In 2003, Tenth Planet issued a collection called Psychotropia, introducing Nick Nicely to anyone who didn’t already know him: the tortured, British, psychedelic beach bunny who bum-rushed the early ’80s with his first two singles—“D.C.T. Dreams” and “Hilly Fields (1892)”—then dropped out of sight. Psychotropia has been re-re-reissued on Grapefruit Records (with additional tracks and beefed-up liner notes) and Nick Nicely speaks via Skype from Germany about analog synths, H.G. Wells, and his secret success on the dance charts. This interview by Ian Marshall.
Who were the local heroes in your neighborhood when you were coming up?
Well, I was right in the middle of Deptford. We used to go out and see that band that did Brothers in Arms—Dire Straits. Have you heard of a-ha—the Norwegian hit band? They were from Norway, but they were starting out there. They were in the same studio that I worked at in Forest Hill. Even on the grubbiest of days that a-ha lead singer had his full make-up on and his hair all orange or whatever he was doing. He was always perfectly turned out that guy, it must have taken hours. Oh, and we had Squeeze as well. And Alternative TV—Tyrone, who lived below me, was the bass player I think. But there was quite a big scene, the Fabulous Poodles, maybe you’ve heard of them?
Of course! And now you’re in Germany?
Well, I’m in England and Germany. I’m just working today on bits of sound to go between the tracks. The tracks are all done for a new album called Space of a Second. I’ve just been looking at it and experimenting with different connectors between the tracks. Just stuff that was recorded off a mini disc, gone out and walked around and sounds like that.
A lot of people say Psychotropia sounds like a concept album but it was recorded over a huge span of time. Is this a more unified work?
Yeah. That’s right. All made in the last three years or so. I think that it will sound a little bit more similar than all the various studios that Pyschotropia was made in. Some people call Psychotropia a compilation album. I see it as one [piece], but I mean I take a long view maybe.
Do you still obsess over tracks the way you did in ’80/’81, or are you more able to ‘get on with it’?
No, I’m not able to get on with it. I obsess over tracks and take them in many different directions. … Sometimes it’s frustrating. Sometimes on tracks—there’s one or two I can think of where I was just determined not to give up and that somewhat can be a mistake. So yes, a lot of time is spent going down in the wrong direction. As bad as certainly back in the old days, yeah. I’m making dense music.
When you look at the tracks on Psychotropia, there’s a gap between ’86 and ’98. Did you walk away from music for a time around then?
Well, in the ’80s, yeah, things went very much downhill. ‘D.C.T. Dreams’ made some money and did well on the radio across Europe and the income from that unfortunately never arrived. … I sold my home studio to make ‘Hilly Fields’ and I was never able to get the money to buy this equipment back, so I was having to go into studios pretty much cold with an acoustic guitar idea of what I wanted to do and then learn the new keyboards that we had hired in and, I don’t know, it never worked. It was a bad time at EMI and the like. … I’ve always been doing music. I work off feelings so I’m not stuck. If you just work off of feelings you can go off-road because you have a vision, an idea—so it can cross genres and it can cross structural changes and I can still operate effectively because I’m just operating on instinct, if you like. So for melody and lyric and ideas and concepts, it can be in different styles. That’s a lot of what was going on in that period but also, in the late ’80s I did stop. I went right off the edge in the middle of the ’80s. It’s just too terrible—everything was terrible and I dropped out. But it got better again, of course.
Can I rewind to the days of the Nick Nicely Band? There’s a photo in the recent issue of Psychotropia on Grapefruit—a couple of mustachioed fellows and you have quite long hair and you guys are in non-safety-pinned, rather ‘rockist’ leather jackets and it just seems interesting that it’s 1977 and you don’t seem to be that influenced by the punk thing. What was this Nick Nicely Band all about?
That’s pre-Nick Nicely. There was drums but mainly it was acoustic and I was writing stuff for that, some of it a bit weird but we started recording very early on tape recorders. It was fun, really, more than anything else. It sort of changed later and after I got involved with the publishing company and then my brain got warped. That’s when Nick Nicely arrived—sort of from a songwriting environment, if you like. I managed to persuade them to allow me to engineer in the studio overnight, so once I got them to do that I was able to do ‘Dreams’ with my keyboard friend. And from then on it went really well.
Do you still play analog synths or have you updated to more computery things?
