Music Feature

All In the Game

by Ryan O'Connell
Philly's Nicos Gun and the Rock 'n Roll Hustle

The man on the park bench is Barney Cortez. A ghost tour walks by not once, but twice, with thirty or so people learning that Washington Square Park used to be a graveyard and the ghost of Ben Franklin is literally everywhere. Cortez is smoking a cigarette and nursing a cup of coffee. He has never been on a ghost tour. He’s been on a few good old fashioned rock ‘n roll tours though, hob-nobbing and funky music playing his way across the country with the other dudes of Nicos Gun. He has done that a couple times. But a ghost tour? That’s a negative.

Cortez just got back from one such non-ghost tour tour- one that brought him and his band mates through Austin, Texas and the musical anarchy that is the South by Southwest festival. Before that, Nicos Gun embarked on a cross country jaunt to sunny North Hollywood, where they crashed with friends and recorded a couple tunes with the drummer for Lady Gaga; a dude by the name of Spanky. He killed it.

It is another unseasonably warm night in Philadelphia and the ghost tour makes its way across the park. Cortez moves to another bench. Easy enough, Cortez does not seem to sit still for long.

Cortez formed Nicos Gun with Nick Bockrath, who he played in Cortez Cortez with, and producer/drummer Harry Zelnick about two years and change ago. The band is a complex marriage of musical inspiration, busting ambition and cumbersome financial limitations; a collection of young men striving to do something original with the instruments in front of them and the songs constantly forming in their head. Nicos Gun is an ongoing experiment conducted by boy wizards looking to fuse pop hooks, rock music and thumping funk into one living and breathing thing. It is not a band. It is a collective. All are not welcome, but those who are- they are encouraged to participate.

Cortez is a Philly dude. He does not have a Philly accent, but he is well-traveled in the various musical circles of the city. Cortez played on a Roots’ song a few years ago, Cortez Cortez was fairly popular locally and he has frequently collaborated with producer and Drgn King member Ritz Reynolds. He has been around. All the members of Nicos Gun have been around. If the Philly music scene is a highway, the members of Nicos Gun, past and present, have all landed at the same rest stop for snacks. They’ve released an EP and a full length. In between tours, they are working on a second album. Some of the album has been recorded locally; some of it recorded out west. It’s good to have friends. It’s great to have friends with recording studios, which Nicos Gun is lucky enough to have. One friend put them up in North Hollywood and let them record at his studio and another friend had them set up shop at his Speak Easy Studios in Burbank, which is wear Spanky popped in one day to lay down some drum tracks.

Currently now back in Philly for a few weeks before heading out on tour again, Nicos Gun is preparing for a show at Kung Fu Necktie in Philly on April 20th- a release show for an album of remixes the Philly label Young Robots put together. Five remixes of the Nicos Gun song “We Could Die,” off of their full length Plush. DJ Apt One of Young Robots came up with the plan, part of the label’s attempt to start working with more Philly artists, and put the “We Could Die” remix project together. It was an easy sell for Nicos Gun.

“Essentially you want to be working with those people,” Cortez says about DJ Apt One and Young Robots. “Because they flip your stuff and make it sound as big as possible. All they need is raw material. If you give it to them, they can flip it in such interesting ways.”

The experiments continue. If Cortez has his way, there will be more collaborations like the “We Could Die” remixes in the future. To him, that’s what Nicos Gun is all about- getting together with the right people to make the right kind of music and create the right kind of sound. If that hombre leading the ghost tour could sing something awesome, Cortez might be inclined to start a jam session with him. Cortez feels there is no place for egos in music. If you can play, let’s play. This sense of openness could be included in the band’s mission statement. It is their guiding principle- to be subservient to the song. Whatever is best for the song is best for Nicos Gun.

Adhering to such an idea is made easier by the fact that almost every member of Nicos Gun is a multi-instrumentalist, allowing them to switching instruments if needed. Again, whatever is necessary for that song at that moment. Even for a live show, where songs are tinkered with almost to the point that Nicos Gun casually flirts with the jam band label- a label that in a lot of circles is as unappealing as vegetables, band members will switch instruments during a show.

Cortez is almost done his coffee and finished with his cigarette and in the park the ghost tour is long gone. Now there are just people walking their dogs. The sun has set. The sun posed problems for the band down in super sunny Austin, Texas, a town Cortez normally finds cool. But when South by Southwest happens, Austin is not a normal town- it is a sweat-drenched orgy of music makers, music gawkers and music stalkers. Thousands and thousands of people walking around and cramming into hole in the walls and garden parties hosted by people like Rachel Ray to catch a thirty to forty minute set from some band from East Nowhere you’ve probably never heard of before. Pack your bags, bring a buzz with you. No buzz? Then there will probably be no crowds.

Nicos Gun had very little buzz as they rolled into Austin, but didn’t let that stop them. They pulled off five shows while they were down there, making the most of their southern adventure. Frantic load-ins and jumbled load outs followed by hurried transits to the next show. They played one show in a rock ‘n roll thunderdome and the scorching sun wreaked havoc on Cortez’ guitar- broken strings and problems tuning, cables being kicked and monitors cutting out.

But Cortez laughs.

“It’s all part of it. I enjoy it. We just love to perform and try to present something that I don’t see going on a lot more anymore, which is old fashioned, really tight, really good writers.”

For Barney Cortez, this band thing is a game; a hustle. It’s a race to get out there, get records done, get songs out there, get people’s interest. Sometimes it’s shameless, sometimes it’s exhausting, sometimes it’s disappointing. But it’s never not worth it. It’s never not another adventure. This rock ‘n roll thing is not for the weak. Nicos Gun have their dukes up. They are dance pop bare knuckle boxers.

Nicos Gun are just waiting for the bell to ring.

Nicos Gun play with Drgn King, DJ Apt One, Peter Dragontail, Tundeo Olaniran, Miz Korona and DJ Bruce Friday April 20th at Kung Fu Necktie in Fishtown to celebrate the release of “You Could Die” Remix EP. You can check out the "You Could Die" remixes here.

photos by Adam Jones

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