“A Trick of the Memory” - Nick Magnus and Dick Foster in conversation with TWR about their new album: N’Monix. Interview conducted by Alan Hewitt and TWR’s latest cub scout reporter; Frank Rogers. Photographs by Alan Hewitt and Frank Rogers.
TWR: So, we are hear to talk to you about the new album, N’Monix and I suppose the first question is when did you start work on it?
NM: About two years ago I think… (Dick Foster nods in agreement from the corner).
TWR: All of your albums have had some sort of concept to them and usually associated with mythology so tell us about the concept behind this one…
NM: OK, the mythology bit in N’Monix probably forms less of the album per track minute than on the previous ones! (Laughs). Certainly less than on Hexameron but there is a mythological root through it. Basically the whole concept of the album is about time and memory and it is about how time creates everything but ultimately destroys everything as well. In the short term when things are gone the only thing that is retained is a memory of them and even that goes eventually when people die so when that happens, the things are gone and the people are gone and there is nothing left at all. Of course this all sounds a little depressing (laughs) as an idea but we try not to look at it in that way. The mythological part of it comes from Cronus and I can never say her name right, it‘s … Mnemosyne
TWR: Am I right in thinking that Cronus was the father of Zeus?
NM: Well yes, but as we discovered as we did our research for it, there is quite a confusion about Cronus and there appear to be two of them and in academic circles there are two factions that argue the toss; one faction that says no, there was only one Cronus, the god of time, brother of Mnemosyne and she is the goddess of memory so they are brother and sister. And the other one is that there is another Cronus who murdered Saturn and it all gets very complicated.
TWR: I seem to recall the story that Cronus was obsessed by a prophecy that one of his children would kill him so he ate his children and Zeus’ mother saved him by serving Cronus a stone wrapped up…
NM: Yes, that’s right and that’s the one who isn’t the god of time I think… (looks askance at Mr Foster).
DF: There is confusion.
NM: Yes, there is confusion even at the highest academic circles about this and whether there is one or two and what each one did. Anyway we stuck to the one where Cronus IS the god of time and he eats his children because it fit’s the purpose! (laughs). So, artistic licence folks! So that is the broader theme and that is what the first two tracks are about. The first one with all the “devour” going on and that is Cronus alone in his dripping cave bemoaning his fate and then in Memory, she performs her dance and basically they are brother and sister and musically they are depicted in quite highly contrasting ways. Going from heavy Prog groove (laughs) for Cronus which is appropriate with all the anger and all that and then balletic for Memory and originally we had an idea for a video for Memory which would have involved dancers. It never happened. Unfortunately the person that we tried to get in contact with about it didn’t respond. So we never did that but it was all to do with the ballet and the contrast between the two characters. But it kind of moves on from that.
The title itself is obviously a deliberate mis-spelling of the word Mnemonics and we chose that because, a it was unusual and b because we thought it worked nicely as a graphical element - it looked nice on the page! As a font it looked nice so ….
TWR: I get the image and the reference to spiders in more ways than one but the rest of it… it looks like a circuit board…
NM: Yes. Dick will have to answer that question because he designed it…
DF: It is a stone cube with a clock on the bottom for time and a chip circuit board for memory.
TWR: That’s what I thought but somebody will ask me so I thought I would ask you! It is certainly a bit more varied than the last couple of albums so tell us a bit about each of the tracks…
NM: Well, the next three are directly related to the title itself: N’monix because the ideas for them are based on mnemonics so… is it worth me explaining to people what a mnemonic is? The first of those is Kombat Kid and it is probably the best example to use to illustrate what a mnemonic is, which is a device for remembering lists of things more easily which in this case is the colours of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet: “Richard of York gave battle in vain” which also gave us the idea for the story. So why not build a story around this fictional character Richard. So instead of being Richard III, it is a little boy, a four year old who is completely sucked into his video game to the point where he is into the game before he can read or write. You would probably recognise the idea of someone being sucked into a video game from the film Tron of course when Jeff Bridges gets sucked into the computer, a similar idea and all of that garbage scribbly noise at the end is the computer basically glitching out and crashing and that is the end of him, he flatlines at the end. And that’s what happens to the little turds who play pirated games! (laughs). Don’t pirate folks, it’s not good for the economy and it’s not good for the artist.
