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Granite Shore - Interview

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 18 / 4 / 2015

Granite Shore - Interview


Occultation Recordings owner Nick Halliwell talks about his band The Granite Shore's long-awaited debut album, 'Once More From The Top’, which is a concept album about a group, and his difficulty in getting it released

For many it was a couple of EPs on the Occultation Recordings label that introduced them to the name of Nick Halliwell. Halliwell actually ran the label but, more importantly at that time, he played a major part in getting a sorely missed Manchester band, The Distractions, maybe not back together forever, but back in the studio creating that magical sound they made in the late 70's/early 80's again. Not only did Halliwell help to get principal Distractions Steve Perrin and Mike Finney to record as The Distractions again but he also played on the sessions and actually contributed songs up to the standard on those on the band’s only album, Nobody’s Perfect’. When the time came for a second Distractions album to be released some 32 years after their debut Halliwell not only produced the album titled, ‘The End Of The Pier’, but he contributed at least one song, ‘Wise’, that summed up what made The Distractions so special both lyrically and musically so perfectly it was as though he had been part of the original line-up. But there is more to Halliwell than part-time Distraction and label owner, apart from releasing albums and singles by The Wild Swans and The June Brides (to name but two) on his Occultation label Halliwell also had his own band, The Granite Shore. After two single releases the band has now released their debut album, ‘Once More From The Top’. Despite the obvious musical talent Halliwell has displayed in his work with both The Distractions and on those Granite Shore singles, hearing ‘Once More From The Top’ for the first time was still something of a shock. Housed in what now is the norm for any release on the Occultation Recordings label, an intriguing, lovingly thought-out cover that differs depending on which media you buy it on (and both the CD and vinyl sleeves are more than excellent, it’s one of those albums where you simply have to own both!). ‘Once More From The Top’ chronicles the ups and downs of life in a band more astutely than it has ever been captured before and achieves this through songs that are so addictive and so well-crafted you simply have to listen to the album over and over. Halliwell has pooled all of his talents; producer, guitarist, possessor of one of the most distinctive, comforting and believable voices in contemporary music and a writer of melodies that are still floating in the air hours after the album has finished playing, to create an album that really is unlike any other. Halliwell kindly found time in his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his background, running a label and, of course, The Granite Shore and ‘Once More From The Top’ and Halliwell appears to be as passionate about everything he does as his music would suggest. PB: Before we ask a few questions about the new Granite Shore album we’d like to ask a little about your label, Occultation Recordings. When did yo ustart the label and what made you want to start your own record label? NH: Occultation began in autumn 2008. I had a little surplus money and a label seemed an efficient way of getting rid of it. The main motivation was to make records myself, but my friend Paul Simpson had just reactivated The Wild Swans so I suggested we do two 10” singles, The Wild Swans' 'English Electric Lightning' and the Granite Shore's 'Tomorrow Morning, 3 a.m.', to be recorded and released at the same time. PB: Were you influenced by what any other independent labels were doing? NH: I grew up with the likes of Factory and Zoo and other post-punk stuff. I’ve always loved the idea of the label as self-sufficient family, where you get in-house producers, designers, musicians etc., different artists working together, like Blue Note and other jazz labels, or soul imprints like Stax or Motown - even Island in its days as an independent. I love labels that have strong identities of their own, apart from those of their artists. If you look at what we’ve done, especially the sleeves, there’s a definite Occultation aesthetic. PB: How do you decide what artists/albums to release? As a label you’ve played a part in bringing back some well-missed bands like The Distractions, The Wild Swans and The June Brides. Were you a fan of those back in the day? NH : In most cases it’s about personal connections. There are some bands onthe label whose earlier work had been hugely important to me, but others I didn’t know much about. I’m looking for bands that still have something to say and prove; who can document the middle years. I’ve always responded to music rooted in - but not necessarily tied to - time and place. This, of course, forms part of the subject matter of 'Once More From The Top'. Can you be a middle-aged rock band? In most art forms it’s the age at which masterpieces are produced, after lessons learned from juvenilia, but unlike the novel, poetry or painting, rock music has always been a primarily collective art form and the relationships between participants tend to come under a lot of stress. This is most definitely part of the subject matter of the album. PB: You are now considered to be part of the current Distractions line-up. How did that come about? NH: Quite inadvertently. I can’t overstate my affection for that band. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in music. Mike Finney has always been one of my very favourite singers and I vividly remember hearing him sing my song 'Oil Painting' in a studio in Liverpool. My first thought was “he’s doing it all wrong…” My second was “Oh. I wrote it wrong and he’s put it right”. We’re booked to go into the studio again in September, by which time Neil Storey’s Pledge-based retrospective 'Parabolically Yours' should be in people’s hands. PB: In over five years there have only been two Granite Shore singles. Why has it taken so long to release ‘Once More From The Top’? NH: Running the label is a full-time occupation but doesn’t pay me anything so I’ve a day job, plus a young daughter. Although I’ve not put out a Granite Shore record in a while, I’ve not been entirely idle, producing and writing for other people: the Factory Star LP, a couple of June Brides singles, The Distractions LP and gigs. Then I’ve been involved in other Occultation and Fishrider projects which takes a lot of time and effort. I started work on 'Once More From The Top' after finishing 'The End of the Pier' but I was also doing the Wild Swans vinyl reissue, so it took about a year to write. We recorded it in two five-hour sessions in late March 2014 but then it went on hold while we did the June Brides’ 'She Seems Quite Free' EP. Once that was done I began overdubs and vocals for 'Once More From The Top', got various other people to contribute, and it was mixed and mastered by October. The real problem is that it’s currently taking six months to get vinyl pressed. In the dim and distant past of 2012 smaller labels like us had the vinyl market to ourselves, but over the last couple of years the majors have piled back in, flooding the plants with unnecessary reissues of things you can pick up in any charity shop. PB: I hate to use the word concept but ‘Once More From The Top’ does fall into that category following as it follows the ups and downs of a group. What gave you the inspiration for that theme? NH: I don’t have a problem with the word “concept”. Most, if not all, great albums have something that binds the songs together, even if it’s not always explicit. I wanted to write an entire piece and considered a linear narrative but, unless you’ve got loads of studio time, that’s a huge risk.If a key song in the narrative had come out wrong we wouldn’t’ve been able to have another go, or wait for me to write a replacement - that’s when you end up resorting to elves. i.e. if a narrative isn’t properly thought-through and a gaping hole in the plot appears the only solution is supernatural agency. So in the end I decided to write it as a series of interlinked scenes and the whole thing grew from there. I’ve always loved the portmanteau format, from 'The Decameron' and 'The Canterbury Tales' onward, where a series of stories is given an overarching shape by a narrative framing device, without actually tying things down too much and, done properly, you end up with a wider picture. The challenge was doing this within a format as compressed as the lyric, even though Granite Shore songs can be wordier than, say, Distractions ones. The booklet was a way of both expanding on that and keeping it alive while waiting for the LPs. Mind you, if I’d known how long we’d be waiting I might have written a novel to go with it. The album’s not without antecedents, of course. Ian Hunter’s documented the band-audience relationship better than anyone, hence the quote on the sleeve for which he kindly gave permission. Plenty of people have written individual songs in this area but most look only at one aspect of life in music. I wanted to take a more sustained look at the whole thing, and espec ially the relationships within it, given the current state of what Neil calls “the business of music”. Like the generations that spawned it, I don’t think the industry ever really believed it’d grow up, let alone old. PB: Was ‘Wise’, which you wrote for The Distractions ‘The End Of The Pier’ album, part of the inspiration? NH: Well spotted, although 'Wise' is definitely a Distractions song. Mike Finney’s a soul singer, one of the finest interpreters of a lyric this country’s ever produced, so when I’m writing for him there’s got to be a lot more space. 'Wise' proved to me I could do this, but also suggested a subject. Some artists can range over a wide variety of subjects whilst others focus on one. I’m probably better-suited to the latter. PB: How did you arrive at The Granite Shore? Given that ‘Once More From The Top’ is without a doubt the most honest, detailed and articulate ‘diary of a band’ yet recorded you must have been involved in bands before The Granite Shore? NH: I suppose I must’ve been, mustn’t I? I’m going to evade your question, however, as there’s a danger people will interpret the record as mere autobiography - a kind of album à clef. Very few of the things described on this album happened to me, although in some cases I observed them at close quarters. An awful lot of it is simply made up, albeit sometimes based on things that might’ve happened. That’s what fiction is: a seed of truth from which something else grows. PB : The songs flow perfectly on ‘Once More From The Top’, the story unfold ing as the album progresses. Was there one particular song that was harder to complete than the others? One you had to labour over more to get that particular event across? NH: What takes forever is working out what I’m writing about. I’d probably spent about nine months groping in the dark, drafting fragments then