Grant Nicholas, of Feeder fame, chats with Kevin Cooper about his debut solo album Yorktown Heights, his love of vinyl records, the death of his close friend Jon Lee, and his forthcoming UK tour.
Grant Nicholas is a Welsh musician, best known as the lead singer and lead guitarist of the rock band Feeder. In school, Nicholas played the trumpet, but was promised his first electric guitar by his parents, as an incentive to pass his exams.
Whilst the death of his fellow Feeder band member and great friend Jon Lee in 2002 had a profound effect, it encouraged him to continue writing material. So in early 2014, Nicholas announced via social media that he was recording a solo album and in August of the same year he released his debut solo album Yorktown Heights, which charted at number 29 in the UK album charts, despite little promotion.
After the release of the album, Nicholas continued to tour and played Fiji Rock Festival Japan along the way. After ending 2014 with a show at the Islington Assembly Hall, Nicholas announced that due to the success of the album and supporting tour, alongside how much he had enjoyed the experience, more solo shows would be played in 2015. For this part of the tour he will be performing both Yorktown Heights and a mini-album which he has also written called Black Clouds.
Whilst busy rehearsing for his forthcoming tour, he took time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Grant how are you?
I’m good thanks Kevin.
So how is life treating you at this moment in time?
It’s really good at the moment. We are on what you could describe as the second leg of the Yorktown Heights Tour (laughter). The plan was for me to record a new track but I actually recorded five new ones which have become a mini-album now. It’s all connected to Yorktown Heights because one of the tracks called Black Clouds, which is the title track, was actually written right at the end of Yorktown Heights whilst everyone was still in that mode.
So this is the real deal and not just another hobby album?
No Kevin, it certainly is not a hobby album (laughter) not at all. It’s a continuation really, a sort of partner album for Yorktown Heights. I’m not leaving the album behind as yet because I am still touring it, but I wanted to bring in some new music as well to make it fun for us, and to also let people know that this is a serious project and is not just a hobby album which some albums are seen as. So yes, I am busy (laughter).
So how did the solo album come about?
There was no real plan for me to ever become a solo artist or to write a solo album Kevin, I just wanted to take some time out of Feeder. I was actually enjoying doing some writing for other artists and that is how it started off and it just grew into a solo album (laughter). I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, but my family loved it and it simply grew from there really and it has done really well. It is certainly something that I want to do more of.
You say that you never intended to write a solo album, but what was the inspiration behind it?
I am a songwriter and I am so very lucky to still be inspired after all of these years. I have written a lot of songs with Feeder. I write most of my songs on an acoustic guitar, as I am an old school songwriter who is influenced by what I was listening to growing up; anything from a lot of Americana, other acoustic artists, rock and punk rock too. I love to rock out but this is a different side to my song writing, which is kind of how they all start off; inspired by the artists that I was listening to growing up, such as Neil Young, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Nick Drake and even some country stuff such as Johnny Cash. I have always loved all that kind of stuff but people probably don’t often realise this when they listen to my Feeder roots, which lie more on the rock side (laughter).
So in answer to your question Kevin, first and foremost I am a songwriter and I wanted to show people a different side to me. It was a challenge as it is a bit more about the voice, a bit more about the acoustic, and it is really stripped back. Lyrically it touches on my family and all sorts of stuff that I probably wouldn’t necessarily put onto a Feeder record. It’s a bit more personal showing a bit more of my heart and soul but I think that often brings out the best work in a songwriter. Because I was under no pressure to make the album it really was a fun thing to do; it chilled me out and made me work in a totally different way.
I have to tell you that I have been playing Yorktown Heights for the past few days and I love it.
Thanks Kevin, cheers for that. I’m not just saying it because I am normally very critical of anything that I do and I find it very hard to listen to my albums but for some reason, with this one I am still really enjoying it. I am really enjoying rehearsing the songs after my Christmas break (laughter) and it was really nice to hear it again. I am really proud of the record. I have to tell you Kevin that it does sound different live; there is still a band vibe about it although it is more acoustic based. It is probably slightly different live, slightly a little more organic, slightly quirky, a little bit more acoustic, but I think that it works equally well.
I really wanted the songs on Yorktown Heights to work regardless of whether they were being played totally stripped back on an acoustic guitar or on a bigger stage with a full band and I think that I have achieved that. I have to say that this record is still a slow burner, it’s been out now for six months and people are only just finding out about it. It takes so much time Kevin. Just because you have been a member of a really big band, you can’t take it for granted that the fans will jump up and down at everything that you do. It simply doesn’t work like that; you have to get out there and really earn it by getting out there and touring, which is what I have been doing.
To be honest Kevin, I think that it will take some time for people to really get their head around it, but I am in a good place right now and I think I know what I am doing with the album. That is a nice place to be in because after 20 years with Feeder, it is quite hard to do something outside of that and to be able to find a real connection with it. I am really enjoying this and it is one of the most fun things that I have done for years.
