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Straight on till Remscheid ...

The Nick Magnus-Interview

Remscheid, 29th March 2009

it: Let's start with a kind of biographical rundown, birthday, birthplace, how you grew up (briefly)...

Nick: [laughs] Birthday, ah, um... should I tell him? … Birthday is – so all people can send me cards and presents - 1st of February, 1955. Born in a little town called Emsworth [NE of Portsmouth] on the south coast of England, it's almost exactly half-way the coast of England, just about the Isle of Wight. The place I was born in no longer exists. It was pulled down to create a bypass. It is sad, really. [laughs]. I spent my youth there entirely until 21 when I finally left home properly, in other words, more than five miles away from my birth place. At some point I came back to it, but when I first properly moved away from it it was in 1976 when I joined The Enid. That meant having to move up to – what county is Royston in? Cambridgeshire? [Hertfordshire, actually]. 1976 was spent with The Enid. Then I came back again to my birthplace before it was destroyed. I was in a band called Autumn for about two years, and then after that it was working with Steve.

it: How did your musical career begin?

Nick: I suppose like a lot of musicians', in art college. A lot of musicians come from art college. I don't know why. But there is something about the atmosphere in an art college that promotes an interest in music for some reason – playing it, not just listening to it, being in bands. I was in Portsmouth Art College. I was only there for two years. It was meant to be for four years, but I dropped out after two after I discovered that music was really where the interest lay. I just fell behind in the art college coursework, and it got to the point where, at the end of the term, where you were supposed to present all your work, everyone else had piles of work to present, and I had a few sad-looking sheets of not very good work. Nick

It was very embarrassing because the lecturers said in front of nearly the whole class „I think you ought to … not come back next year.“ So I said „Uhm. Oh, yeah. I won't. I won't come back.“ That's when the intent to do it professionally really started, I think. I'd been doing music before that in school, I was in a band at school, my first ever band was called Curtis Brown. Don't ask why. It actually had a very long form of the name which was Curtis Brown's Rubber Piano. [laughs] This was 1972, so that explains a lot. [laughs heartily] That was just playing at it, the time when you're in school you never actually think „This is what I'm going to do, this is how I'm going to spend my life“. It was only at art college when it clicked, and then, of course, I left college and was wondering what I was going to do. I was in a band at the time, I had a three-piece instrumental band called D'Arcy [sic], named after a Jane Austen character. That was instrumental progressive stuff. It didn't last very long, it kind of dissolved, and I was looking through Melody Maker, looking for bands. Melody Maker had a lot more significance in the 70s than it has now. Today it's just another music rag. In the 70s it was the place where musicians looked for – for each other, basically. And I found this advertisement which turned out to be The Enid, of course, which I answered. That was '76, and that's how I got involved with them. I went and did an audition and was asked to join there and then. That was 1976 sorted out. Very interesting year that turned out to be.
it: Why?

Nick: Why? I think you just have to ask any other ex-members of The Enid, and they will all [laughs] they will all explain. It was an unusual environment to be in. More than that I shouldn't say – which in itself speaks volumes, I think. Without naming names, places or events, it was hard work, it was a very difficult place. Not musically hard work, but just hard on a social and ... yeah, the human level was difficult. So I decided that wasn't for me after a while and that was the end of that and I left.  1976

it: How long were you with the band?

Nick: It felt like forever, but it actually turned out to be... I joined on May 20 (I remember the date exactly, May 20), and left on November 5 of the same year. So, six months, that was all. Only six months. But it felt like six years. When you're younger time always does seem to expand.

it: What did you do then?

Nick: After that was Autumn, which was a four-piece progressive band. That was really great fun, I really enjoyed the time in Autumn. Basically it was formed with all people in the Portsmouth area, again, so I went back home again. The guitarist was my oldest school friend. We've known each other since we were four years old. He had actually had the band for a couple of years, and it only seemed to come together when... When I left The Enid Robbie Dobson, the drummer, also left The Enid at the same time and we both joined Autumn. That's when it seemed to solidify into a permanent line-up, Mark Eastham was the guitarist, Steve Hoff was the bass player, Robbie on drums, me on keyboards. That lasted for about two years, and we had a great time doing that. We played quite a few gigs, but it wasn't to last, unfortunately, because we all had no money. Three of us lived in the same house, we were renting a little cottage, a tiny little house, a 2up/2down house. The bass player, Steve, lived a couple of miles away. We were all signing at the time to social benefit, so we had absolutely no money at all.

We put an advert in a magazine called Circuit which the college and university social secretaries used to send around, mail out – oh, get it right! - they received it. The Circuit magazine was specifically intended for universities and colleges, and they could just book bands which are obviously huge names now. I'm not sure if I am misremembering it but at that time I seem to recall you could hire Genesis for a thousand pounds. 1977 But even in 1978 that does seem very little, and I'm sure I'm misremembering that. Everybody was in it, Yes, Jethro Tull, all the big prog names that were just about on their – you know, when punk was coming in and progressive was going it was still popular in universities so of course that was where you ended up playing. We put an ad in there. But we never ever found out if anybody rung us up to book us because almost the very day the magazine came out our telephone was disconnected because we couldn't pay the bill. It was so ironic! And it remained disconnected for all the time that issue of the magazine was current. By the time we were reconnected that issue was gone and there was the next one was out and we couldn't afford to put another.

