Jared James Nichols

The world is in dire need of shred energy....
Jared James Nichols : Q&A
Jared James Nichols : Q&A

The world is in dire need of shred energy. This was patently and observably true even before the great dunning of the danger industry that is rock-n-roll. Long before the aestheticized fardel of fops standing in for musical megastars today began passing indolence off as iconicity, those of us who can remember the Scorpionic astro climates of the days when making it in music meant self-invention and self-indulgence in equal measure had already donned a mantle of uncertainty and started asking heavy interior questions like, “Is anything as important as The Clash or Nirvana ever going to happen again?” “Do we have a way back to the rhinestoned reigns of both Diamond Dave and Dave Mustaine?” Jared James Nichols is a Viking-esque rock-hedonist headbanger from Wisconsin with the ready-steady answers to all of these crisis queries, as well as a trove of tricksy licks, right there in his right thumb. Yes, his thumb. More on that in a moment. For now, if you are among the sacred few who still seek sounds that do not feel like they got born at a tranquil quilting retreat for expectant sisterwives, find Nichols’ self-titled third full-length and spin it ‘til it falls away from your turntable into pleasantly demonic dandelion spores.

Wisconsin, if you don’t know, tends to build them big and strong as a rule, and Nichols is a neat heap of his home state, signaled best in his outward and inward possession of radioactive levels of charisma, freshly lit. If we were using standard American football analogies to describe his playing acumen and overall performance style, it would be fair to say that he has quarterback field vision and linebacker intimidation presence. A giant with a jape in his grin, he enjoys official Gibson ambassadorship and has the Jared James Nichols “Old Glory” Epiphone Les Paul Custom fittingly named for him. As that song-title-based moniker implies, one more place the Wisconsin seeps out of him for the benefit of all is in the way he will instantly remind any onlooker what will always be celebratory and special about the American heartland. Being able to translate that kind of optimistic honesty to an art form as notoriously full of butcher antics as rock-n-roll without greasing any of it up with commercialism is a very rare gift, and one Nichols wields like flowers in hand, fretted frangipani gnarling around just the right bouquet of have-the-guts-to-go-where-they-say-is-too-far.

Where George Saunders said “a story is a place where politics takes off its stiff clothing and puts on some pajamas”, this writer would add that “a real rock song is the tropical locale where both politics and poetry take off their pajamas and simultaneously get to first base with a dragon.” Rock-n-roll will never be the microbrand that the mood-pop mawk-peddlers of today might like you to think it could be. Artistic autocracy isn’t a crime! It is any art’s only hope of survival, you want to howl at whisper-volume into the side of their quiescent skulls. No matter. When the Round Table of rock finds itself short on above-ground knights to emblazon their shields with its insurrectionist insignia, it will go underground not extinct, as survivalist boonie-dogs always do, taking the party with it until such time as participation trophies awarded for living at the cheaper end of risk go out of style.

That time, as of January 13, 2023, is now since that is the date upon which Nichols’ self-titled record was formally unleashed at the glorious Gibson Garage in Nashville. The Wagnerian glyph of a Waukesha gentleman gave a select audience the amplified amuse-gueule of their lives when showcasing the manner in which this latest record is burnished in that way that only full-band-live-to-tape can produce. He shared intriguing behind the songs stories and gleefully gave away a custom guitar to an astonished guy who was not even there for the launch party and said he had only come in to the showroom to see about getting a case for his Les Paul Modern! These are the styles of serendipitous wide-angle smiles that Jared James Nichols will incite anyplace you let him in the door. The launch party was hosted by the one-man second line parade himself, the guitaruoso Marty Schwartz, and Nichols jovially burnt the barn down with both his new material and a blazing cover of Mississippi Queen that had enough cascading incalescence in it to dry up the mighty waterway of the title had he played it on the banks.

It is the raddest possible bet to make a thunderous rock record in such a distinctly non-rock mainstream world that has long since proclaimed disbelief in storms, and at such a powerfully reduced-rock time for music in general. That it is clear none of this remotely occurred to Nichols, much less phased or deterred him, should recommend him as highly as any of his palatial playing abilities. His is not a performative smuggler’s road, like so many others. He actually lives out here on the rock-n-roll highway with the people, places, and things he is singing about.

