FLYER Q&A: Nick Shoulders returns home, preps new album and label

Nick Shoulders has been a fixture in Fayetteville’s oddball music and arts scene for a long while now. You’ve probably seen his early 2010s punk band Thunderlizards blow the roof off of a packed dive bar, or collapse the floor at a house show. You’ve definitely had a local Fossil Cove beer with his artwork on it and noticed his murals outside Little Bread Company and Smoke & Barrel Tavern. There’s also a small chance you’ve seen him perform at one of Duane Newman’s legendary birthday parties.

After some time in New Orleans, Shoulders is back in Fayetteville. He’s got a new solo record on the way, and a new record label. I always look forward to whatever he’s doing, so it was nice to catch up.

How are you?

Honestly, and it feels terrible saying this: not too bad. Music finally “worked”, even though I’m not working, like a lot of creative professionals, but I’m healthy and warm and that feels right.

What were your plans for 2020? How have you adapted during the pandemic?

My plans weren’t much different from what other touring musicians were probably planning on doing: driving in endless circles around the country, playing as many shows as possible and sleeping in every far-flung dusty parking lot I could find. I was living in New Orleans as of March, playing a dizzying amount of local shows, but I had tours booked internationally for the first time, and stops from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, doing most of the driving, booking and the setting up myself…basically, we sacrifice the health of our relationships, body and mind for the chance to share songs with indifferent strangers and sleep in a van. Sounds completely absurd in Covid World Order right? Tour is straight up hard on your physical longevity, it’s hard on your brain and it’s hard on your home life, even for established artists, but especially for aspiring ones…I don’t think it’s a winning model for creative integrity and the music world is figuring that out. Following lockdown, the relief that I’ve heard from other bands and songwriters has been palpable: we all miss the inexplicable buzz of connecting with a crowd, or seeing the sun rise over a landscape we’d never dreamed of visiting, but the cost is fantastic, even for someone like me who didn’t really party on the road and had a van-home to live in. Now I’m just a YouTube rambler, but at least my back doesn’t hurt.

What are you working on right now?

My partner and I had the good fortune to move to town, and out of our Madison County trailer for the frigid months, and it has put a whole new spin on this question. I’ve spent a lot of the pandemic writing and recording my first solo-ish record with Eric at Homestead Recording here in Fayetteville, and I’m damned proud of it and can’t wait for the world to hear ‘Home on the Rage’. The problem being: I’m an unsigned artist, and the few record labels I’ve spoken to during this unprecedented time have been very helpful, but only in being honest that there’s not a ton that they can do for me given current circumstances. So, in the spirit of adapting and utilizing my unexpected success for the benefit of my musical peers, me and Kurt from Tape Dad have thrown ourselves at the task of starting a label, Gar Hole Records, for the express purpose of releasing the best weirdo-country music we can. I’m stoked where this is all headed, but honestly I spend most of my free time trying to coax more than screeching noise from my Grampa’s fiddle while I pretend to have an office job. It’s been a pandemic for practice.

You’re a longtime staple of the Fayetteville music scene, so you’ve watched a few eras begin and end. What’s a moment or story that comes to mind when you look back? How have all the bulldozed venues and transitional scenes influenced what you create now?

I have this conversation often. Having now travelled and lived outside NWA extensively for the first time in my life, the scale of change in this area is hard to communicate, especially since nearly every corner of this country is developing in unexpected ways. The difference being, a lot of those places were already ‘part of the world’ before the menace of gentrification arose. This region didn’t even have an interstate highway connecting it to neighboring cities until 20 years ago: the scale of exploitation and the void that preceded it simply doesn’t compute for most transplants to the region, they figure we’ve always had a Starbucks, and it’s a profound bummer. I’m all about quality of life increasing for a chronically stagnant corner of the Ozarks…but quarter mile lines for Whataburger aren’t benefiting the people that have depended on and loved this area for longer than it takes to get a degree or start a food truck. I’ve never adored “back in my day…” sentiments, but watching a place like LaLaLand host its final moments of live music and art after this community has already lost so many venues and bars was utterly heartbreaking…knowing that almost every roof I’ve ever played a show under in this town is either gone or unrecognizably different is tough, but add that to a life’s worth years of memories that are now underneath student housing high rises…just leaves a weird taste in your mouth. Besides my singing grandparents, it’s probably chief among a number of reasons why I’ve veered away from punk and metal and into nostalgia’s true soundtrack: country music. Capital “P” home-Pain. But all that aside, there are more people making great art and music from more diverse perspectives in Fayetteville than ever before, and I think that’s badass. I see younger folks who used to raise hell at Thunderlizards shows in 2012 now running and maintaining better heavy bands than I could have dreamed of, I see a more inclusive and less isolated version of Arkansas music every time I came back and I love it. When shows return, I have every ounce of faith in the continued tenacity of our local DIY spirit, beleaguered as it may be. It’s never been easy to swim up-current here, but us freaks aren’t going anywhere.

