Dear readers, we are pleased to offer you in this article an interview with an expert musician of the Rock scene and not just, we welcome Nick Haeffner.
Hi Nick how are you?
Hi Jacopo, I’m fine. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to about my music. I’ve chosen to talk about some of the earlier influences on my music as a way to try and explain why it sounds the way it does.
You started playing in the 80s, how did your passion for music come about?
I was born in Australia, although both my parents were English. The first record I can remember was a collection of Australian folk songs performed by a Swedish musician called William Clausen. Clausen collected folk music from many different countries and was a great interpreter of folk traditions. I was about 5 years old when I first heard it and like all my favourite records, I listened to it over and over again, a bit obsessively, for many years. The arrangements were wonderful and the melodies were really strong and memorable, even though the lyrics were about convicts and sheep shearing. I loved music, especially really tuneful folk music from then on.
I remember hearing records by The Incredible String Band, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin, Leonard Cohen, belonging to my brother and sisters, all before I was ten years old. Record labels had very strong identities. I liked labels like Harvest and Island. Labels put out sampler albums like ‘The Rock Machine’ (CBS), ‘Nice Enough to Eat’ and ‘El Pea’ (Island records) featuring different bands. Normally people would like 4 or 5 bands on the albums as the musical styles were so different but I played them so often that I liked all the bands. I got used to the idea that albums didn’t have to be all the same kind of music so my albums also have songs and instrumentals in a range of different styles and genres.
I also worked for a chain of record shops for several years where I worked my way through all the different categories of music in the shop. I developed really varied taste in music and the idea that an album could consist of many different styles of music. However, the consistent thing in my musical taste is folk, traditional and world music.
Early on I began to appreciate albums where all the songs were part of a larger whole and where instrumental music as well as songs featured. One of the first ‘concept’ albums I heard was ‘The Point’ by Harry Nilsson. My next album ‘Are You Sleeping’ is based on ‘The Point’ album and animated feature film. My 2019 album, ‘A New Life Awaits You’ was a concept album too.
Around the age of 13 and 14 I began listening to heavy rock (Free, Hawkwind, The Groundhogs and The Who were early favourites) and some progressive rock. I particularly liked prog bands that were quite experimental (such as King Crimson and Pink Floyd) and bands that were very melodic (like Caravan). Again, I think my music has been influenced by this combination of experimentation and melodicism. I also bought all the Roxy Music albums when they were released, which introduced me to ‘art school’ rock. To me, all these bands appealed to the listener who wanted something more interesting and thought provoking from rock and pop music.
I first started to play the guitar in the mid 1970s when there was suddenly a new approach and a challenge to the musical establishment. Progressive and heavy rock became very unfashionable. Pub rock, punk, new wave, krautrock, reggae and dub were the new styles to play. I remember pub rock starting in the mid-1970s. It set out to be the opposite of progressive rock and was very exciting. Instead of the sophisticated and elaborate constructions of prog, pub rock emphasised simplicity, a back-to-basics approach. Musically, it drew from traditional, r&b roots music. Instead of the gigantic stadia that Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis and others now performed in, pub rock bands played in small bars and clubs. Very quickly, pub rock gave way to punk rock, which made a public display of its contempt for prog rock. Johnny Rotten famously wore a t-shirt saying ‘I hate Pink Floyd’. Punk celebrated a kind of musical primitivism, which was perhaps a bit romanticized by a lot of the critics.
As I had no training, I fell in more easily with punk and post-punk. At that time there was no training for rock or pop musicians so you were either classically trained or self-taught. Classically trained musicians were regarded with great suspicion. People at the time said that classically trained musicians had no feeling for rock and made it too complicated but I have often worked with trained musicians who possess skills that I will never have.
