“I don’t really have a process…”: The wizard of Walthamstow finally comes clean about his godlike genius.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Ed. Note: The concept behind our series “The Story Behind the Album” is pretty straightforward: what went into the making of a particularly noteworthy recording, as seen through the eyes of its creator(s). It can be an acknowledged classic or an under-the-radar gem, but the basic parameters are the same: a title that stands out in an artist’s catalog, one which has stood the test of time and still commands the respect of fans. It could even have been a critical flop or a commercially under-performing record upon its initial release, but the years have steadily unveiled its extant genius. Our first investigation was into Thee Hypnotics’ 1991 classic Soul Glitter & Sin. We now cast our gaze at one Nick Saloman, aka The Bevis Frond.
I owe a lot to a close friend and Cesare’s Dog band mate who happened to frequent the Reckless Records store in downtown Chicago for introducing The Bevis Frond to me. You see, I arrived at college with a voracious appetite for music and it was through them along with my college’s radio station that I was able to forge my own musical taste.
New River Head came out in 1990 but it took until 1991, when on my first trip overseas to Shanghai for my year abroad at Fudan University, for me to completely bury myself in the record. Shanghai in 1991 was a bleak city a hollow reminder of its colonial past with an overburdened, sardine packed, transport system. For us foreign students who lived in the foreign student ghetto and like millions of other Chinese, bikes were our main means of getting around. This would mean long rides into the city with thousands of others in sprawling bike lanes filled with cyclists flowing together in tandem like schools of fish. It was with my dubbed copy of New River Head that I trekked back and forth to the city. New River Head provided an escape in a city that had had all of its beauty sanded away by various political movements. It was also in and around this time that I began writing to Nick Saloman, never quite expecting that he would write back or that 4-years later that I would actually get the chance to meet him in Walthamstow and have a meal with him at a local brew pub.
In a career filled with amazing albums, I chose to write about New River Head, because every young person has an album (I hope) that has affected them balls to bones. This was the case for me with NRH. The album opens with a snippet from what sounds like a His Masters Voice 78rpm recording, where the announcer tells the listener to be prepared for excerpts from “songs of varied character.” Never was there a truer statement uttered. So many tracks on this record have been associated with important events in my life allowing me to pin my own emotional understanding of the music and lyrics on their backs.
Take for example “She’s Entitled To”: it was the song I listened to when I couldn’t take another second of China. With its cutthroat guitar playing it was just the ‘fuck you’ I needed to help me gain some strength to face another day. When I was feeling miserable over a girl whom I was head over heels for, and when she didn’t echo those emotions, “Stain on the Sun” was salve for that wound. When I needed a positive kick in the ass, “He’d be a Diamond” was there for me to sing along to. If I wanted to pretend that I was biking around Merry ol’ England instead of Shanghai, the track “Waving” provided a pastoral folky soundtrack to the images passing before my eyes.
Back then at Fudan University friendships were formed hard and fast. People would come and go. It was the reality of the ever-shifting landscape of foreign student life. When someone would leave, it would punch a hole in your tenuously constructed existence. “God Speed you to Earth” was the song that helped me heal and give me a chance to mourn the loss of a friend and the isolation that would ensue.
It’s hard to believe that this album is now 25 years old. Where have all the flowers gone? Have there been any musical revolutions? Oh yes, auto tune was invented to make up for inadequacies in the major label’s pin up stars, amen for that! Jesting aside, this album feels as fresh as the day I first heard it. In 1990 it blew everything out of the water. It’s an album that continues to emit a timeless emotional resonance. It feels fresh because it doesn’t pretend to be something that it isn’t. It wasn’t apart of any movement and had scant distribution when it was released stateside, but it managed to wend its way into being one of the most important albums of the ‘90s.
I contacted Nick to shed some light on New River Head for BLURT Nick now spends some of his days running Platform One Records, which was voted Shindig Magazine’s best record shop in the UK.
BLURT: How did the idea for the New River Head record come about?
SALOMAN: Without wishing to seem too prosaic, it was simply the latest collection of songs I’d written. I was writing new stuff furiously, still completely amazed that anyone was interested in buying my work, and I guess I was trying to do as much as possible before it all came to a grinding halt.
I’m a yank and you mention that New River Head the song was about London’s lost rivers. In fact many of your albums seem to be cloaked in a reverence for certain elements of England’s past. What is it about England that continues to inspire you in your music?
