NOT YOUR FATHER’S ROCK BAND Debbie Duveen and the Millbanks

The Bevis Frond in tow, British actress/songstress Debbie
Saloman teams up with her dad Nick – with delightful musical results.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

While bands that feature siblings are a dime a dozen, it’s
less common to find parents and their children in the same rock group – which
is probably just as well. Debbie Duveen and the Millbanks, however, are a
striking exception. Given the identity of the father and daughter involved
here, each with their own impressive résumé, this combination of talent could
never be anything but a success. Debbie is better known as Debbie Saloman, the
accomplished vocalist and musical-theater artiste, and the Millbanks are her
father, Nick, plus the most recent lineup of his legendary psych-rock outfit,
the Bevis Frond. (Nick Saloman is profiled elsewhere at BLURT.) Together, their
just-released debut album, Neon Classic,
brings new meaning to the phrase excellent
family entertainment
.

 

In addition to its pairing of father and daughter, there’s
also a more profound familial aspect to this new Saloman project: the band name
pays homage to Lord Duveen of Millbank, the celebrated English art dealer and
philanthropist, who helped Nick’s Jewish father begin a new life in England after
fleeing Nazi Germany. “Without Lord Duveen of Millbank’s intervention,” Nick
observes, “I probably wouldn’t have been born.”

 

To anyone who’s followed the careers of Debbie and Nick,
it’s surprising that they haven’t joined forces on an album-length venture
until now, particularly because early signs suggested that such a collaboration
was inevitable: Debbie’s maiden appearance on a record (aged 4) actually came
on the Frond’s Triptych with the
25-second percussion oddity, “Debbie’s New Song for Drums.” Five years later,
she made her vocal debut on a couple of releases with Nick: the Bevis Frond’s Summer Holiday EP and “The Radioactive
Rabbit,” a trippy 45 under her own name. She played her first gig as a
10-year-old at school, belting out “It’s in His Kiss” to a backing track made
by Nick, and in subsequent years she’s sung with him live and on occasional
recordings (the last Frond album, 2004’s Hit
Squad
, for example).

 

Although Debbie has periodically worked with Nick, she very
consciously began to forge her own path from a young age. At 15, she started
out as a session singer at a local studio. (One dubious highlight that she
recalls is “a song about a girl being in love with Darth Vader.”) Eventually,
she formed her own lounge-jazz ensemble, Hex (whose drummer would later be
poached by Nick for the Bevis Frond), and earned a residency at Quaglino’s, the
chic London restaurant immortalized on Roxy Music’s “Do the Strand.” Hex’s
repertoire drew on Debbie’s earliest musical passions – classic torch songs and
showbiz standards – and she pursued her love of those genres whilst at
university in Manchester,
writing and performing Get Happy, a
one-woman show featuring the songs of Judy Garland. Get Happy enjoyed a successful two-season run at the King’s Head
Theatre in London, on the strength of which Debbie landed the lead role in a
2008 touring production of The Rise and
Fall of Little Voice
, receiving positive notices in newspapers ranging from
the Scotsman to the Sunday Times.

 

Despite her achievements, over the last few years Debbie’s
enthusiasm for musical theater has waned somewhat: “I got fed up with acting
and singing as other people. I wanted to be me, and I wanted to go back to
being in a band. So I told Dad that I wanted to do some music and be myself,
not just imitate others.” This was a pleasant surprise to Nick, who’d always
hoped they’d end up working together in a more substantive way: “She’s always
supported what I do. She’s come to all the gigs, and she says all the right
stuff like, ‘Wow, that’s brilliant!’ but she’s never really shown that much of
a desire to do something with a poor old ageing parent. I’d always said to her,
‘I don’t understand why we don’t work together because you love singing, and I
write songs,’ but I imagine that, like most kids, she thought that working with
her dad was a bit, well, uncool.”

