Northstar’s ‘Is This Thing Loaded?’ turns 20 – a look back & interview with singer Nick Torres
Growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, Nick Torres had to learn about punk rock by word of mouth. There was hardly a local music scene, much less an underground one. But there was an independent record store, with a clerk who recommended a bewildered, adolescent Torres and friends an album by the Illinois-based punk band Screeching Weasel. “We could relate to it because it was so simple,” he said in a 2005 interview. “It made us want to start playing music.”
Northstar started in 1997 as a hardcore band, cycling through local Huntsville musicians. Torres joined as a guitarist about a year or two later, eventually taking up the mantle of singing and songwriting. In 2000 they settled on a final incarnation: Torres on lead vocals and guitar, Tyler Odom on guitar, Shawn Reagan on bass, and Gabe Renfroe–the sole original member–on drums. Fed up with the stagnant local scene and armed with a new 5-track demo, they set about booking their own tours up and down the East Coast.
One of these tours paired them with an upstart Long Island band named Taking Back Sunday who were looking to make their own impression on the touring circuit. Despite hailing from very different parts of the country they’d arrived at similar destinations, each band playing with a metallic edge that belied their roots in hardcore but also an expansiveness more typical of their second-wave emo forbearers. In Northstar, Taking Back Sunday had found a wildly inventive sparring partner, one unencumbered by the strictures of their native Long Island hardcore scene. As Adam Lazarra grew more accustomed to fronting Taking Back Sunday (he had been strictly their bassist until late 2000) he would soften the edges of his vocal delivery to better resemble Torres’s. In Taking Back Sunday, Northstar had a window into the kind of local scene they’d dreamed of, as well as an eager champion. When the former released Tell All Your Friends in March 2002 they praised Northstar as “the greatest band ever” in the liner notes. By June 2002 Northstar had inked a deal with Triple Crown Records and hunkered down to record their debut album Is This Thing Loaded?, which came out 20 years ago this week.
While his contemporaries trafficked in the hyper literal, embracing pop-radio tropes and elevating their lives to high melodrama, Torres eschewed linear narratives in favor of shifting perspective and surreal imagery. Lurid depictions of substance use and mental health struggles sit alongside theatrical romance. Northstar songs elide close reading–it’s virtually impossible to tell when Torres is writing from personal experience, observation, or in another mode entirely.
Lyrics for each song were only written after the instrumental structure was fully fleshed out, which would have been foolhardy if not for the band’s genuine chops. The verse of “No Ricochet” is propelled forward by Reagan’s undulating bassline, lurching along until it skids into a stop-start pre-chorus. One track earlier, “Broken Parachute” surrenders its outro to a 20-second drum solo. Thankfully Northstar were more than adept at writing earworm hooks to balance out their jammier impulses, and Torres’s writing was often winkingly clever and vivid simultaneously (“Rigged & Ready”, the album opener, begins: “It’s winter and I’m late/I lost this game/Of White Russian Roulette/I’m fine, I’m quite ok.”). This full band dynamic culminates with “Taker Not a Giver”, the album’s 5-minute centerpiece and, for my money, one of the best emo songs of this or any era. It’s a fantasia of drunken paranoia and romantic temptation, reimagining Chekhov’s gun as a scorned lover’s glare, where flying is just a precursor to the fall. The band is in lockstep, vacillating between Pop Unknown’s exploratory vaporousness and Hot Rod Circuit’s treble-heavy siren riffs, before landing on an anthemic lyric-driven outro, some of the loudest vocals on the album.
Northstar would cut just one more album–2004’s Pollyanna–before calling it quits. There’s an understated magic to Is This Thing Loaded?. Its scrappiness harkens back to previous eras of emo, when young bands were desperate to make something of themselves, pilfering the dregs of their record collections for parts and innovating in spite of themselves in the process. Northstar landed on something a bit too strange for long standing commercial success but just strange enough to be strip-mined for ideas. Is it any wonder that they’re so often namechecked as an inspiration by subsequent generations? Dikembe’s Steven Gray noted they “made [him] want to play music”. Oso Oso’s Jade Lillitri has paid lip service to Northstar several times; when the light catches his Long Island drawl just right it’s almost a dead ringer for Torres’s softened Alabama twang.
There’s a moment at the end of “Broken Parachute” where Torres allows himself to imagine success: “There’s billboards and silver spoons/And the phone won’t stop ringing/My head’s reaming, I am famous/And then I won’t care at all about anything…” If anything, Northstar cared too much, enough to leave behind a rich and abstract universe where fans can find themselves in the refractions, alone in wonderland. For that we should be grateful.
I caught up with Northstar’s Nick Torres to talk about Is This Thing Loaded? and the band’s career as a whole, and you can read our conversation below. [Note: lightly edited for clarity.]
How did Northstar get started? What were your goals as a group?
The band started in 1997 in Huntsville, and it consisted of several guys in Huntsville from different bands. Gabe is the only original member. When I joined it was sort of a weird, hardcore band. I didn’t join until around 1998 or 1999 and I didn’t sing, I just played guitar. The other guitar player left, and we asked Tyler to join. I remember on the 2nd demo; our singer was in the studio and didn’t even have lyrics written out. I’m pretty sure he was making some of them up on the spot. We eventually kicked him out and I started writing lyrics and singing, Tyler did some as well. I guess I just took the singing job out of necessity. Then the music started to change. Eventually Jake joined and that was kind of the final lineup, except Shawn Reagan filled in for a year when Jake went on hiatus. Shawn played on ITTL and some of the subsequent tours.
