Nick Heyward of Haircut 100

by Roger Catlin

On the marimba magic of "Love Plus One" and the nomadic recording process of his 2017 album.

Haircut 100 was known as "Clean-Cut 100" thanks to their boys-next-door image and wholesome heartthrob lead singer, Nick Heyward, just 20 in 1982 when they released their breakthrough debut album Pelican West. Their first four singles went Top 10 in their native UK. One of them, "Love Plus One," was also an MTV hit.

Heyward was not just the face of the group but also the songwriter. His lyrics were based on themes of love, but otherwise made little sense. Here's a snippet of their debut single, "Favorite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)":

Bang, feel a little love
Feel a little way
Never mind
Someday Terry

Look inside the mind of a 20-year-old and surely you will find a similar jumble of thoughts. Heyward just turned them into songs.

When they started recording their second album, Heyward realized they were travelling down the same road. Most are content to follow the same map that led them to the treasure, but Nick had no intentions of releasing Pelican West, Part 2. (There were also the usual power struggles that occur when bands realize how publishing works - Heyward's sole songwriting credits meant he got all those royalties). He bailed on the band and launched a solo career, releasing three albums in the '80s and another three in the '90s before taking 18 years off, returning in 2017 with Woodland Echoes.

Still youthful at 56, Heyward is now a much more refined songwriter. He spoke from Tampa about the album, how it was recorded, his inspiration by nature, and the secret to the spate of hits in the early '80s.
Songfacts (Roger Catlin): Do you spend a lot of time in Florida?

Nick Heyward: Yeah, my fiancé is from Minnesota. Her parents moved to Florida and we come over and see them and spend time with them.

Songfacts: And you've done some recording there as well?

Nick: My friend Ian Shaw, who recorded most of the records I did with Creation Records and Sony, he moved over there about seven years ago now, and he built a houseboat on Sailfish Pier [in Key West]. He put a little studio in it, as everybody does who still stays in music.

So I went down to visit him and he's got the studio down there. I ended up coming seeing Sarah's parents, and then going to see my mate Ian. That's why I did some recording down there too.

Much of this album was made in my spare room, my son's bedroom, Ian's houseboat room, and then when my son got a job working for Zak Starkey - he runs Zak Starkey's home studio - I worked in that studio too. So, it's been at various home studios. I should have called the album Home Studios.

Songfacts: Does it create a different feel when you're working in a home studio?

Nick: Yeah, you feel like a novelist - a writer at least. I felt like I was writing a musical a lot of the times with this because it seemed to be falling together like a story. Like a love story, set in nature.

When you're writing at home, you have to be more disciplined. It's harder. You hear that from writers. They say the hardest thing to do is to go into the study and just do it. The first time I sat down to do it, my mind said, "You're working on an album. Do you realize it's impossible to make a proper record in a spare room?"

You have to ignore those kinds of conversations with yourself and say, "Listen, it's what I've got at the moment, it's all I have. And there's no budget for AIR studios and Geoff Emerick, Paul Buckmaster and Dave Mattacks.

[Glossary of terms from that sentence:
Geoff Emerick - Beatles engineer, produced Nick's his first album
Paul Buckmaster - orchestral arranger, did the strings on the album
Dave Mattacks - Fairport Convention drummer, played on the album

There's no record company and there's no manager — there's nobody. So it's just, pick up your guitar, sing into this Røde microphone, and be creative. That's what I did, and I kept doing it. Then it turned into making a record.

Toward the end I thought, OK, I've got enough stuff here and I'd like Chris Sheldon to mix it. Because I've made records with him before, and he's got his studio in his garden now. I said, "Chris, I've made a record, but make it sound like a record."

Then, when it was being mastered, it was sent to Denis Blackham, who is now semi-retired at Skye and cut a lot of records. I told him the same thing: "I'm making a record. Even though it was made in my spare room, it's a record, so think like a record."

I compiled it like Side A, Side B, six tracks, six tracks, and there's a story. It was a challenge, but I think I got there from the spare room. I made the sound of an album.

Songfacts: Technology has evolved to allow home recordings to sound good.

Nick: Yeah. When I first started this, my son was still at Reading University studying music technology. And I was at home with a laptop and a pair speakers trying to work out Logic, thinking, "How am I going to make a recording, really, with this?" I was just making recordings and sharing them on MySpace. And as an artist, I was completely, 100 percent happy with that. I could have carried on doing that if MySpace hadn't stopped.

I rented this little cottage in somebody's garden, and I rented a piano, and I had my guitars that I'd collected over the years, and it literally turned into a living, breathing cottage industry/studio, where I would make these recordings and then share them on MySpace. Then that went, and the homemade recordings became more concise. At first I was going to share it like homemade jam, like an organic farm shop. I still feel like I'm doing that.

The next one, I'm starting it already. I'm just inspired. I'm making up for lost years. Since the early 2000s, I looked at the music business and thought there was no way I was going to get a record deal, so I just didn't do it.

Songfacts: What do you make of the change in music since you started, compared to now where you allow your fans to directly fund the record?

