“It’s a beautiful letter
To the past and the future
Don’t mourn it, when it passes
There’s a new one to savor
The beauty in this is
You really cannot linger
You can cry and smile
For the sweetness of a second
And go on”
There are two kinds of people who matter in this discussion. Those who know that Mike Nicolai is a genius and those who haven’t heard of Mike Nicolai. His songs are thoughtful, poignant, funny, heartfelt, hopeful, and self-effacing … and that’s just “The Green Lantern Needs Your Vote.” Or that’s “Awkward Love.” His songs can also be acerbic, sarcastic, and ironic, like the anti-Pope “Lifesucker Waltz” or the title track to his new/old Christmas album, “Christmas Is For Losers.” At the risk of sounding like Captain Hyperbole, I think “Surveillance” is the first great song of the 21st century and is a legitimate sequel to Bowie’s “Heroes.” Released on my favorite Nicolai album, Woody Allen Stunt Footage (2000), “Surveillance” documents a very 21st century sensibility — love and intimacy within a surveillance state — but did so in the last days of pre-9/11, pre-Patriot Act America. It is eerily prescient and even if you don’t give a damn about a political interpretation, it’s just a beautifully haunting love song.
What I love about Nicolai’s lyrics is that they’re only part of the equation. The cinematic narratives exist inside a tapestry of melodies, countermelodies, and subtly clever lo-fi arrangements. Occasionally, you get what you might expect from a folksinger: a guy and a guitar. But, you might also get piano, standup bass, electric guitar solos, big drums, and even a saw that sounds like the ghost of Christmas past. His voice is nasally and occasionally sounds like it might fall over from a strong gust of wind, but then he bears down on a note or swoops up into an unexpected falsetto and all is right with the world. Nicolai is a slow burn. His songs sneak up on you. One line will set up another line, but not in an obvious way. So, you may listen to a song a few times before realizing that he cleverly lofted a knuckleball right past you for strike three.
SONG: Mike Nicolai – Crazy Little Elf
Christmas Is For Losers is basically a reboot. Originally released in 2006 as an eight-song EP, Nicolai re-released the record last month with four new tracks, added a different version of one of the ’06 songs, and subtracted another. If you’re unfamiliar with Mike’s catalog, I wouldn’t typically start here, but given that it’s two days til Christmas, the Christmas album is the way to go. Actually, the LP-sized Losers captures the Nicolai aesthetic quite nicely. You get trad Xmas, dissonant Xmas, lullabies, a political thriller, ’50s music, fiddle solos, and whatever time signature “O Holy Night” is in.
I was initially gonna do a more expansive review of Christmas Is For Losers, but then I got the bright idea that instead of my yapping about this album, maybe it would be more interesting if Nicolai shared his thoughts. So, Mike and I exchanged a handful of emails over the past week and our conversation is below. By the way, if you’re interested in hearing this album and then buying it, it’s available through Bandcamp, which I have linked below. Please keep in mind that the cost is 7 measly dollars. SEVEN!!! You Scrooge McDucks need to hold off on one venti pumpkin spice latte and abide.
Buy Christmas Is For Losers [Bandcamp] – Did I mention it was only seven dollars???
CONVERSATIN’: LANCE DAVIS & MIKE NICOLAI
LD: First of all, I love Christmas Is For Losers. But, I loved it when you originally put it out 10 years ago. Other than the millions of dollars you figure to earn with this Bandcamp run, what was your motivation for re-releasing the album?
Mike: I thought there would be some people who would enjoy it who didn’t hear it the first time around. I’ve been putting the original EP up on my Bandcamp page for a few years now but this year I thought I’d change it up a bit and put a longer, somewhat different version up.
LD: In the Bandcamp liner notes, you thank rche for putting on the holiday recording parties where many of the tracks were recorded. Is this a reference to the Los Ninos de Nada sessions?
Mike: Yes. Several of the songs come from those informal, live sessions. Going through these Ninos Xmas CDs is crazy. There’s like 150 songs, with tons of people involved over the years that I forgot. Jeff Bachschmid (who takes the melody line on “O Holy Night”), Ramsay Midwood, Beaver Nelson, Earthpig, Deborah (Kelly) and Amy (Boone of The Damnations), Leo Rondeau, Jaime Harris, a shit ton of others, too.
