Nikki Sudden: Ten Years After His Death… an 8-year old interview emerges


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.

Anything else?

Just make sure you use a cool photo.




Smog and The Continued Smokescreen Surrounding Mr. Bill Callahan

I was more than ready to interview Bill Callahan, maybe overly prepared. After his dickish response years and years ago from a fan and rookie writer for a new paper, he had burned me before… and for the first time I had realized that not everyone is going to respect you or care about your story… or care that you care about them and want to promote their show. Thank you Bill for that life lesson. This time I would not be taken advantage of. Callahan, formerly of Smog and, well, (smog) was supposed to do an email interview with me to preview his most recent show at Brighton Music Hall. I’m no stranger to the email interview. As a recluse, I can identify with that option. And I had actually done an email interview with Callahan before—the interview in question was one of the worst, most effortless, meaningless, piece-of-shit correspondences any artist has ever given me in my ten years as a writer. Well, except for Mazzy Star. I am posting the original interview below in case no one caught the Weekly Dig and Skyscraper Magazine pieces that appeared back in 2003.

Despite his lack of respect for the written word or conversation in general, I was still very excited to try and take on the man behind the music once again. Maybe the first attempt was a fluke. We all have off days and maybe that was his… Plus, I also heard that he had recently become more expansive, overt and interested in answering questions in recent years… but that must just be for the New York Times and high-end esoteric bullshit blogs.

The questions were sent, the “interview” was supposedly in the works, and I was very close to, maybe even overdue my deadline with the newspaper, when I received the following email from Drag City Records HQ….

Hi Nolan, I’m very sorry about this but Bill Callahan has decided to PASS on the interview. Perhaps you would like to speak with Ed Askew?

And yes, PASS was capitalized in their email. It is not meant for exaggeration. I inquired as to why he “PASS[ed]” amd received the following response:

He just said he didn’t want to do it after I turned it into him. He might just be burnt out on doing interviews, The questions were fine. So very sorry about this.

Let it be known, I, more than anyone, can understand what it’s like to not want to talk to people and divulge my secrets. Although, on the other hand, I don’t make records and don’t agree to do interviews for writers who have a deadline. So, 0 for 2 in Bill Callahan interviews. And yet I think his decision to PASS is even better than what I got before. Oh yes and oh well. If I were a musician, the constant knocking at my door and ringing of my phone by the inquiring media might bum me out too. I admit we are not changing the world. Just go out and say it… you don’t want to do interviews except for BIG publications, and then when you DO do them, you don’t have to act like a jackass to someone who ACTUALLY likes your music, most PROBABLY UNLIKE the people who you actually grant interviews to. RIGHT? After reading several thoughtful and interesting interviews with Callahan, I went back to the one I had conducted 8 years before. And I want you all to see it as well.

<<THE ORIGINAL BILL CALLAHAN INTERVIEW CIRCA 2003…Looking back I’m still pretty impressed by the Questions—and still mesmerized by the answers.>>

(smog) by Nolan Gawron

So you want to know what goes on in the mind of Bill Callahan of (smog)? Well we thought we did too. After all, (smog), formerly known as Smog, has been making great music for more than a decade. Frequently referred to as one of the finest and most important songwriters and survivors to come out of the lo-fi, 4-trackers home-recording boom, Bill Callahan’s earliest releases could only be found in the sadly extinct medium of cassette tapes. When those signature sounds of an uneasy intimacy found their way into ears of Drag City, Smog found a label to call home and began his great Chicago work ethic by releasing multiple albums per year. Over time, Smog experimented with a bigger sound, but only to return to the stripped down comforts of a more personable style.

Bill Callahan just has a way about him— he’s an irony-soaked minimalist that seems to strike up allusions to traditional American themes, but whose songs also carry with them a dry, mysterious, open-ended element to make sure he doesn’t let you in on his secret. Picture him as a city folks’ country singer who acknowledges the growing relevance of the future. Just don’t expect him to say much outside of his music. You think email interviews were the end of the line in depersonalized communication? Presenting the conversation of the future: the palm pilot email. I helped him with his apostrophes, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna turn his fragments into sentences. One can only hope he’ll give Rolling Stone the same attention span. (smog) has just released a compilation of long lost, rare singles and oddities called Accumulation: None. You should get it; it’ll tell you more than this interview does.

Having a compilation of any kind must seem like a strange experience. I know it’s a rare release collection, but do you in any way see the compilation as proof of standing the test of time?

I didn’t want the compilation to be any reflection of the passing of time, hence the circular timeline included in liner notes.

Is there any significance to the cover art on this new album of old stuff?

The idea that something as unshatterable as the ocean could not be shattered.

Since the early years of releasing records what changes in your songwriting style are you personally conscious of?

It’s not a conscious act. I don’t think anything’s changed.

What spurred the ( )’s around smog?

A way to contain the word.

Your songs seem to have a lot of city vs. country themes. How much of your youth was spent in the country? Do you feel that living in the city has affected your songwriting in any way?

I lived in what were small towns. Bowie, Maryland is not exactly the country nor is it city or suburb. I moved to the city when I was old enough to pick my own destiny.

You also have a couple of songs about horses. Is that just for a more traditional Americana theme? Have you ever owned a horse?

Horses are prehistoric.  That really is all it is that interests me. Same for birds.  They both are from a world that isn’t the one we live in.

Explain the importance of Americana and traditional American symbolism for
songwriters writing from within the city. You sing about things such as breaking horses or traveling and cull the open western feeling. Is that based on any personal significance? Why does it seem that the best music always seem to allude to traditional and mystical American cowboy or open road references? Is it because those things exist less and less in real life?

I just woke up.  Early to call a friend.  She wasn’t home.  So I started taking care of some loose ends.  This interview.  But I haven’t had coffee yet.  I can’t begin to broach
your question about americana w/out coffee.

What inspired the use of the children’s choir on Knock, Knock? Do you think any of those kids have or will turn into indie rockers because of the experience?

I like sound of kid’s choirs. I like to a have wild card when making record.  I think they had a good time so I wouldn’t be surprised to someday see them in bands.

People often refer to you as one of the best things to come out of the lo-fi, home-recording 4 track “movement” or “revolution”. Was there such a thing as this “movement” or “revolution”? Were there a couple of significant people that led to the popularity of 4-tracking or was this a growing phenomenon that just came with the existence of more small labels emerging? Do you find any significance within any sort of connection to a time/scene classification like this?

I never saw it as a revolution.

(more2follow if time permits)

[Time did not permit]