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Pipe Dreams 

Former Thrasher photographer Nik Freitas trades his skateboard for a keyboard -- and the glories of '70s pop

Wednesday, Jul 17 2002
Nik Freitas was working as a janitor in a Visalia restaurant in 1999 when things started to take off. Thrasher, the legendary San Francisco skateboarding rag, liked the photos Freitas had been sending in, and wanted to bring him on as part of the team. Freitas was speechless.

"I was like, 'What? You get paid for this?' I had no clue," he says during an interview at the Mission's Cafe Macondo. Up to that point, the soft-spoken Freitas had just assumed he'd stick around Visalia, a 90,000-person city about 40 miles southwest of Fresno. He figured he'd skate and take pictures, filling his downtime with beer and drumming gigs for a handful of going-nowhere bands.

Thrasher changed all that. From his very first tour of duty with the magazine crew, the then-20-year-old Freitas knew that his life would never be the same. As part of the Thrasher photo staff, he was suddenly living every skater's dream, traveling to the world's best skate spots, hanging out with the world's most talented pros.

"It was insane," Freitas says of his first outing, in which he got a preview of what his life was going to be like for the next two years. "There were 11 of us in the van, I had $20, and I was going to be gone for a month and a half. I scrounged for [that] month and a half. Just going into restaurants and asking to use the bathroom and seeing who's leaving and who's got food on their plate, and grabbing it and eating it in the bathroom and getting out."

The Thrasher job was exciting, but after a year or so on staff, Freitas' attention began to wander. Between the long trips, Freitas would hole himself up in his Visalia room for days at a time, composing intricate four-track opuses with guitars, bass, drums, and his recently acquired Fender Rhodes keyboard.

The songs -- chock-full of sweet melodies and harmonized vocals -- didn't fit the mold of what you'd expect from a Thrasher staffer whose high school listening palette was "Black Flag or nothing." And though the perennially shy Freitas didn't distribute his music very far, one of the tapes eventually found its way to Visalia native and Future Farmer label boss Dennis Mitchell.

When Mitchell gave Freitas some positive feedback about the demos, Freitas weighed his dream job at Thrasher against the obsession that four-tracking had become. Then, in a move that would once again turn his life upside down, Freitas made Mitchell an offer.

"I was like, 'Dude, check it out: Me and my friend, we've got this recording space. I'll go make a record right now. If you like it, put it out; if you don't, screw it. But I gotta do this.'" Mitchell agreed, so in December 2001 Freitas quit Thrasher and moved back to Visalia to chase a new dream: recording his debut CD, Heres Laughing at You.

The sessions were a nocturnal affair, thanks mostly to the home studio's location above a noisy business that stayed open late. "We'd go in there at 9 p.m. and stay in there until 7 or 8 in the morning," Freitas remembers. "Then we'd sleep all day and then wake up around 7 at night. It was crazy."

With good friend Aaron Estes engineering the sessions, Freitas was able to play all the parts himself. The process required infinite amounts of patience and imagination, as Freitas built each song in layers, writing and recording harmonies to melody lines he could only hear in his head.

"It was a nightmare," says Freitas of the recording process. "I went crazy. Me and Aaron went crazy."

Due to their financial limitations, Freitas and Estes had to record on the fly, relying on some clandestine techniques for the album's piano parts. "The community college [in Visalia] has this rehearsal room, and there's like three pianos in there," says Freitas. "We snuck in there one night because we knew that the doors were left open; we brought all the gear there. We recorded all the songs in an hour and then got out."

Despite the low budget, Heres Laughing at You is anything but lo-fi. The earnest, catchy vibe of the album evokes '70s pop groups like Wings ("Check the Weather") and Simon & Garfunkel ("All the Time in the World") -- songs with big choruses, pretty piano parts, and shining production. Along with the trappings of mainstream pop, Freitas also adds a healthy dollop of indie guitar-exploration, drawing from the same underground well as Built to Spill ("Normal") and Elliott Smith ("Faucets and Drains").

It all adds up to a record with sizable melodies and an offbeat, beguiling charm. While the album has its share of filler, the impressive range of styles gives Freitas' music an appeal far beyond the narrow territory claimed by most indie rock acts. According to the songwriter, the audible influences that inform Heres Laughing at You are intentionally disparate. "I wanted it to sound like a mix tape of all my favorite music over the years," he says. "I just wanted every song to be completely different, without it sounding like I'm confused."

When Freitas handed the tapes over to Future Farmer's Mitchell, the label honcho loved the songs and slated the album for a May 2002 release date. At Mitchell's encouragement, Freitas assembled a backing band and prepared himself for spending the next year schlepping through the tiny clubs of America, trying to get the word out about the record.

Unfortunately, just when the album should've been going to stores, Future Farmer's distribution deal fell through. All of the label's upcoming releases, including Heres Laughing at You, were put on hold. The problem dragged on, leaving Freitas antsy and couch-surfing in Visalia. He didn't want to get a job, since he'd have to abandon it as soon as the album came out. Ditto for a lease on an apartment. So he drew on the lessons from his Thrasher days and scrounged, relying on the kindness of friends for a place to stay.

It took three months, but eventually Future Farmer landed a much better distro arrangement. Freitas' album was on the tarmac again and moving forward, in the queue for a July 16 takeoff. The pre-release of Heres Laughing at You went out to college radio stations, with promising results, entering the CMJ charts just below new records by Green Day, the Flaming Lips, and Sebadoh's Jason Lowenstein.

The delay was probably a good thing. For a man who spent two years making stars out of those around him, the transition to frontman had been a difficult one. In the original photo he submitted to Future Farmer for press purposes, Freitas could barely be seen, his face unrecognizable.

Things have improved in the last few months, with Freitas sitting patiently for a new publicity picture and doing interviews without apologizing too much for going on about himself. He's also played a bunch of coffeehouse and bar gigs, which has helped him get used to the spotlight. The increased experience will no doubt come in handy, but nothing can substitute for the untrammeled optimism of a guy embarking on his second dream job in as many years.

"I don't know what the hell is going to happen," Freitas says, smiling. "But you've got to try."

About The Author

Chris Baty


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