Thursday afternoon, and at the appointed time I give Alan Nimmo a ring. It’s just one interview for me to do, but for him it’s inevitably the umpteenth of the week as part of the promotional campaign for the upcoming release of King King’s new album Exile & Grace.
So as an opening gambit I ask him what the question is he’s primed for me to ask, because he’s heard it so often already. He doesn’t answer the question, but it evidently resonates, because he immediately laughs.
“I’m at the stage,” he responds, “where I’m about to put together a whole bunch of answers, and say ‘Here you are everyone, and here’s the questions.’”
Joking apart though, one of the recurring topics will inevitably have been about the vocal problems that unfortunately caused King King to postpone their UK tour in support of Exile & Grace while he took a three month lay-off. It’s a situation that I guess isn’t just a worry for him personally, but must make him feel frustrated for the rest of the band, when together they’ve been making big strides in the last year or so.
“Yeah, of course,” he says. “I mean obviously aside from the personal side for me, which
can be very worrying, when you’re thinking “Hang on a minute,
that’s a couple of times things have gone wrong now.” At the end of the day I just didn’t let it
recover properly, and we went back to work and we just did so much, trying to
fit in the rescheduled stuff with the current stuff, doing the album at the
same time, all that. It just got to the
point where, you know, if I get ill or anything like that it just seems to be a
wee bit worse.”
|Alan Nimmo beardless in Breda - February 2017|
“So,” he sighs, “I kinda learned the hard way a little bit, that I’ve got to take a lot more precautions now in terms of my health, and looking after myself. So we thought well, let’s be cautious, and let’s take everything out for a while, and just concentrate solely on getting properly recovered, so that this doesn’t happen again. I’m doing four or five hours a day of this stuff [ie interviews], which is not ideal at this stage of recovery when I’m under strict orders not to be talking too much. But the work still needs done, and I’ve tried my best to convert a lot of these interviews to e-mail. But there’s ways around it, and I just want to get back to normal, get properly recovered, doing work with a vocal coach, and getting the strength built back up in the voice again, and getting that ‘memory trained’. So all we can do is do what we can, and hopefully everything’s all cool in the end.”
The fitness kick
Judging by some of his Facebook posts, he’s also been hitting the gym a bit, and getting outdoors for some long walks. Is that just by way of recreation away from the road, I wonder, or also part of his recovery plan?
“It’s part of the recovery as well,” he confirms. “You know, one of the things is you don’t want to be carrying too much weight when you’re trying to do this for a living, so all of it plays its part I suppose. Plus, it’s just better for my health, so I thought let’s make it part of the whole recovery programme while I’m off.
“There’s three things I’m doing while I’ve got this time off,” he says by way of elaboration, “and that’s basically it, that’s all I’m concentrating on. One, is getting my voice and my vocal chords back into good shape. The second is a very strict health and fitness regime. And the other is I’m using the time to just do a bit more writing, writing more songs for, indeed, album number 5 when it comes. So I might as well get ahead of the game with these things, and keep myself occupied, and out of mischief!” This was said, of course, before Nimmo took on the gig depping for broken-armed brother Stevie on his current UK tour.
The opportunity to sit back and do some writing could be seen as a bit of a blessing, I suggest, given that he’s said Exile & Grace was the first album for which much of the songwriting had to be done on the road because the band had been so busy.
“Yeah. The thing is I’m already through the first month though, so the time passes quickly. So before you know it, we’ll be back on the road anyway. To think about ‘oh, we’ve got loads of time off’ – you don’t really. The time flies by!”
“Goodness no - if I run out of things to do I’m sure the wife’ll have me out doing things in the garden!”
Returning to the subject of his fitness regime, I noted that he had recently shared a personal gym playlist via Spotify. Most of the entries were the kind of rock and blues fare people might expect from him. But the list also included outlaw-style country artist Chris Stapleton, and I recalled that three out of the four King King members had picked his album Traveller as their favourite of the year back in 2015. So what was it about Stapleton’s music that appealed to him?
“Do you know what?” he reflects, “There’s a quality to his songwriting which was refreshing, and then when you hear a guy sing the way he does, you think wow – what a tremendous voice. I think it’s an added freshness to the music scene that’s been missing – another bit of genuine, passionate, honest music coming out at us – regardless of the style. You know, when you listen to these kinds of people, it’s like ‘I can tell that guy means it,’ and it’s just wonderful to hear.”
As a non-musician, I’m always intrigued about the genesis of the material. Does a bit of doodling or jamming suddenly conjure up a Eureka moment? I recalled talking with Alan’s brother Stevie about this a few months back, and he said that for him it was the other way round – if something doesn’t grab him right away then he bins it. So how does it tend to work for Alan? Turns out there’s no magic formula, but a mixture of spontaneous moments and professional graft.
