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Nick Waterhouse: R&B Prodigy 

Wednesday, Jun 6 2012
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A bad breakup, a dead-end job, and a music career on the skids: Add some rhythm to those blues and you've got the makings of a serious R&B club hit. That's exactly what Nick Waterhouse got in 2011, after putting lathe to wax and recording "Some Place," his shuffling debut single. That record is now routinely selling to DJs for $300 on eBay, and Waterhouse, along with his backing band the Tarohs, is on a fast ascent. Last month he released Time's All Gone, his debut LP, on the Innovative Leisure label. Mixing together deadstock production techniques from the '60s with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of R&B, it's a fresh take on an old sound that strives to innovate without getting mired in retro clichés.

That might seem like an impossible project, but it works in part because of Waterhouse's unique outlook on the music. For him, R&B is a folk art — a form that's still vibrant and malleable. It doesn't just exist in a distant historical moment, but in the present as well. "A record is a moment in time, and something recorded in 1955 is the same as something recorded in 2010," he says. "It has already happened, and now happens again each time you play that song." Asked why he chooses to express himself in this form, he quotes writer Ralph Ellison and says, "A poet's true language is the one in which he dreams." Then he admits that he simply doesn't know any other way. Presumably, his dreams involve seedy '60s nightclubs, Mose Allison, and a heap of obscure 45s.

Growing up in Huntington Beach, Waterhouse began making music in his teens and formed The Intelligista, a rock 'n' roll outfit dedicated to the R&B-derived sound of '60s mod groups like The Who. It was with this band that he was introduced to, and first recorded with, producer Mike McHugh of Costa Mesa's all-analog music studio the Distillery (and current owner of the Gold Star Studios lathe, the same one used by Phil Spector for his work with the Beach Boys). But the band's promising run came to a halt when high school melted into college. The Intelligista broke up, and Waterhouse moved to San Francisco in search of a new band.

Bouncing around the city's '60s club scene, he soon discovered the treasure trove of rare 45s that is Rooky Ricardo's Records in the Lower Haight. There, under the guidance of owner Dick Vivian, he undertook a master class in the language of traditional R&B. Working at Rooky's on his off days, he amassed a respectable collection of 7-inches by artists like Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Titus Turner, Noble Watts, and the Young Holt Trio. He was DJing before long, and soon became one of the city's top '60s R&B selectors.

Meanwhile, Waterhouse found himself in one unsuccessful band project after another, which eventually led him to a year studying abroad in England. He credits this trip with finally allowing him to define his sound. "It was like going into the wilderness," he says. "I was 21 and nobody was into what I was into. It was like a room of mirrors." Alone, he had a chance to hone his chops and search for the root of his music.

Back in the U.S., he would spend another couple years drifting around the city before running into Ira Raibon, a sax player who played for the Fabulous Souls and Earth Wind & Fire. Their meeting and collaborative sessions back at the Distillery would help coalesce The Tarohs (his instrumental backing group), The Naturelles (his female vocal backup), and Pres Records (his own 45s-only imprint). It would also lead to the creation of "Some Place," Waterhouse's most enduring single to date.

The strength of that song snowballed into a deal with L.A. label Innovative Leisure. Wasting no time, he began working on Time's All Gone at the Distillery while still living in San Francisco. Working long hours, Waterhouse somehow managed to maintain his sanity while simultaneously existing in two cities nearly 400 miles apart. (He eventually relocated to Los Angeles.)

All those hours spent in the studio and on the road come out in the desperate intensity of album cuts like "Say I Wanna Know," "I Can Only Give You Everything," and "(If) You Want Trouble." Throughout it all there's a common sonic signature: warm, overdriven vocal hooks, precise horn blasts, and understated rhythms locked in the pocket. At first, the album sounds straight out of 1962, but listen closer and you'll start to hear incongruities, hints that show off Waterhouse's unique style: There's a Brian Ferry flutter to his voice in "Raina," there are beach music and surf influences in his guitar on "Is That Clear," and all the songs seethe with an almost punk energy.

Live, Waterhouse is known to harness this fire for a manic show. And if his intense stage presence and winsome grooves turn some listeners on to the older sounds that inspire him, well, all the better. "At the end of the day," Waterhouse says, "if I can make a 12-year-old feel it's okay to wear a madras button-down and listen to The Coasters, I'll feel really happy."

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Derek Opperman

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