Nick Curran's last solo-album Player! garnered the Austin-based blues singer/guitarist the 2004 W.C. Handy Award for Best New Artist Debut.
Although quite a distinction for a former rockabilly kid from Portland, rather than follow up the accolade with another album of raw, high-energy old-school rockin' blues, Curran joined The Fabulous Thunderbirds and recorded the band's 2005 album Painted On. He then spent the next five years playing in a number of projects including the punk-influenced band Deguello with fellow T-Bird bassist Ronnie James Weber. This month, Curran returns to his solo-work with Reform School Girl - a fiery, rock & roll album that finds Curran back in the studio with longtime producer/musician Billy Horton.
AMG's Matt Collar spoke with Curran last week about his career, his new album, his recent diagnosis with tongue cancer and whether to call him blues, rock or punk.
AMG: What are you up to right now?
Nick Curran: Hanging around the house taking it easy.
AMG: Reform School Girl has a similar vintage vibe to your last four albums. I know you've worked a lot with Billy Horton (The Horton Brothers, The Hot Club of Cowtown, Miss Lauren Marie) in the past. Was this a similar approach to your other albums?
Nick Curran: It was, and it was definitely more pieced together. I actually played drums on it myself and we actually wrote some of the songs while we were in there. So it was kind of like more of a process than usual, but it was really good to be able to do it that way. But it was the same studio and me and Billy work great together and always come up with great ideas and bounce them off each other.
AMG: There are a lot of photos in the album fold-out, was that Fort Horton Studio? I know you recorded all of your other albums there. It always sounded so enigmatic. I never knew if that was an actual studio or just somebody's living room?
Nick Curran: It used to be, when I did my first album it was in their living room. Through the years Billy has kind of upgraded a little bit more here and there and now he actually has a studio building. But yeah, it started out when they were living in a duplex.
AMG: How does a guy from Portland, Maine go from playing rockabilly music to being one of the leading exponents of the Texas blues sound? [Nick started out playing guitar with rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson and later was one of revivalist-diva Kim Lenz's Jaguars] Was blues always an influence on you from the start?
Nick Curran: Yeah, 'cuz my dad always played in blues bands and rock bands when I was growing up. It was definitely always there and I really liked it. And then of course as a kid [Nick was born 1977] I liked all the stuff that was going on at that time too like Guns N' Roses and old punk music and metal, stuff like that.
I was very into blues and then I saw this band that is now called King Memphis "“ they used to be called the Memphis Mafia. The reason that I saw them was 'cuz the guitar player for that band used to play with a band that my dad had started playing with. So my dad kind of replaced that guy and I kept hearing about him and then I went to see his other band and it was a rockabilly band and I was like whoa, this is cool! And then I really started getting into it. They used to play every Thursday night and it would be sold out, packed and I would always go down there. There would be this huge scene. It's not like that anymore in Portland, but it used to be really great. It's pretty dead now.
AMG: What led to working with Kim Lenz and when did you move to Austin?
Nick Curran: When I was playing with Kim I was living in Dallas and when I put out my first record I still lived in Dallas "“ even through the early tours. After my second record came out I switched drummers "“ and when I did that everybody in the band lived in Austin at the time. And the Dallas scene was really dying. Finally, I'm just like, there's more going on in Austin and the whole band lives there, might as well just move. Actually, the Horton Brothers "“ them and this friend Buck "“ I was visiting in Austin and I said hey, y'all should let me move into the dining room and we'll make it into a bedroom. They were like, okay, and [laughing] I was like, really?! So I ended up moving in and it was like four of us living at Buck's house. That was about 2001 right before the summer.
AMG: What I always thought was cool about your first few albums, was how you brought that authentic vintage-vibe that Kim Lenz brought to her rockabilly albums to a blues recording. It was almost like taking the vintage sound of blues and early R&B and giving it a kind of urgent punk energy.
Nick Curran: All those old blues guys that I love have that. They have that attitude like a punk rock band "“ like Howlin' Wolf and Little Richard, that stuff is like punk rock but in the '50s. And I wanted to bring that. Most blues acts now are so tame and cheesy, and I'm like, I can't be a part of that. I don't believe in that way of doing it. To me it has to have balls. I like AC/DC... to me that's like a blues band, but they just turn it up to eleven.
I wanted to have an old sounding blues band or an old-school rock & roll band that sounded like it had that sound from back-in-the-day, but had all the attitude and had all the anger and just singing about screwing up stuff, you know like killin' people and the same stuff that people get in trouble for singing about now. But back then it would be nothing to hear John Lee Hooker singing a song about killing someone. And people get all upset about gangsta rap, and I'm like there've been dudes saying that shit for fifty years.
AMG: It seems like you've found a way of doing that by covering tunes. You've covered the Stooges "No Fun", you covered The Sonics "Shot Down" and on Reform School Girl you do AC/DC's "Rocker". It's like you are saying this tune is like the old tunes I like, but you are bringing it back into the present.
Nick Curran: The way I do things, I always want to do something where there's no way someone could give me a hard time about it -- like do it with conviction. You are going to like this whether you want to or not. So, when I do a song like that I want it to be known that this is this song that you probably would hate, but you like my version of it. I'm trying to show people there is a similarity between this and that and that is where they were coming from. This might be what it would sound like if it was done back then.
AMG: You can deliver the goods as a singer and a guitar player. But I've always enjoyed how much fun you have with your image. It seems like over the years you have experimented with how you present yourself visually. Is that something you are conscious of?
Nick Curran: Yeah for sure. Let's say when I was first going with the T-birds, the last thing I wanted to do was go up there and look like Jimmie Vaughan which a lot of people would try to do. So I'm like, well, if I'm gonna play guitar with the T-birds I'm gonna have to look like Sid Vicious or something. That's what I did and a lot of people didn't like it, but at the same time I was kind of telling' people, hey, listen with your ears not your eyes. You don't have to play a '50s Stratocaster and wear vintage suits to play blues.
