Written by: Dave Cantrell
Full of an easy, dry British wit and just as astute as that sounds, our conversation with premier pop auteur and unofficial resurrection agent of various UK rock legends (Distractions, Wild Swans, Factory Star, June Brides) Nick Halliwell, on the event of his own band The Granite Shore’s stunning debut Once More From The Top, is at once illuminating as to process, gilded with history, and in-depth enough to merit two chapters. Therefore, we present you with part one of our wide-ranging interview, conducted via Skype back at the end of April. To revisit exactly what all the fuss is about, see our review of the album here. Otherwise, grab a pint or a cup of tea and dive in. There’s lots to learn…
Stereo Embers Magazine – OK, first off, umm…where’d you come from? I’m vaguely aware of previous bands from, to be honest, facebook threads, but four years ago [when the writer began covering Occultation Recordings – ed.] I was unaware of a ‘Nick Halliwell.’
Nick Halliwell -Well, obviously you don’t come out of nowhere, not at my advanced age, anyway. I’ve been in bands since I was, I’m trying to think, fifteen, fourteen? Nobody you would have heard of, I don’t think. There was one band I was in back in the early 80s that made a single, called The Gift, if you look it up you’ll find it. Nothing too noteworthy, to be honest. You know, I was in and around rather than doing anything anyone would have heard of. Skip ahead to 2008, I found myself with some money for the first time in my life, and I thought starting a record label would be a very efficient way of getting rid of it [laughter] which has proven to be the case. Very efficient indeed, if anyone out there needs to get rid of any money. So, I started it with Paul Simpson [Wild Swans – ed.], who’s a good friend of mine – we’d done that Wild Swans stuff, I put together the Incandescent compilation in 2003, and he’d sort of started doing The Wild Swans again but it was all in danger of petering out for lack of anything really happening. So I said ‘Well, why don’t we help each other out. I’ll pay for studio time and we’ll make two records. A record of yours and a record of mine. And you lend me your band, ‘cause you’ve got a band and I haven’t,’ and that’s what we did, we booked a week in a studio in Liverpool, and we did those two 10’ singles. Both of them were six-minute tracks and they came out in, what, early 2009? [yes; ‘English Electric Lightning’ by the Wild Swans and ‘Tomorrow morning, 3 a.m.’ by The Granite Shore – ed.] So that’s how it really started and my career, such as it is, is very top-heavy, in that it’s mostly been over the last five or six years. There’s the odd little bit before that but mostly it’s since 2009. I’ve been on quite a lot of records since then, playing on or producing them.
SEM – Well, we’re not dissimilar in at least one way in terms of finding a particular niche and exploiting in fairly late in life. I didn’t start writing for Stereo Embers until I was 55 years old. I was doing all kinds of other things; I’ve got a novel written, seemingly dozens of stories, having started off way back as an early 20-something poet cuz, y’know, that’s what we all do. So yeah, I know what that’s like to not start until the sunset years are beginning to appear over the horizon.
NH -Well, there are plenty of examples of people that started later than is normal. So, okay, most of them probably started in their thirties rather than their late forties but even so, Serge Gainsbourg was in his thirties when his first album came out, Dory Previn was forty when her first album came out. In any case, it’s quite a different ballgame, isn’t it? Anybody going into it now in search of fame and fortune needs their head examined. To a certain extent that was always the case but now, you know, the odds are no longer a million to one they’re more like a billion to one. Because, well, when I started, the music industry was awash with money, it had been certainly since the early 60s and continued to be so until the end of the 90s. But now – and this is what we’re finding here at Occultation – most of the bands on the label have at some point sold some records. Never in vast quantities, but certainly in five figures. Whereas now you sort of set your sights to ‘I wonder if we can shift 500?’ And shifting 500 is really quite an achievement.
SEM – It’s true across the landscape, really. What happened in that timeline from the 60’s to the 90’s, obviously the internet is the pivot, part of that, almost inversely, even with the billion-to-one odds, even if the amount of musicians making music had stayed at the same level, because of the decline of the music industry, the odds would have gone up, but it’s coincided with an explosion of availability…
NH – That’s it. You’re now not only competing with what’s coming out, you’re competing with everything that has ever come out.
