There’s a moment on an as-yet-unreleased It’s Snakes track called “Cup Full of Coins” in which drummer, vocalist and songwriter Hope Nicholls goes into a call-and-response with bassist Darrin Gray.
“Is it time to give up?” sings Gray, to which Nicholls responds, “Oh no, not yet.”
“Is it time to lose hope?” Gray asks, to be met with the same response by Nicholls again.
The moment is meant as an affirmation to keep moving forward during strange and sometimes demoralizing times. It goes along with the theme of the album it will be included on, titled Yes, the fourth full-length from It’s Snakes, a foursome rounded out by guitarists Aaron Pitkin and Greg Walsh.
The songs were all written and recorded during the pandemic, which could have sent them in a dark direction, but Nicholls said this album is going in a more “evangelical” direction — not in a sense of religion but one of inspiration.
“It is a really positive thing because I love these songs and it’s just kind of a document of this particular strange time in world history,” said Nicholls when I visited her at Boris & Natasha, the boutique she runs with Pitkin, her husband (and my own eighth cousin, once removed, for full disclosure).
Nicholls’ back-and-forth with Gray could also be seen in another way: an affirmation of the actual band’s forward momentum. Legends of the local rock scene, Nicholls and guitarist Pitkin have played in a slew of local bands, beginning with Fetchin’ Bones, which dissolved shortly after breaking into the national spotlight in the 1980s. They went on to form Sugarsmack, Snagglepuss, and now It’s Snakes, though the furthest they’ve gone with any of those lineups is four albums.
Now with their own fourth record on the way, It’s Snakes is showing no signs of slowing. In fact, Nicholls, who turns 63 on Jan. 14 (with a birthday show scheduled for Tipsy Burro), still sees “unlimited horizons” for the band.
With two big shows coming up to close out the year — Dec. 15 with Wilmington’s The Great Indoors at Snug Harbor, and Dec. 17 at The Chamber at Wooden Robot in NoDa as part of Krampus Krawl — we discussed the upcoming album, Nicholls’ legacy in the local scene, and why she believes four albums is just the beginning for It’s Snakes.
Queen City Nerve: Where are you all at now in terms of this new project? How long have you been recording?
Hope Nicholls: The third record [LX] was done and in the can when COVID hit and then we didn’t really get to have an album release party or anything. We just put it out that year, so like, fall of 2020 the vinyl was ready and we just put it out.
But we’ve steadily been playing music throughout the whole tenure of COVID because we play places that are outdoors a lot. So during all that, we were just writing songs. We had enough songs to do another record. So this is album number four. It’s going to be called Yes because we need affirmations and we need things that are positive in the world today.
And how would you describe the tone, the mood? Is it affirmative in that sense?
Hope Nicholls: There’s one song that’s kind of gripy that was written in a response to the Trump era, which luckily we’re past, although we’re not past all that bitterness and division that we’re staring at still. So there’s one song that’s like that, and then a lot of them are really positive. That’s one reason why I wanted to call it Yes. Because it’s like, things are messed up, but we’re still here and we’re all going forward.
Any sort of sonic changes in Yes? It’s still in mixing and I haven’t heard it. Could you describe the sound to me?
Hope Nicholls: No, not really any changes to our sound. I told you about “Cup Full of Coins.” That’s kind of got almost like a hillbilly sound mixed with — I don’t want to say Irish because everybody will think we’re trying to do Mumford & Sons or some crap like that, but it’s got this little Celtic vibe that’s more legit. (laughs)
You mentioned there are more slow songs than usual.
Hope Nicholls: There’s some slowness. We’re not a jam band, but we listen to kind of psychedelic music and, you know, Bob Seeger and everything. I guess maybe ballads … kind of just weird and slow versus weird and fast (laughs). Weird always is somewhere in there for us.
It seems like this has got to be the longest band tenure that you’ve been a part of, no?
Hope Nicholls: Thank you for noticing that! The most records we’ve ever made with any band is four with Fetchin’ Bones, and four with Snagglepuss. So we’re right there. So if we get past this album, we’ll be in brand new territory! Wooohooooo! (laughs)
After four albums with other bands, they were coming to an endpoint, did you see that coming each time?
Hope Nicholls: I think so. I think creatively there’s always that place where people run out of steam. But I don’t even see that here with this band. Greg is an amazing guitar player and he’s a really creative guy. He would never say that he was, he’s extremely modest, but he comes up with cool ideas. And Aaron, when Aaron wants to chill out at the casa, he picks up that acoustic guitar that sits in our living room and he plays. So he’s constantly writing new riffs — constantly.
That’s what always seemed to happen in other bands was we’d run out of ideas somehow. That little arrangement of people had kind of just run out of creative steam. But I don’t feel that way with this band at all.
