Saturday, 8 December 2007

New Music Series: #2 Niko Taylor

The second featured artist in our New Music Series is original NYC Man Niko Taylor. As a solo musician Niko's wide-reaching tastes have given him a large musical canvas with which to work, as I found out when interviewing him late last month.

A conversation with Niko Taylor.

Why don’t you start by introducing yourself...
Sure. Well, I'm 26 years old and I live in Brooklyn, New York. I work as a freelancer copyeditor and proofer, mainly for university presses.

Music for me is a hobby, though one that I'm very serious about. Right now, it's more about just doing something creative and being true to it - not really about any dreams of worldwide success or anything like that.

I guess working freelance gives you a bit more freedom than most to pursue your music then..
Yes, definitely. I still work a lot of hours, but I can structure my day so that I have plenty of time to write. For example, I'll work for, say, two hours, and then have an hour break.

And since I work from home, my guitar and piano are right there. It's a really good situation for following my muse.

And it's not just for writing - I can also work on recordings this way as well -- over the course of a day, I might lay down a track or two. It's really nice.

You mentioned the guitar and piano, are they the main songwriting tools you turn to when an idea pops into your head?
You know, it's funny - I'm a guitar player. That's what I've played for years, that's what I took lessons on. But recently my wife and I got a really nice electric piano - one of those that really feels like a piano. And having that around, that's turned into my main writing tool. My skills are pretty basic, but it really helps me to think about my songs in a different context.

I like the fact that I don't know what I'm doing exactly. I think that way I avoid common chords and changes, which I know so well on the guitar - They may very well be standard on the piano, too, but since I don't know that instrument as well, it sounds very fresh to me.

Listening to your recordings, it's certainly apparent you are capable of covering a broad spectrum of musical styles. Being open to learning new instruments can only bring more colours to the palate...
Well, I could see that. I suppose no two songs do sound the same. But really, I think that's a result of how I write.

I don't sit down and say, “I should write a song about” ... well, whatever. How I feel, what I see, whatever.

What will happen is I'll be sitting listening to music, and something in a song strikes me - It's instantaneous, sometimes only a few seconds of a song.

So, I go over to the piano and try to write it myself. And the variety of things I listen to is what I think causes the variety in my sound.

Take the song 'Goodbye,' for instance, that was my version of a 50's girl group song - I heard 'Walking in the Sand' by The Shangri-La's and said, "Oh, I gotta write my own version of that!"

So you set out to (re)create a certain sound when writing, as opposed to sitting down and saying ‘I want to write a power ballad in the style of...’
Yes, it's all about sound - and for me, the lyrics follow from that. I'll have some nonsense words as I'm trying to recreate a certain sound, and as I work it out, those will slowly morph into a fully formed idea.

But it's not always about genre, sometimes it's just about a certain rhythm. Like, the song 'Together Alone' was written after hearing ‘Cut My Hair’, a Who song on Quadrophenia that had a great, marching, pulsing guitar rhythm - just the cadence of it, that's what I was after, not necessarily "70's concert album rock," you know?

So, going though my own imagination, my own style, my background, these varied influences come out sounding nothing like the originals - Especially when they transfer instruments as well - Because they usually start on the piano but wind up on the guitar!

It always amazes me where they start out from and where they end.

The process of making music is one which has always amazed me, even as you say, how one song can change from its inception to the finished product.
Totally - I am so fascinated by it. That's why I love listening to bootlegs of artists I love - Often times you can hear how a song changes through various versions - Or how images or lines start in one song and wind up in another (Bruce Springsteen does that one a lot!)

Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I am exactly the same when it comes to bootlegs, just hearing one little bit of improv makes a song seem so much better. For example, I listened to an old PJ bootleg from 95 last night and Even Flow came on with a different intro and I was in heaven for the next five minutes!
You know, a nice example re: Pearl Jam is the transformation of Light Years - Have you heard the earlier version of it? What's it called?

Puzzles and Games...
Yes - isn't that fascinating? To hear what bits of the song worked and what didn't?
God, I love comparing and contrasting like that - It gives you a chance to get inside the artist's head, to hear what they thought would be good, what they tried, what they ditched, what they kept. So fascinating.

And I don't think the two versions have too many note for note similarities, there are parts of the chorus that are more upbeat, and I think they have rewritten the verses to match the beat that the chorus carries...

I want to say the verses on the final version have a sort of plodding pace, but that’s the wrong word...
I think that's accurate. But I think you're right - maybe after they finished Puzzles and Games, they heard the chorus again, and said, you know, that's what we want this song to be - But they couldn't have gotten there without writing the whole damn first version of the song!

So, who has inspired you to pick up the guitar?
Well, I was inspired to pick up the guitar by Guns N Roses, actually.

They were your first musical love?
I was really into them when I was like 8 or 9 years old, and that's what inspired me to ask my Mom for a guitar and guitar lessons.

I remember listening to Appetite for Destruction so many times that I wore out the cassette tape - you know, like it literally wouldn't play anymore!

I always think its funny when people say that they were really into music at such a young age, I never really got into music of any sort until my teens hit, I think Nimrod by Green Day was my 'Appetite for Destruction'
Yeah, I don't know, I was really struck by hard rock - Guns N Roses, and Bon Jovi, but it was Pearl Jam (and Nirvana) that got me into songwriting and playing in a band, and that didn't happen until high school, ninth grade, 1995 or so.

Listening to your music, your tastes have obviously widened considerably since then...
Yes, they really have. I mean, I was in a very PJ-influenced band in high school, but I've broadened my scope since then.

But you know what's funny? Pearl Jam was in many ways responsible for that. I think they were, and still are, a great band to get obsessed with as a growing musician, because they are really into rock history.

