Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls drummer Nigel Powell is moving centre stage to tour the latest album by his Sad Song Co. solo project.
Multi-instrumentalist Powell, who’s also sticksman with Oxford’s Dive Dive, will be showcasing SSC’s upcoming album in amber.
Recorded in just five days, with the aid of Radiohead engineer Graeme Stuart and producer George Shilling of My Bloody Valentine fame, in amber is described as a loose concept album based around narratives of people in and around an old people’s home.
Each track is accompanied by prose writings that seek to enhance and enrich the songs and the album will be packaged with specially-commissioned photo art by Alyssa Nilsen.
in amber is Powell’s third outing as Sad Song Co. and has been described as his most powerful work since Almost Here – the 1998 album he recorded as part of Unbelievable Truth, alongside Andy Yorke, brother of Thom.
During a break from tour preparations, Nigel told Matt Catchpole about the making off in amber, his seriously ‘uncool’ influences and Oxford’s tight-knit music scene.
Old People’s homes are an unusual choice of inspiration – what made you opt for such an un-rock and roll subject?
The first songs I finished for the record was Moment Of Clarity, which was inspired by the experience of my mother looking after an Alzheimer’s patient near where we lived when I was young, and Meet You There, which dealt with saying goodbye to my mother on her deathbed. I find lyric writing hard, so taking those and giving the rest of the record a framework helped me focus the rest of the songs and get them finished. As for it being un-rock and roll, I’m well past the time where I’ll ever be considered cool, so I’m blessed with the freedom to do whatever I feel artistically excites me!
in amber was recorded in five days – did you get any sleep? Was it always the idea to work that fast?
For this album there was a limit on the budget. I wanted to work with Graeme (Stuart, engineer) again, and work in a studio rather than my bedroom, so that dictated the timescale. Luckily I’ve got very used to working fast. The early Frank Turner albums were recorded at breakneck speed, as was the album I produced for Belgian artist Milow. I was very well prepared, and like to focus hard, so I guess I do enjoy it!
It’s your third album – how do you think your music has evolved since the previous two?
This is by far my favourite. Weird, given the name I make music under, but I finally understand something Andy (Unbelievable Truth singer) used to say, which was he couldn’t make music when he was down. I was pretty depressed when making the first two albums (miseryguts and Poignant Device), for different reasons at the different times. I’m in a better place now, and it seems like it made me much more able to hear the music, feel where the songs wanted to go, and help take them there. Before, I was trying to hear through a buzz. They’re not bad albums, just not with as clear a vision as in amber.
How would you describe your sound for the uninitiated?
It’s slightly arty pop / rock with a melancholic tinge. Other artists who I maybe sound like a bit are Elbow and Peter Gabriel, possibly a bit of Talk Talk. Really I wanted to be in early Genesis, but that’s just not what comes out when I write!
What do you enjoy most – writing or performing?
I suppose it has to be performing, but that’s mostly by necessity because I spend the vast majority of my life on tour with Frank Turner And The Sleeping Souls, so if I didn’t enjoy it it would be a miserable existence. But I do find writing very deeply internally satisfying in a way that performing sometimes doesn’t satisfy. As for doing solo gigs, I haven’t done any for quite a few years, so I’ll have to wait to answer that until I’ve done my upcoming tour!
What’s your favourite venue?
We played Red Rocks (amphitheatre near Colorado) this summer, and that was spectacular. But honestly it’s not a venue that makes a gig, it’s an audience. I played a show backing Mark Mulcahy in a tiny upstairs bar in Brighton some years back, there were about 20 people there and it was amazing. That’s what I look for.
What does Sad Song Co. give you that Frank Turner and Dive Dive can’t?
With both of those bands I do have to bite my tongue sometimes on how I think things should be, because I know the way I hear things is often not appropriate to what either band does. The Sad Song Co. allows me to try and create what I hear in my head, and express things in as purely ‘me’ a way as possible.
Do you share your Sad Song Co. work with Frank – what does he think of it?
He has listened to all of it, and seems very appreciative, although sometimes baffled by some of my more ‘prog’ leanings. I was talking to Jason Isbell (US singer-songwriter) about my album while Frank was there, and he said: “Yeah, it’s great, although there’s loads of chord changes where I have no idea what’s going on!”
The Oxford music scene seems quite tight knit, with players performing in other groups and so on – is that true or is there a lot of rivalry?
It is true, but one of the sadnesses of the success Frank has had, and the subsequent non-stop touring, is that me, along with Ben (Lloyd) and Tarrant (Anderson) from Dive Dive who are also in Frank’s band The Sleeping Souls, are no longer part of that community. Not that we’re not welcome, but people get out of the habit of calling and saying: “Hey, want to play on this?” after the third time of you saying: “I’d love to, but I’m in Boise Idaho!”
Do you think there’s a different vibe to, say London, for example?
I think as a musical community London as a whole doesn’t have the same thing, but it does break down into centres. So I know a number of people who play at The Monarch in Camden Town and know each other and help out when someone needs something, and that kind of ‘local’ scene happens everywhere in the world. Often playing shows in London there’s more a sense of an audience waiting to be impressed though, it must be said. It’s not always the case, but you find more people with crossed arms at the bar trying to find reasons why you’re not so good.
You played on fellow Unbelievable Truth founder Andy Yorke’s solo album – are you still on good terms? Any chance you’ll play together again?
We were best friends before the band, and we are still so now, although I don’t see him as much as I would like because of touring and him living elsewhere nowadays. I can’t see there ever being any more Unbelievable Truth music happening, but we’re actually just at the moment sorting out a list of cover versions for a friend’s birthday, and Jason, the other member of The Sad Song Co. and the third leg of Unbelievable Truth, is in the band as well. So I think the chances we will play together again are strong!
What bands first inspired you to get into music, who were your key influences?
The things that first started getting me into wanting to play are sooooo uncool it’s almost not true. Marillion and early Genesis were big influences early on, along with Iron Maiden, IQ, Level 42 and INXS. When I met Andy at school he got me into REM, Throwing Muses and Pixies. As a drummer I still desire to be Phil Collins (in 1980), or Rob Ellis from the early 3-piece PJ Harvey. As a musician and a writer I want to be something… else. Not weird or out there in order to be original, just me quietly doing my thing that is just distinct enough from everything else to satisfy my craving.
Which current artists do you most admire?
Sound And Colour by Alabama Shakes is a masterpiece, and probably the only thing I listen to at the moment that is related to the flavour of what I do at all. Honningbarna and Major Parkinson, who are both from Norway, are amazing as well. Warpaint are brilliant, and I got given an album by an American band called Looming, who I don’t know much about but it really floated my boat.
What’s your best drummer joke?
Did you hear about the drummer who locked his keys in the car? He had to smash the windows to get the bass player out.
- Sad Song Co.’s six date tour kicks off at Leicester Fire Bug on Oct 17 full details available on the band’s website.
- in amber is released on November 18 and is available through iTunes. Vinyl editions exclusively through Banquet Records.