Band To Watch: Young & Sick
Here’s what some Googling will tell you about Young & Sick, the self-described “music and art project” based out of New York and Los Angeles: It’s the brainchild of a guy named Nick who grew up in Holland. He’s done cover art for Foster The People, Maroon 5, Robin Thicke, and Mikky Ekko, and T-shirts he designed are sold at Urban Outfitters. He’s well-connected enough to have a press photo shot by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, the French fashion photographer who directed iconic videos for Madonna, David Bowie, Sting, Björk, and Don Henley. Young & Sick released a song called “House Of Spirits” in October 2012 — at which point he had no social media presence — and followed that by releasing a second song, “Continuum,” through the anonymous online underworld known as Tor as a statement about the value of privacy. That song eventually made its way to more traditional channels after Young & Sick signed to the Capitol subsidiary Harvest Records. He also guested on MMOTHS’ single “For Her” last year. Two more songs, the gorgeous “Magnolia” and “Willow,” emerged this month in advance of three Young & Sick live shows next week. The project is also playing Coachella in April.
Here’s what some listening will tell you about Young & Sick: He’s making some seriously wonderful music. The 26-year-old specializes in sleek liquid R&B that seals up gentle simmering soul under a widescreen ’80s pop veneer. Nick’s lyrics are about simple, universal subjects like taking time to appreciate natural beauty and giving yourself over to all-consuming love, but the nuanced music behind him is anything but basic. On first pass, I described it like so: “A voice that conjures the gentle crystalline coo of Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor is set against production that synthesizes Autre Ne Veut’s damaged-psyche pop, How To Dress Well’s ethereal R&B, and M83’s big-dreams-big-sky new wave. In other words, he’s familiar yet oh-so otherworldly.” Upon further reflection, I shortened my assessment to “fucking magnificent.”
The mystery around Young & Sick has been gradually dissipating, and things are about to become even clearer. The project plays its first live shows next week in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Washington D.C., and a Coachella appearance is booked for April. A self-titled debut album is also coming this spring, one that Nick suggests will be more uptempo than the four songs he’s released so far. He spoke about the project’s past, present, and future from frigid New York last week between rehearsals for that initial run of shows.
STEREOGUM: Your social media makes it clear that Young & Sick is an art project that covers a lot of different mediums, but did you get your start in one or the other? Did you start doing visual stuff and then move into music?
YOUNG & SICK: I remember always drawing and always either singing or playing the guitar. I don’t know which one I dove into the deepest first. I think they kind’ve always started at the same time. You know, you start scribbling as a kid. You’ll start drumming on things as a kid, or humming or whatever. So I don’t know if there was ever one point when I decided that one was more important, but they’ve always… From the start, up to today, they take about 50/50 of my time, whether it is making a song or doing an album cover for someone or just drawing something for myself or whatever, anything in that sort. But it’s always 50/50 time spent I think.
STEREOGUM: How did you get into doing artwork and video works for other musicians? What was your gateway into that?
YOUNG & SICK: My first client was this band from Petaluma near Santa Rosa, California, called the Velvet Teen. And they were friends with Mark Foster, who is the Foster The People singer. Then Mark was trying to do the same thing I do. He was trying to come up with music, and he was writing a lot of songs, and it was back in the day of MySpace, really. And I was doing stuff for him, and we became friends — talking more and more. And then at some point he got signed, and that got me to do the whole Foster The People thing because we were friends. That’s why I’m still doing it, because we just enjoy each other’s art. So I kept that contact. And through them, I got asked to do the Maroon 5 cover, and through Maroon 5 I got asked to do the Robin Thicke cover, and so on and so on. And then the most recent thing was, again, Foster The People, where we did that large-ass mural in Los Angeles.
STEREOGUM: Yeah I saw that. It’s humongous. Is it that the biggest thing you’ve done, in terms of size?
YOUNG & SICK: Definitely. Definitely.
STEREOGUM: As you’ve already alluded to, I imagine that your visual art and your music are kind of interconnected.
