Sad Song Co.: Nigel Powell
"I feel like we’ve earned every single person on every single seat"
Nigel Powell is not a man to rest on his laurels. He is perhaps most widely known for his work as the percussive powerhouse behind the kit in Frank Turner’s Sleeping Souls, but Powell has a work ethic to be envied. Over the past 15 years – alongside a hefty amount of session work and tutoring – Nigel has written, recorded and produced his own work under the guise of the Sad Song Co.
Powell’s roots, though, lie a little closer to home and he is without doubt part of the rich musical tapestry that was so strong in Oxford during the nineties and early noughties. He studied at Abingdon School alongside fellow future musician Jonny Greenwood, and has previously performed in Oxfordshire-based groups such as Unbelievable Truth and Dive Dive, both of whom experienced some degree of success before and after Nigel joined the merry band of Sleeping Souls in 2005.
I spoke to the man himself as he prepares to release his fourth album, ‘Worth’ on 9 February. The new LP is a distinguished set of songs which are littered with musical love letters to indie, prog-rock and folk, combining them to create a musical vision which is unique to Nigel.
As you grew up in Oxfordshire, how did you find your way into the Oxford music scene?
I moved to Abingdon when I was 13, in 1985, and was in bands at school before that. I found my way with whoever was making music at the time [in Abingdon]. Then when we started getting gigs, we were naturally motivated to know the people in town who are putting gigs on and through that, meet other people in bands. So I got to know Mac – who used to run the Jericho Tavern – very well, which was a central part of being in the Oxford music scene.
Were there any particularly inspirational shows you remember seeing around Oxford when you were young?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a lot of bands whose names wouldn’t mean anything anymore, but the early On A Friday gigs were amazing – I was friends with those guys and had been in the band previously while the drummer was away, and recorded their demos. At that time, with all the enthusiasm of being a teenager, there were so many good gigs – watching bands up at the Old Fire Station or the Jericho nearly every week, it was nearly constant inspiration.
Do you think the remarkable nineties period within Oxford – with Radiohead, Supergrass, Ride, and so on – informed your decision to become a musician?
Absolutely. I think what happened to Ride [in the early nineties] galvanised the scene. While there had always been fantastic bands around, when somebody breaks through and there’s a significant success – especially when it’s tied to a city – it gives everybody energy. Before that, it would seem impossible because we were just guys in Oxford, but they were just guys in Oxford that I used to drink with in the New Inn – and now look! After Ride, Radiohead followed and then Supergrass after that, and I was lucky enough to be fairly intimately part of that group as I was friends with the Radiohead guys and had done lights for them for the first couple of years. I also remember hearing early Supergrass demos and thinking, “This is amazing – this can’t be the demo!” It was just a time when everything was accelerating and possible.
How did you find your time in [Oxford-based] Unbelievable Truth?
My best friend, Andy Yorke, and I were in a band at school with Jonny Greenwood for a while, before Andy’s brother stole him for his band! Then after Andy finished university, he wrote to me from Russia and told me that he’d started writing songs, and they might be alright – maybe I could help him play them. We got together with Jason [Moulster] but there was a false start, as Andy decided he didn’t want to pursue it at that time but we continued a few years later and said, “Let’s try again.” As we’d just been about to sign a deal and disappeared, it made people take notice when we came back. We got a deal with Virgin and released our debut album in 1998, and it was a really proud time for me.
How have you found the experience with Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls, as they are so huge now?
It always feels like a work in progress for us, and I think that because it’s been so gradual. We didn’t just put an album out and have it become a massive hit – I feel like we’ve earned every single person on every single seat because we’ve gone out and played countless shows, concentrated and worked hard. From the outside it might look very different but from the inside we’re just doing the same thing that we’ve always done. Yes, it’s more comfortable and more people come, but we’re still trying to prove ourselves every night.
You spend much of your time at the heart of the Frank Turner machine – do you find it difficult sometimes to find time for the Sad Song Co.?
Yes, the first Sad Song Co. album came out in 2003, in the aftermath of Unbelievable Truth. I’ve always needed a little bit of spare time to write things and there was a lot of touring between 2003 and 2007, so the second album came out then. From 2007 onwards, touring with Frank has been absolutely non-stop so it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I got more time off than planned, that I could start writing again.
This is the shortest time between albums, have you found yourself in a purple patch of creativity?
It’s opportunity, really. The other thing was that my second album came at a particularly difficult time in my life, and I didn’t enjoy it all too much – I wasn’t motivated to write things again. Once I had finished [2016 album] ‘In Amber’, I quite liked it and I still do. It was easier to come back to writing this time, as I thought, “Maybe I’m not that bad!”
‘In Amber’ was inspired by the people and stories of a nursing home. Were there any particular thematic inspirations for the new album, ‘Worth’?
I didn’t have a framework while I was writing it, in this case. After ‘In Amber’, my initial concept was to write about violence, in various ways, as I had a few lyrical fragments that seemed to fit with that. When it came to it, these things didn’t come together and I thought that I would write this album about nothing in particular. That said, once it was finished and I was trying to figure out the title of the record, the song ‘Worth My Bones’ seemed to link to some of the other songs – what things are worth, what one’s action are worth, what love is worth. It is something that I question about myself a lot, and I hadn’t realised that it was coming through in the lyrics I was writing.
Musically, which artists which have informed the new album?
I got midway through the new album and it sounded quite like a lot like the stuff I had done before. A few years ago, Andy [Yorke] had previously given me an album by a band called Rival Consoles – ambient and electronica – which I played on the way back from a lecture in Wales. As soon as I got back, I sat down and tried to make some of the songs sound related to the Rival Consoles stuff that I’d been enjoying.
You are taking the Sad Song Co. on tour. Do you enjoy the intimacy of these shows in comparison to the big venues with The Sleeping Souls?
It’s stripped back by necessity rather than by choice. I play everything myself on the albums apart from the bass, which Jason plays. I enjoy doing it all myself but it means that I don’t have anybody to play it with live! There’s a pleasure about it but I find it extremely nerve-wracking, which is strange as I play so many gigs a year. I don’t suffer from stage fright at all when I’m drumming but if I have to sing and play the piano, I’m a gibbering wreck beforehand. Also, although a lot of my recordings are dense, I enjoy the space in my live shows and I take out as much as possible to get down to the barest bones. I’m looking forward to seeing what people think about it.
Are you looking forward to the homecoming show at MoMA?
Yeah, definitely. Whilst I was booking the tour and trying to figure out what to put where, I went to see [Oxford band] The Epstein and I’d forgotten that they put gigs on there. I came away thinking “Great, I’d like to play there!” I realised recently that this is actually my first proper solo gig in Oxford ever, which is weird. I’m really looking forward to it!
How is the rest of 2018 shaping up?
The new Frank Turner album is being mixed right now, it’s going to be finished in a matter of days, and it comes out in April. There is also a Dive Dive album which has been finished for a while that is to be released. From there, tour plans carry on until 2019 – I do the Sad Song Co. tour and then everything goes Frank Turner-haywire for the foreseeable future.
The Sad Song Co. are touring the UK for the release of ‘Worth’ which comes out 9 February; be sure to catch them when they play the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford on 17 February.
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