Music News

American Pie’s Thomas Ian Nicholas joins the rock club

Thomas Ian Nicholas: Saturday, August 30, at Cave Creek Coffee Company

By Clay McNear

Okay, I’m gonna throw a bunch of names at you and ask you to tell me the common denominator:

Steven Seagal, Zooey Deschanel, John Corbett, Scott Baio, Kevin Bacon, Leif Garrett, Russell Crowe, Tony Danza, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., Minnie Driver, Barbara Eden, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Crispin Glover, David Hasselhoff, Don Johnson, Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Hillary Duff, Juliette Lewis, Lindsay Lohan, Corey Feldman, Jennifer Lopez, Bruce Willis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Megan Mullally, Nichelle Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Brent Spiner, Keanu Reeves, Jada Pinkett Smith, Billy Bob Thornton, Rick Springfield, Jared Leto, Patrick Swayze, John Travolta, Farrah Fawcett, Maureen McCormick, Barry Williams.

Right. Exactly. Hubris.

With a couple of shaky exceptions, the actors-turned-singers noted above should be publicly flogged for using their notoriety in front of the camera to buy some time behind a mic. Ick.

After surveying this aesthetic killing field, I’ve gotta ask: Who in his or her right mind would want to join this club? Eager-beaver rocker Thomas Ian Nicholas, that’s who. One of the “three-name” lads of the 1999 classic American Pie, Nicholas played the genial, sex-on-the-brain kid Kevin Myers in Pie and its follow-ups, as well as lesser roles in Rookie of the Year, The Rules of Attraction, and Stealing Sinatra. (Irony alert! Nicholas’ first-ever screen appearance was portraying a kid version of actor-turned-crooner Tony Danza on Who’s the Boss?)

Nicholas has a lot of shit in pre- or post-production, but outside of the Pie phenomenon, I wouldn’t say his movie career is exactly booming. Is this why he decided to give pop ’n’ roll a big-time go? Oh, heavens no! Not if you read his bio, which is one of the most malarkey-filled documents I’ve ever read, but also incredible in the sense that Nicholas is like a witness in a murder trial who’s armed with the perfect answer to every potentially incriminating question. This is actually a time-worn technique in the law: the pre-emptive strike. Bleed all the air out of the other guy’s tires so he can’t run you over.

I can’t say there’s anything original or particularly interesting about Nicholas’ high-sheen faux-grunge pop – honestly, if the dude’s not in American Pie, I’m not writing about him – but whoever does his press is the shit. Seriously. First graph, total first-strike victory:

There are three sure-fire phrases that will make any rock and roll fan wrinkle up his nose: High School Musical, “boy band” and “actor-turned-musician.” The last phrase in particular is among the ugliest terms in music journalism, and for good reason. Just look at the recent track record: From Russell Crowe to Lindsey Lohan . . . well, let's just say it hasn't been a very pretty sight. Thanks to those people and others (We're looking at you, Kevin Bacon), any actor who wants an honest shot at a career in music has a long, dark road ahead of him.

Slams at fellow thespians Russell Crowe and Kevin Bacon! Ballsy!

Fortunately for all of us, "actor-turned-musician" Thomas Ian Nicholas has two weapons in his corner. First, he's been playing music for over half his life and can write a pop song like nobody's business. And second, that long road we were talking about? Doesn't bother him one bit.

He really does rule. On paper.

Thom has been, is, and to some degree will always be known as Kevin from the American Pie movies. That's right, he was that nice kid, that wholesome kid . . . that kid who got to make out with Tara Reid [see photo]. Whereas to most young men the idea of living with that identity is not such a bad proposition, Nicholas has the desire, not to mention the talent, to be so much more. "I didn't really get pigeonholed with that film. I didn't do the pie. I didn't do my friend's mom," he laughs. "So the idea that people know me from American Pie is a positive thing. Any sort of success that I have achieved in my career as an actor, it's a total blessing," he adds, "but right now, music is my passion, and I'm putting a lot of hard work into making that a reality."

See how the press flack deftly defers the potential for American Pie-style typecasting? This chick/dude rocks – way harder than Nicholas’ music.

Which brings us to . . . Nicholas' debut album, Without Warning. It's an upbeat, O.C.-worthy album of pop-rock filled with more hooks than a bait shop. It features collaborations with rock legends like Bruce Kulick (KISS), Chris Chaney (Jane's Addiction) and John Corabi (Mötley Crüe). And it could melt the hearts of today's TRL-loving teens faster than you can say, "John Mayer."

