With his third solo album, Words Fail Me, being released imminently by Esoteric Antenna, TPA’s Phil Lively spoke to Nick Beggs about Chapman Stick and music and the new album and lots of things… and it went like this:
PHIL: This is Phil.
NICK: Phil Who?
PHIL: Phil Lively.
NICK: Oh, Phil Lively! I love Phil Lively, he’s a good lad.
PHIL: So, Matt from Cherry Red gave me your number and said I should talk with you.
NICK: Ah, you’re calling me about the interview!
NICK: See, I love it when that happens!
PHIL: I asked Matt to warn you because I know you have a “special approach” to people who ring you out of the blue. [I urge you to search YouTube and watch Nick’s cold-caller videos]
NICK: No, don’t worry. I know who you are.
PHIL: (nervously): Oh good, good! I do reviews for an on-line magazine called The Progressive Aspect.
NICK: And have you constructed a review of my new album?
NICK: I’m glad. I’m glad you don’t see it as work.
PHIL: Oh God no! Absolutely not! You get paid for work.
NICK: Hand on heart, and don’t pull any punches, if you think its shit, tell me. What do you think of it?
PHIL: (lamely): I like it. I’m not just saying that because you’re a famous rock star, and I’m some bloke sitting in his office in Kent.
NICK: Don’t be like that, Phil.
(There is some laughing)
PHIL: You and I are of a similar age, so we probably grew up with the same sort of music around us…
NICK: But you sound so youthful.
PHIL: It’s probably a hormone thing. I dunno.
(More laughing and we establish that there’s about 18 months between us)
PHIL: Anyway, I grew up with music all around me, classical from Mum, Big Band Jazz from Dad and progressive rock from my sibling…
NICK: It sounds like musically you had a good Catholic upbringing.
PHIL: Welsh Baptist. But…er… well, I thought it sounded very pretty, but how could it not when Chapman Stick is involved?
NICK: It does have pretty aspects, that’s for sure.
PHIL: I found it made me feel very nostalgic.
NICK: That’s fair, there’s a lot of nostalgia in there.
(I talk rubbish for a couple of minutes and Nick is very patient and we laugh about an observation that my brother made about Kajagoogoo being a closet progressive rock band. Nick confirms that this observation is insightful. Then the conversation turns back around to the Stick and I remember some questions I’d actually prepared)
PHIL: Can I guess how you first came across the Stick?
NICK: Yes, feel free.
PHIL: Was Tony Levin involved?
NICK: Yes, of course!
PHIL: Me too. I play Stick!
NICK: (patiently): Yes, I know.
PHIL: I saw him with Peter Gabriel in nineteen-seventy-something.
NICK: I saw them at Knebworth.
PHIL: (getting all excited because we were at the same festival): YES! I was there!
NICK: Yes? That’s the first time I saw Tony Levin, but it’s not the first time I was introduced to the Stick. I went down to Romford to the bass centre. They were just developing the Trace Elliot system and there were loads of fliers on the counter about the Chapman Stick. I picked it up and I thought ‘what the fuck is this?’, it looked ridiculous and incongruous and it made me laugh, actually… then I saw Tony Levin playing with Gabriel and I thought ‘Ah, now it all makes sense’.
PHIL: It was the stuff of legends, back then, wasn’t it? We weren’t lucky enough to have the Internet yet so you couldn’t really look it up!
NICK: No, that’s right. There wasn’t really very much information about it. You had to just glean (information) from record covers or people’s record collections or what have you. So that’s what I did… I became fascinated with it, but I was forging a career as a bass player and when it became time to make a decision about the band’s future lead singer, the band said to me: “If you become the lead singer of Kajagoogoo we will have a Chapman Stick made for you and you can become the Chapman Stick player and the new lead singer in the same week”.
PHIL: That’s a no-brainer!
NICK: It is, but it’s quite daunting. There was a lot of responsibility. Not only did I have to write and deliver these songs, I had to deliver as the Chapman Stick Player of the new material, but I did it! And I’m really glad I did it, because it sent me off on a new trajectory which I’ve never regretted.
NICK: The first one I ever held was the one I had made for me in California by Emmett [Chapman] where it came out of the box and I started playing it straight away and, more or less, writing on it.
PHIL: How did you have it stringed?
NICK: Standard 10-string with standard tuning. Fourths and fifth, The bass side is fifths.
(A conversation then ensues about different ways to tune the Chapman Stick. We both agree that the low B is a lovely thing)
PHIL: I didn’t find it (Chapman Stick) all that intuitive at first.
NICK: I think if you approach it with the things that you know, play your octaves and your fourths and your intervals and your major and minor scales, you can just apply it to the other instrument. But when it comes to the independence, that’s not very intuitive.
PHIL: I think pianists take to it more quickly than guitarists and bass players.
NICK: Yeah. I’d agree with that, yeah.
PHIL: Listen to us… we’re worse than motorcyclists. Get two bikers together and all they talk about is bikes.
