Part of Aug 2011 by

Interview with Nik Freitas

I have known for quite a while that I wanted to write about the show at Stubb’s happening on Saturday, August 6th. Avi Buffalo and Nik Freitas playing on the same bill! I know, right? Pretty awesome! But then I realized that I needed to choose one of them for the focus of this article… My penchant for the underdog finally won over my unbridled love for Avi Buffalo, so I promptly phoned Freitas for an interview…

Who is Nik Freitas? Well, you may have heard (or seen) Freitas play without ever even knowing it. Freitas has been a member of Conor Oberst’s Mystic Valley Band since early 2008; he played guitar on and toured for Oberst’s 2008 self-titled solo album, and 2009’s Outer South (on which Freitas earned himself songwriting credit for three tracks). Then, Freitas spent most of 2010 touring as part of Broken Bells (the musical collaboration of the Shins’ singer/guitarist James Mercer and Danger Mouse). According to Freitas, “I really enjoy playing in [other] bands. The pressure is off and I can concentrate on just one thing:  what I’m playing. It is a job–an incredible job–that I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to do. I’ll do it for the rest of my life. As long as I get to do music, it’s fine with me.”

Freitas is also a self-taught singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist; in fact, he has played and recorded every note and every beat on his five full-lengths and one EP thus far. With his most recent full-length album, Saturday Night Underwater, Freitas has found intriguing ways to integrate vintage synthesizers, drum machines, and analog sound generators with the acoustic instruments that are much more familiar to his previous recordings. Freitas says, “There are some songs [on Saturday Night Underwater] that I made a few different complete versions of. I love [self-recording], but it is out of necessity. I have never had a recording budget. In the future it might be nice to have more people play on my recordings, but we’ll see what happens. And it is almost cool that there is stuff that I don’t know how to do. I don’t really know how to play guitar, man. There’s something about the unknown. Sometimes if you know too much, it can get in the way. If I had some kind of recording budget I would hear orchestras and stuff like that on my records. I wanted to learn the basics of how to record a song, but as far as learning how to play a trumpet…no way.”

Freitas also points out that his approach to songwriting has changed over time, “I am still learning how to play, but on my early records I was really learning how to play. I think I was trying to make the songs more complicated, chord-wise. Over time, the chords have become simpler and I have focused more on the melodies. The chords follow the melodies now, rather than how I used to develop the chord structure first, and then come up with the melody afterwards. And, I have learned that the shorter [the song] the better – especially nowadays, people’s attention spans are dusted.”

Something that really appeals to me about Freitas is his knack for lyrical ambiguity. With age, Freitas finds himself becoming “more in love with the actual music than the words.” He goes on to explain, “I definitely don’t like writing about politics, even though I am hugely politically interested. I like to know what the fuck is going on. But I can’t do it; I don’t feel like I have the right to have an opinion on certain subject matter. In the end it is whatever someone thinks, that’s their deal. I am more interested in having an emotion and writing a song that is not obvious. I don’t want to tell people what my songs are about because I think it will ruin it. I just really try to write things that are more universal, that are still coming from a totally real place.”

Listening to the intricate layers of sounds throughout Saturday Night Underwater, and knowing that Freitas typically tours as a one-man band, I found myself trying to imagine the songs performed live. But Freitas has found ways to work more elements into his live set; for example, “usually the band I am opening up for will learn a song or two of mine. Avi Buffalo played one song with me last night [in Philadelphia]; by the time we get to Austin they might be playing two of my songs. That always helps! And I am trying to integrate technology [into my live sets]. I brought a couple synthesizers and drum machines along on this tour, so that’s going on for sure.”

Since he always seems to be opening for other bands whenever he tours, Freitas doesn’t think he has many fans that are specifically at his gigs to see him. “I do have fans, which I think is really awesome, and I do really appreciate when people know my records; but you have to be honest with yourself, and every time I am opening for someone I am just trying to make new fans. I have been playing in front of young audiences for a while now, and I am not sure if it goes over too well with them. The Avi Buffalo fans have been very respectful so far–knock on wood–a lot of times you’ll play solo and everyone is talking and you can’t hear.”

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