Pete Langman talks to Bill Nelson, 15-9-2011, 10am
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Listening to the box set … 150 tracks on seven discs
BN – I think there’s an eighth disc
that didn’t make it to me
BN – well i’ve not got a copy of that yet either – that was held up because there were some negotiations with the bbc to get hold of the david jenson sessions and the peel sessions, and um, I think that’s all been done now and it will be in the final finished thing
so what was the impetus in putting out so many tracks?
BN – It’s basically because cherry red records, esoteric, which is a […] have licensed a chunk of my back catalogue, and over the next seven years, I think, they’re going to be re-releasing a lot of out of print albums and also this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the first album I ever recorded under my own name, northern dream, it seems, for them i’m sure it’s a way of introducing people to an overview of that back catalogue. And also at the same time celebrating the fact that i’ve managed to keep going for forty years,
such a breadth of material …
if you were to pick a tune from each disc …
BN – well obviously it would be made up of things from across several albums, and I tend to be, the selection on that box set initially because of the licensing it only goes up to a period when I did a 6 cd set called Noise Candy, that was quite some years ago now, so there’s quite a chunk that’s missing in a way, i’ve put some of it on there to try and have something representative of the material i’ve done beyond the [??4.04] and singing career, and obviously I think you’re always enthused more by your more recent work than your earlier work you know, so I suppose it would be more from he last ten years more than anything else – I know BBD is the thing that most people might remember, but in fact it’s a very small fraction of the work i’ve done. And without having the track list in front of me it’s hard to say exactly which tracks but I would choose certainly some of the guitar instrumentals – there’s a track called never a dull day which is dedicated to les paul, I mean from the point of view of guitar and bass magazine, it’s certainly of interest to people who play guitar I think. There are lots of other slightly experimental guitar instrumental things that are very much part of my currency, but then there’s an album I did called the alchemical adventures of sailor bill, I think there’s one track on there – it’s a songsuite album which has guitars and orchestral sounds … all done from the keyboard but the idea is it’s supposed to sound like an album with a real orchestra and that is one of my personal favourites. And then there’s an album called Rosewood, which has acoustic guitar instrumentals and there’s a track on the box set I put on from there called cascade and it’s an improvisation for three harp guitars and that album is one that has a lot of tracks i’m very pleased with on. I feel I can stand by that – the earlier stuff, I can never look at it objectively it’s always that thing about being super critical about everything you do and wishing you’d done it differently, but I think that’s the case with many people
you’re still doing it – lots have a first flush of success but never move on …
BN – or they go over and over it … a sort of nostalgia thing, i’m not an un-nostalgic person, I sit in my studio surrounded by all kinds of vintage toys and things, you know, but at the same time I suppose I’ve not really made an album i’ve been 100% satisfied with yet, and that’s why there’s that urge to get onto the next one and see whether I can improve on the previous one, so there’s always that need to sort of chase – it’s not like you’re looking for the holy grail or something, but you keep going
BN cottage industry as opposed to working within the confines of the ‘business’, what are the advantages and disadvantages of that approach?
BN – The advantage is that you have the freedom to try things out, without having to persuade anybody that it’s worth trying out, the music covers a lot of territory, I think it all feels recognisably by one person even though it explores different avenues but I suppose a disadvantage is that it’s easy to slip under mainstream radar so to speak, because I don’t have the facilities for self- publicity, so much other than via the website, and the website you know, is something that fans will find, but they are already aware of what i’m doing, attracting extra people would be nice sometimes, finding people who might not of heard of it before, and hopefully find something that they can get into – and i mean it’s hard work particularly doing everything myself here, I engineer and play everything, all the instruments I play and I design the sleeves … so there’s a lot of … i’m not a person who can, well, I don’t have the facility to delegate too much, so it means there’s lots of hours go into every day, dealing with it. Mainly because i’ve chosen to make a lot of records, as opposed to sitting back and doing nothing for a year and then suddenly coming up with something – i’ve always got an idea i’d like to try out, so, I treat it as a daily …
working towards a virtual artistic existence, where you don’t have to do traditional performances or concerts unless you need to
BN – well, that’s an ideal, at the moment i’m looking at, or have been looking at for a few months, the possibility of doing a tour. The last time I toured with a full band was in 2004 and I had a seven piece band I put together for that, and it’s ironic that the contemporary idea about surviving in the music business used to be that you would lose money on a tour but that it would sell records. And that’s how it was in the bbd days in the 70s, and then in recent years because of the way that the internet has impacted on record sales the only way to earn any money is to go out and tour, which is the opposite of what it used to be but in fact it’s still expensive to tour, if you want to do it to a certain standard, and we’ve been looking at even putting together a five-piece band on the road – we were going to be touring in november but the promoter thought that there were too many bands out, so it was best to do it in february next year, but we’re just hacking away at the budget and trying to get it to work because even taking five musicians out and because of gaps between certain venues you’ve got to put people in hotels, and you need a couple of weeks of rehearsal at least, and all the other stuff, it’s very expensive, and then you get to the point where people say the only way to make money is to sell merchandise, the tour loses money but hopefully you pick it up on merchandise, it’s going round in circles, and it does make you wonder whether the future holds much hope for musicians to earn a decent living, because it seems to be a road of so many different directions
the 70s reform circuit – rehashing greatest hits, or pushing ahead …