Nick: It does make me appreciate that period when I arrived in music. I started when punk was happening, so 1977. I was just really getting into music then, and by 1981, the band had taken off. And I was experiencing Arista Records, which became a legend in the music business. Bob Sargeant, our producer, did the Beat and stuff. I feel really blessed to have been there.

We didn't realize at the time how creative a period that was for music and the music world. It was really good. You don't get A&R men around nowadays. There were all these fantastic A&R men that were so important in the process of making records then. Now, if you don't have A&R there's a big thing missing.

So it was a really creative time and I don't think we appreciated it that much at the time. Maybe people will look back at this time in the same kind of way.

I don't know about you, but I love how the music world has changed in so many respects. I'm up this morning, and I go on my Instagram, and I look at 30 different guitarists who have all got their own pages. That's amazing. And you think, Wow, you never would have known each other in a similar way in the music world if not for this. There was no way. I couldn't get a record deal in the 2000s, but now everybody's in the music business already, getting on with it, doing stuff and being creative. So, it's almost changed beyond recognition in that way.

I personally really like it. I like how I can get people's albums and listen to them before you buy them. You can go on and hear the whole album and if you really love it, you'll buy it. To me, it's like a listening booth. I can get to hear lots of people's albums, rather than, during the '90s or 2000s, £15 to listen to an album you may not not like? So it's nice to be able to try it for a bit. I do like listening to some of these albums, and I do like supporting people. If like it, I will buy it. It's good to support the independent artist.

Songfacts: You were not rushed while making this. Did that help in how it came out?

Nick: Yeah, I think it did, because I had a lot of time for perspective. I could stand back and there were times I wasn't even aware I was even doing one, with months, sometimes six months in between things. And then I'd come back and be really clear. I think that having a long time helps with the detail of it, and also because this wasn't going into studio in an intense period, like you've got two weeks or a month to do this.

I think that's why it came out autobiographical - why the observational songs didn't work on it and it's written first person, which I didn't plan to do. It just seemed to come out that way through a process of editing.

There was a lot of editing on this, because there was time to edit. It became part of the creative process, like writing a book or a set of poems. I had lots of time to stand back and reflect and see quite clearly what should be kept and what shouldn't be kept.

I knew it was finished. It wasn't a perfectionist thing. It was definitely finished, one by one, and I ticked them off. As an artist, I wanted it to be finished in a week or a month. I just wanted it out. But the songwriter in me would step out and say, "You can't release this. 'That'll do' won't do. It deserves more." Because the job of the songwriter is to make the song reach its full potential as a song. Because you know when you haven't done it.

Songfacts: In the early days of Haircut 100, you had a lot of hits all in a row. How did they come about?

Nick: You have helpers in all of this. In that intense period, in that intensely creative period in music, there was so much going on. Everything could happen all in a month. So many people were involved in that one song.

I was the guy. My role was the frontman, the singer/songwriter bloke who comes up with the ideas initially and is just there. It's his band so he talks about stuff in interviews. So I did my bit.
What does Haircut 100 have in common with AC/DC, Rush and Def Leppard? All had videos directed by David Mallet, whose work saturated early MTV. Mallet had a head start, working on videos years before MTV went on the air in 1981. He went way off the wall for "Love Plus One," putting the band in an island setting with a cast of uncivilized natives and fetching beauties. Nick shows up wearing a loincloth while swinging from a tree, but during their performance scenes, they keep their preppy duds.

The song got little radio play but lots of airings on MTV, where it was one of the more memorable clips of their early era.

Our A&R man Simon Potts suggested Bob Sargeant as producer. I loved The Beat, and hearing their records, I always wondered how they cut through. They were so crisp. That's Bob Sargeant.

Bob worked in an early digital 3M system in Round House Studios in London - it was the only one. It used to break down a lot, but when it worked, it really worked. That is where that clarity came from, where you can play many, many instruments but you can hear them all somehow. You don't normally get that with analog recordings.

Analog has got this more magical stuff that goes on, where you get a lot of acoustics together and the guitar and drums and Wow, something's going on there, but you don't know what it is. Digital, everything is just as it is. You can hear the cabasa, you can hear all the clarity of the percussion just as well as the vocals.

You can hear everything on "Love Plus One," but it's punchy. Bob Sargeant was lovely to work with. We were young and we saw him as our George Martin. He was this person who organized everything properly. He knew how to make singles.

On our demos of "Love Plus One," the sax lines weren't quite so concise. It never went dut-dut-dut-dut, it went do-do-do-do-doo-do. I remember it like it was yesterday. Completely different line, because of Bob.

He was really into marimbas because of The Beat, and he didn't need drums. Then it was picked out with Phil [Smith] - his line was now dit-dit-dit-dit, following the marimba, and playing with his soprano sax. I remember watching this happen, and thinking, Wow! That's someone who is skilled.

I've grown up and become a producer in the same way, so I could work with a young band in the same way and go, "OK, you came into the studio with me and you wanted to make a single, so do that here, and adjust that there."

We were going in as youngsters, really impressionable and hungry for knowledge. Seeing this stuff happening was just amazing to watch. And then John Gallen, the engineer, I've never heard anything sound so good. Up until then it was demo studios, where everything didn't sound like a record. Suddenly, everything was sounding like a record. He'd record the snare through a piano, and you'd think, Why's he doing that? And there it was on the record: The snare sounds completely unique. It's got a different sound.

