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|PHIL SHOENFELT interviewed NIKKI SUDDEN
for BUCKETFULL OF BRAINS (UK), 02/2005
Nikki Sudden and I seem to cross paths every few years or so. The first time was back in 1978 at the old Rock On market stall in Soho where he was, if my memory serves me well, off-loading copies of the Swell Maps first single Read About Seymour. We were both in New York during the early 80’s (though we failed to connect on that occasion), and in the early 1990’s we briefly shared the same UK record label. After I moved to Prague in 1995, I caught Nikki’s show at the Bunker club, a meeting that led to us hanging out and writing some songs together. Nikki somehow organised a recording session in an obscure back-room studio atop a Moravian mountain, and I have an enduring memory of us driving there in my beat up old Škoda that wheezed and over-heated all the way up the winding pass. Later, I was invited to play guitar in Nikki’s band on two German tours: November 1997 and January / February 1998. Both tours were a hell of a lot of fun, though they nearly finished me off – two and three weeks respectively of back-to-back concerts and insanely long drives between gigs. Not to mention the alcohol abuse, the “mad Frau” disease, and a strung out drummer who had to visit the Hauptbahnhof in every city we played in order to get straight for the gig. True rock ‘n’ roll mayhem. Yet each day in the van, as the rest of us groaned and nursed hangovers of varying intensity, Nikki would be updating his tour diary, writing song lyrics or working on his novel-in-progress, Albion Sunrise. I realised then that the guy wasn’t normal. Nothing seemed to distract him from the matter-in-hand, and this all-consuming fervour to just get out there and rock seemed to replace normal human requirements such as food, sleep and relaxation.
Sometime during the November tour, Nikki’s brother Epic Soundtracks died in unexplained circumstances. His body wasn’t discovered until later, and between the two tours Nikki had to fly back to the UK to sort through his brother’s possessions in the West Hampstead flat where the death had taken place. I can only imagine how gruesome and gruelling that must have been. So the second tour started off under the shadow of this sad event, and we were all a little apprehensive about how Nikki would bear up under the emotional pressure. A couple of times he did seem close to losing it. But then the iron will and sense of mission would kick back in, and whether there were twenty people in the audience or three hundred it made no difference. Nikki would give it his all each night, as if we were playing some huge rock ‘n’ roll arena instead of a Kulturhaus in another hick German town. At the end of the tour we went into a Berlin studio and recorded a full length album, Golden Vanity, though this recording is probably too fucked up to ever see the light of day. Finally, we flew down to Athens with my Czech band to play the AN Club, a concert that at several points threatened to cross the line into full-blown anarchy.
As I crawled back to Prague to recover, Nikki flew on to
Berlin to continue the next part of his never-ending tour. I imagine that he continues to
live his life at this souped up pace, and though we’ve played together a few times
since, nothing has matched the intensity of those two German tours. In one sense I feel I
know him very well, but in another sense the guy is an enigma. What follows can maybe cast
a little light on this unique British rocker who sees no contradiction between the
quintessential Englishness of Agatha Christie and the manic energy of US rock ‘n rollers
such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
First of all I’d like to ask what motivates you. You’ve been making music for nigh on thirty years now, with varying levels of commercial success and critical acclaim, yet it’s obvious from your punishing workload that you’re as involved in the game as ever. Is it the music itself that fascinates you, or the mythology and glamour of the Rock & Roll lifestyle? Or is it sheer bloody-mindedness, a desire to keep alive the ‘indie ethic’ while refusing to bow to the dictates of the music biz?
Epic and I started playing at Easter 1972 and I haven’t stopped since. Swell Maps broke up around Easter 1980 and I’d never played with anyone else. At 23 I thought I was too old to ever do anything in music again. It seems I was wrong. I’ve never seen myself as part of the ‘indie’ scene. In fact, I hate the word ‘indie’. If anything, I’m part of the underground. And I wouldn’t say my workload is punishing. In a good year I play just over a hundred gigs – half with the band and the rest solo. That’s one every three days or so. I like to go in the studio at least one day every month. I’d like to go back to making an album every year and a single every few months. I’d love to play two hundred shows, record an album and four singles every year. That would be glorious!