BN – well, the way i’ve worked over the last twenty years shows that i’m not particularly rushing to just suit a fan base, it’s not that I don’t appreciate having a fanbase there, but what I try to do is not become stereotyped by the 70s era, when things were commercially more viable, I suppose, and now I think certainly the hard core of the fans do know that whatever I do will not necessarily be what they want me to do, but that will be ok as well … and they’re quite happy to give it a go. And with the band tour in 2004 it was celebrating 30 years of axe victim, the the first bbd album came out, so we did a chunk of bebop stuff and a bit of red noise (12.55) and some things from the 80s as well, and I think it’s ok to do that, once in a while, I mean that’s what this tour we’re working towards or hopefully working towards at the moment will do, we’ll feature some older material but it will also have some newer stuff, and I act as my own support band doing a solo thing, and that solo set will be a little closer to the contemporary stuff i’m doing, so hopefully, with people that haven’t followed it, if they see bill’s going to be playing a few bebop songs I really used to like that band i’ll go and see … they’ll then get introduced to some of the new stuff as well. And maybe some of it will take, and some of it won’t. It can be useful to do that but my feeling is i’ll only do it up to a point because I don’t want to fall into that trap of just being that 70s guitar player
BN – it’s interesting the idea of supporting yourself, almost like there are two versions of you on tour … the old me, the greatest hits me and this is what i’m doing now – solves a lot of problems …
the way you work at home, an awful lot of samples, and an awful lot of people talking, it seems to me that there’s a lot of human voice activity, a lot of which concerns the world of dreams. Is it providing a narrative to your music, or some greater sensibility or what …
BN – well, i’ve always had a kind of (14.39) interest in … this might sound really pretentious of me, but the inner life, it’s something that’s fascinated me since I was very young, and dreams are a way in to that, in the sense that, it’s psychoanalytical in a sense, so there are themes, and I realised after a while since I started writing music that these themes kept reoccurring, certain themes to do with dream life, and symbolism and so on, and a kind of a retro science fiction angle as well, so I thought you know, ok well, I seem to have mapped out a little territory, that I can work with and explore and [ … 15.35] and things have become thematic and there are cross-references across different pieces of music across different years that just pull all those things together, and a lot of the voice samples that i’ve used on the instrumentals, they’re there for two reasons, and one is to introduce a kind of, an implied storyline, because in an instrumental obviously can be totally abstract, or you can suggest some kind of scenario, so i’ve often found lines from films and radio or whatever, that put together my implied some sort of narrative going on, and often it’s from several different sources … that when you do put those phrases together it does seem as of they belong, but they’re actually from quite diverse sources. And it brings out the slightly human element to it,
that diversity is particularly interesting, it works with your guitar playing, diverse influences, nods, bands, who are your main influences as a guitarist and who might people find surprising …
BN – my very first, the thing that really turned me on to wanting to play guitar, once i’d really … I started by playing a toy guitar [that my brother had] and eventually I heard duane eddy and I think that was the f … well, scotty moore, perhaps the first … because my parents had a second-hand radiogram that had a lot of 78s with it … and one of them was elvis’ jailhouse rock and scotty moore’s solo on that was something that made me sit up and listen … but duane eddy was the real first influence or inspiration to pick up the guitar seriously, and then hank marvin and then chet atkins and when I was a teenager I was getting into … a bias towards instrumental music, I thought the singer got in the way of the guitarist, you know, it wasn’t until later when I started writing my own songs and attempting to sing that I had a bit more time for singer songwriters. But initially it was all those late 50s early 60s twangy guitar people and bands, you know, the shadows, duane eddy, the ventures, the sputniks, people like that and then as I sort of got further into things I got into jazz and I listened a lot to wes montgomery jim hall, kenny burrell, and in fact used to try and play that kinda thing, but I wasn’t particularly academic – I never had any musical education any guitar lessons or anything like that, i’ve always been self-taught, kind of a guesswork thing, and then I got into the early psychedelic era, jeff beck in the yardbirds, hendrix, who every guitarist I know has been touched by, eric clapton with cream and when he was with john mayall, I got into blues as well, I was at art college when all that was just emerging, so it was kind of the hip thing to listen to, those were the sort of guitar players from that time, and since then, I tend to listen to … not always not guitarists, but mostly a wider range of music that doesn’t have to necessarily be guitar based – one guitarist I really like of recent years and I probably have more albums by him than any other contemporary player is bill frisell – he’s a wonderful musician and while h sit generally within the jazz genre his music crosses quite a few boundaries – goes into other areas as well, and I really like his sensibility and his harmonic approach and everything – very intelligent, very sophisticated but very listenable as well.
BN – well, the who were a band I used to love in my youth – the early who, anywhere anyhow anyway, my generation that sort of period is when it was really tightly structured pop, mod rock … king crimson I bought there very first album I think it was in the court of the crimson king, when that came out, but to be honest, I mean i’ve actually been on robert’s label briefly, robert is the guy who asked me to start doing an online diary an he’s been very supportive but ironically i’ve not had any of their records beyond that first one, until I was asked to write a review of a boxed set of re-releases recently, they sent me those so I was able to catch up. I think at the time I was probably slightly more into yes, if you’re looking at that sort of period, particularly starship troopers, that time … I thought the arrangements and the production was very clever … peter … the first time bbd ever did a proper tour was supporting peter on one of his solo tours, and we weren’t actually signed – we’d only just turned pro but we had record companies interested but we hadn’t actually signed any deal, and we went on this little tour with peter, i’ve known him at that time and met him again in recent years, but never had a VDGG record, or a peter hammill record …
bbd categorised as glam rock? 23.00 you used to wear make-up, but it doesn’t sound like that at all to me.
