Nick Harper is something of an enigma. When he’s playing his songs, his passion and emotion are unmistakable. However, when he’s not playing his songs, he’s more than happy to be mistaken for the venue’s barman.
Pete H caught up with Nick at The Talking Heads in Southampton during his ‘Plan 9 From Harperspace’ tour in order to find out all the news…
How are you doing then, all set for tonight?
Yeap, feeling good and looking forward to it as ever.
So when I noticed you sound-checking and you have quite a few peddles up there. Is that something you’ve added to over the years technologically speaking?
Basically, they’re all delays for the vocals and guitar really. There are different settings for different songs going on and then I put it through the computer. It’s quite amazing really how technology has come on because, even five years ago, that would be something no one would do. Except for a few pioneers.
It has gone wrong on me a few times over the last couple of years of course but now it’s all about rock solid reliability and the sound is just fantastic.
That laptop over there [pointing to the stage], I’ve recorded my last two albums on it, updated the website with it, I’ve recorded gigs on it and email home. It does everything. It’s amazing really.
It’s come on so much technology, hasn’t it?
Well, I was looking through some Brooke Bond Tea swap cards with my kids the other night and card 50 was a ‘peep into the future’ and it ended with the astounding proposition of a TV you could hold in your hand by 2075! It pictured this big and bulky thing about the size of a car but technology has come so far. The changes are exponential and at an ever-increasing pace.
But it’s also great fun because it gives people more opportunity to express themselves and to be taken seriously as well. Whereas it was kept all in the hands of the few 10-20 years ago and they would be giving you the whole ‘record deal’ thing, now you can say bollocks to that and go off and make your own album, which is what I’ve done.
Of course, it’s also changed the way music is distributed as well as recorded. So has that really helped you out?
Well funny you should say that, have you been researching?
Well yes, I was just about to come on to that…
Well, I’ve got distribution in the shops which helps getting onto iTunes, because it’s quite difficult without it. But yeah, I released my first single last week and, well I’ve been 10 years now doing this. I think a lot of my fans have been waiting for a long time for me to release a single. But releasing a digital single as well is just great because it’s there, on screen, you download it and the music is right there in your home within a minute and it’s nice and cheap.
For someone like me it’s incredible because it puts me on a level playing field with, say U2 and the Artic Monkeys and in the same way it puts them on the same playing field as me. Everyone’s pretty much equal really.
But then again you’re number one iTunes folk chart as we speak – I mean you’ve got to be happy with that?
I am very, very happy. You click on there today and there in the download section… Nick Harper No 1 – it’s great! Not that I really aspired to it to be honest but when you see it, you get that warm fuzzy feeling inside. I’ve taken a few screen shots I can tell you!
Now there is a serious side to this because all the proceeds from the release are going to the Love, Hope and Strength Foundation set up by Mike Peters who’s beaten off leukaemia a couple of times. He set it up to promote and highlight cancer research and one of the things they’re doing, which I’m involved with later in the year, is doing a gig at the base camp of Mount Everest.
Now I read about this and I thought what a wonderful thing to do, yet what a completely mental thing to do! I mean there must be so many things you’ve got to take into account, not least the cold! Let’s be honest it’s a bit chilly up there!
Well, I think that’s not something I’ll be too worried about because I think it’s going to be hard enough work in the first place just to get there! I think the altitude sickness is the one really – potentially fatal if you get too high too soon, which I have a tendency to do in normal life anyway!
I’m going to be teaming up with my old mate Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze. He’s a great guy, lots of fun but I have this horrible vision of this very laudable mission being to be turned into the Bevis and Butthead show!
So what sort of crowd are you expecting!?
A few sherpas and the odd yeti, and the yetis will probably be us on stage! Apparently, we get to keep our own sherpas which is going to be useful when we go to Waitrose. No more shopping trolleys! Anyway, I hear they got McDonalds and Travel Lodges up there as well so it shouldn’t be too bad!
Don’t joke, it may only be a matter of time! Now I hear it’s also being filmed by both MTV and the BBC?
Yeap the BBC and MTV are doing documentaries on the whole thing!
So will they be with you from the start, climbing up with all their gear etc?
Maybe, but then again they may just fly in, do a 25-minute special and fly off again. Actually, the licence fee probably doesn’t cover that sort of thing so they’re more likely going to be cycling from Wood Lane!
So are you doing any training at all?
Yeah, absolutely. Attitude training! But I will have to start taking it seriously soon as running around the pub after 5/6 pints probably isn’t going to do it.
Running up and down stairs?
I’m quite good at falling down them!
I think looking at some of the other guys on the trek: Billy Duffy (The Cult), Slim Jim Phantom (Stray Cats), Jimmy Barnes, Glenn and Mike Peters of course, I’m going to be the youngest but, true to form, it’s going to be me who collapses halfway up! I hope it’s not going to be the strenuous version where I have to use ice picks too many times!
Now you must excuse me here because I can’t sit over the table from you and not ask you about one of my great heroes. But then again you’ve probably been asked so many times… err… so… um, Keith Moon? Would you mind?
No, no. I totally understand.
