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Saturday, 27 June 2020

Spark Sparkle

No Isolation Mix today. With Thursday's bumper Weatherall/ Glade post there are more than enough mixes to go around and frankly I'm not going even attempt to compete with that line up. Instead I have a story about an encounter with Hugo Nicolson and the small part we played in getting his solo album released this week.

Hugo Nicolson is the man who engineered many of Andrew Weatherall's early records. He started out as a tape- op working at The Town House, working on some of Julian Cope's late 80s records. In the early 90s Hugo and Andrew met and Hugo became the man who turned Andrew's ideas into reality, becoming the co- producer on Screamadelica, some of the One Dove tracks and a slew of remixes from the period, remixes of bands like That Petrol Emotion, Finitribe, Jah Wobble, My Bloody Valentine and The Drum by The Impossibles. A couple of weeks ago Hugo offered to hold a Zoom meeting to talk about his work and in particular the records he made with Andrew Weatherall in exchange for a donation to the charity of his choice (Black Lives Matter). On Thursday night a group of us listened in intently as Hugo spoke from his kitchen in Los Angeles. He told us about his initial experience as a junior tape op, watching Adrian Sherwood and the way he used the mixing desk in the studio, throwing faders around and bringing instruments in and out of the mix. He talked about Andrew Weatherall's passion and fervour, the depth of knowledge about music he brought to the studio and the skill Andrew had for bringing people together. He described the making of Come Together (a song I have previously described as the my favourite ten minutes of recorded sound) and Don't Fight It, Feel It (a song that took just four hours to do). He talked about the spirit that he and Andrew developed with remixing, that you should take the original song to pieces and create something entirely new.

Hugo described his own lack of confidence in his abilities and how Andrew encouraged him, how he developed the programming and sampling in the studio, the moment they realised Higher Than The Sun needed something else and Weatherall phoning Jah Wobble, who he'd met recently, and getting him down to play the bass on Higher Than The Sun. He discussed how he then joined Primal Scream on tour as part of the band. Hugo's job was to be the man on stage responsible for all the Midi, the man who pushed the buttons to play the spaced out, cosmic, technicolour aspects of Screamadelica- in other words, everything on Screamadelica when played live that wasn't either a guitar or the drums. Midi in a live environment in the 90s was unreliable and if the technology failed, the songs couldn't be played. At that point, everyone turned round a looked at Hugo. That, coupled with being on tour with Primal Scream during one of their most hedonistic periods, brought its problems and pressures. He discussed his love and admiration for the late Throb Young and his growing realisation he couldn't live like Throb.

Hugo engineered the Hallelujah ep for Happy Mondays and told us being in the studio, the chance to work with Martin Hannett, and waiting for the drummer to appear who had 'popped out'. The longer the wait, the more substances the Mondays consumed. Hannett, ostensibly in charge as producer, observed the madness going on, as the wait went from an hour to two days, participated. Hugo's chief interaction with Hannett was when the legendary producer came into the kitchen where Hugo was making a cup of tea and asking him, completely seriously, if he'd seen the aliens land on the lawn the afternoon before. Nevertheless, a successful e.p. was recorded and Hugo talked about his pride at working on Clap Your Hands. He worked on Julian Cope's Peggy Suicide and Jehovakill, two of the Archdrude's best records, and on Bjork's Debut.

His position in Primal Scream's touring band took him with them to Memphis to record the Dixie  Narco record, a trip that was beyond hedonistic and involved everyone getting tattooed in Memphis (except Bobby), various chaos including at least one stabbing incident and a twelve minute masterpiece being recorded, the title song that wasn't on the Screamadelica album (a song Hugo had actually forgotten about and he recalled didn't think at the time was very good- some of us in the meeting begged to differ). As the tour continued to Australia and the band's lifestyles spiralled into daily lunacy Hugo had a drug induced breakdown in Sydney and was seen trying to find the Sydney Opera House's steering wheel so he could drive it into the water and (and here's where the laughter stops) he had a nervous breakdown that hospitalised him and took him out of action for four years.

Since the late 90s Hugo has worked again with Primal Scream (on 2000's XTRMNTR) and with Radiohead, in cinema and on soundtracks, not least with David Holmes. He took questions from us about all sorts of nerdy things and at times was reminded by us of records he had made and remixes he was responsible for but had forgotten about. We had a long chat about this, one of Andrew and Hugo's best remixes from 1991 (a cover of a Slapp Happy song by a girl duo from Edinburgh). Hugo said that the song wasn't recorded to a click so there were timing issues and that to put the vocal into time would be a day's work and a real ballache so they dropped it in as it was, beautifully and brilliantly out of time.

The Drum (Andrew Weatherall Remix)

Hugo also told us about an album he made as Spark Sparkle in 1999 which he'd never released. He emailed us all the same day with a link to the album and following our encouragement and feedback he's now released it on Bandcamp.

The twelve songs on Crank combine 60s Wrecking Crew sounds with a sort of West Coast exotica, dive bars and the Sunset Strip, and an experimental sheen. The production, as you'd expect from the man who engineered Screamadelica and One Dove's Fallen and Breakdown, is superb and it's incredible that has languished largely unheard for the best part of two decades. It sounds like it comes from from a similar place as David Holmes' Unloved project and if you like that, you'll find a lot here to enjoy. There's some real magic and moments of beauty in the songs, orchestral sounds and huge quantities of echo, gorgeous piano, layered voices and a kind of cosmic- folkiness to it in places. Hugo's siblings Claire and Krissie appear on vocals along with Martin Duffy (of Primal Scream) and Donald Skinner (who played with Cope). I thoroughly recommend it.


Jake Sniper said...

An enjoyable read as always and another good music recommendation.

Anonymous said...

It's great that you contacted Hugo Nicolson, I love the Hugo connection via Hannett to Sherwood to Weatherall. I'm getting a real Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood vibe from 'Crank'. I've always liked the gorgeously bonkers 'I like Blue' by Yellow Hammer from David Holmes great Finders Keepers comp. Now i know where it came from.

Nick L said...

What a great read. Thanks for writing it all up.

Swiss Adam said...

SRC- there's a Spark Sparkle song on Holmes's Late Night Tales too


Echorich said...

Great read and I am enjoying Crank!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Adam i missed that LNT, there are so many.

Tom W said...

After reading this encountered Nicholson's name in a different context: a Guardian interview with Simon Pegg about a music producer suffering from schizophrenia, which apparently Nicholson did the music for.