- 20 Sep 02
. . . and talks and talks. But when it's NICK KELLY doing the talking, he's always worth listening to, whether what's under discussion is Leonard Cohen, french polishing amid plastic furniture, the brain-numbing efficiency of the music industry or the long-term future of the FAT LADY SINGS. LIAM FAY has plenty of time for him but barely enough tape.
IT'S BECOME a sort of staple cliché of Fat Lady Sings interviews to note that Nick Kelly talks a lot. However, as is so often the case with these things, it's an observation that has become a cliché precisely because it is so unavoidably and demonstrably true.
You ask Nick a question, something fairly banal about, say, where he sees his band's current position in the firmament of nineties pop, and before you've even gotten to the fourth or fifth word of your query he's already embarked on a verbal treatise on the state of the greater music industry, complete with index, footnotes, asides and a suggested reading list.
"The whole thing really depresses me," he begins, and you can see him fill his lungs with enough air to sustain a good hour of oratory. "What's happened is that the music industry has become far too efficient in its own terms. Maverick things very rarely slip through anymore. Everything's got to have an angle. If you look at the kind of people who get on the front of the music papers - Belly, Huggy Bear, whoever - there's always got to be some huge visual angle or huge thing to them. In most cases, they're very one dimensional creatures. The independent music scene has been totally colonised by marketing. Everything's a marketing exercise now, particularly the so-called alternative scene, and one doesn't get the feeling anymore that you're going to hear anything that's going to blow you away.
"And apart from most of these bands being very one dimensional creatures, they're also being captured incredibly early in their existence. The whole music industry signs up everything so quickly now that it expects returns very quickly. There is a reason, you know, why it takes bands five or six albums to produce one that sells six million copies. But there's very little room left for that kind of development anymore. The emphasis now is all on bands whose sole reason for existence is to attract recognition to themselves.
"I'm in a band to be recognised as being a great songwriter and singer and that ego gratification which is essential to all art is definitely there in me as well. But it's a different kind of thing. I'm pretty sure that tomorrow, if I wanted to, I could make a record that would get to number one. As a totally cynical exercise, I could do that. Especially if I had access to certain expertise and certain resources, I know I could do it. What I'd just do is think of a funny phrase - I'm sure I could do that - and then build something round it. I know I could do it but that would not satisfy me in any way. It's like I want people to be nice to me but I want them to be nice to me for the right reason. I want them to be nice to me because I'm so lovely and friendly and such a wonderful person (laughs) not just because they want to be nice for the sake of being nice.
"My thing really is that rock 'n' roll spends its whole time telling you it can stop the tanks and it can throw out the Tories and everything, but it can't. The time for rock 'n' roll to be a total adrenaline excitement through which young people can express their evolution, that time is gone. Computer games are a joke but they mean more now to kids than rock 'n' roll does. I've worked in a computer magazine and I know that the eleven-year-olds who ring in speak in a language which we don't understand. And the stuff that's gonna come out in the next five years is going to push that process even further . . ."
See what I mean? And you're getting the edited version. At this point, I could charter a jet, undertake a whistle-stop tour of all the capital cities of all the countries in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and still be back well before I'd be required to ask Nick another question. Hey, maybe I'll do just that.
"I often find myself talking to music business people or to journalists from the British inkies and many of the things that are so important to these people are completely unimportant to me," he continues. "Specifically, the need to be entertaining, the need to have a very snappy response to every situation, the need to be quotable and all that stuff. I find more and more of that really useless and boring. Anybody could construct a theoretical person who appears in interviews to be very attractive and is very right-on or alternatively very shocking and politically very off, but I can't get off on that at all. It's like the whole Suede phenomenon. I don't mind their record but I hate all this stuff about people needing to be stars. I'm less and less interested in stardom at all in any way. When people ask me what kind of band I'm in I say I'm in a folk band. Not because what we do is folky but because the word rock now has all sorts of connotations that are such boring clichés.
"What nobody really says about rock 'n' roll, because people are afraid to be thought of as pretentious or stupid, is that rock 'n' roll has been creating a language for people for forty years. It's taken the place in popular culture of poetry which is now a marginal pursuit. People quote lines from pop songs now when our grandparents would've been quoting contemporary poets. So the objective now is to continue creating that language, to work for twenty years or more, writing the best songs you can so that at various points you can somehow jangle and sum up something that whole lots of people are thinking at a specific time. That's a thing that no video game can do. I feel in no way threatened in what I do by video games. If I want sheer visceral excitement, I'll play Sonic The Hedgehog but I look to music for things other than visceral excitement.
"What kills me though is that record companies are trying to compete with the video games industry. They see Sonic The Hedgehog, at three times the price, outselling Stars by Simply Red in just two weeks last Christmas. Therefore they think we should price everything at fifteen quid and introduce all these fancy formats, formats for which there is no demand by the way. Everything is so front-loaded. It's all about investment. Everybody has to be signed instantly and has to deliver within one or two albums."
