Paul Tingen catches up with the musical innovator and legendary force behind Be‑Bop Deluxe at his minimalist home studio, and finds him producing more music than ever before.
Bill Nelson has long had the image of the thinking musician's thinking musician. It springs in part from the company he has kept throughout his long and prolific career: he's worked with the likes of David Sylvian, Harold Budd, Billy McKenzie, Roger Eno, Cabaret Voltaire and Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) — all names with unquestionable musical credentials. For the select group of people who are actually familiar with his work (most of them deeply dedicated fans), his intelligence shines through in his lyrics (which are full of often ironic references to topics like science fiction, Buddhism, mysticism, art and psychology) and in his music, which is these days packed with multi-layered rhythms, nifty arrangements, hair-raising guitar breaks, and cool samples. In short, Bill Nelson is the antithesis of the archetypal beer-drinking, guitar-smashing, pot-smoking, sex-obsessed rock & roll animal. He's the living proof that there's more to rock & roll than sex and drugs, and that it's a mature art form capable of a range of expression that's as rich and deep as say, literature, sculpture or classical music.
Given this image, it's rather surprising to hear of some episodes of Nelson's career that equal the hilarious rock excesses so well parodied in the classic Spinal Tap 'rockumentary' (see the 'Nelson's Column' box). And the surprise doesn't stop here. It emerges that Bill Nelson was no stranger to other aspects of rock & roll excess either. For starters, at one time in his life this working-class lad made it rich, and acquainted himself well with the trappings of success. Smiling ruefully, the man in question recalls: "With Be‑Bop Deluxe in the late '70s I led a life of riches. I had a Rolls-Royce and a Porsche, a mansion house with river frontage and tennis courts, and so on. The problem was that I knew less than I know now, and coming from a working class background I just spent it all, thinking: 'oh, well, these are just the trappings that come with success.' Today I think it was good that I had a chance to experience that lifestyle and a little bit of fame on the side. But I also think: 'Why did I ever bother with things like that? It's just too much. What a waste of money that was!'"
Nelson was probably more inclined towards this latter train of thought when he found himself at the other end of the spectrum in the early '90s. He was penniless, living with his mother, and travelling on the bus instead of in a Rolls or Porsche. He'd found himself at the receiving end of an acrimonious divorce from his wife of 18 years, and faced with two costly court cases: one with his ex-wife demanding his money, another against his ex-manager, with Nelson demanding the return of his master tapes. Nelson: "It was all terrible on one level, because there was a lot of grief, but it was a really good lesson on another level, because I have come out of it a much more whole person. This also enables you to make better music. Music has to have soul in it, and you cannot tackle music as if it is something external to yourself. It has to be a reflection of the inside, and the more you go through as a person, the more you can put in there. Even if you're not conscious of the fact that it is going in, it is. But the main point of the court case with my ex-manager was that I wanted my tapes back, so I could re-release my back catalogue. Like most musicians, I have no pension or savings, and my old age will hopefully be taken care of by my back catalogue."
Nelson's manager returned the tapes two days before the court case was due to start, but by that stage lawyers had found so much work for themselves — sorry, had found so many 'contractual anomalies' — that the court case continued, until a judgement in Nelson's favour in 1994. And so his old age is now safer than it was before. Talking about old age, Nelson turned 50 last December. It's still a long way from decrepitude, but it does mean that he's in the latter stages of what he calls his 'prolonged mid-life crisis.' By a curious coincidence, he estimates that the total number of albums that he has released so far, whether under his own name, or with Be‑Bop Deluxe, Red Noise or Orchestra Arcana, also totals about 50. And whereas the frequency of his output became a little bit erratic in the middle of all the crises that hit him in the early '90s, once he'd found his feet, freedom, tapes and a new wife (he married Emiko, former wife of YMO's Yukihiro Takahashi), his output was soon as prolific as it had ever been. As a member of the band Channel Light Vessel he played a central role in the making of their two albums Automatic (1994) and Excellent Spirits (1997), also featuring Roger Eno, Laraaji and Kate St. John. He released two albums under his own name in 1995 (Crimsworth and Practically Wired), one in 1996 (After The Satellite Sings), and five(!) in 1997 (Deep Dream Decoder, Electricity Made Us Angels, Buddha Head, Weird Critters and Magnificent Dream People — the last two being released together as Confessions Of A Hyperdreamer). And apart from two re-releases of Be‑Bop Deluxe material in '97 and '98, there were two more albums in 1998: Atom Shop and What Now, What Next? Counting double albums as two, that's a staggering total of 14 albums since Nelson's last appearance in SOS in October 1995!