“Well, quite a lot of songs come out of absolutely nothing. You know, you’re sitting there
with a guitar in your lap, and you’re having a chat and a cup of coffee, or you’re doing something else – you could be sitting watching TV, or in the studio recording another song and somebody’s sat at a desk doing something, and you’ve got a couple of minutes sitting waiting before you get started again, and you end up noodling around, and riffs and ideas are born out of that.
|. . . and tearing it up|
“But I don’t stick to any sort of process or routine for song writing, it’s just whatever comes first comes first, and I build around that. I can have a chord riff, I can have a melody, I can have one line of a lyric – anything. Whatever comes first, I’ll build around it. If it’s for example a lyric, I’ll think about why it came to mind – why did those words come to mind? And it’ll remind me, or it’ll make me realise what I want to talk about in that particular song. And then the content of that song will determine maybe what style I want to write it in, whether be a slow kinda ballad, or a fast paced rock thing, or something quirky, depending on how it goes. But as I say, no formula – it just comes when it comes. And definitely I agree with Steven, an idea’s got to grab a hold of you before you’ll pursue it. If something’s a load of nonsense it’s not something you’ll even think about, you’ll just dismiss it. If it’s not something where you think ‘there’s something in that’, then you’ll crack on.”
Songs can also take time to mature, he adds, or to fit into the right album.
“One of the crowd favourites nowadays from Reaching For The Light is ‘You Stopped The Rain’, and it was written when we were recording Standing In The Shadows. But it didn’t feel right to go on that album, it felt right to go on Reaching For The Light. And equally, the bulk of ‘(She Don’t) Gimme No Lovin’’ was done when we recorded Reaching For The Light, and it didn’t go on that album – it wasn’t right yet, so it was right for this album. And equally, along the way, doing this album, there’s been songs that were either dismissed completely or there’s songs that will go onto the next album.”
Practice and passion
The guitar intro to the aforesaid ‘(She Don’t) Gimme No Lovin’’ is the first thing anyone has heard of the new album, and it’s a slightly unusual, prickly effect. So how did he achieve that?
“It was done with a great deal of practice!” he says, laughing. “What I tend to do with it in a live situation is I’ll literally pick every note, pick every part of it using a wah-wah pedal. But on the album I wanted it to be a bit more even than that. Because if your foot moves when you’re balancing on one foot with a wah-wah pedal then the note changes immensely. So what we did was we used a delay, and I picked it, then I had it repeat, come back, and I picked it again. So I got the evenness over it, which was good.”
Quite a lot of work involved for just a few bars then . . .
“Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, like anything, if you want something to be quality, and you want a quality album, then you don’t get it by not doing the work. So put the graft in, and hopefully it pays off.”
It strikes me there’s an underlying mood of tension to some of Exile & Grace. Songs like ‘(She Don’t) Gimme No Lovin’’ and ‘Long Time Running’ may be exuberant, but several songs have taut riffs and quite dark, anxious lyrics. ‘Betrayed Me’ is a case in point – it may be a relationship song, but it’s a brooding one. So did it have any particular inspiration?
“Ach, you know, everything’s written from life experience,” says Nimmo, “whether it’s something current, or if you’ve not got much to say in terms of what’s happening right now in your life you can dig into the past as well. And you know, we’ve all been through certain things in life, and certain relationship ups and downs, and tragedies, and this, that and the next thing. But you can take that, and it doesn’t have to be an exact description of what went on, but you can take various things from different parts of your life and piece them together, ‘cause at some point you’ve felt that way. So it’s no’ like it’s faked, it’s still honest and there’s passion there. I just tend to try and draw from life experience, and write about it, because I think it’s the best thing that can come across to an audience listening to it, if they believe you mean it.”
So rather than any kind of specific narrative, it’s a mood and a feeling he’s trying to convey?
“Yeah, at the end of the day, what a songwriter needs to do is,” he ponders for a moment. “I can be thinking about something very specific, but as a writer you have to find a way to make that universal, so that people understand and relate to it from their own life experience. It may not be exactly the same thing that you might be talking about, but you can make it so that they think ‘Yeah, I get that, something similar happened to me, I can relate to that.’”
The album has a very elegant cover illustration produced by artist Chris Robinson, and I’m intrigued by the four symbols that appear in the corners – a flower*, a bee, a globe and an eye. Is there a story behind them?
“These are all spiritual signs, I suppose, of hope,” says Nimmo. “Hope, peace, love, all that kind of thing. And you’ll notice the pattern going round it, is the feathers of a thunderbird [a Native American image akin to the phoenix in European culture], a symbol of hope and peace. And if you listen to the lyrics of some of the songs, then I suppose you could say the main theme of the album is a definite feeling of unease about the state of the planet, and the state of the world, and all the conflict that’s going on. People’s gluttony and greed are getting the better of us, and things seem to be kind of falling apart a little bit, with various acts of terrorism and things like that. In no way am I interested in chatting about that in a political sense, that’s not where I’m coming from with this. It’s purely from a human side of things – I’m talking about, where is the compassion for the world as a human race? And so these things all came together in a sense of – I just wanted to be hopeful for the world, rather than be negative. It’s easy to be negative when you’re writing songs, it’s easy to sing about everything that’s disastrous, and there’s never a happy ending, but it’s about being hopeful for the future.