AMG: Some of the guys I've heard mentioned as your influences -- Guitar Slim, Johnny "Guitar" Watson -- these guys were flamboyant. Do you feel like you are bringing that back a bit?
Nick Curran: Yeah man, 'cuz Guitar Slim used to die his hair green to match his suit. And when I do it, people are like "he's lost his mind, what's he doing?" Do you even know anything about these olden guys!?
AMG: You worked with bassist Ronnie James Weber and drummer Damien Llanes on punk-blues project Deguello. Was that a conscious decision on your part to back-away from your solo career and explore other musical avenues for awhile?
Nick Curran: Yeah, 'cuz I was doing the T-Birds, so I had a steady thing going on and I didn't have to worry about making any dough or anything. And I was like, man, I wanna start another band that's just like a cool band, like a rock & roll band where we can just play and it doesn't matter what type of song we write -- it can just sound like whatever. Me and Ronnie started talking about doing it and then me and my buddy Zach (Blair). I've actually known him for years. When I first came to Dallas to play with Ronnie Dawson I met Zach and he used to play in a band called Hagfish in the late-'90s... him and his brother. And then he played with Gwar. Deguello was going' really well and we were doing the record and then he got an offer to join the band Rise Against. So he is now platinum record selling and stuff -- which is right for him. And we did a tour with another guitar player, but it wasn't the same without all of us. But two of the songs that I wrote for that band are on the new record "Psycho" and "Filthy". And I kind of wrote them to be '50s rock & roll songs, 'cuz that's my favorite punk music like The Ramones and The Misfits -- stuff that's really kinda like '50s rock & roll just kind of revved up.
AMG: Along those lines, to say you're a blues artist is true on one level, but isn't it also misleading because your music is really this balls-out rock music that has a lot of layers to it -- blues being one?
Nick Curran: I can play blues with any blues guy and do the job fine, but when I play my solo stuff I consider it like an old school rock & roll band. Because back in the day, Jimmy Reed and Howlin' Wolf and Little Richard, Joe Turner "“ they were all considered rock & roll. Now people just think of it as blues, but back then that was the equivalent of The Ramones or Metallica. Those guys were shredding like Eddie Van Halen, but it was just to a different standard of that time. So, I just tell everybody I'm a rock & roll band.
Some people classify me as blues, some people classify me as jump blues, some people will say rockabilly, some people say punk "“ which is good because they don't really know what to call it, but it definitely falls into an old school classic sound.
AMG: You said you were influenced by not just older bands, but also rock from when you were a kid. That seems to have carried over into your choice of instruments on the new album. I'm also a kid of the '80s and my first guitar was a bright green Kramer. I think it's the coolest thing that you are playing a Kramer on this album. Does that work just as well as any of the vintage instruments you use?
Nick Curran: Yeah it does. Man, this guitar sounds so good and it's a hot, bright fluorescent pink. It's hideous looking, but I love it. It's like a C.C. Deville from Poison guitar. Funny story -- on my last tour with the T-Birds, I knew I was gonna be leaving. It was the European tour, so the only guitar that I brought was this Kramer. And the first gig, Kim Wilson (T-Birds lead-singer/harmonica player) turned around and looked at me, he's like, "Oh goddammit!" At first, I thought people were gonna be asking me why are you playing that? But people were like, why does that thing sound so good?! It actually, literally is one the best sounding guitars I use on the whole record. Even songs where you might think it was a hollow-body "“ we had every one of my guitars there and we'd test it out. I was plugged-in in the control room so we could hear what it would sound like coming through in the song. And Billy was like, "Dammit, go get the Kramer!" So, I probably played it more on solos than any other guitar on the record.
AMG: Just before your album came out, you announced that you'd been diagnosed with tongue cancer. You said the prognosis was good and that you expect to make a full-recovery. How is your treatment coming along?
Nick Curran: I'm doing really good right now. It's a little painful to talk and eat but not too bad. It was a lot worse and I haven't started treatment yet, but I'm going in Monday for my consult appointment with the radiation doctor. Basically, they don't know what caused it, because I'm not high-risk. I'm not a smoker. I mean, [the doctors] said for me to have this I'd have to be in my 50's or 60's and smoked packs-a-day for my whole life and drunk hard stuff. I have drunk a fair amount in my day, but not enough.
But they caught it early and it didn't spread anywhere. In the meantime, a few different friends that I know who've gone through a similar thing [blues-singer] Candye Kane being one "called me up and gave me some hints about changing my diet and some different herb stuff. Actually, as soon as I started doing that it started going away by itself. It's really weird how people disregard the natural deal when it comes to medicine, but that stuff really works. I didn't even expect it to start helping it go away. I was just trying to get healthy before I went into treatment.
I'm doing everything I can to let it work itself out. I'm eating all organic stuff -- pretty much living on fruit and vegetable juice. I'm on this diet called an alkaline diet and cancer can't live within this diet. What it does, it makes your body pH balanced, so it can't live there... there's no acid and no sugar. It can't live and it can't grow... so along with the herbs I've been taking it kind of dissolves. It kind of kills off the tumor.
I'm ready to get this over with. I'm ready to actually get out and play and be on the road for the new record. I'm just a little set-back, but I'm gonna be fine. I'm real positive about it and I'm just ready to be on the other-side of it. But you gotta do what you gotta do and take care of business and then I'll be back before you know it.
AMG: I wish you the best of luck and take care.
Nick Curran: Alright, thanks a lot man and let's definitely talk again soon.
Check out Nick Curran's MySpace.