A new Bevis Frond album is cause for celebration. So when Example 22 arrived in the post recently, there was a surge of excitement in Vinyl Connection land. Surfing a wave of Bevis energy, I contacted the band’s founder and enduring mainspring about an interview and was delighted by his prompt acceptance. What follows, then, is an email exchange with songwriter, guitarist, record collector and musical veteran Nick Saloman.
It’s a long time now since the excitement of getting Miasma pressed up and finding there were more people than anticipated keen to get their hands on it. But I’d guess every record is special for you. What particularly pleases you about the 22nd example of your recorded work under the Bevis Frond banner? What are you hoping people will pick up on in the new album?
Well, first, thanks for taking an interest in my stuff. Yes, it’s been some time since Miasma, though of course I’d been playing in bands (largely unsuccessfully) since the late 60s. When I put out Miasma (1987), it was entirely a vanity project. I didn’t expect anyone to be interested at all. I was already 33, and all my previous encounters with the music biz had been pretty disheartening. I always had a lot of confidence in my own abilities, but I’d come to the conclusion that nobody else felt the same way. I had a bit of money as a settlement for a motor bike accident, and I used it to make Miasma. I thought that it would probably be my only opportunity to get down on vinyl what I was musically all about. I gave a few copies to my mates, and the rest went in the attic. As it happened, as soon as I stopped trying to get a record deal and trying to do what I thought was necessary for that purpose, things changed wildly for the better. Now, at 62, I’ve just stuck my 22nd album out. I’m just glad that I’m still able to make music that seems to still be alright, and that enough people are interested in what I do to make it just about viable. I just hope that the lovely punters who buy Example 22 will enjoy it. I think I’ll know if the music starts sounding a bit crap, and if & when that happens, I’ll retire gracefully.
My friend BB tells me there’s a recent Mark Kozelek song (‘Track Number 8’) built around the idea of songwriting as a chore. MK seems to release a fair bit of stuff nonetheless, while your own song output could be described as ‘prolific’. Could you tell us a little about the songwriting process for this album? (eg: Do you write continuously, or focus on writing when an album is planned? Is there a template?)
No, none of that. I really enjoy writing songs. I’m lucky in that I’ve never found it difficult to come up with something. I find it very relaxing and therapeutic. I play every day, and I’m usually working out new chord sequences, tunes & lyrics. Admittedly, most of it goes straight in the bin, but every now and then something a bit better than usual comes through, and when I’ve got a nice batch of new material, I’ll think about doing a new record. There’s no set process..if something comes, it comes, and if it doesn’t I don’t worry about it.
Example 22 has taught me several new words. I enjoyed ‘pluvial’ in particular, deployed in the magnificently rocking ‘I blame the rain’. Do you consult a thesaurus or is this the legacy of a fine British education?
It’s the legacy of an (arguably) fine British Grammar School education. I don’t have a thesaurus at hand, I guess I’m just a bit wordy.
Just recently I have been enjoying an LP of Schoenberg’s Piano Works (Paul Jacobs, Nonesuch 1975). I loved the sensitive yet angular cover portrait. And bugger me, you’ve written a song about the artist, Egon Schiele. How did this one come to be written?
I’ve always had an interest in art, I’ve even dabbled in water colours briefly, but gave up because I wasn’t happy with the results. Not good enough. I still try to take artsy photos though. I really like Schiele’s work, and he was a bit of a wild one, so I thought he’d make quite a good topic for a song. Having said that, when I started writing it, I didn’t know it would end up being about Egon Schiele, it just kind of fell together.
Really loved ‘Longships’ (another sea theme!). In the 21st Century, who are the Vikings coming ashore with ill intent?
Yes, good question. I guess I was trying make a point about xenophobia, and how people have been wary of invaders since time immemorial…. sometimes with justification and sometimes with no justification whatsoever.
A while back I wrote a piece on the Loudon Wainwright III album Older Than My Old Man Now in which the American songwriter explored ageing and mortality through humour both wry and caustic. Similar themes abound in Example 22: ageing, health, connection, meaning, wellness. Your songs tell stories but often have the ring of personal truth.