What motivates me? I write songs because I love creating. I can’t do anything practical – I put up one shelf in my life – but I am a good songwriter and I can bluff my way on guitar. When I’ve written a good song I sleep exceptionally well. When you’ve played or when you’re playing a great gig, it’s the best feeling on earth. Playing rock’n roll is one of the few things you can do on this earth these days that makes you feel alive. In the same way as being a fighter pilot in the First or Second World War must have been exhilarating, so with being a musician!
Your musical career seems to be run on the lines of a one man cottage industry, with a phenomenal amount of official releases, reissues, limited editions, collaborations, compilations and now, apparently, film work and books. How on earth do you keep track of what you’re doing?
It’s just what I do. I always think I haven’t done much with my life. I’ve made 22 albums, but it’s not that much, is it? When my autobiography is done, it will be the first book I’ve managed to finish. Writers really impress me. I’ve started three or four books and they’re all half finished. I keep my discography up to date. I try to keep the best Nikki Sudden / Swell Maps / Jacobites / Epic Soundtracks archive possible. If I were more popular or wealthier others would do it for me, but as I’m not I have to do it myself.
As well as looking after my own career I also oversee my brother’s estate. Since his death, I’ve organised the release of two albums. There will be more. As a joint undertaking with Richard Earl and Jowe Head, I also deal with the Swell Maps’ back catalogue. Even though we broke up a quarter of a century ago the records still sell, and reissues take a while to put together properly. Then there is the Jacobites. Dave Kusworth and myself have new songs to write, new records to make and new tours to play. I have so many songs that keep on pouring out, but I never have the money to record all of them. At the moment I don’t even have a cassette machine or anything to record new ideas on. I write the words and chords down, and the rest is in my memory.
Swell Maps could be described as a template for the English ‘art-punk’ bands that came later. Were you and your fellow members conscious innovators, trying to extend the boundaries of popular music? Or was the experimentation done in a more random, playful spirit?
We knew we were good, and despite what is still being written about us we could actually play. Listen to the records and you’ll hear that we had a very good idea of what we were doing. Epic and I came to regret all the in-jokes we put about, but the music still stands up. I’m very proud of what we achieved with our two albums and four singles. We weren’t ‘conscious innovators’ though. We just did what we did.
Why did Swell Maps split up right when you seemed to be peaking? Did you feel that you’d taken the experimentation as far as you could, or was there internal dissent in the band?
Read About Seymour came out mid-January 1978 and sold around 1,000 copies in the first nine months. Then we did a Peel session and sold the remaining 1,200 in the next week. We used the money from the sales and from the BBC to finance the recording of our first album, A Trip To Marineville. It was subsequently re-released and like all our singles and albums went to number one in the Independent charts. The singles and the albums sold around 30,000 copies each at the time and continue to sell today. Our last show was in Vignola, Italy on April 5th 1980. I was never sure why the band finished. We were supposed to tour the States, tour Europe – play some big festivals. Our fifth single was guaranteed to go into the top forty! It seemed a ridiculous move. It wasn’t until over twenty years had passed that I actually found out why we split. A month after my brother’s funeral, Richard Earl came to visit me in WSRS Studio. We hadn’t seen each other for fifteen years, but it seemed as if only a day had gone by. We were sitting and talking, trying to catch up. The conversation moved back to Swell Maps and I said, “I always thought it strange that we stopped when we had so much stuff about to happen.” Richard replied, “That was why! We were scared that it was becoming too big!” I was pretty incredulous. “But that would have been brilliant. It’s what we always wanted…” He looked at me for a few seconds and then said, “That was what you wanted. It was too much for the rest of us…”
At the time my brother stated the reason for the band’s break up thus: “Nikki was getting even more into the Johnny Thunders / Stones kind of thing, which the band could cope with to a certain extent. But in the end it was too much and the three of us decided to leave, so the group ceased to exist. I think we achieved quite a lot in the band… It all collapsed on a personal level. We had gone about as far as we could. Nikki wanted to pursue a direction which no one else wanted to follow. Also, we were quite young but had been together a long time – if not in terms of records, in least in years.* ” Eight years is a long time when you’re only twenty years old.
