Friday, 18 March 2016

Nic Armstrong: With A Natural Flair

This interview was originally printed in Up&Atom magazine, Issue 3 (Summer 2013). 

I can’t quite believe it’s been ten years since we first picked up Nic Armstrong’s debut album, The Greatest White Liar. In fact, you have to go back nearly eleven years to the beginning of the story. The date was Saturday 11th October 2003, the venue, The Cockpit in Leeds. Nic was on the bill with Crispian Mill’s The Jeevas that night and it was his live show that really blew us away.

Ever since that day we have tried our best to keep in tune with the latest Nic Armstrong news and releases. Nic Armstrong - sometimes also known as Nic Armstrong & The Thieves, and less occasionally as The IV Thieves, hails from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England. He counts Miles Kane, Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller amongst his fans (and has toured supporting the latter two at various times). Now based in Austin, Texas, Nic’s latest record, the excellent Pocketless Shirt EP is out now and he’s is currently working on a follow up EP and an album. He’s a busy man!

Up&Atom caught up with Nic, who kindly took time out of his hectic schedule to chat with us

Up&Atom - How old were you when you first picked up a guitar? What made you want to play?

Nic Armstrong - I was a young lad, picked up the guitar to beat agoraphobia or some massive form of anxiety in public.

U&A - The Greatest White Liar is a brilliant album. We’ve listened to it so many times that we could write a thesis on it, but that’s not the same as hearing the story from the man himself. Tell us about the album and recording it. Oh, and just who is that lying son of a gun you refer to in the title?

NA - Thank you. Still so grateful for the opportunity to make The Greatest White Liar. We really had a great time making it. We didn’t really do any pre-production.

I remember it was a hot summer in London. We had two weeks to record. Liam [Watson, record producer who has also worked with The White Stripes and The Zutons] would come round in the morning and pick us up. We would start early, record, have great lunches, resume, then wrap up around eight. We would then go out and get absolutely ragged on drink around East London. There’s a memory of dining this 16ft cardboard tube in the street and mounting some mannequin’s head or clown mask on it. In the studio it was all business and a million cups of tea.



One Little Indian [Nic’s record label] asked how I wanted to record. I told them I’d play all the parts except for the drums. I’d spotted a fantastic drummer - Jonny Aitken - in Nottingham a couple of weeks earlier and he was onboard to play. The night before we were due in Toe Rag Studios, my best mate Sam picked us up in his car. We loaded up all this really shitty, wrecked equipment - knackered guitars, half a sitar, broken percussion, my sister’s plastic keyboard and headed to London. All these things were used in the studio - for example, the answering ‘na-na na-na’ on She Changes Like The Weather is that funny keyboard.

Ah, the lying son of a gun, eh? Never handled a gun in the UK, honest guv...! Texas is a different kettle of fish. We’ve shot AK47’s, rifles, pistols, uzis..!


U&A - You’ve shared the bill with the likes of Paul Weller and Oasis. Tell us what memories you have of this time?

Image by Colin Gardipee
NA -
Great times! What a buzz hearing the news that Paul Weller wanted me to open for him on his European tour. It was a big level up. It was an honour. I remember walking out into the vast music hall on the first night with just an acoustic. The lights down, the bubbling murmur of a thousand people dying into a hush; what a strange feeling walking across the stage - the way time changed, slowed through that hush. Flicked the amp’s standby switch. Not a sound. Terror. Panic. The hush is still there. First night gremlins chewing at the guitar cords turned into a second night. Finally, finally, the guitar started up and the tour was underway!

Later, we were invited back with the whole band for Weller’s UK tour. Loved playing two nights at Newcastle City Hall, a massive gig for a Geordie. The UK tour wrapped up with three nights in London at the Hammersmith Apollo, then straight off to America. Amazing good fun and this is where we secured the Oasis tour later that year.

My memories of the Oasis shows include missing the second night after getting the whole band locked up at the US-Canadian border; rolling around chain smoking in the tunnels around Madison Square Garden and our crew setting off fireworks backstage in the dressing rooms. On the final night, most of the band has a bona fide fist fight in front of the Oasis buses as they were leaving the venue! They had us back in the UK for their Noise & Confusion event at Cardiff Millennium Stadium (couldn’t afford to take the full UK tour - Boo! Hiss!) After that gig, after playing to 60,000 folks, we rolled all our equipment through Cardiff city centre, through the sea of Saturday drinkers, to the fire station where we slept on the floor in the temporary morgue!

