A DAY TRIP TO NEPTUNE'S GALAXY
The Dreamsville Rocket interviews Bill Nelson about his latest work.
You've just completed two new albums, 'The Alchemical Adventures of Sailor Bill' and 'Orpheus in Ultraland.' I understand that an extraordinary amount of time and effort went into the recording of these projects. Was the work unusually difficult for you?
BN "Well, I think I was trying to raise the bar a little, or at least attempting to explore another facet of my musical personality. The 'Sailor Bill' album uses lots of orchestral instrumentation, strings, woodwinds, reeds, brass and so on. There's also accordion, tympani and tubular bells, as well as the more usual guitar, drums and electronics. It's a heady mix.
But yes, it was difficult, a struggle at times, not only because I decided to centre the entire album around a specific theme but because I took on a larger than usual role within the music."
In what way was this a 'larger' role than usual?
BN "It was inescapably dictated by the scale of the instrumentation used. Most fans know that, on my solo albums, I normally play all the instruments, and that these instruments are the ones found in rock music's common vocabulary:- guitars, bass, drums and keyboards. But with the 'Sailor Bill' project, I also had to play cellos, violas, violins, French horn, English horn, oboe, accordion, trombones, trumpets, tympani, tubular bells and so on. Not literally, of course, just as keyboard parts, but I had to think like the musicians who might actually play these orchestral instruments in real life, try to get into each musician's frame of mind, approach the various instruments as if they were my own natural instrument of choice. A different hat for each overdub, as it were.
Also, as the songs are rather long and have constantly changing arrangements, a lot of concentration was required. I had to keep checking on the different sections of the orchestra to make sure all the individual parts were working correctly together, going in the right direction, a bit like being a conductor. Plus, I had the technical, studio side of things to deal with too, the engineer's job, the producer's job, as well as trying to be a composer and lyricist. The tracks are complex and many-layered so the recording process was much more involved and time consuming than usual. A lot of tasks to juggle at the same time. Really, it's the sort of album that should be made over a period of years, rather than months, but, unfortunately, I don't have that luxury. Instead, I simply put in intense hours of work, every day, until the deadline looms."
So, what exactly is the theme of 'The Alchemical Adventures of Sailor Bill' and does 'Orpheus in Ultraland' also have a theme?
BN "The 'Sailor Bill' album is the carefully 'themed' one. The 'Orpheus' album is a nice collection of songs that were originally written for the 'Sailor Bill' album but either didn't quite fit the concept or were simply extra to that project's requirements. Of course the 'Orpheus' album is intended as a very limited edition Nelsonica fan convention album but, in many ways, it could be regarded as an extension of the 'Sailor Bill' project, albeit with stylistic diversions. Although it's not as consistent thematically, it should still be regarded as a proper album filled with meaningful new work. The songs on 'Orpheus' have certainly had lots of time spent on them and should be regarded as a serious part of my 'folio'. But, to answer the first part of your question, the theme, or conceptual basis of 'Sailor Bill' is the sea and the coastline of England."
What made you choose such subject matter?
BN "I've actually written and recorded songs and music dealing with similar subject matter in the past, and I'm sure that knowledgeable fans could make up a list of such material. But, when I first ventured into this latest project, I was hunting around for something to hang it on, some kind of inspirational line. After recording a few pieces with different lyrical content, I realised that two or three of them seemed to be dealing with coastal images. The English coastline has always proved inspirational to me, particularly as I have very strong, fond memories of childhood holidays by the sea.
My father had a thing for the sea, a kind of existential soulfulness. He liked being near it, watching its changing patterns, regardless of the weather. I can remember he and I standing on the cliffs on the East Yorkshire coast, watching the waves crash in during the winter, or standing at the harbourside in Ilfracoombe in Devon in the 'fifties, watching the paddle steamer put out to sea. In fact, the photograph of myself with my younger brother Ian, that graces the cover of my 'Diary of a Hyperdreamer' book, was taken by my father at Ilfracoombe and depicts that same steamer.
There are many similar childhood memories of coastal landscapes that haunt me still. Readers of my diary will also know that I continue to enjoy the coast and visit places such as Whitby quite regularly, all year round."
So what sort of images and feelings were you trying to capture in these songs, was it purely the waves, the sky, the seascapes?
