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Feeder's Grant Nicholas: "I don't think there are many songwriters like me"

Feeder frontman Grant Nicholas discusses his early life, Feeder's rise to prominence and the loss of bandmate Jon Lee

Feeder's Grant Nicholas: "I don't think there are many songwriters like me"
Words:
Ian Winwood
Header Photo:
Steve Gullick

Toward the start of the 21st century, Grant Nicholas was invited to write a song for the now forgotten American band SR-71. The Baltimore group were in London recording an album that was badly in need of a single. Inspired by an on-again-off-again girlfriend who at the time was keeping company with a man who made adverts for cars, the singer, guitarist and songwriter with Feeder wrote the couplet ‘He’s got a brand new car, looks like a Jaguar’.

These lines, like all the others in the song, were only intended as ‘guides’, the author assuming that they would be replaced by different, more suitable lyrics when the song eventually came to be recorded. But they were put to music all the same and presented to SR-71 at The Crypt Studio in Crouch End, London. Not thinking too much of the song, Grant Nicholas was amazed when everyone in the studio looked at him and said, ‘This is a hit record.’ Fortunately for Feeder, their record company, Echo, thought that Buck Rogers would be a hit, too, and insisted that Grant keep the song for his own band. Released prior to 2001’s Echo Park album, Feeder’s third, the likeable but hardly substantial ditty reached number five in the singles chart and placed its author on the cover of Kerrang! magazine.

Almost two decades later, the band are still in the game. Last summer, Feeder released Tallulah, their 10th LP, a collection of rich, melodic and often caffeinated rock songs that is as good as anything to which they have put their name.While other British rock groups have disbanded and then reunited, Feeder have simply kept trucking without ever needing to stop for petrol.

The years in-between have not been without their trials; the tragic death of founding drummer Jon Lee in 2002 and the subsequent recovery process for those left behind, most notably. It’s a story of tremendous strength and survival, wrapped up in the life of the leader of one of Britain’s most enduring, and finest, rock bands.

What were you like as a young man?
“From about the age of 10 I wanted to be in a band. I didn’t plan on being a singer, necessarily, but I did want to play guitar. The singing happened because I was doing backing vocals in a local group and the singer kept losing his voice so I’d step in and deputise. That’s why I carried on with that. On a songwriting level, being able to sing and play guitar has helped me immensely, but when I was younger the idea of being a singer would have terrified me. I was much too shy for that.”

What was the first guitar you owned?
“Oh God, I remember this so well. It was a black Les Paul Avon copy. My parents got it from a catalogue, and I remember that I used to stare at it on the page for hours on end. So eventually I got it. It couldn’t have cost more than £30, max. But it did the job. At the time, I didn’t even have an amp. I’m also completely self-taught. I used to sit and figure things out by myself. I’d play everything from Black Sabbath to The Stylistics.”

What was the formative rock scene of which you were a part?
“That would have to be London, really. I came to London in my early twenties and I played in little bands in tiny pubs. But I also worked in recording studios.”

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You’ve lived in London for more than half of your life, but you were born in Newport. Do you still retain a strong Welsh identity?
“Yeah I do, very much so. But you’re right, I have been living in London for so long that I suppose I’m a bit of a Welsh Londoner. I love going back, and I still write about that area even now, but although I wanted to get away at the time that I left, those are still my roots.”

What were your first impressions of London when you arrived?
“It was a culture shock. I had spent time in Cardiff and Bristol, which are both big cities, but London was on a whole different level. I lived with two people in Camden Square and I had a tiny room close to the Lord Stanley pub, which was my local. It was much rougher then than it is now. And I got a job in a recording studio simply by arriving in London and knocking on doors. I got a job purely by knocking on the door of a studio in Queen’s Park and saying, ‘Oh, I’ve come from South Wales and I’m trying to get a job in a studio.’ And one of the owners said, ‘Come on in, I really like Wales.’ And he gave me a job there and then. I worked there for about three years or so.”