HNNNNRRGGGGH! (That's me, by the way. I just thought I'd remind you that I'm still here and that I haven't actually left the country.)
"Music has been relegated to being purely an entertainment medium, just something that goes on in the background like MTV with the volume down. My real resentment is not the bland stuff, the wallpaper. It's the stuff that's supposed to be challenging. The kinds of records we're being presented with as being indie and alternative are just the product of the diseased imagination of Everett True (of Melody Maker). There's no moral motor to them at all.
"Great art should be totally uncool. It should be expansive. It should work for everybody, people in their sixties, ten-year-olds, everybody. I have no interest in an ephemeral popular music which expressly says that it has no interest whatsoever in examining any of the interesting things about the human condition. I'm interested in the minutiae of existence and in, I don't care how this sounds, making great art."
Alright, alright, I'm being a little facetious here. But the usual question and answer routine just won't work with Nick Kelly. The guy doesn't give you soundbites, he serves up lavish, four-course soundmeals.
Personally, however, I could listen to him all afternoon, which is precisely what I ended up doing. Kelly is completely without guile. He spins out his ideas and theories like a kid pulling on chewing-gum. One second, he's proudly announcing that he is writing scripts for all the band's future videos, the next he's sentimentally reminiscing about his time as a boarder in Glenstall and the nights he spend beneath the sheets, eagerly tuning in to Mark Cagney's Late Date. On paper, it can look like a formless jumble but somehow it all sticks together and makes sense. A bit like Fat Lady Sings' music, really.
To paraphrase a song title, Nick Kelly has no fear of making a show of himself. He is thoroughly oblivious to his own garrulousness. "Pretentious" and "arrogant" are not terms he finds particularly insulting. Early in the interview, he announces that he often feels like "a very good French polisher in a world where everybody just buys plastic furniture". Coming from virtually anyone else, that statement would be enough to have you reaching for your gun. Coming from Kelly, for some reason, it doesn't sound quite so bad.
Beneath the amiable eccentricity, however, there is more than a glint of blue steel. The past two years have had their anxieties and tensions for Fat Lady Sings and those who sail in her. In the early days, the band's progress seemed to have all the momentum of an avalanche. Everything appeared to go exactly according to the most strategic masterplan: the band kept getting better and better, each single surpassed its predecessor and the Fat Lady Sings' following grew at a steady rate of knots. But then, in 1991, when they eventually released their debut album, Twist, an air of anti-climax began to descend.
The record just didn't do as well as was expected, either critically or commercially. The unfortunate yet inevitable 'compilation' feel of a collection like Twist is probably to blame but, whatever the reason, it never became the great leap forward many of us had hoped for. For the first time ever, the band experienced the inertia of disappointment. They also began to encounter something else they had never known before - pressure. Much of it was self-imposed but Kelly's acute awareness of record company hastiness when it comes to recouping their investment clearly had a definite mind-concentrating effect. Overnight, what had begun as a wide-eyed adventure was now a career, with all the demands that that entails.
"When you get your bank loan, you change," explains bassist, Dermot Lynch (Dermot has actually been sitting in on the entire interview but, like myself, only gets the occasional chance to insert a word edgeways). "You spend five years writing songs, doing everything you can to get your deal then you do your first album which is like a compilation. But when that's done the next one is already looming, and you have one year to write it. Things aren't a novelty anymore. The excitement of the early days is gone, you don't have that urgency anymore. But what happens is that you start to realise how privileged you are, to be able to do this for a living. There are hundreds and hundreds of bands out there who are fighting and trying to make records or to get on the radio, and we do that. So, you start to see that getting here and then surviving is itself an achievement. You change your definition of success. Success becomes the ability to continue doing this and to continue creating a body of work that will stand up, not just now but over the long term."
Nevertheless, this degree of patient maturity has been a hard-learned lesson for a band like FLS who achieved so much so early, and who had good reason to hope that their trajectory would continue to be determinedly ballistic. Both Nick and Dermot freely admit that there have been times during the past two years when the group were "tearing each other's eyes out" in frustration and impatience, but they have emerged the other end with their resolve strengthened and their sight firmly focused on the long haul. More practically, what kept them going throughout was work on their second album, Johnson, which will be released as the beginning of next month, just after they appear at Féile.
Produced by Steve Osborne, Johnson could well prove to be the Fat Ladies' breakthrough move. It certainly displays all the sure-handedness and cohesion which much of Twist so conspicuously lacked. By the time the band got 'round to actually recording it, they had no shortage of material from which to choose. As usual, however, the only hold-up was waiting for Mr. Kelly to deliver his lyrics.