YOUNG & SICK: Yeah. To me it takes away a lot of the vanity of music right now. I think if you can say it with some art, I think it speaks louder than any sort of photo where you’re trying look sexy into a camera and become the big pop star. If you can keep all that vanity away and let the music and art speak for itself, I think it creates a much stronger image than anything.
STEREOGUM: So is that why you aren’t showing your face and all that?
YOUNG & SICK: Yeah, I mean, it’s not like I’m anonymous. I’m not trying to be interesting or hide behind anything. I just don’t enjoy the whole vanity that music has taken on where it’s become more of a fashion show and music comes in second place.
STEREOGUM: I know you have a couple live shows in a couple weeks and you’re doing Coachella. Have there been live shows before with this project?
YOUNG & SICK: No. The show in Philadelphia on the 2nd, that’s going to be the first ever show.
STEREOGUM: Can you give any sort of hint of what it’s going to be like?
YOUNG & SICK: Right now it’s the three of us — and this might extend, but at the moment we’re playing as a little power trio. And there’s some [parts] that we all sing, and I play bass and I sing. We’re actually — I’m standing outside the rehearsal room right now, and it’s freezing.
STEREOGUM: You’re in New York right now, right?
YOUNG & SICK: I am in New York.
STEREOGUM: Are your bandmates from New York too?
YOUNG & SICK: Yeah, they’re from around here.
STEREOGUM: Have you ever released any music under previous identities or anything? Do you have old records before Young & Sick was the name?
YOUNG & SICK: Well, I used to be in a lot of bands, and I’ve always switched between monitors and things. I’ve tried a lot of things, and I feel like I finally found my voice and I’ve finally found the sound I’m comfortable with and enjoy and I really feel strongly about. So yeah, I have done numerous things. I think I was in my first band when I was about 16 years old. There are numerous little demo tapes sprawled across various bedrooms for sure. But yeah, this will be the first real thing I guess.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned finally finding your voice. When you were kind of conceiving the musical side of Young & Sick, was there a specific vision for what you wanted it to sound like? What informed what you were doing?
YOUNG & SICK: No. I mean, I kind of closed myself off of a lot of new music, even though it may not sound like I did. I tried to look to much older projects and much older bands that I enjoy to conceive this whole thing and to get a sound. But I’m trying as much as possible to just look at myself for writing, then obviously taking some hints from older things such as, I don’t know, Steely Dan or Horace Silver or even D’Angelo and anything with soul to it. And I was lucky to catch an early wave of this — I mean, it’s silly. R&B has never really gone away, it’s just gotten more interesting lately because it kind of sat still in the late ’90s and early 2000s where it stayed in a certain form. Now that a lot of the ego is out of it, it can take on many new amazing forms. For Young & Sick, the sound that it has right now, the two EPs that are out do sound a lot different from the album, but the signature is still there. The album is quite a bit more uptempo. The album is coming out in spring — I’m not sure about the date just yet. We’re just going to keep evolving. I don’t think about the sound. It comes quite naturally.
STEREOGUM: I know you made a lot of references points on the musical side. I’m a lot less versed in art history and the visual side of things and design. But I guess, are there certain ideas that work in the visual side of what you’re doing?”
YOUNG & SICK: I’m also not very versed in the art world, and I don’t know enough about it. I get a lot of people that say that my stuff looks a lot like Keith Haring’s, and I can see that. I like to take inspiration from a lot of tribes around the world, like their blunt tribal expressions are very simplistic and linear. And that line work of especially Native American tribes has definitely always spoken to me a lot. It’s blunt simplicity, you know? All the art is very simple. So yeah I don’t know either. I don’t visit museums very often. I should, maybe.
STEREOGUM: Maybe, but it seems to be working out well enough without the background. I was wondering about some of the songs in particular. The lyrics to “Willow” talk a lot about stopping and observing and appreciating the world around you.”