I love rock-n-roll. I love Van Halen and ZZ Top. Man, once I picked up the guitar, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

What comes through in the shaded story cycles of the songs is the sense (and good life advice!) that every day should contain a feast day ritual of some kind because none of these days are coming back. Jared James Nichols illustrates that the true spirit of rock-n-roll is constructed on a longer dialectic than just its famous incendiary devices and courtesan schools. It is one of the few forces left that can still teach you the deep distinction between something menacing and something malicious. It is not just an art form but a complete lifestyle centered around the widest possible definitions of freedom, always, real freedom, not any of its hokey, homespun hashtags—and real freedom is heavy like osmium, the world’s literal heaviest metal. Also, like osmium, genuine sovereignty of self is blue, by design, and Nichols’ every strum and sung-syllable is shot through with all sorts of toe-to-toe reckonings with those lapiz parts of liberty that lesser bandits both in and out of music seem to struggle to lock eyes, much less horns, with. In addition to all the aforementioned, how can you fail to applaud a music-maker whose formal fan club is entitled Blues Power Mother Fuckers? Just join and shut up about it, or else the glowing ghosts of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Duane Allman will both judge and dismiss you.

The entirety of Jared James Nichols the record is animalistic, jungle-minded, and ringbolted to rawness in nature. “Hard Wired” kicks off like a horde of murder hornets being summarily turned back from Hell by Satan for being too devilish. The fact that this one is, in fact, a beautifully written love song underscoring that most important part of all real love (the repetitive, ever more vicious sting!) puts it on par with “MF From Hell” by The Datsuns for sheer Keats-on-coke Romanticism, such a desperately underrepresented side of the proper male gaze in this modern time. Meanwhile, “Skin ‘n Bone” starts with what can best be described as a series of simultaneously threatening and welcoming six-stringed elephant trumpetings, married to a message about existential optimism.

Nichol’s self-titled LP holds a diabolical goulash of Goonie-garage giggle and grit inside it. He wrote the entire album with people he counts as some of his closest friends, and you can feel and hear that fact all the way across the record. Even where unavoidably depressive subject matter is being drop-tune dissected, such as in lead single “Down the Drain”, Nichols and Crew call forth the phantom-vocal heroism of eternal uplifters like Chris Cornell to put a halo on that which is hardest about being human. Several songs from 2021’s Shadow Dancer EP make mint, neo-appearances on the self-titled album, with “Shadow Dancer” the song presenting itself as the secret frontrunner for its slippery build toward a trip-tastic solo that could not turn in any more unpredictable directions had it been executed by a mob of masked marauders on mescaline gyrating atop a midnight cliff.

Easy Come Easy Go”, Nichols’ stated favorite on the album, sounds like a deranged Optimus Prime with a freshly thrown wheel, hellbent to Sunday it wasn’t going to slow him down from any 200mph downhill rescues. “Out Of Time” originated out of a need for Nichols to navigate and process the loss of his late father, and the heartbreak here might as well be hooked up to the Humboldt current for its chilling and universal resonance. Press your ear to the speaker for “Saint or Fool” as that is not a sad little pretend-producer plug-in making that snarling scratch at the intro: Nichols and the rest of his saintly fools physically took the tape off the reel, stamped on it with their Sonic Youth-worthy dirty boots, and put it back on the reel so that you could bathe in that purifying black tar of polished lack of polish and are to be commended for their commitment to the continuous tangible corruption of our collective cochlea. “Good Time Girl”, in its turn, unflinchingly flips the script on the usual euphemism and makes the incontrovertible point that roughened, recursive fun held at dedicated dagger point will always represent the only true equality in Eros.

