Q&A: NARC’s Nicky Smith On Working Alone, Writer’s Block, And Korn’s Badass Guitar Tone


Mister Hands, the debut album from NARC, is the sound of Balimore’s Nicky Smith bisecting and pinning to cork several the electric guitar’s sonic flavors: the panning-stereo patty-cake blare of “Gangrene/Snickers”; the drowsy, Drunken Master splay of “Sweater”; “Don’t Touch,” which bear-hugs a meat and potatoes butt-metal riff while filtering everything through a thin skein of distortion; and “Charles Rats Get It On Olson,” which suggests a cross between obsessive, stress-fracture inducing scale practice on an un-tuned axe and a haunted shutter camera trying to destroy itself. Dizzying, convulsive, meditative, and downright alien in spots—”The Bomb” pensively channels teletype clicks and sci-fi FX—Hands represents a confident start to Smith’s career as a songwriter, even as the world of filmmaking beckons.

SOTC emailed with Smith about Mister Hands, why he calls himself “NARC,” and plans for his first feature.

What inspired the sobriquet “NARC”?

I like the idea of someone who works alone. A narc is someone you can’t really trust: a pariah among pariahs. I’m not a part of any scene, and I find a lot of the noise-niks around Baltimore to be just as contemptible and moronic as Kings of Leon or Justin Bieber. So I’m interested in calling out people or things that are off-limits or sensitive because it bugs me that no one else does.

The “underground” feels just as stilted and staid as Top 40 these days: lots of glad-handing and laziness. NARC is all about Fountainhead-style individualism. You know, “I’m right and let me show you how wrong you are.”

“Underground” is a really loaded term these days.

You’re right; that’s not the right word at all. I’m not really sure how to put it. I guess I’ve been disappointed in a lot of the bands and records that have come out in the last few years. I mean, you have forever to make your first record, and a lot of these albums are basically glorified demos. And yet you have these guys playing 1,000+capacity venues, not knowing what to do or how to follow it up. I don’t blame the bands as much as Pitchfork and blogs; they blow bands up before they’re ready, and then the bands can’t hang. Remember Tapes n’ Tapes and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah?

Tell me about your first experiences with playing guitar. How old were you when you picked one up, and what was the situation? Did you ever play as part of a band?

I learned how to play the bass when I was nine years old. The hook in Korn’s “Freak on a Leash”—the snake-y high part that starts the song—I thought the bass did that, so I picked bass, and my brother played guitar. We took lessons from George Tabb, a local punk-mensch from the bands Roach Motel and Furious George.

The first song I ever learned was “Brain Stew” by Green Day. Insomniac is still one of my favorite records ever. Green Day and Nirvana are what made me want to play guitar and write songs. I got the basics down, but was so discouraged by the learning curve that I didn’t start playing a lot again until 2007, maybe. I was in two bands before NARC: first was Quid Pro Quo, in middle school, with my friend Jack Patterson. That was all over the place, sound collage, noise, rock songs—pretty much figuring out what pedals did for the first time.

Then at the beginning of high school I was in a band called Engine with my friend Jake Lingan. That was samples and synths; very demented, psychedelic pop songs, but live we were never that locked in—there was a nice teetering feeling to the live set because the samples were never quantized or anything, so you’d get this cool “drift,” as Eric Copeland says. By the time Engine ended, I was pretty burnt out on working with other people’s samples, and there was (and continues to be) a real oversaturation of that stuff. There’s just so much more you can do with the guitar.

Man, “Freak On A Leash”! I made fun of that song for the longest time when it was popular, but then all of a sudden I became a Korn fan without even realizing it was happening.

I still like some Korn. They have a badass guitar tone. And they play in Drop A. “Here to Stay,” “Falling Away From Me” are great, too.

How did NARC start out?

I started writing songs and playing as NARC in 2009. At the time I was really inspired by the music community in Baltimore. So many great bands new and old were really hitting their stride and there was a constant stream of amazing shows. There was a great Whartscape that summer, maybe the best. Ecstatic Sunshine—Matt Papich and Dustin Wong—Dan Deacon, and Eric Copeland in particular were huge inspirations for me in the beginning. Those guys are brilliant at summoning these rich worlds for their music to exist in; there’s a common thread to follow for the eager fan. But even more than that, I loved the emotionality and longing in their music. And it’s all very sincere and vulnerable when you get down to it. Dan’s “The House I Was Isn’t My Girlfriends Porsche” makes me cry. Ecstatic’s Yesterday’s Work is our generation’s Song Cycle, and I know I’ll be listening to it in thirty years. Connecting like that has always been more important to me than trying to be some tragically cool badass psych noise rocker.

How was Mister Hands, your first album, conceived and realized? I think of it as a series of explorations of the possibilities of the guitar, something that applies to another album I’ve always dug: Fugazi’s Red Medicine.

Mister Hands is basically a response to writer’s block. I started writing songs in the summer of 2009 and by the following January I had a full-length written and sequenced, called Sly. I was really excited and proud of the songs but I couldn’t record them properly. I still haven’t.

