the lead. The vocals in that just kind of came up out of nowhere. It was just something that I wrote one day. I went back to my ex. “Hit me in the face with a 2×4/We’ve both been down this hill before.” We’d fight a lot, you know? “Apologize, pretend it ain’t nothin’/Reach around hit the repeat button.” We’d just keep fighting. It’s a bad relationship. “Sitting here, it won’t be long/This might turn into a Hawg Jaw song.” Hawg Jaw’s a local band. Really good friends of ours. Their guitar player’s the bass player in Eyehategod that replaced me after I quit Eyehategod. We grew up with these guys, and Durel and I both briefly played in Hawg Jaw – they’ve had a revolving door of members. They’re a great hardcore band out of New Orleans that’s maybe never gotten as much press as other ones. Anyway, in one of their songs on one of their albums, they have a song called “Stranger in the Window,” and the singer, who’s a childhood friend of mine – we grew up five houses away from each other – in his song, he told me he wrote the song when he was all high on coke and was so paranoid that he kept thinking there was a stranger in his window. And all night long, he keeps looking out the window. He’s checking the windows, and he’s high, you know? Then at the end of the song, he goes something like, “The stranger in the window is getting much clearer/The stranger in the window is the stranger in the mirror,” meaning that it was just himself. Finally he looked at himself in the mirror, and was like, “Ah man, it’s me.” And I was kind of fucked up when I wrote that song too. It was after Katrina, after my ex. I came off that tour and I moved in with a buddy of ours, Steve What Style is his name, he’s an artist. I literally moved out of my FEMA trailer that I was living in when I got off that tour, into his house. And I was doing a lot of drugs, and I’d throw down a bottle and was all fucked up one night, and Mike thought it was funny, because he wrote his song when he was in a dark place, and here I was, incorporating his song into another. It made a lot of sense at the time. I don’t know. Just a shout-out to another New Orleans band in one of our songs. I always thought it was a cool thing to do. Makes you want to hear that Hawg Jaw song called “Stranger in the Window.” That’s the whole thing. Lyric one dude wrote, and now I’m finishing his song, and like I said, we grew up five houses from each other. I’ve got pictures of us when we were four and five years old, playing. Listening to KISS. A lot of KISS.

You guys are going back to SXSW to do the Small Stone showcase?

Yeah. I’ll tell you, another thing about Scott. We played a lot of Small Stone showcases over the years.

I saw you guys there in 2003 or 2004.

Scott told us years ago, “Go do whatever you think you wanna go do, eventually you’re gonna want to hook up with my label.” At the time, we were like, “Man, whatever dude.” As the years went by, and especially, you go on tour, Dixie Witch is obviously friends of ours, but there’s a lot of other obscure bands out there. We’re hanging out with them, and they’re all making a little bit of money here and there. Scott’s getting them on TV shows, and it’s like, “Fuck.” Finally, I was almost embarrassed to go ask him for a record deal. “Hey man, you wanna sign us?” Like we’re finally ready to do this, after all these years. We’re sorry. And he’d always let us play his showcases, but he’d tell us, “I’ll let you play the day show, but you’re not on my label, so you can’t play the night show, but I’ll let you play the day show,” and he’d always give us killer billing. We’d headline the day show, or he’d always give us a good slot. So it’s kind of been an ongoing joke almost. “We’ve been playing your showcases for years, now we just made it official.” We’re doing a few showcases. So far I think we’re doing the Small Stone one, and the day before, we’re doing a Thrasher magazine one. I wish I could tell you the places where they were at, but there’s Thrasher, there’s Small Stone, and then there’s a magazine called Whoopsie? I think it’s a British magazine, or a European magazine, I’m not 100 percent sure, but we’re playing their party too. But Scott set all of that up for us, and we’re doing a bunch of South by this year.

Any other plans? You guys going to do any other touring?

