Golden boy of the teeny bop scene a closet guitar hero? It's true, all true. Muso musings captured for posterity by Dave Burrluck and Susan Rookledge.
Multi-talented Nik Kershaw sees himself primarily as a guitarist — and so does his favourite guitar-builder Dave Gladden. They tell us why...
If Nik Kershaw were ever to appear on This Is Your Life, Eammon Andrews would certainly have his work cut out trying to introduce him: singer, songwriter, guitarist, keyboard-player, film score writer, producer, teen idol... oh yes, oh no, a-ha!
Principally, Nik Kershaw sees himself as a guitarist.
"It's what I've done longest — since I was about 16 — then I suppose I see myself as a songwriter. Everything else I do out of necessity."
As the interview progresses and the diminutive Pop star relaxes we discover that he understates his work in the keyboard and studio departments, referring to it merely as 'dabbling' and — as he strongly implied during his last British dates — he's more than a little pissed off with being a teen idol. For want of a kinder expression, Nik Kershaw is a muso. Dave Gladden, Kershaw's guitar builder, who is present throughout the interview, finds a kinder expression and calls him 'the master of the subliminal hook'. Kershaw looks embarrassed. Muso seems more apt.
It was obvious from the start that Kershaw was of the muso persuasion. His solos always verged on the chromatic and his arrangements were infinitely more clever than those of his contemporaries. The brass break in Wouldn't It Be Good wasn't an accident, you know.
Oddly enough, for someone who views himself primarily as a guitarist, he doesn't seem to do it an awful lot.
"When I started up," he recalls, "there was very much a big boom in keyboard technology, all these amazing noises coming, but whatever I did to my guitar it seemed to make the same old noise. So I didn't experiment with it that much and I started to get bored.
That's why I got into keyboards — as a challenge — but I do neglect the guitar."
The guitars that Kershaw claims to neglect include three made by his favourite Colchester luthier, Dave Gladden. The pair met in Kershaw's native Ipswich when he was still plain old Nick with a 'c'.
"Nik found out that I built guitars," remembers Dave "and he called me up asking if I could put a Les Paul neck on a Strat body. I mulled over it and eventually realised that he wanted a Les Paul fingerboard because he liked the feel and the shorter scale."
And so the first Gladden guitar was born not knowing that it was destined to appear on Live Aid and numerous video and TV slots. As with all custom built instruments, interaction between builder and player is of paramount importance.
"We always discuss it at length beforehand," says Dave, "and then I go away and do what I like. No, seriously Nik has very clear ideas about what he wants but it has to be adaptable. For example, the preamp I put on the last guitar was switchable via a push-pull on the volume control. It didn't really work because Nik kept knocking it so it's committed to the circuit now. I think I've got a responsibility to try and show him as much of what's around without going over the top."
Having Dave as a guitar adviser is a big bonus. When the first Gladden guitar was made the Kahler tremelo was not invented but Gladden got hold of one as soon as they appeared on the market and Kershaw still employs it a lot more than you notice.
"That's the trick," he laughs, "I use it a hell of a lot but I use it very subtly."
"Sometimes," interjects Dave, "you'll listen to it and think it's a keyboard part when in fact it's guitar."
"I think I overuse it sometimes," continues Kershaw, "it's not as obvious as Beck or Holdsworth. Like instead of stretching up a tone I might slide up while pushing on the trem which gives a different effect. The Kahler is ideal for that. I've tried other trems like the Floyd Rose but I didn't like the tension — it was a bit too heavy. The Kahlers are beautiful — the new ones are incredible, they almost float. It's extremely accurate too."
Kershaw dislikes the term multi-instrumentalist but readily admits that he's no slouch on a bass.
"I played all the bass on the first album. I guess that was because I knew exactly what I wanted and it was easier for me to play than having to teach it all to someone else. It depends what you mean by 'playing bass' though. In the studio you can get away with cheating, and although I can play it moderately well I've cheated plenty on the bass. On the newest album I only played on two tracks. My bass player, Dennis Smith, played a couple and the rest are sequenced and Mark King played on one."
Although the partnership with King was successful, Kershaw doesn't see it leading to anything permanent.
"We got on really well as people and musicians but I don't like repeating myself. In the future I'd I ike to get some kind of muso band together and do an album and some gigs and Mark would probably figure in that."
Kershaw's interest in keyboards and the associated technology has grown of late. While he is the first to admit that he is no keyboard player he spends much of his time experimenting with new equipment and new sounds.
"Again, it's the same as with the bass," he says warming to the subject. "You don't have to be a virtuoso to get a result. If someone asked me to sit at the piano and play a song it would be, 'sorry, actually I've got this really sore wrist'. I'm not a keyboard player as such. I'm just interested in the sounds as opposed to the technicality of playing. That said, I'm still trying to improve. But synthesisers are getting strange now. Like the only thing that's limiting me with the new Yamaha QX1 is my imagination!"
As well as stimulating his imagination the QX1 is also leading Nik into various avenues of technology.
"I'm now very interested in MIDI," he says, "and I'm getting my old Oberheim OBXs modified because some of the old synths still have the best sounds. There hasn't really been that much of an advance in analogue technology in the last few years. I still love the sounds you can get from some of them — I've got an old Korg Poly 4 and a Jupiter 4 which has some great fat sounds. On the newer side I've just got a Prophet 2000 which I'm still trying to fathom out — the manual's like War And Peace. Sampling is easy enough on it but putting samples to a program across the keyboard — called mapping — is really difficult."
