As we approach the mid-way point of 2004, however fast it seems to have gone, it’s definitely been an amazing year for new music. And just when you expect the inspiration in the release schedule to dry up in time for summer, along comes Gravenhurst with a stunning album called Flashlight Seasons. It’s unusual to hear such extensive use of acoustic instruments on a Warp album, to say the least, but songwriter Nick Talbot deserves to have an amazing career ahead of him. Somehow it’s even more fitting since Flashlight Seasons is released hot on the heels of the new Nick Drake retrospective. Distinctive arpeggiated guitar playing, a misty rural atmosphere, enigmatic lyrics, a unique and earthy singing voice, and that’s just Gravenhurst. Whichever way you look at it, Nick Talbot is an amazing discovery, and if there’s any musical justice in the world you’re going to be hearing about him a lot. Along with future-proof rockers Chikinki, Gravenhurst is really putting Bristol back on the musical map. Pixelsurgeon were lucky enough to catch up with this promising songwriter’
PIXELSURGEON: Hi Nick. Thanks for taking time out to talk with us. First up, we’d like to say that this has been a year of great albums, and yours is right up there. What’s even better is the fact that we weren’t even expecting it.
Of course, this is actually the second time it’s been released, since it came out in 2003 on Silent Age. Are you still proud of it as you were a year ago, are does this all feel like d’j’ vu for you, and you’re ready to move on?
It’s an odd situation, but I’m still proud of the record, though there are one or two songs I wish I hadn’t put on it. I’m still into playing the songs I like.
How long did you spend recording the album?
Probably about a month of recording and a few weeks of tweaking. If I’d had a deadline it could have been quicker. I sent it somewhere to be mastered and they did a hopeless job of it so I ended up doing it myself, and that took a while, having never mastered anything before.
Did you write all the songs first before recording, or were you writing and recording at the same time?
Bluebeard, Hopechapel Hill and Tunnels existed in different arrangements as far back as 1997. Damage, Damage II and The Ice Tree were written as I recorded and the rest were somewhere in between those dates. I tried to record a few other tracks and they didn’t work out, so they will probably surface again sometime.
Did you have a particular idea in mind for the whole album, or did it just build song by song?
From the beginning I knew I wanted to open the album with Tunnels, and I wanted to make an album that used blatant pop hooks to disarm the listener, then turn on them just when they got comfortable. That aside I just knew it was going to have better songs on it than the first album. I purposely left the better songs I’d written until the second album because I’d be better at engineering by then and I figured more people would know about the second album. That was a bit of a gamble, as I could have fallen under a bus by then.
How much care did you take in organising the order of the tracks on the album?
I went crazy. Apart from Tunnels opening it, then being followed by Fog Round the Figurehead, I think I went through every possible permutation.
Do you have a favourite song on the album? Or perhaps a few tracks stand out particularly in your mind?
I think Tunnels is quite a good statement of intent, and in many ways points ahead in terms of the kind of sounds I’m going to use. In some ways the album gets ‘straighter’ as it goes on after that. The Diver was a high point, and Hopechapel Hill I’m proud of because I wanted to make some early 90’s-style bliss pop, and I think I maybe managed it. And Forest Floor I’m pleased with because It has the word ‘fuckhead’ in it, and I managed to say something about a specific issue.
Because it was released last year, have you already been working on new material?
Yeah, I have a lot of new stuff, and I’d like to think it’s better still. I’m recording it at the moment. As a live band we’ve been gigging post-Flashlight stuff for a year to people in Bristol, but now Flashlight is out again we have to go back and play stuff off that album again, but that’s fine. Bristol would be bored shitless though. If you come to a Bristol show you’ll hear new stuff that won’t be out until next year. Come to Bristol, enjoy England’s finest city.
Warp records have released your album now, but it’s probably fair to say that the music of Gravenhurst isn’t typical Warp fare. How did the deal come about in the first place? Did you approach them?
Stuart who scouts for Warp checked out Mixing It on Radio 3 one night and heard a track by Mole Harness that we put out on our label Silent Age Records. Suitably impressed, he then checked out all the other Silent Age stuff and discovered Gravenhurst. Now he’s managing Gravenhurst. Contrary to popular belief Warp has been a diverse label for a good while. They put out records for Pulp before they were on Island, and then they signed Broadcast, Tortoise, and Vincent Gallo…
Fair enough, but don’t you think your music will surprise some Warp fans? Or do you just see it as a great opportunity to get your music out to a wider audience?
One of the many reasons I signed to Warp was because it would be controversial and people would take notice. Some Warp fans will probably love it; others will probably hate it. If it upsets a bunch of unreconstructed laptop-Nazis, that’s all the better.
You played at Cargo last night? How was it?