TWR: Some of the songs are so visual that I am glad that you have made videos for some of them, none more so than Eminent Victorians which seems to have a darker undercurrent to it, especially in the second part…
NM: Well yes, there is. The first half was intended to be cheeky, cheery and cartoony and just sort of playful really but the second half… it is basically the celebration of all things to do with progress so we mention the sewers (Bazalgette), the railways (Brunel) and all that stuff but what the second half does is point out the cost of all of this. People tend to forget that in order for all of that to happen, children were put into virtual slavery and made to endure physical danger in order to have the progress happen so they get sent up chimneys and get trapped and die up there.
TWR: The line that struck me the most was: “The urchins are searching for food on the tips/ But that’s not the question on anyone’s lips” because these days you still hear about child hunger and child poverty in this country. You associate it with the Third World but it is still happening here and the Victorian days haven’t gone away….
NM: Yes, I am sure it is a situation that is continual really and it shifts around the planet to different cultures and different countries at different times.
DF: I always try to write in more than one level and I think it is really important to leave room for the imagination of the person listening and I know this is going to sound grand but I think this is a universal thing in anything creative or to do with art. If you paint a picture, there should always be space in the picture for the viewer to imagine what is going to happen next or what has just happened and I think it is the same with lyrics, there should be room for the person to think about the lyric and add their own dimension to them because then they can listen to a song more than once and each time it means something slightly different.
TWR: Then we come to the track which seems to have thrown everybody… Headcase… what is that all about?
NM: Headcase, that is another mnemonic : “old people from Texas eat spiders” which is the mnemonic for remembering the six bones that make up the cranium - the case of your head!
TWR: Which is aching now! (laughs). One thing about it, it reminded me so much of Gentle Giant, probably because of the keyboards you were using on it…
NM: People bring up comparisons with other bands and some come up more than others and I fail to see it and say where did you get that from because that wasn’t in my head when I did it and quite often I feel that those comparisons are lazy comparisons but Gentle Giant is one comparison that I am delighted to receive. It’s not that it was designed to be like that but Gentle Giant are one of my all time favourite bands. They wrote quite unbelievable… impenetrable lyrics but it sounds great, it looks great on the page and fit’s the music like a glove and what more can you want really?
With this one we came up with a lot of word play about eating and eating is
another kind of unintentional theme that crops up throughout the album and there
is a lot of ingestion going on throughout the album! (Laughs).
TWR: Then we come to Eminent Victorians…
NM: We haven’t come to the third mnemonic yet which is: Can Queen Victoria Eat Cold Apple Pie… and the clue is in the video and in the lyric as well and the mnemonic is for remembering the seven hills of Rome. We didn’t go out intentionally to make this like a Guardian crossword you know! (laughs). Dick is nodding his head… ironically! (laughs). I suppose it is possible to get to a point where you think that people will be thinking along similar lines to you and will get all of this stuff.
DF: But it still works even if they don’t get it.
NM: It wouldn’t have made any sense calling it N’Monix if there weren’t any mnemonics involved on the album so it’s a little game in a way.
DF: It’s like a word finder puzzle where it says, the subject is… find as many words to do with… It’s a bit like that I think. Musically it fits really well when you have that kind of explanation alongside it as well.
NM: That was one of the challenges more on this album than the previous one there are probably more incidents of the lyrics being written BEFORE the music and obviously there is a ping pong element that goes on where Dick has written something and I have to write a bit more. There is probably a greater proportion of music to lyrics and one of the biggest challenges I find is writing music that actually compliments the lyrics and is relevant to the lyrics because…
TWR: As a non musician that is something that always fascinates me is how do you get the marriage between the word and the music? Is it easy to do? Is it hard to do? Or does it really depend on what you are presented with?
