Under the Radar

Tucson's Nick Luca Trio makes waves.

The way Nick Luca plays his sad, quiet pop songs is enough to make you cry.

Someone, somewhere, has surely observed that the beauty of pop music is in its ability to speak where words fail. Tucson's Nick Luca Trio, which features Jim Kober's minimal drums and Chris Giambelluca's melodic bass lines filling in the spaces between Luca's guitar and keyboards, has a heightened vocabulary of songs that range from jazzy to lounge to rock and mellow pop.

The group is made up of accomplished musicians and fronted by one of Tucson's lesser-known but more-influential figures in the music scene. Nick Luca has played guitar for Calexico and keyboards for John Doe, and he's recorded numerous artists such as Steve Wynn and Richard Buckner at Wavelab Recording Studios--all the while writing his own songs and putting together his own band.

"I'd been playing in Interlocking Grip and Spacefish ... and even playing in Calexico É just loud, smashing, wailing and craziness, and I said, you know, I want to take a turn for the mellow," said Luca, over a big plate of tater tots at the Grill, of the band's inception. "So we'll just throw a little trio together, you know, something simple, (and) use more of the jazz harmonies and stuff that I don't get to use in a rock context."

From the beginning, though, the Nick Luca Trio has been able to play shows ranging from rock-out crazy loud Che's Lounge to quiet, Hotel Congress Happy Hours in the lobby, all the while maintaining their image as a "quieter rock band," as Giambelluca put it. They've recorded two records during whatever spare time Luca could find at the studio: Little Town and Slow Motion. Little Town was released earlier this year in the United Kingdom on Loose Records, the label that handles the likes of Giant Sand, Neko Case and The Handsome Family overseas; Panther Fact, a small label out of Portland, will release Little Town stateside in October.

Despite all this, and despite the fact that on any given weekend you can probably find the Trio playing somewhere in the downtown area, the members of the Nick Luca Trio describe themselves as being "under the radar" locally.

"When you're a local band in Tucson, you're screwed," said Luca. "You play your gigs, and you hope people show and find it interesting. I just try to give 'em quality music they can count on. A night of entertainment."

Nick Luca began his musical career "at the tender age of 12," he said, eventually focusing in on it more in college. "(I) finally decided, ah, the hell with it, I'll just major in music. I think it's a big help, knowing all that stuff, it's pretty helpful," said Luca. "And then I got into studio and moved to Tucson and met Craig Schumacher at Wavelab, and started making records, and got pretty lucky that some of them got out there, and now, we're getting a lot of different people recording. I always had weird little side bands like this going on, some of them better or worse than others."

Since joining forces with Schumacher at Wavelab in 1996, Luca has engineered Richard Buckner's Devotion and Doubt, Steve Wynn's latest record, last year's Blacklisted from Neko Case, numerous Calexico and Giant Sand records, and numerous other local bands' works. Buckner is currently in the studio working on a new record. Being around all these talented musicians, being intricately involved with their recording process, is a luxury few enjoy.

"It's great to see how other people work and to make friends with these people. And to be able to talk about their process and how they write songs and hear these songs that you'd never hear--really get into the intimate detail and how it all gets put together--is awesome," said Luca. "It's definitely helped me a lot, especially with this project."

In addition to the upcoming domestic release of Little Town, the Nick Luca Trio has several shows around town in the next few weeks, as well as some in San Francisco later in the fall. "We were asked to play a couple shows in England with Steve Wynn, but I don't know if we can afford to do it," added Luca. "So it's one of those kind of things where you wanna go and move your career forward and play these gigs, but knowing what's really out there, you gotta become a local band in every place on Earth, you gotta keep going through, getting people to know who you are. Unless, I think the other way, is to make an amazingly good record that busts through the hump."

Little Town, which will be enhanced with a couple bonus tracks for the Panther Fact release, is a local record by a local band that is original and professional; it speaks with its own voice, which is something most bands take years to accomplish. The Calexico crew and Howe Gelb lent a hand, helping to give it an open-air feel that's more jazz than anything else. Slow Motion, which is only available through the band at their shows, is less fluid, but "Song to Sing" and "Recovery" are the Nick Luca Trio at their best: laid-back, yet heartfelt, mellow pop.

For the past couple of years, the Nick Luca Trio has received runner-up status in the TAMMIES category of lounge; while the Nick Luca Trio isn't exactly lounge in the sleazy, slack and relaxed sense of the term, Luca's songs are more suited to the nighttime than a sweltering Tucson afternoon. Said Luca of the record, "I finally feel like now I have a product that's worth the effort."

"I wish I could write better words," said Luca, finishing his tater tots. "It's hard to write good lyrics. Really hard. Sometimes they're good."

Luca turned the attention to his drummer. "Kober's a writer," he said. "You're more of a short-story writer, though."

"I've been doing the poetry thing for like a year now," said Kober. "But it's different, I've noticed, than from writing lyrics."

"Poetry is much more free, you can say, you know, frog, mule, underpants. The lemon tree," said Luca. "I'm just more a pop writer. Oh well. It's nice. They're all about the same thing. They're all about losing something. The four themes. It's either, they're silly and a joke, or it's all about losing, breaking up, loss. Or they're about being insane. Crazy. Double meanings. Lot of repeated choruses, the sing-along choruses. You should be able to sing it again, next time you hear it--yeah, I recognize it. It's nice when people come and see us for the first time and they say, oh, I like that song, and they name it, and that's it, that's what it's called."

"It seems a lot more intimate to put out words or sing, alright here's this, I'm the instrument," said Kober.

The intimacy of Luca's pop songs are what make them go beyond quality lyrics or well-written music; it's that whole giving-voice-to-what-can't-be-spoken thing again. As far as local bands go, the Nick Luca Trio is one to watch.

"I've got lots of irons in the fire, though, tons of crazy shit, you don't even wanna know, I can't even tell you some of those things," said Luca. "I can't even tell you how ridiculous it is, and if it all goes well, I may actually survive this music biz thing."

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