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InterviewsGalahad show their Battle Scars - An interview with singer Stuart Nicholson

Posted on Wednesday, May 30 2012 @ 18:02:04 CDT by Steven Reid
Progressive Rock

Five years have passed since Galahad released their, up to that point, strongest, heaviest set of songs, Empires Never Last. Since that album the band have been working towards what is set to become two new 2012 releases - Battle Scars and Beyond The Realms Of Euphoria. The first of which is an absolute triumph! The album's title and many of its lyrics have been strongly shaped by the recent death of the band's bassist Neil Pepper, after a battle with cancer. A series of events which surprisingly inspired the prolific bout of songwriting by both Pepper and the rest of the band, that resulted in two album's worth of material being recorded. Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid spoke to Galahad singer and founding member, Stuart Nicholson to discuss what is set to be a busy year for the band.

Hi Stuart I've been listening to the new Galahad album Battle Scars for a week or so now and have to say that I'm absolutely blown away by it. I can only presume that you and the band are delighted by how it has turned out?

Thanks very much Steven, yes we are very proud of what we have achieved with Battle Scars, especially bearing in mind everything else that was going on during the writing and recording of this album! I think it's our most modern and contemporary sounding record, but it still contains nods to our past and the 'Galahad' sound, whatever that is!? We all feel that it's Galahad music for the 21st century and I think Neil would be very proud. I'd say that 95% of reactions have been positive, there have been a few detractors but that's always the way. Someone said that they didn't like it because it sounded too modern and had too many influences and thus wasn't prog? Surely that's a contradiction in terms! But that's okay because what they said is exactly what we want to be anyway!

I think the whole package looks and sounds wonderful and I'd even buy it myself if I heard it or saw it in a record shop - not that there are many left these days, but that's another story!

I know that everyone at SoT would like to pass on our condolences regarding the recent sad death of the band's bassist Neil Pepper after his battle with cancer. Neil had a big hand in a lot of the music on Battle Scars. How has it felt to keep working on his ideas and music after his death?

Well thank you very much. It was very difficult at times, especially when we actually sat down quietly and thought about what was happening, it sent shivers down my spine on many an occasion. But, to be honest we all just got on with it as did Neil when he was alive. In fact the last time we saw him alive was at the studio during the recording process, which is just about the best final memory of Neil we can have. He was very stoical throughout the whole period. Even now it is difficult to accept that he's not coming back. I read out a eulogy at his funeral on behalf of the band and I can honestly say it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. In comparison getting on stage and warbling away is a breeze!

By the time he died we had actually completed 99% of the album and the biggest shame was that we didn't quite get it finished in time for him to see the finished album as a complete package, but I think he would have approved.

Were there any other reasons why there has been such a lengthy wait since your last album Empires Never Last?

There are always many reasons as to why it takes a while to get things done. I think it's just life in general. We are not a full time band, we have to fit it in around our jobs, families and so on. Plus we wanted to use Karl [Groom, who co-produced, mixed and mastered the album] again as he did such a magnificent job on Empires. Thus we had to wait until the studio was free, which can be a bit of a wait because, as you can imagine, Karl is in demand big time!

Also, we wanted the songs to sound as good as we could make them - in our opinion at any rate - and it can take time to hone and arrange to make sure they are as we want them. Roy [Keyworth - guitars] and Dean [Baker - keyboards] were also asked to go out and tour with the reformed Twelfth Night in 2010 which meant that Galahad duties were put on hold for a while. So there were many reasons as to why it took a while, but we think it was worth it in the end.

I certainly do too Stuart! Five years is a long time between albums, how much do you think the Galahad sound has evolved during those years?

I think Battle Scars is a progression from Empires, the songs are more finely honed. We were quite ruthless on editing as the album could have been about half an hour longer, but we wanted to make it more direct and punchy than previous albums, which I think we achieved. We paid much more attention to detail than on any other album we have recorded. On the surface it sounds quite basic, especially in 'prog' terms, but that's what we were aiming for in many ways, good songs, direct, punchy and to the point but still incorporating plenty light and shade. However, there are many layers to the album and if you peel away the layers it's not quite as straightforward as some may think. With this album the guitars are very big as is the overall sound, as we wanted an almost cinematic effect with a very full, crisp modern sound. As I said there are a few nods to the past in there with the use of a real Mellotron, the odd staccato riff and a few instrumental breaks. However we also increased the use of 'modern' keyboard sounds and rhythms more so than on other albums to try and bring everything up to date.

