Nikki Meets the Hibachi
Saturday, July 29, 7:30 p.m.
452 1/2 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
By this point, the origin of the name Nikki Meets the Hibachi is well-documented. In short: a barking dog, an outdoor cooking appliance, a threat. (Be assured, though, that no animals were harmed in the naming of the duo. For full details, not to mention free downloads and other fun stuff, see www.nikkimeetsthehibachi.com.)
Perhaps because it lacks the cryptic lure of the moniker’s tale, the story of how Elaine Tola and John Gillespie started playing together is less well-circulated. Again, in short: a shared Comp Lit class at UNC-Chapel Hill and several Indigo Girls shows–including one opened by Gillespie’s fledgling band–led to the pair “playing a lot of shows under a hanging fern in the entryway of the old Carolina Coffeeshop,” Gillespie says.
Those street-level shows were almost 20 years ago, and plenty of indoor gigs, not to mention three recordings, followed. After taking some time off, Nikki Meets the Hibachi is back at it, with a new record in the works and a third member: percussionist Arturo Velasquez. (“He keeps us from being too serious and earnest, the curse of singer/songwriters,” says Gillespie.)
So that’s where Nikki Meets the Hibachi is going. In separate e-mail exchanges with the Independent Weekly, Tola and Gillespie talked about where the pair have been.
Independent Weekly: Reviews of your recordings and performances always comment on your harmonies and, this is a paraphrase from an actual review, how your voices embrace each other. How much of this can you accomplish with rehearsing, and how much is just how your voices work together naturally?
Elaine Tola: I think it comes more naturally than by rehearsing. We need to rehearse to learn new songs and tighten up old ones, but the way our voices work together is more of a natural phenomenon. John is especially unique in his phrasing (and pronunciation), and once I was able to grab hold of his style, it was easy for me to fit my voice to his.
John Gillespie: A lot comes naturally. We aren’t as systematic or academic about our arrangements as many groups. It’s a lot of trial and error. A very small percentage of the songs I write make the Nikki repertoire, and that’s because the group is really at its best when it isn’t a lot of work to make something work.
IW: Your first full-length record, The Bluest Sky, has a strong, truly passionate following. (And I just spotted a used copy going for $50 on the Web.) Please share your thoughts on the recording of The Bluest Sky and on the record itself.
ET: Wow, that was such a fun experience. We were so lucky to get John Plymale to produce it for us, and there were so many local musicians who offered their time and talents on the project. We recorded at TGS studios, out in the country. It was beautiful out there and the studio itself was very comfortable. Every day out there was a blast, and we just felt a sense of wonder and awe at the support we were getting. When I listen to The Bluest Sky now, I am struck by the many different instruments we added to the songs. They gave them a texture that was really unique. I can also hear the youth–represented by the sheer speed with which we approached everything–and enthusiasm we had. This was our first real project: a real studio, with real engineers and musical guests almost every day. It was like Alice in Wonderland (without the hallucinogenics). John and I still say that The Bluest Sky is among the best work we’ve done together.
JG: The title was more than just one of the songs. John Plymale goaded, pushed, inspired and cajoled performances out of us that we had never attempted before. It was the high point of our work together in our original incarnation back in college and after. Listening to it now, we played so many songs at a frenetic pace that I can’t even attempt to match today. Listening to The Bluest Sky is like looking back at a senior portrait from your high school yearbook. I wince at aspects of myself that I have to admit I simultaneously miss terribly and am glad to be rid of. It was the first of a long line of recordings I’ve made with John Plymale. There is no one I trust more in this world musically than him. Every time I’ve gotten my way in a dispute, I have regretted it later! Every time he won, I have grown to be tremendously grateful that he did. I wanted the song “Love” to start The Bluest Sky. Whatever I was thinking, while not influenced by drugs or insanity, was profoundly misguided. Plymale’s sequence is gold.
IW: Your bio mentions how Nikki Meets the Hibachi stopped traveling in 1993 so that each of you could pursue other adventures. If you don’t mind, could you talk about some of those other adventures?
ET: I think John had more of a plan than I did. My dad had passed away in late 1992 and honestly, I felt a little lost. It was time for a change, but I didn’t have any idea what that would look like for me. So I decided to put my degree to work and get a “real” job. I actually stopped playing music altogether for over a year. Gradually I came back to it though. For me, singing is a kind of cathartic experience, and I was so happy when it began to feel good to do it again.
JG: I just finished my 11th year teaching high school English in the Chapel Hill district. One of my former students just got a job with CHHS, so I’m an old-timer now! I have never stopped playing music. Plymale and I had a band with Mike Garrigan called Kickball. I’ve played bass in a number of bands.
IW: Now the question that most musicians dread: How would you describe the sound of Nikki Meets the Hibachi? First try it in five words or less, and then in as many words as you need.
ET: Alternative acoustic folk-rockin’ originals…. Yep, Rick, I have a hard time answering that one. Hopefully John did a better job. Some people have compared us to the Indigo Girls (which we consider an honor of the highest order), Robin and Linda Williams, Richard and Linda Thompson. Some people have said we sound like a brother/sister combo. John is like a brother to me, so I don’t mind.
JG: We sing and play acoustic guitars. That’s six words. I learned to play guitar by playing the songs from R.E.M.’s Murmur and Reckoning. If early R.E.M. never had a rhythm section, they wouldn’t sound way different from us.
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