Q&A with Mark Nicks (a.k.a Cool Hand Luke)
“I mean, Christianity isn’t cool, and it never has been for long. Especially Christian music. There comes a point that you have to decide if you want to look clever or if you want to follow Jesus. Very few people can pull them both off.” -Mark Nicks (Cool Hand Luke)
Cool Hand Luke is a Nashville-based band variously classified as alternative rock, progressive pop, indie, and emo and signed to Lujo Records on March 16, 2008. How much of that is relevant to today’s version of Cool Hand Luke? Mark Nicks, the visionary and only remaining member, answers that question in this Blue Indian Q & A. On March 22, 2009, Mark Nicks (the front-man of the band) announced that he was working to complete what he plans to be the final album under the “Cool Hand Luke” name. Nicks reported that he has no projected release date for the album. He has mentioned that he is considering titling the last album “Of Man.” As a reader and a fan, you’d be interested in knowing that this last Cool Hand Luke record (which actually may not even be released under the CHL moniker) is one of the many projects this Tennessean, indie-God-fearing musical wizard is cooking in his pot of tasteful masterpieces. It was a pleasant experience working with Mark on this Q & A because of his hard-working wife, Brandy Nicks, who seems to take on the role as his PR person, among many other roles I’m sure. She made this process very smooth, as Mark is super busy with his handful of projects he seems to be simultaneously taking on. Of course, I asked him some personal, even difficult questions. As some sort of well-educated and highly-trained lawyer would respond, he does so with sophisticated elegance. If I suddenly decided to start rating Blue Indian interviews on a scale of 1-10 (1 being least), this would be a 15. Mark carefully considers each question posed and simply refuses to give the “safe” answer. His answers come form his heart, and most impressively, he and his responses are convincing.
Blue Indian: Mark, thanks for chatting with The Blue Indian. I told this to Aaron Weiss: you’re not big-time unless there’s a Wikipedia page about your band. I’m only kidding. Before we get personal in this interview, I do have a few more generalized questions. Originally a punk rock band, things quickly changed, in terms of sound, when you joined the band. Was this a natural thing, or did you basically say, “Guys, this sucks. I think we should go this direction.
Mark (Cool Hand Luke): I wasn’t as passionate about playing punk music as the other guys were, but I was the new guy so I kept my opinions to myself. The music actually changed rather naturally, and it didn’t take long either. We just realized that people were pushing each other around when we played instead of hearing us. We wanted people to actually listen to our music and what we were saying, and hopefully ask themselves some questions. We started writing music that served the purpose more appropriately. It was a really exciting thing to see it all changing and to feel like we were doing something new.
BI: Cool Hand Luke was kind of known for playing with their backs facing the crowd. Is it true that the label you were own at the time (Floodgate Records) made you turn around?
Mark: No, not at all. The decision was our own. It was due largely to the venues we played. Sometimes there was a drum riser and a lot of drum mics and all that kind of thing. It got to be a real headache for the sound guy because I actually set up with the drums in the front of the stage facing backwards and he would have to move mics and monitors all over the place. Sometimes the soundguys would get really bummed out at us, which is not what we were going for. Several sound engineers who we knew and trusted also told us it just never would sound very good setting up that way. We didn’t want playing backwards to be more important than people being able to hear and enjoy the music. In the early days we were playing crusty shows with no real p.a. and all that. As our music progressed and as the types of venues we played got more, um, real, we decided to set up more conventionally. Floodgate was always really cool about supporting who we were even though they didn’t necessarily get it all the time.
BI: Will you ever go back to playing drums for The Chariot? Or are those days over?
Mark: Those days are definitely over. I miss playing drums because I don’t get to play very often anymore. I would even play heavy music again, for fun. It just wasn’t the right fit for me. I went into it thinking it would be something I did when I wasn’t working on my own music, but it took a lot of my time and energy. My first tour with them was three months long. That’s a big commitment for music I wasn’t totally committed to.
BI: Cool Hand Luke went from having around 5-6 members, being signed Floodgate (a very prominent label during it operative years), and just blowing up on the indie rock scene to a colossal break-up resulting in one-remaining member: the versatile Mark Nicks. Can you tell us what happened?
Mark: Well, there were only ever three actual members at a time. The last couple of tours we did before the 2004 break-up consisted
of a fourth guy to augment the core group and cover some of the parts from the recordings that we couldn’t pull off with three guys. Basically, we just weren’t getting along. To be more specific, I wasn’t getting along with the other two guys. I think it was largely my fault because I was the anal visionary bossing everyone around. It’s hard to say, though. We were all growing up and changing a lot. Our interests were changing, and everyone’s devotion to the band was on different levels. Mine was through the roof. Sometimes the band eclipsed the people in the band, and that’s never good. A big part of it, too, is that we had just toured for a really long time with no real break. We didn’t have time to just live a normal life, and that really messes with your head. We couldn’t just be friends because we were in each other’s face all the time. After that break-up, I got some other guys to play with and resurrect Cool Hand Luke, and basically the same thing happened all over again. Different people and different circumstances, but it ended up in a very similar way. I regret a lot of things that I did and said over the course of playing in Cool Hand Luke, but I really think I’ve left that behind and learned a lot from it.
