BETTER THAN THE BOOK INTERVIEW
At what moment did you realize music was what you for sure wanted to do as a career?
Nick: Music's been a part of my life for almost as long as I remember. I started playing piano at age 6 and it really just escalated from there (cello, guitar, bass, vocals, etc...).I think the major turning point though and the point where I was sure music (and audio) was what I wanted to do was mid 2013. I graduated from Uni in Summer 2012, and after so much time concentrating on studying, I just HAD to get back to music (for my own sanity). That summer I started work on the first Better Than The Book release "One Small Step [EP]" which went out at the end of the year and was very nicely received. I also tried making some electronic and orchestral music too; I love musical variety. Anyway, after that EP and some other tracks, people started contacting me to work on their stuff or use my music in their projects. Playing instruments, recording, producing/engineering their songs, doing sound for animations, etc... by Summer 2013 it was really starting to kickoff and I realised, I was getting paid to do what I love. It just sort-of happened without me realising it at first. There's always the dream that we can make a living doing what we love, but I think it was round about then that I finally realised that it was ACTUALLY doable and not just some pipe-dream.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote and if so, what was it about?
Nick: Hehe, alright I'll go with first ever song I wrote (it's much less serious). The first song I ever wrote (and recorded) was called "Black Ice" and was with a band called Crow's Wing when I was about 14 or 15. In short the song was a cautionary tale about a detective on a winter's night, who runs in the dark to investigate a mysterious scream before slipping on some black ice and needing to be taken away in an ambulance. It was a riffy Alice Cooper esq Hard Rock track, very different to what I'd usually do these days, but undoubtedly sums up my mid-teen years pretty well!
Your debut album is called Two Years On. What was the songwriting process like for that?
Nick: Yup, though I feel I should mention that Two Years On was preceded by a short EP (One Small Step), so while it is the first album, it's not the first ever Better Than The Book release.
Two Years On was definitely a huge project to take up and after the success and good reception of the One Small Step EP, (as well as other non-BTTB work I'd done since then), I really felt I needed to make this completely outshine anything I'd ever done musically (No pressure of course!). As opposed to other projects I'd worked on too, I wanted Two Years On to be a cohesive piece of work, a real album and story rather than just a collection of tracks, which was definitely a goal / prerequisite from the very start. I also wanted it to be direct continuation from One Small Step too, as well as it's own fully fledged piece of work, and because of these factors, the songwriting process varied greatly from track to track. Some were written in my more usual method, and others not so much.
Like I'm sure a lot of musicians have, I keep a notepad / folder with all my ideas in it, from which I take inspiration from, or just huge chunks to write songs. An idea for me generally comes in one of 2 forms, either a guitar riff / passage, or a lyric with a melody already associated with it. This could be a chorus vocal, or a verse, or interlude or anything really, but it's usually one of the more memorable parts of the song. I'd either write it down or sing / play it into a recorder of some sort, then unless I've got time to work at it right away, I'll put it in the folder to work on later. When I do get time to write, it almost always starts with pulling ideas out of the folder and then jamming them in my recording software so I can work out a song structure. I'll record rough small sections of usually an acoustic guitar just with the laptop mic, then puzzle piece a structure together, maybe adding some rough drums to it as a place marker for what kind of feel I'd like. Sometimes though, a song idea will come in a huge chunk, and I'll be lucky enough to come up with half a song before it even reaches the ideas folder, so when it does come time to jam those out, there's not a lot to do. I generally like to record as I write (and visa versa), rather than pre-write everything before I hit the red button for the first time. It makes sure the ideas don't get lost easily and it's easier to keep track of things especially when you're working solo. So once I have a song structure, I'll start working out the individual parts, usually rhythm guitars, then bass, then drums, and I'll record these as I write them in a fresh recording session. Pretty much jam, record, reflect and rerecord if necessary. In term of lyrics / vocals, if I have some to start off with for a song then I'll record a rough vocal as soon as I can, and write any gaps that need filling later in my spare time. With lyrical ideas I usually have a pretty good view of where the track is going subject-wise very early on anyway and where I'd like harmonies etc.. so the vocal work sort of falls into place quite easily for the most part. For BTTB the songs are very personal and usually about my own experiences too, so when the lyrical ideas come they're often fully formed and organic. If the idea started from a guitar point of view however, I have to think about how the instrumental makes me feel and see what kind of lyrics will fit the vibe, which is a bit more difficult. For these more instrumental tracks, it'll usually be a while before I hit a eureka moment and the lyrics start coming, and for the most part, I have to work for these ones more, which usually means having my notepad out while I'm on the train or something. Once the rhythm guitars, bass, drums and rough lead vocals / harmonies are done I'll try out any lead guitar and backing vocal parts, jam out the solos and start arranging the horns, keys and synths as and if necessary. After that you pretty much have your finished song, and it's just a case of re-recording anything that needs it, polishing up any parts and making sure the track is appropriately exciting from start to finish (including adding any cool effects in the production phase etc...). As I said before, writing and recording for me really go hand in hand with each other and help me get the best from my ideas.