We all just went „Oh, what's the point? This is just not working, is it?“ So I said: „Why don't we just advertise ourselves and look for other things to do in the meantime?“ Everybody agreed that was perhaps a good idea. That was when I advertised and the first advertisement in Melody Maker had the wrong telephone number misprinted. I was furious about that so I phoned them up and said: „You've got it wrong, you've got to reprint it again.“ And they said, yes, absolutely, no charge for the reprint, obviously. But it was another two weeks before it went in. It was that reprint that Ged, who was Steve's guitar roadie at the time – Steve had asked Ged to look through Melody Maker for musicians to get the band together – and Ged saw my advert and showed it to Steve, and that was when Steve rang up, and I thought it was a joke. I had a friend who used to do wonderful practical jokes on people, who used to be a bass player in The Enid, Terry Pack, a very good practical joker. He once rung us up at our house when Autumn was going to speak to Robbie to convince him he was Keith Emerson. He said „This is Keith Emerson and we're reforming Emerson, Lake & Palmer“ and Robbie bought it hook, line and sinker. He absolutely went for it. So I thought it was Terry doing a joke and I was going „Oh come on, Terry, stop, I know it's you.“ and Steve went „It's not, it's not, it's really me“. That was good. That's how that happened.

it: Did you know Steve before?

Nick: Oh no. Not personally.

it: But you knew who he was?

Nick: Absolutely. I had all the Genesis studio albums and Steve's solo ones, Acolyte and Please Don't Touch. I was already a huge fan. It was especially exciting, really exciting to be given the opportunity to play alongside. 

it: What happened then?

Nick: I did two auditions. Steve and John and Kim all came down to our little house in Hampshire to meet me and I had to play a few bits on the keyboards. I had my keyboards set up in the front room, so I played a bit there and I also played some recordings that we'd done as Autumn so they could actually hear it in the context of a band. They seemed fairly interested, and a week later I went up to London with all my stuff to do a proper rehearsal in a rehearsal room, just one on one with Steve. That went really well. We just got on just like that. I pretty much learned a whole set by the end of the afternoon. In those days I was much more able to retain things, learn things very quickly. I learned an awful lot then. Now it takes me ages to learn my stuff. [laughs] Really, shorter memory, it's just bleagh, useless!

it: What are your memories of being on tour or in the studio with Steve in the late 70s?

Nick: Memories, oh yes. It has all dissolved into a blur with time, really. It was very exciting, the whole thing. For some reason I remember the first gig that we did 1978. I remember what the venue looked like, I remember when we went out for a meal afterwards I had reindeer. I remember details like that, they just stick out really brightly, and then other things just dissolve into a general impression. The general impression was that it was warm and cozy and nice and happy. I can't explain it any more than that. I just really enjoyed the whole thing. When we recorded Spectral Mornings it was – I suppose we'd only been playing together for two or three months, really, because the first tour we did was at the end of 1978, and then we recorded Spectral Mornings in the January of '79 in Holland, in Visselord Studios in Holland. That was a fantastic experience. It was such a great building anyway, it was this lovely open-plan building – it was like an in-door street with in-door telephone boxes, and the studios going off the street. One of my favourite bands of all time, Kayak – do you know the Dutch band Kayak?

it: No.

Nick: You don't know Kayak? Aaah, you should! Get the whole back-catalogue and stuff, it's great. It's fantastic. I've always been a big Kayak fan. They were recording an album called Phantom Of The Night in the next door studio to us, so I was going „Ooooh! It's Kayak here, wow!“ So we got to meet them. It was like a recreational time. Most of the time we spent working, and we had a kind of inverted day where we would work pretty much throughout the night and then go back to the hotel and sleep during the day, you know, with all the maids outside with the vacuum cleaners going wrooooooom-bang-bang-bang on the door waking you up in the middle of the day. It was all very annoying. The hotel was backed onto a massive lake which was frozen solid because it was thick snow everywhere. This lake was so thickly frozen that people were having car-skidding races on it. They were just driving their cars and doing a hand-brake turn and just go [imitates a skidding whirling sound]. That was great sport to watch. All sorts of memories like that come out. The whole recording experience dissolves into the whole... I can't recount any one anecdote. 

it: Where did you record Defector?