"I'm always late with lyrics but that's because I really believe it's something that can't be rushed," he insists. "Songwriting in general but lyric writing especially is basically a process of tricking your body into working. I really think it's a visceral thing to do. Lyrically, it takes between six months and a year to write a song. Luckily, we've got loads on the go at any one time. What I do is I've got a hundred or more typed A4 sheets filled with phrases that come in to my head or funny names or even whole couplets that rhyme or have a rhythm. I leaf through this and try to find something that fits. I always start off with a tune and title or maybe one couplet and then build it from there. That takes a lot of farting around, trying to make my body finish it. I go to a café or I go for a walk or have a bath and trick my body into relaxing but still subconsciously working on the song. It can't be forced.
"The real trick however is to know when to stop working on a song, when to know that it's finished and has become a living thing in its own right. Mastering that is really mastering the art of songwriting."
In personnel terms, the real casualty of the often difficult period between Twist and Johnson was Fat Lady Sings' drummer and founding-member, Robert Hamilton, who decided to quit the band just after they had begun demoing for the second album.
"Robert's leaving was a traumatic thing but also an understandable thing from our point of view," explains Kelly. "It was definitely a strange moment. He was the last connection with us literally getting in the car and travelling over (to London) with the bass drums on the roof. But everybody's got to make their own decisions about why they get involved and stay involved in something like this. I certainly couldn't blame him for deciding to leave and from his point of view, I think he definitely did the right thing."
Almost immediately after he left, Hamilton threw himself into the groundwork for what eventually became the ill-starred Peace Together project. And when it came to deciding on a theme song for the venture he chose the early Fat Lady Sings' classic, 'Be Still', a special version of which was recorded featuring Peter Gabriel, Sinéad O'Connor and Fergal Sharkey. As everybody knows by now, however, Peace Together turned out to be something of a damp squib, never really making the impact some believed it would. And despite considerable airplay, especially on BBC Radio One, 'Be Still' didn't even chart.
As a result of this, Nick Kelly is "gutted" for Hamilton who he says went through "thermonuclear grief" over the entire undertaking. Nevertheless, he believes that, despite what many saw as its inherent naivety, Peace Together was an idea well worth trying.
"If you grow up in Dublin you're nearly as ignorant about what goes on up in Northern Ireland as if you grew up in London," insists Kelly. "The Northern Ireland problem is baggage that is on all of our shoulders, it's part of our mutual history and we can't really pretend that it's not there. I don't have a strong personal view on what should happen but when the last bomb and bullet are fired all those people are going to have to live up there together. And one good thing which Peace Together could have done, and maybe could do, is to put that on the agenda for ordinary people. But part of their problem was that people, in Ireland and England, just don't see Northern Ireland as being their problem.
"But it is our problem. These two islands are stuck together. We're not going to be able, unfortunately, to relocate to just off Sardinia. Our histories are too closely entwined."
Kelly says that he really enjoyed the "surreal" experience of hearing someone like Peter Gabriel sing a Fat Lady Sings' song but insists that he was even more enthralled by the fact that, almost as if by accident, 'Be Still' turned out to be such an appropriate peace anthem.
"I've always felt that it was a very poignant song and obviously Robert did too but it wasn't written with anything like Northern Ireland in mind at all," he says. "It proves my theory that a good song will always surprise you, people will have so many different takes on it. It's also a very naked thing. People will find out things about you that you weren't aware you were saying. Songs aren't written intellectually, they're written organically. Something written in a very personal, intimate atmosphere can, to someone else, take on a political significance. Therefore, it's a foolish man who tries to understand his art too well or tries to explain too much."
The portents for the success of Johnson are good. Initial reviews in the British music press have been extremely favourable and the singles, 'Show Of Myself' and 'Drunkard Logic', have been getting some very healthy radio exposure throughout the U.K. Whatever happens, however, Nick Kelly is more than confident about the long term future of Fat Lady Sings, irrespective of whether they find themselves in or out of sync with record industry thinking. It all boils down to French polish and plastic furniture.
"A lot of people who I admire haven't even got record deals," he says. "I've talked to them and they're happy. A lot of them have become folk musicians in the sense that because of financial constraints they can't work with bands anymore so they go around playing acoustically - people like Boo Hewerdine or Brian Kennedy. But if that's the way it's got to be, that's the way it's got to be. Music and the music business are often too very different things. There's a zeitgeist that links certain types of songwriter that has nothing to do with the music business and I'm proud to be part of that. To be able to continue to work within that music business is just an added bonus."
Later, much, much later, Nick Kelly confides that the person he admires more than any other is one Leonard Cohen.
"He's my icon for success," enthuses Kelly. "He just sits there, gives great interviews and is the sexiest man alive because he's got a brain that works. He's such a wise person. And the great thing is that he says things now that he couldn't have said when he was forty or fifty. It's very important if you work in the area of art to realise that the older you get, the more wrinkles you earn and the more experience you have the better you become. Obviously, we've chosen to work in an area where saying that is thought to be completely eccentric and doddery. But, to me, it's the most heartening and hopeful thing in the world.
"I want to be Leonard Cohen when I grow up."