BN "All of that, yes, but also the look and feel of seaside towns; piers, funfairs, big wheels, promenades with coloured lights. It's a romanticised view, a thing of memory that, typically, belongs more to the 'fifties and 'sixties than today's more worldly era. Terribly emotional stuff for a man of my age, I suppose! The smell of hot dogs and onions, 'fifties rock n' roll music played through tannoy speakers in fairgrounds to accompany different rides. 'Kiss me quick' hats, Fairground folk art, colourful carnival lettering, end of pier variety shows, Blackpool illuminations, Blackpool Tower Ballroom and circus, boarding houses, tram shelters on the promenade in the rain, candy floss, sticks of rock... all those low-brow signifiers of the industrial working class annual holiday, but lighthouses too, salty dog style sea captains retired from the navy and now running pleasure boat rides for day trippers, holiday camps such as Butlins, caravan sites on cliff tops, broad, quiet beaches away from the seaside towns, rock pools where a boy can sail his model boat and beachcomb with his father.
Wild flowers growing in the fields along the coast itself, soft hills rolling back inland, farms and old houses that have vanished into the sea as a result of coastal erosion, happy open air sex on a deserted cliff-top in my late teens, curving bays, early morning empty beaches, seashells and starfish, harbour bells, fishing nets, seagulls wheeling overhead, salty, breezy air, ancient ships in full sail, treasure troves, voyages to magical islands, an orange sun setting over a blue horizon. It's almost endless! For me, the English coastline is rich with romance and melancholy."
Would you say that 'Sailor Bill' is a melancholy album then?
BN "I think so... to some degree anyway. It is also a metaphorical or symbolic album. It symbolises life's stormy journey, the loss of youth and innocence, the nostalgic longing for sunnier, simpler times, the fear for one's own mortality, the beauty and tragedy of universal decay, the inevitability of things and our ultimate inability to do very much about any of it. Nature triumphing over us perhaps?
It's about yearning too, a deep ache in the soul, a sense of the constant passing of time. Time eroding our lives just as the ocean wears away the land. All very, very English... part of what makes us English in the first place. There's no getting away from the fact that nostalgia plays a big part in the English identity, for good or for ill."
Do you think the current generation has inherited that sense of nostalgia, that sense of fatefullness?
BN "I don't know for sure. There's certainly a different attitude amongst the young now. Maybe they have their own nostalgias, rooted in a different set of values. You can't really generalise these things though. But I do think that the spirit of place that crops up in English romantic art, of whatever form, whether it be books, film, paintings, music, dance, etc, is still out there, still tinting our outlook. it's connected with England being a relatively small island too, I think. That sense of isolation, maybe. As a nation, as a society, we built our simplest dreams on the blue edge of this green isle, we built our fantasy retreats, planned our humble escape from the daily grind. Those little seaside towns sprang up, adorned with their glittering light bulb arcades, crumbling palaces of amusements, fortune tellers, sea foods stalls, toy shops and tea rooms... but, sooner or later, the sea will take them all away. Already has done in some locations, to one degree or another. I often think that a half-abandoned seaside town is more fascinating than one at its peak. It's full of ghosts and memories, tiny echoes of something once treasured but now lost. Faded dreams.
It's all quite sad and poetic, not just because of the way nature shows itself to be indifferent to our dreams but also because our dreams are so small and child-like, so tenderly naive. I think it's beautiful."
Do you also enjoy the kitsch aspect of these things, the awfulness of some of it, you know, when something is so tacky it becomes interesting or amusing?
BN "I didn't approach this particular material with any sense of irony or feeling of 'kitschness' (although the kitsch qualities are sometimes acknowledged within my music and some of my titles). As sophisticated as my tastes are these days, I have a genuine affection for the simple attractions of an old-fashioned seaside town and everything that it represents culturally, historically and metaphysically. There's absolutely no sneering 'high art' bullshit involved in my approach to this work all. It's simply a warmly felt, honest, unashamed and personal reaction to my own history and experience, regardless of the subject's humble qualities. I've always looked for the transcendental within the commonplace, within the everyday, beneath the superficial appearance of things. It's not a documentary piece of music in the 'kitchen sink' sense, it's a gentle fantasy, a fabrication, but one based on increasingly misty recollections from my past."
You seem to have regularly explored your early life through your music and writings. You don't seem afraid of dealing with this aspect of your life in your work. Did you have a happy childhood?
