INTERVIEW: The Instrumentalist

I’m fairly certain that my penchant for music and eight-count rhythm stems from all the dance courses I took as a child. I’ve always understood the concepts of rhythm and beat and spent a good portion of my adolescence creating elaborate dance routines to classics by the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival. One aspect of music that always alluded me, however, was actually learning to play an instrument. I took flute and guitar lessons and even attended a violin camp, but coaxing a tune out of any kind of instrument has always been impossible for me. I’m guessing it’s because my mind simply doesn’t work in a way that’s conducive to the more technical aspects of musical creation. The precision, forethought and organizational abilities required to create a song are pipe dreams for me. For that reason, I’ve always admired (and envied) those who could play even the simplest of tunes on a guitar or create a steady yet syncopated beat on a drum set.

Nicholas Palumbo

Over the past five years I’ve gotten to know Nicholas Palumbo – a fantastically talented multi-instrumentalist based here in San Diego. A connoisseur of both music and sound production, Nick plays in more bands than I can count and also owns and works as a lead sound-engineer for his recording and photography studio, Gold Standard Studios. Following an evening of live music by “You and I Duo” in which Nick plays guitar alongside singer Julia May Harrington, we were able to chat about how he’s honed his craft and turned his passion into a career.

Busy Blue Eyes: When did you realize that you wanted to become a musician?

Nick Palumbo: I knew I wanted to play music forever the instant I learned my first riff.  It was Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”. My dad taught it to me and I kept playing it so much he actually yelled at me to stop. I just turned the amp off and continued. I’ve been hooked ever since. Being an actual musician, though, probably happened when I was around 18 and I started learning music theory.  I became infatuated with the relations between notes, how to build chords, and learning all the rules of music. My intention was to learn the rules so that I could break them. I ended up using theory as many musicians do – as more of a reference and tool if you get stuck writing.

BBE: Do you think your personality has evolved as a result of your musical inclinations or do you believe that your musical abilities dictated your personality?

NP: I’m not sure. Music has always been sort of instinctual to me. When I was growing up, I would often sing to myself and memorize songs.  My mom was always playing Motown and pop music from the 50’s around the house, so those genres became my favorites in addition to the classic rock my dad introduced me to.  The first song I memorized was “Love Potion No.9” by The Seekers. So I guess I would say my personality evolved from my musicality.

BBE: Do you find yourself having to “turn off” the music-oriented side of your brain to go about a regular day?  

NP: Definitely! But I can’t turn it off! I often wish I could.  Just the other day I was at an industry mixer and I was having problems socializing because of all the noise. Big crowds often make me anxious because of the cacophony of sound. However, if there’s a singular focus of sound, like at a concert, crowds don’t tend to bother me. When the music starts it gives me a sonic point of focus. Without that I become uncomfortable. 

BBE: This makes me think that music can be used as a method of organization or categorization beyond just genre or style, but as a way to structure thought patterns. Maybe this is too abstract of a concept for me to put into words, but – do you find yourself thinking in patterns that are similar to those that are used to create a song? Perhaps you group your thoughts into subcategories within a single idea or task? For example: a song is a single idea, and the subcategories of that song would be intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. For myself, I know that I’m almost exclusively a visual learner and that my best thinking is very linear, like words on a page. In order to remember specific details, I’ll write them down on a piece of paper so that I can see the words written out. Unless I plan to spend the day daydreaming about nothing, I have to consciously go about my day in a very segmented, structured way. Multi-tasking is practically impossible for me. Transitions from one activity to another must be clear and finite if I’m to have any chance of comprehending it. Would you say that you are better at multi-tasking because you are a musician? I would imagine that with music, finite boundaries are few and far between because fluid transitions are sonically appealing. Like a song with no definite end, do you find yourself having run-on thoughts? Are those easy for you to comprehend and organize or do you have to slow your mind down to focus?

NP: I do think music influences my thought process because, like you said, I tend to break things down into parts. It definitely helps with multitasking especially when writing a piece of music because I’ve got to to focus on multiple layers of sound all at once. This skill also lends itself to when I’m performing with a band. It’s essential that I can focus on my part while simultaneously listening to what others are playing and making sure it all sounds harmonious.

BBE: What aspect of the musical process is so appealing to you?

NP: I like getting to create something that conveys emotion. I think music is special because it’s universal and you can make someone feel something even without them knowing you on a personal level. For me, it’s the only art form that can illicit strong, visceral emotions. I enjoy all art, but music is the most powerful to me.

