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

Going head to head
with the ever-prolific frondmeister (and living to tell about it).

 

BY WILSON
NEATE

 

Ed. note: We continue
our interview with the British guitar guru, who despite being known since the
‘80s as one of the most prolific artists of his time, has essentially been on
hiatus since the release of
Hit Squad almost six years ago. Go here to read Part 1 of the feature.

 

 

BLURT: I wanted to
ask about the notion of nostalgia in your music. Lyrically, is it fair to say
that there’s a sense of ambivalence? Songs like “It Won’t Come Again”
(from
New River Head, 1991) seem to criticize living in the past,
while something like “Portobello Man” (from
Valedictory Songs, 2000) is
an affectionate paean to the freaks of yore.

 

NICK SALOMAN: There are different messages I suppose, but if
I was a novelist and I wrote a novel about the Napoleonic Wars, nobody would
think that I saw myself as a soldier in 1807. No one would think that I was
expressing my own viewpoints, but as soon as you write a song, they think
you’re writing about yourself and how you feel.

 

People have a
tendency to connect the “I” word with the singer or writer of a song.

 

With my songs, it isn’t like that. Yeah, some of them are
exactly how I feel, but often I’m just taking a viewpoint. Or I might hear
someone say something and think, “That’s an interesting way of looking at
it” or, “What are you talking about? You’re an idiot.” It
inspires you to go out and write something in which you’re adopting an
alternative viewpoint or somebody else’s outlook. So I don’t think that that
many of my songs are deeply personal. I’ve been writing songs a long, long
time, and one of the things I’ve always had a lot of praise about is the
lyrical content and the fact that the songs are a bit emotional or
thought-provoking. But I can’t say that when I say “I” that I’m
always putting forward my own specific point of view. It’s not always how I
feel.

 

While you clearly
draw on ’60s US musical influences, there’s a strong sense of Englishness in
your music. It’s there in some of the folk elements, for instance, but
especially in lyrical terms: there often seems to be an emphasis on place and
history.

 

I’m a bit of a nerd. I like my history. I like being English
and I like London a lot, but the main thing is that one of my bugbears in pop
music, right from the ’60s onwards, was when you got an English band singing
about “trucking down the highway, going down to Memphis to meet my little
girl” or something. And I’m thinking, “Come on, you’re from blinkin’
Baldock! What are you talking about? You’re not ‘trucking down to Memphis,’ you
wouldn’t know how to do it.” I’ve always hated that. You’re English; don’t
try and be American. It’s just as ridiculous as when the Americans were trying
to be the English Invasion, stuff like the American Merseybeats [laughs] — people trying so hard to be
hip, to be something other than what they actually are. So that was a really
conscious effort: I really didn’t want to sound like I was American. I was
always very keen on singing with an English accent and putting in references to
English places, even if the music sounded a bit American, a bit West Coast.
You’d always have your English references in the songs, so that I wasn’t a
complete charlatan.

 

That very
self-conscious Englishness really made its presence felt in punk
.

 

Yeah, the punk thing really began that. They were
consciously being English, albeit in a very angry, confrontational way. But it
was a very English thing — like the Clash, the “Sound of the
Westway,” and Captain Sensible doing a song called “Croydon.” I
really related to that.

 

Did you decide to go on
hiatus after
Hit Squad in 2004 or did it just happen?

 

What happened really was that a number of things came
together at the same time: I got back from a European tour in about 2005, and
it was a really good tour. It went really well: people came, we got paid and
the van didn’t break down. So it was a nice tour, but I got home and I put my
guitars in my music room, and I just said to Jan, my wife, “I’m not doing
this any more. I’ve had enough. I’m beyond sitting in a van getting piles [US translation: hemorrhoids] for six
weeks, playing to the same people in the same venues. I’ve just had
enough.” So that was knocking touring on the head. Then, shortly after
that, my mum, who was in her 80s, came down with terminal cancer. I’m the only
kid, and I lived near her, and I ended up seeing her every day; I was looking
after her and sorting her affairs out and all the rest of that, while she was
dying. So that rather took up my time. Then she died, and there was the
subsequent fallout with trying to sell her house, getting probate done, all
that stuff. And although you do it, because everyone deals with stuff like
that, it did rather stifle my creative urges: I just felt that I didn’t really
want to continue.

 

Beyond that immediate
context, was there a broader malaise? It seemed you were heading that way —
just the album titles leading up to
Hit
Squad
(Valedictory Songs and What
Did for the Dinosaurs
) hinted that
something was up
.