By the middle of 2010 I had a second record written, Pentenema Karten, but I still couldn’t do the job it deserved. So my live set is mostly songs from those records. I’m glad they’re still cooking because the songs just get better over time, and in the next year or two they’ll be put to tape to my satisfaction. But by the beginning of 2011 I still hadn’t really released anything, so I wrote and recorded Mister Hands in about a month just to have something to put out, a little teaser.

I didn’t give myself the time to dwell on any of the songs. Most of the songs were improvised live during recording. As of now I can’t play any of them live except “Hench.” Each song is really far out in its own style or gimmick. A friend of mine said they sound like product demonstrations, and I think that’s spot on, like eight little demented sales pitches. It unravels as it goes on; it loses its cool and gets a little crazier with each song. So I’m glad it came together. I definitely didn’t know if it would at the time.

Can you tell me a bit about the genesis and titling of “Charles Rat Get It On Olson”? That track is so tangled and nasty and restless that focusing on a single element is almost impossible—and the title sounds like an aside from a trap-rap lyric.

Yeah that’s just like the cocaine orgy song. The whole Charlie Sheen/Bree Olson thing was going on then, and I thought it would be funny to do a noise song that sounded like a gangbang. Totally improvised, but there’s a few overdubs in there, like the shaker sound in the second half and some of the flange bubbles.

“Ginger” always makes me think of somebody waking up, or blinking dandelions out of their eyes.

That’s exactly what I had in mind. I had the idea for “Ginger” and the title before the music; I found the basis of the song in an old jam and added some sounds like the bombs dropping, and the small bright synth part near the end. The songs on the album start out calm and collected and gradually lose control. After “Nervoso Saudade” it’s a different voice, but it’s corrupted, like a brain virus.

Was “Hench” conceived on a bass guitar? It has this thing where it’s like a series of bass black holes which regular guitar notes are miraculously escaping from.

No bass, but the tuning is low. Hench was written as I was recording it, the take on the album is the first time I ever played it. It kind of reminds me of the game Perfect Dark, and maybe an undercover cop in a trench coat. Or a NARC. He can’t stop thinking about blowing his cover. It’s a little more demented live.

Tell me about “Don’t Touch.” it’s the most “straight-ahead rocker” song on the album, but it still fits somehow.

A groovy, three-chord rawk. It sounds like a stock loop in a pedal, like “Rock Song 3.” It’s aggressive and loud to make up for its simplicity—like a jock or a fat, drunken bro. The solo is really violently direct, I like that. Most of the songs sound broken or corrupted and “Don’t Touch” is like a lobotomized rock song.

Do you feel like you’ve cleared the hurdle now, that writing comes easier?

Writing songs has definitely gotten easier. I’m just trying to play catch-up and get the finished albums recorded properly. But I mostly write in five or six songs bursts these days, with a few in between here and there. I would be writing more if I didn’t have so many songs backlogged/unreleased. But I spend more time working on some than others. Last winter I tried writing songs assembly-line style, about anything, whatever, just the most skeletal bit of a song. I dumped most of those but it got me out of a rut. The best thing you can do to write songs is change your surroundings, what you’re thinking about, what’s around you. You can’t write when you’re bored.

Where are you based these days, and what are you doing outside of music?

I’m based in Baltimore now. I’m not in school. I was going for a film degree, but I decided I’d rather hold a job and get experience on my own. Lately I’ve been working on music videos for people here in Baltimore. I’ve got videos for Co La, Weekends, Roomrunner, Human Host, and Narwhalz out soon, and some other film stuff on deck. Otherwise, I’m just saving money for my first movie and getting ready for tour. There’ll be a new NARC record this spring too, called Yellow Jacket. These are brand new songs—more consistent than Mister Hands. It’s more of a traditional guitar record. Not many loops or soupy effects; just songs.

Who are some of your favorite solo guitar players?

I don’t listen to that many solo guitarists. But I like Billy Corgan, Matt Papich, Jim O’Rourke, Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Kevin Shields, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, Billie Joe Armstrong, Thurston/Lee, Ian Williams, James Honeyman-Scott, Jason DiEmilio, Isaac Brock, Glenn Branca, Simon Jeffes, Carlos Alomar, and Duane Allman.

Are the new songs still in the experimental vein, or more verse chorus verse structure with lyrics?

The Yellow Jacket songs are simpler and less dense. Many are verse-chorus-verse. No vocals. I like hearing each part as a different voice or character, since there aren’t any lyrics. A lot of people have asked me when I play live if I used vocal samples. I don’t, but the way the guitars interact and phase, you can hear words if you want to. But I love when a song or a sound or a tone can conjure a voice or a personality on its own. I’ve been told my singing voice is “post-enjoyable.”

What will your first feature be about?

The script I’m writing now is about a teenage brother and sister who drive/hitch around the country making money as simple entertainers, jesters, and showmen. It’s like Little Miss Sunshine meets The Aristocrats.

Playing live, do you go freeform, or try to recreate pre-existing songs?

I play existing songs live, but improvise certain parts of them. They might get stretched or scrunched but they’re still recognizable to anyone who knows them.

NARC plays the Cameo Gallery with Big Ups and JaJa on Sunday.