Following several months on the road, first in Europe and then throughout the States, supporting such artists as Morrissey and AFI, American psychobilly pioneers Tiger Army are primed to head into the studio to record their fourth full-length album this November. After producing the first three recordings himself, Tiger Army ringleader Nick 13 — songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist — is handing the reins over to engineering guru Jerry Finn, who’s produced both Morrissey and AFI, as well as the Smoking Popes, Bad Religion, and more. I managed to catch up with Nick, as well as stand-up bassist Jeff Roffredo and drummer James Meza to get the latest on Tiger Army.Following several months on the road, first in Europe and then throughout the States, supporting such artists as Morrissey and AFI, American psychobilly pioneers Tiger Army are primed to head into the studio to record their fourth full-length album this November. After producing the first three recordings himself, Tiger Army ringleader Nick 13 — songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist — is handing the reins over to engineering guru Jerry Finn, who’s produced both Morrissey and AFI, as well as the Smoking Popes, Bad Religion, and more. I managed to catch up with Nick, as well as stand-up bassist Jeff Roffredo and drummer James Meza to get the latest on Tiger Army.
First of all, I think you said (pardon my being trite) the most kick-ass thing a few years back to Davey Havok, which still seems to ring true judging the passion I see at your shows: “We play for the people who like our music, and I don’t care if they’re into punk, psycho, rockabilly, hardcore, goth, country, black metal, or whatever, because I like stuff from all those styles. On a certain level it’s about us and them, ‘us’ being anyone who looks at life a little differently from the herd or even has the potential to. If you split too many hairs, there is no ‘us.’” You draw one of the most surprisingly diverse crowds at shows. What do you attribute that to? Seriously, what you said sounds like a very concise, intuitive, and insightful social commentary, or even a statement on the world in general, and you were able to sum it up pretty damn succinctly in the microcosm (which isn’t so micro) of the music business.
Over the years, have you have had any kind of pressure — whether from fans or bands you tour with — to direct your music in a certain way? I’ve always had diverse musical tastes, and I think that different people are drawn to our music by different things, that each person is responding to different elements, or different combinations of elements. Naturally, everyone has their own opinion about what they want to hear more of, but it’s so varied that it kind of becomes white noise. In the end, I’ve always tried to write the music that I’d like to hear myself, and that seems to work for most of our fans.
You have called your music “American psychobilly”; what does that mean within the psychobilly genre? How do you see Tiger Army’s role in this genre? What are your thoughts on the American psychobilly scene? The music was predominantly from Europe when the band started. American psychobilly was a way to acknowledge that and at the same time put people on notice that we were going to do it our way, to play by our own rules. That’s as true today as it was then. I’m not too impressed with most of what’s happening nowadays. I think when people get the courage to put more of themselves into their music instead of imitating their favorite band, things will improve.
Are there new songs in the works that you’ve been playing either on the headlining shows that you’ve played, or with AFI? We’ve been playing one new song live all year, including the AFI dates. It’s called “LunaTone.”
After the AFI tour, what are your plans? We took a couple of weeks off after the AFI shows, then returned to the practice room to work on new songs for the next album. Jerry Finn is producing and he’s been coming by to check out the new stuff and give us his input. We’re getting close and it’s really exciting. We enter the studio in November.
All the albums have their own distinct quality; how would you characterize these differences? Can you mark their distinction by different things you were going through, or just growth as a band? It’s a combination of everything. I’ve been going for something different each time we’ve entered the studio that’s had to do with where I was at personally and musically each time. There’s also a conscious effort to try new things on each record — there’s no point in making an album that’s exactly like one you’ve already made. We’ve had at least one different player in the lineup on each album, so each person’s abilities and style naturally play into things a little bit as well.
Your last album, III: Ghost Tigers Rise, showcases melodic nuances that people don’t generally associate with psychobilly. What were your inspirations for songs like “Ghostfire,” “Santa Carla Twilight,” and “Rose of the Devil’s Garden”? In the case of “Santa Carla Twilight,” the movie The Lost Boys was part of the inspiration, as well as experiences and dreams about the real-life town of Santa Cruz, where I spent a good deal of time in the ’90s. As far as lyrics go, sometimes a single word or phrase will suggest a whole song; that’s what happened with the others you mentioned.
