By Jennifer Quinlin
After reviewing the latest album by The Sad Song Co. I wanted to sit down and chat more with Nigel Powell about how it came together, and how being a solo artist fits into his life touring with Frank Turner.
The album is amazing. It’s had a profound impact on me. I’ve found it to be heartbreaking but uplifting at the same time. Is that something you intended?
Intended is probably too strong a word…that would make me sound like somebody who says “right, I’m going to do this!”. I think it’s probably a natural way that i end up hearing and making music because I think I would apply the same description to Unbelievable Truth, which obviously wasn’t all me, but I was 1/3 of it and it was right in my ballpark. It’s the kind of thing that not depressing…it’s definitely sad…but not bring-you-down sad…it’s walking along hand-in-hand in the darkness kind of sad.
After the loss of my father I’ve found the album to be particularly resonant in as much as I see my Mum alone after years of him always being around. The songs on ‘in amber’ make me cry every time but that’s a good thing, I think, to have that emotional connection with the music?
Obviously I want an emotional response. The music that I grew up listening to…well, not all of it, I think everyone has a vast range of music that they listen to…but the stuff that really stuck with me was things like Automatic for the People by REM, which is one of those albums which is very deeply moving. I guess I want that, it is what I desire…that emotional connection. I don’t think I’m ever going to be the kind of guy who can make music that makes people want to dance and freak out. I play to my strengths instead which is making people sad but, hopefully, uplifted. It’s always the emotional thing for me. I’ve got a reputation amongst my peer group of being the guy that likes prog rock, which isn’t necessarily true. I like two or three bands from that genre and the ones that I like, as opposed to the ones that I don’t like, are always the ones who connect with me emotionally. I love Genesis because a song like ‘Supper’s Ready’ can be 22 minutes long but the reason it means something to me is because it has enormous emotional weight and it doesn’t matter whether it’s 22 minutes long or three minutes long. If it connects that’s the important thing, and that’s why I love Genesis and can’t stand Yes.
You seem to be pretty much always on tour with The Sleeping Souls and Frank Turner…how do you find the time between that and Dive Dive and having a life to write something that is that delicate? I can’t imagine you’d get the kind of environment to write something like that too easily.
That’s a good question. The reason it had been such an immensely long time since the album before, well partially, was because of the touring with Frank. I don’t get into that headspace on the road. I’ve tried to write when I’m on the road with Frank and it just doesn’t work. I need a couple of weeks of not being on the road and then my brain starts to convert back into that mode where I’ll just get up in the morning and sit down at the piano and tinker away and I’ll go “ooh, that’s nice” and it will trigger ideas in me, whereas with Frankthe way we work feels like laying train track in front of a moving train. It has that kind of fraught, punk-rock energy which doesn’t lend itself to quiet reflection. I guess the reason why I managed to do ‘in amber’ was because coming into making ‘Positive Songs for Negative People’ there was a disagreement about how to approach it with the record company and then there was some things that went down with a potential producer that meant it got pushed back, so there was a big hole in our schedule because we hadn’t booked anything in there because that’s when we were going to be recording…and then we weren’t. It was too late for us to book tours so there was a massive hole in the schedule and I just ended up with the time to do it. I had a new girlfriend who listened to the stuff and encouraged me because the other reason is that I wasn’t very confident in it. After ‘Poignant Device’, which was the album before, I made that album and didn’t really do anything with it and wasn’t very confident in my own abilities. I’d pretty much decided I wasn’t going to do it anymore and then had a few months off the road and stuff started coming out. People who heard it went “this is good, you should do something with that”.
Obviously you’re a drummer but you’re really a multi-instrumentalist - are the drums your favourite or have you just wound up in that role?
Drums is my favourite. It would have to be given the amount of time I spend doing it on the road with Frank. (laughs) It would be a difficult psychological situation to be in if it wasn’t. Drums is my favourite thing and my focus, but you can’t really write songs on drums, and when I was young and I was a drummer in a band I’d be hearing music in my head. I’d be trying to explain to people what I meant and eventually it became easier for me to learn instruments so at least I could say “no, try it like this” and play a vague version of it. The multi-instrumental thing came from that…a low boredom threshold and wanting to be able to convey ideas across to other people. It wasn’t a mission of trying to be Prince. I just needed a way of explaining things in somebody else’s terms. I did actually start learning piano, I don’t know if it was before learning drums, it was very early on, so I’m kind of equal parts pianist and drummer. The singing and the bass and the guitar all came much later.
Do you have favourite drummers?
My definite two top favourite drummers of all time are Phil Collins, of course, particularly in the mid to late 70s when he could do literally anything. He was a genius. Also a guy called Rob Ellis who played for PJ Harvey on her first couple of albums when she was a three-piece. I think he is amazing. There’s lots of drummers who I look up to…there’s Jon Farriss from INXS. I was a big INXS fan. That’s why I was hesitating earlier when I said everything I listened to was emotional because I loved INXS when I was growing up. They’re a pretty straight-forward party funk-rock band. I think partially I was drawn to that because he is a brilliant drummer and I take a lot from him because he definitely knew when not to do stuff. He would be very economic but then when he would decide musically when something was supposed to happen and worked for the song he would go ‘RARGH’. Being able to pull that off and sit back for the rest of the time I enjoyed that. There’s a German guy called Benny Greb, he’s does drum clinics and teaching in videos kind of thing which normally I don’t get into those guys but he seems to take great joy in making different sounds from drums. He’s a joy to watch.
