If anyone epitomises the home recording DIY ethic, it's Bill Nelson. With over 40 albums to his credit, many of which emanated from his modest home studio, Bill continues to experiment. Nigel Humberstone explores his latest creations.
Many years have elapsed since my last meeting with Bill Nelson (see SOS March 1991), but despite the tribulations of mismanagement and the ensuing personal and financial side‑effects, Bill has remained as determined and sensitive as ever. It is a wonder he has produced any music, let alone the creatively varied solo, collaborative, and commissioned pieces now available.
In documenting the 'lost years' I thought it only best to begin where we left off: Bill Nelson's 1991 collaboration with Harold Budd.
Bill: "Out of all the people I've worked with, Harold, despite our differences in political opinions, possesses a genius. His piano works are exquisite and pretty, but he's got another part of him that has yet to surface.
"When I worked on By The Dawn's Early Light it was like the dark side of Pavilion Of Dreams. Some of the musical imagery and spoken word on there [Dawn's Early Light] was really personal and autobiographical about his own childhood.
"There was one incident where he'd seen a horse lying in a field and he thought it was alive, because it appeared to be moving and breathing. But as he got closer to it, it was a carcass just covered in flies, and the flies were giving the impression of movement. As a young boy he was obviously moved and shocked by this — so we did a piece actually called 'Dead Horse Alive With Flies', which is a musical portrayal of the sinister but beautiful 'otherworld'."
The project was carried out in New Orleans at Daniel Lanois' studio, which represented a memorable environment for Bill.
"It was a very quick album (around 10 days for the recording), but the whole experience was really special. Daniel's studio is amazing — though it's not a studio; it's a house with recording equipment, and we just sat around in a circle in this wonderful room that had chandeliers, plants, and Indian blankets. And the whole lighting was from hundreds of candles throughout the house. It's an old plantation mansion and there's this very Gothic/voodoo kind of atmosphere. It was a perfect place for us to do that project.
"We had two classical musicians (viola and harpist), BJ Cole on pedal steel, Harold on keyboards, and me on guitar. Harold had actually composed the album beforehand, so everybody had a score to work from — except me, because being musically illiterate I couldn't read it anyway! Harold knew that, so basically he gave me complete freedom to play anything I wanted, which was nice for me but a little bit frustrating for the other musicians, who had to stick to the score."
I, like many others it appeared, had assumed that Bill could read and write music.
"A lot of people do. In fact, there was a review of Practically Wired [the new album] where it was reviewed alongside Phil Manzanera's retrospective, and it was the old joke of 'how do you make a guitarist shut up? Put sheet music in front of him.' I just found it hilarious that they got this impression that I was some kind of academic.
"I know the basic chord names, but it can be embarrassing at times although never a hindrance. Like the time when I first went to work in Japan and everyone was reading music, even the tea‑boy! When I told them I couldn't read music, you could see the panic in their faces. So they rolled the tape and I was just jamming along trying to figure out what key it's in and trying out a few ideas. At the end they decided not to run it again, but just to keep what they loved as a spontaneous performance."
When I met up with Bill he had recently returned from a promotional visit to America, where his latest solo album Practically Wired has attracted positive reaction. Not having been in New York since 1983, I wondered how Americans now related to Bill; was it through the legacy of Be Bop Deluxe or his solo work?
"It varies. I met a lot of people and what was encouraging was the cross‑section. Obviously there are people who have been listening right from the beginning and stayed with it. Others got confused when I started playing keyboards, thinking I'd let the side down or something — and they don't know anything past, say, 1979. Then there are those that have come in later and don't know the early Be Bop stuff at all."
Practically Wired, aptly subtitled 'Or How I Became Guitarboy', is a guitar orientated exorcism recorded within a self‑imposed time limit of 14 days at Bill's favoured Fairview studio in Hull, England, at a cost of only £2,500. Was there really no pre‑production involved?
