Feeder

With Feeder cel­e­brat­ing their 25th birthday this year, Grant Ni­cholas marks his band’s sil­ver an­niver­sary with a look back at a ca­reer de­fined by solid-gold hits and tragic loss.

Classic Rock - - Contents -

“I never got into this to be a ‘rock star’.” Grant Ni­cholas marks his band’s sil­ver an­niver­sary with a look back at a ca­reer de­fined by solid-gold hits and tragic loss.

rant Ni­cholas re­mem­bers hang­ing around Camden dur­ing the height of Brit­pop. It was the mid-90s, and he and his band had bagged a deal a year or two ear­lier, just as the mu­sic in­dus­try de­scended en masse on N1. It was the era of Cool Britannia, and there was elec­tric­ity in the air. But while the likes of

Blur, Oa­sis and Elas­tica were be­ing fêted by the main­stream mu­sic press, Feeder were on the out­side with their faces pressed against the glass.

“We didn’t re­ally fit in with all the trendy bands who were do­ing drugs in the toi­lets of The Good Mixer,” says Ni­cholas to­day of their cagoule- and Fred Perry-clad coun­ter­parts. “We were too – quote-un­quote – ‘rock’. There were a few of us who knew each other and played to­gether – us, Skunk Anan­sie, bands like that. We were out­siders.”

Ni­cholas has mixed feel­ings about how his band were per­ceived then and now. On the one hand, there’s a sus­pi­cion that Feeder hav­ing never been the cool kids still ran­kles. On the other, he’s jus­ti­fi­ably proud of the band’s sub­se­quent 20-year ca­reer, tak­ing in nine Top 20 al­bums, thank you very much.

“I think we’ve proved our­selves to be a good band af­ter all this time, don’t you?” he says with po­lite un­der­state­ment, fix­ing Clas­sic Rock with a dare-you-to-ar­gue look. “Any­way, I stopped car­ing what other peo­ple thought years ago.”

On the first point, un­de­ni­ably so. Ni­cholas him­self is one of the great un­sung Bri­tish song­writ­ers of re­cent years. His songs are car­ried aloft by the sort of melodic crafts­man­ship that can be de­scribed with­out em­bar­rass­ment as ‘time­less’. Over the years, the Welsh­man has turned his hand to free­wheel­ing alt.rock, bil­low­ing emo­tional an­thems and, in the case of their big­gest hit, Buck Rogers, solid gold pop.

We’re sit­ting in a shed-cum-home stu­dio at the bot­tom of Ni­cholas’s North Lon­don gar­den. The walls are cov­ered in Feeder mem­o­ra­bilia – gold and plat­inum discs and gig posters hang above var­i­ous gui­tars, key­boards and mix­ing desks. Most poignant is an im­age of the cover of 2002’s Com­fort In Sound, the al­bum that helped lead the band out of the dark­ness fol­low­ing the sui­cide of orig­i­nal drum­mer Jon Lee.

Ni­cholas him­self is an as­ton­ish­ingly well­p­re­served 49. He looks ex­actly the same as he did when Feeder re­leased their de­but mini-al­bum, Swim, back in 1996. He’s a friendly, gar­ru­lous talker. “Oh, Grant can talk and talk,” says Taka Hirose, the band’s Ja­panese-born bas­sist. “When I first joined I couldn’t al­ways un­der­stand what he was talk­ing about.”

Ni­cholas can be prickly if he feels his band are be­ing slighted, but there’s lit­tle of the whiff of the rock star about him. A cou­ple of weeks af­ter we talk, Feeder play an out­door gig in front of a few thou­sand peo­ple at the race­course in Ni­cholas’s home town of Chep­stow, South Wales. “There was a petrol sta­tion over there,” he says at one point. “I used to work there. Bloody loved it.”

Dave Lee Roth he isn’t.

“I never got into this to be a ‘rock star’,” he says with a kind of earnest scorn, back in his shed. “I wanted to write good songs. If that makes me un­usual, so what?”

or all his mod­esty, Ni­cholas has al­ways been fiercely am­bi­tious. He moved from Wales to Lon­don in his early 20s, drawn by what was hap­pen­ing in the cap­i­tal’s mu­sic scene. As a kid, he loved Black Sab­bath and The Po­lice, but his mu­si­cal in­flu­ences were too heavy for the in­die crowd and too poppy for its metal coun­ter­part.

“So we created our own lit­tle scene,” he says. “[North Lon­don pub] The Wa­ter Rats was kind of our base. That’s where me and Jon started to get things off the ground.”

Ni­cholas had met the man who would be­come his mu­si­cal part­ner in crime even be­fore he moved to Lon­don. Jon Lee was born in New­port, just a few miles down the road from Chep­stow. The drum­mer was the yin to Ni­cholas’s yang – a live-wire pres­ence who ap­pointed him­self the band’s cheer­leader-in-chief.