One of the foremost things you will enjoy about Nichols if you have the privilege of seeing him play is his thumb-led, plectrum-free pizazz. He does not require any plastic to produce the frenetic filth that makes up his brand of brutal blues. Nichols naturally plucks out his own niche within the grand tradition of untouchable barehanded players before him, monolith-men like Mark Knopfler, Steve Hackett, Jeff Beck, Albert King, Robbie Krieger, and of course the fingerstyle inception point of them all, Mr. Chet Atkins. However, due to the dominance of his thumb in his dynamic dexterity, Nichols might perhaps most strongly hearken back to the unlikely Wes Montgomery for visual playing style. Montgomery’s signature octave playing was all accomplished with his folkloric Tom digit, and that element of his playing continues to be nearly as famous as his inimitably muted, obsidian-smooth tone, a sonic signature recognized, appreciated, and referenced far outside the jazz circles he so enlivened during his life.

Everybody’s technique is a reflection of them and can tell you so much more even than lyrics sometimes about what they are trying to say with their music.

The same forward-sweeping phenomenon has occurred for Nichols, whom it would be foolish to categorize as ‘merely’ a rock or blues player. Hybridized instincts such as those he displays in showing his dark arts to be suffused with sunlight, and most importantly the vaporization temperatures in which he chooses to demonstrate all of his musical machinations, tell a much wider story about what he is capable of and familiar with in any genre. It is clear within ten minutes of listening to him that he has listened to everybody to get to where he is today in his own chops. Looking at his collaborations with artists like Maggie Rose and Joe Bonamassa for alternate versions of his lupercalian longing song “Threw Me To The Wolves”, a howl fanged and fabulous enough to warrant its own EP, you get the impression that nothing would push him back from any amount of well-meaning sonic exploration–another quality that puts him in a class of his own at the musical moment.

If you have been with Jared James Nichols since his 2015 debut, Old Glory & The Wild Revival or ever got soaked in the sticky sweet of “Honey Forgive Me” off 2018’s Black Magic, you already know that Nichols undertakes his duties to the longstanding tradition he is loping into with an almost lapidary lens. He is indeed sculpting his non-geological rock works by hand, and though his sandpapered solo specimens are not dug out of the ground, many do very much sound like they originated at a goblin’s party somewhere deep in Middle Earth, early proving him equipped to fill the gargantuan bombast-boots left by bands like Grand Funk Railroad and Nazareth.

Quite a few in Jared James Nichols’ field are doing what amounts to sympathetic, wealth-washed restorations of rock styles that they treat as if they have gone by and are thus to be ‘brought back.’ Nichols stands starkly apart from that natty pack in that he is, quite clearly, no repat to rock. Like many of us early-bitten, he wisely never left. Because of this, coupled with his unorthodox way of approaching the guitar, there is a tallow to his specific tone which is suggestive of that hardest to hold and seldom sold quality of a bona-fide, born musician: earnestness. When you further learn that Nichols fearlessly rededicated himself to his instrument after surgery for a badly broken right arm left him with a plate and 16 screws in the very limb that is responsible for his craft and showmanship, you cannot but respect him that much more for implicitly understanding that there are no sweat-shortcuts anyplace worth going, and that brave, smart men run headlong into pain and struggle, never away from it. Rock proved a long time ago that there was nothing to find in a flatline and it is hope-forming that we still have some shapeshifting falcons out there willing to take any number of freefalling nosedives in order to find what lives on the other side of fully finding that out.

For my part, I prefer a beautiful and impossible place in all things, but in music I know it to be the only compass point where the carnage of truth can be told in its entirety. Where will we stash the rubescent reams of our wildest, most salacious stories if we do not protect the sacred sin that is rock-n-roll? In this, the era of music wherein so much is prefabricated and largely toothless, it is redemptive to find an artist who is loud and large, both metaphorically and physically. Jared James Nichols is music for the mythical antagonists, summoning the best of the pagan “curses” of yore, and being sung by a good-time prince to Ursula, not Ariel, though she’s absolutely invited to thrash in the riffs that give you reef rash too, for rock is nothing if not no holds barred, boundaries and baby gates being decidedly for B-Teamers.

Striding out like a Thor that you could see driving an ‘88 Firebird when he hit Atlanta’s The Earl on Thursday, April 27th, Nichols in any live performance setting reminds one instantly that the simplest truth is this: rock-n-roll, when it is done properly, should own your face. You should be able to feel it coursing like anarchic angel venom through your skin for several days after any sound-to-soul encounter, and, perhaps most importantly, that the value of seeking out the men and women who can produce such sublime subdermal delight ought to be taught as core curriculum in every respectable school (of rock or otherwise) everywhere.

