Founding member of The Bevis Frond Nick Saloman talks about his latest album, brutalist architecture and time-travelling through music.
Browsing through an impressively extensive discography of The Bevis Frond, one may find that genius loci has been a prevailing motif. Indeed, founder Nick Saloman, a Londoner born and bred, restores the city-scapes through his music. The new album, Little Eden, displays the Ferrier estate on the cover. Although this massive construction was demolished a few years ago, the concrete outlines seem to be tangible. Its reconstructed image feels evocative and emblematic of escapism and the elusive side of reality. “It’s about dreams”, says Saloman in the conversation with Louder Than War.
When meeting Nick Saloman in person, it is hard not to feel captivated by his amiable nature. The owner of a stunning record shop where an astute collector has got his name on all items, Saloman seems to have been an experienced time-traveller. Our small talk briefly revolves around Shirley Collins as Nick mentions that he currently resides in Hastings. His adoration for English folk music can be unmistakably detected in the layers of The Bevis Frond’s edgy guitar riffs inspired by West Coast proto-grunge.
From the very first album, the fantastic Miasma, Nick Saloman has been following a code of conduct which can be summed up by a concise “stay true to yourself” motto. Having launched his DIY-guided Woronzow Records, he guaranteed himself a state of creative freedom. Now signed to Fire Records, a label respecting unique artistic individuality, Saloman pertains his beautiful flow through music.
The new album presents a sequence of twenty songs that vary from intense swirling guitar modulations to soothing balladry. Taken by the auteur, the picture on the cover conceals various layers of meanings which, once unraveled, seem to comprise his vision of modern Britain.
LTW: What is your connection to brutalist architecture?
Nick Saloman: I do like my brutalist architecture, I’m a big fan of the Barbican and places like that. I actually worked on the Barbican building site when I was in my twenties, back in the ’70s. I was there in the heating ducts stores – it didn’t last that long, I was there just under a year, I suppose. It was good money but quite dangerous – people were getting injured etc. You know, in the ’70s, there was no health and safety really. But it was interesting. I like the Barbican, but then I like lots of architecture.
Strangely, brutalism has not been fancied by many.
Well, a lot of the council estate stuff is not particularly beautiful, though the buildings are pretty monumental. In fact, I think, if you look at history, architecture does not really get appreciated for about 70 years. Various brutalist buildings have disappeared. They were knocking down Victorian stuff in the ’60s and then 1930s stuff in the ’80s – every form of architecture is a bit in danger for about 70 years until people started recognising it as worth keeping.
When I was a kid, I grew up in a block of flats in St. John’s Wood, just me and my mum in a two-bedroom flat together in the ’50s and ’60s. It wasn’t brutalist, it was from the 1930s. I have friends who lived in council estates. I think in the ’50s and ’60s, when they were rehoming people from bomb-damaged properties and really bad quality houses, it was seen as a kind of step-up – people wouldn’t look down on council estates. It’s only in subsequent years that maintenance hasn’t been kept up and they have started to become dilapidated – they haven’t been looked after properly. The councils don’t look after them and then they sell them to property developers who turn them into expensive city apartments. That’s the way things are at the moment.
You captured the moment when one of these estates was still there. How long have you been doing photography?
All my life. I’ve got a digital SLR but I don’t really know what I’m doing with it. I just like taking photographs.
The fact that you put a demolished estate on the cover brings up an idea of escapism. Is Little Eden about an alternative reality that most of us crave for?
The cover was meant to be representative of roughly what the album is about – I was thinking about what to do for a sleeve and I took these photographs of the Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke, South London. I was passing by, so I went back with a camera and wandered around. It was just about to be pulled down, and it was quite striking. Actually, the title track is about dreams, about people wanting to change their lives, go somewhere different, being idealistic. I was really thinking about British people who moved to France or Spain who don’t learn the language and don’t assimilate. And then five years on, they come back to England because it hasn’t worked. But then it took broader meaning – it’s about your aspirations and what you want to do with your life and where you wanna go. And often it doesn’t work. It’s about where they were looking to relocate and thinking that this is gonna be a paradise, Garden of Eden or whatever. Then you get there and it’s not what you hoped it to be. That’s what it really was about.
Still, the album sounds soothing.
The songs are perhaps a bit more introspective and a bit more therapeutic than usual. Maybe because I’m getting older and more introspective. But I don’t really think about what I’m writing; I’m sitting with a guitar, humming and singing a few words that might make some sense, a few words come out and then you build a song around it. I’m not planning what I write, I don’t have a title or an idea. It just comes along and if it doesn’t, well, then it doesn’t and if it does – great. But this selection of songs, well, maybe they were a bit more, as you say, soothing.
There is one song – There’s Always Love – that sounds particularly therapeutic.