The more I listen to the album, the more I can hear snippets of James Taylor in there.
(Laughter) that’s funny Kevin as quite a few people have mentioned that to me, especially when they listen to the opening track, Soul Mates. Some people have even mentioned Tom Petty and Simon and Garfunkel, but it is all in there because these are the artists that I love and these are the artists who I grew up with. If you strip back a lot of the tracks on the album, they sound a lot closer to some of those sort of artists. I did try to make some of the songs a lot more band orientated so that they would work not just in a small acoustic club, but also on a festival stage. However having said all of that I really did want to keep some of them quite simple such as Soul Mates, Good Fortune Lies Ahead, together with the new track After The Fall which touches upon that finger picking-style.
I have always dabbled with the finger-picking style but remember, I am more of an indie-rock type of player. I have had to work quite hard at it because when you play acoustic live, it is quite tricky; it is a lot harder, and you do not have a big amp to hide behind (laughter). You feel very, very exposed. In some way I quite like that, it is a real challenge. When you go wrong it is so obvious (laughter) because you can hear everything.
I am of the old school and I still collect vinyl and I am sure that if we still had a leader off the album, then that would be Soul Mates.
Thanks Kevin, I totally agree with you. To me Soul Mates was the stand-out song on Yorktown Heights, and yes that would have been the single. I do like other tracks on the album, Joan Of Arc and Safe In Place but Soul Mates was the track that I felt was really my calling card. If I had to pick one song off the album to release, then that would have been it. I think that it is a really strong track and I feel that it could have been pushed far more than it was. It is the track which people love to hear live so it did its job but I think that commercially it had more legs than people realised.
But Kevin, you have to remember that sometimes those songs come back. I know that there has been a lot of interest from TV companies who are impressed with that track. So you never know, it may get on a cool advert and then suddenly, people might discover me that way. I have to tell you Kevin that I do have a good feeling about that song. I think that it is timeless and although it is slightly retro, I feel that it has a place now. It is a very simple song but those are the ones that seem to connect don’t they? Ten years ago I would have said that I didn’t want any of my songs being used for adverts but in the current climate, everybody these days uses adverts to get their music out there. If you get a really big TV single it goes towards funding a tour so that is just the way of the industry now. It is a very different beast to what it was when I first started a band.
Do you have any plans to release a second solo album?
Black Clouds could have almost been the start of a second solo album Kevin but I wouldn’t have wanted to release a second album that soon after Yorktown Heights. But I did want to write some new songs for the tour, just to let people know that this is a serious project for me. So I will definitely be making another solo album; it could be this year, it could be next year (laughter). I might do a bit of Feeder stuff in-between, get back to that and have some fun, and then maybe take my time and make another solo album after that. The good thing about having the Black Clouds album coming out is that hopefully it will fill that gap a little bit for people.
I have put Joan Of Arc on Black Clouds which is the shortened version which hopefully people will hear and realise that is was originally on Yorktown Heights. I also wanted to connect the two albums in some way because it is not a very long gap between the two releases. I refer to Black Clouds as being a mini-album because with Joan Of Arc there are only six tracks on there. However a lot of artist’s albums nowadays are only eight tracks long so with another couple of tracks you could argue that it could have been an album. But I felt that it was maybe too soon and I would have been leaving Yorktown Heights behind too quickly. I still feel that I want to tour with that and push it as far as I can.
Black Clouds is a very serious thing for me; it was recorded a lot faster and I have some of the live band on there which I didn’t have on Yorktown Heights, which is quite nice. It is a little bit different in places but I feel that it follows on pretty well from the album. There are definitely a few tracks on there which touch upon the slight Americana thing and are more acoustic, which I love. There are also a couple of up-tempo songs, and the title track, Black Clouds is a slightly darker track but is still very much an acoustic track. If you hear the original version before I added the drums, it sounds like a Nick Drake track. So I am just enjoying it Kevin.
I want it to be experimental and I want to have a lot of freedom with it. I want to have songs which are a bit different and a little experimental as well. I think that is very important to me as a writer and it also touches upon what I do when I write the Feeder stuff which is still a big part of me. Feeder have an acoustic, mellow side as well; it’s not all heavy guitars. Hopefully what I have done with Yorktown Heights hasn’t shocked too many people, I am just doing what I do.
And how has the tour been going?
It’s been great Kevin. The basic tour finished just before Christmas, and it went so well that I thought that we would do some more dates. On reflection we could have announced more dates originally but I didn’t want to outstay my welcome (laughter).
And what about playing festivals this summer?
Well I am hoping to possibly play at a few smaller festivals; different kind of festivals to what I usually do, steering away from the more rock festivals and then get back to playing them with Feeder.