SEM – Well, as well things that are never going to ‘come out.’ I use Bandcamp a lot for my show and at least half of them have no physical product.
NH – That’s right, and you’re just absolutely competing with everything ever. People aren’t paying for music anymore. It’s kind of one of those ‘be careful what you wish for’ things. Because when you actually survey the landscape, you’re thinking ‘Hmm, isn’t this kind of what we were calling for when we were all twenty?’ You know, ‘Get rid of the major record labels! Let’s all do it ourselves! Everybody should make a record!’ [laughter] Hmmm, yeah, well, here we are.
SEM – Well, y’know, no good deed goes unpunished, right? I don’t know that I would choose to go back, simply because, regardless of having to wade through gallons of dross, there are still gems being found that I would not have found otherwise. And I’m hearing from people that I would not have heard from otherwise, so the democratization, quote unquote, of culture that the internet has allowed certainly does have its drawbacks – well, it has the main drawback that’s financial…
NH -But what it also means is, again…you see, back in the day, the big accusation that was always levelled at any band was of ‘selling out,’ and frankly you never hear it now, because you can’t sell out because no one’s buying in. I mean, how would you sell out, how would you go about that? It can’t really be done. So to a certain extent anybody who’s making music is either A) utterly deluded or B) doing it for some reason of either necessity or, perhaps in some cases, vanity, but they’re probably not doing it to make money
SEM– And that itself has a kind of silver lining to it. To have the majority of artists doing it for the right reason – quote unquote again – in that they’re driven to do it. So potentially you’ll have fewer decisions made – though you still have them being made every day – where it’s ‘OK, we’re going to change our sound or direction so we become more popular.’
NH -Certainly, though those decisions never quite pan out so much. If I ever sort of bend my thoughts that way the only conclusion you can come to is ‘OK, say I double-tracked all my lead vocals because that’s how records are done now’. What’s going to happen? At best we sell another 50 records, you know? What’s the point? Seriously, what is the point? I might as well do it the way I like it and the way I actually think it should be done, and personally I think double-tracking is an effect rather than something that should be used on every single record. But, really, what would there be to gain by doing something you’d rather not do but are perhaps advised to do for commercial reasons? With this album, when I decided to do it as a full-on concept album, the odd person said ‘Ooh, a ‘concept album, are you sure?’ and I just thought ‘Why not?’ It’s not like there are a million punks who are immediately going to disown me [laughter] because there aren’t a million punks and even if there were they won’t be interested in the first place! You might as well just do what you do, basically.
SEM – It’s curious to me in a way, because..here’s the thought track I’m following: Yes, I wrote a novel, and it’s really long, I don’t care that it’s really long, but, though I may just be not wanting to go into that territory, it’s just as long a slog to get a book published as it is to get a concept album accepted, and when I finished that, all novels were tiny, they were 200 pages max, that was kind of the fashion, and it still is to some extent, and that’s what your agent’s going to want, because that’s what the publisher wants, and let’s say I tried to do that and I end up with 150 copies sold, I mean I may as well just put it up on Amazon myself.
NH – Exactly. The music industry’s not the only one to be affected to this kind of thing by a long chalk. To be honest, of all the arts, the only one I can think of that’s not affected by this is painting. Talking to Ged [Quinn, former Wild Swan who painted this cover], he’s alright, because what they do is produce one copy, a physical object, and you sell it for a quarter million quid. That’s the way to do it.
SEM – Which is what the Wu-Tang Clan did, what, a year ago or so. Just made that one copy.
NH – The Sexual Objects did it recently as well. They made one copy and sold it on eBay. Didn’t make as much as the Wu-Tang Clan but they got a few grand, they got about £4000 for it. It was a few months ago.
SEM – So, as you know, I talked recently with Martin [Bramah, founding guitarist of the Fall, author of ‘the Fall sound’ – ed.] and we talked toward the end of that interview about the notion of inserting the spirit of the novel into a pop song…
NH – The spirit of what?