Nick: In Wessex. That was in London, a North London studio for Wessex. That was also interesting because The Pretenders were in an adjacent studio, and we were all in the common recreation room. One strange thing about that that sticks out is of someone playing Space Invaders – against Chrissie Hynde. Defector was a great album to do. One of the things that really sticks out on that is doing Hammer In The Sand, because they had in the main studio outside the hall a lovely old Bösendorfer piano which subsequently was destroyed. I was – uhm – I was really cross. At this particular time the Bösendorfer was in beautiful condition and on one occasion we were doing the bare bones for a song that might have been Hammer In The Sand, but it wasn't. It was a kind of uptempo 6/4 song actually, a song with lyrics and everything. I was not doing anything at one particular time, and so I went out into the studio on my own. I thought „Oh, good, no-one's around, I'll just have that.“ I didn't often get the time to sit at a really beautiful piano on my own without being listened to, so I could do it really un-self-consciously. I just started working the song that we'd been working on, doing it really slowly in 4/4 with a sort of classical feel. Unknown to me, John Acock, who was engineering and producing it – John Acock had been listening at the door and he came in and went „Oh, that's really good, you have to play that to Steve“ and I was going „oh, no, really, no“ - „Play it to Steve, play it to Steve!“ So he dragged Steve in and said „Listen to this! Listen to what Nick's done!“ So I played it and Steve said „Oh, we have to do that!“ So that's how Hammer In The Sand came about. Then it was extended with the guitar solo. Really nice memories like that. And all the experiments – this was the first time we used the Roland vocoder on one of the albums and all the experiments with that happened in that studio. That was big fun. All sorts of jokes about in Slogans. The number of variations that we went through in Slogans where it says „Beware the mighty Magnatron“ with the vocoder – you know the bit. We went through all sorts of variations, some extremely rude, before we settled on „Beware the mighty Magnatron“ - but I won't tell you all the alternative versions[laughs]. That was a good fun album to do, and I think it involved everybody in an even more creative way than previously, because on Spectral Mornings much of the material Steve had pre-written, at least in his head, before we started work on it. On Defector we put it all together as a band and lots of bits were conceived in the studio as well so in that capacity it involved the band creatively as a team.

it: Was it the same band from late '78 to the Defector tour, with Pete Hicks, John Shearer...

Nick: ... Dick Cadbury, yes, and Steven, John and me.

it: That band seemed to work quite well together. How did it come that it fell apart and Steve decided to do something else after that?

Nick: I can't really give any definitive reason why things changed. Part of the drive to do Cured basically as a two-piece – now, John did some flute on it as well, but essentially it was a two-piece of me and Steve... I think the main drive for that came from the realization that technology was allowing us to become more self-contained. For example, that was when the Lynn drum first appeared, the drum machine. The first time I heard that I just thought, oh god, I have to get my hands on this. But of course it was really expensive, I couldn't possibly afford it, so I thought: Oh, well, maybe Steve might be interested. Maybe I can persuade him to get it. So I dragged him along as well to see it and he said, oh, this is great, and he did get one. As soon as he got it I said: Right, that's mine, I'm doing this! Everyone else, keep away, this is mine. I've always been a bit of a frustrated drummer, really. [laughs]

it: Was there a different feeling to the time before when you did it as a full band?

Nick: Yes. It has to be a different feeling, simply because there are fewer people involved and you don't get the same group atmosphere, obviously, although there always was a team atmosphere with John, John Acock, Steve and myself throughout the whole thing. It's kind of the same thing, just smaller. I suppose you do miss the others, particularly when you look back in retrospect. At the time I was just excited to be doing another one, doing another album and to be given even more free reign to assist in, you know, the general production of the record and playing more things and also contributing to the writing as well. I suppose at that time you get a bit self-absorbed and don't think about the absence of the other people. In retrospect, you look back and think 'actually it would have been a different album' obviously, very different if the other people had been there as well. But they weren't and it wasn't until we toured with Cured that we actually got the two other members Chas Cronk and Ian Mosley into the fold. And even then Chas never played on any of the recordings. Ian did. Ian played drums on Highly Strung, but for some strange reason – I'm never quite sure why – it never happened. Chas never played on any of the records, which is odd, now I think of it.

it: Do you recall why Steve didn't ask any former members go on tour with him?

Nick: I think it was all water under the bridge by then.

it: Did they have other commitments?

Nick: By then they probably did, yes. At the time Pete left I lost contact with him, and we didn't actually get back into contact again until only quite recently. I never really knew what became of Pete at that time, Dick had loads of other things to do, he still had his recording studio in Cheltenham, he was playing in lots of local bands, writing some stuff and eventually set up his voice-over company. But that was much more recently. He had loads of other commitments. And John Shearer, again, he sort of disappeared. I just generally lost contact with him. I kept longer contact with Dick Cadbury than the other two. John disappeared and eventually had the drum shop which doesn't exist anymore. I think the last time, the last thing I heard of John Shearer was that he's a magician. A children's magician, actually, I think he does childrens' magic shows. Why not?

it: The next album, Highly Strung, was a full band album again. What was different from the previous album and the previous band for you?

Nick: Well, obviously this time we had Ian doing drums, and that was great because I'd got the Lynn drum thing out of my system by then so I wasn't too bothered about doing it again. My memories of that are sort of fragmented because we tended to move around studios a lot. We didn't stick just to one studio like with the first three – well, the first three from my point of view.   magnus-bei-hackett Spectral, Defector and Cured were done in just the one studio from beginning to end. Highly Strung – oh, we moved all around London for that, a few days here, a few days there, a few days there. It was quite a bitty album, really, in terms of small pieces. But, again, that was nice because there were musical direction changes, a noticeably jazzy feel in places on Highly Strung, the … what's the piece called, I've forgotten, uhm, the one that starts off [sings the tune]... uhrg, for some reason my brain's gone blank, I can't remember the title – Always Somewhere Else, that's it. Always Somewhere Else was sort of slightly inspired by Jeff Beck, believe it or not. From my point of view there was a track on one of the Jeff Beck albums – can't remember which album, I think it's Blow By Blow, which was just piano and guitar soloing over the top of it and had a jazzy feel to it. And it had a resonance with me at the time, and so I tried very much to guide that one in that direction, and it did go in that direction. I was never aware whether Steve was conscious of the Jeff Beck parallel there. Perhaps not, so maybe … [laughs] maybe that's got to be new to him. So there were more experimental things like that, the slight jazziness of that and also the slight sort of move towards more mainstream, pop-rock as well with  things like Cell 151 and something like that where you're trying to be commercial and appeal to a prog rock audience which is very difficult! It's the hardest thing to do, really. Prog rock audiences are incredibly difficult people to please. They really are. Because if you make one sector of them happy, the other sector goes „urgh“, they're disappointed and so there is not really a happy middle ground where you can get all of them to say „Yes, that's absolutely great, we all love that!“ Progressive rock itself sub-categorizes into so many little sub-genres – in the end there is no point trying to please everybody, you just say „Well, we like this. We think this is good so we're gonna do it!“