There’s Always Love is about people being horrible to their partners – why are they horrible? Why waste time having a bad time with someone when you can have a nice time? It has always mystified me, all through my life, when people get together, apparently they’re supposed to love each other but they spend half of the time arguing and end up hating each other – why can’t you just be nice? The song is saying – you’ve tried everything to get this thing to work, why don’t you try one thing that might help it work. Be nice. This one might be a bit personal – my parents, with whom I grew up, didn’t get on well. I remember myself as a 3 or 4-year old kid and all I could hear was my parents arguing, shouting at each other, doors slamming. And then when my dad left when I was 5, it was lovely, it was peaceful. So I kinda had that at the back of my mind. It didn’t really bother me too much, it’s just one of those perennial questions. I’m an old freak, I’m an old hippy, I believe in peace and love, I think it’s a good idea. I still lose my temper, especially when playing football, but generally speaking, I still believe in it. I’d like to see people happy, and I don’t want to see nice buildings pulled down. But once again that’s not necessarily in my head when I write these songs. But I suppose they come out that way because that’s basically how I feel.
In one interview, it was mentioned that you have been an owner of an old Fender guitar and prefer it over other instruments. Was that used on the recent record?
I’ve still got an old Fender – the thing is I started playing the guitar when I was seven. That was in 1960. My dad left us when I was five like I said, but he gave me a guitar when I was sevenn- it was a really old tacky thing from Germany. Anyway, when I was about 19 I had enough money to get myself a decent guitar, so I bought a Fender acoustic. So that’s what I kinda played most of the time but it’s pretty cheap really. So I’ve got a Gibson acoustic and a newer Fender which I also use. I still have the old Fender because I’m sentimental, although the one used for the recording was the newer Fender.
How many people were taking part in the recording of Little Eden?
Just like my early albums, I did this one on my own. It started as demos – I was making demos to give to the guys in the band kinda saying “when we’re allowed to go to the studio together, we’ll do this stuff”. But when they listened to it, they said it was fine already, and I suppose it was. So I did it all on my own. I was playing the guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and vocals. Yeah, I did it all myself except for one track where my drumming wasn’t good enough. So I got a friend, Jan Kincaid, who’s a great drummer, to come and do one track – As I Lay Down To Die.
This song seems to have arisen from the state of acceptance. It still admits the sense of despair that is probably the inevitable stage of the former.
I don’t know, perhaps the song was about a kind of a life force or something like that. As you get old you kinda think about death more often. It was about not wanting to die really. You know it’s inevitable, it’s gonna happen but let’s hope it doesn’t happen too soon. I think that’s what it was about but it’s a bit abstract. Obviously, I don’t want to die but it’s inevitable. I’m OK with it. I don’t want to, but I’m not terrified like I was maybe twenty or thirty years ago. You want to see your kid grow up. The thought of dying when my daughter was eleven was like “Oh no, I’ve gotta get through till she’s grown up and happy”. I’d like to go on as long as possible and do as much as possible but – again – I’m not so terrified of death now, but of course, I don’t fancy it.
There also is a liberating sense of time-travelling in your music.
I always liked older stuff, I was never a prog fan – I started collecting records in the early ’70s, when I was about 19 in 1972. During the late ’60s, when I was 15 or 16, I thought it’s gonna be great when I grow up, I’ll have a car, my own flat etc. But when 1972 came around, all the kinds of music that I liked suddenly finished. You had Genesis, Yes and Gentle Giant and that kind of thing and I never liked it much. So instead of getting into prog, I started collecting old psychedelic records which you could get for 10 pence back then. Then when punk happened, I kinda liked it – I liked the do-it-yourself idea behind it which is always appealing for people like me. I’ve got a cheap guitar – to do prog you need fancy equipment. Punk meant that music went back to ordinary people again. I liked that, I liked two-minute singles, but I always felt a bit sad that the punks thought they should attack hippies because it wasn’t real hippies that they meant – what they really meant was the rich kids who’d come out of public schools in the ’70s.
It was really when I heard Youth of America by The Wipers that my perspective changed. Punky, ten-minute guitar solos – I thought it was perfect. Then I immediately listened to all their albums. I was just totally into that. I also really liked The Damned, especially when Captain Sensible took over on guitar. Machine Gun Etiquette is a brilliant album. When all this happened I had this light bulb feeling “Yeah, I can do something here, I’m acceptable, I’m alright”. When I heard Greg Sage I thought – yeah, this is what I wanna do but a bit more English, folky and melodic. Back then I always felt that I either had to change what I did to be trendy or I wouldn’t get anywhere – then I heard Wipers and Machine Gun Etiquette and thought “No, I’m alright”. It’s okay to do what I want and enjoy myself. That’s what life is about.
The new album Little Eden and other music by The Bevis Frond can be found here.
All words by Irina Shtreis. More writing by Irina can be found in her author’s archive.