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From Department of Eagles to Golden Suits: Fred Nicolaus Talks ‘Kubla Khan’ and More

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment
Photo by Andrea Calvetti

Photo by Andrea Calvetti

When we last saw Fred Nicolaus, the affable, bespectacled New Yorker behind the Golden Suits moniker, he was scouring Manhattan's bookstores for every last copy of John Cheever's collected stories. There were 46 of them, and he put them all in a sack.

While literary influences are still palpable throughout his solo project, the name of which he mined from the lines of one of Cheever's stories, Kubla Khan finds Nicolaus increasingly confident and intent in his own range of emotions. Wrought in search of self-expression amidst the indefinite hiatus of Department of Eagles, the dorm room joke turned psychedelic folk gem he co-fronted with Grizzly Bear's Daniel Rossen, Golden Suits is Nicolaus at his most pure.

"I want to dance with you tonight / Get my gold feeling," he declares near the start of the new LP. From the sunnily biting "Useless" to the bristling, electric shocks of "Don't Let Love Go By," his brand of melodic alchemy is always an honest, warming one, not least when it's coming directly from the stage.

Before his recent performance at Chicago's Schubas Tavern, we ducked into the basement greenroom to discuss what he did with all those books, how German soccer somehow fits into it all, and more.


FRED NICOLAUS: I think it said on your [interviewer Weston Pagano] Twitter profile that you’re a fan of [Italian soccer club] Juventus?

TRANSVERSO MEDIA: I am! I was actually contemplating asking you about your [English club] Arsenal allegiance.

Oh yeah, well I grew up watching the German national team ‘cause my dad’s German - there’s actually a line kind of about the German national team on this record - and so when [German player Mesut] Özil signed to Arsenal I just started following them. So I’m not like a true blood Arsenal fan, I just kind of like them. Also at the time [Per] Mertesacker and [Lukas] Podolski were both playing for Arsenal, so it was just a natural choice. I’m sure that’s what the interview’s about; let’s get really into [soccer!] [Laughs]

That's amazing. What’s the line on the record?

Well there’s a song towards the end of the album called “Bells,” and there’s a little German poem at the end. It’s not really a poem, but like a spoken word thing. My dad’s German and I speak a little bit of German, and so there was a hole in the song that needed to be filled and I thought it would be funny if I could get my dad to speak some German on this record in some weird way. And so I just wrote this kind of nonsense poem. The first line is, "Freude schöner götterfunken," which is the first line of “Ode to Joy,” which means “Joy, beautiful spark of the gods,” and the second line is "Für das tor wird Götze suchen," which means “For the goal [Mario] Gotze will look.” So it’s like a stupid joke about Germany and German soccer.

That's interesting because, obviously you no longer do as much sampling as you did during your Department of Eagles days, but I heard that and wondered if you had maybe sampled a German film or something.

Nope, just my dad. He speaks really old school German ‘cause he learned when he was a kid, and he has a very deep voice, so it almost sounds like a sample, but it’s not.

Is that the same golden watch from the cover of your first album on your wrist still?

Oh no, this is a different watch. I do have those watches, [but] I decided it was time to put those away. I did wear those watches on the first Golden Suits tour, but I sort of half-collect watches so I try and buy a lot of them.

I saw that your tour van broke down in Milford, Connecticut the other day and you had to cancel your Boston show.

Oh god, that was the worst. Yeah, that was awful. I’d never canceled a show before, and it was the first time I’d ever had to do it. We broke down - that’s happened before - but we went to a Firestone, which is a garage chain, and the guy said it would take “like 45 minutes or an hour,” and then it ended up taking five and a half hours. We were just sitting there, alternately going to this kitschy Mexican restaurant and going back to sit and watch Star Trek while the car was getting repaired. It was awful. The rest of the tour’s been good though! [Laughs] But that was bad.

I really appreciated your Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway parodies of the situation.

[Laughs] Oh yeah, that added a slight amount of levity to a shitty situation.

I notice you often have that literary-based approach, whether it’s referencing those authors or hoarding 46 copies of John Cheever’s collected stories in the music video for "Swimming In '99." Do you still have all those books?