Quickly going through the tracks individually on their process:
I wanted the beginning of the album to open like the beginning of a gig and to continue straight on from where the One Small Step EP left off, and I think the track really explains itself in that regard with the audience chatter, guitar swells (which is actually "Leaving Home" slowed down loads!) and that sample of "Backseat Phobia". The JFK speech sample I felt really reflected the mark I wanted to make with this album and I honestly couldn't think of anything more fitting to inspire the emotions I wanted to convey.
02 Homecoming: Carrying on with the live feeling, this one was actually very tricky to write. I wanted something short sharp and to the point and for ages I knew exactly what I wanted to say but just couldn't find the right words. If I remember rightly I actually recorded the first demo of this on my phone while visiting my GF after working on the lyrics on the train.
03 Hearts Racing: This one I'm sure came almost fully formed lyrically from the start and is definitely the centerpiece of the album. I wanted it to be a reflection on the main track from the One Small Step EP "Leaving Home" and how everything has changed since then, as they're both pretty much just songs about my life at the time they were written. I'd wanted horns in my music since that EP and having them explode in for that first chorus was a surprise I wanted to give everyone who'd been following BTTB since the start. There's lots of references in this track to One Small Step, but I won't go through them all here.
04 Undead Education: The idea for this one actually came very shortly after the One Small Step EP and had sitting in pieces in my ideas folder for ages. Fun Fact: Two Years On was very nearly called Undead Education before my brother said, "weird... I though the album was called Two Years On". Thanks Bro!
05 Channel Surfing: Kinda a little jokey interlude before Cathode Ray Days. The first sample was from Night of the Living Dead to carry on with the undead theme. The other samples it took me ages to find. It's so difficult to find public domain movie samples to fit the vibe! I definitely had to work for this one, but I'm super pleased with the way it turned out. Also there's a sample of "Woof woof, Nag Nag" in there! I think by now there's a reference in this album to every track on One Small Step!
06 Cathode Ray Days: I think this one came fairly quickly too and it was definitely a lot of fun to work on. The lyrics were just me speaking about my memories of growing up with TV, so like "Homecoming" I knew exactly what I wanted to say for the most part and it just took a few tries to get everything sounding just right. That reggae section with the vocal harmonies was especially fun to do!
07 Make Your Mark: This track is actually the oldest of the album as I wrote and recorded most of the instrumental parts before even the One Small Step EP! At the time of recording, I had no idea what I wanted the song to be about lyrically, I just really liked the guitar vibes, so I kinda just left it for a long time, but working on this album, the inspiration to write some lyrics came and after a fair few drafts I'm really happy with the message it's sending. This was definitely one of the trickier songs on the album.