We want to. Especially now. This album’s coming out, and this was the thing for us. We toured all these years ago, and we want to get out and do it again, and it’s a lot different now. With iTunes and the recession, all these things play factors on touring bands. But we’re ready. We’ve got our van ready. We actually found a booking agent, and we’re looking to hook something up this summer. We’re still dying to go to Europe. We’ve been duped with Europe so many times, it’s almost not even funny. Man’s Ruin was supposed to send us to Europe right before they went belly up, with Alabama Thunderpussy, and we thought for sure we were going. This is back in 2001. There’s been several other opportunities where it slipped through our fingers. That’s a big goal, to go tour Europe. We’ve always been busy. We’ve got Mardi Gras coming up and a big thing we do here that not a lot of people know about around the country is we do a free Suplecs show on Mardi Gras day. We’ve been doing it for 11 years now. We actually make a t-shirt for the one gig, and it’s a free show, right in the middle of the French Quarter on Mardi Gras day, and it’s right as the sun goes down. That’s how people know to go to it. That’s a huge show that we do every year. Mardi Gras is one of those kinds of things. It’s a holiday, and people walk around through the French Quarter getting drunk, and we’re at this strategic location doing a free Suplecs gig, and it’s always killer. It’s been crazy. It’ll be 11 years. We’ve had bad years where people get in a lot of fights. We pulled one guy onto the stage to stop him from beating one dude up. He was a friend of ours from out of town. One year I had to run off the stage, I almost beat a guy up because he was about to punch my nephew out, I was like, “Well, I’m not gonna play the theme music to that.” Crazy, stupid shit. So we’ve got Mardi Gras coming up, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with Mardi Gras, but there are these parades that come through the street for the two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, and the past two years, we joined a Mardi Gras crew, which is an organization that puts on parades, and we have a float. In the next few weeks, we’ve got to build a float, and we build it every year and roll in this parade, playing. You end up only playing about five different songs, you’re in a rolling parade, but that’s a free opportunity to see Suplecs on a float, for free, rolling down the street in New Orleans. On the route, you go past the old City Hall, and for the past couple years, we stop and I’ll play “FEMA Man” for all the politicians (laughs). And that’s really cool.

What’s the design of your float?

It’s a very basic float design. We have a trailer, and we build it the same way every year. We’re just that lazy. We don’t own the trailer. A trailer probably costs you $500-600 used. We own a van, but we don’t own this trailer. So we borrow a trailer, and we have all the wood, and it’s just a basic platform in the front. It’s got walls so people can’t come climbing up it, and we have Andy up on a drum riser so you can actually see him – the first year, we didn’t, and you couldn’t even tell we had a drummer. The shitty part is we can’t play our big amps, we play through smaller amps, but my brother has a sound system, so we get everything mic’ed up and sounding the best we can for the setup it is. Behind Andy, we have our little what we call our “green room.” Basically, there’s a Home Depot bucket with a hole so you can piss and it goes right out to the street (laughs), but it’s also our green room, where we smoke weed and stuff like that. It’s kind of funny too, because you get the police escort through the streets, and you’re standing back there, and the truck’s rolling, and you’re constantly falling or hitting the walls because of stops and starts and stuff. And we have a buddy of ours who pulls us, and he loves it, because he sits there and he’s got a police escort and he’s sitting there getting drunk, driving down the street. Afterwards, you end up downtown, now we gotta get our float from downtown back to my buddy’s out, Steve, the artist I lived with for a while, and he lives way the hell out, so we take a bunch of cool backstreets home, but we stop at a bunch of bars, and we do what we call “drive-bys.” Basically we just pull in front of a bar, and it’s funny because sometimes you hit a bar and there’s like two people in a bar, and we’ll play like three songs to these two people, and as we’re playing our third song, your boy just drives off while we’re still playing. And we do that. We do drive-bys, and we hit several bars. We do it where there’s like one dude walking down the street and we’re just playing to him. We don’t necessarily play our songs, we’re just playing, jamming, doing some jam-band-type stuff. It’s a lot of fun. A lot of work, but a lot of fun. Only in New Orleans could you do something like that. We pulled up in front of Popeye’s last year not too far from my house, and we had everybody who was in the Popeye’s ordering food and everybody who worked in the Popeye’s out on the street dancing and all. Eventually we had to pull away, but we played five or six songs. Actually, Pepper Keenan owns a bar and we’ll pull up in front of his bar and he’ll run us out some drinks. It’s really cool, man. It’s a lot of fun. It’s something totally different. Explaining it to people, sometimes they’re like, “I don’t even understand what you’re talking about,” but it’s a New Orleans thing that we do (laughs).

Suplecs on MySpace

Small Stone Records

Thanks again to Larry Stern for the pics and to Scott Hamilton for facilitating.

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