South Of A Parable
Making up chords with the Gretsch collector.
Big for his boots, or breaking new ground? Nick Heyward unpacks compass and route-map, sharing the walk with Tony Bacon.
As one team fell apart earlier this year, so another more productive partnership came together for Nick Heyward. Haircut 100 had established Heyward's songwriting, playing and singing potential at the centre of a jangling, fresh-faced pop group.
But ructions and reported ill-feeling split the Haircuts early in '83, and Heyward went solo. What to do now?
Nick decided that he'd like to work with top fisherman and engineer/producer Geoff Emerick.
Emerick's engineering work goes right back to the Beatles' 'Revolver' LP of 1966 — more recently he's engineered for George Martin on Ultravox's 'Quartet' LP and Paul McCartney's latest meanderings. But it was Emerick's 'Imperial Bedroom' decoration for Elvis that had so impressed Heyward's ears: co-production seemed the most attractive route.
At first, Nick had trouble getting in for a try-out with Emerick who was locked in McCartney's lengthy sessions. He eventually slipped in for a weekend at Air studio, and both parties seemed pleased. Emerick and Heyward have worked together ever since the first solo single, 'Whistle Down The Wind'.
In person, Nick turns out to be a pleasantly self-effacing chap, happy that the work on his first solo album, 'North Of A Miracle', is out of the way, and keen to talk interestingly (if relatively non-specifically) on writing, recording and playing live.
"I'm not in the music business for most things that people of my age are in it for," he says. "When I see a new guitar or find out about a new demo studio, I'm there."
Not that our Nick limits himself instrumentally to six strings: he's constantly picking up odd bits and pieces, most recently harmonica and piano. And he casually admits to a fascination for drums, particularly enjoying the laying down of what he describes as "Chad Valley drum sounds" for his 8-track demos.
But don't get the idea that Nick has thoughts of virtuosity. Far from it.
"I've learnt a bit of piano in the studio this time, mainly from watching Geoff, who's a classically-trained pianist," he says. "But I'm not going to learn the piano, like I didn't learn the guitar. So the songs will sound different. I'll never learn instruments properly. When you know the instrument, you know where to go; you can't help nicking things too."
He writes on an old Hofner acoustic — "a great sound" — or on a Gretsch Streamliner, used acoustically. It's these big semi-acoustic Gretsches that you'll remember if you've seen Nick live, though more recently he's been using a Gibson 335. But he's certainly a Gretsch fan. In fact it would seem he's a guitar fan, full stop.
"They lay around the flat and they each have their own corner. One's in the kitchen, one's on the wall, one's in the bedroom, there's two acoustics just lying around in case I get an idea, one's constantly lying around the settee, and one's there as a 'looking' guitar."
And in more detail, Nick? The Gretsch Chet Atkins: "The first real guitar I got was an orange Chet Atkins. It had everything — and it got nicked on the first American Haircut's tour, in Customs. I put it on the plane at one end with the other guitarist's, and they never arrived at the other end. I've been trying to get one as good as that, I did the whole of 'Pelican West' on it.
"Perhaps that's why I haven't got that early sound I had on 'Love Plus One' on the new songs, because for recording I'm using the 335, or even a Stratocaster. Maybe that made the style of the early Haircut records, 'cos I was doing an almost Chic, David Byrne style of rhythm, but on a Gretsch. Sometimes live, people would hold their hands on their ears."
The Gretsch Streamliner: "It's the cheapest version Gretsch made, like the Mini Metro of the line. I got it at Andy's in London, and I use it quite a bit."
The Gretsch Nashville: "It's the red one I've been using live recently. I also used it in the studio for one thing, the twang on 'Two Make It True', because it's my oldest and most falling-apart guitar. It's lovely: bright red with gold pickups."
The Gretsch Country Club: "I got it in a junk shop in New York, brought it back here and got it renovated. I can't play it live, it's really big, too big for me. The neck's all worn out, but it sounds wonderful."
The Gibson 335: "I use that most, now. I record with it, either that or a hired Strat. It's a blonde one, the re-issue of the old design with the bridge and no tailpiece, two humbucking pickups. It's like the one Dave Edmunds uses: his is the old one, mine's the re-issue.
"I got the 335 about two years ago, traded in an Ibanez semi and a sunburst Strat for it. It's been a real working guitar, live and studio. It's really reliable, I hardly ever have to tune it. It just works.
"It feels brilliant. It has the look of the Gretsches I've been used to for so long, but it has the feel of a modern guitar, and I hate modern guitars, but there's no doubt that if you can get one that you feel relaxed and confident with, it's a definite bonus. You're not frightened of going too high in case your fingers get cut to shreds."
Other odds and ends include a Gretsch Country Gentleman ("with a big tremelo on it"), and a Rickenbacker 12-string ("we were sitting round the studio with this 12-string, going: 'It won't tune up. Oh sod it — leave it!'").
Did you notice the casual way Nick slipped in the reference to a hired Strat just now? I mean, a Strat.
That's... why... that's a SOLID GUITAR. "Until recently I never owned a solid guitar," Nick apologises. "I suppose my very first guitar must have been one of these horrible things, but that was just kept in the cupboard. But the Strat's strange.
