Whale Bone Clues: Nick Talbot Of Gravenhurst Interviewed

Pavel Godfrey talks to Nick Talbot about serial killing, Englishness and the Milgram Experiments in this fascinating interview

Nick Talbot, the Bristol-based songwriter behind Gravenhurst, has quietly crafted some of the best records of the last decade. With Flashlight Seasons and Black Holes In The Sand [2004], he sketched sombre landscapes populated by sadistic murderers, anguished lovers, and the restless dead. These albums revolved around his intricate acoustic finger-picking, and had as much to do with traditional folk and pastoral Romanticism as underground rock. Fires In Distant Buildings [2005] was a noirish urban fantasy wrought in the dense electric textures of shoegaze, goth rock and lo-fi doom. On The Western Lands [2007], Nick used a similar instrumentation to achieve an expansive, cinematic effect. While the buzz bands of British and American indie music languished in retro pastiche and faux-innovation, Gravenhurst brought forth an original vision steeped in forty-five years of folk and rock history.

Earlier this month, Warp Records released The Ghost In Daylight, the first Gravenhurst full-length in five years. As John Doran mentions in his review for this publication, it is music for “diving into,” “revisiting,” and “dwelling in”. And in that respect, it is much like earlier Gravenhurst — a sonic and emotional environment. But on Ghost…, Talbot is also doing something more, using his mastery of atmosphere to enact a sweeping philosophical critique. He touches on political violence, alienation from religion, and the erosion of history. But underneath it all is the leitmotif of “the emptiness of the prize”, the notion that what we seek and find may not be what we really need. Nick’s lyrics reveal the limitation of the linear, goal-oriented desires that we take for granted, and celebrate the joyful pursuit of hidden things.

Speaking via Skype, we followed these thematic strains through the songs of Ghost…, continually tying them back to his previous work.

The cover of The Ghost In Daylight is this image of a city veiled in blue-gray, as if in a mist. It’s quite apt—you’ve used synthesizers and effects to wrap the songs in these layers of atmosphere, and you’ve focused on subtle harmonies that suggest emotional gray areas. This sounds like a departure from your earlier material, which often had a very stark, dark feeling to it, or at times this crystalline major-key sound. I was wondering if there was any emotional or artistic rationale behind this turn?

Nick Talbot: It kind of depends on how far back you go, because in terms of instrumentation it’s got most in common with Black Holes In The Sand. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that one?

That’s my favorite!

NT: It’s predominantly acoustic, but with a lot of lo-fi four-track noise elements to it, which is my emotional and musical comfort zone. That’s the way in which I was first really inspired to record—listening to Flying Saucer Attack and doing things on a four-track. I’ve never really been that comfortable in big studios, but Fires In Distant Buildings needed to be done in a more professional studio because it has lots of drums and it’s more of a post-rock record. People have written about how Ghost… is a return to the Flashlight Seasons stuff, but that’s because quite a lot of people don’t actually know about Black Holes… It was released as a mini-album, even though it felt like an album to me, and a lot of the reviews it got were in the EPs section. It’s interesting that you know that one well, because I’m really pleased with that record.

Emotionally, though, Ghost… feels quite different from Black Holes… There are a couple songs that remind me of it, like ‘The Foundry’ and ‘Fitzrovia’, but that EP had a very brooding, fey, magickal quality to it. This seems to have a greater openness and ambiguity. I was wondering if you could relate to that, and possibly offer some insight into the difference?

NT: It’s really hard to answer that, because I’m not that aware of the processes I go through, of the decisions I make when I’m making a record. With some of my albums the songs have been written over long periods of time. On Fires… there’s the song ‘Down River’ which was actually written in 1997 but didn’t get onto an album until 2005 because it didn’t feel right with the other records. A lot of the rock stuff on that album was written a lot earlier, for my band before Gravenhurst, Assembly Communications. I didn’t record it until I had the money to go into a studio and do it justice. Black Holes… had songs written close to when I recorded it, and it’s the same with this album. This was the first time I had to really write an album from scratch. That’s one of the reasons this one took so long.

In terms of lyrics, I don’t know if the word “fey” is used quite the same way in America that it’s used here, but that’s kind of a negative word for me, because “fey” is the term people used for a C86 shambling indie band like the Pastels…

That’s not what I was going for at all. We do use it in that sense in America too, but I was using an archaic sense of the word… How else to put this? It felt, say, druidic. Very, very old.

