Tracking Down is a new Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
Nick Heyward of Haircut 100 has been around so long that he’s watched his most famous music become the complete opposite of fashionable and then for pop to begin eerily sounding like him again. On his sole effort with Haircut, Pelican West, he rose to #2 on the UK album charts in 1982 thanks to such hits as “Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)” and the ubiquitous “Love Plus One” that married the synth-romantic impulses of new wave to jazz-funk and R&B, with a herky-jerky rhythmic pull that doesn’t sound completely far off from a lot of danceable indie-rock that’s appeared during his long hiatus from recording. But during the ’90s he struggled to even renew a record deal.
Now age 56, Heyward released his first album in nearly two decades last week, Woodland Echoes, which sounds nothing like his ’80s work. The tunes range from country to power-pop, and they’ve been a long time in the making; Heyward spoke to Stereogum via phone about the journey from teen idol to DIY artist, with the help of his own son.
STEREOGUM: Congratulations on your new album Woodland Echoes — so it’s been 18 years since the last one, huh?
HEYWARD: Yeah, I know! Think I could’ve done better after 18 years, don’t you think? [Laughs.]
STEREOGUM: What were you up to for nearly two decades that led to you making a new record?
HEYWARD: Well, obviously it’s a long time… I’ll try and make it brief. The end of 1998, 1999, you’ve got to remember what was going on in music, that was a time when Nick Heyward the artist wouldn’t even get signed, for most of the 2000s. I can’t remember what was going on musically, but it wasn’t good for me. It wasn’t good for a lot of Creation artists, actually, at that time. [Creation founder] Alan McGee said guitar music was over. It seemed that way and it didn’t feel good, so I went to America.
I was living in Los Angeles, just going and playing at Largo a lot. I got to know Jon Brion. I started playing there, and it was nice because that was the first time I ever saw any money! [Laughs.] I went to play this club and as I was walking out, they gave me a thousand dollars. And I was like, “What? Whoa, money! Real money. This is amazing.” It was shocking for me, really, I had always done gigs where it was the promotion of a record, so you never saw it at all. So I actually spent most of two decades never actually handling any money or seeing it, or knowing what it felt like to actually get paid. It was my first contact with the basics. Quite inspiring, actually. So I paid my rent, I was due $600, and I thought, “…I’d like to do that again!”
So I began playing with lots of lovely musicians, hanging out with lots of musicians, but not really releasing anything. Then the internet started to really evolve and Myspace came out. My son set me up with a page… and it was really simple. I liked it, just communicating the songs I was making from my cottage where I lived, which I turned into a home studio. I rented a piano and took it apart, stuck microphones in it, I didn’t know what I was doing, I’d never recorded in my life. So I was just sharing that stuff on Myspace, sharing my doodles. The only thing I could do was press “record” and “stop.” I had microphones and a laptop and an early version of Logic. I was just doodling unscripted versions of songs, unfinished. Then Myspace disappeared and I was writing and recording loads but still nobody saying “here’s a record deal.”
My son, who’d always shown that he was interested in music equipment, started to be a soundman in college. We would record in his bedroom or my spare room around 2007, I was playing live and using that money from live work to buy more equipment and pay for flights to go and see friends that had other spare rooms that we would record in, and studios along the way. Instead of buying a house, I just kind of paid for an album.
I still haven’t got a record deal, but the album is finished, and it was just a case of putting it out myself. PledgeMusic helped that, it was used for the promotion and for the tangible copy to be made. I made it up until mastering, so it would sound like as much of a record as possible. I was sitting the whole time there thinking, “Your favorite records weren’t made in spare rooms. Your favorite records even that you’ve done were made at Abbey Road studios, with [procucer] Geoff Emerick and stuff. But you haven’t got Geoff, you haven’t got Abbey Road studios, you haven’t got the Roundhouse [the venue where Haircut’s debut was recorded]. You just continue because one thing leads to another. This is just one record, if you make this, just get back into that creative process and keep doing it. Now it seems that there’s a way of sharing that music that I do.
STEREOGUM: Sharing music directly to fans has become standard for many artists! You mentioned that you couldn’t get signed in 1998 but there’s so much music out now that’s very influenced by things from your heyday; you can hear the rhythms of “Love Plus One” in Vampire Weekend. When I caught up with your early solo work I was struck by how much it resembled a lot of music made now.
HEYWARD: Yeah, I really liked Vampire Weekend’s artwork and their name, I think it’s a brilliant name. Some people have said it sounds like them a bit but I’ve never really agreed! “Really, does it?” The funny thing is, Vampire Weekend may have never even heard of Haircut 100. But the influence is just there, it’s just an unconscious/subconscious thing. It’s just the evolution of music. You don’t have to be a fan of the band to have the influence.
STEREOGUM: You can hear it in production influences and such; Carly Rae Jepsen put out an album [a sublime, timeless masterpiece –ed.] a couple years ago where the first song began with this really big, bold saxophone line and it’s really bringing back sounds from the Haircut 100 era.