Well, as long as I can remember I’ve been a fan of music, mostly pop and rock, which means that America has played a massive part. I was always puzzled why name checking American places and events seemed poetic and cool, while the same never seemed to apply to British places. Except maybe in folk. I’ve always disliked English bands singing about ‘trucking down to Memphis’ in an affected US accent, it’s as silly as when in the ‘60s American bands were pretending to be from Liverpool. So I always made a point of singing and writing about English places and stuff that was relevant to me, and in an English accent. Having said that, it’s also because I’m fascinated by the history of London & England anyway.
Below: Bevis Frond circa 1990. Salomon is on the far left.
Upon hearing this album the first time, it felt as if you had sonically broken away exponentially even from the Any Gas Faster sound. How did recording at Gold Dust studios help you up the sonic ante? How long were you in the studio for? Who owns Gold Dust Studios?
I also recorded AGF at Gold Dust, but I think I’d learned a few things from that experience, and was able to get a better grip on working in a real studio. NRH didn’t take very long, I think about 9 or 10 days from start to finish. I like to work quickly in the studio. I’m certainly not one of those artistes who likes lounging around stoned out of their mind waiting for something to happen. Being in a studio for me (as I’m paying for it myself) is like sitting in a taxi with the meter running. Gold Dust is owned by a great guy called Mark Dawson, who used to play in a NWOBHM band called Legend. He’s a brilliant guitarist, and is now being Richie Blackmore/Jimmy Page in a tribute called Purple Zeppelin!
By this time you had built up in the US some CMJ/college radio support, did Reckless when it came to discuss the NRH have any input or was Charles Taylor completely hands off?
Charles had no input in the recording or construction of the album, but a lot to do with US airplay I assume.
Were there differences between the Reckless vinyl and the Woronzow vinyl for NRH?
Did it actually come out on vinyl on Reckless? I honestly don’t remember. So I guess the answer to that is I don’t know.
How involved were you when it came to how the album was promoted in the US?
Not at all.
I’ve read what you wrote about the record in the 2003 rubric reissue, so I have a few questions regarding the reissue. You mentioned you added tracks that had to be left off due to time limitations of a single CD—was the reissue remastered or sonically tweaked in any way? Did the reissues have any success in bringing you a wider audience?
NRH came out in 1991, just as CDs were starting to take off. Reckless didn’t want to put out a double CD…I think they thought that would be a bit too costly at the time. So some of the tracks from the double vinyl were left off the CD because of the time constraints. When Rubric reissued the album, they did it as a double CD with the missing tracks. I have no idea if the release brought me to a wider audience. I suppose there must have been a few people who got to hear of me via the reissues, but I have no real way of knowing.
Below: the Frond in full flight circa 1990.
I remember you had a terrible situation with Reckless having to play with some band you never met in Chicago? When did it finally become viable for The Bevis Frond to actually come over to the US and play a proper tour?
Reckless wanted me to come over to the USA and tour, but they didn’t want to pay for the whole band to come. I insisted that my drummer Martin Crowley (who tragically passed away around Christmas time 2014) came too, but that was all they’d pay for. I should have refused to tour without my band, but I was so eager to come to the USA that my heart took over from my head. Reckless had hooked me up with Plasticland, who were going to provide transport and equipment, and provide drums, bass and keyboard players. If I recall correctly, nobody had told their drummer that Martin was coming, so that was extremely awkward just for starters. It quickly transpired that we just weren’t compatible. I mean, they were nice enough guys, but it just wasn’t going to work. So the tour was called off, and we went back to the UK very disappointed by the whole experience. We were able to tour the USA in the late ‘90s when Rubric took an interest, as they were okay with bringing the whole band over, and organizing it properly.
Nick, can you tell us how you built some of these songs in the studio? I think for many people it’s hard for them to get their heads around how one person can create a song in their head play all the parts and make it sound like a cohesive unit. Could you comment on your process?
Once again, this is going to sound like a dull response, but I don’t really have a process. I kind of know what I’m going to do before I go into the studio, I get the backing tracks laid down, and then overdub other stuff on top. I never rehearse solos, and if I play a twin lead solo, I play one part without listening to the other to achieve a sort of spontaneous sound. I guess it sounds cohesive because I’m quite good at bass and keyboards, which means it’s not as obvious as a guitarist playing amateurish bass and keys. This is why I tend to use a drummer, because my drumming is a bit crap.
