Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Exclusive: Nick Welsh Is King Hammond! - UK Ska Musician, Producer, Songwriter Comes Clean

The cat is finally out of the bag! I'm pleased to be able to share one of the worst kept secrets in modern ska history. Nick Welsh is King Hammond and King Hammond is Nick Welsh! Coming nearly 25 years after the release of 'Revolution 70' in 1987, Welsh has once again donned his alter ego 'King Hammond' and graced us with 'The King And I'. Its a startling crisp and addictive collection of skinhead reggae tracks that pay homage to the originals that inspired them but retains a contemporary pop feel and has to be considered one of the best ska/reggae releases of 2010.

Welsh remains one of the busiest and most prolific ska musicians on either side of the Atlantic and his resume is a mile long. He has worked with and produced A-list artists like Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken, Dave Barker, Rico Rodrigues, and Judge Dread as well as Lee 'Scratch' Perry with whom he worked on the Grammy Award winning album 'Jamaican ET'. Nick has also been the bassist and song writer in Bad Manners and The Selecter (helping to shepard both band's post 2-Tone careers - he wrote 'Skaville UK). If that wasn't enough, he also fronts his own band Skaville UK, and writes music for U.K. and U.S. television shows and video games.

I had the pleasure to meet Welsh in 1991 when my band Bigger Thomas was the support act for The Selecter's first tour of the U.S. since the band had broken up in the early 80's. Welsh, Pauline Black and Neol Davies were all very kind to us (it was our first proper tour) and they always made sure we got a sound check and a dressing room (which is more unusual than you might expect in the cut throat music biz). As a fellow bass player I was also always impressed that Welsh played a Steinberger bass (which is a very sleek guitar that has no tuning pegs.)

Its fair to say that much of the ska music that has been produced and performed in the U.K. over the last 20 years likely has Welsh's finger prints on it somewhere. When I heard about the release of a new King Hammond album, I eagerly sought out Welsh who is among one of the most approachable musicians I've met and always willing to share a good story and tell it like it is.

What was it like growing up in London and how did that influence you musically and artistically?
I grew up in London at a time when all forms of music was peaking - The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Tamla, Motown, Trojan. Then put in to the mix that my father was a musical arranger/producer making all kinds of great music in the 60's & 70's. I was lucky enough to be able to see him work at places like Abbey Road! Now these people were considered 'proper' musicians they came into the sessions which ran from 10 am-1 pm, 2-5 pm and 7-10 pm and just played what was written down for them. At that time I thought making music was beyond me, but then punk came along and showed people that it was not all about musical brilliance and that suited me down to the ground!.

In London in the mid seventies you could see 2 or 3 good bands every night in pubs and clubs. My first public gig was in 1976 in a Church hall in North London (I think there were a lot of Cream covers that night). In early 1977 I formed a band called The Dead with some like minded friends and we played gigs like the legendary Roxy Club. You had to play first on a Wednesday night which was 'audition' night and if you were any good (or you let the manager touch you up) you were given a Friday or a Saturday night. I remember playing there with Cock Sparrer and Joe & Mick from The Clash bought us a drink and said we were really good ( I think they were just being nice to us!) My idol all through this time was Marc Bolan. I was expelled from my school for 'bunking off' and following T.Rex around on tour. The area where I lived around Hackney was and still is a multi-racial area so that was where I first heard and fell in love with skinhead reggae which I heard from radios and stereos in the flats where I lived.

Is it true you went to school with Doug Trendle (Buster Bloodvessel)? How did you re-connect with him and end up joining Bad Manners in 1986? Can you share any memorable experiences of working with Doug or touring with the band?
I went to school with Doug Trendle, Louis Cook, Dave Farren, Paul Hyman & Brian Tuitt from the original line up of Bad Manners, even the roadie Royden was there (although he never went!). We were all very good friends and I used to love going to the bands early gigs around the pubs in London. This was before the band 'went ska'. I preferred it pre-ska myself. They used to play mostly rock n roll songs like 'Love Potion #9' and 'Riot In Cell Block #9'. There was a lot of comedy songs as well like 'The Milky Bar Kid' which was my favorite. It was the penultimate song in the set before 'Caledonia'. See i like it so much I can still remember it over 30 years later!

Doug was a great front man and they were sort of like local heroes. I had not seen any of them for about a month and Doug invited me down to a show at a place called Chats Palace and it was a real surprise the band had suits on and were playing things like 'Double Barrel' and 'Fatty Fatty' I still liked it but it was a shock. A bit like when my brother Richard left the house in the morning with long hair, flared suit & platform shoes and came home at night with spikey dyed short hair, leather jacket, drainpipe trousers and Doc Marten boots!. I was in contact all the time with my friends from Woodberry Down school all through the 'hits' period in the UK. In 1984 I formed a band with Louis and Paul called Love Squad which was a bubblegum pop reggae folk hybrid. We recorded 14 tracks for an album (which never came out) and did a few local gigs. I played my first gig with Bad Manners in 1986 and the following year formed Busters All Stars with Doug. In 1988 the two combined and we recorded the album 'Eat The Beat.' I have a lot of good memories from that time, but the best must be the gig we did with The English Beat and about 10 other bands in 1990 at the Greek Theatre in San Francisco. It was such a great night and we really shook the place. It was a great time for Bad Manners.

