Willie Nile,
The TVD Interview

Longtime rocker and esteemed songwriter Willie Nile is back on the road, and releasing his 14th studio album this week on River House Records, recorded with his mask-wearing band earlier this year under unusual conditions.

He spoke to us from his pad in Soho about the album, The Day the Earth Stood Still, his series of streamed shows during the lockdown, and the first 45 purchase he ever made.

I understand the title of the new album had to do with the lockdown.

Absolutely. It’s a direct result of the pandemic. It’s about the pandemic. There’s a few songs on there that are pandemic-related. A lot of the events of the past year and a half, 17 months influenced it big time. I live in New York and if you told me two years ago that New York was going to become a ghost town, I would have thought you were nuts. There was no way. But it happened. It’s fascinating. I live in the village and in April, May, you step outside and there’s hardly any people. Just this eerie [scene], haunted buildings, looking down empty streets, a handful of people and very few cars. I found it really interesting and fascinating.

I have a storage space a block from the Holland Tunnel which heads towards Jersey and points South and West. A block away and every rush hour it’s brutal. It can take 45 minutes to go three blocks. And on a Friday night—we’ve done it with the band—we have to leave extra early. So end of last May I coming out of my storage space. Get to the corner of Varick and Spring and there was not a car in sight, literally. I would look uptown and could see a long distance, not one car, not one person. It’s a Friday at six o’clock. You look south, the tunnel and beyond, I took photographs. I stood in the middle of the street, I thought wow. I could have played down in the street and sung Rolling Stones songs.It was really remarkable.

And then walking home through this ghost-like zombie apocalypse. I dug it. It was fascinating. Obviously, scary nightmary stuff. But I thought immediately of The Day the Earth Stood Still, that old sci-fi film from 1951. And a couple weeks later, I was coming down Fifth Avenue in a cab, and seeing places boarded up and no people—all the way down Fifth Avenue. It was fascinating. I wrote the song then. So it’s directly inspired, the title is. And a number of the songs are inspired by the pandemic.

Did you do some streaming concerts as well during the pandemic?

Oh yeah, in the early part of last year, musicians were all doing stuff on their couches in their living rooms and stuff and I held off. I wanted to have better quality control, I’m not the tech guy. So at the end of May I went into the recording studio, we had a number of cameras and I played solo. Like I did in the early days—acoustic guitar and piano, sang songs, told stories. And I filmed two of those. We put them up on the internet, a couple of weeks apart and had the tip jar thing. Then I did two more of them, duo shows, with my bass player. Because I do a lot of duo shows. So we did some different songs, told stories, the two of us, had several cameras, and audio, mixed it, and put those up.

Then I thought, I’m going to get the full band. So we went into Bowery Electric, Jesse Malin’s rock club on the Bowery, and we filmed the band. I’ve done about five or six from there; we’re doing one a month. They’re ticketed events, though Veeps, the same thing used for Dylan’s concert. I think sometime in the fall we’ll put them all up again. You can’t get at them now. I had like 10 camera shoots, multitrack audio. I wanted it to be real quality. People weren’t going out to concerts, but I wanted them, if they’re going to put their money down, I want to give them something that’s worth it. The fans, god bless them, were very generous and helped me survive the past year.

Two of the shows I did, I thought, what else might be interesting to do? In December, I did the 40th anniversary of first album, and that was very successful. I took Johnny Pisano, my bass player, and went out, and I thought, what if we go out in streets of New York with Eod Lasum, the guy who does our videos, he could record us. I have acoustic, he has a bass, he plugs in. He couldn’t hear himself but we know our stuff well enough. And we went live, we went to the Bowery Mission, outside the Bowery. And we played “Old Men Sleeping on the Bowery.” We told some stories. We went across the street from CBGB’s, and we sang “Sheena is a Punk Rocker.” We told some stories. We went to Wall Street, outside the New York Stock Exchange, and played “Dear Lord,” which is on my first record: “Dear Lord, give me money.” It’s like a Chuck Berry rocker. We ended up in Strawberry Fields, and sang a couple of songs that Lennon influenced. They were very well received. It’s one of the cool documents of the pandemic.

I did online shows, averaging one a month. And I’m not done. I’ll probably put another one out later in August, and one maybe later in September, October. But yeah, they helped me survive.

Tell me about the live shows coming up.

Well, last year I put out an album called New York at Night, which we were unable to tour behind. So the tour this year, I’ve got two albums to play from. Plus the old stuff. This band, through Covid, through doing all those shows we filmed, the range now of what they can play is much more vast than it was. And we are so happy to be playing deep shows, man. These are hall of fame shows. They’re so upbeat, they’re so uplifting. There’s a big time promoter in New Jersey who booked the show last weekend, and he said, man you guys are on fire.

How many live shows have you done so far?

