I like art made by alcoholics, the unemployable, and angry loners living on the outskirts away from the phonies. While Ben Dickerson doesn’t check each box, his story and music as Nice Bike resonated. Last year’s Trial + Error was written over the course of four years. It’s a collection of songs about depression, love, and drinking it all away. Between blackouts and writhing in the corner next to the hum of the radiator, Dickerson connects the dots while learning from his mistakes.
Dickerson and I spoke a few months ago about this deeply personal collection of lo-fi indie rock and its process, Bright Eyes, the influential John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats, and more. Read it all here and listen to Trial + Error along with Dickerson’s new demos below.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
I’ve been playing, I think, for most of the time that I’ve been alive (I’m 22), and I’ve been obsessed with music for 100% the whole time I’ve been alive (I probably got it from my dad; he writes songs, too [one of them is actually on my album]).
I’ve been writing songs for probably a decade now, ever since I recorded my first ones on a broken-down MacBook in 2007 when I was ten; I probably wrote my first good one four or five years ago.
And then, as far as myself in general: I live in Austin! I went to UT-Austin for English! I like cooking! I have depression! I know a lot of dumb trivia and a lot of lyrics! I watch, truly, so many movies! etc.
We’re supposed to be talking about music but who’s your favourite author?
Oh! uh, well, hmm. Usually, I answer these by giving a recent fave and an all-time fave, so, if we’re doing novels, I’d say William Faulkner and Jennifer Egan; if we’re doing poetry, I’d say Langston Hughes and Patricia Lockwood.
oh, also Hanif Abdurraqib’s Tribe Called Quest book is my favorite thing I read last year.
Have you ready any Houellebecq?
No! but I keep hearing that he’s great! I’ll get to it one day or another, lol. Truth of it, honestly, is that I’m very bad at focusing on most stuff, but especially on reading—like, narrowing my focus to just that one thing is really hard for me (ADHD, baby).
The bright flashy lights of the internet have absolutely destroyed my brain!
And everyone’s brain. What was the last video you watched?
My youtube history says it was this SNL sketch called “Confident Hunchback” where Andy Samberg plays Quasimodo as, like, an extremely smooth operator and all his pickup lines are about how his body is hideously mangled and broken but people love it because he’s being himself. It’s deeply strange!
Also this video of Kathleen Edwards doing “Sweet Little Duck” — she’s one of my favorite songwriters and I have no idea why “Failer” isn’t talked about like the classic that it is for me personally
What’s the story behind your name, ‘Nice Bike, The Band’?
Lol, it’s just “Nice Bike” by itself, I added the “The Band, Baby” part on social for disambiguation purposes. you know like when you look for a band but they have a generic name so you gotta add “band” to the Google search?
The “Nice Bike” name just came from this one time where I complimented this stranger’s bike and he thought I was being a dick and almost kicked my ass but didn’t, lol.
Makes sense. I get a lot of submissions from new artists with generic names like “Steve”. You’re not Rihanna, Steve.
Hahaha, you’ve really got to earn a mononym IMO — Prince got to be Prince because his name was Prince; he was born for that.
Do you have a bike? More importantly, what’s your bike’s name?
No, the grand irony is that actually I am afraid of bicycling because I am a huge baby and I don’t like the my-feet-don’t-touch-the-ground of it all. But I finally live in a neighborhood with flat, even streets now, so maybe I’ll get one?
I dunno what I’d call it. All my electronics are named after Houston Rockets players but it feels wrong to name something you ride after a human person, so, not sure!
Go Raps! Mine’s named after a person but it’s a person from a song and I don’t know them so I guess it’s ok?
Wait so who’s your bike named after?
Haligh, from my favourite Bright Eyes album, ‘Fevers and Mirrors’!
Oh, that’s my favorite Bright Eyes album too!
High five. We’re the minority as most would say ‘Lifted’ or ‘I’m Wide Awake’. It’s pretty much the perfect Bright Eyes album.
I couldn’t get into ‘Lifted’, I don’t know why. My dad hates that record lol. He actually sold it back to the CD store when it came out.
So you dropped your debut album, ‘Trial + Error’, a few months ago, and it took you four years to write. I imagine if you started it at 18, finished at 22, a lot must’ve changed sonically, lyrically, etc. Those are not only formative years, but you seemed to have gone through a lot during then.
