October 2001 - You probably think you've lived.
Done this and that, met a few people, travelled, worked
here and there, been around, seen some things. But you
haven't. Trashmonk, a.k.a. Nick Laird-Clowes
has. That's your benchmark.
You might not think you know him, you probably don't,
but do 5 minutes research, stick his name in a search
engine and you'll find a man who, aside from many a
solo endeavour, has rubbed creative shoulders with John
Lennon, Mark Bolan, Brian Wilson,
Pink Floyd, Lindsey Buckingham and Paul
Simon along with his time at the helm of Dream
Academy in the 80s. He might just be a mere (though
repetitive) footnote in the history of rock but Paul
McCartney's probably got a whole chapter to his name.
And just consider the second half of his career.
But as Nick sees off well over quarter of a century
making music one way or another, he's still down getting
his hands dirty, doing things the hard way and avoiding
the easy buck. In '99 he released the album 'Mona Lisa
Overdrive', his first under the Trashmonk alter-ego.
Following a sizeable period of reflection and creative
fieldwork amid the hills of Tibet, the album came out
on a winding bend that somehow led down to Creation
Records. But such is Alan McGee's dedication to the
record he bought the license back off Sony, presented
it to Nick and requested he promptly sell it straight
back to him and his paint-fresh Poptones label. And
so this month sees its repackaged re-issue, bonus tracks
all more than well aware of Alan McGee's less than 100%
success rate during Creation's final act. In fact the
less said about Mishka and Kevin Rowland the better,
but it's certainly not a list you could add Trashmonk's
name to. 'Mona Lisa Overdrive', drawing on both classic
rock n' roll and folk blueprints and making extensive
use of field recordings from his time in Tibet (his
Dictaphone capturing all from atmospheric surroundings,
animals and perplexed taxi drivers) it's got traces
of hippie blood true in its veins, but it evolves with
every listen into something a little more satisfying,
panoramic and visionary.
We join him slowly sipping a cappuccino outside a Camden
tea room, mere spitting distance from Poptones HQ. An
exuberant, unsuppressed enthusiast of, well, just about
anything he cares to talk about. He talks excitedly
of seeing Radiohead back in July, his huge anticipation
for the forthcoming Spiritualized album and his reawakened
love for making music, in a skewered way to what he
was previously used to. Each answer is a flurry of animated
words, honest and frank - an anecdotal Spaghetti Junction,
jumping from tangent to tangent but eventually returning
to a concise and reasoned point or memory: a quite brilliant
eccentric. Your only worry should be why we don't make
'em like this anymore.
Crud: With the re-release of 'Mona Lisa Overdrive'
looming, where have you been since it first saw light
of day in '99?
"One thing led to another, I was supposed to be going
out to promote the Trashmonk record on tour, then they
offered me this movie (soundtracking 'Invisible Circus'
staring Cameron Diaz). So I was like I've never
done this before, I'm going to do it! Did that and it
was premiered at Sundance, which was absolute MADNESS.
Like going on the road with The Stones in '72 or something.
And I'm like fucking hell, I didn't know film people
were like this! Amazing! And while I was there I heard
people talking about the Sundance Fellowship, which
you apply to, I think that's how Tarrintino got Reservoir
Dogs made. If you're a film composer you can go for
it, or if you're a screenwriter y'know. I applied for
that and then went to India to have a bit of getting
myself back together with some serious meditation. Then
I got back and I'd got it!
Crud: Which meant you wouldn't get back to promoting
that record of yours in a hurry?
"Yeah, I thought fuck! Now I'm going off to New York
and then down to Saltlake City and going up to the mountains
of Utah where Robert Redford has got this amazing log
cabin world where they've just done Hedwig And The Angry
Inch and they did Reservoir Dogs and lots of other interesting
things. He's not like 'where can I get my next Lear
Jet from' like Bruce Willis, he's ploughing it back
into all these interesting things. There was this guy
from the Moscow Conservatory Of Music, this girl from
Bulgaria who did this amazing orchestral stuff, this
kid from Wales who had a scholarship & there was me
and Tom Waits' sidekick Ralph Carney, the only
rock 'n' roll guys! He said 'I was dropping acid every
day at one stage, I need to face my demons'. I thought
well at least I can talk to this guy! All the others
were so orchestral, but they worked like boot camp!
I swear to you I'd be up at 7 every morning, walk down
through the mountains and get straight to work, scoring
movies, twinned with new directors, it was really hard
Crud: A bit of a wake up call then?
"Yes it was! That's the most amazing thing - actually
last night, I don't know why, I listened to some of
my original albums I made when I was about 20, I thought
they'd be crap, but listening to them with a joint last
night it was amazing. I could hear all the good and
bad sides. That total will to power, mad arrogant belief
in one's self based on NOTHING. Anyway I digress heavily
- The thing was I realised that all that stuff, I labour
over it and labour over it, that's become my way, after
20 odd years it really has. But with movies, they wanted
the whole of the score for Invisible Circus in 3 months,
that's 45 minutes of music. But at Sundance it wasn't
like that, it was 'we'll need those two scenes by tomorrow'!
