“For me, Gravenhurst is meant to be an imaginary world that I’ve created, and all the things in the songs happen in that world,” says Nick Talbot, the Bristol-based singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer who’s been crafting this sonic world through six albums. It’s a dark world that Gravenhurst inhabits, Talbot’s atmospheric, cinematic dreamscapes covering the murky themes of mysteries, horror, ghosts, genocide, sleepless nights and folkloric murderers such as Bluebeard. It’s the kind of music that soundtracks the small hours. Even when “The Ghost in Daylight” discusses historicalLondonevents, such as the Battle of Cable Street and the anarchists of Fitzrovia, it’s the gloomy psychological side that’s portrayed.
“If Carl Jung had dug indie rock he might have quite liked Gravenhurst,” Talbot once said of the psychiatrist with a penchant for philosophy and the occult. It’s hard to disagree.
eMusic’s Elisa Bray talked with Talbot about late nights, why he hates rock ‘n’ roll, and being a weirdo at school.
It’s 8:30 p.m., quite late to be doing an interview — are you a night owl?
Yeah, I am actually. I get up late and go to bed late. If you tell people you get up about midday it makes people think you’re essentially just lazy and a loafing student, but I go to bed at 4 a.m. so I am awake for the same amount of hours as the average person. I just keep totally different hours, and I think that’s come partly from being in the music industry.
That must be tough on your relationships.
It did affect relationships. The last really important relationship I had my ex-wifeErinused to go to bed around 10 so that did make things difficult.
Is that why she’s your ex-wife?
To some extent different lifestyles, but I do think that being a touring musician is really difficult for relationships.
Gravenhurst does sound like late night music.
Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? Also the city I live in [Bristol] has an influence on my music, not just the other music here, but the architecture of the city. Someone asked me, “Could you do Gravenhurst if you lived in southernCalifornia?” and I think it would feel odd actually because — it’s that overused term psycho-geography — of the basic influence of architecture and landscape on your mind and mental state. God, if I lived inLos Angeles, maybe I’d end up sounding like [the band] Toto. Maybe that’s the problem.
Maybe if you want a lighter theme for your next albumâ€¦
Well I don’t know how I’d do that, because I don’t know how to write about light themes. It’s not that all my lyrics are really dark; well, they are quite dark! But some of the ones that aren’t so dark are at least to do with tensions in relationships. Like “Nicole” on Fires in Distant Buildings, which is really about my relationship with my wife and the power struggles you get. You get labeled as a dark songwriter, but what’s interesting is that doesn’t really tend to happen in the same way if you’re a writer. It seems to be perfectly understandable for a novelist to write about all the most difficult and dark things in the human condition without being labeled a dark writer.
I think the reason for that is we still really see music as rock ‘n’ roll, and rock ‘n’ roll is entertainment and an escapist experience. I wrote an essay about why I hate rock ‘n’ roll on my blog. It’s one of those things that’s used as an excuse for ineptitude, like you go and play a gig and it’s got sloppy sound, the backstage conditions are shitty and there’s an open sewer going into the dressing room, and the promoter will go “Ah it’s all rock ‘n’ roll!”
Do you tend to be in a certain frame of mind for Gravenhurst songwriting?
When I do other writing, like my blog or the online comic Ultraskull, that’s when I’m wanting to entertain myself, and when I’m in a silly frame of mind. And the mindset I’m in when I’m writing songs is different. With Gravenhurst you have to constrict yourself to create a coherent aesthetic. All of the records are about this place, and I have to have frames so that it doesn’t go outside in order for it to remain a place.
Can you tell me an example of taking someone else’s work and making it your own?
The lyrics to “The Foundry” came about because I read a quote from Heinrich Heine: “If you let people burn books, they will at some point be burning bodies.” So he foresaw the Holocaust, and I took that line and ran with that and the lyrics are: “If you let them burn books you’ll let them burn bodies/ The man with the match could be anybody/ A uniform changes something inside/ Holding a gun makes you feel so alive/ And everyone else is doing it too it’s alright.” I was pretty pleased with it.
Do politics inform your songwriting as much as folklore and mysteries?
For a really long time I decided I wasn’t going to write about politics in my songs. I made a point of not doing what Billy Bragg does and actually writing a song about coalmining. It can be done really elegantly like with Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding,” about theFalklands, that’s amazing, but I think his powers are beyond mine. The worry is that if you write a political song, you will immediately look very dated and you could be one of those people who’s left with 5000 “Thatcher Out” T-shirts underneath the bed. So I decided to try to write songs that are more universal and political with a lower case rather than a capital P. But on this album there have been a few things, like in Fitzrovia I allude to the cult of the Che Guevara, and I’ve brought some more overtly political stuff in there.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in a village. I loved it as a kid, and as a teenager it was really fucking frustrating because I can’t drive and it’s absolute Tory-ville. It was, particularly in the ’80s, a really mean-spirited place and I experienced more violence there than I ever have inBristol.
