While it's a steadfast desire to push his music forward that's defined the career of Chicago's Nicholas Tremulis, turning 60 has provided a good reason for a rare look back.
Since his debut on a pair of major label albums released by Island Records in 1985 and '87, Tremulis has worked with an impressive array of artists ranging anywhere from Keith Richards and Rick Danko to Marianne Faithfull and Bonnie Raitt.
Spearheading The Waltz series of benefit concerts between 1999 and 2003, Tremulis helped raise over $200,000 for homeless Chicago youth, backing artists on the Metro stage like Steve Earle, Ian Hunter, Ronnie Specter and David Johansen, plus Chicagoans like Billy Corgan, Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples during the run.
Along the way, he spent five years with Jon Langford of The Mekons and Waco Brothers as co-host of "The Eclectic Company" radio program on WXRT. Tremulis went on to collaborate with Wilco's John Stirratt, Rick Rizzo of Eleventh Dream Day and Cheap Trick's Bun E. Carlos as Candy Golde on a 2011 EP, recently adding duties as Musical Director for the Darryl Jones Project alongside the Rolling Stones bassist.
Thursday night's 60th birthday celebration at City Winery will feature Tremulis backed by The Prodigal 9, a 9-piece super group with which he's performed over the course of about the last year. The special set will also feature the performance of tracks from his second Island album, 1987's More Than the Truth, for the first time in over thirty years.
"I’ve got a lot of friends that are coming that are beautiful musicians. So I’m expecting surprises. So you all should too," said Tremulis of what he anticipates on stage Thursday night at City Winery. "If I see somebody, they’re coming up! You know what I mean?"
I spoke with Nicholas Tremulis about working with The Prodigal 9, looking back at More Than the Truth, the music of the Rolling Stones, how today's world has influenced his next album and the role of the artist during turbulent times. A lightly edited transcript of our phone conversation follows below...
The Prodigal 9 is quite a lineup. What’s it been like for you playing with this ensemble over the past few years?
Nicholas Tremulis: It’s been good. We’ve been doing it really for just about a year. And it’s an amalgam of people that I’ve worked with in various projects over the past thirty years and stuff like that, including my core group and just getting back with them at a point in time when I think they all play better than they ever did.
So that’s the beauty of it.
What kind of an impact does being from Chicago have on you and how does the city itself identify the music that you’ve made and continue to make?
Tremulis: I understand it more when musicians I’m working with from outside of Chicago come to me and tell me that I play with such a Chicago accent - which I always think is such a strange way to put it. But it’s the reality that we play in a certain pocket. Where we hear rhythm and things like that, is a little bit different than people on the east coast and the west coast. It was obviously more prevalent when there wasn’t such a global and state by state scene that now exists due to the internet and stuff like that. That’s part of it.
It’s also just a part of my certain age group has just a certain kind of midwestern work ethic. You had to learn how to play everything… being a second city - which I don’t think [Chicago] really is anymore. But we definitely felt it back in the day. There was a lot of, “Oh yeah?” in us when we played. “You think so? Well, watch.” That kind of thing.
The City Winery posting for this show says that you'll be doing some cuts from your second album More Than the Truth that you haven’t done in thirty years. You’ve not always spoken of your Island albums in overly complimentary terms. What’s it like looking back on those songs now over thirty years removed with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight?
Tremulis: It’s really weird. Because I tend to be a person who doesn’t collect mementos and that sort of thing. So I didn’t even have the records. A person I worked with, who I still work with, Rob Fraboni - who produced [the 1974 Bob Dylan and The Band album] Planet Waves and The Last Waltz [soundtrack album] and all of that stuff - he remastered it and made me a copy of it and said, “You really should listen to this again…” And I said, “Well, OK…”
And when I heard it again, I went, “This stuff’s pretty good…” And I’ve kind of come a bit full circle with a large group again and stuff like that and felt it was a good idea to come back, reinvent a couple of those tunes and do a couple of them.
At least with the ones I’ve chosen, it feels rather contemporary.
You left Island in 1989 and headed to New Orleans. Did that experience, and working with artists like Ivan Neville and George Porter Jr., act as a bit of a palette cleanser following the time you spent over the course of two albums on a major label?
