Out West, Outer Space, & In Between With Nick Millevoi

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Nick Millevoi is one of those people that the more I get to know him, and the more we talk, the more I like him. He buoys an infectious enthusiasm for music with a deep knowledge of many divergent strands of sonic history. This same spirit is woven into the foundation of his music. Whether it’s his solo work, Desertion Trio, and most recently, the inimitable Grassy Sound with Ron Stabinsky, an embedded joy permeates the reaches of his sound.

I have been borderline obsessed with the Grassy Sound record since it first appeared in my inbox, and as the temperatures have pressed beyond scorching, its cool, subdued power has only grown. The Sounds Of… is out now on Destiny Records. Nick can be found via Bandcamp.

As I said, I always what are some of your earliest memories and experiences with music. Something you heard when you were a kid or saw that kind of made you go, oh, this is making me feel something different, or whatever?

So the earliest early things are just TV. Not ambient music, but music heard in an ambient scenario, right? I remember being at home and hearing what my mom or my uncle were listening to. Watching MTV, that stuff being on. I’m 38, so it’s the music that would’ve been on MTV in the mid-80s when I formed my earliest memories. All that stuff is really embedded in there. I also lived with my grandparents when I was young, so I observed that too, which is this other generational thing really rooted in a time period. Hearing my grandmother listen to Willie Nelson and Frank Sinatra – that stuff is in there too. 

But then also watching TV as a kid – the early cable TV era, Nick at Nite, and all that stuff, right? I loved that. And commercials for box sets or compilation albums, AM Gold, Songs of the 50s, and things like that. But there was this one commercial. It was probably Franklin Mint or something. It was a commemorative Elvis plate, right? It just cycled through all the songs’ hooks, and I thought Elvis was just the coolest. Nobody in the house liked Elvis. Like I said, my mom and uncle lived there and listened to 80s MTV music. And my grandparents, they weren’t listening to Elvis. So I’m probably four years old. I’m seeing Elvis on TV, on Nick at Nite. And just in these whatever two-minute clips. And then I remember all these songs, doo-wop songs, “Earth Angel” and “Twilight Time,” and all that stuff. That’s how I heard this stuff, just in these little clips, and I thought it was cool.

I think it was just a thing of the time too. Weirdly, in the 80s, 50s music is really a cultural thing, right? You see 50’s stuff throughout contemporary 80s culture. The B-52s are playing on that vibe. And so is Pee Wee’s Playhouse, right? Pee Wee’s Playhouse is definitely playing off that vibe. So it’s like my brain just connected with that, this 50s, 80s thing.

Right, right. It’s all in there.

The other side of this is this beach town around here, Wildwood, New Jersey. That’s where my family would always go. That is where I still go. That’s our go-to spot. In Wildwood, 50s culture is a big part of it where all these motels were built in the 50s. There’s still the highest concentration of mid-century hotel architecture or something – I don’t know the statistic exactly. Still, to this day, all these motels look straight from the 50s. Some are just old and busted and look bad, but some are restored because people like that. And it’s a kitschy thing now.

But my family would go down there all the time. It’s close to Philly. And there’s this energy around it. You walk on the boardwalk, and there’s 80s music playing from stores, but there’s also this song Bobby Rydell did called “Wildwood Days.” You hear it 1,000 times while walking along the boardwalk, and you hear “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters. All this stuff is just part of that culture too.

So all this stuff sort of formed this early association I had between this 80s, 50s thing, and it’s really why I started getting interested in music. I wanted a guitar because Elvis had a guitar first. I didn’t start learning guitar until later. I mean, not much later – I was eight when I started taking guitar lessons. Also, I can say that Wayne’s World was a big part of my early influences when I started playing music. But the early formative stuff, it was all those 50s, 80s things.

That’s really cool. For me, it was the Beach Boys. I have all these memories of growing up listening to that with my dad. My mom went to church, but my dad didn’t go to church. And usually, the kids would go with my mom. But I have these memories of being sick and staying home with my dad on Sunday morning, listening to Beach Boys’ records. It was very formative… 

The Beach Boys too! I mean, the Beach Boys are also in that 80s period. I mean, “Kokomo,” man. Yeah, it’s totally corny, but there it is. When I was in kindergarten, that song came out, and I remember I was obsessed with it. It was probably one of the first songs I said, “This is my favorite song.” And it’s just a part of that time for me too. How old are you? Are we the same age?

