Men of the Moment: Bevis Frond interview
by Jeff Penczak (August 1999)Bevis Frond. Psychedelische. Adrian Shore. Variety Of Fern. Did You Play On Silver Machine? Criminally Underrated. Nick Salomen. Motorbike Accident. Where's Andy? You're Too Loud.
- Quoted from the latest Bevis Frond T-shirt.
I'm sure glad Nick Saloman hasn't decided what he wants to be when he grows up! Today he could be the leader of psychedelic rock group, The Bevis Frond, whose 17th album, Vavona Burr has just been co-released by Woronzow and Flydaddy. Tomorrow, he could be the publisher of one of the most respected and influential fanzines, Ptolemaic Terrascope. Yesterday, he might put the finishing touches on the latest installment in his monthly stint as DJ/host of Radio Bevis. Next week, he could don his record collector cap and head off to another record fair, adding to his immense personal collection of rare psychedelic vinyl. Oh, and with no time clocks to punch or fancy suits to climb into, he could even run a record company or help coordinate the latest edition of the most respected psychedelic music festival in the world, Terrastock UK (see the official site) in his spare time! Yes, I sure am glad "little Nicky Saloman" can't make up his mind what to do. For this leaves him time to do all of the above (and a whole lot more.) Hey - nice work... if you can get it!
As a matter of fact, he doesn't even have to say anything at interviews anymore - he just shows up wearing the above referenced T-shirt and all comers can go away happy without having to ask him any questions. This guy would even make the perfect game show contestant on "Jeopardy!" Having said that, it was a pleasure to receive his rather detailed, honest and often humourous responses to the following questions I dashed off to his record label headquarters in London. Oh, and I should note that, having nothing else to do, he obviously relished the opportunity to have to get out of bed in the morning and actually DO something, as I received his reply less than a week after I sent it off to him! To misquote a line from one of his songs, "Just who is this Minsmere Sphagnum?" Who are these "men" of the moment? Let's "listen and [we] shall see."
PSF: Where did you come up with the name? Besides being an anagram for Fred Bison V, is it true that there was an earlier band that you were in that used this name?
NS: Yes. In 1968, when I was about 14 and still at school, I began my first band. We had a guy on drums called Bill O'Brien, who later became the drummer of Strider, who made a couple of albums in the early '70's. On bass we had my mate Ray Flores, and we also had as succession of useless singers. First, a guy called Charlie Webber, but only because his elder brother Steve was in a psychedelic band called The Geranium Pond and we could thus borrow their equipment. But poor old Charlie was so shit, he had to go! Then we got in another mate of ours called Mick Donovan who was a great dancer and really handsome. The perfect front man. Unfortunately he couldn't sing either , so it ended up as a 3 piece with me on vocals. I'd wanted to call the band The Museum, but one day on my way home from school with another mate, Julien Temple (who became a famous film maker later, wonder how he is these days), I tried the name out on him, and he said, 'I think Bevis Frond is much better'. I couldn't help but agree, so I called the band The Bevis Frond Museum. I always liked the name, so when I started doing my solo stuff in the mid '80's, I called it The Bevis Frond.
PSF: You've released material wherein you've used a full band, but you've predominantly played all the instruments on your recordings. With Andy and Ade apparently available for touring, why do you elect to record most of your releases without them (or other musicians)?
NS: Three reasons. First and foremost, I really enjoy the process of making music in my little home studio. I like putting all the different pieces together, trying out different sounds and arrangements. For me, that's the most enjoyable part of what I do, along with writing songs. So I wouldn't really want to dilute that particular pleasure. Secondly, as I tend to record whenever I get the urge, it would be almost impossible to have a band of trusty musicians on 24 hour standby. I know I could re-record the songs at an arranged time and date, but if they sound good to me already, what's the point? And finally, I actually attempt to make a living from music. If I had to split the album proceeds up, I probably wouldn't make enough money to survive without getting a job, and that's definitely a non-starter.
PSF: I've heard that you're very particular when it comes to using "vintage" instruments, amps, and even your guitar strings. Is this true? If so, how would you say this contributes to the overall sound of a Bevis Frond album?