BN – no, well when we started we had no great ambition … it seemed impossible, we were working class guys from wakefield and we saw people on tv, and that was another world that wasn’t accessible to us, and the idea of us ever making a record other than say at a local studio just seemed an impossible dream. And when we started that whole kind of glam thing was a bit of fun, you know, it was a way to get up the noses of a lot of people in working men’s clubs, where we used to play, and we never really took it too seriously, that aspect of it but it worked in our favour that we very quickly built up a younger following and it was through the northern dream album that I had done in wakefield locally that john peel played, EMI got in touch and eventually led to us getting a deal. But by that time i’d already written what became most of the second bbd album but emi said you ought to put out the songs you’ve been playing for the last couple of years, you’ve got an audience now, that you’ve built up over that time, and they would buy the album because they want a recording of those songs. So for the first album we stuck with that look and those songs, which was a little bit frustrating but I wasn’t in a position to argue too much about it. And unfortunately critics can look at that first album and then presume that that’s where you are for the rest of your life, and obviously you’re not, because people move on.
To me it’s more sophisticated – more about sound and affect than vocal lines …
BN – that’s right, the entire picture’s interesting to me, not sticking the man up front to sing the song and everyone else is in the background … it’s that shift in perspective as well, so that things come forward and recede and there’s kind of a widescreen aspect to it as well, I do tend to see things in production in visual terms, it’s like arranging furniture in a room, doing a painting where you’ve got things that are blurred and in focus, and so on.
Re: not being in a position to argue in the first album, you seem to have had a rather rum relationship with the music business, points or moments you look back to that were turning points, or things you regret?
BN – I don’t think it’s possible to have regrets because you make decisions based on how much or how little you know t the time and its almost inevitable that rep the rewards or otherwise of each decision and you can’t change them afterwards, but looking back and particularly comparing the way that the music industry operates now there was definitely – I think we were quite lucky in that as far as emi went when signed with emi it was almost a golden age, because A&R men at that time , and there may still be A&R men now that are the same but maybe less of them, but the a&r people we dealt with were very supportive, they weren’t looking for instant success, they were looking at nurturing a band, obviously you’d be guided to som degree, but there was that sense that the people you dealt with at the record company were seriously into what you were doing, as a musician, and believed in you, and weren’t just pushing you down the sausage machine. Looking back I cn see it more now than [??? 27.40] at the time, but the bigger things got with the band, and we got quite popular in the uk, and were doing pretty good in america at one point and it started … that whole routine, that cycle of tour, album, tour, where you hardly have time to sort of recover you breath before you’re rushed out on the road again. And that success also became a little bit of a trap in that you have to play the old material every time you go out on tour you can’ just go out and play the new album you have to go right back to album one, and do stuff from that and after a while it doesn’t feel, for me anyway, doesn’t feel fresh … and it suddenly becomes a job, I shouldn’t complain about that but I didn’t take up music for it to become a chore, it was supposed to be a exciting and enlightening process if you like so I was always wanting to move on and the industry side of it did apply the brakes quite a bit, and then I had so many musicians and I had management problems issues stemming from that which caused all kinds of upheavals and stress so but it’s standard stuff, isn’t it, when you enter into a career as a band member or as a solo artist, whatever you’re going to hit these things sometimes,
talk about guitars … take us through the collection
BN – I should have made a list of what i’ve got, you know i’ve got 42 guitars. In my head without them being in front of me is difficult but in the 70s, the guitar that I was known for using most was the gibson es345stereo which my father bought me when I was 17, when he realised I was getting serious about the guitar – I had a couple of cheaper guitars before that but I still have the 345 and its had a lot of use over the years obviously toured all the time with bebop and its a guitar that I only take out on the road occasionally … it’s of great sentimental value apart from the fact that its an early 60s gibson 345, so that has a lot of fondness for me, but in terms of playing what I try to do is rotate things, in the studio, because I find every guitar has its own personality and while some might sound similar they feel different and even the look of them can give you a certain mood, so every few weeks I mybe have three guitars sitting in the studio and then i’ll swap them around and put another three out and … I tend to …. for a long time I didn’t have a stratocaster even though I was hugely influenced by hank marvin in he early days and used to dream about owning one – I do have one now and it’s a fiesta red one, a custom shop fender reissue of the 56 one …
interesting you mention the colour first