NICK: It’s inevitable.
PHIL: (trying to get back on track with my questions): I spoke to Emmett once. I was cooking a curry and out of the blue he phoned up. One of my friends through Facebook had entered it into a competition with the OHMI Trust (One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust) and gave Emmett my number so he could ask me to give them a demo. Imagine being a keyboard player and Bob Moog phones you up…. (laughs)… anyway, enough of me. Have you met Emmett?
NICK: Oh, many times. And his wife. I go to their house regularly when I’m in L.A. They’re very lovely people.
PHIL: Anyway, (getting back to questions about the album again) one of the questions I had was: Words Fail Me – where did you get the title?
NICK: I’ve spent the last five years writing songs for The Mute Gods project and I wanted to do an instrumental album of cover versions. And I thought that, particularly in the political times we’re in, it would be rather apposite to use that as a title. I mean, “words fail me” is cliché, isn’t it?
PHIL: It’s like a trope.
NICK: It’s like a trope, yeah, and I just thought that it sums up how I feel, and it also says a number of things about instrumental music! The whole album is instrumental so that title and the album went together well.
PHIL: I hadn’t begun to think that it could relate to your view of politics and how the World is going.
NICK: It does. It’s related to my view of the World at this particular time. The Mute Gods is a project where I do vent my anguish at the state of the World and humanity, and in doing so I think I’ve lanced quite a lot of boils. It’s got to the point where I don’t have the words to describe what is actually going on right now.
PHIL: It is astonishing.
NICK: It is. We’re off the map.
PHIL: Yeah. Totally unprecedented behaviour from some of our World leaders.
NICK: Yeah. If you look at the U.K. alone, it’s highlighted a very nasty underbelly of our society. People don’t want facts, they just want to go with their dogma and their bigoted ideas. That’s a disgusting state of affairs. I’m disgusted.
(We go off piste for a bit talking about the human condition)
NICK: I’m very grateful that it’s being released. It’s three albums of material led by one album of new material. two third of it are demos, more or less, and not very well executed, particularly the first album. Stick Insect is very rudimentary and full of errors. Full of recording errors and mistakes. I kind of kept it like that because they have a sort of charm. I was using technology that is obsolete now.
PHIL: But I’ve wallpapered a room and people have come in and said “ooh, that looks nice” but I can see the little crease here and that badly matched bit there… I think you do yourself a disservice. It sounds much better than you think it does.
NICK: Thank you very much! I enjoyed making it. It’s kind of like a diary. It’s good to look back over it and remember it. There are some pieces on there that I’m very proud of and I still play live… I like the electronica aspects of it, and I learned a lot! I was teaching myself a lot; not only how to play the instrument but also how to negotiate these new technologies and record myself and constructing material to suit the instrument. I like to work quickly. I’d rather move on than ponder over things. I like to get it behind me. I’d rather, in some respects, have the mistakes and go “yeah, that could be better but I kinda like aspects of it”.
PHIL: My saxophonist brother has told me not to pull my own stuff apart. It’s a rabbit hole. You’ll never finish. You have to draw a line under it.
NICK: That’s the jazz ethos. That’s the way jazz musicians are trained to think. They have a great roadmap in their heads. Even their mistakes are right.
PHIL: Yeah, I saw a thing… I think it was Guthrie Govan, he said you can do all kinds of nonsense on the guitar but if you finish on the right note it’ll sound like a fantastic solo.
PHIL: Of course, he can say that because he’s GUTHRIE GOVAN! It may not have been Guthrie Govan.
NICK: It’s not a bad ethos. It sounds like Guthrie. He’s very wise. He’s an intellectual.
PHIL: I’ve watched his YouTube videos. You can tell he loves teaching.
NICK: There’s something Zen about Guthrie. He doesn’t drive. He’s very laconic. He has great knowledge and he has a lovely spirit. I love him very much.
PHIL: Yeah! I wish I knew him. (laughs)
NICK: Well, maybe you will!
NICK: You don’t need to explain. I spent a long time trying to escape the shadow of the ‘Goo. During the ’90s I struggled quite a lot. I had a girlfriend called Cynthia at the time and she said to me: “You’re going to be like John Travolta.”
I said: “What d’you mean”, and she said: “Saturday Night Fever to Pulp Fiction. THAT is going to be your career. You are going to be the most un-hip and then you’ll become hip again”.
And I said: “How’s that gonna work, then”?
She told me I had to start writing songs, get out there and you gotta have faith in yourself. So that’s what I did! Well, I don’t know whether I’m hip, but I certainly was able to re-invent myself. But I don’t have the John Travolta pay packet (laughs).
PHIL: I wish you all the luck in the World with that! Don’t Steve Hackett or Steven Wilson pay you enough? Do you want me to have a word?
NICK: No. I think that the point is it pulled me out from under the shadow of the ‘Goo.
PHIL: So how did Steven Wilson come across you, then?