NS: Well, that's true to a certain extent. I really like vintage equipment. I like the sound it makes, and the look of it. I'd certainly get a lot more enjoyment out of having a superb Vox amp, with all the chrome fittings and stuff, than having some rack box that looks more like a digital alarm clock. Having said that, I'm certainly not averse to having modern, up to date equipment if it serves a useful purpose. I record on a digital 8 track, my sitar guitar is a re-issue, and I use Ernie Ball strings (8 to 38) which I don't think are particularly 'vintage'. How can you use vintage strings? I don't get that at all. Well, yes it obviously contributes to the sound of a BF album, because that's the stuff I use, but the reason behind it is more because I just like old gear, and certainly not to make my sound more 'vintage. Of course, it has that effect, but what I'm trying to say is that it's not contrived.
PSF: Vavona Burr is, I believe, your 17th full-length release as The Bevis Frond. Hot on the heels of last year's triple album/double CD, North Circular, we've been blessed with nearly 50 new songs inside of about 18 months (including the songs you wrote for/with Mary Lou Lord.) Are any of the VB songs left over from the NC sessions or did you record all of these fresh for this release?
NS: Well, I write stuff all the time, so I always have more songs than I need. That's why North Circular was a triple album. I'd been going through a very productive phase, and I had so much stuff, that even when I left most of it off, I still had enough for a double CD. So some of the songs from that burst of activity are on Vavona Burr, but by the time that came out, I already had enough for another double album! If you want to know which particular songs, they were; "Temple Falls," "To The Lighthouse," "You Just Don't Feel," and "In Her Eyes."
PSF: How did your involvement with Mary Lou Lord's Got No Shadow and the Dr. Frond project come about and what are your impressions of working on someone else's projects in general: Ade's, Bari's, Rustic Rod's, etc?
NS: Apparently, though I don't remember this at all, Mary Lou wrote to me many years ago, saying how much she enjoyed my songs, and that she was an aspiring singer/songwriter and what advice could I give her? As I always do, I replied straight away. I definitely would have been flattered by her letter, and she tells me that my reply was very nice and encouraging. Anyway, some years later, she called me up out of the blue and asked if I minded if she covered "Lights Are Changing." Of course I didn't mind, and as you know she had a minor hit with it on Kill Rock Stars. When she got her major label deal, they were very intent on putting her together with someone to help her write material for her album. I think I was about third or fourth on the list, and somehow it kind of clicked and we came up with a nice batch of songs. So when they were recording the album, I was asked to go over to L.A. and be the guitarist, which I happily agreed to do, as by that time Mary Lou and I had become really good friends. For one reason or another, the album didn't do as well as everyone had hoped, which is a real shame as I think it's a dead good record. I think it was way over-produced, and then the label decided not to promote it, so who knows? I just hope the whole experience hasn't kicked the stuffing out of Mary Lou as she's a talented artiste, and a far better songwriter than she gives herself credit for. When I play on other people's projects, I always try to do what they want me to do. I have enough of my own work to mess about on, so I make a concerted effort to be a session man, and do what's required. I'll only chip in with ideas, if I'm asked, or unless something is so blindingly necessary (to me at least), that I can't sit back and watch it go wrong.
PSF: Are there any releases that you are particularly proud of? If someone was looking to get into your catalog and needed a starting point, which release(s) would you say perfectly nailed or encapsulated the essence of The Bevis Frond? Conversely, are there any that, in retrospect, you'd like to take back into the studio and tweak a bit and perhaps reissue in a new, improved format, say, remix a track or two or drop a song and/or add another?
NS: Mmmm. Tough one for me to answer. It's never easy to assess your best piece of work, but I'll have a go. I think the feel has changed a bit over the years, so perhaps I'll cop out by naming a few key albums. I guess for the early stuff I'd go for "Inner Marshland," then "New River Head" as it kind of showed me branching out into different areas a bit, then "North Circular" because it's got a bit of everything on it. I don't think I'd want to re-mix or re-edit anything. If it sounded good when I did it, then that's obviously what I wanted at the time. I think it's a great mistake to try and 'modernise' albums, or to try to make them more 'perfect'.
