Grant Nicholas
Yorktown Heights / UK Tour
October 2014
Interview & Photography: Steve Bateman

"For all the best artists, the thrill of continued commercial success is at some point outweighed by the need to challenge themselves creatively. After 20 stellar years with Feeder - including 8 gold and platinum albums and over 3 million album sales - for Grant Nicholas that moment came after his band’s sell out show at Brixton Academy on 23rd November 2012. “When you have a formula which you know... works it can be difficult to stop,” he explains with typical candour. “Feeder is a great band to be in, but it requires a certain head space. I wanted to clear my head for a bit and write some songs, and this album just came along. It felt so natural because there were no expectations.”

As with so many of his peers (Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn) this lifting of the commercial burden sparked an outpouring of fresh music and ideas. Recorded over fourteen months in various studios on both sides of the Atlantic, Yorktown Heights is that rarest of beasts - an album which evokes the carefree spirit of Laurel Canyon in the 70's while also sounding bang up to date. Ambitious, largely acoustic, and full of head-spinning melodies, it’s also Grant’s most personal work to date. “I definitely had a 70's vibe in my head for this record,” he says, citing Nick Drake, Neil Young and James Taylor as inspirations. “I love the fact they weren’t always the best singers, but their songs sounded so believable.”

Grant’s ability to match these songwriting legends is clear from opening track ‘Soul Mates’. A beautiful acoustic lament - which comes with a video shot in Queens Wood, close to Grant’s North London home - it’s a heartfelt hymn of mutual need. “Even though it’s just an acoustic guitar and a vocal, it’s immediately got a reaction from people. It’s easy to criticise simple songs, but if you strike a chord with someone, that’s gold.” If Yorktown Heights’ lyrics offer up both personal insights and classy ruminations on modern life, its sonic character comes from where the tracks were laid down. While sessions at his own home studio (The Treehouse), Angelic Studios in Banbury and The Crypt (London) were vital staging posts, the album takes its name from the district of upstate New York where the songs came into focus.

“The bulk of it was done at Tiny Pocket in Yorktown Heights with Brian Sperber (Julian Casablancas, Dinosaur Jr) and Sam Miller,” he explains. “It’s only about an hour directly north of Manhattan but you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.” The final piece in the jigsaw came with a mastering session in Los Angeles with Brian ‘Big Bass’ Gardner, famed for his work with everyone from Alice Cooper to Dr Dre. “I think he’s got a magic button under the desk which suddenly brings a new depth to everything,” says Grant with a grin. “He gave the record a real 70‘s warmth, which is so important.”

It’s this attention to the smallest sonic details you’d expect from a master craftsman who worked as a studio engineer before Feeder took off. Future plans include intimate live shows, uploading full length visuals for every song online and a new touring band... Right now, though, it’s all about getting the songs a fair hearing. “This record is very important to me,” he says, explaining that the album is also a family affair - the sleeve illustrations were hand drawn by his nine year old daughter. “I’ve spent a lot of time on it and I want people to hear it. And if it takes off, then of course that’s a nice problem to have.” Don’t bet against it. After twenty years in the business, Yorktown Heights is proof that Grant Nicholas is only just reaching his peak." OFFICIAL BIOG EXTRACTS

Over the years, R*E*P*E*A*T has featured Feeder on numerous occasions during their career – with the publication's Editor, Rosey, even giving away one of the band's early cassettes with some issues when they were just starting out! So, as a long-time fan myself, I was super stoked to be able to catch up with Grant a couple of weeks after his excellent Bristol Fleece & Firkin gig, where he performed solo songs with his touring group and even threw in some well-suited covers as well (Neil Young, Tom Petty). A show that was brimming with ear enrapturing musicianship, heart-melting melodies, soul burrowing choruses and meaningful, melancholic and deeply personal lyrics. And as one of my all-time favourite singers, it goes without saying, that like a fine wine, Grant's unmistakable voice is only getting better with age as it sounded sublime!

