While you’re reading this, Nik Parr is somewhere thinking about music. The 26-year-old wunderkind and his band, the Austin, Texas-based Selfless Lovers just released their debut full-length, When The Bars Close. No doubt– The Selfless Lovers are a rock n’ roll band with the swagger and urgency of your ’60s and ’70s favorites. Yet the band distinguishes itself with Parr’s driving piano and saxophones blasts, producing a dimensional sound that’s essential for dancefloor shakedowns. The band’s previous EP releases, Glad To Be Here, The Selfless Lovers, and Live from Austin, TX demonstrate Parr’s talent for songs that find common ground between FM bombast and AM gold. The uptown sophistication of “Keep Me in Mind” and “Nothing Wrong” thrive alongside the afterhours pulse of “Glad to Be Here” and “Slave to the Dollar”. When The Bars Close further explores this unlikely mix of polish and vitality. Recorded live in the studio, the album challenges the backhanded compliment– or subtle deprecation– that haunts many bands: “You gotta see ’em live.” Written during the months of COVID-induced isolation and anxiety, the album reflects Parr’s dedication to song craft and execution. At their core, the songs are concise, hook-oriented, and radio-ready, but in the hands of The Selfless Lovers, these initial kernels are something more– springboards for soulful sonic exploration and genre-blending. On Thursday, August 5th, The Selfless Lovers will show up and show out during their visit to Macon’s storied Grant’s Lounge. In anticipation of the gig, I talked to Nik about his life in music, his live show philosophy, and creating during a pandemic.
CF- Your music is piano-driven and punctuated by bursts of saxophone. Tell me about your journey with these instruments. Most people might pick up a guitar if they want to be in a rock n’ roll band. What drew you to these instruments?
NP- That’s such a great question because I feel the same way– the guitar is always associated with rock n’ roll bands. When I was little kid, I played piano by ear. I’m self-taught. My dad plays piano too, so I grew up with a lot of Little Richard, a lot of Jerry Lee Lewis. Even listening to a lot of rock n’ roll, it’s really fun, lively to play on the piano. I grew where piano was fun, high-energy. You watch guys like Stevie Wonder or Billy Joel, guys who find a way to make this instrument exciting. I just think it’s always a fun factor.
As I started writing my own songs, I would see other bands where the keyboard player is kind of doing padding, right? They’re playing chords behind the band. I thought, “Why not make the piano the essential instrument?” There were a lot of influences from these ’60s and ’70s bands, seeing these front men that did that with the piano. As for the saxophone, I’d listen to one of my favorite bands, the Rolling Stones, and the guitar solos, particularly Mick Taylor from the early ’70s, And as a sax player, I thought, “Man, I want to play like that!”, so that’s how I approach the saxophone when we play live. My saxophone is almost like another guitar. I know there are so many really good horn players, especially jazz guys, and I’m not trying to compete against them. Instead, I just want to elevate the show. So if I play the sax solo, I want it to sound like a guitar solo.
You’re headed to Macon, the birthplace of Little Richard, so you’re making a pilgrimage of sorts. His piano and The Upsetter’s Wilburt “Lee Diamond” Smith’s saxophone…
Yeah man! Talk about front men! The energy that he has, the ability to work a crowd, and then having the piano becoming the focal point. It’s all this fun, it’s all energy. THAT’S what I’m into!
You mentioned being self-taught, surrounded by your dad and his music. Did you immediately begin writing your own songs? Or did you spend time learning cover songs?
My first kind of professional experience– I was probably sixteen or seventeen– I started playing saxophone with a lot of these older guys in Austin, particularly in East Austin where’s there a big black music scene, a lot of black soul music. As the sax player, I’d bring my horn over to that side of town, just like the stories Keith Richards talks about. I’d bring my horn over and try to learn blues music, try to learn soul music. I’d ask whoever it was, “Hey, can I sit in? Hey, can I play a song?” I cut my teeth on that, everything from Muddy Waters to Al Green to Johnnie Taylor. Lots of soul music from the early-to-mid ’70s. Then I got into Motown and all that stuff.
Then, as pianist, I was around my dad who always played a lot of the Grateful Dead on the stereo system when I was growing up. I would play along with them because their songs worked for the piano. So I have all of these different influences, everything from the Grateful Dead, to the Stones, a lot of soul music. That’s where I get my feelings for rhythm, groove, energy.
You sing, write the songs, play the piano and saxophone. I read you also booked your shows in the past. How do you juggle these responsibilities?
I’ve recently been able to offload the booking to our agent, Allen, who got us booked at Grant’s Lounge. But how do I juggle it? I just work ten hours a day! That’s how it happened.
Have you always had that kind of work ethic?
I have a girlfriend who’s really understanding, and I have a family that’s really supportive. It puts me in a place where people can say, “Oh, Nik sucks at normal life, but he’s really good at music and art,” and everyone’s kind of okay with that. I’ll do dumb crap like forget to get my car registered for a year, and everyone says, “Well, yeah, he’s really good piano!”
