Interview with frontman Nick 13 | By Gen Handley
Since their fearless self-titled debut in 1999, Tiger Army have continued to defy the notion of genre, blending punk, rockabilly, pop, and Americana into a distinct sound that they can truly call their own. That tradition continues with their sixth full-length, Retrofuture, out on Sept. 13 via Rise Records.
Retrofuture is a return to form in some ways, proudly displaying the band’s punk rock roots on their tattooed sleeves. But like their past releases, it’s also more than a simple punk record, radiating lead vocalist, guitarist, and visionary Nick 13’s obsession with the pop and rock music of the ’50s and ’60s.
From his home in Los Angeles, Nick 13 speaks about the genre-defying nature of his music, if he believes in life after death, and his earliest musical memory.
“Retrofuture” is defined as a depiction of the future produced in an earlier era. How does that relate to the songs on this album?
The concept behind this album was similar to that definition, but rather than how people of the past might envision the future visually, this is about how they would have imagined it sonically. What would the people in the ’50s or ’60s imagine future rock ’n’ roll to sound like? They would likely still be thinking in terms of guitars and amps—they wouldn’t envision how music actually sounds in terms of EDM or something like that. When you see pictures of the future, they didn’t envision the internet, for example.
The word is generally about visual aesthetic, but I heard the word somewhere, and I think it’s the perfect description for what our music is, because the guitars are all from the 1950s and 1960s, same with the amps, and we also used older recording techniques at certain times. But the music is not intended to be a recreation of ’50s and ’60s rock ’n’ roll or pop; it’s supposed to be something looking ahead and not looking backwards. Visually or sonically, those are things that give people the idea that we’re a revival act, but it is musically progressive in my mind. I’m influenced by the past, and I’m trying to do something new that no one has ever done in this exact way.
This album seems like a return to your punk rock roots, particularly on “Eyes of the Night.” Was that intentional?
Not really. It’s just kind of what came out. There are definitely some songs on the record that can be viewed that way and are, in many ways, closer to some of our older stuff, but there’s also songs that continue the stuff we’ve been exploring on the last album, [2016’s] V•••–, or the last EP, [2018’s Dark Paradise]—“Black Neon” would be an example of that. I mostly just write what comes out and what I’m excited about. I just try to come up with the strongest collection of songs I can.
But yeah, you’re right, some of them are definitely faster, more aggressive than some of the material from recent years. When I got together with the producer, Ted Hutt, we kind of came up with a sonic approach of how we were going to pile this stuff together, and it wound up being a guitar record. There were a lot of different instruments on V•••–, and with this album, it was just guitars, bass, and percussion. We decided to go with a rawer feel to push some things tone-wise. That had to do with the retrofuture aspect as well. There’s a lot of old ’50s and ’60s tube tape delays on some of the guitar stuff that pushes it in kind of a fucked up, distorted direction. So, it’s garagier, it’s kind of lo-fi in certain ways, but it’s all done with older stuff. Oddly, it kind of sounds fresh and modern. [Laughs]
Speaking of your last album, V•••–, why did you not continue the numerical naming tradition of your albums?
Well, we first broke with that on our fourth album, [2007’s Music From Regions Beyond], and we kind of went back to it for the last record. I don’t know. I think it’s something that’s cool up to a point, and then, it sort of stops mattering at a certain point and it’s more about the overall concept for me.
What is so great about Tiger Army is the range of musical influences on the band. How would you describe the foundation, the roots, of Tiger Army?
I see it as something that goes all the way back to the birth of rock ’n’ roll—and even farther, really. You start with the things that were the basic building blocks of rock ’n’ roll, like hillbilly and rhythm and blues. It’s influenced by the rock ’n’ roll and pop music of the ’50s and ’60s, and then, it’s influenced by a lot of the offshoots of rock ’n’ roll that came later, whether that was surf or garage in the ’60s, glam and punk in the ’70s, all the way up through deathrock and darkwave in the ’80s—and then post-punk, of course. All of that stuff is in a blender.
It’s pretty genre-less.
Yeah, I don’t consider Tiger Army to be of a particular genre. It’s definitely rock ’n’ roll, and I see connections between Buddy Holly and the Ramones or Dion [And The Belmonts] and the New York Dolls. There’s all these different kinds of through lines that jump around across the decades. That’s something that speaks to me.
Is it true the band took this name because the tiger is a solitary animal and you felt like a bit of an outcast in your earlier years?
Yeah, that’s definitely part of it. The tiger is a solitary animal, and they don’t live in packs—they’re kind of alone in the wild, and they operate as individuals, not as part of a herd. You can definitely see the herd mentality on display in a lot of humankind. The people who I gravitate to are people who are independent of that.
