Interview with Nic Hessler

Northern Transmissions interviews Nic Hessler about his album 'Soft Connections'.
photo courtesy of Ellen Wildhagen

Orange County singer-songwriter Nic Hessler first started making music in 2005 at the age of 14, adopting the pseudonym Catwalk. Inspired by the records of Wipers and Roy Orbison, Catwalk delivered a lo-fi guitar pop combo that soon resulted in a couple 7” records being released by (the now disbanded) Yay! Records from 2006 to 2008. As Catwalk, Hessler then snagged a deal with Captured Tracks, under which he released two more 7” singles, 2010’s (Please) Don’t Break Me and One By Words in 2011.

It was during the recording of his debut album that Hessler fell prey to the near-paralyzing Guillain-Barre Syndrome, putting him out of commission for some time. Overcoming the sickness and leaving behind the Catwalk name, Nic Hessler released Soft Connections in 2015, a Californian power-pop collection that would turn even the Beach Boys head. Hessler, now 24, sat down with Northern Transmissions to talk about his journey so far.

NT: Let’s start from the beginning: starting Catwalk, what inspired a 14 year old to record original power-pop songs?

Nic Hessler: I listened to mostly country and 60s/70s West Coast pop, like my mom was really into The Mamas & the Papas, the Beach Boys, that kinda stuff. It was pretty much just bubblegum pop and British Invasion stuff growing up, also alternative rock like Nirvana when I was a teenager.

NT: Did you gravitate towards forming a band at this time?

Nic Hessler: Catwalk was basically me just recording in my garage. Growing up, my brother and I had a little band we started. I eventually got into Punk, he got into Metal—at first we were writing songs together but then we wanted to go different ways. So yeah, I got a 4-track for Christmas and I just kinda started experimenting with stuff in my garage. My stepdad and my uncle had a bunch of recording equipment stored away and I just happened upon it and found a bunch of old microphones and old guitar pedals. It started as just like, noise experimentation then eventually I started learning to write songs, and that turned into Catwalk.

NT: Well it turned out pretty well!

Nic Hessler: Yeah, yeah! Looking back, some of that equipment was pretty nice stuff and I was very fortunate to have found it. My stepdad was a musician early on but he kinda… put it on the shelf and stored everything away and then, I dunno. I was going through stuff and got really into audio production and recording and all that kinda stuff, I found all this—actually before I got the 4-track I found an 8-track in my garage and I recorded on zip-discs, but that was a little too over my head.

NT: Still under the Catwalk name in 2010, you wrote “(Please) Don’t Break Me”, which sounds like your current stuff and even appears on your latest album, Soft Connections. What led to that transition?

Nic Hessler: Actually, that song was like… I’m trying to think. I guess from like 2005, when I started Catwalk, I was trying to get a band together because it was just me recording and it was hard to get a group of people together—I really wanted it to be a band of like four people sticking around and making a bunch of albums, but that was hard to put together. The lineup was always changing and there was a period from 2008-2010 where we were playing a lot of shows, and I was really focusing on just trying to write better songs instead of being a good live band. “(Please) Don’t Break Me” came out of that, and I don’t know, that might’ve been one of the first songs I felt good about writing. There are still some from that period that I wanna use in future stuff, but that was the first one that I thought would be fun for people to listen to, as opposed to being more fun to make.

NT: Since 2015, you’ve rebranded yourself as ‘Nic Hessler’. Is this a way of distancing yourself from Catwalk?

Nic Hessler: It wasn’t really a matter of getting away from that. I guess the sound changed, but originally Soft Connections was gonna be under the Catwalk name, but throughout the process of making it, it just… I was working with some people and relationships dissolved, and I just needed it to be fresh again. There were a lot of songs I recorded from 2008-2012 and they felt old and needing to be reworked. Actually Mike Sniper at Captured Tracks had the idea of putting it out under just my name, that way it’s less confusing—a new way to introduce myself to the world. I kind of clung to the Catwalk name for so long, but this was my first album and it was a good opportunity to let the Catwalk stuff be that—those albums are always there if people want to hear them, and people can see the progression. The old recordings speak for themselves.

NT: Speaking of transformation, Soft Connections was your ‘reemergence’ after your bout with Guillain-Barre Syndrome—how did that affect you as an artist and person?

Nic Hessler: Yeah, that was something that happened during the making of the album, it was a really weird thing. I was battling a cold for like a month and one day I woke up with… double vision. There wasn’t any pain, so I was going about my day with no idea, but then I woke up one day with rubbery legs, I immediately collapsed. My body was attacking itself, and it starts to slowly destroy the nervous system. It was really bizarre. I had what’s called “Miller Fisher” Guillain-Barre, that’s like the rarest—it starts in your eye muscles and descends into full-body paralysis; luckily I caught it early enough. I was trying to play guitar while making the album and couldn’t, and I was thinking ‘Oh man, this might be the end of it, am I ever gonna be able to make music again?’ I had to relearn how to walk, and it was a month-long recovery, but I’m happy it didn’t get worse. I was lucky to catch it early enough when I did.

NT: You mentioned the Beach Boys as an influence—earlier in 2016 I saw you were part of a Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tribute. As a Californian yourself, how do you feel Soft Connections fits into the legacy of ‘beachy’ power-pop?

Nic Hessler: I’m not really sure, I didn’t really ever think to call myself “power-pop” until Counter Tracks said that, I’ve always liked that kind of stuff without paying attention to if it’s power-pop, like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Not really sure if that is or not.

NT: Definitely, a lot of artists prefer to collect artists as influences instead of sticking to genre labels. So, are there any bands or albums that influences Soft Connections?

Nic Hessler: Yeah, you know, I was listening to the dB’s record, Stands for Decibels (1980), I listened to that album a lot, but I don’t know how much that translates into the album. I was also playing with Devon Williams a little bit too, so maybe a little influence there seeped in. I know Northern Transmissions did an interview with Devon Williams. Yeah, I was playing with him and listening to his records a lot, so maybe that seeped in unconsciously.

NT: For sure. So you’ve said Soft Connections is what you hope to be the first in a string of albums—anything planned for the near future?

Nic Hessler: Yeah, right now I’m working on demos for a new album. I have a pretty good batch that I’m confident about, so I’m hoping to start recording next month or the month after. Lately I’ve been collaborating with people, I’ve played a little bit on the new EZTV record that’s gonna come out, also I’m working on Devon Williams new record. I’m trying to branch out a little bit and not be too confined with my own stuff, cause it is kind of refreshing to play other people’s songs.

NT: How about farther in the future—where do you see yourself heading?

Nic Hessler: I definitely have a lot of songs—I mean, not all of them are good, but I plan on working on these songs for as long as I can until I’m satisfied with them. Keep writing new songs, keep collaborating with people. It’s something Mike Sniper brought up with going by Nic Hessler instead of Catwalk: it opens the door for freedom to collaborate with whoever and not be confined to a band. I can be on other people’s records and be my own entity. I’ve been open to that, and really enjoy doing it, especially this past year.

NT: I guess that’s what being a musician’s about—not being confined by other people’s expectations.

Nic Hessler: Yeah!

NT: So, any messages for fans or pitches for new listeners? What is it about your work that might draw people to you?

Nic Hessler: It’s not really a message for fans, but I guess I’ve been thinking that it sucks being pigeonholed as a ‘guitar band’, I dunno. I felt like Soft Connections was probably going to be one of those things, but I don’t know. I don’t want to feel confined by myself.

Interview by Matthew Wardell