No, I gave them out on tour. I basically took them on the tour for [my first album] and so anytime anyone came up to me and asked me about it I was like, “Do you want one of them?” So now I’m kind of hoping they’ve made their way to secondhand bookstores around the country. It would be my dream of dreams to see one in a bookstore someday. I don’t know if that will happen, but we’ll see.

You could do a sort of golden ticket thing where you leave something in each copy.

I stamped them. They all have a stamp that says, like, “This was bought as part of this stupid video,” and so I’ll recognize them if I see them. [Laughs]

On the cover of your new album there’s another book, “The Life of Sir Thomas More” by William Roper. Why is that?

Yeah, I chose that book largely because it was so written so long ago it’s outside the public domain. So that book in and of itself is not a specific thing, but the fact that it is a book in general that is a conscious choice, obviously. I don’t know, I always cringe a little bit when I read something about myself that [describes me as a] “literary guy." I don’t always know exactly what that means, but I really really love books, they’re a huge part of my life, and a lot of relationships I’ve had in my life have been based around books a little bit, or a shared love of books. And so I feel like to me it’s not so much like I sit down and try to think of complicated words to sing or try to write [songs] like I’m writing a novel, but books and literary culture are so important to me that it finds its way into the songs.

And on that book is written the album title, Kubla Khan. I’m curious what the symbolism of using that figure is.

It’s not exactly symbolism. It’s a very personal thing. It’s another example of connecting with somebody over a book and the book sort of being the conduit. You know when you’re reading a book and you’re really into it it just becomes this world, and if somebody else loves that book too it becomes like this shared world that you kind of have together? I feel like when I think about books and I talk about books in interviews and songs or whatever it’s about that. It’s not about being serious and intense and literary and wearing glasses, it’s about that shared world of a book, and Kubla Khan is kind of a reference to that idea in a way.

On your first record you were coming off this really bad period; you went through a breakup, went broke, lost your home to a rat infestation, and lost something like 40 pounds. Please tell me things went better this time around.

God, yeah. [Laughs] Definitely. The last record was made after one of the craziest, most fucked up years of my life. This record was made, I wrote all the songs, in the time after that when I was single and not living with rats and in a happier place. I don’t think of this record as being so happy, it’s just that when you’re more comfortable in your life and you feel more settled and free you’re freer to take risks and freer to push yourself a little bit more. It’s not that these songs are so much happier, but there’s more of an emotional range. The happier songs are more joyful and the sadder songs are sadder and angry songs are angrier, so it definitely came out of a more comfortable place. I’m really proud of it, whereas the first record I felt a little shy and embarrassed about it.

One of the lyrics that really stands out to me is the bit about "how strange it is to be getting older kiss by kiss.” It’s a beautiful kind of acceptance; even if it’s not fully understanding it’s coming to terms with things.

Yeah, that line kind of came out with nowhere. I didn’t consciously write it like, “oh, what would be perfect?” but it’s a kind of… I don’t know, you said it better than I did, just write down your answer as mine. [Laughs]

I also really appreciate your solo moniker, Golden Suits, because - while it’s taken from the Cheever story, "The Country Husband" - it feels like a really nice evolution from Butterfly Emerging, which was your codename of sorts when you were in Department of Eagles.

Right, you’ve done your research! [Laughs] Well, I mean, Butterfly Emerging… it’s funny that we’re talking about this. Do you know we were originally called Whitey On The Moon UK?

Yeah, I actually have the original vinyl copy.

Oh really? Oh wow, that’s crazy. Did you read that little essay [in the liner notes]? That’s funny. I mean, that band started like a college joke, so Daniel [Rossen and I] sort of took great pains to make it clear to the world we weren’t being serious, because when you’re 18 or 19 there’s like this… We were just embarrassed about it, or we felt more free pretending that it was all just a dumb joke as opposed to admitting that we were taking it seriously and trying to be good, and so coming up with a name like [Rossen’s] Iron Chrysalis and Butterfly Emerging was like a way to let everyone know, “This was a joke, I don’t care if you don’t like it, fuck you!”

