Alex Neilson: Pronouncements on Inspiration

cover image Alex Neilson has drummed with an incredibly long list of vital artists like Jandek, Bonnie Prince Billy, Daniel Padden, as well as helming his own regenerating avant-folk outfit Directing Hand. As comfortable channelling the alchemical equation of blood-and-soul improv as he is backing these players, Neilson is in-demand for a reason. Neilson was first interviewed by Scott McKeating in early 2006 for a now since defunct website, so think of this piece like a Part II of that conversation. Currently on the road with Baby Dee in the US, Alex talked about some of his most famous collaborative work, his first foray into song writing, playing with Baby Dee, a forthcoming C93 tour and his love for the Everly Brothers.


Scott McKeating: So, how is the Baby Dee tour going?

Alex Neilson: Very fun. I am typing this from a really weird warehouse in San Francisco owned by a local odd baw called Chicken John who used to play with G.G Allin. This place really needs to be seen to be believed - kind of looks like a cross between a scene from the Dark Crystal and some Z grade gonzo porn flick. Frisco has a weird vibe; it's a bit like a bigger scale Brighton but with crystal meth instead of Babycham. Otherwise, things are fine. It's a great band and Dee's songs are so beautiful. I'm not so keen on the looooooooong drives and some of the identikit culture in America.....I guess, the saying goes 100 miles is a long way in the UK and 100 years is a long time in the US, but it is a great privilege to be here and I get to visit NY, LA, New Orleans, Austin, the Yod space etc.

SM: How did you and Ben Reynolds [who will play bass on the UK leg of the tour] get the job?

AN: There were various connections but I was approached by a good friend called Richard Guy who owns a couple of great venues in Coventry (Taylor Johns House and The Tin Angel) to play with her. It was his initial intention to simultaneously rehearse for a UK tour and try to re-record some of Dee's songs, which was a tall order for Ben and me considering the depth and emotional complexities of Dee's music and the time constraints. The recording didn't really work out but I think there are plans to do more recording in Cleveland around winter time.

SM: That new Baby Dee album is incredible, and feels like a really personal album. When you are playing music like that does it feel like you are bringing your own perhaps similar experiences to her lyrics or sinking into her story?

AN: Some the lyrics are so personal and relate to such specific events in the life of Baby Dee that it would be nigh in impossible for me to empathise 100%. I have never fantasised about Jesus assaulting my mother in a confessional booth or witnessed two adult men demolishing a piano with sledge hammers or had my winkie lopped off for that matter. However, I do respond very strongly to the sentiment of a lot of Dee's lyrics. They are so vulnerable and penetrating, with such naked grace and poetic candour that it makes every hair on the back of my neck shudder to hear them. Her delivery reminds me of a cross between Gerard Manly Hopkins, Shirley Temple and Tommy Cooper. Also, her sense of rhythm is very natural to me – very organic and tidal and subject to change according to her emotional necessity at that time. I can just skitch a ride on the back of her leopard print coat tails and hope that all my appendages are intact when the emotional rollercoaster of the song crashes to a halt.

SM: You’re well known as a keen collaborator; let’s touch on a few of those relationships. How did you first team-up with Daniel Padden?

AN: I met Daniel initially though Neil Campbell - that guy has more connections than Heathrow - after seeing Volcano the Bear perform at the Termite Festival in Leeds. I was really blown away by their performance as they seemed to unite certain superficially disparate musical strands that I was interested in; home spun sea shanties, devolved Art Ensemble style hoe downs, Cabaret Voltaire style actions and weird Wyatt-esque rock. I was very tempted to launch in on the drum kit vacated by Aaron while he was crawling across the floor doing his serpent-perpetually-eating-it's-own-tail-on-yage routine. I was about 18 at the time and about to move to Glasgow and Neil said that Daniel lived there and would put me in touch. He pulled out an address book that made Allen Ginsberg look like Rupert Pupkin and Daniel was receptive to my gushing interest, so to speak. I used to pay night visits to Daniel's flat in Hyndland and we would smoke grass and listen to some of his solo works in progress and we decided to try and play together quite quickly after that.

SM: I noticed some members of your avant-folk Scatter collective are playing with him, has that project come to an end?

AN: My memory is a little hazy as I have played in a lot of bands and smoked a lot of grass since then but I am pretty sure that I recommended Peter, Chris and Aby to Daniel to play in the One Ensemble (those guys were all playing in Scatter at the time).... so blame me for that! As for Scatter, we haven't performed together since the Green Man Festival 05. There was some animosity in us parting ways and I didn't really speak to the other members for a couple of years but we have just started to hangout again and even tentatively jam again so who knows? Maybe if ATP's Don't Look Back offered us an exorbitant amount of dough then we could consider it? I have started to play with George and Aby again in a new song based group called The Trembling Bells.

SM: You recently toured with free jazz legend Sonny Simmons, did you manage to get any recordings of the tour?

AN: There are some recordings from the Tight Meat / Sony Simmons tour. I know that my good friend in London, Pete Coward, recorded the show there and there is a Glasgow recording which I haven't heard yet. I also commissioned a friend to do a DVD of our Bristol performance (Architects of Harmonic Rooms) so we might put together some kind of multimedia package and tour it around IMAXs this summer. That was one of the most laugh-out-loud tours I have ever done. Sonny's irrepressible and incredibly funny, so the combination of him and David Keenan [Tight Meat’s sax player] together was really combustive. He came up with nicknames for us instantly on meeting us - I was Red Planet, David was Relentless and George Lyle [double bass player] was Big Chief Thunder Cloud. I read a review of one of the shows which described George as looking like 'an arthritic Alan Silva' which I thought was a good one as well. One of the really funny things about Sonny is how quickly his stamina built up over that week of dates. He could only manage about 20 minutes during the first show but by the third night he was the last man standing - blasting 40 minute sax solo's while the Tight Meat team were languishing on the sidelines panting for dear breath.

SM: You’re well known for your role drumming with Jandek, how did the line-up with Phil [Ashtray Navigations] Todd go? Did they differ much to those with Richard Youngs shows?

AN: It was such a thrill to get to play in that context with Phil because he is such a good, old friend and has introduced me to a lot of music over the years and I love his guitar playing. We were like the Ginger Trinity for a couple of nights in Amsterdam and Aarhus. Someone at the gig had travelled from Atlanta to see it and compared us to the Jimi Hendrix band which was pretty cool. I guess I think of the group including Richard as the original and the best though. We got a really good wild energy going after playing shows in succession around ATP 06. We played a great set to about 15 people in Mono in Glasgow but apparently the recording was corrupted so that one was just given up to the air. That was the last time we played in that context.

SM: So, you’ve just started up a new group, The Trembling Bells, what has pushed you into making the move to writing traditionally structured songs as opposed to improvisational material?

AN: Bob Dylan. Listening to him pretty obsessively over the past year or so helped liberate me from the tyranny of traditional folk music that my life had been gripped by since I was a pluke farming teenager in the late 90s in West Yorkshire. He indicated a way to harness that material more creatively by internalising the language, imagery, tunes, sentiment, and dynamics and use them as cornels of inspiration to extrapolate a whole catalogue of mor