U&A - You’ve got a new EP out now called Pocketless Shirt. Tell us about it. What was the inspiration behind the songs?

NA - Self-releasing Pocketless Shirt EP is all about breaking the seal on the material I have been hoarding since my unplanned emigration to the US. Recorded at Cacophony in Austin, TX with Erik Wofford. It’s a catchy, six track EP that is picking up some great organic buzz in the States.

Major-key tracks bookend four minor-key songs; I like the concept of the ‘audio product’ - a considered flow for a listening experience. Subject matter covers observations of this current US existence: travel, transition, anxiety, getting naughty, witchcraft.

Recorded at Cacophony in Austin, TX with Erik Wofford. It’s a catchy, six track EP that is picking up some great organic buzz in the States.

Major-key tracks bookend four minor-key songs; I like the concept of the ‘audio product’ - a considered flow for a listening experience. Subject matter covers observations of this current US existence: travel, transition, anxiety, getting naughty, witchcraft. I’m a foreign alien now. My eye still scans the horizon. It’s a fun challenge maintaining a British sound when your based in the US. Check it out!

U&A - How different is the music industry in the States compared to the UK?

Photograph by Matt Lankes
NA -
I do find it really inspiring that there are so many jaw-dropping fantastic musicians in the US! However, it’s not about how different/similar or what kind of mess the UK and US industries are in - it’s still tough as fuck and harder to make a bean.

I think if you want to make it in the States you have to be prepared to slug it out, roll up your sleeves and get to it. It’s a big country. There may be two days of travelling between your shows. You have to be on your game. Eye contact and time keeping are good practices. After getting over the culture shock, chain smoking and getting battered all the time are frowned upon a wee bit more in the States by the business types. In the UK, it may be easier to throw on the latest rags whilst trading out your synth for a guitar.

U&A - Is there anything you miss about the UK?

NA - I do miss ol’ Blighty. I never imagined that I would live anywhere else. What do I miss? Playing UK shows, 2am curries, family, friends, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle and the memory of favourite spots along the Northumberland coast. Definitely love the wall of Texas heat though!

U&A - What current projects are you working on or is that top secret?

NA - Where do I start?! Life is all about getting all this lost music found: recorded and released. We’re working on securing partnerships and licensing funds which will go straight back into recording costs. The plan is to have another EP out soon, then work will begin on the LP.

U&A - What kind of clothing do you like?

NA - I love my jackets! When I first arrived in Texas, I was snookered by the wall of heat. All my leather jackets melted then moulded from sweating in them! My style revolves around making the most of the cooler winter/spring months and making it work in the blazing summer!

U&A - How would you describe your ‘style’?

NA - I favour low-key, eccentric, British, down-home, well-worn, big skies, sparklez. Some important things to consider: a martini, good shoes, good hair and your partner on your arm.

U&A - Who or what are your musical influences?

NA - Coming from Newcastle is a major influence. The further and longer than I am away from there, the more aware I am of what it has instilled in me. There is something really particular about that place. A strange bubble perhaps? Music, I identify with the things grounded in vibrant, real, instant.



U&A - Duncan Jones directed the video for Broken Mouth Blues. How did that come about?

NA - I couldn’t tell you! Ha ha! But I remember being told not to ask him about his father. [Duncan Jones is the son of David Bowie.] It was my first video shoot - at Shepperton Studios - I recall being freaked out at first with so many people milling about. A great experience!

U&A - Did you do the covers band thing in the past? (You’ve done some great cover versions) Or did you always prefer to concentrate on original material?
NA - I used to busk around doing doo-wop and vintage rock & roll covers to make money for rolling tobacco and white cider.

U&A - Any plans for a tour of the UK or Europe?

NA - We’re working behind the scenes on that right now. Keep checking www.nicarmstrongmusic.com - as soon as we announce anything, it will be plastered over the website!

Find Nic Armstrong & The Thieves at: www.nicarmstrongmusic.com

Facebook - www.facebook.com/NicArmstrongMusic

Twitter - www.twitter.com/NArmstrongMusic

Huge thanks to Nic! This interview was originally printed in Up&Atom magazine, Issue 3 (Summer 2013). 

Nic Armstrong's new release, Negative Slant is out now - check it out here!

Nic Armstrong and the Thieves are playing the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas now! Check out gig info here.

Nic Armstrong wears Madcap England Trip Op Art Shirt on the cover of the new EP!