PSF: You bring a refreshing sense of humor and honesty to your work (cheekily acknowledging your debt to Jimi ("Who Knows?") and referring to "Tangerine Infringement Beak" as "rubbish") while at the same time cautioning the fanaticism of those who opt to live in the past ("It Won't Come Again," "Right On (Hippie Dream)" et. al.). This leads me to a few questions about some of your other interests. Let's start with Record collecting. Just how large is your personal collection of 45's and LP's?
NS: I suppose I've got about 1,000 albums and about 2,000 singles. I had a purge a few years back, when I got rid of all the stuff I'd bought because it was a bargain, and not because I liked it. I'd been a second hand record dealer in a previous incarnation, and I still had a load of stuff from those days which I just didn't want. So now I guess my record collection is made up entirely of things that I really like.
PSF: Do you have a favorite period, label or band that you're quite keen on collecting everything they've released?
NS: No, not really. I mean I obviously have more Beatles and Hendrix albums, than Abba and The Osmonds, because I love Hendrix and The Beatles, and I loathe Abba and the Osmonds. My records clearly reflect my taste, but I don't think I'm particularly blinkered. I love rock and roll, British beat, soul, psychedelia, folk, punk and even quite a lot of what comes out today, and there are elements of all those in my collection. I suppose it tends to be a bit weighed down by '60's beat and psych, but not very much so.
PSF: What is your personal Holy Grail? That one item or release you've been searching for that you just can't seem to locate?
NS: There are quite a few items I've been looking for for some time. Nothing I'd kill for though. I'd really like an original UK copy of "No Presents For Me" by The Pandamonium, and an German original (on Rex) of "Ma-Marijhauna" by The Sub, with or without the picture sleeve.
PSF: What is your most prized possession? If you had to sell your entire collection, save one, what would it be?
NS: I don't think I'd ever part with my original Beatles albums, as I got them as they came out. Especially 'Please Please Me' which has 'This belongs to Nicky Saloman' written on it in a childish hand.
PSF: What advice or suggestions would you offer for anyone starting to build their own collection?
NS: Buy the music you like, and never pay too much. I'd always attempt to get a collection together so you can listen to hours of your favourite music at any given time, and not as an investment. If that's the reason you're into records, you can make more money selling sports gear.
PSF: What is your personal method of collecting music? Are you just interested in owning a single or an LP that you like and it's OK if it's a reissue or available on a compilation CD or do you prefer to own the original vinyl?
NS: If I'm after a track or an album, I'll be happy to get it in any format, re-issue or otherwise. BUT sadly I can't help wanting it most in its original format, preferably the UK issue (better sleeves).
PSF: What is your involvement in the Ptolemaic Terrascope as publisher, as opposed to what Phil [McMullen] does in his role as Editor?
NS: I guess Phil does most of the work as regards PT. He gave me the title 'publisher', which I can only assume means that I'm the poor sod who has to get it printed and drive it round London to the various distributors. I also compile and get the CDs made. Phil writes the bulk of the magazine, but he also has a band of trusty folk who write articles and reviews and interview artistes for us. I think I've still got a crucial role to play in the world of Terrascope, but you know, I could just be kidding myself.
PSF: Has the approach to assembling an issue changed? Over the course of over two dozen issues, Ptolemaic Terrascope has become one of the most influential and eagerly anticipated magazines dealing with psychedelic and independent music today (while at the same time not ignoring significant, often overlooked or ignored artists from the past 35 years.) Do you feel any more pressure today to cover artists or releases that might appeal more to your ever-growing readership, perhaps at the expense of having to omit profiles of your personal favorite artists?
NS: When we started The Terrascope, the idea was to write about stuff we liked, be it old or new, famous or obscure, hip or passe. Whatever. As long as we liked it, it went in. I don't think that's changed at all. Obviously our tastes aren't identical, so there are bands in the mag that Phil likes and I don't, and vice versa. The readership grew because people enjoyed the approach, so there's absolutely no need to feel pressured by what the readership may or may not like. Wouldn't that be going against the very reasons they like the mag? The only reasons things get left out are a) we don't like it, or b) we don't have room.