BN – yes [it’s very important with a strat], it is … and the fiesta red is very nice … another one that I never had until recently was a gibson les paul, and i’ve always been an admirer of les paul’s playing, and this came to me via a good fortuitous route because a fan of mine who was quite a wealthy man was a guitar collector and he died and left me a custom shop three pickup black beauty les paul, and i’ve really enjoyed using that, but I used to shy away from the les paul and the strat because I felt that nearly every other issue of a guitar magazine had a stratocaster or les paul on the cover, and as good as they are you know you think there must be other guitars … I like gretsches, i’ve got three gretsches, a white falcon, an anniversary, one green anniversary and an orange 6120, and I do like the sound of the gretsches for clean stuff, they’ve still got a litle bit of bite to them, they’re not entirely smooth, that’s what I like about them, i’ve got a signature model guitar made by campbell america called an elsonic transitone, which is also red with a cream scratchplate, an unusual shape, I use that quite a bit, and i’ve a lot of archtops, i’ve always had that little jazz thing running through me, so, i’ve got a nice guild x500, that I bought in the 70s, in america which is a big blond archtop, a company called peerless, they’re made in korea and for what they are and the prices they cost they’re absolutely superb, and I have a big peerless archtop, i’ve got quite a few guitars made by eastwood, thise are really expenive guitars and they’re kind of modern takes on what would have been budget guitars in the 50s and 60s like silvertone, and so on, and they’ve got a character all of their own and they certainly have a look that appeals to me, a retro-futuristic look about them. I think he look of a guitar’s really important, it’s not just the way it plays, i’ve seen guitars that play great but they look like a bit of woodwork, and I tend to not gravitate towards those, unless its arched. I think with archtops you can ge away with it,
Is there any sense that the guitar’s still – retro-futuristic? – website artwork 50s looking forward …
BN – the first time I hung around guitar shps was in my home town of wakefield and there was one there that had all those early burns in it and hagstroms, those with plastic fronts with buttons and controls on them, you know, and to me as a schoolboy they did look just discovering electric guitars, they looked like something from another planet, you know, and I guess that impact that it made on me stayed with me and I still sort of … particularly when eastwood started doing this reissue of stuff I thought great, somebody else appreciates this stuff as wel as me, it was very difficult to resist getting hold of a few,
what about gear, then now … constant …
BN – well, my first serious amplifier was a vox ac30, which was back in the 60s, I wish I still had it now, but I certainly wasn’t powerful enough – before that I had a little rosetti lucky seven amp which was about three watts or something, then after the vox I got … I think I wanted at the time a marshall but couldn’t afford it, and carlsbro came out with 50 and 100 watt heads and 4×12 cabinets at a much more affordable price, so I bought a fifty watt head and 4×12 cab and then when bebop started to happen and we were playing bigger places I bought a 100 watt carlsbro head and ended up with two of those and I think that the full rig that I ended up with in bbd was two carlsbro 100 watt heads, two H&H tape echo units, 6 SAI custom built speaker cabinets, with 2 12s in each, a big pete cornish pedalboard and a custom made preamp on one of the amps so I could push the front end get some natural distortion as well as having the option to kick in pedals, so it was quite an elaborate setup by the end of bebop, and then I tried to scale things back a bit at one point, particularly when digital processors came out – I remember buying that first small zoom unit, remember you could clip it on and thinking this is a fantastic thing, no need to lug amps around, just plug it straight into the pa, monitor through the monitors and it just sits there on your strap, but before long my digital setup ended up as complicated as anything if not more so than anything I had with bbd, what i’ve got now is a rack with three different processors, an oldish zoom 2050s rackmount, a digitex valve fx, i’ve got a pod, the early pod 2, which I use almost exclusively in the studio, not anything else, i’ve got a vetta 2, line 6 vetta 2 amp which I used on the tour in 2004, i’ve got a custom made carlsbro valve amp, which they built for me for the 2004 tour, which I designed, it’s based around the 50watt head that they made but the actual cosmetic of it, is something else, again it looks like its come from the jetsons, and then i’ve just had a signature amp made by a guy who’s based up here in yorkshire, and has an amp building company called rosewell, and he’s a real expert at vintage amp design, and initially did one in a tweed case rather like an old fender band master, and now he’s made one which to look at is more to my style, it’s a two-tone maroon and off-white with three 10s in it, and it’s a 40 watt combo, it’s not huge but it’s heavy. But has a really nice sound, he sources vintage speakers for his amps, and they’re well worth looking at if you’ve not seen them before I think he’s got a website – and then i’ve got couple of quirky things, i’ve got an old shaftesbury amp, which has elliptical speakers, it looks a bit like a tv front style thing, it’s pale blue and grey with a chrome grill that could have come off a 1960 vauxhall cresta by the look of it, but it’s an interesting looking thing I bought it first of all because it lookd so cool, it’d look really nice in the studio, but wen I plugged it in it’s got a sound all of its own, it has a built in vibrato, tremelo unit, these two elliptical speakers, and if you want the guitar to sound lik the kinks’ you really got me, I hasn’t got ripped speakers but it sounds like they are, a rally ratty tone to it – and it’s good for using for certain things and then i’ve got a selma little giant amp, which is very bijou, and again, close-miked it gets a good sound at low volumes. I think that carlsbro made briefly in the 90s which looks like one of these tower space heaters silver metal, it’s 8-sided it’s actually called the tower, and it lights up blue, with the speakers at the bottom it lights up blue – all transistorised, solid state, again it has a particular sound, it’s great for punky kind of stuff, it’s not a very sophisticated sound, but sometimes you don’t want that.
A lot of ebow
BN – I do [still use it] – in fact I was dubbing some last night onto a piece i’m working on at the moment. I discovered the ebow in the seventies, when I was touring america when they first came out- I think I was one of the first people in the world to record with one, probably the first, and I immediately took to it, it gave a certain voice that suited me and even though you can move it from string to string, I tend to stick to one string, and it encourages you to play in a sort of linear modal way, and I like the way you can get very expressive with it just by moving it slightly on and off the hotspot of the guitar, you can change the harmonic content, the emphasis, strengthen the note and so on, it can be very very expressive,
recording … how much flexibility, changes?
