A Musical Luminary | Bill Nelson
Bill Nelson remains largely unheard of by the record-buying public, yet his influence on modern musicians has been considerable. Nigel Humberstone visits him at his home studio in Yorkshire.
Bill Nelson is in love — primarily with music, but also with what music means and represents. His prolific solo output is a testament to his commitment, and the sense of artistic creativity which has gained him respect and admiration from both fans and colleagues. But this commitment to his art has required him to rely on others to deal with the business side of his affairs, a reliance that has created both financial and creative strains throughout the past year.
Plans to reform, or "revitalise" as Bill prefers to say, Be Bop Deluxe, had to be shelved after initial rehearsals, not least because of the failure to secure an assured £150,000 budget. However, some of the material written by Bill with that project in mind is now to surface as a new LP on the Imaginary record label.
"The new LP is called Luminous. Many of the tracks are demos for the Be Bop Deluxe project I started on last year — some of the ideas were quite interesting and I thought it was a shame that they wouldn't be heard. For example the songs 'She's Got Me Floating', 'Burning Down' and 'Two Hearts Beating' were initially conceived for the Be Bop Deluxe project.
"I have an interest in several areas of 'odd' philosophy. There is a serious side to that and there's also a very kitsch, pop art side to it. Some of the songs on the album have a very tongue-in-cheek, electronic and psychedelic kind of feel to them. Much like the Beatles' 'Baby I'm a Rich Man' — but done in a very cartoon-like fashion. There is a song called 'Tiny Aeroplanes', for instance, which is very much in that sort of feel."
The 14 vocal tracks are entirely solo works and, as with most of Bill's music, they were recorded at his 16-track home studio — a fairly modest setup by today's demanding standards, but one which represents a working environment that serves its purposes. The studio is based around an AHB System 8 desk and Fostex B16 multitrack, with an Emu Emax, Akai MPC60, and Yamaha CS70M as main instruments.
"I get what I need out of my present system — I'm never that frustrated by it. I think if you get somewhere near the picture you have in your mind, then it doesn't really matter too much.
"My choice of instrumentation is generally limited by money — the whole thing normally is. What I would like to work with is not necessarily what I can afford. I had the luxury when working with Dream Demon (the Palace film) and a couple of TV advertisements of being able to use an Emulator III with a CD ROM system, and there's a tremendous library of sounds for it. I'd love to have a keyboard of that quality constantly available. I have what many consider the budget version of an Emulator, the Emax, and I have built up quite a reasonable library of sounds.
"One of the tasks I tried to set myself when I put together the demos for the Be Bop Deluxe band was not to have things too completed. I thought that I had better leave space for the individual members to interpret things. What happened was that I started off doing that, but began adding other parts and ended up with things tied down and all spelled out — with not much room for manoeuvring at all. But what was interesting was that because I had started with the intention to keep things simple, the songs have an entirely different feel from more elaborate pieces."
I always got the impression from previous interviews that Bill was at odds with the application of modern technology in his work. Although there was some truth in it, this assumption turned out to be a little off the mark.
"I'm no purist — in fact at one point I went the other way and thought that real instruments were redundant, and felt that it was all within the realms of being able to manipulate by computers, which it is to a degree. But in terms of recording and playing now, I'm beginning to feel that the avenues for new ideas are perhaps more available in the realm of natural acoustics than with electronics. People have become a little too 'over precious' on that side — they tend to worship equipment.
"I'm not saying that electronic instruments have developed as far as they can, but they are widespread and accessible. In a sense it's a very socialist way of looking at music, in that you don't need to have these great degrees in musical theory or great training in order to make a creative statement. The tools make it available to you, and I don't think that is to be knocked — but at the same time I've always been interested in uniqueness, and once a thing becomes the average or the common denominator, then some of its uniqueness is dissipated."
In the days of Be Bop Deluxe, Bill was one of the early users of a Hagstrom Patch 2000 guitar synth, which he still owns, but he has been through a love-hate relationship with the guitar as an instrument.
