Nick Harper - that JBMTS 'zine interview in full

Nick at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Sunday 12 August 2001

Paula writes: On Saturday 15th December 2001, Nick played the Aldershot West End Centre, supporting the reformed Bennet (yes, they're the ones who did that song about Mom going to Iceland, though that's neither here nor there for the purposes of this website :) along with local band Ursa. This gig was organised by the fanzine "Jesus Built My Talbot Samba" (contact details at the bottom of the page). I was sure I had received the wrong tickets in the post when I saw this was the title of the gig! Yes, the intrepid HHOH massive (all two of us) traveled 400+ miles for two gigs in one weekend (the other taking place in Crouch End). Never let it be said we aren't determined... and certifiable.

As well as raising money for charity (Nick's charity of choice being the Prospect Hospice in Wroughton, Swindon), the gig's organisers felt they had succeeded in introducing Nick to a new (and young, and rock-y!) crowd and winning him more than a few new fans. Writer Steve Gibbs also interviewed Nick for an issue of the 'zine which was given out on the night. I got to chatting with him and since the 'zine's site is still in progress I asked if I could put up the interview on this site because I thought it was so good. Not only did he agree, but he sent me his full transcription the next day. What a star.

So here's the full text of Steve's interview with Nick (and with a young Miss Lily Harper, sure to go far in this business!). All photographs are c2001 Paula Cuccurullo, from various gigs - hold your cursor over each pic for more details.

Steve: You’re in the studio now, so I presume that you’re working on a new album?

Nick: Er, no… I’m going over some live stuff that I recorded on the last tour. Just listening to it.

So it’s going to be a live album…

I think it is, yeah… I thought you meant a new studio album. That’ll be coming after, but I’m hopefully gonna do a live CD first.

How’s the sifting process going?

Good, yeah. There’s some good stuff. I’m not too keen on listening to myself. There’s not hours and hours [of tape], thankfully, but you know that there was a gig two days later you didn’t record that was a better version. It’s always a compromise.

On a limited budget, you’ve always got to hope for the best…

Oh yeah.

Are you writing the new studio material now, or is it one thing at a time?

No… well, I do bits and pieces, you know, little ideas come fleetingly and some stick, but I’m not playing the guitar much at the moment.

So is that how you create an album?

I just play really, yeah. I sort of get into writing mode, where my eyes and ears are out for any sort of inspiration. I used to be really good at it, quite disciplined, with a little notebook I used to carry around. But complacency has set in, I’m afraid, and I just, you know, do with whatever comes along. I think as you do anything like that more often you get more skilled at making something, or recognising a good idea from just a mediocre one. I mean, I’ve worked on enough mediocre ideas in the past.

Is your writing process any different from what we’d expect, when in the past you’ve incorporated dance beats and samples into the more traditional acoustic format? That’s not just one man and his guitar in front of a microphone.

No… it’s always me and the guitar, but then when I get into recording it, I think, ‘ooh, I can hear this on this’, and I think, ‘oh, that’ll be good’… and of course once you’re working on something for hours on end, and listening to it, you get to enjoy the bits that you’ve put with it. That’s one of the most difficult things for me, to step back from it and get an objective view of what I’ve done, and say, ‘is that actually any good, or not?’

You’re fearful of putting too much in and killing the essence of the song?

Yes, I have been guilty of that, I’m afraid. But I want to keep this one really raw, the next studio one, keep me and the guitar prominent. And I think a lot of people want that. I mean, it’s not… I do make records for people to listen to, and hope they enjoy them. But I make them for myself as well, cos I’m trying to express an idea or a thought or an emotion or something, and some of them need, I think, more stuff in it. As an overall sort of… whether it’s 45 minutes or an hour-and-a-quarter these days… and I think CDs are too long anyway… but as an experience, you know, sitting down and listening to it, I personally would find ‘one man and a guitar’ a bit much after a while. I mean, it’s OK in a gig, well it’s great fun at a gig cos you’re out and you’re there, and he or she is there with you and you’re all doing it together, [that] sort of thing. But put a CD on, and listening to one person and their instrument for an hour is, unless it’s… I dunno, Ravi Shanka or Django Reinhart, but then even then you’re gonna drift off in the hour. And one of my faults… er, strengths is that I don’t think I write background music, it’s something to listen to. And it can be quite tiring, you know, unless there’s a bit of colour and light and shade in there to help you along.

