Nick Perri

Constant Creator
Nick Perri
Nick Perri: Kelly Markowitz.

The elements of life that mold a person are constant and ever-evolving. Influence is all about perspective. Philadelphia-born Nick Perri grew up in a strict Catholic household where pop music wasn’t part of the routine. But, one summer Saturday when he was 12, his Aunt Terri, black sheep of the family, took Nick and his 10-year-old sister, Christina, for a cruise in her Camaro – windows down, rock-radio tunes blasting. That Thanksgiving, she slipped two cassettes to him under the dining table – AC/DC’s Highway to Hell and Pearl Jam’s Ten.

“I was just starting to play guitar, so at the end of the day, I went straight upstairs and put them on, and that was it,” Perri said. “Something fundamentally changed inside of me. It clicked: ‘This is what I’m supposed to do. I’m going to make art and express myself.’ From that moment, playing guitar and writing songs has been my obsession.”

Another push came from a folk group at church.

“When they found out that I’d been bitten by the guitar bug, they started feeding me things on vinyl,” he recalled.

Within five years, Perri had soaked up enough music and learned to play well enough that he and four high-school friends had formed Silvertide, a rock band so good that Clive Davis signed them to J Records. Their star burned bright; supporting a 2003 debut EP and ’04 album, they opened for Van Halen, Velvet Revolver, and Mötley Crüe, then performed on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” before going into uncertain status.

Perri used this ’71 Custom Tele (left) for two songs on Terra Firma, including “Waiting For You.”
His ’81 Heritage Korina Flying V is the guitar most heard on the album, and this ’76 Bicentennial Firebird was used for various overdubs.

Perri eventually moved to Los Angeles and landed a gig playing guitar for Perry Farrell, which led to other gigs including a stint in Las Vegas with drummer Matt Sorum. In 2014, he formed the alt-rock group Mount Holly, which released one album before Perri decided to front his own band.

Continually writing music, in 2018 he formed The Underground Thieves with five fellow Philadelphians. Their first album, Sun Via, was released two years later and reached the Top 10 on iTunes while landing a single on the rock radio charts.

In January of 22, Perri gathered a re-tooled Thieves with bassist (and fellow Silvertide alumni) Brian Weaver, drummer Zil Fessler, and keyboardist Justin DiFebbo, and walked into Philadelphia’s Retro City Studios with a batch of new songs, set to create an ambitious double-disc concept album. While applying finishing touches and doing a lot of legwork, he sat to talk about Terra Firma on the verge of its June 16 release.

“My approach to making records is all about the feeling,” he said. “When I listen to my favorite music, the feeling I get is what I’m after as a creator. It’s not just a guitar part, the vocal, or melody – it’s all of it with the lyric. I always wonder, ‘When someone plays one of my records, does it deliver that – a positive emotion, inward emotion, or a complex emotion?’ If it does, then I’ve done my job.”

The scope of Terra Firma and short time since Sun Via would lend the impression you never stopped working.
That’s true. Sun Via was transformative for many reasons. After 19 years in the music business, to finally have a record of my own was big for me on many levels. I fell into this role, stepping to the center, spiritually, metaphorically, and physically. And I can’t even think about what comes next until I finish whatever I’m working on, so the moment Sun Via was uploaded to the DSPs and delivered to the vinyl-pressing plant, I sat down and finished what became “Waiting For You.” It was that quick because the faucet was on; every time I sat with a guitar, there was a song. Sometimes it was pieces, sometimes compositions. That’s the dream as a songwriter, right? I toured Sun Via through the pandemic, which was an incredible blessing. But, at home between dates, I was constantly working on music while also trying to be a good dad.

Did you have an idea where all that new music was going, stylistically?
I took a trip to the Pocono Mountains in the summer of ’21, and the concept crystallized. Several songs had been finished years before or were in pieces; “Terra Firma” was super close to my heart for 10 years but didn’t become realized until last year. “Modern Mann” is almost that old. I don’t understand why ideas wait for years before fully revealing themselves, and maybe I’m not supposed to.