The first King Hammond album came out in 1987! What inspired the name and the songs?
Now we are talking right at that time in England when there were maybe 2 or 3 ska bands, like The Potato 5, The Deltones. I was playing a lot of gigs with Bad Manners and Busters All Stars, but as anybody who knows me will tell you, I cant stand still for one minute. I have to move forward like a shark or Neil Diamond. The first King Hammond track I wrote was 'Skaville UK' which was a lot slower than most people may know the song. The intro and the bits of vocal in the song was me trying to do a 'Dave Barker.' I first recorded the song in 1986 along with a song called 'Tighten Up' which had the chorus 'I Roy, U Roy, Byron Lee, Al Capone & Lee Perry' which ended up years later in a song called '(I Wish It Was) 1973' that I recorded in my band Skaville UK 20 years later!

I recorded most of the 'Revolution 70' album on a Casio organ on a portastudio! I then took that into a 24 track studio and added some things. It was at this time that I decided that King Hammond should be an unsuccessful reggae singer of the early 70's and that story did the rounds in music papers, fanzines etc. I chose the name King Hammond because of names like Prince Buster, King Horror etc. The original name I had was Lord Manchester but I changed that at the last moment. I had a couple of tracks on ska comps in the late eighties like 'King Hammond Shuffle' and 'Right On King Hammond' and the album 'Revolution 70' came out in 1989 on Bluebeat Records. It proved to be very popular amongst skinheads so i went into the studio to cut a follow up album 'Tank Tops & Hot Pants' but before it was finished Bluebeat Records went under. In 1992 the 2 albums were released on one CD under the name 'Blow Your Mind' which was on Receiver Records, which was part of the Trojan empire so I made it on there in the end! To promote the album I toured doing a live PA show (singing to backing tracks) with 2 go-go girl dancers with me which was fun, but not the same as playing in a live band.

After helping Bad Manners gain a second wind, you and Martin Stewart left the band in 1991 to join the re-formed version of The Selecter. What prompted the move and what are your memories of touring and working with Pauline Black and Neol Davies?
In 1990 Pauline & Neol started to guest on stage with Bad Manners (although it was called Busters All Stars) and I really enjoyed it. Pauline is graced with the best voice in 2-Tone and Neol is a great guitarist. Martin Stewart (the keyboardist from Bad Manners) approached me and asked me if I would I be interested doing a full tour of the U.S. as The Selecter which of course I said I would. So Martin booked the tour but was kicked out of Bad Manners which was ridiculous. Anyway we did the tour and it was a huge success and musically rewarding for me so when I got back to England, I asked Doug that if any other tours came up would it be OK for me to do them if I was able to find a replacement for Bad Manners (as I had done while I was in the U.S.). However this was apparently not acceptable so I left and joined The Selecter full time which I did for the next 15 years. This might sound strange to people, but I had more fun in The Selecter then in Bad Manners. We tried to make new records changing the set around regularly which are the sort of things I enjoy about being in a band. My favorite of The Selecter albums of the 90's is 'The Happy Album.' The tour we did with No Doubt in arenas around the U.S. was cool but my favourite moment was playing a gig in Santa Cruz, California with The Monkees and The Village People! The Selecter was and still is a very important part of my life. (Have a look at the ultra rare promo below, produced to promote The Selecter's 1991 reunion. You'll catch some glimpses of Welsh).

Given your work with various members of a variety of 2-Tone band, can you share your honest perspective on why the members of The Selecter have been unable to reunite to celebrate their shared 30th anniversary?
Well I would not have the first idea why they did not get it together. What I will say is that if The Selecter got together who would it be in it? Out of the first two albums, I prefer 'Celebrate The Bullet' to 'Too Much Pressure' but there were different members in each line up. so for me its not so straight forward. My thinking is that most people would say the 'On My Radio' line up is the one they would want to see. I don't know why it did not happen but from conversations I've had with Pauline, she is very happy doing what she is doing. I saw film of her singing in South America with a brilliant band and an orchestra and thought it was fantastic. I also played a gig with her last year in Amsterdam doing mostly new songs of hers and she sounded better than ever, so maybe the guys thought it was not worth doing without her but again I am the wrong person to ask. I'm just wrapped up on my own in my perfect world!