it: Till We Have Faces was recorded with the same band but with many additional musicians from South America? What do you remember about that time?

Nick: Oh gosh, that was an incredibly interesting experience, the whole thing because the whole basis of the album was recorded in Brazil in a very nice studio called Som Livre studio but very unusual in the respect that all you have in the control room is just the mixing desk and the speakers and the power amps, and that's it. Nothing else -  no compressors, no limiters, no chorus, no delay. If you want anything that actually processes the sound you have to hire it from the production suite upstairs at incredibly expensive rates. Really expensive. For example, Steve just wanted to hire a chorus pedal for the guitar, and that was - just an ordinary Boss chorus pedal was something like 50 pounds a day, which at the time was – in 1983, 50 pounds a day for a chorus pedal was like „WHAT?!? Ridiculous, no!“ But that's what it cost, and if you wanted it you had to hire it.
Rather than take any instruments – neither of us took any instruments because Steve had a friend there who at the time was a bit of a pop star in Brazil himself. He's an English singer called Richie Court who was a friend of Steve's and said to Steve „Well, if you come over don't worry about instruments. I'll lend you what you need. I'll lend you a guitar and he said he would lend me his Jupiter-8 keyboard which, of course, delighted me because my main keyboard at home was the Jupiter-8. That was something I had just discovered and fallen in love with. So, to know that I was going to get a Jupiter-8 to work with was just ha-hah, it was great! So we basically moved into Kim's parents' house in Petrópolis for a week. The remarkable thing was although Steve had some ideas before we went the majority of the album was actually written in the conservatory at the back of Kim's parents' house. We just set up and turned on the instruments every day. In fact Steve's guitar was a left-handed guitar so he had to re-string it and play it upside-down. We just played for a week and wrote all the bare bones of the album. To do this in a week is incredible. I can't actually imagine doing that now. Now it takes months and years to write an album. A week, that was it. It's just [makes a sound that indicates rapid development] and we're ready. Then we went into the studio and spend three weeks there and used some Brazilian musicians that were friends and acquaintances of another friend of Steve's, a native Brazilian called Waldemar Falcaun, if I pronounce it correctly. He knew lots of Brazilian musicians, really good ones, particularly the two drummers Sergio and Rui who we got to play in parallel at some point, and the samba school players and a few other people, Rolando – he was the piano? No, he was the bass player, wasn't he? I forgot some of the names now because Brazilian names aren't that easy to remember [laughs]. Some guest musicians to play on some bits and pieces. Yes, we put the whole bare bones of it, which were the essential guitar tracks and keyboard tracks and drum tracks all there, and then we brought it all home and went to a studio called Marquez and did all the completing overdubs there. I just got the other keyboard I wanted to use and just did a few overdubs, although not very many, actually. Most of what we recorded in Brazil was kept as the final thing, both guitar and keyboard. So we just did things like vocals in England, various other bits and pieces and then mixed it. It was a really interesting thing because I had never been to Brazil before. That in itself was an experience. Like being told never to go out on your own with money. Don't have a camera with you! Don't have anything round your neck! So what are you supposed to do if you want to go for a cup of coffee – you need money! You got to carry something with you, you can't go practically wearing nothing. The whole place was a complete contradiction in terms to me. Very strange. But fun. 

it: After that album you sort of had a break when Steve did an album and a tour with GTR. What did you do during that time in '85/86?

Nick: I did lots and lots of recording sessions because at the time Ian Mosley, the drummer was a heavily used session musician. He used to play on advertising jingles and all sorts of things and other band projects 1983.

