Odd couple: Nickel Creek's Watkins returns in unexpected duo
When he first burst onto the national music scene in 2000, Sean Watkins seemed an unlikely candidate to become the latest sensation in American roots music. There weren't many 23-year-old bluegrass pickers from San Diego, particularly not ones playing whose regular gig was at a California local pizza restaurant with a 19-year-old mandolin player, and a 19-year-old kid sister on fiddle. But that's exactly what happened when Nickel Creek became an underground sensation, garnering two Grammy nominations for their self-titled third album in 2001.
Seven years older, hundreds of shows played, and millions of albums sold, Nickel Creek disbanded indefinitely in 2007 to pursue solo projects, though they left open the possibility of reuniting one day, dubbing their last shows the "Farewell (For Now) Tour."
Now, Watkins is taking yet another unlikely path. He's collaborating with Jon Foreman, guitarist and frontman for power pop outfit Switchfoot. Several years earlier, they had begun collaborating as a duo, and are now calling themselves Fiction Family, and this week they released their self-titled debut album.
Watkins says the two first talked about collaborating when they were on the same festival bill. Then about a year later they ran into each other at a coffee shop.
"Both of us were going to be home for the week, and we thought we'd work on something," says Watkins. "Out of that came a song called 'Betrayal,' which is on the album." Now that self-titled debut album is released by Charlottesville's own ATO Records, the label founded by Dave Matthews.
Add to that another new band of A-list players, and you've got a post-Nickel Creek career that's getting noticed.
"We just had our first gig at Largo in L.A.," says an enthused Watkins. "I'm not sure what's going to happen with touring, but that was a lot of fun, because all those guys are just so good."
Can two platinum-selling artists share a band without driving each other crazy? Watkins sat down with the Hook to talk about the new super duo from his car at a Taco Bell drive-thru, before a gig in Chicago.
The Hook: For those who only know you from Nickel Creek, what will surprise those fans about this record?
Sean Watkins: I'm really not sure they'd be surprised. It's more poppy than what I've done in the past; I play lots of electric guitars on this record. I guess we just hope it sounds new.
The Hook: Putting together the guitarist from an acoustic group like Nickel Creek, and the singer from a decidedly loud rock group like Switchfoot doesn't seem like the most natural pairing in the world. How did this come about?
Sean Watkins: We live about 10 minutes away from each other in San Diego, and we were both in high school here at the same time, so we have a lot of mutual friends who were always trying to get us to play together.
The Hook: What's different about working with Jon than working with Nickel Creek?
Sean Watkins: He comes from a musical world that's substantially different from me. In Nickel Creek, it was very much about the technical side of playing, which I still love, but here the music is much more about writing, arranging, and experimentation.
The Hook: Was the writing process different?
Sean Watkins: We wrote this mostly through correspondence, so that took longer. I'd send him an mp3 of a new melody I had, and then he'd send words back to me, or he'd record something over the mp3 I'd sent him, and then send a new mp3 back to me. Sometimes those back-and-forth demos ended up being the recordings that ended up on the record. And we did that for four years. It was really just for fun– we were thinking maybe it would be an EP that we would give away for free. But then ATO [Records] got interested, and we polished it up.
The Hook: To my ear, it doesn't really sound like either Nickel Creek or Switchfoot. How much of that is by design?
Sean Watkins: Not really at all. The beauty of it was we got to do something completely devoid of expectations. That allowed us to step outside of our comfort zones and try new things without thinking of what people would think of it. None of it was by design, we just wanted to do something new. It was just fun to go places we'd never gone.
The Hook: Have Sara and Chris heard any of this material?
Sean Watkins: When you're in a band, you definitely ask for your bandmates' ears if you're working on something. It feels good that Sara and Chris like it. They're still the two people whose opinions I respect the most.
The Hook: You've got another band going now with two Rock 'n Roll Hall of Famers: Pete Thomas, the drummer from Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and Benmont Tench, the keyboard player from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Sean Watkins: Yeah, it's called the Works Progress Administration. We got together in L.A. and recorded 17 songs in five days, and we're going to try to get that out in the summer. That's also got Sara, Glen Philips from Toad the Wet Sprocket, Greg Liesz and Luke Bulla who are both great session guys from Nashville, and Davey Faragher, who plays with Pete in Elvis Costello's band. That's eight pieces, and it's big and loud.
The Hook: Nickel Creek was known for frequent off-the-wall covers live, everything from Britney Spears' "Toxic" to Radiohead's "Nice Dream." Have you and Jon done anything like that for this tour?
Sean Watkins: We recorded [the Cure's] "Friday I'm in Love" as a B-side. That's the one that's the most off-the-wall. We've also worked up Dylan's "The Man in Me" and an Arcade Fire song, "Keep the Car Running." Should be fun.
Fiction Family will play Gravity Lounge on Tuesday, January 27 at 8pm. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 at the door.