Weird. I had massive cheers and applause, and people seemed to love it. But whilst I was playing all I could hear was the roar of people talking about their neon pink leggings. Yet the whole audience appeared to be watching attentively. So the noise must have been coming from somewhere else, maybe it was the fabled Screaming Shoreditch Style Wraiths and other East End stereotypes I’ve heard so much about. My dad can’t believe that Shoreditch is desirable. He says that when he was growing up in London you only went to the East End if you were carrying a shooter.
Do you prefer recording in the studio or playing live?
They are just different things really. I’m not yet at the point where playing live is the transcendental experience I’m craving. Recording in a bedroom with a spliff on the go is a kind of paranoid retreat, a sanctuary of sorts. Playing as a band is more fun in some ways as the amplification makes you feel powerful. Rock music makes you feel like you can walk through walls. Playing acoustically is more like banging your head against one.
Will you be working with the band that you play with live on the next album?
That’s the plan, but it’s not fully possible until we find the right rooms to do it in. You need some sort of audio separation to record as a live band. In one room you can’t do it very easily. It’s stretching my meagre enginering skills, but I’m determined to learn. At least some of the next record will be recorded as a band.
Is there a particular venue you’re looking forward to playing, or a place you’re looking forward to visiting?
I’m playing the Troubador soon, which is a legendary folky venue: that should be fun. I’d like to play the Astoria and the Electric ballroom (if it still does shows) as I had so many formative experiences there, like seeing Stereolab, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Flying Saucer Attack and Tortoise in the early 90’s. And I want to play in Providence, RI again because it’s really cool city.
How do you build your music up? Where do you start?
More often than not I come up with a title then build lyrics and music around it, sometimes consisting of riffs I’ve already had hanging around.
How do you know when a song is complete?
I arrange them as I’m recording them; I do guitar and vocals, and then add the other parts, writing them as I go along. Drums tend to go on last, and then I redo bits of vocals. I complete the songs when I run out of tracks on my recorder… or just decide it doesn’t need anything else.
Are you inspired by the natural world? Just looking at song titles, there’s forests, fog and hills, and your music has a natural earthy quality to it’
Yeah, I kind of see the natural world as a sanctuary and a very scary destructive force; you can try to seek to solace in it but then you get bitten by it. It’s like I feel the need to get out of the city and seek refuge in the rural idyll, but then that freaks me out in a different way. I’m really interested in the interface between the urban and the rural; I like places where urban developments decay and get invaded by nature. Bristol is great for that; right in the middle of the city you can find bizarre spots of untouched wilderness, almost as though people just kind of forgot to build anything there.
Why did you decide to call the album Flashlight Seasons?
It came from a poem I wrote partly using a random text generator; I’d randomly pair words together and then work it into something usable. And there it was: Flashlight Seasons, which was a perfect evocation of what the album is about, but without having any determinate meaning.
Why are you called Gravenhurst?
There’s a band called Pullman from Chicago, and they had a song on their first album called Gravenhurst that is rural and idyllic sounding. I think it’s a place in Canada, and there’s hamlet or two in England, Upper and Lower Gravenhurst. I quickly needed a name for the solo stuff I’d started doing and I thought it sounded mysterious. It’s weird because it’s had various interpretations; I think it was Claire Sturgess who thought it sounded like a Death Metal band, but that’s okay because I like quite a lot of Death Metal. In fact in Virgin they put the album in the Metal section, unfortunately. Someone else thought it was a Goth Revival band because it sounds like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. I once phoned up a listings magazine and the reception wrote down the band name as ‘Grave and Hearse’. Gravenhurst actually suggests a sanctuary on a hill; a ‘Hurst’ is a group of trees on a hillside; ‘Graven’ is archaic English for written, suggesting a rural monastic retreat, as it was primarily monastic orders that were literate back then. But I didn’t know any of this at the time, a sound engineer told me about it, and it fitted much better than I realised.
What do you get up to when you’re not involved in music?
I watch a lot of films, a lot of horror and sci-fi, especially cheap and nasty ones from the ’70’s, read a bit and hang out with my wife.
Which single musician, living or dead, do you admire most?
That’s a very hard one to answer. It’s changed over the years, as I’ve changed and the objects of my fascination have changed.
But I think it might be Scott Walker. He’s a paragon of artistic integrity. He doesn’t bitch, whinge or let you down and he operates as though he is totally oblivious to the music industry. He loses money for major labels, which is a service to us all. He appears, in the very best sense, to really not give a fuck. There are lots of others I have enormous respect for. But there is something especially terrifying about Scott Walker. As for people I know personally, I am kind of in awe of Duncan Fleming, aka War Against Sleep. I want to cup his balls. Brilliant songs pour out of him like shit from a dead skydiver.
What’s next for Gravenhurst?
An EP, then another album, and a whole lot of shows.
Well thanks for taking time out for us here at Pixelsurgeon. We’ll keep listening to the album, and encouraging everyone within earshot to buy it.
Thanks very much, it’s been a pleasure.