Miami based Singer-songwriter Nick County said it best when he described his music as “capital C country music” — the C stands for chihuahua. County’s debut album In the Valley of the Red Sun combines classic western lyrics with a more contemporary sound. The album – an eleven track blend of slow, dreamy songs and fun/upbeat tracks can be listened to on his website. I talked to Nick about all things music and chihuahua.
INTERVIEW WITH NICK COUNTY
CONOR (HIGHLARK):Your name is Nick Mencia, but as an artist and musician you go by Nick County — where does this name come from?
NICK COUNTY: Nick County was coined by a buddy from my Brooklyn days, Thomas Arsenault (Mas Ysa) who used to have a studio in his apartment off the Glasslands space. One day we were recording, and I asked for him to bounce me a disc to listen to at home, and he scribbled “Nick County” on the CD. I can’t remember if it was typo, or Thomas being cheeky, but I liked it instantly as, at the time, I was very unabashed about making capital C country music (even while recording in a studio stocked with homemade electronic instruments and gourds and stuff and being adjacent to two of the hottest Brooklyn DIY spaces at the time, haha) and the name was very close to center, obviously.
Also, I thought it would be a little smart to pretend I wasn’t the son of two immigrants in case I had a hit that could go super mainstream country airways and impress all the racist rednecks of my youth and their carbon copies in all the small towns of the United States, and having a last name you can pronounce and is very easy to connect to country music, kinda like “Nick Haybale” —seemed a very savvy marketing move.
Also, around that time I was high and sitting on someone’s couch downtown in a small city in upstate New York at 3am and I saw a commercial for this guy Carlos Mencia’s show, which instantly destroyed any chance or interest I would ever have of using my real name for anything good– entertainment, art, or otherwise.
CONOR:Your album “In the Valley of the Red Sun” is by Nick County and the Big Texas Assholes – who are the Big Texas Assholes?
NICK: The Big Texas Assholes are the virtual reality backing band of Nick County, played by actual people for recording purposes that come from Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and New Jersey, respectively.
This is my first solo record, but I decided I didn’t like the idea of being up there all by myself (even if “up there” wasn’t a real place, as I had no intentions of playing any of this live with a full band which I hope I am making that very clear in case Coachella reads this which I know they will and they keep emailing me and calling me from different phones as if I don’t know its them as soon as I see the 442 area code).
I’m a super insecure guy, and being in a band at least partially inoculates you from the terror of standing up in front of people and playing songs about your insecurities. I also have a big mouth and used to get into a lot of fights because of it. I figured if I was going to get a band and go out there again, I better have some big ham fisted lug nut chewing no necks for the inevitable jams I get myself into with the strangers who are always trying to bootleg my style and take my women and chihuahuas. Everyone in Texas I ever met was really nice, much nicer than the rednecks in Pennsylvania, or New York City, or Puerto Rico. And so you have The Big Texas Assholes.
I liked the idea of referencing a certain era of country music, with the shit kicking band of degenerates crisscrossing Texas melting faces and taking no names from behind the chicken wire, and the name was supposed to conjure that, as well as make a nod to Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys who gotta be the best playing and looking and named band ever.
I pictured a squad of rural miscreants who looked super tough, but would also be the types to walk old ladies on their way to church across the street in the daylight and maybe pick them a bunch of blue bonnets to hold. If I had these badass bros and old lady bros on my team, I would always feel safe at home and in all the crazy deep dark dungeons of my mind. Please note, the actual people who played on this record are mostly dear friends, and very nice people, and def not Assholes most of them most of the time.
CONOR: When did you get your start in music?
NICK: I started playing cello when I was 7 or 8. Played Saxophone like Bill Clinton in Middle School, picked up the bass like a boss after that playing in bands in highschool, and then made my way to guitar and started writing my own songs after my posh art post math noise rock band mates didn’t wanna play a set of Hank Sr. covers for the radio station BBQ mixer.
CONOR: Who, or what, were some of the biggest inspirations for the album?
NICK: I would say the inspiration for this record was staying alive and not giving in to evil forces that seemed at the time to be ever powerful and always snaking around. David’s mom Annette hung out with us for a week, drank wine, talked Patsy Cline, watched Jeopardy with us, gave us the essential smoked whitefish and pumpernickel, and I feel like she influenced me a lot at the exact time when we were laying down the vox. Shout out to Annette and the NY Yankees, love you both!
CONOR:I love the album cover! Who did the art for it and what were you going for with it?
NICK: That cover is a photograph of a shadow box, both done by my very talented wife, Tessa Mencia. At some point, she introduced me to the assemblages of Joseph Cornell, which really knocked me out. We thought it would make sense to have something in this medium, and also a bit of the man/human/animal vs nature thing going on. Something bleak and uplifting, squaded-out and lonely still felt correct. The red sun is kind of a nod to one of my favorite books of all time by Samuel Delany, Dhalgren. I gave Tessa some pretty broad and kooky directions and she really crushed it. I would hire her again.