I looked like a student-y intellectual type. To be honest, it was amazing what I got away with; I was walking around a really small village with backcombed hair and a trench coat listening to the Cure.
I was aware at school from a very young age that I didn’t fit in. When I was really young I felt that I was odd because I had a very strong imagination, and when I first went to school and everyone was being taught to read, I could already read, so I already felt like an outsider from the beginning. I always felt like a weirdo but, but having a creative mindset does that. Hold on a minute [lights up].
Are you a chain smoker by any chance?
No, it just keeps going out. I don’t smoke very often, but certain things tend to make me feel the need to smoke again and one is recording. I’m just recording a Beatles cover of “Only a Northern Song” for Mojo‘s Yellow Submarine CD. I’m desperately trying to get it finished. Recording is something I always did while smoking dope and when I start recording I put my hand out to the left of me expecting to pick up a spliff out of the ashtray. It’s something I totally associate with it.
What made you pick up a guitar?
I wanted to write songs and my first love musically is Simon and Garfunkel and my brother had a guitar so I picked that up, but he’s left handed so that was confusing. I restrung it and it kept going back and forth between the two of us, him being fucking annoyed that I restrung it.
I really wanted to fingerpick just like on “The Boxer.” It just sounded so incredible. My mum’s an enormous Beatles fanatic. The Beatles were there all the time. Other music I got from her was Simon and Garfunkel and the Beach Boys. Also Dire Straits’ “Private Investigations” is a really big influence on Gravenhurst. It’s very cinematic. The first music that I listened to that my mum wasn’t into was Iron Maiden, and it’s been a mainstay. Then I saw Morrissey do Suedehead on Top of the Pops and that totally blew my mind. I was really into metal, but I was also into the Smiths, the Cure and Joy Division, so for a while there was a very confusing crossover.
So Gravenhurst was mostly a product of indie and Simon and Garfunkel.
Yeah, it’s more a product of indie music, and bands like Flying Saucer Attack and Movietone, theBristollo-fi bands that I discovered in ’94 or ’95. I was totally blown away because it was really noisy hissy four-track music, folky but ambient, and really lo-fi. It was a real moment of “Christ, I could do this myself!” It was a really amazing punk moment for me because I heard these records that were all done at home on four-track and it was selling and getting great reviews in the NME. Most of my musical evolution, the background, what makes Gravenhurst sound the way it does, happened before I discovered any of the folkies.
When you started out, you were making music from your bedroom. How do your methods compare now?
It’s actually exactly the same and I’m really happy about that because with Fires in Distant Buildings, my fourth record, I had money from Warp to go into a studio. I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in the studio, an environment where there’s a clock ticking, and with my previous album I did it all at home. I feel really comfortable recording in my bedroom and the main reason to record things outside is drums, because drums are the most difficult thing to record out of the studio without pissing everyone off.
The Ghost in Daylight is back in folkier territory.
I had it in the back of my mind to make an album that I’d be able to perform solo. There were a few tours we had to end prematurely and lost a lot of money because I got a throat infection. That kept happening because I was trying to sing above a band that was too loud. I can record loud music, but simply the physical constrictions of my voicebox mean that I can’t sing loud. So I stopped having a band in 2008 and for a while I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do music at all anymore, because I hadn’t enjoyed the touring experience because I kept getting ill all the time. But really it was because I was struggling to hear myself. So in some ways the sound of this album has been informed by practical health considerations.
So that would explain the five-year break between this and your last album?
Lots of things happened at the same time. My relationship ended with my ex wife, and touring and not enjoying it because I just needed to rest and recharge. On tour I was getting incredibly bored, and when I get bored I get depressed and then things don’t work out very well.
What changed was that at the end of 2010, Paul Smith from Maximo Park asked me to support him and it ended up being the best touring experience I had. The main reason was not just that I was playing solo so I could hear myself, but I had a really good time because he and his bandmates were great fun, but the people in my band, we didn’t have that much in common. I always thought that I was boring them; when I started talking about politics their eyes would glaze over and it made me feel a bit lonely. And his band are interested in that as well. It made me realize how much politics matters to me. So I poached the band.
What do you want people to feel when listening to Gravenhurst?
It would be nice if they feel what I feel. When I make music I want it to be transportive in the way I listen to a Flying Saucer Attack album or a Brian Eno ambient album it makes me feel I’ve been taken to another place. I’m trying with my music to build a world. There’s something slightly Dungeons and Dragons about the whole thing — it’s quite nerdy, really. I guess if I’ve made it work it transports people somewhere.