Interview with Pendragon’s Nick Barrett
By DPRP’s Jon Bradshaw
Following Pendragon’s release of Passion and in the midst of a European Tour, Jon Bradshaw got the opportunity to chat with Nick Barrett as he caught his breath in Aschaffenburg, Germany.
JON: Hi Nick – you’re playing tonight, yeah?
NICK: Yeah we are. It’s a place called Aschaffenburg which is sort of middle Germany, sort of southern part of Germany. It’s a great gig, we’ve done this one a few times. It’s a really, really good audience, so yeah.
JON: I puzzled a lot about where to start with this interview, cuz, I got my copy of Passion a couple of weeks ago – I got the special edition with the DVD – and it’s like the perfect interview that comes on that DVD, you know? What else could anybody possibly want to know? So, I’ve fished around to try and come up with something a little bit different and interesting, although obviously, I do want to talk a little about Passion as well. I think the first thing I’d like to ask you Nick is, following on from that really quite in-depth interview that comes with the DVD, how public do you like being about yourself?
NICK: It depends, I’m in two minds about that. It depends what sort of a mood I’m in. I like people to know stuff like the way the music’s put together, you know – what I do and how that works. I also have no problem talking about what songs are about, or the themes, the ideas, or the inspirations behind them.
What I don’t really like doing sometimes is, after a gig or before a gig, I don’t really like being among everybody too much because I like to just think about the show, just do something really calm – get into the zone. So, that’s where the line is drawn really.
I’m pretty open to talk about everything with anybody really, because I enjoy it.
JON: What does that involve for you then, ‘getting into the zone’ – how do you psych yourself up for a performance?
NICK: Well, I just go somewhere really quiet, you know? If it’s a hotel, I’ll just go to the hotel room and read a book or something like that or get a bit of sleep. Also, I have to kind of rest my voice as well. We do long sets, we do about two and half hours and, you know – like now – we’ve got 12 shows in a row without a day off. That’s quite a lot if you add in lack of sleep and eating funny food – it can be quite wearing. So sometimes I just need to not talk very much and keep calm for the show.
JON: Well thanks for talking to me tonight before you go on!
NICK: That’s alright, no problem. This sort of thing’s ok. What can happen sometimes though is you just get a bit bombarded. You know, if I was downstairs now where everyone comes in, I’d start signing things, which you always do after the show, but before the show, it’s a bit of a bombardment and I don’t really like that.
JON: Ok, I’m going to lay my cards on the table about Passion, Nick. I think it’s a fantastic album. Like I say, I’ve only had it a couple of weeks but I’m absolutely thrilled with it – I think it’s a great development on what you guys did on Pure. I’m really interested and quite excited by your use of ‘Trancey’ elements and drum programming – a lot of work on the keyboards, computers and Pro Tools, that kind of thing – how ‘tapped-in’ to that community are you, the whole Trance scene?
NICK: Well, if you ask me to list any more than one band I really couldn’t, but I like what I hear. I mean, I thought a couple of years ago about the music. When we were younger we were very open-minded and easily influenced and we liked to listen to lots of different kinds of stuff but as you get older, I think that gate narrows and you just end up not liking stuff for the sake of it. And I thought, “suppose I went back to being more open-minded?” So I was listening to a lot of stuff that my kids would play.
I actually bought, on the way down from one of the gigs in Newcastle, a CD by a band called Pendulum (because I thought the cover looked quite interesting) and that really was quite an influence on me. I played it a bit and I thought that’s a bit samey, so I didn’t really play it much, but then my son picked it up and said, “Oh, this is great! I love this.” and he kept playing it and kept playing it and eventually the penny dropped with it, a lot. I thought, this is just really great and I like that kind of trancey thing, mixed with the rock elements and the metal. I thought it was very exciting.
JON: It is
NICK: That’s the kind of pathway that happens. I don’t tend to get hundreds and hundreds of CDs and albums and listen to them relentlessly. I maybe get an experience like that with Pendulum and end up really liking them. But, you know, it can end up the same with some of the rap stuff as well. I can hear other artists, doing other things, not really like it initially, and then it starts to grow on me. I keep that kind of ‘open mind’ to it. So that’s really where that comes from, the trance side of it.
JON: I’m interested in what you’re saying there about people closing off their minds to new things/old things, whatever. I was reading your forum today and looking at some of the remarks fans are making about Passion. It really struck me, the kind of split in people’s mindsets about how some people like the old Pendragon sound, some people really like the new Pendragon sound…What goes through your mind when you read these conflicting reactions from your fans?
