Nick Talbot: A Personal And Musical Remembrance
, December 12th, 2014 12:17
Our friend and colleague Nick Talbot - who recorded under the name of Gravenhurst - died unexpectedly last week. These reflections, both musical and personal, are written by Pavel Godfrey and John Doran. Portrait by Lucy Johnston, live picture by Maria Jefferis
When I heard that Nick Talbot had died, it sent me spiralling back to the midwinter night in 2007, when a good friend played me Black Holes In The Sand. Eerie, cyclical fingerpicking locked in to the primal thump of a hand drum and the hollow crash of a single cymbal. Then a hush, and Nick's voice came in, soaring over the driving repetition. He sang of a bird struck dead by a stone, of a city locked in slumber and a world coming apart at the seams, and of his complicity in it all.
A hush again, and keening feedback. I was afraid it was over. But out of the void came the drum, as if it had always been beating, and those gorgeous minor chords, now strummed with a stern power. The drone took over and the song opened up. It seized hold of me by the spine and drew me into a strangely familiar world of shadows and old ghosts. That world was more than a metaphor – it was Gravenhurst.
Two years later, I hurried out of the tube station towards St Giles in the Fields church. Gravenhurst was opening for Slowdive's Neil Halstead at Sonic Cathedral. I had taken the train into London and I was late, even by the lax standards of an American running on "punk time". I walked in partway through, as Nick began 'The Diver', the harrowing centrepiece of his second record, Flashlight Seasons. He plucked its anchoring riff on a hollow-body electric as his high notes arced to the vaulted ceiling, breaking off at last into a cascading solo. Swaying in my seat, I listened with the taut reverence of a 19-year-old kid in the presence of one of his heroes.
I can't remember the rest of the set list, but I remember my nervous expectation. Had I come too late and missed it? But then I heard that loping, circling riff ringing off the columns – Gravenhurst was closing with 'Black Holes In The Sand'. Nick channeled the spirit of shoegaze, opening up the sound and revelling in the echo of the nave. He rocked it out, in his own austere and fiercely focused way. For a second time, I didn't want it to end.
After the gig, I was lucky enough to speak with Nick, and I remember his pleasant surprise when I thanked him for playing 'Black Holes...'. "Most people don't know that one," he said. This was news to me – I had assumed it was the Gravenhurst calling card. He explained how the EP of the same name had languished in relative obscurity alongside Flashlight Seasons, which was released the previous year, 2003. I got the sense that this short record was special to him, something he confirmed when I interviewed him for this publication several years later.
This short record, a full-length in miniature, is the hidden heart of Gravenhurst, where the project first realised its electro-acoustic potential. Even as Nick crafted haunting trad-folk songs like 'Flowers In Her Hair' and 'Winter Moon', he was using electric guitar and organ to build noisier textures, fuller arrangements. 'Still Water' flows gradually from fingerpicked reverie into a stately psychedelic outro. 'Diane' is a Hüsker Dü cover that utterly transcends the original. Nick was reclaiming the rock-based sounds he had put aside after the death of his bassist Luke Gale and the collapse of their old band, Assembly Communications. From here on, Gravenhurst was a true lifework, an outlet for Nick the post-punk as well as Nick the songsmith.
But this lifework turned on its distance from the life of its creator. Nick thought of Gravenhurst less as a name for his musical project than as a world created through his songs. It was an abstracted and aestheticised England, a re-enchanted country where the borders between the past and present are porous. The labyrinthine cities of Gravenhurst are set within an ancient vision of nature.
This impersonality, this gap between music and musician, was a powerful artistic conceit. It allowed Gravenhurst to channel uncomfortably strong emotion – the fatalism of 'The Diver', the melancholy tenderness of 'The Ice Tree' – while avoiding sentiment, self-pity and cliché. And it allowed Talbot his privacy, kept him hidden behind what he created. While Gravenhurst was, of course, a vessel for his obsessions, his emotions, his life-experience, it was always transmuted into the stuff of his artificial world, worked into scenes and stories of his making. This contributed to his crystalline precision, in lyrics as well as music, and it gave him a kind of power over his circumstances. "If you throw a world together of all the horrible things you think of, all the things that trouble you," he said in an early interview with Sophie Harris, "then you've got an element of control over them."