Nicholas Palumbo & Julia May Harrington, performing as “You and I Duo”

BBE: I can totally empathize with you here. While writing is my “art form”, the written word can only be translated into so many languages – and even then you must know how to read in order to comprehend it. Music is like a universal language.

NP: Yeah, although western music is its own category. There are other musical traditions from other cultures whose foundations are completely different than what we might be accustomed to. So it’s almost like melodic sound is the universal language because there are so many different musical traditions in the world.

BBE: Do you have a favorite instrument? Your go-to?

NP: Bass guitar. For some reason I feel the freest playing bass. I like the spot bass holds in modern music as well because I feel it’s the unsung hero. There is something appealing to me about effecting people without them noticing, as bass can have a very subliminal sound.

BBE: Would it be wrong to say that bass is the drum set of the guitar family? It’s also interesting that you feel the freest playing bass. I think of bass as a steady band leader keeping everyone in line. But perhaps there is a certain kind of freedom in leadership?

NP: That’s a fair statement. The bass is very reliant on the rhythm of a song to be effective. I do think the bass player has a leadership presence in a band because more than any other instrument, it bridges the gap between the melodic and rhythmic elements of a song.

BBE: For people who are not musically inclined but would like to be (even if that means just as a listener) where would you tell them to start?

NP: Listen and keep listening to a lot of music.  All different kinds – even stuff you don’t think you’ll like.  Actively listen and try to notice patterns.  All music is in patterns.  There are only 12 notes and four primary beats in western music,
and yet we have no lack for new songs. At its core it’s all very simple, but you have to be able to recognize those patterns in order to appreciate the theory behind it.

BBE: Really? Only 12 notes in western music? I had no idea. Just thinking about all those combinations to make such wildly different sounds is mind boggling… As for listening to recognize those patterns – do you think that’s an innate ability? I’m just thinking about music particularly when it’s used to soothe infants. The steady beat of a drum reminds them of moms’ heartbeat, right? Or am I getting my facts mixed up? Although now that I’m thinking of it, I know several people who can’t hear rhythm at all. I wonder why that is?

NP: I believe it can be innate but it can also be learned.  In general, people like harmonic sounds as oppose to dissonant sounds, and they don’t need to be taught that.

BBE: You’ve made music your career – do you ever worry that you will somehow fall out of love with it?

NP: I don’t worry about that because I view music in a much different way now as opposed to when I was just starting out. To me, all music is basically equal, but there are types I love and types I don’t. They all hold value, though. By categorizing it that way, I can somewhat disconnect when I’m playing something I don’t like and just focus on being entertaining and executing a good version of it. For the music I love, I can’t imagine getting tired of it. 

Nick and his wife Kristen at Gold Standard Studios

BBE: That’s a super interesting perspective. I’ve never thought of it that way, but you’re completely right. I’ve never considered compartmentalizing what we love from what we’re able to do well.  

 BBE: What’s the greatest song there ever was?   …or does such a song exist?

NP: Holy shit, that’s a tough question.  I can’t say there is a singular greatest song because taste is completely subjective.  I will tell you one of my all-time favorites, though. The last song on David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is called “Rock and Roll Suicide”. It’s one of my all-time favorites because it has everything I listen for in a song.  It has an interesting structure that develops throughout the song and does not repeat, the chords are unpredictable and beautiful, the vocal performance is impassioned and powerful, and to top it off it wraps up the entire album in the most perfect way. I get excited just thinking about that song! I would, however, recommend listening to the whole album if you want to get the full impact of the song, as it works best as a part of a whole.

BBE: If you could have every important person in your life listen to a single song – what would it be?

NP: I really couldn’t pick a single song. I’d want to choose a song for each person.  If I absolutely had to choose a single song though, I would pick David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”.  That’s another near perfect song and it stands all on its own.

BBE: If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

NP: Learn to play piano and read music.  I really wish I had gotten a more formal training because it would have helped expedite my career in music. 

BBE: How so? Do you think that the ability to read music would open more doors creatively or career-wise?

NP: It’s purely for the sake of the career.  I lose opportunities because I cannot read staff.  When you learn piano you’re learning theory at the same time, so I believe being a good piano player makes you a better musician overall.

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To learn more about Nick and Gold Standard Studios, visit their Instagram page. Catch “You and I Duo” all around San Diego and find out where they’re playing next via their website.

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