Nikki Sudden says he was born ten years too late. After his post-punk outfit, Swell Maps called it quits, Nikki worked his way through the underground and watched as much of the world turned their focus to the miserable mainstream of the 1980’s. Through various side-projects, solo endeavors and his work in the Jacobites (a band he co-founded with his brother, the now deceased Epic Soundtracks) Sudden has been making music continuously since he began. Though he’s earned the respect of his heroes and influenced many present day underground success stories, his music still remains under-the-radar to much of the listening world. With a series of reissues released brought on first by Secretly Canadian and Sudden’s a self-proclaimed masterpiece on its way at the time of our interview, we thought all this would change.
Two years later, on March 26, 2006, Nikki Sudden died while writing in his journal. Luckily, Easy Action in the UK has put out a 3-album compilation and some LP rarities, while the Numero Group has recently released Sudden’s Jacobites records and some of his best solo work in a beautifully packaged boxed set.
I caught up with Sudden back in 2004 over the phone as he enjoyed a day off in the UK and readied for one of his last tours to America. I remember watching Scout Niblett play the Middle East that night. Back then she was his labelmate and fellow countrywoman. Mid-set the soundman told the crowd Nikki Sudden had died. It was a sad moment for all of us informed enough to care. Ironically enough, he died of a heart that was too big. Below is the interview from 2004.
I heard you broke a rib. What’s that all about?
I haven’t broken my rib; I thought I had. I only bruised it. I fell off the top bunk three times in one night on a sleeper car from Moscow to the Ukraine. I kept climbing back up and then I’d fall back down ten minutes later. The guy I shared the compartment with said ‘I think you should sleep in the bottom bunk’. I was drunk, but I wasn’t that drunk. There were two mattresses on top of each other, but there was no friction. They just kept sliding off. Russian sleeping carriages don’t have any safety rails. My bass player says I’m lucky to be alive. I’m always lucky.
I’m writing from the States and for us most of our Nikki Sudden access is through the Secretly Canadian reissues. How did this come to fruition? Were you searching for labels or did they find you?
Chris Swanson, the guy who runs the company kept calling me and I never called him back. One time he rang me and I actually answered it and we got to talking. He seemed like a nice guy and I figured anybody with that much perseverance was worth doing something with. Usually when people write to me I tell them that I don’t need another label. I don’t know why I thought that.
Were you in total control of choosing what records were chosen?
Everything was totally up to me. I compiled all the reissues, remastered the tracks, did the sleevenotes and the layout. The only thing they insisted on was the back cover of the tray, which I think looks pretty bad.
You’ve been recording for over 20 years, but have only toured the states a couple times. How many times? Why is this?
I’ve been on four or five American tours. Every time I come to the States I play a bunch of shows. I’ve driven across the whole country, which is more than most Americans can say. I first played there in 1985.
Would you say you’re more popular in Europe than in America?
In LA, San Francisco, New York people always come see me, as much as any German city anyway. It’s the small towns you never know what’s going to happen. I’d say America’s my second biggest market. Germany seems to be my biggest which is why I live in Berlin. I’ve got to leave Berlin soon. I’ve been here for six or seven years and that’s too long. The problem is I don’t know where to go. I fell in love with this city in the Ukraine the other day called Ternopil. It’s a beautiful place. It’s like the 1950’s. There are hardly any cars, most of them are totally fucked up wrecks falling to pieces. There are big potholes everywhere, never a traffic jam and you can walk down the middle of the street in the middle of the day. I think this is the kind of place I can live. I was asked yesterday by these Italian publishers if I could write a book. I was like ‘I have nothing to do in June’, so I could go there in June and do it. Then I found out that my new album is being released in June and I won’t have a chance to do it in June. A whole book in one month—10,000 words a day. It shouldn’t be a problem.
What’s it on?
It’s kind of my journal mixed with my autobiography—a diary with flashbacks to the Jacobites and various friends of mine like Johnny Thunders. That’s what the publisher suggested to me. I don’t think that would be hard to write, but I’ve tried to write a novel– 130,000 words and I haven’t even looked at it in three years. Then there’s this book I’m writing on Ronnie Wood. He knows I’m writing it cause I’ve told him several times, but I haven’t even gotten an interview with him yet.
Why Ronnie Wood
I was always fascinated by his first solo album and no one had ever written about him. I thought I should do it. Now I wish I hadn’t even started. I’ve got 120,000 words and I still haven’t interviewed Ronnie yet.
Would it be correct in saying you’ve been making music non-stop since you began? Have there been downtimes, hiatuses?
Only when I can’t get gigs. If I’m not playing gigs I’m not making money. I wrote in my diary a couple days ago: all I ever do is make money to pay for a flat I’m never in and pay phone bills for a phone I never use. I think if you’re a musician you should either be playing gigs, writing songs or in the studio. I wish I could play 200-300 gigs a year and spend a couple months in the studio. That’s the ideal life I think. Being on tour is a totally surreal experience. You never have to think about anything. You just have to get on a bus and hope you get something to eat. You do a soundcheck, do a show and talk to some girls. Then what happens, happens; what doesn’t, doesn’t.
How do you account for the fact that after playing music for the past 20+ years you are still somewhat under-the-radar?
Bad luck basically. I’m sure if I’d been born 10 years before we’d be as big as Dylan, the Stones and people like that. But we’re not. That’s the trouble. I can never explain why. I still don’t understand why I’m more popular. It doesn’t make any sense at all. You just see all these useless bands come along like the Strokes. They get so much press and you hear them and they’re so average. And there’s the White Stripes. I’ve heard Led Zeppelin III, I don’t need to hear the White Stripes. Something is going wrong.
In your mind what is the best record you’ve ever made?
I know musicians always say this, but my favorite album ever is my new one, Treasure Island. I’ve heard it about 500,000 times now and it still sounds great. Everyone’s been telling me this is the best album I’ve ever made.
Will you be performing solo this time?
Yeah, I can’t afford to bring the band over. Basically I want to release this new album in America. When you play solo it’s different thing than with the band because the band doesn’t know all the songs. Solo I can play whatever I want.
Obviously the Stones are one of your favorite bands, do you enjoy what they’re doing now? Is there ever a time when bands need to stop?
I think as long as you’re playing from the heart and soul you can do it until you die. The Stones are still doing it from the heart and soul. There’s no way they’re doing it for the money because they don’t need the money. I don’t think they ever need to stop. The only reason people say that is because they’re jealous of them. I saw them 22 times on their last tour. I think they’re the best band ever and that ever will be. I just wish they’d get some of the background people out there.
Another of your favorites, the New York Dolls, are reuniting? How do you feel about that?
My take on it is this, if Johnny and Joey will be there, I’ll be there. Chrissy Hines is gonna take Johnny Thunders’ place. She plays nothing like Johnny. It should either be Steve Jones or Kevin Key. Kevin is a total Johnny wannabe and he does it quite well. Steve Jones basically saw all of Johnny’s leaks and he could do it quite well.
Are there any new bands out there that you find intriguing?
That’s the question I always hate because I don’t like any new bands. I like Primal Scream, but they’ve been around for 20 years.
You’ve worked with members of several American bands, some of whose music you do not like (like Sonic Youth). How did you end up working with people from bands you don’t like?
That’s a good question. I like them as people. I get on fine with Thurston, Steve, with Lee and Kim. I think Steve is a really good Epic Soundtracks inspired drummer and I think Steve would agree with that. I didn’t say I didn’t like their music. I just said you can’t blame me for Sonic Youth being influenced by us. I wouldn’t say I dislike them. I just don’t go for what they do, but they do it well.
Just make sure you use a cool photo.