We recently had the privilege of asking the dual songwriters of NYC-based indie-poppers Nemo a couple questions. We were pleasantly surprised at the often-hilarious results – we think you will be too.
Read a review of their debut album Signs of Life here[link to nemo review].
IC: How and when did the band come together?
Luke McCartney: Nemo was formed in November/December 2002. Dennis and I were playing in another band that had run its course, but we knew that we played very well together. We wanted to continue writing songs and felt that starting anew was a good place to begin.
Dennis Tyhacz: We were pretty excited with the results so we spent the better part of 2003 recording the “Signs of Life” LP, and we started playing shows in early 2004 as a four piece band.
IC: Why did you choose your name from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?
LM: It took awhile to find the name, but when we saw the name, it just stuck. I think name recognition is important so people remember who you are and what you sound like and identify the band name with the sound of the band. For example, when I think of Television, I can hear Tom Verlaines voice and distinctive guitar playing in my head. I also initially liked the metaphor of the band being at the helm of something new, like the Captain of the Nautilus.
DT: We thought the name “Nemo” was catchy and let’s be honest, it’s easy to remember. Half the time you go to see bands you’re like “What was that band called again?!”
IC: How do you write the songs, seeing as there are two songwriters?
DT: Some songs will start as guitar parts, or a melody, to which the other person will contribute, and in other cases a song might be fully conceived by Luke or I, then the other person will add a part (or parts) and make suggestions.
LM: But, no matter how little or great the other persons contribution is, it is an invaluable one and can be very integral to a song.
DT: In the liner notes you can see who basically wrote what particular song and who played the various instruments & it’s pretty true to that I’d say. Some of the songs were conceived of years before the record came out. Luke came up with the main riff to the “Signs of Life” title track in early 2002, maybe earlier, and that main part in “Swimming in the Rhine” I came up with in ’96 or 97 when I was still in college & listening to Mazzy Star. I was a big fan of David Roback’s slide playing. “Swimming” is alittle faster & alittle more intricate then what he’d do, but I was a big fan of those Mazzy Star LPs.
IC: Do the two of you write the parts for all the instruments, or do you let others who aren’t ‘in the band’ write the parts?
DT: Well, Luke & I basically recorded all of the vocals & instruments on the record, and Chris Plyem laid down all of the live drum parts, except for “Harbor” on which I did a primitive drum-beat then we delayed it. Nemo is definitely Luke & myself, but Chris really deserves credit for carrying the songs with his amazing drum parts, and his parts definitely gave the songs the ‘energy’ they needed. We’d give him a suggestion about what kind of tempo we’d want, and then he’d blow us away, basically.
LM: He took them to a place we couldn’t conceive.
DT: As far as the instrumentation goes, it’s 100% Luke & myself. The Fender VI, the guitars, basses, keyboards, the glockenspiel, the experimental sounds, feedback, sleigh bells, basically all of it.
IC: Do both of you write lyrics?
DT: Yes, we both come up with the lyrics on our own for the most part, but I think on “Harbor” we actually pieced the lyrics together line by line. Luke would come up with great vocal & lyrical parts for stuff and I think he had a notebook full of lyrics. Some of my lyrics were from years before. The lyrics for “Hampshire Brush” I wrote probably back in the late 90’s, whereas “The Chariot” I wrote pretty much with the song’s recording. Same with “Aviator”.
IC: Some of your songs are very short- how do you determine when a song is ‘done’?
LM: Actually, I think we were pretty surprised at how short some of the songs were when we finished recording them because prior to and during the recording, we didn’t really pay too much attention to how long they were. When you’re recording and you really get into a song, listening to the mix hundreds of times over, you tend to lose track of time. I think we felt that each song had all its fundamental parts and didn’t need anything extra, so essentially my answer would be that they just felt done.
DT: If you look at Guided By Voices, they have some songs that are pop gems that last a minute & a half, sometimes less. To have a 17-song record, and for the pop format we were working in it works really well and you can listen to the album straight through pretty easily, and I don’t know of too many 17-song LPs that allow you to do that. Sometimes after a second chorus you want to hear an outro as opposed to going to a bridge and then having everyone sit through a third verse or chorus, thus in some cases losing the power of the song. We did whatever the songs would dictate back to us, basically. When you leave the listener wanting more it isn’t really a bad thing. The power of “re-play” shouldn’t be underestimated, if anything it should be celebrated. Ironically our next album has some longer songs on it, but again, this was the songs’ decisions not ours. We follow the songs, not the other way around!
IC: How did you record the album?
LM: The album was recorded and mixed on 2 Korg D-16 digital recorders. I can’t say enough about this recorder, for our purposes at the time and our limited budget, this recorder did the job nicely. We recorded the live drums for the album in an upstate cabin, and all other instrumental and vocal work was completed in our Brooklyn apt., much to our neighbors dismay.
DT: Once we were done recording it, we tried mastering it in various studios in Brooklyn that either had shitty monitors and/or were basically clueless as to what we wanted. Finally we ended up at the Vic Thrill Salon in Brooklyn shortly before it was bulldozed and we mastered it there. I think this record is one of the final projects to come out of there, cause 2 months later it was gone & being converted to condominiums, which is a real tragedy. Sam McCall was working for Vic as an engineer and we basically kidnapped him afterwards and made him play bass for us. He used to put CDs in the microwave for his amusement and ours. It did more for the mastering process then you can possibly imagine.