“The title is delving into a little bit of that as well,” he continues. “Plus it’s a sideways reflection of looking at the band as well, in terms of our own struggle and our own hard work, and plight.” The title comes, in fact, from a couple of lines in the song ‘Tear It All Up’, recounting the band’s experience supporting Thunder in big venues like Wembley. “You know, feeling a little bit exiled from the mainstream, and from the music world, and trying to fight our way in, to the graciousness of being humbled and content with what we’re achieving.”
And appreciated, I suggest.
“Yeah, of course, yeah,” he agrees. “But you can reflect that against the rest of the world and what I’m talking about in some of those lyrics, and say if you can find a bit of peace and a bit of contentment with what you have in life, make the best of what we’ve got, let’s not be greedy, let’s not be selfish. Let’s make a decent world for ourselves, for everyone.”
Finding your feet in the shadows
Digging into the past a bit, I mention reading an interview where Nimmo said that after Standing In The Shadows he thought they needed to toughen things up a bit, because they’d "kind of nailed the smouldering soulful thing". He laughs in response, and I explain that I understand the sentiment, because if a band doesn’t evolve it’ll stagnate. Nevertheless, I say, it’s an extraordinary album. Unusually, about half the songs are slow to
mid-tempo, and the music and lyrics seem to me to come together to
create something really expressive, emotionally. For Nimmo though, the outcome wasn’t
purposeful in any way, but part of his development as a songwriter.
|Alan Nimmo does his best to smoulder|
“With Standing In The Shadows, we were – I especially, was still trying to find my feet in terms of songwriting, and just gaining more experience from the album before. Like you try and do for the next album, and the next album, you’re just trying to hone your songwriting skill, and you’re trying to relax more. With the more experience you get in songwriting, the more relaxed you become, the influences that you have, and had as a kid listening to music, you find bubbling to the surface. The kind of smouldering, ballad-y type things, that’s the kind of music I love. Everyone knows I’m a huge Thunder fan, but Thunder are so well liked for their ballads, as well as the energetic rock show in a live sense. Dare I say it, they are best liked for those rock ballads, the slower ones.”
Thunder weren’t afraid to tell serious stories either, I suggest, thinking of the likes of ‘Till The River Runs Dry’, which related a tale of domestic abuse.
“Yeah of course,” Nimmo agrees. “Because there’s a great lyrical content, that gets the platform to be showcased because of the style of music that’s being played as well, and you hear that, and there’s an emotional content because of how you can make it sound, as well as the lyrical content that you’re able to put across, and it all pieces together. For us that’s just something that comes as a natural thing – you can’t fake that, you can’t process that, because it’ll never come across as true, it’ll never be real unless it is real.”
Tearing it all up – The Red Devils
Most King King fans probably know by now that the band is named after a 1992 live album called King King, recorded by an LA outfit called The Red Devils and featuring Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Mr Highway Man’, which the KK boys also covered on Take My Hand. The Red Devils’ album was re-released a couple of years ago, and I mention seeing that they’d been touring in Europe earlier this year, with a Dutch guy called Big Pete taking the place of late singer and harp player Lester Butler. So I wondered what it was about the Red Devils that resonated with Nimmo.
|The Red Devils in black and white|
Having listened to the Red Devils album, I say I wouldn’t want to call them raw, but they certainly grab it by the scruff of the neck.
“Yeah!” he bursts in, scarcely letting me finish the sentence as he warms to the subject. “It was raw though, that was what was great about it! It was raw, it was energetic – they managed to evolve every song, every night. They managed to do it in a way that you would hear ‘Automatic’ one night,” he says, referring to the opening track on King King, “and if you heard it another night it would take another path, but still have the familiarity of being that song.”
He must have seen them live a few times then, I say – and by now he’s really off and running, words tumbling out as he recalls the experience.
“Aw, they were fantastic man! I remember watching them in King Tut’s man, and you can imagine in King Tut’s,” he says, referring to King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, a basement club in Glasgow, “a tiny venue with a band showing up and this guy was completely off his head, shouting through this bullet mic, and then this band– the way they sparked up playing something and then the way they managed to find that raw energy, to make it go where they needed to make it go for themselves, as well as the audience. And it was because of that, they did it for themselves, that we went with them as an audience – oh man, it’s just euphoric, it was tremendous. And there’s never really been a blues band like that since. And of course, with it just being the one album there, it just became this cult, iconic, underground thing that came and went – they didn’t have a chance to spoil it by bringing out a bunch of ordinary albums.”
And then it’s time for Alan Nimmo to go off and lubricate his throat with a cup of tea. But that burst of passion as he talked about The Red Devils is telling. “It was because of that, they did it for themselves, that we went with them as an audience – oh man, it’s just euphoric, it was tremendous.” That sounds to me very like the kind of connection Nimmo’s own band have generated with their fans. And it’s that passion that drives all the hard work, and ensures that with Exile & Grace King King are about to demonstrate again that they aren’t making a bunch of ordinary albums either.