Professional Spotlight: Nick Girard (Part 2)

In part 1 of this interview, which you can access here, Nick Girard talked about his experiences with a cappella recording, mixing, and music in general. In part 2, he talks about his experiences as a performer with the prominent vocal bands Overboard and The House Jacks.

TOPIC: OVERBOARD

Acatribe: Over the past few years, Overboard can be safely described as “ambitious” with projects such as “Help!” and Free Track Tuesdays [which are available for listening on the Overboard YouTube channel here]. What did you guys hope to accomplish with each of these very original and ambitious plans? Did the entire group agree with the scope and direction of these projects?

Nick Girard: Since Overboard started as a summer street performing group, we have always tried to maintain a healthy balance between art and commerce.  Our first audiences were tourists and 50-year-old New Englanders who, by and large, were expecting a cappella to sound like their college glee club or like Frankie Valli.  So, at times, we’ve had to sing songs that all members may not have been wholly passionate about, but that allowed us to earn money.

This may be an old man’s tangent, but I believe it strongly: Growing groups sometimes need to suck it up and sing shitty songs. Shitty songs pay bills. Overboard didn’t become financially viable singing our dissonant version of “Toxic” or whatever Rihanna song is in heavy rotation. Music snobs won’t find you if you can’t get gigs and kids don’t pay for music. 

That means that in the early years, and sometimes even still today, we’ve made easy money singing “In the Still of the Night” and “Stand By Me.”  And if that makes us sellouts, so be it.  But we’re sellouts with a full sound system, six albums which are fully paid-for, a ton of recording gear, and music careers that now take us all over the country.  Every crappy gig we did, every High School Musical 2 song we covered for a five-year-old’s birthday party, every Temptations song covered for a sixty-five-year-old’s retirement party paid for something we needed to move forward.  Aside from putting in a few hundred dollars ourselves here or there in the early years, we’ve always paid for everything with money we earned before we bought the item in question.  I can look at our gear and our albums and know exactly which gigs bought what.  Funding for albums (soup to nuts, if you will) is always completely secured before we break ground.  We’ve sacrificed a great deal of our individual cuts in order to grow the group; we’ve never gotten loans, used credit cards, or done a Kickstarter [campaign].  And, sometimes that meant having to arrange the Notre Dame fight song for a graduation party or “Into the Mystic” for an anniversary dinner and I was happy to do it.  Even serious actors do CGI-laden blockbusters.

Does this mean I don’t have artistic integrity?  Some people say I don’t (but only if they think I can’t hear them).  And I don’t care.  When I started Overboard, I was a carpenter.  I didn’t give a shit about artistic integrity, I just didn’t want to be a carpenter forever.  And I can promise you, singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” at a pre-school is way better than planting pine trees in December or roofing a house in August.

The projects you’re asking about allowed us, more or less, to grow beyond singing for our supper.  With our holiday album, Tidings, and certainly later with Help!, we were trying to strike the balance between creating songs in styles our audience could relate to, but also to develop ourselves more as artists.  Both projects were marketable- people understand what you mean when you say “holiday album” or “Beatles tribute album”- but also allowed us to develop as arrangers, singers, and performers.  Free Track Tuesday also allowed us to add production to our marketable skills.

That’s a roundabout way of answering both questions.  The goal of these projects was to push us towards music careers.  And yes, at times my personal goals and my goals for Overboard were not consistent with other members’ artistic visions.  Or, more often, with their faith that the amount of work required to do the projects well would be met with commensurate rewards down the line.  I try very hard to make sure that if a member loses one battle, they win another; it doesn’t always work out that way, but I make the effort.  And some people don’t like me.  And I’m okay with that. 

Between the Free Track Tuesday series and the albums you guys have put out, the group has recorded a pretty wide variety of musical styles.  Do you feel that Overboard has a style of its own, something distinctive or is the group’s style reflected by its versatility?