The interesting thing, for a man as forward-looking as Nelson, is that many of these releases look back to the past in some form or the other. The Be‑Bop Deluxe re-releases are the most obvious examples, but the What Now, What Next? 2‑CD set also contains much older material, in this case tracks that were released between 1981 and 1991 on his own Cocteau label. Moreover, Nelson calls the albums Practically Wired, After The Satellite Sings and Atom Shop a 'trilogy'. They all contain new music, but their subject matter is backward-looking. On the instrumental Practically Wired, Nelson traces his early guitar influences, on After The Satellite Sings he delves into elements of his '50s childhood in samples and sleeve images, and on Atom Shop he revisits the mythical images of '50s and '60s American culture that imprinted themselves on him when he was a child. Nelson puts all this looking at the past down to his mid-life crisis: "There was a period in my life when I was against anything that had to do with roots. It went so far that during a period in the '80s I wouldn't even put guitars in my records that actually sounded like guitar. I'd process it or stick it through a guitar synth or use an E-Bow. I was against anything that smacked of rock clichés. But now I'm very preoccupied with my roots. I think it is to do with being 50 — I'm looking back at what I've done and where I've been. And I'm trying to evaluate these things and re-explore some of my starting points."
This process is probably also something that came out of the traumatic experiences of the early '90s, which led to him having to re-start his life, forcing him to re-assess his past. Nelson's divorce came through in 1992. He lost his house and money, moved in with his mother, and then to Japan for a year in '93. Here he met up again with Emiko, an old friend from the '80s, married her, and moved back with her to Yorkshire in 1994, where they lived in rented accommodation for three years. It was here that he recorded the albums My Secret Studio and the double CD set Confessions Of A Hyperdreamer, in his home studio which he called Tape Recorder Cottage. In late 1997, he and Emiko bought their present house just outside York, in which Nelson installed his current home studio, called Atom Shop Record‑o‑mat. After several more years of being a record company nomad (his '90s recordings were released by a variety of small labels and Nelson even set up his own label again, Populuxe), it seems as if he has now found a sympathetic and safe home on a musical level as well in Robert Fripp's Discipline label. Nelson may joke that it was the pictures in Hello magazine of Robert and wife Toyah sitting naked in the bath (!!) that attracted him, but really it's the fact that Discipline is run by artists for artists, that the artists retain the rights to their music, that it has good distribution in Japan and America, and that the label is sympathetic to proper presentation and packaging — something that is important to Nelson, who is also a painter and graphic artist. What Now, What Next? is a good example, featuring a luxurious 4-panel CD storage case and a stylish 24-page CD booklet containing many of Bill Nelson's paintings and collages.
Atom Shop is Nelson's second release on Discipline, and the culmination of his looking-back period. He elaborates that the underlying themes of the Practically Wired, After The Satellite Sings and Atom Shop trilogy are "'50s and '60s popular culture, anything from Beat Culture to alternative religion to science fiction." At the same time the music on the three CDs sounds very contemporary, leading to a strange juxtaposition with the '50s and '60s samples (of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Chet Baker amongst many other things), images of '50s and '60s kitsch memorabilia on the covers, and offbeat lyrics that deal with anything from Beatnik to Buddha to sex. According to Nelson they are all representations of an "illusory, hallucinatory, mythical America that only exists in the imagination of the English mind", in this case the mind of the English boy Nelson in the '50s and '60s. It's an interesting juxtaposition with the drum & bass influences that permeate After The Satellite Sings (it actually sounds like it was a huge influence on David Bowie's Earthlings, which appeared later). Atom Shop also has a very modern sound, though on this album Nelson has gone for a "looser, more laid-back feel, with a few drum & bass songs." All in all, these albums appear to perfectly illustrate Nelson's assertion that "it's the duality, the fusion of high and low art, popular culture and esoteric culture, that interests me. I'm always fascinated by hybrid forms, the spark that occurs when opposites impact."