"A Strat can be recorded up-close — like the 335 but a different up-close sound. With the Strat it's right out of the speakers. You have to control it, you can't play it haphazardly. It's got to be worn high and you have to concentrate. You can't really get that on my Gretsches."
And so we come around to close-up sounds once again — and one of Geoff Emerick's production trademarks. Nick admits that he got totally involved in the vocal sound Geoff had in mind — and as it turned out, the technique suited his voice ideally.
"Yeah, Geoff records so up-front," he confirms. "And I've got a really quiet voice. I can't sing live very well — so you've got monitors and everything else, but I don't like shouting. With all the adrenalin flowing on-stage, as soon as I sing I can't get any inflection in my voice.
"But in the studio you can hear everything. Geoff doesn't mind popping on the mic, it's the feeling of the voice that he goes for."
Nick still doesn't see himself as 'A Singer' — the voice is just another instrument to use as a tool for the songwriter. "I never consciously think about it," he says. "Sometimes, I write songs and think I'd love to hear someone else sing that."
Although there's plenty of vocal thickening on 'North Of A Miracle', there's little actual double-tracking of lead vocal lines (except on 'The Kick Of Love'). 'Two Make It True', for example, has a single main vocal, and then two double-tracked harmonies overlaid, keeping the strength and inflections of the main tune, but adding depth to the vocal sound at the same time.
Emerick's vocal treatments help some lines emerge in an unexpected way, but he doesn't seem to go in for the usual gamut of digital delay lines and harmonisers, preferring such ancient gadgets as the venerable Fairchild compressor. "None of this modern stuff," as Nick puts it. "This Fairchild thing looks like an ice-cream machine, nobody uses them any more and they're really hard to get."
Nick says he'd decided before the LP that there'd be no musical barriers, and Geoff must have turned out to be the ideal partner for such a venture. For example, how about a 66-piece orchestra with some of band playing and Nick singing, all live, on 'The Day it Rained Forever'? This was recorded at Abbey Road's big Number One studio (often used for recording film music), while the rest was put down at Air. Self-depracating Emerick assured Nick that the sound was producing itself. "It's coming out of the walls," he insisted. "I don't have to produce it."
But why do the vocal live, the modernists amongst us will screech? Nick found himself asking a similar question, only he was all alone in a vocal booth with no-one but a talkback to speak to. Having spent close on four hours on the first verse, he wandered into the control room and asked what the guide vocal was like. "Oh, you mean the vocal," came the reply.
But isn't it difficult to stop yourself absorbing technique, especially when you're in the studio with people like guitarist Tim Renwick, drummer Dave Mattacks, and bassist Pino Palladino? An ever ready grin spreads outwards across Heyward's face. "Oh, it's easy for me. I've got a block when it comes to that sort of thing, I don't want to know."
Perhaps it's easy to put yourself down when you're in Nick's position. "I'm not there yet, I'm still young. In about two years I should be writing good songs. I'm learning."
"We listened to it," Nick says now, "and it was obvious I'd sung the song there. So I dropped in a few lyric changes, and suddenly it had tied itself together."
The orchestral arrangement for the track had been written by Andrew Powell, and Nick was amazed, frankly, when he heard the way in which Powell had picked up all kinds of sounds from the demo and incorporated them within different voicings. "He actually got the sound of the demo, which was just acoustic, bass and vocal. And he got this enormous sound, but it's the same sound. I did some little harmonics, say, on the acoustic, or you'd hear odd bits from the bass — when you hear his arrangement you'd still hear those things but from something like a flock of flutes, something completely different. He's got a massive ear."
Listening to the finished 'Day It Rained', one can but conclude that there's a lot to be said for real instruments — all that air shifting around still defeats the most complex of real-sampling machines — for the time being, anyway. "That's it," Nick agrees. "There were no synths on the album, no Linndrums... Geoff doesn't keep up with music. It was almost impossible to get him to stop and watch Top Of The Pops'."
More strings turned up in 'Club Boy At Sea', and this time the arrangement was by Patti Buckmaster. But the heart of the song remains acoustic guitar and voice, which is probably how it'll be done live, even though "it's a funny range to sing in". The chords are strange too, but that's not unusual.
"I tend to make them up," Nick says of his digital acrobatics. "That's why in rehearsals they have to come over close to have a look at the chords. Sometimes I'll find these lovely odd chords and they'll play it and it turns out to be E, A and D on the bass. They all go on about my strange chords, the band. 'You can't do that, what the fuck's that?'
What Nick can do, and has done in the past, is give to other instruments, lines which were originally written as vocal parts. "When we did the brass for 'Kick Of Love' I gave them my original chorus melody. So when it came to it, I had to write a new chorus. It used to be called 'If You Want To Make Me Happy, You Would', which fits the brass line now. Geoff was great — he waits for you. So I walked around for a bit and came back with (sings): 'There it is, the kick of love...' and that was it."
Makes it sound so simple, really, doesn't it?
And what's Nick going to learn not to play next, I wonder? "Oh, anything that's lying around," he reckons. "But it won't be a synth. Harpsichord, maybe. Or harp. Do you want to hear the live track?"
Nick then turns up the hi-fi for a blistering account of 'Atlantic Monday', throughout which he performs extremely convincing mimes of all Dave Mattacks' best drum breaks. Perhaps he'll end up a drummer after all. Somehow I doubt it — but it's early days.
Interview by Tony Bacon