I’ve become okay with my limitations, and I have friends and family who understand that about me. It doesn’t mean I don’t care, but even today when we were about to leave for tour, I couldn’t find my wallet for the first forty-five minutes of the day. But I know every show we’re playing off the top of my head and I can play the whole show and I know all that stuff. I also do all the artwork for the band. All of that stuff, I draw by hand.
When did you decide to pursue music full-time? Did that involve some major sacrifices?
I went to University of Texas. I got a marketing degree from there. I have a business background, but what happens when you get a marketing degree and you don’t have any connections, you just get sales jobs, which are really tough. I just made cold calls for this tech company in Austin, making about eighty phone calls a day. That’s all I did for about two years.
That sounds soul-crushing.
It was. There was moment when I was driving to work on this big, winding road through the hills, and I saw a motorcycle crash. I saw everything, and I thought, “Holy crap, I could die!” I went to work and thought, “I can’t do this. I can’t.” It sounds dramatic! (Laughs) I just had this thought about how we have to spend our lives and our energy on something. You’re either going to work really hard at a job that you don’t like, or you’re going to work really hard at things that you do. I might as well put the same amount of work towards music and stop making excuses. That was about four years ago. I’ve been doing it full-time for about 3 and a half, 4 years since then.
What was your breakthrough moment where you thought, “I’ve got this”?
I don’t know if I’ve had it yet.
That’s a helluva answer.
I’m still hungry every day. We’re playing about 12 to 15 shows a month. We try to play about a 150 shows a year. And even then, Allen is doing my booking, but I’m still on the phone with venues, concert series, and radio. I’m still dialing the phones every day because the way I think about it is, “Where are we good and where are we weak? Where can we be better?” So maybe our live shows are great, our songs are really great. If people come to a show, they’re going to have an awesome time, but maybe our Spotify numbers aren’t where I want them to be. Maybe our digital media isn’t as good. Maybe we need to start touring here and here. I’m always thinking like that. That’s a long answer, but as far as breakthrough, yeah, I don’t know if I’ve had it yet. I think I’m at a point where I can make a living doing this. I’m not worried about this falling to pieces next month, but I still have the appropriate level of fear (laughs)!
Is radio play something you’re concerned about? Your songs have some massive choruses and melodies, but the songs stretch beyond the typical 3-minute pop song format.
We just need something [where] we can reach a lot of people. There are a lot of avenues to do that. If the right Spotify playlists– like roots rock n’ roll, Americana, soul stuff– if they pick us up, that’s great. If it’s radio, that’s great. I don’t really care as long we start reaching more people because right now what’s happening is we’re reaching people at our live shows, but I need to get out of that and reach more, you know?
Your mentioned roots rock, Americana, old soul, your love for a retro sound. Obviously, your listeners feel the same way. What is about that sound the still appeals to people?
I think I just like to energy of it, you know? There’s a real emotion to it. I remember Every Picture Tells a Story by Rod Stewart– there’s just something really moving about it. Or you listen to Exile on Main Street by the Stones. It feels like they have skin in the game; it’s real.
It seems like a lot of the stuff today… There’s guys today that I really like. I like the Black Keys, which is a dated reference. I think Nathaniel Rateliff is doing some cool stuff. The Marcus King Band is really great. I think with a lot of that older music, I hear those albums, and there’s an intensity and passion to it. But… I think probably a lot of it’s technology. With the ’60s and ’70s, you didn’t have the luxury of being about to do a million different things with production yet, and you’d see the live show. You couldn’t hide behind production yet, so you had to have these really good, energetic bands that were great playing live. That’s how you got bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin. You even got singer-songwriter stuff like Cat Stevens or stuff like Larry Taylor. With all these guys, the craft is at another level, and I think it’s because there’s a limitation when it comes to technology at that time.
You’re from Austin, which has become a destination for many bands. How do you separate yourself from the crowd, avoid getting lost in the shuffle? I suppose the piano and sax help a bit…
I try to zig when I zag. In Austin right now, if you look at what’s happening, a lot of people are emulating a high production show that is largely, in my opinion, inspired by a lot of Los Angeles. People are talking about production; they’re doing pop. You’ll see a lot of MacBook Pros with a trackpad with the drums, people with in-ear monitors– a bunch of shit that I never seen before (laughs)!
There’s a divide. There’s people who are 45, 50, or older who are still doing roots music. And there’s younger people in my age group, I’m 26, who are trying to emulate what they’re seeing come out of Los Angeles. Those are the things that are getting on the big festival stage, but you’ll see people imitating it here in smaller venues. I see people do that, and I don’t want to do that. I saw how people are producing their albums, and I thought, “We’re going to record on tape.”
You recorded your latest record, When The Bars Close, live, on reel-to-reel, 24 track tape. Why the choice to embrace analog? How did that compare to your previous recording experiences?
