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Willie Nile Q&A: New LP ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still,’ Cinema, the Early Days of CBGB and More
During a career spanning more than 40 years and 14 studio albums, Willie Nile has flown slightly under the radar, despite luminaries like Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen, Roger McGuinn, Lou Reed, Chrissie Hynde, Little Steven and Lucinda Williams all sharing a stage or singing his praises at various times.
The Buffalo, N.Y. native cut his musical teeth during the 1970s around the Greenwich Village folk club circuit. Discovered by Clive Davis, he joined the Arista Records roster and released a pair of critically acclaimed records (the 1980 eponymous debut featured several power pop gems; 1981 follow up Golden Down sported an engaging Springsteen-esque sheen). A decade elapsed before Nile re-emerged in fine form with Places I Have Never Been and top-notch guests (McGuinn, Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III).
More recently, he recorded a slew of solid albums and the tribute Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Dylan.
Now, Nile is back with his latest effort, The Day the Earth Stood Still (the title refers to a 1951 sci-fi flick), one of the best rock albums of 2021. First single “Blood on Your Hands” finds the singer/guitarist and his New York City neighbor Steve Earle trading such stinging lines as “you can call the truth fake/but there will come a time when the whip comes down” and “hell will remember all the times you’ve lied and lied.”
An online record release show featuring The Day the Earth Stood Still, performed front-to-back at the Bowery Electric in NYC is available is available to view now through Oct.17 www.willienile.veeps.com, presented by Little Steven’s Underground Garage.
We checked in with Nile during a phone interview from his home for an engaging conversation.
Rock Cellar: The gritty “Blood on Your Hands” packs quite a wallop. What quality do you think Steve’s vocals brought to the song?
Willie Nile: He adds a street gravitas to it. He’s an American treasure, and so genuine. There’s a sense of realness and the reality comes across when he sings. It perfectly fits that song. He brings a rough edge to it that I just love.
Rock Cellar: When it comes to politically oriented songs, you usually don’t get heavy handed with the lyrics. After what we’ve all experienced with COVID-19, did you feel, as a songwriter, that the subject needed to be addressed somehow?
Willie Nile: Yeah. I write about things around me. I try not to get too political, but songs like [2013’s] “Holy War” and “Blood on Your Hands” just called for it. [The situation] was such a nightmare, I couldn’t avoid it. I had to write about it. I felt it and everything just came out. [But] you can get blood on your hands in lots of ways. You deal with the devil, whether it’s a personal relationship, whether you’re at war with another country or you’re mishandling a pandemic — that’s an understatement.
Rock Cellar: Considering your stirring piano-based song “The Justice Bell” was inspired by late U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights pioneer who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., what did you think about the March on Washington for voting rights and rallies across the country this past August?
Willie Nile: It was really interesting. I put on a concert right in the middle of D.C., one block from the White House that Saturday at a place called The Hamilton. It’s one of my favorite venues in the country. It was the anniversary of MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. We were a handful of blocks from the Lincoln Memorial. Onstage, I mentioned I had met John Lewis a few years earlier and had a great moment with him. It was a real honor for me. Talk about American treasures! I sang that song in Washington, on that anniversary and it meant the world to me. I dedicated “The Justice Bell” to John Lewis and all those fighting for voting rights, equality and justice. It’s a really important thing and it’s the basis of our country.
Rock Cellar: Do you remember hearing MLK’s speech as a teen in 1963? Did it have an impact on you?
Willie Nile: Absolutely. It’s sheer poetry and one of the great speeches — right up there with Lincoln at his best. Just to think where that came from and the backstory of his life, it was astounding. It really pointed a direction for this country morally, ethically and spiritually. It’s a masterwork and affected me profoundly.
Rock Cellar: A pair of songs on the new album were loosely inspired by classic films: the title track and “Sanctuary.” You’ve had song titles or lyrics that referenced movies dating back to your first album. What is it about the medium that jump starts your creativity?
Willie Nile: I love movies and art of all kinds — classical music, painting, sculpture [author’s note: Nile studied philosophy and wrote poetry while attending SUNY Buffalo]. I’m a big film fan, especially old movies. I don’t set out to write anything like that. But walking the streets of Uptown New York, the title came to me: “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” I thought “Sanctuary” was a perfect follow up song for the opening track. It offers some solace and a place of safety and comfort. I love “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Two of my favorites.
Rock Cellar: The driving rocker “Where There’s a Willie” has a really fun vibe. How did you end up co-writing it with actor/musician Michael Des Barres?
