A conversation with Nick Barrett

interview by: Jan-Jaap de Haan

In the week of the release of Not Of This World, Pendragon frontman Nick Barrett did some promotion in Poland. After his return, I called him for a conversation on the new album.

Hi Nick, how was your trip to Poland?

Absolutely fantastic. I've done a lot of interviews and we also had an internet chat-room, so they were asking me questions and some other guy was typing the answers in Polish. That was really good, and I did some record-shop signings. And we've been talking to lots of people arranging things for our tour. So I had a good time.

How have the reactions been so far?

Excellent! We haven't had any bad ones, which is a really good sign. You never know how it's gonna work out, you always do you your best on an album and you hope that it comes good. But thing is, that when you put so much in an album you become a but precious about it, so you really want the reactions to be good.

When did you start working on it?

I really started working on it about this time last year or maybe at the beginning of January 2000. I had a lot of fragmented ideas, nearly all of If I Were The Wind, I had a little bit of Dance Of The Seven Veils, I had little bits and pieces of most of the musical ideas, but nothing was really formulated until January of last year, when I really started working hard, piecing everything together and finding a lot of new things come up and new ways of doing things. So the writing didn't take that long when I got on with in. Writing and record just took over a year.

So it was the time before that took so long?

Yeah, if you can start with some ideas, you can always get music together if you really work hard. You can get it together fairly quickly if the ideas are good. But if you got no ideas at all, that's where it's really difficult, when can't hear what direction the music's gonna take. So you need to get a real good feel for what you're gonna try to say with the music and what you're trying to achieve with the whole album. And these thing don't sort of come along until much later and that's the point where things are going to have a life of their own. Like with this album, I started to think 'my goodness this seems to be a lot more dark, than the stuff we've done before' . It's a lot more personal. I felt there is a spirit about this record that wasn't necessarily so much there on the other records. So these were the things that I was trying to pursue, to try to maintain something that was very personal. Cause this was quite new for Pendragon. We always used things fairly positive, like songs like Paintbox, which is about painting your own path. I've always been interested in philosophies, the spiritual kind of things. And that's what has appeared on the other albums in fairly positive ways. And on this album it has appeared in quite a dark way.

Did you use a different working method for this album?

A slightly different way. I usually write about 70-80% of the music on keyboards and 20% on guitars and usually work the other instruments in. This time I did pretty much the same thing, but all the songs, first an foremost were geared around what the vocals were doing. When we wrote As Good As Gold, I wrote the music first from the beginning to the end. And then I worked out what vocal-lines I wanted and what lyrics over the top of the music. And this time I was working on very basic musical ideas and in a very early stage, I tried these with vocals over the top. And if a vocal idea didn't work, I would change the music, rather than trying to make it stick. The vocals were kind of the main thing at this record.

Is that a result of the acoustic tracks you've recorded?

Not really, I just felt that a lot of the soul of a record often comes out in the vocals. This is the thing that works very personal. And this is the thing that people are going to really latch to. Some of the real hard-core progressive fans will of course listen to albums and pick up a lot of the deeper instrumentation and a lot of the variation, like guitar-sounds, but with this album you could be like that or you could just like a guy on the street who likes a tune. And the first thing you gonna hear is the vocal melodies and they latch onto you or they don't. But I don't think that this stems from the acoustic tracks.

Have you considered doing anything more in an acoustic direction?

Yeah, very much so. We talked about this, me and Peter (Gee, bassist), a while ago, when we did these tracks. And we realized that we discovered something interesting. Cause I just play the guitar, only acoustic, and Pete waits very patiently and then worked out a lot of inversions for the chords and made them sound very harmonious and almost like a twelve string guitar. For us this was a new thing without any keyboards. And we liked the sound of it so much that we thought 'why don't we do some more stuff like this and do some more songs that have this approach. There's various things in the pipeline, nothing's really definite, but we're talking about maybe recording one show in Poland which is completely acoustic and maybe doing some of the material in the same way as the extra tracks on this album. We're really pleased with them, the way they came out was a kind of surprise, because usually you have an acoustic guitar and still put all the keyboards in, but this was stripped to just acoustic guitars and that really works and that's new for us.

Originally, you wanted some song-titles with ".com" in it, but in the end you didn't?

No, that one became the title track Not Of This World, but I thought the original title was horrible. Maybe 10 or 5 years ago you would have been original. But now it's like "oh, my goodness, everyone's doing it". There was a Marillion.Com and Jethro Tull.com and a couple of other ones, so you'd better avoid it like the plague. It's not exiting anymore.

There also was a track called 'Boy'?

That was If I Were The Wind, which is a message to my son, but someone else came up with that title, a friend of mine. You know, you work with titles for six months and you keep saying it and then you think 'no, that sounds shit' and you just dump it and move on.

Is the boy connected to the unborn child on the cover?

No not that one. It's connected to the one on the left-hand side, where there's a dad, holding his son's hand, pointing at the sea. It's connected to that, cause it is a message to my son, like saying 'you sail a ship through your life and you meet pirates and they'll try to sink it. It's gonna be stormy out there'. And this is just a song for my son..

