The telephone conversation went something like this.
Me: “So we’ll do the interview in Bristol then?”
Him: “Yeah. You know Ed Bagenal don’t you?”
“Yeah I do. But I wasn’t going to tell you cos I wanted it to be like, a proper interview. Professional, y’know, not all, ‘Alright!’”
“But we don’t actually know each other.”
“Yes. You’re right. See you Wednesday then.”
So it turns out that Gravenhurst – the guy who’s been signed to Warp records, home of bleeps, despite the fact he makes desolate folk music – is actually called Nick Talbot, and he’s a childhood friend of my best pal. It’s not such a big deal, I guess. It’s just that I remember when she and I were living together, one of her friends from home got knocked off his bike by a reckless driver and killed. I remember how upset she was, how awful it was. I didn’t know then that it was Nick Talbot’s much-loved bandmate. I didn’t know that a while after that, Nick would stop playing guitar for over a year because the inexplicable pain in his right arm was so agonising. That he was depressed and on incapacity benefits. It came as a bit of a surprise, listening to the cold, soft headfolk of the second Gravenhurst album, ‘Flashlight Seasons’, to find out it had anything to do with my life. But then, it doesn’t. Because we don’t actually know each other.
The journey to find Nick is beautiful. The train to Bristol goes through the dankest, greyest fields of the Southwest. Lakes that have sogged up in the Autumn are stone still. Scraggy black birds flap across the sky. It’s the perfect visual soundtrack, if you will, to Gravenhurst. Gravenhurst, Talbot will tell me later, is a place. Like in David Lynch films, where the same symbols will keep recurring, it’s all one world. It’s bleak though, really white-mist bleak and beautiful, just like the dewy nothingness zipping past my window.
“The world I’m creating isn’t really escapist cos it isn’t necessarily that nice, and it’s getting increasingly dark actually,” he’ll say, “but it’s still safer, because it’s a darkness you can control. If you throw a world together of all the horrible things you think of and all the things that trouble you, then you’ve got an element of control over them.”
In fact, the *real world of Nick Talbot – the one you can touch – is cosy and delicious. Nick’s wife opens the front door to the house with a big smile. We have tea and Jaffa Cakes on a sofa the three bears would drool over, with the heating right up. All is calm, all is bright, but still – Gravenhurst is there.
“Music has become a transcendental thing for me” he says. “I don’t have any religious beliefs cos I’ve been brought up in a critical, scientific mindset, studying analytical philosophy at university and stuff. But music is something that can’t be explained and it allows – like visual art does for a lot of people – it allows them some kind of transcendence of the every day. Like Herman Hesse said, art is seeing God in everything…”
Does this all feel too serious? Because Talbot is actually a delight. He talks like an Open University presenter – intensely, committedly – and he’s warm and funny and laughs at himself a lot. Lavatory reading chez Talbot is Patrick Moore’s ‘What’s New In Space’, published in 1982 (“Well, the constellations haven’t changed much” Talbot shrugs. Which is true). He reads books on serial killers, the best of which, he says, is a profile of Fred and Rose West by Gordon Burn; “Actually, he writes about snooker, which is even more disturbing.” Nick watches a lot of horror films too (“like mindfloss, good for getting rid of those troublesome concepts”), but Talbot’s feeling for the ghoulish developed long ago. Obsessed with ghost stories as a child – Victorian, round-the-fireside spooksters like MR James – Talbot admits that he was always “a morbid little fucker”, with a grin that makes him look about seven years old. “Right from day one,” he says, “my parents called me Sick Nick.”
His absolute fave days out were spent at the London Dungeon, when it was still a chamber of distorto-faced wax works mutilating each other, rather than the camp sideshow it’s become today. And there’s one thing that sticks in his mind particularly. It concerns a French Aristocrat called Giles De Ray, aka Bluebeard; when he died, it’s said that the skeletons of some 120 women and children were found in his moat. “And whether this is true or not,” says Talbot, “the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen was this wax figure of Bluebeard, standing like this, with a knife, holding a kid, slitting it’s throat. And like, blood everywhere.” He pauses. “And you could buy a book to the London Dungeon, and it’s got all this in colour photographs…”
It’s not surprising that little Nick was transfixed by the image of a violent murder of a kid his own age. But it’s also interesting that Bluebeard is one of his earliest, formative influences, given that folkloric archetypes populate the Gravenhurst world so vividly. As well as ‘murdering fuckheads’, there are farmers, girls scattering petals, and forests. And of course, the whole point of folk tales and symbols is that they’ve survived hundreds and hundreds of years because of their guiding truths; we *need them, and we recognise their symbols in a beat of the heart. Like the line in ‘Fog Around The Fountainhead’, “And your heart recalls everything, in the first language…”
“Yeah,” nods Talbot, “take away all the intellectualisation, and your emotional reactions to things take a hell of a lot longer to retrain than your rationalisations.”
For a self-confessed rationalising control-freak, Talbot’s emotional resources were tested to the hilt when his bandmate Luke died in the late ’90s. Nick tried playing the bass, Luke’s instrument, but it was just too depressing. No-one had the heart to carry on. The band, Assembly Communications, decided to call it a day, and slowly Nick started making music on his own. Which would have been fine, except that about a year or so later, he started getting chronic pain in his right arm. No amount of treatments, quack or otherwise made any difference. “Really, that’s the worst I’ve ever been, I was *so fucking depressed. Cos the main way I deal with things is by making music. I couldn’t even do that.” He says it was completely psychosomatic, “your body takes the emotional blows for you.” He read a book on mind-body interaction disorders, sorted himself out, made it go away. Extraordinary. “Once you’ve got that focus, it’s like getting rid of the pain will solve all your emotional problems, it gets rid of the mental stress because everything is focused on one concrete physical thing. It’s very clever the way your mind fucks with you.”
Your mind does fuck with you, it’s true. Nick though – Sick Nick – is a brave boy. And actually, he’s not afraid to look at the horror, hold it, and put it in a safe place. And the really funny thing is – hilarious, almost – that Gravenhurst, the place of the Big Scary Things, is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. Like that train journey. Oh, and the other irony is that when Talbot tries to *create Gravenhurst, tries to fashion and construct it, it doesn’t work, ends up contrived. “It’s totally self-defeating,” he says, “cos the really good stuff comes up when I’m idly playing the guitar watching a film, suddenly a nice riff’ll come up. I’m completely dysfucntional in that way, my instincts towards control are totally counter to the way I produce anything good.”
He laughs, and we have some more tea, and we talk about records. I think we know each other a bit now, which is good – because I did wonder where the hell Gravenhurst came from… As deserted industrial Victorian buildings, brutalist council estates, shivering horses flash past the train window, the light fades to cobalt, then ink, until there’s nothing but neon reflection blinking off the glass.
All aboard the night train.