So through them, I learned about the Who and Neil Young. And Neil Young I think was a huge influence for me, especially in where my music has gone since then.

I understand, the same thing happened to me. By listening to Green Day, I was turned onto other 'mainstream' bands and then I hit on Red Hot Chili Peppers, and kinda became obsessed with the melodic nature of their playing, and looked for traits like that in other bands. Eventually I was turned on to a bunch of bands that influenced them, like Thelonious Monk, which just opened up new worlds...

Its like a domino effect...
I know. It's similar to what we were talking about with songwriting. It's amazing where something stars and where it ends.

Neil Young is perhaps one of the greatest influences you could wish to have, because you could listen to his style of guitar playing and his voice, which is in the upper registers and think that he would be limited by that, but instead he has a 30-40 year career that covers wide and vastly differing scopes of the musical landscape.
Well, in some ways, he and I were a good match because my voice is in the upper register also. I think he's keyed into something about songwriting - Something very basic, very simple. And listening to a ton of Neil Young I think makes you more creative, not less creative.

Which I think is different from, say, Paul McCartney. Personally, I don't think a lot of people hear Paul McCartney and say, Hey, I could do that - Because so few of us could!

But with Neil Young, I think he does something very simple, very basic, and does it very well, that it liberates you - Or, well, liberates me.

Do you feel creatively inhibited by McCartney?
Yes, I do - And even some John Lennon, though he's probably my other biggest influence.

But the parts of him that are more like Neil Young - the simple, rough, primal John Lennon - White Album onward, and then especially the early solo stuff like Plastic Ono Band.

But sometimes he's too much like me - like I hear a song like 'Look at Me' on Plastic Ono Band, or 'Crippled Inside' on Imagine, and I think “Jesus Christ, this is like my dream song to write - Yet he wrote it already!”

But that's different from McCartney, where he's doing things I would never think to do - Or he's doing things I don't even understand, because he's on such a high and complicated level.

While I agree that musicians like McCartney have abilities few others possess, I am very much of the opinion that it is harder to write a simple, accessible pop song than hide behind walls of complexity...
Yes, I agree - I totally agree - Simplicity is harder than complexity!

That's not to say I can't or don't appreciate bands or artists whose sound is based in complex song structures.
I guess what I'm saying is that I think people like Neil Young and John Lennon wore the process on their sleeve, whereas McCartney is so good at it that it seems effortless - he hides all the hard work behind it, or the emotional rawness that goes into it.

I think the man is a genius - He is the best at making the simple, perfect pop song - I guess I just personally don't learn a lot from him - I mean, learn about the craft of songwriting, for myself, just the style, I guess.

Growing up, were you part of a musical family, so to speak?
No, not at all. Nobody in my family is a musician. It's just something that I found on my own.

I only ask because I know your wife (Jillian Lubow) collaborates on some of these recordings with you.
Yes! There's a song, Say Yes, which I wrote, but she did all the vocals. My wife, by the way, is an amazing singer songwriter!

But we're so different - Like, my creative process I described to you, it's so different from hers. She sits down and says, I want to write a song about this, and then she just works away at it. She's less scattershot, less random than I am.

But I learn a lot from her - I love her words. They're poetic, smart, sassy, witty, funny, and they tell a story.

A lot of times, I think of the words as an afterthought, so a lot of times they come out like R.E.M. lyrics (another huge influence of mine) - You know, just random poetic phrases, but nothing super coherent... Just evocative.

But some of the stuff I'm working on now is trying to have some more lyrical clarity. The next song I'm gonna record was inspired by Springsteen's Nebraska album - I tried to sit down and really write about something.

I wanted to ask early on, are you living in New York or San Francisco now, as I gathered you were living in San Fran quite recently...
That's right - I'm back in NY, which is my permanent home. Jill and I went out to SF on a temporary basis - sublet our place in BK and then got a sublet in San Fran, just to test it out - but we're back now.

Being able to do that is one of the perks of being a freelancer.

But New York is definitely my home, geographically, spiritually, musically, everything.

I ask because both cities are steeped in musical history, but very different musical histories...
I think of NYC and the punk rock of the Ramones and Velvet Underground, and the downtown scene, as well as the inner city rap scene, whereas I associate San Francisco more with the hippy movement of the 60s.
Actually, in college, I did my honours English thesis on the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol and the whole 1960s NY downtown scene. If you go to, you can find a version of the paper, which was published at PopMatters.

Musically, I'm definitely more of a NY guy than an SF guy - Mamas and Papas, Grateful dead, etc.? Eh, they're OK... But I got really into the downtown punk thing - Velvets, Talking Heads, Dylan, Blondie, the whole thing... That to me is just the epitome of cool - that hard edged, gritty, tough attitude.

And if I'm ever in a full band again (which is very possible - it's in my plans), I would love to have that kind of sound - You know, the kind of band that could just rip into a good Velvets or Stooges cover?

Just a punk rock power trio, rough around the edges?
Well - Oh, I don't know! Because then I'd also want a country western tinged rockability outfit - Kind of like Bob Dylan's recent bands. Oh, I just want to go in a million different directions, which, in a way, brings us back to where we started - The variety in my music.

I'm all over the place, but I think that's a virtue - I mean, I don't know, but it's the only way I can be.


To enjoy Niko's music for yourself, download this 6 track EP:

1. Because Of You
2. Goodbye
3. In My Head
4. Never Gonna Cry
5. Together, Alone
6. Say Yes (Feat. Jillian Lubow)

Download Link:

You can check out Niko's blog at

To hear more of Jillian's work head to or

To read Niko's thesis on the 60s downtown scene, which was published in PopMatters, go to

PLEASE leave feedback and let us know what you thought of this feature, the interview, and most importantly, the music.


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