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Interview: 10 Questions for Nik Kershaw | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: 10 Questions for Nik Kershaw

Interview: 10 Questions for Nik Kershaw

The Eighties pop star talks prog rock, Pretty in Pink and bumping shopping trolleys with The Prodigy

Nik Kershaw, perhaps plotting the doom of bygone stylists

Nik Kershaw (b 1958) is best known for a run of hits in the mid-Eighties, songs such as “Wouldn’t It Be Good”, “I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me”, “The Riddle” and “Wide Boy”. He achieved international success and played Live Aid in 1985. Raised in Ipswich, he had a background in local bands before his breakthrough came with 1984’s Human Racing album. His look from the era, all mullet, snood and casual suit, has become definitive Eighties imagery.

Kershaw spent much of the Nineties working with and writing for others. As well as playing with Elton John, he wrote hits including Chesney Hawkes' chart-topper “The One and Only” and material for The Hollies and boy band Let Loose. Over the last decade he has concentrated on his own output and has just released his new album EI8HT. He will tour in September playing Human Racing in its entirety.

I meet Nik Kershaw in a small radio studio in central London where he is doing a day of interviews. He is, famously, a small man, 5’4”, and is dressed in jeans and a casual striped shirt, his hair short and iron grey. His manner is forthright, amused, wry and chatty.

Watch the video for Nik Kershaw's new single "The Sky's The Limit"

THOMAS H GREEN: There’s a song on your new album called “Shoot Me” , with a chorus that has lines such as “If I ever get like that, shoot me” – is it about old age?

NIK KERSHAW: Yeah, pretty much. I’m getting there, everybody’s getting there. When you’re younger everybody’s so wrapped up in themselves, looking at parents, grandparents, thinking, “Shoot me if I ever get like that,” and then you find yourself getting closer, your knees creak as you walk upstairs, you don’t get about like you used to, and you think, “Actually, don’t shoot me, it’s all right, not a problem, life’s still good, there is life after thirty.”

What sort of bands were you in as a young man in Ipswich, pre-fame?

nik kershaw1Not unusually, it started at school - Northgate Grammar School for Boys - a guy called Russell Chesterman got himself an electric guitar and, around 15, we’d hang out round his, pretending we were Marc Bolan or Richie Blackmore. I didn’t have a guitar so I was just a singer. The band was called Thor. There’s a picture somewhere of me in a lovely tie-dye tee-shirt at Rushmere village hall, our first and only gig (pictured above left). Then I was in Half Pint Hog, then Hog… I don’t know where these names came from although I’m pretty sure I know where “half pint” came from. We didn’t gig that much, we spent a lot of time rehearsing and hanging out in pubs trying to think of new band names.

By the time I was 17-18, I was writing songs and working in an unemployment benefit office. I had this band and we used to rehearse every Thursday in the drummer’s dad’s workshop, a carpenter who used to work in a big old quarry in the middle of nowhere where we could make as much noise as we wanted. We used to practice these tunes that nobody ever heard. They were all a bit proggy - I was into Genesis at the time - difficult time signatures, a bit clever, bonkers lyrics, not even slightly pop. On one of the rare occasions I had a gig I got spotted by the bass player of a local band called Fusion - guess what kind of music they played! They were professional band, they did functions, bar mitzvahs, weddings. The weird thing was I had to be asked to join twice. Do I want to earn money playing music or working in the civil service for the rest of me life? I actually said "no" the first time then thought, "What am I doing?”, phoned up and said, “Yeah”. I was in the band for three years playing everything from Steely Dan and Weather Report to Cole Porter and “The Birdy Song”. It was a good apprenticeship.

When success came, how did it affect you psychologically?

I just felt a bit lost. I don’t know what I was expecting. I was very hungry for it, wanted to be a famous guitarist, songwriter, but the things I was good at were playing guitar, writing tunes, working in a studio, and as soon as someone stuck a camera in my face I didn’t have a clue. Consequently I had the benefit of attention from stylists. I didn’t have a better idea so just assumed they knew what they were doing I wasn’t comfortable in my skin and I was being dressed up.

Nik Kershaw2It happened so fast it was astonishing, from January 1984 to the end of 1985 my feet just didn’t touch the ground, like this train you couldn’t get off. There were times when I wanted to as it was absolutely relentless, almost 24 hours a day, all over the world. It was bewildering and I was a bit of a rabbit in the headlights. I never really adjusted. I ended those two years completely shellshocked and a bit dumbstruck then took a huge break to make the third album which probably, as a career move, was a massive mistake. I was surrounded by pretty grounded people, I was protected. I tried drugs but I wasn’t very good at that either. I didn’t get on with them which is lucky because I could easily have gone down that path. I’m a bit of a control freak. I like to be in control which is the very thing I wasn’t all the way through those years.

How did your song “The Riddle” come into being?

Human Racing was released in March 1984 and The Riddle album in November. In amongst the mayhem of promoting Human Racing I was expected to write The Riddle album. They gave me two weeks off to do it. I had one song, “Wide Boy” which I think we recorded at the same time as the previous album. I remember the producer coming over to my house at the end of the two weeks and saying, “Yeah, it’s alright, but I can’t hear a single.” I went upstairs and wrote the tune for “The Riddle” in 10 minutes. It just sort of came out, that happens sometimes – it doesn’t happen often enough but does happen sometimes. I used to agonise over lyrics, take ages and ages over them, but I didn’t have time so I wrote the first thing that came into my head, always intending to rewrite it. We went in the studio the next week and put the guide vocal on it with these nonsense lyrics. I tried rewriting it a couple of times, but the sound of the words, the rhythm of the words, it just didn’t sound right, and the decision was made to just leave it

Watch the video for "The Riddle"

It has a folk feel, something you’ve come back to over the years. For instance, you can hear it in the song “Red Strand” on your new album and you played the folkie festival Cropredy in 2009. You are probably associated in many people’s minds with mid-Eighties synth pop but are you really more of a folkie at heart?

