Deli Magazine




Grinding Gears with Nick Combs


It's great to know why musicians do what they do. Why they write songs about heartache or joy. What kind of emotion they're trying to express. Who they most look up to. That's the magic of what they do. But then there's the science of it. How do they make the most raw or sensual sounds come out of their instruments?

This week we talk with Nick Combs, the madman behind The Latenight Callers' dark, dancey beats and sultry synths.

The Deli: What kind of gear are you using?

Nick Combs: 

Currently in The Latenight Callers, my keyboard is a Novation SL MKII 61-key connected to a MacBook Pro running Reason 6.5. From the laptop, I use a MOTU 828mk Hybrid interface running into a Mackie M1400i power amp that powers two Behringer Eurolive B1220A speakers. For some shows, I also run an ART 125 watt power amp connected to a Clark Synthesis Prosound 429 Platinum Thumper connected to my throne. Oh, and the latest addition, a RockNRoller Multi-Cart, which has been one of the greatest things I've ever used, I know it's dorky as hell, but holy crap is it useful.

The Deli: What makes your particular gear achieve the sound you're looking for in your music?

Nick:  Well, what I like about my setup is that it's not about the gear, it's about the sounds I can create. I also program and run the drums in The Latenight Callers, so keyboards are only half of my job. Using a software based setup frees me up from the restrictions of built in sounds and manufacturer built-in limitations, and allows me to do alot more at the same time.

The Deli: How would you describe your sound?

Nick: The Latenight Callers use a ton of very diverse sounds beyond the traditional keyboardist role. I'm playing everything from traditional tonewheel organs to synth bass to accordion and farfisa, but I'm also triggering samples and playing with modular synthesizers in different songs. If I have a sound, it's that I'm trying to sound as much as a traditional instrument as I can, but as untraditionally as possible.

On the drum side of things, I have two easy requirements: it has to make you want to dance, and it has to be interesting. As a former drummer, nothing is worse than either a boring drum part or the same drum sound for every.... single.... song. I try to make every song different and its own sonic entity, but still make it obviously a Latenight Callers song. It's a balancing act sometimes, but I also try to be quietly subversive and sneak a club dance beat in with a traditional church organ tone over the top.

The Deli: How was the process of finding the equipment you needed to achieve your sound?

Nick:  I started off using Roland Juno, a MicroKorg, and a Roland SP-404fx sampler going into a massive 24-channel mixer with a full rack of effects and silliness, then added a FCB1010 MIDI


footboard to control it all and a Monotron for gits and shiggles. It was a massive rig, I think subconsciously birthed from my days of being a drummer and hauling a ton of gear to every gig. It sounded OK, but it was hugely cumbersome, a technical nightmare, and I still couldn't get the sounds that I wanted exactly how I wanted them.


The more research I did, the more sense a laptop rig made. I think it was the gig where my MIDI controller went down, my monitors went down, and I accidentally hit the sampler restarting the drum track that made me go "Screw it, I getting a damn laptop." It's been the best thing I've ever done, I can setup and tear down in 5 minutes, get the sounds I want to get, and am about as portable as a keyboard player can be.

The Deli: What projects are you in right now?

Nick: The Latenight Callers are a five-piece noir-a-go-go act out of Kansas City. We've been called the "house band at David Lynch's pool party." Think Massive Attack backing Ella Fitzgerald, or watching a black-and-white movie with a '60s spy movie soundtrack playing. Frequently, we may be found consuming brown liquor libations.

The Deli: What other instruments do you play?

Nick:  In a past life, I was a drummer for many, many years. I try to break free of my drumming roots, but they keep pulling me back. It may be time to pull out the old kit again soon. I'd love to learn guitar, but I keep thinking I should actually become a proper keyboard player first...

The Deli: Who are your favorite or most inspirational players (of your instrument[s]), both in KC and beyond? 

Nick:  Oh man, in KC, every time I see Mark Lowrey play I'm either inspired to go practice for hours, or just give up now. Billy Smith, when he was in town, blew me away with his guitar work and tone in Roman Numerals and Thee Water MoccaSins. I'm biased, but I have yet to ever tire of hearing The Latenight Caller's own Gavin Mac play bass. Quentin Schmidt, The Good Foot's bass player, is also a monster.

Beyond KC, Paul Meany from Mutemath and Matt Bellamy from Muse are total inspirations as keyboard players and musicians. Both are phenomenal players and do a bunch of interesting, boundary pushing kind of things outside of the traditional keyboard player realm.

The Deli: What is your ideal dream equipment set up? 

Nick: I'd love to be able to have a backup laptop B rig running sync in case anything ever happened to the first one, and I'd love to have in-ear monitors. Oh, and a proper sound check before every gig.

The Deli:

 Where do you like to shop for gear, and why?

Nick:  Honestly, and this pains me greatly to say, but I don't shop locally for gear. I worked at a music store for 3 years, I know the scene there and I want badly to support mom-and-pop stores, but I just have not found one that carries the gear I'm into these days. 95% of the time I'm forced to find the piece of gear I want and buy it online to try it out. I get the economics of the situation and realize most small business can't carry funky Nord keyboards or a wall of audio interfaces and modular synth noise boxes, they've gotta make their money selling guitar strings and $250 beginner instruments to soccer moms. I can't bring myself to shop at the bigger national music stores in town, I normally start feeling stabby after 10 minutes of being in one of them.

When I played drums, I was in Explorers regularly. Funky Munky used to be next to my work, so I'd pop in there every time I had a break. In Lawrence, I poke my head into Richard's pretty regularly to see if anybody has brought in any off the wall pieces of gear. I'm about to start building up a semi-proper home studio, so I'm definitely looking at gear alot more these days.

The Deli: Do you have a favorite KC venue to play in terms of sound quality? 

Nick:  In terms of sound quality, recordBar, hands down. Duane Trower, the main sound guy there, knows that room and the gear inside and out and has a great set of ears. Crosstown Station could be really great sometimes too when it was still around.

The Deli: Ever made or have thought of making your own custom gear? 

Nick:  Absolutely, it's something I'd love to get more into. I love goofy little noise boxes, MIDI controllers, and modular synths. I have fantasies of getting a soldering gun and going nuts someday.

The program I use to control everything, Reason, is a fantastic sandbox, so I feel like I've created alot of gear in there that just couldn't feasibly exist in the real world, weird stuff like having an organ sound modulated by a CV controlled filter running through a randomizer matrix, processed by stereo delays and compressors, running through an old Ampeg fliptop. I mean, you could do that in real life, but it'd be a ton of gear to haul around and setup, just for ONE sound.

You'll be able to see Nick tearing up his keys in true fashion as he performs with the rest of The Latenight Callers gang next Friday, August 24, on the lawn of the Nerman Museum at Johnson County Community College for its Light Up The Lawn series. They'll be performing with Victor and Penny. You can also enjoy some spirits and catch Latenight at the Uptown Theater, performing on Sunday, August 26 for the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival.

-Michelle Bacon

Michelle is editor-in-chief of The Deli - Kansas City. She also has a weekly column with The Kansas City Star and reviews music for Ink. She plays with Deco AutoDrew Black and Dirty Electric, and Dolls on Fire. She secretly loves hugs. And candy bars.

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Nick Combs

Photo by Randy Pace 

The Latenight Callers 
Photo by Todd Zimmer