setting them aside. The point where it all came together was be that as it may. There are two tricks I learned from 'The End of the Pier': 1) the end is a good place to start and 2) if you’re not sure what to write about, write about that. So I started writing about a songwriter looking for a subject and suddenly it was like memory, only in the way that dreams are. Once I had that I realised it had to be a dialogue with the rest of the band as Chorus(in the original sense) and that it was the closing track. Suddenly I could see the rest of the record stretching back from there. I had a structure and merely had to fill in the pieces. I wasn’t simply writing one song then moving on to the next but flitting back and forth, writing it as an entire sequence rather than separate songs, which is why certain words and phrases recur across the record. PB: It’s not so easy at this point in time to produce something that hasn’t been done hundreds of times before, but ‘Once More From The Top’ is one of those rare albums that sounds quite unlike anything that has gone before while still being accessible. Did any artist or band influence your music on the album do you feel? I certainly couldn’t hear any reference points. NH: Well… When people ask “who are your influences?” they often mean “who do you sound like?” I think that’s one of the problems nowadays: everyone sounds like their influences, whereas the sound is the least interesting thing you can take from records you admire. I generally prepare for recording by listening obsessively to ABBA as we can be fairly confident we won’t end up sounding like them. Nobody’s spotted this yet but 'Backstage at the Ballroom' borrows from 'Super Trouper'. First the subject matter but also the way it’s constructed, with choruses where the instrumentation drops right out. I’d given Phil and Arash copies of 'The Singles - The First Ten Years' and asked them to listen to the way the instruments are used. I was keen to get the various musicians to think about the ways they needed to play, to be themselves in unfamiliar ways. That may partly explain why it sounds a bit odd. We’ve yet to have a single Granite Shore rehearsal and, in the studio, we usually have 30-45 minutes to get a song right, so we might get to play it four to five times in total at most. One of those has to be the master. So we’re going from playing a song for the very first time (take one) to nailing the master usually by about take four, sometimes five, though a few songs took less than that. I tend to approach any record by thinking about the musicians I’ve got to work with and how they’ll fit together. Kellie reckons I overanalyse things; I’ve spent the last year mulling this over and have come to the conclusion he may be right :-). Even so, there’s this myth that all great art is created via some mystical channel to the Muse. In my experience there’s a lot of hard work and preparation involved. What I mean is that if you take a band that’s been touring for six months into a studio for three to four weeks then there’s a lot of scope for things to happen organically as they’re already prepared: they’ll have an understanding, time to experiment with arrangements, tempi, song structures, instrumentation, etc. We don’t have that luxury so before we go into the studio I build a structure, a frame onto which the work is then stretched, and I try to work out how the space can best be filled in with the musicians we’ve got. However, within that structure I’ll generally only give people a few pointers. I never tell people what to play. You’ve got to trust them and believe your material is strong enough to provide that basic structure. The first thing is picking the right people, and I look for combinations that aren’t obvious. For instance, Phil and Kellie aren’t a natural fit as both have what we’ll call expansive playing styles which’d’ve clashed if left unchecked. Phil had the hardest task as I asked him to keep his parts minimal, casting against type. He should be extremely proud of himself. Obviously it really helps when you’ve got one of the country’s best drummers but the thing I love about working with Kellie is that although he’s got that classic, very recognisable style of his own - best typified on something like 'Another Girl, Another Planet', where the drums are filling a lot of the space - he’s always keen to experiment and, more than anything, he’s got an amazing grasp of how a song works and how the drums can underscore the words. It was his idea to use brushes on most songs and that gave it a different texture. It also left Arash with a lot of responsibility, as he didn’t have a big, constant beat behind him and I’d asked him to listen to the way the bass on ABBA records works. His playing on 'Ballroom' is quite astonishing. We couldn’t afford a full orchestra but I’d worked with Probyn Gregory on a previous single so I asked him. When he agreed, I increased the part playedby brass on the record, working out arrangements which he honed into what is one of the most distinctive parts of the sound. Most people tend to come at brass from a soul/jazz perspective, but I didn’t want to do that. Also it may sound unusual because I don’t know much about brass arranging and although Probyn does, rather than “correcting” my clumsy ideas he did something far more exciting: he found ways of making them work, augmenting them, and giving them a class for which I certainly can’t claim the credit. The vocals were also carefully cast. Be that as it may is the obvious example. I needed four voices for the Band/Chorus. Mike