We’ve always maintained an eclectic repertoire since doing so dramatically increases our gigging opportunities (see above!).  Our approach to arranging binds the material together and helps contribute a cohesion to our “sound.”  More specifically, perhaps the most definitive thing about Overboard is our song reinvention, a trait we’re looking to develop further in the coming months.  Otherwise, we just try to get by on our charming good looks and exuberant personalities.  😉

I believe you are the only original member (being a founder) of the group still involved. Considering you are a small band with very specific sonic demands, how difficult is the transition for you musically when a group member leaves and somebody new comes in?

You are correct, I am the only remaining original member.  Scott joined the group about nine months in, well before we embarked on any of our “definitive” projects, so he very much feels like an original member to me. 

Replacing members is always difficult. No two singers are alike and a lot of the time the guy leaving is a good friend and the new guy is a total stranger.  Everything needs to change when someone new comes in.  And, depending on what role(s) they serve, those changes can be subtle or drastic.  But yes, if you could take a cross-section of the group’s history and listen to it, you would notice DRASTIC changes in style…and tuning.

With “Help!” you used not only the most popular Beatles songs, but also a few lesser-known (or deeper) Beatles tunes to tell a story.  Were you familiar with some of these more obscure tracks already, or did you end up listening to the entire Beatles catalog in order to piece together the tracklist/story?

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but before working on “Help!” I didn’t know nearly as much about the Beatles as I should have.  After we finished up with “Tidings,” my girlfriend, who is an avid Beatles fan and does a lot of Overboard’s behind-the-scenes work with scheduling, accounting, etc., suggested we do a concept album based around the Beatles catalog.  So, one night in December 2008, she and I sat down, combed through song after song and, over the course of a few hours, we built a story around these forty-something songs.  With the exception of one or two songs and a couple of transitions, that draft is what you hear on the final recording.  On my own, I never could have come up with some of the ideas she did, not just because I didn’t know the source material as well as she does, but also because she’s so much more willing to take risks than I am.  It’s my nature to say “No, that can’t be done”  and hers to be like “Cool, see you in an hour. Make it good.” “Hello, Goodbye,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “Good Night” are probably the best examples of the product of our collaboration, and they’re some of the most talked-about tracks on the album, as well as some of my personal favorites.

Perhaps the one notable absence in Overboard’s repertoire are original songs.  Are there any plans for Overboard to develop some original tunes?

The current answer is yes.  Ask me again tomorrow, and that may change.  I’ve gone back and forth about this for years. 

TOPIC- THE HOUSE JACKS

A staple of any live House Jacks show is the improvised section where the group takes requests from the audience and mashes a bunch of them together.  I have 2 questions about this practice: 1) What was it like the first time you had to do that onstage? and 2) I’ve seen the group many times over the years, and I’ve seen very few total flops on a request. Have you had any experience yet where the group couldn’t pull of a requested song?

Requests are always terrifying and my first time was no exception.  We were in Germany.  It was the first time I’d ever performed with The House Jacks or to a foreign audience and I quickly realized that I don’t know nearly enough Earth, Wind, and Fire tunes to satiate the average House Jacks fan.  I am one of the shyest people you’ll ever meet (don’t believe me? try to get your hands on an old video of me performing with the Top Cats… on second thought, please don’t!).  It takes everything I have to get out there and be spontaneous and funny and to just generally make an ass of myself.

I guess it’s kind of like Saturday Night Live skits or old Carol Burnett shows; the trainwrecks,  when everybody looks confused and starts laughing, are sometimes the most memorable moments.  It helps that the guys are pros.  Deke is one of the fastest people you’ll ever get to meet, musically, comically, and just generally.  He’ll just rattle off a retort before you even process the impetus.  Austin and Troy are both insanely versatile performers with incredible instincts and killer stage presences.  They can do great impersonations, but also make songs their own.  John has had a successful solo act in Austin for years, so he’s super comfortable onstage.  It’s hard to flop when you’re working with such a great group of musicians.  When it does happen, we laugh it off and try to do better with the next one.  Not much more you can do than that.

In the original announcement that you and John Pointer were joining The House Jacks, there was language indicating that you would be alternating between singing tenor and vocal percussion with the group.  Has that been the case, or have you settled into more of a defined role?

