The observational lyrics of San Diego’s Chronic Tiger are deceptively haunting. Sometimes self-effacing, occasionally peppered with bruised confidence, and always awash in memories — musician Nathan Kowalski’s debut album, Nowhere with You, doesn’t shy away from confessional knob-turners. This record is anything but benign. Cinema Spartan interviewed Kowalski and producer Justyn Bell about the process of creating an LP that feels both feverishly present and of the past.
Cinema Spartan: Lyrically, there is a lot of texture. From isolated roads to tufts of grass. There’s wanderlust but also a state of static melancholy. I am reminded of “Another Tunguska” by Cymbals Eat Guitars in the way that the songwriting is so vivid and yet mysterious. What is your process when choosing words and creating imagery?
Nathan Kowalski: When I was younger I struggled with lyrics, either because I didn’t like doing it or I didn’t feel confident in the result. I was trying too hard to be prolific or something. My main goal when I sat down to write was to keep it simple and have it come from a place of honesty. As you can hear, I wasn’t trying to re-write any playbooks lyrically or musically. It’s all just a big collection of memories, feelings, or non-sense lines that syllabically sound good in the songs. But I’m also not a fan of lyrics that are too literal or on-the-nose so I intentionally keep it vague at times. Somehow that formula worked, and when I took a step back and looked at what I had I was actually satisfied with it. I love Cymbals Eat Guitars by the way.
Orange County is a central figure throughout the record. That being said, would you label “Nowhere With You” a kind of concept album?
Nathan: I certainly didn’t plan it that way. I was just trying to write catchy individual songs in hopes that it would be a good album. Once each one had its theme and I started planning the track order, it really did turn into a concept record of sorts. Of course there was always a central meaning in my head when I was writing, but in the end the whole thing just worked out that way I guess.
The album has a dichotomy of frothy, upbeat instrumentation and sullen, often times aching lyrics. What was discussed when bridging the two together?
Nathan: The feeling and meaning of songs for me has always primarily come from the music itself. We’re high energy people and we wanted to reflect that in our sound. I think we succeeded in that sense. But the entire process was also therapeutic. I could turn to it and focus my positive energy when everything else around me wasn’t going how I wanted it. So when I began writing, that aspect of my life and my mentality seeped in and I didn’t have as much control over it. I had to trust myself and go with what came out the other end. That’s where that juxtaposition comes from.
What album changed the way you look at music?
Nathan: When we were first starting I thought about all the artists and all the genres that had been such an important part of my life. I asked myself “When was the last time I just had fun playing music? Can I just do that again? Is it even still relevant?” Joyce Manor’s Never Hungover Again and Cloud Nothing’s Here and Nowhere Else revitalized my spirit for that sound and assured me that it could still be done. They were like records I would have loved in 2001 but they still felt relevant.
Justyn Bell: Green Day’s Nimrod. It was my first exposure to this sort of fast, abrasive, pop punk in junior high, and shaped my musical tastes throughout high school and into college. It holds a lot of nostalgia and good times within it, for me.
The writing and recording process took place over several years. How did the themes, content, and production change from the original vision?
Nathan: There was never any real plan or vision in the beginning. I just wanted to make an album. We had worked for years recording and experimenting and building out a process in the studio, but there was never any end result. It was just for fun. This time I felt I had enough to put it all together, but it didn’t actually take years to record this album. It took about 15 minutes to say “Hey, let’s finally make the record”, then another 15 minutes to realize how shitty I really was at everything I played, then two and a half years of grinding daily practice to get it to a presentable standard, then about 9 months to actually record and mix everything. I have the original, original demos on my computer somewhere. I will take those to my grave. They are not pretty.
Justyn: To say the production changed by light years from the initial concept would be an understatement. We went into this project with a decent skill-set and gear arsenal to handle some of the recording process, but a lot, like recording vocals, was learned during this album.
“There’s nothing that I can do” is a heck of a line to end the album on. There’s true punctuation in that decision. Did you feel that the title track was the final catharsis?
Nathan: Absolutely. I knew early on that that song would be the final track. There really is a formula to structuring a cohesive album, and the more it unfolds in front of you the more you understand it. All the songs seemed to fall into place on their own. That’s kinda the theme of “Out of My Hands”. I had to learn not to push and struggle prematurely to get things how I want them. I just let it unfold and it happens as it should. It’s a total lack of control that’s daunting but also beautiful.
Justyn: I think Nowhere With You is the perfect way to end the album. It’s one of the more uptempo songs and is relatively short, and wide-open. It’s like a quick underline for emphasis to the rest of the songs.
You’re are now both living in San Diego, almost immediately after the release of the record. Now that you’re removed from the location, do you see Orange County differently?
Nathan: Not really. I’m sure I’ll miss it eventually, but I’m pretty desensitized at this point. Except for a couple nods here and there, I would say the album is more about figuring out who you are and what you want versus being in one particular place or another. In the end it’s the people around you that make the real impact, not your location on a map.
Would the band ever score a film, and if so, what kind of movie would it be?
Nathan: Hmmm I don’t know, I don’t think this type of music is quite up to par. Unless it was on Disney channel or something.
Justyn: I would be down. The movie would be almost certainly be the late 90’s/early 2000’s equivalent of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, except set in Santee.
Finally, when does the single, “Oh Ana,” get a music video?
Nathan: Whoever directs videos for Ben Kweller would probably be the man or woman for the job. If they’re interested, maybe one day.
Justyn: One of the most fun parts of the whole process is working with people who are extremely talented at what they do, like Nathan working with Shelby on album art, or us working with Ron on the mastering process. I’d love to work with a videographer to do a music video, I think that would be a lot of fun and a learning experience.