Going head to head
with the ever-prolific frondmeister (and living to tell about it).
Since Hit Squad, almost six years ago, it’s all been uncharacteristically
quiet on the Bevis Frond front. Aside from a few live performances, Nick
Saloman has remained on hiatus, something of a surprise for fans who’ve grown
accustomed to his prolific output. Saloman released the first Frond record, Miasma, on his own Woronzow label in
1986 and embarked on an 18-year run, averaging an album a year, plus numerous
side projects and collaborations. Added to that, he put records out on Woronzow
by the Outskirts of Infinity, Tom Rapp, Country Joe, the Alchemysts with
Simeon, Adrian Shaw and the Lucky Bishops, among others.
Despite ranking among the finest
English songwriters of the last two decades, Saloman has never quite
managed to escape the “cult artist” realm, attracting only fleeting
nibbles of mainstream and major label interest. By the time the Bevis Frond
began enjoying some modest success, Saloman was already in his mid-30s and, by
his own admission, hardly the TV-ready youngster with million-selling potential
about whom record companies were likely to get excited.
Consequently, he stuck with his DIY approach and continued
to work alone or with a handful of like-minded associates, displaying a
refreshingly untrendy sense of song craft. Equally at home with well-wrought, melodically rich
pop and epic, sprawling freakouts, he fashioned timeless music from retro
influences (especially psychedelia of both the US
West Coast and UK varieties, British folk and ’60s Beat). Befitting the music,
the words also were far from throwaway fare: often rooted in the
psychogeography of his native London, Saloman’s lyrics range across such topics
as aging, decline, a critical view of gender, ambivalent nostalgia and urban blight, revealing an uncommon degree of
thought and sophistication — notwithstanding the occasional satisfying rant
about music journalists and the shallowness of popular culture.
Self-deprecating, yet firm in his
opinions, Nick Saloman talked candidly to BLURT about his career, the reasons
for his silence over the last few years and why a recent carpet purchase just
might be good news for Bevis Frond fans.
BLURT: You were lucky
to be living in London as a teenager in the ’60s. What was that like?
NICK SALOMAN: My memory of it is that it was just a magical
time. I started playing in bands and going out to gigs at places like the
Marquee when I was about 15, in 1968. There was music everywhere. It was all
happening, lots of color going on. I was there at the right time. I was always
very interested in what was going on. I played the guitar when I was young, and
I was buying pop records when I was about seven. My mum was quite a cool
customer, and she’d taken me to shows when I was younger. One of my best
memories is that for my tenth Christmas, she took me to see the Beatles at the
Hammersmith Odeon, which was a nice thing to do. She’d also taken me to see
Cliff and the Shadows and things like that. The first show that I went to on my
own, when I was 13, was the Stones and the Yardbirds at the Albert Hall in ’66,
which was great. It was the Stones, the Yardbirds and Ike and Tina Turner…and
Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, as well. I was going to gigs at least twice a
week for two or three years. I remember one week going to the Marquee every
night of the week. When I was 17, I went to the Isle of Wight Festival. Of
course, by about ’72 it had all changed: all the bands that had been successful
had become incredibly rich and had started playing venues that were removed
from normal people. Even though you still had your small venues going on, the
scene had changed. You had prog and glam rock coming in and Chinn and Chapman,
which was unbearable as far as I was concerned. So by the early ’70s it just
wasn’t the same.
Did you listen to the
radio much when you were a kid?
I must admit, I’ve never really been a big radio listener.
As a kid growing up, I guess I would have listened to Pick of the Pops, Workers’
Playtime and things like that. When it got a bit more groovy, I tuned into
the pirate stations a bit. Then, with Radio 1, it was John Peel and Stuart
Henry, who were quite cool. I liked the pirates, but they did play a lot of
garbage as well. I’ve always had very defined tastes. I must have been a right
odious little 10-year-old: I knew who I liked and had very defined opinions
about what was rubbish.
What about the music
press? Did you read the weeklies?
Yeah, definitely. All of them: the Melody Maker and the NME and Sounds, when that came out later.
And Disc and Music Echo. I’d read it
all and keep abreast of all the various goings on regarding Wayne Fontana [laughs].
What was it about
psychedelia in particular that attracted you?