So what is the symbolism of the child, since it's so central at the cover…

There are two reasons. One was a kind of a rebirth of something new, which I felt this was for us, because it's been five years since the last album. That was a loose thing, the other thing was that the kind of ideas I was getting were loosely connected to reincarnation, about a spirit coming back to this world. It was the innocence of the child, coming into a lot of negative things. There's the judge and the executioner and these are the thing that awake the child when he comes to an earthly life. This is how this world is. There's a part of the bubble, where the embryo is in, which goes to a maze which signifies the complications of life that's still to come. And, at the bottom, there's a girl with a reindeer, which represents kindness.

The cover is, once again, a splendid piece of art. I would like to know a bit more about it. The people at the tables have wooden arms. Where do they come from?

Well, there's a story I once heard at school when I was 8 years old. Over the last couple of years I remembered it. It thought it would be a real good symbolism on an album cover. The story was: on both sides, there's exactly the same people and the same food and exactly the same wooden arms, but on one side they're trying to feed themselves and they're dropping the food everywhere and the other side of the table they are feeding each other and they are very satisfied. So these are people in exactly the same situation, it's just that our perspective is different and reactions are different. It's about greed: one part of the table is greedy and selfish and the other part is not. That's the idea of the story, I liked it a lot.

There's also a Scottish flag with the word 'betrayed' on it.

Well, Dance Of Seven Veils is a song, all about betrayal, and the symbols in that little area are all connected with historical figures, like the Scottish flag is representing William Wallace [who's life has been put to celluloid by Mel Gibson in Braveheart], the cross is obviously Jesus Christ and the laurel reef is Julius Caesar. And the betrayal-word points to all those people, cause they were all betrayed. It's supposed to be written in blood.

And then there is Adam and Eve, with Adam eating the apple in this specific situation. Do you know who Aurelie Claudel is?

No, sir, I do not.

She's a model for Calvin Klein and she happens to be the girl on the cover.

You're kidding? Really, because I asked Simon Williams about it. Cause he always says to me, that he bases every single character on someone that he knows, like his wife or close family. So, as soon as I saw this picture I said 'You've got to introduce me to that girl, 'cause I'm just in LOVE!'. She's absolutely stunning, I'm even looking at her right now, and I think she's so gorgeous, but I had no idea who she was. I'll ask him about it, because he just laughed when I asked 'will you introduce her to me?'. But, hey, maybe, she's gonna sue us… but she's really nice. Simon did laugh, but he didn't answer my question… Thanks for that.

Many elements of previous covers, have returned, like the dolphins and the swallows, but Toff has disappeared, why?

I thought really he'd sort of outstayed his welcome and it was time to put him to death. No, serious, in other album covers I always thought, Toff should be doing this or that, but on this album, I didn't think of him at all. I just thought of the baby as the main character and the other characters were going to be around that. So I thought, maybe if the baby's is representing a new beginning, this really should be a new beginning and there's no reason for Toff to be in this.
I also think Toff left the album-covers and became part of me, maybe: a rather silly character; a more childish silly person.

You already told about rebirth as a theme of the album, but what's the general concept behind the album?

The main concept of the album is about somebody who's come to the end, in complete despair. And they can no longer find any answers in this world at all. Nothing can make them feel any better, nothing they do, or no-one they meet, or what people say to them doesn't makes them feel any different. And all questions about why they're unhappy remain unanswered. So they start to look for a more spiritual outlook to things. This is what ties them to the cover, the kind of rebirth of things. It's a fresh new spirit. It is a kind of spiritual thing.

And how does the Man Of Nomadic Traits fit in that?

That's a bit of a soul-searching song. It a double-barreled thing. On the one hand it reflects very much me over the last 5 years; somebody who has become physically very happy in places at the sea and in the country, away from business thing and the complications of life. That's the reality part of me; somebody who is physically quite nomadic. I don't like being in the same place very long. I like to feel free, and don't like being restricted.
The other, perhaps more ironic, side of it is that I made it have another meaning as well: I was quite nomadic with other peoples lives as well, with woman. I tried to give at a sort of Arabian feeling, with camels and deserts and bedouins, which represent a travel. And when you feel restless, you find piece in places like the sea.

Is that why the surfboard is returning on several places in the booklet?

Yes, it is. That's my passion, I like to do that: it's very simple, it's three things: you, the sea, and a piece of fiberglass. Nothing in my life is making me feel so free as that. There's no phone, no fax-machine, no e-mail, no money. It's a real straightforward thing and it's a very satisfying place to be, even if it's not surfing, but just to be in the sea.
So the other thing in the song is connected with people. There's one line in the song which is: "bedouine sisters are saving me", and bedouines are people that travel a lot and move in and out places and this was what I was doing with women. Women that would come into my life and then go out of my life. But I felt that they were rescuing me for an amount of time. And at the end of the song, that says it: you're travelling through peoples lives.

On the cover there's also a sword. Is that Excalibur?