Let’s now talk about some of the songs on the album. Over the years my favorites seem to have changed; upon my most recent listen “She’s Entitled To” stood out as one hell of a blistering number. Can you give us some background on this song?
“She’s Entitled To” was supposed to sound a bit like High Tide, who were one of my favourite UK bands. In fact we even issued a solo Tony Hill (High Tide’s guitarist) album on Woronzow. But like most things I do, that are meant to sound like any certain band, it sounds very little like them. Maybe we managed to get the High Tide power of the chord sequence across a bit.
“Drowned” is a brilliant atmospheric track, seeing that “log-like shape’ you mention in the reissue liner notes being drowned. Did the photo in the album inspire the lyrics or did it come after the song had been written?
The photo was taken after the album was finished. The log-like item lying on the beach is me pretending to be drowned, my 8 year old daughter is running across the picture, and the photo was taken by my wife. Keep it in the family.
“He’d be a Diamond” went on to be covered by Mary Lou Lord, which seemed to bring you some of her fan base, did you enjoy her version? I’m reminded about The LA’s “There She Goes” which was a minor college radio hit, which was then covered by Sixpence None the Richer only to become a massive hit. You seem to be anti-covers except for maybe for tongue-in-cheek version of “Hey Joe”. Many people might actually assume she wrote the song; do you have to have a certain level of detachment as a musician when someone covers your music?
I’ve got nothing but nice things to say about Mary Lou. I love her version. I have a certain level of detachment with most covers of my songs as I hardly ever have anything to do with them. Mary Lou usually includes me in the discussions and planning. We’ve worked together on and off since 1991, she’s got a new record out (with a couple of my tunes on it), and I hope we’ll continue to work together in the future. I’m not at all anti-covers. I only do them rarely because I write a lot of stuff, and I think it’s more important (for me at least) to record my own stuff than someone else’s.
Who yells “woo” at the end of “Down in the Well”?
Well, it’s either me or Martin.
How much of that trip with the Salomans to Greatstone-on-Sea inspire the emotions on this album?
Sorry, but our visit to Greatstone had nothing to do with the album other than it seemed like a good place to take the cover picture.
Martin Crowley the drummer on NRH who passed away recently was one of two musicians you worked with on NRH; can you tell us about how you guys met and how he recorded his parts? What was special about Martin as a drummer? (Above photo: Crowley and Saloman)
I was playing in a band called Room 13 in the early ‘80s. We had a Tuesday night residency in a bar in Great Portland Street, London, and one night this 17 year old punk with a blue Mohawk, and ‘Clash City Rockers’ tattooed on his bicep came along to see us. He was a really friendly guy, and got chatting to us. He said he was a drummer, and asked if he could sit in for a song. Our drummer was a guy from New Zealand called Greg, and Greg graciously let Martin play a number. Martin knocked everyone out. He was fantastic. He was very streetwise, but also had a very sweet, and endearing nature, and he became a good friend. Not long after, Greg decided to get married to his girlfriend who came from Malawi, and moved to Africa to manage a farm with her, so we asked Martin to join the band. Some years later when I started the Frond, I asked Martin to drum for me. I thought he was a brilliant, and intuitive drummer, and the fact that he was coming straight out of punk added a different dimension to the sound. When I found out he’d died, I was truly gutted. His funeral was about a month ago, and a really tragic occasion. He died from blood poisoning which came from an infection he caught in wounds to his legs from a motorbike accident 15 years ago. Apparently, no course of medication could clear it up, and he eventually died. He was only 49.
Who did the layout for NRH? The tree that is on the cover where is that photo from? Was it shot in a garbage dump? Is this an environmentalist statement?
I did the sleeve for NRH. I took the cover photo, which was of a tree growing on a riverbank near where I lived in Walthamstow. There was a gipsy encampment next to it, and because it wasn’t an approved site, the council would not collect rubbish from it. So they had just chucked all their rubbish over the fence on to the riverbank, until half the tree was submerged in garbage. I just thought it looked pretty striking.
Up until this point Cyke Bancroft had been doing your sleeve art, why the shift away from that?
