Reinventing Prog-Rock and Songwriting in the Shower: An Interview with Nigel Powell
by Erin Hucke
As the drummer/keyboardist/producer of Unbelievable Truth, Nigel Powell gained international recognition and critical acclaim for the band's delicate, melancholy melodies as on 1998's Almost Here. On 2000's sorrythankyou, the band took a step forward adding experimental electronic textures to braver arrangements.
Since the breakup of Unbelievable Truth in 2000, Nigel has played gigs with a variety of bands in the Oxford, England, scene and toured with the vastly underappreciated songwriter Mr. Mark Mulcahy. Most recently, he's released his first solo album, miseryguts, under the name The Sad Song Co. and joined up as the drummer for Oxford-based band Dive Dive.
While a couple of songs on miseryguts can be directly related to Nigel's efforts in UT, most of his new material takes a new direction, displaying a bolder attitude.
Nigel was nice enough to endure my inquisition via e-mail.
What prompted you to self-release miseryguts rather than go through a record label?
Since UT broke up it's been a bit of an uphill struggle against my lack of self-esteem to get anything done, meaning I don't have the confidence to sell myself to "the industry" anymore (to get a deal, generally you just need to convincingly tell a record company MD that you're great). I could have just thrown myself in and had a go, but I knew that getting a little extra battering would have probably taken all the wind from my sails for even finishing the thing.
Right now, your Sad Song career seems pretty low-key, only playing a few shows in England, only releasing your record through your website. Do you have any desire or intentions to make The Sad Song Co. into something bigger/more widespread or do you like running a home-based business?
I get the feeling that there's going to be a lot of repetition in these answers. Again, having less confidence means that I'm not pushing things as hard as I could. I'm looking towards getting the album into shops in the UK at least and doing a little more in the way of proper promotion of it, so I guess I'll see how it all goes.
Because of the mix of traditional rock instruments, electronic loops and voice distortion, The Sad Song Co. music sort of defies categorization, and I have a hard time describing it. How do you describe your music?
I should probably run some kind of a poll on the website, because I don't really have an idea. Two people whose opinions I respect independently said it reminded them of The Flaming Lips, which I found a little odd, since I've never listened to any Flaming Lips at all. For me, I was trying to synthesise the kind of thing UT did with early Genesis/IQ/Marillion, kind of underblown prog-rock without any overlong songs. Can anyone think of a succinct way to say that?
The Flaming Lips reference strikes me as odd. I wonder if they meant old Flaming Lips or more recent Flaming Lips. Their new stuff is a bit orchestral, a bit whimsical... I'd even go so far as to say a bit over-the-top (in a good way). It's feel good music, for the most part. I guess I can see a commonality where maybe the electronic stuff is mixed with traditional rock instruments, but don't a lot of people do that? Do you throw out confetti at your shows?
Since it wasn't me that made the comment, and I only know tiny little bits that I've seen on T.V. from Glastonbury, I can't really say. And I don't throw anything at my shows.
I really like "The Everlasting Mile" and I find myself singing "Beginning To Wonder" all the time without realizing it. They (and others on miseryguts) have this flare to them that Unbelievable Truth songs didn't have. Why is that?
Ummm... I guess Andy [Yorke] always used to shy away from the obvious "HERE COMES THE CHORUS" moments in UT. Now I don't have that subtlety brake on me any more. It cuts both ways...
You played the majority of the instruments on miseryguts by yourself, layering tracks rather than bringing in additional musicians. Was this by choice or more out of necessity?
A little of each. By choice because I'm a control freak to some extent, and in most cases rather than try to teach someone a part I'd written until they could play it exactly right, it made more sense to just do it myself. That said, I enjoyed Ken Turner's and especially Jason Moulster's contributions, which were put together by them (under my direction a little). It's nice to be surprised sometimes. Ditto a couple of things that Loz Colbert (ex-Ride drummer) did on songs when he played a couple of shows with me. "Gulag Parenting" especially benefited from his input.
Necessity, again, was because my lack of self-esteem precluded the idea that anyone would just want to be in a band with me unless I was paying them, so mostly I wouldn't ask.
You sound like you enjoy singing lead. Do you or is it something you'd rather leave to someone else in a band situation?