Galahad have never been a band to limit themselves to one narrow style. With Battle Scars, you've retained the heavier edge that was strongly introduced on your last album, however there's everything from out and out neo-prog, to metal, to a bit of dance, or even techno beats, as well as some classical arrangements. It all comes together to make an impressively eclectic, yet cohesive album, making me very interested to know which band member brings which style of music to the band?

I think we all bring something different to the table and there is a certain amount of cross over from each of us, which is what makes the Galahad sound to a certain extent and also guarantees a plethora of musical influences and styles on each album, which I see a positive thing. It's something Queen used to do a lot and as they are probably my all time favourite rock band I guess they are a big influence, certainly on me, but they always were a 'rock' band underneath it all, the same of which I think apples to us, only we have a bit more 'prog' in us!

To be honest the 'prog' elements come mainly from Roy and myself as that is our main heritage and I suppose no matter what happens it will always seep through in to our music in some way, even if it is subconsciously. Not sure about the Neo-Prog tag, never liked that as it sounds like some dodgy extreme political organisation. Also to me it smacks of bands that try to ape the classic bands of the 1970s which is not something we do at all these days. Yes in the early days we did wear our influences on our sleeves much more, but then were very young and I think you tend to be more obvious in showing your influences when you are younger. For example three members of the band were still teenagers when we were writing Nothing Is Written. I think people forget how a young a band we were, but things change and a lot of music has flowed under the bridge since those days. Unfortunately I think some people think we still sound like we did in 1990 which is 22 years ago now and that presumption is way off the mark.

These days we don't try to sound like anyone else, we just do what we do. Dean is responsible for most of the modern keyboard sounds and sequences, ironically he is the least 'prog ' out of all of us and before he joined the band wasn't in to any prog at all. He knew a bit of Pink Floyd and that was about it. Thus the more traditional keyboard sounds such as Mellotron, Hammond and so on are probably the fault of Roy and myself! Neil was responsible for all of the music on his songs other than the vocals and lyrics which are all mine. Spence tends to contribute his own rhythmic ideas other than a few suggestions from the rest of us. Overall we're a pretty democratic band. We all write and most songs are an amalgamation of all our ideas, hence in some songs you may hear several different musical styles, but as people might realise these days we like to mix it up and throw in a few surprises. Our true fans know to expect the unexpected!

However even with all of those influences, the music always sounds like Galahad. Is there a special formula to "Galahad-ising" the music?

There probably is but we haven't found out what it is yet! I think we have found our 'sound' over the years, but it is difficult to define. I think we have found our definitive sound with the last two albums, but I'm sure even that will change with future albums. If of course there any future albums, as we aren't getting any younger! I guess that as Roy and myself are the mainstays over the years that we are somehow, along with Spence responsible for the 'Galahad' sound. Dean has brought a more modern element to band with his distinctive keyboard arrangements which completes the picture.

It is great to know that no matter what we do and which direction we go in, most people are of the opinion that the band still has than indefinable 'Galahad' sound which makes us quite proud actually! Perhaps if we tried something far more musically radical then that would put it to a more severe test as to whether we can maintain it! [laughs!]

As a band you obviously like pushing the boundaries of your music and experimenting with the Galahad sound. Do you ever worry that you might stray too far from what Galahad fans hope for from you and does that ever mean that some music the band love doesn't end up on your albums?

That is an interesting question and something that we are very aware off. We are a bit of a 'magpie' band you could say, as we do have a lot of different influences. This is something which is broadened even further as we all have ideas and all write - unlike some bands where one individual writes everything, which I think can be dangerous as you can end up sounding very samey, which I don't think applies to Galahad. We have in the past worried about pushing the boundaries too far and possibly losing fans, which I know we have done as there are some people out there who'd have preferred us to still sound like we did 25 years ago. But we feel we have to move on and progress in the real and true sense otherwise it would all become very boring and predictable. We like to mix it up a bit, quite often all in one song such as "Seize the Day" for example, but on the whole I think it works.

A good case in point is "Bug Eye" from Following Ghosts. I wrote that with Dean, and he at the time, not long having long joined the band, was worried that it wasn't 'prog' enough and was just too radical for the typical Galahad fan to take. I just told him to have faith, it was a great track, very atmospheric and we'd put it on the album. In fact 'Bug Eye' was our first proper dalliance with more dance orientated music with the use of break beats and the like, and it is now a staple of our set and has been since 1998, so we were vindicated! I think it provides something a bit different, even now, which also helps to make us stand out a bit from the general 'Prog' melee!