Finney and Steve Perrin were obvious picks, their voices work perfectly together. I, however, didn’t want it to be male-only so I asked Bella Quinn. The last part needed a range and timbre somewhere between Bella and Mike so Arash was cast. Finally, there were certain technical decisions. For instance, modern orthodoxy states that all lead vocals must be double-tracked, but I wanted them to sound like one person talking to the listener. I also used only minimal compression, so the record doesn’t “shout” at you the way a lot of modern releases do. I mastered it with John Dent, working very quickly and with the lightest of touches. We allowed the quiet parts of the record to remain quiet, as I wanted those natural dynamics. The result is a record that sounds very different to what I had in my head but which I thought had something entirely of its own. That, ultimately, is what you’re looking for. PB: Occultation Recordings have always gone the extra mile with their presentation. They’ve even developed their own unique identity with their sleeves I feel and done much for the current popularity of vinyl. What formats will ‘Once More From The Top’ be issued in? NH: Vinyl is our primary format, although like most small labels the resurgence is hitting us incredibly hard because the majors are now floodingthe plants with tat so it’s taking six months for us to get a record pressed. There’s a CD in a vertical gatefold with an inner sleeve, then the LP’s in a quite different matt-laminated vertical gatefold with a spot-gloss finish and initial copies come with a 32-page A4-size booklet. We’re also doing a very limited Deluxe edition, based on the one we did for the Wild Swans in 2013, that’s website-only: LP, CD, booklet, poster, print, postcards, badge and bookmark in a box. Over half of those have gone already. There’s info on the various editions here: http://occultation.co.uk/Occultation_Space/Releases/RHEA7DF036/omftt_editions.html Music isn’t the only component of what we do - any art is as much about context as prima facie content. 'Once More From The Top' takes this further by being about the process of producing a record, including the lives that go into it, the relationships, the culture from which it springs and, of course, how things change as time passes. Good art reflects life, not necessarily realistically but at least truthfully. PB: You’ve got the company of some impressive names on the album. Given that you are not all in the same country are you planning to tour the album and, if so, what musicians would back you? NH: I can’t imagine being able to shut everything down for long enough to tour but we might consider an isolated performance or two and if it ever happened I’d hope it’d be the basic band that recorded the album: myself, Phil, Arash and Kellie, plus anyone else who happened to be available. Good grief, if we did that we’d have to have a rehearsal… We obviously wouldn’t be able to produce the sound you hear on the album so the songs would have to be rearranged… Hmm. It’d be one hell of an undertaking. Still, I’ve no objection, only someone else would have to organise it all as I don’t have the time to set something like that up. PB: Running the label must take up much of your time. Do you see The Granite Shore as an ongoing project or is it something you work on when time allows? NH: It’s both. I’ve every intention of doing more Granite Shore records but if this one were to flop totally that’d be a huge setback and we might take a year or two to recover. We’ve put everything we have into this - financially, emotionally and sheer effort - so we don’t have anything in reserve. Once this album’s finally out I have to write some Distractions songs, so I don’t know when I’ll need get chance to work on Granite Shore material. PB: Do you have a personal favourite from ‘Once More From The Top’? NH: Although 'Be that as it may' is the only begetter, 'Recorded Sound' is my favourite. Its recording was nothing short of miraculous: we’d booked three days in the studio, which was ambitious. After setting up on day one we stormed through half the material, all the simpler songs, in five hours. Then on day two a virus struck and we were unable to record anything, so on day three we had all the most complicated songs still left to do. Half the band were very ill, the other half in a state of nervous exhaustion. Somehow we got through 'The Management', 'Be that as it may', 'Backstage at the Ballroom' and two tracks that didn’t make the album, leaving just 'Recorded Sound'. By that point we were all barely conscious; we picked up our instruments, played it once and packed up. It’s the most fiendishly complex thing on the entire record - the chorus is a 7-beat sequence - but it felt magical. As it was the last thing I wrote for the record it also sums up a lot of the ideas and in a lot of ways it’s the hinge on which the album turns, hence its position at the start of side two. Apart from that my favourite moments on the record are other people’s contributions. For instance, at the end of 'Keeping Time' I wanted a duel between drummer and lead guitarist so I’d asked Kellie to revert to type for the final minute of the song, rolling round the kit. My talents don’t extend to the shredding guitar break so I rang Martin Bramah. I didn’t have a brass arrangement for this song but Probyn said ,“I’ve got an idea…”, did it and sent it over. That same day Martin sent his guitar part so I played the two together. I almost fell off my chair. Probyn - an American - sounded like a colliery brass band and his