That title track is a very personal statement.
I had no idea when I wrote that song that it was going to take on the spiritual depth it did. When I was 28, I wasn’t thinking about such things, but the album means something because of where I’m at in life now and my place in the universe – thinking about my parents being older and my child – the circle of life, mortality, and all those things mean something to me at 38. Much of life doesn’t make sense as it’s happening, but in retrospect, it plays beautifully.

So, you were vacationing in the Poconos when it clicked that you had this music that can carry an overarching theme?
Exactly. It really was a vacation from my day-to-day thing, which is what I needed, to focus. Working from home, balancing family and professional life, you’re pulled in all directions. I have four cats, a snake, a wife, a daughter, and everybody’s hungry (laughs). Everybody wants something, which I love, but sometimes you need time away to focus on a task.

Custom-built by Rob Mondell, Perri kept this solidbody in D Standard tuning; it can be heard on “Morning Light.”

In the mountains, I had a tape machine and a cassette player, and I started putting ideas to tape. I didn’t want anything near a computer at that point, so I was bouncing mixes from the tape machine to cassette like a true weirdo, then listening on a Walkman in my car… in 2021 (laughs). There’s something about the analog experience that’s really rewarding, maybe because we spend so much time on our freaking phones and everything feels synthetic, like a simulation. There’s something satisfying about the tactile analog thing.

Anyway, I had this cassette… on one side I wrote “Death After Life,” and the other I wrote “Life After Death.” I didn’t know what it meant, just that it was this concept of yin and yang – two sides to everything – and how important perspective is in life. We can take one event and look at it like it’s a complete disaster or a complete blessing, right? Perspective changes everything.

I was messing with all of these songs when I had the “A ha!” moment, and I got “Waiting For You.” When I got that song, I was like, “That’s the record.” It had the groove, the feel, and the emotional depth to open the album. The rest, I figured, would be easy because I had all these other puzzle pieces and knew where they fit, but getting that focusing statement is sometimes really hard. And I realized I had two albums that I named after the sides of that cassette. How a person looks at life defines their existence. As a songwriter, it can be daunting to have an idea you don’t know how to express. And once you can, it’s an unbelievable relief. So, I finally had the vision. I just had to pitch it to my band and team.

As an artist pursuing something so ambitious, did you worry about the listener getting the concept without also hearing that pitch?
No, I think you can throw the record on and take the ride. But for people willing to dig a little deeper, it offers something more thought-provoking. I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but the band saw the passion in me and knew it had to be made real.

Being an independent musician planning an expensive double album in uncertain times, did you have concerns?
I didn’t have all the answers (laughs), but I’m determined, and I hustled. More than half of the songs were written. I just didn’t know how they fit together. And even with the pieces I didn’t have, I knew what they looked like. I just needed to let them come, which they did in a beautiful, organic way.

So there were no issues on the creative side. My only concerns were about the logistics – how to produce it, make it a physical product, and get it on turntables in a pandemic – with no budget. That was the hurdle.

Does the tone of “I Want To Be Free” reflect your mood as you rolled out of the Poconos?
That’s a really important song to me. I had the verse and chorus, which I’d written while moving from California back to the East Coast in 2020. I just didn’t know how it worked into everything else. That’s why the Poconos trip was so important. There, I saw how to connect the pieces.

Lyrically and melodically, it’s the song that sounds most like a single.
When I sit to write or even just play an instrument, if an idea is there, it’s captured. If it’s not, I goof around and jam. I don’t try to write singles or hits. I don’t even know what that means anymore. I just try to write something that means something to me and is melodically fulfilling. I wanted every song to be led by great melody, whether it was guitar, a lyric, a piano. And I believe I achieved that.

“I Want To Be Free” is a catchy song, which is just the way it came out. But like “Feeling Good” on Sun Via, it’s also a pep talk to myself, a reminder to break out of compulsive thoughts and insecurity – our minds being our own worst enemy, telling us we’re not good enough or don’t have what it takes. We play these mental movies over and over again, right? We obsess about things from the past or future.

This ’64 LG-0 (left) lived in Nashville tuning for Terra Firma. Acquired just before sessions started, this ’59 Country Western immediately became Perri’s go-to acoustic. A one-off custom, this Mondell 12-string heart-hole sports a ’60s Wandré influence with a whiff of ’70s Zamaitis.

