Winstons: Won’t Stop, Even When They Drop
Written by Caroline Berg
Photographs by Rick Perez
A young, self-taught drummer starts working at a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “Hey, let’s get together in a garage sometime and jam.”
Bad joke and imprecise quotation aside, this is how Winstons – a Brooklyn-based rock ‘n’ roll duo named after a pack of cigarettes – got its start.
“It felt very destined,” the drummer, Ben Brock Wilkes, said about the first time he played with Lou Nutting, who does the guitar, harmonica, and lead vocals for the band. “It felt like something was shaking me from the netherworld.”
Fast forward a few years, and I’m in Williamsburg at Kellogg’s Diner being directed to the 32-year-old guitarist in a booth at the back. The New Hampshire native is snuggled up beside a large puffy winter jacket, halfway through a coffee and side glass of whiskey, and hunkered over a copy of The New York Times spread out on the table. His dark curly hair stands up like he’s just rolled out of bed on this early Monday afternoon. I say hello to break him out of his spell, and he greets me warmly and shakes my hand.
We don’t mention the band’s first full-length album, which they began recording over the weekend at a friend’s studio space in the Financial District. Instead, we compare all the places we’ve lived in New York City. Nutting started out in a sublet of a sublet four and a half years ago, then moved two more times in his first year before settling into his fourth and current apartment in Greenpoint with his girlfriend. We’ll just say I’ve got him beat.
When Wilkes arrives, having traveled by train from his home in Bushwick, I stand up to shake the 26-year-old’s hand, but the Virginia kid ignores the gesture and gives me a hug.
We all settle in and the guys ask questions about me while we wait for our server. When the time comes, Wilkes orders orange juice with his coffee and selects hash browns for his two-eggs-any-style breakfast. He’d had a late night working at Baby’s All Right, where the two band mates originally met. Nutting simply orders another coffee and a beer. When the server leaves, we get to business comparing the band’s current project against their past.
“I think what’s felt the most different for me is that each song has gotten a sort of specific treatment on this project,” Wilkes said. “When you’ve got twelve songs on an album versus just two, it’s better to be pointed in your approach.”
Formerly, Winstons have built their reputation on recording EPs and demos live without touchups or retakes.
“We believe the first take is the best take because it’s the most fresh,” Nutting said over the phone a few weeks prior, shortly after a release party for their 7” record featuring the songs, “Without You,” and “Enough.”
Now, however, they’re tackling a new and different beast – one that requires more time and organization, and offers more methods to experiment with in the execution.
“We’re becoming more of a recording band for this next effort,” Nutting said at the diner, “where it’s just been a document of a live performance previously.”
As for a concept, the guys laughed about their idea to base the album around the old folk tale, “Stone Soup.” While out on a hike in Virginia, the duo discussed the story, in which hungry strangers convince the people of a town to each contribute a small amount of their food to enhance the flavor of a stone being boiled in water, which they ultimately make into a meal to share with everyone.
I ask if this means they’re collaborating with multiple outside influences to make this album.
“It means we’re conning a lot of people into making our soup,” Nutting quipped.
One of those people is a man who lives in Nutting’s apartment building, Tyler Drosdeck. After bouncing ideas around together, they found a voice that matched.
“I think having somebody who hears what we’re going for and thinks they can capture it in a way that hasn’t occurred to us, or we’re not technically capable of – someone who wants to further see our voice and, uh… elucidate? Enunciate?” Nutting laughs and looks at Wilkes for help before landing: “Articulate that voice was something that resonated with us.”
Wilkes said he’s happy to be working with someone with whom they had already built a relationship, as opposed to hiring a random studio exec to help them on this next phase of their career.
“It’s like they care about it,” he said about partnering with friends, in general. “It’s like they’re personally invested in the project in a friend way.”
The band is toying with a “hodgepodge” of sounds for the album, Nutting said, from “old dirty soul 45s” to New York City ‘80s rock ‘n’ roll.
“I think there’s a need in the world for a good, red-blooded rock ‘n’ roll album,” he said. “I think we’re rootsy and we’re loud, which is a timeless combination.”
As Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart” hit its climax at a subdued volume on the speakers overhead, Nutting laid out his rock ‘n’ roll philosophy.
“It used to be a lot less cautious back before the establishment regained control,” he said. “I think the real things of rock ‘n’ roll are about losing yourself to a primitivism that doesn’t reel its head very much in our modern society, and letting that overwhelm you.”
When the band performs, the guys agree they like to “fuck with each other” onstage. Nutting described how they develop pockets in their songs, where they know the moments that will settle and then the moments that will split wide open.
“It’s like recess,” Wilkes said. “It’s like, alright! Do something crazy!”