So we’re close. I’m 43, so this is all really resonating. Because the other thing, too, that I remember, and I had this conversation the other day with somebody, the first tape I ever bought with my own money was the soundtrack to La Bamba. So again, the 50s, 80s.

There you are.

You’re speaking my language.

It’s funny because this stuff goes away. Your early stuff, you just keep building on it. And the Wayne’s World thing, right? That’s a whole other tip. And Nirvana and grunge, and you form your own taste. And later, the jazz thing and all that. And a few years ago, I was playing a noise show. Me and a drummer fucking doing our thing. Afterward, this guy comes up to me, who I’ve known, who is just like a dude who’s around. And he’s like, “I get it now.” And I was like, “What?” He’s like, “This rock and roll thing. Chuck Berry and those licks. That’s where you’re coming from.” And I was like, “Is it? You heard that in what I did?” I really thought about what this guy said, and I was like, “Oh, I think he’s right.” This guy saying this to me opened up all these ideas for me. This is my formative shit.

So you talked about the beach and the boardwalk and all that stuff, which makes me want to get into Grassy Sound. It’s not the first thing you’ve done with Ron [Stabinsky], though. I know he played on the, not the last Desertion Trio record, but the one before, right?

Right. He played on Twilight Time

So what’s it like playing with Ron?

Ron is a really special talent. He is an exceedingly talented person who can play with the absolute best. He can hang at the highest, highest level, like with Peter [Evans]. That was really how I first started hearing people talk about him. People would tell me things like, “Dude, this guy, Ron, he lives in Northeast Pennsylvania. He’s really good. You’ve got to hear him.” Because he didn’t live in New York, when he started playing gigs with those guys, it was like all of a sudden, here’s this dude who’s the best.

How does this idea for Grassy Sound come about then?

The first time Ron and I played as a duo was when we met in 2014. It was an improv thing. Then I made the first two Desertion Trio records. I think the first one. Maybe I had made the second one already, but it wasn’t out. Jamie Saft plays organ on those, and I got asked to play this show. This would’ve been the summer of 2016, probably. I got invited to play this show at an event called Wave Farm, which is up in the Hudson Valley. I was trying to figure out what to do, and I thought the material was this sort of Neil Young-y thing. It’s a vibey, classic rock kind of thing. I’m on guitar, Jamie’s playing organ. So, I thought that would be a cool way to play with Ron. Since first playing with him, I really wanted to do something with him, so I asked if he’d want to play a duo set of some of my tunes from those records. He was down. It was so rad. It was so awesome, and then I was like, “Oh man, I want to have a duo with Ron!” Because guitar and organ is a vibe. And Ron is the best vibe as a person to hang with and as a musician.

Then I knew I wanted to do something, but I wanted it to be a different thing. Ron and I both are Neil Young fans, so the logical thing would’ve been to do a Neil Young-related, adjacent project, but I was kind of doing that already. So when I started putting together the stuff for Twilight Time, I was putting together my arrangements. I just dove deep into this 50s, early 60s, doo-wop R&B thing, figuring out what would work. Then I started writing things, original things that sounded like that, but that didn’t fit Desertion Trio.

I thought to myself, “Man, I bet Ron would really sound good playing this.” Initially, there’s a track on the Grassy Sound record called “Another Blue Moon” that is recorded with the rest of the album, but we first recorded it and then didn’t use it and ended up re-recording it. We first recorded it when we were doing Twilight Time, and that was going to be just a little chill vibe between the full band tracks on that album. So we recorded it, but it got cut since it was a duo recording, and the album is Desertion Trio.

But it also felt there was something more there. We should do more with this thing. This should just be its own project. And so, because it was so fun just doing this one duo track, I decided that that would be a whole project of its own. And also, with the album, where we recorded it was kind of an essential part of the story. We recorded in this studio called Kawari, outside of Philadelphia, and they just had the sickest keyboard gear. We used a bunch of different stuff on the Twilight Time record. So, Ron, I think on that album, he plays organ, Wurli, piano, and Mellotron. And there was still so much more stuff. It was really, “What if we just make a record where we come back here duo style and just use a bunch of keyboards?” So there was that too. We thought it’d be really cool and figured we’d just dive into this vibe. That really helped make this coalesce into its own project.

Photo by Katie Rey

Yeah. I mean, it seems like there’s so much more possibility there. 