QRO recently unabashedly invited ourselves along for a chat during Nichols & Co.’s commute from Fresno to Los Angeles, where we got the story from the ringmaster of the go-hard circus himself on everything from the respite from normality to be found in rabid rock fandom to the restless, automatic acts that sparked this latest record:

QRO: Hey there, headbanger! It’s awesome to see your face in my morning. Have you recovered from your launch party in Nashvegas yet? [laughs]

Jared James Nichols: It’s so good to see you again! We played a fun show in Fresno last night and I’ve been excited to talk to you this morning. Thanks for taking the time to do this with me! It was great to see you in Nashville, but does anybody ever really recover? [laughs] That was fun, wasn’t it?

QRO: It was a blast, and what a perfect backdrop for you–any excuse to go to Gibson Garage, right? I was so glad to see everyone celebrating your new record with such joy and excitement because it deserves both. The first thing my overloud heart compels me to say to you about it is: thank you so much for being unapologetically raucous. It matters. We need you and, as a woman who lived through not just god-level grunge but the unruly superstar string saviors of the 1980s, you are the kind of player I always have my binoculars out for and very rarely catch a glimpse of these days!

JJN: Oh man, that’s so sweet of you to say! I think a lot of people are hungry to hear rowdy sounds like that and I just feel really lucky that we get to make this music.

QRO: I feel lucky we get to hear it from you! For those who may be meeting your work for the first time in this piece, can you give us a little bit of your musical background? Who brought you to this party?

JJN: That’s the perfect way to put that! What’s funny is that I started playing guitar when I was 15 years old and I originally wanted to play drums. But this was the one time my Dad put his foot down and said, “You’re not playing drums, it’s just too loud.” [laughs] So, I got a guitar during the era when The White Stripes were coming out and of course I had to learn “Seven Nation Army”. My first big riffs were like Black Sabbath’s “Electric Funeral” and stuff off that record, but I was so in love with classic rock. Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd. That was the origin of my learning my first riffs, and then probably a year later I got into the blues. I found Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton, all the classic stuff. Then, I was hooked! [laughs] Growing up listening to Alice in Chains and the ‘80s stuff, it all became one in the same and I just loved it all. I love rock-n-roll. I love Van Halen and ZZ Top. Man, once I picked up the guitar, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

QRO:  You felt the call! As we all must. And you didn’t have formal lessons, you just picked up playing on your own?

JJN: Absolutely! Especially the way that I play is kind of weird because I play without a guitar pick…

QRO: I noticed that immediately because it puts you in league with my favorite guitar player of all time, Mark Knopfler. That’s the guy I am trying to be every day. I just want to be Mark Knopfler! [laughs]

JJN: Oh, we all want to be Mark Knopfler! [laughs] That’s so cool. But yeah, where I wanted to try to get with my playing, it’s not something I think you could really have a teacher for. Like Mark, it’s sort of like you’ve just got to figure it out your own way. All that stuff was self-taught for me, for sure.

QRO: I completely agree it cannot be taught and what is so intriguing about players like you that work everything out on your own to this degree is that all of you play so differently. You all come out with monster chops but these nuanced approaches, unique ways of holding the guitar even, and it just makes for a greater expression of the individual artist inside, I think. The guitar becomes the conduit for the person, not just their message.

JJN: You are so right about that and put that so well! Everybody’s technique is a reflection of them and can tell you so much more even than lyrics sometimes about what they are trying to say with their music.

QRO: Keep all your so-called weirdness, Jared! It’s not just informative to watch, but everyone’s weirdness is their superpower too, I firmly believe. The wonder is in the weirdness! Let’s talk about how you have creatively applied that to your newly released self-titled album. I’ve been listening to this boisterous little beauty since I bought it at your launch party, and I hear some Soundgarden mixed with Sammy Hagar in the vocal DNA, as well as some infusions of what I would call ‘Pantera-colored blues’ in there, both of which are meant as the highest possible compliments. I regard all of those guys as some of the most undersung greats of the world. I heard you speak at the party about beginning this album during the height of the pandemic and it sounds like you were doing what we all were, just trying to keep your brain alive!