"The reason I went away from guitar for a while and got into keyboards was because every guitar player I heard was saying the same thing, using the same tonalities, and was approaching the instrument in the same way; using the same group of notes. That, to a certain degree, is still so — I mean technical skill has developed a lot since the days when I first picked up a guitar. Now you have people like Van Halen as role models and all the pyrotechnics that go with that. When I started guitar there was Duane Eddy, Hank Marvin and Bert Weedon! There are now a lot of technically accomplished guitar players, but I often feel there is a lack of something to say with it. That always has to be the starting point, even if it's something you haven't formulated in an intellectual sense, but just an urge to communicate something more than just the instrument. A lot of people are so much in love with an instrument that they forget that it's about music. I'm more interested in music than I am in musical instruments. Musical instruments are a valid means towards realising a musical vision but it's the music itself that interests me more."
Current music trends have meant that musicians like Bill Nelson and his contemporaries are back in demand as producers, a situation that Bill finds quite regressive.
"I remember remarking jokingly to John Leckie (former producer of Be Bop Deluxe and now producing the likes of the Stone Roses) that the trouble with all this revivalist nonsense is that it gives a load of old hippies jobs again! Why has the industry so much taken to the revivalist thing? It's because most of the people that are now in positions of power in the record industry were teenagers during the 60s and at last it's something that they can understand — poor souls — it's something that they can relate to.
"I know there are a lot of people who are hearing that style of music for the first time round, but what bugs me is that it's no longer the 60s. The cultural and creative issues at stake in the 1990s are far removed from what was going on in the 60s, and when that music first happened it was born naturally of its time and reflected its time. The only thing it reflects about today, I feel, is the dearth and paucity of what's out there at the moment. No one is actually managing to get anything provocative into the commercial market place, and there is this reliance on old tricks.
"I find it very odd with things like the Mancunian Summer Of Love, it was everything to do with the original Summer Of Love, with the image, but the content wasn't there and the meaning for it in the first place was no longer apparent. It was the clothes without the person inside."
"What has always been part of the fun with the pop business, rather than serious music, is the constant mutation that goes on. Certainly, in the early days of Be Bop Deluxe, I was always entertained by those mutations in such a way that I felt that they could actually be incorporated as a form of internal commentary on the whole idea of popular music. I liked the way that early Roxy Music had this 'gladbag collection' of bits from all eras — it was all mixed up in an interesting way. What Warhol was to soup cans, Roxy were to popular music."
"The more I go on in my work, the more I realise that as you mature as a person, your work has to mature equally and it has to be a reflection of yourself at any one time. There is a definition about the differences between 'high' and 'low' art. Low art mutates, whilst high art evolves — it's a more natural and organic process. The kind of mutations that happen in pop music are not coming from natural causes; they're coming from business manipulations most of the time. Ours is now a society that disposes of popular icons very quickly."
Bill Nelson's sense of affinity with Jean Cocteau is evident in various aspects of his work, and it has undoubtedly been a great source of inspiration. His incorporation of Cocteau as a label name, along with the employment of Cocteau-esque images and styles in his work, has stemmed from an early fascination with the multi-talented French artist.
"I was at Art College during the 60s and found in the library a book of his screenplays, with a photograph from Orpheus on the front. It was just seeing that image from the film that led me to seek out more of his work. I now have quite a collection of his things, my proudest possession being a letter that he wrote. But after a period of time you have to rationalise your passions — there was a time when I would search out anything I could on him. David (Sylvian) is also like this at the moment, and he has a lot of original pieces which made me green with envy when I heard about them."
In mid-1990, Bill Nelson was asked to present a concert of improvisations to pre-recorded instrumental tapes at the Church of Notre Dame de France, just off Leicester Square in London. It was to celebrate the anniversary of Cocteau's original mural commission for the Chapel, built for the French forces stationed here during the war. The idea for these 'alternative' presentations had evolved from previous performances by Bill, most notably a concert held at Wakefield Cathedral.
