Narrow/Arrow is the type of band best understood after seeing live. Their recordings showcase a remarkably tight yet intricate take on noodling math rock, but seeing frontman Cody Nicolas perform it in person is something else. Live, Nicolas performs with two guitars, one hung in standard fashion over his shoulder and the other clamped to a work bench in front of him. His hands, typically split one to each guitar, spend the set heroically prancing with independent minds of their own.
That ingenuity made Narrow/Arrow a favorite secret of the regional emo scene near their home in Mansfield, Ohio. Tuned Up founder Ryan Getz went as far as including their song “Savior Talk” in his favorite tracks of the 2010s. When Explosions in the Sky came to town, Narrow/Arrow got the call to open. The band has played alongside Circa Survive, Chon, As Cities Burn, Maps & Atlases, and a number of other notables from the worlds of math rock, emo, and post-hardcore.
After their debut full-length, 2017’s claustrOHphobia, however, Narrow/Arrow disappeared. Struggles with member changes, a delayed vinyl pressing, and a parting with their record label stunted the project. Now Narrow/Arrow is back with the wittily-titled Asbestos Weak Hood on their own Bonfire Nation, an expansion of Nicolas’ longtime punk space into a malleable arts advocate.
The new songs maintain that same shimmery complexity as Narrow/Arrow’s previous releases but have an added layer of lightness. Nicolas’ voice in particular floats more than it once howled. The greatest treat, though, is the addition of horns from The Afrxnts. These highlight Nicolas’ increased focus on the songs themselves with newfound structure, dynamics, and melody blossoming from the added instrumentation on select tracks.
With a crowdfunded vinyl pre-order campaign for Asbestos Weak Hood finishing up on Qrates on July 11th, Nicolas talked about how he came to releasing the album under his own venture and what happened with the band between claustrOHphobia and now.
It’s been 4 years or so since your last record, claustrOHphobia. Why so long in between?
That tour for our first full-length album, it was like three weeks and things just were wrong from the get go. The vinyl didn’t show up in time so it was like three weeks of promoting a record we didn’t have, so that was already a difficult pill to swallow. We restarted. And then there was just a bunch of personal jumps. Jonathan [Hape, drummer and engineer,] had left the band like right before. Essentially, he got a job and quit the band before the record was even really done but, you know, promised he’d finish the record and followed through on that.
After we got back form that tour and Mark [Canole, former bassist,] left, and Jonathan wasn’t in the band, and the drummer that we had, Alex, he lived in New Hampshire with Mark. We got back like a month later and we got asked to do that Explosions in The Sky show. Everybody kind of met up for that but everything was so on the rocks. We hadn’t played with Jonathan forever at that point.
It’s a shame because claustrOHphobia is a great record. It really sums up the Narrow/Arrow sound. The big thing it really captures well is your wacky dual guitar approach. Tracks like “Amy to Your Right” you really hear those guitars going against each other. How did you come up with that method?
It devolved one thing after the other. I saw a YouTube video—like one of the first YouTube videos I ever saw actually. Erik Mongrain, he plays a song called “AirTap!” and it has him playing just an acoustic guitar in an open tuning on his lap and he hits it and taps on it. I had never seen a guitar or heard a guitar like the way this guy was using it. I was a freshman [in high school] or going into my freshman year, it was summertime maybe. I started playing when I was five. When you’re young you want to be the greatest guitar player ever and everybody, you know family, is not telling you any different because you’re a little kid. Then you start to grow up and you see all these amazing guitar players and you’re like ‘oh, wow I’ll never actually be the greatest guitar player of all time.’ I remember that taking the wind out of my sails and then seeing this video.
