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A Quietus Interview

Forward Motion: Nick Saloman Of The Bevis Frond Interviewed
The Quietus , August 13th, 2013 05:05

Mark Burgess talks to Nick Saloman from cult UK psych rockers the Bevis Frond about persistence and psychedelia

I meet up with Nick Saloman of the Bevis Frond in rock pub, the Mucky Pup in Islington. It is a cold rainy afternoon and the dark welcoming front bar is a haven for us to have a good chat, only interrupted occasionally by three enthusiastic Irishmen having a drink. Nick is essentially the Bevis Frond, although he uses a bunch of quality musicians for recording and touring purposes. A veteran now, after releasing 21 albums under this name and many more as collaborations or using pseudonyms, he has steadfastly ploughed his own furrow after the odd run-in with the music business. His music draws from English psychedelia, both folk and freakbeat, with a fondness for extended electric guitar jams and elements of punk creeping in from time to time.

However the main strength of the Bevis Frond is the exquisite songwriting, with pithy and poignant lyrics delivered in a very uncompromising English roots accent. Artists such as Teenage Fanclub, Elliott Smith and Mary Lou Lord have covered their songs, while he’s played with Current 93, The Hawklords, Oneida and Arthur Lee of Love, amongst many others, and counts J Mascis and Sonic Youth amongst his fans. Nick is one of those people who is extremely easy to be around, always entertaining, often entertainingly outspoken. He’s mellowed a bit as time has passed and has less of a chip on his shoulder about perceived wrongs done to him, although a fiery outburst is still lurking nearby under the surface if you touch a nerve…

How did it all start?

Nick Salomon: I was in secondary school and swinging London was in full flight – I was going to gigs and things so I thought it was time to get a proper band together.

This was at the height of psychedelia in 1967-8 – do you remember your first gig?

NS: We didn’t do lots of gigs, just church halls and youth clubs. It was someone’s party – I don’t remember who, but they’d hired a hall out. The band was called the Museum at that point. My abiding memory of it was that I wore one of those three-buttoned shirts, but I wanted to look trendy so I cut the collar off. We briefly tried Mick Donovan out as singer, but he was awful, but a great dancer – if they’d had room for a go-go dancer it would have been ok!

Like the trendsters in the psychedelic films dancing in the club?

NS: That’s what the idea was, yeah, but the reality was somewhat different– we were a bunch of 15 year olds desperately trying to look groovy and failing.

So at what point did the Museum become the Bevis Frond?

NS: One day I bumped into Julian Temple in the street in St John’s Wood where we grew up. We’d gone to different secondary schools so we were catching up. I told him I was in a band called Museum, and he said, “Not a bad name, but Bevis Frond is much better” and I said, “Oooh – Yeah, I like that!” I have no idea where he got the name from. He was an enigmatic character, wearing straw hats and carrying obscure albums under his arm and he just said it out of the blue. However, not to be outdone, we renamed ourselves the Bevis Frond Museum. We did about ten gigs, but sadly no recordings or even photos survive of this. Then the drummer, who was too good for us left, so I got in touch with my acoustic side, and teamed up with this guy called David Bird, nick-named Dickie Bird of course, and we went out as Nick and Dick, an acoustic duo. We did quite a lot of gigging and wrote some songs – there is even a photograph of Nick and Dick in a Melody Maker competition playing in a battle of the bands

So was this a Simon and Garfunkel style thing?

NS: Not really – Dickie was a great bluesy ragtime picker, like Stefan Grossman, and I was doing a singer-songwriter type thing, but with an English feel to it. I always hated the English singers who tried to sound American, so I’ve always tried to make sure it was English.

So what happened to Nick and Dick?

NS: Well it went on for a couple of years and then I lost my Dick! It fizzled out as things do due to lack of success. Then I left school and got a job where I met Bari Watts (later guitarist in the Outskirts of Infinity) in 1971. We became mates and initially tried to get a band together – even did a couple of recordings in 1972, and then I went off to college in Weymouth where I met my wife Jan, as a solo singer songwriter. There was a local band down there called Oddsocks who had got a deal to do an album on a small label called Sweet Folk and Country. They were basically an acoustic duo, Robin Brooks and Gerald Claridge, but they were wanting to add drums and bass for the recording, so I got roped in as the bass player and a guy called Nick Perret from a local Weymouth Band called Anyway played drums. So we did this album called Men of the Moment, and that was the first proper record I was on in 1975. They were a very popular local band, playing five nights a week in local bars with good on stage chat – a bit like the Humblebums, but I was only hired for the album

Were you auditioning for anyone else at the time?

