Houstonian Tales: Nick Gaitan
Nick Gaitan. Photo: Edna J Photography
You don’t have to live in Houston long without seeing, hearing, or catching something that’s touched by the Gulf Coast vibe that emanates throughout this city. No matter what era you’ve lived in, there’s been musicians who offered up their own take on what they define as the “Gulf Coast Sound.” One guy who’s made one of the biggest marks on that sound, as we define it today, is Houston’s Nick Gaitan. The multi-instrumentalist has done everything from participating in the original lineup of Los Skarnales to playing upright bass for country legend Billy Joe Shaver. Gaitan lives 100% off of music, he’s the go-to guy for artists who need a solid session player, and his Nick Gaitan & the Umbrella Man project is one of the most unique mixes of Tejano, country, Conjunto, and Gulf Coast soul you’ve ever heard. Free Press Houston was more than thrilled to get the chance to sit down with Gaitan and chat with him about where he’s been and where he’s planning on going to next.
Free Press Houston: You’re from Houston, what side of Houston are you from?
Nick Gaitan: Yeah, the Southeast side in Pecan Park. I went to Milby High School.
FPH: How long have you been playing music now?
Gaitan: I’ve been playing guitar since I was fourteen, but Los Skarnales was the first band I played with that was about playing out at clubs rather than just screwing around in our garages, and that was in 1999. You know, five bands came outta’ that Skarnales lineup with The Umbrella Man, The Pistoleros, Ryan Scroggins & the Trenchtown Texans, the new lineup that would become the bulk of The Suffers, and The Bandulus.
FPH: The upright bass is such an expensive instrument to purchase, how did you get into playing it and how many of them do you have?
Gaitan: Well, I have two of them now, but I’ve had as many as three at one time. I got into the upright when I was 19 and I had no money and no credit, and at the time I was listening to a lot of Charles Mingus and rockabilly. Me and a friend had gone to a guitar shop, and I had always just loved the sound of an upright bass. I mean, the basses have a different sound, everyone of them and they’re like different personalities. Ebony fingerboards versus painted on fingerboards, different woods, they’re all different in their own ways. My first bass was a bright and shiny new Chinese made upright that was expensive and cheaply made. I mean, you could get water on that one and it would fall apart. My second bass was a beat up old Kay that I think was stolen from a Texas City high school. The early Kays were made in Chicago before they changed their name to Engelhardt. I’ve always heard that them being stolen from high schools is really common, but this one had a rod holding the broken neck together, and like any Kay, it was tough and looked like it. I’ve always liked a Kay, Willie Dixon played one. I drove home with its neck hanging out of the window of my 1981 Trans Am because the seats didn’t recline. My first bass was $900 and terrible and that Kay was $600 and great.
FPH: You have a work ethic that’s pretty inspiring to see. Living 100 percent off of music, is there a job that you won’t do?
Gaitan: There was a time there where I was just gigging, but I’ve done session work, taught at Houston Community College, and I’ve even made buttons for bands. I’d rather be playing live but as long as it’s tied to music and I’m happy with it, I’ll do it. There were a lot of times where I’d be teaching at HCC and think, “I could be making more out there playing.” I mean, there were times back years ago when I’d come off of tour and buy two button makers so I could make more buttons. I’m always working which it’s nice to always have work doing what you love.
FPH: You play(ed) for years with Billy Joe Shaver, how did that come about and how long were you his bassist?
Gaitan: I was with him for seven years total. It’s a crazy story on how I got the job. There was a time when I was doing the gig at HCC, the bar at Continental Club, working at Sig’s Lagoon, and while playing with Umbrella Man, The Octanes, and Pistolero’s back when I lived above Continental. There was a guy named Brad Turcotte who was working with a label for a country pop artist, and he wanted to form a band around her for an artist launch. He found me through Thomas Escalante of Sig’s. And at the time I didn’t have an electric bass which was what they wanted for her sound. I borrowed one from Ryan Scroggins, learned the songs, and then met the band to rehearse before playing the gig. Keeping in mind, we didn’t know each other, so when Brad asked if we knew the songs, and he realized that I knew them best; he fired the other guys and had me choose the band to play with instead. I grabbed Kelly Doyle on guitar, we rehearse without a drummer, and I convinced the country singer to let me play upright bass on one of the three songs we’re gonna play. So, we do the songs in front of everyone including Matthew Knowles over at House of Dereon, we shake hands, and get paid. That was pretty much it and we parted ways after. So, about six months later, I get a call around 2 am from Brad about becoming Billy Joe Shaver’s bassist.