I was about 13 when the psychedelic movement started. I was
totally unaware that it was drug-related. It was just so exciting. For me it
was all about the music, nothing else really. I love rock ‘n’ roll. I love
British Beat and the instrumental stuff with the Shads, and to me, psychedelia
just sounded like a natural artistic progression from the Beat groups writing
their own stuff, like the Kinks and the Who and the Beatles and the Stones. It
sounded like they were exploring different things and that they kept finding
new angles, trying out different instruments and writing more interesting
songs. That was what was really getting me going, and the fact that they were
doing these guitar breaks and psychedelic sections. It sounded like really
exciting music exploration, and I didn’t have a clue about the rest of it.
Obviously, I knew that when they talked about LSD, they didn’t mean pounds,
shillings and pence, but I didn’t know what it really meant or what it was. I
soon found out, but it just sounded so great to me.
Do you remember the
first psychedelic record you heard?
I don’t know if you count the Beatles. Obviously, I was a
huge Beatles fan, so it would have been something like Revolver, I suppose. I remember seeing Hendrix on Ready Steady Go!, doing “Hey
Joe” and “Stone Free,” I think. That really got me. I thought,
“Wow! This bloke’s brilliant.” So I became a massive Jimi fan.
You mentioned going
to the Isle of Wight Festival. What was Hendrix’s set like?
I didn’t see Hendrix at the Isle of Wight. This is one of my
lifelong regrets. I don’t have too many, but that’s one of them. Me and my mate
Ray went, and we ran out of money. We hadn’t eaten for a couple of days, and we
were wondering how we were going to get home. We thought we’d leave before the
crowds, because you had to wait for a couple of days to get a ferry across —
there was about half a million people trying to get three ferries. So we left
before the end and promised each other we’d see Hendrix the next time he
played. But then, of course, he didn’t play again. I did actually go to the gig
he did at the Albert Hall in ’69, but I didn’t have a ticket for it. I tried to
sneak in and got chased out by a security guard with an Alsatian. I got all the
way up to the gods on the exit, sneaked in, opened the door and there was a
bleedin’ security guard with an Alsatian who chased me all the way back down
the staircase! So I heard Jimi from the outside, and I nearly saw him at the
Isle of Wight. He’s probably one of the few acts that I never saw that I really
wish I had.
How do you think
British and American psychedelia differed?
There’s a huge difference. They’re coming out of different
things. I think the American one was probably a lot more politically based with
bands like the Mothers and the Fugs. I know we had bands like the Deviants in
England, but I think the English psychedelic scene was much less political. We
didn’t have Vietnam going on, did we?
I think it was Andy
Partridge who said that American psychedelia was Vietnam and English
psychedelia was tea, whimsy and Victorian novels.
If you’re going to put it into a sentence, that more or less
sums it up. If you’re going to get really anal though, the British psychedelic
scene was actually quite split. You definitely had your whimsical ones, that
tea-shop side to it, but it was quite hard-edged as well. So it wasn’t all
about skipping around and singing about cake; there were harder-edged, bluesy
psych bands and more experimental stuff going on as well. Also, the English
scene really only ran for about two or three years, but the San Francisco thing
ran on into the ’70s. There’s a definite division in Britain where psych stops
and prog begins, with a little crossover period, but by ’70-’71 you’ve got
labels like Vertigo and all those bands getting very proggy; in the States you
were still getting Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead playing at the
Fillmore until about ’72. So it was different scenes. I love both of them of
You left London in
the mid ’70s to go to college and came back in ’76, just as punk was starting.
Were you into it?
Funnily enough, I was having lunch with [Bevis Frond and
ex-Hawkwind bassist] Ade Shaw today and we were talking about punk. He didn’t
like it at all because he’s an old freak, but I did because I was never really
into the proggy stuff. I got heartily sick of Yes and Genesis and all those
bands, and I’d never liked them. I couldn’t get my mind around the 15-minute
“Return of the Horned One” in 17/4. I thought it was drivel. It was
like classical music gone crap. I couldn’t get my head around it at all.
You weren’t a prog
fan then — not even, say, early Genesis?
No. Absolutely nothing. I thought Genesis were horrible.
Good drummer, though! A couple of my mates thought Yes were amazing, and we
went down to see them at the Marquee, but I wasn’t convinced. I didn’t like Jon
Anderson’s voice and I didn’t like Pete Banks’s guitar very much — and I think
they just got worse and worse [laughs].
Especially when Steve Howe joined. I know a lot of people wouldn’t agree. It
was strange because I’d always liked what Steve Howe had done when he was in
the In Crowd and Tomorrow, but I thought his playing for Yes was unlistenable.