Uh, yeah I am computery. But my sound, if I’m doing keyboards, is analog. I got a modern version of analog. It’s not a real old one but they do very good copies of them. But my stuff is a very cheap setup and that’s restrictive in some ways but in other ways it leads you into this sonic arena that I’m in. Some of the songs on this album, if they were made perfect—under perfect conditions, like in a top studio—they would sound too sweet. It’s a balancing act to get your song to taste right, and I work through a slightly rougher, smudgier style that comes with this equipment that I have and it’s part of the sound really.
Do you have a particular favorite?
Yeah, the Prophet 5. They used to have all kinds of problems with the tuning and stuff, you had to battle with it, but it was the Prophet 5 that I remember with a lot of affection. ‘D.C.T. Dreams’ and ‘Hilly Fields,’ there was a string machine—a Roland string machine, one of their early ones, just played strings. Sort of rough strings. Tinny little keyboards, I love them.
What was your record collection like in 1980?
That was before New Order, of course. I went mad on New Order. But 1980, I suppose it would still have been some Pink Floyd, and Talking Heads had made an impression, ’78/’79 weren’t they? I like them a lot. … I’m always coming up with new ideas of what seems to be influencing me. I try not to think about it while I’m doing it, but yeah. Another one I’ve noticed is Joe Meek. I’m reaching for that kind of ‘Johnny Remember Me’ spookiness. I’m getting that from my new stuff, but ‘Hilly Fields’ too. Spooky otherworld sound, coming from down the wires, from planet fog. A voice that’s dislocated, somehow comes from a parallel world or something. Disconnected from the track in a way.
Back in the early-mid 1980s you had an offer to work with Trevor Horn [ABC, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, etc.]. You’ve been on the record saying you turned him down due to him wanting creative control … and also maybe because his production sound was too clean for you. Who would you have given that creative control to?
Well firstly, I knew that he would have creative control. Maybe not in the [interview] you read but in another one I went a bit further than that and said also I was intimidated about going into Trevor Horn’s studio and doing the singing and working with a guy who was having that sort of success. But I just made ‘Hilly Fields’ and I really liked the sound of ‘Hilly Fields’ and I suppose I didn’t think I needed the help. But having said that, we had a lot of conversations and he said to me, ‘I think you want to control it and you want to do your stuff.’ So then they pulled out.
A big deal is made of XTC as pioneers in the ’80s psychedelic revival, and it’s often cited how Dukes of the Stratosphear came about due to your influence. But when I hear Dukes records, it seems they didn’t absorb psychedelia in the same way you did.
I have to be careful what I say. I’m sure they’re lovely people and you have mentioned something that I’ve said in interviews and friends have taken out. … but all I can say about XTC is, they’re very excellent in a cerebral way but there’s no acid there. … You know, I do feel that psychedelia—the meaning of the word in 1967 is different than in 2010. It seems to be now a set of sounds. Some people reproduce exactly stuff from ’67 without taking cognizance of all the developments we’ve all been through between then and now, and it’s quite conservative. There are certain magazines where Psychotropia took an almighty kicking for having occasional synth on there. It’s like how country used to be. You know, like you’re only really supposed to use the same instruments that they used at that time. I think psychedelia’s spirit is to forget conventions and explore new things.
Why do you think psychedelia became fashionable again around 1981/82?
What I think happened then was some journalists in the powerful rock magazines in the U.K. at the time, I think they wanted it. I got the feeling that they were really pushing an agenda. But it was the first time that people had looked back to the ’67 period in fashion and brought that fashion back and that’s like 13, 14, 15 years on so I suppose that might have been part of it. It was a great time in music—’80/’81. There was a freshness; there was a post-punk vibe. The punks had had a big effect on the cultural landscape. They brought in DIY. ‘D.C.T. Dreams,’ for instance, was DIY. It first off came out on my own label. The punks would shorten tracks but they also got DIY about making music. The people on the synths were just plunking their fingers down, it wasn’t so technical. They were so fresh. I quite like some of the music of that time. It changed obviously during the ’80s, like in England, the big nail in the coffin of art pop would be Wham in 1984—soon as they came on with their dance routines. They started ‘The X Factor’ current of pop, and it never really changed that much. It went show biz whereas in the early ’80s it had a nice, arty vibe to it with all the synths and stuff. But I don’t see the psychedelic revival at that time as significant. I didn’t feel part of anything. It was totally an accident that I was involved in psychedelia at the same time as these people. I was just living out my obsessions for the freedom of the late ’60s when I got into ‘Hilly Fields’ and stuff like that.
You didn’t tour to promote your two singles at all. That was kind of an interesting tack.