I was also capable of evading the truth. “Three members decided that they had come to the point where they no longer enjoyed what they were doing and the best thing would be to split up. I was informed of their decision afterwards. At that time I was quite happy with the band. You could see that there were certain problems, but I really don’t think that bands should split up because of them. That’s just running away from what’s wrong, as opposed to trying to do something about it. It just seems such a waste to me because the last gig we did in Italy was absolutely brilliant and perhaps the best we’d ever played. During the tour we were getting better every night and it seems stupid to have ended there… I suppose that I wanted Swell Maps to be just the way I wanted, but there were four of us and everything we did was intended to be what all four of us wanted. I rarely listen to the first album now, and when I do I keep thinking that we should have done it a lot differently… but then we’ve learned to use the studio a lot more. I’m not really that interested in the new album [Jane From Occupied Europe] because it has taken so long to come out, nor with the press reviews. I’ve no real interest in the Swell Maps anymore – we’ve finished and that’s it. I don’t really think it’s up to me to say why we broke up.” **
Epic later revised his initial opinion, writing in the sleeve notes for our American ‘Best Of…’ album, Collision Time Revisited, “We grew up together but we grew apart.”
In retrospect, I think we’d done everything we needed to do. But we should at least have recorded and released the next two singles which I’d already written: Back To The Coast and Waiting For the Siege. A third album could have been a bit tricky as Epic wasn’t into recording songs, preferring to make something up every time we went in the studio. But this was just a passing phase. He told me later that the stuff he was proudest of doing during the 1980’s was the Jacobites stuff and my album, “Texas”. We ended up playing roughly the same kind of music…
After Swell Maps split in 1980, you disappeared to New York and returned to England as the embodiment of white trash Rock & Roll. The music on the next two albums, Waiting For Egypt and The Bible Belt, is completely different to anything Swell Maps produced. No more weird sonic signals from the midget submarine, but instead classic song structures, rock ‘n’ roll riffs and even guitar solos. What happened? Did you do a Robert Johnson and sell your soul to the Devil in Downtown Manhattan? Was the Devil’s name Johnny Thunders?
Waiting On Egypt is a transitional album. Half of the songs were unused Maps’ tracks. Two of the numbers are Maps’ backing tracks. New York was a finished Maps’ mix. The last track, All The Gold, showed the way I was going. I went to New York for a couple of months, but only stayed for a fortnight. I met and hung out with Johnny Thunders but actually wrote very little there. I did come up with some songs but nothing I’ve ever recorded. And Johnny never tuned my guitar for me!
My first love was T.Rex and I’ve never stopped listening to them. I saw Mott The Hoople, Humble Pie, Zeppelin, Curved Air and many other bands. I bought Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan and Howling Wolf albums alongside Slade, Bowie and Gary Glitter. When punk came along I did the same as much of the population and rejected all the old bands… but only for a short while. Two months later I was back listening to the Stones and Co. alongside Generation X, The Boys, The Adverts, The Lurkers, the Pistols and The Clash. I never stopped listening to T.Rex, Johnny Thunders, Fairport, etc. Soon after, I discovered Sun Records. I always look back and in so doing I’ve never looked back. One night in Hamburg, in 1986, the Devil made his offer to me – success on my own terms. It would be interesting to see how he would have kept his side of the bargain, but the price I would have had to pay would have been too great. I rejected the deal.