I hope so. I would love to keep doing it. It’s so fun. I used to think about something that happened a couple years ago. When the Twilight Time project came up, I think I was playing all this music that was very fun. It was totally fun, but it had this serious edge and a sort of confrontational guitar sound. I don’t know if you’ve heard my old band, Many Arms, but that stuff is really rough around the edges. Maybe that’s the wrong way to put it, but it’s loud, aggressive music. And my solo stuff that I was doing a decade ago was this droney, feedback thing. At some point, I thought I just wanted to do some real fun stuff. And again, that stuff was fun, but it was a different kind of fun. I wanted to do something more directly fun, like playing free jazz-inspired versions of doo-wop songs. That kind of fun. Fun where people would smile at the shows and maybe laugh at some funny things. Not laugh, but you know what I mean?

Yeah. I feel that’s such an element that gets lost too much sometimes.

Me too. I think it’s something that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. Take Bill Frisell, to use a modern jazz example. Bill Frisell, his music is fun. And much of his music – not all of it. Some of it’s more serious. But his music is fun. Some parts are funny. There’s humor in it. There’s a lot of feeling. And if you’re trying to make music with emotion, I don’t want to say what anybody should be doing, but I think it’s part of the whole thing, right? Put some emotion into it. Then yeah, that is an emotion. Having fun and happiness and humor. Those are things that we can’t discount. And digging into that is something that I felt I had never done. And was like, “I’m going to write some music that’s a little bit lighter as far as its sensibility.” That’s more humorous, and I just try and put my own thing in. I mean, look, Captain Beefheart is funny, right? That’s music that lots of people try and get into that aesthetic. And it’s not fun. They do the serious version of that sound.

Which, to me, misses so much of the point.

He wasn’t that serious of a guy. 

It’s really something I respond to, especially these days. “Serious music,” or whatever, that’s also fun. You can tell the people playing it are having a good time, putting some humor into it. And when that permeates the music? It’s so good.

Listen to Monk, man. Monk is fun to listen to, right? And I put in our bio, it says Monk and Captain Beefheart. I don’t know if that totally translates with what people think about those things. Still, if you listen to the way a modern jazz artist covers Monk, I’m not saying it happens all the time, but most of the time, that shit is like somebody’s taking a serious approach to the composition and delivering a well-studied approach. But man, it’s also really funny and quirky music. Bill Frisell knows that. He got that when he played it with Paul Motian on that Monk in Motian record. That feeling that comes out of that, that’s what I want to learn how to put in my music. That’s part of what Twilight Time or Grassy Sound is all about for me.

That makes a lot of sense to me. When I first heard the Grassy Sound record, I think this is why I connected with it the way I did because of those elements. Not to get all philosophical here, but it’s like-

Get philosophical. Go for it.

The world is fucking bleak right now. I think making music that is fun and joyous and has that kind of spirit to it… there’s something sort of radical about it in this moment.

Yeah, absolutely.

I think, on the surface, that feels very counterintuitive. “Oh, it’s serious times, and we need to be serious.” It’s like, yeah, sure, but if you’re just always serious, you’re going to have an even worse time.

People need something else. There’s a reason comedy podcasts are so fucking popular. People need humor. People need to laugh and smile. And comedy is way more – not that my music is comedy – but comedy is something that is way more appealing to people than serious music. But what if music could lighten up a little bit and give people something that isn’t just the shit that’s happening in the world? We don’t need to recapitulate the shit that’s happening right now. We all get it.

We’re all living it every goddamn day.

I want to get away from that.

Yeah, I need a release valve somewhere. So joyous music is a lot better than a lot of terrible things. Okay, back to the record… I love that you guys end the record with that Bob Nolan cover, and I know the Meat Puppets did that song, right?

Yeah. Meat Puppets did that on their debut, which was 40 years ago. That wasn’t a part of any sort of thought of them covering it. At some point, I looked and was like, “Oh, this is going to come out 40 years from when they first released that song.”

I wondered if it was a conscious thing or just serendipity.

The album was made in 2020 and was supposed to come out a lot sooner, but like everything, for all the reasons, it didn’t. So then I looked and thought it was kind of cool that because it got delayed, it’s been 40 years. Four decades right on the dot.

So what made you want to cover that song? Other than the fact it’s a great song.

It’s a great question. I think it was just sort of related to when we made Twilight Time, I sort of aborted this idea to do a cowboy-style song on that. I mean, “Red River Valley” is actually a cowboy song, so that took that place. But I tried a couple arrangements out, writing arrangements for a couple songs. I don’t think “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” was actually one of them. But I thought Ron and I could deliver that vibe.

