Nicholas Merz Pens A Country Music Opus Against Toxic Masculinity with The Limits of Men (KEXP Premiere + Q&A)

Interviews, Local Music, KEXP Premiere
05/29/2018
Dusty Henry
Photo by Dusty Henry

”You can’t stop what’s coming, still so many fight it,” Nicholas Merz sings on “Bulled Rose,” the lead single from his new album The Limits of Men, out this Friday, June 1 via Aago Records.

Merz himself has been fighting the pull of his past. As a member of Seattle’s Darto, Merz and his bandmates have never strayed from heady topics – the band’s last album, Human Giving centered on fighitng against “the idea of self. But The Limits of Men feels personal in a different way. For one, he’s releasing music under his own name (although the members of Darto play on this record). It’s a record marked with reckoning. Reckoning with the country music he was immersed in during his youth, reckoning with vile sexism and toxic masculinity he saw in that world, and reckoning with the fact that suddenly the sounds of this time in his life are creeping back into his mind.

The Limits of Men is something Merz has been stewing on for years and that time spent thinking and dreaming is felt in the intricacies of the album. The songs play at like scenes or chapters in a book, sprawling out from the meditative, tumbleweed strums of “Generation” and through the spaghetti western noir of songs like “Neon Figures” and “Down Range.” The lyrics often jump into dialogue between characters within Merz’ short stories, all doing some reckoning of their own through Merz’ rumbling baritone vocals. Merz uses this sonic setting to address the follies of a hyper masculine society – turning something that’s troubled him in his formative years into something progressive, both musically and thematically. Merz has shaped his own version of country music, grappling with the sins he witnessed instead of looking away.

We caught up with Merz to find out more about his desire to return to the sounds of his youth, confronting the messes of the world with steady realism, and quitting his job to finally see his daydream album into fruition. You can also stream the entire album in full below.

 

KEXP: You grew up around country music but initially put yourself in opposition to the genre because of association you had between the music and “bigoted, sexist rednecks.” Now you’re putting out a record that, at least in part, borrows some of the aesthetics of country. What brought you back to this sound and wanting to explore it for yourself?

Nicholas Merz: Well, my parents, particularly my father, had been very involved and interested in country music when he was younger. He studied, and plays pedal steel, and is on both this record and the Darto record. So from an early age I was hearing those sounds. But my association with country music came from the area that I'm from. The folks that championed it and used it as the soundtrack to their lives were very ill informed, young men that I grew up with. So thus, I wanted to have nothing to do with that, but because of my god damn genetics it eventually crept back as does everything as you get older.

While there is some historical precedence for country music tackling social issues, it’s hard to think of an album that takes on toxic masculinity in such a profound way like your album does (among other issues, you also touch upon racism, police brutality, religion, etc.). Was the album conceived with this message in mind? Why did you want to make this type of record to address such complex issues?

It absolutely was, that was the whole intention. The idea had been stewing in my mind since my late teens, but I never felt confident enough about it. I'm a bit of a late bloomer in that way. But to answer your question, why would you not want to make an album about that? I mean, what else is there? Love songs? Songs about the person writing the song? That's just not for me. I'm pretty drenched in realism and find enough abstraction in everyday living. It's easy to get lost in fantastic or romantic notions about life, which I constantly do. I don't think it's wrong to write about those things or to think about bigger, or more fictionalized ideas than everyday living, I just find a lot of beauty in the realities of living, and love to explore that. That's where my heart is anyhow.

The other members of Darto all appear on the album. Why did you decide to put this out as a solo release instead of another Darto record?

To be honest, these were all ideas I was having that were a bit more flushed out, and Darto is a collaborative democracy. It sort of swelled up after some pretty heavy life changes/realizations and before I knew it all these ideas I had been stewing on for the last decade came into crystal clear focus. Candace was extremely supportive, as she always is, and re-affirmed that it was time for me to say those things. She understood, she saw it all happen from day one, so she was the first to say, keep going. She is the greatest.

This is a record predominantly about masculinity, yet you’ve dedicated it to three important women in your life. Could you talk a little bit about that choice and the apparent contrast?

If it were not for these three women, I would have not realized the toxic nature of that word. They shaped my view on it. So this record is for, and because of them.

After you sent over the album, you wanted to stress the importance of listening to the record with the lyric sheet and I’m glad you did. There’s a lot of moments that gain a lot of clarity with all the back-and-forth dialogue and just the narrative approach most of your songs take. What do you like about using this type of literary device? Do you find it helpful to use other character’s “voices” in your writing to get an idea across?

Music/sound is such an emotional art form, it has the power to captivate us before ever hearing the words layered in it. I wanted to be as vulnerable and confrontational as possible with this and I felt that this was the place to pen down those ideas. Because of the different voices it keeps it from being in one narrator’s viewpoint, and away from abstractions. Like my old friend, and former english professor told me when reading first person, "You can't ever trust the narrator if the work is in first person. Their point of view is distorted." That was a very specific decision early on in the writing process.

With all the different characters and stories happening on this record, how do you see yourself fit in to everything going on? Or if it’s not you, the narrator character you’re portraying.

I'm not certain how I fit in all of this. A lot of these were real life experiences that happened to people I knew, or know, I'm related to, or experiences I had. I'm just a huge fan of storytelling, and I happened to grow up in a small town with not a lot to do, so there you go.

I’m curious about the setting of these songs as they all have a very firm sense of place. Are you writing about a town you know or is it a fictional place you’ve created?