Another name you could have mentioned in that list is, I think you agree, Tommy Emmanuel. You said when you played in Aldershot in November that you couldn’t listen to Tommy before going into the studio cos you’d either end up trying to copy him, or he’d make you simply give up, he’s so good.

Oh, yeah, no… well, I say all sorts of things at gigs that I’ve no idea whether I mean or not. Actually, my experience with Tommy started off like that, but finished up inspirational, made me think, ‘God, I’ve got a lot of work to do here, and there’s so much more I can be doing with the guitar than I am doing.’ So it was inspirational to see Tommy, yeah.

Nick at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Sunday 12 August 2001

Mmmm tasty! Nick as "Guitar Man", Edinburgh Fringe, 12 August 2001

But you’ve got very much your own style…

Yeah, oh yeah, I know, but there’s certain areas that I haven’t gone into that I could do.

In my review of your recent Aldershot show, I mentioned the likes of Radiohead and Jane’s Addiction, and other reviews have compared you to Jeff Buckley, Led Zeppelin and even Killing Joke, so do you recognise these bands in your own music?

Definitely, yeah, all of those… what was the very first of those?


Radiohead… I haven’t been as inspired by them recently as I was a few years back. But all the others, yeah. I mean, Jane’s Addiction was a brief thing that I got hold of.

I can’t remember which song it was that made me think that…

(Nick bursts into a perfect rendition of Jane’s classic ‘Been Caught Stealing’ to illustrate – it could almost be Perry Farrell right in front of me!)

The shop-lifting one, that’s a great song… but, yeah, all of them are in there. Obviously there are lots of others… George Harrison, to mention one…

Of course, on today of all days – November 30 – the day we lost our second Beatle.

He’s not someone I would ever have said, ‘Oh, he’s an influence of mine,’ but it’s funny how little things go in, and… it’s like the guitar solo in [arguably Harrison’s greatest song] ‘Something’, it’s probably a really emotive piece of music that’s still in my make-up as a musician. You listen to the radio and you hear two lines of a snatch of a song and it goes in, and it becomes part of you. You can’t help it, it’s in there. And whether you use it or not consciously is up to you. Whether you use it subconsciously… is another thing. Who knows? I mean, the things your mum said to you as a kid, they’re all… they may mutate and come out in some different way, or you may rebel against them and say something completely different.

It may not be obvious the way it has evolved, but it still comes from the same source.

Yeah, yeah. What I said about the radio, you may hear some absolutely dire crap on the radio, and go and write an immediate response. Which I haven’t actually done but I can imagine myself doing it. So you wouldn’t actually have the first inkling of a clue that it was inspired by Cliff Richard or whatever it might be… mind you, he doesn’t get on the radio these days…

Nick at Surround Sound gig, Cockpit Theatre, London, Saturday 14 July 2001

Is that how Temple evolved, throwing in Kool And The Gang’s ‘Jungle Boogie’ and ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’ by Public Enemy?

Yeah, that was just playing it. I was just playing it live and that wasn’t a conscious… um, yes, (adopts cheesy American accent) very much a symbiotic sort of thing. I was just doing a gig at the 12 Bar in London, and just started playing the Kool And The Gang riff, it just came to me. I’d seen ‘Pulp Fiction’ a few days before, and just started playing that. And I had it in mind to… I wanted to cover ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’ and so I learnt it, and ‘Black Steel’ as well, off ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’, and I was gonna cover one of them, but I didn’t know which one was better, so I threw that in as well the same night. It was one of those nights where it all goes, anything goes, and it was just great. It really worked. I mean, the lyrics to ‘Black Steel’ don’t really have much to do with ‘Building Our Own Temple’… or do they? But I just like it in there. And there’s a bit of Holst in there as well, and a little bit from ‘Led Zeppelin 3’.

You’ve covered ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and a Monty Python song, so is your criteria just any song that you love?

