I first met Nick and Pete
of Pendragon back
in about 1984 and little did
I expect I'd be interviewing Nick
again in 2011. A lot of water has flowed under the prog bridge...so to bring us up-to-date...here's Nick.
Jerry Lucky: Nick the last time we actually had an interview goes back to about 1984 when I travelled to England researching my book The Progressive Rock Files…at the time Pendragon was a relatively new group…what are some of your fondest memories of that time?
Nick Barrett: There was a great excitement around 1984 as Marillion were the first progressive style band to start breaking through to a bigger market, something no one thought would ever happen at the time, so it gave a lot of hope to many other bands of that ilk. Other than that, playing at Reading Festival in 83 and getting the Friday Rock Show Session on BBC2 was fairly monumental but mainly the most exciting thing was the feeling that we were building up a following...very slowly!
JL: What about some of your worst memories?
NB: Haha...no money, endless gigs to sometimes only a handful of people. I think the utter frustration at not being able to get a record company interested in us although we had a good following was unbearable. Constant meetings in London with record labels that came to nothing.
JL: When you look back to those days of eighties, did you ever think you would be where you are today?
NB: I certainly didn’t think we would keep it going as long as we have. The irony is that we didn’t get a major record deal, and our success really came by me starting Toff Records in 1987 and doing it all ourselves, I realised I was very good at the business side of things, promo, marketing etc, and I managed to get distribution all over the world and very good album sales...all on our own terms. I was doing everything, running the label and fan club as well as writing all the music/lyrics and doing the production, it was hard work but very rewarding.
JL: Back then what was your vision for Pendragon?
NB: Well we were desperate to get a major record deal. But as it turned out that was not to be the best path for us at all, so many of our rivals got major deals and this was very hard to take, but eventually the true nature of the majors took its toll and virtually all of our rivals split up or hit major changes too hard to continue. We kept our integrity and ‘soul’ intact and did our own thing, eventually it was the best thing. I wanted to see Pendragon climb to bigger and better things more quickly but it was very slow progress, looking back I think it was better that way as it taught us to be survivors and toughen up. By 1990 there was nothing that could drag us down, and we had incredible success with our own label.
JL: Many bands have come and gone over that time…what do you think has contributed to your longevity?
NB: Learning to adapt to change, and always finding a way through. I am a fairly obstinate character, who will say ok, if you jack the band in what are you gonna do? Stack shelves in a supermarket?...c’mon give it one more go. Also my interest in psychology has helped, trying to find solutions to problems, a band is all about weird and wonderful characters...if you make those people feel like they are controlled by fear they will get fed up eventually, if you make them feel like they have a voice and are bringing something to the table, they will usually compromise and work with you. You’d be amazed how many bands are run by fear and are not ‘happy’.... a band is like a marriage, people must be heard in some way and feel like they are part of something. I’ve made a conscious effort to nurture that psychology...even though Pendragon is not a democracy and my word is final on everything, the rest of the band respect that and I respect them, that makes it work. There is a balance; like most things in life that is the best way things can work well.
JL: How important is playing live for the band?
NB: Well it’s the ‘other half’ isn’t it? Half is about recording and half is about live, or at least that is the public perception. The reality is that about 5% is about live and about 5% is about recording, 45% is about the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff like, booking the dates, the tour bus, organising the crew, promoting the gigs, ordering the t-shirts, organising rehearsals etc., and 45% is about the song writing...overall it’s this 90% that no one sees that is the REAL work , believe me, ask any self financing band...the REAL work is the unseen stuff...the song writing and the admin!
So live.......yes! Very important, in the late 80’s we started to play more in Europe and overall this is where much of our following was built up, which has enabled us to keep going and sell a decent amount of albums. I know a lot of bands that didn’t bother to tour Europe much, and they haven’t been able
to give up their day jobs, as they do not have a broad enough base of fans to buy tickets or CDs.
JL: If there was one thing you could have done along the way…that might have been an improvement…what might that have been?
NB: Phew.... I’m a ‘no regrets’ kind of guy, so I wouldn’t have changed anything really, I think it all happens for a reason, sure we get the choice, but if you follow your instinct you can usually come up with something great....eventually!
JL: I read the interview with you in the recent issue of Prog magazine and I heard you talk about this on the Handycam Progumentary…that the sound of Pendragon has changed quite a bit recently…especially the last three CDs…how would you describe that change?
NB: It was in 2003 that I started to feel like the prog sound of the 80’s had been regurgitated so many times , you know, the Mini Moog sound, the Mellotron choir at the end of the song, lyrics that were unfathomable...the clichés were just ridiculous, I mean don’t get me wrong I LOVED it when Genesis did it but so many bands were trying to copy it, but without the songs and melodies. So I started to listen to more modern music like Foo Fighters, Muse, Radiohead and more metal bands like Deftones, Opeth, Rammstein and thought they were doing infinitely more interesting things that were not a million miles away from the progressive music I wanted to make, so the influence came at me like a tidal wave of creativity.