"I had the concept, as it were, and a list of titles. And I'd made some rough notes alongside these titles, like 'this should incorporate Duanne Eddy and Jimi Hendrix' or 'this should have surf snare drum' or whatever. So I had a kind of map but no music worked out at all.
"I usually start by programming the drums, then playing the keyboards live on top, then guitars and I add elements of live percussion as well, just to keep it a little bit looser and not so hi‑tech."
I notice that there are also a number of little piano pieces on the album.
"Yes, Fairview had an upright piano, and because I have never had a piano at home it was a good opportunity for me to play a little bit of piano.
"Fairview studio is very good for what it is. It's small, so can be claustrophobic if you're working with a band for any number of days, but for just one person it's perfect. I also like the engineer, John Spence, who I've worked with on a number of things, and who's got this intuitive approach — so we can do things very quickly and to a reasonable standard, without incurring huge budget costs.
"They have a fully computerised mix system, which is unique, because although they're using a standard Soundcraft desk, you can get graphic EQ up on the screen along with balance and mutes. John Spence knows that system inside out. I've always been one of those people who never trusts the engineer, but with John it's trust all the way and he knows what I want.
"I really need to update my own studio — I mean I have exactly the same gear as the last time you interviewed me, only less of it. I sold a lot in order to survive, particularly my guitars."
In what ways would you like to change and expand your home studio setup?
"Well I'd get a new mixing desk for one thing, and I would like to get more involved with automated mixing if possible, especially when you're working alone at home — just to give me that extra pair of hands, even if it's just a computer. I've never had a computer — everything's been analogue and manual."
But you do use computers in other studios and on other projects?
"Oh yes. I used one on a project with Ashley Jackson, where they did everything on computer. But at the same time I played this bass part completely off‑the‑cuff, through a little touch‑sensitive wah‑wah pedal. It was just a first take, which was needed because everything else was sequenced, and I remember them reacting in some amazement that that could be done — but for me, that's where you start from. I'm not purist about it — it's rather been a matter of necessity with my home studio. Circumstances dictate the choice of equipment and I just haven't had the money to invest in computers and software. So it's stayed very low‑tech and that produces a certain style, a certain sound which I've been lumbered with.
"There's such a temptation now for people in my position, with a small home setup, to go for the ADAT — which would be nice. But I still would like to keep some reel‑to‑reel happening, and I like the idea of still being able to get your hands on the tape occasionally and take a razor blade to it, which is now such a dated technique. I still find that my Fostex 16‑track has got a lot going for it, just in the way that it processes the sound.
"I still like playing in real time. I don't actually sequence very much. Most of the percussion is sequenced, but the rest is played in real time, whether it's from the drum pads or the keyboards, so that there's always this feeling of there being a performance.
"Technology is interesting as a social phenomenon, in that we can produce a music with all the appearance of signification of music, but which fulfills none of the roles that music would normally fulfill."
Aside from the different guitar styles on Pactically Wired, there are also a multitude of reversed guitar effects. How were these achieved?
"There's three types of reverse effect on the album — one is just reversed echo, where the guitar is actually going forward but the echo is going backward. Then there's proper reversed guitar, where I just played guitar with the whole tape going backward. And another one is achieved using a compressor with this very heavy suppression of the attack, so that there's no attack when the pick hits the strings — and then the compressor opens up and lets the sound come out. So you get a long, slow attack on each note, which also gives the impression of it being played backwards.
"None of the guitar was amped up, it was all direct through the desk. I have a Zoom 9050S half‑rack unit. I bought it after having one of the smaller 9002 units, but I wanted something that I could control with pedals for live work. I spent a few days before going into the studio, basically just programming up some sounds and storing them to use on the record.
"The majority of the album is electric guitar except for the track called 'The Presence In Flowers', which is a foggy, drifting thing with a nylon strung acoustic on top. And that was the only time I put a mic on a guitar."
In addition to the self‑enforced time limitation for the recording session, Bill adopted particular working methods on Practically Wired.
