With The Granite Shore, Nick Halliwell has released a little English pop gem and we couldn’t resist the pleasure of asking him a few questions.
Nick Halliwell is like his music, very British! He talked, with a great deal of humour, to us about both his passion and his label, Occultation, which he set up to release his music – and all of this in French, if you please!
Musikplease: Nick, although you’re releasing your first album with The Granite Shore, we can’t help feeling there’s real life experience behind Once More From The Top. Is that the case?
Nick Halliwell: Yes, but the key word is “behind”. It’s the first Granite Shore album but I’ve been at this for a long time now. On the other hand, the album isn’t autobiographical; like a novelist or a playwright, I’ve taken things from real life, but not just my own… there are stories I’ve been told by friends, things I’ve read or heard, etc. A few things come from my own experience but not all that many and, in any case, it’s certainly not an “album à clef”.
MP: How did you go about putting your super-group together? Tell us how you met Probyn Gregory.
Nick Halliwell: I’m playing with my friends. Mike Finney, Steve Perrin, Arash Torabi, Mike Kellie and I are the current members of The Distractions. I produced the first Factory Star album in 2011 so I asked Martin Bramah to contribute. Phil Wilson played on the second Granite Shore single in 2010 and since then I’ve produced a couple of singles for The June Brides. I’ve known Bella Quinn since she was a kid because her father Ged is a former member of The Wild Swans (and nowadays a well-known painter). Actually Probyn’s the only person involved I’ve never actually met, as he lives in California, where he does a lot of stuff with the other Mr Wilson (Brian) but he’d worked on Flood of fortune (the aforementioned second Granite Shore single, 2010). Another musician friend of mine, Henry Priestman (Yachts, It’s Immaterial, Christians), put me in touch with him. Probyn plays a lot of instruments and he’s also a lovely bloke, so we became “virtual” friends. Actually we’ve also got children of roughly the same age.
MP: Did you have a very precise idea of what you wanted when it came to recording all these luminaries?
Nick Halliwell: Yes. I always prefer to work quickly in the studio – we recorded twelve songs in two five-hour sessions – and you can only really do that if the songs are properly structured and everyone knows what they’re doing. You need a bit of discipline, basically… The person I was asking the most of on this record was Phil, because he’s playing in a style completely different from his own, and doing a fabulous job. We didn’t rehearse before the sessions so basically we turned up on the first morning, got the basic sounds and then we played the first song for the first time together in the studio. What you hear in most cases on the album is the third or fourth take, and we only ever played Recorded Sound once. That helps you remain focussed, you’ve only really got the time to work out where you are with each song and then you move on to the next one. Afterwards obviously I work on it all in my own studio, but it’s always based on the third or fourth time we played the song together.
MP: Do you have a benchmark album, a standard against which you measure everything?
Nick Halliwell: The motivation ought to be the idea that nobody’s recorded the album you’ve always been looking for, even though you’ll never manage it either… But basically, in terms of song composition and production, the gold standard for me has always been ABBA, my first musical love. Actually, before we started the album, I gave Phil and Arash copies of The Singles – The First Ten Years. In interviews people often ask “what are your influences?” and whenever I mention ABBA they go “but you don’t sound anything like them!” Exactly! That’s the difference between being influenced and just copying. The best records are the ones where when you listen to them for the first time you think “wow, I’ve never heard anything like that – where the hell does it come from?” Everyone’s got their influences – that’s what culture is – but you need to reconfigure them, filter them through your own ideas and experiences. So when something influences me I try to take it on board in my own way and do something different with it.
MP: Your album tells the life story of a group, are you making a childhood dream come true?
Nick Halliwell: On the sleeve there are two quotations from great English authors. The first is from Chaucer and talks about how time goes by and if you waste it you’ll never get it back again. The second is from Ian Hunter (with his permission), and says “I wish I’d never wanted then/What I want now twice as much”. Well, there you go. We’re chasing something that’s always out of reach. It’s not that I’m making childhood – and above all teenage – dreams come true, but they do have a lot to do with it; the album deals with how these dreams materialise (or not) and how we adapt them to reality (or not). That’s why I wanted to make a narrative album that was still realistic. In other words not some fantasy set in a mythical, magical land, with wizards, supernatural powers, etc. I set out to make a record that’d work on a number of levels and it’s up to the listener to decide how far to go with it.
MP: Where does the band’s name come from?
Nick Halliwell: It’s from a poem by T.S. Eliot called Ash Wednesday.
