The morning after one of Nic Jones’s club appearances in North Hampshire this summer (a full house as usual) he was placed in front of a tape recorder and interrogated by Southern Rag’s probing investigative team of lan Anderson and Maggie Holland, well on the path to becoming Robin Days of the folk scene.
Despite Nic’s much publicised new year resolution of 1979 to give up being cynical, The Wild Man Of Folk (as he has been aptly dubbed by Melody Maker’s impish Colin Irwin) was well on form. His diffidence to the awe in which his music is held by mere mortals is also notorious – “All I’ve got is 4 0-levels, what else can I do?”, he had remarked the previous night. Who would believe from his throw-away description that The Halliard were a widely known and popular folk club group of the 1960s, or that The Noah’s Ark Trap is rated by many as one of the folk LPs of the ’70s?
Right now Nic is mulling over a number of tempting recording offers, so has nothing on the way in that line. However, at least his first four LPs (the latest being From The Devil To A Stranger) are available again now that most of Bill Leader’s records are re-issued through the new deal with Highway.
Probably the next opportunity to see him ‘live’ will be at Shackleford on November 5th when he appears with his good friend Tony Hall. On with the interview…
S.R. I remember reading somewhere that you started out like roughly 90% of the folk scene by becoming interested in guitar playing through the pop groups of the day.
NJ. Yeah, I used to have all the Shadows’ singles; I’d stick them on the record player, tune up to it and play Apache, Frightened City, Perfidia. Who did Perfidia?
S.R. The Ventures. Did you ever play in a schoolboy pop group?
NJ. Yeah, there was a group called The Talons.
S.R. When was that?
NJ. Jesus Christ, that was years ago! We played in one church youth club and we had a drummer who had a tom tom drum and one cymbal, about the size of a hubcap, a meccano stand, and then we had about one amplifier between three guitars and one pickup between three guitars, one solid guitar which was basically an acoustic guitar filled with concrete.
S.R. What guitar did you play in those days?
NJ. What did I have? I had a Selmer. I think it was one of those f-hole things, jazz-style guitar, really. When we first got together the only chords I knew were the chords to Perfidia, which were A minor, G, F and E. I had been playing a guitar for two years before I even knew about chords. Listening to the Shadows and things I’d learned solo notes, the tunes as notes, it had never occurred to me that there were actually chords. The existence of chords completely eluded me until I’d been playing for two years.
S.R. This is a shot in the dark, but does that have any effect on the way you played guitar subsequently?
NJ. Yeah, because I’ve always learned things by tuning up to the record player! I still do it; I put on the Martin Carthy records and then play to them. (laughs) I’ve played with the Eagles, I’ve played with Charlie Byrd!
S.R. How did you get from there to folk clubs?
NJ. What happened was that I was working in an office and there was a bloke there who was interested in folk music and he heard Bert Jansch’s record and knew I was interested in playing the guitar. I had given up the idea of playing electric guitar, because I hadn’t got enough money to buy one. There was a crucial stage, really, when I nearly bought a good quality amplifier and a good quality electric guitar but it meant tying myself up with a load of HP, and at the time I chickened out and didn’t buy them. But had I actually had the guts to stick my neck out on that HP deal I would have probably gone into electric things. The fact that I didn’t buy that meant that I carried on with the acoustic guitar.
Round about the same time I heard something like Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright by Peter, Paul & Mary; I thought what a great guitar sound they got, this clawhammer thing. A bloke at school was doing elementary clawhammer and he showed me how to do it, and I spent eight bloody weeks trying to get that stupid thumb thing going, driving myself potty trying to get that. Then I heard the first Bert Jansch record when I took a job in London, after leaving school, and I thought it was really good, so I bought that and tried to learn all of those. And for about a year and a half was just trying to be Bert Jansch, sitting on a chair with my legs crossed, looking down and trying to look moody and playing all the chords.
S.R. Had you actually started going to folk clubs by then?
NJ. Well, only when I saw he was on at Chelmsford Folk Club. That was what first took me to a folk club actually, to go and see him. And then John Renbourn was there as well, he was booked another week, so I went along, and then I thought I’d go along some of the other nights when there were different people. Hedy West was on and I went there and listened for about two songs and I was really embarrassed. I felt myself blushing because she was singing fol-de-riddle-i-do choruses, and I felt this was so stupid. I felt my face going all red and I had to get out of the room – I was feeling really awful, as though I was going to pass out with embarrassment standing listening to all this, so I got out of there and I only went when people like Paul Simon and John Renbourn were on.