JJN: That’s literally all I was trying to do! It’s so funny you say that because when I got home I just thought, “What am I going to do?” It was the only way to calm myself down to just say, “Let me undertake this project, let’s write for this next record, and let’s use all the energy, funnel it, and channel it into this record.” And that’s what we did with it! I’m just happy I stuck with it because there were so many moments where I wondered, “Should I keep going with this, should I work on something else?” But the end result was so worth it.

We definitely wanted every song to be able to stand on its own two feet and to be contributing to a total flow so that when you put the record on, it could take you on a journey, like all the records we love!

QRO: It certainly is, and it’s so cohesive, which is another thing getting dangerously low in stock in single-download culture: a front-to-back record that comes as a record and announces its intentions to be dinner, not a hodgepodge of disparate dessert songs intended to be eaten like snacks.

JJN: We definitely wanted every song to be able to stand on its own two feet and to be contributing to a total flow so that when you put the record on, it could take you on a journey, like all the records we love! It’s supposed to be more than just a song.

QRO: For sure, and you must realize that you’re doing that inside the individual songs themselves too, right? Like that middle section of “Shadow Dancer”. That psychedelic trip-out where you basically took us all to do unexpected LSD on the beach in Western Australia? And then we come out of that and go someplace else! [laughs] I really think that’s one of your signatures. You have this arcing wave, a direction in all that you do musically.

JJN: Well, thank you! I always just try to follow my instinct and sometimes it’s like “ohhhh, boy” because it’s like letting it out and being like “Okay, did I do too much? Is it too far? Or, are we good?” [laughs] So, I’m really glad that you said that!

QRO: There is no such thing in rock-n-roll as ‘too much’ or ‘too far,’ Jared, as you well know! [laughs] Do you know who I always think of as the ultimate example for questions like the ones you were saying there that you ask yourself? Joanna Newsom and her song “Peach, Plum, Pear”. One of my favorite songs in the world and I bet she has 5-10 layers of her own voice on that gorgeous chorus. You just know that somebody must have said to her “Joanna, I think that’s too many,” because it really is like nothing in any other song. But she didn’t listen, and thank goodness. Always be Joanna Newsom in any doubt about muchness and do five more than what anyone says you can!

JJN: Oh, I love that; I’m stealing that! [laughs]

QRO: Take it, run with it, use it every day! [laughs] You recorded this bit of perfect muchness of your own at Blackbird, I believe? A place that is a rockstar unto itself.

JJN: Oh yeah, it was so awesome to track there! I remember when we said we were going to go to Blackbird. We walked into this beautiful room with all our gear and it was that realization of just “Whoa.” Never seen anything like it. They showed us all the incredible rooms there, and then you walk into the control room and see the console and the tape machines, and you think, “This is not a studio trying to be something, this is the studio.” It was so cool working there because any idea we had or that our producer Eddie Spear came up with, we could do it in a moment.

I think one of the coolest parts is, if you listen to “Hard Wired”, in the intro and the middle section there’s this breakdown with this reverb that gets really washy, because there’s a room in Blackbird that goes straight up, something like 200 feet. They put a speaker with a microphone in there and they played the song through there to get that reverb. We thought it was the coolest thing because it wasn’t like we did it with a computer; it was all done in real time.

QRO: Organic reverb cannot be beat, and that is one of my favorite songs on the album by a long way.

JJN: Awesome! Here’s something else you might like to know about that one then: it was not really planned at all. That song just happened. I started to go into it, Dennis kicked in on the drums, all of us just went with it, and that was the take! When we listened back, we were just like, “Yeah, let’s leave all of that in there!”

I like when a song shows itself. I try and not get in the way of the song. We just try to play for the song, to support it

QRO: I love knowing that it doesn’t just have natural reverb; it had a natural birth too! Is that how you guys typically bring these tunes forth, by jamming out, or how do they come to be?