On top of this, the set list was also sprinkled with warm and memorable light-hearted banter throughout – even intersected with questions from the audience at selected moments, giving the night the feel of an intimate 'An Evening With...' style concert. Grand in every way! And although (as chief tunesmith) Feeder remains Grant's main priority, having already written a handful of tracks for the band's next studio album and even claimed that the biggest highlight of his career, was the day that the group signed their record deal. In 2014, it's all about going it alone and promoting his debut solo LP, which was partly funded through PledgeMusic and released through Nicholas' own imprint, Popping Candy. Our 15-minute telephone conversation took place on Tuesday afternoon, October 14 at 1.30pm, and as expected, Grant was a true gent...

Lucy: Your band have been quite quiet for the last few months. Are you looking forward to playing gigs again?
Katie Jane Garside: I think I give very obtuse ans

1. As a musician / producer, are your aspirations different now compared to when you were first starting out?
"I don't know really. I mean, I think I've probably achieved quite a lot along the way with Feeder and I suppose there were things that I always wanted to try. But, this is my first solo album outside of Feeder and although I write the songs in Feeder, it's still a very different approach to this record and it's a slightly different vibe, as you would've heard live. It's less of the heavy guitars and a bit more about the voice and the acoustic guitar – back to the more stripped-back sound, which is kind of how I write most of the songs anyway. But obviously, I didn't want to add the usual layers that I do on a Feeder record. As for 'Are my aspirations different now?' I think I'm still enjoying it and feeling inspired really, and as I've got older my life has changed – I've got kids now and a lot of things have happened along the way, which sort of gives me different things to write about. So, I suppose my drive is the same as it was when I started off, I just think that I'm probably a bit more comfortable with what I'm doing now and a bit more focused."

2. How often do you appraise your body of work, and of all your long players to date, which do you think is the most complete or fully-realised?
"Do you know, I don't really do it very often. I suppose the only one that I've really done that with, is probably my solo album. It wasn't really a big plan, I just started writing songs – I knew some co-writing partners who were looking for songs – but then, I realised that I had a body of work and I wanted to hang onto a few of them (laughing)! So, it just sort of happened that way really. My plan was to take some timeout from Feeder, just to have a little bit of a break, because after 20-years, I just felt like we needed to stop for a while. I mean, I'm not just saying this and I'm not just trying to plug my new record (laughing), but probably as an overall record, I would say that Yorktown Heights is probably the album I'm most comfortable with."
*I comment that Grant was able to experiment a lot more with his vocal range on this LP as well*
"Yeah, that's right! But returning to your question, if I had to pick a Feeder record though – there's been so many, and obviously, the first album (Polythene) was important to us and put us on the map – but I think if I had to pick one Feeder moment, which I feel most proud of as a writer, it would probably be Comfort In Sound."
*I say that that's also my favourite Feeder album*
"Yeah, and just because I think it touches on what I'm doing now and I think there's elements of this record, that would have worked on Comfort In Sound. But, I feel as though for me, it was just a bit of a (pausing), I think I was a little bit more open to trying new things on that record, because I didn't know what the future had in-store for Feeder or whether we were even going to carry on. So, a lot of those songs were written with not quite knowing what was going to happen with them. So maybe that's why Comfort In Sound is a little bit more special than some of the others."

3. Did you learn guitar by playing along to songs and buying chord books + was it important to you to master this instrument, or did you see it more as a vehicle for ideas / a conduit as a means of expression?
"I've never had a guitar lesson in my life, so yeah, I played along to records! I learnt trumpet at school, which was ok for a while – and I learnt to read music – but in terms of how I view myself or express myself as a guitar player, I'm more of a 'by ear' guitarist. Because I learnt by playing along to Led Zeppelin albums, Black Sabbath albums, a lot of rock albums and even some more mellow sort of stuff as well... I remember trying to work out things like Pink Floyd and Beatles records. Then, as I got more into music, I listened to American artists like Neil Young, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan."