NM: I think of it as very much writing music to picture using words instead of pictures. I have found writing music to picture very much easier than writing music as a backing and I find it almost impossible mow to write music as a backing in any way that excites me at all. |I want to write about something, I want that subject matter; a brief and the lyrics serve as a great brief. Invariably you go off on all these mental excursions but they are invariably informed by what has just happened or what is to come next.
DF: Sometimes we give those bits images, don’t we? Sometimes it is someone being angry or the empty cave dripping with water.
NM: Yes, the classic example there is the sax solo in Broken and originally when I was doing the music to those bits I had a chord sequence, well a harmonic progression of it, the actual shape and pattern of it and I thought what can take the lead here? And I did some searching, do I use a guitar, a synth and none of them had the anger and it needed a bit of hysteria and the ideas to use sax came after we had seen Steve (Hackett) playing Farnham just up the road and Rob (Townsend) was turning out such a particularly impressive performance that night he was bouncing around the stage like Tigger (laughs) and how he managed to play the saxophone that well and jump around I don’t know and Dick just turned to me and said “soprano sax” and I said “ah, that could be it”
TWR: I would just like to go slightly off tangent here and thank the pair of you for writing that song (Broken) because it describes perfectly the state my father was in in his last couple of years of life and it means an awful lot to me personally. I can’t listen to it without crying my eyes out. It just says everything I wanted to say and I am sure that it says everything that my dad up here (taps head) was thinking but couldn’t express.
NM: We both realised that given the age we are, and also given the fact that the problem affects people of a certain age (laughs) that the song would resonate with quite a large number of people. We know so many people now and so many people close to us who have had Alzheimers or dementia of some kind or friends with parents with it. It is not just from observation, it is from actual experience. We hope we have done it in a tasteful way too because it would be awful if we made a song like that maudlin or depressing and I hope that at best it is touching and…
DF: It’s defiant: do not go quietly into the night.
TWR: We then come to the instrumental on the album; Shadowlands.
NM: Shadowlands, yes. It is an extension of Broken, not musically or thematically but in an idea it is an extension of it where it is… we had lots of ideas and you are going to have difficulty transcribing this as I do my Ronnie Corbett sentences! (laughs). Originally the idea that we first had and the original working title we had for this was White Room where musically we were just trying to represent this kind of the intimate ping pong ball where you don’t know if you are up or down and your memory is basically blank and a feeling of emptiness and it kind of needed a bit more emotionality somewhere along the line. Musically, as so many things do, it came from a doodle I did ages ago when I first acquired the wonderful choir instrument that I use on that which is really quite a remarkable thing and really expressive and realistic sounding and one of the first doodles I did was pretty much the first thirty seconds of Shadowlands and it got put away on the hard drive and I didn’t think about it anymore and eventually it kind of popped out again and I think I played it through once or twice and it seemed to be a good thing to develop so I just worked on turning it into something a bit more substantial and then I worked out a sort of rough master of the melody of it and asked Steve (Hackett) if he would come and play on it and he said ’of course I will’ . Again at the end of the day that was another challenge to make it sound like blissful oblivion with occasional moments of kind of ..”ahh, where am I? What day is it?” and there are two emotional peaks in it and you realise “this is awful, I don’t want to be like this” and so it is just drifting in neverland really. It is just someone who is so bad in their condition that they don’t know when or where they are and don’t give a toss! It is really a musical illustration of that.
TWR: And then we come to Entropy.
NM: Entropy is designed to ..I sound like an architect don’t I…’it’s designed to be…’ (best posh voice). It is intended, that’s a better word than designed, it is intended to be a positive end to the album where basically we wind forward billions and millennia into the future where… according to the current model of the universe, it has all cooled down and reached a stop and we are at absolute zero, it’s dead. And once that stops and there is no physical motion there is no time anymore. Time allegedly only exists if there is movement and so once movement has gone there is no time either. So we have just got a dead, flat universe.