arrangement fitted seamlessly with Martin’s solo even though neither of them was even aware of the other. You can’t plan for that sort of thing - although if you provide a structure, sometimes magic will happen. PB: 'Be that as it may’ which closes the album should be compulsory listening for anyone who has ever played in a band. But even if you take away the theme of the album and disregard the lyrics it’s still an epic pop/rock song. It’s perfect in fact. How long did it take you to not only write such a song but to get it down as perfectly as you have? NH: How long it took depends where you place the start marker. I looked over my notes and drafts and there’s a point where it suddenly becomes recognisably 'Be that as it may' and from that point it was finished within half a dozen drafts over a few days, but it took a few months of false starts to get there. That was one of the songs we did on the final day so we can’t’ve spent more than half an hour recording it. It's, however, the one track where I had to work hard on the post-production. The main body of the song, up to “Just play!” is exactly as we played it with no real artifice, just a few overdubs - primarily guitars and Mellotron - and the Chorus. I then had to construct the end section from what I had, which was just the band cycling around those four chords a few times and a rough idea of how the record ought to end. It was very important because, as I said earlier, this was where the album finally took shape. In its end was its beginning. Steve’s guitar break made that job much easier. He’d forgotten to switch his amp’s reverb off before hitting “record” and for a while I kept saying “You’ll have to do it again…” only to realise it was already exactly right, as though beamed through a tunnel from Australia. So I built the end section around that, gradually assembling it all. I wanted it to act as a summation of the album, with fragments of other songs drifting in and out and to have a kind of elemental wildness mirroring the subject matter. Had I had the time or resources to have done it in the studio at the time, it’d probably have come out more conventional. As it is, there’s this sort of teetering-on-the-brink-of-collapse feel, as though it might be blown over onto the rocks at any moment. PB: Apart from obviously promoting the album what’s next for Occultation Recordings and The Granite Shore ? NH: So much depends on what happens with this record but given the current time-scales for things we’re already doing four others. Alongside 'One More From The Top' we’re co-releasing another New Zealand record with Fishrider, the debut by Death and the Maiden, a terrific album, though it was supposed to have been here by Christmas. Then, assuming the LPs do eventually turn up, 'Once More From The Top' in May (was supposed to be Feb), followed by another Fishrider co-release, the Shifting Sands’ 'Cosmic Radio Station', hopefully in the summer. After that comes 'Beauty Will Save The World', by The Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus, which I’ve just mastered, an utterly bewitching record. All of these are at the pressing plant right now, which means we have a terrifying amount of money tied up in them. Then, as I’ve mentioned, we’ve got studio time booked to do the third Distractions LP in September for release hopefully in 2016 - though by then goodness knows how long it’ll take to get LPs pressed. This is an incredibly hard time to be running a small label. Things are becoming almost impossible because it’s taking so long to get anything pressed. We used to release a record two to three months after it’d been finished so we’d get some of the money back from direct website sales immediately. That money then allowed us to start the next project. i.e. we’d mostly be working on one record at a time with only the smallest overlap, whereas we currently have five albums on the go, which is insane. We have a huge amount of capital tied up and a lot of debt. I’d urge anyone who cares about music to buy LPs on small labels either from the bands or labels or from small record shops - and preorder if possible. Obviously certain corporate behemoths have jumped on the vinyl bandwagon and have the clout to undercut us but if everyone buys from them we won’t be here much longer. I don’t know anyone who’s currently making a living from recorded sound and there’s something quite liberating about this in one way. In my younger days the worst accusation that could be levelled against a band was that they’d sold out. Selling out, however. implies that someone’s buying in and that doesn’t appear to be the case nowadays. Which is, of course, exactly what 'Once More From The Top' is about. Losing battles still have to be fought - what else are we going to do? PB: Thank you.

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Interview (2017)
Granite Shore - Interview
Nick Halliwell found that there was only one way he could vent his anger over the European referendum result - make a new album with his group, The Granite Shore. He tells Malcolm Carter about the influences behind this album, in particular his love of that most European of pop bands, Abba.


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Malcolm Carter reflects on Distractions' guitarist and Occultation Recordings' boss Nick Halliwell's band the Granite Shore's debut album ‘Once More From The Top’ which, out in May, he believes to be 'one of the most impressive and important albums not just of this year but the whole decade'


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