NS: Oh yeah – desperately! I went for a lot of auditions, most notably Procol Harum after Robin Trower left. I went for the audition in the Kings Road, and I’d borrowed a Strat. There was this guy there and he was asking me what equipment I’d got, and I said, “Well, not much really,” as I was a bit embarrassed about only having a Laney 50 Watt amp. “But you’ve got a Strat,” he said, “Well, it’s only borrowed actually” I replied. “What the fuck are you doing at an audition then if you haven’t got any equipment?” “Well you’re Procol Harum aren’t you – if you give me the gig, you’ll buy me some gear won’t you?” I asked. “No we fucking won’t!” he said, and that was the end of that really. That was a salutary lesson. Rather more successfully, I auditioned for Trees, the folk band. They asked me to come and rehearse with them and I thought, "Brilliant!" But they wanted me to go and stay in their farmhouse in North Wales. At the time I was in the middle of London going out with girls and seeing bands and I thought I’ll be fucked if I'm moving to North Wales so I turned that down.

So after you came back from Weymouth, what happened then?

NS: The first thing I did when I got back to London was to try to put a band together. Initially I spoke to Stu Goddard (Adam Ant) who I knew from school about it. I went and visited him at his place in Muswell Hill because he’d been playing bass in this band Bazooka Joe, but I didn’t even recognise him when he opened the door – he’d had all his hair cut off and was wearing these thick glasses and behaving really oddly. He told me he’d freaked out and had a nervous breakdown so I told him to get in touch when he felt like it, thinking: "Well he’s obviously not going to make it as a musician…"

He was never gonna get anywhere was he...

NS: No not with that attitude… So I got in touch with Bari and his Friend Rick Gunther who played drums and we got together as a three piece, with me playing bass and writing songs and Bari on guitar. We rehearsed and recorded three tracks which sounded great – really good, and then about a week after we’d done them these snotty little kids on the Tonight program started swearing at Bill Grundy and we were immediately old farts! Overnight the scene just changed completely.

So what were you playing?

NS: Well it was melodic rock, I suppose, with Bari doing nice guitar parts. I remember going down the Hope and Anchor with my mates Mark and Kev who I’d known from since I was nine or ten. We saw the Lurkers down there and we all thought they were rubbish. I remember Mark and Kev saying they didn’t understand why I didn’t form a band as I was ten times better than this. I said that I’d been in bands before but I wanted to do it with people I liked. They said that they'd do it. Mark, who could play a bit of guitar decided he was going to be the bass player, Kev said – well I’ll sing – he’s an albino and looked great. Then we spoke to Ray who was the ex-Bass player from the Bevis Frond Museum and he decided he’d be a drummer and we formed the Von Trap Family. The idea was to be a bit psychedelic – a psychedelic punk band.

The received wisdom is that anyone could pick up a guitar in 1978 and form a band and get signed to a label – what went wrong?

NS: Well we tried. We got some interest, but no one wanted to sign us. We saw A&M, Island and Virgin and they listened to our tapes and EP and didn’t want to sign us.

Would you have signed?

NS: Oh yes, definitely.

Even if it had been a really dodgy deal?

NS: Yes I think we would. We were really eager to do it, but it didn’t happen. It just reinforced my hatred of the record industry! I was carrying a bit of a chip on my shoulder after the rejection I’d had over the years and so I suppose I didn’t help matters – every time we went into a record company offices, I was a bit prickly because I was expecting them to say no. Take A&M for example. We had a cassette and the guy stuck it in his deck. It played for about five seconds and the phone rang. He talked on the phone all the way through the track, hung up just before the track finished, took out the cassette and said, “Well it’s a bit long…”

I can understand you being a bit miffed by that.

NS: I said, “What do you mean it’s a bit long?”

And he said, “Well I was on the phone for about five minutes so it must be about five minutes long then, mustn’t it?”

I complained that he didn't listen to it but he just said, "Well, its too long!”

Mark and Kev were trying to appease him saying things like, “We’ve got things that are shorter”.

I wasn’t having any of this: “Don’t try to be nice to him, the fucking bastard hasn’t even listened to it! You can stay here and play him shorter songs if you want!” and I stormed out.