BI: What is Cool Hand Luke today? What does the future look like?
Mark: I’ve asked that same question a lot. Today, Cool Hand Luke is just my piano and me. I’ve been playing solo a lot this year. I’ve been playing mostly Cool Hand Luke songs, but it’s way different since they were written for a rock band. Some of the songs didn’t even have piano originally. There is some talk about the three original members reuniting to do some shows, but we’ll see. We’re all grown-ups with grown-up responsibilities and we don’t live in the same city anymore. Things get so much more complicated when you’re older. I’ve got to find some nineteen-year-olds to play with. As for the future, I know that I want to keep writing, recording, and playing. I have a few different things cooking right now, and I’m waiting to see which one gets done first. I’m going to record a live ep sort of thing. I’m recording a few songs in Nashville for who-knows-what. And I’m working on a concept record called “Of Man” in Atlanta. That’s going to take some time. It’s a big, epic undertaking that I feel very passionately about and very intimidated by. I hope to stay busy with music when I’m not working my day job.
BI: Mark, deep down, do you have a yearning for the original Cool Hand Luke to reunite?
Mark: Yes and no. I think in everything I’ve done since the original line-up broke up, I’ve been trying to recreate the way it used to feel somehow. It never has worked. I think that place doesn’t exist anymore. If Brandon and Jason and I play together, it won’t be like a bunch of college kids who are best friends. So much has changed and the thing I was trying to get back to isn’t there anymore. I just saw Sunny Day in Atlanta last week. It was amazing seeing that band play those old songs and feeling things I haven’t felt since high school. I was seeing old friends from high school and college who are fat moms and dads now. There was something really magical about it, but something really depressing at the same time. We are the old people now. I don’t know that anyone would care or remember if Cool Hand Luke reunited. All those kids that used to come to our shows are parents who don’t go to shows now. I’m scared it may be a let down. But on the other hand, it could be amazing. It would have to be something that we did just because we really wanted to do it one last time. No expectations. I’m very content with the music I’m writing and the shows I’m getting to play. I miss the old days, but they are the old days. I’ll take it if it comes, but I think I’ll be okay if doesn’t.
BI: You’re an artist who claims to be a Christian, so I’m assuming you believe Jesus Christ is the only way to Heaven? What does that mean? And if so, does this mean the Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, and so on are in the wrong? How can you be sure of this?
Mark: I do believe that Jesus is the only way to Heaven because I believe the words of Jesus. He said I am the way the truth and the life (John 14:6). Christianity is offensive because it claims exclusivity. Jesus claims exclusivity. It would be nice to say things about goodwill toward men and just being good people. But the fact of the matter is that none of us are good except by our own standards. We’ve all lied and hurt people and thought horrible things in our minds. And we do this to the people we love. Our friends, our children, our parents. If we can’t even keep from hurting the people we love, how do we think we’re going to get to Heaven based on the merit of being “good”? We need a Savior. I know with all that is in me that that is who Jesus is for us if we only believe. I didn’t choose the way the gospel works, but I do believe it is the truth. My belief in Christ has nothing to do with the way I feel about people who aren’t Christians except that hopefully it gives me even more compassion for them. If you’re asking for some formula, some apologetic proof, I have none for you. Just as a Buddhist does not. Just as a Muslim does not. (Technically Mormons are Christians, but that’s a whole different discussion.) That is faith, isn’t it? Believing beyond proof. I know Jesus is who he said he is because his words ring true and I have experienced him. I have no more peace than when I am living my best to be like him. As I get older, it gets increasingly harder to live like he did because I start to see how far from that I am. It used to be about the things I did: going to church, reading the Bible, not doing drugs, etc. Now it is about my heart and how the condition of my heart affects my actions. Why do I or do I not rip music online? Why do I or do I not give money to a homeless man downtown? The more I know Jesus, the more I want to be like him, and the more I see I am not much like him at all. But can I prove that to you or anyone else? No, I cannot. I will only sound like a fool. I’m at peace with that because to most people, Jesus did, too.
BI: What are your thoughts on David Bazan (formerly lead singer for Pedro the Lion) walking away form his faith? Have you ever considered walking away? Giving up?
