ICU, Nolan Patrick
Decoding Indie Rock's Most Intriguing Relationship
It’s the dream - or my dream, at least - to break up with someone and make them play in a band while I sing about how terrible they are. Stevie Nicks did it. Gwen Stefani did it. I’m not even a musician and I’d love to make the series of guys named Mike I’ve dated, lived with, and dumped play bass while I screech about their inability to communicate.
Enter a new legend: Indie darling Nolan Patrick, whose sophomore album is an emotional caterwaul about our current dystopian reality. It’s also about his complicated relationship and breakup with Travis Konecny, Patrick’s bandmate and drummer. During quarantine, Patrick has become a critical hit and beloved by fans, perhaps because his depressed mumble mirrors our current existential crisis so accurately. And maybe because we all long to write a song about how much our ex’s mom sucks.
As soon as I sat down to interview Nolan Patrick in the lobby of the Notary Hotel in Center City in August, the first thing I noticed was that Travis Konecny was cozying up next to Patrick on one of the roll-arm couches. Patrick ignored Konecny’s presence for the first ten minutes, leading me to think that I was imagining the small man with the scraggly facial hair and backwards camo hat. But then, in response to one of Patrick’s monosyllabic answers, Konecny snorted a laugh and I saw Patrick cut his eyes to the side. Suddenly, the nearly-unflappable singer was blushing bright red and this tiny smirk came over his usually blank face.
Patrick is tall and broad, with chin-length auburn hair that he repeatedly tucks behind his ears. That day in Philadelphia, he was wearing his usual uniform of black skinny jeans with the knees ripped out and an oversized hoodie with the strings gnawed to threads. If Patrick looks every inch the indie rocker he is, Konecny is his opposite: a small, compact man with greasy hair and the sartorial sense of your hick uncle.
Nolan Patrick’s name is on the album and on the marquees of the intimate venues where he played before the pandemic. (When the pandemic is over, expect to see Patrick at arenas and on the second line of the Coachella poster.) But despite being known as a singer-songwriter, much of Patrick’s artistic inspiration and output is owed to Travis Konecny. The pair met in the summer of 2017, when the both appeared at a festival for emerging artists and forged a bond over late-night jam sessions. They’ve spent the past three years in each other’s pockets - living in identical apartments on different floors of the same Center City building, touring Europe and Japan in a cramped RV, and recording in a tiny basement studio in South Philadelphia. While other band members come and go - bassist Joel Farabee, who also plays with local band the Phantoms, journeyman guitarist Scott Laughton, and a variety of local Philly music scenesters like singers Carter Hart and Morgan Frost - the music is Patrick and Konecny’s vision.
“I didn’t set out to diss Travis’s mom,” Patrick says once we’ve acknowledged I’m interviewing both of them together.
“He actually likes my mom,” Konecny says in between sips of cold brew. He’s pretty twitchy already so I’m worried about the direction we’re headed.
“Alright, I wouldn’t go that far,” Patrick mumbles. He shoots me a significant look. “Trump supporter,” he says, as if that’s all I need to know about that.
We’re talking about "ICU," the second single from Patrick's new album, which was originally released in June as “I See You” to avoid the association with sickness during a global pandemic. In other interviews, Patrick has talked generally about writing the song after locking himself out of his house and lying on the lawn, drunk and thinking about his failed relationship. And while some of that is likely true, the details are hazy. For one thing, Patrick doesn’t have a lawn at his apartment in Philadelphia. For another, Konecny has a writing credit on the song.
“Patty [the band’s nickname for Nolan] was in Winnipeg after tour,” Joel Farabee informs me. I met him outside the La Colombe café off Rittenhouse Square at the end of the summer. It was odd to see the sleepy-eyed bassist out on a bright Sunday morning. “I don’t know when they wrote 'ICU.' Those two don’t tell me shit.”
It turns out that “they” is Patrick and Konecny who, despite breaking up in Kyoto during the last leg of the tour in February, somehow got together to write a song about their breakup between then and June.
“Patty wasn’t even working on music. He told me he was totally burned out and didn’t even want to listen to music after the tour ended,” Carter Hart added when I met him last fall. He was wearing sunglasses and was getting ready for a jog along Boathouse Row when I caught up with him. “I thought TK [the band’s nickname for Travis] had gone to his family’s farm in Ontario or whatever,” Carter said. “Tour was over.”
The sense I got from my conversations with the band was that the tour had ended pretty harshly for the couple. Farabee, Hart, and Frost described escalating tensions as they traveled from city to city, all culminating in a breakup on the street in front of Ginkaku-ji in Kyoto in February.
“Like, they were always screaming, even when they got along,” Frost told me by phone from L.A., where he was working on a solo album. “You could never tell if they were mad or if it was foreplay, honestly.”
“One time I burst into Patty’s hotel room in Germany because I thought one of them was going to kill the other but it turned out they were hooking up,” Hart told me, shaking his head and starting his run so I couldn’t ask any follow-up questions.