PSF: How do you react to the criticism that PT reviews are always positive, perhaps leaving your readers with the impression that your favorite artists or recent acquaintances' releases can do no wrong?
NS: I don't think so. In all my years of buying music mags, I've never seen the point in giving someone a shitty review. Maybe, just maybe if someone the readership appears to worship does a crap record, you have a possible duty to warn them that it might be a waste of money, but even then, I think that's their decision to make. I think the role of a mag like the Terrascope is to bring artists and records to the attention of it'd readership. More or less saying, 'look, you buy the magazine because you like the stuff we write about, so here's something you might not have heard of, that we love, so why not give it a try. Why on earth would we want to waste space and time saying, 'here's a band you've never heard of before, oh and by the way they're not very good.' There's only so much space in the mag, you might as well fill it with stuff you're enthusiastic about. I'd go further. I truly believe the reason the UK music papers NME and Melody Maker, which ruled supreme in the sixties and seventies, are held in such low esteem today (their circulations are apparently less than a tenth of what they were back then) is precisely down to what I've been going on about. People are sick of reading snidey, piss-taking reviews alongside arse-licking homages to whoever the major labels are trying to hype up at any time. I don't think I'm being controversial when I say that these papers are school magazines written by talentless smartarses who all have their sights set on higher peaks, full of groveling features about anyone who's paid them enough. If that's what you think the Terrastock should become, or that's what it's readers demand, then I think you've sadly underestimated our and their intelligence and integrity. Of course, I'm not accusing you of thinking that, I'm just getting a bit carried away.
PSF: A few years ago, Ptolemaic Terrascope initiated what has become one of THE most influential independent psychedelic music festivals, Terrastock. How did this come about?
NS: The first one in Providence just grew organically. It began as a benefit gig for the mag by 3 or 4 bands. We'd been in a bit of financial trouble as a result of being too generous, and also from distributors not paying for their mags on time, or at all. We asked for tracks we could release as a money-raising album, and we were overwhelmed by the response. It came out as 'Succour' and some other tracks came out as 'Alms'. The gig in Providence just seemed to capture people's imagination, and suddenly there were 30 bands up for it. It was absolute magic. It didn't make any money, but it was special. The second show in San Francisco was more organised, less organic, and personally I didn't enjoy it as much. Not to say that wasn't good, because, if anything, it was better received than the first one.
PSF: What has the reaction of the audience as well as the bands that have played at the festivals been like?
NS: Wonderful. Both events have been received fantastically well by both audience and bands.
PSF: What have you gained from your efforts, both as an organizer and performer, from these shows in terms of audience exposure, new friends and/or contacts in the music industry and your own exposure to the various types of music represented.
NS: Well, I've certainly met a lot of people I never would have met otherwise. It's been great to be able to put faces to so many of the names I've written to over the years. Also, it's been very exciting to meet some of the artists we've admired for so long. In Providence I met Tom Rapp for the first time. He was charm personified, and also absolutely brilliant, and now we're putting out his fist record for 25 years. Magic. I met Mick Farren of The Deviants, who I saw in London in 1969! In San Francisco I met Randy Hammon, guitarist with The Savage Resurrection who did one of my favourite albums of all time, and also we hooked up with Country Joe McDonald, who I guess was my favourite West Coast act. We've now done two shows with him and the album Eat Flowers And Kiss Babies is out on my label to prove it! So yes, we've definitely gained from the Terrastock adventures.
DJ NICK- RADIO BEVIS
PSF: How did this project come about and how does it feel being on the other side of the microphone, playing your favorite records and chatting up your favorite artists from your personal collection?
NS: KFJC have been long time supporters of my stuff, and when I was in SF they asked if I'd come on and do a show, so I prepared a tape of stuff I liked and waffled over the top for a few hours. I really enjoyed doing it, so I offered my services as a part-time DJ, which they kindly accepted. I had a show on Radio Caroline for a few years in the 90s, so it wasn't a complete departure for me.