New music from Germany in the early 70s was also starting to make English prog sound tame and outdated. Faust and Can sounded more modern and much less inhibited. Cluster, Harmonia, Kraftwerk and Neu sounded cooler and more minimal. My band, The Tea Set was a product of punk rock, pub rock and so-called Krautrock but there were also strong influences from bands like Pink Floyd and Hawkwind, which belonged more to the prog rock era. The main influence on The Tea Set was Wire, a post-punk band on the Harvest label who combined punk with psychedelia. We were also influenced by Talking Heads, Eno, Robert Fripp and Bowie who appealed to post and pre-punk music tastes. Of course, Eno has been quite an influence on my solo output, but more the early albums where he combined quirky songs with instrumentals.
You played in Clive Pig and the Hopeful Chinamen and later in The Tea Set, what memories do you have of these experiences?
I was very young and to begin with it was really exciting. But with both bands we seemed to be close to big success yet it didn’t happen for various reasons so in the end there was a lot of disappointment.
My first release was the single ‘Happy Birthday Sweet 16’, an original song recorded by Clive Pig and the Hopeful Chinamen. It was banned by the BBC who considered the lyrics indecent. It’s a great song and has become something of a classic over time but it did not sell as well as we hoped. A full-length cassette of material, recorded as The Hopeful Chinamen which included my first attempt at writing songs and instrumentals was released before the band broke up in 1980.
I joined The Tea Set in 1980 at a time when the band was started to achieve some success with a great track called ‘Parry Thomas’. While a great live band, The Tea Set had trouble capturing its sound in the studio during the time I was with them. An album was recorded but in 1982 the band broke up. However, I gained a lot of live and recording experience. The Tea Set supported many leading bands of the time including The Clash, XTC, Iggy Pop, The Stranglers and many more. It was very exciting while it lasted and I got the band to play a couple of my songs.
You then embarked on a successful solo career, how would you describe this passage and your sounds?
After leaving The Tea Set I got more interested in folk and world music. My favourite guitarists were Richard Thompson and Ry Cooder. I began working with an experimental folk accordionist, Mike Adcock. The accordion is an instrument that is common all over the world so Mike began collecting the music from many different countries. I was one of the backing musicians for this project. I learned a great deal about world music and experimenting with folk traditions.
I continued to listen to new music as well as traditional music and got interested in the songwriting and production of art-rock artists like Kate Bush, Eno, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel. I also started working at an art cinema in London and began to develop a passion for films and film soundtracks. Ennio Morricone, Michel Legrand, Angelo Badalamenti, Michael Nyman and Bernard Herrman were big influences on my compositions. A track like ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ on The Electromagnetic Imaginary has strong echoes of Bernard Herrman’s soundtrack for ‘Psycho’, with a very anxious sounding string section and menacing cello parts.
I also discovered soul and gospel music by Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Al Green and The Staples Singers as well as bossa nova musicians like Joao Gilberto and Milton Nascimento. In their different ways, these musicians were also progressive. On my debut solo album ‘The Great Indoors’, I recorded a cover version of ‘Breaths’ by gospel group Sweet Honey in the Rock. I also began to incorporate bossa nova rhythms and chord changes into my songwriting as in the instrumental ‘The Great Indoors’.
Around this time, I also became heavily involved with Bam Caruso records, now a very respected specialist psychedelic label. I listed to a lot of early 70s folk, experimental and psychedelic music like Kevin Ayers, Nico, John Cale, Nick Drake and John Martyn. I also played on some psychedelic releases on the label. In 1987, Phil Smee, the owner of Bam Caruso released my first solo album, ‘The Great Indoors’. At first not many people were interested but after a couple of months really great reviews started to appear. There were many very favourable comparisons to Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers and The Beatles. However, in terms of sales, the album was not a big success. Fortunately, it has a loyal following and was re-released as a two CD box set by Hanky Panky records in 2017.
Here is a little bit of prog trivia: Jakko Jakszyk of King Crimson was guest guitarist on my track ‘Mean Guitar’. He also remixed another track, ‘Back in Time for Tea’, for a 12” single.
I was disappointed by the sales of the album and had run out money. After unsuccessfully trying to record a follow up to ‘The Great Indoors’ I quit music in 1989 and gave up playing the guitar for nearly 30 years. I went to University and studied for a BA, MA and PhD, then went into full time teaching until 2017.