SEM – The novel. It arose from a Lou Reed quote which he’d read just before the Fall began and he was very much influenced by that idea and still is, so, as I was preparing for this interview, that couldn’t help but arise again given Once More From the Top‘s literary feel, I’m assuming that you would agree with that notion.
NH -Well, yeah. I mean, what I wanted to do was make a concept album that made sense, which has very rarely been done, if at all. I mean, there are some that you can come back to where you think, ‘Yeah, at least in some sort of metaphorical way, that makes sense’. Tommy‘s the obvious one. When I heard it when I was younger I could hardly make head nor tail of it, but now that I’m older I can see that it does make a sort of sense. But most conceptual albums, frankly, I’ve always suspected that the concepts are more in the minds of the beholders than in those of the begetters. To me, a lot of them sound like ‘Well, we’ve got this rough idea, we’ll write a load of songs that are sort of vaguely about it and we’ll call it a concept album’. And people used to spend such a lot of time with records, because you probably only had 50 records, you’d spend a hell of a lot of time with them and you’d be determined to suck them dry for any meaning there might be. So, I wanted to make one that actually made sense, without recourse to elves or supernatural phenomena of any kind, really. They always say ‘write about what you know’ so I do know something about being in bands and in the music business or the fringes thereof so I suppose it started with ‘Wise,’ really [a track off of this Distractions record – ed.], that seemed to strike a few nerves with a few people, particularly other musicians, and it put the idea in my head, really, and though it’s not that exactly, you can see where it came from
SEM – I actually allege that “Nine Days Wonder” is like a lost twin brother to “Wise,” it struck a similar chord, thematically.
NH -Yeah, they all sort of spring from a similar place. As I say, it’s writing about what I know, it was the obvious subject I could tackle in depth without requiring either a huge amount of research or talking through my arse. So, it was the obvious thing to do, and it happened quite naturally. It was only as I was writing ‘Be that as it may’ that it all came together, and I suddenly knew ‘Hey, it’s all about this’. The whole record is about a band, and at that point you have the decision to take ‘OK, is this going to be a kind of rock opera kind of thing with a linear narrative that proceeds from track A1 right through to B5?’ and I decided against that for practical reasons because you’re a bit of a hostage to fortune. If some key song in the plot goes wrong in the studio you’re buggered, because in our situation if we don’t get it right we don’t get to come back and do it again. If we don’t get it right on the day then, that’s it. And that of course is when you have to resort to elves to make it work, because suddenly there’s a hole in your plot and you need some supernatural agency to paper over it. So I decided it wouldn’t be strictly a narrative from one scene to the next but a series of scenes from the life of a group which would more or less work sequentially. And eventually I ended up expanding on that with the booklet – I did send you that, didn’t I?
SEM – Yes, yes, you did.
NH – And what that did was keep it alive for a while. Because the thing to remember is, I finished this record a little over six months ago [now seven – ed.]. I know you heard it soon after it was finished, but to most people that I’m talking to it’s a new record, it’s the latest ‘bulletin from your soul’ type of thing, whereas to me it’s a record I made back when I was a kid of 50 [laughter]. It does feel a long time ago. So I wrote the booklet back in January which helped keep it alive, helped keep contact with those characters. So it helped in that way but it also made me realise that it flowed much more sequentially than I thought.
SEM – It does, actually, and I was going to comment on that because even though you didn’t design it as such it’s not impossible to assign it a linearity. I mean, you’re the one that created it so the scenes you’re talking about have more of a randomness to them than they’re going to seem to someone that’s a recipient of the work. The brain’s tendency, once it knows the songs are of a thematic piece, is to just go ahead and sequence them anyway.
NH – That’s right. The human brain will always attempt to seek a sense and organization, which artists down the ages have always relied upon.
SEM – Well, including those making so-called concept albums.
NH – Yeah, those in particular. The one that’s always puzzled me is Ziggy Stardust. I remember hearing it when I was about fourteen and thinking ‘Hang on a second, isn’t he dead by the middle of side one?’ So who is it committing Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide?