At first, Talbot's phantasmal realm was a subtext to his music. There's a hint in the title of the first Gravenhurst record, Internal Travels, but the psychologising ties Talbot's vision to this world. Flashlight Seasons is subtler. It masquerades as the work of a confessional songwriter, a singer of the workaday "I" and "you," but the brooding power of Talbot's guitar work suggests that something else is afoot. Gradually, we realise that the Mephistophelean "I" of 'Bluebeard' cannot possibly be the lovelorn "I" of 'The Ice Tree', or the bitterly incisive "I" of 'I Turn My Face To The Forest Floor'. These are characters, or masks – the dramatis personae that populate Gravenhurst.
It is on Black Holes In The Sand that Gravenhurst stood forth as a distinct world. Here, Talbot crafts the dark pastoralism that is never far from the surface in his later work. The title track displaces us into abstract fantasy, but 'Flowers In Her Hair' grounds that fantasy in the oldest traditions of English folk, as preserved in songs like Fairport Convention's 'Matty Groves'. Talbot tells the story of a witch or fairy who is unmasked and burned at the stake by fearful villagers. Suddenly, though, the "she" becomes an "I". "When the farmer raises his gun," Talbot sings, "the bullets pass right through me." We see through the eyes of the revenant witch, sweeping through the night woods. This shivering shift is possible through Nick's self-absenting – he stands behind his world and outside it, always speaking in character.
Black Holes attains the intense concentration of mood, and the rich sense of place, that Talbot so valued in the work of H.P. Lovecraft and Iain Sinclair. This psychogeographic tendency would only intensify on Fires In Distant Buildings, The Western Lands and The Ghost In Daylight, the records for which Talbot is now best known. These are left us, now, as a trilogy, a tantalising partial map to Gravenhurst. Fires In Distant Buildings leads us through a soot-blackened cityscape in the company of detectives, murderers, forlorn lovers and a man contemplating suicide. The Western Lands is a kind of sequel, composed with a similar vocabulary. It hints at a quest narrative of cinematic scope, following a protagonist's flight into the wilderness and then shifting its narrative back into the city, now experienced with a hazy unreality. These records gave full vent to the aggressive (post-)punk influence that had been latent in Talbot's acoustic playing. Songs like 'Down River', 'The Velvet Cell' and 'Hollow Men' show Nick as a potent forger of riffs and shaper of noises, an heir to Joy Division as well as to Fairport and Slowdive.
The Ghost In Daylight, Nick's final album, was also a city album. Here, he stepped back from the guitar heroics to work more with fingerpicking and electronic textures. 'Fitzrovia', which explores the historical trace of anti-fascist rioting in a London neighbourhood, is the culmination of a string of spatially specific tracks stretching back through 'Grand Union Canal' to 'Hopechapel Hill' and 'St. Vincent Rock' in his beloved Bristol. Taken together, these suggest that Gravenhurst not only evokes England, it maps onto it, at least in some places. His fictive world is coextensive with our own.
Indeed, the gap between this world and its creator narrows at these psychogeographic hotspots. They cry out to be read biographically, as places particularly resonant for Nick. That resonance was sometimes a painful one. In a recent documentary on his relationship to the Bristol cityscape, he confirmed that 'Hopechapel Hill', the angelic shoegaze track that closes Flashlight Seasons, dealt directly with his friend Luke's death. In this way, it parallels 'Islands', the eight-minute centrepiece of The Ghost In Daylight. This was Nick's tribute to Trish Keenan of Broadcast, a close friend and collaborator, who died in early 2011. The drive to commemorate his friends, the burning duty of elegy, drew him out into his own creation.