Did Feeder exist at this point?
“No. I was in touch with Jon [Lee, the group’s original drummer] ‘cause I knew him from being in a band together in Cardiff called Temper Temper. That was the start of our relationship, but we were having a conversation about being a three-piece ‘cause Jon loved the idea of being a power trio, like The Police. So Feeder kind of came from that. Originally we were called Reel, which we nicked from a cool Californian skate company, but when we were signed we changed it to Feeder. We thought that fitted in with the kind of names that were popular at the time, like The Breeders and Sleeper. That seems like a strange way of looking at it now, but that’s the truth of it.”

How did bassist Taka Hirose join the band?
“He placed an advert in Loot. For anyone who doesn’t know, Loot was this London paper full of adverts, and it was huge. People sold and advertised for everything in there. You got some good stuff in there – well, really good ‘cause we got a bass player from there! Anyway, Taka said he was looking for a band and that his influences were Jane’s Addiction and the Chili Peppers and James Brown. And I thought, ‘Okay, that’s interesting.’ So I rang him up. He hadn’t been over from Japan for very long so his English wasn’t great, but we met at Camden tube station and we went for a cup of tea. Then I took him back to the flat and I played him a demo that we’d made that had, like, three or four songs on it, which he took home. At the time he didn’t really say much – Taka keeps himself to himself in that way. But when I saw him play I knew that he was a good player. After that first jam the rest is Feeder history.”

When you first found success, did you enjoy it?
“Yeah, it was great. I mean, we had a top five single with the song Buck Rogers, which was crazy. But there was a lot of work that happened before then. We got a lot of attention from the rock press with [1997’s debut album] Polythene. But with Buck Rogers it was something else entirely. Suddenly you could buy our albums in supermarkets. We went from being a rock band who had this cult following, to that. But that song was bizarre. I never expected it to be that successful. It was a different level.”

In 2002, Jon Lee took his own life. Looking back at that event, do you now recognise signs that he was not well?
“It’s such a difficult thing. I think sometimes it’s the people you least expect to be going through something that are doing so. Obviously I’ve lived with what happened since [2002], and I still think about Jon a lot. He’s kind of constantly around me in some way. I still think about [what happened] and sometimes I’m okay with it, and other times it’s really hard. But the signs weren’t there. At the time, Jon was living in America so I didn’t really know that side of his life. I just didn’t. I knew Jon really well, and we could argue like cat and dog, but because we were so close the next day it’d be forgotten. But I think the constant travelling back and forth between here and America to see his kids – and at the time I didn’t have kids – was hard for him. I think he felt pressure to be around for his kids, to make money for them from the band, and I think he found that really hard.
“But he was never really down, so there were no obvious signs. Being in a band is not easy sometimes, but even now I don’t see any signs that led to it happening. Of course there’s so much in the press now about people who suffer from depression, especially in the music world, and we know that you can have all the money in the world and still be troubled. Sometimes it’s just there inside you. But there is a part of me that thinks that Jon had something in his mind that meant that he did that, full hog. But there’s another part of me that wonders if he really did want to do it. Does that make sense?”

It does.
“I mean this is so hard for me to talk about. But Jon called me before he did it, and I didn’t take the call. If I’d spoken to him, could I have changed what happened? I don’t know. And that’s something that bugs the hell out of me, even now.”

Carrying that with you is a fool’s errand, surely.
“Yeah, because maybe it was just his way of saying goodbye. He left me a message on my phone and I didn’t erase it for ages. He just said, ‘G, hi, it’s Jon.’ He didn’t sound down or anything, which at least put my mind at rest that it wasn’t anything I had done that had upset him. There was something in there that just wasn’t responding to the pressure he felt. I think there’s probably more to it, and then again maybe there isn’t. He was such a funny and confident guy, but given what happened I wonder if he was really quite as confident and tough as he appeared to everyone else. I don’t know for sure, and it’s difficult to say. But the death of [The Prodigy’s] Keith Flint took me back to Jon, because of course people were wondering whether he meant to take it as far as he did. And that could have happened with Jon. Maybe he didn’t mean to take it that far, or maybe he did. I’ll never know.”