 

Yeah, I’ve got to be honest, I was getting sick and tired of
it. I don’t really want to say that, because I don’t want to seem like I’m
disrespecting the few remaining people who are interested in what I do, but I
was getting sick to the back teeth of it. I guess I’ve spent the last 20 years
of my life writing songs and playing guitar, and I was getting to the point of
thinking, “Well, how many times can I write the same song, moaning about
the same old things, with the same guitar solos?” It all seemed a bit
stale, and I need a bit of time to recharge the batteries and think about what I’m
doing. What I really had to do was just take a bit of time and figure out
whether I had anything else valid left to say or do. Not that I’d ever stop
writing and recording my songs, which I do all the time and which I have been
doing for the last five years without a break really — it’s just that I’ve
felt that it hasn’t really been interesting enough to take outside. I didn’t
want to show it to anyone because I thought it might be shit. You see, I do
censor myself! I’ve edited myself to complete silence! It’s a bit extreme.

 

So you were writing
all through that period?

 

I was. I write all the time. It’s like some people come in
and have a cigarette: I come in and play the guitar. I’m always writing songs
and twiddling about and writing bits of stuff on paper — and, largely, most of
it isn’t very good. But I was finding that there was a bigger percentage of it
than usual that wasn’t very good, and a smaller percentage than usual that was
good. I did actually record enough stuff to put out a new album about two or
three years ago, which I got as far as going to the studio and mastering. Then
I listened to it back, and I wasn’t very happy with it. So then I had all the
fallout from my mum’s death, and then we decided to move house, and I was still
just sorting myself out. But I was out earlier today buying carpet for my new
recording studio, so I am actually planning to do something — I can prove it
because I’ve bought the carpet! So it means that I really mean it. I wouldn’t
go out and spend money on a carpet if I didn’t have the serious intent of doing
some recording [laughs].

 

To me, the sound on Hit Squad was more diverse than it had been on the previous few records. It
really sounded like a fresh burst of creative energy.

 

Yeah, I thought it was a great album. I was very pleased
with the way it came out. I thought it was a really vital album. I’ve never
really listened to my own stuff, but at the moment — because I’m planning to
do things — I’ve been listening to all my old records. I was putting on LPs I
did, like Sprawl, and I didn’t even
recognize some of the songs because I haven’t listened to them since I’d done
them. And I played Hit Squad and I
thought, “Bloody hell! This is a really strong record.” Listening to
it, I was happy with about 80% of it, which is pretty good. And I guess part of
the reason I stopped was because it didn’t sell. It was like I was kidding
myself. I was putting out these epic works of what I considered to be art, and
they weren’t worth it. It wasn’t worth the effort in financial terms — and in
artistic terms, I can do it without releasing it. So that was a bit of a
problem, really.

 

In the CD tray of Hit Squad, there’s a cartoon of a guy standing in front of a microphone saying,
“Fuck off the lot of you!” Were you sending a message to anyone with
that?

 

I was actually going to call the album Fuck off the Lot of You!, but my darling missus dissuaded me from
doing it. She said, “No. That’s really not nice.” She said,
“You’re a nice bloke, you’ve always been kind and generous to people:
don’t do it.” I rarely listen to anyone, but I do listen to Jan because
she’s much cleverer than me and she’s very pretty — and I’ve got to say that
because she’s sitting right here. So she said, “Don’t do it,” and my
little wave of the tail was that I put it on the inner tray. At the time, I was
feeling really pissed off: my mum was dying, I’d been investigated by the
taxman and was having a really, really bad time of it — a year-and-a-half they
investigated me, and it was getting ridiculous. So I was feeling pretty low,
and I thought, “What the fuck am I doing? I don’t want to do this any
more.” It was a sort of “Fuck off, I’m not going to do it!”
That’s what it was about. It appeared in the tray just because I thought,
“Well I’m not gonna be totally silenced!” So I’m just going to have a little comment, and people can be
insulted if they want, but probably not. I’d never, ever tell my fans to fuck
off. This is why Jan said I shouldn’t do it because it would be misinterpreted,
that I was aiming it at the few people I wouldn’t ever aim it at. I was
actually aiming it at everyone else: people who are supposed to be friends,
taxmen, record labels, journalists, politicians, the world, my mum’s horrible
boyfriend — but not the people who buy my records and put me in the
much-vaunted position that I’m in [laughs].

 

You mention
journalists there. You were the publisher of the
Ptolemaic Terrascope, as
well as a contributor, but your songs have often taken aim at music writers. I
was wondering how you see the role of critics. Are they necessary?