“Haha – take no notice of him, he’s like that!” I heard them say as I left.

So I’d left in a rage and it was snowing – this was just down the bottom end of the Kings Road in Fulham. It was freezing and my jacket was in the van, but I wasn’t going to go back in to get them to open the van, so I decided to get the train back home. I got to Parsons Green station and realised all my money was in my jacket in the van. I didn’t have a penny on me and I was just wearing a T-Shirt. So I realised I was going to have to walk home to Hampstead in the freezing cold. So I was trudging up the road and the van pulled up alongside, the door opened and a voice said – “So have you calmed down yet you silly sod?” and I said, yeah and got in.

So no, we didn’t have any success with the record labels. We did our own thing on our own Woronzow label, which was named after a street in St Johns Wood where we all grew up.

After that we got a New Zealander called Greg in on drums and changed the name to Room 13. But then I had my motorbike accident and that put the Kybosh on it. I smacked my elbow up and I was in hospital for three months. My arm was massively broken and I couldn’t play guitar.

Many people wouldn’t have carried on.

NS: But I couldn't not do this. So anyway, it took three years to get the compensation money for the accident. Jan and I had just bought our first house when I had the accident so we were in financial difficulties – we knew we were going to get some money, but when that would happen I didn’t know. One day I was at home and I heard the postman come, so I went to get the letters from the mat. The first one looked official and I thought Oh no – this isn’t good, so I opened it up and it was a summons for non-payment of rates. I picked up the next one and it was a cheque for twelve grand! So that paid off our debts, gave us a holiday, a car and there was some money over so I bought a Portastudio and some equipment. I was already 33 and I thought, "I’m never going to make it as a musician now so I’m not even gonna try. I’m not going to bother doing demos or try to do what’s cool, and besides, New Romantic? I mean what the fuck?" I had a little bit of money, so I thought when the music is done, I’ll press it up into an album, which became Miasma.

Did you get any distribution or anything for it?

NS: Well initially no. I gave copies to my friends and I gave a few to a guy called Alan Kidd, who sadly I don’t see anymore, who said he’d give them to a few people. The next thing I knew was that I was lying in bed one morning and I got a phone call, which woke me up. There was a bloke who asked “Is that Nick Saloman?” and I went “Yeah” and he said “This is Malcolm from Funhouse Records in Margate.” I knew Funhouse – they were a secondhand record shop, so I went, "Oh hello".

He said: “I’ve just had a copy of your album and I’ve listened to side one… but I’m not even going to bother listening to side two.”

I thought he was phoning up to tell me my album was shit! So I got all stroppy with him and I said: “Well thank you very much for waking me up and telling me you don’t fucking like it!”

But he said: “No, no no! I’m not listening to side two because side one is so brilliant I don’t need to listen to side two. What’s your wholesale price?”

I had absolutely no idea what that should be! I’d pressed up 500 and I had about 400 in the attic. So I went: “Two pounds twenty five!”

He said: “Right – we’ll have two hundred and fifty of them!” So I drove them down to Margate, he gave me the money and the next thing I knew it was all over the place. There were reviews and they asked for another hundred. Then Semaphore in Holland phoned up and asked for 500 copies. So I had it repressed and it just went mental! I couldn’t believe what was going on.

So the first few albums were just you in your bedroom studio with a few mates dropping in, and even though you said you’d never take it out on the road, suddenly there was a Bevis Frond touring band.

NS: Well what happened was that I met up with Adrian Shaw and Rod Goodway through a guy called Phil McMullen. They were in a band called Magic Muscle in the seventies and they got asked to do a reformed Magic Muscle tour in about 1989. They’d been asked to support Hawkwind at the Brixton Academy and Huw Gower was in New York and couldn’t do it. They’d also fallen out with Twink.

The Brixton Gig was a 12-hour psychedelic festival – I was there.

NS: It was a big gig. So what happened was that Ade got in touch with me – he knew I didn’t want to gig, so he asked me if I knew anyone who played guitar and drums.

That would be by far and away the biggest gig you’d ever played at that point.