4. James Dean Bradfield revealed that his breakthrough on the guitar was mastering This Charming Man by The Smiths. He's also talked of how he has a favourite lucky guitar that he writes on, and that when buying a new guitar, he has to make a connection with it immediately. Is this similar for you?
"Yeah, and every time that I get a new guitar, or a vintage one – I tend to play a lot of vintage instruments because I like the sound of the older wood and the feel of them – but I would definitely say that when you get a new guitar, it's always inspiring! I normally always write a new song when I get a new guitar, so I totally understand what James is saying. But I suppose if I had to pick one guitar, just for its history really, it would probably be my Gibson J-200, which I did use for a few songs in Bristol (pausing). It was good to back after all these years at the Fleece & Firkin and Bristol almost feels like a hometown gig for me, because I spent so much time playing there and I even lived there once for a bit, and it was also the show that you came to. But anyway (laughing), the J-200 guitars are quite big-bodied, with the flower design on the scratch plate. I don't know if you'll remember it, but it's also the one I used in the Soul Mates video. Now, that's probably one of my oldest acoustics, because it was one that I bought when we were touring the first album in America. I bought it in a tiny music shop in Boise, Idaho (laughing), so it's got a bit of history to it and it's been on many Feeder records and that was the main acoustic guitar that I used on Yorktown Heights. So, I would say that that's probably got the most history! If I had to give you another one, it's my 1964 Guild M20, which is a small-bodied acoustic guitar that I play on my solo record and is the main guitar that I'm using live. It's an old guitar, which was also apparently one of Nick Drake's favourite models. I just found it by accident, I just picked it up in a shop and I really loved it and it went from there really."

5. Some leading guitarists now have tutorial videos on YouTube, and in the inaugural episode of the sterling 'Sky Arts Guitar Stories', Mark Knopfler spoke about his guitar collection. Divulging lots of fascinating tales from the very first guitar that he owned, to how he came to be in possession of certain guitars, to favourites that have helped to shape his sound etc. So, with this in mind, I wondered if there is anyone who you would like to see appear on this TV show?
"(exhaling a deep breath) Wow, that's a really tough one! Well (laughing), obviously apart from myself – I wouldn't mind doing that (laughs heartily), because I've got quite a few guitars which I've collected over the years! I don't know actually, there's quite a few... maybe Neil Young? I wouldn't mind seeing James Dean Bradfield actually – you know, I've met the Manics because we've done a few shows together and I know them a little bit, James is a great guy actually and they're nice people! But, I know he's a bit of a collector like me (laughing)! I think he's got quite a few in his collection, so I wouldn't mind seeing what he's got! But just for iconic reasons, I would probably say Neil Young or Tom Petty, or somebody like that."

6. Have you ever set out to write a specific song (conversational, storytelling etc.) and do you ad-lib lyrics or embellish them with your imagination?

"I have set out to write specific songs and I think everybody ad-libs lyrics when they're writing. You might have sort of half-a-verse, then you kind of jam and find certain words that rhyme or certain syllables that sound good together. Certainly, in the very early days with songwriting in Feeder, if we did a gig and played a new song, I hadn't even finished the lyrics (laughing)! I used to blag it and kind of make it up on the spot almost. It was a bit scary (laughing) and I don't do that anymore! But, I think when you're first starting out in a new band and ideas are coming to you all-of-the-time, you often just try things out live and there were a few occasions where I definitely used to wing it a bit (laughs heartily)!"

7. Do you write lyrics line-by-line and piece musical compositions together?
"I mean, every record is different. I think with my solo record, in some ways, it was an easier album to write lyrically, because I knew what I kind of wanted to say with a lot of the songs that I had. I had quite a clear idea about the lyrics and the music – although I wouldn't say it was completely easy – but it felt very natural and I wrote about a lot of things that were a bit more personal and a bit more family-oriented. So, that obviously gives you a bit more to actually write about, when you're writing about something which really means something to you. But I do often write with (pausing), I take my own experiences and people that I know, and I like to sort of twist it a bit and build characters around the song, so it's not always quite so personal. I try to take it to a different level and I find that quite inspiring! I think Tom Petty's really good at doing that, just the way that he writes some of his lyrics. They're very simple, but they have nice little stories and they give you nice imagery as you're listening to them. That's what I tried to do with Yorktown Heights."