Yeah, pretty much. ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is somewhat of a cliche these days, but when I was a kid that was the pinnacle of musical achievement. Humour… I like to cover songs that bring humour, cos I think humour does belong in music. Humour is part of life. But whenever I get inspired, I never usually write a funny song. I’ve written a couple, but it’s pretty hard to write a song for laughs. But to write a whimsical thing is a little easier. I did ‘Janet And John’, which isn’t rip-roaringly funny but is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. Then there’s ‘Big Jim and the Twins’ which was supposed to be more funny. And there’s always a little tongue-in-cheek line here or there… (Nick's daughter Lily distracts him) Yeah, comedy – important. And ‘Watching The Stars’, off ‘Harperspace’, has quite a serious… well, it’s not serious, but it’s about music on the road. And there’s a couple of lines, ‘I find myself in a car park too far… with my holocaustic breath’, which isn’t taking itself too seriously…

But when I do a cover song I like to have fun with it. So I’ve done ‘Blockheads’ before, I do ‘A New Kind Of Love’ in a sort of Frank Sinatra croon-y stylee, usually to a lady in the front row… There’s ‘Just Got Married’ by Randy Newman, which has got a really hilarious line in it. He builds up this really nice love story and then just kills it… well, literally, he says ‘anyway, she died’, and carries on the song from there. It’s great.

And I presume the between-song banter comes from the same ethic really, that it should be fun?

Yeah, well, that’s just me being a prat, I’m being just normal. I’m very uncomfortable… I mean, the songs are serious enough, half the songs, so the last thing you need is a guy in between to be serious as well. Cos I think it’s pretty obvious that I mean what I’m singing about, but on the other hand you only do it once and it’s a laugh. And going out is supposed to be fun.

Are the banter and stories spontaneous, or do you get inspiration for things which you then think will fit well with a certain song?

No, it’s always spontaneous the first time I do it. So the first gig of the tour, there’s nothing, and the last gig of the tour, there’s a map. But usually, I’m so… cos that’s the bit I have least confidence with, the talking, really. So at the start of the tour, it can be quite a quiet show, although, you know, I’m fishing for stuff, but then towards the end of the tour I’ve got a map and I know roughly what I’m gonna say between songs. Because I know that, and I’ve got the foundation of what it is, I can go off on one and mess about with it. It’s great when people talk to me, cos that’s where I get it from, that’s where I build it from. But there’s nothing written down, there’s no script.

Do you feel as at home in front of a rock n roll audience as the more traditional, acoustic-leaning crowd?

Well, I suppose, you know, you’re never gonna feel as comfortable as you do on your own patch, but I just love playing, so it doesn’t matter too much to me. I’ve played in front of thousands of people and twenty people. And I’ve played in front of 40 people not listening and a thousand people where you could hear a pin drop. You can’t have it every night, some nights they’re just not gonna listen cos they haven’t come to see you and that’s that, you just play your thing and the ones that are listening will listen anyway. It’s not the end of the world, you can’t get too precious, although I do get pissed off sometimes. Especially when there’s a quiet room with one table of people talking. That’s annoying, cos but for them… and everyone else knows that too. But I hate stopping a gig and saying, (adopts whinging granny voice) ‘Can you be quiet please?’… that’s a bit too precious, really.

But to me the passion and the colour and the anger that you put into songs almost makes this acoustic music played as if it were punk. Do you agree with that or is that just too far off the scale of comparisons?

(Nick laughs at the absurdity of the question) Um… I write songs about some things that I get angry about, and I think, ‘What can I do in this world, in my little way, to do something good?’, and all I can do is write a song. I’m no good at anything else, so that’s what I do. I’m not a punk, I’ve got a family and a job. I’m a bit reckless from time to time, but I’m not an anarchist. But I do get angry, and I can’t help myself when I portray… when I get back to the feeling I had when I wrote the song, then the anger’s gonna be audible and visible. But it’s not a way of life for me, it’s just another little avenue of expression that I have. Same as falling over and… um… going arse over tit is just as much a part of me. I’m not a tunnel vision anarchist.

Is there anything that you hope to achieve by writing songs like ‘The Magnificent G7’?