BN – I mean, northern dream … when I first put on the test pressings of this I thought it’s a shame it’s all in chronological order, which makes sense, obviously, it’s a clear overview, you can see the development, but the northern dream stuff to me sounds completely naïve and amateur, and I was thinking what would a reviewer who doesn’t know anything about me puts this first disc on and this is the first thing … probably the most crudely created music i’ve ever made, and it was recorded, it was actually in a studio in wakefield that wasn’t really a studio it was the bedroom of a guy called michael evan actually he died a couple of weeks ago, there use to be this group of, well I guess we’d describe ourselves as hippies, we’d hang out at this place and a lot of us were students and make music and I recored that album there. And it was still on a 2-track machine, bouncing from one channel to another, and I did’t deal with the recording side of it, this chap called michael evan did the recording, it was of its time, it was recorded in 1970/71, with an independently pressed album originally only suppose to be 300 copies, and the people who helped fund it wewre a local record shop, where I used to buy imported albums, they sold it. When bebopdeluxe took off later they started manufacturing it without my knowledge and I suddenly found out it was turning up in record shops across america
for a 2-track it sounds fantastic
BN – there’s a lot of ingenuity went into … and you’re obviously bouncing from track to track, you have to think about the balance of things when you get to the end because you can’t go back … this was the route that les paul was taking a long time before that, in a sense we were working in a certain tradition there … the first bbd single that’s on there called teenage archangel, that was recorded in another wakefield studio, a different one, on maybe a four-track, I can’t remember now, but that was pre-emi, and the band had literally only been together a couple of weeks when we recorded that, and it still to me sounds very amateurish, but it’s what it is, and I hope that anybody given the box to review would appreciate that aspect of it and not treat it too harshly.
Probably quite the opposite …
BN – nowadays i’m working on a digital systm but it’s not done in the bo in the same way, most people do working within a computer – it’s actually an out-of-date system and I got it in 2000i think, I swapped over from the 16-track analogue tape machine. It’s a mackie, it’s a little, well, not so little [ … 48.39] what’s it called, a D8, I’m looking at it, a D8b mixing desk and i’ve got a separate dedicated HD recorder, 24 track, a 2496, and the desk is fully automated, in that you can automate not just fader moves but echo sends, eq and everything, and it’s ,ade such a big difference to the way that I work alone, because obviously when you’re doing everything yourself with the analogue desk … you can only mix with one pair of hands, you know … but this means I can work on effects in real time, get fader moves happening, eq moves if necessary, it’ll remember them, and I just move onto the next bit and gradually build up the whole mix … and then press burn …
does it make you less spontaneous? Over-working never being satisfied
BN – There is that possibility, I know that when I first got the digital system, for the first couple of weeks I thought i’d made a really big mistake, the main thing was that the sound just didn’t feel right, and what it was was that with the old analogue system i’d got into the habit of trying to brighten everything up, and make things clear and sharp and I was still taking that approach with the digital thin, piling sharpness on top of sharpness, and I had to do something I hadn’t really done much with the analogue which was start taking these frequencies out to warm things up a bit, now, whether my ears have got used to it or i’ve got better at it, i really like the sound I get from this system, I like it very much, and when I compare it to the older things … I mean even some of the things i’ve done in major studios and if I put one of those on, and then put something on i’ve done in the last couple of years, I think the stuff i’m doing here now sounds more expensive, and gorgeous … sonically. That’s how far project studio stuff’s come on, and obviously they don’t make this system any more, mackie, and the desk has had such a lot of use this thing’s now physically breaking down and i’m thinking i’m going to have to look around
stay with the same system or move onto something more modern? 51.28
BN – I think the only way to go would be into a completely computer, software based system which I am not eager to do – I still like the idea of … I don’t do cut and paste although it would work with this system … I think it’s because may people do deal in cut and paste, and I think it produces a certain kind of generic sound, and there’s something about the way I work with this that is quite personal, and I don’t want to lose that and just end up going down the same route as everybody else …
same as not wanting a strat or les paul?
BN – Maybe it is the same psychology, but it certainly takes longer to make a piece on this system you’d think with all the automation that it would actually speed things up, but with the old analogue system, you could only go so far, and no matter how many more hours you spent on it you weren’t going to improve on it because there just wasn’t the room there to do anything, there wasn’t the technical possibility, you couldn’t polish it beyond a certain point I use to really knock stuff out and I always kept in the back of my mind that these are just sketches, just demos … and given the chance i’ll be in a proper studio, polish them up, but if that opportunity arises by that time you’ve lost interest in it and moved on. So I found found moving to the digital system slower as I had to think a bit more about the control side, the automation and so on, but it does give a much much more professional result, for a home studio, and some of the recordings i’ve done I think stand up very well against much more expensive better studios.
The way you describe the process – you wear a lot of hats …
BN – I think it does flow together, I don’t always think guitar-centrally, if it’s an instrumental album based arround the guitar, obviously the guitar gets a lot of attention, but I try to think of the whole thing as being one big picture and the songwriting side is important to me, as much as the guitar, and certainly the compositional aspect – the sailor bill album has got huge orchestral arrangements, and that really is where you sit down and you try and … i’m not a virtuoso on the keyboard, I have to really work at that, so it’s not like i’ve got fancy keyboard skills to show off, it has to be about the music rather than the technical dexterity. And i’ve tried to apply that to guitar, the instrument that i’m comfortable playing technically obviously is the guitar, I try not to approach it from the let’s show everyone how flash I can be angle, though I did a fair amount of that when I was younger, I think as you mature you get more into the music itself and it’s not just dozens of notes that do it it might be two perfectly chosen ones in the right place and context – I think about it more as music rather than guitar music,
80s production – electronic v guitar, fell out of love with the guitar?
