Q&A: NARC's Nicky Smith On Working Alone, Writer's Block, And Korn's Badass Guitar Tone
Mister Hands, the debut album from NARC, is the sound of Balimore's Nicky Smith bisecting and pinning to cork several the electric guitar's sonic flavors: the panning-stereo patty-cake blare of "Gangrene/Snickers"; the drowsy, Drunken Master splay of "Sweater"; "Don't Touch," which bear-hugs a meat and potatoes butt-metal riff while filtering everything through a thin skein of distortion; and "Charles Rats Get It On Olson," which suggests a cross between obsessive, stress-fracture inducing scale practice on an un-tuned axe and a haunted shutter camera trying to destroy itself. Dizzying, convulsive, meditative, and downright alien in spots"The Bomb" pensively channels teletype clicks and sci-fi FXHands represents a confident start to Smith's career as a songwriter, even as the world of filmmaking beckons.
SOTC emailed with Smith about Mister Hands, why he calls himself "NARC," and plans for his first feature.
What inspired the sobriquet "NARC"?
I like the idea of someone who works alone. A narc is someone you can't really trust: a pariah among pariahs. I'm not a part of any scene, and I find a lot of the noise-niks around Baltimore to be just as contemptible and moronic as Kings of Leon or Justin Bieber. So I'm interested in calling out people or things that are off-limits or sensitive because it bugs me that no one else does.
The "underground" feels just as stilted and staid as Top 40 these days: lots of glad-handing and laziness. NARC is all about Fountainhead-style individualism. You know, "I'm right and let me show you how wrong you are."
"Underground" is a really loaded term these days.
You're right; that's not the right word at all. I'm not really sure how to put it. I guess I've been disappointed in a lot of the bands and records that have come out in the last few years. I mean, you have forever to make your first record, and a lot of these albums are basically glorified demos. And yet you have these guys playing 1,000+capacity venues, not knowing what to do or how to follow it up. I don't blame the bands as much as Pitchfork and blogs; they blow bands up before they're ready, and then the bands can't hang. Remember Tapes n' Tapes and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah?
Tell me about your first experiences with playing guitar. How old were you when you picked one up, and what was the situation? Did you ever play as part of a band?
I learned how to play the bass when I was nine years old. The hook in Korn's "Freak on a Leash"the snake-y high part that starts the songI thought the bass did that, so I picked bass, and my brother played guitar. We took lessons from George Tabb, a local punk-mensch from the bands Roach Motel and Furious George.
The first song I ever learned was "Brain Stew" by Green Day. Insomniac is still one of my favorite records ever. Green Day and Nirvana are what made me want to play guitar and write songs. I got the basics down, but was so discouraged by the learning curve that I didn't start playing a lot again until 2007, maybe. I was in two bands before NARC: first was Quid Pro Quo, in middle school, with my friend Jack Patterson. That was all over the place, sound collage, noise, rock songspretty much figuring out what pedals did for the first time.
Then at the beginning of high school I was in a band called Engine with my friend Jake Lingan. That was samples and synths; very demented, psychedelic pop songs, but live we were never that locked inthere was a nice teetering feeling to the live set because the samples were never quantized or anything, so you'd get this cool "drift," as Eric Copeland says. By the time Engine ended, I was pretty burnt out on working with other people's samples, and there was (and continues to be) a real oversaturation of that stuff. There's just so much more you can do with the guitar.
Man, "Freak On A Leash"! I made fun of that song for the longest time when it was popular, but then all of a sudden I became a Korn fan without even realizing it was happening.
I still like some Korn. They have a badass guitar tone. And they play in Drop A. "Here to Stay," "Falling Away From Me" are great, too.