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Nicos Gun: Dance Beats, Indie Hooks and Psychedelic Grooves.

June 5, 2011

Text and images by Colin Kerrigan.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, four dudes stumble out of their apartment building in Fishtown into a forest green Jeep Cherokee circa the late 90’s.

They look kind of worn out, which is not surprising since they just got off a six-week tour traveling throughout the South in a big ass RV. The four of them – Barney Cortez, Harry Zelnick, Nick Bockrath, and Andy Black – make up the disco dance/ pop, sometimes psychedelic, indie band, Nicos Gun.

They’re headed down to a.k.a. music in Old City to check out some music, maybe pick up a record or two.

Before that though, they make a quick stop at Nana Petrillo’s Gelateria in The Piazza at Schmidts for some much-needed coffee. There are four different kinds available – Tanzanian peaberry , Sumatra, yellow bourbon and Panamanian bouquet, so they just order one of each and chose at random. Black must owe everyone since he pays for the coffee.  While they’re here, the guys make sure to taste several of the gelato flavors including sea salt, dark chocolate, tiramisu, Thai coconut … before deciding they are content with just coffee.

All four consider themselves Philly kids – they live together in a Fishtown loft – but only two of them are true natives.  Cortez, 25, and Zelnick, 23, grew up in Southwest Philadelphia.

“Barney and I had similar childhoods, knowing all the same people in Philly and having the same experiences,” says Zelnick. “But I didn’t even know he played music when we were growing up. We just hung out with the Changs, who were friends of ours.”

“We’d smoke a lot and fucking break people’s windows and shit,” recalls Cortez with a laugh. “Do stupid stuff.”

They used to hang around Rittenhouse Square back when it was completely different than how it is today.

“Growing up, there was kind of like that scene from Kids,” recalls Zelnick,where all the kids would meet after school.”

“Rittenhouse used to be rowdy,” adds Cortez. “Now it’s kind of toned down. But when we were 12, 13, 14, it was a rowdy place. All the crusty punks would be there, all the homeless people and all the kids.”

It’s still raining out when the guys finally find a parking spot a few blocks away from a.k.a. music. As they walk, they do their best to stay as close to the buildings as possible to avoid getting wet. When they get into a.k.a., they scatter to different areas of the store, checking out various artists and bands.

Bockrath, 23, grew up near West Chester, skateboarding and playing music. He would take the train in on the weekends to skate various spots throughout the city.

“I think skating and music are similar in a lot of ways,” says Bockrath. “I got into certain skaters’ styles and skating certain spots. Each spot would attract different types of skaters. It was a community thing, kind of like being in bands.”

Bockrath and Black came to the city to attend the University of the Arts, which is where Cortez also went.

The only non-original Pennsylvanian of the bunch is Black, 24, who grew up in Bayville, NJ. It’s in the middle of the state, along the beach, not far from where they filmed those fools on the MTV show, Jersey Shore. His first taste of music was when he was in elementary school, though he quit after an awkward situation unfolded.

“I took pianos lessons from my principal’s wife but they were going through a divorce at the time,” explains Black. “So I would be taking piano lessons and he would come home and she’d be like, “Oh, play a scale.” They’d go into the kitchen and scream at each other. I promptly gave up the piano after that.”

When he was 13, he went to the music store and picked up a bass guitar.

Inside a.k.a., Zelnick, in his leather jacket and his fedora, wanders around the CD section of the shop. He comes the jazz area and immediately points out John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

“He’s so important to me because he brought this real spirituality into the music that people hadn’t really done before,” Zelnick says. “He’d tried to go other places with the music, which is really inspiring.”

Zelnick knows most of the jazz records because he used to make a lot of hip-hop tracks and he would sample pieces of jazz. He’d take a snare from one song, a high-hat from another and bass from another to create a drum set sound from different records.

While originally from Southwest Philly, he later moved to Germantown. His dad was a jazz musician, which is why Zelnick learned to play the drums at the age of nine. By the time he was 11 or 12, he started getting into the production side of music. He made a hip-hop album with adults from his neighborhood when he was 13. He hawked them on South Street.

As a teenager, Zelnick met two well-known Philly producers – Andre Harris and Vidal Davis, better known as the hit-makers Dre & Vidal. They’ve worked with Michael Jackson, Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys, among others on a list that could go on for days. Zelnick started working for them when he was 16. He produced a track for Ludacris, “War With God,” off Release Therapy that won a Grammy in 2007.

After that, Zelnick produced for Usher, Kelly Clarkson, Beanie Sigel, and others, and that put quite a bit of money in his youthful pockets.

“I was financially fulfilled and, at the time, I thought I was creatively fulfilled,” explains Zelnick. “But now I realize I really wasn’t, cause I wasn’t really doing the type of music I love to do.”

Then he found his Nicos Gun bandmates.

While Zelnick was producing for the mainstream pop world, the rest of the guys jammed in various projects as session musicians or just for fun.

Bockrath and Cortez met one day when their music teacher forced them to play a guitar duet together. They pulled it off and went on to form a band, Cortez! Cortez! They met Black at UArts.

Zelnick was originally recruited to be a producer and songwriter. He produced beats for the trio for months before they realized how good Zelnick was on the drums. So they forced him into the band.

All four of them love music. It’s clear that they live for it, whether it’s playing or listening.

As they walk around a.k.a. music, each one of them could teach a history lesson on several genres of music.

“Tom Wait did almost like a jazz-lounge thing up until Swordfishtrombones came out,” explains Cortez as if it was common knowledge. “He started experimenting with jazz musicians from the downtown New York scene in the late 70s and was inspired by punk music. He was, like, older than all that shit, too, so it’s kind of cool.”

One record they all agree upon is Loaded, by The Velvet Underground.

“It’s so fucking good,” says Zelnick. “Lou Reed just changed rock music.”

Lou Reed and company didn’t perform for the fame. They did it for the music.

And that’s exactly what the members of Nicos Gun want to be known for: their music.

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