With Sam Cieri as lead singer, John Merritt on bass, John Hays on guitar and Abel Tabares on the drums, Nicotine Dolls has a mission to bring a cinematic experience to its listeners. After five years of hard work and dedication, the band is hopeful that its big break in the music industry is coming.
After years of trying to survive in New York City, Cieri did everything from busking in the city’s subways to repairing motorcycles. With several cruise ship performances and Broadway shows under his belt, he wanted to write music. In the past year, as TikTok’s reputation for making people famous has brought several musicians into the spotlight, Nicotine Dolls has racked up thousands of views.
The Post sat down with Cieri, who in addition to being lead singer also co-founded Nicotine Dolls, to discuss the band’s accomplishments and aspirations for the future.
The Post: How did you get involved in music and theater?
Cieri: Well, theater not so much — that was more of an accidental thing. Music was always a thing. I started playing music when I was 13 because I wanted to get a date. It didn't have anything to do with me wanting to express myself; I just saw some kid playing guitar and I was like, “A lot of people seem to like him.” It didn’t help me get a date at all — I forgot he was wildly good looking and rich. I became that kid that just played bad guitar at lunch. I dropped out of high school to go be a rockstar, or so I told myself. I just started playing clubs when I was 18. I was a subway singer in New York for about three years. After that I almost got evicted, so I had to go get a normal job. I started selling motorcycles because I love motorcycles. I had recorded this EP and it tanked, and it was just like my 20 billionth failure so I was like, “Oh okay, I guess I'm just not meant to be a musician so I guess I'll stop.” Then I just stopped, and was like “guess i'm just a motorcycle guy now.” I was selling motorcycles until I got into a really bad motorcycle accident when I was 21. I couldn't really walk or do anything after this accident, but I needed to pay my bills. So a friend of mine was like, “Hey you should look into acting.”
I got an audition through a friend for a show called Rock of Ages. I did theater in high school on and off, but never thought that I was going to go do that as a job. I went to the audition and got it. Then I was on a cruise ship doing Rock of Ages for seven months. Straight from that, to go on a tour for a show called Once. I did that for two years, and then when I got out of that I did a bunch of theater in the city. I was doing theater and thinking, “This very well could be a job.” I was getting work constantly and it was really great, but I didn't love it. It was never what I really wanted to do. It's one of those things, where if you find yourself standing in front of a lot of other people that would love to do what you're doing, and you don't love it, maybe you should sit down.
TP: How did Nicotine Dolls start?
Cieri: John (Hays) is my best friend and we met doing a Broadway tour. We were touring around with a show called Once. During the tour I knew coming out of it I was not going to do theater or acting (anymore). I told him, “When we get out of here we’re going to start a band.” I have always had a dream of having one of the best bands in New York — one of those bands that just blows up a stage every time they’re on it. I think the thing that really brought John Merrit and Abel (Tabares) into the band was the musicianship part was kind of a foregone conclusion. It really turns into a personality test. When you start a band with somebody, it’s like, “Could you spend the rest of your life with this person?” We figured out we needed a new name once we were all together on it.
TP: How did you come up with the name Nicotine Dolls?
Cieri: Well we were originally “BREA & the Baskets.” We went on one tour as BREA & the Baskets and we released an EP as BREA & the Baskets, which you cannot find anymore. We were on tour and someone was like, “Let's give it up for Bread Baskets,” so I was like, “Cool, we need a different name if that's what they heard.” We got back and had so many meetings and discussions. Then we were like, “Who are our songs for? Who are we?” I will go to a party and have so much fun and then I'll get really overwhelmed and anxious. But I don't want to leave because what if something awesome happens. So I'll spend the entire night outside smoking, just waiting for people to come out to talk. And people always do, people always come outside, and I can handle those interactions. I don't know why, but I was like, “That kind of person would be called a nicotine doll.”
TP: You mentioned busking in the subways, do you have any horror stories from New York City’s underground?
Cieri: Well, the coolest thing that ever happened was Rod Stewart walked by once. I was singing a song, and I only noticed him right when he was getting on the train. But it was definitely Rod Stewart, and he looked back at me and gave me the OK. That was so cool. The other side of that is, and this is one of many of these kinds of stories, but this one takes the cake: a man stood in front of me, made eye contact with me, and then s--- his pants. Didn't break eye contact. And I didn't know until I smelled it and I was like “Oh my god! Oh my god!” And he wouldn't leave, so I had to leave. Some guy came up to me once in sunglasses, and he was like, “You're gonna need this,” and put this thing in my hand and kept walking. I didn't open my hand until he was gone. I looked down and it was a bullet! This huge bullet and for like a solid minute I was like, “What is about to happen that I am going to need this?” I was looking at the train thinking, “Is there going to be a moment where the train gets taken or a gun ends up in my hand and I have one bullet?” I thought maybe I had to save the world.
TP: What has been your most rewarding experience as a musician?
Cieri: We just finished our first album and we spent the past summer doing that. And that has been kind of insane. I've never done a full length album before and what we are trying to do with it, sonically, is bigger than anything I've ever done. Right now, that holds the mantle, but I’m pretty sure tackling the album live is what I look forward to as a musician right now.
TP: What has been your biggest accomplishment as an artist?
Cieri: Musically, definitely the album. Career-wise the best accomplishment was we just did our first full show to a crowd of people that knew all the words. To hear 200 people sing your words to you is insane. It has been a really interesting five months. We went from 800 followers on TikTok to 115,000. Seeing that things are moving and more people are connecting to the music, I feel like I'm in the middle of our biggest achievements.
TP: Do you prefer the Broadway audience or the concert audience?
Cieri: There is a similarity between both, but the main reason I stopped theater is because when you're an actor, it has nothing to do with you. You're a part of a machine — the audience isn't there to see you. They are there for the show, or what the original cast did, or what the show means to them. When people come to see us, it may have nothing to do with us, but it's about the person's interpretation of the work that we made. That, to me, is much more significant and it means that I have contributed to the art instead of just performing it. Our job at a live show is to create emotional safety in a space that's safe for everybody to feel things or let go or whatever. Everyone comes in with their own version of what the song means to them.
TP: What does Nicotine Dolls hope to bring to the music industry?
Cieri: I personally hope the band brings something bigger; something more cinematic that I think is lacking right now. I hope we are able to be a home base; something someone can put their hand on and feel safe and feel comforted. When you come to our shows, it should be a safe space to allow yourself to feel things and say things about your mental health, about the way you process things as a person. My apartment is littered in Star Wars memorabilia, and I spend money on buying replica Indiana Jones jackets. I don’t think people who have those kinds of loves have a band that creates worlds for them to live in, and that’s what we would like to do.
TP: Have the goals of you and your group changed since the pandemic?
Cieri: Yeah, definitely. Pre-pandemic we were on a really great live, local upswing. We had done our first sold show and the pandemic just blew all that away. We had a plan to do another EP and we were going to do a tour and all of that got swept away. I did a rethink of the band as a whole and our goals. You need to have a point of view and a perspective and something to contribute to people’s lives. The goal changed from, “How are we expressing ourselves?” to “What are we giving?” and that’s the idea for the album.
Nicotine Dolls is releasing its new album We Open on a House Party in the Spring, and their new single “Upset the Neighbors” is available now. Cieri also encourages fans to check out the group’s music videos, available on its YouTube channel.