Everybody’s been screwed over by technology at some point or other. But Portland improv-psych-rock duo Nice Nice recently suffered through the ultimate tech calamity when a hard drive containing their almost-completed sophomore album died two years ago. The band, which had recently signed with London’s Warp Records, went through a futile attempt to recover the drive’s content before starting over again and producing Extra Wow, a loud, outsized shapeshifter of a record that came out last week.
Extra Wow’s wide open, unpredictable character is no accident. Improvisation has been the bedrock of Nice Nice’s career, which has lasted nearly ten years. I spoke with the band’s guitarist, Jason Buehler, about how their improvisation techniques have evolved over the years, Warp’s influence on their sound, and what the demise of their computer has done for their recording, and here’s what happened.
So you had this record pretty close to done, and then you just say “Let’s just start from scratch.” Were there things that you tried to go back to and rework or was it literally just like a blank slate, a “Let’s just go from the top!” kind of thing?
Well you know, it was a really weird moment because we did re-record a number of the tunes that we had done the first time and a lot of them were things that we’d been playing live. Kind of the idea of this album from the get go was to sort of re-create what we’ve been doing live and to capture that high energy sort of stuff.
So yeah, we did try to re-create some of the stuff but it had been so long at that point already that we just started exploring. So the tunes did wind up going in pretty radical different directions that it would have gone had we handed it in initially, you know?
It’s interesting that you’re so intent on capturing that live energy. Your seasonal EPs certainly sound more “live,”like single takes. But you think that this captures what you do on tour more?
Well, it’s kind of weird. I mean, actually everything we had done, except for the Yes EP, everything was live, one take. Most of it was actually improvisation. The first couple albums were entirely improvisational and recorded on the spot. But our live sets were always a little bit different because with those EP’s, we let ourselves go in an entirely different direction aesthetically. You know, we were playing entirely drone-y shows like the EPs are. We had some more diverse material that we were playing. So for the LPs we tend to try to incorporate everything we do, and with the EPs we try to focus on one sort of mood or feeling, if that makes any sense.
I do then want to talk a bit about improvisation that you guys do. I mean you guys have been together now for close to 10 years. I’m guessing that you have some sort of routine. What happens when you show up to practice?
Yeah we play music because we like to play music. Sometimes we have to make songs you know, for records, maybe to make it a little more concise. When we play live, if our improvisations aren’t flowing, we can rely on some touch stones to go back to. But when we play together, for fun, it’s usually straight improvisation for like two hours straight and that’s our practice.
If we have a show coming up, we may do say “Lets do something that sounds like this” but other wise, it’s straight improv, pretty much.
But when things aren’t flowing, as you put it, how do you fix that? Is it a non-musical communication? Before you start practicing, do you talk things out? How does that work?
Well in practice, no, not at all. Maybe if we have a goal in mind, we may say, “Okay, we need a couple songs to play.” Right now we’re playing more songs, I guess, just because the album just came out. But we can morph what we’re doing real easily. If my loop gets weird, and it’s obvious that we can’t fix it, then we’ll just wipe it out and keep going and rebuild it or fix it. Maybe go ambient for a minute and re-morph it into something new or you know. We can kind of build things up and break them down on a whim.
So is it going to be weird touring this record, knowing that you have to hit certain spots every night, or is that not really a concern for you?
We’ve been touring quite a bit in the past month. At first we were like, “Oh we’re going to have to recreate this record because we’re selling it.” In a sense the material was born out of our live set, in a way. It was kind of natural. But now we’re wanting to jam more or incorporate more improvisation into the set because I think that’s the most compelling thing we do.
When we listen back to practice tapes, it can be really alive and interesting. And songs are interesting too, but to play the same song every night is not very appealing. So the way we have it now is, we have songs, but each one has kind of an open-ended intro or outro that we can go wherever we want. And if it’s working we can stay on that for a long time, and if it’s not then we’ll try to bail out and go on to the next one. So it’s a little bit of both right now.
And when you go off on these tangents, be it onstage or when you’re practicing, is there a hierarchy in terms of who takes lead? Does one person sort of set the tone or does that vary?
Well since I’m making like 10 instruments’ worth of noise, as opposed to his one [laughs], I guess I kind of have the power if I want, but it’s not like that. If he’s feeling it in a certain place, and he wants to stay, he’ll tell me – give me a little hand signal to tell me to stay here for a little while.
Or if he’s getting bored, he’ll start changing in a different direction, and I’ll usually comply.
Extra Wow coverIs that the result of many years of playing together, or did you guys quickly figure out that have that connection with one another?
Well we share a lot of musical history, both playing and listening to a lot of the same things, so there are cues which we can hear. So if he hears me do a certain lick, he knows I’m going to go somewhere else, but the reason this project began was just because I got this looper pedal and realized, “Wow, we can go wherever we want with this thing.” So it was kind of there from the beginning, but over the almost 10 years now, we’ve certainly learned some ways to communicate that we didn’t have in the beginning.
For a little while, we were doing, um, I don’t even know how to describe it: real brutal bursts of noise. During that time we developed some hand signals and physical gestures that we were using to tell each other where we were going. It was weird breaks, it wasn’t like a rolling beat that we could just play on top of, it was real staccato, weird bursts.
So yeah. We developed our rhythm language I guess, and it continues to evolve.
Do you think that there’s something about your personalities that’s allowed you to stay together for so long? You mentioned earlier that you listen to the same records earlier, but would you say that there’s something else that makes you guys fit together the way you do?
Well, I think the fact that we are a duo makes it really easy because there are no logistical hassles that come with a large band. If the two of us have time off and we want to play, we can do it. We don’t have to worry about someone else who’s going to move to a new city or someone who has this entanglement or whatever, so it’s really easy that way.
Also the fact that we do improvise quite a bit keeps it fun and fresh and exciting, as opposed to spending time working on songs or arguing about direction. We don’t have to worry about that, so it makes it easy, you know?