They are appropriate words for an intelligent and musical man who was once caught with his pants down, figuratively speaking, in a glorious Spinal Tap moment at a stage in Manchester. This collision of high and low art is also the first thing that jumps out at anyone who enters his Atom Shop Record‑o‑mat studio in his home near York. The house is beautifully furnished and laid out in a style that wouldn't be out of place in any glossy interior design magazine. But enter a tiny room on the first floor and the first thing that catches the eye is a huge and colourful collection of comic book-style kitsch, much of it dating from the '50s and '60s. A poster from The Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman, and the sexy late-'50s science fiction poster that also graces the cover of Weird Critters, dominate the walls (the prevalence of the number 50 in this article is, of course, pure coincidence). There are multitudes of plastic statues of all manner of popular figures, from Mickey Mouse to the monster in Alien, and there are of course also lots of strange and obscure recording instruments, amplifiers, microphones, accordions, guitars, and the like. The worst attack of bad taste comes from something that looks like the front half of a rowing boat-sized ship, which is actually a bar. It prompted Nelson to remark: "I thought it was so awful, it was wonderful. There is a point where bad taste becomes really interesting. It's just knowing which side of the line to stay on. And sometimes I cross it [he laughs]."
In the middle of all this assorted kitsch stands Nelson's home studio gear, most elements of which are actually also well on their way to becoming objects of nostalgia, even if they don't quite qualify (yet) as kitsch. Centre stage goes to an Allen & Heath System-8 24-channel desk and a Fostex B16 16-track tape recorder. To the right of it is a keyboard rack with an Emu E4K (his master keyboard and main sampler), Yamaha DX7 MkI and Akai MPC60. To the left is an effects rack with Signex CP44 patchbay, a custom-made device to make the trigger point of a signal tighter, an MXR 01 reverb, Roland SDE3000 delay, Yamaha SPX90 multi-effects unit, Boss DE20 digital delay, Fostex 3050 digital delay, Fostex 3070 compressor/limiter, Marshall 5002 Time Modulator, JVC cassette deck and Ibanez UE4000 multi-effects unit. Next to this is a guitar rack with Toneworks Tuner, Zoom 9050S multi-effects, a blind 1U panel with Nelson's signature, and a Digitech Valve effects unit. There are also Tannoy Little Red, Visonik David and walkman Diatone monitors. To this Nelson cheerfully adds that the only effects he uses are the MXR 01 and SPX90, and the Fostex 3050 compressor/limiter over the stereo mix during mixdown. In another context he commented on his current attraction to Zen Buddhism, and it seems that his studio increasingly exemplifies some of the Zen principles of emptiness and simplicity. Moreover, attentive readers with long memories may by now have spotted that the equipment in Nelson's studio is exactly the same as he had in 1995, except that there's less of it!
Nelson's latest opus, Atom Shop, was recorded and mixed in its entirety at the Atom Shop Record‑o‑mat studio, whereas the previous two albums of his '50s 'trilogy' were recorded at Fairview Studios near Hull, on a Soundcraft desk and Otari 24‑track at 30ips. Curiously, the albums sound almost identical from a sonic point of view. Moreover, all three of them sound very alive, clear and transparent, without any noticeable hiss or lack of high or bottom end. In short, although they don't have the silken, shiny hi-fi sound that's popular in some quarters, they sound great, and totally adequate for the kind of music that Nelson plays. Nelson commented: "Sometimes people think that I'm not keen to talk about equipment, or that I don't care about it. That's not true. The simplicity of the equipment in my studio is purely due to lack of money. I've recently heard that there's some insurance money available for me from the Be‑Bop Deluxe days, and so I'm now planning to buy a Tascam analogue 24-track plus the Roland VS1680, and possibly also a Mac. Having many more tracks will enable me to do lots of stereo panning. But I have often said that it's not about equipment. Making music is down to thinking, it's about having good ideas. I must admit, though, that it's ironic that I used to have state-of-the-art home studio equipment 10 years ago, and now people look at this gear and say: 'oh, my God, how can you make records on this?'"