Part of the reason for the album having such a long gestation was because I was trying to find someone else to sing them. Somehow nobody measured up (having worked with Andy Yorke and Mark Mulcahy, I've been somewhat spoiled for world-class singers in the past), and since it was going to be someone not the best in the world, eventually I figured I should just leave my singing on the songs. Now that I'm doing it I do enjoy it, and I'm hoping to do a lot of gigs with this album to strengthen my voice up before the next record.
What comes first for you: the lyric or the melody? How do you write songs?
Melody 99% of the time. The lyrics usually take ages to filter together, depending on how long it takes me to really distil what the kernel of the subject is. I'm actually pretty happy with the lyrics on this album in a lot of ways (not in others...); I don't think there's anything dumb. There's so many songs with rubbish words, it's sad that people don't take a little extra time. And mostly I write a bit of a song, and it goes round and round in my mind for a few days, attaching itself to other bits, then shedding, picking up a couple of words and tunes here and there. Most of this happens in the shower. I really must buy a waterproof dictaphone.
What makes you want to write songs?
I've been doing it since I was 11 and I just can't bloody well stop.
What kind of songs did you write when you were 11? Do you remember any of them well enough to play them now?
They were mostly meandering attempts to write prog-rock epics. I've got a tape of me on holiday in my aunt and uncle's house playing their Hammond organ, I'd seen 20 seconds of Genesis doing "Willow Farm" from Supper's Ready as part of a piece about one of their later tours, and it totally captivated me, so I talentlessly stabbed away for probably about half and hour. I'm surprised my mum didn't just throw me and the organ out of the window. It was awful.
A lot of your lyrics are written in the first person. How much is fiction and how much actually reflects your life experiences?
One of the things that does piss me off about the lyrics on this album, when you listen to it all through, is how much I/me stuff there is on it. The lyrics that are coming together for the next record are either more general in aspect, or take a Ben Folds storytelling approach. I think all my lyrics have some basis in my life, but I tend to amplify, exaggerate and re-cast to make it a little more interesting that "a girl left me, isn't life bollocks".
Care to elaborate on any of your favorite lyrics?
Mine or other peoples?
Yours. Or other people's. Or both.
On miseryguts, "This Isn't What I Expected" seems to make the point I wanted to make, while still managing to take it out of straight autobiography. "Darkness" from Peter Gabriel's UP album, that's got great words, particularly the house in the woods section. "Fred Jones Part Two" from Rockin' The Suburbs (Ben Folds) are something I aspire to.
You posted most all of your songs from your first album on the Internet for fans to download, beginning a couple of years before this CD came out. Two questions: are you now able to sell something you gave (and still give) away for free, and how important do you think releasing a steady stream of music was in maintaining your fanbase?
Initially I started posting the songs on my website because I wasn't sure they'd ever come out any other way, and it gave me impetus to get things done. I think the jury is still out on if the downloads are making people not buy the album, which is a shame since many of the album versions are very distinct from the website demos.
You're involved with a bunch of different bands and projects. Other than The Sad Song Co., who are you currently playing with?
Mainly Dive Dive, a Fugazi/Ash/Idlewild kind of thing. We've just finished an album, and I've got to say to my ears it sounds totally killing. I'm very excited, I just drum and arrange, we play shitloads of gigs, and we're really starting to peel paint as a live band now. I hope the album does well. Aside from that, just bits and bobs one-offs with other bands, although I can't wait for Mark Mulcahy to finish his new album and tour again so I can play more gigs with him.
At some point, you wanted to do a living room tour (a series of concerts in people's private living rooms, rather than typical venues) in the US. Is this something you're still going to pursue at some point?
When I organised it before, it was an attempt to pressure myself into finishing the album and getting it out, since the only way to make such a thing feasible financially was to sell CDs at the shows. It didn't kick me up enough to get it done, so I ended up cancelling. I did a few LRCs in the UK, and they were pretty terrifying, but I guess I will do some more with this album.
Who are some of your favorite new bands/artists?
Dive Dive. Is that cheating? Well, we've (Dive Dive) played with some superb bands out on the UK gig circuit at the moment, the top of the notches being This Ain't Vegas, Jetplane Landing and The Capes.
What's next on your musical to-do list?
Finish and release the Dive Dive album, tour until my hands drop off. Get miseryguts out into the shops, do some gigs and proper promotion on it. Start recording the next one. Sorry, that's three things.
What's the one question you wish someone would ask you? (And what's the answer...)
"Will you accept this no strings attached suitcase of money?" "Well, OK".