“Jon was such a bril­liant sales­man,” says Ni­cholas. “He lived and breathed what we were do­ing. He’d be the one hand­ing out fly­ers or shov­ing demos into peo­ple’s hands. I mean, me and Taka did our share of that, but he was the one who re­ally pushed us.”

Even with Lee’s huge ef­forts, it took a while for the band to gain trac­tion. Their early choice of names – go­ing with both Reel and Real – prob­a­bly didn’t help mat­ters much. They changed it to Feeder af­ter sign­ing to in­de­pen­dent la­bel Echo in 1995, though in all hon­esty that wasn’t much of an im­prove­ment. (Ni­cholas looks ag­grieved at the sug­ges­tion.)

Still, their mu­sic made up for their unin­spired choice of name. Swim and its full-length fol­lowup Poly­thene of­fered a stream­lined, dis­tinctly

Bri­tish take on the brit­tle alt.rock of such bighit­ters as Pix­ies and Smash­ing Pump­kins. Songs such as Crash and the bliss­ful High su­gar-coated their alt.rock stylings with Ni­cholas’s un­abashed pop sen­si­bil­i­ties. Mean­while, the trio’s de­ci­sion to start wear­ing or­ange jump­suits – com­bined with Hirose’s unique deely-bop­per hair­style – gave them noth­ing if not a dis­tinc­tive look.

“Oh God, the jump­suits,” says Ni­cholas, winc­ing. “I have no idea what we were think­ing. I sup­pose some­one sug­gested it might have helped if we had an im­age, so that’s what we de­cided. I still haven’t got a roy­alty cheque from Slip­knot for the idea,” he adds wryly.

De­spite – or maybe be­cause of – the jump­suits, Feeder stood apart from the Brit­pop crowd. The rock me­dia’s at­tempts to cre­ate a par­al­lel scene made up of heav­ier bands – imag­i­na­tively dubbed Britrock – was more suc­cess­ful. To­day, Ni­cholas says he was never en­tirely com­fort­able with the no­tion of be­ing pi­geon­holed, but ad­mits that it helped raise the pro­file of his band. Cer­tainly Feeder, along with the likes of Ter­rorvi­sion and Skunk Anan­sie, ben­e­fited from the ex­po­sure.

But Ni­cholas was keen to move for­ward, not rest on what his band had achieved far. Sec­ond al­bum Yes­ter­day Went Too Soon smoothed out some of the band’s more abra­sive edges, while their third, Echo Park, wore its pop in­flu­ences proudly on its sleeve – not least on the hit sin­gle Buck Rogers.

With its epic cho­rus, nagging hook and nurs­ery rhyme lyric (‘He’s got a brand new car, looks like a Jaguar’), Buck Rogers was ge­nius in its sim­plic­ity. Ni­cholas laughs when he re­calls writ­ing it – it was in­spired when he and his then-girl­friend de­cided to take a break from each other and she briefly dated “a guy who lit­er­ally drove a Jaguar”. (The story has a happy end­ing: Ni­cholas and his girl­friend re­united and even­tu­ally mar­ried, and they’re still to­gether to­day.)

Less down-to-earth mu­si­cians might be em­bar­rassed by the song. Ni­cholas has no such qualms. “What can I say? It’s a great song. And it sup­ported us fi­nan­cially for a long time.”

Buck Rogers el­e­vated Feeder to rock’s A-list. Af­ter al­most a decade of strug­gle, they found them­selves play­ing to a whole new au­di­ence, one who wouldn’t have dreamed of buy­ing a record like Poly­thene or go­ing to see a band who wore or­ange jump­suits on stage. Life couldn’t have been bet­ter for Feeder. And then Jon Lee killed him­self.

rant Ni­cholas and Taka Hirose both have the same mem­ory of the last time they saw their band­mate. It was shortly be­fore Christ­mas 2001. Feeder had just recorded an ap­pear­ance on Satur­day morn­ing kids’ TV show SM:TV, and the three of them said their good­byes be­fore the drum­mer flew back to his new home in Mi­ami for a few weeks’ break. Both re­mem­ber him rid­ing off on a bike with Christ­mas presents piled up be­hind him.

“He seemed happy, giv­ing every­one hugs,” says Ni­cholas. “Noth­ing un­to­ward. Cer­tainly noth­ing to sug­gest what was go­ing to hap­pen.”

On Jan­uary 7, Ni­cholas got a call on his mo­bile from an uniden­ti­fied num­ber. He ig­nored it, not re­al­is­ing it was Lee. The same day, the drum­mer hanged him­self in his garage. To­day Ni­cholas talks about his friend’s death with the kind of mat­terof-fact­ness that comes with hav­ing spent a decade and a half pro­cess­ing what hap­pened.

“I miss him greatly, of course I do,” he says. “I beat my­self up over miss­ing that phone call.

You think: ‘Could I have stopped him? Did he want some­one to help him?’ But I didn’t, and he did what he did. I can’t change that.”