So that was what those names came out of, but it also did come out of a playfulness that we had at the time, you know? And I feel like so much of the growth of Department of Eagles was a way [to put] that playfulness into something that was much more serious and much more refined and stately and dignified, and I feel like, to some degree, Golden Suits is me kind of moving away from that dignity and refinement into something that’s a little more willing to be silly or willing to be goofy, I guess. I don’t know if that’s what you meant, but that’s how I think of it.

Yeah, I mean it’s really interesting to see because obviously there’s a huge shift between the two Department of Eagles records…

Oh god, yeah, it’s like two different bands, basically.

…So it’s interesting now to see how Golden Suits perhaps fits somewhere in between those two extremes as a maybe more honest representation of who you are.

Yeah, I mean, I wrote a lot of those songs, but in [Department of Eagles] I was always more of the guy who was writing the poppier songs - like the single off In Ear Park, “No One Does It Like You” was one of my songs - and kind of the more simple, straightforward songs. But they were always processed through Daniel’s, frankly his genius for arrangement. I mean, he’s one of, I think, best people of his generation to come up with crazy arrangements and make songs sound interesting. And that’s a stupid way to say it, but it’s how I feel. And I feel like a lot of Department of Eagles, we both wrote the songs, but it was his aesthetic that made the recordings, essentially, and so I feel like Golden Suits is my songs, which is part of what Department of Eagles was, but it’s my taste, which is I think a little bit cheesier than Daniel’s taste. But it feels good it feels fun to do songs that are more straight ahead punk songs or straight ahead rock songs and not worry about arrangements being so sophisticated, you know what I mean?

It’s funny you say that, because I met Daniel once, and to me he did seem kind of serious and almost shy. I asked him about Department of Eagles track “Forty Dollar Rug” and he laughed and said that was just you messing around, so I always kind of imagined you in the studio sort of pushing him to be sillier.

Yeah, that’s accurate. [Laughs] I mean, Daniel’s really funny, it’s just that he’s also shy. If you go back to those days it’s not like I was wearing a clown costume with him sitting there reading [philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein; he’s a really funny dude. It’s just that I think naturally he’s a little more shy or not as outgoing and a little more contemplative, and generally my energy is a little more [makes excited sound], so it’s not inaccurate. Though he did sing on “Forty Dollar Rug”! So he clearly enjoyed it on some level.

Do you still have that rug?

I do, I have it in my closet.

That’s fantastic. Daniel told me you got it at Kmart.

Yeah, he got it at Kmart. It was like this long argument, we had like one of the longest arguments we’d ever had on how much money we should spend on a rug and how much we should get for it. We got a song out of it, so... [Laughs]

Apologies if you’re tired of being asked this but I’d be remiss not to; what’s the future looking like for Department of Eagles? Have you and Daniel been in contact lately?

Oh yeah, you know Dan actually did a cover of one of the songs on this record and just released it. I mean, he did it as a favor for me, it’s not like he just did it independently, but I don’t know. We’re still good friends, it’s not like there’s animosity or anything, I think it’s just hard. I mean, Grizzly Bear is just so busy as a band, it’s always gonna be like this big thing that he’s gonna work on, so we’re definitely not working on anything, but it could happen. There’s no specific reason not to do it, I’ll put it that way. 

So I understand you rehearsed and recorded Kubla Khan in the same church you and Daniel used then?

Yeah, I did. We recorded In Ear Park in this church in Brooklyn, and it’s just kind of been in the family. Grizzly Bear rehearsed and recorded there [and] Department of Eagles rehearsed and recorded there. Grizzly Bear doesn’t do anything there anymore, but I had access to it because of that connection, and so we recorded pretty much every song off this new album there. It was interesting to go back to it after six years, or something like that, since we recorded In Ear Park, maybe seven, because I think if I had tried to do that maybe four years ago I would’ve felt so stressed about it, like, “Oh, it has to be just as good as In Ear Park, and it has to sound like this, or sound like that,” but I think enough distance had passed where I was like, “Well, here we are, let’s do this!”

It’s a really special place, though. It’s a really beautiful place to record. You just play the guitar and it sounds great. And it’s annoying ‘cause heat pipes are always going off and birds are always flying in and out all the time and you can hear noises in the street, but it’s kind of part of the charm of it.


Kubla Khan is out now on Hit City USA. Buy it here.