Nick Laird-Clowes Interview

Trashmonk — Alan McGee’s new cult indie label, Poptones released the excellent “Mona Lisa Overdrive” on September 10th 2001. Trashmonk aka Nick laird Clowes of the Dream Academy talks to James Berry.

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 included.

We’re 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.

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!

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 work!”

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.”

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…”

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.

Doesn’t waiting for the next burst kill you?

“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.”

Tell us about your field gathering techniques for ‘Mona Lisa Overdrive’. You always carried your Dictaphone during your time in Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan and India?

“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.”

Do half the people on the album know they’ve been sampled?

“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.”

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.”

Interview and report by James Berry for Crud Music Magazine© 2001

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