Digital technology surely isn’t that evolved at the moment to let us witness specific emotions via written words but there are moments when you wish it would be possible. I never met Nick Talbot in person, our mail exchange a few weeks back was brief but extensive as he agreed to answer a few questions on the just released 10th anniversary edition of Flashlight Seasons, the cult record of his alter ego GRAVENHURST. Being an editor for a music magazine you are facing mail interviews from time to time. They are less personal than the face-to-face ones and the answers don’t allow follow-up questions but sometimes that’s the best you got. The answers I received from Nick Talbot have been the most detailed e-mail-interview I ever received in my not-that-short-running career as a music journalist. Almost five pages of stories, comments and little essays that allowed an insight into the artist’s mind. ‘You’re lucky you got in early,’ he wrote in a little unofficial part at the end. ‘It’s unlikely I’ll answer in this much detail as more interviews come in’ he continued. He wrote about the forthcoming tour, a new GRAVENHURST album and his personal hopes for the future. I sensed a spark in his eyes, although technical not possible. There’ve been excitement and hunger.
Last week Nick Talbot shockingly passed away at the age of 37. The spark went out, reminding us all of the everlasting presence of death and the transience of life itself. The fact that Talbot’s death occurred in the same week of the Flashlight Seasons re-release makes the tragedy even more bittersweet. NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION just published what turned out to be one of his last interviews; I was personally looking forward to his spring tour, seeing that spark and maybe exchange some real words. All these things circle around in your mind and one day later that person is gone.
‘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, and I will never lose my passion for music.’ That’s the answer Nick gave me when asked about whether his music can be seen as hopeful or not. The sound of GRAVENHURST wasn’t a quite optimistic one after all; it has never been. Maybe it’s one reason why the five studio albums of Talbot haven’t gained large commercial success but remained little morbid masterpieces for all the desperate souls in the world who were longing for guidance.
GRAVENHURST‘s songs were anthems for outlaws, introspective beauties driven by the undeniable flaws of the human ways. According to our mail exchange, the themes that interested him were ‘the nature of violence, the inherent corruption of the human condition.’ Talbot furthermore confesses ‘an obsession with murder’ that is sensible throughout all of his work. ‘To understand the killer / I must become the killer‘ was the key line from 2005’s The Velvet Cell. He surely was not into sweet love songs but rather interested in exploring the abysmal depths of human’s nature.
While 2001’s debut Internal Travels remained a still quite vague first attempt to find his own sound 2004’s Flashlight Seasons (and its follow-up EP Black Holes In The Sand) was the real start of whatever GRAVENHURST was originally intended to be. It was a reduced trip into melancholic terrain, a place of darkness somewhere between desolation and relief. Talbot’s voice remained the constant in that unholy equation even if the sound around it changed over the years. Fires In Distant Buildings from 2005 saw Talbot and his fellow musicians Dave Collingwood (drums) and Huw Cooksle (bass) exploring a fuller and more band focussed sound with epic ambitions. Cities Beneath The Sea is a dark monster and the closing track See My Friends unfolds its magic over the course of nine minutes. He was ‘all about change and progress’ – at least that’s what he told Warp Records before signing his long-lasting record contract.
The Western Lands from 2007 saw Talbot treading the path of louder rock sounds even more. Hollow Men, for example, is four minutes of noisy beauty. GRAVENHURST basically recorded a post-rock-album back then and allowed Talbot’s bittersweet lyrics a more disturbing musical environment. Back then, in 2008, Talbot took two years off from recording music to focus on his job as journalist. He was still interested in discovering these cracked vessels and society’s problems but from a different perspective. He met British philosopher John Gray for an interview and remembers the exciting exchange the two had on certain topics about which he also informed me. Talbot explains: ‘John doesn’t believe that the terms ‘Right’ or ‘’Left’ have much meaning anymore, and that the kind of pre-Thatcherite conservatism he was once an exponent of scarcely exists now. So while his ideas of scepticism about social progress are often associated with the Right and conservatism, I feel a great affinity with them, and unless the Left gets to grips with them and understands them, and in particular once again connects with the aspirations of the working classes, it has no future.’ He also adds that he actually is a member of the Labour Party, although quite ‘an extremely dispirited one’ as he tells me.
His final album, The Ghost In Daylight from 2012, saw Talbot stripping down his sound again, mixing it with a few electronic elements. Something he was keen to continue on a potential sixth studio album. A record which he was clearly excited about, I could sense that. A record that will now never happen. The Ghost In Daylight will remain Nick Talbot’s legacy; a beautiful one. The record ends like GRAVENHURST started… with the gentle acoustic lullaby Three Fires, a track that was once again inspired by the murders committed by Fred and Rose West back in 1994. There it is again. The fascination of an unexpected death and the motifs behind murder. Nick Talbot was capable of disguising the despair of these stories into gentle little songs. These songs will remain long after his sad, unexpected and yet still quite mysterious passing. They will remain because they were different, they touched different themes and emotions, GRAVENHURST recorded the beautiful soundtrack to an ugly world. I once had the pleasure of experiencing him live in concert a few years back. I felt blessed back then and now even more. Talbot was one of the most gifted songwriters of the past years because he wasn’t fitting the expectations; he was intelligent and somehow stubborn in his own way. It’s a hard-to-find characterization these days. His music will be a melancholic monument to remind us regularly about the fact that life is not easy. It’s pretty often pretty miserable but that’s OK as long as you got company. Wherever you are Nick, I hope you’re not alone right now.
2001: Internal Travels (Red Square/ Mobstar, re-released on Silent Age Records, 2003)
2002: Gas Mask Days EP (Silent Age Records)
2004: Flashlight Seasons (Warp Records)
2004: Black Holes In The Sand EP (Warp Records)
2005: Fires in Distant Buildings (Warp Records)
2007: The Western Lands (Warp Records)
2012: The Ghost in Daylight (Warp Records)