As we enter the session between tea and stumps, how do we balance action with acceptance? Or the inevitable reduction of faculties (hope they are not your vocal chords being noduled in ‘Waiting for Sinatra’) versus Dylan Thomas’s exhortation to rage against the dying of the light?
No, I have no nodules. That was merely artistic licence. Well, a lyric always sounds more honest, if it’s about the stuff that affects you, or at least the stuff that may affect you. It’s not necessarily how I feel personally, but I try to give it a kind of feeling that people could relate to. My songs are quite often observations of how other people feel or react, though of course there is a large amount of my personal take on life in there too. Though if you’re writing about getting older and impending death etc, I think it’s important to do it with a bit of wry humour and blunt honesty. It would be very easy to make it too mawkish, so you have to be a bit careful to avoid being slushy.
Personally, I like what Sheldon Kopp said, ‘We have only ourselves, and one another. That may not be much, but that’s all there is.’
Well, yes, you can’t argue with that.
‘Manual labour’ seems to be a song about what you do, a ‘state of the nation’ for NS. Is there still enjoyment in playing live?
Actually, ‘Manual Labour’ was about something entirely different, but I’ll leave you to work out what that was. I’ve never been madly in love with gigging, I used to get terribly nervous before going on stage, but I’ve pretty much overcome that now. I’ve actually really been enjoying our recent gigs. The band is really tight and playing with those guys is pretty special.
I understand there have been gigs in support of Example 22. Don’t suppose there is any chance of venturing Downunder?
Yes, we’ve had quite a busy schedule this year, and fortunately it’s gone down really well. We’d love to come Downunder, but I’m not sure it’s really feasible. I’m not signed to a label, so there’s no tour support, so we’d need someone to put the money up, or at least to have enough gigs to cover all our costs, and I’m not sure we’re well enough known in Australia or NZ for venues or agents to even consider bringing us over. Flights, backline, accommodation, transport…they don’t come cheap.
From the specifics of Example 22 to topics more general.
There seems to be an ocean theme in The Leaving of London and the sea crops up on Example 22 also. Didn’t you relocate from London to the south coast during the Bevis Frond 2004—2011 interregnum? How has the sea change been?
Yes, Jan & I moved to Hastings about six years ago, and we can see the sea from our windows. If there is a sea theme to my recent work, it’s definitely subliminal.
Part of your past life was as a second-hand record dealer. And you currently have another gig that will be of interest to Vinyl Connection readers. Could you tell us something about Platform One Records?
Sure, I opened a second-hand record shop about 2 years ago. It’s in an antique centre in an old railway station, hence the name. I only sell vinyl, and I don’t advertise or sell anything on-line. I have a facebook page, but that’s it. If you want something from my shop, you have to come and have a look, and buy whatever takes your fancy there and then. It’s really old school. I try to have interesting stock at decent prices. If I buy a collection, I’ll get rid of all the substandard stuff. You won’t find any Phil Collins, Abba, Dire Straits in Platform One.
Do you still collect records yourself?
Yes, of course. Once it’s in your blood, it’s pretty much impossible to stop. A bit like supporting QPR. I used to worry that I was amassing tons of obscure vinyl, and that when I died, Jan (my wife) or Deb (my daughter) wouldn’t know what to do with it all, which was partly why I started the record shop. I figured that when the time was right, I’d be able to flog off my collection in my own shop. But, needless to say, I’ve just accumulated more records. There’ll probably never be a right time to sell my collection.
I was just re-reading the amusing mock ‘Rarities’ mail-order catalogue from the 2005 Rubric re-issue of ‘Bevis Through the Looking Glass’. Any inner conflict in reconciling your acerbic (but entirely accurate) late 80s observations on record dealers with the shop?
None at all, because I don’t hype up shit albums to unsuspecting punters by telling them they’re brain-melting psychedelic meisterwerks. If someone is contemplating buying an album that I don’t think is very good, and they ask what it’s like, I’ll tell them I don’t like it, then it’s up to them. What used to piss me off was the way these dealers wrote glowing reviews about very average records. You know… ‘shards of lysergic crystals will form in your cerebral cortex while fuzzed up, mind-scrambling guitars weave through jungles of acid-drenched foliage’ etc etc, and when you hear it, it sounds like a weedy version of the Mamas & Papas. That kind of blatant rip-off deserves contempt.