Willie Nile: Michael’s a friend. He’s been very supportive on his [Sirius XM – Little Steven’s Underground Garage] radio show. He plays my stuff and says really nice things about me. Last year, a friend of mine wrote me and said, “Did you hear what Michael said about your  song ‘Seeds of a Revolution’?” I said, “No.” I texted Michael to thank him for the kind words. He wrote back, “My pleasure. Where there’s a Willie, there’s a way.” I wrote back, “That’s a song. Let’s write it.” So we did.
Rock Cellar: That tune sort of follows in the vein of your 2016 songs “World War Willie” and “Citibank Nile.” Do you try to inject a bit of self-deprecating humor into your songs every so often?
Willie Nile: I never got into music for the fame. I was in it for the music and the inspiration. Music still inspires me to this day. I love music and it just means a lot to me. That I write it and get to make it — I’m very blessed in that way … My goal was to make a living. I wouldn’t mind being stinking rich, were that ever to happen, but it’s not the fame and idolatry that appealed to me. It was the music. So, I’ll write self-deprecating stuff because I try not to take everything too seriously.
Rock Cellar: What was the process like to make the new album with COVID-19 restrictions?
Willie Nile: Absolutely bizarre. We had masks on for 12-14 hours. We took three days to do basic tracks. We all had masks — the engineer, co-producer and the band. In one room, there were three guys with masks on. I was in another room because I was singing and playing guitar at the same time. We got used to it.
On Jan. 6, with the riot in Washington, we were actually recording “The Justice Bell” that day. People were coming into the studio saying, “You’re not going to believe what’s happening on TV. Come and see this!’” It was hard to imagine they were attacking the Capitol. We were recording that song on that day, which was totally ironic.
Rock Cellar: Although you and the guys in your band wore masks in the studio, was it still better to have a sense of togetherness as opposed to recording it remotely, as often became the norm during the pandemic?
Willie Nile: Absolutely. We were all in the same boat. I try to record every time with the band playing all at once to try and get that special energy when we all play at the same time. It was deep and meaningful and moving. The band was really struck when we were recording “The Justice Bell” that particular day. It got to them. It was profound.
Rock Cellar: “Expect Change” has a sinewy groove that reminds me of late ‘70s Stones. Was that the kind of feel you were going after?
Willie Nile: Yes, I was thinking Clash, Stones. It came out great. The guys just killed it.
Rock Cellar: Last year, you released New York at Night, which was another strong addition to your catalog. Some songs focused on NYC, as you did on 2006’s Streets of New York. What prompted you to go back to that particular well again?
Willie Nile: I love New York. I put out albums when I feel I have a batch of songs that fit together well. Then I’ll go and record. I had written a number of songs and I had the lyric “New York is rockin.” I thought that would be a good center for the album.
One night, I went Uptown to the Iridium to see some music just north of Times Square. About 10:30 on a Friday night, I went on the subway to come back down to The Village. I’m walking toward the train and the doors open. I notice inside the door on the floor was a big, tall can of Reddi-Wip cream. I was like, “What the hell?” Next to the can, this guy’s shoes were covered with two inches of whipped cream, his legs completely covered. I dared not look over to the right. I didn’t know what was going on with this guy. It was fairly crowded. I went to the other side of the car and found a seat. I took the subway Downtown and got out of the car at 3rd Avenue. It was a New York night.
There were limousines and college kids partying and I just thought, “Wow, New York at night.” It hit me like a ton of bricks: “That’s a song title.” I wrote that song and I knew right then it was the title of the album. New York City inspires me to this day. It’s so fascinating. For a writer, it’s a great place. There’s so much going on. I just write about what’s around me. I love the city.
Rock Cellar: How did you feel when you first heard the 2020 tribute album Uncovered? Was it an honor to hear musicians like Graham Parker and Nils Lofgren singing your songs?
Willie Nile: I was amazed and humbled. I had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t believe that these 26 artists would take the time, energy and money to record my songs and do such a great job on them. I still can’t believe it. I’m deeply touched that they would do that.
Rock Cellar: Over the past decade or so, you’ve been on a creative tear, putting out albums on a consistent basis. Has that productivity been a way for you to make up for lost time? In the Eighties, there was a long period when you didn’t put out albums at all.
Willie Nile: Exactly. My career’s been ass-backwards. I started in 1980 and made two records. They were highly lauded, and I got to tour across the U.S. with The Who. It was like I was shot out of a cannon. Then because of business troubles and other problems, it became more about business than music and I had to walk away. So, in ’81, I literally walked away from the business.
After I’d been gone a couple years, I had written a bunch of songs and it was almost impossible to get back in. I finally made another album and it came out in ’91. I’ve been really blessed. I’m on fire and I don’t know why that is. I’ve made four records in the last five years. In the last 11 years, I’ve been on a tear, as you say. I’m having a ball, and more fun now than ever. As long as the songs keep coming, I’ll write ‘em down.
