Nickeltree prepares number three

by Nova Herman

July 31, 2009

Saskatchewan's version of the "Zit Remedy" have grown up and brought another independent CD to the table. And what a fine one they have dished up for us this time!

Lumsden boys James Irving, Kevin Baker, and Colin Lynn crept on the local music scene with their self-titled debut album in November of 1998. Even at that time there was little evidence of their predecessor, an unknown high school band called, among other names, "Last Viking God," but that small trio was in fact the root from which the now-solid Nickeltree has blossomed.

Their new offering, Verstehen, presents a more confident band. The vocals of lead singer James Irving have matured, leaving behind the hints of strain that once gave a certain character, but represented younger days. The drumbeats of Colin Lynn have become braver, daring to be unpredictable and reaching to discover new tempos and patterns the band had failed to reach before. Even the harmonies offered forth by Kevin Baker show a new experimentation and open doors of possibilities for fresh sounds to come forth from the three-piece band.

The boys reveal that Kevin, the more trained singer of the two, has taught James a few things since last we'd spoke. "Like how to stay on key!" teases Kevin. "For our style, James is the voice that should be lead because it's gritty. If we were doing opera, it'd be me. But we are never going to be doing opera, so I'll just forget about ever being lead!"

"It's been a natural progression of basically finding my voice," says James. "The biggest thing for that is playing live. You slowly find out as you get more confident. You're not just sitting back, you're belting it out, and finding different ranges with your voice and different ways of phrasing things. The best thing is practice and play live."

Nickeltree has always thrived on picking words with elusive meanings. You're a rare person if you know the origins of their name, but they were loose-lipped enough to share the secrets of Verstehen. "The title of the album comes from sociological theory of Max Weber for studying different cultures," James explains as his bandmates tease him for being the intellectual. "The only way to truly understand people of a different culture is to actually totally immerse yourself in that culture and take it on, and that way you would become part of that community. That's what the album is focused around - tolerance, communication and understanding of different peoples and cultures and different situations." "And extreme profanity," Kevin adds jokingly, succeeding in generating a round of roaring laughter within the group.

Given "difference" is a prominent theme in the album, the title's definition logically leads one to question how immersed Nickeltree became in their subjects in order to attain this goal of understanding. The group's lyricist James admits that's a fair question, and pauses before answering. "Obviously you can't put yourself in every situation with first hand experience. You can't immerse yourself in every culture, but you can read a lot of things and make sure you're up on what's happening in the news. It's better than going through life with blinders on and not paying attention. As artists we're hopefully more sensitive and aware of those things."

It's a goal that Nickeltree has played with throughout their four-year career. They sing about Saskatchewan, they sing about history, they sing about politics and religion. There's no "baby, baby" music. "One of the philosophies that drives me as a musician," explains Kevin, "is playing music that inspires you, and music that moves you to some place better than where you are right now. And by singing this type of content and writing these kind of words, we want to at least make people think about the message rather than worry about a body that makes money for some corporation. Our music isn't about sex, it's not about a lot of what the music industry is about right now. We realize that because we have chosen a non-mainstream approach to music that the road before us is going to be very difficult to try to get noticed."

They have never been one to play the industry game, playing the music they want to play and making their albums their own way. Astonishingly, with three albums and in four years, they have never applied for any funding. "I just find that to play a couple gigs and make that much money is just a lot less hassle than applying and waiting for months to get the money," James begins. Kevin cuts him off smiling, "We've remained totally independent".

And they are getting noticed. Saskatoon's community radio station voted Weatherproof, the band's second album, #4 on their list of independent album releases of 2000. This summer Nickeltree won the Pump's Battle of the Bands competition, getting the opportunity to open for the classic rock band Nazareth and a slot on the main stage at the 2001 Kinsmen Rock N' the Valley. And this year, there's Verstehen.

The progression between the band's three albums is clear. The first presents the elements, the seeds of what existed and was to come. "If you look at the first album, the first songs, there are only maybe three or four songs that are like what we do now," says James. "So this is kind of a progression from when we first started, from the first immature songs, and shows how we have developed as a group." Kevin agrees, "I'm still proud of the first album because it's a great reflection of where we were three or four years ago, but we could never have known what it would have become." The second album displayed more advanced songwriting and a more developed musical package. "I like listening to the evolution," Colin adds, "you can hear yourself improve." "Just wait until the fourth album," Kevin laughs, "that's our bizarro album!"

The first two albums were recorded at Grind Studios in Pense, a place where the boys felt at home, but was no longer in business when it came time to record the third. Naturally, they were nervous about moving studios. "I had done a solo project of Broadway and religious tunes with a lady from my church at Touchwood," Kevin explains, "and had such a good experience, I suggested we go there." "We were totally nervous about that," reflects Colin, "but it was very comfortable, no pressure at all, and a very informal atmosphere. Grant and John were fantastic."

The boys took their time with Verstehen. "We were nervous when we recorded the first album," remembers James. "We'd been together less than a year, and maybe played live twice." With the second album they took more time, but felt they were still restricted by money. With the third, they kept going back into the studio after listening to tracks at home and deciding to change small things. Their patience and persistence has paid off with an album they are confident about.

"There's the dobro on Hail the Lightning, and one song with a mandolin. It's still a rock song, but if you give it something that sounds a little bit country, folky and little bit Latin, it just gives it that different sound and that's what we like," says James. "We want to have style," adds Kevin, "but still want to create something new and fresh."

It's a true rarity. Their songs do not all sound the same. From the swaying Latino Heard but Never Seen to the hard rock Hail the Lightning to the Reggae influenced Keep your Head Up, Verstehen succeeds in achieving diversity. The songs are loaded with layered percussion and laced with little surprises at each turn, making it a truly exciting CD.

"As a band starting out we were just happy to have an album out and to be playing," reflects James, "but as you have a taste and work your way up the ladder and get better gigs and better response, you want more. So with this album we worked hard to aspire to something better than the first two and take it to a different level, and I think that's what any band or artist is trying to do. And hopefully people will respond."

Only time will tell if this album will grant Nickeltree the extro-provincial recognition they haven't received in the past. Here on the prairies, the hometown boys' efforts are sure to delight the growing reams of local fans. "We have a following and have friends that want to come out and listen to our music, over and over and over again," Kevin gushes. "Four years is a long time to put up with us, and I can't say enough about fan support and the people who have followed us. I want to make it as much for those people who have stuck with us."

Nickeltree plans to blitz the local media for promotion. They have also refined their press kit and are making plans for a music video. This time they will be able to look to community radio not only in Saskatoon, but also in Regina. "In Saskatoon, they have an hour of original music every week and we get played all the time," says James. "It's awesome because people hear it that way instead of having to come to a gig to hear the music. Now with the community station in Regina, that can only help every band." Kevin agrees, "Regina's needed this for 20 years."

Verstehen will be available in HMVs in Regina and Saskatoon, and at Nickeltree's CD Release Party, December 20th at The Pump in Regina. A Saskatoon release party is in the works for early next year.

By Nova Herman. Originally published December 2001

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