Yeah. That’s probably the best one I have. I send it to people, [saying,] ‘If you wanna use this as part of your campaign…’, the Drop The Debt campaign and stuff… I did a gig for them. I don’t think it matters what you play, if you’re the straight-ahead pop band or playing relevant songs for the cause, I don’t think that matters, if you’re showing the support that’s fine.

(aside to Lily) Lily, don’t say that, please darling, please don’t. Leave it alone now…

Where was I… But it is nice from my point of view to think that when you’re doing those benefit things that you can play something pertinent and fit in to… I think it has more resonance with people watching if they’re there to support a cause if they’re hearing a song that was obviously written with something similar in mind. And I think that does help. Hopefully… (getting exasperated) I don’t know. I don’t make a difference to this crazy world at all, I know that. I’m not stupid enough to think I do. But you don’t stop trying just because you feel small.

You’ve always got to try to do what you can, even if it might not end up meaning much. At least you know that you tried.

Yeah. And for instance, the [Prospect] Hospice that I’m gonna give the cash to looked after my mum when she was on the way out, and made it good for her, and they just survive on donations.

One review said that you were ‘the past, the present AND the future of music’! Is that something you aspire to?

I’ve always been conscious of history as being a big part of the future. Cos it was… wassisname? Salla… I dunno, some philosopher… [who said,] ‘If you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to relive your past.’ There’s so much human endeavour, good stuff that’s gone on, that it’s pretty foolish to ignore it all and think that you can sweep it all away and start again. Which is what punk was all about, of course. But there are some good points. I’m not the… I’m part of the past and part of the future, but we all are. And the more that you are conscious of that the better human being you will be. Simple stuff, really. As a musician, me in music, I’ve no idea what my place is in it all.

Fair enough. It’s probably best to just leave that stuff up to other people and just get on with doing what you do. And what you do, your playing style, doesn’t appear to be something which could be taught.

I was taught six chords when I was about 10 or 11, and that is it.

Nick at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Sunday 12 August 2001

Having fun with tuning, Edinburgh Fringe, 12 August 2001

And the rest has been through trial and error and picking stuff up yourself?

Yeah. Dad taught me A, D and E when I was ten, I think, and then a couple of years later I learnt C, G and… the other one… I don’t even know now. F maybe. And then I started writing songs. And then he needed a cheap lead guitar player, so he got me to learn a few lead stuff, and I did a lot of looking through quite a lot of Jimmy Page [works] and learnt a couple of licks. Cos obviously Jimmy played on some of my dad’s records, so I learned half of his parts off the record, and I didn’t want to copy it, so I just improvised my own half, and tried to take it on, for myself, somewhere else so that I was doing my thing, and not parroting it. That’s probably why I’m not very good at session playing, I don’t know the language. And I’d do that for, like, a year, about 4 hours a day or something, and then I’d have a couple of years off doing other things or whatever. And then I’d go back and I had three years on, and all of a sudden 12 or fifteen years later, I was ‘alright’. But it was never a study thing, it was always just a living thing, just happening alongside my life. Well, [it was] a big part of my life.

Your first recording was 18 years ago, 1983’s collaboration with Jimmy Page and your father – does it feel like 18 years in the business for you?

Good God, was it? Yeah, yeah… well, that does, but yes… it does really. A lot happened in between me recording that and me doing anything else in music, really. I mean, I had a band in school and stuff, and I’ve gone through so much since then. I did two years without touching a guitar at all, over two years in between that…

So it’s not been 18 years solid playing and touring and recording, then?

No no no, not by any stretch of the imagination. I wish it had… but then again, I don’t, cos I’d want a life outside of it.

What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t the son of Roy Harper?

No idea… I’d probably be a policeman. I’ve no idea… God knows. What would you be if you weren’t the son of your parents? Obviously… there was a ukulele, apparently, that I had when I was two, and Roy was playing the guitar in the delivery room when I was born… but then again, neither of my parents pushed me, as far as I know, to do music at all. I wanted to do it. I’ve always said that I thought maybe that’s what grown-up Harpers did, and while [Roy] was away, my major contact with him was through the records. Who’s to say… I’ve no idea. I’m really confused by the skills/talent argument… (Lily punches her daddy in the nose and makes him lose his train of thought)

So, after these 18 long years, what have been the highlights and low-points for you?