I had to do it really fast, it got me improvising and
trusting my improvisations and building on them. I thought,
well I can do it! A completely new way of working. And
it's not isolated. When I was working on the Trashmonk
record Alan (McGee) would come in about once every 6
months. And I love it, it took me forever, I wove it
out of the fabric of my life, but I don't feel I could
go back to that again."
Crud: More film soundtracks then?
"You can do quite wild things and that appeals to me
if they let me do the wild things. You can be pretty
original. You can take the sound of banging on a table
and mix it with a string quartet or whatever. If it's
just a chewing gum commercial then I'm not going to
last, it won't work. I've got to be able to do it the
way I believe it. But I think I'm in with a chance and
as an American agent said (adopting glam LA accent)
'I think in your life story it's time for your Hollywood
adventure'. Maybe he's right. But then again, the film
industry is quite badly off in much the same way that
the music industry is, in that your work won't always
get seen. There's any number of pitfalls and I'd hate
to do some of my finest work and not be able to get
it anywhere. But on the other hand movies are around
forever and they go to video and get shown late at night…"
Crud: You don't seem to like settling down with
any one project for too long.
"Well, except for the 3 or 4 years doing it! Listening
through my old stuff yesterday I realised it's just
BURSTS of creativity and then looking around for the
next thing. And that's the thing about not having a
brief to make records, you have a blank canvas and you're
waiting for something to blow in from the ether and
it can take time to find your next leap forward. But
when you get it right it seems like an almost scientific
result! You get dividends from it even if it seems you
don't. The Trashmonk record sold 40 or 50 thousand records
worldwide and I mean, that's not what Dream Academy
sold, that's a bad result for a four year project you
could say. But it wasn't at all! Because of that record
and only because of that record I got the film and because
of the film I got thinking in a different way.
Crud: Doesn't waiting for the next burst kill
"It does! And you get incredibly depressed and feel
you can't do it, you're wasting your life, you're getting
older, time's running out, how you going to survive?
But then something comes along. I thought for a long
time that this electronic machine that Brain Eno gave
me and I used at Sundance would be the new album. Alan
heard some improvisations and said let's put them out!
And I said but they've got no melody, no lyrics, no
structure at all. After he'd heard about 3 hours of
them he was more like 'oh, I don't know, they're quite
hard to listen to'. I said I know! They're just these
mad squiggles, ho do you edit them down? I spent about
3 months trying to refine them and cut them up, but
I just had to give up. Something might happen with those."
Crud: Tell us about your field gathering techniques
for 'Mona Lisa Overdrive'. You always carried
your Dictaphone during your time in Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan
"Yeah! Well I never had a camera and I always liked
being able to take anything that sounds interesting.
And at night I'd listen to it and document it. I did
it quite seriously and I don't quite know why! I defiantly
didn't think I'd put it together with the music in the
way I did. I'd hear an incredible bird feeding frenzy
and say to the cab driver 'stop'! He'd say no. You'd
say 'STOP THE CAB!' get out and record the birds, but
when you listen back to the tape the best thing was
the creak of the brakes and the slamming of the door.
You'd throw all these different things together and
it'd be like well this just needs a bass and it's done."
Crud: Do half the people on the album know they've
"Oh, they do, they do. Yes, you have to, otherwise there'd
be a rip-off side to it. For instance I wanted to use
tablas (Indian percussion) on the record, I'd worked
with a tabla player years before but didn't have the
money or the inclination to find him so just used the
ones I'd got and cut them up, and though fuck I like
this! So I called him and said do you remember you did
a session for me 6 years ago, and he was like 'no, to
be completely honest I do not'. I said do you remember
we were at the BBC? And he's like 'no, what is this
about!?' So I said I've used you on four tracks on my
album and want to pay you. He was like 'Oh my god! You
are this angel from heaven! We're getting paid!' It's
like the kids can eat again! It was fantastic."
Crud: Looking back at all the 'greats' (Lennon,
Bolan, Wilson…) you've worked with over the years, standing
largely in the shadows, do you not occasionally wish
that had been you up there?
"You know, I had my moment, I really got a taste of
it, I saw how incredibly complex and difficult it can
be, and I feel you do your own thing in your own time.
Being with Lennon was mind-blowing, I was just 13 or
14 at the time. Being around him made me realise, no
more heroes. He lived utterly from the mind to the hand,
it was phenomenal. But John Lennon probably made his
last great record at 30, I'd barely made a good record
by 30! You have to start thinking at some point that
everybody has their own moment, place in history, their
own trajectory and you never know where or how it's
going to be. I honestly feel that I'm about to go into
this whole new thing. The problem with having big success
early on, like Dave Gilmore (Pink Floyd), is that's
it. That's what you're doing now. You don't tend to
galvanise yourself and push yourself again and again
and again. People ask me why I don't do the lottery.
Well, I don't want to be given 11 million quid, it would
ruin everything. I need to do these things and I want
to do more."
site - www.poptones.co.uk
Interview and report by James Berry for Crud
Music Magazine© 2001