Written by: Dave Cantrell
Picking up where we left off here, this final installment of our lengthy discussion with Nick Halliwell covers the creative process in general for a band of this vintage and a label of such modest resources, the challenges that befell the troupe while recording, and the overall, indeed heroic triumph – rather against all odds – that was the ultimate result. We pick up from a point where we’ve both agreed that the product that resulted from the almost monastic recording process was really quite astonishing. The world may not have caught on yet, but these really were historic sessions that resulted in an historic ‘rock’ record that will almost certainly not be surpassed this year. Cheers…
STEREO EMBERS MAGAZINE – Simply because of how it sounds. I mean, to have the group of musicians you have, as stellar as they are…
NICK HALLIWELL – Yeah, they’re quite good. They’re not obvious combinations, I don’t think anyone else would have put Phil Wilson with Kellie (chuckles) [and that would be Mike Kellie, erstwhile of Spooky Tooth, the Only Ones, and, more recently, the Distractions. Apparently no one really calls him ‘Mike’ – ed.]. It’s not the most obvious of matches, certainly, but I thought it would work.
SEM – Well, and it did. Phil seems like he’s a pretty flexible character overall. But at any rate… perhaps my conception of how long something that sounds this good should take is governed by antiquated concepts, but…
NH – Well, in some ways, saying it took two five-hour sessions, well that’s how long it took to do the basic tracks. You know, the bass, drums, two guitars. It was supposed to be three days but Kellie and Phil both came down with a horrible virus, so we couldn’t do anything on day two. And then, I took those basic tracks away but we had to leave it for a month because we had the June Brides EP to do, which was mostly me and Phil doing post-production in my studio. They’d done basic tracks in January then put those on hold while we did the Granite Shore work, so we spent about four or five days over three or four weeks finishing the whole thing, I was mixing, etc, so then we came back to the Granite Shore record… I did very few overdubs on that, I redid my own guitars, mostly acoustic, a few bits of Mellotron, some strings, and roughed out brass arrangements, which I then sent to Probyn [Gregory, Wondermints, McCartney etc – ed.], asked Martin [Bramah] if he’d do some guitar, got Steve [Perrin, Distractions] to do his bits. It’s really difficult to say how long we spent on it, because it’s done in one or two-hour sessions here and there. You know, it’s not like the old days where you went into the studio for a month and you were in that studio for maybe 10, 12, 14 hours a day, five, six, even seven days a week. It’s not like that now. My guess is that it was a total of about two weeks of proper, full-time work on it, at the most. But that was spread out over five or six months. This is the way we make records now. Nobody can afford a month in the studio, I mean we certainly can’t so every [Occultation] album has been done in three, four days, usually. The Factory Star record was done in three days, Distractions album in four days. The only exception was the Wild Swans, which took about two bloody years [laughter]. There’s something about Liverpool bands, they do take forever. The Rev Army one [Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, a cultish, Paul Simpson-suggested band out of Liverpool that made a trio of albums in the late 80s and early 90s], I don’t know how long they spent on it but quite a long time because they totted up the studio bill and it was several times what we spent on the Granite Shore. Like I say, there’s something about Liverpool bands, but maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, I keep forgetting you’re going to quote me. But the thing about the Granite Shore and the Distractions, they’re very structured songs, so it is actually best if they’re played very simply, without any rehearsal. We never have any rehearsal. What you hear on the album is, on average, about the fourth time we ever played each song. And in one case, “Recorded Sound,” it’s the only time we ever played that song. It was the end of the second session and we were all half-dead. Phil and Kellie were really quite ill and Arash and I were just exhausted. I hadn’t slept the night before worrying if we’d be able to anything. And we’d been through everything else, and it was like we all just went into this ‘Group Mind’ sort of thing, and it’s the most complicated thing on the record, it’s completely bonkers, and we literally just played it once and that was it. We didn’t rehearse it, that was the only time we ever played it, and that’s my favorite track, I must admit.
SEM – It’s an extraordinary track, and only thing I can think to say about what you just said is that there’s something appropriate about the fact that you were all so ill or so tired or both, because it has that kind of enervated mood to it, which fits it perfectly. It’s a beautiful song, it’s absolutely gorgeous.
NH – It’s my favorite, certainly, and partly because of the circumstances, there’s something, to me, quite magical about it because you think, really, how was that possible? Particularly for me, because for most of the song it’s just me playing. We don’t use click tracks, so that means I had to stay in time for the six minutes, on my own, playing six or seven different arpeggios. I mean, how could I do that? I’m not really that good a guitarist. But somehow it just worked, it gelled and there was no need to do it again – to our enormous relief because everyone just wanted to go to bed by that point. But anyway I don’t think any of them are more than take five, and most are take three or four; take one being the first time we ever played it. As I say, we don’t rehearse at all. I think you can do that where you have structured, tightly-written songs as opposed to two or three chords and that’s the structure and it’s all about what you do from that point. My stuff is much more structured, it’s written in sections and that does lend itself to being played fewer times, I think. You know, you play it once so you know what you’re doing, play it the second time it should be starting to happen, play it the third time it should be quite good, fourth time is probably the one.