I asked him one day: „How do you get on sessions?“ and he said: „Oh, you have to be recommended, really.“ And I went [imitates that puppy look] and he went: „Oh, alright then...“ The thing is, as a session musician your reputation is very much reliant on – if you suggest somebody else, if you recommend somebody else, if they come along and do a bad job it really reflects badly on you for recommending them. So, of course, Ian was a bit nervous to recommend anybody, I suppose, 'cause it's a different kind of pressure doing that. The people that you work for can either be extremely nice and really great people or absolute shits. Well, replace the word shits with something else - „not very pleasant“. It depends whether they are at the top of the ladder at the time or whether they're on their way up. The ones at the top of the ladder are really nice to work with. Famous people are great, no problems with them at all. They're friendly, appreciative, respectful, nice, kind... People on the way up are really evil. They're nasty, they have a chip on their shoulder, they treat you like rubbish. So you have to deal with all sorts when you do these sessions. For the most part. So, Ian did recommend me for some jobs and I did okay, so I got more and more and so the whole session thing built up during the whole middle of the 80s, and towards the end of the 80s. Initially, most of the things I was doing were really good fun, playing on some really good albums, things I am really quite proud of being involved with. But as time went on those jobs were kind of replaced. The balance changed. Suddenly the really nice jobs started to drain away and the rather unpleasant ones started to increase. I wondered why that was and I worked out one of the reasons for this was the change in recording technology. Right at the end of the 90s it suddenly became possible for people to record viable albums and proper professional-sounding recordings at home because of that. Machines and sequencers were just starting to come up, ways you could properly master recordings cleanly that didn't sound like rubbish. Those who could afford to buy into the early bits of technology, which obviously started expensive – they were removing their operations from commercial studios and doing it at home, which also meant that they would be thinking: „How else can I save money? - Oh, rather than hire a keyboard player I'll try and do it myself“ and so you ended up with lots of musicians who otherwise wouldn't have considered themselves keyboard players just doing basic keyboard parts because it was cheap, quick and they didn't have to get anyone else in. So the people who previously would have hired you weren't doing this anymore. They were doing it themselves. And it was the rise of dance and hip-hop and R'n'B and stuff. They were the ones that were still going into commercial studios with big budgets, lots of money and no brain cells. Whereas previously I was hired not just because I had some keyboards but because of what I did, what I personally brought to the music – now they were only hiring you because you were a programmer and you had 'some' equipment and 'a' sampler. It didn't matter, it could have been anybody, it didn't matter, it's just you had some equipment. They didn't know what they wanted to do with it, so you would turn up to the studio and they would just go „well, go through some sounds“ - and I went „well, give me an idea of what you want“ and they couldn't. They couldn't. They didn't know. They couldn't articulate it if they did know. The first thing I tried they'd go „oh no, that's shit, man“ and force me to go through all these things. Eventually I'd come full circle and play the first thing, the thing I first did that they thought was shit and they'd go „Man, that's great! That's really great!“ It got to the point – this was right at the end of the 80s and I thought „I don't have to do this. I don't deserve this. I'm sorry, I'm not doing it anymore. Stop, stop, no more.“ So I just drew a line under the sessions because they were all turning into that kind of job. It wasn't worth the pain anymore and the humiliation.

it: The next album you appeared on was the Feedback, although this wasn't released at the time, only in 2000. What are your memories of this?

Nick: That album could have been released as... uhm, well, as the title suggested [the album was eventually called Feedback '86 when it was released] it could have been released in 1986. Even though we stopped touring – 1984 was the last tour we did, the Till We Have Faces tour – Steve and I still just continued working together as and when the time allowed. That was the time when the record company support had kind of  disappeared. Steve wasn't with Charisma anymore, he joined a label called Lamborghini who, let's face it, they were just playing at being a record company. It was somebody's toy. „Oh, I know I'm rich. What shall I do? Oh, I'll found a record label. Oh, I'll have him“ and then doesn't know what to do with him. They had no idea how to promote or provide financial support. So that all started going downhill, but nevertheless we carried on recording and writing. That was around the time Bay Of Kings was around, wasn't it? Bay Of Kings was 1983, '83 was that? Oh right. We just hired studios as and when Steve could afford to do it, and then again it was a little bit here and there, all over the place, small cheap studios. „Oh, that one's free for a couple of days, let's have that one.“ These things were eventually stockpiled and so you'd start working on something and then you'd take it up to a point and not finish it. And then a couple of months would go by and then you'd go back into the studio and resume where you left off that previous piece and then start on another one. It was all building up very slowly until suddenly there was at least an album's worth of stuff. I'm sure there's still a lot that we'd recorded that has never seen the light of day. But, of course, we couldn't find a label. It would have gone out then but there was no label at the time. 1986/87 would have been a really rotten time; if you were anything vaguely progressive rock-related nobody wanted to know, in England anyway. Nobody was interested. Not even Steve could get a satisfactory deal. I'm sure there were people that were putting up their hands to say they would do it but not offering enough support because he didn't want to get into a situation like Lamborghini again. So nothing was released, obviously. It took all that time until it was. Up until that time in '86 and past that, uhm... we were still working on the beginnings of ideas that became certain tracks on Guitar Noir and Valley Of The Kings and things. My memory is very patchy on those because there were a lot of title changes in between. When we started working on something we would call it one thing and then, when it was finally reworked, after me, it would then be called something else, and I kind of lost track of what was what.

it: Do you remember recording sessions with the other musicians on Feedback? Bonnie Tyler sang on a song...

Nick: Yes. We went to Eelpie studios to record Bonnie, which is Pete Townshend's studio. We went there to do that. It was a nice day, she just went out there in the studio and did what she does with that great voice – fantastic! With Brian May also we went to – oh, which studio was it? Sarm West studios, Trevor Horn's studio, yes, Sarm West with Brian May, and spent a couple of days with Brian doing the guitar parts for Slot Machine and ... I'm sure we worked on more than just Slot Machine, we seem to have spent quite a while there with him... ah, yes, Cassandra and Don't Fall. Who else was on that album? Ian, yes. I was there when Ian did the drums on Cassandra, but I think Pete Trewavas was on there as well,  wasn't he? He played bass, I think, on Cassandra. If he did I wasn't there for that. There wasn't much I wasn't there for. - What was the original question? I've forgotten [laughs]

it: Your memories of the guest musicians...

