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Edinburgh and Chicago represent two points in your life, a long way apart in both miles and years. Can you tell me about the journey that took you from one to the other?
I left Edinburgh when I was 23; it was that point in a young person’s life where you often have to make decisions because you crave change and maybe want to break from a past; for me, it was an opportunity at the right time; I had been slogging it out with the Fini Tribe for the past eight years at that point, and something had to give; many bands were at these musical crossroads in the mid to late ’80s with studio tech and gear changing and evolving…well… we kind of hit an impasse, and it was sad.
I had made inroads into getting the band signed to Waxtrax, and, in doing that, I met Ministry, who were recording in London. I ended up hitting it off, and I was already a fan of the Revolting Cocks and Ministry; they were still very underground in the UK: so when I got asked to come over to Chicago and record, I jumped.
I didn’t move there immediately, but about a year later, Fini Tribe were basically living on top of each other, and we had struggled so much that the band split in two. Although that was heartbreaking, it was ultimately for the best.
The latest album, Eulogy to Christa: A Tribute to the Music and Mystique of Nico, is a fascinating concept. Why did you decide to play tribute to this beguiling artist, and how long have you been a fan of hers?
I first heard her via Cosey Fanni Tutti from Throbbing Gristle while visiting her in 1980. She played “Janitor of Lunacy” and “Le Petit Chevalier” from Desertshore. I was immediately enthralled; I had certainly heard the Velvets and had the _Banana album and loved it, but this was a different animal altogether. It was not completely foreign to me, I was young, 14, but I had already (obviously) been enjoying a steady diet of Throbbing Gristle and their ilk.
About a year later, Nico played at the Nite Club in Edinburgh, and I went. Seeing her with that harmonium singing “The End” was just spellbinding to me; she was beautiful, she sounded beautiful, and afterward, she signed my jacket and touched my face with her hand, and smiled (slightly).
Then she moved to Edinburgh! She was going out with Rab King, the singer from the local band The Scars (an excellent band), and we knew exactly where she lived: St Stephens Place in the Newtown/Stockbridge area. So my friends and I would wander around there, but we never saw her.
Was it always going to be a mix of covers and originals, or did plans change once you began working on the project?
No, it started as ten covers; I had already covered the song “You Forget to Answer” on my 2019 album Graveyard Sex, but I wanted to take a step further. Around that time, the book You Are Beautiful, and You Are Alone by Jennifer Otter Bickerdicke came out; I just devoured that!!!! I have read everything, articles and books about Nico, but nothing compares to this, so it was essential to me, and I have since become friends with the author, and she supplied the sleeve notes to the album.
Was there anything in particular that you learned about Nico as you got underneath the skin of her songs? Or did she remain as detached and full of mystique as ever?
I think you can read as much as you want, watch as many documentaries, etc., but yeah….You have to have a relationship with the songs; it’s easy and fun to do covers, and I love it, but when it came to this, I really had to step inside to know it; I am grateful to know the situations of the songs: from her bio, I knew where she was and what she was doing/taking at the time, but you have to attach a string to that and trace it back to her beginnings, then follow it back.
Buying a harmonium helped; it’s a very physical instrument; you are pushing air through it, it breathes, and you have to move in a rhythm with it while you sing; that opened her up to me a lot; it was a bit of a gateway into many of her songs. But you know there were other things too, like having walked the same streets as her, in either Manchester, London or Edinburgh, having stayed in squalor in London squats in the early ’80s, etc.
I also feel a weird kinship. She recorded only three songs for the Velvets, and it followed her forever, and these songs had to become part of her set; she did not like it. I feel the same way about my past. Ministry & The Cocks, that myth follows me around, the crazy stories of what crazy bastards we were, the drugs, etc.; however, it got me where I am, and I certainly don’t begrudge it; it’s a bit like an annoying roommate who won’t leave but still pays rent!
Was it hard to select the songs you wanted to cover, or were they always obvious choices in your mind?
Well, it was fairly easy. First of all, do the ones you know you can play!! But sadly, she has a pretty spartan back catalog….six albums!! And a couple of singles, so I knew I could do a great overview. I wanted to definitely do “Hanging Gardens,” which, had she lived, would probably have ended up on a solo album; as it happens, it’s from a live album of her last concert.
I also really wanted to do “Eulogy To Lenny Bruce” because it’s so beautiful… but choosing something from Desertshore was hard; I also knew I wanted to do the one-off single “Vegas/Saeta,” both amazing songs and very representative of her Manchester era.
How easy was it to write your own songs to fit in with the tone and style of the album as set by her songs? Did you need to do any research to inform this project, and if so, how did you do that?
Well, Jennifer’s book helped a LOT, but I have been a scholar of Reed/ Cale and The Velvets since I was a kid, so everything I wrote is very much based on pretty well-researched facts; any dialogue, of course, is fictional. I do love that music used to be so mythical; in my world, you know….the drag queen on the back of Lou Reed’s Transformer was Lou; of course, it is NOT, but that’s the myth that was passed around, pre-internet, so I think there is a lot of my own fantasy in there, I also throw in a lot of references as well to the music of Cale and Reed, sometimes they are lyrical, sometimes musical quotes, all hidden in plain sight.
Do you see this as just a one-off, or are there other iconic artists whose life and music you could see yourself exploring similarly?
This is the second album like this, the first being The Birthday Poems, which was based on the lives of the poet George Mackay Brown and his lover/muse Stella Cartwright; I love writing about real things using my language to bring them back to life.So yes, I will do more; I am actually starting to plan a Lou Reed album.
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