The solo project. It’s an adventure that some musicians will never be brave enough to embark on. Fred Nicolaus is not one of those musicians. Having partnered with Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen in the band Department of Eagles, Nicolaus is now a solo artist under the name Golden Suits. His first album under the new moniker came after a time of major turmoil in his life, and it stayed true to the lilting, emotional folk pop that Department of Eagles had become known for. This second album, though, written after his life had calmed down quite a bit, is a happier, poppier, louder call back to the punk he had listened to as a young kid. I spoke to Nicolaus about going solo, staying solo, finding joy after chaos, and his ideal golden suit. His new album, Kubla Khan, is out today.
When I called Nicolaus for our interview, he answered the phone cautiously upon seeing my Baltimore area code.
“We just stayed around Baltimore [between the Philadelphia and DC legs of their tour],” he laughed. “I thought maybe you were someone from the hotel who was mad at us for something.”
Anyway. So Nicolaus is currently on tour with his backing band, although Golden Suits is really his solo project (he plays most of the instruments on the record, except for the drums, which he says he’s not very good at).
Nicolaus, 34, now lives in Clinton Hill, though he’s floated around different Brooklyn neighborhoods since first moving to New York City to attend NYU circa 2004. After living in Manhattan for his first few years of college (and never going to Brooklyn), Nicolaus’s first non-dorm dwelling was an apartment in Gowanus/Park Slope.
While at NYU, Nicolaus studied art history, but was also super into literature: he worked in publishing for a while, and tried to read and write as much as humanly possible. That love of literature came into play when naming his solo project: Golden Suits is a reference to “The Country Husband,” a short story by John Cheever.
“Cheever is one of my favorite writers,” Nicolaus said. “The line about the golden suits comes after a long descriptive paragraph of an idyllic suburban scene. At the end, the guy is in his woodworking studio, and Cheever writes, ‘Then it is dark. It is a night when kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.’ I love that. It combines something that feels absurd and weird with something that feels very grounded.”
And Nicolaus says that this blend of the absurd with the expected is something that comes up a lot in his own work.
“That’s always what I try to do with writing songs. I write love songs and break up songs, you know, like you expect, but I like to introduce bits of absurdity and weirdness.”
For instance, check out “Is It Wrong.” You’ve got the sweet little refrain about “giving you my love,” but that comes after a line about “Liebfraumilch milk in Germany and a ring around your neck,” whatever that is. And then there’s a line about “if only I could show you how years are made of days/And pull away that bright book you held up to your face,” and something about “you laugh at me with those moon eyes.” That’s just pretty. You got some pretty words, Fred.
When you listen to Golden Suits’ first album, you’ll find a lot of sorrowful, heartfelt indie pop akin to what one would expect from Department of Eagles (or, from Nicolaus’s fellow Department of Eagles alumnus’s other band, Grizzly Bear). The album came after a lot of really difficult personal stuff for Nicolaus, and that pain comes through a bit.
“I had a really crazy year,” he sighed. “I think I was, like, 27. It was just like one of these years where all the shit happens: I went through a pretty intense break up, was dealing with a lot of family shit, I lost like 50 pounds and a bunch of money.” He laughs, “It was just all very chaotic. A lot of the songs came out of that.”
He also spoke about maintaining a similarity between his solo music and what he’d been doing with Department of Eagles:
“I think when I was in Department of Eagles, it was somewhat successful, and I felt pressure when I went out on my own. I had to live up to this other band that I had been in.”
Kubla Khan, Golden Suits’ new record, is different, though. Nicolaus credits this to coming into his own, both as an artist and as a person in general.
“Life is much better now. Things are better, my life is a lot more stable and chill,” he said. “I had this chaotic, tumultuous period, after that I sort of feel like I had this period in my life where I was single, making music on my own instead of Department of Eagles, it’s really just a happier time. This album still has negative emotions, on it but it’s freer, more upbeat, it comes from a happier, freer place.
“I feel like I don’t care if anyone who liked Department of Eagles likes this music anymore,” Nicolaus laughed. “I feel happier. When you feel happier, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every song is like KC and the Sunshine Band, but it’s lighter.”
And it is. Nicolaus has found his voice, in more than one way:
“I was never the lead singer for Department of Eagles, and when I would write those songs, I’d write them for someone with a much higher voice than mine. I think with this album, I finally found the right range for myself to sing in. It’s a lot deeper, almost like Leonard Cohen, but it’s also inspired by the faster, louder music I was into as a kid.”
Check out “Gold Feeling,” which is catchy, sweet as hell, and just downright happy. And the lower range really works for Nicolaus, though I wouldn’t really say Leonard Cohen. Maybe if Leonard Cohen was in a much better mood than it seems he usually is (and I say that as somebody who likes Leonard Cohen).
He played Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia the night before we spoke, a venue whose praises he sang for the way they treat their visiting bands. As for venues in Brooklyn, he’s a fan of Union Pool.
“I like the theatrical stage with the lights that make you feel like you’re in an old-time movie, and you can just kinda hang there, too,” he said. “I also like the Bell house a lot, though I feel like it’s mostly like comedy and podcasts and stuff now. But really, when it comes to how good a venue is, usually the people there really determine that. Even if you’re playing in a big empty garage, if the people are excited to have you there, that’s better than a fancy room.”
After all this talk about musical inspiration and life and stuff, I decided to really get down to the nitty gritty journalistic stuff that I am wont to do.
“So,” I asked. “Do you ever perform in a golden suit?”
Alrighty then. But being the aforementioned hard-hitting journalist that I am, I decided to delve deeper. I asked Nicolaus to design his ideal golden suit.
“In terms of pure monetary value, a golden hazmat suit would be ideal, because I would trade it in for cash,” he said. “But like, if I got to a point where it would really make sense for me to actually wear a golden suit, it wouldn’t be a business suit. It’d have to be like a nice Tom Ford, thin cut, tasteful gold. I could see a golden swimsuit, though that might not be best for safety.”
And as it turns out, there might be a business opportunity for Nicolaus if he ever gets into rugby:
“Golden Suits is also the name of a group of Australian rugby supporters. I don’t understand rugby, really, when I watch it it looks like people running into each other. But maybe there’s a cross-branding opportunity in there somewhere.
In the meantime, barring a cross over into Australian sports, Nicolaus can be found playing around town, most notably at his record release show tonight at the Mercury Lounge (tickets are $12-$14). The record is available streaming in “all the usual places,” but you should also pick up a physical copy at the show tonight or at goldensuits.com.
Lilly Vanek is the music editor for Brokelyn. For more on local music and on theoretical clothing made of precious metals, follow Lilly on twitter. And to pitch her for New Music Friday, email lilly [at] brokelyn [dot] com.