NJ. No. Once I tried on a singers night. I learned The Ballad Of lra Hayes off a Pete Seeger record and I tried to sing and made a ballsup of it. I had worked it out so I could sing it at home and as soon as I got to perform it, it was all in the wrong key. I was nervous, and I could see everybody was looking down at their laps and coughing and taking sips of their drinks, and I was singing out of tune, and I just thought “this is ridiculous” so I stopped halfway through and vowed I’d never, ever do it again. It’s only sheer conceit really that makes you stand up in a folk club and sing anyway.
S.R. So, at some point you must have got interested in singing traditional songs, or was that by accident?
NJ. Yeah, by and large, all of the things I have done since I left school have all occurred by chance meetings. I’ve not initiated any of these things, I’ve drifted into things and become involved in things, not against my will but not through any conscious decision of my own. I was going down to Chelmsford Folk Club quite regularly after a while, and I got to quite like the resident group who were doing chorus things and what-have-you. It was all a bit of a laugh, and then their guitar player left and they said “would you like to try and join the group?” I said that I couldn’t play that sort of thing, I wasn’t that sort of bloke. But they said “Give it a try”, so l said I would and tried it for a little while, had a few rehearsals and made a right carve-up of it all, and then I said “I can’t do this, it’s no good”. Then they said “Well, just stay for this last couple of things we’re committed to”, something like a Young Conservative booking, so I did that, and by that time they had taken another couple of bookings somewhere else and said “just help us out on these two”, and it drifted on, you see, and lasted for a year and a half, or something like that. Then in the end we just fell out, really, argued with each other.
S.R. That group was the Halliard?
NJ. Yes. Then one or two people wrote to me to ask “would you do some solo bookings?” and I’d got no other job so I thought, well, I might just try. I did this tour up in the Rotherham and Barnsley area and I thought I was bloody terrible, I thought it was really appalling. The main trouble was that I just couldn’t talk, I couldn’t introduce songs, because the other fellow had always done the talking. About halfway through the tour, I was sitting at Dave Burland’s place, and I said, “Look, this is ridiculous, I might as well back out now and get a job or something,” but Dave encouraged me and said “Keep going, it’s alright! It’s only a matter of practising a bit and you get used to it.” His encouragement really made me keep on doing it. Then I got a few more bookings so I thought I’d leave it for a bit and keep doing it, and I’m still doing it really.
S.R. So what took you to Bill Leader’s?
NJ. Actually I think it was a number of people. It was Dave and Toni Arthur, Shirley Collins and Robin Dransfield. They all recommended me to Bill who was looking round when he split up with Topic.
S.R. Was that a fairly simple and quick recording job, the first LP?
NJ. Yes, I think it took about three hours, the first one. I just sang the songs and buggered off, really.
NJ. I think the difference was that Bill forgot to turn the tape recorder off between the tracks on the third one! The first two I was just doing songs that were in the repertoire and not really thinking much about it. Put the tape recorder on, sing a song, switch it off, switch it back on again and do another song. I didn’t really want to do just another old record of songs. I was getting a bit cheesed off with listening to folk records which had one song, gap, one song, gap. And I thought, in a lot of rock records you hear things where they’re joined together and it makes it interesting and maybe it would be nice to do that with a folk type record.
S.R. Did you have any idea with that one of it being, appalling term, an overall concept, or were you just going for interesting links?
NJ. No, I just wanted to join it together really. They were all linked, the songs, anyway, by the fact that they were predominantly love, human relationship type songs. Initially I had more of a concept to it because I started out with a definite idea of a plan of campaign; that it was going to be a single person who did various things and had various adventures and then got back home again; went to foreign countries and did all the things that people do in folk songs, and then got back home again by the end of the record, but that collapsed in the process of doing it. In the end any concept that was there occurred more by accident than by planning, the fact that we put it in a reasonable order and linked the things together. You can get any handful of songs and put them in an order that will give them an apparent sense of continuity.
S.R. You’ve obviously evolved a style which is instantly recognisable and very much your own. Have you consciously aimed for that or is it another thing you’ve drifted into?
NJ. I’m not that aware of having evolved a style. By and large, I’ve gone through phases that other people have gone through, copying other people, swiping other people’s ideas and trying to be like them, whether it be Bert Jansch, initially, and then Paul Simon, Tom Paxton, Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Martin Carthy; all these people I’ve attempted at some stage to be like, to copy and make the sound that they make.