The least guarded Gravenhurst tracks, however, are those that were never released. Just last week Warp released the Offerings collection alongside its reissues of Flashlight Seasons and Black Holes In The Sand. The centrepiece of this album is 'Entertainment'. It is almost an homage to Slowdive, carried by swells of bass like 'Morningrise', but instead of a distorted wash of rhythm guitar it's Nick's fingerpicking that traces out the chords. He sings simply, directly, of pushing through darkness towards rebirth. But alongside this track is another, 'For Erin'. It's a gorgeous folk instrumental, a love song where words are unnecessary. Here the distance is closed.
We have to write about Nick in the past tense, now, but Gravenhurst is another matter. This is not to offer the hollow consolation that "his music lives on". Of course it does. And it's no substitute for him. But his music passed beyond him, and opened something up. Gravenhurst is an imaginary space no less real for being imagined. It is a vision, but also a way of seeing. It waits on the edge of perception, wherever we feel "the quiet thrill of the mundane". When we wend our way through the woods, or wander pathless in the city, when we follow the whalebone clues, we cross the threshold. And Nick is there, in Gravenhurst, as Gravenhurst. Pavel Godfrey
I was scrolling disconsolately through my Facebook's news feed one week ago fretting about how to start writing this piece. I needed to come up with something that summed up neatly how I felt about Nick Talbot, the musician, writer, comic book artist, Quietus contributor and dear friend who had just died unexpectedly. And I chanced across a status update by my friend Lara Rix-Martin which chimed exactly with how I was feeling. Lara is a musician, an advocate for women's equality in the music industry and is married to the pioneering electronic musician and head of Planet Mu records, Mike Paradinas. The pair make music together as Heterotic and Nick was the vocalist on four tracks from their debut LP, Love & Devotion, one of my favourite records of 2013. (The collaboration had been instigated by Nick's friend and Planet Mu's A&R man Marcus Scott, who had correctly realised that the Bristolian singer's soulful and sombre vocals would make a sublime foil for the electronic R&B and early house-influenced synth-pop on the album.)
Lara's status update read simply: "RIP Nick, your songs are haunting and perfect for how we feel now you are gone." I thought this was an ideal thing to write - because it stated in just a few words what it would probably take me thousands and thousands to express - so I decided that I would borrow her sentiment and repeat it here.
The sentence made me think of what W.G. Sebald said in his novel Austerlitz about how grand buildings were built with how they would look as ruins in mind. ("At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.") I don't think for a second that Nick had foreseen his own untimely death when he was writing any of the songs he penned as Gravenhurst but I do think that he would have given some thought to what they would have sounded like after he was gone, purely because he was one of the most considered (and considerate) people I ever met and it seemed to me like he gave a lot of thought to everything he did in his life.
And now that he's gone, there can be no better tribute to the beautiful person he was, in my opinion, than the music that he has left behind. The songs that some people compose, the lyrics they write, the statements they make in the press, just before they die unexpectedly can juxtapose harshly with their unhappy or tragic passing, throwing up uneasy or slightly disturbing ironies; this is simply not the case when considering the music of Gravenhurst. These songs are now simply elegiac.
Instead of reading my inadequate scribblings I feel strongly that the reader should turn off their computer and listen closely to, say, The Western Lands, Black Holes In The Sand or The Ghost In Daylight because these songs, beautiful and melancholy to start with, have now become timeless and monumental, in the truest sense of those words.
It's by no means the worst aspect of a friend dying, but there is something a bit like a punch in the stomach every time you find yourself absent-mindedly thinking, "I feel so low… I'll drop him line and talk to him about it… he'll know how I feel." Before the jarring realisation that you can't hits home. And so it goes…
A few weeks ago in a stupidly intransigent fit of depression I wiped 100,000 or so email conversations from my Gmail account at random, and even though the action initially felt liberating it soon revealed itself to be a mistake. And then last week when I received the utterly unwelcome news of Nick's death, it revealed itself to be colossal mistake. I'd had hundreds of lengthy email exchanges with him about all kinds of subjects, subjects that he talked about with ease, wit and eloquence, whether they were concerning politics, comics, philosophy, pirate radio stations, tobacco, architecture, synth pop, psychogeography or depression. As odd as it sounds he could talk beautifully about depression - perhaps the flattest and most featureless of subjects there is to discuss. And so I found myself thinking just yesterday, "I'm depressed because my friend has just died and I can't even go back and read the illuminating conversations we had about depression on email because I've deleted all of them. And I did that because I was depressed. Nick is the only person I know who would appreciate the irony of this. He'd find it really funny. I should drop him a line and..."