So there’s this Grant Green record, Goin’ West. As far as classic jazz guitar players go, Grant Green is my go-to guy. I love Wes and people like Johnny Smith and Tal Farlow. I love listening to that stuff. But Grant’s somebody, I don’t want to sound like I’m saying I could approach or approximate Grant’s vibe because I absolutely cannot, but the way he plays really speaks to me differently. He can and does play bebop lines, but it’s like his stuff is so much bluesier than many of those, in a capital B blues way. He can play a blues thing and go into that R&B bluesy thing in a different way with the types of licks he plays, the types of lines. That’s always really spoken to me about Grant Green. And I don’t know. Do you know this record Goin’ West?

Not real well. I’ve heard it a couple times. I think I even have a CD of it somewhere-

Dude. It’s so good. [ed. note – I have since become a little obsessed with Goin’ West]. Anyway, Goin’ West is Grant’s “concept album.” A lot of his albums had themes. That’s his cowboy record. It was recorded in ’62, but it didn’t come out until ’69, which is fucking crazy if you ask me. It’s my favorite Grant Green record, and it was shelved for seven years. The band is amazing. I’m blanking right now on who plays bass, but it’s Herbie Hancock playing piano in ’62, playing “Red River Valley” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”

Reggie Workman. I’m looking it up.

Reggie Workman. Right. Duh. Reggie Workman plays bass, and Billy Higgins plays drums. And they’re playing these simple cowboy songs. But oh my God, for me, it just checks all the boxes. So anyway, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” is on there. So I think I was just vibing on that record and got inspired to do my own version. I just loved that record for so long, and I felt like that’s a fun record. Grant gets it. Grant gets what I’m saying. He would get it. He’s not taking himself too seriously while playing “Wagon Wheels.” They’re just having fun. They had to be cracking up when they made that record. They had to be having a blast. So it was like, let’s just do “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” It’s awesome on this record. We’re going to do that. And then live, this is an unconscious thing or maybe a semi-conscious thing… we just did these shows last weekend, and we were playing “Wagon Wheels.” So now we’re just covering that record, basically.

Grassy Sound does Goin’ West.

Grassy Sound does Grant Green doing cowboy songs. Anyway, that’s where “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” came from. So I wrote this arrangement of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” Ron and I play it. It’s cool. We think, when we record, we should get somebody to sing it. And honestly, I was just thinking of Tara, who sings on Twilight Time. But Ron was like, “Maybe we could ask Cris to sing it.” Cris Kirkwood. I was like, “Oh, dude. Hell yeah. That would be awesome.” And then that opened up this whole thing that. The idea was first that Cris would sing this song on the record. I thought that’d be real vibey. So then Ron sends it to the guys, to the Meat Puppets. And was like, “Hey guys, I made this record with my friend Nick. I thought it would be cool if Cris sings this song.” So Cris says he’s down. And then I’ve still never met Derrick. We’ve talked plenty. But Derrick Bostrom, the drummer, starts texting me, out of the blue, recordings of him playing along with our rough track.

Oh, man.

And Ron’s like, “I think Derrick wants to play on our album.” Oh shit! So I’m thinking, “Maybe we can do some overdub stuff,” but cosmic intervention, there’s a little bit of a problem with the organ the day we recorded the album. And so a couple weeks after we recorded it, Zach, my friend who engineered it at this studio Kawari, reached out and was like, “Listen, we can do something with this, but since there was a mechanical issue with the organ, I feel we could do it better. Would you guys come back and rerecord some of the songs that have organ? I know we can knock it out quickly. I’m sorry.” And so they set up a session to start to record the drum tracks when Ron was out there for a New Year’s Eve show. The plan is that Cris will record some vocal tracks, and Derrick will play drums on three tracks. Then, on New Year’s Day, I get a text with a video of the three of them, the Kirkwoods and Bostrom, in the studio recording together. And I was like, “Oh, so we got the whole band now. Okay!”

That’s really amazing… really awesome.

There was no other way that could have happened. It just came together.

