PLEASE NOTE: The whole article was written and published in this form before the shocking announcement of Nick Talbot’s death.
A psychedelic organ, a tender voice counting in and suddenly we’re right back into a familiar mood. ‘My memories keep me feverish and sane’ sings songwriter Nick Talbot as the gentle acoustic ballad Tunnels opens Flashlight Seasons, the second studio album by his band GRAVENHURST. Has it really been one decade since the initial release? The years wash away, taking us right back to 2004 when everything seemed a bit simpler, musical concepts of the enemy were clearer, the digital world was less complex and music meant more to you in general. Well, of course, that’s always the case when you’re in your early twenties.
Flashlight Seasons might not have been a huge commercial success, but it earned a spot in multiple hearts for his honest music and coherent atmosphere. A manifest for all those who like to outlive their teenage angst in a more melancholic way. It delivered delicate desperation but also spread solace through its dark moments. A much loved contradiction GRAVENHURST kept over the past ten years although Talbot remained the only original member of the project today. But since it’s always been his songs and vision this might not me a problem. Revisiting the past can be a painful experience. What makes one voluntarily want to reflect on these morbid memories?
This week, GRAVENHURST re-release Flashlight Seasons together with the follow-up EP Black Holes In The Sun and a new compilation of previously unreleased tracks from the years 2000 to 2004, all combined with liner notes written by Talbot. ‘It has given me the opportunity to write about these albums;’ tells Talbot NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION in an interview prior to the release. ‘Each one includes an extended essay about them, reflecting back on them.’ he adds. Talbot explains that the whole idea has been in the making for two years, also due to the fact that the follow-up to his most recent longplayer The Ghost In Daylight from 2012, wouldn’t be ready for the time of the anniversary. ‘It’s been a strange and intriguing project,’ confesses Talbot when asked about the whole concept. But it surely is one he highly enjoyed.
When you look back on these songs… what do you see?
I see a younger man, trying out ideas, over-reaching at times. I’m still unsure whether I should have covered HUSKER DÜ’s Diane. I love the song but on the original GRANT HART does the verses as spoken word, thus communicating the casual way in which the murderer decides he could just decide to take the girl on a pleasant night out or rape and murder her instead. It’s harsh, but it communicates the moral blankness of the murderer. But by singing it the way I do, I don’t communicate that and I’m uncomfortable with it.
Has the way you approached music or write songs changed in these past ten years?
This is a very difficult question to answer because I have a bad memory and I’m not someone that understands themselves very well. I don’t really understand the reasons for the things I do. Right now I’m sat listening to Flashlight Seasons in preparation for the shows, and re-learning some very old songs, but it wasn’t until we did the layout for the vinyl LP that I was faced with a page with all of the Flashlight lyrics in one place. It was strange – I started to notice formal patterns in the way I wrote; the rhyme schemes, the syllable structures, that sort of thing. And then of course the content of the lyrics – for the first time I really saw that Flashlight Seasons was a coherent work made by a specific person at specific time. But I can’t say that I know that person any more than I know myself now, and I barely understand myself at all even now. I think I understand myself through my lyrics better than any other way!
How do you see these lyrics in retrospect?
There are some overly-sentimental and mawkish moments on Flashlight that are a bit embarrassing. But I listened back to it on full pelt after reading all the lyrics laid out like that, and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is a pretty fucking good record. I can be proud of this.’ One thing I noticed when looking over my lyrics over the years is – and let’s be completely blunt about this – an obsession with murder. This is present on Flashlight, but comes further and further to the forefront with each record. It’s like a black cloud stalking me. So that hasn’t changed, but it’s been a constant source of inspiration – which sounds like a terrible thing to say! But it has. I’ll be completely honest and say that I’ve been obsessed with the murders committed by Fred and Rose West since the news broke in 1994. I was 16 when the news broke, about the same age as many of the girls they murdered. It’s awful to say, but the spectre of the West’s murders has inspired many of my songs.
It’s this fascination of a morbid and dark theme as murder that might also explain a bit of the album’s fascination. His working routines remained quite coherent over the past years. ‘I keep notebooks of phrases I like’ he explains. ‘When I’m playing around on the guitar and find a chord sequence I like, I’ll just sing phonetic nonsense over it.’ Later in the process Nick Talbot finds fitting vocals inside his notebooks when it comes to the actual songwriting. ‘I often choose song titles first’ he confesses, maybe to have a guideline.
And although some songs might sound a bit more cryptic than others there plenty of memorable lines within Flashlight Seasons and Black Holes In the Sand that stood the test of time. ‘You’re only a stone’s throw from all the violence you buried years ago’ sings Talbot in the chorus of I Turn my Face To The Forest Floor while a gentle beat underlines the song’s urgency. Even if he doesn’t like the ‘murdering fuckhead’ bit in it anymore it helps to give the song a certain urgency and makes it one of the highlights in GRAVENHURST‘s back catalogue.
I think the first track I heard from you really was ‘I Turn My Face To The Forest Floor.’ Tell me a bit about it.
The ‘murdering fuckhead’ was a response to ‘geezer culture’: the lad-mags that made heroes of thugs and celebrated male archetypes I despised; the class tourism of the Brit-Pop period and the concomitant journalism that was only interested in working class people as ‘charismatic’ criminals. It also featured a theme I return to again – that humanity is a cracked vessel; my scepticism regarding attempts to improve humanity because regardless of civilisation we are still animals with an inherent propensity for violence. It’s something I have always felt, and while I consider myself a socialist, I feel that the Left has often been blind to this fact about humans, and needs to be realistic about the limits of progress and improvement.