Nelson's point about ideas and equipment is undeniably proven by the sonic qualities of Atom Shop, and the fact that the sound of the album is remarkably similar to that of Nelson albums recorded in a commercial studio. And to answer that other question, namely, how does he do it, Nelson traced the genesis of Atom Shop: "The original plan was to make a big-budget album in a top-quality studio with producer Mitchell Froom (Suzanne Vega, Los Lobos), who I regard as the best producer on the planet today. Mitchell asked me for some demos, and I purposely kept them very raw and didn't work too hard on them, because I wanted to leave room for Mitchell to put his ideas in. But when I sent the demos to New York, Mitchell called me and said that he didn't think I needed a producer. He thought the demos were great as they were, and that the only thing I needed to do was to go into a proper studio and let musicians play the parts, making sure that they copied the parts I'd put down. However, we never got the major record deal, and so in the end the 'demos' for Atom Shop were released as the final album."
In all interviews that have been published about Atom Shop, and also on the album CD sleeve, Nelson stresses the spontaneity and speed of its making. On the web site dedicated to him (www.billnelson.com) he describes the process thus: "Blank tape, blank mind, wait, wait. Hit 'record', go, dream, go, dream, go, press 'stop', finished. That's it, that's all." For the benefit of SOS readers Nelson elaborates in rather more prosaic terms: "My starting point is very often a title. I keep notebooks full of titles that come to me, encapsulating a mood. So I go through them, and I will usually create a rhythm from the feeling that title suggests. In general I tend to work from the rhythm upwards, and start with laying down a basic groove on the MPC60. Sometimes that may be a loop, sometimes I'll use samples from sample CDs, or from the Emu E4K, or that I got from somewhere, recorded in a Walkman, or for example in my Dictaphone. Or I will have recorded sounds in this cheap, throwaway credit card-sized digital recorder that can record up to 100 seconds. It has a tiny speaker and if you put a microphone close to it, and EQ it, you can make it sound enormous. It's a gadget thing that I once bought in a shop, it doesn't even have a brand name on it."
More proof, if it was needed, that it's not about equipment, but about what you do with it. Nelson scours many car boot sales and antique fairs for the memorabilia and esoteric gear that adorns his studio; one of his finds is something that looks like a cross between a '50s tape recorder and dictaphone, and contains a tiny reel-to-reel. Overall Nelson regards creating a basic rhythm track on the MPC60 as "laying down the carpet or the foundations". He will transfer this to the B16, and will then overdub other parts: percussion, keyboard bass, keyboards, guitars, all played live, with no sequencer in sight. The vocals are usually the last thing to go on. Nelson: "I tend to play snare drum, hi-hat and percussion live on the keyboard to keep things loose. No matter how hard you try to stay in time, you're going to slip in time here and there. It's a lot quicker than trying to program artificial looseness."
Nelson tends to record his guitars straight into the desk, usually via his Zoom 9050S and Digitech Valve effects units. Nelson: "I have programmed all kinds of sounds into them, and called them silly titles like Bible Of Dreams, Small Birds Singing, Voodoo Wah-Wah, Godspeak?, Zen Garden, Truth-o-matic, Buddha Cloud, Flying 5ths, Nelsonica, Emikotone, and so on. When I go to other studios I will record my guitars via one of the amplifiers here, like the Booker Valve for clean jazzy sounds, and my '50s Shaftesbury with elliptical speakers for a '60s distorted sound. It has that abrasive sandpaper kind of noise that you may remember from the early Kinks. Live, I go straight into the PA. I record my guitars straight to the desk in Atom Shop, because I only have one microphone, the AKG D1200E. I use it almost only to record my vocals. I actually try to get my vocals on tape earlier these days, so I can build something around them. But I still regard myself as a vocalist by default. I write lyrics and I like to sing them, because they are about personal things. But I never ever think about my singing to any great degree. I don't really work at it. It's whatever comes out at any given time.
"Guitar playing is different. The guitar is my main instrument, even though I enjoy playing other instruments like piano and vibraphone. When I was 19 I was very interested in guitar technique, and it was some of those influences that I traced back on Practically Wired. But for me technique is something that you learn and then drop. You move on, and are looking at ideas and concepts, trying to convey something of your own unique life in your music. That is much more interesting."
