Cautiously Optimistic
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Editor’s note: As we’ve done in the past, for the month of January, our features will be focusing on up-and-coming artists, what we call “rated rookies.” These musicians are making what we feel is the cream of a new crop, and we think you will (sooner or later) agree. Enjoy!

For a young band in Cleveland, just getting your music heard outside of Cuyahoga County is a struggle, so how does a bedroom side-project find itself being imported back into the U.S. in some kind of Jimi Hendrix–like manner just less than two years after forming? Leave Herzog’s good fortune to the wonders of the worldwide web. By chance, Nick Tolar, who started Herzog as a diversion while his band of the last eight years took a break, befriended British blog and soon-to-be label Transparent on MySpace (this was 2009, mind you). Transparent pressed up the album, Search, in only a limited quantity of vinyl LPs, but the record managed to get the attention of NME, as well as online publications like Pitchfork and Drowned in Sound back in the States. And for good reason: Search is an infectious slab of chunky rock riffs belied by a quirky pop sensibility. Songs like “Living Alone” and “Paul Blart and the Death of Art” show divergent paths between light-footed melodies and guitar squalls. It’s an impressive debut by any measure, and the once Cleveland-based Exit Stencil Records will be giving the record its proper due in the States this April.

This past year Tolar assembled a band, who is now already working on Search’s follow-up. I spoke to him on the phone earlier this month.

I’ve seen Herzog described as your project, so is it something you started on your own?

Nick Tolar: Yeah. I had been writing songs with another band, Expecting Rain, for about seven or eight years with my friend Tony (Vorell), who wrote the lyrics. I wrote the melodies. We were taking a break and I wasn’t in any other projects. I wrote the songs pretty fast and recorded them pretty fast. It was my friend Juan (Granda) and I—he played drums and I played guitar—and we laid down the basic tracks and then I did all the overdubs with the help of a few people. So yeah, it started basically as a side, solo-project thing.

When did the other guys come on board?

NT: That happened after Transparent contacted me about wanting to release it, and I was starting to get different calls. At one point, I got a call from a lawyer who was talking about sending it around to bigger labels. I was like, “Aw shit, I don’t have a band.” So that’s when I started thinking I should get a band together.

How did Transparent hear the music to begin with?

NT: Actually, I just friended them on MySpace and they heard one of the songs and then contacted me.

And you did some dates over there?

NT: No, we were supposed to. I was going to tour there for two weeks with the band Yuck backing me up because I didn’t have a band at the time and it was too much money to take a band over. It ended up falling through because one of the other bands couldn’t do it.

The name—is that from the Saul Bellow novel, Whitey Herzog the baseball manager...

NT: No, the name’s from the director, Werner Herzog. My friend Jim got me into him and I saw some of his films. Then I saw some of his interviews and I really liked his attitude. He has a unique perspective on things.

Do you think that there’s anything about the music that reflects him at all?

NT: It might not sound that adventurous, but compared to the stuff I’d done in the past that was more acoustic-based folk music, the idea of going for it and doing something a little more rock is in the spirit of what he did. Obviously, it’s not on the same level. I didn’t go into the Amazon...

Right, you’re not dragging a boat across some mountains!

NT: But yeah, I aspire to that spirit, even if I’m not as crazy.

To backtrack a little, do you consider Herzog a band now or is it still your project?

NT: We’re definitely a band now. We write songs together. I usually come up with a sketch of the song and the melody and then take it to them and we’ll flesh it out. And Tony is writing lyrics now. He didn’t write for Search, but he’s going to start writing lyrics for the band.

You mentioned that you were doing more folk music in the past, yet on “West Boulevard” you say something about being an old punk.

NT: That’s actually the one song on Search that Tony wrote the lyrics. That’s more of his area. Even though we wrote in a folk style, he grew up in a punk tradition and playing with me was different for him. I grew up on the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel and things my mom would play for me. I got into punk and louder music later, but he grew up with it. We kind of switched. We influenced each other.

You said that it was you and a couple guys doing the bulk of Search. Did you record it all yourselves or did you work with an engineer?

NT: I had a Roland 2480 portable recorder. We recorded the basic tracks at Juan’s practice space. It’s a pretty small room, and I think that’s why the record is so loud. We didn’t pay too much attention to getting good sounds. We just wanted to play loud and have fun. After that I did the overdubs on the same machine at my house, then Dan (drummer Dan Price) and I mixed it on his laptop with Cubase.

You said this started off as a side project. Are you still doing the other band as well?

NT: No, it’s moved to being the main project. Tony and I both realized that we have a lot more traction with this band. Also, we did that style of music with the other band for four records and kind of reached an end point. We both agree that the music we’re making now feels better.

Glancing at the song titles—“Moving Away,” “Town to Town,” “Head for the Hills”—it seems like a lot of them deal with place. Was that conscious on your part? Were you trying to connect things thematically?

NT: Yeah, definitely. I was at a point in my life where I had a break-up and it was kind of a mid-twenties thing. When I wrote this stuff, I was looking back at my mid-twenties and having the idea that things would get better if I moved somewhere else or somewhere more happening—or even someplace the complete opposite of city life. I had a trip to Portland to visit a friend and that was one of the places I was considering moving. While I was there I had an epiphany that all these places are the same and your problems are your problems no matter where you might go.

Talking about place, I know times are kind of tough in Cleveland. Often times, though, that kind of environment is good for breeding artistic endeavors. Do you think that’s happening at all?

NT: Yeah, there’s no question. It’s affected myself and a lot of my friends and has affected the art that’s coming out of here. We’re working on a record that we’re calling Municipal Hospice. I’m not sure when we’ll get to it, but a lot of that is about Cleveland. Tony’s involved with local politics and his take on the problems we’re facing is seeping into that. But yeah, it affects everyone’s mentality.

Is Municipal Hospice finished?

NT: It’s all written, but it’s not arranged yet. We’re going to take our time with it because Tony has an idea for the artwork that’s going to take awhile. It’s going to be an ode to Harvey Pekar and have a booklet. But we’ll probably start recording in the summer. We also have an EP coming out, hopefully this summer, and then I’m working on another record with Juan. But the EP is a double-EP. One side is a continuation of the stuff on Search, the stuff we’ve been writing as a band. Do you remember the Mice?

Yeah. I actually went to Happy Dog when I was in Cleveland over the holidays and Bill Fox happened to be playing.

NT: That’s been a big influence on me the last two years. I’ve been heavily into that and that’s influenced the songs on that side of the EP. And the other stuff is older music that I never finished. That side will be a little moodier and darker.

Are you going to be touring for Search?

NT: I think they’re going to release it in April and we’re going to go out that month for a week and a half. Two of the guys are in another band, Megachurch, that tours so it will be a matter of finding the time to do it. We’ll probably do a lot of weekend shows. We don’t have a name so it will be tough. We’ll have to just hit a few select spots.

Is it odd that the record is only now coming out in the States?

NT: To be honest, just the record being released by someone is odd. I’m 28 now and so is Tony, and since our first record release when we were 21, we’ve been doing it ourselves for all those years. I had no intention when I started making Search for it to be released by anyone. I honestly struggled with just putting it up online. I wasn’t even going to do that and if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have met those guys from London. I had gotten to a point where I was like, “Well, I guess these records are going to just be for me and my friends now.” It’s tough at first when you come to that realization, so I was happy and surprised when I was contacted by Transparent, and now that Exit Stencil is going to release it here, it’s crazy.