Earthwork artist profile Vol. 10: Nicholas James Thomasma
A longtime champion of the Michigan music scene, Nicholas James Thomasma shares his passion for music as a performer, songwriter, open mic host, songwriting series organizer, and enthusiastic supporter of many fellow Michigan artists. I had the chance to catch up with Nicholas amidst an exciting week for Nicholas James & the Bandwagon as they perform at the Annual Bob Dylan tribute show at Founder's (TONIGHT: 5/24) and tomorrow (5/25) at the Buses by the Beach festival. Check out our conversation on Dylan, life on the road, his upcoming travels to Spain, and what new music is in the works for the Grand Rapids-based songster. -Chris Good
1. This week (Thursday, 5/24) you're celebrating the 11th anniversary of the Bob Dylan tribute show that you've helped organize at Founder's Brewing Co. How did this tradition come to be? How has Dylan influenced you as a singer-songwriter? How do you see his songs continuing to resonate decades after they were written?I love Bob Dylan. I discovered him in high school and just fell in love with his writing, his voice, his ever changing style and his accomplishments. When I started playing guitar I learned a bunch of Bob Dylan songs and always thought it would be cool to play a show of all Bob Dylan songs all night long. In 2007 I noticed that Bob's birthday fell on a Saturday night that year and thought it would be a good time to play all those Dylan songs I'd been working on for years and years. I approached Founders Brewing Co and they agreed that would be cool. The first tribute show was so successful that the manager at Founders asked me to make it an annual event. This is our 11th year. We've seen some amazing performances over the years and every year I am contacted by more acts that want to be involved. It's turned into a sort of milestone for some local acts and a beloved annual event for Dylan fans in West MI.
2. You wear many different hats in the MI music scene...can you talk a bit about your open mic/songteller series gigs & how you see those playing an important part in creating a vibrant scene & community?
Open Mic Nights are an absolutely essential tool for musicians. They can be a platform or a stepping stone and for me it's also a weekly gig. The first public performances I ever did were at open mics and the same is true for most of my friends and peers. They're not only a place for beginners, but also a place for experienced artists to try new material or promote an upcoming show. They are also a great way to network with other musicians in your community or make new friends when you're traveling. Founders Open Mic has a huge stage so we can accommodate full bands in addition to singer songwriters, duos, trios, hip hop acts or whatever comes along. We also have a dedicated sound engineer, a great regular crowd and I try my hardest to give every performer a big introduction and final round of applause.
The Creston Songteller Sessions is a seasonal, monthly singer songwriter in the round show. It's not a unique concept, really, but there is no other regular songwriter in the round series in Grand Rapids. We needed it so I started it. We have 3 writers on stage together and they take turns sharing their songs and the stories behind them. The purpose of this show is to allow the audience to gain some insight into the writing process or the stories behind the songs. I ask the crowd to be polite and really listen and give the performers the opportunity to open up. The result is pure magic. It's really amazing to watch the songwriters play to an attentive audience and it's really amazing as an audience member to hear about where the songs come from. Everyone wins when everyone listens.
3. What are your thoughts on life on the road & how does Kelly Jo represent that for you? What can folks expect at Buses by the Beach?
Life on the road is a dual edged sword. It's exhilarating to be heading somewhere. I love going to places I've never been before. It's amazing all the wonderful people you meet when you travel. But it's also hard to be away from home, family and my community for extended periods of time. Kelly Jo, my 1973 VW Bus bridges the gap because she's my own little rolling home. She's also an instant conversation starter no matter where I go. I found her thanks to some friends of mine at Buses by the Beach, which is an annual VW Bus camping and music festival on Memorial Day Weekend every year. I met some of my best friends and most ardent supporters through Buses by the Beach. I think last year there were around 130 Buses. More and more show up every year. Nicholas James & the Bandwagon will be performing again at this year's festival this Friday, 5/25/2018.
4. Spain! How did the upcoming trip come to be & could you share a bit about your participation with the FBC (Founder's Brewing Company) All-Stars?
I started working at Founders part time about 12 years ago. I still work as a bartender and a tour guide a couple days a week. About 9 years ago now we decided to start a brewery "All-star" cover band. When they asked me what I thought about it I said "I'm an All-star." I'm primarily a vocalist, but also play acoustic guitar, harmonica, keyboards and percussion in the band. At this point I'm one of only 2 members that have been in the band the whole time. We've rotated people through over the years as people have changed jobs and we've had several guests including Mark Paul Gosselar from Saved by the Bell. Founders now employs around 600 people. It's a pretty deep talent pool. There are 9 of us in the band. I'm the team captain, if you will. I handle booking and logistics. We were created to play at Founders Fest, the annual street party that takes place in front of the brewery but we've branched out and played other events since then including the All-Star Road Show which brought us out to Philadelphia twice for Philly Beer Week.
As far as the upcoming trip to Spain, Founders has an investor from Spain called Mahou San Miguel and last year some of the folks from Mahou saw the FBC All-Stars play. It was suggested that we should fly out and do this in Spain and they agreed that it would be fun. It was that simple, really. We are playing at an international craft beer festival in downtown Madrid with about 50 breweries from all over the world participating. It's a kickoff event for Madrid Beer Week. Founders is the main sponsor of the event and I am the emcee. I will be opening both nights with a short set of original material before joining the All-Star band and introducing the other acts. There are some bands from Spain on the bill that will be headlining each night. I've been practicing my Spanish every day for 3 months. I'm nervous and excited but you should be when you're pursuing your dreams, right?
5. Other upcoming gigs or projects you're excited about? Solo? Nicholas James & the Bandwagon?
Over the winter we started recording a new solo album. I'm working with a few different studios and producers. Much like my first solo album it's going to feature a lot of artists from my community but it's not a Bandwagon album. Some of the members of the Bandwagon play on the record though. It's a diverse record that captures me as a songwriter more than as a band leader. You'll understand when you hear it. It moves from folk to rock to reggae to jazz but none of the songs feel out of place. I'm thrilled with the way it's coming together and hope to have it ready to go this summer or fall. It's going to be called Rolling Home.
The big news for the Bandwagon is that we were asked to play at Wheatland Music Festival this year! Wheatland was the first music and camping festival that I ever attended. I made the decision that first time that music festivals were what I wanted to do with my life. I feel very fortunate to have attended so many wonderful and amazing festivals over the years and playing at Wheatland is a dream come true for me. I haven't announced it online yet, but I just checked and Wheatland has us listed on their website so I bet it's safe to announce it now. Maybe this is the best way to do that. Surprise everyone! Happy Wheatland!!!