We’ve done a number of shows. In April, we did two shows here at City Winery in New York. And we played the Vogel in Red Bank, NJ. We’ve been in Philadelphia, and played a show over the weekend and the audience, everybody’s just beaming. People are vaxxed. People that have been coming to my shows, it’s an older crowd. And it’s a literate crowd. So it’s a pretty safe affair, to say the least. I go out to sign autographs, shake hands and give people hugs and stuff. It’s a rebirth, and it feels so, so good. That will be the case all summer. It’s just great to get out and hear live music. It just feels like the first time, you know.

I wanted to ask you about your experience with vinyl.

I love vinyl. Oh my god, there’s nothing like vinyl. Every record I make, I make sure they’re doing vinyl.

I was in Buffalo, visiting my family—my dad’s 103 and still going, knock on wood—I think it was 2013, and I get the vinyl delivered for American Ride. And nobody had a record player. There was this great new record store called Revolver Records, it’s on Hertel Avenue, a great mom and pop store. I support it every time I’m in Buffalo. So I went there, and they had a booth. I went in a booth with my record and I put on headphones and that’s where I approved the vinyl.

And boy oh boy, I know every note on every one of my records. I’m there for every session. I pay close attention. I want it to be as good as it can be. And there’s no question, the sound of vinyl. When we mastered the record. I couldn’t do it this year because of Covid, but every other year I go to mastering. Greg Calbi, the great mastering guy at Sterling Sound, he’s got a John Lennon letter on wall when he mastered John’s Rock ’n’ Roll album, and other albums of John’s.

Anyway, there’s no question. I hear it in Greg’s mastering studio. I hear it in the studio when we’re doing it, and when he masters it, it gets better all along the way. And when I listen back, listening on vinyl, there’s just no comparison. Vinyl rules. The Baby Jesus loves vinyl! You watch. When we all get up in heaven, you’re going to look up and see Him, he’ll have a big stereo system all set up, and vinyl blasting away, no doubt about it! Probably be playing The Clash.

What were some of your early purchases of vinyl as a kid?

I got a story for you. My very first record—and this is another something that can be said about believing in your dreams, because they never know where they’re going to take you. I’m in the fourth grade. I’m just a wee lad, and I’m still a wee lad. But I took two quarters to Cabbage’s Record Store, and I bought “Peggy Sue,” the 45. I’d ever been in a record store in my life. I walked down, by myself, walked in, “‘Peggy Sue’ please.” He gives me the record. I’m staring at it, fascinated by all the copy, reading everything on it.

And I had this little plastic, white turntable. It worked, but it was like this cheap plastic thing. I must have played that record 1,000 times. I mean, I just played it and played it. It’s a shame I don’t have my singles collection any more. Lord knows where it disappeared to, but I had a lot of singles. So “Peggy Sue” is my first record and it really influenced the hell out of me. It really did. Hearing those drums, and the guitar, and that passion and the gallup, the vibe. It really just knocked me out. Changed my life.

Then 2009, South by Southwest, Austin, Texas. I’m there playing a show at 11:30 in the morning in some restaurant’s open area, and this lawyer friend of mine said there was someone here I wanted you to meet. It was boiling hot. It turned out to be Maria Elena Holly, Buddy’s wife, and she wanted me to sign one of my records for her, and I got on my knees. I said, “No, no, no, I want your autograph.” What a lovely woman. I met her then. We had a wonderful conversation.

Then in 2011, I went two years later to South by Southwest and they had a Buddy Holly Educational Foundation event, they’d have one every year at South by, and we played it, and she joined us. She sang “Rave On” with us. I had dinner with her in Nashville once and I was asking her questions. They lived on Fifth Avenue between Eighth and Ninth Street that’s a few blocks from me. They lived there for six months. She said Buddy just loved New York.

She wanted me to become one of ambassadors of the Educational Foundation. Buddy used to go into Washington Square Park with his guitar, and kids would come up to him and ask him to show them stuff. They didn’t know he was Buddy Holly. But he loved idea of teenagers learning music. So they came up with the idea, somewhere down the road to have the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation, which is a charity, raising money to help young adults pursue music. She wanted me to be an official ambassador. The other ambassadors are, like, Mick and Keith, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Dylan, Bono, it’s a who’s who of rock ’n’ roll.

Well, I’m an official ambassador. I got one of the Buddy Holly’s guitars, one with the frets on the inside. And I gave it back, and they gave me a replica. It’s a great guitar. And one of those street performances, live from the streets of New York, Johnny and I went outside their apartment building, he’s on the the fourth floor. We were right below their balcony, where she said he always used to love hanging out, just looking at New York go by. And we were outside, and mic-ed up and we recorded a version of “Not Fade Away” and I dedicated it to Maria Elena.

So yeah, my first experience with vinyl was “Peggy Sue.” Sorry to tell you such a long story. But I bought tons of vinyl, you name it. Like I said, the Baby Jesus only gets vinyl, and he’s probably playing Buddy Holly as we speak.

Willie Nile’s new The Day The Earth Stood Still is in stores now via River House Records—on vinyl. He and his band are on tour in the US through November.

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