Bill Cummings 28/01/2008
On the eve of the release of their politically charged punchy rock single "The Great Divide" GIITTV caught up with Nebraska's Merthyr born front man Michael Hall he of the passionate performances and soaring vocals, for a chat about the London four piece's past, present and future....
Hi, hows it going?
All is relatively well...listening to the minutemen, playing with my cat Orwell, pondering the false claims of carpet stain remover. aside from that, quite excited about the new single and the launch gig.
Can you tell us a little bit about your history, how you ended up in London?
Under false pretences. That's how I came to be in London. I pretended to desperately need to go to a London University when all I really wanted was to see bands every night then join one. I falsified a desire for a traditional education when all I'd ever experienced at school was abject misery. I wanted my own kind of education - an extension of what my records and books had been teaching me as I was growing up.
I grew up in South Wales, Merthyr Tydfil to be exact, and as much as that place will stay in my heart always, as much as my time there informs my writing, I needed to get away from there do be able to do the things I needed to do.
I don't think for a moment that London is the best or most important city in the world, in Britain even, it just happens to be where most of the musicians are, where most of the shows are, so that's where I wanted to be.
How did Nebraska form, how did you meet guitarist Benjamin?
We met in the video shop I worked at (and still work at) through my good friend Lee. Ben was starting up a hardcore band, I'd been in and out of bands for what seemed like an eternity and I'd never got what I wanted from any of it.
For whatever reasons lost to time I pretended I could play bass as he needed a bass player and had a gig booked in a week's time.
So next day I bought a bass and 'How to learn bass' book. I went in to rehearse with them a couple of days later and somehow got away with it. I played him some of my songs during breaks and he seemed to like them so we learned a couple for the show. They were NOT hardcore songs to say the least.
So we played the gig and it was like half full-on Fugazi, Husker Du stuff and two or three really fucking maudlin ballads I'd written. People hated us. Mainly because we were no good I suspect. We broke up the band and Ben and I went into his basement with a good supply of cigarettes and cola. When we resurfaced we had half a dozen songs and this 'thing' we were calling Nebraska.
How far did the songs on your debut album date back from?
In terms of dates it's hard to say. I've an incredibly poor memory. The oldest on the album is probably 'Stars' which I'd age at about four years...then things like 'Satellite' were written, at least lyrically, on the tube on the way to the studio. The little acoustic thing, the secret track we put on the end, I'd had that in my pocket for nearly a decade - half finished.
Would it be fair to say that a lot of the songs were quite personal?
They are definitively personal. They are personal to me when I write and I hope they are personal to the listener. I hope that something I've experienced or felt or observed resonates with them.
For instance, what's a song like "The Sound that stars make" about?
Well that would be cheating wouldn't it? It's definitely about stars though. Which don't make any sound at all of course, or none you could hear in the depths of the universe anyway.
What kind of influences do you have musically and culturally?What are you listening to at the moment?
The last three records I listened to today (before The Minutemen)were a Morrissey b-sides compilation, Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen and, I think, Tallulah by the Go-Betweens. You'll notice these are not exactly considered 'current' bands. I don't hear many new bands I like, particularly from the UK. Everything feels like a dilution of something else, a pale facsimile of some larger talent. Where are the people with the heart? Where are the showmen? There's no Johnny Thunders any more no matter what people pretend, there's no Dylan, no Strummer. We just have to swallow these regurgitations and pretend we love them. Some people genuinely do I suppose.
There are some bands of supreme quality out there though, on the peripheries: Future of the Left, Les Savy Fav, The Hold Steady, our ex-guitarist Dexy's new band - but they are strictly on the edges of pop culture - barely scraping by in some cases.
I read Bukowski, Chomsky, Phillip Roth, Patrick Hamilton, among others and they have a genuine impact on how I write, and in some cases what I write about. Certain authors and certain filmmakers like Hal hartley, Woody Allen, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Lindsay Anderson, they have as much influence on me as bands or other songwriters.
Ultimately I suppose it comes down to Mark Kozelek, the Replacements, The Kinks and The Smiths - if you need to know who I'm stealing lines from all the time!
Your debut album was produced by Adrian Hall, how did he find you, and how was it working with him?
