Graduating from hometown gigs to real-deal touring is no small feat, and few young Santa Barbarans know that better than Kyle Nicolaides. The 22-year-old S.B. native has been plugging away in and around town since his high school days, when he fronted bands like The Rockabyes, The Cosmic Revelators, and The Martyrs. Over the course of those years, Nicolaides could be found regularly playing at venues like Muddy Waters Café and Jensen’s Mainstage, sometimes with a band, sometimes solo. Among S.B.’s music makers, he quickly made a name for himself as the little guy with the big voice and the dizzying guitar chops, a curious mix of humble banter and sonic swagger. Still, it wasn’t until a 2009 move to Los Angeles that things really started to take off for Nicolaides. There, as a student at USC, the 21-year-old formed Beware of Darkness alongside bandmates Tony Cupito and Daniel Curcio. Not long after solidifying the lineup, Nicolaides was signing his first record deal with the L.A.-based label Bright Antenna and opening up shows for punk rock legends Social Distortion and internationally acclaimed indie act The Wombats.
In the coming months, Beware of Darkness will unleash Orthodox, a rip-roaring and Zeppelin-channeling debut that showcases Nicolaides’s long-standing penchant for bluesy riffs and howling vocals, as well as his knack for penning somber lyrics that cut straight to the core. In anticipation of the band’s set at this week’s KJEE Winter Round-Up, we caught up with Nicolaides to talk about the band, the album, and how Santa Barbara planted the seed for this young songwriter’s bright musical future.
Tell me a bit about your first band. I was 14 or 15, a sophomore in high school, and the band was a three-piece called The Rockabyes. We played our first show at Muddy Waters [Café], and it was like two hours long. We must have played a 22-song set. I had this huge stack of Marshall amps, and I was standing directly in front of it — it was so loud I couldn’t hear a thing.
At that age, what kind of music were you listening to? What kind of music did you want to play? You know, I didn’t really think about it. I just did it. I was really into The White Stripes and Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. For me, it was all about the songwriting. I had a microphone and a ProTools setup, and every day after school I would just go and record. I had a drum kit and a piano and a bass amp and a guitar amp. I poured myself into that every day for six or seven years. The songs and the style were all over the place, but it was experimentation.
How did Santa Barbara fit into your musical upbringing? It’s where I started. I feel like when I moved to L.A., I knew enough about being in bands to kind of hold my own a little bit. Santa Barbara is the perfect size, and the community is all nice enough that I feel like you can actually start a scene and have your band be successful. It was the greatest place to experiment and grow and learn. Muddy Waters and Jensen’s were like second homes to me. I used to go to the Muddy Waters open mike every week. The summer of junior year [of high school], I’d go there every night and just hang out and see new music. Jensen’s was the same way; it was a place that people gathered together and could see young local musicians. For me back then it was all about just being in a band and playing music. There was no thought about trying to succeed.
How did Los Angeles fit into the picture? Well, I came down here in 2009 to go to school at USC. Musically, when I first moved I would always go to Amoeba [Music]. They have so many used CDs, and you can just take a chance on these two- or three-dollar albums. That was huge just because I’d never seen anything like that. It opened my eyes up a lot. I got into so much music just by going in there. I also started writing lyrics all the time, and those became really important to me. I took a couple of poetry classes, and my focus kind of shifted. I started really asking myself what kind of music I wanted to make.
What do you tell kids who are trying to get a record deal? How did it happen for you? I have no idea! It’s all chance and fate. My phone rang one day, and this manager guy is calling to tell me that someone gave him my music, and he heard and liked it. We met up, and he started to manage me, and he invited some people from Bright Antenna to a showcase I was playing, and it just happened.
Can you tell me a bit about the album? I think this is the first thing I’ve made that I felt like I needed to release for personal reasons. I feel like it’s the first complete thing I’ve done. In high school we released EPs and all, but we were such dorks back then; we’d record whole albums, make five copies, and just give them to friends. No one ever thought, “Oh, we should do something with this.” But I’m really proud of this record, and I really love every song. I think the color spectrum is a lot bigger. There’s a variety of songs on it, but there’s common themes that run through the whole album.
What are the themes? The album’s called Orthodox. I got really into etymology, and reading into it that way “orthodox” means right or true belief. The lyrics touch on things like innocence versus awareness and finding some kind of truth. There’s a lot of death stuff, too. It’s an album about self-discovery and being young and understanding how the world works and how things run. There are songs that are really gnarly and big and rock and have really blunt lyrics, but they follow after a song that’s really tender and emotional. I wanted to show two sides and two faces. My favorite song on the record is called “Morning Tea,” and it’s based off of [Albert Camus’s] The Stranger. It’s a ballad, and it’s really emotional and desperate, and the first line of the song is “I think my mother died today.” Then there’s another song on the record called “Heart Attack,” and it’s a complete rock song, and the first line is, “Come on, like anybody cares your mother died.” I wanted to play both sides, and I think we do it well.
What happens next? The album comes out in February or March, and we’ll be touring. I want to be able to headline venues with this record, and I think we can do that. As far as the big picture, I just want people to hear [the record]. I want to get it out there because I’ve been working on it for so long and discussing it so much. It doesn’t matter what the old A&R people I’m working with think about it; it matters what people my age think about it.
Beware of Darkness plays KJEE’s Winter Round-Up with Metric, Tegan and Sara, and Youngblood Hawke this Monday, December 10, 7 p.m., at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). For tickets, call (805) 963-4408 or visit thearlingtontheatre.com. For more on the band, visit bewareofdarknessmusic.com.