BN – I did … not entirely stop playing guitar but I put it into a different position – thee were definite points after bebop and red noise that the guitar became more of a rhythm instrument, and a textual component over the break-out solo, it was a chunkier kind of role, and then when I got, you know, I got hold of a synth in the bebop era, a minimoog which I bought when they first became available, and we’d use that in bebop and i’d actually in the final bebop album I played the very first commercially available guitar synthesiser the hagstrom patch 2000 which you had to plug into synth … the frets are wired up, so that when you contact a string to a particular fret it sets off a control voltage that goes to an interface pack that then plugs into a synthesiser, in my case it was the mini moog, it was a bit of a nightmare because you had a minimoog which had three oscillators all of which drift out of tune, over a period of minutes really, it seemed, and you’d got a interface that also had a tuning facility that wasn’t always dead stable, and then you’d got the guitar feeding all this which … the strings would drift, particularly live, hot environments so you’d get tuning things there, you’d end up with this nightmare of several areas … with this string of equipment all being pitched slightly differently. So it wasn’t the most practical thing to use live although I did use it in that final bb album. So ia have been into electronic music for a long time, in fact, back in the 60s, listening to terry riley – you wouldn’t call that strictly electronic but but he was using sort of loops and delay and keyboards and early kraftwerk before they ever did autobahn or whatever was their breakthrough thing, their early stuff was pure electronic music, not simplistic beats or anything, just kind of abstract noises, and that was something I was into, so when that sort of equipment became more readily available and affordable it seemed to me at that time that most guitar players were using the same kinda language in a way, an it might be time to explore something else, so I had a period of playing around with electronic music, and eventually you come to a point where they all blend together and I did rediscover the guitar, I can’t think why, maybe when everybody got into electronic music I went back again, but what I do now is it’s all completely integrated – thee can be pieces that contain distressed digital noises, and pure, clear, echo guitar. I like mashing these things up, mixing and matching them, to see what the results might be.
The production stuff
BN – it was ok, other than that gary remixed it afterwards, and he was kinda, I guess in someways it might have been a little bit like myself in that he had one way of working, and he found it difficult to move off that and when I was brought in to do the production for him the record company said look, you know, gary used to be an innovator, but there’ve been a lot of these young guys coming out doing electronic music – he needs to sort of catch up and innovate again, and maybe you could help him find that. So, we did certain things, I felt that a lot of his production was a bit heavy at the time, and I was trying to get some air in to it that little bit more, that quirky element, and so on, and when the engineer and I mixed it gary wasn’t even in the room, didn’t bother to listen util afterwards and then after the album was finished and i’d gone back home and thought everythng was fine, the engineer phoned me up and said i’ve just quit, and I said why, and gary had gone in and decided to remix it all. All that work we’d done, and he remixed it and made it sound more like his previous records, it was a little frustrating, i’ve nothing against gary at all, he was certainly easy enough to work with, but I thought that there was an opportunity to do something … he’s actually said since, I think I read an interview where he said that he couldn’t see it at the time, but now he understands what we were going for … he came round to it later. I worked with the skids when they started and they first approached me to do some production for them they were a very exciting but a very rough and ready punk band – what can they possibly see in what i’m doing, but we did an album called days in europa in which they wanted some elecronic elements and I played some keyboards, we sed some early drum machine stuff, as well as real drums id things like reversing the entire backing track playing it backwards and dubbing stuff on top of it to make a new piece, we had a lot of fun trying things out with this album, and they wee absolutely into it, stuart adamson was obviously in the skids at that time and he was really into that and that was a very enjoyable album to work on but i’ve not really had any bother it’s not something i’ve wanted to do as a full time time thing. Because you have to be very diplomatic, you’ve got to be prepared to take things on board that might not always be your own strongest points, if it’s something that interests me or I find challenging then I’ll probably try and take it on, but otherwise … it’s frustrating sitting behind a mixing desk watching everybody else have all the fun, really.
BN – I co-produced all the bbd albums from sunburst finish on with john [likey], the first album was produced by ian mcclinntock who was an emi staff producer and the second was roy thomas baker who produced queen, and then after that I went to emi and I said, this production lark, I think I could do that … i’d like to have a go at that, is there any chance of me producing the next album and they said well, it’s expensive process, you’ve not got much experience but we’ve got n engineer at abbey road who’s almost ready to make the jump from engineering to producing, what if we put the two of you together, and you co-produce, and you could sort of hep him with the musical aspect and he could help you with the technical aspect, the recording side of it, ok, so it turned out to be john lecky and it was john’s first venture into production, and it was mine as well, and we worked as a team on all the bebop stuff from then onwards
little unexpected bu fruitful collaborations?
BN – Yes, one of the things was working in japan with the yellow magic orchestra, as not only did it introduce me to japan and to the girl that became my current wife, but working with people who were purely electronic musicians as ymo were then, and bringing the guitar into that context, on an album called naughty boys on which I played a roland synth guitar as well as straight guitar and that was a valuable experience, and working with somebody like harold budd, he’s a composer essentially, a pianist as a musician but an ambient and contemporary composer, and I did an album in danial lanois’ studio in new orleans with harold called by the dawn of early light and that was just a fantastic learning experience because he composed everything … he’d written everything out for all the musicians, and wanted me to ply on it, and, you know, I had to explain to him that I don’t read music, i’ve never had a musical education at all, and he said don’t worry about that, what we’ll do is whe we record when I get to the part where i’d like you to play something, i’ll give you a nod, you just go, do whatever you want, as long as you want, and when you’ve finished, we’ll pick up where you left off. So for me it was really a gift and the other people had to follow these s chords very tihtly, but we did it in daniel lanois’ place that he had at that time, in new orleans, and the studio ws in a big old mansion house in the old part of new orleans, and it was not in a studio environment it was like in a hug hallway, or entrance area where the recording gear was in the same space as the musicians – no separation – so when we actually played a take, the engineer would work on headphones, and then we’d listen back on the speakers after the take, and it was a line-up with harold on piano and keyboards and bj cole on pedal steel, an american chinese girl I think called mabel wong in violin, an american harpist susan I forget her second name, and myself on guitar and it was just a joy because we recorded mostly in the evenings when it was dark and we recorded by candlelight in a classic old victorian mansion, which was fabulous,
who would you want to work with?