So how do you chose a set-list for both a small venue and then a larger festival?
I have only played one festival with the solo project which was the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan which was an amazing one for me to get. That meant that I went from playing one tiny pub gig to being on a stage in front of four thousand people. I remember thinking to myself ‘oh my god’ but I actually pulled it off (laughter) and it went really well. They are two totally individual beasts and I think that I am going to have to work on the festival set, obviously depending upon what sort of festival it is. If it is an acoustic based festival then I won’t have to try to rock it up too much.
But at the same time there are some songs that are more uplifting and do give it a little more energy, tracks like Hope, Vampires, Hitori, Time Stood Still plus a couple of tracks on Black Clouds which are all tracks that are definitely more uplifting. I think that you need a few of those in the set in order to make a festival thing work. Unless it is in a tent, and late at night, then in order to keep the attention of an audience you have to give them a bit of both light and shade. But in answer to your question Kevin, I’m not quite sure on that (laughter).
So what can we expect to hear on this tour?
Well Kevin, we tend to do what we do and the great thing is that bizarrely I have got twenty songs now to choose a set from. On the last tour we were playing sixteen songs live, we played every song off the album so I have got those plus these extra five songs now to play. Occasionally I might throw in a couple of covers every now and again so, if I need to I have got quite a good choice there to pick from. I can do a longer set if I need to which is quite unusual on a first album, you normally struggle to get more than a forty minute set.
I really wanted to keep this as a separate thing and so I am not playing any Feeder stuff on the tour, out of respect to the Feeder music and also this is a whole different thing. I don’t want to feel like I have to rely upon those songs to be able to do a set. I feel that this album stands up alone and it does what it does. I didn’t want to confuse the message. When I go back to Feeder I want that to be a proper thing and for me to be able to really get my head into that. This is almost like the other side of my brain and how I work (laughter). It was very important for me to separate it, which is quite difficult some times, but it is something that I have managed to do so far (hysterical laughter).
It is clear that you still get a buzz out of touring.
Yes I do Kevin. I have to admit that there have been times when I have been on the road with Feeder when I have sometimes got tired of being away from home, plus there is a lot of travelling. But don’t get me wrong, I am very fortunate to still be doing this. I love being involved in music but I would say that I am more of a writer, and more of a studio guy at heart but I do love touring. And I really do love touring this record. There is something about playing these songs together with the band that I have got which has been really good fun and a real challenge. I’m sure that when I get back to Feeder after this break I will be getting the same kind of buzz but in a different way.
So just how do you keep it fresh?
Sometimes when you have been in a band for such a long time you need to take some time out. I have done twenty years with Feeder and we hadn’t really taken any time out until now. Because we have never done that people were thinking ‘oh my god, that’s the end’. That was never the plan; we just needed to take some time out, to let everyone do their own separate projects, and then hopefully I will get back together with Taka (Hirose) and maybe do something later this year. Then I will fit all of this in-between the whole Feeder thing. Well that’s the plan Kevin, but things could change (laughter).
On the subject of Feeder, after Jon (Lee) passed away was there ever a time when you thought that was the end of the band?
Oh yes most definitely Kevin. To be honest with you, I would say that Comfort In Sound is the closest album to Yorktown Heights and my solo work. After Jon died, I didn’t know what to do so I just went into the studio and literally worked every day. All I did was write songs; they simply poured out of me. I didn’t even know what they were for. I was thinking are they for a new Feeder album, are they for a new band, would people want to see Feeder without Jon? There were a whole load of questions going through my head at that time.
Jon and I formed the band. Although I was the songwriter and he played the drums, he was a massive part of the band, personality and chemistry wise. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the songs. So Comfort In Sound was written with almost a blank canvas because I didn’t quite know what I was doing. Then when I met up with Taka I realised that I had ten songs that were all at a pretty good level and were all pretty well recorded too. After we had got pretty drunk one night in a pub, we decided to give it a go. Taka said that he loved the new stuff and sadly, because Jon was no longer with us, it became our biggest ever Feeder record.
I have to tell you Kevin, that album was not written at all with Feeder in mind. It might sound like a Feeder record to you now but at the time I didn’t know what I was doing. I think that I just had to do something. We were all in a pretty bad way after Jon died. When you form a band with someone who you have known since you were sixteen; someone who had a great personality, someone who everyone loved, and who was very popular with everyone, you just don’t expect that to ever happen.
I wrote Comfort In Sound with a blank canvas and I also wrote Yorktown Heights with a blank canvas, whereas most of the Feeder records have been written with that Feeder sound in my head, the fan base, what the band want, all that kind of stuff. Whereas I think that when you do something different, or certain circumstances change the way that you have to do something, it can often bring out good things. I was very lucky that Comfort In Sound did so well, and everybody was so good to the band about it. People actually connected to the music. I am sure that people will listen to every word and think that it is about Jon. I am sure that a lot of it was, but I wasn’t sitting there trying to do that, it was just the way that it came out really.