John Gallen, the engineer on "Love Plus One," when he was a kid was an assistant in a studio, and his first job was on "Bohemian Rhapsody." He was an assistant on A Night at the Opera. He got to watch how that was made. So when he gets to be an engineer and he's making some young band that comes in, he'll do a similar sound of technique so you'll sound like the snare sound on "Best Friend." He'll know how to get that sound.

That was the time when people who had grown up in the '70s were making '80s records, so we were watching this take place and learning too. It took being around Roundhouse.

You know, Roundhouse was an amazing studio. Motörhead recorded their stuff there. It was a rock studio. Rock bands loved working in this digital way, because you could put thousands of guitars on it, and you would get that clarity.

So all those people working together make this happen. It's never just one person. I played my bit. At that time, in that band, I was the ideas guy, the songwriter, the guy who wrote the lyrics and sang:

Where do we go from here?
Is it down to the lake I fear?

And I still don't know why.

Songfacts: There's a sunniness to your songs back then that you still have now, an uplifting sound.

Nick: It's nice to hear that. That's obviously an aspect that's been picked up on. I think maybe in 1983 it got very melancholy. It was quite cloudy. It was sunny, then it was quite cloudy, and then the sun came out again. Would you say it's more sunny now?

Songfacts: Yeah. The new record is sunny.

Nick: It doesn't seem to be gloomy. I mean, I just do it. I didn't know what it was going to be. It's like when you go out with a camera, you don't know what you're going to take pictures of particularly. You might be drawn to litter bins and urban decay and stuff like that, or you might be drawn toward taking pictures of trees, and suddenly realize you were a tree photographer. So that's what you do. You don't really know why you do it.

I was going out and taking lots of photographs and when it came to music, I didn't know what it was going to be again. But I definitely think that there's a bit of a nature influence in there somewhere. My love of nature has come out through the music. I remember thinking at one point, can you make major pop? I mean, the Bellamy Brothers did it:

There's a reason for the sunshine day
There's a reason why I'm feeling so high
Must be the season

It's still a celebration of nature, it sounds like to me. I could have been more literal and written songs about dragonflies and butterflies, and written songs about the hedges. There's this hedge that I really like in the countryside in Oxfordshire that I would take walks along. I'm fascinated by this hedge, and how many creatures are living in it. But maybe that's the next album, because when it comes to writing that's what I'd really like to write: songs deeply into nature.

But I suppose I just ended up writing about the nature connected with romantic love on this album. It seems it went together, because it was written in the first person. I used it in metaphor, like a dragonfly, she is the one for me, or like a butterfly, on "Beautiful Morning," which I recorded four different times to actually capture the essence of a beautiful morning unfolding.

The last one I got, I felt like I got it there. To me, it captures the unfolding of the morning. The first three I did were just songs called "Beautiful Morning" — the same lyrics with different melody and different things, so there was a lot of work that went into it. I had the luxury where I could get things right, where I could stand back from the songwriting and go, "I don't think I actually captured the essence of a beautiful morning there. That song can be better. OK, I'll do it again."

So I went right back to the basics, sat in my spare room in front of a laptop and a mic, and waited for something to arrive that will be that beautiful morning. And there was one with an acoustic guitar. The tempo was right, the key was right and it felt like a beautiful morning. It came out of nowhere - it kind of unfolded. I didn't know where the intro was really. It was just beginning and then when the morning sun arrived, the chorus was from outside my window one day at 5:30 in the morning in the spring. That was the capturing of it.

I felt like I got there and then I worked with this brilliant guy — again, it's not just one person. Albums are collective things - people coming together to make it. I've been working with [producer and keyboardist] Phil Taylor, a friend of mine for 20 years or so. He does things out of the ordinary. He played bass on this song "Beautiful Morning."

I normally end up playing bass, because I want to hear the bass, so I play it and end up keeping it. But I sent it to Phil and he put this fretless bass on it, which I never play. He's a Jaco Pastorius fan. He did the totally unexpected thing. Because I'd been through punk and the '90s, I'd usually go, "Fretless? Oh, my god no." But I heard it and I phoned him up immediately. I said, "Phil, that's amazing. What made you do that? A fretless bass just sounds so wrong it's right." And it's beautifully played, so I never would have thought of that.

That helps with modern recording. He played that bass in his spare room, and I played a guitar in my spare room. it's almost the way Steely Dan was working, sending stuff out to people and not knowing what they were going to do, and then getting it back, and it either works or it doesn't, but when it works, boy does it work. You get the unexpected thing. And that was the unexpected I felt with "Love Plus One," when Bob Sargeant played a marimba and went "dit-dit-dit-dit."

After Phil picked out those notes, it sounded unexpected. Those unexpected moments, they're surprising. That's the magic of music. I love that.

When a piece of music captures you, it's because it's done something surprising. It's drawn you in in some way. Because if it had just been made to be wallpaper, then it probably will be wallpaper.

November 28, 2017
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