It didn’t really occur to me to play live. People didn’t hassle me to play live. … Well, I was asked to be on Dutch television and they said, ‘Have you got a band?’ and I said, ‘No, but I’ll come over and do it myself.’ And he just thought that was a shit idea, so there was no TV appearance in Holland. There was no TV appearance anywhere. So no live stuff, but I’ve been doing live stuff lately.
Why do you perform veiled now?
Well, I suppose I’d say that I’ve never seen anyone play in a veil. It’s really simple to do and it doesn’t look like an effort. Also, it’s an influence of Magritte—I find a resonance in those Magritte pictures. And also, I just think it looks fucking great. I can pull any face I want in there and all the pictures of the band with the veil just look great. And you must remember that my name is Nick Nicely, and if I’m there all fluffy and wearing rock star clothes, it would be too sweet. We have to get a balance. It’s an inappropriate name, and I like to balance it and the veil fits in with that agenda too. I can’t speak highly enough of it, really. I would plan to use that for any live appearance, any face interview or anything because it just feels right. If I can find originality in any area, I will tend to go for it.
There is a story about your apartment being set ablaze by a lightning strike and you lost everything except for a stack of ‘D.C.T. Dreams’ singles.
That’s not quite right. It was a shared flat; I’ve always been in shared places. My flatmates had stayed up all night in the other room and I woke up reasonably early and I thought, ‘Oh fuck it, I’ll go through and catch up what they’re listening to.’ Lots of Sun Ra they used to listen to, I remember. Anyway, I got through to their room and then there was a huge crash and the lightning had struck and the chimney-stack had come through the roof into my bedroom, bricks on the bed and everything like that and there was a pile of ‘D.C.T. Dreams’ sleeves safely sitting right in the middle. The bricks and stuff missed it, and it missed me thankfully. But I didn’t have all that many possessions to lose at the time in any case.
Did you take that to have any supernatural significance? Maybe Sun Ra trying to save you from across the galaxy?
Yeah, ‘Oh fuck, I’m so pleased I’ve done that!’ It could well have been Sun Ra.
Let me ask about ‘On the Coast,’ which appears on the first issue of Psychotropia. I’m mystified as to why that one didn’t make it to a proper release initially.
Well there’s no need to be mystified; that’s my fault. EMI did say to me, ‘What do you want to do with this?’ And looking back on it, I think probably what went wrong was that the drums were not dancey enough. But I said to EMI, ‘No, don’t bring it out.’ And I stopped it. We even did a photo shoot with Gered Mankowitz with deck chairs and stuff like that. …
Is it just that you felt you weren’t able to outdo the majesty of ‘Hilly Fields’?
I felt that it was attempting to be commercial. And also, I suppose the people around me weren’t particularly enthusiastic. I was sharing a manager with the Eurythmics, Metro Communications. There was a problem with their being involved in some kind of shenanigans with EMI and so EMI wouldn’t speak to them, so it was all a bit fucked up. But it was me in the end that stopped that record from coming out and that might have been a mistake.
The 20-something hipsters of Los Angeles have rediscovered another EMI-er, Kate Bush, and you’re getting rediscovered. Some resurgence of elfin/fantasy music with synthesizers …
(Laughs) Well she’s a very talented girl but, her early stuff was great but for me she’s just a little bit too inaccessible. I just liked the successful ones, the ones that everyone knows. I was always tied to Kate with this rumor that she was on ‘Hilly Fields.’ Have you not heard this rumor? Well it’s a bit late, but there was Kate Jackson did vocals on ‘D.C.T. Dreams’—I didn’t know that was her surname, I wasn’t sure. So on ‘Hilly Fields’ I used the same bit of tape of her singing and I just put ‘Kate’ because I didn’t know her name. She’s in the credits. And the rumor just got out of hand and I’ve always denied it but it still carries on a little bit because [Bush] did live around the corner and she was on EMI.
You always seem to be on center with the pop thing, but you’ve never become fully enveloped by ambience. No temptation to totally go off into creating soundscapes?