In 1983 you and Dave Kusworth teamed up to form the first version of the now legendary Jacobites. After producing two albums – Jacobites and the classic Robespierre’s Velvet Basement – the band became something of a cult in Germany, then split in 1986. You reformed with a different line-up in 1993, and have recorded several albums since. How is your relationship with Dave these days, and are you intending to do another Jacobites album? Do you still feel the old magic is there?
Dave and I fit together perfectly, we complement each other. When we sit down and pull out a couple of guitars it’s so easy and so pure. In the past eighteen months we’ve played in Sweden, Norway, Russia, The Ukraine, Austria and Germany. We play a couple of shows in Greece this March. We’ve got plenty of songs for a new Jacobites album and plan to do one this year. We recorded three LPs in the 1980s, three in the 1990s so this decade should see another trio of releases. Dave is three years younger than me, but we both come from the early seventies. That was when we began to really listen to and love music. We have the same influences, the same loves. Surprisingly, I write more of the rockers than Dave does. We’re a good team.
This question may be a bit painful for you to answer and concerns the untimely death of your brother Epic Soundtracks. What are your thoughts about him and his music more than seven years on? Do you think he’ll get the recognition he deserves one day?
I believe that everyone receives the respect that is their due in the end. I just wish Epic hadn’t had to die before it came his way. He still isn’t recognised as being one of England’s best ever songwriters. All these young charlatans come along and are toasted as being the greatest thing since sliced bread, but show a journalist real talent and he’ll never realise it. I’ll never understand why my brother’s genius wasn’t recognised during his lifetime, or why it still isn’t.
His death was such a tragic waste. He had so many great
songs still to write. So many years yet to live. So many dreams to still dream. He cried
too many tears in his life. We don’t know why he died, but if he died of anything he
died from a broken heart. He always took a lifetime to get over breaking up with a girl.
You have the reputation of being something of a ladies’ man, as well as a certain notoriety for indulging in other forms of Rock & Roll excess. Does all this debauchery simply go with the territory, or do you draw active inspiration from living life on the edge?
Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – it’s a cliché, but it’s also a truth. They go hand in hand. Am I notorious for this lifestyle? I thought I kept it pretty well covered up! You draw inspiration from everything that you go through and obviously girls and drugs fill a big part of this. I’ve been told that I’m incredibly charming, and one should always be charming to ladies. You can’t write songs about girls if you’ve never known any. I like talking with girls because they often have more to say than men… I like girls… and they seem to like me! Going back to the WWI / WW2 pilot analogy – the closer you live to the edge of things, the closer you are to being alive, to being really alive. I take drugs for inspiration because they take you down roads you wouldn’t otherwise tread.
Many people who follow this path end up as casualties, but as deep into chaos as you sometimes go you manage to stay active and on top of things. Is it simply a case of having a strong physical constitution, or would you put it down to mental discipline, something that was maybe instilled in you as a child?
My family have always been very stubborn, but in a positive way. I do seem to have a very strong constitution, but I also don’t take or do anything unless I think I can handle it. I won’t start something unless I can either finish it or stop!
You are quoted as saying that your favourite band is The Rolling Stones. No surprises there. But you also say that your favourite authors are Capt. W.E. Johns, Leslie Charteris, Baroness Orczy and Alastair MacLean, amongst others. Most songwriters, when they talk about literary influences, mention poets such as Rimbaud, Verlaine or Baudelaire. You seem to be obsessed with boys’ adventure stories such as Biggles. Where is the invisible thread that links Simon Templar to Johnny Thunders and Keith Richards?
Bernard Cornwell cannot be left out of the equation these days. He is my favourite living writer. I also read Simon Scarrow and James L. Nelson. I love reading and I like good writers. I’ve never read much Rimbaud or the others you mention. I like Bob Dylan’s writing. I like writers who can take you with them; when you realise that a few seconds before you were sailing with Calico Jack Rackham, Mary Read and Anne Bonny on The Pretty Anne, the Jolly Roger hoisted aloft. That you were in an Indian village with the scent of spice and decay all around, and with musket balls flying past. I like historical adventure stories, school stories (Greyfriars, St. Jims, etc.). prisoner of war escape stories. I always have and always will. I also like Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. I like reading about the way the world was. The present is too real and needs to be pushed aside whenever possible. I like reading about times when the world was a purer place – purer, yet more corrupt – when men would die for their dignity or for a woman. When things were as they ought to be.