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In the wake of Jon’s death, you released the appropriately titled Comfort In Sound.
“Well, the first thing to say is that even had Jon not died we would still have released a good album. But it wouldn’t have been called Comfort In Sound, and there certainly wouldn’t have been a lot of the songs on there that arrived after his death. People go, ‘Oh, that’s the album about Jon,’ to which I answer, ‘No, it’s the album that I wrote after Jon died.’ And there’s a difference between those two things. It wasn’t like we made this morose, ambient record; it was still obviously a Feeder album. But I completely lost the plot after Jon died. I was going to the Lord Stanley every night and getting hammered. I took it quite badly because the band was doing really well, but I’d felt that in losing Jon that I’d also lost the band, in a way. It seemed that everything was gone. Jon pushed me as a writer, and he was an enormous part of the band’s chemistry. So Comfort In Sound was really me pulling myself together.”

Since Jon’s death, Feeder have essentially been a two-piece.
“Yeah, although Mark [Richardson, drummer] was actually part of the band proper for a while. But that just got a bit funny ‘cause I think we jumped in too fast in getting him into the band as a proper member. We knew him, you see, from playing with Skunk Anansie. But I was working fast because I thought, ‘Well, if I don’t put things in place quickly then I’m going to go fully off the rails, and so is the band.’ I felt it would all disappear, and that felt wrong to me. ‘Cause I was still here, Taka was still here, so why should the band stop? I locked myself in a studio and I wrote songs. They poured out of me. I locked myself away and worked every day. I realised that I had to see what came out of this. And from that, Comfort In Sound really began to take shape. And when I played the songs to Taka here in Crouch End – and I was really nervous about doing that – he loved what he heard, and it was there and then that we decided we would carry on. And I’m glad that we did because otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you now.”

Did you have any guilt about carrying on?
“I don’t know if I’d call it guilt, but I was concerned about what people might think. It did feel a bit strange carrying on without Jon.”

It’s unreasonable, though, isn’t it, that you and Taka should lose the thing that you created with Jon?
“Yes, and I won’t lie about how I felt about that. But imagine being Jon’s kids, or his mum and dad. It absolutely broke his mum. She was never the same again. And that’s understandable, because she adored him. But for my part, deciding to carry on pushed me as a writer.”

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As a songwriter, do you feel you are given the credit you deserve?
“I think a lot of songwriters aren’t given the credit they deserve. I don’t think Tom Petty was, for example, until he died.”

But in your opinion, are you specifically given the credit you deserve?
“I don’t know. Hand on heart, I don’t think there are many songwriters like me in the UK. But I can’t do much about that. I’m not saying that in an arrogant way, it’s just very difficult to have a career where the levels of quality and creativity remain high. I think that I’m more creative now than I was 15 years ago. I’m writing more stuff and better stuff, and now I know what it is I want to say with my music. I know what I’m doing a bit more now. I don’t always get it right, but I get a lot closer these days. Ultimately, it’s not my place to worry about what other people think of me, or how I’m rated or anything like that. It’s my job to write songs as well as I’m able to, and to work hard at being as good as I can be. And I do that.”

And people can judge that on your new album, Tallulah. Tell us about that.
“Well, of course I’m really pleased with it, and really proud of it. I think it comes at a good time for us as well. It’s quite hard to explain, but we’re probably in a better place now – musically, chemistry-wise and team-wise – than we’ve been for a really long time. Now whether that takes us back to playing arena gigs, or whether it means that I’ll be nominated for songwriting awards, or whatever, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
“I definitely feel that things have gone full circle in many ways. But I’ve lived with the album for a long time now. I’ve gone through that horrible phase where I wasn’t really sure about it, and I realise now that I am sure about it. I’ve been listening to it a lot while I’ve been out running – in fact I actually wrote a lot of the lyrics while out on my runs – and I’ve got to say that I’m really happy with it. It’s what we do – it’s song-based, it’s energetic, it’s melodic. And I also think that the timing is right for it. This is our 10th album of new material, and some of those albums have come out at the wrong time – whether that’s for us as a band, or for the label, or for the climate at the time. And they’d come out and I could just tell that the timing was wrong. But with this one, the timing feels right. We’ve made a record that will appeal to our older hardcore fans, but that will also appeal to younger listeners as well. I think it’s great – and it’s packed full of songs!”

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