I am tempted. I am currently putting soundscapes between my tracks, I find that adds resonance to the overall but, no, I love pop songs and melody and I’m fascinated by the emotions we get off them. It may well go more soundscapey, but there’s always going to be some conventional patterns. I like to be conventional and then just go a bit crazy. That’s what I think they did good in the ’60s. Like, for instance, the classic moment in ‘See Emily Play’ where they just cut in the backward bit and then bam they’re back in again. You don’t need to go into abstract for long, you can keep more people with you if you keep it short. And it’s always trying to test how long a piece of abstract carries on working within a conventional form that I find very stimulating and I follow that closely to see how long it lasts. Maybe, indeed, it’s short—period. But that’s what they had in the ’60s singles—the more successful ones—they’d have bits of abstract but they’d have lovely tunes as well. … I use the example of H.G. Wells. If you read Time Machine—the first twelve pages—they’re a scientific discussion of the dullest kind, but that makes when he gets into his time machine and disappears off that much more resonant and powerful and that’s what I think about having structure in a song.
People mention the early use of scratching on record on ‘Hilly Fields,’ and it really is an early example of that. Around 1981 that Grandmaster Flash live party record came out that had scratching on it. And the following year, ‘Buffalo Gals’ by Malcolm McLaren. It doesn’t seem likely that you were in touch with the Queens hip-hop block-party scene in 1981.
Absolutely right, I had no idea of them and the way I’m doing it, which I suppose is slightly similar to how they did their records, is I’m holding the two spools of the tape recorder and I’m just moving them backwards and forwards together. … There’s no discs involved.
The next psychedelic wave after the early Paisley thing in the post-punk era was a considerably more far-reaching movement in England: rave and the like. Were you informed at all by that scene?
You’ve done very well. I was a very successful dance act with a friend. Yes, and we went right through acid house, the parties, ’89, the whole scene—and it was a time that I enjoyed my greatest commercial success in the top of the dance charts. So it was definitely something that informs my work and yes, it was a fascinating period to be in the middle of that huge movement, when people really did think that the song had died and it was all going to be the emotions coming off the sound from mainly linear dance records, though a lot of them weren’t of course. But yeah, fascinating time.
Are you out about that or is it an anonymous project?
It’s publicized, but not in terms of Nick Nicely. Generally I don’t go near that, it’s just you happened to mention that you saw sections of influences from that.
Let’s talk about a song that gets overshadowed: ‘6B Obergine.’
Well that was the original B-side of ‘Hilly Fields’ and I worked on that and ‘Hilly Fields’ at the same time. You’ve got the same guy playing cello and the same drummer is playing on that as well, Ian Pearce. There’s so many versions of it, I forget which one actually came out, but one of the lyrics mentioned Spain, because Spain had just survived a coup just as we went in to record, but I decided it was too soft and that version is improved on the original 1981 version. I’ve taken off some vocals that’s off a cassette and I put it back on the thing and dug out some better vocals for it, so it was shittier than that when I turned it down to be a B-Side. So at the last minute, I was producing a little band and they had this beat and I thought it was a great beat and we went and did ‘49 Cigars,’ the quickest ever really, in two days that was just like instant, just before the cut. The first time EMI heard that track was in June and I remember he said to me, ‘Oh I don’t like that feedback.’ I said, ‘That’s what it’s meant to be doing, you idiot.’ But he was alright, the guy at EMI.
How about one of your new songs, ‘Change in Charmaine’? It’s a bit hard to decipher.
It’s a bit schizophrenic. Obviously, the narrator doesn’t like manipulation of people’s beliefs through the media and the like, and also within the world of work, psychological profiling, over-control of the new recruits. ‘Each thoughtwave will be pure,’ or something like that, I think the lyrics say. And then there’s the other side where an employee has gone off the rails in some respect. And then it gets very freaky and she falls asleep on the beach.
The beach, the coast—is there a particular place you have in mind, like ‘Hilly Fields,’ that you are singing about?
It’s a winter beach, an East Coast beach, probably near the village of Southwold. There is a nice wintry beach if you come on Southwold and you go onto the beach and go left. I had some weird experiences up there and that’s the place that’s in my mind, but of course the beach can be used as a metaphor and it’s really interesting to toy with it. There’s a lot of beaches on the new album. There’s another track, ‘A Long Way to the Beach.’ I don’t know—a beach just has resonance. There’s something enormously psychedelic about a beach and that is the sea and it’s all rippling and it’s changing colors and it’s moving about and it’s never the same, so you’ve always got a psychedelic wallpaper on a beach. … You have the absolutely flat horizon like a Dali painting, those weird empty horizons when it’s just flat as far as the eye can see. I’ve also spent a lot of time sailing people’s boats, so I’ve spent a lot time around the sea.
So you’re not always locked in a room somewhere with your Porta-studio?
Yeah, I am. I’m not on boats anymore. I am locked away obsessing over my work. But I like it and I get satisfaction from it.