I remember looking him up to see what he’d been up to and I found that pic of him in the orange jail jumpsuit. So, to get the gig, I had to learn all of his songs from his current live set, and get to Billy’s house in Waco so we could take the tour bus to North Carolina. I didn’t have a car at the time, and I had to be there the next day, and I remember telling this to Brad, to which he replied, “you aren’t my problem Nick, the old man is.” Because I saw how fast they fired those other guys before, I hit up my sister who drove me up in the rain with all my gear wrapped in plastic in the back of her pickup truck. The whole meeting him was crazy. He answered his door with this pit bull at his side, and when I came in he was still packing, and he had a stack of those denim shirts he wears to put in a suitcase. And, we took the Prevost tour bus to North Carolina to start what would be a seven year total gig. He let me go for three years, but then we got back together and did another run together. The time between the first and the second time, I did a lot like put out a solo record which opened a lot of doors for me.
FPH: Last year you performed alongside BJS and Willie Nelson at the Late Show while Letterman was still hosting. Was it surreal to be on that stage playing with those two?
Gaitan: It was surreal. I mean, you’re on that legendary Ed Sullivan stage with the fact that so many greats have stood on that stage. I’d played with both Willie and Billy before, but just being in such a legendary spot, playing up in NYC, all of it at one time was just crazy. You know, the rehearsals for the show are super early in the morning, and I remember that we got there later than the crew was used to because’ we woke up late and I had to get everyone together to get up there. Everyone involved with the show is super nice, all of the crew, Paul Schaeffer who we got to meet as well as the band, and we met Letterman very briefly too. It was really cool.
FPH: You’ve stood on stage with so many greats, is there someone you could’ve played with that you wished you had?
Gaitan: No, there’s no one I could’ve played with that I didn’t play with. Appreciating a good opening slot goes a long way. We opened for Flaco Jimenez back while Oscars Tellez was still alive, we opened for Lee Fields, The Blazers. The best part of those gigs is that you learn a lot about an artists when you open for them. We opened for Garland Jeffries and walked away really impressed with him as an artist afterwards. If there’s anyone who I could one day get to, Billy Bragg would be at the top of my list for sure.
FPH: You’re the go to guy for so many musicians and bands out there today, did you ever see yourself as the guy that so many people look to when needed?
Gaitan: I never thought it would happen where I’d get the chance to work with so many different artists. We’re all going for the same goal, and there’s enough out there for us all if we work together. I take it as it comes and I enjoy getting the calls to join someone in the studio or on stage. It’s been cool because I’ve gotten to work with so many different people that I wouldn’t have normally gotten the chance to, just because of different schedules alone.
FPH: For those who don’t know, can you explain what an umbrella man is?
Gaitan: The reference comes from a song my grandfather used to sing to us. There was a song called The Umbrella Man that was written in 1935 that a friend of mine found on a record we got in a thrift store. It gets interpreted a bunch of different ways, the most common is the guy who can do anything…the guy who has all of the jobs.
FPH: Your current project, Nick Gaitan and the Umbrella Man is one of the most legit and forward mixtures of Gulf Coast, Country, and Tejano music. How do you guys go about working out a set list, and when will the public get a new album from you guys?
Gaitan: We work a set based off of how long we’re gonna’ play for and where we’re playing. The bulk of the set is originals, but we try to mix in some standards as well. As far as a new album, I need some more for a full length, but we currently have enough for a 5 song EP. These new songs are different where it’s closer to some doo wop, and some ska, and we even have a new Tejano tune.
FPH: With all of the playing with other artists, do you have a five year plan or is it just head down and keep working?
Gaitan: I’m always working. As far as a five year plan, I need to release a new album but I also want to put out a documentary on my music past and my music family. I’ve been working on archiving material for it including music for it as well. Hopefully when it’s done we can have the premiere on exhibit somewhere where all of the players in it can attend.
There’s a lot you can learn from a guy who stays as humble as Gaitan. Aside from his work with Billy Joe Shaver, Nick Gaitan & the Umbrella Man have had a lot of landmarks. With appearances on PBS Chicago, NPR, and the PBS Skyline series here in Houston, it’s not hard to find Gaitan’s handywork. Through his Nick Gaitan’s Tune Parlour show series at D&W Lounge and at various other spots around Houston, you can find Gaitan putting on an eclectic mix of artists, proving that his musical family will always continue to grow, You can catch Nick Gaitan & the Umbrella Man on October 29th at the Third Annual Dia De Los Muertos Block Party in the day. The all ages event that runs from noon to 7p is 100% FREE at Don Carlos Mexican Restaurant on 76th Street. Or you can catch him on the evening of October 29th at the Old Moon Festival at D&W Lounge, or you can venture down to Seabrook to catch Nick Gaitan & the Umbrella Man on November 5th at the Celebration Seabrook festival. The all ages event with doors at 11 am runs all day and has tickets between $15 and $50.