I believe the main thing is to be honest to yourself and I think most fans will understand and respect that. We learned very early on that you have to write from your heart, believe in yourself and write for yourself and not for anyone else, otherwise you are not being true to yourself. Hopefully, you will then carry your fans with you and perhaps even gain new fans along the way. One thing I cannot do is write to order, I've tried it and I cannot do it, it has to be inspired by a moment or event in time. Quite often something will spark and idea off and I'll write the whole lyric in ten minutes, perhaps with the odd change later on. It's just the nature of the beast as far I'm concerned.

The album title Battle Scars suggests many things. However the lyrics seem - to me - to be a strong comment on the "human condition", especially the mental strength needed to face many of the things that everyday life can throw at us. Could you share some of the themes and ideas you've written about on this album please?

Yes that's a very good and accurate analogy. Lyrically, the songs are very personal to me and some are very poignant as they relate directly to Neil's condition and predicament at the time. I really don't want to go in to any detail about the meaning of each song as I firmly believe that it is up to the listeners to use their own imaginations to decide for themselves what the songs are about and what they mean to them. But I will say that, for obvious reasons, it is an extremely emotional album, especially for me as I wrote the words - especially in relation ironically, to Neil's songs which were written whilst he was very ill at times. It was actually quite hard writing at times and I even asked Neil on occasion to vet what I was writing, he was fine and very positive, more so than I at times in fact.

I guess the whole gamut is in there - frustration, anger, disbelief, reflection, the acceptance of reality, fighting spirit against the odds, negativity, positivity, hope for the future and more besides.

However, after the roller coaster of emotions that the songs evoke - I hope! - the album does end on a very positive upbeat note with "Seize the Day" which is intended to give out a very positive message and sets out our stall for the future…

The sound on Battle Scars is absolutely fantastic. You mentioned Karl Groom earlier, how important has he been to helping capture what you are trying to convey through your music?

Yes, Karl did do a fantastic job and he was incredibly important in terms of melding all the various elements of our music together in to a cohesive whole. His ear for arrangements, orchestration and mixing is second to none in my opinion. With Karl we have found someone for the first time in the bands career who understands where we are coming from totally and has complete empathy with band, and therefore we manage to get the best out of each other, hopefully, resulting in a great sounding album. The other key factor is that he is meticulous with regard to detail and also listens to us, which hasn't always been the case with other people we have worked with in the past. Karl is very patient and has no ego whatsoever and is always a total pleasure to work with. I've said before that he is effectively our 'George Martin'!

Also, I think it's always good to have a third party individual, such as Karl, to bounce ideas off as he is more objective and listens with impartial ears. Whereas the band get so ingrained and engrossed in the songs and how they think they should sound, sometimes they don't see the bigger picture and notice when it's obvious that something doesn't work or sound quite right.

Completing the excellent Battle Scars package, the artwork conveys a bleak, dark, almost desperate air - although with a strong sense of strength. It matches perfectly with the music. Who designed the package and how much of a hand did the band have in how it came together?

I gave Paul Tippett, our graphic designer, a sketchy brief for the cover and a few ideas such as the poppy field with a single red poppy in remembrance of Neil, the scarred back idea, plus I wanted a monochromatic feel with the odd splash of red - blood of life - here and there. He then got to work with his imagination and as with Empires, he came up with a fantastic looking booklet, CD and digipack. I think it's very important that the album artwork, the music, the words all tie up together to create a great package and I think we achieved that with Battle Scars. Paul did a fantastic job and as with Karl he is very easy to work with and seems to understand our needs from a visual and graphic point of view. Battle Scars is dedicated to Neil and in a way is our memorial to him and as such I think it works magnificently. In fact the Vinyl LP looks even better!

At the same time as recording Battle Scars, you have also been recording another album, Beyond The Realms Of Euphoria, which will be released later this year. As if creating one album wasn't challenging enough, what on earth made you want to work on two separate releases at the same time?

To be honest, Neil's situation played a very big part in our decision to record two albums worth of material. Whilst he was ill, he was incredibly focused on writing and music, in fact he the most enthusiastic I've ever seen him about the band, especially in terms of writing and ideas, as this was a practical way of taking his mind off what was happening to him in reality. As I said before, we actually had a lot more material, probably enough for another album but we had to make a few decisions as to what to include. Thus we decided to record as much material with Neil while we still could. A bit similar to what Queen did with Freddie in a way I suppose. It was difficult at times as he was in considerable pain and had to sit down to record his bass parts as it was too uncomfortable to stand up. Hence why there are three of his songs on Battle Scars.

Was this something that you'd planned before starting work on Battle Scars?

Not at all, when we started writing the songs for Battle Scars, Neil as far we knew was still well and thus we were just writing a new album. Then as soon as we found out that Neil was seriously ill everything changed and at that point we started considering other options including the release of two separate albums. Especially as it had become apparent that Neil was having a writing frenzy and we really liked most of what he had come up with. So we decided to record some of his songs at Thin Ice as part of the album recording sessions.