And Rick Wakeman…what was he thinking? Walking around with a kind of wizard’s
outfit on? Horrible. There was early prog stuff I’d listen to that still has a
bit of a psych-y edge to it: I like Caravan and Pink Floyd, obviously; Cressida,
I always had time for, and I was a big fan of Patto. So there was a lot of
stuff I’d listen to, but generally it was the pompous concept side of it that I
couldn’t cope with. So my initial reaction to punk was that it was a breath of
fresh air. I was delighted when it hit. My one reservation was that a lot of
the bands weren’t very good and couldn’t play, because I’ve always liked people
who can play. The punk bands who were good players, I thought they were great,
like the Damned and the Stranglers and Elvis Costello — although he wasn’t
exactly punk. So I still think the more musically able of the punk bands are
good. I’d even like some of the crappy ones, because I just thought it was such
a welcome kick up the arse. In retrospect, of course, the legacy of punk is
that it’s really damaged music. It saved music and fucked it up in equal
measure, for generations, because everyone got so worried about image and being
boring and old fashioned, and if you could play well you were an old fart and
all that shit. I think that attitude still prevails. So while it was a
refreshing and brilliant change and opened things up to people who wouldn’t
have been signed to do a mega-album, it did kind of spoil things a bit.
Did you see any
parallels between what happened in the ’60s and what happened in ’76-’77?
Realistically, I think punk was more in keeping with the
British Beat movement. During the psych time you had to have a certain degree
of ability, but back in ’63, when everyone was trying to be the Beatles, you got
a load of these bands coming up who just went out to Denmark Street, bought a
Hofner President and formed a group. I think that was a sort of parallel
because suddenly, after the Pistols and all that, you got people thinking,
“Jesus Christ! I can be a musician. I don’t have to learn how to play The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway on Ice.”
So that’s a decent parallel. Or maybe there’s a link between punk and early
British rock ‘n’ roll, with everybody skiffling and all that stuff. But the
main thing is that what those movements did was to open the doors to ordinary
people who weren’t privileged, didn’t have music lessons or expensive equipment
and could just do it.
In the spirit of
punk, you’re very much a DIY artist. You’ve often had other musicians on your records,
but you’ve mostly done it yourself. Has that basically been a case of
“needs must” or do you work best on your own?
Initially, it was a bit of needs must. By the early ’80s, I
was coming up for 30 and I thought, “Shit, I’m never gonna crack it.”
I’ve been in bands since I was 15, but I recognize the fact that it’s a young
person’s game, and I thought that at the ripe old age of 30 I was a bit of a
has-been. I could see quite clearly that I was never gonna get signed by a
label for all kinds of reasons: I didn’t look punky enough, I had longish hair,
I was a bit more obstreperous than I am now. I argued with everybody and I hung
around with my friends who were in bands that were pretty inept, which was
probably a good thing at the time. I had this kind of hippie-democratic ethic
that when you’re in a band you shouldn’t have a leader: you should all write,
and you should all do it. Of course, the problem then is that you get into a
band and three out of four people try to write songs, and they’re no good at
it. And I realized this and thought, “I really ought to do this on my own
because I’m the only one who’s actually any good — which is a bit harsh on my
old mates who I still see, so please don’t show this to them — but that was
really what it was about. So I figured I’d never crack it and I got a
Portastudio and started recording my own songs. I did some recording and liked
the outcome and put out an album that I financed myself [Miasma]. So it was initially a vanity-publisher project, which I’m
heartily against, but it was the only way I was ever going to get anything out.
A criticism sometimes
leveled at prolific artists working independently — like you and, say, Robert
Pollard — is that they need an editor. Have you ever worried about that?
Not at all. One of the joys of being in charge of your own
project is that it doesn’t matter what other people think. You’re the boss. You
make your decisions. I know I’ve got no divine right for anyone to be
interested in what I do, and I’m eternally grateful that people do show an
interest, or have done. The nice thing is that I do what I like. I do what
pleases me, I record what I like and I put out the things that I think sound
good, and if people agree with me, then great. That’s all there is to it. I’m
my own editor. I throw away tons of stuff. Tons and tons of stuff. What
actually gets heard by anyone must be about a tenth of what I’ve done. I’ve met
Robert Pollard and he’s a charming chap. I’ve got a lot of time for him. I love
a couple of his records. At the risk of contradicting myself, though, I think
he really could do with a bit of editing because I think there’s a lot of stuff
that’s gone out on Guided by Voices records that isn’t that good, which is a
bit harsh because I love some of the stuff: “Surgical Focus” — what
an absolutely brilliant song. But then, my views on what Robert Pollard does
are completely irrelevant because it’s his project and he can do what he likes.
