“I’ve had a little bit to drink, I’m onto my fourth cocktail,” Nic Cester says nonchalantly. “But it’s all research.”
It’s nearly midnight on a Tuesday as the songwriter sits at his newly-opened restaurant, the Sixième Bistro in Milan. Seven years on from leaving Melbourne rock group Jet, and having lived in three different cities since departing Australia in 2010, his surroundings reflect just how much things have changed now that he’s releasing his debut solo album, Sugar Rush.
Formed in 2001 by brothers Nic and Chris, Jet experienced their first break after supporting fellow Melbourne rockers The Specimens, before being offered their first signing by Elektra Records and releasing three albums that saw unprecedented success in the UK and the US.
However, their shot to fame was also marred by the consequences of not dealing with emotional turmoil, with the brothers choosing to push on with relentless touring despite their father’s death in 2004, and the band calling it quits in 2012.
While the four-piece reunited to support Bruce Springsteen in January this year, also playing a string of headline shows at Twilight at Taronga, the band are focused on other efforts now, and Cester’s marked change is punctuated by his feelings of calm and confidence, as he thinks about the release of Sugar Rush with his new band The Milano Elettrica.
“I’m really proud of the album, and the band are unbelievably good – in fact, I’m probably the worst musician in my own band,” he chuckles.
Nic Cester’s solo work shows off different facets to his musicianship
Rewinding to his first ever solo show at this year’s Bluesfest, the musician says, “That was crazy. We’d just met two weeks before, and some of the guys don’t even speak English. But it was also exciting, especially for the guys in the band.
“Out of the blue, they received this call from an Australian guy living in Italy about whether they’d be interested in participating in this project. Two weeks later, they were on a plane to Australia. It was interesting seeing it through their eyes.”
Cester then considers living in Berlin, Milan and now Como over the past seven years. “That’s symbolic of the fact that I was feeling a bit unsure of what to do next,” he says, “and I was desperately seeking a new situation.”
“Jet was amazing, but inevitably everything’s dictated for you. There’s a tour, which is dictated by the managers and label, and it just felt like I was on a treadmill. I needed new experiences and wanted to be stimulated. That’s why I was struggling.”
Simply being in different cities, however, wasn’t what drove Cester to find happiness post-Jet. “The thing that I realised from all those experiences is that happiness has to come within yourself,” he relates. “It’s not something that any city can offer you. It can offer you a different perspective or the chance to rethink things, but if you want to be happy, that’s got to come from you.”
Armed with nothing but the prospect of a new life and the support of his now-wife Pia McGeoch, his first destination after leaving the country was Berlin. Contemplating the moment when things started to fall back into place, Cester says, “When I started doing music again, I guess.”
When Nic re-entered the studio, “everything started to make sense again”
“I met a guy who had a studio, and I had no fucking idea what to do. But I took a leap of faith and booked three months of studio time, and I just started turning up every day like at a normal job. Little by little, I got a bit of direction and confidence back. Everything started to make sense again.”
Cester’s time in Berlin laid the foundations for his work on Sugar Rush, recorded with Italian band Calibro 35 between Milan and London, and produced by Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Queens of the Stone Age).
Yet moving to Milan also caused him to fully feel the effects of leaving Jet, and the inherent musical support from his former bandmates, behind. Here the songwriter admits,“The initial struggle was not knowing where to begin.”
“My only knowledge of being in a band and songwriting involved three other guys. So all of a sudden, I was in a situation in life where I was pretty lost musically. I knew how to write a song, but I had to play every instrument.
“With Jet, if you had an idea, you could do it immediately in a live situation, no matter if it was good or not,” Cester explains. “With this, I had to record the bass, the drums, the keyboards… Sometimes it was good, and sometimes awful.
“But that was also one of the fun things, because it also gave me the possibility to see the song through the eyes of the other musicians. The struggle was the fun,” he chuckles, “I don’t think I could separate them.”
“That was one of the real pleasures of working on this project. With Jet, there was an expectation of what a Jet song should be like, but this time around I had complete freedom to play anything I wanted. That’s the reason why the whole album’s quite eclectic.
“In a way, it’s a shame that we weren’t able to create a career within Jet where we could do that. But at some point, it just didn’t turn out to be that type of band,” he adds. “Jet was a democracy, and part of that means being unhappy with the democratic result sometimes.”
His debut single embraced a freedom Cester didn’t have with Jet
Sugar Rush’s first single ‘Psichebello’ is just one reflection of the musician’s freedom to explore. The whole album process gave the songwriter an opportunity to experiment with psychedelia among other sounds, including hip hop beats and soul.
Of ‘Psichebello’, Cester remembers, “I had just walked into the studio one day, without much of an idea, and started playing bass. Then I added some drums, sang a melody without any words and the song just naturally grew. Which is how all of them happened.”
Following the natural trajectory applies to other parts of his life, too – particularly when it comes to starting a family. Here the musician, slated to become a father in January, reveals how his feelings about the upcoming journey bleed through album track ‘Hard Times’.
“There was just a moment where my wife and I started talking about the idea of having a child. It’s all in the song, the ideas of what kind of father I want to be, what I could possibly offer, and what things I’ve learnt that can be passed down…” Cester muses. “Those sorts of things.”
With both Jet and The Milano Elettrica, it’s great having that voice back onstage
The chat comes full circle with Cester sipping on his cocktail at the Sixième Bistro, thinking about what triggered the venture to open a restaurant before laughing heartily.
“Both me and the drummer (Sergio Carnevale) in The Milano Elettrica have been friends now for three years. When I moved to Milan and was working with Calibro 35 – Sergio’s the drummer – because we were friends, I’d often go to his apartment to ask his opinion on stuff.
“Eventually he ended up becoming the drummer in the band. Meanwhile, he’d been working on a restaurant for a year, and when he was in moments of difficulty he’d come to me and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’
“In the end, much like I said, ‘Why don’t we just be in a band together?’, he said, ‘Why don’t we just open this restaurant together?’”
That freedom to ask “why not?” now runs strong and clear through everything Nic Cester creates.