"People have been getting my name wrong all my life," laughs Nik Bruzzese; explaining why his solo venture, Casa Loma, isn't self-titled. But this project is so far removed from the carefree and sarcastic guy we've come to know as the singer in Man Overboard that if it had been named "Nik Bruzzese" then the music which followed would be unrecognisable from the man you thought you knew.
"I'm totally the opposite of what the EP is like. I'm not a very sad person or wear my heart on my sleeve. I'm a super laid back, funny, guy," he admits.
But, Casa Loma is largely the product of tragedy and the songs are the process of grieving and a reflection of Nik's own mortality. It makes the EP 'This Is Coping' a necessary exercise; one which is understandably deeply personal and distinctively different to anything Nik has ever done before.
The name "Casa Loma", therefore, is a fitting title when a quick Google search brings up the most haunted mansion in Toronto and also a town in California with a life expectancy of 103 too. "It involved so much death and horror but at the same time involved so much life and longevity and I was like, 'fuck, that's kind of perfect for me'," he explains.
The project started around February / March last year following the death of a close friend at New Year then also the passing of Tim Landers the following month. Both untimely and unexpected, the shock of both tragic deaths hit Nik hard. There was, as expected, the immediate heartache but the challenge of how to channel the grief long term resulted in these songs being written.
"I didn't go into the studio with the plan of releasing anything," he concedes. "I did it out of pure sanity and me trying to figure out how to express my feelings for being a parent, a husband, a business owner, being a band member for Man Overboard.
"I'm at the point now where so much shit has happened, it's never been that much and I've never been in the position that I'm in - being a father and dealing with tragedy in such a big way."
It was at that point that Nik wanted to use his "gift" for songwriting in an attempt to work through his feelings. The product, 'This Is Coping' is six tracks filled with longing, painful memories, poignant reflections but also the scope to see the whole of the human life cycle which does allow just the slightest glimmer of optimism too.
The process for writing songs for the friends he lost also opened Nik up to facing up to more long-standing grief and his position within his own timeline.
"When Man Overboard was more of a super active band, out of everybody, I had the most loss. My dad passed while I was on tour, and I was flying home and going on tour back and forth while he was sick. And after he passed, I jumped right back on the road with Man Overboard, and there are things there that I never really looked in the face also.
"The older you get, and I have kids now, you start thinking about all these things where tragedy happened to me, but at the same time, I'm raising two beautiful children. I look at them and think, fuck, one day you're going to feel the pain that I felt when my dad passed. What the fuck can I do for them? What positivity can I give to them to make it easier? I have this gift of writing songs, so maybe I will write them a song.
"That's the other side of the EP; it's not all just tragedy."
And that's the secret to the EP. 'This Is Coping', on the surface, could be about coping with loss and grief but really its about coping with life. The EP is about that fragile balance between life and death but also that both can happen simultaneously.
For Nik (not exclusively, but specifically), the losses were devastating, but they also reinforced how lucky he felt for the things he had gained in recent years with his family and his young daughters in particular. It changed his entire outlook on his life.
"I'm a day at a time guy because of all the things that have happened. Even with this pandemic, it's the same wake up call the world is getting that I had a year ago where I felt I lost everything. It's obviously not the same, but it puts you in the mindset of tomorrow who knows what the fuck could happen. The more I wake up every day and put myself in that mindset (which is easier said than done and sounds cliche but it's true), and if I wake up and go, who the fuck knows what's going to happen tomorrow, I've got to live it to the fullest today - then I think your life will change."
In that is the upside to Casa Loma and why this project is more than just an exercise for Nik's grief. Both songs, 'DP23' and 'Famaglia' feel intrusive with how deeply personal they are but, in context with the entire EP, they become part of a whole, comforting, perspective on life.
The turning point in the EP was once he was persuaded to include 'Olivia, Marley, and the Duck Pond'. The track, a soothing and dreamy ode to his daughters and their family home, is his gift to them for when he is not around anymore.
The track, unlike anything else on 'This Is Coping', started a few years ago "as a melody which I would hum and rock the kids to sleep with" he explains. Since then, it's been Nik's challenge to turn the melody into a song which could rival his daughters love for Frozen and Moana tunes.
Proudly, he details, "I kept listening to Moana, and I was like, I need to write a song with that hook so that she sings it on the way to dance class or my mother-in-law's. Her singing it back and being pumped was like, hell yeah, that actually worked."
He continues, "It's the most important song I could ever write. I was even talking to Wayne [Wildrick] from Man Overboard, and I was like, dude, I feel like we toured our whole lives and did the band thing, the record cycles, the time away from home and it all leads up to me writing this fucking song."
Nik refers to it as his "letter in the desk moment"; that moment where after he is gone there is still something from him for his family to hold on to. "For me, it was the most important thing I could do," he smiles.
The eventual inclusion of the track shifts the weight of the EP and opens it up from the viewpoint of those who remain when we die, but to what remains we leave when we die.
It would be easy to shy away from how strikingly intimate and painfully honest these songs are, but it's important to remember that they were not written with the plan for them to become "Casa Loma" in mind. In fact, the tracks were made almost in secret at his studio (The Lumberyard) in New Jersey. Not even Ace Enders [The Early November] with whom he shares the studio knew he was working on new music.
It was only have showing Ace some demos did the EP begin to take shape. Ace added bass to two tracks while Nate Sander was enlisted to add piano and horns as the songs morphed from a therapy project to something ready to release.
Despite having his studio at his disposal, Nik's view on how the tracks should sound was not at the forefront of his mind as he states "there was very little "go back and do it again" moments on this record."
Sonically, it is, of course, a long way from anything Nik has put his name to before with Man Overboard as Casa Loma takes inspiration from Andy Shauf and Foxwarren in particular but also references Death Cab for Cutie and ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. But, when it came to crafting that sound, he was far from precious over the outcome.
"There was no typical phase of "let's tweak the guitar tone or do this" because I didn't give a shit. Which is crazy to say because it's from my studio and this is what I do for a living, but I didn't want to suck any life out of it, but I didn't expect to get to this point.
"To be honest, I did hit a point where it was going to come out, and it's all getting done, and I started to mix it, and I was like, Denny's parents are going to listen to this. Tim's dad is going to listen to this, so does it sound good? Is it good? So, I got there too, but I thought, fuck it, it's fine. Don't overthink it.
"But a big part of it was I don't care what it sounds like, the vibe is there, and that's the most important part for this record."
Having turned it from an exercise of how to deal with loss into something ready to be released, Nik is keen to stress that the last thing he wants from people hearing this EP is sympathy. Instead, "I'm just looking for somebody to listen to it where you think about your own shit and try and figure out your own problems," he justifies.
In order to do that, Nik is even contemplating taking Casa Loma out into a live setting when it's possible again.
"Do I really want to go out and sing these songs every fucking night? Definitely not. But do I want to put it out and have people feel a little better? Totally. And if that means play a couple of shows then I definitely will," he reasons.
For Casa Loma, the future isn't certain or promised. What was a necessary way of processing a lot of very sudden and overwhelming feelings is now a beautiful tribute to life so, in many ways, the opportunities are endless. Nik confirmed that there are more songs which have been written and are waiting to be recorded but, for now, it's just one day at a time.
Taken from the July issue of Upset. Casa Loma's EP 'This is Coping' is out now.
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