“I Want To Be Free,” literally, is so simple; it’s like “Breathe (In the Air)” by Pink Floyd – lyrics that mean the most because they’re simple, but with meaning hidden in plain sight. It’s about enjoying present reality, which sounds so simple but is the hardest thing for a lot of people, myself included.

Is “Modern Mann” forewarning something, or simply observing what’s going on today with technology?
I think it’s more of an observation, but it’s an interesting concept that we have created artificial intelligence and the idea that AI could have feelings. Countless science fiction is based on that, but it’s becoming science fact. The idea that a computer chip can have feelings and wants the things that we want is very intriguing to me.

That song started as a concept by my bandmates, Michael and Anthony Montesano, and was so close to home it became an in integral part of the story, because we are becoming this.

The record is all about perspective and how we choose to see things. Is it fair or unfair that we would create something and tell it, “No, you can or can’t think this or feel this?” We’re opening a can of worms I don’t think people are ready for, morally.

At the three-minute mark, the song becomes an organ/bass/drums jam. Is that where the band had more input?
The first three minutes of it were written a long time ago and gradually became an Underground Thieves song; we started playing it in 2018 along with what would become most of Sun Via. We’d do it night after night, and after five years it became the big jam moment of the show. It’d change in the way that, maybe, Zeppelin would have moments they’d come back to, but a lot of it was also free form. It was where we’d improvise – scratch that itch musicians have.

Improvisation is important to most musicians.
I love using that part of my brain. Again, I had to sell my team on an idea – because that’s who I am (laughs). I said, “Guys, when we record ‘Modern Mann,’ we’ve got to record the jam.” Everyone’s like, “Are you crazy? Nobody records a jam. That’s why you have a live show.” I was like, “That’s why we have to do it – because nobody in 2023 is recording a seven-minute jam and putting it on vinyl.”

I love just going for things that other people say, “You can’t do that.” Don’t ever tell me I can’t do something, because I become obsessed with doing it. So, they sealed our fate (laughs), and from the start to three minutes, you hear the layers – the stuff that makes a good studio recording. But it breaks down, then builds back up with the Hammond organ, drums, bass, and guitar. The four of us were in the room and played it live. We did three or four takes and chose the best one, but I didn’t put any overdubs on it because I wanted it to be what we sound like live.

In the live show, do you lay back on guitar like that for a couple minutes?
Every time, yeah. I want them to express themselves and shine. I’m a huge fan of all great Hammond B-3 playing, piano, bass. I’m a geek for all of it. So, I love getting to sit back and letting somebody take the moment. I want to shine a light on my friends because they’re incredibly talented and I love how they play.

An interesting part of the concept is the spoken philosophical interludes.
Before the core of how the album fit together hit me, I was having a conversation with my former Silvertide bandmate, Mark Melchiorre, Jr. After that band ended, I went off to do all the things I did while Mark got into Buddhism and became a spiritual teacher. He has had a great impact on my life. I told him, “I’m working on this and there’s a deep, spiritual thread through the whole thing. Could I record one of our conversations to use on it?”

I know he thought it was crazy, but thank goodness he said “Yes.” So I recorded us for two hours, then chopped it into the sound bites you hear through the record – him sharing spiritual wisdom as it pertains to mortality and purpose and the themes explored in the record. For “Terra Firma,” I put some over the music, and they were so beautiful that I immediately started crying. It was very emotional. Any time I listen to “Terra Firma,” even through mixing and listening to the test pressing of the masters, I often cry when I hear his take on spirituality and death and how we’re all connected. It’s really moving.

“[Terra Firma is] this thing I want to share, knowing that my time on this rock is limited.”
When I was able to fit everything together with the music, I started shaking, thinking, “I think I’ve got something really powerful here.” Then the fear sets in that like, “I’m never going to be able to pull this off.” It’s this thing I want to share, knowing that my time on this rock is limited. That made me even more determined to make the record a reality.

Which acoustic guitar do we hear on “Terra Firma”?
I used my ’59 Gibson Country Western on the whole record except that intro, which is a Yamaha FG700S that was hanging in the studio. As the song was being played back, I picked it up and started noodling, and our engineer, Matt Muir, said “You have to go record that immediately.” I said, “Okay, I’ll grab my guitar,” and he said, “No, you have to use that guitar. It’s giving you that sound.”