NICK: Well, I think if someone makes a comment like…I mean, one thing we had, someone put, “I think Barrett should have made a bit more effort.” If these people had any fucking idea the effort that goes in to making an album – if they were with me during it – they would not say that because, I seriously dig deep, you know? I put absolutely everything I could put into it, otherwise, I just wouldn’t bother doing it.
Someone said, “I think Nick Barrett’s given up.” If I was suddenly going to give up, why would I start doing a little bit of rock stuff, a bit more rap stuff, a bit more of a modern sound…why would I do that? I just thought that was such a weird thing to say. I didn’t get that comment.
On the other hand, it’s obviously nice when people really, really like it, that is so great. We’ve had so many five-star reactions on Progarchives and Amazon and things that it’s absolutely, totally brilliant. I also don’t really have a problem with people that…I mean there was one guy who was saying, “I really miss the guitar solos and he didn’t like it [the new album] and then, after a period of time, it started to grow on him. I really, really like it when you get that because I can’t think of one really fantastic album that I truly loved the first few times I heard it. Not a single one
JON: Yeah, I absolutely agree.
NICK: All the albums I have a really deep, deep love for are albums that, initially, I actually didn’t like – Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Tears For Fears’ Seeds Of Love, Tony Banks’ Curious Feeling – all nearly ended up in the bin but they became favourite albums after I gave them a good listen.
I mean, Progressive rock is complex kind of music. Anybody knows that this kind of music is going to take more than just one or two listens. It always surprises me when people say, “I played it first time and I didn’t like it.” I think, “Well, you know – it’s progressive rock, it’s going to demand a hell of a lot more from you than that, mate”
It’s not just me that’s bringing something to the table, it’s the fans and listeners that are bringing something to the table too. You know, they need to listen to it a lot because they’ll get a lot more out of it than just a pop album – that’s what it takes.
So, I don’t really mind if people say, “I don’t like it because of this, this and this.” “It’s a different style, I prefer the old blahdy,” but you know, if they actually listened to it a lot and opened themselves up to it, they probably would actually realise that the heart of Pendragon is still very much in it. I mean the melody and the emotion of the music – that’s our trademark and that will always be there. It may be a little bit heavier, or a little bit more whatever, but that melody and that heart will always be in the music.
JON: It’s really powerful in Passion, I think. Both of those things, the melody and the emotion are flooding out of the speakers, its wonderful for that.
NICK: That’s really good. It’s great to hear that.
JON: Thinking back a bit to the debacle you had with SPV and labels, with Pure and all of the money that didn’t materialise for you…did you feel any pressure while you making Passion, or even now, that it really needs to be a big international hit for you? Or do you just put stuff out because you want to make a document of your work?
There will now be an Intermission
Nick and I lost our connection for a few minutes so I stopped recording. Consequently, I missed the beginning of Nick’s answer to this question once our connection was re-established.
NICK: …idealistic way of thinking. You’ve got to survive. If you’re a plumber, you don’t just go and plumb things in just coz it’s fun, because after a while, it’s probably not fun. You’ve just got to be sensible. We need to make a living out of this.
You know, I don’t think, “There’s another bunch of money going into the bank” when I make the album but I do need and want it to sell because that has to keep me going. I don’t think we’ll ever put out an album because we need the money. If we wanted to do that, we could do what everyone else does that doesn’t want to go through the hard process of writing an album. You know, just release more archive, back catalogue, that kind of thing. We are, having said that – all of our albums are coming out on Snapper now so we’ll bring out some vinyl but there other ways to make money than just doing albums.
I really feel that I’m in some kind of a creative flow and I wanted to bring out another album two and half years after Pure to capitalise on what we built up with touring, and we toured our arses off. So, I wanted to see if it could be done really and it was a challenge. It has to be a challenge. It’s not really so much, “I just want to placate people who like us already.” or “I’m only in it for the money”, it’s about the challenge of creating something that’s going to hopefully move people or excite people.
JON: You’ve just been in Poland, is that right?
NICK: Yeah that’s right, yeah.
JON: How have your audiences been out there?
JON: Your quite big in Poland aren’t you?
NICK: Well we do quite well there, yeah. Not really, Big, but we did eight shows over there and the fact that we can do eight shows is very good. I mean, you know, we really need to go up a notch, we could really do with it becoming more well known because financially, on a tour, once you get past four hundred people, you can financially start making the thing make sense. Before that, it’s actually quite a struggle. So, we do well, but could actually do with doing better, I think.
JON: It’s a kind of perennial problem, I think, particularly within the prog scene…I go to gigs and see houses of about 100 most of whom are in their mid to late 40s. When we die, who’s going to carry the flag? Where are all the young people?
