There aren't many artists Nick Curran's age who can sing with the throat-scraping abandon that helped Little Richard invent rock 'n roll. Come to think of it, the 33-year-old Curran may be the only contemporary musician who can do that and still make it sound new.
Curran's résumé also belies his age: While still in his teens, he toured with rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson. A decade later, he was wrapping up a four-year stint in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. And not long after, Curran could be seen performing four songs with the equally vampire-thin swamp rocker C.C. Adcock during the first season of True Blood.
At the moment, the four-piece Nick Curran & the Lowlifes are touring behind his latest album, Reform School Girl, a genuinely impressive collection of original songs that showcase his ability to play everything from Louis Jordan-style jump blues to Ramones-influenced garage rock. In the following interview, Curran discusses everything from cancer treatments to the prevailing influence of '60s girl groups.
Indy: When I first heard the song "Reform School Girl," it was on BBC-6, and the DJ said that none of the other songs on the album are anything like the title track. That's not really true, but it does stand out. Was that kind of a one-off, or are you interested in doing more songs along those lines?
NC: On this record, I think I really expanded songwriting-wise, and I really want to keep doing that. I always try to progress with each new record that I do, and try to write different kinds of songs than the last one. And it's just more fun to play, you know? It's like an actual song rather than just a formula for a certain style of music.
A lot of people in the blues and rockabilly and even the punk scene follow a certain formula where, oh, it has to be like this or it won't fit in. But I kind of don't abide by the rules. I try to mix it all together and spit it out in a weird way.
Indy: Yeah, the track reminds me more of "Leader of the Pack" than it does any roots-oriented artist.
NC: And that's exactly what I wanted to do. I love the Ronettes and stuff like that, the Shangri-Las, and I wanted to write a song like that, but almost like how the Ramones would do it.
Indy: You could spring Phil Spector out of jail and get him to produce the next album.
NC: Yeah, I wonder if he could produce it from his cell. [Laughs.]
Indy: Back before you hooked up with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, you toured with Ronnie Dawson. What did you learn from that experience?
NC: Man, actually that was the first time I ever went on tour, was with Ronnie. I was 19, and that was a great first road experience, because he had already gone through all the crazy stuff that bands go through when they first go on the road, and he was into doing a professional job. So it was cool to have that perspective instead of just going full-throttle into a crazy life.
But really what I learned from him was to put on a 200 percent show every night — no matter how many people or what's going on in your head or with the band. Because the people who did come there, they came to see you put on the best show you can put on. And that's what he would do. If there was five people there, he would still go out in the crowd and just do it like it was 10,000 people.
Indy: We ended up losing him to cancer, which I understand you were diagnosed with earlier this year.
Indy: What lifestyle changes have you needed to make, and how do you deal with it emotionally?
NC: I've definitely partied it up, you know, being a musician, but I never had a problem with anything. Like, I've drank, but not like turbo, like a lot of people. I never went off the deep end or anything like that. But I definitely don't — I can have some drinks here and there, if we're playing a show, I can have one or two. But it's not like before.
Mostly what I did was change my diet and stuff. I've been doing, like, a lot of organic food, and I make fresh juice every day at my house. And that really helped me get through the treatments without getting too run-down.
Indy: I understand Phil Alvin guests on this album?
NC: Yeah, we actually wrote a song together. He came down to Austin and we pretty much wrote and recorded the song in a day and a half.
Indy: I once drove around with him up in the Hollywood hills, and he literally had a portable record player on the front seat of his truck and he would play old singles on it.
NC: Yeah, that sounds like Phil. That's what happens when you go over to his house, you'll be there till 6 in the morning listening to records, and he'll just be putting them on one after the other.
Indy: Image-wise, you have kind of a Sid Vicious thing going on. How did that go over with the Fabulous Thunderbirds audience?
NC: Oh, it was interesting. But it was good. I didn't want to join this band and just go up there looking like somebody who's trying to look like Jimmie Vaughan, with, like, bad hair and wearing the same kind of stuff. And definitely some people would be like, "We didn't know what to think when you came out onstage, but then you started playing and, you know, it's OK now."
I've always had a problem with scenes and people thinking you have to look a certain way to be able to play the music, so I've always been the guy who, whatever I'm not supposed to do, I do it. It's like, OK, listen with your ears, not your eyes.
Indy: I read somewhere that Kim Wilson was kind of put off when you showed up onstage with a green Kramer. Is that true? What happened there?
NC: Oh, yeah. Actually, my last T-birds tour, I knew I was gonna be gone after that tour, so that was the only guitar I brought. It was actually a fluorescent pink Kramer with a Floyd Rose tremolo — it was like the total C.C. DeVille guitar. [Laughs.] But it's funny because the thing sounds amazing. I actually use it for most of the solos on my new record, because it sounds so good. It plays great, and it never broke a string, and it never went out of tune. But people were all weirded out — all these European guys that think you should be playing a '50s Strat or something.
Indy: At least you didn't bring out a Flying V.
NC: Yeah. [Laughs.] It was funny because, during the first show of that tour, Kim hadn't seen it until we got onstage. And he looks and he goes, "Oh, God DAMN!"
Indy: He must have expected something like that from you by that point.
NC: Yeah, I think after a while nothing really surprised him.