I met him 4, or 5 times between the ages of about 5 and 10 and as far as I could tell looking back we were pretty much matched mentally. One of his hobbies was blowing up toilets. He just had the means to do those dreams every other 7-year-old had and he was like that all the time.
He had a PA mounted in the wings of his roller and a microphone mounted on the dash and he used to scare people up and down the street. I mean he really was Moon the Loon.
It was a great privilege to meet him and he was so much fun to be with, especially as it was me he wanted to play with. I remember we were in the showers at the Rainbow Theatre once, and he had his bowler hat and full suit on and he was using the shower as a telephone while I was in the other booth giving it “hello, hello” down the shower head back. Great fun to be around but then again I didn’t have to spend 3/4 months at a time with him.
But then again I was a bit of a handful myself at times. At one point I remember I got out of control and my Dad pinned me down and I was all “let me up, let me up”. At that point, Elton [John] and his wife walked in and Elton’s missus (he was married in those days) started pleading with my Dad to let me go. “Are you sure?” says my Dad. “Oh yes” she said and with that, I jumped up and promptly threw two glasses of white wine over them, one on him and one on her, and with that, they turned on their heels and left. Probably not a good idea as I haven’t seen him since!
I suppose it must have been normal to you growing up, but, when you hit your teenage years and your friends started realising who all these people were, weren’t they just a bit jealous at all?
No, not really. I don’t think so. I think they just saw me as, you know, Nick Harper – ‘he’s just a little bit weird’. There wasn’t any arse licking or anything. But I was in the middle of it so maybe I couldn’t have an objective view. I suppose some people’s Dads are plumbers and they have their friends and mine just happened to be a musician and these were his. It was all-natural to me.
Looking back on it, it was really quite a privilege as those icons are the people who mark the time that you live in and these people who do these greats deeds, like Hilary climbing Everest or John Bonham playing Moby Dick, create little moments which change the world in some way. They help define who you are. So I understand why people want to know about Keith and Bonham etc because I’m just the same when I meet someone who’s met my heroes.
Actually I always wanted to be a drummer and despite asking for years, my parents never bought me a drum kit. I used to wang Led Zep 4 up to the max every time my mum went out but I couldn’t quite reach the top of the player so all our records had the first few songs seriously scratched. But as soon as it was on I was away playing my imaginary drum kit. I think that desire to play drums certainly led to the percussive style I play the guitar with today.
Now I remember seeing you in Salisbury City Hall a few years back and I notice you have this habit of breaking strings on stage and then fixing them, all while carrying on the song! Is this something you practice?
It’s just expediency really. I’ve only got one guitar and I’m buggered if I’m going to take two guitars on stage with me and pick another one up when I break a string because that’s just rubbish.
I suppose it must have started when I was halfway through a song and getting all into it. The string broke and I thought sod it, keep on singing and just change it and I ended up getting a massive round of applause for it.
I suppose, watching you sound check, given the force you hit those strings it’s inevitably going to happen!
Well, I can only write songs about things that I feel, so if I don’t get a tear or a tingle up the spine about it, then it’s no good. And that comes out in the playing. So when I get on stage the goal is to get back to that feeling and to make the audience feel it. If it’s an angry song or has a bit of gusto then the odd string lets go!
It’s funny I’ve seen on the web that some people were disappointed saying they’d been to three gigs on the trot and I hadn’t broken a string! In fact, some people say that I file them down just so I can do it on stage as part of the set! Trust me that’s really not the case!
To me, it sounds like you have all these influences which come out as a mish-mash of styles all held together by the common thread of the song. Is that about right?
Very well put! That’s why when I improvise live I can go into Kylie or something I’ve heard on the radio that day that I thought had something. Mind, some are wiser choices the others with hindsight!
So you have a DVD out at the moment called ‘Love is Music’ and it’s billed as a Rockumentary. So are we talking Spinal Tap here?
Well no, but it’s much more than just a gig.
It was thought up by this mad film-maker called Mike Last who thought there should be a film of me. He’s done a great job of keeping the music to the fore but made it more interesting than just a bloke playing. It’s cut with loads of interviews with the fans, friends and experts – one of which happened to be a rather bemused Mike Reid caught at a festival.
I’m the sort of person who cringes at my own telephone message, let alone seeing myself on TV, but he’s done a great job. The editing is really superb and it’s really, really well put together.
Of course what Mike wanted was to tell the story of how to make records without having a record dea, and how you can go about it on your own and, of course, that’s what I’ve done. It’s also a great introduction to Nick Harper at the same time.
So Nick, your new album ‘Miracles for Beginners’ is out on June 4th. Can we expect another No 1 then?
Oh no, no. Well maybe in our house!
I had to cut down my time on recording this one as usually I spend 4 to 5 months recording it, but because there is so much going on, I didn’t really have that much time and actually finished it in about 5 weeks.
Of course, when you have a much longer project the temptation is there to always add things, but this time round it was guitar, vocal and a little bit of time for a backing vocal.
It’s certainly more thematic for it meaning it’s more of a work then an eclectic bunch of songs and I think it’s better for it. It’s definitely different to the last two or three albums and I’m very excited about it. It’s all going to be available digitally as well.
Nick it’s been a real pleasure, have a cracking gig tonight.
Thanks very much, I’m off to eat my curry first though!
Written by Habert on