You were living in New Orleans for a while and recently moved back. Does absence make the heart grow fonder, or is that just a bold-faced lie?

I’ve been back in Arkansas since early March, right when NOLA city-wide lockdowns and the idea of being quarantined in a three-room shotgun house with two roommates and no work was starting to become reality. The first few days out of New Orleans are always a culture shock, but what became quickly apparent is that I’m grossly dependent on the vastness of Arkansas’s wild spaces for my own mental and emotional wellbeing. I’m a hopeless nature freak, as it turns out. Southeast Louisiana is unbelievably special, but if living there is a dream, you have to be buoyant on a lot of nightmares just to exist. That being said, as a music scene we’ve got a lot we can learn from other places, and I’m incredibly grateful for the time I spent playing shows down there and all it taught me, but…I’ll probably be forever cursed with an insatiable need for backroading and bluff jumping. I think country music’s fixation on performative rurality as a measure of “authenticity” is a pretty annoying maze to wander, but let it be known that I 100% adore the natural splendor of the Ozarks for more than photo-ops, it’s been a shelter from red-state misery my whole life and we’re all so very lucky it’s still intact and in our backyard.

What’s the last thing that made you want to write a song?

I’ve been living out in the deep woods of Madison County for the Fall and it was honestly the best thing about this year. I haven’t lived that remote or physically close to a season changing since I was a kid, so I was all awash with love of landscape and wariness of my fellow Arkansan when I wrote ‘Booger County Blues’, appearing on the next record – it’s hopefully out by April. The weeks we’d spend out on the mountain were the first times I felt my apocalypse angst subside in many months, and while I admittedly spent a lot my time fretting and fishing, I also sat and stared at the White River and plunked on the guitar at dawn every day, and I have the songs to prove it.

What have you been reading lately?

I have to admit that I have been limping through a Jared Diamond book called ‘The World Until Yesterday’ for most of the pandemic and not having much good to say about it, but I recently hit up our local heroes at Dickson Street Bookstore and got some great stuff on the only subjects I seem to think about anymore: screechy oldtime fiddle music, and one called ‘The Other South’, which highlights southern dissenters against enslavement and other societal norms during the rise and fall of the confederacy.

What’s the last record you bought? Where are your favorite spots to buy music?

I’ve got a painfully predictable taste in records. I listen to mostly tape distorted basement hardcore punk, or vernacular music recorded before 1960, but the last bit of wax I bought was a collection of jug bands from the 1920’s, featuring the likes of Gus Cannon. I buy a lot of rare-ish local country and oldtime records at thrift stores and yard sales all over the state, but of course Block Street Records in town is wonderful. If you’re ever in New Orleans, Domino Sound has the best tape comps out there, White Roach and Euclid are my favorites.

Is there a local business that has kept you sane and comfortable this year? What are they doing differently and why do you support them?

I couldn’t be more thrilled with how most local businesses are stepping up and making it easier for immunocompromised folks like me to get what they need safely. Having a grocery store in the middle of town again has done wonders, I spend far too much money on fresh juice at ONF, but big love to them because I also feel super-human healthy all the time so I figure it’s a fair trade. Honestly, I’d like to issue a blanket statement of gratitude to anyone out there trying to make things work, y’all are amazing and we’re all pullin’ for ya.

Any socially distanced shows coming up?

We actually just pulled the plug on an upcoming George’s show for a variety of reasons. We’re bummed, but it’s essentially coming down to this: I’ve had multiple lung surgeries and depend on my breath for a living, which should be reason enough to avoid shows for me, but moreover I think we owe it to each other as a community to pump the brakes through the winter on anything social, regardless of how safe we want it to be. Is it worth faking normalcy at the expense of someone else’s well being? For me, no, and given the failure of leadership and neighbors alike to take things seriously, I’m probably in the minority.

What seasonal foods or drinks should be served all year, besides eggnog?

I could eat a package of Double Stuf Oreos and milk at the drop of a hat, and be the one to drop it, but why can’t they just have the Halloween colors year round? I’d buy my favorite cookie that much more often if they would just liven it up a little.

What are your plans for 2021?

Hold on for dear life obviously, but I’m happy to report that things are already stirring in live music land. I’ve got events that got cancelled last year starting to get rescheduled and even overseas tours booking up for next summer and fall. Barring asteroid impact, I wouldn’t doubt we have some semblance of a music existence again by year’s end. Is that what’s keeping me going? Not really, the last shows I got to play before the pandemic were in tiny moldy bars below sea level with my buds, I haven’t seen the type of measurable change in my life that millions of plays and views worldwide would normally manifest, so my expectations for a return to shows are tempered by a reality that may no longer exist…but with the new record coming out and the world hopefully getting its shit together, I have oodles of hope for 2021, as I hope you do too.