A lot of this feels like home to me, but here comes the abstraction... I didn't want to make it a specific place. I wanted it to feel as broad as a city, and as closed in as the country. I feel like when you focus too much on details like that you lose the feeling and meaning of the whole transaction taking place with the listener.

You quit your job to make this record and have referenced that you hear the record as “a really poor and vulnerable person approaching 30 trying their best to disarm masculinity at 3 a.m.” Why did you feel it was necessary to make these major life changes to get this music out that you’ve been stewing on for years?

Well, I was about to move to Arizona for my "career", and I had some money socked away, so I figured it had to happen while the ideas were hot. Because of my budget I recorded the whole album in the Darto practice space. I'm naturally a nocturnal person and there is street noise all through the day, so there were ideal hours for recording that I would shoot for. It also limited my interactions with everyone so I could hyper focus on what I was trying to accomplish. It was honestly just a time and place thing. I had just went through some intense changes in my personal life, we were waiting for the Darto record to get pressed, I was about to move to Arizona, I had a bunch of ideas that came flooding in after spending about a year in the mixing/mastering process with Darto... so it just... happened... and instead of putting it off like I had done so many times in the past, or doing it half heartedly, I gave myself to it, entirely, which is very rare for anyone to be able to do that in my socio-economic position. I saw it as an opportunity, took it, and I'm eternally grateful to the fella who hit me with his car while I was riding my bike home from work. Thanks to you, and my lawyer, this record exists.

Given that you recorded the album late at night, do you feel like that had any impact on your writing and performance? Is the type of setting important for you when you’re working on music?

Of course. Everything about our environment impacts us. I really loved the limitation it put on things, which is sort of a play on the title. I recorded it digitally, and there are no limitations in that world, so I decided to make some. Setting always plays a role, but I like seeing how setting changes what I'm doing, and not change the setting to what I want to do. If that makes sense?

There’s a very classic feeling on this record with the country arrangements and the romantic (in the literary sense) language you use in your lyrics, but there’s also this lingering feeling of surrealism in both the music and words. Was that something you were trying to portray? What draws you to tackling ideas of seemingly everyday life with elements of mysticism and the supernatural?

Yes, absolutely. Like I mentioned before, I find a lot of abstraction in everyday living, so even the most menial of tasks really takes on a whole slew of meanings to me. It's mostly a taboo thing with me too. I like pushing things into that territory. But let's save that for the record, and not the interview?

“Bulled Rose” was the first song released from the album and a really powerful introduction to the record. The narrative you describe of living in the same town, falling into the trade or industry the holds up the community, and passing that down through generations is an idea that’s easily romanticized, but you do a really beautiful job of subverting that without being demeaning. The way you describe the spitting gasoline and whistles blowing is so engrossing that it’s easy to feel transported into the scene as it’s happening. You grew up in Duvall, Wash., right? Did you experience that hereditary workforce idea there?

Let it be known, Duvall is my home town. My whole existence growing up revolved around labor, and not education. The most wealthy people in my town were General Contractors, or people involved in some form of construction. It was sort of a, go to school, or learn the trade sort of mentality. Chocolate or Vanilla. For me, as someone who always asks, why?... this was a big sense of tension. I have family who literally died from heart attacks unloading their van on the job. My father will die working, so will my uncle, and that's just the way of it. And even as I type this, it infuriates me. I have an odd relationship with it though because I love working, I am constantly working, and I have immense respect for those who live that life. My heart really goes out to the working class, because those are my people, but this current romanticism over trade work is downright hilarious to me. Laboring wasn't something you quit your office job to do, or took to after years in college. It was for all the kids who couldn't afford college. That was my understanding. Now it seems it has become fashionable. It's absurd. Where I grew up, if you had any sense in your mind, you would run in the other direction when you saw Carhartt. Not anymore. I also can't be too critical about this either because I work in a shop, wear Carhartt for work, and wear silly cowboy boots. Needless to say, my teenage self would be very disappointed on the surface, but would understand completely deep inside.

Beyond just the literal interpretation “Bulled Rose,” you find an existential longing buried beneath and maybe even a sense of conflicted pride? You reference not having control and refusing to die “until I take off my boots.” It’s such an interesting dichotomy but when I’ve talked to friends and family who’ve spent their lives working in a similar cycle, they’ll tell you both the pride they have in their work and give warning to avoid the work if you can. I’m curious what conclusions, if any, you came to while ruminating and writing this song in regards to any of those ideas? Or maybe I’m totally off base, in which case please correct me!

You're in front of the burner, and the water is boiling. Dusty, I love you, I couldn't have said it better myself.

You end the record with this bit of back-and-forth dialogue:

“It’s love that waits for you when you wake,” says the Empress ignoring the mess “But how can you be sure? Men are not so pure,” I answer with a cry, “All one can do is allow them to try,” she smiles and sighs.

Despite how bleak the toxic culture you’re exposing on this record is, do you see a hopeful ending? Or is this last passage meant to allude to the continuing folly of men?

Very hopeful, at least I hope. Ha ha. That was my intention. But I do like the folly route too. That's very applicable as well.

There’s a lot to take in on this record and I feel like we’re just scratching the surface in this Q&A. Is there anything you’d like or hope listeners will keep in mind when they put this album on?

Yes, of course...if you hear this record, that means you're alive, and that should be enough. Right? Right.


The Limits of Men is out June 1 via Aago Records. Pre-orders are available now.

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