08 Wireless Networks Available: Similar story to "Make Your Mark" though not quite as old. The lyrics were fairly tricky to begin with on this one too. Again, I knew roughly what I wanted to say, but it took a few attempts to get it just right. The synth was added during the later recording phase as I wanted something different to fill in the chorus for this one. I really happy with the way it turned out and it seems like this track is a favorite for a lot of people. Still, I notice the irony of how much time I spent indoors recording this despite its lyrical message!
09 Re:HipHopPunk: This track I just had to include though it wasn't originally planned at all! My good friend Bob Axell (AKA Cyberdevil) who features in "Head Above Water" has this amazing ability to go from talking to rhyming spontaneously, and the lyrics for this track were actually just an extract from one of our email correspondences during the collaborative songwriting process. I said to him "We've GOT to include this on the album" and so he sent me over a recording of him reading out his email. I put a beat to it and the rest is history! It's great fun when you run into these happy accidents!
10 Head Above Water (feat. Cyberdevil): That first 4 bar groove of the track was originally made on my MPC a LONG time ago and when I met Bob Axell I knew there'd be something we could do with it together. I love all kinds of music and while BTTB is a Ska-punk project for the most part, I loved that HipHopPunky groove and just had to include it in the project. Anyway, I showed the groove to Bob way back when shortly after our first collaboration, and he really digged it, but at the time I didn't have enough material or the time to work on a new BTTB album. When I did start however I was very quick to buzz Bob on whether he still wanted in on this beat and of course he was happy to break out his mic. I set out a song structure and worked on the instrumental parts for this track throughout the production process of the rest of the album, and once that was done I sent it over to Bob to work on his guest verse while I worked on my own lyrics. This track definitely took the longest to write and produce and I think it was the last track to be mixed too. This one was another one where it took a while for me to get exactly what was on my mind into the track. I think the hook / chorus came very early on, it was just the verses which took a little longer. I'm very pleased with the result though, and it's not often I get to rap so I was very happy. Of course Bob's a lot better than I am, Hahah!
11 The Bigger Picture: This one was another very personal track and sort of the final full track of the album. A lot of the lyrical sections of this, the verse and chorus, came fully formed but I did have a few other ideas for this track which didn't end up making it into the final structure. Those are now in my idea folder and will no doubt be picked up for another song in the future. There are a lot of references to both my life, family, friends and music career in this track which earned it the working title of "the reference song".
12 Confessions: As I mentioned before I wanted Two Years On to be a cohesive piece of work, and this track is simply a stripped back reprise of Hearts Racing, the centerpiece of the album. I debated whether or not to build up this acoustic track with a full band outro, but I'm happy I left it as it was, rather than going out with a bang because in the end, BTTB is an expression of myself and I'm just a single person. Those who know me well and have listened in to the lyrics of some BTTB songs will know that I've suffered from some often quite crippling mental health issues (listen to "Backseat Phobia"), and this song was written at one of my lowest points during the production process. The final version is pretty much identical to the very first demo, apart form the additional instruments. I wanted to show people that while I do hold my head high and fight for what I want in life and preach that message, I am still vulnerable, feel uncertainty and worry, and feel low etc..., but that's ok. People often comment on how positive BTTB's music is and how it inspires or energises them and I'm really happy that it has such a great effect on people. I hoped that by showing my more venerable side in this track, people would be able to relate to the music more and know that if they're going through something similar, that they're not alone.
What was the hardest part about the writing/recording process?
