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Interview: Drummer Nicole Childrey

Nicole “Nico” Childrey is a drummer (The Mynabirds) and writer (for publications like SPIN, CMJ, Rolling Stone, Billboard, USA Today, Modern Drummer, and Nylon).

After The Show: When and how did you know that you wanted to play drums professionally?

Nicole Childrey: I started drumming a little later than most, I think — around 18 or 19 — but I got drawn into playing music at 14. A friend had an old, out of tune acoustic guitar in her bedroom, and I picked it up and started poking around, eventually finding a melody. The thrill of creating music out of nothing — even just a weird bleating melody on a beat-up out-of-tune guitar — was all it took to keep me permanently stuck on it.

And I think you have to be that ridiculously, illogically glued to the pursuit of that feeling to keep doing it nowadays, when it’s certainly not getting any easier to keep doing it.

How do you balance drumming and writing? Is there enough down time on tour to write and run your website East Nashville, With Love

For about five years, I kept a full-time writing job while I was touring, with a band called Cassino, then with Destry, then with The Mynabirds. I’m really appreciative that that’s even possible — I had a broadband aircard, and worked eight-hour days from the hotel, van, club, etc., and it made me able to pay my bills and still tour, even if we weren’t making much money.

My intent when I started East Nashville, With Love was to work from the road, too. I started the site while our singer, Laura, was touring as part of Bright Eyes, so we had a long stretch of downtime. But once we started touring heavily, things didn’t work out exactly as I planned, mostly just because of the cost of keeping an aircard. But I do freelance work from tour, usually just four or five assignments a tour, and I work late at night or on off days. I’m really thankful to be able to do it; having a second job that can be done from anywhere is pretty ideal, and it’s helping me be able to keep touring, which is all I’ve ever wanted to be doing.

Creating a website that focuses on a very specific locale seems like a reaction against the more peripatetic lifestyle of touring. Have your feelings about touring vs. staying in one place changed over the years? 

I get really fidgety when I stay in one place for a while, which is probably part of why touring appeals to me as much as it does. I think most of what led me to creating East Nashville, With Love boils down to East Nashville itself — it’s a really unique community, with a really unique culture, and most folks who live here have a really unique sense of pride about it. People in Nashville kinda pick on how self-obsessed East Nashville is, which I’ll admit is true (and funny). But there’s this great focus on entrepreneurship, support of local mom-and-pop businesses, overall creativity and creative culture, and the community’s really diverse and devoted.

I never get bored in East Nashville, and when I get home from moving around so much, I’m really glad to have that. So starting a website about the neighborhood was largely just a response to that, and an opportunity to love on a place that’s really given me a lot.

You’ve played with The Mynabirds, Brendan Benson, Destry… Do you alter your setup when you tour with different musicians? How does your drum set-up differ for live shows versus recording in a studio?

I wouldn’t say I alter my set-up too much, but there’s definitely a different approach in general with different people. A lot of the early Destry stuff was Americana-based, so I was playing a lot of country-rooted stuff; Brendan has some incredible, explosive rock songs that come from a totally different angle. It’s really fun to get to play with different moods. And The Mynabirds I think has become really broad these days when it comes to mood — we play stuff that’s rhythmically rooted in soul, rock, hip-hop, dance music.

It makes things really challenging and interesting. I don’t change the set-up much between shows and studio, but the mental/emotional challenge of recording is definitely a different animal, for me. It’s the challenge of trying to be precise and controlled, but retaining the energy and looseness that comes through at shows.

What do you do to keep your playing fresh and continue to grow and challenge yourself as a drummer? 

Playing for a lot of different people has been the most helpful and challenging for me — just learning songs, playing with rhythms that’ve come out of drummers who play completely different from me. It’s kind of … constantly being taken out of your comfort zone, and I think that resets you in a really good way.

Nashville’s also a great place to constantly get inspired by players. Some of my favorite current drummers live here, like Patrick Keeler, who has this incredibly inspiring fluidity, and Rollum Haas from the Features, who has this perfect balance of explosiveness, feel and precision. The person who gets me the most inspired about drumming, though, is Levon Helm — I think he’ll always be the most perfect image of a gut-forward drummer, and all I’ll ever really strive for as a drummer is to be as in the moment as he always seemed to be.

How do the music scenes in New York and Nashville compare? When you first moved to Nashville from New York, were you concerned about the preconception that Nashville is all/just country music? 

I’d spent a fair bit of time in Nashville before I moved, so I was aware of how great the music scene is, and how broad it was. I feel like there are a million different experiences of the music scene in New York. Mine was a struggle, which probably had more to do with me than New York — but it was so hard to afford a practice space, to always have to rent vans to tour since I was largely living month-to-month, everything else that goes along with trying to do something that’s financially challenging in an expensive city.

Nashville’s much more affordable, and that makes playing music more doable. That there are so many incredible players here is a great bonus, too. In the nine years I’ve been in Nashville, the rock scene’s become a lot more fractured, I think, but also really fertile. There’s a lot to get excited about across a ton of different aesthetics. I was born in New York, and I’ll always love it, but Nashville’s really become home.

Are you discouraged or encouraged by how the business of music has changed? What’s your view of new models for artists to finance record releases (sites like Kickstarter and Pledgemusic)?

To be completely honest, I’m still just confused. I can’t figure out whether I’m more encouraged or more scared about where we’re at and where we might be going. I’m excited that there are other viable ways to finance the creation of music, but I don’t know how sustainable that is, and I don’t know if we’re moving toward a point where new ways of bringing money toward musicians are offsetting all the places where musicians aren’t making money anymore. Ultimately I just hope as a culture that we’ll all put energy toward supporting musicians we believe in by sending money their way, in whatever form that might take.

Check out Nicole Childrey’s twitter.

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