A few weeks ago, I met Fred Nicolaus in Greenpoint to talk about Kubla Khan, the second album under his solo project, Golden Suits. Nicolaus first started writing songs for Golden Suits in 2011, coming off the success of Department of Eagles, of which he was one half; Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen, his freshman year college roommate, was the other.
That day, our plan was to go to The Palace Café. Well, Nicolaus’s plan was to go to The Palace Café. The bar, built strangely yet winningly in the old world Tudor-style, was the preferred drinking destination for anyone who lived or worked in its remote vicinity to take down inexpensive Budweisers. Golden Suits, like Department of Eagles, used the church down the street from the bar to rehearse and record; The Palace, to say the least, had become a familiar and comfortable place for Nicolaus to sit and drink. And so it came as news in the form of a minor tragedy that—we’d all just learned—the bar would close for good, after 83 years in business, on September 3 (which, that day, had not yet arrived).
So after Nicolaus’s photo session wrapped at the park across the street, and as we approached the bar, I noted that the inside looked suspiciously dark. To which Nicolaus replied, optimistically, “Yeah, but it’s always a little dark inside.”
And that was accurate enough, but I still had my doubts. He yanked on the door; it was very locked. Our disappointment—at least, I should say, my disappointment—at the prospect of losing one last evening at the perfect dive, was very real. Nicolaus, actually, seemed fine. And then, a gift: I remembered a brand new bar, Goldie’s, had just opened across the street. Neither one of us had been.
“You get so used to the other person making eggs
in the morning—you know, eggs being a metaphor
for figuring out the guitar part.”
“Oh, Goldie’s just opened…” I suggested. Nicolaus was clearly on board before I’d finished. “Yeah, perfect, let’s do it,” he said. No matter if Goldie’s was not as perfect as The Palace; it was definitely better than continuing to stand idly on the corner.
Golden Suits, and Kubla Khan—which releases October 7—were also things pursued because something else had ended. After years of anchoring half of a successful rock band that a lot of people knew, and liked very much, Nicolaus watched as Department of Eagles came to a halt. (Though, he notes, unlike The Palace, the band never had an official closing party; It more just petered out. Rossen, after all, had Grizzly Bear to look after.) If Nicolaus was going to keep writing songs—which he was—he’d have to strike out alone.
“I just kind of felt like I wasn’t that happy waiting around for something to happen, and I felt like I just had to do my own thing,” Nicolaus said, now clutching a Budweiser inside of The Palace replacement, Goldie’s—which, in fact, turned out to be playing pretty enjoyable doo-wop music and was lined with attractive glitter-topped booths (Nicolaus selected one, decisively, that was overlooked by a painting of a tiger). “Even if it fails miserably, I have to do it,” he had resolved.
It took Nicolaus two years to make the self-titled Golden Suits debut. “A lot of that was just psychological,” he said. “Working with Daniel, it was like a long-term relationship-slash-marriage: You get so used to the the other person making eggs in the morning—you know, eggs being a metaphor for figuring out the guitar part.”
Not that Nicolaus hadn’t written a lot of their music, but doing it alone meant rewiring some procedurial circuits. Plus, there was the weight of the past: Being in a successful rock band is one thing, but moving beyond it is another. “You’re in this project that achieves some notoriety and audience, and you’re the person that people don’t know,” Nicolaus said plainly. It was a lot to confront. He wouldn’t bring with him Rossen’s audience, and, if people did know Nicolaus from Department of Eagles—he felt—they’d judge his music against that.
And so the first album, filled with Nicolaus’s idiosyncratic and hopeful voice, was good, but not a commercial or full critical success. “I think too much motivation was worrying about what people who liked Department of Eagles would think of it,” said Nicolaus, taking regular swigs of his second Bud. “I was deliberately trying to keep things in this restrained folky tasteful realm—‘tasteful’ in quotes—trying to write songs that were in the general wheelhouse of people who cared about Department of Eagles.”
Nevertheless, it had genuine winners. I pointed to “Swimming in ’99,” which is upbeat and, in it, he sounds distinctly like he’s come into his own. I still listen to it regularly. It was one of the very last songs he wrote on the album, he said, and therefore he had worried about it least. “You realize the biggest problem is not that people are looking at you and laughing, but that no one is looking at you,” he said. “So there is no other reason to do it other than it makes you happy—and I feel like I made the first record under the auspices of, I’m trying to make some people happy, or not make mistakes.”
And so with Kubla Khan, Nicolaus has come a long way. That morning, at home, I’d listened to it three-and-a-half times straight through. Like, every track, and it was easy. It retains the general tone of the first album—songs about love with quirks and lyrical curveballs—but it does feel lighter; overall, it’s happier. And, as it happens when we learn how to do something well, there’s more experimentation. It covers more terrain.
“Often times, I think this is true of a lot of people, you have a conceptual idea of what you think you want to do, and when you start doing it, it changes a lot,” he explained. “I wrote down on this notecard, ‘Yuppy Bruce Springsteen,’ like pretentious Bruce Sprinsteen who went to NYU,” he said, both laughing at and embracing the reality of himself, as a music writing cue. “I mean, that might be horribly annoying, but, you know.”
Kubla Khan runs through a full gamut of sounds, from rock ‘n’ roll, to ballad, to love song, to, by the very last track, a sweet melody with an undercurrent of country. This, above all, seems like brand new territory for Nicolaus, but also, possibly, most representative of where he is now.
The song is called “Like a Bird,” and the refrain, while not purely happy, is resolute.
“You say I / Can’t stand it / I / don’t deserve it / I / won’t have it.” As he sings, an upbeat chord progression carries him forward, and, he finishes, “Just leave me to myself / And I’ll be fine.”
Nicolaus plays the release show for Kubla Khan this Friday, October 7, at Mercury Lounge; doors at 7:30.
Images by Nicole Fara Silver