Meet Nick Waterhouse, the Orange County kid who’s made a name for himself as a new-school purveyor of old-school R&B. Raised on a healthy diet of music by a “decidedly unartistic” set of parents, Waterhouse is not only championing a decades-old style; he’s propagating it, producing records for himself and a handpicked lot of similarly minded musical friends. (He recently wrapped production on the debut full-length from L.A. psych rockers The Allah-Las.) This May, Waterhouse will follow up his 2011 vinyl-only debut with Time’s All Gone, an 11-track LP that sounds as if it were ripped right out of the jukebox. Armed with toe-tapping beats, a sexed-up horn section, and female backup vocalists aplenty, Waterhouse and his snarling croon are tailor-made for the dance floor, and a quick trip to YouTube will further seal the deal — the guy’s just as enigmatic live as his records let on.
In conversation, Waterhouse is equal parts charming and well versed in the R&B vernacular. “Music was all that I really cared about,” he tells me via phone from his home in Los Angeles. “Probably most of my life was spent either wanting to or denying that I wanted to play music as a real-life pursuit.” He recalls growing up with a lot of early Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett recordings, as well as a heavy dose of SoCal punk. In elementary school, he played the trumpet but switched to guitar by the time he was 13. “When I was a teenager, that was the best way to deal with the world,” he explained. “The guitar was like an alternate reality for me, a third space. [It was] the closest thing to making my imagination real.”
In high school, that imagination manifested itself by way of R&B band The Intelligista, which Waterhouse formed and fronted. While the group had a sizable and diverse fan base, Waterhouse insists that the band didn’t earn him many friends. “I was way out there,” he laughed. “I wasn’t like a Quasimodo or anything; people just didn’t know what to make of me. There’s always going to be guys that if you’re not toeing the line socially — especially in places like Orange County — either they think you’re really weird or they’re calling you a fuckin’ faggot. That was sort of where I was.”
After high school, Waterhouse ventured north, settling in San Francisco for college with the hopes of finding a scene that would embrace his musical style. Rather, Waterhouse procured a job at a record store that stocked only 45s and amassed a wealth of knowledge about R&B’s heaviest hitters and most obscure players. Too scared and too poor to seek out a suitable studio space in S.F., Waterhouse turned to legendary Costa Mesa spot the Distillery and engineer Mike McHugh for a lesson in straight-to-tape recording. “I was 16 when I [first] went in there, and, I dunno, Mike and I really connected on a personal level,” Waterhouse explained. “He’s kind of eccentric, and he has a reputation with certain bands, but I just started hanging around there as much as I could. I wasn’t quite an apprentice, but I was definitely picking up things.” Like the R&B records he pored over, McHugh’s Distillery was stocked with all the old-school bells and whistles — antique mixing boards, tube-filled amps, and a strict analog-only mandate.
So when it came time for Waterhouse to cut his first 45, McHugh was the first man he turned to. And when said 45 started generating a healthy amount of industry buzz, the Distillery was where he returned. Cut in three blocks over the course of 2011, Time’s All Gone was recorded almost completely live to tape, and under a sizable number of logistical constraints. “I had this life in San Francisco where I was working 42 to 46 hours a week,” Waterhouse recalled. “On the weekends, we’d be playing a show, or we’d be driving down on Friday night from San Fran to Southern California then driving back Monday to be home at 7 a.m. It was just craziness.”
Nowadays, Waterhouse calls SoCal home and has ditched the day job for a full-time music career. In recent months, he’s toured Europe, as well as garnered rave reviews for his stint at this year’s South By Southwest. Talk to anyone who’s seen him live, and they’ll tell you that on stage is where Waterhouse truly shines. “Initially all I wanted to do was record, but I feel like the truth comes across a little harder if you’re in a situation where you see what it feels like,” he says of the live show. As for the future, Waterhouse seems well on his way to household-name status, armed with a style that has already once withstood the test of time. Ask him, though, and it’s all still very much about the present. “When I’m done, whatever my legacy is it is, and I’m fine with that. I just wanted to make the 45. Everything else is just a bonus.”
Nick Waterhouse plays an all-ages show at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Sunday, April 29, at 8 p.m. Call 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets.