Hailing from New York City, Nicotine Dolls come from mixed musical backgrounds, infusing rock, pop, and jazz sensibilities into their work. They’re currently in the final stages prepping for the release of their first album.
SPIN caught up with the band and picked their brains about the meaning behind their name, what makes them unique, their creative process, and more. Catch their most recent release, Till We Both Say, here.
Check out Nicotine Dolls’ exclusive live session below. For more SPIN Sessions, head over to SPIN TV.
Who are Nicotine Dolls & how did you come to life?
Nicotine Dolls consist of Sam Cieri (Vocals), John Hays (Guitar), John Merritt (Bass), and Abel Tabares (Drums). We are a band based out of NYC and have been playing together for the past 5 years. The band started when me (Sam) and John Hays met while doing a Broadway tour together. We become good friends and decided to start a band after the show had ended, John and Abel came in afterwards to complete the lineup. Nicotine Dolls as a name is what I call people who become socially overwhelmed at parties or bars and choose to spend the night outside smoking instead.
Tell us about your sound – where does your style originate from and what have been your biggest visual, social, and sonic influences?
The sound itself feels pretty fluid within the band, we all come from very different backgrounds and musical influences. John Merritt and Abel are both Jazz players with a very strong musical education whereas me and John Hays are self taught and grew up on more pop influences. I personally grew up on everything from Michael Bolton to Nick Drake, both having equal effect on me. Visuals are just as important to us (we produce our own Music videos end to end) as what we make sonically because they just extensions of the other, both me and John Hays have a background in film making but with varying tastes. It’s all of the different and contrasting creative inputs that give us something specific both visually and sonically while also challenging us each time we jump in to make something together.
How has your songwriting/production process evolved through time?
I think we just have become more comfortable being ourselves and indulging in our own preferences as opposed to trying to come off interesting or cool. When you stop trying to sit in a box you can let the songwriting be much more open and honest. Do you wanna be cheesy? Do it. Do you wanna be introspective? Do it. There is no correct way to work on something other than to slowly stop caring about what you “should” be creating and focus on what you want/need to hear and off that same consideration and respect to the community that has built within those songs. Production wise we are always trying to top the last thing we’ve done, not so much how can we make it better but how can we use the studio to cut through to what the song needs to be. It is a constant failing up that makes the whole thing pretty great. We are also very lucky to have a producer and friend in Eric Sanderson who plays with us in that unknown happily.
What ideas, processes, etc. have you been exploring lately to generate inspiration or new musical concepts?
We recorded our first album over the past year and that process was very different with each song but one that I really loved was taking a song and (as we usually do) demo out the full picture but to avoid all the trappings of what’s comfortable and easy within the at home recording session. What that means is if you usually go in with a drum patch in Logic (our preferred demo software) then choose to not do that and get all of those sounds organically. Vice versa, if you record all your guitars by plugging in your guitar then choose to find a polar opposite patch within Logic to perform that part. If you start with safety then you end with safety, start unsure and opposing and maybe you get something a bit more unhinged which is always more fun.
How do you define and perceive success? What’s your journey been this year in the pursuit towards it?
Success has of course changed over the years of reaching for it but where I land on it now and where I believe we all can find it is within self sustaining creativity. This means you are at a place where your financial, critical, and popular reach all can be taken from each project and put into the next without pulling from the outside. Your work creates opportunity for more work and within that you are able to live and creative infinitely within your own terms and freedoms. This can of course be scaled to whomever and whatever your specific creative goals are but I would like to think once you reach that place of cyclical creation you can call it a successful place. For us the scope of that successful place is very large. There are so many pieces of work this band is constantly chasing I hope that our creative output pushes past any horizon we may already have set. This year we have focused on the initial steps with our first real sparks of something building. After playing for empty rooms and releasing to a disinterested audience we’ve found the beginnings of a strong and supportive community through our socials. Going from 800 to 400K followers on TikTok has allowed us to reach more people and build bigger more fantastical opportunities.