HEYWARD: When your band first takes off and people ask about your influences, you never list the unconscious influences, like if you grew up with a solo from the Carpenters. I never said, “Oh, it’s definitely Stan Kenton.” But that’s the first concert I went to and that’s what dad played around the house all the time, so all I would listen to is “Take The A-Train” by Stan Kenton. I never saw it as an influence on Haircut at all. And then you’re starting a band and punk is kicking off and you’re making really punky songs and then you’re into Talking Heads, and then it doesn’t sound so much like that, and then you’re doing funk and big-band stuff, brassy stuff.
That was the influence of going to see jazz with my father, watching dad go to the toilets and trying to have a conversation with the musicians between songs. Some of the best chats go on in the toilet. [Laughs.] I actually remember Elvis Costello writing most of his lyrics in the toilet, when I was [touring] North America [with him] and he was doing Punch The Clock, he would always disappear up to the toilet to write his lyrics. But I digress.
STEREOGUM: Does it give you mixed feelings to hear a lot of the same sounds becoming fashionable again after you struggled to obtain a record deal again when they fell out of fashion?
HEYWARD: No, it’s funny though, isn’t it? It’s like… clothes. If ’80s clothes were really popular, and I think, “There’s no way I could get into that fashion, I’d look like an old man trying to be young.” And it’s similar to the music. “Do I still do that?” You evolve, your influences change. But we all go in cycles. Funk is dead, but I still play it. I don’t think people wearing ’80s fashion looks ridiculous at all, I think it looks great. Same with music; it sounds amazing. Can I do that? Yeah, I suppose so. Music’s changing. The whole internet has such a profound effect on everything. Whether something is cool or uncool, you don’t really hear that anymore. You just hear whether it’s good or not.
STEREOGUM: Your new album is very different from your early ’80s solo work. You’re singing something close to country on “Mountaintop” and a lot of this record is straightforward rock and power-pop.
HEYWARD: There used to be a stigma about doing different stuff. You had to do the one thing and just do it well. But it’s just songwriting, that’s all that I see it as. At my age, I’ve just had so many influences, there’s no way I could possibly pretend to be that 19-year-old kid in an interview who would say “This is what I’m into, and everything else is shite.” I’ve just gotten into classical music; the template of the pop song goes completely out the window and into a whole other forest. It just moves me completely and I don’t know how it’s made or how it’s structured at all. I felt like I couldn’t lie to myself and pretend I didn’t have loads of influences now. Things I didn’t listen to at the time, bands I didn’t appreciate, that I just found or completely missed.
STEREOGUM: Is there a particular artist that makes you feel like, “Wow, where was I for this 20 years ago?”
HEYWARD: I completely missed Green Day! Where was I? Nirvana either! “When September Ends,” what a great pop song! I do remember being in England and thinking Americans made records sound so much more confident. The English thing is to be self-deprecating, and you can hear it in the music. It’s a bit tight. If you’re in a music shop in England, you spend 20 minutes telling each other how shit you are.
STEREOGUM: Parts of Woodland Echoes were recorded on a houseboat, what was that like?
HEYWARD: It wasn’t mainly recorded on a houseboat, but that was part of the story. My American fiancée, her parents moved from Minnesota to Florida, so we’d go see them. And my mate Ian Shaw left England and moved to Key West and he built a houseboat with his wife, some rickety thing, and he put a studio in a very small room with one window that looks out to the sea. So I popped down to see him and there’s where we did “Mountaintop.” I drove down through the Everglades and that’s why it’s got references to the Everglades. I gave him my phone because I’ve got thousands of song ideas, I’m a bit overwhelmed. I had 18 years of cassettes and now just hard drives filled with song ideas. I said, “Ian, just pick something.”
My parents died of emphysema in the 2000s, so that was another reason… there was a lot of stuff going on changing in my personal life. It really affects everything else… “Do I want to go and get a record deal? Or do I want to deal with the funeral?” I was finding it really difficult to grieve, and I got the film Goodbye Mr. Chips from Blockbuster and just watched it and couldn’t stop crying and I didn’t know why. I thought, “This feels good to be bawling my eyes out.” A doctor told me I’ve got suppressed grief. That English thing again, just keeping a stiff upper lip about it, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” It was an honor to be at my mom’s death by the bedside, but in reality you can’t even move yourself. So when Ian picked out that song “Mountain Top” I thought, “I’ll get that off my chest, I’ve still got some crying to do.” It sounds really uplifting, this album, but I know the roots and where they go.
STEREOGUM: I think to have an uplifting record, you have to be lifting yourself up from something in the first place. A lot of soul and gospel comes from pain, so it’s a concerted effort to climb out of the hole, in a way.
HEYWARD: It’s interesting, isn’t it? I’ve found that people who express all of their darkness onstage are a bit lighthearted. It’s like you never see an angry boxer. They’d probably be really angry if they couldn’t box. [Laughs.]