First off, congratulations on the new album. When I found out about this interview I grabbed it back from the intended reviewer and have been listening to it regularly for the past week. It reminds me of Ian Broudie’s fantastic (but terribly overlooked) solo album ‘Tales Told’.
Thanks for the kudos Nils – in fact, I’ve been compared to The Lightning Seeds’ earlier stuff before & I’ve always admired Ian’s gift for writing strong melodies.
The obvious first question is the title: ‘Outside Looking In’. Is this how you feel at the moment? On a personal level, on a professional level?
Having had quite a peripatetic existence over the last couple of years, I do at times feel more like an observer rather than a participant. I encountered this less in France where the pace is generally slower and the people less parochial – hard to believe that out in rural Gaul. I’m quite happy with the way things are turning out for me in England, especially as far as my fledgling music career is concerned, but personally I guess I’ll always be seen as an interloper. They say it can take a few generations to be accepted out in the English countryside….and I was born here for God’s sake! In fact, the title Outside Looking In is really my state of frustration of silently observing situations steamrolling out of control across the world and realising how little I can do to influence the inevitable outcomes.
You were born in the UK but had your success with music in South Africa. Did your work with the Helicopters give you any clout in the SA industry? And, consequently, has it been more difficult cracking the UK market?
I was five years old when I arrived in SA so I’ve always seen myself as a South African musician, although my musical roots are intrinsically Brit pop/rock. Being a Vereeniging-based band and having a debut mega-hit single (Mysteries & Jealousy) took the industry by total surprise. Although I was fêted by journalists and A&R types, it was still very much a ‘closed shop’ as far as the greater industry was concerned. I guess our love for catchy unadulterated pop and affiliation with UK New Wave didn’t bode well with the lefty Jo’burg Jamiesons set and the Cape Town Crossover Crew. However, when we continued to have more and more hit singles, became TV staples and filled concert stadiums from Potgieterus to Pofadder, you’d be surprised at the amount of industry sycophants who came out of the woodwork.
As far as the UK is concerned, I’ve always been excited, but realistic about debuting here and initially took a tabula rasa tack. However, people here are really keen to know about my past success in SA and this has definitely put me in good stead from a credibility point of view.
Are you happy you left South Africa? Why did you leave? Have you received any criticism for it (the usual “turning your back on the country” story)?
I was spending more and more time in the UK with my marcoms company and it made sense to open an office here to take advantage of business opportunities, both locally and on the continent. Having lived in Jo’burg for years and becoming increasingly bored with the city, it also made perfect sense to live somewhere else and grow personally. Yes, I must admit electric fences, daily hijackings and escalating violence played a role in my decision but I’ve had no criticism (to my knowledge) of my ‘turning my back’ on the country. As you’re aware, I’m also in the process of rolling out a PR/marketing campaign in SA for the release of the new album – apparently airplay is picking up nicely and I’ve done quite a few radio interviews so far which have all been very positive.
How does the situation there compare to SA? Is it easier to support yourself as a musician? I imagine with SA’s smaller market it must be easier to get noticed, whereas in the UK there are literally thousands of bands you’re competing with.
I suppose it’s quite comparable statistically taking into account the size of the population and the amount of radio & TV stations and venues. While the national charts are generally dominated by extremely young acts (20 is seen as ancient in the mainstream pop fraternity and there seems to be a never-ending supply of them), there are loads of regional and alternative radio stations who play other genres spanning hip-hop to prog to thrash and a huge amount of venues and festivals that feature more ‘mature’ acts. But the competition is enormous and one has to work really hard – or be a tabloid-fodder-crackhead à la Pete Doherty – to be noticed. I must admit though that people here to tend to be much more accepting of older musicians and even some of the lesser-known acts from the 60s, 70s and 80s still have strong followings and sell out shows regularly.
Because it’s so extremely cut-throat, one has to try and devise ways of getting heard, even if it means pushing for success on more regional and Net-based radio stations. Being ‘indie’ is cool and potentially very lucrative but it takes a lot longer than a major signing. Having said that, my music’s slowly being picked up by some of the more obscure, regional and Net-based radio stations so hopefully it will eventually permeate the mainstream and I’ll have chart success in due course – I’m quite confident I will if I stick to what I’m doing and am not swayed by trends.
Did you notice any major changes in the UK when you returned after 20+ years away?
Having been to the UK regularly over the years, the most evident is the huge increase in road traffic, the often horrific service levels (especially in the hospitality industry), the dwindling state of restaurant food (despite the Island having some of the world’s best produce), the total obsession with celebrity, the total obsession with DIY house renovations (due to the plethora of property porn TV channels), the increase in yobo culture and the demise of the quintessential English High Street shopping experience – the chain stores now almost totally dominate the landscape.
On the positive side, entertainment & the arts are incredible, the countryside is generally very well maintained and still enchanting, cheaper and cheaper flights to Europe & the States (CO2 emissions permitting), the British sense of humour just gets better (the tabloids really are hilarious) and despite the spate of terror attacks, one feels quite safe on the Island. Oh, and the beer tastes somewhat better.