Just seeing people solo and stuff it’s like ‘wow, that looks crazy but I’ll never be as good as this guy.’ I didn’t even really care for the way it sounded. I always was singing as well while I played. To play like that didn’t super make sense to me. The closest I ever heard was Jimi Hendrix do a version of “Hear My Train A Comin’” on a 12-string and sing and that was the best I’d ever heard somebody do something complicated and sing over top of it. I thought that was really cool but then I saw this Erik Mongrain video and I was like ‘oh my gosh, I didn’t even know any of these sounds could even happen. I didn’t know you could play it like this.’ It broke all the rules and I remember thinking this is how I can be different, is to pursue this.
I didn’t have a nice acoustic so I tuned my electric to DADGAD, which is like a Jimmy Page Led Zeppelin tuning, is where I got it from anyway–I’m sure a lot of people have used it. I tuned it into DADGAD and then I put it in my lap and I just started fucking with it like that, just an electric guitar through my reverb pedal in DADGAD and then trying to mimic what I saw in the video. Right off the bat it sounded amazing to me like. Not to mention, because it’s in an open tuning, once you figure out what notes not to hit, you’re gold. That made sense to me. I was like ‘ok, so guitar doesn’t even need to be in standard [tuning] really,’ which I kind of knew but I didn’t ever really think to try. I needed to figure out regular better first and then we’ll try that stuff. Then once I had a piece, like an actual piece of music that I had written, on it—and it was essentially just arpeggiation through the guitar thing—it was really fun to play. I couldn’t put it down but I didn’t want to sit when I played it. The band room was next to my dad’s workshop so I had a piano stand and I went and found a c-clamp and rigged that up that way.
My band at the time, when we would play, I would have songs where I was playing with a guitar around my shoulders normal but I had this one random guitar sitting in front of me and when I would play just that one song that I brought it for I would unplug my one and plug it into that one and I would do it that way. Then we played with Jonathan one time before he was in the band and he was just like ‘man, you should just get like a Morley [ABY footswitch] so you can switch back and forth, and another cable, and then you don’t have to unplug the one, and plug it into the other one, and fuck with it and it can be a really quick transition.’ Then he pauses and goes ‘or you could, like, play them at the same time’ because on those switches you can pick one, other, or both. I didn’t really think much of it when he said it because I didn’t have the switcher yet but then once I got it, I remember—and I remember thinking at the time ‘yeah, I couldn’t imagine myself seeing a guy live in a band that I didn’t know and he was attempting to play two guitars at the same time.’ I’d be like ‘fuck this nerd this guy is trying way too hard.’
I had two six strings at the time. I had the one in standard around my shoulder and the other one still to this day I keep it in DADGAD. I wrote my first actual double guitar singing piece probably I was 18 just out of high school.
How hard was it for you to learn to play two things at the same time, much less sing at the same time?
What was cool, and what I still forget that a lot of players who are practicing all the time didn’t get to have, is that I only really had the one guy to reference—Erik Mongrain. I really only had the one song by the one guy that I was trying to reference. Like I said, it sounded good to me right off the bat. It was kind of like my special secret thing. I didn’t actually even know anyone else was finger tapping until I saw Native and The Reptilian play a show in my town when they were very small. I saw they were finger tapping and I was like ‘holy fuck. No way.’ I felt like ‘no way, these guys saw the same shit.’ But nobody was playing it horizontally. There was always a confidence there because I felt like there wasn’t a goal to reach so I couldn’t tell if what I was doing was super easy or super hard. It just sounded really cool and it sounded hard. It sounded dense. When you’re doing just a bunch of hammer-ons and pull-offs in an open tuning with one hand it sounds good. Then you add two hands and it sounds like you’re doing a million things but you don’t have to move too much. I couldn’t believe it. I was like ‘this is an untapped idea.’ I still think it is.
By the time you get to claustrOHphobia and you have this standard of things you’ve already done, how were you thinking about ways to improve on the way you were incorporating that stuff into your songs?