Our goals at first were just to get out of Huntsville and play music somewhere else. Then the bands we eventually started playing with were getting huge, and we put out our second album and just decided to really try to do something with it. We imploded.
What were the bands/songs that made you want to start your own band?
I started playing guitar because of Nirvana. I started my first band because of Screeching Weasel and some of the other Lookout bands. The first band I was in when I was 14 or 15 was basically a Screeching Weasel cover band.
What was the writing process like for Is This Thing Loaded? How was an average Northstar song put together from beginning to end?
If I can remember correctly, for this album I think it was mostly Tyler and I building guitar parts. Sometimes a vocal melody already existed. We would just get together and work it out with drums/bass, then I’d add lyrics. Most of these songs existed a couple of years before the record was even recorded, mostly on random demos. We started writing them when we were 18-19 years old. We needed songs because we just signed a record deal, so we just re-recorded the best of our demo songs. “Rigged and Ready” was probably the last song we wrote prior to recording, which explains why it’s probably the best song on the record. “To my Better Angel” was after that, and then the Pollyanna songs where I feel like the writing took a gigantic leap, especially when Jake was more involved in writing.
Once you and Tyler had fleshed out the guitar parts, did the songs' structures change at all while working on them with Shawn and Gabe? Were the lyrics written separately from the music and added in later, or written completely after the music was fleshed out?
It's a little hazy, but I believe sometimes the structure changed. Everyone wants to influence the song a little. Mostly they wrote around the guitars that were already written. Lyrics start when there is a melody and cadence, so after the music or the idea is created. I can always tell when someone writes lyrics before the music.
Who were the biggest influences on your lyrics? Who were your biggest influences instrumentally?
I don’t think I necessarily had a particular lyrical influence for Northstar songs. There were a lot of different people who I could pick songs or lines that I really liked. I like when a person’s lyrics are unique and representative of a personality or voice. Leonard Cohen, Blake Schwarzenbach, Tom Waits.
As far as instrumental, everything we listened to influenced us. Tyler was really into The Smiths. One of Gabe's favorites was Hum. Jake Loved Sublime. There is a lot of The Police in “Rigged and Ready”. I came up with the chords for “Taker Not A Giver” after figuring out “Crash” by Dave Matthews Band. Everyone is always consciously or unconsciously taking a little something from somebody else. Every chord progression has already been played.
Did you always have an interest in making folkier rock music as you went on to do in Cassino? Do you think this side of your writing/musical interests manifested in Northstar at all?
Yeah, I did have other interests. The Counting Crows were by far my favorite band during this time in my life. I think that Northstar was just a phase for me. Even when Pollyanna came out, I remember that Tyler and I weren’t really listening to a lot of “emo” music. I think we had already moved on mentally and were just going through the motions. It wasn’t hard to call it quits with Northstar. The hard part was finding a job afterwards.
Was recording Is This Thing Loaded? your first time in a studio with a producer? Did that affect how you approached writing? There are a few really interesting moments that feel like “studio” moments (i.e., the end of “My Ricochet”, of “My Wishing Well Disease”, the piano in “Taker Not a Giver”), can you speak to how those came about?
This was the first time we ever worked with a producer (Jesse Cannon). He was trying to stay on time and budget (both of which we didn’t have a lot of), so the process was quick, and sometimes stressful because we never had been through anything like this before. Like I mentioned, most of the songs were already written well before we recorded them. He didn’t really change much about the songs, except I think “My Wishing Well Disease” which was a mess when we brought it in. Most of the ideas you mentioned already existed, so there wasn’t a lot of creativity in the studio.
Were you all satisfied with the album at the time? Looking back after 20 years, are there things you’d change or do differently?
At the time, I thought it could’ve been better, but given the time we had and our experience it was fine. I remember thinking that I wished it had been more polished, as a lot of the “scene” records coming out around then felt that way. I don’t know if we even used auto-tune. Gabe didn’t play to a click track because it was taking up too much time. Jesse pretty much captured what we sounded like at that moment in time and looking back I think that was best. It was organic, and that’s what every record should be. Plus, we wouldn’t have been able to replicate over-production on stage. We weren’t that good. A couple years later, with Pollyanna, we were a better band and that was possible.
How did the album title come about?
It is “borrowed” from “Is This Thing On?” by The Promise Ring. There was a metaphor in there, but I can’t really remember.
How did you link up with Taking Back Sunday?
That all ran through Neil Rubenstein. We played a show in Jackson, TN with his band Thisyearsmodel and became friends. This was around the year 1999/2000? He invited us up to Long Island, and eventually hooked us up with this unsigned Long Island band that was looking to get out and tour the US. We stayed with Adam and John for like a week in Long Island and eventually self-booked a tour down the East Coast and the South. There was nobody at these shows. When they put out their first record, we did another tour with them and there were hundreds/thousands of kids at their shows and it caught us off guard. We had no idea.
What would you have called the music you were making (genre-wise)?
I think at the time we were just calling it “alternative”. I didn’t really feel we were a “pop punk” band, but my definition of “punk” is different, I guess. Now I guess it would just be considered “emo”, but that is a wide net that was cast over a lot of bands. Fall Out Boy and The Starting Line didn’t really sound like Braid. It never made sense to me, but we honestly didn’t care what people called it.
Do you keep up with any newer bands in those scenes?
I have not heard any newer bands. Honestly, I didn’t even know it was still a thing. I see that a lot of bands we once toured with are touring again, but didn’t know there was a younger group of bands. Once I moved to Nashville in 2006, I left that headspace behind.