...a lot of music I hear being made is like that of first‑year art students. They launch right in without the ground being prepared and what you get is a kind of 'pastiche'...
"We recorded a track and then mixed it. The approach I took was to try and work with effects as we recorded, rather than just do everything dry and have all those decisions to make later on. Again, time was a factor but also, in that situation, if you're working with the sounds in a more complete way at each stage, there's something more to get hold of — an added extra inspiration. You can see the picture growing, rather than some reference work which you then make sense of later.
"It was also an approach I took because I had nothing prepared. So basically, the idea was to make a song start to appear as soon as possible in the improvisational process. In fact, you could say there are elements which I improvised and elements which are more spontaneous composition, because they have structure and melodies, rather than the doodling in improvisation."
In attempting to analyse his work, Bill admits that techniques he has acquired over the years have now become second nature.
"I don't know what it is, it's almost something intangible and hard to quantify in getting sounds to 'work' together — it's partly instinctive and it's partly a matter of experience from trial and error. I've always wanted to get to the stage where I didn't have to actually make a big fuss about going into a studio and making records, or playing the guitar, keyboards or anything. And I really do believe in this idea of putting a lot of work in at the very early stages of a musical life, and then completely unlearning it and forgetting it — letting it sink into the unconscious. So that when you come to the process of making music, it's no more difficult than having a casual conversation with a friend. Rather than thinking 'I am a musician and I have to be artistic about this'."
This 'studio philosophy' comes from Nelson's occasional production role (for The Skids, A Flock Of Seagulls, et al), although he is reluctant to class himself as a producer.
"There's always angst and tension, but in a sense that should happen outside of the actual process of making music itself. Music should flow, like a floodgate opening. And I've found, especially working with younger bands, that when they get in the studio there's always pressure to come up with something — and their sights are set on targets, which are not necessarily musical targets. Sometimes the smallest problem can become an insurmountable mountain, which they can't see round at all."
Crimsworth is an area of land which provided inspiration for both an art installation, created by Rob Ward, and the accompanying music supplied by Bill Nelson. Full of atmosphere, the piece is an ever‑changing ambient backdrop that transfers equally well to CD. Bill describes the commission.
"I visited Rob at his studio and he explained the whole thing to me, and then basically I just got on with it, working to a visual brief, rather than a musical brief. But the whole thing hung around an area of land close to where he lives. It's a very natural area with streams, grass, trees, plants and flowers, and his idea was to cover the walls of a room with a special ceramic paper, which is highly reflective, and then to paint whilst it was hanging. His style is fairly abstract with washes of colour that change as you progress around the room. It was lit in a low‑level way with only one door into this octagonal room. The floor was flooded with water and a gangplank built out into the centre of the room. So to actually view the work, you have to enter by this single entrance, one at a time, and walk out to the middle of the room.
"I based the music on the descriptions he gave to me of this natural area of land. On first impressions people have said that it sounds as if not very much happens in the piece, which is an illusion because actually quite a lot occurs, but it takes a while for it to happen. There are all different intensities throughout the piece and, depending on at what particular point in the music you entered the room, you'd gain a different impression. There are moments of subtlety and times when it's very ecstatic — what I tried to achieve with the music was something that sounded like it was actually organic and alive, and growing but with a different timescale to normal music.
"The water sounds were from a collection of samples I already had for the Emax, and I also used a DX7 and acoustic piano. It was all recorded at different speeds, using a lot of tape manipulation."
"For the construction of the music I used things like the proportions of the room to determine the timescale. Particular measurements — like the length, breadth and height of the room — were broken down, and multiplications of that were used to make a 'map' of the timescale in which certain musical events happen. So everything in the music is related to the physical proportions of the space. That wasn't to be clever, it was just simply to give me some kind of structure to hang the thing on, because I wanted it to feel formless and yet still have some identity to the place."
The structure is in fact based on Bill's understanding of Cabalistic writings; a multi‑level Hebrew system based on the emanations from God to the physical world.