8. Would you agree that guitar-based songs can be dictated by a player's sound + have you ever deliberately referenced older Feeder tracks, either through chord changes or lyrical motifs?
"Yeah, definitely! Every guitar player has a style – it doesn't matter who it is! With Tom Petty, it doesn't matter whether he's going to do a solo record or a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album, you can hear his style on both and I think it's the same with most people. I don't think that's a bad thing, because I think guitar players and songwriters need to have a bit of an identity. I know that I have certain chords that I kind of like using, or that I like the sound of or the shape of. So, I think there's definitely songs that I've purposely (pausing), I remember reading about Beatles albums when I was younger – whether it's true or not what I read, I don't know – but I always found it interesting that they said some of the songs were a continuation. I always thought that was a really good idea! So, I've always tried to do that a little bit. I've done it on some Feeder records and I've touched on a few songs on this album, that sort of started on Feeder records, which at the time, I wasn't sure if they'd actually end up on a Feeder record (laughing)! So, I've gone back to some of those – you know, you have little flashbacks to things and sometimes, you feel like you want to say more about that particular topic. So yeah, I have definitely done that and sometimes it's not always that intentional, but then you realise afterwards, that it's like a flashback to something that is still obviously in your head about a certain subject. It's hard to explain, but I think a lot of writers do that – you can hear it on Beatles records. I definitely did it on a few tracks on this album and I was quite happy to do that. I mean, like Soul Mates is kind of a continuation from Dove Grey Sands, which was never even going to be a Feeder track, it was just going to be one that I kept for myself, but it ended up on a Feeder record (Pushing The Senses). It was really one of the first songs where I stated to do that finger-picking style, and just the whole way the lyrics flow and what I was writing about, Soul Mates is a sort of continuation of that in some ways. I suppose a continuation of life as the years go by and having little flashbacks to when I was writing that song. So, there's one example for you."

9. As you played a Neil Young cover and a Tom Petty cover in Bristol, I was interested to know how many covers you can actually play, and also, has this then made you appreciate those songs in new ways, i.e. is there a track which you thought was about something completely different until eventually discovering its true meaning?

"(laughing) I don't really do a lot of covers and we don't normally do two in a set – I think it was just because we were having a bit of fun in Bristol, that we threw a Neil Young cover in. The reason we did it, is because we played Heart Of Gold for a Dermot O'Leary session on BBC Radio 2 a few months earlier, and also, we were playing in Hyde Park in a smaller tent when Neil Young was doing the Main Stage. So we thought it would be quite nice to do a Neil Young song and on Dermot's radio show, you have to do one of your own songs and you have to do one cover – I've been on there a few times, so I've done a few covers now. But, I've done everything from Frankie Goes To Hollywood to R.E.M., I've done a couple of Police covers, I think I did a Fleetwood Mac cover once and I've done Nirvana covers. I haven't done lots of covers, but I just think it's quite nice – especially when you're doing a solo record – to maybe have something which gives a hint to people, of what I like and what has inspired me over the years. That's why I've got a Tom Petty song (Learning To Fly) – as simple as it is – and then a Neil Young song. I'm sure we'll work out a few other covers, so we can maybe change it (laughing). I've never been in a covers band and I suppose the nearest I've come to that, was probably my school band, just sort of doing different covers of my favourite bands at the time. But yeah, playing covers can make you appreciate songs in new ways!"


10. Prior to entering a recording studio, some musicians like to have a pool of songs, whereas others prefer to have a strict quality control and only write enough for each record. What's your approach, and are your albums reflective of how they were made?
"Albums can be reflective of how they're made, yeah, and I always have more songs than I need. I'm constantly writing and that's a bit of a problem sometimes, because I end up jumping from one to the other. So, I tend to have more material than I need. Even for the solo record, I had more songs than I needed and I kept some back actually, because they felt like they were heading towards the more kind of rock side and I didn't want that for this record. So, I think it's always good to have as many songs as you can, but also, sometimes you can have too many and not focus on what you've got that's already good. So it's always a tricky one. I mean, with every record that I've done, some of the later songs that I've written – even after a record was basically finished – I think, have often been some of the better songs. For example, I wrote Just The Way I'm Feeling right at the end of making Comfort In Sound and I was working with the producer, Gil Norton, at the time and he was like, "It's really good, but I'm not sure if we need it, because we've already got songs that touch on that." But I was like, "I've got a really good feeling about this song." So we recorded it and it actually ended up being our biggest 'hit'! That was a bigger 'hit' than Buck Rogers, but when people think about Feeder, they just think of Buck Rogers. But Just The Way I'm Feeling was actually our biggest 'hit' and it was on our biggest album (laughing)! So, I don't know why people don't remember that one, because to me, that was a massive song. It actually got more radio play than any other Feeder song I think, it's just that I think people remember Buck Rogers because of the name of the song as well – it's just quirky you know? So definitely, yeah, I think it's great to have a pool of songs, but saying that, I think for the next Feeder record I make, I may take a slightly different approach and just get 10 or 12 killer tracks and then just go in and record them quite quickly, do it a bit more old-school. Just see what happens and see where we're at, because I want the songs to be really good live as well. I think sometimes, when you rehearse them really well and then you just go in and record them, it can be great! However, you don't often get time to do that when you get bigger as a band, because you're always on the road all-of-the-time. Those times happen more when you're a new band, because you've got all of that time to yourself before you sign a deal. So, I think that's how I might do the next one. But to answer your question, yeah, I've normally got quite a big pool of songs – I've even got songs going back to early Feeder records that we didn't quite finish. I'm sure they're all on a tape somewhere, like things that were half-recorded or ones that haven't got any finished vocals on (laughing). All sorts!"