I guess I just fancied doing a bit of design myself. I’ve always liked dabbling with art and photography, so it seemed like a nice thing to do.
Your albums from back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s seem to give equal weight to lengthy freak outs to folky numbers and heavy psych numbers, something to please each element of your fan base. Was this something you thought about when constructing an album especially with NRH?
No, not at all. I genuinely appreciate the support the people who buy my records have given me over the years, but I make my albums for myself. Of course, the aim is that people will like what I put out, but I make a deliberate point of trying to do exactly what I want to do, and not to try and appease my fan base. I think that would really dilute the spontaneity and in a way, I think people would realize I wasn’t being true to myself. I learned from years of trying to please record labels by doing stuff that was considered cool at the time and getting absolutely nowhere, that it doesn’t work like that. As soon as I stopped trying, and did Miasma, which was the first record that I made entirely for myself, things started to happen.
Following on from the last question tell us about how you came up with the running order for the original album and did certain songs in your opinion have to be grouped together, if so which ones?
I take a lot of time with sequencing the running order. In the end it’s just what I think sounds right and nicely balanced.
Can you go into some detail about some of the choices you made or songs that you thought transitioned well into others?
Well, there was no great plan, it was just a case of repeatedly listening to the final mixes, and working out which ones sounded good together. Of course, I was also thinking of it in terms of it being four sides of vinyl, so it was structured more as four separate entities I suppose.
Since as you say, a studio is a like a running taxi meter, and maybe I’m missing something but you had to make editorial decisions about what songs you’d record, before you went in so how did you come to the conclusion that these songs would work best together grouped as an album?
No, that’s not really what I meant. I had a pretty clear idea of which songs I wanted to record. The ‘taxi’ analogy is more about working quickly and efficiently in the studio, not hanging around messing about.
How many of these songs existed before the NRH sessions in one state or another?
All of them, except the jams.
What’s the oldest song in terms of when it was created that’s on the record?
I think, if I remember correctly, they were all written within about a 6 month period.
Are all of the songs that you recorded at Gold Dust during the NRH sessions on the album, if not what was left off and did it become part of another album?
There were 3 tracks that I put on a free EP with some early copies of the vinyl, because I didn’t have room to fit them on the album. Hopefully these will appear on the Cherry Red version.
You often say that you have more songs kicking around than you can use, when did you feel that this group of songs would be the bunch that would be most referred to in your catalog of music? What was it like when you had finished the record, before release what was the feedback like from your friends and family?
I have loads of songs hanging around. I’m writing all the time. I’ve never felt that any bunch of songs would be the most referred to. That’s entirely down to the listeners, isn’t it? When I put a record out, I’m always expecting it to be the one that signals the end. The one to which everyone gives a polite, but sad smile. I guess NRH was a pretty strong selection of songs and playing, but I kind of feel that way about all my stuff! The only person who ever hears my stuff in its infancy is my wife Jan, and she can be frighteningly honest. Fortunately she usually likes what I do.
What is your own opinion of this record?
I’m really proud of it. I like all my albums…otherwise I wouldn’t have put them out. I hate it when bands start slagging off their old work. If they mean it, then that’s very sad, and if they don’t, well, that’s very sad too.
Do you have copies of the album for sale at your Platform One record store?
No, I never sell my own stuff. That would be a bit tragic. Besides Platform One is purely second-hand, which would mean someone would have had to get rid of their Bevis albums, and who would ever dream of doing that??
Did any major labels approach you after this album was released?
No, I’ve never had any interest from the majors. I don’t know why. I can only assume I’m not (and never have been) what they’re looking for. And though this might sound a bit like sour grapes, I genuinely couldn’t give a shit.
Can you tell us any funny anecdotes related to NRH that you’ve never mentioned in print before?
I genuinely don’t recall anything particularly funny happening. I guess we had a few laughs, but there aren’t really any anecdotes. Hilarious eh?
Will Cherry Red do a reissue of NRH and what will be different about the reissue compared to the Rubric one?
The idea is that CR will reissue the entire back catalogue, so NRH will certainly be part of that. I would hope that it would include a few extra tracks that Rubric didn’t ever use.
Lastly, do you remember me writing to you in 1991 from Shanghai China?
Yes, of course. I haven’t gone senile quite yet!
Below watch the Frond performing the track “New River Head” last year in Boston.