Ni­cholas ad­mits he lost him­self in the months that fol­lowed. “My head was here,” he says, mak­ing a spin­ning-off-into-space mo­tion with his hand.

Ever the crafts­man, mu­sic pro­vided his an­chor. He con­tin­ued writ­ing songs, even if he didn’t know what they were for. “I didn’t even know if Feeder still ex­isted,” he says.

Hirose was strug­gling to deal with what had hap­pened, but he re­mem­bers Ni­cholas play­ing

“When you get to that stage of your ca­reer and peo­ple are ac­cus­ing you of sell­ing out, well… you can’t do any­thing but laugh.”

Grant Ni­cholas

him the new songs. “They were Feeder songs,” says the bas­sist, shrug­ging. “That’s when we re­alised that we weren’t go­ing to split up.”

“I al­ways like to think that Jon would have wanted us to carry on,” says Ni­cholas. “Feeder was ev­ery­thing to him.”

The al­bum that fol­lowed Lee’s death, Com­fort In Sound, was an au­di­ble heal­ing process. It was, un­der­stand­ably, qui­eter and more re­flec­tive than any­thing they’d made be­fore, while the cover fea­tured an illustration of a fig­ure with an­gel wings. “It was hard to make in a lot of ways, but in oth­ers it was re­ally easy,” says Ni­cholas. “It’s a cliché to say it was cathar­tic, but that’s ex­actly what it was.”

Com­fort In Sound gave Feeder their sec­ond con­sec­u­tive Top 10 al­bum, though its suc­cess was bit­ter­sweet. Its more mea­sured ap­proach in­ad­ver­tently pointed the way for­ward for the band, mu­si­cally at least. Feeder’s next two al­bums, 2005’s Push­ing The Senses and 2008’s

Silent Cry, smoothed out what re­mained of their rougher edges. Where they’d once sounded like a Bri­tish Smash­ing Pump­kins, now it seemed they were go­ing for the mid­dle-of-theroad Cold­play vote.

“Well, that’s frankly ridicu­lous,” says Ni­cholas, bristling for the first time. “Lis­ten to those records – yes, they’ve got softer songs on them, but they still sound like Feeder. When you get to that stage of your ca­reer and peo­ple are ac­cus­ing you of sell­ing out, well… you can’t do any­thing but laugh.”

It’s an ac­cu­sa­tion that some peo­ple still level at the band. One re­cent post on Feeder’s Face­book page ac­cused the band of “turn­ing into

Cold­play… Lost the rock to the

Bed­whet­ters [sic]”, prompt­ing a typ­i­cally po­lite re­sponse from Ni­cholas, al­beit one that clearly came de­liv­ered through grit­ted teeth: “I don’t think so, mate.”

“I think I’d had a glass or two of red too many,” he says, laugh­ing. “I mean, I’m not the sort of per­son who’d go round to some­one’s house and chin them for say­ing some­thing like that.” He pauses. “But it does piss me off.” hese days, Feeder ex­ist in a com­fort­able place. They still have com­mer­cial clout

– their most re­cent re­lease, a Best Of that came with brand new nine-track al­bum Ar­row bolted onto it, en­tered the UK Top 10 (to al­lay the fears of those who still see Feeder as “bed­whet­ters”, the new tracks are as mus­cu­lar as any­thing the band wrote in the 90s). Still, the ap­proval that most bands seek eludes them. “I didn’t get into this to please the crit­ics,” says Ni­cholas with a shrug.

In fact he seems more put out that this year is be­ing billed as Feeder’s 21st an­niver­sary. “It’s not. It’s twenty-five years,” he says ex­as­per­at­edly.

The crowd that has gath­ered at Chep­stow Race­course don’t seem to care about ei­ther an­niver­saries or crit­i­cal ac­claim. They’re a mix of lo­cal rock fans cel­e­brat­ing their home-town heroes and ca­sual mu­sic fans who could sing along to the hits but couldn’t name an al­bum track. “It’s only taken us twenty-five years to get here,” Ni­cholas says from the stage at one point.

Ear­lier, in his gar­den shed, he looks back on that quar­ter-cen­tury jour­ney with a mix of pride and sad­ness. “This is where you ask if it’s been worth it, right?” he says. “Well, no and yes. I wish Jon was still here, and I miss him ev­ery day. But just to have made it this far… Well, that’s got to be worth some­thing, right?” Feeder – The Best Of 21st An­niver­sary Collection is out now via BMG. The band play U K dates in March.

Words: Dave Ever­ley Pho­tos: Kevin Nixon

Com­fort in sound: Feeder main­man Grant Ni­cholas in his shed-cum-stu­dio.

Re­luc­tant rock star: Ni­cholas at home in North Lon­don.

“I never got into this to be a ‘rock star’. I wanted to write good songs. If that makes me un­usual, so what?”

Grant Ni­cholas

Feeder in 2001: (l-r) Taka Hirose, Grant Ni­cholas, Jon Lee.

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