So tell me how the swap from trumpet to guitar came about?
(Hysterical laughter) I started learning to play the trumpet while I was at school but it was so boring (laughter). My heart was simply never in it so I started to ask my parents if I could have an electric guitar. From that point on my parents used the promise of buying me a guitar to encourage me to work hard at school. They did finally get me a guitar but I didn’t have an amp at the beginning (laughter). I would just sit there trying to work out how to play this thing and I remember my trumpet teacher walking in one day after I had borrowed an amp off of someone, and I was making such a racket in there that he gave me such a bollocking (laughter). I told him that I didn’t want to learn to play the trumpet anymore because the guitar was much more fun.
I have to admit that I wish that I had kept up with the trumpet lessons because there have been a couple of times where I have actually needed to have a little trumpet part (laughter). I can still play a little bit but I wasn’t anywhere near good enough to play the part, and so we had to get a session guy in (laughter). It cost us a few hundred quid whereas if I had kept up with the lessons then maybe I could have played that part.
I would never disrespect the trumpet Kevin, my daughter is currently learning to play the trumpet at school. She is also learning to play the guitar and so I’m not quite sure which way it will go but I think that she will probably end up playing the guitar. I’m not pushing her either way, it’s up to her (laughter).
Having played Nottingham before, what do you think to our fair city?
I love Nottingham Kevin, it’s a great place. Over the years I have been involved in some blinding gigs at Rock City. That place is legendary and I love it there. I always manage to have a good time whenever I am in Nottingham. There is a clothes shop in Hockley which I love and I always manage to get myself a couple of checked shirts and some old Levis whenever I am there because I love Americana. I always make sure that I pop in there and add to my checked shirt collection (laughter). Nottingham is actually a nice place and they love their rock music in Nottingham. Feeder have had some blinding gigs there too and even from when we supported a lot of bands when we first started off, I have got very fond memories.
A big reason why I am playing this gig at The Bodega on Friday 20th February, is that when we were out on the last tour a group of people who had travelled down from Nottingham came to see me and they said that I should really come up and play The Bodega. So I mentioned it to my agent and we managed to get in there. Hopefully those people will be coming along to see me (laughter).
Funnily enough, I won’t be seeing you here in Nottingham. I am going to come over to The Slade Rooms in Wolverhampton and catch you there.
I have never played The Slade Rooms before Kevin but I am sure that we will have fun. I am really looking forward to it. We had a really good gig on last year’s tour in Birmingham. I had thought that Wolverhampton might be a bit too close to the last one that we did but the promoter wanted us to play Wolverhampton and I am really looking forward to it. Birmingham and Wolverhampton have always been very good towards Feeder so hopefully there will be a couple of people there to watch (laughter).
It is still very early days with this and it is almost as though you are a new artist. It does make it really enjoyable but it also makes you appreciate just how hard it is for new bands. It is very tough, you forget just how hard it is until you get to a certain level. I will have to make sure that I can play all of the songs now (laughter).
From a personal point of view, is the album available on vinyl?
It is, oh yes Kevin, it is available on heavyweight vinyl. Because I wanted it to sound good it is a double album. If we had put fifteen tracks onto a single album it would have squashed it so much that it simply wouldn’t have sounded any good. So we have put it onto two old school heavyweight vinyl albums, and put it out as a double album. When you come over to Wolverhampton, if you grab me after the show I will give you a copy.
That would be fantastic Grant, thank you.
Most of them are on black vinyl but we also did a limited run on white vinyl so it will be pot luck as to what you get (laughter). I have released everything up to yet on vinyl but I’m not sure whether or not Black Clouds will be pressed onto vinyl, but if the demand is there then we may do a limited run. Vinyl has sold really well. We did a limited edition 7” single of Soul Mates which was really popular. I have to say Kevin that vinyl has come back into vogue but at the same time it is obviously small sales compared to what it used to be. But to actually make the bloody things it is very expensive (laughter).
Also you have to be so careful of the mastering especially for rock music. It can be too hot for vinyl so you have to have it rebalanced or cut at a slightly lower level. There is a real art to cutting vinyl well. With the album we went with old school heavy vinyl; it wasn’t cheap but it looks great (laughter). I just hope that it sounds great too (laughter). I have still got my copy sealed, I haven’t even listened to it. It is just a nice thing to have, especially for your first solo album. I just thought that it had to be on vinyl, even if it only sells two copies, I don’t care. It is just something to have and to look back on when I’m a bit older.
Grant, I hope that all goes well.
Thanks very much. It’s been great.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to me.
Cheers Kevin it’s been my pleasure. I look forward to seeing you in Wolverhampton.