Stratocruiser teaches ‘ABC’s of ’70s cool’

by Jordan Green

“So we’re sitting right in front of the women’s restroom at the Nussbaum Center,” says Clay Howard, vocalist for the North Carolina power-pop group Stratocruiser. “How’s that for a setting?” Howard serves as associate development and facilities manager at the business incubator housed in the old Revolution Mill, a brickwork monument to early 20th century industrial grandeur. It’s a job that requires marketing the complex’s various business enterprises and some maintenance duties. A jeweler, a fashion photographer and a retired executive stop by to chat as the interview gets underway in a nook of the former textile mill. Mike Nicholson, a Greensboro native who plays guitar for the band and makes his living running a home studio in Pittsboro, pulls himself upright as he faces off with a music journalist. He talks fast and passionately, despite or perhaps because of a summer cold he likely caught after mixing a band at Local 506 in Chapel Hill. Sudafed and unsweetened ice tea appear to be working their magic. “It is utterly relentless,” the 44-year-old guitarist says. “You have to relentlessly promote and you have to relentlessly book. You have to book for New Year’s Eve in July. Hopefully, I’ll never play another New Year’s Eve, but you never know. It would have to be a lot of money. Not that it’s all about the money. But every whore has their price. It’s just so crazy; I’d prefer to be in bed by midnight.” He relishes the songwriting aspect of his chosen path more. His collaboration with Howard – generally a process of Nicholson e-mailing instrumental sound files for the singer to craft lyrics around – has produced a handful of albums and perhaps 50 songs. The band’s last album, Revolutions, was released last December. By February the band had recorded 10 new original songs. “I’m not getting any younger,” Nicholson says. “I’m kind of getting in a groove. I’m not going to stop. I’m not going to be like, ‘I finished an album; I’m going to wait six months before I start writing for the next one.’ You’ve got to keep it going, keep it rolling.” You may have never heard of Stratocruiser, a band aptly named for a post-World War II Boeing commercial airliner. They feature a big, guitar-heavy, hook-laden sound reminiscent of rock’s classic era when songs unfolded in spacious, luxuriant suites. They don’t play overmuch in Greensboro, a town where cover bands tend to squeeze original music out of the market, but with members in both the Triangle and Triad they regularly appear in Raleigh and Winston-Salem, along with more out-of-the-way locales like Burlington. Their last album garnered generally positive reviews. “You can call it the ABC’s of ’70s cool – Aerosmith, Bad Finger and Cheap Trick,” wrote Dave Lifton for “But Stratocruiser smooth out their guitar crunch with some sweet Beatles-esque harmonies and do it with equal parts intelligence and flair so that you never know where the songs are heading.” They’ve also made some international inroads. The band’s 2004 album, Suburban Contemporary, was re-released the following year in Japan on the Wizard-In-Vinyl label, although the band has yet to tour the Far East country. The new songs bristle with kinetic energy. Nicholson’s guitar sound comprises a layered attack with soaring architecture and plenty of dynamic transitions. Matt Brown’s drumming gives the songs steady and powerful pacing. Howard’s vocals vacillate between tough sneering romps and high-flown emotive declarations. The album is already titled Eggshells, after one of the tracks. And the collection has already been mixed and engineered but still needs to be mastered. The band hasn’t settled on a release date, but it will likely take place sometime towards the end of the summer after Brown and his wife have a baby. One of the band’s triumphs this time around was getting Peter Holsapple of the legendary power-pop band the dB’s to contribute keyboards to several of the tracks. “I drug him out to the house one day,” Nicholson says. “It was a boost to have someone that legendary play on it, and he loves what we’re doing.” “In my other bands I used to be kind of reticent about keyboards because keyboards always date you,” he continues. “Around 2000 I got really into vintage keyboards – Hammond B3s and Mellotrons. The Mellotron is like an early sampler. You have these eight-second samples of real instruments. It was developed for bands that couldn’t afford to hire a live orchestra. Because it’s on a reel there’s a wobbliness. It’s gooey and organic. I can’t even describe how wonderful it is.” To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at