“More hooks than a bait shop”? No flack’s perfect.

Musically, Thom draws from a solid crop of influences – from Switchfoot to Springsteen – that have helped him learn the art of writing a pop song while keeping a foot in rock and roll. His music is polished enough to swagger right onto the radio, but raw enough to sound honest – and, it's worth mentioning, is much more rock and roll than you'd ever expect from someone who's had the dubious honor of being tagged Seventeen Magazine's "It Boy."

Ah, the old bait-and-switch: Being named Seventeen’s “It Boy” was a dubious honor, but let’s flog it anyway.

"When it comes to the lyric side, I aspire to be one-tenth of John Mayer. His lyrics are unbeatable," Thom says. "I also side with the Beatles, only in the sense that I'm a big fan of cool melody lines and changes that are unexpected. I know that we broke the mold a couple of times."

“I also side with the Beatles, only in the sense . . .”?! What, like it’s a bad thing to side with the Beatles? Not quite up to John Mayer’s par, eh, Thom? Yeah, Continuum, Abbey Road. I’m torn.

Nicholas' love affair with music began at age 14 when he began searching for new ways to express himself. "There was always a guitar sitting in the corner of my house that belonged to my mom. It was always sitting there taunting me," Thom recalls with a laugh. "At that point, I'd had my first success in the acting world with Rookie of the Year. And there is a lot of downtime between jobs in the acting world, so I picked up the guitar, and I was inspired to write. I would play for, like, two hours every day for the first year just to try to be able to play my favorite Nirvana tunes."

Two hours a day to learn Nirvana tunes? "Smells Like Teen Spirit" chord progression: F5-Bb5-Ab5-Db5. It ain't brain surgery.

Nicholas continued to write and play music both as a solo musician and as part of a band for the next decade until finally, slowly, he realized that it had become much more for him than just a part-time muse. He began to long for a different sort of forum, one that would allow him to communicate more directly with people, without a character, without a script. That longing led him onto the stage as a solo acoustic performer, where for the first time he was able to interact with people with, as Thom puts it, "no frills, nothing to hide behind. It's just straight-up and raw. That way, people can decide for themselves whether or not I suck!"

Did you see what the flack did there? Brilliant! If somebody tells Nicholas he sucks, it’s already out there. “Hey, don’t blame me if I suck. I told you I might suck!”

"Music is more personal than acting," he explains. "In acting, I'm portraying a character that someone else has written, whereas in music, I'm expressing something that I've written. So there's a different connection. Not to say that I don't believe what I'm doing when I'm acting, but it just comes from a different part of my soul when I'm singing."

Okay. Just. Yuck.

Pop success hasn't exactly been handed to Nicholas on a silver platter. Maybe it's because of his stubborn refusal to get a high-profile DUI, or his inability to "forget" to wear underwear around the paparazzi. In a way, though, that's a good thing. Thom's music has actual integrity, and it would be a shame to lose sight of that fact just because he accepted the first major label deal that came his way.

Uh, what?

For Nicholas, this time in his life isn't about red carpets. He's not worried about dating the "right girl" or answering questions about "who he's wearing" at the Oscars. It's more about connecting with fans – no, with people – at all costs, even if that means marching into a club with no one by his side but his trusty guitar, playing intimate sets of stripped-down pop classics-to-be and spending the rest of his night interacting with the crowd. "I'm definitely doing the hustle, not the free ride," Thom states proudly. "Once you have a finished album and tell people you're releasing it yourself, pretty soon managers are wanting to do conference calls and A&R reps from record labels are taking you out to lunch. But I'm booking all of these shows myself. I'm hustling. I'm playing a show and then afterwards selling my CDs myself."

Dude, you rock. On paper.

"The momentum has been really cool. It's been like a train that kind of starts out with a little bit of coal, and then as you get it moving and you keep putting energy into it, you start to pick up speed," he says. "From the standpoint of what makes it all worthwhile at the end of the day, when I'm chilling in a rocking chair and telling my grandkids about my music career, it's to be able to be in a position where I can affect the world in a positive way." Remember that long, dark road? Bring it on.

What, he worry? There’s always American Pie: The Next Generation.

Thomas Ian Nicholas performs on Saturday, August 30, at Cave Creek Coffee Company, 6033 East Cave Creek Road. Venice Maki shares the stage. Showtime is 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 advance, $12 at the door. See