JL: Was it just me or was there a hint that maybe the band should have made these changes sooner?
NB: I don’t really quite know where we get this criticism from [as a few other people said this]. As there are so many bands in ‘our stable’ that have not changed a bit for 25 years, but they never seem to attract this criticism...it baffles me. Although as far as we’re concerned I think the change was spot on, as we would have never made Not of This World! Probably my favourite Pend album of that era. Much of my writing during that period [The World to Not of This World] was about the melody and emotion and not about creating something new, so to me they were all valid albums in their time.
JL: You know to my ears…and perhaps it’s because they’re old ears…I hear the changes you talk about but I don’t find them in the least bit unsettling…is it true that some fans objected?
NB: Ha ha...glad to hear that! Well people are different...some people hear new music in the same way as they put on old slippers. They only want familiarity, something that feels safe and comfortable, so they have a kind of tick list for new albums. I don’t write music to appease people’s fear of change, I do it to please me first and foremost, and I hope fans will wanna come along for the ride, 99% of them do, but sometimes you get people who are stuck in the 70’s and they don’t want to hear hip hop drums or rap or growl vocals, so to them they don’t like what we do.
BUT if they challenged themselves and got into the heart of what the music is saying they would probably love it. But often people are lazy. I hated Pat Metheny at first because it was challenging me, but eventually I got to the heart of his music, and he is now a major part of my musical listening, same with Lamb Lies Down, TFF Seeds Of Love, Tony Banks Curious Feeling, I cannot think what life would be without these albums, so I guess thousands of people are missing out on new music because of their conservatism.
JL: You’ve been quite vocal about the business of illegal downloading and pirating of music…can you share your thoughts as they are today?
NB: Phew..... there is a lot to say. One problem is that many people have a finite answer to a problem that is hugely complex , this must be understood. And of course what most people don’t know are the EXACT facts and figures surrounding the finances of bands/musicians/artists, but they always think they do. THEY DON’T! Until they can empathise with how illegal downloading can impact on a band it will often be a ‘the world is flat cos I heard it was so’ type of opinion.
Basically in my view there are three tiers, there are the small bands who mostly, probably still have day jobs who are more than happy that ANYONE bothered to download them at all, they haven’t hit the ‘how do make the books balance’ level yet, so income from music is irrelevant.
Then there are the megastars, or at least the ‘known’ stars, the U2’s and Madonnas who have crowbarred another $30 onto ticket prices and $15 onto t-shirts, which makes up for any shortfall in cd sales. Then there are the bands in the lower middle, like Pendragon etc. who do not fill big concert halls and must keep t-shirt prices etc. at a reasonable level [or they just don’t sell, the bigger you are the bigger price you can charge]. So, we rely very heavily on CD and DVD sales for our income.
Since 2001 when illegal downloading became the norm, our sales were knocked back by half and have continued at this level since, some people have said maybe we are not as popular as before, but this is not true, we tour much more extensively, visibly have much higher profile, do more special concert dates etc. We are a small band that do not make much money and have to spend a fortune going out on tour, which is the one place [as well as our website sales] where we do sell the most CDs.
So we need to tour like mad just to breakeven to sell CDs and make a rather small profit. To give you an idea of what this means, the Passion tour cost around $100,000 [US] to do, that is tour bus, crew/band wages [I don’t get these wages tho!], rehearsals, food, petrol, promotion, etc., we grossed around $90,000 from concert income, so there was a $10k loss, but we sold CDs and t-shirts which after local tax and costs [BUT not income tax] probably grossed me personally $20,000 wages ....for two years solid work. That is before tax. That is barely enough to live on. In the 90’s when we sold many more CDs the figure could be 3 or 4 times that.
People keep saying but it helps to promote the band, but what good is that promotion if people don’t buy the CDs or the concert tickets. If you are getting something from that music, pay a small amount for something others have put a helluva lot of work into, that’s fair. Who else out there would go to work for no wages, c’mon?
Some people have said but you should be pleased that you do a job you love and be happy to play and make music as you get so much appreciation from fans etc...yes and communism was another air headed ideology that didn’t work either!! BTW, this argument often comes from people who would rather saw off their own heads than give anything of theirs away for free! I know because I’ve asked them to.
The other thing that bothers me is, people saying I can listen to an album to see if I like it before I buy it.
But this completely obliterates the process and concept of ‘new challenging music’, if I had done this with the Lamb Lies Down, I would not even be playing in Pendragon today. I’d have written it off in about 2 minutes flat. Listening to music is as much a responsibility as writing it! It takes an effort, there is an element of risk, a challenge, something that questions your soul, something new you might have to confront.
It’s like riding a motocross bike...there is a risk, and the risk IS the excitement, the excitement IS the not knowing, the not knowing is where there is a potential to fulfill something new and learn about yourself. Why would anyone want to remove this process from life???...yes because it’s easier...it takes less effort and therefore ultimately is less rewarding.