YOUNG & SICK: Yes, very much.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting to me because “stop and smell the roses” has always been an age old saying but it seems especially appropriate now with everyone tied to their devices and all that. That’s a correct read on the song, right?
YOUNG & SICK: Yeah. I grew up in the middle of nowhere — you know, the forest always around us, all this beautiful nature. And when I moved to London for the first time, I was about 21, I kind of lost touch of that whole nature part, because you take it for granted because you grew up around it. But then when I moved to L.A. I became so much more involved in walking around places like Joshua Tree or even just Griffith Park or just any stretched-out piece of nature, or just going out to Zion or places like that. It’s kind of like an eye opener, you know? Just really going back to just having nothing, turning your phone off, just walking around, and climbing a willow. It’s a very simple song, but it’s just about that appreciation. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Joshua Tree, but that was a massive eye opener for me, just to sleep there under the stars and really just listen to nothing.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I haven’t been, but I would love to sometime.
YOUNG & SICK: It’s an amazing place, it’s as if you landed on Mars. There’s just nothing, no distractions. Take your guitar and some bourbon and you’re good.
STEREOGUM: Man, that sounds great. So, in the “Magnolia” video, I noticed there was a lot of liquid imagery going on there, with the bubbles and the waves and all that. Can you unpack that a little bit?
YOUNG & SICK: It’s actually my friend, DJ Dials in San Francisco, who made that with me. I only gave him my little drawings that are flowing through that, and I told him to do whatever he wanted. I just told him to see what the song says to you, and he made all of this mock-up imagery of tiny bubbles and oceans. The song is a very liquid-y song to me, and he got it right and very close in that way, you know? And he sent me back some early things, and we tweaked some, and it was such a quick process because I instantly loved what he did. And I just like that it could be a music video but it could also be a backdrop for a live set. It’s very — I don’t know, I like the psychedelic ’70s. Yeah, so it was his idea, and I just love it.
STEREOGUM: Is there going to be kind of a visual side to the live show? Videos and all that?
YOUNG & SICK: Yeah, I think so. Right now we’re just going to let the music speak for itself and just be a band first and not worry too much about presentation — just play music the best we can, and then fully build it out and let it grow slowly. By the end we want it to be a big visual stage show. That is going to grow over time.
STEREOGUM: Out of all of the visual projects you’ve done, do you have a favorite? Is there one that really sticks with you like, “Wow I’m really happy with the way that turned out”?
YOUNG & SICK: Well, I’ve enjoyed everything. You know, all the visuals were pleasures or I wouldn’t have done them. But I must say that seeing the Foster The People mural come together was something else. I was in New York for all of it, and they made it in L.A. I made the art but they had a big team that just spent day after night, just shift after shift to get that whole building filled in. I still haven’t seen it in person — which is just crazy to me — but I think that seeing that happen on such an ginormous scale is quite something. And [Foster The People] played a show in front of it last night, and the photos look amazing.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I saw that. It was pretty crazy.
YOUNG & SICK: Yeah, that’s not something I could’ve told you was going to happen at any point in my life.
STEREOGUM: How did you settle on the name Young & Sick?
YOUNG & SICK: It’s quite a funny one. My manager Aaron, he and I used to live in London. And he moved back to New Orleans because he had another year going to school there. I used to design a lot of posters for him when I was a little younger, because he was throwing a load of parties over there. And one of them, I gave that name, Young & Sick, and made a poster. I sat with it, and it just started growing on me. I thought it was such a funny name. It almost sounds like a rapper. I always thought that was funny. And the dot-com was available, which is always a big sign in this day and age and is quite the factor. You know, did anyone come up with my idea? So it was sweet, and I went for it.
Young & Sick’s album is coming this spring via Harvest. live dates:
02/02 Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brendas
02/04 Brooklyn, NY @ Rough Trade
02/05 Washington, DC @ DC9
04/12 Indio, CA @ Coachella
04/19 Indio, CA @ Coachella
[Photo by Jean-Baptiste Mondino]