SEM – Another one that’s difficult for me as much as I love it is SF Sorrow. But as far as those that worked, you mentioned Tommy earlier but I’d actually go with Quadrophenia as having a more intelligible story line.
NH – Agreed, Quadrophenia is even better. With Tommy I was just thinking that… well, around that time I would have been 13 or 14 and just remember thinking ‘Hang on, he’s deaf, dumb, and blind, and he’s good at pinball’ (laughs). Whereas now that I’m older it does make a sort of sense, at least metaphorically, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that I was going to do. I didn’t want to do anything that didn’t work in a fairly literal, real way. The album may be many things but magical realism it ain’t.
SEM – It’s cinematic, actually, in a sense. If you do accept that it follows any kind of linear arc it does insinuate itself in a kind of cinematic way. Part of that has to do with the characters and the settings, having their own sort of sad drama that has lent itself well to film, well, forever. Certainly the tracks, for the most part…I find “Keeping Time” plays a kind of pivotal role if again we’re going in any sort of linear fashion, in that it seems to point towards a sense of ‘Wait a minute, one of us has just shuffled off the mortal coil, obviously time is running out and we should do something with the time we have, this idea we’ve bandied about, we better do it now.’ And in a sense, the rest of [the tracks] seem to follow that, even as “Widows and Orphans” rather jumps ahead in time, if that’s the case…
NH – Well it’s been very interesting doing these interviews – this is the third or fourth – everybody agrees that it has this sort of storyline, but people don’t actually agree on what that storyline is, which is absolutely fascinating. I mean, that is the process, isn’t it? I was very interested to see whether, if I did give it that structure, whether that would be too much structure, if people would be saying ‘No, I want to interpret this myself,’ whether they would turn this into a metaphor for something or whether they would accept that there is structure there but not complete, linear structure. Do you see where I’m getting at?
SEM – Of course, of course.
NH – It’s somewhere between the two…
SEM – There’s plenty of room to insert our own interpretations and linkages, right? So you’re not just laying it out there on the plate and we can look at it and go ‘Oh, that’s that, this means this, that means that.’
NH -Well, people always say ‘You should never explain’. The Dylan thing, that you just say lots of gnomic things and then you never ever tell anybody what you meant. Whether you knew what you meant or not, which I suspect in many cases people don’t. An awful lot of rock lyrics – especially of the Dylan school – I’m not sure they know what they’re on about. It’s coming from the unconscious or the subconscious if you like, but it’s not really being filtered through the conscious brain, or shaped in any way. Dylan is brilliant at it, actually
SEM – Well, for me, the Dylan tracks that have the most impact are the ones that do make the most sense, like “If You See Her Say Hello,” or-
NH – I was gonna say “Tangled Up In Blue”
SEM – Or “Sooner or Later,” even though that’s earlier and back in the quicksilver years, nonetheless, even as he was doing a lot of that ‘gnomic’ writing, as you say, which I would suggest is mostly unfiltered..uninterrupted intuition. Just allowing itself to express itself as it sees fit, without any modification. So, yeah, I think a little discipline doesn’t go unwarranted most of the time.
NH – I’ve always tended to prefer lyrics – and poetry as well – that… yes, we need to be made to do some work, we being the recipients, but I think it cuts both ways, really. There has to be some sort of shaping. If it’s just imagery, which in many cases it is, it needs to be directed. I like to feel there’s an intelligence behind things, no matter how obtuse they might seem. I like to think ‘OK, if I put some work into this, there might be something there’. I want to feel that this is a two-way thing, that I’m not doing all the work, pertaining to meaning. That’s always been my preference, in most forms of art, to be honest.
SEM – Music has the added burden and advantage of being able to imbue the work with an emotional level that’s not spoken. So it has that advantage, and I’m not even meaning to segue into questions but sometimes it just happens, must be my intuition working on its own (chuckling), but that is one aspect of this record. There’s a sort of august somberness to much of the album – the sound is extraordinary; I mean, that’s not unusual for an Occultation product for which I think you generally deserve almost all the credit, in terms of shaping the sound, but-
NH – I wouldn’t go quite that far.