Yup, that’s very much been the case.  I’m happy to be the utility guy, so I sing bass, tenor, and do VP.  John’s VP style is very different than mine- he’s more of a beatboxer, and I’m more of a vocal percussionist- so we are both utilized in different ways, which basically amounts to us splitting the set 50/50.  I was a singer though most of my college and Overboard, so it’s been awesome to have some time to focus on expanding my VP skills.  That said, living up to The House Jacks’ lineage of percussionists (Andrew Chaikin, Wes Carroll, Jake Moulton) is unbelievably intimidating, so most days I just feel bad about myself and obsessively practice, much to the annoyance of everyone around me.

[Editor’s note: you can see a clip of the 2 of them trading off VP right here – John is on the left, Nick on the right]

Deke (Sharon) recently wrote a blog post for CASA.org explaining that part of  (if not all of) the reason The House Jacks has been around as a group for 20 years is that it is run like a “communist collective.”  Do you think this approach works? Do you find that the group’s approach and structure are similar to how Overboard works internally, or are there significant differences?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year since meeting Deke.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that our approaches are similar, but different.  The best way I can explain it is to liken it to parenting styles.  Deke/Austin and I are the parents of our respective groups.  My child, “Overboard,” is a six-year-old with certain aspirations, but with the natural limitations of being a kid still figuring out what kind of person it wants to be.  Deke and Austin’s child, “The House Jacks,” is a twenty-one-year-old with character and accomplishments, already possessing a pretty clear vision of who it is in the world.  Both benefit from parenting, but the characteristics of that parenting vary dramatically in accordance with the situation in question.

I will say, learning more about The House Jacks’ history, its struggles and growing pains, has made me feel much, much better about Overboard.  I spent years thinking, perhaps arrogantly so, that our problems were unique and beating myself up that they were all my fault.  But, the more I get to know people in established pro groups, the more I realize that the drama Overboard has faced over the years is pretty typical.  I may be crazy, but at least I’m not alone.

Any exciting news, projects, or opportunities involving Overboard or The House Jacks that you’d like to plug?

In the near future, I’ll be on the road a ton with both groups.  Overboard has significantly expanded our national touring dates, and we’ve got a few international mini-tours hopefully being finalized in the next couple of months.  The House Jacks will be headed to Sri Lanka next month, Rio in September, and then back to Germany for our annual tour in November.  We’ve got a few really exciting opportunities coming up in Asia over the next year or so as well.  Beyond touring, both groups are changing up our stage shows, looking into new album projects, and expanding our outreach projects.

TOPIC: (VERY) PERSONAL

I know that organ donation is an important topic for you and I was wondering, if you don’t mind sharing, why that’s the case?

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak about this.  When I was 22, my father was diagnosed with advanced liver failure.  Two months later, he was lucky enough to receive a full liver transplant from a car crash victim.  In the years since, his health has been pretty unpredictable at times, but the transplant unquestionably saved his life.  Not everyone is that lucky.  In the United States alone, it’s estimated that 7,000 people die annually while waiting for an organ.  Experts believe that heightened awareness about organ donation will go far in solving this crisis.  I know that organ donation is a very personal issue, and I by no means want to preach to people about it.  However, for those of your readers who are organ donors, they can help spread awareness about organ donation.  Facebook, for example, now allows you to include your organ donation status on your timeline.  It may seem like a small gesture, but if even a fraction of Facebook’s 900 million users join the conversation about organ donation, we can help people like my dad get the care they need.

Nick, I know I speak for many of my readers when I say thank you so much for taking the time to offer such extensive and candid answers.  It is great for the community anytime we can engage in honest discussion about what groups are doing and how they work (or don’t).  I wish you the best of luck with both groups and the production company, as well as any and all other creative projects you are working on.

For readers interested in checking out how to register as an organ donor, please start here. In many states, including my home state of New York, you can register when you renew your driver’s license or register to vote, in addition to other places. I am proud to be an organ donor, and I would add that blood donations are also dangerously low in many states, and they require no formal registration other than walking into a local blood donation bank or drive, but you can learn more about that by clicking here.

You can find Overboard on the web here and here.

You can find The House Jacks on the web here.