As we are already at discussing tracks. Tell us about the relationship between ‘Damage I’ and ‘Damage II’…
They are both parts of a fictional story about a girl who may have been a victim of Fred and Rose West. She’s not one of the real victims, she’s composite of several girls who fortunately escaped their clutches. It’s almost ludicrous that I can still find this horrible, morbid, prurient topic a source of inspiration., but Three Fires on The Ghost In Daylight is inspired by a story related to the Wests – the chorus of the song at least, not the verses. The verses are a more generalised story about the repression of toxic memories.
Is revisiting such an important period of time hard? Which emotion wins – melancholia or pride?
Both. I was married back then, but many of the songs had been written before I met my wife. She supported me while I made music and then I later supported her while she set up a crafts business. But the melancholia and pride – like I said above – it wasn’t until I saw all the lyrics typeset and laid out one page that I felt… yeah, this is really good work, this sounds like someone who knows what they want to sound like and has found their sound; found their ‘voice’, so to speak. In both senses actually – I’d found the sound production-wise, and I’d found my singing voice. But my voice has got stronger since then; I can sing louder and lower. If you contrast the vocals on Song Among The Pine on The Western Lands to, say, Fog Round The Figurehead on Flashlight you’ll hear the difference in confidence.
When exchanging words with Talbot you sense quite quickly that he’s a literate journalist, an intelligent mind who knows how to use the right words in the right situation. He chooses the right sentences at the right time and he’s patient. He’s not the fastest when it comes to songwriting but the result is the constant quality of GRAVENHURST‘s albums. Still, he’s also reflecting his own worked. Asked about what he would change about the album in retrospect he answers he would have excluded The Ice Tree. ‘While lyrically it is honest, it’s too sentimental and mawkish,’ Talbot explains. He continues: ‘Also the arrangement for ‘Bluebeard’ isn’t right; I’ve never played it like that since.’ Looking at it from 2014 he would definitely ‘make it more subtle.’ Not much artists tend to be that self-critical, maybe because far too less listen to their own music in retrospect. But that’s also part of the progress.
What advice would 2014’s Nick Talbot give his alter ego from 2004?
Calm down and enjoy yourself more. Smell the fucking roses, And respect the audience more; don’t play songs from a new album they haven’t heard yet (2005’s Fires In Distant Buildings), play the songs on Flashlight and Black Holes which they have come to love and come to hear. I was a contrary twat back then and I should have been more mindful of what the audience wanted. I should have put myself in their place.
Well, you’re definitely going to play a lot of ‘Flashlight Seasons’ on your forthcoming tour as you’re planning to perform the full album live. It’s a bit of a trend as I think a lot of artists are tempted to do this these days, right?
Yes it is a trend, and I think that’s because the fans enjoy it. It wouldn’t have become a trend if the fans didn’t respond to it. We’ll be playing the songs in order, but they won’t sound exactly the same because for a start there are only three of us on stage; me, Claire and Rachel. A couple of the songs have been staples of our live show since 2012, such as Tunnels and Damage II, whereas others we are having to learn from scratch. We need to keep the set to around 45-50 minutes in length so we can have an encore where we play songs from other albums. On the album I used loads and loads of guitar overlays: Fog Round The Figurehead and Hopechapel Hill both have complex electric guitar overlays, but we will be just using acoustic guitar, bass and drums and relying on our voices to fill in the sound, which shouldn’t be a problem as we can do three part harmonies. You’ll have to wait and see!
We talked so much about the past now. What about the future. The last album took you almost five years to make. What about a follow-up to ‘The Ghost In Daylight’?
I’m composing a lot of stuff on a sequencer, synth and drum machines – I’m doing a lot of remixes and an upcoming one (which I can’t reveal yet) will surprise people to the extent to which I love EDM and especially KRAFTWERK and early 1980’s British synthpop like O.M.D and HUMAN LEAGUE. The second Renaissance of bass music in Bristol with the dubstep explosion was really exciting. I grew up going to raves. This has only filtered down into GRAVENHURST very slowly (checkout Islands on The Ghost In Daylight), but the next album will feature very explicitly electronic tracks.
Sounds like an interesting but extreme twist…
I’m also writing on the guitar though, so it will have its fair share of guitar tracks. But I’ve always felt that each album has to be different to the one before, something I said to Warp when I signed; they are all about change and progress. And after doing the HETEROTIC collaboration with Mike Paradinas, I decided that anything that is completely written by me and I sing on is GRAVENHURST, regardless of style. If DAVID BOWIE did an electronic album he wouldn’t use a pseudonym would he? No, so neither will I. I made two post-rock sounding albums and got away with it! So I think those who have an open mind will embrace what comes next. All the chord changes and vocal melodies are still very GRAVENHURST – it’s just the arrangements that are changing,
An electronic future? Nick Talbot makes sure that the idea of GRAVENHURST isn’t a one-way street into the past. It’s an open road even if the street lighting isn’t that good on parts of this path. The acclaimed songwriter gives a hopeful outlook to the future, even if he isn’t that sure if his own music comes from a hopeful place. ‘I suppose the fact that I’ve survived as long as I have in spite of some serious struggles and periods of hopelessness and despair is a source of hope,’ he explains. And in terms of NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION‘s credo he also promises that he’ll never lose his passion for music. Flashlight Seasons has stood the test of time and it will pretty surely continue to do so in the future. You are happily invited to fall for it… again or for the first time.
The 10th anniversary editions of ‘Flashlight Seasons’ and ‘Black Holes In The Sand’ have been released on December the 1st via Warp Records. The reissue also features a compilation album called ‘Offerings: Lost Songs 2000-2004‘, featuring ten previously unreleased songs from GRAVENHURST. It is also available to download on its own. Find more information right here.