Interview: Nick Power

Nick Power keyboard player for The Coral chats about Small Town Chase, his acclaimed debut collection of poetry with Richard Lewis

Interview: Nick Power ‘There’s a few names in there I wouldn’t wanna disclose if they were real or not’ Nick Power grins, sipping coffee in a Liverpool cafe. The disclaimer that appears on the publication page of Small Town Chase, Nick’s debut collection of poetry is an unusual one: (the author) ‘Wrote the brunt of this book whilst waiting around for something else to happen. It is a short chronicle of life growing up in a small town in the north of England, and is almost all lies.’

Keyboard player and frequent co-songwriter with much-missed, currently on hiatus Wirral psychedelicists The Coral, the collection was published to considerable acclaim late last year.

While the book understandably shares kinship with themes that permeated a significant portion of The Coral’s lyrics, songs about eccentric characters, (‘Bill McCai’, ‘Simon Diamond’), here these collide with small town ennui and hazy half-remembered recollections of gossip and folklore. A mixture of character studies, surreal flights of fancy and twisted short stories, in places book almost serves as an out of focus autobiography, where the names and places have been changed to obscure the identities of persons living or deceased.

With The Coral currently in cold storage following 2010 opus Butterfly House and band members pursuing various solo projects, Nick found he had the ideal opportunity to write a book and (hopefully) get it published. ‘I’d always wanted to do it and I always felt like I was working towards it, but I thought I’ve got to do something now. I always think I’m not ready yet and then I thought it’s now or never’ Nick explains. ‘I kinda got in the band ‘cos I could write lyrics and then I started to learn about music from the others in the band really, that was always my first love.’

The seed of inspiration to write a book of some sorts, either novel, short stories or what the project eventually became was sowed in the musician’s mind early on. The inspiration for the collection’s title had been on Nick’s mind for over a decade. ‘It was a Velvet Underground tune I’d misheard ‘Beardless Harry, what a waste/Couldn't even get a small-town taste’ (from ‘Run Run Run’) ‘I heard it when I was about 17 and thought ‘If I’m gonna write a book that’s what I’ll call it.’

The first attempt at writing in a non-musical context with a view to sharing it with the outside world, Nick dived straight into the process. ‘I totally did the whole thing on feel, sort of done blind. I was learning as I went, I tried to learn as much as I could and have respect for the medium and try and get into it as much as I could, not try and think I was above it or anything. I just tried to do the best I could.’

With Small Town Chase marking the opening chapter in his literary career, it was important to give as strong an impression as possible what subsequent works might be like. ‘Because it’s the first book, I really wanted to set my stall out about what I’m about’ Nick emphasises. ‘I think I’m always gonna write about similar things, or it’ll be in that context, ‘cos that’s what I know. I like to read stuff that moves me or I can relate to.’

Inspiration for the poems were drawn from a wide field, largely from a rich repository of influences built up over the past decade and a half spent in The Coral. ‘I’ve always liked mid-western writers who talk about small towns in America, Steinbeck, Raymond Carver’ Nick says of his biggest literary influences. ‘I always related to the stuff in it but I can’t write about it ‘cos I’ve only been to the States twice in my life.’ The unpunctuated stream of consciousness James Joyce gave to the world also appears in the works, most evidently in ‘Ulysses’.

Citing musicians whose lyrics are strongly literature inspired, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed are mentioned with fellow John Steinbeck fan Bruce Springsteen coming in for special praise, particularly the spell-binding series of vignettes that make up The Boss’ 1982 LP Nebraska. Beck’s excellent, overlooked 1998 LP Mutations is also highlighted as ‘a massive influence’ with a line from ‘Dead Melodies’ supplying the quote on the opening page, ‘Who could disown/themselves now?’ Willy Vlautin, lead singer of cult Americana band Richmond Fontaine, best known for his 2007 novel The Motel Life meanwhile is selected for his works alongside serving as an inspiration of a musician who successfully moved into writing.

Inspiration from poets themselves meanwhile came from hearing them perform as well as reading them. ‘I’ve listened to poets on YouTube, Kerouac and John Cooper Clarke’ Nick says. ‘I don’t really go and see poets perform but I read all the time, for me it’s an internal thing completely.’

Wrapped in an almost sepia toned cover photograph of Larton Farm, Newton which despite seeming as though it was taken a century ago is nearer to fifteen years, the Wirral peninsula is one of the significant characters in Small Town Chase. The almost-island that faces Liverpool on one side and North Wales on the other comprises the bulk of Merseyside’s green spaces, the conurbation referred to frequently over the years as the New Jersey to Liverpool’s New York.