You’ve got festivals and things with Frank next on the cards, is that right?
Yeah, it’s been another quiet couple of months because Frank went off on a solo tour to France which was quite long, because that’s kind of how we used to do it in the early days. He would go off on his own to kind of start the ball rolling in places so that we could afford to go out as a full band and not lose an arm and a leg. Since the last American tour we’ve had quite a lot of time off and because of that I’m maybe 75% of the way through another Sad Song Co album. Hopefully I might get that out this Summer. It’s kind of a race against time, in a way, because I’m trying to get that done before everything kicks back in with Frank. At some point we’re supposed to be recording another album with Frank but being signed to a bigger label now, as he is, their idea of urgency does not fit in with how we operate. Their idea of urgency is do it sometime within the next 18 months whereas Frank’s idea of urgency is “let’s do it tomorrow!”. They’re just “let’s think a little bit more before we go in to record”…and we’re all “we’re ready!”… So we’re going to record another album and mid to late June we start doing some festivals, and then July we go on to blink-182 which should be interesting opening for them in the UK. Beyond that who knows, so I’m trying to get this album done and dusted before that happens and I forget how to be a solo artist again.
At this point in the interview my he-cat sauntered on in and came perilously close to disconnecting the call, also possibly meaning that the last glimpse Nigel would have of this conversation would be my cat’s bum as he passed in front of the camera. After encouraging the cat to return to his supervisory position slightly further away we turned our conversation to Safe Gigs for Women, a sadly necessary but fantastic organisation based in the UK who promote and encourage a safe environment for women at gigs. For those who haven’t experienced it, or are unfamiliar, the environment at a gig can be a very hostile place for women (and men, too, to be fair) where assault and harassment are frequent. Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls have been staunch supporters of creating a supportive and protective environment for all gig-goers and strong advocates for either speaking out on behalf of or enabling those in negative situations to feel empowered to do so. Having experienced being grabbed by the throat, having my fingers bent back on the barrier, and being physically manhandled out of the way by men I feel grateful - particularly as a solo female gig-goer - that the awareness about this is being heightened.
I met Emily through her being at Frank’s gigs and she was set up on the merch table and it’s something that I’ve kind of blogged about before, not in such a specific way, but it’s a bit of a challenge for a man, I think, because gigs are just gigs, you go to gigs and you push each other about and stuff and the idea of getting groped or something inappropriate happening - it doesn’t really come up, so you kind of need someone like Emily to say “look, this does happen and it makes it an unpleasant environment for women sometimes”. It shouldn’t be that way, it should be a place where everybody can go and enjoy themselves. It had been something I’d been thinking about, not exactly in those terms, but in my world of dreamscape it concerns me that we go around the world and we do hundreds and hundreds of gigs, and we come across lots of bands, and lots of house crews, and it is so absurdly skewed towards being a male world that it worries me. I don’t understand because there are pretty much no jobs that are gender specific in rock and roll. Anybody can do all of it. When I’m having wild, fantastical dreams I do think about The Sad Song Co becoming big enough to do proper tours and I would just love to have a gender balanced crew, because why not? There’s people of all stripes who can do a great job and it would just be a much nicer environment. I just want there to be people out there saying that women should aspire to this - there’s not enough positive examples for the girls to go “yeah, I want to do that”. I know plenty of women who do work in that side of things but you can’t escape standing around at the gig unloading and there’s 25 men and one woman. I know that’s not exactly what Safe Gigs for Women is about but I think that changing the professional environment, as well as the social environment, will help if men who go to gigs don’t see it as a tribal, masculine zone where they can do what they want I think that will help them to understand it’s a place to go where you respect everyone.
Do you guys think you have any plans to come back to Australia and New Zealand soon since we haven’t seen you for over two years now?
Two years? Yes! I hope so. I can tell you there’s nothing on the books but it’s been discussed back and forth. We were supposed to come last year…there was talk about us coming this year in, I think, April…now we’re at the end of April so I guess we’re not. The answer is I don’t know, I’m sorry. I want to go, I have family out there in Perth and I love the country anyway but I like going there because I get to see the side of my family that I don’t regularly get to hang out with. The last time we were there it was so great, and so much fun. The only downside for us is that touring in Australia is really, really tiring. Everywhere else in the world you get on the bus and go to sleep on the bunk and wake up in the next place. The distances are so huge there that normally you finish a show at midnight, you pack everything, get to the hotel about 2 and then get up at 7 to get on a plane to get to the next place to do it again, but because we don’t really take days off with Frank you don’t have a day between gigs. It’s gig, flight, gig, flight, gig, flight…but..we’ve loved it every time we’ve been out there. It costs a lot because you’re so bloody far away but we want to do it.