People like songs that are nostalgia triggers. For example, “Under Saturn’s Shadow” is a great morning song for me; I listen to “In the Orchard,” “Outlaw Heart,” and especially everything from your latest album when I’m driving on the Highway 126 in SoCal. For these especially melodic songs, do you have a general songwriting process? Do lyrics and melodies come to you at completely different times? What were your inspirations for those above songs? What are your favorite songs to drive to? There’s no set process, but melodies and lyrics generally come at separate times. As far as what I listen to on the road, having an iPod has made it more random than ever. The Ramones will follow industrial which follows bluegrass and so on.
So, I read that some of your lyrics come to you at a subconscious level, right when you’re about to fall asleep. Do you keep a little bedside book? Or do you see what those lyrics will morph into by the next day? I don’t keep a book, but I’ve definitely gotten out of bed to write something on a scrap of paper. Sometimes it’s nothing the next day, but sometimes it’s something.
I didn’t realize that you had produced your own records. Is this still something that you’re doing? Do you like the autonomy it provides? The album we’re about to make marks the first time that I’ve worked with an outside producer — Jerry Finn. I’ve gotten to a point where I’m comfortable letting go a little bit. That comes from having established what our music is about. At the same time, I could only work with someone whose opinion I respect and who has compatible views about approach, what sounds good, what’s important, and what isn’t. Luckily for us, Jerry brings all that to the table and more.
You have fielded countless questions about the lineup changes—though your onstage cohesion remains flawless—how do you think you’ve accomplished this? Chemistry, touring? Probably both. Jeff and James are both incredibly talented players, and they had rhythm section chemistry before they joined Tiger Army from playing in numerous other projects together. At the same time, we’re definitely seasoned at this point—we’ve done over 150 shows over two years together. I think we sound the best we ever have right now.
First of all, I took my mom to see you guys play up in San Luis Obispo … I think I met her, if you’re the one who jumped up onstage.
… and she was totally blown away with the command that you had over your instrument. How long have you been playing the stand-up bass? Considering the rhythm section necessitates a level of tightness that is essential to the band’s sound, what best prepares you for shows? I started playing stand-up bass when I was in high school. The best preparation for a show on any instrument is practice! In the rhythm section specifically it’s best to listen to one another, understand your role as a bassist and how your parts will work best with the drums. I am very comfortable playing with our drummer, James Meza, we can communicate well with our instruments and feed off of each other’s energy to keep the rhythm driving.
What made you pick that instrument? The fact that it is the finest instrument in the world. I’ve always loved the unique sound of stand-up bass, in almost any style of music. Since it is seldom played anymore it also represents an era of so many classic recordings from the ’40s and ’50s.
What have been your biggest influences? When I first started playing I was influenced by early punk-rock bands, ’50s rockabilly, and bop (jazz) of the ’40s and ’50s. I got heavily into a lot of ’80s psychobilly bands from England and Europe. I really liked the intensity of the music combined with the interesting melodies and rhythms created on the stand-up bass that complement the songs so well. I try to keep an open mind and listen to any kind of music; influence and inspiration can sometimes come from what some may consider unlikely places.
I played drums for like two minutes way back when. You make it look so easy, and you are going from playing fast to keeping a melodic tempo—how long have you been playing? Did you ever take lessons? I started messing around when I was about 11, but I didn’t take it seriously until I was 18. I never had real drum lessons, I just learned by watching other drummers play.
Have you always been into psychobilly? No, I haven’t always been into psychobilly. I got into it while I was in high school when a friend recorded me a compilation tape of early European psychobilly bands. I loved the fact that it had rockabilly roots, except it was a bit faster.
Were there any drummers that you looked up to while you were learning? Who have been your biggest influences? I really didn’t have anyone I looked up to while I was learning how to play. But I have been influenced by Stephen Morris of Joy Division and Topper Headon of the Clash.