I saw that documentary on Muscle Shoals. I said, “I want to do that! I want to do that! I want to I want to sit in the room when the tape rolling, you listen back and hear the band, and some guy goes, ‘Now that’s a hit record! We’re going to take it over to Sun Records!’” I want to do that, even if no one buys the damn thing!
I wanted that experience as opposed to the other ways I’ve recorded. All the other ways… It feels like it works for 99% of bands because they’re trying to do a different thing. But with me, I’m trying to capture the energy of what we’re doing, and I want it to be fun. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it’s just got to be really good. (Laughs) I like that with my band. I think they feel like they’ve recording a real record. It feels real, you know? You think about a Frank Sinatra recording or whatever, and I can’t imagine he recorded with a click track (laughs)!
How were you able to challenge yourself and your band, expand your sound, by tackling this live?
It makes you stop thinking and just start going on what you feel, because if you’re recording live as a band, you can’t sit and agonize over every single thing. So it teaches you to do a couple of things. It teaches me to focus on the emotion of a song. Looking back over the tracks, it made me focus more on my vocals to. “When The Bars Close” is one of those songs where I did a take and looking back, I found that the emotion wasn’t where I wanted to be. I thought, “All right, let me drink a little bit…” I don’t usually do that– let’s drink a little bit, let’s have a good time. I’ll come back and play it intuitively.
How do you get to get into that headspace? Of course, drinking is one way but…
I’m trying to focus on things that make you feel a certain kind of way, trying to manifest a certain feeling like, “What is this song about? Why did I write this? How do I feel like kind of way?” Even when you’re on stage, you gotta be able to produce that emotion. It’s hard to do that organically every night, so it’s kind of focusing. Like why do I write the songs? What’s this about? What makes me feel this way? “When The Bars Close” is a song that I think since we recorded it live, there’s an emotion to it that maybe wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
Is “When The Bars Close” about COVID, the lockdown?
Totally. I was driving around in March of 2020, and all that shit was happening, right? And we lost all our shows. Everyone lost everything. Everyone did. I remember it was quiet, weird. I was driving around Austin, supposed to be playing South by Southwest, and [it’s] just dead quiet, and I had that line, which I built a whole album [around], which is like:
Out on the road tonight
Feels like the world is losing its mind
Hard to find a reason to hold on to
If it all comes tumbling down
Hold on tight to what we found
Know that someone out there
Is thinking of you
I thought of that when I was driving, I was like, “Oh shit, that’s a pretty good job.” I thought, “What’s this song about?” It all came together, but it’s definitely COVID-19.
Did COVID affect the recording? Your creativity?
Totally, because it forced me to sit and become a songwriter. I wrote that whole album during COVID. Some of it was already ideas, but they became real songs because of my issue with wanting to be a live performer energy guy. The whole thing was written, and I think it was a much more intentional approach to songwriting than I’d ever done before. That’s why I think it’s good. It’s because I had to meditate. I think we’re transitioning from being a band that has songs to a band that might have people’s favorite songs, and that’s different, that’s more important, but that takes thinking.
You have these songs that are at their kernel, concise, catchy pop songs, yet you give them room to breath on your recordings. How do you expand from that initial idea to something more expansive, almost jam-oriented? Is that a conscious decision or more improvised, feel-oriented?
I think you’re giving me too much credit (laugh)! If you’re listening to stuff from the new album, I try to keep most of the songs at about 4 minutes. So every solo is intentional. I also think about with music, it’s like eating food where you taste the first thing, but you want a bite of something else after 2 or 3 bites of the first thing, right? You don’t want someone to just hand you a big piece of meat, even though that’s great. You generally want other things with it, which is [you] why have all these dishes. I look at it like, “I’ve been listening to this track for 30 seconds, I’m into this. What else are you going to give me?” You want to bring people on an entire journey home. It doesn’t always work, but when it works, it works. I just want everything to be intentional. I want to tell a story.
A final question– tell me about this tour. You’re playing New Orleans, Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia. What brings you this way? One of your latest songs, “South Carolina”, focuses on your reverence for the south. Why the love all the way from Texas?
I’d never spent a lot of time out in Mobile or South Carolina or Mississippi. I’d never been to Charleston. Then I went on tour a couple of years ago with another band called Roxy Roca. I remember going to the south, and there’s something about it. It’s old, you know? It’s an old part of the country in relation to America, right? A lot of the towns from the 1700s and 1800s. There’s something about the big trees, the hills, the old towns. There’s an attitude about it that is warm and friendly. I remember walking around Charleston with Roxy Roca, thinking, “What a cool place!” There’s just something about it, the perfect mix, nature. There’s a closeness to it. All this history!
Imagine– Elvis probably drove up and down this road! Or Johnny Cash was probably thumbing around here with his guitar before he was famous! Jerry Lee Lewis was rocking down here! Or Muddy Waters. I’m walking the same roads as these guys did, and I’m kind of doing it in a pretty similar way, and that’s kind of cool.