And of course I can't. And so it goes. And so it goes.
Of course what makes it worse is an email from Nick wasn't just an email. It was a letter. It was correspondence. He was an epistolarian of uncommon skill. Had he been born in a slightly different age, anyone who received letters from Nick would have kept them in a sturdy wooden box, tied carefully with string or ribbon, waiting for the day - when the time was right - for them to be read and savoured and pored over again. Nick put more effort into writing an email than a lot of people put into most things they do in life, myself included. In an over-cluttered, hyper-stimulated existence, an email from Nick was the only thing in my weekly routine that demanded I shut down all the other windows on my desktop, turn off Facebook and Twitter, turn my music off and concentrate on what he had to say. He both demanded and deserved your entire attention, no matter how busy you were. And this is not to say that I think Nick was a man out of step with his time I really don't think he was at all; I just think he had brought some old values along with him on a modern trip.
I'm not ashamed to say that sometimes I struggled to keep up with him in conversation, he was so well read. When he interviewed John Gray, the philosopher for this site, we met up beforehand to discuss the job and then again a few days later. On the debriefing day, we sat on a bench on the Southbank in the breezy summer sunshine talking about the book Straw Dogs while my two-year-old son dozed in his pushchair. It was a text I'd read three times previously but I still came away from our talk thinking of the book as if in a new light. Of course, the second my boy woke up from his slumber, all questions of human free will and mastery over one's own destiny evaporated and the talk turned immediately to giraffes and balloons. While I went to buy some ice creams, I left them locked in a battle of wills; my son determined to tell Nick about Thomas the Tank Engine and Nick determined to teach my son how to shake hands "like a man". When I got back with cones, Nick was passionately laying out to my pleasantly hypnotised toddler what he thought were the strengths and weaknesses of the new Fuck Buttons album. (Just to have me weakly interject: "F-Buttons Nick! They're called F-Buttons now!")
But you could talk to him about anything and it would invariably be the best conversation you would have all week. And I mean literally anything - the really loud noise the trains on the Victoria line make, why Sapphire & Steel never gets repeated on the telly, the genius of Iron Maiden - and come away from the conversation looking at life momentarily as if from a completely fresh perspective, sometimes even temporarily questioning your own position in the grander scheme of things. Because as with the emails, in conversation he put so much more effort and so much more of himself into it than nearly anyone else would either bother to or know how to. And so it was impossible, for me at least, not to be impressed by Nick.
And it seems clear to me that he put exactly the same amount of effort into his songwriting. (I think it's worth taking his own frequent declarations of laziness on this front with a sizeable pinch of salt.) I have talked at length on this site and for other publications such as Vice about how I think the Gravenhurst track 'The Prize' is a magnificent example of a songwriting talent of rare strength and subtlety. And when Charles Ubaghs, the editor of our first anthology of Quietus writing, asked me to select a Baker's Dozen - an all-time favourite 13 - of the best songs written in the 21st century for the publication, this track was my first choice.
Recently, Dave Simpson from The Guardian asked me a question about Nick that led me to compare his songwriting talent to that of Leonard Cohen and it's something I feel strongly about so I'll repeat it here. It's not that Nick literally sounded or even wrote like Cohen - of course he didn't; I tend to think he had more in common with various writers such as Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair than he did with most musicians - but they shared a uniqueness, a talent and a dedication to their art which only deepened and richened with age.
As Pavel Godfrey so rightly says above, of course Nick's music lives on - that's one of the beautiful things music does. But the songs of Gravenhurst which outlive Nick do so much more than simply 'be'. He has left us a gift which speaks to us about our times, our people, our memory and our places. This bequest speaks to us directly and accurately about what it means to be alive. John Doran