NICK: Yeah, this is kind of the joke. We were talking about that this afternoon. One of our German distributors here was just saying – I won’t say the two bands he was talking about – he said, “Band ‘n n’ and band ‘n n’ [feigning German accent] “Zese bands, ven ze audience dies will have nobody left and ve are coming very close to zis time.” We were just rolling about with laughter, but this is the point. You’ve just got to have new blood and I’m trying to get into a younger, vibrant new audience as well. See, that’s the life-blood of a band. You can just keep doing the same thing, but it’s boring. Who wants to just keep doing the same thing, with the same audience?…I mean, the great thing that we do have, is very loyal fans. People who like us are very, very loyal and that is a brilliant thing, you know? Some of them are quite old, but not all of them. There’s quite a lot of young people in there too.
JON: Is that what the lyric in Feeding Frenzy’s about? You know that lyric, “I crave the youth”?
NICK: erm…No. That’s an interesting point. No, it’s not actually, it’s about the ego taking over and it’s all about holding on to youth rather than embracing and walking into older age. That’s really what the song’s about. It’s a generalisation rather than specifically from a band point of view.
JON: Again, thinking about a particular track. One of the things I love about Pure and Passion are the lyrics. I love the kind of social conscience and political (with a small ‘p’) ideas that you put into your lyric writing. Thinking about Green And Pleasant Land, this is an extraordinarily pertinent, ‘anti-anthem’. My question is, if you could speak to David Cameron, what would you say?
NICK: (long pause) – I would say, erm…(another long pause) Crikey!
JON: Yeah, sorry to kind of spring that one on you.
NICK: If I was to speak to David Cameron I would probably have to pace up and down for a week to think of what I would want to say, because a lot of the things I would want to say would seem extreme. This is always the problem with things in this day and age…I mean, the bottom line with this is, that I believe that people are offended far too easily. I’m saying that because, obviously, being in a band from an ilk of music that’s not very popular, we’ve had every insult under the sun thrown at us and it hasn’t really done me any harm.
You could say that is a cultural thing and if people were a little bit more prepared to take things on the chin, I think we’d speak more honestly. With David Cameron, I would probably say, “What are we doing to move towards a society which is going to be a little bit more grown up and a little bit less like a kid caught with his fucking hand in the chocolate biscuit jar?
I do believe that attitude’s been nurtured, particularly in Britain with political correctness and then of course you’ve got the problem of kids growing up saying, “That teacher can’t insult me! He can’t make me do that!” Well, you know, when I was a kid – heh, I’m sounding like our parents here – when I was a kid, they did insult you and you did do that and it didn’t really do you any harm. You learned a certain amount of respect, you learned a certain amount of perspective with regards to the human race and I really think that’s important. It goes the same for the whole, extreme religious fundamentalist thing, because of political correctness…you know, the socialist, the labour party that we’ve had has made a meal out of this to the point where you’ve got a lot of people, you know – adults – behaving like three year olds, unable to cope with the smallest comment made without being offended. I find that absolutely extraordinary.
Like I say, we’ve been insulted for our entire careers and for 90% of the time, we’ve actually found it rather amusing. I don’t want to make myself sound like some sort of holier-than-thou person, but we’ve learned to accept that people do have different opinions, the world is full of different beliefs and ideas and my ideas are just one set of them, but so are theirs. And there’s room for most stuff, so long as it doesn’t involve killing or harming other people, I think it’s ok.
JON: Good answer!
NICK: Yeah, so all that to David Cameron, and more!
JON: What’s that noise at the end of Green And Pleasant Land?
NICK: That’s some yodellers
JON: No, not the yodelling, the squelching noise.
NICK: It’s a soft synth called Omnisphere which is one of the latest computer, Pro Tools synths and it’s one of the sounds on that.
JON: Why though? What is it? Is it something to do with a toilet?
NICK: No. It’s just an unusual sound that I found from Omnisphere that I wanted to use
JON: Ok – I’m reading too much into the sound then
NICK: No, someone else did as well, they said about the yodellers, “Is Nick Barrett trying to say that we need to go back to the 50’s and ‘60s when life was more simple?” But I can’t see how that correlates with a simple life: yodellers being a simple…I just don’t get that.
The idea of the yodellers was a joke because on the last three albums I’ve put yodellers on and Karl Groom who mixes them…I’ve always done it for a bit of a joke, I like something on each album that’s a little bit humorous and Karl Groom’s always managed to sink them in the mix so they don’t stick out too much. But this time, I wrote a piece of music with a very sparse backing so he couldn’t really sink the yodellers, to me, I just found that very amusing.
JON: That comes over on the DVD, your sense of humour comes over strongly. Again, there is just that hint in some of your lyrics that you’re slightly tongue-in-cheek, and I did wonder is this just a ‘Nick Barrett Joke’, this noise?