As for the link between Simon Templar and Johnny Thunders, between Douglas Bader and Keith Richards… Well, if you don’t already know it then you never will. But of course, you do…
Sticking with the literary theme, I hear that the Italian publishing company Fazi is going to publish your autobiography soon. I’ve also read some excerpts from the book you are writing about Ron Wood. Can you tell me something more about these two projects, how they came about and how they’re progressing? Did you ever manage to get that elusive interview with Ron?
Fazi commissioned me to write 80,000 words. I’ve done 175,000 so far and the book still isn’t finished. My deadline was the end of January but that has come and gone. The book will be published – first in Italian – this autumn.
The Ronnie Wood book is half finished. It’s about Woody leaving the Faces and Mick Taylor leaving the Stones. I’ve always been fascinated with Ron’s first solo record, I’ve Got My Own Album To Do and the way it came together and facilitated his joining the Stones. The book won’t be finished until I’ve interviewed Ronnie. Then I have to talk to Mick J, to Keith, to Rod and to everyone else involved. This is another reason I should be more successful. If Ryan Adams wanted an interview with Ron Wood there would be no problem…. But Nikki Sudden! They don’t know who the hell I am. They should do, but they don’t!
How did the Mika Kaurismäki connection come about? I hear he’s using several of your songs on the soundtrack of Honey Baby. And what about the new Wim Wenders film Egoshooter? You’re actually going to play yourself in this movie, which will certainly be a hard act to follow! Can you give me a quick synopsis of what the film is about?
The Honey Baby soundtrack was put
together over a year ago. The premiere was in Helsinki this January. I met Mika
With Egoshooter I was asked to come to Cologne for my sequence. I asked them what they wanted me to wear – my gold brocade suit as featured on the cover of my ‘Best Of’ set, The Last Bandit. Then I asked what kind of character they wanted me to play. The producer, Oliver Schwabe, said he wanted me to play Nikki Sudden. I said I should be able to handle that! I took my guitar and ended up being filmed for five hours in a freezing subway. I had to play solo versions of Back To The Coast and Angels In My Arms. I had my first speaking role. I had to ask Tom, the main character, for a light for my cigarette.
Dave Kusworth and I played two drunk buskers on a train in the film Unter Der Milchstrasse (blink and you’ll miss us…). My second appearance was as a drunk at a bar in the Ben Becker / Birol Unsel film, Planet Alex. At least I’m not getting typecast any more!
Treasure Island, your latest CD, was a self-financed labour of love that utilised the talents of such luminaries as Mick Taylor, Ian McLagan and BJ Cole. Not to mention the twenty piece female choir. Was it a conscious decision on your part to go totally independent and release the album on your own Rookwood label?
I sent rough mixes of four tracks to Glitterhouse a couple of years back to see if they were interested in releasing the album. The message came back, “Thanks, but no thanks…” I could have searched for a label, but I’d already paid for all the recording, the artwork, the photos, the musicians. I’d ploughed everything into the album, so it made sense to release the European edition on my own label. That way I stand to make 100% of the profits! Secretly Canadian wanted the LP for the whole world, but the advance they offered was so paltry that there seemed little point. I let them have it for the States – America is too far away for me to organise things myself. Munster did the limited edition double vinyl pressing. Lain Records was set up to release Treasure Island in Italy and the Balkans. I negotiated the deals with the help of Dr. Johannes Delmere, my rock’n roll lawyer. Rookwood will be releasing Dave Kusworth’s new album and some others besides. Though I initially set it up for my own releases, if I can help out various friends then I will.