“Rufus On Fire” is the track on that which I wasn’t surprised when everybody heard it they were like ‘oh, this has got to be the single’ or ‘this would be a good single, anyway.’ I was doing a lot of pop music on the side, or R&B pop music, funk shit on the side with my buddy here in Mansfield. I just kind of had this whole idea of wanting to groove more and with that came just wanting to have a good song. To me it sounds like a pop song, or Narrow/Arrow trying to do a pop song.
It’s really cool that I can make a song as dense as “Amy to Your Right” on guitar but you can only get away with that so much until at some point it gets in the way of the song. People’s first pass on something they decide whether or not they like it and whether they’re going to revisit it. A bunch of guitar licks, I love them too, but it almost felt like after a song like “Rufus” it was almost self-indulgent for me. I didn’t need to make it as dense and I could actually focus on a vocal melody, something that another person’s ears might hear for the first time. But at the same time, the reason I make all the guitar parts as dense as I do is because I figure I’m going to be playing them a long time if they’re good. I don’t want to sit up there playing “Wonderwall” or feeling like Noel Gallagher playing “Wonderwall.”
After claustrOHphobia were you working on songs in between or what was that gap like for you?
If I’m being honest, I guess I kind of work in bursts. There was probably a burst where two or three songs or riff ideas would happen and then some time would go by and then I’d sit down to work on those ones and then another little burst might happen. It’s crazy that it’s four years but, I mean, at the same time not so crazy. I don’t know, it feels like they’re ripe now. We’ve been playing some of them since we put out the last record.
When did the songs for Asbestos Weak Hood really start coming together and feel like you had an album in the works?
When we put it up on the Qrates campaign. That’s when it really felt like ‘ok here it is.’ It’s awesome having Jonathan—and Donovan [Hill, bassist], they’re both amazing—but Jonathan actually does everything. I’m not even kidding. He recorded everything, mastered everything, mixed everything, he edited all the videos, he shot the second.
I don’t know where Jonathan got it from but it’s got to be a famous quote from somebody. He said ‘art is never finished, it’s abandoned.’ [Leonardo da Vinci is generally credited with saying “art is never finished, only abandoned.”] It’s really great getting to make changes—I guess we still can make changes if we wanted to—until everything goes to pressing. It’s great.
How did you wind up doing this Qrates vinyl pre-order campaign?
Do you know Vulfpeck?
Yes. I’m somewhat familiar with Qrates, but could you talk about it for anybody who’s not familiar?
Yeah. Again, all Jonathan, but we love the band Vulfpeck and this is how they put out all of their vinyl, which is great. Qrates is a crowdfunded pre-order hybrid. So, we put together the album that we want, and then we set how many we want, and then we promote people to buy or pre-order the record, and then they go to the Qrates and they purchase. The thing is there is a long wait time. You first of all have to wait till the goal has been reached before they’ll actually go into production. But we set the price at $22. Our wholesale cost is cheaper than that so we can actually take all of the money that we’ve made, or all the records that we’ve taken so far, we can take that difference and reinvest it into our own campaign. All we’re really cutting into is profits that we get. But we would just have our own bunch of hard copies ourselves. Essentially, we don’t need a label to front us the money. We’re literally trying to promote just the way anybody crowdfunds everything.
That’s really cool. And it sounds like you were kind of consciously thinking you wanted to go away from the label route and do something independent this time?
I have turned Bonfire Nation, that is now an artist management company, is what I’ve been calling it. I rent a house to artists—and all things encompassing anything art, which could be anything. It’s, for this Narrow/Arrow release, acting as a label, but it’s ours so it’s still an independent release. It’s a Mansfield name that’s been around and it’s just kind of like a punk-DIY-house show-party spot. I’m thirty years old now and people still love the whole idea of it and are still in support of it around here. There’s a lot of thriving music around here that I wanted to promote and help put out and the ideas is this Narrow/Arrow record is going to kind of be the catapult or the snowball.