NJ. No. If anything it’s probably the other way round. With the guitar, if you’re working on intricate accompaniments, somehow it makes the song a rigid thing. Once you start thinking about the accompaniments, the simpler they are, the easier they are to play, the more fluid they are, the more separate they are from what you are singing, the easier it is to sing the song and the more spontaneity you can get into a song. So I started to think about doing accompaniments that stopped me from getting bored singing the same thing every time. Boredom with singing something that was dead rigid every night, so I’ve been trying to do accompaniments that have the element of flexibility in them.
But I think I’m a fairly inept guitar player in actual fact. What amazes me is that other people are infinitely more inept than me. What always staggers me is that people regard me as a reasonable guitarist on the folk scene and I think I’m fairly trashy as a guitarist and have a fairly low standard. What amazes me is the standard is as low as it is, that someone like myself can be regarded as a decent guitarist.
S.R. Yes, but is it possibly because there is a different set of values that apply on the folk scene? For instance, classical players would be very hung up on the technique of playing and the correct fingerings and that sort of thing, whereas the values that apply on the folk scene would be things like the end result. It’s not the way you produce that result, but the actual result in itself Part of being a good guitarist would be to leave out the right things.
NJ. I leave bits out? They’re the bits I can’t play! I don’t really know.
S.R. Because it’s an accompaniment for a song, rather than as an instrumental thing in its own right, then the better you get at it, the more it allows the song room to breathe. I think maybe people have got bored with flashy guitar playing that doesn’t actually do anything.
NJ. Well, I think that’s interesting. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. It’s interesting to do, in the same way as passing exams is worth doing, but I personally don’t want to sit there, ten hours a day, practicing a ridiculous riff just so somebody’s going to gasp in a folk club. To me it’s as ridiculous as an Olympic swimmer bashing up and down 50 lengths of pool everyday just to knock 0.2 of a second off, to say he’s faster than some other bugger. I don’t see the point of it.
There are a lot of musicians who spend hours practising, but for what? They’d do better going out and getting drunk and getting a bit of experience and letting that show in their music. Someone like, for instance, Derroll Adams or Alex Campbell, their music lives far more than any technician’s does because they’re experienced in living. They’ve had more emotion in their lives. Their voices are like sacks of nails, or a bag full of sandpaper or something, but they live. It’s a sound that’s got emotion, feel, it’s got sensitivity, it’s got humanity in it, whereas technical singers are flat, boring, uninteresting people who have been sitting in some cobwebby attic somewhere, just twiddling their fingers all their lives. They’ve not done anything really.
S.R. You’ve said in the past that you don’t, on the whole, listen to traditional singers a lot, other than maybe as a source for songs. But surely with a lot of those old guys there would be that experience of life showing through?
NJ. Well, sometimes. A lot of the ones that people revere are just old farmers, they’ve spent a lot of their lives in a field or on a tractor or something. They haven’t necessarily got any more experience. For example, George Belton worships Alex Campbell. He thinks he’s a fantastic bloke. Alex has done things that George Belton’s never done. This business about traditional singers – people like traditional singers often for the wrong reasons. In folk clubs there is this desire, because a guy is old and grows potatoes in his garden and smokes some old pipe or something, they’ll do the same thing, they’ll wear a pair of old gaiters, they’ll wear some piece of leather leggings or something, or they’ll wear a pair of old boots with studs on because, in a sense, this old person, he becomes their hero because he’s so absolutely normal. They’re so incapable of being normal that when they see somebody normal they actually worship him. Really what people are doing is that they’re attempting something that they lack, and they’re trying to compensate somehow for an inadequacy that’s in their own life.
S.R. You were saying in the club last night about songwriters; writing songs from the point of view of almost being on another planet.
NJ. Well, they set themselves apart, they are apart. We all do. We sit there and it’s very easy to look at the world from the outside. You can look at the folk scene and say ‘This is weird, this is cut off from reality’, but you can also look at office people and say they’re cut off as well, they’re in an unreal world. You can look at any sector of society and say the same thing.
Songwriters tend to somehow project themselves above, in the sky somewhere, and look down on this, and all human activity. If you stood on Mars and looked at all the human beings grovelling about on the earth trying to grab themselves a living and fighting their silly wars and playing their silly football matches and listening to silly records and playing their silly guitars, it’s so stupid because you are outside it and not involved in it. It’s easy to look down on it all and say how utterly silly and irrelevant it all is. Anything you do can appear irrelevant, and it probably is, that’s the horrible thing. So you might as well just get on and do it if you enjoy doing it. If you’re involved in it the main thing is that you’ve got to try and enjoy it.
S.R. What were you attempting to do with Bandoggs, and what did you hope Bandoggs was going to accomplish?