Whatever he wants to put out, that’s his call, isn’t it? And I’m sure his view
is much like mine: if some middle-aged git in England thinks he should have had
an editor, tough shit — he doesn’t have to buy it. Which is the way I feel
about it. Of course, if you put something out for public consumption, people
have the right to express their views — you’re giving them that right by
saying, “Listen to this” — but the answer is, don’t take any notice
if someone criticizes. Which of course I do, and I get very upset about it [laughs].
Continuing with the
DIY theme, I was wondering why you haven’t embraced the web more. For better or
worse, it’s changed the musical landscape. You had a web site for your record
label, Woronzow, but you shut it down.
I can’t be bothered. Yeah, it’s changed it beyond all
recognition. One of the real downsides, to my mind, is that it’s killed the
record shop. I would happily spend half my life in secondhand record shops, but
unfortunately it’s walloped the secondhand market. And of course it’s killed
records as such. But in my case, I’ve always just done what I enjoyed. I don’t
really want to get involved in being an internet businessman. I can’t think of
anything more dull.
Having said that you
haven’t embraced the web, I actually noticed yesterday that some of your early
records are finally being made available on Bandcamp.com.
Yeah, that’s Mark Burgess, who runs one of London’s few
remaining record shops, Flashback in
Essex Road. It’s a lovely shop and Mark’s a really, really great bloke and a
really good mate. He’s been badgering me for ages about how I should get my
stuff on the net. In the end, he just got so fed up with me putting him off
that he’s done it himself, with my approval.
What happened with
the Woronzow label?
I just knocked it on the head. I don’t think anything ever
sold loads. The Bevis stuff was the most remunerative. The others did all
right. I don’t think we ever lost money on anything, but there were a couple of
records that only just about broke even. It wasn’t making enough money to keep
going. I guess we were experiencing the beginnings of what the internet was
doing. It was killing the sales and it was getting harder and harder. When I
started up Woronzow, the idea was not to have a record label at all — the idea
was to help people who were in the same boat as us: talented musicians [laughs]. It was people who I thought
were really good and who couldn’t get a deal, and I was in the nice position of
being able to put their record out — give them a leg up so they could get going
and find their own way. I didn’t want to be a manager or a record label, I just
wanted to help and say, “If I can do it, well, you can too.” So that
was always my outlook. I never wanted to sit in an office with gold discs
around me. I never got into music to become Richard Branson. I always had a
vision that I was going to be some kind of artistically highly regarded
poet/guitarist and be feted and have loads of people do all the boring stuff
for me…but that never really happened.
Have you ever come close
to signing with a major label?
Not really. I’ve had a bit of minor interest. I had
inquiries from Columbia Records in the States and CBS. I’ve had little tickles
where people have expressed an interest, but it’s either come to nothing at all
or just not been interesting. In all honesty, I’ve probably only had two or
three serious inquiries. Record labels aren’t interested in signing someone
who’s going to sell them 20,000 albums. Not that I have ever sold 20,000
albums, but my feeling is that if I was signed to a bigger label and they did a
lot of work, they might get 20,000 to 30,000 sold. But what record label’s
interested in that? They all want to sell half-a-million. And they’re thinking
of the video, aren’t they? They’re thinking of putting you on MTV or Jonathan
Ross or Jools Holland — and one look and my career’s finished, isn’t it?
Because I’m a gray-haired 56-year-old who’s a bit overweight. So, immediately,
I’m not someone who’s going to crack whatever it is you crack [laughs]. I’ve never lacked any
confidence. I certainly think I’m better than a lot of people who get careers.
It’s a bit of a mystery why I’ve not done better, but then I guess it’s because
I’m the way I am: I don’t court it. I never try and get a deal. I don’t do
anything, really. Everything I’ve done is really because people have asked me
to — and people don’t tend to ask very often [laughs].
Coming tomorrow: part
two of our interview, in which Saloman discusses the notion of “Britishness” in
music, his numerous heroes over the years, why he went on hiatus six years ago,
and what he thinks about rock critics.