Judging by his music, it's easy to imagine Nick Waterhouse spending his free time holed up in some vintage-decorated apartment—cigarette in one hand, Agatha Christie in the other—with an old soul B-side perpetually spinning in the background. But that would be posturing, something he doesn't have much time for.
In fact, Waterhouse, 29, has very little time for anything but work. He's ear-deep in production projects, session stints and fronting his very own eponymous R&B outfit. This week, Waterhouse is wrapping up work on a new record by Portland soul paragon Ural Thomas. He's been collaborating with Thomas and his band, the Pain, for about a year. It started with a conversation over a cup of coffee, and before he knew it, Waterhouse had jumped from casual consultant to part of the group.
As he's done with so many musicians he admires, Waterhouse dug in. He wanted to know everything about Thomas, from his early work with Ron Buford to releases on Uni Records. Absorbing history is something Waterhouse is immensely good at. He rattles off the names of unsung artists as if they were immediate relatives. He raves about Mose Allison like a kid describing his favorite Matchbox car. And he listens to his idols.
"Honor your inner voice," Waterhouse says. "That's what Ural always said."
Waterhouse grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif., amid surf, punk and weightlifting culture. He befriended beloved post-punk delegates like Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin and entrenched himself in the musical underground. Unlike his colleagues, Waterhouse interpreted the punk ethos as an invitation to do something else entirely—in this case, traditional R&B and rock 'n' roll.
Two albums later, he has become somewhat of an international sensation, treating stages from Berlin to Sydney to an education in American music history. His 2014 sophomore record, Holly, is a soulful, surf-flecked album about a dead girl. It pulls from the formative rock of Bo Diddley, the shadowy jazz of Morphine and the jumpy, beach-bumming sounds of fellow California bands like Allah-Lahs. Waterhouse is at the helm throughout, offering punchy guitar riffs and his timeless voice, which is doubly impressive, given that he's leading a sprawling band of about a dozen, including a horn section, keys and background singers.
The themes are familiar, but don't call Waterhouse a revivalist. "All those 're' words—retro and whatever—it's so far and away from what's really going on," he says. "It betrays respect for the influences on sound." Instead of repurposing old genres, Waterhouse is sticking with true-blue approaches. "There's a reason people used to dance to music," he says. "When everyone is locked in, the power of that is staggering." While he admits the digital age has afforded modern musicians everything at their fingertips, Waterhouse isn't exploiting a trend or cutting and pasting from yore.
âIâm not like Mr. Burns, tapping my fingers together and saying, âWe really pulled this off!ââ he says. Instead, heâs going for musical terroir, a sound that reflects both the place it came from and those who put it in motion. In doing so, Waterhouse has honored Ural Thomasâ words of advice, and created his own, very danceable, historically informed thing.
SEE IT: Nick Waterhouse plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with DJ Cooky Parker, on Thursday, Aug. 20. 9 pm. $13 advance, $15 day of show. 21+.