SEM – That does seem to be the Occultation way.
NH – It is, but it has to be. We don’t have the money. We can’t afford to spend more than two or three days making an album. And that’s probably just as well.
SEM – Oh yeah, I agree. Process is just about as important a component in making art as any other, and this does lend itself well to the results. What frustrates me is, even if I was writing for a publication with larger circulation – and this was the sort of problem that has frustrated me forever, that existed of course back in the post-punk years, when you think about what was popular and selling in ’78-’79 [think Boston and Journey and Styx – ed.] – Once More From The Top is the kind of record that should be heard by anyone that values an extraordinarily well-realized rock album, and even if it got a blurb write-up in Rolling Stone I don’t know how much that would affect your sales…
NH – Well it wouldn’t do it any harm, certainly.
SEM – Well that’s true, of course, but we already talked about the limited sales potential of pretty much anything these days, but at the same time in order for Occultation to keep producing things of this value, you need to have some level of revenue coming in, so I just wish there was a way I could get this album out to thousands of… deep-pocketed individuals.
NH – Yeah, that would be great. It’s just very, very difficult and becoming harder, because basically, the way it used to work, the CDs financed and subsidised the vinyl for years. You know, it cost about a quid a copy to press a CD, or less, so we’d actually make a profit on the CD then piss that away on vinyl, and then the vinyl would eventually break even three or four years down the line, but we’re not really selling very many CDs now, maybe a quarter of what we were selling in 2012. So, we’ve got to sell more vinyl, only that’s become increasingly difficult because the cost of vinyl’s just gone up and with the last four records we’ve done it’s taken five to six months to get them pressed. It’s really difficult. Even now doing interviews it’s really hard because until they arrived on Wednesday [last Wednesday in March – ed.] I wasn’t even sure we’d have them for our release date, which is a fortnight tomorrow. For instance, we had the June Brides single, and it was getting loads of airplay, but we didn’t have the records, so what can you do? You’ve got to plan your promotion ahead to a certain extent, particularly with the print press because they have lead times of two, three, four months, but you don’t know if you’re going to have your record. It’s impossible. We just have to guess. I set the release date for OMFTT as far ahead as I possibly could without forgetting that I’d made it [laughter]. I mean May for a record that was at the pressing plant at the beginning of November? You’d think that was pretty cautious but it’s just made it by the skin of its teeth.
SEM – And we all know what’s responsible for that.
NH – We do indeed.[At which point a fairly lengthy discussion ensues about Record Store Day and its accelerating irrelevance that touches upon personal anecdotes and the fact that Nick has several thousand records around him that include zero RSD items – “It’s the one day I don’t buy records,” he says – and the rather hidden, mostly undiscussed fact that many stores have no purchasing power for two weeks before and two weeks after RSD because they’ve maxed out their credit stocking up for the ‘big day’ so aren’t ordering anything new, making the prospect of releasing anything at the end of April a fool’s errand. Add to that the specter of the majors pressing up reissues of albums that clearly did not need reissuing as they are readily available in used shops up and down any respectable vinyl countryside on either side of the Atlantic – a band that rhymes with ‘Zed Rep’ comes to mind – that will ultimately not sell out and will eventually have to be sold at cut rates, leaving legitimate, mostly small label new releases competing on price point with ‘classic’ albums selling at half the price. This leads to us lyrically waxing about the wonderful, bespoke quality of Occultation’s releases, full gloss gatefold covers, postcard inserts et al and the fatalism that comes with that. “With each record you need to approach like it might be the last one you get a chance to do,” Nick says, even though the reality is, because of pressing plant delays, one has to have a year’s worth of releases in the pipeline. All in all a logistical nightmare for a small dedicated label like Occultation with all manner of convoluted twists and delays that make having a business plan almost impossible. And yet Nick Halliwell soldiers on. There’s the new Shifting Sands on the horizon – that one in collaboration with Fishrider cohort Ian Henderson – there’s the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, there’s the Death and the Maiden LP which was meant to arrive around Christmas but only just recently found its way back from the pressing plant, and most, shall we say, pressingly, a new – and final – Distractions record to prepare for. It’s all rather heroic, really, if in a rather humble sort of way, which in a phrase pretty much sums up Nick himself. Personally, I’m grateful not only for his friendship but as much as that, for the fact that he’s been willing to throw himself at the barricades of all that’s right and proper in the against-all-odds struggle of a small record label owner. Whereas it might best suit for one to be an all-out entrepreneur in such an endeavor, Nick’s that far rarer bird, an artist that happens to run a label. Given that label’s track record, regardless of its ultimate longevity, there’s absolutely no doubt that he’s made an enduring success of it.]