So to wrap things up, I got to ask about the guitar. You told me a little bit about it, but that was in a DM or something, and the people need to know about it. It’s the coolest freaking guitar in the world. The color of it, and then those red knobs, that is just… man…

So the story with that guitar, the quick version, is I bought this Telecaster in 2014. I had spent a long time dreaming about a really cool Tele. Didn’t want to stock one. I had no specific thoughts other than something one of a kind and vibey. So I was looking around at a few makers, and there were a couple guys I thought might have been the right person to build one. I tried some guitars out, did some research. Found this guy Creston, who I had looked at his site before, and he makes Fender-style guitars with interesting wood choices. For me, I was thinking, what if I had a guitar made out of really old wood, right? Really dry, old wood would be a really great resonant thing. And that’s the tip I was on with that.

So I hit him up and had the coolest time. As soon as we talked, I knew this was a good fit. As much as I’m very much a guitar guy, it’s my day job, doing all this detailed guitar stuff; when it comes to my own taste, what I say a lot is, I like just nice guitars. I don’t have specific preferences… I’m kind of open to anything. I like guitars with thin necks. I like guitars with thick necks. Is it a well-made, nice playing guitar? Then I don’t care. 

So I talked to Creston and was like, “Listen, I don’t even know if I’m a good person to buy a custom guitar. I have no specifics. I just want a cool Telecaster. That’s what I want.” 

And he was like, “No, this is great. This way, I’ll help you come up with the ideas, shape them, and have my own creativity.” 

“Cool! This wood looked cool. You made a guitar out of this wood, and I thought that guitar looked really cool.” We talked about cool guitar tones and cool Tele tones that I like. Came up with an idea, and he built this guitar. And I love that guitar so much.

Then we became friends. Went up and played Burlington and hung out with Creston a few times. Then once, I didn’t even play a Jazzmaster. I played a Jaguar he made. I was like, oh man. It really clicked with this surfy thing. By this time, I was really embracing that I wanted an authentic-sounding surf tone. And I knew I was going to need a Jazzmaster. I mean, obviously, a Strat can do it too, but I wanted something that really embraces that spirit.

So this time around, I just called him and said, “Hey, I want a Jazzmaster. I have no opinion other than colors.” He asked me some questions, and at this point, I trusted him. He’s heard my music. He’s seen me play. I slept at his house. He can figure it out. At one point, I told him, “Wait, the wood on the torrified maple looks really cool.” It was just purely appearance. I was like, “So if you did the neck out of that, that’d be pretty cool.” So we did that. He asked me a couple questions. I got really specific about the colors. The colors were the thing that I was like, “I have a vision. This has to evoke a certain spirit, and I just need to play around with this.” The green is a little bit different. It’s not Fender. It’s not sea foam green. There’s a little bit more yellow. I like sea foam green Jazzmasters, but I wanted it to be a little bit more green, whereas that leans a little bit towards blue. A million other guitars are actually that color, but it’s a little bit different than a sea foam green Jazzmaster. And then the green on green thing, that was a big thing. Originally he put a plastic pickguard on it, but after I got it, I started playing some Jazzmasters with aluminum pickguards. So we changed it, and he built me an aluminum pick guard that’s the same dark green. It’s such a cool vibe. The aluminum did something to the tone that I really liked. It sounded great before, but it gave it just a bit of extra bite, and it’s not a particularly bitey guitar. It resonates a little differently now. So that’s pretty much the story of that guitar. It got me exactly what I wanted. It got me the surf tone. Now I can get right into that vibe.

It’s great hearing you talk about how it was made. It’s just like, geez, somebody else made the guitar that I feel is my perfect guitar, and they’re not me. That’s wild.

You know what’s really cool? I will say something else that’s really fun about that guitar is that I have the same feeling. I feel I can say this because, yes, it’s my guitar, but I didn’t build it. I look at that guitar, and I still feel like, yeah, it’s so fucking cool. That’s what I wanted to be.

What a great feeling.

One time, Bill Frisell had played up in Burlington. And I interviewed Bill Frisell a couple times. We had talked, and we had met in person. We didn’t really know each other, but Bill is one of my top, top, top heroes. I guess he visited Creston’s shop, and they hung out. Creston was like, “Oh, my friend, Nick.” And so Bill was like, “I think I know that guy. Make sure to tell him that, if he can, come backstage and say hey.” So I go back to meet Bill. My wife and I go back. I was like, “Hey! Then he was like, “Creston told me about your guitar. Which one is yours? I like looking at his guitars.” And I showed him the pictures. He’s like, “Oh, I’ve seen that guitar!” It was so cool.

Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Bill Frisell knows my guitar.

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