NJ. With a group – there are plenty of acoustic instrumental groups, and there are plenty of vocal groups, but there is no acoustic group that I think combines in a reasonably intelligent and musical way both singing and playing. There’s odd groups in Ireland do this; Clannad are a good example of that, or that Fiedel Michel from Germany, or that Kolinda group, but by and large a group that was slightly less simplistic than the Spinners and slightly less introverted than Pentangle, somewhere in between Pentangle and the Spinners, I think would be a very nice group to have around.
S.R. Were you looking at it from the point of view that it would be nice to do that, and enjoyable to be part of it, or did you think that it was something that was needed and would be good for the folk scene?
NJ. I had a number of motives. I have always thought it would be nice to belong to a group again, so I was interested in doing that. I like music tunewise as well as singing, so I wanted to find a group that would be my ideal as well, for what I’m involved in, and also I thought it was a fairly rare commodity that would possibly make a little bit of money as well. So there were a number of motives, some of them baser than others’.
S.R. Do you have any single idea as to why, in your view, it didn’t work?
NJ. Yes. It didn’t work because we were all too different. There wasn’t enough time and maybe not the ability for each of us to meet each other and make that happen, and I don’t think the excitement was in the group. There should have been some sort of excitement in the music and it wasn’t there. It lacked a certain bite. That element; I’m not quite sure why that didn’t happen.
S.R. But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen with an acoustic group. Andy Irvine and Paul Brady – that’s incredibly exciting music. Do you think in Bandoggs it was anything to do with you being three very individual acts, taking Pete and Chris together, so used to standing up alone in folk clubs?
NJ. Yeah, I think that is a lot of it. It’s very hard for me to render myself to play less. I’m used to making things on the guitar that are self-sufficient and it was very hard to play fewer things.
S.R. It must have been the same for you all.
NJ. Less so for Pete and Chris actually. They were the best ones for the group. Another thing was that we were all pulling in different directions. Pete and Chris have got this old English ideal in their heads somewhere; Tony had an idea of doing harmony things which he liked and again I find restrictive, and I probably had some sort of vague idea of doing something Ry Cooderish, something maybe a little bit more modern, which again was not compatible to the others.
S.R. Is it possible that in order to produce a group like that, it would be better to have people who aren’t that experienced, who in fact would learn something from each other and who’ve got the excitement of doing it for the first time?
NJ. Well, not really, if you get together naturally and you’re round each other naturally. With the Bandoggs thing, we decided to get together, we fixed some rehearsal dates, worked out some songs and then started performing them. That’s not the way to do it. If you live near each other, and you’ve always known each other’s music, you get together and you play. For instance, myself and Tony Hall; whenever we get together, because I have always liked his music and I know his tunes, he’s not having to learn new stuff and make arrangements of it, he plays it as he wants and I find it very easy to join in because I have heard the tunes quite a bit anyway. In Ireland they can all play each other’s tunes anyway, because they all get together in the pubs and play. It doesn’t happen that much in England.
S.R. So in a sense, it’s probably more fruitful to try and work our who you can get together with, who is living near you.
NJ. A group should evolve. This is why so many groups are a vast disappointment when a bunch of great superstars get together. I mean look at the Silly Sisters group, what a hash that was. A load of people get together and because they’re good as soloists everybody thinks this is going to be the greatest thing since apple pie and they don’t realise what a bunch of fumblers they all are in the main.
S.R. Yes, it’s this thing of people being self-contained units again, not really being able to play anything else other than what they do themselves. Do you envisage trying another group if the opportunity arose?
NJ. I would like to. I’ve always got it at the back of my mind. Where I live there’s nobody really who plays that much. Tony Hall is about the only one that I could probably cope with. He plays such good music anyway.
S.R. You were also saying that you thought something folk clubs needed again was the enthusiastic group that got up there and sang songs that people knew and could join in with.
NJ. I think audiences relax more with groups. A soloist relies on tension in fact.
S.R. Do you rely on tension?
NJ. I think all soloists do. Carthy is a supreme example of that. He creates a lot of tension in the audience, because they’re watching him make these excruciating faces and noises when he makes a mistake. He’ll use the tension all the time and he’ll create tension. People say, “Is he going to get through it or isn’t he? Is he going to collapse?”
S.R. I wonder if he actually realises he’s doing it?
NJ. I’m sure he does. I’m sure he realises it. I don’t think he ’d admit it to us, but I think he does realise. I think underneath there is this tension, and I think all soloists use it up to a point. There is tension there because it’s more of a fragile thing. With a group, if one person makes a mistake the others are going to keep it smooth so the tension isn’t there.