We found him in the most obvious way imaginable. He heard a demo, he liked it, we all thought we'd make a record. He's a perfectionist and he's a taskmaster and I hate him. Truthfully he's a man who knows where the tune is, knows where the song should be heading and has faith in what we're capable of achieving. He knows an immense amount about almost every aspect of music and despite the great artists he's worked with, he never talked down to us, never disrespected us. Plus he bought me Thai food so he's on the Christmas card list forever.
Your debut got some great press were you a little frustrated not to be picked up by a major or do you feel like you have more control doing it DIY?
We were extremely grateful for all the positive reviews. We didn't get a bad one, which is extremely flattering. It felt like perhaps we were doing something right.
Of course in the eyes of the industry we weren't and they could not have cared less. We had meetings with some labels large and small, nothing ever came of it and frankly some of the people at those places seemed, well, ill-educated I suppose is the polite way of putting it.
Everyone starts out wanting the BIG DEAL, but I think as I've grown older, as the band has improved and improved, the focus is on the band and what we're capable of. How good can we be? How great a song can we write?The dream of the major label, the coke and models deal, it matures into a dream of creating something perfect and believing you perhaps someday could get close to that.
We have control with the little indies we've dealt with, we've been on great terms with them and when time came for a change, it happened and right now we're happy with Angry Liberal and hopefully we'll work together again.I love the whole DIY thing and it allows you a great deal of self respect. We are totally involved in our releases from day one and it feels good, it feels like it's worth something.
We've never been given a thing, always worked and earned it. I'm proud of that.
In general how does the songwriting process work whithin Nebraska, is it a case of you going away and writing the lyrics to fit to the music or do you jam it out together?
It alters from song to song but for the most part Ben plays me some parts, I take away a general idea of where I want the melodies to be, how I want it all to hang. then with Jarrod and Stax together in the rehearsal room we all hammer it out. Usually by the time the structure is there and everyone has a handle on their part I've got the outline of the lyric. then I can go home and torture myself over it.
There seems to be a genuine evolution in your sound with every passing song, the music and vocals often taking as different slant is this intentional or just how the songs emerge?
We never set out to write a particular song about a particular subject or in any pre-agreed style. I don't think that a singer should limit their voice. It's an instrument and different intonations, different kinds of delivery have a different effect. Your throat is your effects pedal - you can switch between settings and retain the honesty behind it. You just have to believe every single word you sing.
In general though, we've never, ever said 'Let's write a pop song' or 'Let's do something new'. We just write, work, get better.
Having attended a few Nebraska gigs I'm always struck by the connection there is between band and fans do you find the live stage a good platform to connect with people?
We never go into a gig expecting those kinds of responses. It happens, and when it does you cherish it, but you can never rely on it, never take it for granted. Some people's dedication is just overwhelming. It's something I find beautiful. I hope we connect with people in the way that certain bands touched me as a teenager. I want people to know that other people feel how they feel. I'm extremely pleased that a certain number of people understand what we do and that it relates to them.
Playing live is the entire point of what we do. Prince said that playing live is like making love to 10,000 people. For us then it's like snogging a hundred. It's nice when they're willing to slip you the tongue.
Your new single "The Great Divide" seems to be about political disconnection and apathy, would that be a fair assumption? How do you feel about the current political climate? Its being released on Angry liberal records is that your own label?
It is a political song. It's clear the kind of statement we're making. It's the most straightforward song, lyrically, I've ever written and it comes from rage, from frustration, from being disgusted with the constant barrage of lies we're fed every day by our government, by our media and about the lack of people willing to stand up and be counted. Not many people in bands are willing to talk about the perversity of the media because they're so embroiled in it. I can say that all the way from the NME to Sky News to the Prime Minister to the Daily Mail, you are being lied to about any number of things every single day. Those in power feel they are untouchable. Much like the French Monarchy once did. Paranoid rant ends here.
Angry Liberal isn't our label, it belongs to a wonderful friend named Clare Heal who is happy and foolhardy enough to invest her time in chancers like us. She sometimes buys me whiskey, so she is also on the perennial Xmas card list.
Are you working on new material currently?
We are. We've demo'd a number of songs already and are planning a further single in May or June. We'll be making another album this year. We already have the material. I like quite alot of it quite alot.
What are your future plans?
World domination and an eternal residency at the Skegness Palais. If there is one.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Only a thanks to anyone that's supported us, bought our album, single or come to see us play over the last couple of years. Oh, and that everyone should try to listen to The Replacements more. It makes you a better human being.
Thank you for your time.
The new single "The Great Divide" is out now on Angry liberal records.