DF: Memory has come to an end in the previous two tracks and now Time comes to an end.
NM: So it is this state of just nothingness. The beginning is representative of just space and the infinite cosmos and openness and then suddenly something starts to happen and assuming a cyclic nature of universes which again is all entirely speculative…
TWR: Is this the idea which is common in many ancient civilisations of the “cosmic breath”? Where the universe contracts and then expands again..?
NM/DF: Yes. Like someone breathing in and out.
NM: This is the waiting for the random cosmic spark that starts off another big band and then the universe starts off again.
DF: Nothingness in anticipation.
NM: Anxious anticipation for a new universe so it is a positive note, hopefully. It is all going to start again and everything that was has been forgotten but there is going to be a whole load of new stuff, it’s going to be even better, it’s going to be great. That’s the idea.
DF: That’s why we wanted a young voice for it as well.
TWR: That’s an ideal moment to talk about the other protagonists on the album. Tell us about the other people involved…
NM: The other people? Well, what more can we say about Mr P (Tony Patterson) and Mr H (Steve Hackett) they are stalwarts and I view Tony as really a permanent part of the team really. He is a “go to” vocalist. I love what he does. I also feel that I must blow Tony’s trumpet for him because nobody else does it. I think Tony is unique and I know that he constantly gets the Gabriel comparisons. I say this; put the two of them together. Do they sound the same? No, they don’t. I would recognise Tony’s voice in a heartbeat, just a single word and I would know it was him.
The other comparison that I have started to use is, do you know The Watch? (Italian band) people always say about their singer put him and Peter Gabriel together do they sound the same? No. There are references there maybe in the voice but no they don’t sound the same. The ultimate test is to put Tony and Simone together and do they sound the same? They couldn’t sound more different. Now, if they are both supposed to sound like Peter Gabriel how does that work? (laughs). So, come on guys, use your imaginations! Tony sounds like Tony and nobody else. It is the lazy comparisons again. There are a thousand and one rock vocalists out there that all sound identical and nobody picks them up and says ‘oh, you sound like the guy from that band’ you just accept it and accept what it is.
TWR: Tell us about the other vocalists…
NM: I don’t think there is much else to say about Mr Hicks (Peter
Hicks) either. OK, the other guys... I have known Andy (Neve) a long time and
we met when I was working at a music trade fair and I was working on the Roland
stand and we got chatting away and we discovered that we had a mutual obsession
with Lost In Space (classic Sixties Sci Fi series for the uneducated among you
reading this - AH) that’s when it all started. And so out came the “Oh
Billy will you ever forgive me!” (laughs) and all of the Dr Smith-isms
and so that sort of cemented a friendship! Basically Andy is very much like
me a lone keyboard player/producer/writer and all round talented chap. He also
happens to have this excellent singing voice which stacks up beautifully on
harmonies. Andy is just perfect if you want backing vocals that just sit in
a kind of airy gloss and I was very pleased to have him involved.
Tim (Bowness) has quite a number of band projects and I am due to do a keyboard contribution on one of those projects but it hasn’t happened yet. He has also worked with Steven Wilson a lot. That was where I first encountered Tim and it was a bizarre set of coincidences in a very short space of time. I had been reading an article in Sound On Sound Magazine and that was an article about Dave Stewart - the Hatfield & The North one not the Eurythmics one! And he had written an article about a string arrangement he had done and how he did it, basically and the track he had done it for was called True North by No Man and I had never heard of No Man before and so after reading the article I thought I would really like to hear what he did and so I went on to You Tube and typed in No Man True North and up it came, the official video and I listened to it and I was impressed by the voice it was so beautiful and melancholy. But me being me and being so shy I would never dream, of contacting somebody and saying, ’love your voice, would you sing on me record, please?’ (laughs) because they would just say ’sod off!’ (laughs) So I didn’t contact him.