NS: Yeah by miles. So I thought sod it and I told him I’d do it. He said, "Are you sure? Ok, do you know a drummer?" And I thought of Martin from Room 13, so I gave Martin a ring and asked him if he fancied doing a gig at the Brixton Academy with Hawkwind and he went, "Oh Yeah!" The gig was incredibly successful. I remember the crowd really loving it and I was amazed. In all the years I’d played live I’d never had anything like it with loads of people cheering. Incredible! Then Richard Allen who ran Freakbeat Magazine got in touch with me and said can we put you on as the Bevis Frond at the Fulham Greyhound?

That’s a whole other gig isn’t it?

NS: Yeah – so we went on as the Magic Bevis Muscle Frond, supported by the Steppes and the Chemistry Set and it was sold out. I couldn’t believe it and it went down brilliantly. It took off from there – we started getting offers of gigs in Europe…

What’s your current feeling about touring, because you’ve just come back from a European tour and you’ve got gigs lined up.

NS: Well the current line up is me, Paul Simmons, Ade and Dave Pearce, with Big Dave doing the light show which really enhances things and it just works really well. It’s the first time I’ve had a band where everyone does what they’re supposed to do.

It feels like a comfortable unit?

NS: Yeah you don’t have drummers who turn up to very third gig pissed, or try to saw their arm off halfway through a tour or a guitarist who deafens everyone by playing at twice the volume everyone else does. The other thing is that at the end of the gig, everyone puts their own stuff away and helps to load the van, so instead of hanging around after the gig for three hours trying to get away and we can be gone in 45 minutes. Everyone gets up on time and no one gets pissed before a gig, which makes it that much better.

It’s like going on tour with professional adult human beings!

NS: It is, and not only that, everyone learns the songs! It makes a welcome change.

So we’re now up to date with the new album White Numbers out in the shops and a European tour under your belt. White Numbers is a triple album, including a fantastic 45 minute jam taking over sides five and six, then there’s also a double live album. How did that come about?

NS: We did a festival gig in Germany, which was recorded properly. It was run by a guy called Horst who we know from way back – you couldn’t wish to meet a nicer guy. He got in touch and asked if he could put it out and I said, "Yeah, you put out the double vinyl deluxe edition if I can do the CD on Woronzow", which I pressed up to sell on the tour.

So looking forward, what’s coming up?

NS: Well we’ve just done a gig in Athens and the 100 Club. We're playing a festival in Belgium in August. I’ve also had a guy in Spain interested and maybe we'll do another Rockpalast TV thing in Germany next year. Then yesterday a guy in Oslo called wanted us to to do a couple of gigs in Norway and maybe some American dates may be possible as I’ve finally had some interest from over there.

In terms of your own playing, do you think you’re progressing?

NS: Yeah, certainly. I don’t think I’m getting any worse!

That’s a good way to look at it! Do you think you’re developing new tricks?

NS: Yeah I do. Not so much in ability, but it helps to be relaxed and comfortable on stage, not having to look over my shoulder to make sure the band have stopped in the right place, which I’ve always had to in the past.

Which doesn’t allow you to relax in and be comfortable with the playing.

NS: Half the time you’re looking over your shoulder trying to catch their eye before the change and in the wake of that I’ll probably forget the next line and have to sing gibberish. With this band that just doesn’t happen at all. Everyone knows what they’re supposed to do. Dave Pearce comes to rehearsals and tells me how it goes – he’s got it all charted.

But that’s what you need.

NS: And if I forget something, I can go to Paul or Ade and ask what the next line is and they’ll know, which is a new experience. So you can relax on stage and as a result it gives you a lot more freedom and you can do things that you probably wouldn’t have attempted before, so I think in that respect its definitely better. I don’t think I’ve got significantly better as a musician though.

But in terms of that, it’s not necessarily how fast you can play or what notes you play, it’s how you play the notes coming from the experience you have.

NS: Well the older I get, the more experienced I am. In fact I’m incredibly experienced now. But not as experienced as Ade! We’re all getting on a bit, but the nice thing is that we’re all still capable.

Do you think you're better now?

NS: I think so. People are knocked out by what we’re doing. You can’t fake it. I mean when we played Antwerp, the bloke came over and said I book 150 bands a year and you’re the best band we’ve had here for years. The place is sold out, everyone’s going bananas and you do three encores and you get asked to do a festival off the back of it.

You can’t argue with that!

NS: It’s very gratifying that this old twit is still capable! But you can’t make too many plans because you never know what’s round the corner.

But you do keep riding the wave whilst it’s there.

NS: Yeah. Sure. I’ll keep on going until something happens to stop me.

White Numbers is out now