PSF: How do you prepare/decide what music to feature on Radio Bevis?
NS: I just play what I'm in the mood to listen to.
PSF: Do you have a deeper appreciation for what a DJ goes through to prepare an informative, yet entertaining program? [As an aside (and coming from a fellow jock), I think you've become much more relaxed and confident over the course of the 7 broadcasts? Perhaps inviting your daughter Debbie on helped break the ice somewhat!?] I must admit also, that I fall into a similar predicament on occasion and get a bit anal when it comes to describing the background of who played on what single and what band they came from (or went on to)!
NS: Do you think I'm too anal? I don't. I think if you've got interesting information about the music you're playing, then you may as well pass it on. It figures that if people are listening to the kind of stuff I'm playing, and haven't already switched off, then they'd probably like to know a bit about it.
PSF: Do you look forward to putting a show together, time permitting, and will there be future editions?
NS: Yes, I'll be continuing with the show.
PSF: When (and why) did you feel the need to start your own label (Woronzow) to release all of your recordings as well as material from your mates Ade, Bari, Rustic Rod and, shortly the Green Pajamas and Country Joe?
NS: Initially it was because no one else wanted to put my stuff out, and then I kind of got to like it that way. I don't have to answer to anyone, or do anything I don't want to, and that suits me fine. I knew a lot of very talented people who hadn't been able to records out, and figured I could help. I've only ever wanted to help bands and artists get on. I've never really wanted to have an empire or anything, but you know, if something good turns up, and no one wants to release it, then I feel like it's my duty. Recently a lot of great stuff has kind of landed in my lap, so now I'm running the label with Ade Shaw. He's a great mate, and he also knows how to do things like E-mail, websites, zip files and making French windows. He's very clever.
PSF: Not to clutter up your mailbox with unsolicited demos, but do you seek out potential artists or do they approach you?
NS: I'm always happy to receive demos, and I'll listen to all of them. I can't promise we'll take it any further, but I will always reply.
PSF: Have any major labels dangled that lucrative contract many artists seem to strive for in your direction? [Not to disparage Flydaddy, rather to praise them. I thought readers would be interested to know whether you've been approached by larger labels, but have chosen to work with Flydaddy instead.]
NS: I guess I'm really asking you to discuss some of the advantages of staying within the independent label circle, aside from the fact that you just happen to run one, of course! Readers familiar with the Reckless debacle over "London Stone" may also be interested in understanding the need to be associated with Flydaddy given that you already own your own label?
I've had a bit of 'major label interest' as they call it, but it's never got as far as lucrative deals being offered. I honestly don't know what I'd do if that happened. I'd like to think I'd say 'Fuck Off!'(God knows, they said that to me often enough in the past), but then again I've always fancied a country mansion, and maybe an apartment in Venice.
PSF: How do you manage to wear so many hats so successfully? Is there any fear that something might suffer due to lack of enough attention? I certainly don't want to overlook perhaps your most important role: that of husband, father and family man. Your love and knowledge of music is obvious, but do you ever say to yourself: enough is enough - I've gotta cut back on "x-y-z" for fear of putting out a disappointing record or a weak issue of PT; or, I really want to spend more time with my family?
NS: Hmmm. I think my role at The Terrascope has suffered, and also my nascent career as a transatlantic DJ. But I guess you really have to prioritize. My music has to take first spot, then probably the label next. None of these things ever get in the way of my family and friends. I try to keep my feet firmly on the ground. It would be all too easy to start thinking that was really someone important. I go to extreme lengths to make sure that I can be at my Thursday night 5-a-side football sessions, and to keep up my long-term friendships. I think it goes without saying that your family is the most important thing in your life, so therefore I place Jan (my wife) and Deb (my daughter) firmly at the top of my list. I guess if I had to, I could cut back on almost anything except writing songs and playing the guitar... and football.
See the official site for more information on this year's Terrastock UK festival in London along with a list of some of the bands that have been confirmed attending.
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