Yeah, you know, I think there’s some amount of turmoil that belongs to everybody around those ages, and, I mean, my writing process is kind of scattered. Often I start something and I don’t return to it for a long time.
As far as sonic change, this album was definitely more consistent sonically, I think, than my first, which had a lot of genre experiments and things on it. I’m very proud of that first record, for what it’s worth, and I think it’s probably the only album that exists with a Drake cover and a Beach Boys cover on it. And I do think that one hangs together as a piece, but ‘Trial + Error’ was definitely written with cohesion in mind, and part of that was being conscious of how the songs I was writing were going to fit together. And so a lot of it did end up being in a narrower indie-pop kind-of lane. Album sequencing is very important to me.
I still write songs now and then in different styles but this lane—standard band lineup, lots of words: is the one that I feel is best suited to the kind of writing I wanted to do on this record, which was very kinda earnest, self-effacing stuff where I tried to look directly at myself and identify problems and think about how I got to where I was and how I could be better.
The urge to do that kind of writing, I think, came from going through a lot, like you said — a decent part of which was putting other people through a lot and being toxic, and then wanting to recognize that toxicity and improve myself for the people who cared about me.
You shared a great self-published interview that you did with your mom. It goes in-depth and covers some of what I would’ve asked. Have you two always been that close?
I’ve been really lucky to have a really good relationship with my parents. they’ve always been really open and supportive and kind, which I’m deeply grateful for. It’s funny though ’cause it reminds me of this Kyle Kinane bit where he’s talking about how he wanted to be a musician, but because he grew up in a supportive, loving home, he couldn’t do it. Like he’d try to be punk or whatever and his mom would make chilli dip for his friends when they practiced in the basement.
The idea being that support crushes ambition, lol, but I’m still trying! Anyway, yeah, we get along well!
There are actually a couple of parts on the record that are directed at them (a lot of it is directed specifically at one person or another, honestly), or not directed at them but in their voice.
Like on “Redeye”, which is a song I wrote about when I tried to go to college in new york, but I had a really bad depressive spiral and I had to transfer back home to UT-Austin, and then it’s about how I had a friend who was going to school up there with me (at a different college) and how he stayed and I sort of resented it and how there was a part of me that wanted to prove I could’ve stayed but I couldn’t because I had to take care of myself.
Anyway, there’s a section on there that goes, “feel the static, breathe it in and let it go / please don’t call yourself a quitter, you tried hard to feel at home …” That’s me sort of assuming my mom’s voice.
I did that, I think, as a way of trying to assert to myself that I was doing the right thing by taking care of myself, but I did that from outside of myself. Mental health’s complicated, lol.
Oh, and the part of the song that’s about my dad — there’s a mention about, “3 a.m. at the Cortlandt station,” which is where, in, like, February of that first school year, I told my dad that I was worried about myself and my health, which sort of started the train for me getting back to Austin.
Coming home ended up really pushing me toward getting better and taking care of myself, and then, once I felt like I was stable, that’s when I started trying to improve myself and that’s where a lot of the thematic content of the album—self-analysis, forgiveness, hurting people and making sure I didn’t do it again—comes from.
What was the reception like from friends and family? Especially those who were unaware of what was going on in your life.
People have mostly been very nice! One thing that’s been funny is that a couple of my old friends have heard my lyrics and asked if I was talking about this or that thing, and they’re almost always right, haha.
My family’s been super nice about it, too, always very kind about the actual writing and singing and playing of it.
What’s funniest to me (I mention this in my interview with my mom) is that apparently, people have messaged my mom on Facebook to ask, like, if I’m okay? My grandma too. Like, they heard me reporting my life honestly, and they immediately became worried.
One of the dangers of art as therapy is that, uhhh, do you really want everyone to hear your secrets? But I do! Because my secrets A. aren’t that embarrassing and B. are rooted in stuff that I think a lot of people have to deal with and if my oversharing can be useful to anyone, then, that’s, like, the ideal outcome for me.
It all makes sense. Music is therapeutic, right? As a musician and a listener.
Hell yeah! At least it is for me. It’s funny, there’s an Anne Carson interview where she just straight up says, “I do not believe in art as therapy,” and, like … I fucking disagree.
