Photo by John Nygaard

interview. Caleb Nichols embarks on a contemplative exploration with ‘Let’s Look Back’

"It's about vindication, and reintegration, and trusting yourself"
4 December 2023

In the wake of his critically acclaimed queer Beatles rock opera, Ramon, Caleb Nichols is back with a more intimate and introspective offering. The singer-songwriter has unveiled his second full-length album, Let’s Look Back, a collection of 11 captivating songs that explore themes of vindication, reintegration, and self-trust. Released under the esteemed indie label Kill Rock Stars, Nichols’ latest work stands as a testament to his evolution as an artist.

Let’s Look Back is a departure from Nichols’ previous grandiose project, signaling a shift toward a more focused and personal exploration. The album, produced by Zach Rogue, delves into the idea that one must confront their past before moving forward. Nichols explains, “It’s about vindication, and reintegration, and trusting yourself.” Through a diverse sonic landscape, he invites listeners to join him on a journey of reflection and growth.

From the infectious power-pop energy of Demon Twink to the ethereal pop sounds of J’ai Vu La Lune! and the bold, brassy tones of Wicked, Let’s Look Back offers a sonic palette that captivates from start to finish. Nichols’ catchy refrains and insightful lyrics create an immersive experience that resonates with authenticity.

Under the guidance of producer Zach Rogue, the album features a stellar lineup of musicians. Adam Nash’s guitars and backup vocals, Alex Nash’s drums on select tracks, and the multifaceted contributions of Pat Spurgeon on drums, percussion, piano, and keyboards all contribute to the rich tapestry of sound. Additionally, Zach Rogue lends his backing vocals, adding an extra layer of depth to Nichols’ expressive storytelling.

The meticulous craftsmanship of Let’s Look Back is evident in its production credits. Engineered by Ian Pellicci and mixed by Jay Pellicci at Brothers (Chinese) Recording in Oakland, the album is a collaborative effort that spans various recording locations. From pre-production and additional recording by Adam Nash to synths recorded by Iain McDonald and additional vocal recording by Jeff Jamieson, each element has been carefully curated to create a cohesive musical experience.

Beyond the music, Let’s Look Back is a visual masterpiece as well. John Dummett’s artwork, complemented by photos from Deborah Denker and Lenny Gonzales, creates a harmonious blend of visual and sonic storytelling. The layout and design by Rob Jones contribute to the overall aesthetic, ensuring that every aspect of the album is a carefully crafted work of art.

The album’s credits read like a who’s who of accomplished musicians, with mastering by Amy Dragon at Telegraph Mastering in Portland. With guitars, backup vocals, piano, and synths by Adam Nash, drums on select tracks by Alex Nash, and Nichols himself on vocals, guitars, and piano, Let’s Look Back is a collaborative triumph.

In some ways I approached this album from a sense of having a lot to get off of my chest, at least in my personal life

What’s up Caleb? What is on your mind right now?

I’m at home and it’s Thanksgiving in the US, and so I’m thinking about genocide and settler colonialism, and Palestine and the links between these things. This is the worst holiday in the US as it literally celebrates colonization and the beginning of the genocide of indigenous people in the North America, and I usually try and leave the country to be honest.  

Photo by John Nygaard

Your previous work, “Ramon,” garnered critical acclaim as a queer Beatles rock opera. How does your new album, “Let’s Look Back,” differ in terms of theme and approach?

Yeah, I mean the two are completely different in every way, except for the fact that I wrote the songs on each. “Ramon” as you mention is a rock opera, based on the Beatles character Mean Mr. Mustard… it’s a very focused concept, you know, it tells a story. “Let’s Look Back” is a collection of songs that might have something to do with each other, but my intention with this album was just to make a sort of solid indie rock album: nothing too complicated. Just songs to nod your head to, or soundtrack your train ride, you know?

How has your collaboration with Kill Rock Stars influenced the creative process and the overall direction of your music?

I’ve tried to let the label in to parts of the process, and it’s yielded interesting results. I talk to Slim Moon sometimes about tracklistings and track choices, things like that. I still don’t let many people in to the songwriting stage of things, but I’ve become interested in letting more and more people into the rest of the process, from arrangements of the songs, to production, to everything else about releasing music. I’m not a music industry expert; I like being on a label and letting them steer the marketing/album-selling ship. Ideally, I’d like to not think about that very much and just stay focused on writing.  

The album is described as being about the idea of looking back, confronting the past, and trusting oneself. Can you share more about the themes and inspirations behind “Let’s Look Back” and how they shaped the songwriting and production?

In some ways I approached this album from a sense of having a lot to get off of my chest, at least in my personal life. I thought perhaps a way of sloughing off the past might be to release it on an album, you know? They call it a “record release” and I’m like taking that very seriously. RELEASE! Farewell past! Ring out the old, ring in the new! So it was sort of like a way forward, this backwards looking creation. Some of the songs are quite old on this album, and some of them are quite new, but they are mostly about old feelings that I hope to move on from.  

Working with producer Zach Rogue on this album, how did his involvement contribute to the highlights of “Let’s Look Back,” such as the power-pop track “Demon Twink,” the luminous pop of “J’ai Vu La Lune!,” and the bold and brassy “Wicked”?

Zach is an incredible musician and producer. If you haven’t listened to Rogue Wave, they are one of the best indie bands of the 00’s and 10’s. I keep trying to convince him to make a new Rogue Wave record but he is resisting! Zach’s production choices really shaped the sonic landscape of this album. The album is really bright and layered, and my vocal performances in particular are much more energetic than I typically go for on my own. You can hear Zach all over the record, from the synth choices to the arrangements. 

The album features a diverse range of recording locations and collaborators. How did these varied settings and contributors impact the sound and atmosphere of the album, especially considering the involvement of musicians like Adam Nash, Alex Nash, Zach Rogue, and others?

We mostly tracked the album during one week in Oakland, California. We got all the basic tracks done like drums, bass, guitars and all of my vocals. But then we started filling in the gaps remotely, with everyone working independently in different cities. I recorded some keys in Wales, where I was living, Adam and Zach were in the Bay Area and Pat lives in Portland, Oregon. So yeah, I suppose we were all over the place. But I think being at Brothers (Chinese) Recording in Oakland, all together, for most of the tracking was crucial to the way the album really feels like a cohesive whole. You can hear the room and you can feel the space you know, in a way that you can’t do if you’re just recording on a laptop in a bedroom with a midi controller. And nothing wrong with that – it’s how I’ve done a lot of recordings, but there’s something really special about being with other musicians in a studio environment, with pros at the board.  

If you had to describe your sound in three words what would they be?

feeling sounds and words. 

What do you want people to take away from listening to your music?

I want them to start bands that have nothing to do with chasing fame or streams. Like, bands with their friends or alone, but that have something else to offer the world besides popularity. 

Which artists are you listening to right now?

New songs from Schande and Witching Waves have been on my playlist, along with the new Beatles mixes, the new Blur album has been on repeat since I saw them at Wembley (which was like a dream come true). I enjoy a mix of like DIY and old pop stuff. God, that new Björk track is really good.  

What can we expect from you in 2024?

I’ve got a new book of poems coming out on UK imprint Broken Sleep. I’m contemplating releasing some music along-side that and doing some shows in the UK and the EU. If so, it would be like a solo thing… very folky, quiet, and lonely.