Having just released her second solo album we chat to Erica Nockalls about music, art and challenging the music industry.
When Louder Than War reviewed, Imminent Room, the first solo album by The Wonder Stuff’s Erica Nockalls, back in 2013, we heard a complex record that didn’t feel like “reluctant soul-bearing but genuine reflection which is shared through song rather than intruded upon by listener.”
Her second album, EN2, self-financed, self-released and largely self-played, builds on those complexities both in the genre-defying sonic soundscape that she’s imagined and laid-down and in the lyrical provocativeness that was already a key part of her work. It’s a provocative listen, exciting and dynamic from the start… an attention-grabbing conflagration of febrile sounds very much removed from the style of music she’s contributing to as part of the Stuffies. And it’s a rewarding one that has an idiosyncratic vision not only in its layered gritty industrial sounds meshed with her frenetic violin playing but in its aggressively challenging lyrics that range across personal and music industry situations.
There’s no downloads, no limited-edition colour vinyl (OK, sadly!), no record label or album streaming. Partly that’s an opt-out of the digital age that she says will stand until musicians get a better deal for their work, and so having released Imminent Room on IRL, where both recent Wonder Stuff and releases as Miles Hunt & Erica Nockalls have appeared, this a totally in-house project: if you want the album, and if liked Imminent Room you’ll love this one, then you need to buy it directly (www.ericanockalls.com), another piece of the uncompromising nature of this singular musician.
Louder Than War: How would you describe Erica Nockalls as a musician and writer?
Erica: I’ve been the fiddle player with The Wonder Stuff for nearly ten years now, and around eight with The Proclaimers. But the thing is, when you join a pre-existing band you have to show a certain amount of stylistic consideration. For example, when you write a violin or string part for a new album by already well-established bands, you need to bear in mind what went before.
How do you stamp your musical identity in that scenario?
Speaking as a violinist playing in other bands, I believe I got the job with those bands because they liked my playing style in the first place, and so I don’t feel like my identity is stifled here by any means. Having said that, I dare say the Proclaimers aren’t going to want me to bust out a face-melting violin solo through a wall of Marshall cabs any time soon, but that’s ok. I can do that in my own time! Finding your own voice as a lyricist is another matter though, and quite rightly so. In assuming the role of front-woman, and by recording two solo records as a multi-instrumentalist artist in my own right, lyrically and musically I’ve had absolute freedom to please myself. So that’s my opportunity to express my thoughts and ideas totally fearlessly.
It’s a situation where you can reveal more about who you are?
Well, doing my own music is somewhat of a pressure valve, and yes, once listened to it it’s quite obviously an outlet for my angers and frustrations. I have a blunt and honest personality. Mix all that with a slightly darker sense of humour than most, and you’re getting the idea of what I’m about.
You’re classical trained – thinking also about violinists such as Simon House, who had that background but moved into art-rock scenarios with High Tide and Third Ear Band – do you have contemporaries or predecessors who’ve made this transition that you admire or have inspired your work?
I guess growing up and hearing violins in early Roxy Music subconsciously allowed me to believe that violins were welcome in rock, and that combining the two things was something people did, but as far as directly influencing me now, the answer would have to be no. I’m pretty much doing my own thing, because I can, and it feels natural. I don’t for one second consider myself to be a crossover artist.
I am an artist – I paint – and I’m also a rock musician, but I’m not sure I even know what art-rock is. It often seems to be a category that free-thinking musicians find themselves in when no other category makes better sense, but I think of music in terms of good, mediocre, and bad. In my mind there are more than a few art-rock bands listed under the heading of ‘good music’, and for the purposes of describing my own music, the heavier side of art-rock feels like the closest genre to liken my songs to, but only by default. Actually, I never had the intention of becoming a concert violinist, or a member of an orchestra; I simply wanted to learn the instrument ‘properly’.
Imminent Room was extremely well received; EN2 has a harder edge – do you see it as a development from your first solo album or at a tangent to it? You mention in the lyrics here about having “left the safety of the Imminent Room”…
Imminent Room was an experiment. I set about writing it because I couldn’t find any good music that I wanted to listen to at the time, so I thought I’d write my own. I didn’t know what any of it was going to sound like and as a newly self-elected lead vocalist, how I would even cope with that role.
By the time I came around to writing material for EN2, I had a much clearer and more definite vision, to everything from instrumentation to subject matter for lyrics. Also, I never had any intention of putting a live band together when I wrote Imminent Room, that notion came to me after it had been released. This time, I wrote specifically with a live aspect in mind.
I turned EN2 around in 11 months, unlike Imminent Room which took a long 18 months. I wanted to make this record quickly, so it sounded urgent, which I think it does. It’s rougher than, and not as glossy as, Imminent Room. EN2 is Imminent Room’s better educated bigger brother… who’s come home late from the pub, crashing through the front door in a bad mood, but then decides to play his favourite 80s pop records and have a little dance… and ends up in tears because it’s all too much.
I painted eleven oils for eleven tracks and people were invited to move around the gallery to view the art in album order for the EN2 launch. There were iPod and headphone listening stations at each painting, so you could listen to the song in question while you viewed the piece. I didn’t know of any other musician-artist who has done this before, and thought it’d be a great idea to afford myself exposure for both my art and my music. The EN2 art exhibition was the first installation to open the doors of the new Havill and Travis gallery, Birmingham.
