Interview with Nick Thomas

Started as a side project around 2004 by lead singer Nick Thomas, The Spill Canvas is enjoying a steady wave of success in the alternative rock landscape.

Their lifespan has had its share of ups and downs through three full-length albums, label changes and multiple lineup changes. But the South Dakota-based band’s 2007 full-length major-label debut “No Really, I’m Fine” helped solidify the Spill Canvas as an alternative act to watch. While catching fans attention on the Vans Warped Tour in both 2006 and 2007, the album broke onto Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart, and their single “All Over You” caught wind on the Top 100 Songs chart.

On Sunday night, the band swung through town as part of its tour with The Hush Sound and headliner OneRepublic. Before the show, I got to sit down with Thomas in the band’s backstage digs, aka: the college's locker room, and discussed his admiration for college campuses, his soul influences and why the band calls Sioux Falls, S.D., its home.

So how’s the tour going?
It’s good. This is probably like the fifth or sixth date with OneRepublic. We’ve had a couple one-off shows and stuff like that on our own, but it’s amazing. It definitely is a lot easier than we thought it would be. We’ve been on some headlining runs recently. It’s always just easier when there’s support, especially with being part of a big band tour. I mean OneRepublic is just huge, it’s going so well for them, and the venues are like enormously big as opposed to if we’re headlining we’re doing smaller room stuff. So it’s so cool to get the chance to play to a crowd.

How do you like the college shows?
They’re good. They are always so accommodating as you can plainly see (Thomas waves toward a table full of bottled water, candy bars and other goodies). Like right when we got here, I walked around the whole campus. It’s just so fun. It’s not just a dingy venue, you know, which are cool in their own right. It’s cool to get around and to see the atmosphere of being on the campus is always so cool. Kids come out and, you know, music and college go hand in hand.

Do you talk to the kids or hang out with any of them?
Not yet. It’s like I missed out on the college thing because I just went straight into this and so there’s this little vicarious thing going on when you’re on campus and everything. It’s cool.

What happened to Augustana? We just learned they’re not playing tonight.
As far as what we’ve heard is that the lead singer, he hurt his pelvis or his hip of some kind, broke it. It was during their one-offs, it wasn’t during a show that they were playing on this tour. So that was new. We just heard about it, and obviously you can’t go on with a broken hip or whatever. So yeah, we wish them the best. We only got to see them once too, they were only at one show.

So tell me how you got into music. I read your dad really encouraged you.
Right away, we’re from South Dakota so there’s not a lot of stuff going on there. There’s not a big cesspool of musicians to just pick from. It was so out of necessity I just started doing the solo-acoustic-singer-songwriter type thing. And then my dad was kind of the one that he originally had just been so supportive and kind of led me in the right direction, and ‘well you could go do the college thing or if this is really what you’re doing, go ahead and go for it.’ And here we are. And now all the parents are mega fans. They travel whatever distances. It’s awesome, they’re so supportive. I think, myself included, we’re all really lucky to get parents to support us.

And you started Spill Canvas as a side project, right?
NT: Yeah, I was playing in a metal band and I was just filling in on guitar. They really taught me how to play guitar. Obviously it’s very technically demanding. So that really helped my chops, I think. I like music of all kinds and it was just kind of like I’d sit down with the acoustic, fiddle around, write songs here and there. You know, I was like ‘well, let’s just try this,’ and then the more I would do it and play, I was like ‘oh, this is really something I could get into.’ So here we are.

You started with a completely different group of guys than those with the band now. The band’s gone through a lot of changes. How have those changes helped you grow, or what have you learned?
You know that’s the thing when you play with other people in musical worlds, there’s some that are great. You can always play with other musicians, but as far as chemistry goes, and the magic so to speak, it’s the Steven Tyler-Joe Perry thing. You know, like, it has to be there. That was a really funny example by the way, but you know what I mean. The magic, I guess. And there’s trial and error stuff. I think a lot of bands go through it. But then at the same time there are those lucky bands or those lucky groups that they just find it right there. It was kind of cool though to go through the member changes because you do learn stuff. You learn about your self, you learn how you want it to be, you understand like if there’s someone in the group that doesn’t want to do it or isn’t going along with it. You obviously learn what it is that you want. So there’s a lot of pros and cons to that whole situation. But ultimately the member lineup changes have been all very beneficial and very like ‘Oh this is what we wanna be.’

With it sort of being your project, do you have the final say?
Not really. It’s more that it started as I’ll bring the ideas of the songs and I’ll maybe write the lyrics. So that’s where that whole thing came into play. And then with everyone else, it’s a very Democratic kind of feeling where it’s like, ‘What do you think? Do you want this? Oh, I want this.’ So we’re good at figuring out what all of us want.

