Guitarist/vocalist Justin Dick may sing about the absence of heroes of old, but if there's anything Dick and his band Niche prove on their new LP, it's that guitar heroes are alive and well.
Niche’s Retro Futurist debut, Heading East, is a tidal epic, sending listeners roaming across expanses of hot, hard-beaten earth and soaring them skyward in airy, psychedelic swirls. Sprawling out of the dynamic dueling guitars of Dick and Niche’s newest member Kris Maedke-Russell, their huge, ‘70s-steeped sound is awakened by Corey Barhorst’s organ, Mike Redmond’s full-throttle bass, and the incredible chops of drummer Lee Vallier. Across the board, there’s a transcendental, road-ready influence that Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin, and even Grateful Dead fans can all equally get behind.
The band is currently touring to promote Heading East. I gave Dick a ring while both our bands were on the road (he was hanging out at Maedke-Russell’s mom’s abode in Milwaukee, I was dripping sweat onto a Tampa bar’s patio) to learn more about the making of Heading East.
We listened to the album on the drive down here—love it. Niche has always kind of been known as a Southern Rock band, but off the bat, this one has a really Southwestern feel to it.
Yeah, it’s a good bit different than the others.
It has this kind of smoky haze to it. What were you going for this go-round?
Well, the songs were already heading in that direction from the last record. Basically, it was getting Kris on and having second guitar. We kind of focused more melody-wise and structurally-wise...we were focusing more on two guitars and using that dynamic; it naturally progressed.
I really love how there are these Neil Young vibes in parts, that Pink Floyd atmospheric feel in others, but you can listen to any section and it’s clearly a Niche record—there’s still those big, distinct guitars. How did things change when Kris joined the band?
Other Side of the End, we'd just finished that when Corey and me were going back and forth talking...'what think about a second guitar?'
I was like, ‘I’d be down to try it.’ And he was friends with Kris and I was like, ‘alright, bring him on and we’ll jam’—and everything clicked. After Other Side of the End, we didn’t end up touring—we got something completely new here.
For the next year after that, we focused on writing new material and how to make it specifically tailored, now having Kris in the band. We naturally let things go from there, writing songs, getting really tight, and ended up recording up at The Jam Room.
Had y’all been talking to Phillip [Cope, of label Retro Futurist and Kylesa] before Retro Futurist got interested?
We had the two albums we self-released, and Phillip was already interested in recording this material.
Of course, Corey has history with Phillip, and we grew up together—I’ve known him since I was a teenager, and he’s recorded my bands in the past. So I was familiar with working from him at a younger age...he showed interest, and just wanted to be a part of it. We hadn’t worked together in awhile, but we went ahead and got up in the studio and recorded everything.
Later on after that, he talked about Retro Futurist. We had planned on doing the same ol’ self-release—with this, we wanted to spend more time and money and focus on it.
Is it a collaborative effort of writing guitar parts? Is the writing focused around them?
Mainly on guitars, it’s natural. I’ll come up with a strong structure—mainly like a verse, chorus and maybe sometimes a bridge, usually—then, this album a lot of it, me and Kris got together and he’d help me fine-tune what should be where. Most guitar parts we kind of come up with—especially with the dual leads—are written in the song when we’d get together with everybody else and jam. We take the initial simple structure of verse-chorus and just kind of expand on that.
What's it like writing those dual leads? Is a lot of jamming out?
A lot of stuff with me and Kris, it’s a lot of back and forth. He’s got a real good ear for melody that I don’t necessarily hear. I focus on how vocals go through the song, and he’s got a good ear for finding an underlying melody. He’ll come up with a riff, and we’ll expand on that. It’s real natural—we’re not like, ‘this part needs dual guitars,’ ‘an underlying melody would be cool to throw in there’—it just kind of happens naturally.
The album art is really beautiful.
Thanks, Samantha Muljat and Sarah Winkle did it. They've done a couple other album covers for EARTH and some other bands. For this album, we just wanted to do something completely different: we decided to get out of town record it, decided to go with somebody completely outside of family and friends [for art], which we'd rarely done in past. Just wanted to try something new. They shot on location in California on a lake, and through email we were able to come to final product.
Wait, that's a photo?!
Yeah! I sent early rough version of album for inspiration. Then yeah, they took pictures, then I guess ran it through whatever filters in Photoshop and came up with overall art.
It feels super-Houses of the Holy.
That's exactly it!
Lyrically, there's a very heroic vibe throughout the record. What were you going for when you were writing the lyrics?
Honestly, lyrics are always secondary for me. Once a song starts coming close to finishing, I just kind of get into the mood of the song and go from there without having an overall strong theme right away. I let it happen, but physically I can think of going off of the mood and go from there.
Yeah, the closer—"the eye that's always watching us..."—has that Pink Floyd, smoky feel. The guitars really set the mood before the vocals come in.
That song›s specifically a mixture of like, kind of cryptic, but still an underlying message of distrust of the world surrounding us, feeling government and media and everything, and still very kind of like, coming from a punk rock-y feel.
When's vinyl coming in?
They were both pressed at the same time—so we'll do vinyl and a full album release on November 6. We're just anxious to get them, so we'll do the CD release now, and it gives a chance to get out on the road and create buzz for when the album's in.