Until you step through the very-hard-to-find door of cult-famous Costa Mesa recording studio the Distillery, you're safely in the year 2011. One step farther, however, and you're in a room that time forgot. The retro-futuristic mixing console looks like it belongs on the original Starship Enterprise — all burnished metal, wood paneling and buttons that light up in primary colors. The room is filled with gutted amps and keyboards, a scuffed-up glockenspiel with crooked keys and coils of cables draped across a classic jukebox. Everything feels like 1961, as if this equipment were poised to record a rock & roll single to finally bounce Ike Turner and His Rhythm Kings from the top of the charts.
The guy in charge of the recording session looks as if he's stepped out of the honor roll page in your parents' high school yearbook. Meet angel-faced, starched-shirted, vintage glasses–sporting producer and musician Nick Waterhouse, whose driver's license says he's 24 but whose record collection suggests he was born in 1942.
Amy Winehouse might be gone, but old-style soul and R&B live on via musicians like Charles Bradley, Adele, Sharon Jones and L.A.'s Aloe Blacc. Now, here comes a kid from Huntington Beach with an ear for some of the rawest, most rug-cutting R&B ever pressed to vinyl, his preferred medium. "If I'm going to bother to use a real guitar," he says later, "I want a real sound wave."
He's just starting the first recording session for his debut EP on up-and-coming local label Innovative Leisure, which launched throwback garage-soul rocker Hanni El Khatib into the stratosphere. He's also in possession of a bevy of offers to produce and record, including with Weekly favorites the Allah-Las and a series of plum gigs, including an opening slot for Booker T. (of immortal soul band Booker T. & the M.G.s) and a spot at the Sunset Junction festival this weekend. He has a small but potent and quickly growing collection of fans, many of whom have become enraptured by his self-released 45 rpm vinyl single "Some Place," which sold out in an instant and now changes hands for almost $100 on eBay. "There's some place that I'd rather be, and it's something that's been on my mind almost constantly," he sings on the A-side, which begins with a rollicking intro of horns and maracas and ice-cube rattling, foot-stomping beat. "People talk to me, and I know they just can't comprehend." Backing vocalists shoo-bop around him while a Little Richard–style piano line pounds underneath.
The local community of what you might call throwback musicians has coalesced around him. On drums today, for instance, is Pitchfork darling and garage artist Ty Segall, serving here as a member of what Waterhouse affectionately calls his "staff" of session musicians, which also includes Allah-Las members Spencer Dunham and Pedrum Siadatian. (What makes you take a break from your own busy career to anonymously play drums with Nick Waterhouse, we ask? "Because it's fucking awesome," Segall says.) Live, Waterhouse deploys an arsenal of female backup singers and crack musicians borrowed from the ranks of the many bands he knows in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, including a former member of Earth, Wind and Fire.
He's a tightly wound, meticulous rock & roll scholar who commands up to a dozen musicians onstage beside him with the authority of a seasoned bandleader. Innovative Leisure co-founder Jamie Strong remembers the exact second he knew he'd sign Waterhouse. "When you see an artist live, that's when you can tell whether or not they have it," he says. "Nick nailed it from the first note. No one knew who he was but everyone was so into it, dancing and just having fun. It was the real deal."
When he started at Huntington Beach's Edison High in the year 2000, Waterhouse predicted to his mother that on prom night he'd be staying home playing Dungeons & Dragons. Huntington Beach — better known as "Surf City, U.S.A." — isn't exactly the kind of place where bookish kids into old soul music tend to be popular. Bleached-blond surfers, football players and tattooed punk rockers, maybe. But by the time Waterhouse graduated in 2004, he had not only been voted prom king — a testament to his charisma — but also was fronting a notable teen mod-R&B band called the Intelligista.
Although the group would put out only one single, they did achieve the notoriety of being banned from a local venue, for firing off smoke bombs and getting in a tussle with the sound man. They split up when college scholarships to distant schools tore them apart. Alone in San Francisco for college, Waterhouse was shocked to discover that America's most free-spirited city wasn't interested in the kind of music he wanted to make.
"San Francisco just seemed like a more sophisticated musical setting," he says now, taking a break from recording. "I was profoundly wrong. Beers are cheap and everything else is expensive. So not a lot of people do stuff. It's like everyone is a fake creative individual."
He was depressed and bandless in the City by the Bay, and deejaying became his only creative consolation.
There was one place in town where he found something real, however: a tiny, independent record store in the lower Haight district, Rooky Ricardo's. Run by a character named Dick Vivian, it sold only old-school 45s. ("There's not even a cash register. It's just a guy and a box," Waterhouse says.)
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He earned a degree in R&B there, apprenticing with Vivian and laying the foundation for the passion and authority he has today. Besides the usual record-nerd Rolodex of bands and songs and B-sides, he carries a gigantic database in his head of old-time hustlers and outsiders, the lesser-known architects who laid the foundation for music as we know it today. People like Chips Moman, who helped found the legendary soul label Stax, or Jerry Butler, a semi-obscure producer for Curtis Mayfield, or Burt Berns and Jerry Ragovoy, songwriters and record producers who shaped American music from behind the scenes.
People often ask him about the artists and bands he likes, but he'd rather just listen to 45 after inspiring 45. For Waterhouse, it's not about fostering some sort of amazing career, it's the search for the single perfect song. "I'll find a record that will blow my brain out, and then find out that person only put out two singles," he says, almost as if he wouldn't mind being one of those folks. "I just want to make great records."
Speaking of which, it's about time for him to do exactly that. On the engineer's signal, he leads his band into a slow, slinky number, one that brings to mind visions of smoky clubs where you'd want to be but probably shouldn't go. It's the first time this collection of musicians have played together, but Waterhouse keeps them in formation, and soon the song begins to sizzle.
"This makes me want to strip!" the engineer shouts, grinning as he cracks open a beer. Waterhouse drops his guitar and slides behind the battered studio piano, shouting, "Keep that going!" And without the slightest hesitation, they do. For a moment, the outside world of smartphones and laptops and MP3s dissolves, and it's back to the way things were, when American music was just coming of age — no rules, no plans, no nets, no precedents. There's a reason Waterhouse doesn't describe what he does as nostalgia. It feels too alive.