Mark: I don’t know the man personally, so I really have no place to say. I have seen him play a few times and most recently, I left pretty bummed out. My thoughts on David Bazan are that he started caring a whole lot about what people think of him. Specifically, he started caring a lot about what people who aren’t Christians think of him. I mean, Christianity isn’t cool, and it never has been for long. Especially Christian music. There comes a point that you have to decide if you want to look clever or if you want to follow Jesus. Very few people can pull them both off. In an epistle called I Corinthians, the apostle Paul breaks down the way the gospel appears to people who don’t believe it. It’s in the first chapter, starting in verse 18. He starts by saying, “The message of the cross if foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God”. From there he goes on to say that God knows the message of the cross is foolishness and it was his idea. It says he delights in the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. In other words, we have to make a decision whether we want to appear wise and scholarly or if we want to believe the truth. When I was in college at a secular school, I took a lot of philosophy classes. I was not respected for my faith in those classes. Not even the classes on Christ
ianity. Aside from all the negative connotations that Christians are bigots, hypocrites, right-wing Republicans, etc, I wasn’t respected for believing in an absolute truth. I was taught about what God “really is” and where the “myths” came from. It really messed with my head. The pinnacle of my questioning Christianity hit on the one day that even atheists were praying, September 11, 2001. I was scared out of my mind. I couldn’t even pray because I remember thinking, “What if there is a God, but he’s angry at me because I’m praying to the wrong God.” I felt like a huge hypocrite. Here I was the guy in the Christian band who talks about Jesus in bars, and I wasn’t sure if I believed it. So, how did I get through it? I prayed anyway. I kept asking God if he was real and if Jesus was who he claimed he was. I Corinthians bought me a lot of peace in that time because God is basically saying that it doesn’t take him by surprise that the gospel seems stupid to intellectuals. I think that tension will always be there. Otherwise, it’s just another fact to take for granted. That’s what makes this whole thing so exciting. A new fact doesn’t change God. We can change what we believe, but it doesn’t change the truth.
BI: Are you the type that would spend time praying for him [David Bazan] to return to his Christian beliefs? Or do you consider his spiritual well-being none of your business?
Mark: I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m the type of person who will think about his issues and read the gossip about them but never even think to pray for him. The truth is, I don’t know the man and he seems to change his story a lot, so I can’t really make a fair assessment based on that. I don’t know his heart, so the best thing for me to do would be to shut up and pray for him. But I think his well-being is my business as much as he is a human being and I should want the best for any human being.
BI: Unlike most Christian artists today, I feel like Cool Hand Luke’s music can be enjoyed by Christians, Muslims, Atheists, etc.(You get the point) Is this what you want?
Mark: I’m not sure many people would agree with you on that, but yes, that’s what I would want. Because I’m not cryptic about my faith, most of the people who listen to our music are Christians and we end up getting booked at Christian venues more than general market venues. But we’ve always taken the music seriously and hoped to make good art that would hold up because it was good and not just because we were singing about something that a large part of our audience believes in. Every musician wants to be heard and wants to be respected. If they say otherwise, they aren’t being honest. But it’s also very important to me that I write about what is true and give people something more than just entertainment, and I believe that is the gospel. I have never intended to alienate anyone who doesn’t believe what I do. But if gaining a wider audience comes at the expense of watering down what I write about or changing our music to be more formulaic and poppy, we’ll keep the small audience. Because of that, we fall into this weird space where we are too Christian for the general market and too weird for the Christian market. So we just play our songs for whoever cares whether they are Christians or not.
[Leaving the personal stuff]
BI: Fair enough. But, CHL’s stuff can be enjoyed by non-Christians because it’s good music. I’ve talked to some Cool Hand Luke fans before writing up this Q & A, and many of them are hoping Cool Hand Luke returns to the format of you on drums doing lead vocals. Your thoughts?
Mark: I think that would be a blast. I hope that can happen. If there is a reunion, you can bet on it. If it’s just me flying solo, that could get a bit weird.
BI: [Laughs] Cool Hand Luke has had a major influence on a Knoxville-based band, Standing Small. What’s your opinion on those guys? Any advice for them?
Mark: They need to finish their record.
BI: Yes, they do. Let’s talk about Cool Hand Luke’s new record. Any surprise appearances on the record?
Mark: I won’t say too much about it yet. Several different people have already played on it, and several more are planned to. I want it to be something that lots of my friends play on. If it takes me too long to finish it, I may not put it out as Cool Hand Luke.
BI: Are you going to release it on Lujo Records? Any desire to shop it around to major labels?
Mark: No and no.
BI: What are you most excited about with the new record?
Mark: I’m excited to have freedom to do whatever I feel like I’m supposed to do without someone on my shoulder telling me it needs to be shorter or have more choruses or sound more pop. I’m just going to let this breathe and tell the story it’s meant to tell. I feel like it’s possibly the most important musical endeavor I’ve taken on.
BI: Will you send it to us before it releases for a Blue Indian review?
Mark: Most definitely.
BI: Anything else you want to tell your fans? Upcoming tours, etc?
Mark: Don’t forget about little old me. I’ve been quiet, but I’ve been busy. I have some shows coming up this winter, I hope to play a lot of shows next year and put out a ton of new songs.
BI: Mark, thanks man. We’re fans here. We wish you continued success.
Mark: Thank you!! And congrats!!!!
Friday, October 23 @ 7:00 PM / The Core Venue, Houston, TX
Saturday, October 24 @ 7:00 PM / Live@Mokah, Dallas, TX
Saturday, December 12 @ 7:00 PM / w/ DEREK WEBB & MATTHEW MAYFIELD / Rocketown, Nashville, TN
The following video of Mark Nicks performing “The Mirror” was shot and edited by Thomas Irby. Kirby and Nicks are currently working on a documentary about Cool Hand Luke.