"Whilst the actual time system was based on proportions of the room, the vertical system I based on elements — so I used 'air', 'fire', 'water' and 'earth' as the invisible celestial realm at the top, then the next level was 'apparitions' and lower down was the 'demonic' realm. And I had events happen in each realm vertically — so that there is some kind of structure to it."
Did you have any expectations that the recording would be commercially released?
"Not at the time. It was only originally planned for two exhibitions. But I've had some contact with Voiceprint Records and it seemed like an ideal 'test' for them. It's a fairly difficult piece of music to market, but it's amazing to see how well it's been received."
Bolstered by the success of Crimsworth, Bill plans to release further titles through Voiceprint.
"I've got such a great deal of things recorded at home that I've never released, particularly from 1988 to 1992 — both instrumental and vocal pieces. I also plan to do a limited edition box set; something for the 'anoraks' out there, which I started to compile and couldn't make it fit into a four album box set. So now we're working towards an eight album, two box set — Volumes 1 & 2. If all goes to schedule it will be called My Secret Studio, with a book of prose, drawings, and photography as well. I'm currently compiling the running orders, which is an endless task because I just can't decide."
Considering that these pieces were recorded many years ago and at your home studio, are you not tempted to rework or reinterpret them? Or are you content for them to exist as documents of that period?
"There's always the temptation. But for a start, I only have the F1 [stereo digital] mixes — simply because of finances, I've always re‑recorded over the top of any multitrack stuff. So there's now only the option of re‑recording the tracks, but the material that I'm dealing with is such a product of its moment that to take it and remodel it would be wrong. At the time I thought of many of the pieces as simply demos that could be worked on later, but once 'later' comes around, I listen to it and have no desire to play that music anymore. It just seems to be like a diary entry or a snapshot of that moment.
"The pieces are very rough and full of technical flaws — they're not even fully realised as arrangements, or thought through, but what interests me about them is this real nakedness. It's very honest — it's got all the weaknesses and inconsistencies. There's moments of great profundity and naivety sitting side by side! And I guess, in a very selfish way, it's a self‑analytical process being able to listen back to them. I'm now more able to make a judgment than I was then, but I really do feel that the tracks should stand alone and on their own merit."
And for Bill this was music created within the context of the financial and emotional battles that he was facing at the time.
"I had no other alternatives. If someone had put a budget in front of me to go and do a serious album, I would have probably made some entirely different music. But the limitations of the home studio, the time limitations and the personal conflicts that I was going through at the time, dictated what happened. And it's interesting because of that honesty — the music is a product of a real situation.
There can be no underestimation of the crushing effect that poor management has had on Bill's life. Financial irregularities and exploitation left him fighting for control of his back catalogue and subsequently the breakdown of his 18‑year‑old marriage. All this has inevitably influenced Bill's musical output.
"There is a part of it which is so severe and so disastrous, that I honestly sometimes wonder how I managed to stay sane. Blame can be traced in many directions but I'm still very angry with myself for being so naive about business aspects, even after previous experiences. I still had this desire to trust the person who was in a position of responsibility, looking after my business life. With that trust misplaced, there's bound to be some guilt come back on the person who placed the trust.
"My advice now to anyone in the same situation is that if you suspect the slightest thing, then you're probably right! I don't really want to make it a big issue — it can all come across as so negative. But I'm rebuilding my life from the ground up, in many ways. Not just the business side, but also my personal life. It's been a testing time for me in one way or another, and it's certainly brought into question a lot of values that I used to hold — and that spills over into your music, I guess."
Despite the negativity, there has emerged a positive side to it all. On returning to Tokyo, Bill was reunited with Emeko (who he had met through work with the Yellow Magic Orchestra), with whom he spent almost a year in Japan and finally married.
