Opposites Attract Applause

Nicole and Spiro Nicolopoulos are the Paper Crowns.
Photo by Matt Rose

It’s the age-old chicken-or-egg question. Which came first: the marriage of Spiro and Nicole Nicolopoulos, or their band, the Paper Crowns? 

“Technically,” Nicole responds with a laugh, “the musical collaboration, then marriage.” Spiro clarifies things: “We had a year-and-a-half relationship before any musical collaborations.” Starting as friends, building a relationship, launching a duo and getting married is a lot of activity compressed into relatively few years. But that’s only part of the story: they started out playing in California and moved their lives and livelihoods to North Carolina.

A multi-instrumentalist and nascent songwriter, Spiro had been very active in the West Coast jam-band scene; as a solo artist, he scored a spot on the bill at the massive Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee in 2006. His approach was loose and informal. “When there’s chaos involved, I don’t even have to try,” he says.

Meanwhile, Nicole — a formally trained player with a degree in music — was playing hard rock. “When we got together, I had an electric trio,” she says. “College/indie rock, but a little heavier.” She brought in focus and discipline. “When structure is involved, Nicole can navigate very easily,” Spiro says with admiration. He admits that on the surface, at least, his and Nicole’s approaches are polar opposites, styles that in general “don’t always work together.”

Illustrious percussion is their jam.
Photo by Matt Rose

But in this couple’s case, they do. When Nicole and Spiro put their talent together, they ended up heading in a direction that was distinctly different from what each had been doing previously. “We did something that people totally didn’t expect,” Spiro says. “We tried to compose music with slap guitar [mimicking percussion by hitting the guitar].” At first, this more acoustic-based approach confused fans of their earlier respective projects.

“Some people really dug it,” Spiro says. “But the thing that I heard right away was, ‘Spiro doesn’t play solos anymore. He’s totally abandoned the things that he did.’” Nicole got the same kind of comments: “Nicole’s not playing electric guitar anymore!”

But the couple believed in what they were doing. “We did our own thing: we put together our first generation of contraptions that we step on to make percussion noises,” says Spiro. And Nicole developed a rhythmic style that owes a debt to the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir.

They started gaining traction with their new sound, but found the California music scene frustrating. “The routine of it all became a drag,” Spiro says. “Kind of soul sucking. So we said, ‘Well, it’s time to change our lives. What do we really want to do?’” They left California and moved to Asheville in August 2015.

Thanks to a solid local connection — Spiro had backed his friend, Asheville DJ/producer Oso Rey, when Rey played out West — the couple was booked a radio-station appearance, followed by a high-profile gig at that year’s Dig Festival. A unique act that managed to stand out in a town full of unique acts, The Paper Crowns quickly established themselves in the region’s music scene.

Nicole says that what the Paper Crowns do is more complex than it might appear. “It’s splitting your brain a lot of different ways,” she explains. “Spiro’s got his guitar, and he’ll be soloing. But he’s got kick and snare drums going at the same time.” Meanwhile, Nicole is playing guitar and working additional percussion with her feet. She laughs and says that people often ask, “Wow, where is that noise coming from? And how are you doing it?” 

The Paper Crowns also exist in a full-band configuration; Spiro says there’s a long-term plan that involves releasing recordings that showcase the different sides of the act. But no matter what they do, Spiro and Nicole make music that defies easy classification. And that’s by design. “I really enjoy the entire history of American music,” he says. “And that’s mostly the source that we draw from.”

The Paper Crowns play The Purple Onion (16 Main St., Saluda) on Thursday, July 25, 8pm. Call 828-749-1179 or see purpleonionsaluda.com for more information. www.thepapercrowns.com.

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