Was splitting the songs between albums decided by their musical styles, or lyrical content, or were there other deciding factors in choosing which songs would end up on which album?

Deciding which songs ended up on which albums and indeed in what order, was actually quite a difficult task as we all had our own take on which songs should go where. The main thing was to get the flow of songs correct and balanced in terms of the arrangements, musical styles, lyrics, light and shade and so on, which affects how the overall album sounds and also the atmosphere it generates. I think we got it right on Battle Scars, I just hope we do the same for Euphoria!

Will the two albums feel like companion pieces, or will there be an obvious gap in styles between the two?

I think that it will be a bit of both. It is a companion piece, in that obviously as all the songs for both albums were recorded in the same sessions. Thus the production and sound will be very similar but I think Euphoria will sound quite different in places to Battle Scars in terms of style. I would say that Battle Scars is more 'rock' than Euphoria, but to be honest until we have finished mixing the album it is difficult to say, much could change in the next few months! We'll leave it up to the punters to decide, reaction will be interesting!

Battle Scars comes with a bonus track in the shape of a re-recorded version of your song "Sleepers". It is a song I've always liked, but the new version sounds absolutely amazing. What made you choose this song to revisit and rework?

The reason for re-recording "Sleepers" was because, at the time, our 25th anniversary was looming and we wanted to mark it in some way, thus we decided to re-record "Sleepers" to try and get it to sound as close as to how we had wanted it to sound in the first place. "Sleepers" is arguably the most important song in our cannon, certainly of that particular era, thus we felt we wanted to finally do it justice in the studio.

Oddly, Sleepers, the album, cost us a ton of money but Tony Arnold [King Crimson, Andy Summers, Toyah] didn't listen to the band at all and we were never happy with original recording. In fact, if I had the time and the money we would re-mix Sleepers from scratch, the whole album. I love the songs on that album but they didn't quite end up sounding how we envisaged which was a bit galling considering how much the album cost!

Thus we have now finally recorded "Sleepers" the song as we wanted it nearly 20 years ago!

Will Beyond The Realms Of Euphoria also feature another song revisited in this way?

It will indeed, we have re-recorded a new version of "Richelieu's Prayer" - again an important song for us in the early 1990's. We also have Mark Andrews guesting on it who was our keyboard player at the time, who is also still a very close friend and who wrote the song, so it seemed to make sense to feature Mark, along with Dean of course.

As if releasing two albums in one year wasn't enough, I believe that there is also a Galahad biography being published this year, documenting the band's time together. How did this come about?

I've always wanted to compile a band biography; it has been my dream for a while now. Some say that everyone has a book in them and I guess this is mine! I also wanted to document as much as possible about the band in a book before we forget everything we have done and also to demonstrate that you don't have to be a big mega band Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or Queen to have had an interesting ride through the good old world of rock and roll. No matter how big the band, we all have a story to tell and anecdotes to impart, whether humorous or poignant, or even both in some cases. It's a kind of catharsis too I suppose and just great to get it all down and out in the public domain for posterity. In a way I guess it confirms and vindicates our existence.

I started writing it many years ago, indeed just after Karl [Garrett - keyboards 1991-1997] left the band, but it got put on hold for many years. We then met a gut called Andy Wild through the Twelfth Night guys who had written their biography 'Then Play On' which we read, liked and asked Andy if he would be interested in putting it all together for us. Amazingly he agreed and made very quick progress, including re-writing my attempt which was unpublishable. He has done a great job. As well as the main body of the book there are some great photos and lots of anorak lists, which I love I'm sad to say! Not sure when it will be published, but hopefully sometime this year.

I must admit that I'm a sucker for a list as well! Have all the members of the band past and present been involved with the book?

Nearly all, a couple of guys were impossible to get hold of, but we did manage to get all the key protagonists in the history of Galahad and there have been quite a few - I think we give Yes a run for their money! Although in reality the line up has been pretty consistent over the last few years and after all you are talking about a band with a 27 year history!

How has it felt to revisit the band's past for the book?

It was great fun, reliving and recounting events and stories relating to the band. It was interesting that each member/ex-member had quite different recollections at times. Whilst some members remembered certain things that had happened over the years, other members couldn't remember the same things at all!

The thing about Galahad is that is like an extended family and we still see many ex-members and socialise at times. For example when Tim [Ashton - bass 1989-1992] and Karl come back from abroad, we meet up and carry on where we left off! In a way the band has shaped our lives quite profoundly, hopefully in a good way!

(Click here to read our reviews of Battle Scars)

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