Did your surroundings in “Druidland” influence your new songs in any way?
I must admit the area around here can have a stange effect on you (and it’s not the local cider talking). I live in a tiny village between Avebury and Stonehenge which has the most incredible history – Saxon graves, Ley Lines, Roman roads and crop circles abound. There are also forests with trees thought to be over 1000 years old. When I was recording at NAM Studios in the nearby village of Holt, I would travel the back roads through some very magical, but somewhat sinister-looking areas which gave me the idea for the song A36 – which is about reconnecting with nature. Also, the fact that Julian Cope, Sting, Midge Ure, Reg Presley (of The Troggs & Wild Thing fame), et al all live around here explains a lot.
Do you consider music to be a job (something that pays the bills), or a personal outlet? Or is it something else entirely?
It would be great if it became my major source of income so I could spend more time in the studio and have the time to experiment with other types of music and maybe get more involved on the production side.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Lounging around and listening to music while gulping down Cristal champagne and freshly shipped-in Nova Scotia lobster. Well more like maintaining a company, travelling, promoting the album, gardening, housework…..and quaffing lots of good red wine, the occasional concert and the odd bit of metal detecting!
Which of your songs are you most proud of? Why?
Apart from Mysteries & Jealousy which started the whole thing off, I think structurally a song called Love Breaks Down from the last Helicopters album What Affair, Canada Moon on my first solo album Physiognomy of the Soul featuring Bruce Cassidy, the amazing horn player from the 70s band Blood, Sweat & Tears and Los Glaciares from Outside Looking In, my first attempt at a latino-flavoured song which I think turned out rather well.
You spent much of the ’90s working on your marketing-communications agency. Why did you opt for this instead of starting a new band? Why did The Helicopters split up?
I needed another creative outlet and a challenge after disbanding The Helicopters and it turned out to be a very good move indeed. I always realised that the band would have a finite run as such. I’d been on the road with The Helicopters for years and I think musically I’d achieved much of what I’d set out to do within the confines of a pop band – I balked at the thought of spending the next decade re-hashing old stuff or worse – which sadly happens to many musicians – having to resort to being a cover band to make ends meet. I guess that the frustration from being excluded musically from the international community due to the country’s pariah status prior to 1994 also contributed to the band’s demise – we were restricted to touring SA and Namibia. Yup, M&J enjoyed a three-month run at the top of the Namibian charts.
During those marketing years, did you continue writing or making music on the side? Do you find yourself getting frustrated or irritated if you don’t write music for a while?
I was constantly dabbling with the odd bit of songwriting and having the odd jam or gig with friends. But it was only towards the end of the 90’s when I realised that I missed writing and recording too much to leave it alone any longer. Thus, my collaboration with an old acquaintance, Adrian Levi from the 80s band Ellemental which resulted in my first solo album. I must admit I get totally engrossed in the whole album-making process so once I’ve finished I can’t bear to listen to it for some months afterwards. It’s only now that I’m actually enjoying what I did on Outside Looking In. It’s not a question of overt narcissism or whatever, it’s a case of coming to terms with the final product – warts at all, as many musicians are hyper-critical and hear all the recording ‘glitches’ unknown to most listeners. It’s still early days with the new album but I’m already itching to get back into the studio.
What prompted you to go back to music full-time and record your first solo album? Were you satisfied with the response it got?
It was not a return to music full-time as such as I was still involved with the marcoms company in SA and had just started up the UK operation. Physiognomy generally got good reviews locally and internationally with the single Soul Girl receiving quite a lot of airtime. Getting back into recording (and the odd gig) was extremely therapeutic and once again made me realise what I really loved doing.
After leaving SA, you spent a brief time in France. Why? And what did you get up to there?
We decided to take our Dobermann with us to the UK but were reluctant to go the quarantine route. Thus, an amazing – if somewhat gastronomic-red-wined – six month spell in the French countryside. One hell of an expensive canine, what? He sadly passed away earlier this year after a long struggle with lymph sarcoma.
What are you currently up to? Promoting the album? Playing live? Recording new material?
Busy doing a regional (Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon & Cornwall) album promo campaign and if successful, will extend it across the UK. This includes interviews with newspapers and radio stations, distribution, plugging, maintaining my music sites, etc. I’m also looking at playing live soon which will help enormously with getting onto festivals, generating more airplay and sales.
A FEW QUICK QUESTIONS
What’s the best thing about South Africa?
Boerewors, the weather and Mountain Sanctuary Park in the Magaliesberg.
And the worst?
What’s your strongest memory (good or bad) of your time with The Helicopters?
Moi falling through the stage at a gig in Swakopmund – the band laughed so much they actually stopped playing.
What’s the most embarrassing CD in your collection?
Patricia Lewis’ debut album – I wrote one of the tracks!!!
What’s the one song you wish you’d written?
Woman in Chains by Tears for Fears
Where could I find the best beer in your area?