Nick: Well there were those few lyrical bits and finding those public domain movie samples I mentioned before; those were a bit tricky. I guess the hardest part of the recording process though had to do with my computer and the horns. This whole project was recorded on (a coming up to 8 years old) Windows Vista Laptop with 4GB of RAM which meant I had to be very strategic when recording so that the sessions wouldn't get full and the computer freeze up, (which happened a few times anyway...). This meant for instance recording the vocal takes and compiling them in a separate session to the rest of the track, and a similar story with the horns. Working with a limited computer has its merits though I think. You don't spend too much time thinking about what takes to keep or not, because you really can't choose from many when you're limited to such low memory. I think it speeds up the workflow this way and makes sure you get the best and organic first few takes rather than trying to get it "Perfect" and after more than 5 takes or so, start killing the vibe. Kinda forces you to practice the music more too. The horns were another big challenge/difficulty. For one, while I really loved the sound of horns and had wanted them in my music since I started BTTB, when it came around to Two Years On, I'd actually never written horn parts for ska before and it took a little while to learn what sounded good or bad. Lots of listening to other bands to see what they did too! All good fun though; I love learning new things. The bigger challenge however was getting the horns in the first place. The horns themselves are sampled instruments rather than live players, since I couldn't afford session musicians and prefer the DIY approach to almost everything if I can anyway. Working on such an old computer though, I really had trouble finding any decent sounding and affordable horn sounds that would run on Vista. Not even kidding I'd been searching for years, almost since the beginning of BTTB for something to fill this gap and whenever I asked companies about it even if I was sure they'd made something like this in the past, they'd usually shrug it off and tell me "Maybe it's time to upgrade your computer", which as well as being expensive comes with other problems and "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", right? Anyway, eventually I managed to contact some people inside 2 of the companies which were super helpful in sourcing me some backdated editions of the software from their archives and with a little computing know-how helped me get the software up and running perfectly, and sounding awesome! It took a long time, but it was definitely well worth the trouble and effort!
If you could get a tattoo of one of your lyrics, what lyric would it be and why?
Nick: Hehe, I'm not much of a tattoo person myself (sounds painful!), but that's definitely a tricky question... I think probably:
"I'll take each day a step at a time, That's what it means to be me" from "Watching Airships" off the One Small Step EP, because it pretty much sums up my philosophy on life, especially when times get tough. That track's also (I think) the first Better Than The Book song that I ever started writing too, so those lyrics will always hold a very special place in my heart.
What advice do you have for people who are starting out songwriting?
Nick: There's that keeping tab of ideas thing I mentioned earlier which I think is definitely useful as a place to start. In terms of actually finding ideas in the first place though and actual tips for writing, I'd say:
1) Listen to lots of music. Analyse it and think, "What makes this sound so good (or bad!)?" to you. On a side note, if you're trying to work on your recording / production too, recording cover songs to try and recreate the original is a great way of picking apart tracks to see what makes them great. This can help in terms of writing too, as I think production and songwriting go hand in hand creatively.
2) Either write about what you know, or tell a damn good compelling story. I'm a firm believer that a genuine song written from the heart will travel miles longer than something you wrote about any old thing you can think of. Draw on yourself and/or the world around you. Draw on your emotions, your happiness, your sadness, your weaknesses, your insecurities, or something that inspires you; write what you're feeling. For starters, I find it gives you power over those emotions and if you're suffering in some way can be a great therapy for recovery, but also people are people, and people can relate. Allow them to empathise with you. If they feel a connection to you as a writer when they hear your song, then you're doing a great job. On the other hand, if you can write a great story to tell in song, then that works too, but it's probably a lot harder!
3) Keep it simple. I mean that in terms or lyrics as well as arrangement. They say if you can't play a song on just a piano and vocals, then it isn't a very good song and as harsh a statement as it sounds, I kinda agree. There's a phrase I like to think of: "Minimum effort => Maximum impact" meaning, use as little as possible to get your point across. In terms of production you could say "I want to make a song with one drum, one bass, one guitar and one vocal track". That's sounds minimal, but it's a much better place to start and aim for than saying "I'm aiming to have 15 guitar tracks and 20 vocal harmonies" from the start. Limitations will give you more focus to write, and they're not set in stone anyway so when you do fill them up, you can listen back and see "do I NEED to any anything else"? Listen to Nirvana for instance which is very nice and stripped back but still sounds huge! Moving on to keeping it simple in terms of lyrics, I think this is something people may be divided on, but I personally think, it's best to keep things easy to understand and for people to listen to and sing along to. If you're a natural poet, then by all means use as many metaphors and similes etc... as you want, but if you're not, then don't try to be poetic and artsy for the sake of it, as you might end up with something a little confusing a difficult to understand. Having a chorus which is easy to sing along to is always nice too for audience interaction. You don't have to have it on every song, but it's nice to have it for some.