Right… well… I’ve never been asked that one. Well, I suppose, getting on record was great, playing with Jimmy Page was fantastic. I suppose writing something that had a great reaction inside me… I can’t remember what it was, the first time, but when you knew that you could actually do it and it meant something, and it wasn’t just something you were fooling with and you needed to do better, when you realised you’ve done something that is important to you. That’s probably the highest point… although the gig at Glastonbury in 99 was a spiritual experience, it was absolutely incredible. I had rushes going up through my body, and this was 2 in the afternoon, so it wasn’t due to anything else… the tent was pretty much full, and I came off, my manager was in tears and this guy came up to me who was in the crowd, and said ‘did you feel the rushes?’ And I did, and it was mind-blowing, it was outrageously good. The best feeling I’ve had from gigging. But then I’ve had so many great nights gigging.

I suppose the low points are gigging as well. I mean, playing with Squeeze was fantastic fun. Big gigs and poncing about like a… pop star. That was fantastic. And the privilege of playing with my dad, who I think is a fantastic song-writer, and having that musical relationship with someone of your blood is... well, not unique, but a very special thing to have. Travelling… I love the travelling. I’ve been to Japan and America a few times. But I love just going around England, I’ve got a lot of great friends around England, I love meeting them… (Lily reminds Nick of another show) Yeah, I did a gig in France, didn’t I.

I love England, or I should say Britain, shouldn’t I… but I don’t go up to Scotland as much as I’d like to. But all of the different people around, the different accents, the different way of life, the different attitudes. A brilliant country.

Lily: Different flowers and trees… and different faces.

Nick at St. Helens Citadel, Friday 9 November 2001

Would you say that you’re happy with the level that you’re at now, with your level of recognition and the size of venues that you play, or would you like to break into a more mainstream sphere?

Nick: If I was any more successful, I’d be away from this lunatic here a lot more, so that would be a big drawback. But it’s a natural human thing to want to get bigger… well, not bigger, but… I dunno, you’ve got to have something to aim at. I like to keep my aims small, I don’t think there’s any great reward at the end of the rainbow as regards success in the music business. But it’d be nice to have… I do my recording in the bedroom at the moment, it’d be nice to have a room with the gear all set up in. Little things like that. It’d be nice to have a sound-proofed room with foam walls to lock this one in when I’m doing interviews!

But I don’t pine for big success or… it’s not something that drives me. If it did, I would probably try and do it more. If I was ruthless enough, or it was what I really wanted, maybe I would. Or maybe I can’t, I dunno. It’s important to me to write songs that mean something to me, that’s the important thing.

Yeah, it would have to be on your own terms. But would you sign to a major label if one approached you?

Depends. I’d probably give it a go, yeah. But if it came down to them imposing musical stuff on me, I would probably fight tooth and nail. But it’s pretty difficult – if they did dangle a studio in front of me, you know… everyone’s got their price, and don’t you believe it any other way. I’d like to think I’m noble and have got my priorities right, and stuff, but then again…

If it meant that more people got to hear your music, then it would definitely be worth it.

Absolutely. If ‘The Magnificent G7’ was being played on the radio, then I’d have achieved something. But it’s not what drives me.

So, to forge an awfully tenuous link, what does drive you? What do you think you’ve got left to achieve?

(Nick repeats question to help conjure an answer) I don’t know, really. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? Well, yeah, I can become a better guitar-player, a better singer, a better song-writer and a better human being. And a better live act, more professional. I could do so much, but… (his voice withers) I’ve got other things to do.

You’re on a pretty good level at the moment, regarding all of those things you mentioned, but you really think there’s a big room for improvement?

Oh definitely. There always is. For everybody. Even for Tommy Emmanuel.

I should go to singing lessons, really, I would be a better singer. I should practice guitar more, I should write a lot more. But then again, [if] you get like that you get ruthless, and then you don’t have time for your family. Then you’re missing out on them… they’re the most important thing. The best day of my life was when [Lily] was born, that’s the highlight of my life…

(to Lily): I’m going away from you so I can talk to this man. He’s writing a magazine, and talking to me to put the words in the magazine. Yes, he is a magazine, he’s made of paper…

You’ve got to find the balance.