Nelson recalls that there were days when influences like alchemy, Rosecrucianism, cabbalism, gnosticism and Masonry were as important to him as music. ("I had all the robes and magical equipment, and still do.") Today he is more attracted to the simplicity of Zen, and proclaims that his esoteric studies had a similar influence to technique: "It's something you go through, and you distil the essence, and then you drop it. But something outside language, something that's as undeniable as it is indescribable, will filter through in your music. Trying to bypass technique is as bad as using technique for its own sake. Originally I was going to be a painter. I went to art school, and we wanted to do abstract modern paintings from day one. But they required us first to study very rudimentary things, like drawing, things we thought we already knew. But it actually turned out to be useful to study them in our first year. We learnt them, and then we dropped them. And then you can maybe express a big idea with just two notes."
Technique is certainly something of which Nelson has a lot under his fingertips. Although the one-time guitar hero doesn't wear it on his sleeve anymore, and has also abandoned the practice of waving flaming guitars about (as in his Be‑Bop Deluxe days), it does mean that he can work remarkably quickly, manually laying down his rhythm tracks in less than 20 minutes, and whole tracks in a few hours. This in part explains the enormous number of albums that he has released, and the fact he still has hundreds of finished songs lying in his vaults. One does wonder, however, whether quality control doesn't go out of the window at times, because Atom Shop is great on feel and wonderfully played and arranged, but it's rather short on memorable hooks. So how does he judge his own work?
Nelson: "The short answer is, I don't. I just ignore that whole area. If I worried about presenting perfect works to people, I wouldn't make the kind of music that I do. I would work in a proper studio with a producer. But it's not about that for me. Music is a diary, and on some days you have less inspiration at your disposal than on others. But with Atom Shop I deliberately excluded things that sounded a bit too poppy or rocky, or hooky. I have learnt the hard way that to have a long career you don't want to have too much success! Most people who are very commercially successful have short careers. And I'm scared of being pinned down like a butterfly in a frame. If you keep moving, you can keep growing, and you get more fun out of it. I don't look to be wealthy anymore. I look to be able to make my next record. I'm looking to put food on the table, more than to get a Rolls."
Bill Nelson clearly has come a long way since his early days of Spinal Tap-like excess. Or has he? The result of the fact that he excluded the 'poppy, hooky and rocky' tracks from Atom Shop is that he has about 50 out-takes, which he hopes to release this year under the name Noise Candy as a very limited edition 4‑CD set, packaged in a chocolate box, with real chocolates and candies. From Spinal Tap and flaming guitars to chocolate boxes? Maybe Bill Nelson's career is more consistent than is immediately apparent. Whatever way, the juxtapositions of high and low art remain.
According to Nelson, one of the most glorious (or embarrassing, depending on your point of view) moments in the film This Is Spinal Tap almost exactly mirrors an incident which befell his band Be‑Bop Deluxe in the '70s. Nelson tells the story:
"During one tour, we had the same transparent tubes on stage that were around the girl on the Sunburst Finish album cover. They looked like huge bottlenecks, and we had three of them, one to hold each member of the band, apart from the drummer. We also put smoke and tracer lights inside.
"Basically, the curtains would be drawn at the beginning of the show, the lights would go down, tape music would start, the curtains would open, and the audience would see three columns of smoke with lights spinning inside of them, and then the columns would go up, and the smoke would disperse, revealing three members of the band. But the columns were very fragile, and after a few shows we only had one left in one piece. So for the following shows we decided to cram all three of us into one column. Then we did a show in Manchester, and there were no stage curtains, so one of the crew suggested that we get some folding screens, and set up the column behind that. When the lights would go out they would take the screen away, and the effect would be the same. So just before the show, with the house lights still on, we kneeled behind the screen, and some crew members lifted up the column so that we could get inside. But in doing so they knocked the screen over. So here we were, halfway crouched into this tube, and the audience behind us was watching the whole thing! It completely gave the game away.
"Some years later, when the Spinal Tap movie came out, and I saw that scene with the transparent pods in which one of the band members gets stuck, I thought: 'somebody has seen that show in Manchester'. That was our Spinal Tap moment!" he laughs loudly.