NT: Yeah I can relate to that, there’s quite a medievalist tone to Black Holes… With a song like ‘Flowers In Her Hair’, I was writing an old folk murder ballad. It’s a cautionary tale about a woman who’s accused of witchcraft and comes back as a ghost. In medieval times if they wanted to prevent someone from going to heaven they’d cut them up into four pieces and bury them in the four corners of town. At the time I was listening to very folky finger-picked stuff that had those reference points. But I think with this latest album my reference points have just gotten a lot wider, through my (hopefully) maturing as a songwriter.

As far as your broadening as a songwriter, I heard a lyrical approach on Ghost… that I find really compelling, and somewhat different from your earlier approach. You’ve always been oblique and allusive, but now you’ve penned these bold, flourishing passages that are almost completely dissociative. On ‘In Miniature’, for instance, you sing “unearthed in pairs…/stained with the prayers/from ships that sink like the hearts of the lonely when nobody cares.” And many people have already mentioned the lyrical intricacy of ‘The Prize’. How do you come up with this stuff? Is it a process of distillation and abstraction, or something more spontaneous?

NT: Well it takes a long time, that’s for sure. One reason I’m not prolific is because of the amount of time I spend on the words. It’s interesting you pick out those two songs, because they’re quite different from one another. In ‘The Prize’ I had a pretty good idea of what I was writing about, whereas with a song like ‘In Miniature’ I’m just trying to create a sense of mystery. When people asked René Magritte for the reasons behind his paintings, and suggested Freudian explanations of what he did, he responded, “No, I’m just trying to create a sense of mystery.” And with ‘In Miniature’ there’s a lot of that. I use ideas that appeal to me about the relationship between time, memory, and physical landscape.

But ‘The Prize’ is really about something. It’s about the emptiness of a prize — being stuck in a loop of compulsive behavior, in a relationship that isn’t going anywhere, and being aware that the end result you’re seeking is empty. But you still can’t pull yourself away from it. You’re both blind to it and totally aware of it at the same time.

I’ve almost never sat down and said “I want to write a song about X.” It’s rather that I come up with certain ideas randomly —certain words and certain couplets that appeal to me — and that will lead me in a certain direction. So when I came up with the stuff about the houselights turning and cigarette burns and all that, that led me to thinking “I’ve actually got almost a narrative here!” and it made me quite pleased. Because some of my songs I look at and think, “That’s quite evocative but it’s not really about something.”

So it has that core of subject matter, and yet it’s written and composed in a way that’s actually more indirect than many of your other songs!

NT: That’s interesting to hear, because while I ultimately know what it’s about, I do want things to be sufficiently open-ended that people can make sense of it in the way they want. That’s the thing that was always so incredible about Ian Curtis’ lyrics. When I first saw them on TV doing the live performance of ‘Shadowplay’, I looked at the lyrics and thought “I can’t say what this is about, but it’s so potent. It’s got more images and ideas in it than most songwriters manage in a lifetime.” And I’m not exaggerating there, he was exceptionally good. When asked about it, he just said that they were open to interpretation, and didn’t say what they were about. That’s really satisfying. Before I did music I did conjuring tricks, and if you’re a conjurer or a magician you always leave the audience wanting more. There has to be mystery. You mustn’t tell them how the magic’s done, because that bursts the bubble. If you leave the bubble intact, they’ll think about it forever.

There’s definitely that sense of poetry to what you’re doing. Are you influenced at all by poets, or even prose stylists?

NT: Yeah, very much. When I read good poetry, particularly modern poetry, I’m amazed by the potency. A good writer will pack as much meaning as possible into the fewest words, that’s kind of a given now, isn’t it? You don’t want really flowery language, you want to get as much meaning into the shortest amount of time. That’s something that George Orwell always wrote about.

I read more prose than poetry, but the writers I’ve been most influenced by have managed to do that, to achieve enormous potency. The clear examples for me are people like Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, David Peace and Gordon Burn. With Sinclair, it’s just exhausting. I’ve never read one of his books and not put it down and read something else for a while, but it’s so potent that you can open a page at random and get an idea from it. I don’t know if you’re familiar with all those writers, they’re very English writers. Gordon Burn, for instance, his books haven’t been translated into any other language. It’s impossible because the reference points are so to do with this country.

In what would you say their Englishness consists? Is it just the cultural reference points, or an attitude too?

NT: Yes, it’s the cultural reference points that makes them so English. And the density and subtlety of the language. I’m trying to think of American equivalents — maybe someone like Raymond Carver, because he wrote the shortest stories I’ve ever read, but [they are still] really satisfying.