It wasn't meant to be. This sword is 17th, 18th century and Excalibur is something more medieval. But in If I Were The Wind, there's that bit, where it says 'the sword of mercy and truth' and that's what it is. If you read very closely, which can't be done on the cd itself, there's actually written on the blade 'mercy and truth'. And also, on the back of the spider, you can see -if you have a magnifying glass- it says 'deceit and lies'. You can see it quite clearly on the poster.

You are planning to tour at the end of the year?

Yeas, we're probably visiting the usual ones in Europe; Holland, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Poland, it's difficult to say if we can get up to Scandinavia, cause it's so expensive. And I know that at the beginning of next year we're going to South-America to play some dates there as well. And we plan the UK as well. With this tour, we'll sort of see what we get offered. I know that we've been offered quite a lot of dates in Poland, but I don't really know much about the tour at the moment. I would like to play at the 013 in Tilburg, cause it's a great venue, good atmosphere, that would be good.

I heard you were planing a DVD?

Well, we have the Live At Last-video, which was also shown on TV in Poland. And now we're talking to distributors over there about making a DVD. And when I was over there, I did quite a long interview, which will be on it as well. And I am going through some videos, to see if there's some stuff. There is some acoustic stuff, recorded in a FNAC-shop in France, a few years ago. And that's quite good and interesting for fans. And there are also things like the Saved By You video, which is a promo video. These kind of things altogether are making up about 1 hour and 30, so we were thinking about this: the Krakow-video plus 20 to 30 minutes of other stuff as well. We're thinking about a release somewhere around this summer, 'cause it's not so difficult to do, once you've got material and we have that already.

You have released the Once Upon A Time albums a few years ago, did getting back to those old recordings influence your writing for this album?

That's a very interesting question, I've never been asked that one before. Because, going through some of the material, from a long time ago, I realized that one thing I always liked about Pendragon in the very early days was a lot of the keyboard-arrangements that John Barnfield used to do. He was very much a melodic keyboard-player, who wrote on the keyboards, and some of the melodies that he came up with -he wrote stuff like Excalibur- is very melodic, like Catch Me Of You Can, we co-wrote that. Listening to all this stuff, I thought, it wouldn't be impossible to perhaps do some work together at some stage in the future, I don't know. I'm back in contact with him and I go surfing with him a lot. It didn't influence the music on Not Of This World very much, but it might come back out again somewhere else.

Some of the tracks on the album, almost seem different songs, but you've made them one compositions. Why? Is it because of lyrical connections?

It's more in terms of getting the most cohesive album we could get. Perhaps the biggest change is perhaps the song World's End, because you've got the first part, Lost Children, and it just ends on a note, it doesn't resolve itself. And then the piano comes in for And Finally, which sort of is two different songs. But it makes it cohesive, it flows well. And each part is slightly different from the part before, so it had a new title.

You already told about the personal side of the album. There also seem some religious elements. Is that something Peter Gee (bassist) influenced?

No, not really, it is just something I picked up. A lot of the album was inspired by the trouble that I had in my marriage, that was the instigator for this. Personally I came to a point in my life, where I couldn't really find any answers for things and that was driving me mad. A lot of things that you take for granted don't get answered. And there's a lot of soul-searching going on in these times. And when you have these difficulties you start looking for a more spiritual or religious way of finding answers, it's a different kind of view-point for things. But I'm not a kind of 'churchy' religious person, I personally believe that Buddhism and Hinduism and Christianity all have the same basic ideas and probably the same God.

Besides organizing the tour, what plans do you have?

I want to carry on writing more music. I've done so little music-writing over the last 5 years, that I'd like to start working on new material, this is what gives me a buzz. And it's very rewarding to, not even just write material but to play it as well. As long as it means less office-work and more hands-on writing music and playing music.
My ambitions have slightly changed. I'm more disappointing at getting an album that isn't as good as it could be, against an album that would sell less. I am more ambitious about music and less ambitious about success. Of course everyone wants to be able to play places like the 013 in Tilburg, with lots of people having a good night, nobody wants to let that position slip. But I think that my hankering for playing at Wembley Stadium is probably not really there anymore. I prefer smaller shows and I like to be in a kind of music that is -in a way- a bit unknown. But that way it gives itself a little bit of mystery. If we were like the next pop-band, I would be scared that it would last only three years.

And you last much longer….you still like it?

I love it. I really do. Of course, you get periods, when you think ' why can't I have a job as Mickey Mouse in Disneyland?'. Sometimes you want to do something completely different. In a way, you've got to, you need to take time out to do other things. I takes me a long time to write music, because I keep going over it, being critical about it, pulling it apart until I'm happy. And there's one other thing I'd like to have done in my life, and it's never too late to do them. And it's early days yet, but I'd like to have been a comedian. Cause that's a very difficult thing to do, to make people laugh. But now, I can practice on people, without having the worries that people say "we're paying you to make people laugh, and you haven't made them laugh, so you're no good". So I would like to be that kind of a character in my normal life…

So you are the Pagliaccio?

Yeah,.. I guess so. In a way I am.

Thanks for the conversation, Nick…..

Thanks to you and DPRP for your support.

Click here for another interview with Nick Barrett