So having been together for a while now, where do you want to see this band go next?
Hope Nicholls: I think our first show was in 2015, so we’ve been doing it a while. It doesn’t seem that way to me at all, it seems like no time at all. I couldn’t play drums when we started, so we would get together (and jam), so yeah, I feel like there are unlimited horizons for me learning to play drums.
I’d also like to kind of solve the mystery of how to get people to know about your music without making a physical product like vinyl or cassettes or CDs, whatever it is. I’d like to make some videos.
We’re a part-time band. This is not a career band, and there’s no pressure because of that. And the cool thing is if you can just get some shows and make music with your friends, and that’s the fuckin’ jam right there to me.
And that was always your take since I first met you. And we talked about the end of Fetchin’ Bones compared to where you stand now, about not really concerning yourself with trying to run the rat race to get a big record deal but finding the sweet spot where you’re happy both personally and musically.
Hope Nicholls: The whole exercise of It’s Snakes, my participation is really good for my brain. It’s good for me. I’m almost 63. I just like pushing it because it feels good as an artist to not [worry about making it big]. There were many opportunities in our life where we could have been, like, playing “Satisfaction” for the 437,000th time kind of thing. I’m not going to name bands, but a lot of ’80s and ’90s bands, that’s what they do.
For Aaron and I, we don’t define ourselves just as musicians, we define ourselves more as artists. So it’s not really about going out and getting that money. It’s about getting to still make music and write songs. That is the only thing that we care about.
And you are still a fan as much as an artist. I heard the excitement in your voice when you told me you’re playing Krampus Krawl with Faye, a relatively newer band, for the first time. Or The Great Indoors from Wilmington.
Hope Nicholls: Yeah, I went out of my way to beg [The Great Indoors] to come to Charlotte. I’m a music fan first and foremost, so as artists, Aaron and I both are kind of this way, because we were always so much fans that just bubbled into participating as artists.
I’m always super flattered that other bands kind of like us and that we get to play with bands we love. That’s usually why we try to play early in the night (laughs), so we can hang out and have a beer and watch the other bands.
Do you have a timeline yet for this Yes release?
Hope Nicholls: We’re still mixing. We recorded everything at our house. Don Dixon came down from Ohio where he lives and brought all his equipment and we just recorded in different parts of the house. We were able to take days and days to do it. So then he takes it all back and sends us mixes. So we’ve already got a couple of mixes. There’s 11 tracks and so I think April is realistic. We’ve got a big crazy thing we’re doing in March.
Hope Nicholls: Barbecue Grills. It’s me and Travis [Laughlin] and Scott Weaver and we all dress in drag and we take familiar songs from the radio and I create like a Broadway show out of it. We haven’t done one since maybe like 2010 at Visulite. No one can even remember when the last one was because it predates everyone’s cell phones.
That’s going to be fun. I mean, that’s just like we get drunk together for a week and learn all these stupid covers of 38 special or Queen or whatever and make costumes and our friends fly in from San Francisco — Michelina [Mattarese], she’s the bassist. So that’s super fun. I think we’re going to do it at Starlight [on 22nd].
So you’re in this mixing process with Don Dixon. How involved and tuned in are you all in terms of feedback in that process and telling him to fix this or that?
Hope Nicholls: We’re pretty involved. We tell him, “Turn this down a little bit. Turn this up a little bit.” He adds some spice and sometimes we’re like, “That’s too much spice.” (laughs) Some keyboards or a backup vocal or something. But we’re giving him a little more leeway with this record. We’re not being as precious about it. I think partially because, for LX, the last record, it was the first one we’d recorded with him and we kind of knocked it all out at Mitch Easter’s studio.
But this one, doing it more at home and just less pressure on him, it almost sounds more studio because he has more time — even though we’re not in a particular studio, he has more time to kind of marinate. Because we had it all done and mixed for LX so we could have it pressed because we were going to do a release party at Camp North End. So it was all in the pipeline.
At that time, it was like six months, I think, to get a vinyl press. Now it’s almost a year. So we won’t do vinyl this time, either. I’m just excited because it’s not going to sound like us live. I mean of course it will, because it’s us live, but there’ll be some production stuff.
How do you view your legacy in Charlotte’s scene? And I don’t say legacy as if to imply that you’re done by any means. I’m excited to see where you guys go from here, as well. But just in terms of having played in all these great bands that have all been popular here in their own way. How do you view your legacy as someone who’s still playing regularly and getting to see the scene evolve?
Hope Nicholls: I guess I want to make sure people know how lucky Aaron and I feel to have an audience for our art after five decades. It’s an honor. And as a female in rock, it’s also not common. Only Iggy and Jagger get to be senior rock statesmen. I just want to be able to express my ideas and have fun with my friends — no dreams of stardom. It’s come full circle for me.