BN – I would like, I think it would be interesting to do something with bill frisell, he’s great at all of his guitar playing so I’m not sure what I could bring to that but it would be interesting to do something even if it was … I had as much a hand in the shaping of the production as the guitar, to build some sort of soundspace that we could improvise together … my favourite rock guitar player is jeff beck, but I don’t have any of his records,
how come you don’t have records of people you like?
BN – I don’t know, I don’t have a lot of time to listen to music anyway with the amount of music I make myself, I guess, and I tend to listen to older things but with jeff beck I think one of the reasons is … i’ve got the dvds of him playing at ronnie scott’s, and the les paul tribute, which is fantastic but the music itself, compositionally and stylistically maybe doesn’t grab me as much as his ability on guitar, and in that respect it would be a nice collaboration because i’d love to create an environment for him to work in that he hasn’t maybe touched on before something a little less fixated with guitar pyrotechnics, and more with some kind of soulfull,
both frisell and beck – you’d like to facilitate – who would you like to facilitate you?
BN – Years back I approached Mitchell frome, he is a producer and musician, an american, who was married to suzanne vega for a while, it was when he was with suzanne that I met him, and he produced some really good los lobos albums, colossal head was a favourite of mine from that time, and he worked with an engineer called chad blake who was also a producer. And I just thought the sounds and the arrangements they cooked up between them were fabulous, and I approached him and I gave him a demo tape of my home recordings, i’d made some demos that I thought I should take into the studio, and he really really liked them, and he said to me you don’t need to waste money on a producer, it’s all there, all you need to do is get some other musicians in to play the parts so there’s a bit of push and pull. And he said you don’t really need anybody to produce you, and I was quite shocked by that, I thought is it a brush-off or not but it wasn’t, because he wanted to hear more stuff, he really enjoyed the music, but if he was up for it i’d love to work with mitchell taking hold of some of the control, i’m not a complete control freak, don’t get me wrong but I guess i’ve done it for so long on my own now it’s sometimes a bit difficult to let go of the reins,
last contemp thing you listened to?
BN – Now, i’ve got thousands of cds downstairs … but the only time I listen to music is usually in the car, because it seems to me that driving a car is just a waste of time, so you might as well do something productive so I listen to music, but at home I’m usually working, so it’s rare I put music on for pleasure, unless it’s something on in the background, but I can’t think what the most recent thing might be … in terms of contemporary music, I do tend to listen to a lot of jazz music, and fairly well-established stuff, miles davis, john coltrane, guitar-wise it’s still … perhaps my ultimate guitar player is joe pass, and i’ve got dvds of him performing just on his own, I still, I can’t figure out how to do what he’s doing, which takes you right back to when you started, how they got the sounds, how they made the sounds, and it revitalises that sense of awe about what the instrument is capable of doing, but you can’t get near it, you know, sort of way beyond your understanding, joe pass is a big inspiration, I listen to his records,
inspiration from outside of music?
BN – Well, books, lots of books, though again the only time I read is in bed, I usually get through a book by doing 10/15 minutes a night, if I wake up for any reason in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep then I might do another hour or so, and again a broad range of stuff, I went through a period in the 80s when I was involved with what you call alternative spiritualities, occultism and I was into magick and alchemy and rosicrucianism and I mustered a fair-sized library of rare cult and esoteric books … books by a e wade, who wrote books about freemasonry, ritual magic and a man called crymer, who had a rosicrucian movement in america in I think the 1920s, general books on rosicrucianism, a man called manly p hall, i’ve got quite a few of his books, they’ve been reissued more recently but were very much out of print when I got them, I had all this stuff and because I belonged, at that time I joined various secret orders, it sounds strange but it was something I went through at that time, and I’ve got manuscripts and things, those routes which aren’t in publication [the ren] was a fascinating period which seems to have been discovered now by damon albarn, just done an opera on the life of john dee, I went to the british museum to see the skrying mirror an in fact one of the friends I had in one of the occult groups usd to manufacture magical regalia and he made a couple of swords for me for ritual use, he made tablets based on a coy of dee’s enochian alphabet – i’ve got all this stuff still, it’s in a trunk, locked away with my robe, I was into it big time, it was really a big passion outside music, i’ve still got the books, but don’t practise or go to lodges or things like that – I was the master of a rosicrucian temple for a year when I led the ??? studies [1.16.29] but i’m kinda more a lazy buddhist – my wife’s a practising buddhist but i’m a lazy buddhist, I admire zen budhism, of all th different types of buddhism it appeals, and when I was in japan, I lived in japan for a year when I met my wife, so I was exposed to a lot back there and that tends to be where the philosophy at the moment seems to sit, in that area …
the semi-ancestor worship – the ghost of somebody else’s past’
BN – it could be more that the past is the ghost rather than me being the ghost of someone else’s past, it’s almost as if you leave a shell behind as you move along through life and the shell of your earlier life can be quite different and almost seem like a separate entity certainly looking back at the character who made northern dream I recognise myself in some of that but there’s a lot of me that I don’t recognise, and i’m curious to know how that person caame to be that person, because I can’t remember how that happened. How did I come to write such a lyric, you know, that particular line of that particular song, why would I do that, i’d never do that where did that come from, what was the impetus to do it, I think we leave this trail behind of us, its like some creature shedding its skin,
more obvious because albums are photographs?
