Clip: Nicholas Tremulis
July 1, 2005
Don't Call It a Comeback
Nicholas Tremulis has been hanging tough since the mid-80s. But between a
new 'XRT show and his 52 Reasons project, he's got a few new outlets.
About a week ago Nicholas Tremulis expanded the family business. He was
working on three new songs at Rax Trax Recording, a Lakeview studio owned
by his longtime bandmate Rick Barnes, and he decided to have his
nine-year-old daughter, Electra, sing backup on one of them, an R &
B-meets-mariachi reworking of Edgar Eden's gospel tune "Satan's Jewel
Crown." "It's her first microphone appearance," says Tremulis. "There's
something cute and weird about hearing her little voice sing, 'Satan's
jewel crown / I've worn it so long.'"
Tremulis will release the track this week as the latest installment of 52
Reasons, an online song-of-the-week project he began in February. "I was
tired of labels and waiting around for them to put records out on their
schedule," he says. "This allows me to write something, record it, get it
out, and get an immediate reaction." So far he's released 23 songs through
the Brooklyn-based online music company Reel to Reel Records
(reeltoreelrecords.com), which says he's consistently selling 500 downloads
Shortly after 52 Reasons debuted, Tremulis helped start The Eclectic
Company, a two-hour program on WXRT he hosts every other Monday,
alternating with Jon Langford. Tremulis had talked with the station about
doing a "free-form music thing" since the late 90s, and the show gives him
an opportunity to spin Gypsy jazz, punk, and blues all in one sitting. He's
also invited guests like David Johansen, Robbie Fulks, and (full
disclosure) myself to play their own favorites.
Tremulis's career has been defined by that sort of far-flung eclecticism,
though it's proved to be as much a curse as a blessing. A lifelong
Chicagoan, the 45-year-old was born in Greektown and raised in Northbrook.
He grew up in a musical family: his father played jazz piano, his mother
moonlighted as a blues singer, and a cousin played guitar with Curtis
Mayfield. By the time he hit his teens Tremulis was an ambitious guitarist,
making regular trips to blues clubs in the city, sitting in with the likes
of Mighty Joe Young and Lefty Dizz. Inspired by Ornette Coleman's 1973
album Dancing in Your Head, in the early 80s he formed the Nicholas
Tremulis Band, which he describes as a "cross between punk, the AACM, and
James Brown." The group quickly expanded into a 13-piece soul band and
became a popular local headliner, also opening for big-name touring acts,
including Tina Turner, Sheila E., and Grandmaster Flash.
Tremulis's vocal style at the time was heavily influenced by R & B, a trait
that confounded some of the labels that approached him. "I lost two record
deals when they found out I was white," he says. "Tommy Boy asked me if I
could darken my pictures a little -- I thought that was funny." Tremulis
eventually signed with Island Records, which released his 1985 self-titled
debut and 1989's More Than the Truth, but both albums were crippled by the
effects-heavy, inorganic aesthetic of their time. Sales were weak, and
Tremulis disowns the records now. "If I could buy every copy and start a
big fire, I would," he says. "They've haunted me ever since."
When Island head Chris Blackwell sold the label to Polygram in 1989,
Tremulis opted out of his contract and decamped to New Orleans. There he
played and recorded with Ivan Neville and Meters bassist George Porter Jr.
and rethought his career. "Maybe it was being in a city that had learned to
borrow from a bunch of musical styles in a really pure way, but I just
started getting back to the roots of things that I really liked," he says.
Upon his return to Chicago he assembled the six-piece Nicholas Tremulis
Orchestra and recorded a pair of darkly atmospheric independent albums,
King of the Hill (1994) and Bloody Show (1996), both of which featured
contributions from beat poet Gregory Corso. But his lackluster performance
on a major label seemed to have damaged his rep, and Tremulis admits his
mood darkened in the mid-90s. "At the time that the alternative craze
kicked in and bands started getting signed out of Chicago, there was a
period of time here where if you were an older artist like myself you were
pretty much shit outta luck," he says. "It felt bad and disrespectful in a
way. At that point I had to start asking myself, 'Why are you still doing
this?' I realized I do this because I love it. And that's when I really
became a musician. I pretty much got into music and out of the business all
at the same time -- it was really like an epiphany."
Inspired by the Band's farewell "Last Waltz" performance, in 1999 he staged
the first of his Waltz concerts, all-star benefits for the local charity
for the homeless Neon Street that featured big guns like Billy Corgan,
Steve Earle, Mavis Staples, and the Band's Rick Danko, who contributed to
Tremulis's rootsy 2000 album, In Search of Woodfoot, shortly before he
died. But after the fifth Waltz, in 2003, Tremulis put the event on
indefinite hiatus. "It just got tougher and tougher to do each year
logistically," he says.
In Search of Woodfoot came out on QRS Records, a label Tremulis cofounded
with producer Rob Fraboni, but without a distributor the album received
little attention. Last year the Texas Music Group released Tremulis's
follow-up, Napoleon, which featured a mix of moody pop, cocktail jazz, and
smoky R & B, but he wasn't able to tour much in support of it. "It's tough
to really get a six-piece band on the road and make money," he says. "Plus
all the guys have lives and families here." (Tremulis and his wife,
Penthea, have two children.)
To keep afloat in the years between releases, Tremulis does session and
commercial work; he's recorded with Corgan and Keith Richards and played on
jingles for Bud Light and Nintendo. But his work on 52 Reasons, a winning
assortment of tunes mixing bossa nova, reggae, Delta blues, and more, has
him feeling optimistic and ambitious. Tremulis hopes to have enough
material for four CDs by February: two discs of originals, one of covers,
and one of spoken-word pieces. ("Satan's Jewel Crown" kicks off a subset of
52 Reasons featuring reimagined 20s gospel tunes.)And though his cynicism
about the record industry was a key inspiration for the project, he
believes it might eventually attract a label. "People are willing to take a
chance and check out a song," he says. "It's already exposed me to people
that never would've had a chance to hear my music."
In the meantime, Tremulis is preparing for a rare road trip. This week he
and his band will head to Texas, headlining two shows, backing former Beach
Boy and Rolling Stones sideman Blondie Chaplin at another, and making guest
appearances with Alejandro Escovedo and Hubert Sumlin at two more. But the
band can only afford the excursion because a wealthy fan has hired the
group to perform at a private party in Paris, Texas.
"To be honest, at this point I would just as soon have some rich guy pay
for my musical career, because I'm really tired of jumping around to
different labels," he says, laughing. "I wouldn't mind being a kept boy.
But that ain't gonna happen, so I'll keep bouncing around. Whatever it
takes, I'll keep bouncing around."