 

It’s true that, for a long time, Debbie had been reluctant
to record an album with Nick, but this had nothing to do with feeling he wasn’t
cool enough; her reluctance in fact stemmed from worries over perceptions of
nepotism, something to which she’d been sensitive as an artist trying to build
her own career: “I didn’t want any help; I was going to do it myself,” she
says. “And if I did an album, I didn’t want people thinking, ‘Oh, it’s only
because of who her dad is.’ I didn’t want people to think it was only because
of him, but as time went on, I thought, ‘What the hell, why not do something
with him?’ It was silly to go on being stubborn. So I thought, ‘Sod it, I want
to do it, and I don’t care what people think.’ He’s great, I enjoy working with
him and, as he always says, he’s free! And we share a lot of tastes.”

 

Among their common musical loves, Debbie’s favorite rock and
pop vocalists (David Crosby, Lennon, Bowie, Janis Joplin, Sandy Denny and Dusty
Springfield) are all well-represented in Nick’s record collection.
Nevertheless, the two have agreed to disagree about the merits of a few
artists. “She’s definitely got her own taste,” Nick notes diplomatically,
before adding, “She likes a lot more rubbish than I do! She’s certainly very
fond of ‘songs from the shows,’ which I can’t stand. She loves her Judy
Garland, her Mel Tormé, her Sinatra, her Shirley Bassey and all that kind of
stuff. It’s a great source of mystery to me what went wrong….” Even so, Nick
has always encouraged her interests, albeit under duress at times: “He took me
to see [the multi-million-selling girl group] Eternal for my ninth birthday,”
remembers Debbie, “and for my thirteenth birthday, he took me to see Suede. He
didn’t like them: he thought they were a bit poncey.” (But surely that was the point of Suede, with their camp aesthetic?)
As for her love of show tunes, standards and musical theater, she explains,
“When your dad is a psychedelic rock god, it’s my form of rebellion.”

 

“Songs from the shows” aside, Nick does express some (mock)
disappointment that she’s never come to share his enthusiasm for artists
operating at the more atonal, out-there end of the spectrum: “She likes a lot
of the stuff that I like, but she’s never really succumbed to the joys of
Beefheart: you try and make your kid like Captain Beefheart, and she ends up
liking Sammy Davis, Jr….” Hearing this, Debbie laughs: “He bears grudges.
He’s still annoyed I don’t like
Beefheart, and he’s still miffed that I stopped going to see QPR [Queens Park
Rangers FC] with him because I got a Saturday job and discovered the joys of
shopping on Oxford Street.”

 

For Neon Classic, Debbie
set the ball rolling: “I outlined the kind of thing I was interested in doing
and he got into the vein of writing stuff that was exactly what I wanted, which
would showcase my voice.” Nick threw himself into the task with gusto: “I got
really geed up, and I wrote about 30 songs in a month,” he recalls. “I demo-ed
all of them and played them to her. Then we sat down and both made a list of
our favorite 15 and, fortunately, we found a bunch of stuff that we agreed on.”
According to Nick, though, some of the numbers were perhaps just a little too dark:
“There were a few that Deb didn’t want to do, because of the lyrics. She
listened to a couple and said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t fancy singing that.’ I think
she felt some of them were maybe too harsh or too bitter and twisted. She
wanted the songs to be meaningful, but not too savage or angry.” For her part,
Debbie remembers being hesitant about one specific track because it hit a tad
too close to home, underscoring the perils of having a perceptive master
songwriter in the family: “He had actually picked up some of the stuff that had
gone on with a break-up I had,” she confides, “and had written it into a song!”

 

Having decided what would be included on the album, the pair
developed the tracks together. “Deb’s been involved since the conception of the
songs,” Nick emphasizes. “We sat down with the ones we wanted to do and worked
out what we thought would sound good with them. She had just as much input as I
did with the material.” Debbie is modest about her role, despite her
co-producer’s credit: “My input was the singing style, the interpretation and
some of the backing sounds, and when we were in the studio I was choosing
various instruments to go on it. I’d suggest keyboard sounds and the kind of
mood I wanted, but it’s mainly him.”