Nick: I think... Terry Pack played bass on Prizefighters. Terry was the one, you remember, I told you, from The Enid, the practical joker. He did some very nice fretless bass on Prizefighters, which we did... can't remember where we did that. I can see the control room but I can't remember the studio. Ah, I know, it was Sonid studios where we did that. +Not that anyone …??? + I think that's the complement of guests. Hm... yes... there was Brian, Ian, Pete, Marillion Pete, that is, Bonnie, Terry. If there's anyone else, I've forgotten. I'm sorry. I think I remembered everybody. 

it: You mentioned Guitar Noir. There's a re-release of that album with some bonus tracks, demo versions of songs where you are credited for keyboard playing, but on the versions that were released later you were replaced by Julian Colbeck. What was the reason for this?

Nick: Steve had basically restructured, I think. By 1990 – because Steve had not actually done any electric band gigs since 1984, between then and 1990. In 1990 he said to me „I really fancy doing some live stuff again. Would you like to do it as well?“ And I basically turned the offer down because I had started a whole new branch of work for myself when I drew a line under the sessions. That also coincided with the first album production job that I did, which was called The Synthesizer Album. I don't know if you know any of this at all [it: No.] Ah, well. I think they did pretty well in Europe generally, I'm not sure whether it was all territories in Europe. Myself and a colleague, Chris Cozens, who lives in New Zealand now, we co-produced an album called The Synthesizer Album. Our band's name as such was called Project D. We did it for the Telstar record label. That came about by a complete accident, a chance meeting by various people. We were asked to produce this album which was cover versions of famous synthesizer tracks, like Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre and all of these kind of things which we did. We did cover versions as accurately as we could and it was, to everybody's surprise, a huge hit, or certainly was in England. I don't know how many it sold but it actually got into the album chart, the proper mainstream album charts, which is unheard of an album of that kind. We just expected to appear in the cheap rack in the motorway petrol station, you know, the two-Euro-rack. And yet it was a huge success. This coincided with my ability to record at home myself and make it sound like a proper studio. This was a whole new departure for me and a very exciting new road to take, and with Chris as well, we both went „wow, this means we can actually produce stuff at home and it doesn't actually cost anything to make an album like this. So we ended up making series of these things which became progressively less successful, unsurprisingly. The first one just picked up on the zeitgeist of some kind. It just did, and people went for it. The second one did okay, the third one uh-huh, fourth one naahh, fifth one bleagch [laughs] Terrible failures after that. And also, we were paid less and less for doing them so it became less worth doing them. But at the initial stage, and this was right at the end of 1989, this was all terribly exciting and new and so I wanted to follow this course. I thought „well, if I go back on the road with Steve I won't be able to do this.“  I thought I've got to forge a career of mine, a singular career of my own, so it's either that or going on the road with Steve – what shall I do? I thought: No, I've got to follow my own path, so I did that. In which case Steve obviously had to find somebody else. And once he found somebody else then he obviously wants to stick with the team, which is only fair. It would have been really unfair on Julian if he'd said „You can come and do the live gigs, but I don't want you to be on the recording.“ That would be rotten. Nobody would deserve that. That's why I wasn't on the actual Guitar Noir or anything subsequently.

it: Did you record anything after this or play live with Steve after that time?

Nick: After that time, no. I never played live again.

it: You mentioned playing keyboards on Valley Of The Kings on Genesis Revisited...

Nick: Yes. That was taken from – that was my keyboard part that survived from the original demos we did at the end of the 80s. I'm not quite sure what that track was called then [laughs] That was my surviving keyboard part, so that wasn't like a new recording session. Yeah. Actually, I have played live with Steve three years ago when John Hackett put his electric band together and went out and did some gigs and Steve came and played harmonica on one and a bit of guitar on some others. So yes, we actually have played live together since then – and recorded as well because Steve plays guitar on Hexameron, on some of the tracks on Hexameron. But we'll come to this later stuff later.

it: Talking about your solo albums, you have done three so far...

Nick: Done three, and working on number four.

it: Can you tell us something about these albums?

Nick: The first album was really a combination of lots of things I've written over a long period of years which I just put together with no particular intention. Like, here's twelve pieces of music that I wrote, fairly shortish pieces, and I didn't know quite what to do with it, whether I could release it as an album. A friend of mine who ran a library music company – people who supply music for film and TV production companies – she said „Why don't you – I'll put it out as a library album with my company. How about that? That's a start.“ So we did that initially, and at the time it was called Framework. But then I decided to have another try, so I re-recorded everything and I was put in touch with Voiceprint Records. Voiceprint Records had just started. Robin [sic] Ayling, who runs Voiceprint, was very enthusiastic to get as many name people he could get to start his roster, and he was very keen to have the album, then renamed to Straight On Till Morning and it went out with Voiceprint. I had always wanted to put it out as a proper album, not as a library music album. The library music was incidental, it was just a way of getting it out there. Robin had it for not very long. It's very rare to find it now, they only pressed 500 copies. And I was most displeased, shall we say, to discover that he deleted it without telling me after 500 copies. So there aren't many left. If you can find one you're very lucky. It's probably on Ebay. You have one? Where did you find it?

it: I've had one for years, since the mid-90s. Don't remember where I found it. It was before Ebay. Collectors' market, I guess.