What makes Nicotine Dolls unique?
The unique aspect of the band comes from the diverse sonic backgrounds but within the same physical goal, create something as honest as possible within a space our community feels seen. We each put more into our shows than any band I have ever seen, it isn’t passive or performative. We come together both live and in the studio and we each put everything we have into every piece of music and as well as every frame of our visuals. The other thing that makes me proud to be a Nicotine Doll is our ability to chase something without limitation of previous lines. We are never looking to be a “rock band” or a “indie band” or even a “pop” band, we are a band that follows the song not the genre.
What is the band’s process of creating a song?
For the most part I will send sketches and blueprints of a handful of songs out every month. Sometimes we work on them and sometimes we don’t. But if there is something special in it we will all play through it in a rehearsal and if it feels good in the room then we jump to recording. With this album though we started it in the middle of the pandemic and a majority if not all the songs were based on a large amount of demos and memos I had sent to the guys. We would agree on a song and then tear it down to rebuild it all in the studio, we never played the songs before recording them which of course is terrifying as we now gear up to play them only to have to reverse engineer the normal process.It was fun though to be in the studio and say “lets just do whatever we want and figure out how to do it live later”, we are in the later part now and it’s pretty overwhelming but also fantastic.
What feeling(s) and/or message(s) are you trying to convey in your latest project?
The messages seem to always revolve around the desire to not be perfect and not chase anything beyond the recognition that we are all a little broken and that the hardest thing you will do is wake up and be a person but that is a pretty fucking wonderful thing and it’s worth all the scraps and scars at the end of the day. Our music tends to be nostalgically refreshing with contradicting themes of hope and cynicism because that’s what being a person is most of the time. Or at least that what we are and I think thats the same head soup our listeners swim in.
What was your first performance and what was everyone’s feelings when you all had your first live performance?
Our first show with the four of us what at The Delancy on the lower east side. We were messy and chaotic and most of the crowd was there to support the other bands but something ran through all four of us and we ended up having the whole place jumping and sweating and feeling something very intense along with us onstage. Afterwards we all kind of looked at each other and laughed, it was like we knew something had just been cemented and that this was something very real. It’s an incredible feeling when you do the thing you know your’e meant to do with the people you are meant to do it with. We’ve grown in unquantifiable leaps since that show but we always come back to that feeling whenever we working on something, being in the right place with the right people.
If you had to give a title to the current stage you’re at in your career, what would it be?
“You haven’t seen anything yet.”
In what ways do you wish to inspire up and coming artists/producers that are aiming to get their creative work out into the world?
Make things! Always be making things and sharing them. You will obviously suck at first and if that’s enough to discourage you than you are supposed to do something else and if that’s the case than do it because only crazy people do this job. If you are crazy enough to understand that it’s not a choice and that you have to do it than you have to accept that most of the time your face will be in the dirt but you have to keep making things. Fail constantly. Don’t be precious with what you make, be precious in what it is you are trying to say both musically and lyrically. That’s the only way we’ve grown and we’ve still only scratched the surface. Being an artist is the act of sharing your interpretation of the world around you with the world around you, we have to create and fail and create again in order to learn our own language so that we can properly and honestly convey that interpretation.
What’s next for Nicotine Dolls?
Currently we are started to piece together the release of our first album that we are wrapping up just now. Within that process we have a whole world to build around that release including a string of shows and visual components that will act as the sonic and optical representation of what “Nicotine Dolls” is. It’s going to be pretty wonderful and I wish I could lay it all out but just know I can’t stop smiling within the process of building it.
Take a chance now and manifest something: ______________.
Nicotine Dolls sellout Madison Square Garden 2024.
Any last words for the SPIN-verse?
Being a musician is one of the most impossible things to be and being one that people listen to is even more absurd. Without places and communities like the one y’all have created it wouldn’t even have a spit of a chance so from all of the guys in the band and all of the musicians that send you these answers to these questions I wanted to say thank you.