It’s Snakes: It’s Alive!
by Daniel Coston
from the forthcoming issue of Tangents Magazine
Hear music. Learn to play an instrument. Start playing music. This has been the jumping off point for many a musician. The sense of discovery, the joy of having every song and show be someting new. For Hope Nicholls, that idea has never left her. For the past 35 years, Nicholls and her partner Aaron Pitkin have been leading figures in the Charlotte music scene. Fetchin’ Bones, Sugarsmack and Snugglepuss have all featured their sense of youthful enegy and punkish minimialism. For Snugglepuss, it was Pitkin that learned to play drums for the band. For their new band, It’s Snakes, Pitkin has switched back to guitar, and Nicholls has taken up the drums.
It’s Snakes harkens back to a time when surf guitar rock, garage rock and proto-punk all came from the same garage. Joined by bassist Darren Gray and guitarist Greg Walsh, Nicholls sings and screams while banging out a primal beat on a stand-up dumkit. It’s loud, it’s loose, it’s all fun. Nicholls checked in with us via email to talk about the band, learning to play drums, and balancing work, family and music.
Tangents Magazine: How did It’s Snakes come together?
Hope Nicholls: We came together in our basement, starting with Aaron and Darrin jamming while I attempted to play along and not mess things up! Aaron had 20+ years of things he had been tinkering with on his acoustic guitar, ever since Fetchin Bones was no more and he moved on to bass and drums. Aaron chills out almost everyday by playing his acoustic, not intentionally writing ditties, just noodling, whatever comes to him. Some things stick and become more song-like. They started playing some of those riffs and once I had a beat that seemed to work, I would try to think about singing. Once I could think about singing while playing drums, I could usually hum my idea, then finally sing it.
Tangents: How would you describe the sound of this band?
Nicholls: I think by nature of my rudimentary drumming, plus songs often started on acoustic, we have a touch of roots in our sound, but our roots are gnarled and odd. Inspirations include all disco-era dance and 70’s African music, as well as Bo Diddley, ZZ Top, The Animals, Iggy Pop and the Rolling Stones. Darrin writes amazing, melodic bass parts that rock and really fill out our sound. His roots are as punk rock as it comes.
Tangents Magazine: Hope, this is the first band that you’ve ever played drums in. How did that come about?
Nicholls: I wanted to play drums in this band as a change and challenge to myself, to not just be a singer. I have been a frontman for many decades in many bands and I was ready to add something more in. I was not even sure it would work! Some days I’m still not. I want to get so much better. But during a show with Plaza Family Band, I had this realization that I was singing, playing a shaker and tapping my foot. I realized that was enough for me to play drums the way I care about drums. I am not trying to be Stewart Copeland. I like songs that have one beat all the way through; some of the best songs ever do. Being a virtuoso has never been important for me. I just want to be part of the whole sound and drums are the foundation. As a singer/drummer, I get to be the foundation and the cherry on top! Most importantly, Aaron, Darrin and Greg were willing to put up with my incompetence and baby steps as I learned how to play from scratch.
Tangents Magazine: How did you come to play drums standing up?
Nicholls: I started playing sitting down, but it’s hard to sing with your tummy all scrunched up, so I decided to try standing. It was easy since I was just starting out. After we were rocking about 6 months, I switched and had a blast building a stand-up kit from pawn shops and eBay scores.
Tangents: In the last few bands that you’ve formed, you’ve chosen to play instruments that you had really just learned to play. What does that bring to a band’s sound?
Nicholls: Aaron and I have always loved the sound of exuberance, the joie de vivre that novice musician have. It’s a punk rock thing: DIY and don’t worry about being perfect. It’s a soul thing: convey truth and feeling, things more important than being perfect. That’s how we started playing together, without any training or experience musically, even in school, and we have always encouraged other people to do the same. We have always asked our friends to be in our bands, and if they happen to be musicians, all the better. It’s most important to have a love of art and sound and performance; the rest falls into place.
Tangents: Talk about balancing playing music, while at the same time managing a fuill-time job, and raising a family.
Nicholls: We decided to open Boris + Natasha when we wanted to have kids and needed a steady income that did not involve touring. During the following seventeen years, we did Snagglepuss and then when Amy moved to South America, we relaxed for a bit before starting It’s Snakes about 1 1/2 years ago. I feel like one of the best examples anyone can set for kids is to show them passion. Ours is music. We have shown them by example what comes from working hard and having a blast. Our kids may not end up as musicians, but they will follow their own interests with gusto, and that is a great gift we have given them.
Tangents: Talk about the difficulties of establishing a band (or individual artist) in Charlotte now, as opposed to the Charlotte scene during the 1980s.
Nicholls: I think being a musician now in Charlotte is way easier. In the early 80’s, there were very few people making music compared to now. There were very few clubs. It was way harder to find out about new music. Now we have places like School of Rock, things like satellite radio, the internet, a lot of really great venues of all sizes. Music is everywhere simultaneously, not just in Charlotte, but globally. Being an original music maker is esteemed and originality is encouraged. The Charlotte audience back in the day did not understand what Fetchin Bones was all about, partially because this was a non-college, small town market. It took us becoming popular in Athens and Atlanta for the press and mainstream to accept us. I think currently there is an amazing community of younger musicians in this town, doing awesome stuff. Musicians in Charlotte have always faced a choice to stay here, as we did, and make this place home or set off for more lucrative destinations like LA, New York, or Atlanta. With the internet and all Charlotte has now, I see that as less and less of a necessity.
Tangents: Do labels, or genre questions, get in the way of people discovering, or even enjoying music?
Nicholls: Labels and genres are superficial. When people use categories to define their own art or other people’s work, they flatten what should be multi-dimensional. I can’t categorize any of my favorite bands or artists, and I think that’s a very good thing.
Tangents: Finish this sentence. When it comes down to it, It’s Snakes is….
Nicholls: When it comes down to It’s Snakes… we just want to have fun and never stop!