SEM – I know you wouldn’t, but…
NH – It’s not like we’re using a bunch of hired hands or something. I suppose putting it all together is me, but yeah, it’s a pretty decent cast [including June Bride Phil Wilson, Martin Bramah, Steve Perrin from the Distractions, the extraordinary bass player Arash Torabi and many more – ed.]
SEM – No kidding (laughing)
NH – I think I mentioned double-tracking earlier. Everybody now double-tracks their vocals. But the problem with that is it tends to remove a level of intimacy, I think. I wanted this record to sound like one person talking to you. The vocals are mixed very high, and there was some discussion about this. Somewhere I have a mix of ‘Be that as it may’ where the vocals are incredibly high, and Steve Perrin and I both loved it; Steve was saying ‘It’s like you’re in my cranium’ but in the end we had to see sense a little bit and go ‘No, it’s too high’. But even though I’m using different singing voices because it’s different characters speaking, I always wanted there to be one main voice, singing as though it’s talking to the listener, rather than this double-tracked thing. I mean I have nothing against double-tracking, but I don’t like it on everything. It’s over-used, and so it’s ceased to have any effect. And so this [the vocals on Once More From the Top] sounds quite unusual, because there’s no double-tracking on any of the lead vocals. And the new Bill Fay, yeah, Bill Fay doesn’t double-track any of his vocals so it’s just me and him [laughter]
SEM – I might be able to find a few others.
NH– Yeah, a few, but there’s not very many of us.
SEM – So I’m curious about the songs, Nick. How long did these songs incubate? I sort of assumed that, because you’ve been waiting to make this record for a long time while you’ve been supporting the return of Paul [Simpson], the Distractions, and Martin, etc, I sort of assumed that the songs had been, as I said, incubating in the back of your mind for a long time.
NH -Yeah, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? But… yes and no is the answer. If you mean have I been stockpiling songs that were finished or nearly finished then no. I wrote the album as an album, pretty much in one go. But bits of them… Well, there’s the odd chord change that goes back thirty-five years. Things that I sort of remembered and thought ‘Well, that’s good, I may as well use it‘. But really, I tend to do one thing at a time, or at least that’s how we always used to do it, so it was only when we’d finished End of the Pier, and that was out and we’d done the gigs, which was early 2013, that I started thinking ‘Well it really is time to do the Granite Shore record now’. I’d said that at least three or four times over the preceding couple of years but regardless, I started scribbling a couple things down, more or less groping around in the dark, really, because the thing that takes forever is figuring out what you want to say, if you’re really going to say something rather than issue bulletins from your subconscious. So I probably spent about six months or so, maybe nine months, just trying to work out what it was I was going to write and then one day I was writing what became ‘Be that as it may’ and suddenly it just all kind of fell into place. I suddenly realised it had to be a dialogue between the songwriter, who’s the main voice, and the rest of the band. And once I had that, I realised I had all these other bits and pieces which would fit into this narrative about the life of a group. From there it was really quick and easy. Everything just came together and most of it was done in probably about three or four weeks, and by that I mean an hour or two a day. So it was all written by the end of 2013 except ‘The Management’ and ‘Recorded Sound,’ which came late. Those two are quite different from the rest of the work; musically they’re quite a bit more complex. They’ve got a lot more chords, and had I had another three or four months the album would probably have been more like that, but one thing I always know I have to do is give myself a deadline, because you’ll never finish it unless you give yourself a deadline. I could have carried on writing it forever. So I booked the studio, booked my group [and what a group – ed.] and I knew I’d have to give them the songs at least three or four weeks before so that was my deadline, the end of February 2014. So, the songs I had at that point had to be the songs we’d record. So it was a long time just sort of groping around not knowing what I was doing, trying to work it out, and then the actual writing of it was very quick. Which is pretty much how we do everything
SEM – And that astonishes me, frankly.
NH – It astonished me (laughter).[to be continued…meanwhile, have a listen to “Recorded Sound”]