"What got me out to Japan was Roger Eno's tour, following the release of his album The Familiar (which Bill produced). The record company out there [Polydor] came to see us play and liked this idea of the band, because it was a very strange musical combination and also visually very strange. We looked bizarre — Roger with his fishing hat and the beard he had at the time, and Mayumi [Tachibana] and her Philharmonic frock, Kate St John [ex‑Dream Academy] with her 'English rose' look, and then this black man [Laraaji] dressed in bright orange and playing zithers. So when I came back from Tokyo, the record company put us in the main studio at Real World to do the album Automatic."
Under the collective banner of Channel Light Vessel, the project was heavily performance‑related with tracks being put together as a result of improvisation; to be later reworked with other elements. However, when the final mix was considered unsatisfactory, Bill was invited to apply his rendition to the recordings and noted that, essentially, it wasn't a problem with the mix.
Bill: "The problem was that we hadn't completely realised what we were doing, musically. So I said I would have a go at it, but with the proviso that I could have the freedom to change things musically where they needed to change — and that was given to me.
"So I took the master tapes into Fairview studio, stripped out everything that I didn't think was working and added percussive elements. I also got Kate [St John] to come up and we wrote the lyrics together — she wrote choruses and I wrote verses, without even consulting each other. We just sat there with notebooks, kept the tape running, and went and did it."
For a future project, Bill still wishes to put together a band. He had initially planned it to be an organic venture, but has recently been reconsidering the options and incentives.
"I wondered what it would be like if the music was event‑packed, from moment to moment in a horizontal sense, rather than 'stacked' vertically in terms of layers and textures. Almost like music that has an idea every two bars. Something that would do in real time what it is possible to do with sampling and sequencing, where you can stack up ideas and juxtapose things that are so alien to each other that there's a shock in hearing them together. I remember being entranced by the idea of 'Plunderphonics'; this sort of stealing and plundering of ideas and having no guilty conscience about the theft of sounds and ideas. To absolutely empty the sacredness out of the whole process and make this completely 'brutalist', spiteful music. I suppose it all stems from me being bored by a lot of what's meant to be exciting new music."
Surely there are some new artists that you like?
"It's a cliché — but things like Portishead and Tricky seem to have a little purpose, and have a little genie in there, burbling away, which is quite convincing. Although it can be a bit of a one‑horse trick; an interesting idea that they've stated and that's it. But that's the kind of age we're now in, where things can exist in a fragmentary sense. Be there for one record and then gone forever, because there's no need to say it again.
"So the idea that I'm thinking of is 'maximalism', if you like; speeding that up to an intense degree and maximising the whole thing.
"Maybe I'm a bit of a reactionary in saying that you've got to be able to play an instrument without any 'props', as it were, but a lot of music I hear being made is like that of first‑year art students. They launch right in without the ground being prepared and what you get is a kind of 'pastiche'; an artificial flower that isn't convincing or satisfying.
"In many ways I'm still beginning — after around 40 albums it's still warm‑up time, because for me there's never a sense of satisfaction or achievement."
- AHB System 8 mixing desk.
- Fostex B16 multitrack.
- Akai MPC60 sampling drum machine/sequencer.
- Emu Emax sampler.
- Patrick Eggle Berlin Custom.
- Washburn acoustic.
- Guild X500.
- Viellette Citron Custom.
- Yamaha SG 2000S.
- Eros Bass.
Following the Channel Light Vessel project, Bill Nelson once again returned to Tokyo. Despite not having any personal recording equipment with him, he undertook a number of session and studio roles with, amongst others, Johnny Fingers (ex‑Boomtown Rats), now a Tokyo resident.
"It was very fascinating when I first went there — the whole difference in culture. I'd been to Japan previously, when I worked with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, and had this idealistic view of what Japanese musical life was like. But it had changed in the ensuing 12 years. Also, when you're there for any length of time, you do see the harder side of things."
- With Channel Light Vessel:
All Saints ASCD19
- Bill Nelson:
Crimsworth: Flowers, Stones, Fountains and Flames
All Saints ASCD22
Not many people know this, but the title of your fave hi‑tech music recording magazine was inspired by the Bill Nelson's Red Noise album of the same name.