BN "Sometimes happy, sometimes not, like everyone else, I suppose. I know that I always had an awareness of the temporariness of things, the ephemeral nature of life. This awareness seems to be an inescapable part of my nature and, naturally, it works its way into my creative life. Also, I've always had a taste for something just beyond the ordinary, something almost fairy tale like, hallucinatory. Seaside architecture and graphic design, fairgrounds, piers and so on, captured my imagination. As a child, in the 'fifties, I was enchanted by these cheaply fantastical things. The seaside was truly a magical place, sometimes a very strange place."
Strange? In what way?
BN "Well, here's a simple example: I recall the old freak shows that used to populate Blackpool's promenade, and the mysterious booths of the gypsy fortune tellers who could tell you how long you would live and whether you'd leave this world rich or poor. Even the clowns in the Tower Circus were somehow a little sinister, like escapees from another dimension where all was not exactly as it should be. The comedians at the pier variety shows had that old, 'show-biz', free-spirit kind of wildness, very different from life as I knew it back then. Slightly mad and dangerous, or so it seemed at the time! Anyway, these seaside memories and more are all tied up in the inspiration behind 'Sailor Bill'. I should also mention that, my surname being Nelson, it was impossible to ignore my own ancestor's sea faring exploits!"
You said that you've used a lot of 'classical' orchestration throughout the album. Could you a explain a little about that?
BN "Well, I have used orchestral textures occasionally in the past, even in the days of Be Bop Deluxe... 'Darkness' and 'Crystal Gazing' are two songs with real orchestra from that '70's period. But, from more recent times, a piece such as 'Bride of the Atom' comes to mind. Anyway, I felt that symphonic textures would best evoke a nostalgic sense of the English coast.
I wanted it to feel, in a way, quite 'old fashioned', sort of post-war/pre-war British film industry, Ealing Studios soundtrack type sonics... but mashed up with my guitar and my interest in electronic/digitally generated effects. But there's nothing remotely 'avant-garde' about this album really, nothing 'experimental'. Despite its complexity and densely layered production, it's highly melodic and song-oriented, but richly textured and epic in scale. It's an ambitious thing but accessible."
Obviously, you didn't have the financial resources to book a real symphony orchestra to play on this latest material, so, how did you achieve the effect of so many symphonic instruments?
BN "I used my recently acquired Yamaha Motif keyboard which has some lovely orchestral sounds on board. I also played the parts in real time, rather than use computer sequencing, to give the feel of real players being involved. There are 'loosely played' elements that add to this and the finished result isn't mechanical. Of course, it isn't quite the same as using a real live orchestra, but the cost of hiring the real thing would have been phenomenal... these are big arrangements too and would have been costly and time-consuming to score. I also decided to give the orchestra a separate personality from myself, so I've named it the 'Lighthouse Signal Mechanism Orchestra', so that it takes on an identity of its own."
Are the songs structured like pop/rock songs, but with orchestral overdubs?
BN "Not really, although there are some nods to more 'contemporary' music. Many of the songs are quite long, over eight minutes, and don't follow a rock music style repeating pattern, you know, verse-chorus or whatever. Often, the songs develop through several 'movements' and end up in an entirely different place to where they began. Sort of 'cinema classical'.
It would be difficult for someone to listen to, say, the first minute of a song and then exactly predict what the rest of the song's overall form would be. There are constant shifts of key and mood. Having said that, there IS a real consistency to the material. It should be thought of as a suite or a song cycle. Not only is the lyric content themed, but the musical motifs and textures 'cross pollinate' throughout the album. Each song is like one part of a single puzzle. It is, in effect, one big, epic piece of music."
Would you say it is a difficult album for the listener then?
BN "Well, as I said, it is very melodic, so there are definite threads for people to find their way through the orchestral maze. No, I don't think it's difficult at all. I think it's charming, atmospheric and autobiographical, but for anyone expecting tons of orthodox rock guitar solos, perhaps it might seem a bit unusual. But not too much of a challenge I hope. As long as the listener is open to the songwriting side of my work and is prepared to take the album on its own terms, I think they'll find it deeply rewarding, especially over time as there's so much detail to get to grips with.
When approaching these pieces for the first time, the listener should be patient and follow the song's course, allow it to develop to its proper conclusion. Don't expect instant gratification, just let all the different parts reveal themselves in their own time. This album could sustain a listener's interest for a fair while, once the initial surprise has been accepted! Above all, it's an album for the heart, from the heart. An emotional album for old fashioned romantics."
It seems you spent many more hours than usual on this project. What sort of effect did that intensity of work have on your life?