IC: Why do you have such a wide variety of sounds on the album?
LM: I think that stems from us not inhibiting ourselves or limiting ourselves to any certain distinguishable sound. We really experimented a lot when coming up with the different parts for each song. I think we just felt like doing whatever we wanted and didn’t want to confine our musical expression to any one sound.
DT: Luke and I have fairly eclectic tastes, and the record probably reflects that. Every song on the album more or less sounds like a different band, and if anything it makes the album more fun to listen to. The common strengths of the first Velvet Underground LP, or the last one “Loaded”, or “Kiss Me” or “Head on the Door” by The Cure, just as random examples is that every song on those records sounds like it was recorded by a different band. They almost sound like compilation records. One of the common problems of an awful lot of bands these days (don’t want to name names) is that every song on their albums more or less sound the same. Then the band goes out and plays live and it’s like “Same sound, boom. Same Song”. It’s like “Come on already”.
IC: “Killer Bees” sticks out like a sore thumb on the album- why did you choose to include it?
LM: For exactly that reason, thank you.
DT: Not to mention it’s what, 1:15 long?…how sore can your thumb be?! Put a band-aid on it and quit your whining!
IC: A majority of the lyrics on “Signs of Life” are vague and universally applicable – did you plan it that way, or did it just happen?
LM: I don’t think we planned it that way. The lyrics like the music were experimented with until they felt right. I have notebooks from the past 15 years that I sometimes refer to for lyrical phrases or lines that might work with an idea I have for a song today. I’ve always liked poetic lyrics and those that make one think a little deeper than shallow observation. As an artist, musician, poet, writer, or whatever one may be, it is important to strive for something deeper and more meaningful. If we don’t, we are defeating ourselves and submitting to the simplistic, emotionless expression of feelings and thoughts through sound-bytes, catch phrases, and double-speak.
DT: Luke & I wrote the lyrics for the record separately, but we spent a lot of time on them cause once they’re done, they’re out for public consumption and there’s no turning back to tweak things. For me, I’m really into lyrics that can’t be interpreted that quickly, and leaving things open to interpretation can give depth to the material. In “The Chariot”, it’s “So the river rang true, said a clown on a bicycle”. Sort of like well, how true is the River then? Not true at all. Basically, it’s lyrical irony or sarcasm I guess. I always liked Lou Reed & Leonard Cohen. “She held onto me like I was a crucifix.” You know Dylan couldn’t write a line like that, it was definitely Cohen. There’s something about a line like that that can make your skin crawl. I think Luke feels the same way for the most part, but he also has songs like “The Burn” that are fairly direct, and “Eternity of This” is direct as well, despite certain lines I wrote like “the sky empties the sea” which I guess was my way of saying the world (or the person in the conversation) doesn’t make sense really.
IC: A lot of lyrics have to do with the sea, as well. Is there a reason for that?
LM: I think the sea is referred to in a few songs, namely “Eternity of This”, “Northern Light”, “Metropolitan”, and “Odyssey.” I always loved the Odyssey, an epic tale in which the ocean plays a major part. The ocean has always been a place of expansive mystery and folklore so I think it’s probably a natural reaction or feeling towards something that is totally out of our control and intrigues us and suspends our imaginations. On the album, there are a lot of references to other places in nature like the sky, the stars, and the earth, but there are also references to mankind’s interaction with these places and general observations of mankind’s state on earth. So, there definitely is a reason for the sea reference, but that is only part of the bigger picture.
DT: Whatever man, the ocean is a big well of mystery right? It’s a sponge of inspiration I suppose. Where are you going with this? The band name? The next record we’ll make about the 9 planets and throw everyone off guard. Or better yet, how about astronomy, ostriches, and Spanish Cuisine? That sounds like a good mix what do you think?! If anyone has any good ideas email us: nemo’nemony.com
IC: How has the critical and fan response been to the album?
DT: Critically, the album did really well and the bulk of the reviews we got were very positive.. Left Off The Dial said it was “One of the Best Albums of The Year”, so I have to say we’re pretty excited about the response. It did well at College Radio and NPR played it on their “Morning Edition” show too. To this date, in all seriousness, I have yet to meet a single person that said they didn’t like this album after hearing it. It sounds silly but it’s true. There’s at least one song on this record anyone could like, basically. I think Luke would say the same thing. It’s spreading throughout the net like crazy too. We’re getting tons of email on our Myspace page from people all over the world saying how much they dig the songs. Iceland, Germany, The Philippines, Korea, you name it. How bad can that be for a record recorded in an apartment in Brooklyn? People can buy it on our website: www.nemony.com.
IC: Are you writing for a new album? How’s that coming along?
LM: Yes we are, it should be finished soon. It’s coming along nicely. We’ve upgraded our recording equipment so the song quality will be much better than the first time around. The songs themselves are just as dynamic as the first album, but the overall feel of the album will be totally different. Stay tuned.
IC: Where do you guys see yourselves in 5 years?
LM: Hopefully in a better time than we are now.
DT: And drinking some red wine and doing music. We’ll also be reading Independent Clauses to get through the hard times as well!
IC: What are you listening to right now?
LM: Himalaya, Magic and Spirit by Oliver Shanti and Friends – it eases my mind…and drowns out the friggin’ semi’s rolling down the boulevard ;).
DT: Not to be self-centered but our next record for the most part cause we’re in the middle of recording it! That, Fischerspooner, and Motown.
-Interview conducted by Stephen Carradini, November 2005.