Heart, Head, Hands and Feet: The Paper Crowns

It’s the age-old chicken-or-egg question. Which came first: the marriage of Spiro and Nicole Nicolopoulos, or their musical collaboration, 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 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 music scene; as a solo artist, he scored a spot on the bill at the massive Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee in 2006. His approach to music was loose and informal. “When there’s chaos involved, I don’t even have to try,” he says.

Meanwhile, Nicole – a formally trained musician 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.” But she brought a focus and discipline to the music. “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 to making music are polar opposites, styles that “don’t always work together.”

But in this couple’s case, they do. When Nicole and Spiro began collaborating musically, 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 Spiro’s and Nicole’s previous 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 heard the same kind of comments: “Nicole’s not playing electric guitar anymore!”

But the couple believed in what they were doing. “We had to start all over again with a different fan base in California,” Spiro recalls. “But we did our own thing: we put together our first generation of contraptions that we step on to make percussion noises.” And Nicole developed a rhythmic style of playing that owes a debt to the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir.

The couple started gaining traction with their new music, 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 and Asheville musician Oso Rey when Rey played out west – the couple was booked a radio station appearance; that was soon followed by a high profile gig at that year’s Dig Festival. A unique act that nonetheless stood 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 says. “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 that there is a long-term plan that involves releasing recordings that showcase the different sides of the Paper Crowns. 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.”