I also made a Christmas cassette with my old band, The Draghounds, a CD with my Minneapolis friend, Baby Grant Johnson, and did some recordings up there with Tom Herbers for the original Losers EP. I’ve recorded a couple of things here at home on the laptop as well. So, it’s a mix of stuff, but the majority of the tunes come from those Ninos parties.
LD: “Crazy Little Elf” and “Christmas Peanut” are variations on a similar theme. How deliberate was the decision to bookend the album with songs that used Christmas as a framing device for what are essentially lullabies?
Mike: Well, the original EP had the two versions of “Crazy Little Elf” bookending it, but that didn’t seem quite right this time. So, I thought “Christmas Peanut” would be a nice sweet note to end on.
LD: Love the Jimmy (Smith of The Gourds) harmonies on “Christmas Peanut.” You guys sound good together. Did you record with Jimmy and Max (Johnston of The Gourds) on that one? I was thinking Max might be involved because of the mandolin part.
Mike: I am fairly sure that Kevin Russell (Gourds, Shinyribs) did the mandolin on that. Rche would remember probably. “Peanut” was one of three songs that I had given rche in cassette-demo form just before one of my initial breaks from living in Austin. This would have been in ’98. Again, rche would remember the exact dates. But, I believe Jimmy, Kev and rche overdubbed onto those demos at rche’s home studio and put them on the first installment of the Ninos Xmas thing.
SONG: Mike Nicolai, Jimmy Smith & Kevin Russell – Christmas Peanut
Now Jesus he was a Christmas peanut
The original one they say
Said that the only thing is kindness
You know they killed him anyway
LD: I’m curious about the age range of the tracks. What are the oldest recordings on CIFL and what are the newest recordings? For example, was “Christmas of ’01” actually recorded Christmas 2001? And Tollbooth sounds like it might’ve been recorded in the Mike Nicolai and The Sensations era. 2011-12?
Mike: Sorry my facts are so blurry about this, but again I think the first recordings were done in ’98 if memory serves. The most recent one is “Tollbooth,” which I did at home just last December.
LD: Speaking of “Christmas of ’01,” that’s the CB radio sea shanty version of “Fahrenheit 12/24,” which appeared on the original version of Christmas Is For Losers. The idea of Santa Claus being detained at the height of post-9/11 paranoia is brilliant. How in the world did you come up with that conceit and how long did it take to come together?
Mike: That one I sang over the telephone from my porch in November or December of 2001 and rche recorded it off of his phone. So obviously, 9/11 was still real fresh at that point and they had just started writing up the Patriot Act. It just struck me at that time that a guy with a big beard piloting an aircraft on a religious holiday that’s observed by many Americans and flying low over U.S. cities could easily be mistaken for an invading terrorist. Basically, a riff on that old animated special, “The Year Without A Santa Claus,” where Santa was all depressed that no one cared about Christmas anymore, so he nearly bagged the whole thing. But, instead I liked the idea of Santa being detained as an enemy combatant and then shaking his finger at his accusers and schooling them on the “true meaning of Christmas” or something, before he goes off to deliver the presents. The “Fahrenheit” version I did in 2006, just because I had an idea for some chords and to try a kind of dirge-y feel for it.
LD: What songs does Ned (Stewart of Grand Champeen/Bremen Riot) play drums on?
Mike: “Christmas Is For Losers.”
I know that “Losers” also has Jeff (Johnston of Li’l Cap’n Travis) on ghost saw. It just occurred to me that if you’re recording with Ned and Jeff, you’d have to be recording at (Michael) Crow (of Grand Champeen/Bremen Riot)’s place. Is that right? And if so, who else plays on that?
Mike: Yeah, that was indeed recorded with Crow at the helm. Jimmy Smith on the upright bass. I did the acoustic git and piano.
LD: Theoretical question: Though you wrote “Christmas Is For Losers” a decade ago, isn’t it the perfect Christmas song for Donald Trump’s America? There aren’t many songs that put losers, drunkards, line cooks, screwups, and hookers on equal level with youngsters, mothers, and lovers.