John Rivers and I co-produced Treasure Island. He put in a lot of time and ideas. When we came to mix the tracks I’d play him a track by Humble Pie or Free or T.Rex or Led Zeppelin and say, “I want it to sound like this.” John pulled the rabbit out of the hat each time. We make a good team. We first worked together on 28 December 1978 when Swell Maps started recording A Trip To Marineville. I’ve worked in other studios but I always return to John and WSRS. When I record in other studios I always get John to either mix or to remaster the tracks before they’re released.
The twenty-piece choir was actually four girls quintuple tracked. It worked quite well. The studio would have been a bit crowded with twenty chicks simultaneously showing off their lungs! When the girls first turned up, we thought it was going to be a waste of time. They were all either fourteen or fifteen, and between each line all that could be heard was constant giggling. Marie-Thérèse McCormack arrived after we’d recorded When The Lord / Never Let Me Go and took control for Fall Any Further. If she’d been there for the first two songs the results would have sounded even better. The teenage chicks looked up to her and their performances improved. She was some kind of cosmic choir-mistress.
I already have the team together for the next album. The Last Bandits (John Barry – bass; Stephane Doucerain – drums; Darrell Bath – guitar; Terry Miles – piano & Hammond) plus Marie on backing vocals. There’ll be some guests again. The last thing Mick Taylor said to me was, “Any time you want me to play just give a call.”
For me, the song that defines you most is The Road Goes On Forever from Egyptian Roads. It’s almost like a My Way for a lost generation of indie kids. Can you imagine a time when you’ll be content to sit back in your rocking chair and dream about past glories? Or will you be like John Lee Hooker and continue to play as long as you can still get up and boogie?
It’s strange you pick up on The Road Goes On Forever because it was actually based on a song from The Hobbit. Bilbo sings: Roads go ever ever on / over rock and under tree… Tolkien has long been one of my favourite writers – very influential to anyone interested in the English language. I sing:
The road goes on forever
I’m just looking for adventure – and that’s not a bad thing to seek. I should reintroduce the song into the set. Egyptian Roads was an obscure – Czech Republic only – release. Not that many people know the album.
The idea of sitting and dreaming about past glories seems rather bleak if there’s no hope of future glories coming along. I’ll be playing until the day I drop. My family have good long lives, and I plan to have one too.
Many fans of independent music regard you as something of a cult, an iconic figure. Are you happy with this role, or do you secretly yearn for mass adulation?
One always yearns for mass adulation. You want the songs you write to be heard by the whole world, though it’s better by far to be a cult figure than to be unrecognised. But I want more and I’ve always wanted more. To keep being creative you have to retain the childlike naïveté that keeps you always searching, always looking for fresh adventure.
What’s next on the musical agenda? I hear you have a 40 date American tour in the offing. Tell me more…
40 shows in America. That’s the plan… the tour was supposed to be taking place this spring but has since been re-scheduled for the summer. Since I’ve been on Secretly Canadian I’ve played some solo US shows but no band gigs. It’s a very strange situation. The Gods are conspiring against me! But Dave Kusworth and I will be playing the first Greek Jacobites’ shows soon. The Last Bandits and yours truly are also playing Germany / Austria / Spain / Norway and many other countries.
I’m producing the first album by a Norwegian musician, Einar Stenseng. And doing tracks for forthcoming Ronnie Wood and Stiv Bators tribute albums. In the past few months I’ve recorded songs for Rowland Howard, Television Personalities and Fuzztones’ tribute sets.
We’ll start recording the next album as soon as possible. I already have a shortlist of around eighty songs drawn up. With Treasure Island I had forty / fifty numbers, this time even more. The photo on the back cover of the Treasure Island booklet says it all. The look in my eyes is like… “So, you think this one’s good, kids? Just wait till you hear the next one! I have the title and the cover concept, I’ve got the songs, I’ve got the musicians. The world is at my feet!
Nikki Sudden interviewed by Phil Shoenfelt for "Bucketfull Of Brains", January / February 2005.
*Interview by David Nichols - Distant Violins No. 2 - August