Farabee confirmed as much to me at La Colombe. “They’re really codependent and their chemistry is so strong but they also fight like cats sometimes. It’s hard to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”
Patrick’s manager, Kevin Hayes, was more circumspect. “Nolan and Travis are genius together, real artistic genius. There’s of course going to be some volatility there but they continue to work together and will be touring on Nolan’s new album soon.”
How did Patrick and Konecny come together to write a song about their breakup from Patrick’s perspective, one that is so harsh about Konecny himself, amidst all of this drama? To hear Patrick tell it, he returned to Winnipeg alone to sleep off the tour and ended up stranded on the Canadian side of the border. One night in late-April, he got drunk in a friend’s backyard and ended up locked out of his house.
“I was pretty drunk and I knew I’d have to break a window to get in but I was so tired that I just collapsed on the lawn,” Patrick told me while Konecny took a break to take a call. “We’d broken up and I was pissed at him for a lot of reasons, so I just laid there and thought about how stupid he was.” The next morning, Patrick said, the germ of the song was still in his mind. He didn’t mention Konecny’s role in writing the song and ignored my questions about how the collaboration happened.
When Konecny returned from taking his call, Patrick reverted to short answers. How long did it take to write "ICU"? Not long. Whose idea was the line about not being able to get Konecny to play the drums? Don’t remember. What does the ending mean? Here, Patrick elaborately shrugged. Konecny just grinned.
There’s a killer line in the second verse of "ICU," where Patrick guts out
If you’re a work of art
I’m standing too close
I can see the brush strokes
For a couple that has spent every day together the past several years, touring and making music, it makes sense that Patrick and Konecny had seen too much to appreciate each other. For those of us who have been trapped in small apartments with our spouses during quarantine, we can relate. (Those of us who tend toward depression also can relate when Patrick worries that whenever he feels good that it'll be the last time.) Patrick admits his role in fucking up the relationship and laments that he doesn't “light [Konecny] up” like he used to. But the more interesting line to me is when Patrick sings
But I feel something when I see you now
I feel something when I see you
That line, repeated several times throughout "ICU," hints at life coming back into a relationship that’s near-dead after many years together. Could it be that "ICU" isn’t a breakup song at all, isn’t an expression of how much Patrick hates Konecny, but is in fact a love song - a testament that love can still thrive after years of friction? After blowing up their romantic and working relationship in Japan, did Patrick and Konecny reconnect in Winnipeg and realize that they need each other?
“The secret,” Farabee told me by phone several days after we met, “is that I’m not convinced that they ever broke up.” There was a moment of silence where I let that sink in, wondering how one writes a great breakup song with no breakup. “Or, not that they never broke up, but that they’re constantly in the process of breaking up and getting back together.”
[When I pressed Hayes for details on the timeline of the romantic relationship between Patrick and Konecny, he put me on hold and then hung up on me.]
When pressed, Hart agreed. “I was never able to figure out when they were done,” he said by phone a few weeks ago. “Like, I don’t want to make it sound like some Romeo and Juliet shit, but they’re totally made for each other. They can deny it but they’re gonna end up married with a bunch of kids some day. Like, secret kids. They won’t tell anyone about it.” (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Romeo and Juliet ended up dead, not with a secret family.)
It’s odd to have a confessional songwriter like Patrick be so cagey about the details of his personal life. “There’s an element of truth in it,” Frost clarified about Patrick’s songwriting, the process of which he’s observed first hand over the past few years. “They did break up in Japan and it was fucking terrible for everyone. They both went home to Canada and swore they’d never talk again. But I bet they couldn’t stay away from each other. I’m like 80% sure TK was there that night,” referring to Patrick’s drunken night on his lawn.
Hart added: “TK was sending me Snapchats from Winnipeg by April so he was definitely with Patty that night.”
What I almost didn’t include in this story is that Konecny caught up with me outside the Notary Hotel while I waited for the valet to bring my car around. He looked furtive, like Patrick didn’t know that he was speaking with me. [Patrick’s agent Kevin Hayes disputes that this conversation occurred but Konecny confirmed his words to a fact-checker for this publication.] “Patty doesn’t like to talk about this,” Konecny said, looking sheepish. “That night he locked himself out?”
I waited with bated breath, wondering if the mystery of this song would be solved.
“I opened the window.” And then he winked at me and turned to go back into the hotel.
On my way back to 30th Street Station, I remembered the last lines of "ICU," where Patrick sings about leaving the window wide open to let the light in the next morning. Maybe he woke up hungover the next day and Konecny was there to make him a cup of coffee. Maybe after so many years of writing and playing music together, all that mattered was that Konecny was there to let him in again.
When I texted Patrick to ask whether Konecny opened the window to let him back into his house and if they were once again together, Patrick merely texted back: 🙃.