Your latest project King Hammond was originally started back in the post 2-Tone days of the late 1980's. What inspired you to re-form and release a new album in 2010?
That's a funny question!. What happened was back in January of 2010, I was going to a friends 40th birthday and I could not think of a present for him. I knew he was a big fan of the King Hammond records, so I recorded him a birthday song in the 'King Hammond' style. While I was doing this it reminded me of how much fun I used to have doing them. So on February 1st, I recorded the first of the new batch a song about gun and knife crime amongst our youth called 'Cool Down Your Temper.' I wrote and recorded it in a 3 hour session. A friend of mine Paul Williams (who wrote 'You're Wondering Now - The Specials From Conception To Reunion) put together some old skinhead footage and put the two together and stuck it on You Tube. The response to the track was so positive that I recorded 11 more tracks and by May 18th I had 'The King & I' in my hands. Just three months from start to finish. For the record my personal favourites are 'Mr Easy Talk' a song for the politicians, 'Dave & Ansel' which is about how friends may come and go but records are your friends for life! Also 'The Rudest Girl In Town' which is my ode to rude girls everywhere.

You've been quite prolific of late recording and performing with your band Skaville UK, others projects (Rhoda Dakkar's solo record) and as a solo artist ('The Soho Sessions' album). What do you like most about being in a band vs being a solo artist?
The other day someone gave me a pile of albums to sign for them. While I was signing they told me that since I had left The Selecter in December of 2006, I have produced and released nearly 90 pieces of new music! That surprised me. I knew I had released a couple a year but when you say that amount even if half of them are any good that is still good going! I used to love being in a band but nowadays I prefer to be on my own. Of course when King Hammond plays live I will have a band behind me (The Rude Boy Mafia) but i like making records on my own and just pleasing myself first and foremost and if other people want to come along for the ride that's great. My other big love is playing my accoustic shows where I can choose songs from my past and rework them tell a few stories, make a few bad jokes and just have nice cool mellow evening like Randy Newman but without the talent! My favorite albums I have recorded in the last few years are Skaville UK -Devil Beat, Rhoda Dakar & Nick Welsh-Back To The Garage and of course King Hammond -The King & I.

Your new album 'The King And I' lovingly pays homage to your love of skinhead reggae. Did you play all the instruments on the album? It sounds like it includes a mix of sampled and organic sounds?
On 'The King & I' I play all the instruments, but there are a couple of samples thrown in like the woman's voice on 'The Rudest Girl In Town,' but otherwise its all King Hammond. I record in 3 and 4 hour sessions. Some of the songs were made up on the spot and some written the night before I went in. That keeps it all fresh for me. What freaks me out is that some days I would write a track at 1.00 pm and finish at 4.00 pm and put it up on the Internet and by 7.00 pm I was getting e-mails from people in California or Canada about the music. I mean we all know it's the World Wide Web but when its actually in front of you its strange. I mean I did not know about the song till a few hours earlier! The only song that had been around for a couple of months was 'You Can't Get Those Sweet Things Anymore' which i wrote after visiting Noel Coward's house in Jamaica. I wanted to write a song in his 'fruity' style. It's a serious song about desperation. I just went in and played live in one take; couple of overdubs and Bob's Your Uncle another track!

In light of the success of The Specials reunion tour (and rumor of a new album) is it a good time to be in a ska band?
Well not for me cos I'm not in a ska band! But maybe some people who went to see The Specials on tour might think 'hey, that was good I wonder if there are any new ska/reggae records out there' but it has not effected me yet. But anything that brings attention to the 'scene' has got to be good. I don't really look beyond making some good music. Nothing more maybe a little less!

Having spent some time touring here in the US, what is your take on the American ska scene?
Well I have been lucky enough to tour the USA a lot of times in the past 25 years. Back in the eighties i thought it was a very exciting scene with bands like Fishbone, The Untouchables, The Toasters & Lets Go Bowling. I liked the attitude of the people in the bands and I found the audiences to be friendly and informative. I have nothing but good memories of those days. I have not toured America since 2005 with The Selecter so i'm not really up to speed with what's going on over there. I heard a few bands that I have liked including Westbound Train, Chris Murray and of course The Toasters are still going strong. I think on a grass roots level the American ska scene is a lot stronger then over here in the UK which is a shame cos there are some good bands over here like The Rough Kutz, Semi Skinned and Swagga. I holidayed in L.A. a couple of years ago and did a small acoustic show at The Bluebeat Lounge in Hollywood which was great fun but what I would like is to do some King Hammond dates in the USA. So if there are any bands out there who would like the King to come along and play some shows get in touch with me!

You can purchase a copy of the new King Hammond album 'The King And I' directly from Welsh at his Web site. King Hammond will be playing its first live show in 20 years at The Gaff in London on Friday July 30th. You can get more details and information here.


Kames Jelly said...

Marc, youre going to have to set up some Bigger Thomas/King Hammond shows!

Marco On The Bass said...

Ha! I hope so. I'm talking to Nick about getting King Hammond over to the US.

Kames Jelly said...

I'd love to see that happen. I'll help out any way I can.