Golden Suits, the project of Fred Nicolaus, formerly of Department of Eagles, is gearing up for the release of his newest album, Kubla Khan, a driving, familiar collection of songs that feels as refreshing as it does nostalgic. The melodies and steady guitars are infectious, producing a sense of ease that can only come from a well-crafted song. We asked Nicolaus to put together a list of tracks that helped shape the sound of Kubla Khan, and we got back a fantastic collection of music that definitely feels like a piece of the album’s DNA.
Bruce Springsteen – Dancing in the Dark
I feel like every songwriter has a song in the back of their head that’s useful as a kind of unreachable goal. Every time they sit down it’s — “I wish I could write a song like THIS,” and then the sum total of their work is their failure to reach that goal. For me that song is “Dancing in the Dark.” What I love about it is that it doesn’t try too hard — steady driving tempo, no big dynamic shifts, a spare handful of chords — yet it’s completely captivating. I also love the emotional nuance — you can read it as either happy or sad (or both?). It’s an amazing pop song doesn’t rely on pop song cliches.
Tom Petty – Free Fallin’
When I was younger I didn’t like Tom Petty because I thought he was cheesy, but I came to realize recently that I was wrong. Not about him being cheesy, but about not liking him. People like cheesy songs. I like cheesy songs. Emotions are generally fairly dorky. Finding peace with Tom Petty was a big part of the writing process for this album.
Haim – The Wire
It’s weird to think of this now, but only six years or so ago, the concept of Pitchfork covering a band that tours with Taylor Swift would have seemed insane. Now the boundaries between “indie” and “pop” are so fluid that calling them “boundaries” is laughable. Coming as I do from this dark folky artsy band background, seeing that shift has been interesting, because on the one hand it’s like “wait a minute what about all that effort I put into being serious and learning those fingerpicking styles.” But on the other hand, it’s incredibly freeing to not feel bound to artificial separations between what is pleasurable and what is taken seriously. Also, I love the drum sound on this song.
Leonard Cohen – Suzanne
This music journalist, Sylvie Simmons, wrote a great biography of Leonard Cohen called “I’m Your Man” and through a series of friends who know friends, I ended up playing guitar for her on a few reading events she did around the release. Learning those songs was kind of a breakthrough for me, because they were so low and easy to sing, as opposed to the songs I was writing at the time, which were much higher, and very hard to sing. I started taking all my songs down several keys and suddenly everything made more sense.
The Walkmen – The Rat
The gold standard. Whenever I try to record a loud fast song, it’s always “let’s listen and see how The Walkmen did it” time in the studio.
Charlie Brand – New Highs/New Lows
Charlie Brand is the lead singer of this fun pop band called Miniature Tigers, but this is a solo record he kinda soft-released on Tumblr. Based on vague social media impressions, I got the feeling that he was having some “dark times” and “needed to get some stuff off his chest.” I like Miniature Tigers a lot, but I love this record. It feels very raw and true, and I listened to it a bunch while working on Kubla Khan.
The Beach Boys – Barbara Ann
The Beach Boys Party is based around a fairly dumb idea–a completely faked party complete with background chatter where the Beach Boys sing a bunch of covers — but it’s a really fun album. My go-to idea for whenever we hit a wall on any of my songs on this album was “let’s try and pull a Beach Boys Party.” It never really worked, but we did end up recording a lot of background chatter, and we used about three seconds of it.
Kanye West – I Am A God
It’s weird to think about it in retrospect, but Yeezus is an incredibly brave record, made by someone who had a lot to lose. Whenever I feel afraid to make a particular choice on a song, I think about the fact that one of the biggest pop stars in the world made a record full of distortion, heavy breathing, abrupt cuts, and croissant demands. There’s nothing to be scared of.
Francis and the Lights – Like a Dream
I went to high school at the only public high school in Berkeley. It’s huge — around 4,000 kids. For whatever reason (at least when I went there) the normal John Hughesian social order was flipped on its head, and the cool kids were the people doing theater and in the jazz band and all that. That fact really led me down the dark path of making music, because instead of sports or drugs, all of my attempts to be cool involved trying out for “The Threepenny Opera” or writing ska songs, which eventually turned into a genuine interest.
Anyway, another thing about the school is that it has churned out a lot of famous people, most of whom you could tell were going to be famous even then (Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton” fame was a lead in “The Threepenny Opera”). However none was more clearly destined for stardom than this guy [birth name redacted]. I remember at some talent show or another he performed “King of The Road” dressed in a white suit standing on top of a grand piano and it brought the house down. I lost track of him for years, until he reappeared as this act Francis and The Lights.
This song (co-written by another guy I looked up to in high school) is my favorite of his. It’s another great pop song that’s more than just an assemblage of cliches. I’m not sure if it motivated my record in any specific sonic way, but people you went to high school with succeeding in the world is its own kind of motivation.