Every other acoustic part is the Country Western, and it’s monumental-sounding. I used a ’64 Gibson LG-0 in Nashville tuning on one moment for the intro to “Come To Me” where there’s multiple guitars – the Country Western is in one channel and my 12-string Mondell is in the other.

That song has a great solo.
That was a talking point, because it has a vocal-like sound. I have this late-’60s Ampeg GU-12 that doesn’t break up the way a Fender or Marshall would, and I noticed that with my Fuzz Face in front of it, it does this crazy sound like a saxophone – we jokingly called it the “horn tone.” It’s unique and really expressive. I never wanted to be the fastest player or someone who did novelty stuff; my goal is to make the guitar as expressive as I can.

When I’m playing or practicing, I’m not running scales. I try to dig into that “feel” thing. With my favorite players, it’s about the feeling you get when you listen; Derek Trucks… when I listen to him, I’m filled with emotion. I get that same vibe from David Gilmour even with his very different style. It’s what I get from Hendrix.

What’s the key to being an expressive player?
I think it’s three things. One is restraint. You can’t just dump notes everywhere. Make it a conversation. People who open their mouths and dump stuff are no fun to talk to (laughs), and it’s about the things you don’t say as much as what you do.

Number two is melody, which is extremely important. Is it pleasing to the ear? And it’s not about a certain scale, it’s the way the melody works over the chord changes. A huge part is knowing where to put notes over chords.

The third thing is where technique comes in – the physicality of the note; vibrato and how you bend. I could play three notes a hundred different ways, and I could play three notes with one string with semi-tone bends and a whole step and two-step bends. B.B. King was the Jedi. They just reissued Live at the Regal and it’s a master class of expression.

“Come To Me” will hit some brains like an ’80s hair-metal ballad – pretty acoustic intro, catchy chorus, big guitar solo…
I have ties to all music from the ’60s through now. The third floor of my house has all my recording equipment, guitars, amps, keyboards, and tape machines along with 500 vinyl records. Collecting vinyl is my pastime. I love listening to music.

Texadelphia custom-made this Paleo Tech model (left) for Perri with EL84s. It and this modded Marshall 1974x are the guitar amps most heard on Terra Firma. The Fulltone Tape Echo atop the Texadelphia was used on nearly every track.

“Another Life” also brings big guitar moments.
When I came back from the Poconos, there were four songs I wanted to finish as a band because I thought they’d benefit from collaborative input. I had the chorus, verses, and melodies, but we put it together as the four of us in a room. I spent more time on that solo than anything else on the record – I did at least 50 takes and made notes.

Moving from Sun Via to this record, I wanted to push myself to new ground, sonically and melodically, so I was tough on myself. If an artist puts their name on something, it’s their creation. So, as much as we do make it for other people to listen to and enjoy, I’m my toughest critic.

Which guitar and amp is on that solo?
That’s my Flying V, which I used on 80 percent of the record. It’s a 1981 Heritage Korina – a six-pound monster with bite, resonant and really inspiring. It was through my 18-watt Marshall 1974x with a healthy amount of analog delay.

You’ve tweaked that amp a bit…
Yes, I gave it a Celestion Ruby, which is a slightly beefier version of the Blue and gives it softer highs. I could crank it to 10 and it stayed really musical and pleasing to the ear. I also put really great tubes in it, which makes a huge difference – Mullards in the power section, a vintage Tesla in the rectifier, and Gold Lions in the preamp. They’re expensive, but you can skip a fancy overdrive pedal if you put great tubes in a good amp.

Was it the only amp you used?
I used two on the record, and that one did the heavy-lifting – it’s the sound of the record. Ninety-nine percent of the record is drive and saturation from the amps. I used fuzz on one song and a boost on one solo.

“Last Flame” opens with chill piano and closes with an acoustic guitar and more philosophy from Mark. How did it come together?
Before I was back living on the East Coast, I’d visit for Christmas, and I kept a little studio in my parents’ basement so I could work on ideas. Justin DiFebbo came over one day and started playing this beautiful chord progression on piano with those jazzy inversions that made it fresh.