JJN: I usually come in with a skeleton of a song where it’s maybe the vocal, the melody, and the guitar parts. Then, we try and gently see where the song wants to sit itself. I try not to be too overbearing with the songs. I like when a song shows itself. I try and not get in the way of the song. We just try to play for the song, to support it. You can take yourself or the song too seriously if you aren’t careful and that never goes anywhere good for you or the song.

QRO: I definitely have seen firsthand the sad remains of what might have been great music had it not been so surgically enhanced, either with human worries or digital wizard wands. I think you always get a better song if you just have the stones to play what you actually feel, to take any time necessary to find that, and, in my case, not to let the song freak you out with where it wants to go.

JJN: Absolutely. We took about 10 days before Blackbird and we built all of these songs from the ground up in a small rehearsal spot. There were a few extras that didn’t make the record, not because we didn’t love them, but because they just didn’t feel right for this album. What was great about that time was that we were rehearsing like crazy, so by the time we got to Blackbird, it was like lighting a stick of dynamite.

QRO: You guys were airtight at your launch party, and that reminds me that I have to tell you about an adorable woman behind me who had never seen you before. She had no idea about your music, and was just quiet and unassuming. Then, once you got through the first song, she raised her fist in the air and shouted “Fuck yeah, Wisconsin!” [laughs]

JJN: [laughs] It’s funny when people don’t know what they’re going to get! I love that!

QRO: You do have this very, salt-of-the-earth element to what you do that I think appeals to anyone who likes pure honesty of experience. That level of transparency used to be the expected norm, and in places like Wisconsin it still is, so I just want you to know that I hear a lot of your home in what you do.

JJN: Well, I’m really glad to hear that because I try to carry that with me everywhere I go. At the end of the day, I feel like I can speak for everyone in the band when I say this: we are just music lovers. The fact that we get to make and play the music that we love, that’s what’s fun. It’s pure, it’s simple, and it’s the reality of it.

QRO: Do you have a favorite song to play on this record?

JJN: That’s so hard and I would probably change my answer every day, but today I’d go with “Easy Come Easy Go”. It’s up-tempo, it’s a really cool singalong, and when we rip into that, my energy level just goes through the roof! It’s a little different every night too because we get to improvise on it a little bit, so that makes it fun.

QRO: It’s a great song that I think has the exact same boosting effect on its listeners–some songs are the gain knob, aren’t they! What about the opposite end of the spectrum: were there any memorable challenges making this record?

JJN: Yes, the major one might sound funny, which was not feeding in to playing it safe. Tracking live, singing and not fixing things, staying in the moment, and following that instinct. Modern recording makes it easy to fix and change things. We went in saying, “No, we are going to do it the old school way”, like you said, and keep it as honest as possible. Doing that was kind of a massive undertaking because you just have to be willing to put it all out there. I was thinking that it could only go one of two ways and when you’ve invested all this time and you’re at Blackbird, you don’t want to mess up!

QRO: I hope that you are proud of what you have made because it really is a gorgeous record.

JJN: This is the first record I’ve made that I can listen to, and I don’t mean that in any bad way at all; it’s just that I feel like this one is honest enough, it feels like me, it feels right, and you can feel the energy in it, so I hope that makes it fun to listen to!

QRO: I’m guessing that is why you chose to self-title this one?

JJN: That’s the exact reason, yes. It was because I feel like this record will set the bar for everything to come for me. Especially production-wise and stylistically. As a musician, you always try to continue to grow, but this one made me think, “This feels good!”

QRO: It does, and I want to thank you for taking time out of your hurricane road schedule to talk to me about all the rampant goodness in it. It’s going to be a joy to throw this little Molotov rocktail at the people! [laughs]

JJN: Oh man, are you kidding me, the pleasure here has been all mine and all of us are so grateful for your support. Thank you so much for everything and we’ll see you soon back in Atlanta!

The JJN rock onslaught tour continues stateside for the month of May, complete with an in-store signing and free acoustic show at Licorice Pizza Records in Studio City on May 26th at 7pm, and then it’s on to melt the visages of the UK and Europe for June. Go see Jared kick ceremonial axe-ass, throw your hair, beer, and/or glitter around with unrestrained abandon, and feel grungy-great about it all in the morning.