NICK: Through Steve Hackett. We did the High Voltage festival and Steven Wilson came along and I had a photo taken with him and Fish and Mark Kelly and Steve Hackett. It was kind of… portentous. Steve Hackett invited Steven Wilson to come and play on stage with us and in the same week Steven invited me to play on a few tracks on Grace For Drowning. So we were file sharing and he came over for dinner and we really got on straight away. We sat up all night talking music and watching videos and formed a friendship. I think me and Steve, our cultural reference points are very similar. In some way we are quite alike, strangely. I think that’s why it works. Comedy-wise, music-wise, literature-wise and politically I think we’re right on the same page.
[I sense that Nick thinks I’ll find that unlikely, but I remember his Steven Wilson in Disneyland video. You really need to look that up on YouTube, it’s a doozy.]
PHIL: I’ve seen you guys together a few times now and he makes little quips between tracks. He strikes me as having a deceptively dry sense of humour… Ah! I just found my notes! You asked me what I thought of the new album and my notes say:
“I especially love the baroque and roll Bach track, the Japan song and Midnight Cowboy.”
NICK: Ha, Baroque and roll… Elizabethan folk tunes (chuckles). Ah, Night Porter!
PHIL: I felt I had secretly discovered Japan when all the Progressive rock bands I liked, like Yes and Genesis, had lost their mojo.
NICK (reminds me that they were absolutely huge in their day): They were totally seminal and totally inspirational. They were asked to produce the first Duran Duran album and they turned it down! They are cited as one of the truly inspirational British pop bands. We [I assume he means The ‘Goo] loved them. I love them. Tin Drum is a work of pure genius; a classic, evergreen record. But for some reason I like the less refined Gentlemen Take Polaroids. That piece, Night Porter, and the fact it is in waltz time stayed with me and I thought it would sound really great on Chapman Stick. So, I did an arrangement and I sent it to Richard Barbieri and Dave Sylvian. I didn’t hear anything back from Dave Sylvian, but Barbieri got in contact with me and he said: “I’m doing a show in Birmingham. Do you want to come along and play that with me?”, and I said “Yeah, sure”. We ran through it twice at the soundcheck and then we played it live and it was really lovely.
NICK: Yes. But you can tell it’s him, there are some very big changes. Very sweeping.
PHIL: I think that is one of the ones that registered with me nostalgically.
NICK: I wanted to do the theme from The Railway Children. (He hums it for me)
PHIL: I think you made the right call. Coz Midnight Cowboy…
NICK: …It’s plaintive. Very plaintive.
PHIL: Yeah, without being maudlin. Anyway, I’ve had you on the phone for ages now and you always seem to be… (I mutter some garbled question, along the lines of “…so… do you have spare time? Am I eating into it?”)
NICK: It’s OK. I’m cooking dinner. I’m in what I call my “Gap year”. I’ve only been on the road for three months this year. That’s not really very much for me. The most important things were my two daughters marrying. I wanted to be at home and that coincided with Steve Wilson recording his new album, which meant that he wasn’t going to be on the road. And being here to help my wife because she’s set up a new business. I settle into a bit of a domestic bubble while I’m at home. I’ve got a dog who needs my undivided attention and I like to give him that. So that’s why I’m at home and able to speak to you in a leisurely fashion.
PHIL: That’s lovely! My daughter got married last year and it was wonderful.
PHIL: Thanks. I recorded a version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D on the Stick and it was playing as I walked her up the aisle.
NICK: I used to play it on the Stick too. I had a band called the Ragatelle Quartet. It’s a good piece for the Stick. Don’t you find that the thing about the instrument is that the more you get to know the instrument the easier it is to identify the pieces that are going to work well on it?
PHIL: YES! I have a list of songs I like to work through as a practice routine. (rattles off some song titles). I love the process of working them out. You should check out A Minute To Breathe by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
NICK: I will! I’ll tell you another good one: Waltzing Matilda. It’s a great piece for the Chapman Stick. If you get a chance to learn it, it’s very rewarding.
PHIL: OK! I think you’re right about finding good songs that suit the instrument. You have on your album! Perhaps I listen to it with a slightly different ear because we both play the same weird instrument! Talking of weird, what’s the weirdest answer you’ve given to the inevitable question: “What’s is that thing you’re playing?”
NICK: I sometimes tell people it’s Ectoplasm.
PHIL: (Laughs loudly) And they say “Right, OK”, nod sagely as if they now understand?
PHIL: Oh good. Good, good, good! That’s marvellous. What else can we talk about? That’s a conversation killer isn’t it!? (We chat some more about King Crimson and I tell him my Robert Fripp backstage pound note story). I am going to let you go. Thanks for your time.
NICK: Nice to talk to you Phil. Until next time! Keep on Sticking!
What a splendid chap – and without a shadow of a doubt he is no crazier than me! [EDITOR:…]
You can read Phil’s review of Nick Beggs’ new album Words Fail Me HERE.