Let’s talk about the ‘No Really, I’m Fine’ album. How do you think that latest album turned out?
It turned out so much different than our previous efforts because we had a new producer. His name is Neal Avron. He’s just done so many amazing things and pushed us to be the best musicians that we can be, et cetera. And it was more of a we-wanted-to-rock, just make a rock record. It just kind of ended up being with touches of pop here and there. I didn’t even know what it would be like and then when you’re in there, it’s like ‘wow, this is happening.’ This is coming out, and this comes out and this comes out. I think that it was definitely a stepping stone for us and it’s wild to think about it and where each record has come from.

You touched on some of your influences from Van Morrison and Otis Redding on that album, too. Who were some of your influences growing up?
Those guys in particular like Otis Redding, Al Green, Marvin Gaye and those kind of cats with the soul. Obviously, it’s more of a rock-pop thing, but just the influences, you know what I mean? And there’s some grooves on there that are really just that easy groove the whole time. We definitely experimented with other things like horns. We had this guy named Jerry Hey. He played on all the Michael Jackson records, his same quartet of like these old horn players, studio cats from like Toto records and just ridiculous things in the ’80s. They just came in and laid down on this song and we were just in awe of these people. But the influences definitely came from just a very odd array of things like our drummer Joe, his favorite band is at the time Jimmy Eat World and he grew up listening to (former Blink 182 dummer) Travis Barker playing drums. So he’s just a drummer, and then he was starting to get into all these other bands like Fleetwood Mac at the time of the recording. So he started to take on this percussionist as opposed to just a drummer. And then our bass player Landon (Heil), he was originally a guitar player, switched over to bass. He’s our new bass player, so he was really finding his groove. And there’s so many albums we listened to while we’re recording.

Who do you guys listen to right now?
All of us have kind of dived into some different things. I’ve been getting into Ratatat. It’s like this instrumental, electronic stuff, so just like catchy and you just can’t help but groove to it. And there’s this guy that plays guitar, but it’s like within electronic music, it’s so good. I’ve been getting into the new Ray LaMontagne, I can’t pronounce his last name. That guy is from a different era. I’m so glad he is so popular, especially in the colleges. He’s just got some soul from a long time ago, you know what I mean? It’s cool to bring in that real music where it’s not about what he looks like, it’s not about any of that. It’s just the song and the feeling.

You guys are still living in South Dakota, too. How do you resist the urge to move to New York or Los Angeles?
It’s weird. At first, it’s like ‘Yeah, we gotta get out, we gotta get out there.’ Then you kind of realize we literally have taken on a very big weight. It’s wierd. Like at first we’re like, ‘Our we the only band that’s really come out of here and we’re like, ‘hah, nah,’ And then this new record came out and all the success started coming. It was like every other day there was a story in the paper about us. It was like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool, there really isn’t.’ There hasn’t been a band that got the level of success we have had from our area. So obviously it’s a very simple area, there’s not a lot of culture going on there. More agriculture than anything else. It’s just a very proud, surreal feeling, and so it was like, ‘How do we represent this? This is where we’re from.’ And then if you go out to those other areas, it’s very easy to blend in, you’re just another one of those. Maybe your music might sound like other stuff, but you have that one thing because you’re from that area. It’s a hometown pride thing, for sure.

I suppose it’s nice to go home and relax after you’ve been on the road.
It’s so nice because it’s obviously very desolate and relaxing. The only weird thing is that you are recognized a lot more easy. You’re like, ‘I could go to New York and I would be a spec amongst the ants.’ But you go to the grocery store and they’re like ‘who’s that?’ ‘What’s that guy?’ They’re like, ‘I think I saw him in the paper.’ So it can be desired, but those are cool problems to have.

So what can we expect tonight?
We got just a quick one. We had been doing some filling time because of Augustana’s absence, but we’re just doing our regular half an hour. We kind of just bust through as much as we can. We toned it down a little bit, being as it is OneRepublic fans. You know, ‘Apologize’ is the song that a lot of people will probably come to hear which has a slower ballady type of feel. So we kind of backed off on too much of the rock. We’ll have a little bit more of just grooves, it’s a more chilled set. So we’ll knock through it and hope it’s good.

So what’s up next for you guys?
We’re crossing our fingers that this is the last tour on this record. And then hopefully we’ll do the holidays, get that off and start writing and getting ready to gear up, because it’s already been like two years this spring since we recorded the record. So we’re definitely over due and then we’ll start writing as soon as the holidays are done. So I’m really excited, yeah I’m really pumped. We’ll see what happens.

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