Does that sentiment still resonate with you years after you started the band?
Absolutely. I don’t relate to much of what goes on in the modern world, and I don’t want to. [Laughs] I think a lot of people who listen to the band feel the same way.
Do you feel like you were born in the wrong era? You would seem to be quite happy as a musician in the ’50s.
Yeah, I can’t say that’s untrue. [Laughs] I think there’s something about the whole world in the mid-20th century. Arguably the best musical instruments and amps were made during that time. Arguably the best music was made during that time. Much of that appealed to me, whether it was the aesthetics, the design, the architecture, the pop culture, and of course, the music. At the same time, you can’t truly go back, so I try to take those influences and twist them into something new.
While you’re known for darker, funereal themes, I find Tiger Army’s music to be just as much about life as it is about death.
Yeah, I think that’s true. There’s a tendency in Western culture to oppress or ignore death, which I think, ultimately, isn’t healthy. I think it’s more fulfilling and it leads to a happier life if you maintain an awareness of death. I think the actions of our lives should be measured against the fact that we’re going to die. Would you be content with a dead-end job or content in an unfulfilling relationship or content in a life path that isn’t what you want for yourself knowing that your time on earth is limited? The positive side of that is that people should take risks and chances to improve themselves, to better themselves, to follow their dreams of what they want to do. It is a positive aspect of what Tiger Army songs are about.
You sing about it, but do you believe in an existence after death?
Yeah, I think there’s something. I don’t know exactly what, but I think energy takes many forms and I think there’s something else.
Tiger Army albums always have a host of notable guest artists. Are there any on Retrofuture?
Not really. We kept it pretty tight on this record. A couple of my friends helped out with the backup vocals. My friend Ben Grey, who’s from a band called Dear Boy in Los Angeles, did a lot of the backups, and then, Rob Aston from the Transplants did backups on “Eyes of the Night” as well, but that’s mostly it. It was basically the band. Ted did a little bit of the percussion and acoustic guitar as well. It’s pretty stripped-down, I guess.
One thing that’s unique about Tiger Army songs is that they never involve politics. Is it difficult for the songs not to be affected by the current political climate?
I think it’s something I’ve always avoided for a number of reasons. One, I think it sort of dates your songs. If it’s topical, it might have resonance at the moment, but I’m not writing for this year or the particular year the record’s coming out. I want it to hold up in five years, in 10 years, in 20 years in the same way when it came out. Then, part of it also has to do with the question you asked earlier about the band’s name. I feel like politics are part of the daily world and they’re a part of the human race I don’t want anything to do with. In some ways, I prefer to create my own world and just actualize my personal environment to be what I want it to be. Another thing is that I’m pretty alienated, and I don’t relate to really anything or anyone in modern politics. The lyrics paint a picture and create a world that’s still a part of this world but is a different space from the one politics occur in.
It’s escapist music.
In a sense, yes, but also, it tends to relate more to the individual—it’s more of a micro-level thing than a macro-level thing. Maybe the inspiration someone takes from one of the songs, on a personal level, inspires them to go out and devote their life to political causes. If so, that’s great, but that’s what they take from it personally.
I’ve always loved the instrumental preludes on Tiger Army albums. How did those come to be?
Gosh, that’s a good question. [Laughs] It’s been a part of what we’ve done since the beginning. When I was doing the solo project, I was playing mostly acoustic, and there was a point where I played mainly acoustic for several years. When I came back to the electric guitar, it was like rediscovering it, and I got more deeply into it than ever. That included listening to a lot of instrumental rock ’n’ roll, like surf or pre-surf stuff like Duane Eddy or Joe Meek in the early ’60s. That kind of went hand in hand with my renewed passion for the electric guitar. As far as this one on the new record, it was inspired by that kind of stuff.
To answer your overall question: How did that become a thing? I’m not sure, to be honest. I’ve definitely always liked hitting the stage and [having] a prelude to things fully taking off.
Do you remember the first time you picked up an instrument? What is your earliest musical memory?
My earliest musical memory was when I was 3 or 4 years old, and my dad had made a decision to move the family out of the Bay Area—from the rat race, if you will—to a small town in Redwood Country, and one of the things he was going to do up there was to teach himself how to play guitar. Basically, he never got to, because every time I would hear the guitar come out of the case, I would instantly beeline and bug him and he wasn’t able to learn anything and basically gave up. [Laughs] I don’t know why he didn’t do it at night when I was asleep.
I wound up learning to play on that guitar a few years later. It was something I was always drawn to from very early childhood. When I first heard punk, there was something about the rawness of it that made me feel like I could do this. When I was 11 and I heard hardcore punk for the first time, it was so raw. I felt like I could do that and I need to do that. Hearing punk was definitely a match to the gasoline.