Cool American is hard to define. It's both a moniker and band helmed by Portland songwriter Nathan Tucker, releasing records and singles both by himself and with friends since 2015. Whatever format the project takes, Tucker's masterful melodic phrasing and emotionally candid lyricism is a constant. After releasing last year's fiery full-band effort, Infinite Hiatus, Tucker holed himself in friends' homes with a spartan recording setup. These makeshift sessions would coaelsce into Better Luck Next Year Vol. 3, continuing a series of home recordings he began in 2016. There's a spirit to his music that could only come from the City of Roses, with downtrodden atmosphere colliding with undeniable hooks. Better Luck Next Year Vol. 3 drops this Friday, Feb. 16, via Good Cheer Records. Tucker's shared an advanced stream of the album (see below) and talks with KEXP about the album series, why he likes to record at home, and the influence of his Portland peers and heroes on his own music.
KEXP: Your new album is the third installment of your Better Luck Next Year series. How did you conceive the series and what ties volumes one through three together? Did you always imagine these recordings as a trilogy?
Nathan Tucker: There wasn't really a plan for it when I started making the first one in the fall of 2015. I ended up getting the full band together around the same time, and the stuff we were working out together had a very different feel, and in many ways felt like a completely separate creative process. I was feeling pulled in two directions, so I sort of thought "why not do both?" That's how Better Luck Next Year became a series—as a way to give myself a regular outlet for the home recording stuff that I love doing but doesn't necessarily involve my bandmates.
The album notes say you recorded this album between “friends’ houses and borrowed bedroom.” How do you feel the settings you recorded in impacts the final product on the record? What do you like about the home recording approach?
There's definitely a calmer, more subdued nature to these new songs that seems like it's the result of recording in the relaxed environment of a home—even if it's not necessarily my home. But I think even more than that, these recordings were shaped by the limitations of the spaces. I was mostly recording it during a break between tours with another band I play in called Strange Ranger, and I had a more limited set of tools and sounds available to me than I've had in the past. Having to figure out how to get good sounds out of the stuff I had on hand made me think more intentionally about certain production elements than I usually do, and forced me out of my comfort zone in a way that felt really nice and fun.
Your last record, Infinite Hiatus, was recorded with a full band whereas Better Luck Next Year records are mostly done alone with the occasional guest performance. What do you like about working alone as opposed to with a band and vice versa? Would you consider Cool American to be a band or an outlet for all your music ventures?
It's sort of neither. Though I try not to put too many limits on Cool American as a project, there's a ton of stuff I'd like to explore musically that would be pretty silly as a Cool release. But it also doesn't exactly function like a band in the traditional sense of the term as being opposed to a solo project. Being in a guitar band in 2018 is more or less just a culturally acceptable way to wish financial ruin upon yourself, and so it's no surprise that I've struggled to find bandmates that are as committed to touring and that sort of stuff as I am.
I like working alone because I often have very specific ideas about how I want an instrument to sound or the feel I want from a performance, and it can be easier to just do it myself than it can be to communicate those ideas to someone else. I also like working with my band because I can be an obsessive freak about those ideas and lose the forest for the trees very easily. Tim and Andy, the two people who have been in the band the whole time, have talked me down from a bunch of idiotic obsessions with certain things in a song that just weren't that important. They also write awesome parts I would never think of, things that make the music a million times better in my opinion. I should also mention, when it comes to the full band records, that Andy has played a huge role in the recording and producing of both LPs (and particularly Infinite Hiatus). He's one of the best recording engineers in town and everyone should make their record with him.
One of the things that strikes out to me immediately about your music is the vulnerability you exude from song to song. Not just in the lyrics, but in the melodies, arrangements, and how you perform them. Do you have to put yourself in a certain mental state to open yourself up in your music or does it come naturally? How do you go about crafting songs with such a strong and consistent emotional core?
I don't really have a strategy for that because it's not something I necessarily set out to do—it just sort of happens that way. But I know what you mean, it's not really like "chill out good time music" both in content and form. I've tried to write by inhabiting characters before, or by experimenting with different ways of looking at the world, but it's never really worked. It's not that I can't get songs I like out of working that way, it's just that for better or for worse, at least lyrically, the songs always end up communicating the way I see things. That probably means I'm too self involved.
Most of the songs on the record are guitar centric, but you end the record with the synth-heavy “Focus.” What made you want to venture out into different sonic territory and end on this track? Do you think you’ll continue down this road in future recordings?
That song was written after I'd done most of the basic recording for the other songs on BLNY3. I was doing most of the rest of the tracking sitting on the floor in my girlfriend's bedroom with the few pieces of gear I was using arranged in a semi circle around me: my interface and computer, a 4-track I'd borrowed from a friend, a drum machine, and a shitty Casio. That's where I had the idea for the song. It's the first thing I've ever written primarily on keys, I'm pretty sure. In that sense, I think it was really just my environment. I'd also been listening to a lot of top 40 pop at the time, and all summer, so I'm sure that had something to do with it.
I hope I’m not projecting here, but whenever I listen to your music there’s something quintessentially “Portland” about your songs – in a very good way! Maybe it’s in the way you sing or the chords you use, but I can just feel the mood of the city anytime I put on any of your tracks (the new album especially). How have your surroundings and the local scene influenced your work (if they have)?
I hope you're not projecting either, because that's very cool to hear! A lot of the city's indie rock was definitely huge for me as a teenager and in college, Elliott Smith and Heatmiser being somewhat obvious touchstones. But the stuff my friends here make now is just as important to me, if not more so—I've learned more from talking to them about music and watching them play than I think I ever could from like closely listening to Either/Or or whatever. Lots of people that are ultimately making pop music, but with something just a little left-field about it, and that's exactly what I like. There are way too many wildly talented bands here for me to list them all, but the Good Cheer catalog is a good place to start. It's really special company to be in. Good Cheer took a chance on me very early, when basically no one was paying attention, and I'm forever grateful to them for that.
Your last record was called Infinite Hiatus, but it seems like that’s far from the case with this new album already coming out. What are your next plans for Cool American? New records, tour, etc?
We're gonna do some short PNW and west coast swings in the spring and early summer, and I'm not totally sure after that. I would like to do another full US tour in the fall, and maybe a solo tour before then. I basically want to tour as much as possible, but like I said, the touring aspect of playing in a band is an absolute nightmare for the wallet whichever way you cut it, so it's always been a little touch and go. There will be another full length as some point too, it's basically written but I've barely started thinking about how I want to record it. My next big goal for Cool American (and just in general) is to experiment a bit with the live performance. This is not exactly an original sentiment, but I'm getting a little tired of the typical "3-4 band DIY gig" format. I want to do a release show where we don't even have to play, that seems like it'd be way more fun.
Pre-order Better Luck Next Year Vol. 3 now. Good Cheer Records will also be releasing all three BLNY volumes compiled on a single cassette.
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