Mike: People still like that one when I play it. I’m not religious, but as a kid I was raised Catholic and went to church and all of that. So, I heard all the Jesus Bible stories. One thing about Jesus that always impressed me was his interest in hanging out with vagrants and prostitutes and other people who were considered low-lifes by most of society. I thought that was cool. Also, Jesus seems like the ultimate loser in a way, because although he allegedly performed all these miracles and spoke truth to power, he still ended up dying a disgraced bum and criminal. One might even say he could be the patron saint of losers. A very low-energy guy. Very low-energy. So, to the extent that the song is relevant, I’d say it’s likely to be no less so in the Trump era. What a year!
CHRISTMAS BONUS #1
SONG: Mike Nicolai – It’s Almost Christmas
Mike and I referenced the Los Ninos de Nada sessions above. These were legendary Christmas guitar pulls with Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith of The Gourds serving as musical anchors. However, an orbit of different singers and songwriters contributed to the cause and actually sang lead on most tracks. I have a Los Ninos CD that came out in 2001-02 and Nicolai sings lead or co-lead on about half. This song might be my favorite. I love his comfort with classic 1950s major-minor song structures and how his vocal melodies and instrumentation both adhere to that form and subvert expectations, sometimes simultaneously.
“It’s Almost Christmas” is ’50s music by way of New Orleans, with a deceptively hooky cha-cha rhythm and brilliant walking bass. You go through Mike’s catalog and you’ll find a number of instant classics repurposing that sturdy ’50s archetype — “Rattling My Cage,” “I’m On To You,” “Tarot’s Road,” as well as “It’s In The Bag” from Losers. I also love how Nicolai occasionally leaps up into falsetto. Unless you’re Curtis Mayfield you have to do that sparingly, otherwise it’s an annoying gimmick. He uses it here in a way similar to “Silly Putty,” a hidden gem from 2005’s God Fatigue In The Post-Atom Age.
Christmas Bonus #2: Mike Nicolai, Sam’s Town Point, Austin, TX, May 5, 2006
10 years ago this past May, John “Ducktaper” Smith and I went to Sam’s Town Point to see Ramsay Midwood. As it happened, playing bass for Ramsay that night was one of my favorite singers and songwriters, Mike Nicolai, who was also opening the show. I’m pretty sure we knew this because Duck came armed with his trusty mini-disc recorder. This was back in the days when people brought mini-discs to record stuff. It was a quintessential Austin moment. Killer music on a Wednesday at the best, realest bar in town and maybe 30 people there to appreciate it. Mike’s brief, six-song set was a perfect distillation of what he does, with elements of Ray Davies, Tom T Hall, and Alex Chilton. He played my favorite song (“Surveillance”) as well as Duck’s by request (“The Green Lantern Needs Your Vote”). It was clever, poignant, funny, scathing, heartbroken, awkward, and featured great line after great line.
“I was learning to punch the wall with aplomb”
“Well, the pope died today, I don’t guess I care, he was just a man full of shit, blood, and water”
“I’ll get you up to Sunset, but you’re on your own”
“They were just a couple of god’s little helpers, squeezed out by the guts of a woman”
“That’s it for the news time to go home, to the wife, and the brats, and the jello”
I bet I’ve listened to this Sam’s Town gig a thousand times in the last ten years. I played it so much that when I met my wife, Sarah, I used it as a litmus test of compatibility. As she notes, it’s the one piece of music that has never left her phone in the four and a half years we’ve been together. So, feel free to download this 23-minute piece of history (link below), with thanks to Mike for performing and Duck for recording. And if it spurs you to explore the Nicolai catalog you’ll be a better person for it.
1. Rattling My Cage
2. Lifesucker Waltz
5. Slowly Dying [Ray Price]
6. The Green Lantern Needs Your Vote
Christmas Bonus #3: Mike Nicolai with The Ramsay Midwood Experience – Purple Rain
Sam’s Town Point, Austin, TX
September 24, 2016
Video recorded by Sarah Davis-Espinoza
Band includes Randy Weeks on lead guitar and Tony Scalzo of Fastball on keyboards. Floor includes genuine Texas two-steppers. Belly includes several Lone Stars.
Last chance to buy Christmas Is For Losers [Bandcamp]
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!