That’s weird as I’m not a keyboard player, I’m a guitarist. Folk? It’s quite a natural thing for me, sitting down with an acoustic and strumming away. I did quite a lot of solo acoustic shows a couple of years ago - which was terrifying - and, really, if you sit down with an acoustic guitar and sing a song, it doesn’t matter if it’s “Ace of Spades” or some prog extravaganza, if it’s a voice and an acoustic guitar, it just sounds folky, so I’m comfortable with that. I haven’t got an R&B voice or a pop voice, so it’s naturally a folk voice anyway, but I’m not in that world, I still like my gadgets and the whacky noises you can make experimenting in the studio.

Nik Kershaw3Cropredy – that was weird. I was driving along the M25, the phone rang and it was Dave Pegg, the bass player from Fairport Convention [who put on Cropredy]. He said, “Do you fancy doing this year?” I said, “Isn’t that a folk festival?” “Not really, no, we’ve got Midge Ure, Dubstar…” He assured me I’d be fine. I was very nervous about it. I sneaked onto the website – I shouldn’t have done that – and on the forum it’s all “bloody Nik Kershaw, it’s gone too far now, I’ll be in the beer tent”. But it was a lovely festival, a warm crowd, a great response, really special.

You have a home near Little Dunmow in Essex. Isn’t that where Liam Howlett of The Prodigy lives? Do you ever party together?

He’s moved, I think, but he used to live there. We’d be pretty unlikely hanging out partners. Liam Gallagher was always around. There was a bar in Dunmow, a tiny sleepy little Essex town, and it’s called Lennon’s. Of course, if anybody’s going to want a drink in a place called Lennon’s it’s Liam Gallagher, so they used to hang out in there. It was totally bizarre. I never met either of them. Keith [Flint of The Prodigy] lives quite close too. His trolley’s bumped into mine in Tesco’s a few times.

Is the song “Stuff” on the new album a protest against gadget-crazed consumerism?

I wouldn’t call it a protest really, just an observation because I’m the same. What’s wrong with us? It’s just about stuff, getting more stuff, and throwing away the old stuff because you haven’t got space for the new stuff. The old stuff was useless anyway but you’ve got to have the new stuff because everyone else has. It’s an addiction. I’m not preaching, I’m just saying, “Look at us, isn’t this ridiculous.”

 Watch the video for "Wide Boy"

Why did you decide it was time to tour Human Racing (pictured below right)?

Universal decided to re-release it at the beginning of the year.  That wasn’t down to me - they own all the MCA catalogue. They asked me if I wanted to be involved and purely from a quality control point of view, I thought, "Yes," as I’ve heard other people’s disasters. I haven’t toured with a band since 2001 so it’s not like I’m over-exposed, I just thought it’d be fun. I haven’t played some of those songs since 1984. It would appeal to me if Bowie –this is never going to happen – if Bowie decided he was going to do Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. I’d be first in the queue, that’d be heaven for me. It’s not as if it’s the entire gig. Remember, it was on vinyl, it’s 42 minutes long, then we’ll play stuff from the new album and bits’n’pieces from the years in between.

Nik Kershaw4It’s the same deal with doing retro Eighties gigs. I’ve been asked for years to do them. You do kick and scream, “I’m a credible artist, I don’t want to be defined by stuff I did 30 years ago,” but they’re really good fun, you’re hanging out with mates and like-minded people, playing to audiences the size of which you don’t usually get anymore. That’s a buzz, plus you don’t have to let it define you. To most people that’s who you are, you have to get that into your head, because you were so over-exposed back in the day. Most people’s point of reference to you is those songs and there’s nothing you can do about it. Unless you want to make it that big again, and I really don’t want to and it’s not likely to happen anyway. The hardcore who are into the new stuff know where to find it, it’s not a problem.

Did the 1984 and 1985 heyday set you up for life financially?

Pretty much… yeah. It’s not absolutely huge. I don’t live a 20 bedroom mansion of anything stupid. It allows me space and time to do what I want to do without having to set up a burger van. Plus I wrote everything - artists who didn’t aren’t necessarily in same comfortable position.

Why, instead of your version, was there a weird version of "Wouldn’t It Be Good" on the soundtrack to the film Pretty in Pink, sung by some ageing Sixties rocker?

Nik Kershaw5That’s a question I’ll never know the answer to. That was exactly the time MCA were trying to break me in the States. Great, here’s an opportunity, they want to use my song, then I found out it wasn’t my version, it was someone called the Danny Hutton Hitters. It wasn’t even a contemporary band they were trying to break. It didn’t make any sense to me at all and never will. If you ever find out the answer to that question please let me know.

How did you get involved with the comedian Tony Hawks’ film Round Ireland With a Fridge?

Tony was a mate. I met him years ago at a benefit for the Tsunami in Thailand. He was comparing the evening and I was doing an acoustic set. Weirdly, he’s mates with Chesney Hawkes. And I got a phone call from Ches saying, “Tony’s got a house in the Pyrenees, do you fancy coming down, have a few beers, write some songs, sit round the pool?”, so we all went down, wrote some songs, didn’t think any more about it. A couple of years later Tony made the movie and used those songs for the soundtrack. I got a call asking if I wanted to do a cameo. Brilliant, at last I’m going to be a film star which is what I wanted to be when I was 12 - so I appear at the end as Man In Bookshop.

Watch the video for "Wouldn't It Be Good"


Great interview. Thank you.

One of the UK's finest songwriters, leagues above his 80s contemporaries. His new single's brilliant too!

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