I know I’ve read that your mum took you to shows by the Beatles, Stones and other 60s legends as a youngster. And that she was a successful novelist. Did she have connections to the literary side of so-called “Swinging London”? And what was the legacy for you of those early experiences?
No she wasn’t really very involved in Swingin’ London as far as I know. I mean she was a very good-looking single parent, who had lots of boyfriends, and went out grooving at London hotspots quite frequently…so actually, on second thoughts she probably was quite involved in Swingin’ London. I was a bit too young to be part of the heyday of mid 60s London really. I started going to gigs regularly in about ’68 when I was 15, so missed quite a lot of key things. I remember that it was a really exciting and vibrant time. I was very lucky to grow up in Central London. I could walk to The Marquee or The Roundhouse, I had loads of mates, and we spent our time seeing bands, playing football & trying to get off with girls. It was a really magical, artistic and fun time. I thought it would be like that forever, but by ’72 the scene had completely changed. You had prog, glam rock, the art had become much more orange and brown and geometric..loads of the coolest musos had died, Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison etc etc, not that it affected me all that much, but it just wasn’t the same. I just couldn’t get into Yes or Genesis or glam, so that was when I started collecting old records.
For the benefit of readers trying to suss out where you’re coming from, I wonder if you’d care to offer any observations on some of the following relatively familiar reference points:
Brilliant band, should have done more gigging. I actually bought my first portastudio from Jimmy Winston!
Likewise, an absolutely fantastic band. Sadly their brilliant album was held up, and didn’t come out till 68, by which time it was already a bit out of date, and they’d broken up. My mate Dave’s elder brother gave me his copy of the album, because he didn’t want it any more. I remember he had it gathering dust on top of his bedroom cupboard. I’ve still got it.
Pink Floyd (post-Syd)
I saw them in Hyde Park in early 68, just after Syd had gone. Fantastic, though I have to say I prefer Syd’s Floyd. Still, you’ve got to love the Floyd haven’t you.
Hmm, I never had much time for Hawkwind. I saw them early on at the Lyceum when Dikmik & Del Dettmar were in the band, and I thought they were a bit underwhelming. I’ve never been one for Space Rock really. You know, I like the occasional bit of wooshing synth, but Hawkwind never really did it for me.
Absolutely brilliant guitar player. I saw him with Procol Harum at an open air gig at Parliament Hill Fields, and I was struck by how he pulled some really strange faces while soloing. So when he formed his 3 piece band my mate Bari Watts & I went to see their debut at The Marquee. Partly because he was a great guitarist, and partly because he pulled great faces. While we were queuing to get in, we spotted Long John Baldry ahead of us in the queue wearing a floor length white Afghan coat, with a goat on a lead. Those were the days!
Wonderful guitarist and songwriter, though the older he’s got the more peculiar his voice has become.
I’m not that familiar with his stuff. I had ‘Blue Sky On Mars’ which was okay, but I thought it was a bit over-produced.
The Flaming Lips
Saw them at The Falcon in Camden Town way back, and they managed to set the stage on fire. I much prefer their early stuff.
Anyone else you care to include?
Patto…what a band! They featured the incredible Ollie Halsall on guitar. The best guitarist I’ve ever seen. I must have watched them gigging about 20 times.
Blossom Toes…only saw them once, but they were amazingly good.
The Wipers… they’re from the late 70s/early 80s, but they really opened my eyes to the possibilities of being punky & edgy, but still doing long guitar solos and feedback. Greg Sage is the man.
And that is where we leave things for now, ambling over to our music shelves to construct a Bevis Frond curated playlist. Or maybe not. Perhaps I’ll listen to the excellent Example 22 again and jot down a few responses to share with Vinyl Connection readers.
Many thanks to Nick for his generosity, alacrity in responding, and the photos.
Thanks to BB for invaluable assistance with the interview questions.