Then probably on the same day or the day after I was just searching around various music sites and I was on Peter Hammill’s web site and looking at what albums he had got out and I noticed that the albums were available from Burning Shed Records, and I thought what a funny name I wonder what that’s all about and I didn’t give it any more thought. Probably the day after that I got an email from a Tim Bowness and I said, ’by the way, you’re not the same Tim Bowness who’s in a band called No Man are you?’ and he write back saying; ’yes I am and if you ever need my voice on one of your tracks I would love to do it’ It wasn’t even a plan it was this set of coincidences in a two or three day period. So at the time Broken was about half written and we were thinking who do we get to sing it? In fact we did have a female voice in mind to do it but once I heard Tim’s voice I couldn’t get it out of my head and so the rest of the track was written with him in mind before he even made the offer!
Kate Faber … we frequently go and see performances by The Bach Choir who do performances of all the big choral works in major venues like the Royal Festival Hall and places like that and we know… you will probably recognise the name Claire Brigstocke well she is in The Bach Choir. So I was looking for a soprano voice and Claire wasn’t available to do it but she suggested Kate and so we got in touch with her and said ’Claire has recommended you, would you be interested?’ and she said ’yes’ and that is how she ended up on the album.
James Reeves, that is through a connection that goes back a couple of years or so and Glenn Tollett who played double bass on Identity Theft on the Children Of Another God album, he has been writing a musical over the past few years and one of the vocalists he used for the demos of it was James and I remember the first time I heard James’ voice and I was listening to James’ voice long before I met him and I thought it was fantastic but I never thought there would be an occasion to use him and then eventually I got to meet him at a Christmas do at Glenn’s and he turned out to be a charming young chap and very talented, he has studied at the Welsh Conservatoire and he has studied jazz piano and it turns out he is phenomenally good pianist and an incredibly good sax player and a great singer and he is monstrously talented and I hate him to bits! (laughs) and he’s only twenty one! It’s great having people of that calibre on the album because they make me look good! (laughs).
People have commented on this thing of having different voices for different songs. Some people have commented positively saying the choices work really well because the voices are chosen to fit the song and others have commented negatively saying it ruins the sense of continuity and I think those people are missing the point. I think if it were one person they would have to be a particularly good actor especially where the song is character driven and the principal character is female! You have got to have a girl doing it otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. Yes, I could have got Tony (Patterson) to sing Broken but it wouldn’t have worked because it is not a song for his voice. The songs are written SPECIFICALLY, they are not just written randomly its not like in certain areas of Prog where you can take the lyrics form one song and swap them with another abd it wouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference. These are custom made basically, they are tailored suits, they are bespoke.
DF: Very early on we say; who is going to be singing?
TWR: Is that one of the first decisions you actually make?
DF: It isn’t the first decision but it is one of the first decisions it is an early decision and you have a voice in your head when you are writing and I think that is very useful to have that when you are writing. If you were sitting down for a meal you wouldn’t have broccoli for the starter, broccoli for the main course and broccoli for the dessert would you?
NM: I suppose that if you called it a “Rock Opera” nobody would object becauser they would be thinking: rock opera = different characters = different voices and that’s fine and it is a shame that you have to label something like that just to get them to accept the idea.
DF: I think what is happening too with the stories on the individual tracks there is an overall narrative arc anyway and you want to somehow want to articulate that narrative arc with a variety of voices and not necessarily a different voice for every track but a variety of colours.
NM: Yes, you treat the voice like an instrument and it is just as valid to change that as you would between a soprano sax, an alto and a baritone and some would say you have to do it all on the alto otherwise it is NOT valid! (laughs).
And with that extremely ironic comment we shall leave this half of the interview. Next time we shall examine the technical aspects of the creation of the album. Once again our thanks to Nick and Dick for taking the time to speak to us and for a damn fine lunch! Thanks also to our cub scout reporter; Frank Rogers who acquitted himself admirably throughout the proceedings - you’ve got the job, Frank!