Among the musicians' credits on The Riddle is a chap called Fairlight. Does Nik intend to work with him again?
"It was very useful at the time," he says "but that was because there wasn't anything else. The Emulator II wasn't out then but now I've got my QX1 and Prophet 2000 I defy anyone to tell me I need a Fairlight.
"We sampled some guitar on The Riddle. I think that was mainly because when you first get a sampling device you sample a sound you are familiar with. On Don Quixote there are some guitar stabs with brass which are sampled distorted guitar. Funnily enough, it sounds completely different to how it would if I'd played the part.
"That's the thing with sampling. It depends how you use it. Because of MIDI I'm mixing samples with analogue and digital sounds so you probably wouldn't know it's sampled. But I do think the days of obvious sampling are over — things like dogs barking. People are using them more as musical instruments and less as sound effects now."
On his last single, Kershaw dispensed with the services of producer Peter Collins and took to the leather chair himself. Ignoring the fact that the single wasn't an enormous commercial success does he prefer working with or without a producer?
"Well, that's not really a fair question," he complains, "because producing a single is very different from producing an album. The longer the project the more you need a producer to have the ultimate responsibility of producing the goods on time. But I did enjoy the challenge of the single. I learnt a lot from Peter on the last two albums — he kept me in check, but I fancied a change."
Collins is reputedly a tough man to work with as he frequently allows the perfectionist in him to dictate to the humane side of his nature — a hard task master. Nik leaps to his defence.
"He does not accept amateurs, he does not tolerate them. He's had bust ups with bands when, for example, the drummer may not be cutting it and he's got someone else in. He'll do whatever he has to do to get the job done. His only objective is the end product and for that you have to respect him. He's rubbed a few people up the wrong way because they can't play. This may sound conceited I suppose but I've never had any problems with him."
Despite the intricate arrangements and ostensibly elaborate production jobs on the first two LPs, Kershaw works exceedingly quickly by today's standards: Human Racing took 12 weeks and The Riddle took 10.
"I didn't realise how quick we were until I spoke to Depeche Mode," he laughs, "they were saying, 'we're going into the studio soon but hopefully we'll be out by next Christmas.' Dave Gladden reminds Nik that he wrote The Riddle in record time — three and a half weeks.
Pre-production is a big buzzword in the Kershaw camp. Arrangements and instrumentation are always finalised before they consider entering the studio. This is mainly because Nik hates "pissing around once we're in there." Once in the studio, Nik is very keen on using people as sounding boards. This is not to say that he positions fat people in the studio's corners to act as human bass traps, but he'll ask anyone with an opinion what they think of the sound in question.
"I'll ask absolutely anyone," he elaborates, "the tape op, the tea lady... my last engineer Julian Mendelssohn used to say with all his Australian charm, 'That's absolute shit. I'm not recording that!' This time I'll probably be using Stewart Bruce at Swanyard and then get someone else into mix. I think it's good to have a variety of opinions and approaches."
When Kershaw talks about his band you can't help but get the impression that some of Pete Collins' ruthlessness has rubbed off on him. He also insists on calling them 'his' band.
"I'll just use whoever I feel would do a good job for a specific task," he says matter of factly. "My band know that so there's no aggravation. Tim Moore (keyboards) and Dennis Smith played on a couple of tracks on the last album but I like to keep it open. I mean if I was obliged to use my band in the studio I couldn't phone up Weather Report if I wanted to do a Jazz track. That's no disrespect to my band but they don't play like Weather Report. I suppose I am quite ruthless in getting the end product how I want."
"It carries on the whole thing between humans and machines," he continues. "Machines might be more convenient but — does it feel any good? You see there was a time when everyone was using a drum machine; it's a fashion. Now everyone is using a drum machine and trying to make it sound like a real drummer. That's a waste of time — you might as well use a real drummer. Consequently, the first album was mainly machines and the last album was mainly people, as to the next one I'll take it as it comes."
Nik Kershaw may not become the next secretary of state in the session playing world but he certainly writes better songs than Henry Kissinger. But what exactly does he hear in his head when it comes to conceiving the catchy melodies that have become his trademark?
"When I think of the melody," he explains, "I also hear an arrangement and it then has that arrangement — I feel obliged to put it down on tape like that, it seems very natural to me. Yet parts of songwriting are contrived — like actually putting them together. I might take a verse I had three years ago and fit it to something new. But I don't know if I'm trying to be commercial consciously or not — the only time I've done that was when I was trying to get a record deal, the results of which are mainly on the first album. You can believe me or not but since then I do what I think is right and hope that other people do too."
Nik recently took a sabbatical from his commercial pursuits and utilised his extensive home set-up (a Soundcraft desk, Fostex B16, guitar FX rack for outboard gear as well as the ubiquitous DX7 — a TX system is on the way — and interestingly a Juno 6 ("for its great string sound") to record some film music.
"If my stuff gets accepted," he enthuses, it'll be for a film called 'Running Scared' directed by the guy who did '2010'. It's actually Rod Templeton's project but when they asked him if there was anyone he wanted to do it with he said he'd like to work with me!"
So with a new album coming out at the end of March followed by a lengthy tour and the prospect of Rod 'Thriller' Templeton's company over a candlelit console, the coming year looks promising for the little man at the vanguard of new muso-ism. Whether or not his success will merit Eammon's Big Red Book treatment remains to
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