words & interview: Michael Brooks
Nathan Tucker, who makes music as Cool American, is not one for sitting still. Since 2016, he has released three EP’s and two full-lengths under the Cool American moniker, as well as played drums on two LP’s with Snow Roller and an LP with Strange Ranger. As Cool American, Tucker shrouds the vulnerability in his lyrics with brash guitars; writing songs that could have been college rock staples in another decade. The latest installment of the Better Luck Next Year series is a welcome addition, showcasing his capacity for crafting a catchy melody. Better Luck Next Year Vol 3, out today via Good Cheer Records, features some of Tucker’s most experimental songwriting to date. I spoke with Nathan about the new EP, the state of the Portland DIY scene, and the music he enjoyed growing up.
The Grey Estates: Sonically speaking, Better Luck Next Year Vol 3 is a slight change of pace from your previous releases. "17" sounds like a Heatmiser b-side and "happy u said it" and "focus" feature autotuned vocals. What inspired the new direction on this EP? Also, do you feel like you have more freedom to tinker with your sound on an EP as opposed to on a full length?
Nathan Tucker: I've always thought of the Better Luck Next Year series as an outlet for me to mess around with sounds that might not translate as well to the full band stuff that's largely dominated the sound of our two full lengths. When we made both those records, I was blessed to be playing with a band that I thought was really killing, and it made sense to me to just highlight that sound. With the BLNY stuff, there's no live band involved, so I just kind of do whatever I feel like. In the past I think that's been maybe less apparent or at least there weren't as many songs on volumes 1 and 2 that saw me really stretch out sonically—certainly no autotune before this, for example—but that's always kind of been the goal. I'm just way better at recording than I used to be.
I also think that whatever unusual production choices there might be on this EP are probably in part the result of the recording environment: it was mostly made in my downtime between tours this summer and fall, a time when I didn't really have a space to call my own, and definitely not one big enough to record most natural sounds properly. I ended up piecing the songs together while recording between house sitting gigs, friend's houses, and my (extremely accommodating) girlfriend's place, so a lot of the decisions were dictated the limited amount of space and what little gear I had to work with.
I feel like with each release in the Better Luck Next Year series you grow more aware of what you’re trying to achieve as a songwriter, which really shows on the full band stuff. It’s also interesting to see you working things out for the full band, like how a fragment of “finger trap” off of Better Luck Next Year Vol 2: Good Job Nice Try ended up on the self-titled track “infinite hiatus” from your full-length last year. Speaking of that LP, you described it as a “big dumb rock record”. What exactly did you mean by that?
Dang it's cool you caught that about "infinite hiatus"—a less charitable listener might describe that as "ripping myself off" but it's awesome to know people notice those things!
I guess I meant "big dumb rock record" in the sense that I wanted to make something that was clearly unembarrassed about its own ambition and scope. Infinite Hiatus was in many ways about making a commitment to yourself to do what you want to do in the world, which in my case means make records, and so it just felt right to really go for it on the record in terms of production and arrangement. It seemed to me at the time that the last few years of "indie rock" or whatever had been really influenced by minimalism, and that what was considered cool in DIY circles were these technically and sonically simple arrangements reminiscent of Beat Happening or the Velvet Underground or something. Don't get me wrong, I like all that stuff, but for this record we were just sort of like, "nah, fuck it, let's quadruple track this guitar solo."
Without going too far down this rabbit hole, the outros to "Consume Itself" off You Can Win A Few and "Cashed Out" from Infinite Hiatus are eerily similar and I've always wondered whether there was a conscious decision to have a callback to your first LP or if it happened totally by chance?
Haha yeah that was an intentional callback. You're really blowing up my spot here ;)
That's an admirable goal, setting out to make unabashed rock music with guitar solos in a circle where it's not exactly "cool". The Portland DIY scene has been on the come up these past few years, bolstered by a tight-knit community of young and extremely talented bands that seem completely unconcerned with what's popular or trendy in indie rock. What do you think sets the Portland DIY scene apart from other cities?
I don't know how admirable it is, there's still plenty of appetite for big guitar music out there! In my experience very few creative people operate in a vacuum with regard to trends anyway, and everyone wants to talk down the extent to which they're aware of things like that during the writing process. But it doesn't make much difference whether you're going with a trend or reacting against it, it's still affecting your writing. Besides, there are plenty of currently popular bands I was drawing inspiration from when writing that record.