 

With Nick writing and playing guitar, and with the full
Bevis lineup of Ade Shaw (bass), Jules Fenton (drums) and Paul Simmons (guitar)
on board, it’s logical to ask what it is about Neon Classic that sets it apart from a Frond record. Beyond the
fact that her voice and personality grace the songs, adding a completely new
dimension, Debbie sees other differences: “Obviously, you’ve still got
well-crafted, powerful songs, but he [Nick] understood that it wasn’t going to
be a Bevis Frond album, that it wasn’t going to be as psych-y and that there
weren’t going to be 20-minute guitar solos, because that’s not what it’s about:
it’s about sharp, punchy songs.” What the album does share, in her opinion, is
the diversity typical of the more recent Frond records: “Like the Bevis Frond,
you get a wide range of styles on one album. It’s not all one mood. I want to
experience a few different moods on an album. When we came to deciding the
tracks on it, it was very much about variety. I wanted to mix it up; I wanted
different styles on there. And as a debut album, it shows people that you can
do lots of different things.”

 

Nick offers his own take on the relationship between Neon Classic and his Bevis Frond
records: “A Bevis album, I’ve always thought, is about good songwriting, good
playing and building up an atmosphere, getting a few ideas over, trying a few
new ideas out. But, here, I wasn’t trying to be experimental, and I wasn’t
worried about fantastic guitar solos and all that kind of stuff. Neon Classic differs as much as I could
make it differ.” Above all, he stresses that more of the songs here center on a
female point of view and, most importantly, on Debbie’s voice: “It’s about the
singing, which a Bevis Frond album rarely is. I was thinking of good songs done
from a female perspective and, in particular, songs that would highlight good
singing, that would suit a specific voice.”

 

On the subject of lyrics, Nick says he’s slightly surprised
that Debbie has never shown much inclination to write her own words: “I’ve
always tried to encourage her to write songs. She’s a very good prose writer,
and she’s very clever. I always thought she’d be able to write songs without
trying, but she doesn’t seem to really be that interested.” Debbie explains:
“I’ve had a go at writing some stuff, but it’s nowhere near as good as what
he’s done. So it would be daft to put my own stuff in there if I don’t feel
it’s good enough. But I’m hypercritical: my writing doesn’t really get past the
stage of me thinking its rubbish before I’ve finished.”

 

Debbie and the Millbanks recently kicked off a series of
gigs in support of Neon Classic at
Water Rats in London,
only to be immediately sidelined by a decidedly un-rock ‘n’ roll accident
involving drummer Fenton, who fell over an ottoman and dislocated his shoulder.
Debbie is especially keen to get back on stage since she thrives in the live
environment – a difference between her and Nick that may come as a surprise to
people who’ve seen him play: “I love it, whereas my dad doesn’t. He gets
horribly nervous beforehand. When he’s on stage you can never tell, though.
What he enjoys most is the writing, the making of the music. We’re quite
different in that respect.”

 

Just as Neon Classic marks an unprecedented collaboration between Nick and
Debbie, it has also spawned another first, namely Nick’s appearance in a music video for “Cryo-love,” one of the
album’s standout tracks (walking around a field in a video for Mary Lou Lord’s version of “The Wind Blew All Around
Me”
doesn’t count).

 

“I’ve spared the viewing public
until now,” he comments. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope we don’t end up looking
like Debbie Duveen and the Great Uncles’ – but it’s not too bad.”

 

Ultimately, for Nick in particular, Neon Classic has been an energizing experience: “It really got me
going and spurred me into a frenzy of writing and planning. It was just what I
needed. It was really exciting and I got a real buzz – like the buzz I used to
get when I was going to do a new Bevis album. I felt like it was something I
could really get my teeth into.”

 

While this might sound encouraging to Bevis fans hoping for
a new album, Nick still doesn’t seem quite ready to embark on such a project: “I’ve
got a lot of good songs, and I’ve got a lot of ideas,” he says, “but it’s not
something that’s fired my imagination, really. I have to be honest, I still
don’t feel that hungry to do more Frond stuff.” Nonetheless, there are some
positive signs: “I’m not feeling any burning urge to go out and do it, but,
having said that, I’m not feeling the opposite either – I’m certainly not
discounting it! There will be more stuff because it’s what I do. And if I don’t
do it, what the fuck am I going to do with myself? Retire? I don’t fancy that.
I’m 57, but I don’t feel like I want to be put out to stud… although that
does sound quite fun.”

 

Recommended reading:

 

GO ASK BEVIS Nick Saloman/Bevis Frond (Pt. 1)

 

GO ASK BEVIS Nick Saloman/Bevis Frond (Pt. 2)

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