So four years in the making – was there a moment when you realized the album was done? How do you stop yourself from constantly tinkering away?
Right, so I feel like there’s never any true finality in working on a creative project, right? Like, for me, it’s just done when I decide that I’m not gonna change anything else. On this project, that happened in stages. So, I had all the lyrics finalized, and then all the chords, and then all the arrangements, all the takes, all the mixes, all the masters, etc.
I think the lyrics were done by about 2018 (with the exception of “Fireball,” which I finished right after recording started in earnest in, like, May of 2019).
The whole recording process took about two or three months — a handful of full-day sessions spread out over time because I was still in school full-time and so it was hard to find time sometimes.
And then mixing and mastering (which I did not do, because I am not good at it) took maybe a month just of my producer sending me cuts and me sending back notes until I felt good about everything.
You wrote a musical about The Mountain Goat’s phenomenal “All Hail West Texas” and even contacted John Darnielle but he said, naw, not interested. Rude! I would’ve thought he would’ve at least been like, “cool, have fun, thank you,” or something like that.
Hahaha, he was really pretty polite. I think he said something like, “I know that’s probably not the answer you were hoping for, but it’s the truth.”
I don’t even remember exactly what the question I asked him was. Maybe I was trying to send it to him? Not sure, but he wasn’t into it and I respect that. Anyway, I love The Mountain Goats and my songs wouldn’t be near as good if I’d never heard “All Hail” so it’s all cool with me. Hail Satan, baby.
What’s currently in your headphones?
I just finished re-listening to Joey Purp’s “Quarterthing” which is a fucking incredible record. I actually wrote about it for a music magazine when it came out!
Haven’t listened. Why should I?
Oh, man! So I feel like it’s one of those really great rap albums about memory and about being unable to escape your younger years (Danny Brown’s “XXX” and “Old” are good examples of this, as is most of Future’s output). It starts out almost celebratory, like, soul samples and guest singers, but over the course of the album, it gets darker and narrower and more frenetic, like the walls are closing in as he gets closer and closer to describing the day-in-day-out life he lived when he was just a kid serving in Chicago. he’s also just a really forceful performer with a good melodic sense and there are a couple of hip-house tracks in the first half of the record that absolutely fucking slam.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
What’s the best you’ve gotten? just while I’m trying to remember.
Hold up, that’s now how this works. I don’t know. Probably something a close friend said a few years ago while in the throes of despair. “It was their choice and had nothing to do with you.” It still resonates. Or something like that.
I absolutely feel that
There’s probably more but those usually occur while in the depths of the booze.
I think probably the best advice I’ve gotten was just to journal more? I’ve kept a diary pretty consistently for the last 2.5 years or so and it’s really helped me keep track of myself and given me a concrete way of knowing how I’m doing and what I can do better.
But I mean really the best advice I’ve gotten now that I think about it, is just to be kind. I gotta believe that’s the most important thing I can be, is kind to others and to the people in my life.
If your music was the soundtrack to a movie, what movie would you pick?
I dunno! If it’s like, what kind of movie my music would fit into, I’d probably say something indie-ish and sentimental, like “Submarine” or “Lady Bird” or something. If it were, like, what kind of movie I think would be fun to write a score for, the answer changes wildly. I think it’d be really fun to do either, like, an action/thriller-type thing (the score for “Uncut Gems” slapped) or maybe, like, a period drama (loved the “Phantom Thread” score). I think I could do the latter ’cause I had some classical music training and I took theory in high school.
What about a Michael Bay action/thriller?
Oooooh, I bet that’d be really fun to do. Jis movies are butt and I dunno if anyone would be able to hear my work over the whirring of machinery but I’d love to do some loud-ass horn stabs while an Autobot leg-drops a Decepticon.
For new and old listeners, what is it you hope they take away from your music?
Mostly, I just hope that something I say will be useful to someone, that the stuff I make can help someone who hears it feel better for a second, feel less alone; in the same vein, I hope my talking about my depression and my dysphoria and my failures normalize some of that stuff and helps people accept themselves.
And for ‘Trial + Error’, specifically, I hope people come away feeling like if they’ve fucked up or been cruel or let people down, they’ve still got time to get better.