EN2 has a mesh of sound that veers into industrial/metal and that really fits with the bite of the lyrics – where did the inspiration for the music that you’ve developed here derive from?
A lifelong love of all sorts of heavy music, but I write my lyrics before I have any ideas on melody. I’m often woken up by lyric ideas and jot them down in a notebook by my bed, or if I’m out walking or running I’ll take notes mentally… desperate not to forget them before I return home. I then produce and concoct combinations of sounds based on not much else other than my own personal taste and gut instinct. I have fun layering sounds in a song as much as I like, then I get serious and start subtracting as many as I dare until I feel I have the bones of a strong enough soundscape. I’ll then start on the song arrangement itself, and consider vocal placement and phrasing.
You’ve mentioned that you’d put together a live band at the time of Imminent Room, but this record is principally you playing almost all instruments yourself – why did you decide to work by yourself in the studio?
As EN2 is a self-produced and self-released album, the issue of cost played a part and my band reside all over the country. I would have loved to ask EN drummer Dei Elfryn to pay live on the record, but to do this satisfactorily the studio costs would just have been too high. The next best thing, and to be honest it’s something I don’t have a problem with, was to program beats myself, which is what happened.
You did get the guitarist Mark Gemini Thwaite [The Mission, Peter Murphy, Tricky) involved though…
He’s a friend, and played an integral part in this album as he was, to my delight, free and happy to record some guitars for me, doing his parts in his studio in LA and emailing them over. My guitar playing skills are somewhat limited, and he also has some serious pieces of studio gear, so I knew the results would be far superior to any guitars I could record at home. The guy is a legend and I’m very grateful for his work.
You’ve done some high profile support slots, with PIL and The Wonder Stuff for example, and things such as the St Pancras Station sessions, how does your material differ when played with a live band?
I think the general consensus is that my live band are heavier than the albums, and I suppose that’s always going to be the case when you hear the live drums ‘in situ’. That’s caught a few promoters off guard! I think when we supported Toyah recently that there were a few raised eyebrows as to our place on the bill with her band, but I’m the one who seeks out these gigs in the first place, and I’m confident that I know which support slots will work and which will not.
What’s driving this record? You’ve done it without label support and you mentioned to me that you weren’t doing digital or streaming and it seems that’s come out of a frustration or dissatisfaction for the current music business? You said it’s “an angry, fiery affair with a naughty word sticker…”
I wanted to see how far I could get by myself. I wanted to see what I was capable of. I thought it’d be cool to write a record that sounded as ‘me’ as possible, where I was the sole cook on the project and could limit outside interference. It was difficult and stressful, but by doing it myself I’ve learnt so much about production and mixing, and my small journey has been a rewarding one as a result. I’d encourage any musician to make their own record themselves with limited assistance – it’s the quickest way to find out who you are.
I could go on at length about my disillusion with the music industry and how utterly fucked it is. I remember thinking when I was in my teens that if you were talented enough, and tried hard enough, then that would be all you needed to make it. I joined my first professional touring band when I was 21, and that was The Wonder Stuff, and I now know better. The facts are this: it’s a case of who you know and the more cash you have, the higher you can build your profile. Combine cash and juicy contacts and that simply translates into a successful career in the music business – and it is just that, a business. Talent, originality and technical ability have little to do with it now. So yeah, you could say I’m dissatisfied with the music industry and maybe I sound bitter, but I think exasperated and hugely pissed-off would be a more accurate description!
Track 2 from EN2, ‘Yours Still Stinks’ seems to me to rally against doing things for commercial reasons?
I’d love to make money from my own music, of course I would, but it’s not the reason why I do it. I play and make music because I have to, and why I have to, is a bit like asking someone why they breathe. ‘Yours Still Stinks’ is an observational ditty more about not feeling like you’re allowed to join the party.
Here’s an analogy: Imagine the music industry is the coolest night club, only the bouncers on the door won’t let you in because you look kind of odd and you don’t have enough money for the cover fee. He doesn’t want to let you in because he might lose his job. The bouncer doesn’t really care about his job and takes little pride in it, but it pays reasonably well and gives him a small sense of power, so he sticks with it and follows the rules. It starts to rain and you’re still waiting in line with a load of idiots. When the door opens intermittently to admit the kids who are wearing the right shoes, you can hear a band playing. You happen to know for a fact that the band inside can’t play for toffee. Other people in the queue might know the band playing inside royally suck too. But they wouldn’t dare say anything because they don’t want to harm their chances of being allowed into the club.
I namecheck the BBC and MTV in this song as examples of clubs. The follow up will probably examine why any of us wanted to be in a club in the first place, and question why we stood out in the rain for so long!
When you are not a mainstream artist like me and what you’re doing is not the easiest thing to explain, maybe it helps to be visually striking to give people a clue as to what you’re about. I’m often asked about my style, what I wear on stage and how I present myself in general, but the truth is I don’t care what anyone thinks and I’m not a copycat.
With so many different musical situations happening for you, and your work as an artist, how do you balance the different demands on your time and creativity? Can you easily compartmentalise these different roles – how you make head space for each?
I set aside time for each project separately, immerse myself in one thing at a time and give myself deadlines. I do what I can and have a pretty good work ethic once I’m in that mode. It helps keep you sane, doing lots of different things, if you have a creative mind. I rarely find myself bored, that’s for sure.
Erica’s artwork can be viewed and purchased here.
Interview by Ian Abrahams. This is Ian’s first piece for Louder Than War.