11. I always think that it must be a very special moment for any artist / band to see their name in print for the first time – be it press coverage or a tour advertisement etc. So, with this in mind, can you remember when you first saw a fly poster or a flyer publicising a Feeder show?

"I can't remember the very first one, but I can remember some of the photo shoots that we did and I remember seeing the posters go up as we were starting to get bigger. I mean, we started off touring a lot in Cornwall and Devon, playing bars and places that were popular with a lot of surfers and stuff, because we had a bit of the surf / skate following when we first started off in Feeder. So, I remember seeing a lot of funny little flyers there... I'm just trying to think of one in particular. We went through a crazy phase wearing these orange boiler suits, which was a bit of a mad idea (laughing)! But at the time, we were trying to do something to standout from the crowd and at that point, it was all like Britpop and we were this rock band that had melodies. Everyone sort of said (incredulously), "Why are you wearing those things!?!" But you know what, we were pretty ahead of our time, because Slipknot did it after us and the Beastie Boys did it as well! But we got the idea from Devo and also Sting from The Police. Years ago, I saw him wearing this green army flying suit and I just thought it was kind of wacky, because it was during the punk days. So, when it got to the stage where we were having to think about what to wear onstage every night, we had these orange boiler suits and it became a bit of a band identity for a while, but it was just a bit of fun really. We did it for a photo shoot and then we decided to wear them one night for a gig and it kind of caught on. I'm not sure if we'll do it again (laughing), but I don't think it was as bad as (pausing), some people liked it and some people wondered why we were wearing these mad boiler suits. But at least people remembered us!"

12. Lastly, has touring and promoting Yorktown Heights been an enjoyable experience for you?
"Yeah (enthusiastically) and I'm just changing strings on my guitar at the moment (laughing)! I don't do that often, but I'm keeping it pretty old-school for this tour, it's been really fun and we've got three shows left, a couple in Scotland and one in London. I think we're going to do a bit more touring early next year with it, take it to Europe and then I'll think about what I'm going to do next really. I'll probably go back to Feeder and I'm thinking about maybe doing another solo record some time, because this one has done ok and I think it's a real word-of-mouth record, and as I've gone out and done the shows, people have got more interested. You know, the reaction – even from some of the die-hard Feeder Fans – has been really good! It's always hard when you do a solo record, because some people only want their favourite band, like your main band. But to be honest with you, it's been really positive and it is quite a mellow record, so you never quite know how people are going to take it. But the feedback so far, has been really, really good!"
*I say to Grant that I bought the signed Deluxe Edition of Yorktown Heights and think that it's a gorgeous album*
"Well, thanks very much, and to me, that is the album! The standard version is a slightly cheaper one just for retail, but for me, the Deluxe Edition is kind of the whole journey really. If I give a copy to anybody, that's the one that I give to them, because it says kind of what I wanted to say on this record."

A very special thanks to Grant, to Millie @ MBC PR and to Rosey, for all of their time and help.

"I saw the future, life through a coloured lens, it looked so bright"

wers to questions...It's never about looking forward to it. Actually maybe I should change the
script, maybe we are looeir musicm the 3rd album?