Nick: That was that one. It was really just the need to get something out there, and it succeeded from that point of view. Inhaling Green was a very different matter. I got in contact with Centaur Records, also known as Compact Disc Services, who have a huge mail-order kind of – very prog-rock-centric kind of mail-order catalogue of albums, and the most confusing website ever. [laughs] magnus

I mean they sell my stuff there, they sell Inhaling Green and Hexameron on there, but if you go to their website and do a search for me I don't come up. You have to know exactly – they've categorized it like Symphonic Prog, Electronica, Prog handbag – they come up with so many weird definitions. Unless you know how they've defined something and go there first you can't find anything. It's the most awful search engine in the world, but nevertheless they have a big catalogue of things and they're on label Centaur.
Again, it was a point in time when nobody really thought of  doing self-releasing. You'd always have to go through a third party and a label. Dave Shoesmith, who runs them, is a great enthusiast and a great supporter ever since. He's very good. They put out Inhaling Green and that was very nice. Inhaling Green differs slightly from the previous album which was just a collection of unrelated pieces in that it has the first thing which is slightly conceptual on it which is the title track, the whole end, three-part track which is sixteen-and-a-half minutes long – which, for me, is an incredibly big difference from what I'd been writing previously. I would always find writing extended pieces very hard. A six minute piece would be about as long as I could do without feeling really stretched, and I felt much more comfortable with four minutes, four-and-a-half minutes. The whole structure was just easily workable for that kind of length. But I did try to get some thematic relationships between the individual shorter pieces on Inhaling Green. If you know where to look for them there are little references from one piece to the other, but they're quite well-hidden [laughs]. They really do come across as individual pieces, which is what they really are. The big difference with Inhaling Green was having a concept, and until I had actually tried writing music to picture, which I had done a couple of small jobs of, you know, being given some movie and saying „write some music to that“ - that is so much easier. I suddenly went „god, this is so much easier to write to a film“ because there's structures and action and the narrative is there, and it just suggests things to you and – really so much faster. And also you write things you wouldn't normally do, you wouldn't normally fall into the same clichés that you do if you are writing music in a vacuum, you just sit at the keyboard and think „I'll just write a piece of music today. Hm, where shall I start?“ You find your hand falling into the same old shapes and patterns and – no, no, stop! When you're doing it to picture you don't do that. Your brain reacts first, and you hear something in your head, or feel something in your head, and then you flesh it out and find it on the keyboard and you go: Oh, that's what it's trying to be. And it's something that your brains wouldn't normally fall to 'cause it's your brain that came out with it, not muscle memory. With that in mind it seemed good to have a concept. It was a concept that Dick was instrumental in coming up with, really very much so, which was the idea of the end of the universe, the mythical end of the universe, where everybody ultimately is released to Judgement Day and the good souls go off to heaven and the bad souls go off to hell and everything. But that's as much as I've ever wanted to describe it as because everybody is intended to have their own interpretation. Somebody very nicely described it as a movie for the ears – that particular track – and I thought „Yes, that's just what it should be.“ Because the sense of a journey and when you get to the end of the whole thing it returns to the opening thing and you finally feel you've come full circle and made a journey and got somewhere. And I thought this is the thing. It's having a story, it's having an idea to work to. I found it so much more pleasurable writing than that that led to Hexameron which is basically the other end of time. It's the mythical creations of the world. The overall subject, I suppose, of Hexameron is the battle between order and chaos. Chaos as in Big Bang and lots of random subatomic particles flying round in space and needing to become something – that state versus an order where everything is all neat and tidy and has found its place. But each individual track has its own little sub-story as well. Singularity, for example, is the Big Bang, hence all the strange time signatures and slight confusion in it, and eventually comes together in the end. Marduk is the Babylonian myth about how the world was created. The thunder god Marduk fights the dragon Tiamat and splits her in half and the heavens and the earth are the two halves of the dragon. Brother Sun Sister Moon is the alchemists trying to unearth how the universe was created by mixing horrendous chemicals together and blowing themselves up. Seven Hands Of Time is the way medieval astronomers would have viewed the solar system at the time, having seven observable planets. They saw them moving as the hands of the giant celestial clock, so Seven Hands Of Time. It's looking at people's view of the universe and how it's made, how it's created; most of it quite mythical, really. All these themes helped to actually write it and make it very thematic. In fact, Hexameron was the first attempt I ever made to actually compose something symphonically, so themes are very patently re-introduced and re-used throughout, and though some of them aren't very obvious they're there. I kind of wanted to try and make it a more classical composition in that sense where themes don't appear once and get thrown away. They actually form the basis of … even if it's just the bottom line of something it might have a theme which is a big theme at the beginning. You may not notice it later on but the basses are playing it somewhere [laughs] You can actually write quite a lot of material using a relatively small corps of component parts, which is something that took me a long time to learn. A very long time to learn. I used to just write A to Z, take every idea under the sun, cram them all together, squeeze them all together and there you go – it's a piece of music.

it: During the time you did the solo albums, did you were also produce other things for other artists?