Tremulis: Yeah, it certainly did.
One of the biggest things is people always told me I played a little too far behind the beat, so I would have to speed it up. And the minute I got there, I was too in front of the beat! And I came back and I was like, “You guys don’t know shit!” (Laughs) And then I just started dragging everybody back. “This is where it lies!”
Apparently I was just always influenced by that music. But living there for a couple of months and playing with, like you said, George Porter and Daryl Johnson and all that bunch, it became such a second home to me. My wife is from there as well. And it just became my second home musically. And of course it’s a very rich history, same as Chicago. So, always something to find.
Following that stretch, you came back to Chicago. And we just said Chicago’s no longer the second city musically, but back then it was viewed that way. And you came back right as Chicago's alternative scene was about to break out in the 90s. At that point, quality wasn’t always necessarily key in determining which bands were signed. What was it like coming back to Chicago and watching that unfold?
Tremulis: You know what, there was a few good groups that came out of that situation. Just like anything else. And then a lot of…
Any time there’s a scene, there’s gonna be some forerunners to it that are great. If I think back on the early punk bands… Richard Hell? Yes. Ramones? Funny. Good. The Clash? Maybe the best one. The Police? Not really that? Elvis Costello? Not really that - but came in through it. And then the rest of them are just kind of ornamental. They’re kind of just trying to grab onto it because it’s a scene. It’s more of a fashion statement.
I think Chicago sort of was always late to the party. And, for this, still late to the party to some extent with the Seattle scene kicking in. But there were a few great bands - and a lot of crummy ones just all trying to sound that way.
But you’ll find that anywhere. I went to Germany during that period and there were a bunch of bands trying to sound like Pearl Jam and that sort of thing and it was bloody awful, man.
The only thing I don’t like about 90s - like I said, there’s some bands I like - but the weirdest thing is we’d never had a scene in Chicago. And it was kind of a strain to suddenly be pushed aside as musicians for this thing that was for a special age group and everything else.
But scenes are always that way. They’re a bit rude. They come in and want the best table in the restaurant, you know?
You hosted "The Eclectic Company” radio program for five years on WXRT. And that show seems like it was kind of a throwback to a bygone era in so many ways - specifically in terms of the way radio has changed. I know you grew up surrounded by music, from both parents, but how important of an influence was the radio for you coming of age in the Chicagoland area at a time when that medium approached its craft a lot differently?
Tremulis: You know, it was really kind of interesting. I remember when my mom was sick, she got a call from Daddy-O Daylie. On air. And stuff like that. So there was a sense of that.
But even those shows that really don’t exist… The Tonight Show is 90 minutes long and they would have Orson Welles on as a guest for ninety minutes. Irv Kupcinet had a show here. Even the more superficial kind of shows - like Playboy After Dark. David Susskind. It was just a more interview oriented thing. And that was considered enough.
So that was really what I kind of what I wanted to get back to - just a nice long conversation.
And I learned with musicians, that if you make them play first, they’ll tell you anything after that. So it was a great thing: they’d play a little and then the revealing was really easy. The starting of the shows were always, “Yeah, I’m OK…” And then you get them to play and then everything’s great.
They play a record that you both had geeked on. And it’s the same thing if you’re sitting playing with somebody, and they play you something, and you both know it, and it freaked you both out - and it was your favorite cut on the record and most people didn’t think that. That’s like a bond. Every time I see that person now, I go, “We both like ‘Without You’ on the Bowie record better than anything else on the Let’s Dance album.” You know what I mean? And it’s like our friendship now is sealed for life.
So that’s what it was really like. I really liked that: finding that moment where our paths intersected. And that made for a great interview.
You’ve had the privilege of working with a long list of incredible artists. But a few names stick out: Keith Richards, Darryl Jones, Blondie Chaplin and Ivan Neville - all of these guys associated with the Rolling Stones. What does the music of the Rolling Stones mean to you after all these years and what’s it like having that association with those players?
Tremulis: It’s kind of funny, because I came to a friendship with Keith Richards when I was on Island because his apartment was above the label. And the producer I was working with also worked with him. And I had heard he was a bookworm - and I was reading a lot. And I would pass him books. I’d say, “Read this and then pass it to Keith. If he hasn’t read it, I’m pretty sure he’d like it.” And so that’s how that started.
