Chicago-based multitalented artist Nicholas Tremulis talks about Gregory Corso, Hubert Sumlin and the Blues

"Music was the best ambassador of equality out there and probably still is, if you want it to be, that is..."

Nicholas Tremulis: Windy City Poet

Nicholas Tremulis born in 1960 to a jazz piano-playing father and a blues-singing mother, Tremulis grew up in the city's Greektown and in suburban Northbrook. The household was full of music and visiting musicians, influencing Tremulis to pick up the guitar as a teenager. After years of playing in clubs, he started the Nicholas Tremulis Band when he was in his twenties. The 13-member group played an engaging combination of rock, R&B, and soul, becoming one of the top bands in Chicago. The Nicholas Tremulis Band, formed in 1982, the first incarnation of Nicholas Tremulis was described as “punk jazz,” drawing on early punk music, as well as James Brown funk, and the harmonic jazz movement of Ornette Coleman. Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, signed the band to his label in the mid-'80s. Asking for a contractual release from Island, Tremulis trimmed down the number of members in his band and released an EP, King of the Hill (with Beat poet Gregory Corso), and the LP Bloody Show on rock group Shoes' label, Black Vinyl. By 1985, the band had morphed into a large modern funk/soul unit releasing two records in the late 80s: Nicholas Tremulis, produced by Craig Williams, and More Than the Truth, with guest artists Maceo Parker and Bonnie Raitt, produced by Rob Fraboni (Stones, Dylan, The Band).                           (Nick Tremulis / Photo © by Sandro Miller)

In more recent times, Tremulis toured Europe, backed blues musicians on guitar, and started doing jingle work. Joining with engineer/producer Rob Fraboni, Tremulis formed the QRS label. From 2000 to 2004 the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra, along with WXRT, The Metro and Jam Productions, hosted a charity concert for Neon Street for Homeless Youth titled “The Waltz”, inspired by The Band’s filmed farewell concert “The Last Waltz.” NTO was featured as the backing band to guest artists from across the American musical landscape. Nicholas and the band have performed with such artists as Rick Danko, Billy Corgan, Alejandro Escovedo, David Amram, Ian Hunter, Blondie Chaplin, Lonnie Brooks, Jeff Tweedy, Gary Louris, Steve Earl, Graham Parker and more. Prolific artist, Nicholas Tremulis has returned to a post-covid world with a groundbreaking new album “Rarified World” (August 2021), his first solo released in nearly ten years. Tremulis chose his path out of hell the only way he knew how; by submerging himself deep into writing and recording alongside an astounding group of Chicago musicians, helmed by longtime friends and producers, Rob Fraboni (The Last Waltz, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton) and Rick Barnes (Rax Trax Recording).

Interview by Michael Limnios                                 Photos © by Sandro Miller

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?

I guess you could say being a musician and composer are the only places I feel alive in so… everything. There's a big difference, I think, in having a profession based on a "calling" as opposed to picking a course. I feel like music chose me from as long as I can remember. As for living in the culture of it, it's nice to be around artists of any kind who create as a way of life. It helps to make you feel like your not losing your mind. About the Blues; it's the first form of improvised music I heard, learned from and continue to learn from, so it's everything. It's how my mind works.

How do you describe Nicholas Tremulis sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Try and not repeat yourself. I take a little time between records, not because I'm experiencing a writer’s block. I just don't want to make the same shit over and over again. Something has to spark it for me that feels like a new and exotic adventure. Otherwise I'm not really interested until that moment happens.

Where does your creative drive come from? How do you want your music/songs to affect people?

It's hard to say where my creative drive comes from. I'm certainly influenced by all form of music and art/film that I see and hear. The diversity or blend of genres on this record can be summed in just about 12 blocks any direction in the city of Chicago and I've played and listened to and performed for hundreds of them. As I've matured as a songwriter and arranger the space between these neighborhoods has blurred into one sound. I can only make music when I hear in my head something I haven't heard before. Then, It begins to come pouring out.                      (Nick Tremulis / Photo © by Sandro Miller)

"I get jazzed by any moment in history that has a sort of enlightenment to it. With the Beats it's to write the unwritable. With Socrates it's to approach all things with eyes of wonder. One in the same for me."

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Rick Danko told me, "Never contour your music for an audience. Just reach farther in." Never play a guitar like a guitar. Find another voice for it. This goes for all instruments. Approach everything with eyes and ears of wonder.

Was there something specific you experienced that made you first begin thinking about counterculture / outlaw forms, or was it more of a compilation of experiences?

My parents were essentially beatniks in their taste of music, art and style. Counter-culture was for the most part our family crest. I've always been drawn to exploration, travel and the surprises that ensue. As a rock and blues musician in my teens, you entered the club through the backdoor, were paid under the table and took lots of illegal drugs. Music's legacy, at least in the United States in the past was always an outlaw lifestyle. Now, that's changed a bit as Jazz is taught in every university and now... even blues and rock and roll. But for the most part, it's still jazz and theatre that nowadays will get you grant and/or cultural money, No matter how artistic a music you're creating. I've never gotten a grant and I'm a full on artists. It's a very old world view on what's culturally significant. I think there's a perception that if you give a person like me a arts grant, that I might use the money to snort heroin off your sister's ass.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Nothing to miss, really. Bring what like about it with you and move on. There's never been a more exciting time to be in music. Fear's for suckers.

