Story by Allie Volpe
Fred Nicolaus just got married. The planning process, he says, is not quite comparable to that of writing and recording an album, but can be likened to plotting a tour. “But every single stop on the tour is happening on the same night,” Nicolaus says with a laugh. “I do think actually having planned a fair amount of concerts in my life definitely helped in this particular endeavor. Obviously most concerts don’t have catering, but it’s a similar skill set.”
While not explicitly inspired by his impending nuptials, Nicolaus’ Golden Suits’ sophomore effort Kubla Khan, released last month, is giddy, pop-focused. And as it turns out, it’s more true to his personality, too.
But three years ago, Nicolaus was reliving the artistic endeavors of a tumultuous year. Golden Suits’ self-titled debut came on the heels of the dissolution of a long-term relationship and a first stab at creation without the band that ushered him into public notoriety, Department of Eagles. The record featured poetic musings with whimsical anecdotes -- some expressing existential longing, some somber, some sweet. Nicolaus’ sonic repertoire of classically compelling piano, swelling strings, folky guitar and crisp drums offered a perfectly enchanting baroque collection of highbrow songs.
It was the record, at that time, he thought he was supposed to make.
Nicolaus is not a brooding man. He’s bright and sharp-witted, eloquent and thoughtful. By his own accord, he’s not too serious, either. On Kubla Khan he brings the intricacies of composition to the joyfulness of pop for a danceable and lighthearted take on his brand of storytelling. From the sprightly “Is It Wrong” or woodsy and Americana “Like A Bird,” to the explosively anthemic “Don’t Let Love Go By,” each track is melodic and features production surprises like tinges of synth and handclaps. Yes, Nicolaus was in a better place emotionally when writing Kubla Khan, but it’s also the work of a confident musician.
The power struggle between the id and the ego played out through the composition of Golden Suits, a conflict of expectations and artistic preferences. Nicolaus wanted to write an album that Department of Eagles fans would enjoy and one that would also be inoffensive to those in his personal life.
“I’m proud of that album, but it was made in a time that felt paranoid and being afraid to make the wrong choice,” he recalls, “which is not an ideal situation to make anything creative.”
This time around, he challenged himself to write without inhibitions, to make music for himself opposed to fans of his old band, music that invoked laughter, happiness, nostalgia without fear of what those close to him would think. A playful album for a playful frame of mind. As it turns out, writing fun songs isn’t as easy as it sounds.
“Fun songs are simple but they’re not stupid and that’s a much more complicated trick to pull off than something that’s down,” he says. “If you're like ‘Hey Fred, write a song right now,’ the easiest thing in the world for me to do would be to write a minor chord progression and have some vague lines about things being bad and it would be totally competent and fine. But to do something that’s fun and happy and joyful and for it to be good, that’s a lot harder than doing a depressing doom ballad.”
Kubla Khan is littered with humorous little quips at the songs’ protagonists like on album opener “Useless,” whose straightforward line “You’re useless” is accented by a tauntingly sweet piano and guitar riff. Or on “Lie,” Nicolaus makes accusations against dancing talent sound amusing. It’s the balance between levity, lyrically and sonically, and artistry. Kubla Khan is proof that both can exist within an album. It’s courtesy of the conscious trajectory -- and confidence -- its songwriter took to reach the equilibrium that made all the difference.
“The last song I wrote and recorded is ‘Gold Feeling,’” Nicolaus explains. “For me, that’s the song I never would’ve written three years ago. I would've been like, ‘That’s so dorky and cheesy: I wanna dance with you tonight.’ I would’ve been so afraid to do that. I started working with this philosophy in mind and then got to it at the very end with a song that was really fun and really happy but that I would’ve thought was cheesy three years ago, that was the journey of making this album.”