Let’s talk about Asbestos Weak Hood a little bit. You really picked up where Narrow/Arrow left off. But this one does feel maybe a little more spacious and gradual to me, more arrangement-focused. You’re shouting less, your vocals are a little more airy and melodic. There are lots of really great trumpet parts on here. Were you looking for anything specific when you were working on this album? Did you have any type of vision in mind?
No. Honestly any time we say I think we’re going to do some more visionary weird stuff we kind of end up doing just more of who we are, more of the same. No real idea, just kind of picking up where we left off. We own the rights to [our music] now. We get to take all the time we want. Whereas, when it wasn’t completely independent, there were times when it was rushed and that made everything stressful. The screaming and the vocal thing, actually today is my one-year anniversary of not smoking cigarettes.
Congrats, that’s awesome.
Haven’t had a single one for exactly one year. I forget about that actually. That’s funny. I kind of started taking care of myself in a lot of ways. I have a partner who is also super supportive and has been super encouraging in me taking care of myself. It really is just a more mature record. We kind of tried to get back to, not even really get back to anything specifically—the first EP, Middle Children, we were just young and didn’t second guess anything. You can’t go back and try and recreate that big one that made us who we are today, but in a lot of ways we did it the same. We recorded a good chunk of it at Bonfire Nation just in my living room like we did the first EP. We were able to just take our time. We actually recorded the whole album and then just didn’t pick it back up and then it got lost and we re-recorded it. It was devastating but at the same time it was a fresh start. We didn’t have anybody breathing down our neck.
You’re on your one-year anniversary of no cigarettes. Is this where the album’s “cigregrets” phrase comes from?
That’s the pun, the cigregrets. I don’t really know where it started other than it was just funny saying cigregrets when I’d be recording vocals and taking breaks to go smoke or something. Then you come back and it sounds like shit. Cigregrets is, I guess, a way of kind of admitting that I’ve been not taking care of my instrument. You’re blessed with a singing voice and I shit all over mine and kind of drag it through the mud a bit. The reason there’s not as much screaming is kind of the same reason. I’ve been screaming incorrectly for so many years. I’m now doing it more correctly, but I definitely wanted to be in a place where if this record does something I can do two weeks of straight shows and not have a panic attack. That was a huge thing for me back in the day. Doing like a ten-day run and by day five my throat is thrashed, I’m having anxiety about it, so I’m smoking more. It’s terrible. You don’t think about how much it actually fucks with your head until it’s out of your life and then there’s just this release that, before a show, I don’t wake up the morning before and I’m like ‘oh God, how much did I smoke last night,’ which is completely determined on how much I had to drink the night before. It’s like ‘oh my God, practice on Saturday? It was Friday. I can’t even. I guess we’ll just pretend vocals for this rehearsal.’ It was terrible. So, yeah, big cigregrets for the last few years.
So many of your song titles are puns or just jokes in general. Do a lot of them have a trace where it does relate to something with the songs or that was going on at the time?
I try to but there’s no real rules with it. Like “Daryl Licked,” that’s kind of the worst title. That just worked because derelict house was, you know [in the lyrics]. Sometimes it’s cool and sometimes it makes sense but, ideally, it’s both.
The album title really speaks to me: Asbestos Weak Hood. It’s kind of funny because you do have the derelict house but you also are doing this more or less independent with your own venture. How’d you settle on that title?
All the reasons you just said. First of all, there’s always that emo like paying homage to your house for some reason
Yeah: Home Like No Place Is There, American Football
Exactly. Something about midwestern emo bands and their houses, their tiny houses. It was all of that. We all talk about how nice it is that we named the record that because it is a constant reminder when we get in our heads and shit. It’s like ‘yeah, this is literally as best as we could do.’ I just like Asbestos Weak Hood as if having asbestos is a good thing. This isn’t even like a real bad area. This isn’t a bad neighborhood. I bet you these houses don’t even have asbestos. This asbestos is weak. I just like that idea of talking shit. It’s making fun of that.
By Cameron Carr