Photo by Chris Carter

Sacramento band The Nickel Slots finds the rhythm once again

“When you’re in a band, you never ever finish paying your dues. If you ever think that you’re done paying your dues, that’s when nobody shows up to your next show. I promise you. Or your show gets canceled. You never get done and if you think you’re going to get done, then you should just quit because it’s not about getting there, it’s about the ride, man.”

Tony Brusca’s words rang loud and firm across the table we sat at that was upstairs inside The Powerhouse Pub in Folsom. I met him and the rest of The Nickel Slots there before their opening performance that evening, a weekly show that ex-KWOD 106.5 DJ Andy Hawk hosts every Wednesday.

It might have seemed like just another show, one in the long history of all four of these seasoned musicians who are now in their 30s, but it wasn’t. To them it was just as exciting as all the shows that had come before, and maybe even more exciting considering the band has a debut CD that is days away from arriving at their doorsteps. What will follow in the coming months will be a CD release at Old Ironsides, continued airplay on 98 Rock’s Local Licks segment and the planning of shows that will start in Sacramento and eventually carry them beyond.
“We’re going to try and build it more in Sacramento and spread it outward and when we have something really good going here, then it’s time to venture out slowly,” says bassist and mandolin player Paul Zinn.

What The Nickel Slots have built thus far is impressive by any standards. The band has been around since January 2008 but wasn’t complete until guitarist Steve Amaral joined in October. After he played a handful of shows with the band, it was a perfect fit, and the quartet quickly hopped into the studio in February 2009 to record a 13-song album at Sacramento’s Pus Cavern Studio. Amaral, a polished guitarist who has played in such local favorites as Popgun and Red Star Memorial, stepped into Pus Cavern and recorded his leads, some of which were actually created in the studio during their sessions.

“These guys had the songs ready to go, which made it easy for me,” Amaral recalled. “I just had to put my twist on my leads and do my thing.”

“Once we got in there, if something needed to be tweaked or we thought, ‘Hey, we’ve never thought about this before. Let’s try it!'” Zinn added. “You’re in the studio; you have to take the chance. It’s worth taking the chance.”

“When it worked I did it, and we came out with something that we’re really proud of,” Amaral concluded.

And proud of it they should be. Their self-titled debut is a well-crafted slice of good ol’ fashioned alt-country Americana that shines through in their recording. All the tracks are masterfully mixed, especially the drums that are notoriously difficult to get just right in the studio. Drummer Chris Amaral, who is the brother of guitarist Steve, was very particular about what kind of sound he wanted for the drums.

“Joe Johnston at Pus Cavern was totally able to capture the sound I wanted. I can’t believe how good the drums turned out,” he said.

A good sound engineer is essential, but the musicianship of these four guys is what really makes the songs come to life. The record takes us on a journey through so many different styles, touching on slow folk-y ballads like “A Life So Unpredictable,” which features Zinn on mandolin, all the way to up-tempo songs like “Lucky Number 7” that really shows off each of the band members’ talents. KWOD took notice of this track and spun it on Sounds of Sac for a good six weeks before the station got the axe; that exposure helped spread the word and get the music out to broader audience.

Most of the songs were written by Brusca, who cut his teeth singing and playing guitar for local legends The Brodys. And although The Nickel Slots are a departure from that power pop sound, you can still hear a little Brodys in there if you listen closely. The songs are fun; and lyrically, Brusca has put a lot of work into their content. There are real life stories and lessons that are woven into his lyrics; words that could only come from a guy who’s been around the block a few times. Those trips around the block have brought him to where he is now, and it’s a good place for him and for rest of the band too. It was evident from the get-go. When Brusca brought the first couple tracks to the table, some of which he had written many years before, the band saddled up immediately and the songs took off running. It was, “without getting cosmic,” an alignment of the planets.

“When you get that magic, sometimes it comes easier than other times, and when you get the right people and the right songs and the right time, it’s like boom! It just happens and it’s frickin’ nice,” Brusca said.

The passion these fellas still have is refreshing. After years of playing in bands, girlfriends and wives becoming part of their lives and their day jobs becoming careers, you’d think they’d be slowing down a bit. But if all the pieces still fit, and the albums are still good, and if you look over at your fellow band mate on stage and smile, then why would you stop?

“We’ve all learned a lot about how to be in a band and what mistakes to not make. Not that we’re perfect and not that we’re not going to make some mistakes, but we’ve learned a lot and we brought that to the table,” Brusca said.

That’s what I’ve always loved about Sacramento. We produce musicians with sonic love affairs that last a lifetime. It’s a great feeling to know that we can count on quality music in this town for many years to come as long as guys like The Nickel Slots keep paying their dues.