Caleb Nichols: queer musician brings indie rock to SF Noise Pop Festival

  • by J.L. Odom
  • Tuesday February 20, 2024
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Musician Caleb Nichols<br>(photo: Lenny Gonzales)
Musician Caleb Nichols
(photo: Lenny Gonzales)

San Francisco's longstanding music and culture festival, Noise Pop, is just around the corner, with a plethora of artists, bands and events scheduled in various Bay Area venues from February 22 to March 3.

The festival, marking its 31st year, has made a habit out of showcasing Bay Area musicians, including LGBTQ artists. This year's lineup features LBXX, a Black queer hip-hop performance artist, and alt rock-leaning Maggie Gently, a queer woman based in San Francisco.

There's also singer-songwriter Caleb Nichols, from San Luis Obispo. Nichols, queer and nonbinary, will take the stage at Kilowatt Bar on February 29. While it's their first time participating in Noise Pop as an independent artist, they've previously taken part in the festival with their former bands, the indie acts Port O'Brien and Churches.

"I've performed all over the place," said Nichols in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "All of my musical projects were based in Oakland, from 2005 through 2012, so I had a pretty good Bay Area run. That was kind of where things were based. And I think it's sort of part of why I'm playing Noise Pop."

Nichols shared that their identity is more complicated than it used to be for them, leading to their embracing of 'queer' and 'nonbinary' to describe themselves.

They explained, "It has a lot to do with my identity as an artist and as a person right now. It's changed quite a bit in the last few years. I grew up in the '90s —I was a teenager in the '90s— and so the most convenient identity for me has been 'gay.' But as I've gotten older and learned more about myself, I'm far more comfortable identifying as nonbinary. There's a lot of stuff with my own personal journey right now that complicates the 'gay' label, so 'queer' is great."

Historic label
Nichols is on Kill Rocks Stars, the independent record label that's put out albums from notables such as Bikini Kill, Nirvana, the Gossip, Team Dresch and Bratmobile.

"There's a history on the label, with artists like Elliott Smith and the Decemberists and Sleater-Kinney and Xiu Xiu," Nichols noted.

They cite artists and bands on the label, as well as others, as influences and as where their own music fits in genre-wise.

"There are all those [Kill Rock Star] artists, but also my younger life was all about Pavement, and Belle and Sebastian, Stereolab, The Shins and all those things that were happening in the late '90s [and] early 2000s. Kind of in that tradition is very much where I identify with musically," they said.

Nichols' most recent release on Kill Rock Stars, "Let's Look Back" (2023), features 11 songs, including the ode to queer joy "J'ai Vu La Lune!" In the song, Nichols refers to riding his bike "through the town at night," feeling that particular elation. The lyrics include "I'm on my own and it's all right / Several boys are on my mind / With secrets that are hard to hide / It makes me want to stay alive."

If prompted to categorize their music, they said they'd go with "indie rock" or "indie pop," with all of it being singer-songwriter in nature.

"I'm oriented towards the songwriting part, and then the textures and sounds and things come," Nichols commented.

Their discography —two full-length albums and a few EPs—— is detailed on their site The top-level domain extension ".gay" is LGBTQ-centered, intended to create a safe online space for queer individuals and organizations. Revenue-wise, 20 percent of every .gay name registered goes to LGBTQ advocacy groups, with beneficiaries including GLAAD and CenterLink.

Caleb Nichols book of poetry  

Their site also features a "Words" section, as Nichols is a writer of nonfiction, essays and, primarily, poetry. They recognize a growing connection between their music and prose.

As they noted, "I think, increasingly, it's becoming more and more interwoven, which is really nice. My poetic practice and music writing practice are two different things, but they are coming more into focus together."

Intuitive process
Nichols began writing songs when they were a teenager, viewing songwriting as an intuitive process that can parallel creating a poem and poetry-writing often being more deliberate and about craft. They've found the relationship between the two —songwriting and poetry crafting— has developed a sort of symbiosis.

"In the last five years, I've thought more deliberately about poetry in a certain way, and music has continued to be more of an intuitive thing. But as time has gone on, both of those things feed into each other. So I try to be less deliberate in poetry and more deliberate music, and they bleed into each other," they shared.

Songs such as those on "Let's Look Back," have a narrative quality to them, but Nichols is consciously embarking on a different approach.

"My songs have stories, and they're not that abstract. And so I'm actually trying to be more abstract and trying to say more by saying more dispersed kinds of things with more dispersed language," they said.

Nichols is currently wrapping up their doctoral work in poetics right now, with their dissertation involving writing a book of poems alongside a book of critical commentary. They admit that their journey toward a Ph.D. in creative writing has factored into their music.

"My head's been in that literary theory world for the last few years. It's a juxtaposition because being in an indie rock band, it's not that at all. But I'm grateful to have both because sometimes I really need a break from thinking about stuff so much," Nichols said.

Their graduate studies —and all the heavy mental lifting that working toward a Ph.D. involves— has led to a discernible need for an emotion-filled, very vocal release: yelling. And timing-wise, it's perfect, as Nichols is putting together a new album, stepping out of the music studio in San Luis Obispo for this BAR interview.

"We'll see what comes of that [i.e., wanting to yell] on the next record. There's a little bit of banging and yelling in opposition to heaviness and then there's a little bit of like, 'Well that's an interesting lyric.'"

Their Noise Pop set will pull from their previously released albums and EPs, but the new material is fair game as well. At a recent Bay Area show, they debuted one of their new songs.

"That could happen at Noise Pop, too," they said. "It just depends on what the vibe is."

Caleb Nichols performs live with Califone (headliner), Credit Electric and Fake Your Own Death at Kilowatt Bar, 3160 16th St., on Thursday, February 29. The age 21+ show starts at 8pm.

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