4) Be instinctive and don't do (or not do) stuff just because other people are(n't) doing it. It's your song, do what you want with it, and if it sounds good to you then roll with it. It might not be to everyone's taste, but the world never developed from people just doing what the people did before them. Be adventurous (only if you want to of course).
Which leads me onto my last point:
5) Write for yourself and for the joy of writing. Don't write to try and please people or force yourself into a genre when you don't want to. There are people out there who WILL hate your music, almost guaranteed, but you can't let that stop you from making it, and (unless its super offensive) there's going to be loads of people out there who will love your music. Make sure YOU love the music you're creating and never compromise that. If you don't like your music, how can you expect other people to? Also if you're writing to aim for fame and fortune then you're doing it for the wrong reasons. Your goal in songwriting should be to write a great song. Anything else that happens afterwards is a well earned bonus!
If you could create your dream tour, who would you tour with and what would the tour be called?
Nick: Ooo! That's too hard, I'll have to pick 2! I'm assuming all the bands have to play in one night on one stage rather than being a multi-day festival right? I'd love to go to Japan and there's some great bands out there so, for a Japan/Asia tour I'd love to play with:
Ellegarden (assuming they came off hiatus)
Ore Ska Band
Kishida Kyoudan & the Akeboshi Rockets
For a UK or America tour, I've gotta go with some of my western favorites/influences:
Less Than Jake
Can't decide which band for 3rd. Blink 182 would be awesome, or Reel Big Fish, or maybe SUM 41? So much choice and so little time!
Names are even harder... um...
How about "The SSPaH (location) Tour" (Ska, Skates, Punks and Horns) with the SSPaH spoken as Super said hyper enthusiastically?
"SSPaH Japan" or "SSPaH UK" in these cases.
Oh! For the Japan tour you could have "The KOBE Tour" (like the beef and made from the names of the bands).
As you can see, on the spot naming is not one of my strong points!
What is your overall goal as a musician and what do you want to achieve in your music career?
Nick: I guess my overall goal as a musician would be to be able to continue doing what I love (writing and producing music) and bring something to someone's day whenever they stop by to listen, while at the same time using those skills to earn enough money to get by and have fun. Pretty standard dream I guess and of course there's lots of sub-goals (like getting to work on a animated series/movie or blockbuster), but that's the overall goal, just to keep being able to do it, survive and have fun
What can people expect from Better Than The Book in the future?
Nick: I've already started gathering ideas for my next release, so you can be sure that there'll be a lot more music from BTTB to come!
Something new I'd really like to do though is get the fans more involved in the musical process and the project in general: Ask them what they'd like to hear, Whether they'd like another big album, or some more regular released singles; what kind of merch they'd be interested in, maybe even get people involved with recording some of the gang vocals in tracks; things like that! If it's another full length album, I'd like to have that out at the end of 2017 beginning of 2018, but if it's singles or EPs then that could be much sooner, and certainly whatever happens I'd like to be putting more stuff out there, even if it's not fully fledged tracks. I'd also love to do some more cover songs at some point, as it's always fun bringing my own spin to other music I love.
Musical direction-wise, BTTB's certainly going to stay with the skate-punk vibe, but I'd like to push the boat out a little more and explore the J-rock and alt-rock aspects of the sound, as well as some of the electronic elements we heard in "Two Years On" and the Ska-edge too. Maybe bring in some of my other musical influences too, but we'll see where the inspiration takes me!
That was the last question, thank you so much again for letting me interview you!
Nick: No worries at all! It's been super fun and given me lots to think about