BN "Not good, that's for sure! My health has suffered in several ways, stress levels have been higher than usual, my family has seen far too little of me and I've been constantly pre-occupied with the work, even when away from it. You could say it became all consuming. I've lost the entire summer to this project, being locked away in my tiny studio room, hunched over my equipment whilst the bees buzzed happily outside."
Does the album consist entirely of vocal pieces?
BN "Mostly, yes. But I have inserted a few short instrumental interludes to bridge certain moods and to provide atmospheric focus as well as creating a bit of a 'breathing space' from the longer songs. The album opens with an entirely orchestral instrumental called 'The Lighthouse Keeper's Waltz' which sets the scene, as it were. A kind of overture for what is to follow."
What about 'The Ocean, the Night and the Big, Big Wheel'? It sounds like there's a fairground atmosphere there.
BN "Well, that particular song tries to evoke a romantic encounter, perhaps on a pier at night, looking back at the coastline with all its colourful lights, a funfair somewhere in there, with a big wheel and rock 'n' roll music playing as the dodgems and waltzers whizz around. But the couple in the song are tranquil, at ease with each other, peaceful against the funfair background. They're some distance from it, observing it from the warmth of each other's arms. The song itself is gentle too. It uses a mid/slow tempo electronic noise loop as a percussion track but has a big, bright, hook of a chorus, quite a pop song in some ways, but it's rather lovely too. And of course, it features the Lighthouse Signal Mechanism Orchestra. There's also a rather nice, and very appropriate period touch at the end of this track, but I won't tell you what it is. It should be a pleasant surprise for those who are tuned into it, a smile raiser!"
How about 'A Boat Named St. Christopher'? Does this refer to a real boat?
BN "Well, it is real but it was actually a toy boat that my father bought me! It was red and cream, made out of tin and had the words, 'St. Christopher' printed on its bow. It was powered by an electric, battery driven motor. I used to sail it in rock pools on the beach at Reighton Gap when I was a boy. It lost it many, many years ago but recently found an identical one at an antique fair. A couple of bits missing from it but otherwise in good condition. I was pleased to be reminded of the original one. It conjures up images of my father and pleasant days on the beach.
Anyway, this particular tune is an instrumental and evokes the memory of the toy boat."
What about 'Illuminated Promenade'? Sounds like this could be an instrumental too?
BN "Yes, it is. It evokes Blackpool's 'Golden Mile' with its illuminations. I went there as a very young child, a babe in arms the first time, I think. But I recall the illuminations with great fondness. I remember being wheeled in my pushchair along the promenade on a crisp autumn evening, looking up at the fantastic display of lights as the brightly decorated trams rattled by. This piece of music attempts two things, one is to paint a picture of Blackpool's Edwardian past, when the lights were in their earlier incarnation and times were more 'genteel'. The second is to pay tribute to Blackpool's variety shows of the 'fifties and 'sixties when big band style swing music was hanging on, despite the increasing popularity of rock 'n' roll music.
I remember attending traditional variety shows at venues such as the Winter Gardens and The Opera House, as well as seeing rock n' roll acts such as Marty Wilde And His Wildcats, Billy Fury, Karl Denver and Johnny Kidd and The Pirates playing in 'end of the pier' theatres. This particular album track starts off in orchestral mood, with a hint of palm court or tea room ensemble about it, then morphs into a variety show 'big band' feel, complete with trombone solo and electric organ, that sort of, 'mock-jazz' that those pit bands sometimes played in an attempt to sound 'modern.' I had a lot of fun with this track, particularly trying to restrict the jazzier elements to the feel of the period."
Would you say that you were satisfied with the album, now that it's finished?
BN "I'm not sure anything is ever finished, at least with regard to my own music. I get bored with it, or I run out of time, or equipment fails and I'm forced to draw the line but... there's always something I'd like to change, to improve upon. In fact, I genuinely 'finished' this particular project twice, and then went back to work on it some more. And if it wasn't for the fact that there's a manufacturing/release schedule to adhere to, I'd probably still be refining it, adding new material. But it has to stand on its own merits now and I no longer have any control over its destiny. It is, as they say, what it is.