Nick: Mostly my own generated projects. After Project D the most significant other of those production things was Free The Spirit, which was the pan pipe project [laughs]. The first two of those did very well. That was the plague of Europe for a couple of years. 1995 was when it all started. In fact, we came over to Berlin and did a live broadcast outside the Brandenburg Gate with a big Berlin choir behind and everything. It was very camp, the whole thing was right over the top, with sun shining through the gate it was all very dramatic. [laughs] That carried on for a bit and led to a lot of similar sort of ultimately budget album projects some of which did well and others of which never saw the light of day. Some will be lost forever. The steel drums album we won't mention...

it: How did you and Pete [Hicks] get into contact again? You mentioned that you lost contact after you left the band. How did Flat Pack come together?

Nick: Just a few years ago Pete rang me up quite out of the blue. At the time Dick and had been writing songs together and I sent Pete a CD with the songs that we'd been doing. He really liked it and said we must do something. It was one of those things where, you know, people often say „oh, we must do something together“ and then it doesn't happen, you don't do it. In this case it took a while to happen, but we did. I suppose we started working on Flat Pack about a year and a half ago. Pete came round and put down some basic tracks that I started working on and we just added to it and before we knew it it was suddenly „oh, it's an album! Well, it's nearly an album. Let's make it an album, let's do it properly, let's do it for real.“ So we did. It was one of those „we must do something“ arrangements that actually did happen. It is quite nice, it's very nice, yes. And it was good fun to do as well.

it: What's in the pipeline right now? You mentioned something about a fourth solo album...?

Nick: Yes! That's also conceptual. I'm really into concept albums now. I'm about halfway through it. Dick, as ever, is writing the lyrics for it, as he did with Hexameron, and various bits in Inhaling Green as well. This one is slightly different from Hexameron in that there are more lyrics, or there will be more lyrics than in Hexameron [laughs].

it: Different in style as well?

Nick: No, it's still in the same musical mould of Hexameron. If anything, I'd say it's probably slightly proggier... I think it's got slightly more classic prog moments in it than Hexameron did which tends to lean quite a bit towards the orchestral kind of feel. There will be orchestral moments in this new one, but the subject matter is slightly darker.  The best brief description you can give of it is that the subject matter this time is the conflict of uniformity versus diversity, which is very apt for the anniversary of Darwin this year. Darwin's idea is all about diversity being the winning factor whereas uniformity – you get strength with that, but with diversity you get progress. So it's the battle between the two, that's the main theme, the overlying theme of the whole. How you translate that into music is anyone's guess! [laughs] We've got some cracking moments up there already. Three guests have already appeared. No. Well, two did, one is about to. John [Hackett] has done some flute, Tony Patterson who sang on Hexameron has just done the lead vocals for the opening track, did a fantastic job. And Steve is about to do some guitar, hopefully this week or the week after he's coming to do some guitar – and then I've just got to write the rest of it! [laughs]

it: Will you be working with Pete Hicks again?

Nick: Well, it would be nice to. It all depends on what happens with Flat Pack, really, because it's difficult for everybody at the moment in terms of the general economic climate. Selling CDs has become a bit of a problem, and it's an ongoing worry for me wondering what's going to happen with this new album when it's done. Obviously I would much prefer to sell CDs. I don't like downloads. I've never paid for it or bought a download track in my life.  I don't want them. It's a silly old mp3. It's just a rubbishy file. I don't want that. I want a proper CD. I want a piece of plastic with a book inside it with pictures and photographs and lyrics, something you can own and put on a shelf. It's the best quality as well, and something which is relatively indestructible. And mp3 has none of those things. I hate them. So I have never put any of my own music up so far for download although I know I should. It would make economical sense if I did.

Everybody needs to earn money, and me more than most, I suppose. [laughs] I just don't like the concept of it. I would much rather people bought the CD. But I'm worried when I hear established artists saying that if they can sell a thousand CDs then they consider that a huge success. I think „A thousand? That's a success? You're joking!“ Of Hexameron I only sold about 1,800, but that was my own effort, that was when I self-released, did it all myself. And it was well worth it; that sort of outsold any of the other two albums, so I consider that a minor success for myself. But not to be able to sell a thousand now – I know it is five years later, and an awful lot has changed in five years, and people's attitude towards buying things and downloads and everything has changed. People are reluctant to buy CDs, and that's worrying. And that seems to be the problem with Flat Pack at the moment. It's been out since January and we've hardly sold any. It's a bit disappointing, really. Why? What's wrong it? They're really good songs. I don't know quite what you have to do to convince people to, take a punt on it. Obviously, promotion is everything, but it costs a lot of money to promote in all the established magazines and everything so you have to rely on the internet to do it, internet and word of mouth. That's worked in the past, it has worked for Hexameron, it works for John and his stuff, but it hasn't worked for Flat Pack. Nobody seems particularly interested so, unless they are, there's not much point in doing another one. If they don't want to buy the first one they're not gonna want to buy another one, which would be a shame.

it: Maybe that will change with this interview. Thank you for this interview.

Nick: I hope so. It was my pleasure.

Interview and photos of Nick by Helmut Janisch
other photos courtesy of Nick Magnus and his archive
transcribed and translated by Martin Klinkhardt