In 2019, having started to play and record again, I released my second solo album, ‘A New Life Awaits You’ on my own label which also got some great reviews but also sold disappointingly. I found that the compositions came quite easily and I regard this album as the official follow up to ‘The Great Indoors’. The writer Alan Moore (‘Watchmen’, ‘V for Vendetta’), loved the album and wrote me a long letter in which he commented:
‘There is a great timelessness in your music […] without prior knowledge I might have assumed that either ‘A New Life’ had been released as a follow-up in 1988, or, just as conceivably, that ‘The Great Indoors’ had been released in 2018.’
I liked this observation, as ‘A New Life Awaits You’ is a concept album that deals with time travel.
The following year, I was invited to contribute a track to the experimental series ‘Miniatures’. I also joined Dimple Discs records, an Anglo-Irish label based in South London run by Brian O’Neil who has followed my music since the 1980s. Dimple Discs also has connections with a great live music venue in South London, run by musician and DJ Neil March, where I played recently. The label employs a promoter, Nick Clift, which means that I can hopefully start to build up a larger following. My Dimple Discs label-mate Keeley has said that she thinks of the label as a modern-day Harvest Records.
Your new mini-album “The Electromagnetic Imaginary” was released in July 2022, how do you describe this work?
It’s a kind of introduction to the sounds I’m interested in creating, although on my other releases I also write songs that I sing myself. However, I think the instrumentals have a very distinctive approach and it’s easier to hear the different parts in the arrangements. The music is not much like any other musician. Most of the instrumentals are just me building up the tracks alone in my home studio so the tracks have a lot of my personality. It’s available at a budget price as I hope to attract new listeners,
Two of the CD tracks on ‘The Electromagnetic Imaginary’, ‘Into the Pointless Forest’ and ‘The Clearing in the Forest’, are previews for my next release, ‘Are You Sleeping’ which tells the story of a small boy forced to leave his home and leave in exile in a forest so the music acts like a soundtrack to the events in the story. For instance, halfway though ‘The Clearing in the Forest’ we can imagine the boy being taken on a flight over the forest by a giant pterodactyl, as in the story.
‘The Great Indoors’ originally featured as a composition on my first album. Here I have re-recorded it as a solo guitar piece. The track ‘A New Life Awaits You’ was originally going to be on my previous album of the same name, which was a sci-fi concept album. The track is partly inspired by the film ‘Blade Runner’ and gives a musical representation of the earth dying as a spaceship bound for another planet takes off.
Some guests in 3 tracks took part in the album, what did they bring to the sound?
Ian Montague played bass on ‘Slouching Towards Walthamstow’, I often work now with Ian as he’s a better bass player than I am. Andy Golding (who records on Dimple Discs as Dragon Welding) played an out of tune toy guitar on this track which brought a more playful, humorous touch to the track.
The track ‘Ludwig at Clearwater’ was originally recorded for an album called The Ludwig Variations by my friend Mike Adcock. Mike sent a recording he’d made of an old, broken accordion playing a piece he’d improvised to three other musicians asking them to improvise over it using any instruments, I was one of them. I added a ukulele and the sampled sound of an Indian shenai which I played using a keyboard, Mike’s son Simon played bass and Sylvia Hallett played a hardanger violin, from Norway. Later Mike removed his accordion part for this version to see what it would sound like and I really liked the result. Mike kindly gave his permission for me to use the track on my album. The original version including his accordion part is on ‘The Ludwig Variations’ CD.
‘Everything Begins Again’ was originally recorded with a very basic drum machine so I asked Finn Kidd to replace it with a better drum track.
You described the album on Bandcamp as a preview of a forthcoming full-length, what anticipations do you want to give us about it?
I have two new projects to release. The first one, as previously mentioned, is based on Harry Nilsson’s album and animated film, The Point. I have recorded all the songs from Nilsson’s album with different singers and composed new instrumental pieces to go with the story. My version is called ‘Are You Sleeping?’ and it will be released by Dimple Discs, featuring several artists on the label. The songs are really beautiful. It’s a children’s story so the songs are often child-like but with a surprising amount of emotional depth. The melodies are really strong. Nilsson was great friends with The Beatles. They respected his talent and at its best his songwriting approaches the standard set by The Beatles.