NICK: It probably is. I think that the thing with prog is, it’s quite anal really.
JON: Oh it can be terribly po-faced can’t it?
NICK: Yeah. You know, I come from bands like Slade where Noddy Holder had mirror covered top hats and Sweet where people wore silver latex, and I loved all that. There was a kind of a lightness – not comedy – a lightness, that went with that and sometimes I think that, if you’re doing a song that’s maybe a heavy subject, sometimes you just need to bring a bit of lightness to it.
JON: You mentioned Karl, What does working with Karl Groom bring to the mix?
NICK: Oh, everything. I work with him a hell of a lot on the mixes, by the mixing stage it’s usually just me and Karl. He sorts out all of the instruments in terms of tone and I can say I’m after a particular kind of thing and he’ll get it. He’s the easiest person I’ve ever worked with in terms of engineers and producers.
JON: Some of the tones on the album are amazing, it’s a beautiful production job
NICK: Well I’m really pleased to hear that. I’m pleased with the sound, a lot. But he’s very good at that. He’s very good at making the sound quite live and big. There’s always a depth to the sound which is very nice.
JON: So, last question Nick. Obviously, you’ve been around in the music industry for what? Nigh on 30 years now? You’ve obviously noticed a lot of changes over that time. What do you make of the current state of the music industry and how do you think it might pan out in the next 5-10 years?
NICK: Well, where there’s a will there’s a way. Ask me that a few years ago and I’d have said it was in a lot of trouble because of the whole illegal downloading culture, but we’ve found ways around that.
What we do now is, we tour immediately when an album comes out so people can buy the album straight away rather than wait a year; they can’t wait a year, so they download it. If they’re a little bit lazy, as the tour goes on and they haven’t downloaded it, hopefully, they will actually buy it. So, that side of things is very good. The retail side is probably still quite hard going because it’s become so cutthroat. If you announce you’re going to release an album for 15 quid, someone else will sell it for 14 and this happens to everyone, fighting over every single sale.
With Pendragon, because I write all the music and we make the CDs, apart from this time – we’ve licensed this one to Snapper – we’ve got an amazing amount of control over what we do, and you know, I run the record label. For bands that are signed to major labels? It’s probably going to be a bit of a nightmare, coz of the downloading thing and record companies are not very efficient. When they say, “Hey, you’re going to go and do a 40 date tour, you’ve got to take all these albums out, you can sell those on tour and we’ll make sure that duh der duh der duh…” They don’t really let that happen. They’ll put it out when they’re good and ready in their own way and they’ll promote in their own way when they’re good and ready.
If you’ve got a smaller record label like we’ve got at Snapper, they’re very kind of in tune with what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. So, they’re the kind of new way of thinking. I think that for the music business is very, very good. Also in terms of music, the bands that are coming out now that have got a little bit more forward thought, bands like Pendulum, you know? It’s kind of a mixture of melodic rock and trance and heavy metal as well that’s very interesting. Bands like Opeth, Porcupine Tree, Radiohead, Blackfield – it’s great to see that some of these bands have brought a new interpretation to music from the ‘70s.
These are exciting times musically for bands that are doing that. For bands that are still trying to play…I call them bands whose fans could never bear the fact that Peter Gabriel left Genesis, I think it’s probably going to be a little bit tougher. Musically, I really don’t think that’s a movement forward. There’s always going to be room for that sound, the trouble is, it’s become so polarized and anything outside of those Moog, organ, Mellotron, it’s almost like it’s become unacceptable and that’s just insane.
My argument for this is, 1970, 1973/74 – all that era – bands like Genesis used whatever they had at hand. Pink Floyd used whatever they had at hand. They used Hammond organs, they used slide guitars, whatever they could find synthesiser-wise to make whatever kind of sound. They pulled from so many different musical areas. I mean, Dark Side Of The Moon, bits of that are almost reggae/funk in a way. Floyd always had that. Genesis have always had that English classical thing. So they’ve pulled from there. They were all really pushing the boundaries. No one was saying to them “I don’t really like this because I thought you were going to sound like Acker Bilk from 30 years ago and I’m really gutted that you don’t.”
Move forward 30 years to where we are now and I’m getting people saying, “Yeah, I like the old sound of 30 years ago.” I’m getting that argument and I’m saying, “Look, there’s a lot going on out there now that’s really interesting.” We’re hoping to move forward but they’re applying the sort of argument of music from 30 years ago and I find that very annoying
JON: I’ve had my half hour and I’m very conscious of the fact that you need to go and chill out before you go on stage. Thanks very much for giving up your time, Nick. Have a wonderful evening this eveing – enjoy it. Best of luck with the tour. Best of luck with the new album, I really love it. Thanks for your time.