Like jump off your band mate’s drum set in an inspired moment and accidentally fly off the stage.
“I thought I broke my fucking spine,” Nutting said about his stunt during a show the week before at The Knitting Factory.
Days later, his back is still sore; but it’s beside the point.
“I think one of the most important things to playing live is manifesting an energy that has to do with taking risks and throwing it up for grabs,” said Nutting, as he stirred his coffee. “Or else it’s just dead on its feet and it’s not a living art form anymore, and it has to be.”
Outside of performing live, Wilkes likes to stretch the band with related endeavors, such as producing music videos for their songs. Their most recent release is for “Without You,” with a sequel on its way.
“I like to push us,” Wilkes said. “Like, playing a show is an exhausting experience for us, and very cathartic and very emotional, so I like to find ways to convey that same thing visually in our videos.”
Whereas the “Without You” video has the musicians sprinting all over Greenpoint in the freezing cold in hot pursuit of some unknown thing, Wilkes convinced Nutting last year to burn each other’s hair, live, for their demo song, “You Left Your Oven On.” The drummer described it as a trust fall on steroids.
“Nobody was harmed,” Nutting confirmed. “Ben did it first. He went up like a campfire, and the smile on his face—”
Wilkes later got an idea for another video to jump off a pier into the East River. Luckily, everyone talked him out of it.
As for “Oven,” the song came out of a spontaneous jam inspired by Nutting’s constant fear when he left his apartment that he’d left the oven on. He’d get a couple blocks away, and all the traffic noise and pedestrian congestion would stir up this fear.
“It was like a baseline anxiety that just shattered the nervous system I grew up with living in the woods,” Nutting said. The maelstrom of city life convinced him his apartment was about to explode, so he kept going back to check on his oven.
“But he doesn’t check anymore,” Wilkes said proudly. “We digested our fear.”
Nutting admitted he has a lot of negative feelings about living in New York City, which music helps him process.
“It feels like exercising a righteous frustration,” he said about the music he plays, as a sly smile stretched across his face. “It feels totally free, like getting the satisfaction I can get in a good moment that would be illegal in almost every other circumstance, or at least immoral. It’s like a criminal ecstasy channeled into a proper [form].”
With a wealth of material to sift through over the coming months as the band pursues their first full-length album, Winstons will continue performing around town to build up their presence and what Wilkes calls their “diverse and devout” fan base.
“New York feels pretty consistent at this point,” Wilkes said. “There’s always a couple fans [at a show] that make you feel good. But when you leave, then it’s way more risky every night. It’s like, this could be that much better because there’s no expectations or it could be that much worse.”
Winstons have mostly toured along the East Coast, with a recent stint in Virginia. They also drove 22 hours straight from Brooklyn to Texarkana, Arkansas, last year, ultimately crashing at a Denny’s and getting some shuteye in a Super 8 Motel before performing the next night in Dallas. They say they would like to do more of that, too – touring here, there, and everywhere.
When it comes to performing against other bands, Nutting confessed he has a competitive streak. Watching others play makes him “lick [his] lips” and want to transform the audience.
“I also like going first and having a fresh audience,” Nutting said, sitting up in his seat and talking like a wolf on the prowl. “Just going from there’s not a show and everyone’s just talking to each other and nothing’s going on, to people just having their eyes peeled and cutting the mood in the room in half in a useful direction.”
As with anything in life, the music and shows that Winstons play don’t always hit a high note or go the way they hoped. When things go south, Nutting said he feels like he’s stuck in some shit club doing the same thing over and over again. That’s why they keep playing.
“When it’s good, it’s like standing in the middle of nowhere under the stars and having a moment of clarity or oneness,” Nutting said. “When it’s good, it feels like you’re a part of something eternal.”
On our way out of Kellogg’s Diner, the guys discuss the tracks they just got back from their weekend recording. Wilkes, on the last legs of being sick, plans to go back home to listen to the 40 or so takes they made. Nutting has his headphones and said he processes best when away from his apartment and walking around outside.
At the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Union Street, I say good-bye and give Wilkes a hug. I go to shake Nutting’s hand, but he’s not to be one-upped. He ignores my gesture and gives me a hug, plus a kiss on the cheek. Nutting will perform solo later that night, and then the band will get back together on Friday for another show.
As Winstons sing in the lead song off their “Black Dust” EP:
“Dying’s easy, living’s hard. We give ourselves so much to do.”
Indeed. Life gets overwhelming. When you can’t help but care so damn much, though, all you can really do amidst the chaos of all life’s responsibilities is,
“Just keep the beat.
“Keep the beat.
“Keep the beat.”