So, this preoccupation with Englishness and the specificity of place is central to what you’re doing with Gravenhurst. It’s especially prominent in songs like ‘Fitzrovia’, and in so much of your older stuff. When I lived in England I got the sense that there’s a contestation over history and space going on. History is present in a way that’s completely lacking in the United States — there’s a sense of memory or lingering significance attached to spaces — and yet I saw so many places in London and beyond where this is being continually eroded. More and more of England looks like the U.S. or anywhere else in the world. Do you see your work as an intervention in this struggle, and how do you perceive it?

NT: I haven’t thought about having a kind of explicitly political (“small p”) agenda. But I think there is an element of that, actually. My ideas about social progress don’t involve destroying anything of our history, but unfortunately this is being eroded by simple effects of capitalist commerce. The crazy thing about London is that if I lived there I wouldn’t appreciate it anywhere near as much as a Bristolian visiting and going to see things. I grew up close to London but it wasn’t until I had American in-laws come over that I got on the open-top bus and went around the square mile, and I was amazed. In one square mile you’ve got thousands of years of history, and all these incredible buildings like St. Paul’s and Westminster. What seems to be the problem is that you only really look at shop fronts most of the time, but if you walk down the street just looking at the tops of the buildings, you can immediately go back in time. You can live in a city like London without noticing any of that, because you don’t look upwards and you don’t see the history.

So I do feel like there is a kind of conservation instinct in what I’m doing, yeah. I do feel like I’m celebrating things in our history, through my obsession with time and place. There are things I desperately don’t want to be lost. With Gravenhurst I’m very conscious of creating a place, and I gave it the name of a place knowing it was a tiny village in England. I wanted to create an imaginary place and fill it with things and images and symbols, and there’s a kind of role-playing game, fighting fantasy thing to this…

As there should be!

NT: Yeah, nothing wrong with that at all! There’s a Dungeons & Dragons element of otherworldly escapism. But the otherworldly place I’ve created is very much like an idealized version of England.

Yeah, and it seems to be converging with your lived experience of England, especially on this new album. There have always been points of intersection between Nick Talbot’s world and the conceptual world of Gravenhurst. And now it’s as if the two are being pulled closer together, which is a really interesting effect.

NT: You might be right there. In one respect this might mean I’ve written about myself more personally, opened up more and become more honest, and maybe there’s an element of that. But… I’ve always wanted to avoid writing any political songs because if you write about politics it immediately dates things, and you can be like that person who’s got a thousand t-shirts under his bed with “Thatcher Out!” written on them.

You risk becoming prosaic, as well.

NT: Exactly, so I wanted to keep my political views separate from it. But that’s changed a bit. I haven’t written anything about the present government, who deserve to have lots written about them, but with ‘Fitzrovia’ I have written about some real things that have actually happened, which I’ve not done before, actually. The reference points in ‘Fitzrovia’ are about historical events in London. So yeah, I think you’re right!

There also seem to be allusions to politics in songs like ‘The Foundry’, and this brings me to something I’ve always really appreciated about Gravenhurst. Behind the delicate melodies and the sense of earnestness, there’s a fascination with violence. And on this album, especially, that seems to be a political violence, one having to do with fascism and anti-fascism. I’m reminded of the refrain from ‘I Turn My Face To The Forest Floor’: “You’re only a stone’s throw/from all the violence you buried years ago.” Is there a reason that this political violence is surfacing now, for you? That you’re bringing it to the forefront?

NT: I still play ‘Forest Floor…’ in the live set. I’ve not thought about this consciously, but the reason I play that—which is a much older song—along with a lot of the new ones is probably because of this. There has been this obsession with violence for me, and it has become more political violence. Before I’ve always wanted to concentrate that things are more universal to the human condition, so that people from other countries can relate to it, but it has gotten more specifically about England, and it might well be because of a change in my awareness of politics. When I wrote most of the stuff on Seasons… I wasn’t as political, I’d lost interest in politics for a while. I’d spent years doing analytical philosophy, not really any political philosophy, more metaphysics and philosophy of science. Post-9/11 I became much more political because I became acutely aware that there were so many things in the world I simply knew nothing about. I started to re-educate myself about them.

With this album, we’ve had a change of government, and this government is much more thoroughly disappointing than the previous one in many, many ways. And there has been a rise of fascism in Europe, and a rise of fascism here in a way we’ve not seen much before. Britain is one of the very few countries that’s never had a far-right MP get into Parliament, but the landscape’s changing. I don’t know if I should say this explicitly or not, but ‘The Foundry’ is kind of about Auschwitz. It’s a universal thing about the human condition because it can happen anywhere. Take the Stanley Milgram experiments — he went to Germany to see if there was something different about the Germans that allowed the rise of the Third Reich, but he found that people were simply liable to do what they were told if someone was wearing a white coat and appeared to be in authority. And they were just as likely to do that in America.

And from personal experience, I write that “a uniform changes something inside”. When people take a job they try to do their job as well as possible, but if someone joins a police force they have to be a kind of person who’s prepared to follow rules and orders without thinking them through. I’ve also picked up a gun, when I was in America, and it made me feel very excited. A lot of people who are very pacifist find themselves repulsed by guns, but I wasn’t. I wanted to shoot things! Not people, but I wanted to shoot beer cans! That’s something you can do in America that you can’t do here.

That’s why my country is great!

NT: Haha, well it does something to you. Holding a gun does something to you. It makes people excited.

Ghost… certainly feels relevant in the wake of the protests and riots last summer.

NT: In ‘Fitzrovia’ I mention the Battle of Cable Street, and that was Mosely’s fascists wanting to march through a predominantly Jewish area. There was a thing that very rarely happens now — you had real solidarity on the left. The Jewish people in the area, the trade unionists, liberals, and communists all put aside their differences to show solidarity against the fascists, and that’s something to be celebrated. Unfortunately today we don’t have that kind of class awareness.

Moving away from politics, per se, the other song on the album that really sticks out to me for its treatment of violence is ‘Three Fires’. It’s about arson. I love how the central image — burning down a house and pumping bullets into it — is like something out of a really macho metalcore song, or gangsta rap. You don’t turn it into a victory or a catharsis, but it is the first time in a Gravenhurst song that this core of repressed or remembered violence actually spills over into destruction. In Greek tragedy Medea kills the kids offstage, and that’s previously how you’ve handled bloodshed in Gravenhurst, but this time we get to see it. What drove this change?

NT: You’re right, it has been brought to centre stage. It’s not suggestive, it’s pretty explicit. What’s funny is that I’m quite desensitized to just how dark a lot of people find my lyrics. I listen to a lot of dark music, I watch lots of horror films, and I’ve always been interested in really dark and violent subject matter. We occupy these waters and explore them for so long, we forget that for a lot of people this is an area they don’t want to be in at all. And now, yes, with ‘The Foundry’ and ‘Three Fires’ it’s even more prominent.

Why did this happen with ‘Three Fires’?

NT: It was kind of inspired by real events I read about — someone going back to a house where something very bad happened to them and wanting to burn it down. The person went in with petrol and matches, but at the last minute couldn’t bring themselves to do it. There’s the sense that if they’d followed through with it, it wouldn’t have achieved anything at all. But the desire for revenge is really strong, the desire is there. The fire is hot, but the gun is cold. The fire is the spark of rage that makes it happen, but the cold is the pointlessness of it.

It’s “the emptiness of the prize,” again, then, isn’t it?

NT: Yeah, yeah it is. And the fire goes back in time: it starts on the bottom floor and goes up to the attic where the memories are the oldest. The “writing it down and putting it in a box” and never sending the letters you’d like to send is about repressing those things you’d like to do, because ultimately they don’t solve anything.

On ‘In Miniature’ we see something that’s preoccupied you throughout your work—this fascination with serial killers. You’re talking about discovering bodies?

NT: No, it’s not bodies, it’s “whale-bone clues”. The reference in that song to killing is that in Victorian times they thought that the last image you see was left on the retina when you died. They photographed the retinas of Jack The Ripper’s victims hoping to see his face there. Of course, that doesn’t work, but I love the idea. It made me think about the last thing left in the mind, the last thing left on the eyes, at the moment of death. People who’ve had near-death experiences have talked about their whole life flashing before them, so that gave me a rush of ideas.

“Whale-bone clues”…I don’t really know what that means. But there’s this idea in a lot of my songs about searching for something without knowing what it is you’re searching for. It can be a kind of general emotional thing in life, but I like the idea of it actually being a specific thing, with people looking for clues on a weird journey or wild-goose chase. There’s a fantastical element to it.

I can’t finish a song until I’m happy with the lyrics, and the reason I’m satisfied with ‘In Miniature’ is because it throws out a lot of clues. Someone once described something as “like being lost in a room full of maps”. I like that idea.

Going back to your question, there have been quite a few references to serial killers. I sometimes wonder whether my fascination with serial killers is a bit too adolescent, and I should grow out of it… But I haven’t!

I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed in that. Rock & roll is the art of continuing to be a teenager, I think.

NT: That’s a really interesting idea… that’s something Sonic Youth have done so well.

Oh my god, yes!

NT: That’s why there’s no problem with them being called Sonic Youth when they’re nearly 50. I used to think, “Would that be a problem?” But no, because they are so fucking clever.

Your interest in murder has always seemed a little different from that of, say, the Peter Sotos crowd — people on the industrial and noise scene who have a really pornographic interest in it, or enjoy trying to make us think they have a pornographic interest in it. Is yours an interest in the primal drives and urges that serial killing uncovers? Is it a kind of fascination with the possibility of identifying with the killer, like in ‘The Velvet Cell’, on Fires…?

NT: I’d like to think the way in which I deal with violence is a bit subtler than the way people like Peter Sotos do it. For them, it seems to be about trying to get as extreme as they possibly can, and the problem they encounter is how much further can they take it? It seems like the next step is to start actually doing it. You either become a serial killer or you become Max Hardcore.

I don’t think there’s any need to do that, because the interesting things about violence are interesting things about the human condition. You can get deeper into it without getting more extreme. Instead of continually pushing forward, you can stay in the same place and go downwards, looking into the way violence relates to things about people and history. Whitehouse have made it interesting by making it about interpersonal power relationships, where it’s all kind of about sex. I’m really quite into a lot of Whitehouse records, I really love Birdseed, thought I’m not into Sotos’ contributions to the title track. Still, I’ve read a couple of his books, and however repulsive some of it is, he is a good prose stylist.

You haven’t explicitly asked me about it yet, but I thought I’d go into this. A couple of reviews have said that ‘The Ghost of St. Paul’ slows the album down, and isn’t as good as the other tracks, but the reason we put it there was to allow a respite from the violence. It’s about being surrounded by violence, in one form or another, and wanting something to stop it. It’s about my inability to have a religious experience. My mind can’t allow me to believe in a god because it seems such an absurd notion — I’m inclined towards hard agnosticism. But when I look at people who have religious experience I’m fascinated by it. It seems to be a way out, something that saves them from all this awfulness. For me, though, the ghost of St. Paul is still missing. The song is dedicated “to all those resisting”, it’s about a struggle with any kind of compulsions.

A struggle with compulsions towards spirituality, or with the ugly things that make you seek spirituality?

NT: The latter. Wanting escape from all of it. And for some people religion saves them from these things, but I can’t do it. It’s the problem of faith. It requires me to lie down and get rid of all the critical faculties I’ve been educated to use. It’s just too bloody convenient.

I think one of the challenges of setting aside a Christian world view is understanding the immanence of violence to life. There’s no exit from it, and it’s not this aberration in the world. It sounds like you’re trying to find a way to negotiate that — to accept it, while still preserving a critical distance from this violence as well.

NT: Yeah, it’s really difficult after that realization, because where can you go from there?

In another way, ‘St. Paul…’ is about the ability to say no, which ties in directly to what you were just talking about in ‘The Foundry’. You have to refuse certain temptations of worldly power, but also refuse the cheap way out.

NT: Yeah, yeah. In the earlier part of the 20th century, George Orwell thought that the only possible moral framework left to people after the death of religion was socialism. If you don’t have religion as a moral guide, how you can take people further towards being good people? He thought socialism was the way forward from this crisis, and I worry that might be true as well.

So, we’ve been talking about your reluctant acceptance of materialism, your refusal to buy into a religious worldview. But at the same time we’ve also touched on the fantastical quality to Gravenhurst, and that you’ve explored this Medieval territory. Regardless of your intent, I’ve always heard a lower-case “p” pagan feel in the music, and this is something that has really resonated with me. Maybe less so on the new album, because it’s so urban, but there’s always been this focus on re-enchantment, especially on Black Holes In The Sand and Flashlight Seasons.

NT: It’s not a word I’d thought of before, re-enchantment, but yeah. There is that, definitely. It’s almost like a kind of answer to these religious and political struggles. I can’t accept religion, but I can accept a kind of mysticism, a kind of transcendence. Because for me, music and art are non-material, transcendent things. So you can still have transcendence without religion. And you’re right about the paganism, because the things I’m celebrating are not Judaeo-Christian things. They are slightly more “earth, wind, and fire”.

Yes, and they’re rooted in place and history. Are there specific things that have inspired you in, say, folklore or mythology?

N: Yeah, there are a few things, like the story of Herne The Hunter and the Wild Hunt and all that. But also just looking at the incredible history of the British Isles and the things we dig up. Bristol’s in the West Country, surrounded by tombs from prehistory and barrow mounds from the Dark Ages, and there’s that wonderful sense of mystery about them. There’s so little we can know about them. And in that sense of mystery, there’s something quite glorious.

The Ghost In Daylight is out now on WARP. Enter the terrifying world of Ultra Skull if you so wish

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