Rock Cellar: In recent months, you’ve done live performances where you played your first two albums front to back. Thinking about your catalog in general, do any titles stand out as your favorites or ones that really stand the test of time?
Willie Nile: When I looked back over the past year when there were no live gigs, I was doing online monthly ticketed shows. One of the shows was the first album. We filmed the one for Golden Down. This year is the 40th anniversary. We haven’t put it out yet, but probably will soon. I was just amazed at how well it held up. It was fun to play ‘em.
I listen back and I’m really proud of the body of work. Places I’ve Never Been and Streets of New York really stand out for me, as does American Ride. I’m on a good roll and I’m happy about it.
Rock Cellar: Did it take a minute for you to get used to doing the virtual performances during lockdown?
Willie Nile: People were doing shows from their couches and kitchens and stuff. I wanted to up the bar a little and go to a recording studio. We used multiple cameras and I did two solo shows. Then I got the band and went to Bowery Electric and did a bunch of shows there. I just tried to make the shows as high quality as I could so it would be really worth people tuning in. The fans were really responsive and helped me get through last year.
Rock Cellar: When was your first concert back with an actual audience?
Willie Nile: April 4 in New York City at City Winery. We did two shows. It was extraordinary at the shows. Even now [too] — seeing people live, seeing friends beaming and happy to see other friends in the audience. My band is thrilled to be playing live. The live experience is one of a kind. It’s a shared communal experience that can be deep and meaningful. It is for us, my band and the fans that come out.
We don’t phone it in. Every single song, every single show, we give everything. To get to do that again, I’m very grateful. And for the fans, it’s not easy these days. Coming out, people are still cautious, and I get it. It feels so great to be coming back and seeing people, their expressions and to share that experience together.
Rock Cellar: Has it been a chore to deal with different COVID-19 nightclub regulations while on tour?
Willie Nile: We mask up. People have to be vaccinated to get in. People are good. It’s a pretty literate audience that I have. They’re pretty up on things. [My fans] are respectful, knock on wood. Everybody’s OK, trying to take care of each other and look out for each other. It’s a thrill to be back.
Rock Cellar: For many years, you’ve participated in the all-star concerts for the Light of Day Foundation in New Jersey to benefit research for Parkinson’s Disease and related illnesses alongside Bruce Springsteen, Jesse Malin, Joe Grushecky and others. Do you think the shows are a good example of how music can make a difference?
Willie Nile: Absolutely. We’ve been doing the Light of Day concerts for 20 years now. The money raised goes to Parkinson’s research, ALS and another [organization]. We’ve raised over $6 million in large part with Bruce Springsteen’s involvement … It’s going to be a great day on Planet Earth when they discover a cure for Parkinson’s. Can you imagine that? Most of us know someone who has suffered from that disease. It’s just debilitating. To play music and raise money for a good cause like that — everybody who does it over the years loves being a part of it. My ma used to say, “It’s better to give than to receive.” I would tease her for it. She was spot on right. Musicians get to give back and it is a great feeling.
Rock Cellar: Thinking about the past, around the time you signed your first record deal with Arista Records in 1978, you often played clubs and coffeehouses around NYC, including CBGB. What was it like to experience such a fertile music scene back then?
Willie Nile: I was looking in the Village Voice one day and saw this new club advertised: CBGB & OMFUG — Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music for Underground Gormandizers. I walked in and got a gig there. A jazz musician was the musical entertainment at the time. I played there and about two or three months later, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd [of Television] walked in and asked if they could start playing there. They did, Patti Smith played there in 1975 and that started the onslaught. I played there about two months before that all happened.
While it was happening, I played there a number of times. It was glorious to play original music. Hilly Kristal, the owner, would only have original music. [Back then], you couldn’t get a gig unless you played cover stuff. I played solo in the small clubs, so I didn’t have to do that. I played my own stuff. The scene and the vibe was great. I would tell my friends, ‘You gotta come here!’ It was like Hamburg in the early days of The Beatles. It was glory days. I loved those days.
Rock Cellar: Then a couple years later, you got a couple guys from Television and Patti Smith Group to play on your albums.
Willie Nile: It was so mind-blowing. Jay Dee Daugherty, Patti Smith’s drummer and Fred Smith, the bass player for Television — great guys. It was a real honor to play with them and tour together across the U.S. opening up for The Who. Who would’ve imagined that?
Oct. 16 The Acorn – Three Oaks, MI
Oct. 17 Space – Evanston, IL
Oct. 18 The Ark – Ann Arbor, MI
Nov. 19 Gateway City Arts – Hollyoke, MA
Dec. 10 Town Ballroom – Buffalo, NY
Dec. 18 Daryl’s House – Pawling, NY www.willienile.com