MP: You take a great deal of care over your album sleeves (there are two different sleeves, one for the CD and one for the vinyl). Are you trying to stand up against the dematerialisation of music?
Nick Halliwell: Well, one curious part of the English character is that we’re as proud of some of our defeats as of our victories, as long as we lose “well”. Just because a battle’s lost, that’s no reason to surrender – you can still affect the future by fighting until the end. We may perhaps be accused of acting like King Canute, trying to turn back the waves of the North Sea… I don’t really think in terms of “standing up against” the dematerialisation of music, but OK, if you were to remove the material side of our music you’d be diminishing it because the presentation – both material and immaterial – is an integral part of the whole thing. Nobody enjoys music without a context and all we’re doing is trying to shape that context. That raises the question of what a record actually is. The English word relates to complex concepts involving leaving a trace and memory. The way I see things, a record is a genuine artefact, because on the physical side of things there’s the record itself; then there’s the sleeve which is tactile, maybe even olfactory; and then there’s the art on it, which is the visual side of things. On the immaterial side there’s the music, but there’s also the whole context surrounding it. So the way we see things a “record” involves all the human senses, and especially memory. If we’re standing up against anything it’s the idea – a pretty insulting one, really – that the audience is too stupid to understand anything complex, that you have to give them a load of banal songs and not complicate things with concepts. Personally I think the audience – ours in any case – aren’t thick. Same thing goes for the media – there’s not a lot you can say about most records nowadays: “er… there are ten songs, they’re quite good… er…” I thought that if we made a record which had something to say there’d be at least some people who’d get it. It’s interesting to note that the two countries where the album’s had the best reception are the United States and France. People say it’s “very English”. Well, I always love works of art that have some sense of the place where they were made, so I take that as a compliment.
MP: You also run your own label. Why do you do things in this particular way?
Nick Halliwell: It’s not really a matter of choice. You need to understand that the majors aren’t interested in people like us – and they’re quite right, we don’t fit into their logic, which is a mainly commercial one. Let’s get this straight: you don’t set up a little label in the 21st century to make money. Actually it’s a pretty efficient way of getting rid of cash. The Granite Shore album talks about the motivations of musicians of our generation, given that most have no chance of earning a living from music. OK, there are some groups who can reform and make a few quid doing gigs because people will still pay to go to concerts, but you need to have been fairly well-known and in any case… New records? Forget it. You’ve really got to want – or need – to do it. Occultation came about in 2008 because I had some money, for once in my life, and I had no real choice in the matter. So there you go… Plus it’s actually been working without being afraid of losing money that’s helped us to build our own aesthetic.
MP: Apart from the people on your own label, what other musicians do you feel close to?
Nick Halliwell: Well, as I say, we’re off in our own little world, but we work with other labels around the world – particularly Fishrider (NZ), but also Slumberland (USA) for The June Brides and Once More From The Top is coming out in France in June, the first fruit of a partnership with Microcultures. Obviously we’ve got friends in other groups and there’s a real spirit of community – small labels aren’t competitors. That’s what Occultation’s all about – we work together and Once More From The Top is proof of this.
MP: Bill Pritchard told us it must be horrible to be famous. What do you reckon?
Nick Halliwell: He’s probably right but I’d be amazed if it ever became a problem for us!
MP: Any plans to perform the album on stage? Come on, we can dream a little, can’t we? What about a date in Paris?
Nick Halliwell: I’m not saying “no” but it’d be difficult. I’ve got a day job, a four-year-old daughter, the label and my own records to make and the same goes for the others. For instance, at the moment I’m working on the next Distractions album, which we’ll be recording in September, then we’ve got a co-release with Fishrider, by the New Zealand group The Shifting Sands, and the new album by The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, both due out in the autumn – that’s a hell of a lot of work. Then if we were going to play this album on stage we’d have to do it in a certain way… Just as we needed to present the record with a sleeve that cost a fortune and even a booklet with the first few copies of the vinyl version. I don’t know whether we could play it on stage in a “normal” way, i.e. four blokes playing together. OK, that’s the basis of the record but it’s by no means all. At the end of the day, I’m not saying “no” and I’d love to do it in France, a country I know really well, where I’ve got a lot of friends and where the record’s been really well-received.
MP: And, to end with, are there any French musicians who inspire you or whom you’d like to meet?
Nick Halliwell: I’ve got loads of French records: Gainsbourg, Barbara, Brel, Léo Ferré, etc. Even so, I hope I won’t be meeting any of them just yet as I’ve still got plenty of work to do in this world…