"The altar pieces performed at Wakefield Cathedral were a lot more atmospheric than my normal live presentation. I wanted the music to have some resonance with the building we were working in, which was a huge Gothic Cathedral. Now we have permission to perform at St. Albans Cathedral and St. Johns in Glastonbury.
"There is also a possibility of taking the idea to Japan and performing in a Shinto shrine. I would probably adapt the music a little bit, because there tends to be, in historic places of worship, what you might call a 'house spirit'. Historically in a Gothic English Cathedral there is that sense of Baroqueness, which my music tried to reflect in a modern way, and with the French church in London the music had a more 'turn of the century French' air to it. But there are aspects of the Japanese spirit with which I find it difficult to feel completely at home, so I feel less guilty tampering with Western religious traditions than I would with an Eastern religious tradition."
Bill Nelson's work with soundtracks has produced an assortment of projects over the years, which include plays (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Beauty and the Beast), advertisements (American Express and Toyota), psychological horror films (Dream Demon), television series (Brond and Map of Dreams) and a documentary entitled Henry Moore and Landscape (televised over Christmas) which highlights the sculptures of Henry Moore within the environment of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in which they are displayed.
"It sounds boring, a film about sculptures, but it is a beautiful short film, filmed throughout the year starting off on a morning in Spring and closing at sunset in Winter. The music reflects the changing seasons and the visual environment.
"One thing that I regretted not doing was actually recording the noises and tones made by tapping the bronze sculptures — that would have been very interesting but I got that idea a little too late into the project."
"With Dream Demon, the music was composed from the picture and there were obviously certain thematic structures and ideas that I had to impose on it. The rhythm of the (film) editing dictated exactly at what pace musical events would happen — all the bar lines were coming off the visual edits.
"If I was making a film, I think I would find it easier to edit to music because you have more options. Things that happen in between edit points happen in a state of flux. If people move, they're just moving and are not fixed in time. Whereas with beats in a bar, you've got specific points you can anchor on to. Working with film, the only 'real' specific points are where you cut from one scene to another, or when the camera angle changes. In between these points you have more choices and need to get inside the director's head and work out the important moments. Is it as this woman reaches for the object, when she actually makes contact with it, or at some point during that action? What do you emphasise and what is being said?
"You may not want to underline everything, and I think that is what's interesting about the work of David Lynch. He's got a very strong visual language, and at times he often offsets the 'wrong' thing against a certain visual image, and it actually heightens the image in a reverse kind of way. I would consider it a gift to work with someone of his visual sense."
The film scores of Georges Auric are another point of reference for Bill's view of soundtracks. Auric worked on many British films in the 40s and 50s, as well as the more esoteric French movies such as Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast.
"I did the soundtrack for a stage version of Beauty and the Beast, an adaption of Cocteau's version. One of the things Auric uses are 'press rolls' on the snare drum — very long but not overtly dramatic. I wanted to make some reference to Auric's original score — so I got recordings of industrial looms, which when sped up sounded a bit like a 'press roll', but had an industrial quality to them.
"When working with film, I try not to think about it too much. Obviously I have to keep an eye on things like the recording level and timecodes, but I try to react in a way that perhaps the viewer might react to the movie when they are seeing it for the first time. I think you have to trust your instincts to that degree and follow a gut reaction. Talking about it like this is quite therapeutic — it's a way of me figuring out actually how I do it."
"I bought the Fostex synchroniser for all the film work, and a professional video machine with a good frame search on it, which I hook up to the synchroniser and then the Akai MPC60 sequencer. So I can just find a frame, read off the timecode and put it into the sequencer. Then whatever musical event should happen right on that frame, it will trigger. But prior to that I started Dream Demon using a stopwatch and it was just impossible — I was hand starting both the tape machine and the video!"