As for being satisfied, I can't really relate such a feeling to my music. I guess I'm never satisfied, which is why I continue to move on, make another album. At this point in time, I just can't say what my ultimate feelings about the 'Sailor Bill' album will be. Can't tell if I hate it or love it, couldn't say whether it's brilliant or an ambitious folly. Eventually, I'll be able to see it more clearly but, right now, I'm still too wrapped up in the process of making it to be able to hear it properly. I just hope that there are some people out there who will be receptive to it and to what it is attempting to convey. I think it's a generous record, a gift to the right person... but they've got to be prepared to spare the time to unwrap it!"
BILL NELSON FINALLY COMPLETES HIS LATEST EPIC RECORDING PROJECT
After several months of constant work, Bill Nelson has announced the completion of two brand new albums. The first of these is titled 'The Alchemic Adventures of Sailor Bill' and will be released as 'a coastal song suite by Bill Nelson and his Lighthouse Signal Mechanism Orchestra'.
The Dreamsville Rocket has obtained an interview with Bill in which he talks about the making of the album and discusses its inspiration and themes. You can read it exclusively in this issue of The Dreamsville Rocket. We also have a track listing for this album and for the highly limited edition Nelsonica fan convention album, 'Orpheus In Ultraland'.
The track listing for 'The Alchemical Adventures of Sailor Bill' is as follows:-
01. The Lighthouse Keeper's Waltz
02. The Ceremonial Arrival of The Great Golden Cloud
03. Here Comes the Sea
04. Dream of Imperial Steam
05. Sailor Blue
06. Ship of Summer, All Lights Blazing
07. Illuminated Promenade
08. The Ocean, the Night and the Big, Big Wheel
09. A Boat Named St. Christopher
10. Moments Catch Fire on the Crests of Waves
11. The Sky, the Sea, the Moon and Me
12. My Ship is Lost to Semaphore
The Nelsonica 05 fan convention album, 'Orpheus In Ultraland' also contains twelve new tracks, some taken from the overspill of the 'Sailor Bill' album, others created specially for the Nelsonica cd. It is of extremely high quality and destined to become much sought after. Initially, this album will only be given to ticket holders of this year's Nelsonica convention but should any copies remain, after the convention has been held, they will be offered for public sale in the Dreamsville Department Store.
However, quantities may be small and there are no guarantees that supply will fulfill demand. The only safe way to obtain one of these collector's items is to buy a convention ticket. By doing this, you also help to support the continuation of Nelsonica into the future and ensure that the music keeps flowing.
The track listing for 'Orpheus In Ultraland' is as follows:-
01. The Man Who Haunted Himself
03. Suburban Mermaid One Twenty Three
04. Dreams Run Wild on Ghost Train Tracks
05. Tin Sings Bones
07. Every Tiny Atom
08. And Now the Rain
09. Super Noodle Number One
10. Moments Catch Fire on the Crests of Waves (Alternative Mix)
11. Big Broken Buick
12. The Whirlpool Into Which Everything Must Whirl
A REVIEW OF "ROSEWOOD - VOLUME II"
By Jon Wallinger
Fast on the heels of 'Volume I', we are now able to luxuriate in the beauty that is 'Rosewood Volume II'.
I will assume by now, that you have all heard 'Volume I' and in a nutshell - if you liked the first one, you will have no complaints about the second incarnation.
Although much along the same lines, 'Volume II' has a more upbeat feel. The guitar is a touch more melodic and adventurous, also the percussion is more evident.
When first hearing this CD, I had the misfortune of continually getting disturbed. Visitors, phone-calls, having to go to work (you know the score). This is NOT the way to enjoy Rosewood. Although the individual tracks are beautiful in their creation and execution, the strength of this music is its ability to enclose you in its own world. It builds a transparent wall around you, a wall that can keep at bay your stresses and worries.
Make time for the music, put aside an hour. If you can, choose a location where you can melt into the music without being disturbed. Watch the sunset. Gaze at the stars. Relax on a deserted beach. Be at peace with yourself and let Rosewood be your guide and companion.
There are new layers within the music to discover every time you listen to Rosewood Volume II, because of the dreamland state that evolves whilst listening, the consequence is that the music hypnotises you in new ways on each airing.
In My opinion, this CD should be available on prescription!
AUTUMN TOUR DATES
Sunday 6th November
London, Bloomsbury Theatre
Friday 11th November
Hove, The Old Market
Friday 18th November
Leeds, Irish Centre
Thursday 24th November
Manchester, Life Café
Saturday 26th November
Bilston, The Robin 2
Sunday 27th November
Birkenhead, Pacific Road Arts Centre