 

I started reading Disc
and Music Echo
when I was 12, and I still read things like Mojo. I’ve always thought, rightly or
wrongly — and I accept that my views are just my views — that with music
journalism the role of a music critic or writer is to write about stuff that
excites them. You’re selling your magazine to a readership who you assume are
buying it because they share an interest in the areas that the magazine covers.
Therefore, as a part of your job, you should be enthusiastic. I think you have
a slight role to criticize when someone who everybody likes has done something
that you think is complete shite. Like when Lou Reed did Metal Machine Music, you might want to warn your readership about
buying an hour of screeching, warn them that they might not be totally into
that. I thought it was a load of old tosh, myself, but I suppose it was cutting
edge…. It didn’t cut my edge, though [laughs].
But the thing I’ve always detested with the music press is when they home in on
artists you’ve never heard of and bring them to your attention just to tell you
they’re shit. I always remember reading things in Melody Maker like that, in the ’60s. They’d bring out the new album
by, say, Jawbone, and you’d never heard of it, and it would be like two lines
saying, “Avoid at all costs. This is rubbish.” And you’d think,
“Well, I didn’t even know about it until you told me. So what is the point
of bringing this to my attention just to tell me it’s no good. It’s just a waste
of time and space.” So as a person who’s into music, I thought that with
the Terrascope we should be almost
completely enthusiastic and not critical at all. Or critical in the sense that
you just write about what you like, not about what you don’t like. I’m not so
against someone who writes a bad review of an act that’s established. If Snow
Patrol’s new album is a pile of old pants — and I can’t imagine that it would
be — but if it is and someone wrote a review of Snow Patrol saying,
“Look, this isn’t very good,” I’d get that. I’d think, “Well,
you owe it to your readership to tell them.” But when a writer just brings
out a new band from nowhere and slags them, I think that’s just awful.

 

You’ve been curating
compilation albums for the
New Rubble series and for the Psychic Circle label.
Will you be doing more of that?

 

I enjoy it, but I don’t think we’re going to be doing it
much more. The guy who runs it isn’t a record collector; he’s not that
knowledgeable. He’s basically a businessman. He doesn’t seem to realize that
it’s really hard to find loads of new unheard psychedelia from 1967. He keeps
saying, “You’ll put out one every other month,” and I say, “No
we won’t!” Because you can’t find 20 unheard psychedelic gems every eight
weeks. OK, I’ve got a pretty extensive record collection, but once you’ve used
that up, plus the few things that you’ve found, you’re running out of subject
matter — and I don’t want put out stuff that isn’t any good. One of the
criticisms that I’d happily level at a lot of compilations like these, with
names like 35 Mind-Frying Psychedelic
Experiences
, is that you only get about three out of 35 tracks that are
actually any good. And a lot of it’s not even remotely psychedelic. It’s like
some little-known garage band playing a cover of a Hollies song or something.
So I didn’t want to get into putting things out that were substandard.

 

Over the years,
you’ve played with some of your heroes, like Randy Hammon, Country Joe, Tom
Rapp, Randy California and Arthur Lee. Who has it been the biggest thrill to
play with?

 

Blimey! Gawd! How can I choose between “Thing in
E” or “Bass Strings” or “Another Time” or
“Nature’s Way” or “A House Is Not a Motel”? It’s great to
play with all of them. I can’t really differentiate. When you’re actually on
stage with people you’ve admired since you were a spotty 14-year-old, playing
songs that you grew up listening to, it’s just one of these things that you
think would never happen. Being on stage with Tom Rapp or Randy Hammon, I’m 14
years old again. I’m just a fan. I could never have dreamt it when I was in my
bedroom with my Dansette listening to Pearls Before Swine or Savage
Resurrection. When I was listening to Electric
Music for the Mind and Body
, if someone had told me that in years to come
I’d be at the Queen Elizabeth Hall playing those songs with Country Joe, I
wouldn’t have believed it. And playing with Arthur Lee was amazing. What a
fantastic experience.

 

How did that come
about?

 

His manager was a Bevis Frond fan. I went to interview him
for the Terrascope, and his manager
said, “Arthur’s doing some radio shows. Why don’t you play with him?”
And I didn’t need to be asked twice. I went straight home, got my guitar and
was back before they’d finished the sentence. He was as mad as a completely mad
person, but nice. A nice guy but, gawd, out to lunch…. When I was with him,
he was interviewed on the BBC World Service, and they were talking about Bryan
MacLean. The host was saying how Bryan MacLean was a wonderful songwriter
because he wrote “Alone Again Or,” and Arthur said, “Yeah, well
that’s not exactly true.” And the interviewer’s thinking, “Wow, I’ve
got a scoop,” so he said, “Oh, tell me more Arthur.” And Arthur
went, “Well, I wrote the ‘Or’.” That was the kind of comment he’d
come out with.

 

I spent a couple of days with him. And the third time I saw
him, he didn’t know who I was [laughs].

 

 

[Photo Credit: Jon
Bernhardt – check out the good Mr. B at http://www.wobblymusic.com/blog and tell him BLURT sent ya!]

 

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