The relationship between man and machine is one that Bill Nelson has mixed feelings about. Describing himself as "reasonably computer illiterate", he is nonetheless open-minded about their facilities, but has fears that the growing reliance on technology is stunting creative expression amongst today's musicians.
"It's the dependence — where, because you do everything with the computer, you feel ill at ease, unsure, or lack confidence in just the performance aspect of playing."
As an example, Bill cites his work with the play version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
"That was done really crudely — on just a 4-track machine. I had one string machine, a MiniMoog and an auto-harp, which I treated in the way that John Cage would have treated a piano. I slotted nails through the strings — anything I could find that would alter the sound. I had no reverb units or anything like that. Everything was manipulated on tape — actually physically editing pieces of tape and randomly re-assembling them to see what would come out. Most of it would be unusable, but maybe 30 seconds, here and there, would be absolutely entrancing.
"I like the idea of destroying part of the process of recording — in a sense you're almost destroying your recording by taking a razor blade to it. Perhaps the process could be approximated in some way digitally, but it wouldn't have the authenticity or sense of participation with it, where forever after you remember the way you did it — it's a lot more memorable than remembering a few settings on a digital delay unit."
It's perhaps hard to believe that an artist with Bill Nelson's reputation can have his career and livelihood threatened by the machinations of the music business, but that is exactly the situation that Nelson found himself in recently. In the course of trying to solve these problems, Nelson compiled a list of all his recorded works, a list that contains over 600 titles, many of which are still unreleased, and takes in over 40 albums. But despite the business problems of the past, which have unsurprisingly left him bitter and disillusioned, his love for music and desire to be appraised only on the basis of his most recent works, ensures that his attitude towards the future is a sanguine one.
"I've had many sleepless nights, and have even considered packing the whole music business in and getting a 'normal' job — which I swore I'd never do. But a lot of friends have rallied round and given me support.
"I'm now in the process of doing an album with Harold Budd, whereby I'll be going over to Los Angeles and he'll be coming over here. Harold and I have become very good friends — I got introduced to him just over a year ago. He stayed with us for a few days, we did some recording and found that we had a lot that we could relate to musically. So he's spent a year writing this new LP, which he has asked me to contribute to — it contains orchestral parts, so it will be a departure from his piano pieces which he felt he had come to an end with. It's possible that BJ Cole, the pedal steel player, will be involved in the project. He now has a MIDI interface for his pedal steel, which is apparently very interesting and has opened up a whole new range of possibilities for him."
Nelson himself intends to embark on at least one new project that involves entirely new possibilities — a short film entitled Evocation of a Radiant Childhood, also the title of a piece from the double album Chance Encounters in the Garden of Lights.
"I'd like to take the intention behind the instrumental track and expand it into a piece of experimental autobiography — a kind of prose/poem almost.
"It would be filmed in and around my home town of Wakefield, but cutting in old footage of images that fascinated me as a child. Archetypal things that you are instilled with — like steam trains and trams — which could be shown in very mysterious ways. Like trying to grab some sweet and nostalgic images, such as Blackpool Tower Ballroom where my parents used to go dancing, but actually try to show that the reason they are potent and powerful as you grow older, and remain in your psyche, is that they are symbols for deeper things."
Now, at that age when life is really meant to begin, Bill has set up the Orphee Organisation (following the demise of Cocteau Records), through which he continues to pursue his personal musical vision, in addition to lending his production skills to groups such as The Rhythm Sisters and The Mock Turtles. With possible projects involving his friend David Sylvian and the re-vitalised Be Bop Deluxe to consider, are we going to see a new Bill Nelson?
"If I was asked what my ideal would be — I think, for the sake of breaking a mould that I've got into, which is working in my studio most of the time — I'd like to completely reverse that for a while and go out on the road with a group of people who were all contributing to the musical experience. It's been a little too claustrophobic over the last few years — I've worked too much in a vacuum."
Here's to atmosphere.
Interview by Nigel Humberstone
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