CONOR:The album cover includes dozens of chihuahuas, and so does your Instagram! Where did this love come from?
NICK: Chihuahuas are small, loyal, fierce, and fluctuate from being wild and hyperactive to super pensive and sedentary with little to no space in between. So yeah, I feel a kinship with them. I have two of my own, have many others that I’m bros with and on a first name basis with, and I am also the dude who will want to stop and greet any Chihuahua or Chihuahua mix I encounter on the street, or rubberneck from the window of my car when I see one driving around here in Miami (they are terrible drivers).
That image of a thousand wild Chihuahuas in their natural habitat of the endless desert expanse, all packed up, free and self-actualized, and standing tall became kind of an important visual mantra for me — representing strength and solidarity and brotherhood, and I’m glad we were able to merge all of this. Unfortunately, when we moved, the actual box got jostled and all that delicate sand with it contours was destroyed. I am trying to get my wife to re-make it, but she hates me and says she will never work with me again (just kidding, we are v in love and she thinks I’m pretty funny and nice most of the time and also the best songwriter in Florida so it’s tough to leave).
CONOR: Your album is very much a solo work, but you have a lot of cool features! Tell me a little bit about that.
NICK: Yeah, it really didn’t feel like a solo record at all, but since everything I had released up until this point was with a band, I guess it’s appropriate. I co-wrote a few of these songs with two of my favorite people. Broken Poem and NEPA with Daniel Milewski, who just came out with a great record on the Miami label Goin’ Ghost, and then Ted Robinson on “That’s All”. I’ve known Ted since we were five years old, and he’s played in about a million bands including D. Charles Speer & TheHelix,Tony Wain and the Payne, Nick County and the Forest City, Blood Wheel, Traxx, Dig Shovel Dig, Sharp Glass, Deseray and others.
David Stern (DA Stern) was really the catalyst for this project in so many ways. He’s a talented engineer and producer/ headcase whisperer, as well as a gifted musician and songwriter, and I trust him as much as I do anyone when it comes to these little things that I know will pay for my grandkids vacations to Mars someday. I started sending him some crack phone recordings from my bathroom, and he was really sweet on them. He told me he wanted to produce a record of these, and I could somehow tell that he was dead serious. We decided that going to Texas was the way to go, and I called up a bunch of buddies from my days living and playing music in Austin. I moved there with a very old friend, Bill Pucci, and his band is made up of his brother Matt, a couple of our friends from Austin circa 2006-2007 (Jackson Ellis and Dalton Chamblee) and Kat Wilkes who is a real fine fiddle player. They have a band called Sour Bridges, and they all lent their massive music talents to this project.
We also had some more buddies who came in: Handsome, Frenchie, Philly, and Phatty, as well as good friends who were just hanging out and drinking beer and eating pizza and it was a lot of fun laying down tracks with them, staying up too late, and carrying on like the old days. Brian from Rattletrap Studios, where we mostly tracked this album, laid down some pro pedal steel, and then you had the great smoky voice of my friend Christee Albino singing opposite me on the duets. I believe that was everyone from the Austin Sessions.
David brought in his friend Wade Ridenhour to lay down some great piano/organ/keyboard sounds, and an old band mate and friend of ours, Asher Jacobs to sing some backup. One of the greatest guitarist you will ever hear and another dear old friend, Erik Gundel (Gemma, and many others) came in and played most if not all of any guitar solos on this record, and you have my best bud CT (Dams of the West and other stuff) slapping the tubs on Jehova’s Witness.
Jake Aron did a real fine job mixing it, and same goes for Josh Bonati with the master. My very old and dear friend and gambling buddy/ATM machine Greg Stefano (Easy Keys) helped me with the video edits and did me a solid putting up that website, and all around cool dude Danny “Kokomo” Gonzalez (Jacuzzi Boys) shot the picture of me and the phone booth. Whew, I think that’s everyone, I hope I’m not forgetting!
I wanted to plug everyone’s bands because that was kind of the deal when they signed up. I decided not to pay them, but promised they would get great exposure and “lift” for their projects, so please don’t omit that part in the editing room (but you can take this part out if you want, unless you think its important disclosure as no advertising should ever be free, imho).
CONOR: You’ve talked about how music is a passion project – what do you do when you’re not making music?
NICK: When I’m not making music I am kayaking in the canal behind my house, playing chess on my phone, playing piano slowly, hanging out with my friends and Chihuahua mixes, Pippa and Lu (shout out to Pippa and LU!), crushing stocks as one half of the mutual fund powerhouse “Highball Enterprises” with artist Nick Lobo, umm, and I have a media project of interviews and live recordings with local and national bands that I’m putting out soon with Juan Ledesma (Krisp, Goin’ Ghost).
CONOR: What can we expect from Nick County down the road!
NICK: I’ll be putting out an album sometime in the future as soon as I get paid for the first one that will be as Caribbean as this last one was Texan. I’m hoping to head down to Trinidad with David and friends to start tracking soon so DM me for address to send $, THANK YOU (: