After meeting Nick at The Brudenell where he was supporting the Cribs mammoth residency just before Christmas, Jim Phelps was keen to know more about this songwriter, performer and producer…
Leeds Living: How are you doing?
NH: I’m good yeah.
LL: So, what are you up to?
NH: I’m sitting in my studio signing CDs. That’s it.
LL: You’ve got the new album coming out and recently you played at Cribsmas, how did that go for you?
NH: It was everything I wanted it to be. You were there, what did you think?
LL: Well I had a good time!
NH: I was very excited about it cos it was my first real proper gig and walking on stage I was not that nervous…less nervous than I thought I’d be. I got on stage and because we’d been practising quite a lot I knew the band was really good and they’re pretty tight. Well, they’re really tight. I just thought ‘This is going to be all right. I’m not gonna worry about it. I’m gonna do the songs, I’m gonna do my best and it’s gonna be awesome’. I would have preferred a mosh pit, but it was the first gig supporting The Cribs and I think on a Monday night a mosh pit would have been too much to ask. At the end a lot of people told me how much they enjoyed it and I thought that was great. And they weren’t just my family, so I was really, really pleased. I wanna do more! I knew that would happen – that I would walk off and go “OK, when’s the next one?”
LL: I had read that you had said there was a point where you never wanted to go on stage again. What’s changed?
NH: Well I used to think I’d got it out of my system. I didn’t need to go on stage again. I don’t know what it was that’s changed. I got asked to do this gig and I suddenly thought “Shit, I should do this but I really don’t wanna. I haven’t got a band.” This was about two months ago. I just thought I should do it. You’ve got to say yes to these opportunities. You never know what’s going to happen. I was asked also by The Killers to come play I Predict A Riot on stage with them at Leeds Arena, and maybe that was about five weeks ago. The feeling of walking on stage and playing in front of all those people was just so awesome and I just loved being on stage. I’ve always wanted to be on stage. I don’t know why I’d thought I’d got it out of my system.
LL: Do you think it was just too much at the time?
NH: I think it goes along with a lot of baggage cos you don’t just go on stage. You’ve gotta do all the hard work before and after. Maybe it was that, that I was trying to get that out of my system. But…it’s worth it.
LL: Are you keeping the band from the Cribsmas gig to play with in the future?
NH: Yes. They are the official band. They’ve got a Whatsapp group so it’s happening.
LL: How did you assemble the band?
NH: The first person was Tom – he’s my friend and he’s from Leeds. I’d asked him ages ago “If I ever have to do anything, you’re my go to guitarist.” So that was already understood. Glen, the drummer from the Howling Bells, he was through our old tour manager and then our original tour manager, Mike, is on bass. I rang him up and said “Can you help me with these gigs?” and he said “Yeah, I’ll play bass as well if you like.” So I was like “OK!” I know the drummer from The Dead 60s and he put me in touch with Ben, their keyboard player and guitarist. And then we all turned up at my house and started playing. Everyone had learned all the songs and they were all really great straightaway from the first rehearsal. It was a dream. Surprisingly easy. We started playing RSVP and I couldn’t believe it. I played everything on the album version but when you stand in a room and someone’s learned all the parts and you start playing it, it’s really amazing. It comes to life and you can’t believe it.
LL: Are there any surprises coming for the show at Headrow House on 29th January?
NH: We’ve been practising a couple of songs – one that people will know and one people won’t know.
LL: What songs are you particularly proud of on the album?
NH: There’s one called Feel Better which I really like. I’ve always liked songs that have two halves. Feel Better…it’s strange how it works: it completely changes key and style and everything but it works. That’s one of the ones we’re practicsng right now and it’s going to be a little tricky.
LL: Is there any song where you got that trick from?
NH: It’s got to be The Beatles…something like A Day In The Life. Growing up and listening to that, I used to assume all bands did it. There’s loads if you think about it but all in the past…someone will correct me but I can’t think of any from the last few years. Bohemian Rhapsody – there’s one!…Fleetwood Mac – The Chain. So you just get two songs in one; it’s good!
LL: When I saw you play, the song that really stuck out for me was Tomorrow I Love You.
NH: I think that’s gonna be the next single. I’ll put the album out and then another single out.
LL: It’s got ‘single’ written all over it.
NH: Well, let me tell you a few people have said that’s a brilliant single. I can remember in the olden days, right at the beginning of the Kaiser Chiefs, there were a few songs people would always talk about. It’s nice to have another one.
LL: It feels like it’s gonna be a good song for when the sun comes out.
NH: Mmm…February or March might be a bit early. Oh well, I’ll wait til the sun starts coming out!
LL: Do you have any songs ready for b-sides?
NH: No! B-sides seem to be a thing of the past. I used to like b-sides but nobody has mentioned a b-side yet. I’ll and do an EP; that would be good.
LL: are you the kind of person that has a lot of stuff written in the background?
NH: No, I haven’t actually. I only write when I have an aim in life – like an album or an EP or something. I’ll write specifically for that and then stop. I finished the album in September and just about started to think about new songs. I like to get to a point where I miss it.
LL: Do you need a tangible push? Like: ‘I need to do an album, therefore I need to write some songs.’
NH: Yeah. I like a deadline. I like to work fast. All the Kaiser Chiefs albums were fast. The first one was three months. And then I’ll stop and won’t be able to write anything else. That’s the big clue: stop writing. When you can’t write anything more, stop. You’ll just write a load of crap. I hadn’t thought about an album for five years. My default is just every few days write a different song with a different artist. So I haven’t had that feeling of starting and finishing a project.
LL: You’ve written songs with a lot of different people. Is the process different when you’re writing songs for yourself and somebody else?
NH: It’s harder [writing for other people] because you have to guess a lot. You have to try and please them first. If you’re pleasing yourself it seems a bit easier than pleasing…two people (laughs). If you know what I mean. You can play some chords, a melody, some lyrics and if they don’t like it but you really like it, that’s the weird bit. Then you have to start second guessing and work out what they might like. If they don’t like the song it’s dead in the water. They need to be 100% into it. It’s a massive challenge.
LL: Is there any time where you thought to yourself ‘Oh I’ve got a belter here!’ and the other person’s not digging it?
NH: Yeah. Definitely. I could think of ones that were rejected by somebody and come out and were a reasonably sized hit. They could pass on it and you take it to someone else and they love it. It’s really weird. That’s why I prefer myself as it’s not a guessing game. I don’t have to convince myself!
LL: How did you get your studio set up?
NH: I’ve had a studio since 2008, although not this one I’m in now. I used to have a little basement studio when I was in the band in Shoreditch, then moved down the hall and got a bigger studio. I’ve basically collected a lot of stuff over the years and then I moved house and the studio is here in Muswell Hill. Lots of old guitars and drums. The way the record sounds is how my collection sounds. It’s all from the seventies basically. I haven’t got lots of studio gear, not a whole mass of stuff like other people have, just the guitars and the drums.
LL: Tell me a couple of things you couldn’t live without.
NH: OK, so I’ve got the Hofner bass, the McCartney bass. I think it’s a ’71…and that is so sweet. I get a lot of inspiration from that. Then there’s a Boss Delay Machine DM100. It’s totally awesome. It’s like an eighties delay thing that will make anything sound incredible – guitars, vocals, anything. Just ebay stuff.
LL: Let’s complete the band – is there set of drums and guitar that you can’t live without?
NH: I’ve got one kit in the studio and it’s amazing. It’s a ’78. I was born in ’77 and I have nothing from that year. I have a ’78 Ludwig kit which is awesome – a Vistalite. What about a guitar? I’m giving away all my secrets now…let me think. I’ll go for the Gibson 335.
LL: You’re known for your playing and songwriting but also your producing. Have you always been a producer since the early days of the band?
NH: I’ve done it for a long time but I don’t really call myself a producer. I’m always about the song-writing really. I’ve produced bands and the Kaiser Chiefs’ first ever demos. Our first single me and Peanut produced. I’ve done quite a bit but I would never call myself a producer – it’s definitely third on the list.
LL: So it’s performer, songwriter, then producer?
NH: Yeah. No. Songwriter first! Songwriter, then the rest. That’s where my passion is.
LL: What’s your philosophy when you’re in the studio working on a production with someone? Do you put a lot of yourself into it? How hands on are you?
NH: I’ve got no answer to that. When I produce someone I just see how it goes. I reckon I have a certain number of tricks that I can do and hopefully they’ll work with whatever band it is. I try and swerve from producing bands as it’s so hard work and very little reward. It just doesn’t excite me like songwriting does. Songwriting with bands is good and then I like to let them just take the song and then go and do it with an actual professional producer.
LL: If you take two extremes…someone like Steve Albini, who calls himself an engineer and refuses to give bands advice, and then the complete opposite where some producers will say “You need an extra bit in your song here”…which are you closer to?
NH: I’m the latter unfortunately. I’m the busybody who gets in the way! I probably do put too much of myself in there. I don’t think it’s a good thing. It’s too difficult to resist! Whenever I hear something I think “It would be better if…” I do it all the time. “The chorus should come in there…you could do that twice and get rid of that bit.” I think it’s because I’m a songwriter. Someone will send me a demo of their song and I see the potential and I get excited. That’s probably why no-one calls me to produce them.
LL: Do you feel more like a songwriter that records other artists rather than a producer?
NH: A lot of the productions I’ve done were by default. With Ratboy it was a co-production really. We recorded a lot of the stuff as we wrote the song. 75% was done on the day. To me production is a means to an end. I’m more about the song.
LL: Is there anyone you’re looking forward to working with this year?
NH: I used to have a full diary of people to work with but since I started doing the album I’ve not booked anyone. This year I’m gonna be an artist, that’s my thing this year. I go in five year cycles so I’ll probably end up hating it in a couple of years! Being a professional songwriter is about as stable as…something that’s very unstable….a pencil on a football.
LL: Or a football on a pencil.
NH: Yeah let’s go with that.
LL: Is there anyone that would be a dream person to work with?
NH: (immediately) Harry Styles. That’s not even a joke. I’d really like to work with Harry Styles. I was talking to someone about this the other day, which is why I answered so quick. I like his album. I like the affinity, the similar sort of sound to what I try to create which is the seventies, singer-songwriter sort of thing. That’s where I’m best – where I’m writing songs in that classic mould.
LL: Is it easier working with a single person than with bands?
NH: Yeah definitely. I much prefer that. The whole mentality of a band is ‘us against the world’ and if you try and join in with that gang and imprint your personality on that it doesn’t always feel right. I’ve had a certain amount of success in that world but bands are tricky. They’re getting less tricky as co-writing goes more mainstream. Bands now do co-writing…it’s kinda weird. I prefer it if they don’t. I’ve turned people down – labels – because I think ‘Why are you getting in a songwriter?’ Why have you signed them if they haven’t got the songs? Give them some time and let them be a band. You obviously sign them because you like what they’re about, don’t go and get professional songwriters in, cos Oasis wouldn’t have done that.
LL: Liam’s got songwriters on his new record.
NH: Yeah, although he’s very open about it and I admire that. He’s a singer, and he does go on about how he’s the best singer in the world, and he is one of the best rock’n’roll singers in the world. He says he can write a verse all day long but can’t get the choruses. If you can’t do it, it’s great that you can admit it and get someone in.
LL: Are there any Spinal Tap moments that have happened to you?
NH: I’ve been in Cleveland and literally gone on stage, drumming on the wall and saying ‘Hello Cleveland!’ It doesn’t get more Spinal Tap. We used to make a lot of stuff up in the gigs, like endings that would go on and on and on. There was an intro that sounded just like Stonehenge (laughs) and doing that thing like ‘Nobody knows where they came from…or what they were doing’ and literally saying that.
LL: Into the mic?
NH: Yeah literally. Spinal Tap…became part of us. (laughs) I’ve been on that Saucy Jack roof by that pool and had that conversation…”We should envy us!….I envy us!” (laughs)
LL: Thank God you didn’t spontaneously combust – it’s always the drummer that dies in that film.
NH: Yeah, we met one of the drummers, Ric Parnell, too.
LL: Last question. There was something I read online about you being a spaghetti eating champion in Romania.
NH: Is this a joke?!
LL: This is what I’ve read!
NH: This is quite Spinal Tap. The first time I heard this…it’s not true by the way…here is the whole background of that. We were somewhere in Eastern Europe, and somebody asked me that exact question. This was over ten years ago. I looked it up and I think it was on my Wikipedia page so then it got taken down. I haven’t heard about it since you just said it then. Maybe it’s resurfaced.
LL: So the big news is you are definitely not a spaghetti eating champion.
NH: No. It’s funny that. That was a good one. I’m gonna search for that now.
LL: It’s the kind of thing that’s strange enough…that someone couldn’t make it up.
NH: I’m gonna say it’s true. It’s not. But it is.
LL: A bit of Trump’s fake news.
Nick’s debut solo album ‘Tell Your Friends’ is released on 26 January 2018. If you support your local record store and buy the album from Crash Records in Leeds then you’ll get invited to album launch at Headrow House on 29 January. If Nick’s recent gig at The Brudenell was anything to go by it’s not a night to miss.
Jim writes for Leeds Living on contemporary music, bringing gigs alive for readers who couldn’t be there.