The first time I met Keith, I was at an X-pensive Winos show and I didn’t know what to say really. I said to him, “I’m a big fan of your records.” And I was walking out and I shook his hand. And he said to me, “Oh yeah? Which one?” And I said, “The White Album.” And so that started how our friendship was. We kind of goofed with each other.
Honestly, the thing you learn from those guys is that it’s all about comfortability. I’ve never felt more comfortable than when I was recording with Richards. I even played drums on a cut. And I’d never played drums. He just made you feel so at home. And that’s something I learned: that kind of relaxation is really good for creativity.
And it comes with all those guys. They’re all like shaman types. Blondie Chaplin, the same. There’s something about them that’s just more relaxed and more open. Pretend like you own the world, right?
I keep reading that you’re working on a new album called Rarified World. How far along is that project?
Tremulis: Basically, I’m gonna do an Indiegogo coming up with this. And I have someone that’s willing to match the money on that. We’re gonna start that probably in February.
I want to do a completely analog record. Because I still feel like the rhythm of instruments on digital recordings shifts around just enough to sand off some of your fingertips. And I don’t like the feeling of that. So I’m going to make a completely analog record.
The other thing is turning 60. I’m an arranger. That’s the other job I do is a lot of arranging for film scores and stuff.
So, consequently, generally, when I finish a record, due to budget, there’s a lot of instruments that don’t make it to the record and have to stay in my head. But I’m 60 now, my friends are dropping like flies and I’m just like, “You better make a record where…” It’s gonna have about twenty people on each song is what I’m saying.
I want all the stuff out of my head this time. I don’t want to walk around with it anymore.
We obviously live in pretty turbulent times. Has the world in general influenced this new batch of songs?
Tremulis: It can’t not. At times in a more abstract way. Because I come from that time of songwriters where literal writing always seems a little pushed and corny and possibly preachy. But, yeah. It’s totally about now.
It’s totally about this sort of disassociation with our own country. Countries, I guess in general, are somewhat like marriages in that, if we’re young and we’re not married, we think of them as something else. The same way we play army men we were kids - we don’t think of the horrors of war.
So it’s a travelogue in a modern society is the best way to put it. It’s called Rarified World.
It starts with a song called “Red Line” about being on the [CTA] Red Line and goes from there.
Going back to the folk tradition, music has historically been a way for artists to make a social commentary in an effort to beget change. Punk addressed Reagan in the 80s and there was no shortage of artists name checking George W. Bush. But I feel like the role of the artist has changed today in an era where people tend to tune out anything they don’t want to hear or think they don’t agree with…
Tremulis: I don’t think everybody is totally like that. I think the hardest thing is to just stay involved in that situation as you age.
Because life is much more complicated now. We get much more information. So people are always looking for more ways to get away from everything rather than get involved in everything. And that’s the hardest part really - is to make people feel involved in what you do.
The other aspect of it is, we’re a country that, from the beginning of its time, lived around improvisation. From the first time a preacher in church went off script. We’re the great improvisers. We’re the great poor people improvisers. And more and more in music, that improvisation, at least in recording, is disappearing.
Maybe rap is the last improvising you can hear on a record these days that really means anything new and different. And I don’t think that speaks well for our society.
So my job - I really feel it’s our job as musicians - is to make people realize how beautiful improvisation is again. And how important it is to our society. Albert Einstein was a bad ass improviser. He said his best ideas came from looking out a window. And it’s the same with musicians.
We have to become an improvisational society again. And allow the audience to take part in that improvisation.
Nicholas Tremulis & The Prodigal 9 (A 60th Birthday Celebration)
Thursday, January 9, 2020
Doors open at 6PM
Show starts at 8PM
The Prodigal 9...
Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra core members: Derek Brand, Rick Barnes, Larry Beers and John Pirruccello
Plus: Renee “Squeeky” Robinson (Albert Collins)
Roger Reupert (Co-writer and original NTO member)
Jose Rendon (Aretha Franklin, Orbert Davis)
Isiah Oby (Noname, Oby)
James Perkins (Malachi Favors, Ringo Starr)
Tickets start at $22
Click HERE to purchase tickets