How has the Beats and Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I get jazzed by any moment in history that has a sort of enlightenment to it. With the Beats it's to write the unwritable. With Socrates it's to approach all things with eyes of wonder. One in the same for me.

"I feel like music chose me from as long as I can remember. As for living in the culture of it, it's nice to be around artists of any kind who create as a way of life. It helps to make you feel like your not losing your mind. About the Blues; it's the first form of improvised music I heard, learned from and continue to learn from, so it's everything. It's how my mind works." (Nick Tremulis / Photo © by Sandro Miller)

What has made you laugh about Gregory Corso and what touched (emotionally) you from Gregory’s poetry?

I called Gregory from Chicago before a film shoot we were doing together in New York and asked him what the weather in NYC was going to be like over the weekend we were about to shoot. He answered, "Hey, man. I'm a poet, not a weatherman!" It's the clear and simple profoundness of his work that made me stick to him like glue. Every time I became pissed at him I'd go back and read a few of his works and be in love again. He was a wild animal of a man. He could be a sweet, loving friend and a total cunt within the same minute.  With Corso, you got to experience a range of emotions at machine gun pace. I'm richer for it.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Too many to list really. Rob Fraboni, Rick Danko, Hubert Sumlin, my father… The best advice I ever got was in my early 20's right around the time I got signed to Island Records. A friend of mine, Stephen Lloyd Smith (Poet, painter, filmmaker) said, "As your dreams begin to take flight, those who love you the most might try to inadvertently derail you. It's just they're afraid of losing you. You need to make them feel secure in your love. It's part of the job."

Are there any memories from the late great bluesmen Lonnie Brooks, Mighty Joe Young, and Hubert Sumlin which you’d like to share?

Let's do Hubert! My band and I backed Hubert and David Johansen playing from the Howling Wolf songbook and we nailed that shit shut! We played the same event the following year. Hubert and David were booked again but the new producer of the event asked that we do our own set and he'd have a seasoned blues group back Sumlin and Johansen. With some reluctance I agreed. The guys behind Hubert missed every cue of every song. Didn't know one riff. On the last song of the set I went up to join in, more to set shit straight than anything else. After the show, Hubert called me over, cradled my face in his hands and said, "Baby boy! I new you'd come up! Get yourself a little revenge!"                    (Nick Tremulis & Hubert Sumlin, Chicago IL / Photo © by Sandro Miller)

"Try and not repeat yourself. I take a little time between records, not because I'm experiencing a writer’s block. I just don't want to make the same shit over and over again. Something has to spark it for me that feels like a new and exotic adventure. Otherwise I'm not really interested until that moment happens."

What would you say characterizes Chicago music scene in comparison to other local US scenes?

We are loaded with different ethnicities all across the city. Because we come from a town that was extremely segregated in its birth, you can have an authentic Indian, Greek, African, Polish, Mexican or Puerto Rican experience, musically... food and fashion in about any ten blocks. Combine this with the fact that we are the destination of the great migration and the home of the electric blues and gospel and you've got Chi-town.

How can Rock ‘n’ Roll culture inspire activism? How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started?

Well if you're a big pop star you can combine a socially significant lyric with a compelling video, I guess, although I'm not seeing that too often. For me, as an abstract lyricist for the most part, I try and do so but in my own existential style. As a person who was brought up in the blues, I. only take inspiration or comfort in songs, books and films that tell tales of the struggle to find answers in an unanswerable world. the internet, although by design as great communicator, in the end, makes us all eventually numb to any cause we feel passionate about. The great worldwide exhaustion and overstimulation seems to burn away the drive to stick with a cause, no matter how noble. I try to help out locally, on the streets and inch by inch make a better tomorrow. I could never write a fight song or want to. I just try to find the things that dwell inside of all of us and put them into words for the first time for myself and hopefully others. To let us all know we are not alone. As if to say, "I get it. I am you."

You had pretty interesting project The Waltz, a benefit to help homeless teens. Where did you get that idea?

From seeing the movie, The Last Waltz. The documentary film on The Band's final concert in which they played behind a dozen or so great luminaries of there time. It's an idyllic moment I wanted to recreate, which we did five times. Also, to help homeless teenagers; the least likely to get a hand up in the city. We raised a quarter of a million bucks.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

More honesty. Front to back. that's it.

"We are loaded with different ethnicities all across the city. Because we come from a town that was extremely segregated in its birth, you can have an authentic Indian, Greek, African, polish, Mexican or Puertorican experience, musically... food and fashion in about any ten blocks." (Nick Tremulis / Photo © by Sandro Miller)

What is the impact of Blues, Rock and Jazz music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

I think everybody can answer this question with a little cruise through the internet so I'm not gonna give a history lesson. Music was the best ambassador of equality out there and probably still is, if you want it to be, that is...

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Minton's Playhouse, Harlem in the early 1940's. For a whole night, more than a day. Just to see Be Bop being born by it's creators. That'd be something, I think. The End!

Nick Tremulis @ Immediate Family Records

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