The second project is an album of new songs I’ve written, tentatively titled ‘More Songs About Electricity, Cats and Ghosts’. I think it’s the best collection of songs I’ve written so far and I have some great support from other musicians. It’s not quite finished yet and it may not be released for a while but I’m quite excited about it. I am already playing some of the new songs in my live set.
Your solo project see you playing all the instruments, will there be the possibility to listen to your music live or is it still a studio project?
I have started to play live again, mostly with just acoustic instruments. Some of the recorded music is too difficult to reproduce live but other pieces and songs work well. I would love to play in Italy, if anyone reading this wants to give me an opportunity! A lot of my audience seems to be based in Italy.
You have been on the scene for many years, how has your sound evolved over time?
I had a thirty year break away from making music. I worked as a university lecturer and team leader at an art school. It was very hard work and I quickly lost track of what was going on in the world of music. I didn’t pick up a guitar again until 2017 when I left my job and began to record music at home using Logic with the help my friend, producer Richard Norris.
My most recent releases have explored the possibilities of home recording using Logic where I make most of the sounds myself. I draw on the library of samples and loops in Logic to make sounds that I have loved from many years of listening to folk, rock, pop and experimental music. However, I now want to play live with other musicians so I am trying to rely less on the studio to build up the sound in layers.
You are a versatile musician, do you have other passions or artistic projects outside of music?
Yes, I love photography and I teach the history of photography at a university. I also wrote two books while I was lecturing, one on Alfred Hitchcock, the other, with my colleague Susan Andrews, on photographs of London’s East End.
Also, the older I get, the more I love cats (and my Danish partner, Nicolai).
You have a lot of experience in the music field, what advice would you give to young artists who decide to offer more sophisticated music like yours?
There’s never been a better time to make your own music, try things out, experiment and be guided by your intuition. Getting an audience for more complex music can be hard but be passionate, believe in what you do and make connections with other musicians, they are often the ones who understand what you have achieved. Support the music of other musicians you like and admire, and they will help to support your music. It takes time to build up an audience, commit yourself to doing it over a longer period of time. Don’t expect results straight away. Teach yourself skills and practise to get better at being the kind of musician you want to be, which probably isn’t the same as everybody else’s idea of a ‘good’ musician. Work hard and put in the time necessary to get better and better. Sooner or later people around you will start to realise that you are serious and are achieving something special.
Your style has evolved over the years, what musical projects do you have for the future?
Apart from the two I have mentioned I don’t know exactly what will come in the future. I would like to do a live album to show that the music can stand up without studio effects and tricks.
Even music is constantly evolving, how do you see the future of the Rock and Experimental genre?
As it is always evolving so hard to say where it will go next but I think there’s some movement away from pre-prepared sounds like samples and loops. I used them a lot on this project but on my next two releases I use acoustic instruments a lot more. In my live work I am trying to create new combinations of sounds using acoustic instruments. The next release uses a lot of acoustic folk instruments to create unusual combinations of sounds and atmospheres. I think this is an interesting way to go.
There’s a lot of great music coming from Ireland at the moment, much of it on my label Dimple Discs. Eileen Gogan, Keeley, Ed McGuigan and Ger Eaton are four very talented Irish artists who perform on my next album, Are You Sleeping. I also love the folk band Lankum and Michael Sheehy, who writes very well about music as well as writing and performing his own songs.
Also, I think great progressive songwriting is not dead. I’m currently listening to a singer songwriter called Owen Duff, who uses very ambitious and sophisticated arrangements and chord sequences. His album ‘Bed’ is stunning.
I thank Nick for the pleasant interview, wishing the best for the continuation of his artistic career.
Read my review of his new album here: https://progrockjournal.com/review-nick-haeffner-the-electromagnetic-imaginary/