BN – Yes, I do think that’s something to do with it because in a sense, making music for forty years recording and not having to d anything else though things have got desperate at times, is a great way to get to self-examination, because thinking about what you’re doing while you’re creating is automatically ties in with thinking about what you’re trying to say and what you mean and what is it about, even when you do things instinctively you often sicover the meaning after the event and go ‘oh!’, I think I know where that’s coming from, and sometimes you don’t, and youo know I used to work for local gvt, before I became a professional musician, sitting behind a desk all day answering the telphone, it doesn’t give you much time for reflection, so music has benefits beyond the apparent ones,
the reinvention of personalities …
BN – there’s an amusing side to that, I did a concert in newcastle I think it was in the early 90s, or late 80s, and a guy came backstage and he said ‘my god you’ve changed’, and I thought he meant the music, and I said what, the music, and he said no, you … he says you’ve really aged, and I said when was the last time you saw me? And he said 1974, and I said I think if you look in the mirror I think you’ll find you’ve aged since then … and it was this thing where he’d got the first album, and the photograph of me, and then had never seen me since then … but still had this image, that this person is that person on that album cover and forever he sits there … and he got a shock when he saw that there was a real person who had moved on some years … [1.21.30]
the same when people look at the box set
with the website, before I had much interaction with fans, you did a concert, you met some briefly after the show, on the way out to sign a few album covers, and apart from fan letters which you get there wasn’t really much interaction with fans and i’d never really thought too muchabout what they think, or what they want from me or anything like that, but then with the website age i’m constantly interacting you know, and ideas get thrown around and there is this greater selfawareness of the impact that you have on other people, and I do find myself often not arguing but sort of haing to sort of push a point quite strongly that look, I’ve got the right to change, because ou bought my record back in 1974 doesnt mean that I’ve got to stay in that framework all the time
a certain symbiotic reln … contact affects positively?
BN – I think that’s probably so, I try not to be led by that, because you can’t make music by committee, though people do … it can succeed if it’s functional music for a movie or something like that … especially your own line you have to follow it and be damned even if you’re wrong … with what you believe is right … so it’s dangerous to take too many ideas from fans on board, I think inevitably, maybe subconsciously ome of the things that come across from fan help to build up a picture of who you are and what you’re doing and mybe shape the music to some degree without necessarily deliberately trying to do that …
BN – it would have to be the gibson 345, because my dad bought me that when I was a teenager and I think at the time it was about 300 and some pounds, which for a 345 that age you’re talking well over 10,000 pounds, but it’s not the monetary value, it’s irreplaceable as aa link to my dad, my dad died in the later 70s, and he was just a working class guy who put his money on the line … because he believed enough in me to think it justified having a good guitar, as opposed to a cheap one. So that would be the one i’d drag that one out of the fire
piece of gear
BN – probably take the pod. I’ve got sounds i’ve come up with locked and loaded and I think with any guitar with the pod i’d be able to find my signature sound
how much is player/fingers?
BN – I think it is to a great degree and i’ve got an example of that there’s another box set well, it was just a big cd collection repackaged but emu put out of bbd, all the studio albums and angst the rarities was a live recording of a piece called the modern music suite which is a long thing, and it was an unreleased live recording … the season it was unreleased is that there was a horrendous technical problem with the pedalboard right on the front of the piece where it started going crazy and I was banging on buttons trying to get it to work and there was feedback and just a horrible racket and it lasts for about three or four bars, and then the rest of the recording was fine, so I thought let’s see if it’s possible to patch this up so I took it into a studio I sometimes use on the outskirts of hull called fairview studios, and it wasn’t until I got the track up – we were going to do a mix – that I realised here was a this problem with it, because I hadn’t actually heard it for some years, and when we put the track up, there was this horrendous guitar noise, in the intro, so in the studio they had a pod, the same kind that i’ve got here, the pod 2 the earlier version, and one of the engineers had left an epiphone kinda version of a 345, it wasn’t a proper, vintage epiphone, it was just an oriental version, and I said we’ll copy it onto a mulitrack and I’ll try and playalong and drop that part in, that’s missing on the original live recording, so I messed around with the pod for a little while and this epiphone which i’d never touched before … and you can’t hear the join, you can’t tell the diference, and there’s a drop-in on that track that’s a 35 year gap and this shows … I know people rave about valve amps and all the rest of it but when you’re doing a recording and mixing, at the end of the day it’s still going onto a digital format, and I patched up using a digital unit and a guitar that wasn’t the guitar I played on the day, and it sounded seamless, and I challenge people to tell m whr the drop-in is, you can’t hear it at all, you’d just think it was the original recording all the way though. There’s a certain myth around … you can only use that item of equipment to get that sound, if you’ve got a little bit of time to tweak things and your ears are reasonably in the right place, I think you can get sounds on all kinds of things …
© Pete Langman 2012