I can't say for sure what sets Portland DIY apart from other scenes because I haven't lived anywhere else in my adult life, but I think you're right that there's definitely something in the water here. It's cool to get on twitter or whatever and see people from all over starting to recognize that. Portland is changing really rapidly right now, it's becoming completely inundated with tech money and all the bullshit that comes along with that. I'm not a native Portlander but I've more or less lived here since I started college in 2008, and what I thought I recognized then as unique and exciting about the place is definitely harder to find now. So I don’t think it’s a surprise that all my creative friends have really doubled down on their work as a lifestyle choice in the last couple of years. Speaking for myself, that's the response that's felt the best to me: it seems harder to do creative stuff here now, both financially and culturally, than it used to be, so if you're going to do it you really have to go for it. It also makes for a pretty tight-knit scene. When you find people you like you have to hold them close!
I also think a huge part of what’s unique about the Portland scene is just how much it still flies under the radar, which I think has a lot to do with how hard it is to tour out of Portland—it’s really far away from a lot of the “big” places to play! It's not like the east coast where you’re a few hours away from a bunch of big cities, so it's hard for bands from here to get to new listeners elsewhere in the country.
You spent a considerable amount of last year on the road—touring with Cool American as well as Snow Roller and Strange Ranger. Before that, had you played many shows outside of Portland? What was it like?
It was great! I’d done a few shorter west coast runs with all those bands before but never anything as long as the big ones I did with cool a or rangers. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be blessed with really wonderful tour mates, they’re some of my best friends in the world and they’re also people I coexist day to day with pretty naturally. I hope it’s not too corny to say that getting to travel the country with them feels like the privilege of a lifetime.
Touring is obviously not easy and things went pretty south for a bit on the Cool American run. The 48hr period where our bass player Tim’s appendix ruptured and our van broke down in the middle of West Virginia was taxing to say the least. But everyone kept their head and made the best of a bad situation, for which I am incredibly grateful. We still played some all time great shows with and met tons of amazing, beautiful people who helped us more than we could ever hope to deserve.
I’m sure touring will get old eventually. But for now, partly because of the lifestyle I have to lead at home in order to tour as much as I’d like (shitty service industry jobs that let you leave for a month, bouncing between sublets and always looking for a new place) tour always feels like a reward, sort of the way summer vacation felt when I was a kid.
Touring can be one of the most stressful aspects of life in a band so it’s nice you enjoy it as much as you do. With all the hurdles you have to jump in order to continue pursuing your music career, what keeps you going? Are there any specific goals you want to accomplish as an artist?
I am terrible at "long term thinking" or whatever it's called, and believe it or not, playing in bands well into my 20s hasn't helped me with that. It's a mental block I've carried with me since adolescence and I don't think it's going anywhere any time soon. When it comes to music stuff, the main thing that keeps me going is that making songs is the only thing I can't imagine not doing, if that makes sense. Other than that, I'm usually just focused on making the next thing, whatever that is. Right now it's another full length, I started demoing it in earnest last week. I'm excited for it.
But I mean if we're talking like bucket-list, wildest-dreams sort of shit then having Jon Brion produce a record with me would be pretty cool ;)
I first heard of Jon Brion because of his involvement on Late Registration by Kanye West, which is an important album from my adolescence that completely changed the way I consumed music. What are some seminal albums from your youth that helped to shape your tastes?
Oh yeah, Kanye has been huge for me, and that album in particular. He's not a very popular guy to go to bat for, these days, but I'll just say that he totally changed my perception of what it means to be honest in your lyrics, especially to be honest about yourself.
There's too much to talk about here to have any hope of being thorough. Obviously everything Elliott Smith ever did is on that podium. Ted Leo might have to take a spot too, both because I listened to the first three Pharmacists albums so much in high school and also because he was strangely a big entry point for me into a lot of punk stuff. I have no idea how I heard about him but before that I was mostly just into Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison and stuff, plus the northwest indie rock I'd heard like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse. From Ted Leo I traced it back to a bunch of east coast punk and DIY stuff, and especially the DC scene and eventually all the Dischord stuff. From there it was this whole new world of music that was unlike anything I'd ever heard both in terms of content and in presentation.
The other big thing, not necessarily an album per se and also something which I've only recently realized, is a genre (or I guess specific world) of music that I can only call the "community pool playlist"—this whole set of insanely catchy, often sort of laid back pop hits from the late 90s and early 2000s that made up the bulk of the music that I heard on the radio during the summer, especially at swimming pools, when I was like 9-13 years old. Sheryl Crow, Shania Twain, Macy Gray, Dido, Avril Lavigne, the one Liz Phair song that's passably appropriate for kids to listen to...the list goes on and on. It's weird to think about now, but that music had an enormous effect on what I find exciting about music now, especially the kind of unfussy but spotless playing that you'd hear from the rhythm sections in those songs and the just fucking massive hooks. When the next Cool American record ends up sounding like Michelle Branch, well, I warned you.