There are a couple moments in the song that talk about the transcendence of love through time and space, which is so heavy to me – beautiful and emotional. And that instrumental bridge is where I wanted everyone in the band to push their own boundaries. I love the psychedelic hits, so I have to give a shout-out to Austin Asvanonda, who mixed the album. The solo section was already crazy, but he said, “I think we need to take it up another couple notches.” So we re-amped my solo tracks through a battery-powered Orange and used a set of headphones as a microphone to get a really gnarly distorted sound. Then we ran it through a bunch of outboard gear and gave it an enveloping sound, almost like I had a wah; there are three notes in the middle of the solo with that effect. Austin used his keyboard in Pro Tools and basically made a wah in code.

Speaking of psychedelic, the Fulltone Tape Echo gets a workout through the whole record.
The whole thing, man (laughs). It’s one of the MVPs along with the 1974x and Flying V. It’s special because I could use it as a splitter to send echo to my Texadelphia EL84 amp, which is similar to the Marshall but has a bit more of a Matchless/Vox AC15 quality. Because they were separated, I could really crank that one.

My favorite analog delay is my Maxon AD-999, which went to both amps. So it was like two delays rhythmically in time. With that technique, I was able to play a guitar part once. There are a couple moments where I doubled, but for the most part, we’re hearing one guitar that’s just so freaking big and wide. That’s why the record has such a deep, layered, lush feel but retains a liveliness. The core of the record is us playing live in the room to a tape machine.

Is there a song that has particularly grown on you?
“Sunset To Sunset” is really special. Again, that’s the Country and Western, and it’s really hard to go wrong with that guitar; it sounds like all of my favorite records. Put a really good mic near the 12th fret and that old-wood sound is right there. Sixty years of aging is the only way a guitar sounds that way.

Other amps that aided Perri’s Terra Firma tones included this ’89 Marshall JTM45 he ran through this ’60s Leslie 16 cab, this ’68 plexi 50-watt with tremolo, and this modern JTM45.

How did you find it?
I got it thanks to my good friend, Charlie Starr (VG, July ’21). We were fortunate enough to open a bunch of shows for Blackberry Smoke over the pandemic. I was in Charlie’s bus one day with Benji [Shanks], Paul [Jackson], and Charlie, telling guitar stories, when he pulled out a ’64 Country Western. I strummed a couple chords and I went, “I’m ruined!” Then, in the Poconos, I was flipping through Instagram one day and saw a post by my friend, Will, at Thunder Road Guitars, showing a ’59. I immediately called and said, “I want it.” The tuners had been changed to Grovers, which was great because the price was more in reach, and I got it in time to make the record.

I love acoustic guitar, even on songs you wouldn’t think have it, like “Waiting For You.” It adds to the groove, and especially the chorus of that song, just tucked in for texture under the drums.

Speaking of texture, keys are important to how these songs feel and sound.
I love how it all works together. All my favorite records have a balance of sounds. My ear wants to hear a variety of instruments, sounds, and dynamics, especially on a double album that runs 76 minutes.

Do artists these days expect us to listen to whole albums? We’re creating or being fed playlists.
Yeah, and I participate in it. I love Spotify and Apple Music as services. I won’t go into how they pay royalties, but the service is really convenient, even for a guy like me with vinyl everywhere.

However people digest Terra Firma, I’ll be grateful. If it’s one song at a time on a playlist, fine. If they listen to all four sides of the vinyl with headphones while smoking a joint, great. I can’t control that. I just know that it consumed three years of my life and I couldn’t say anything other than what I did at this moment. Album three will be a whole different thing.

Does it freak you out a bit that Silvertide was half your life ago?
I never thought about it, but it really does feel like a different lifetime, yet simultaneously like it was yesterday. I’m looking at two pictures from those days that I keep on the wall here. In one, I’m sitting with Johnny Winter, one of my all-time heroes, and the other shows me with my Firebird and Marshalls when we were opening for Van Halen’s reunion tour in 2004. It’s odd that I’m the same guy. The world around me is so different.

This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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