Yeah, there is the balance. But then again, if I had some hefty work, I’d do it, you know, and make do. But I’m not all gung ho to fill every waking hour with work. Not least cos I’m a lazy so and so…

One of your lyrics admits that ‘to err is in my genes’ – is that the sort of thing you mean?

No, that’s not at all what I meant. That’s just temptation really. It’s in all of our genes – what we should be doing and what we end up doing. That’s a song about drinking, and me being not perfect. When actually, no one is perfect. Most people just relenting when they know they shouldn’t, and having another drink. That’s all that was about.

What inspires you now, what keeps you going?

Well, this one’s gonna get a punk anthem in a minute all to herself!

Just writing songs that move me, that’s what I like doing. I like it when all the business stuff has gone and I can sit down with a guitar and start messing about.

When I wrote ‘The Verse That Time Forgot’, I knew that I’d got to a different level with it. For me… I’m not saying everybody go out and listen to that song, it’s the best thing ever written. But for me, it is the best thing I’ve written, and when I came up with that it moved me so much, that it made it all worthwhile. The whole thing on its own by that one song, on its own. And it’s great for me, having done that, it’s a great thing for me to have said ‘I did that’.

I don’t care… well, obviously, I do care what people think about my songs, but I’m not saying ‘I’m a poet’, and ‘look at that’, I’m just saying, for me, sat in the kitchen writing that, I knew that I’d got to a level inside myself that I hadn’t been to before. And what could be better than that? Which is like the spiritual side of music and writing and art… the serious side of what I do.

Nick at St. Helens Citadel, Friday 9 November 2001

And do you have any more plans for the future, other than the live and studio albums?

Yeah… probably Regain, liposuction and… aargghh! (Lily laughs) adoption!

OK. I can see where this interview is going… so one last silly question that I ask in every interview: what effect has ‘Star Wars’ had on your life?

‘Star Wars’? I lost a very good friend. I bet my friend that I’d seen it, cos I went to Andover where it was on a week before anywhere else, and I bet my friend his favourite pen, because he was adamant I hadn’t seen it. I told him all about it, told him the story and that I had seen it, he said ‘no you haven’t… na na na’, so I bet him his best pen, and he lost the bet. I managed to prove it and I took his best pen off him. He wouldn’t speak to me again…

I got into science fiction movies [because of it], and realised the possible ways of portraying serious ethics and morals in a fantasy setting… blah blah… the force - the farce - is great in all of us and is there to be found.

I really liked it, I haven’t seen the others yet. But I did enjoy it. I’m very wary of automated refuse machines. And I’d love to find one of those floating air-car-jet things down at my local car supermarket.

One thing I’ve come to the conclusion about is, technology is very much driven by ideas that fantasy writers have. It’s funny how things that… I dunno what comes first: whether it’s some think tank buried in the depths of the desert, or some author in his retreat coming up with these fantastic ideas, and then all of a sudden it’s reality. I remember watching a really crappy British film that had clones in it, a late-40’s film. I saw it when I was a kid and it was absolutely fantastical, but here it is, 50 years later, it’s happened.

You sometimes wonder whether the ideas are being fed to the author by the government, or the other way round…

That’s right. Who was it… the CIA have for a few years now been employing Hollywood directors to come up with the most fantastical or unbelievable terrorist plots and just make stories up for the CIA to ponder. And they’ve been paying them, it’s their job to come up with scenarios. It’s the relationship between… it’s chicken and egg all over again.

And maybe Star Wars will have a fantastic effect on all our lives… when they do invent the non-power-consuming, silent, floating vehicle.

(Nick loses his thread completely) I can’t really bullshit anymore…

The Jesus Built My Talbot Samba website is currently under construction.
In the meantime, Steve Gibbs (and the fanzine) can be reached at:
46 Prince of Wales Court, Aldershot, Hants GU11 1QG
He'd love to hear from you, especially if you have your own tapes, CDs and even 'zines to send him.

Updated 11 September 2002
© SG/PLC 2001-2002