The strangely poignant ‘Brother’ that wraps up the collection on a wistful note concerns the relationship between the two locations. ‘That was about standing on the pier and looking over at Liverpool and what our shoreline would say to Liverpool’ Nick explains. ‘You know if they were twinned, opposite sides of the river? What one would say to the other.’

Besides The Coral and 1980s synth-pop innovators OMD, Nick’s manor Hoylake is arguably best known internationally for the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, with the Open Golf Open Championships set to return to the this summer. ‘As kids there was fuck all to do’ Nick recalls of the place in the 1990s, the small town boredom surfacing amongst the poems. ‘It’s got better now actually, it fell into disarray, not quite disrepute, the golfers would never have that, it’s too posh for that!’ he laughs.

Various locales including Millhouse Lane, Eastham Ferry Bearpit, Burbo trailer park, the faded Victorian splendour of Birkenhead Park (which inspired New York’s Central Park) ‘and the gas tunnels underneath/New Brighton Baths’ all appear amongst the book’s pages. ‘I like to put landmarks in, there’s some weird landmarks’ the poet explains of the locations that appear in the book. ‘Everywhere’s the same really, except the names’ Nick explains of universalising the material for a wider audience. ‘What you’re relating to is around you and where you come from so I transferred it all and you’ve got to write about what you know as well.’

‘One of the really strong impulses I get to write a story is when I hear gossip’ Nick says of other impulses to write. ‘Have you heard about the bearpit?’ It might not be true but I think in small communities it’s the most powerful thing. It’s either that or, people used to write stuff on the wall of the Co-Op supermarket in white paint, that was a real powerful thing as well. Stuff that like would be really ingrained in my subconscious, so-and-so’s a grass. That or obscure album titles, it would have some weird subliminal effect.’

A strong element of the poems is folklore, with murder appearing in the pieces frequently, the half-remembered ghastly deeds of long ago the basis for a huge amount of old yarns and passed down tales. ‘I think it’s something me and Jay (James Skelly, Coral vocalist) always loved, we were always into old folktales and fables and trying to get them into tunes’ the musician explains.

This fondness for myth-making was demonstrated by The Coral's limited edition 2004 LP Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker where the group claimed to be the illegitimate offspring of the titular German tennis legend Boris. ‘It alters reality whatever it is’ Nick ruminates on gossip. ‘It alters people’s perception of reality and can change it if it’s totally made up, it’s a really powerful thing.’

Walking a line between invention and genuine experiences, an encounter with a station platform preacher recounted in ‘The Tongue Professor’ and the grubby video nasty viewing protagonist of ‘Robbie’ is juxtaposed with the atmospheric phenomenon that causes the sea to glow green in ‘Nothing Much to Write Home About’. A clear homage to the gumshoe detectives of the 1940s meanwhile is the subject of film noir homage ‘East of the River’ the verses reading as though Humphrey Bogart could be narrating them. ‘I was really getting into Raymond Chandler and detective novels’ Nick recalls. ‘I’ve just read The Maltese Falcon.’

Elsewhere autobiographical details emerge in opaque fashion ‘I Wonder When’ posing various questions including ‘I wonder when they’ll let me back into the Isle of Man?’ a location Nick was banned from for several years following a music festival to celebrate the island’s TT motorbike tournament. The fall-out of the ensuing post gig party where some locals had plied the keyboardist with industrial strength local ale, a bout of drunken hi-jinks culminating in a broken car windscreen and an overnight stay in the Dickensian grimness of the island’s jail was the result. ‘The building was so old it was spelt ‘gaol’ Nick grimaces.

With The Coral currently in stasis several pieces in Small Town Chase were initially song lyrics, with the recurring motif of ‘Blackout’, hinging around what would have been a chorus. Similarly the unsettling dusky atmosphere of ‘Gilroy Ponds’ about a compact nature reserve near seaside town West Kirby (‘If you dumped a body in there no-one would ever find it’ Nick remarks cheerfully) represents another piece that comprises of lyrics cut adrift from music.

The surrealist thread of some of the works were inspired by an age old inspiration for writers meanwhile. ‘A lot of them are dreams’ Nick notes. ‘Masie’ and’ Daisy’ about the two cows are dreams.’ The bad-trip texture of ‘Morgan’s Head’ spiralling sideways, almost falling off the page is one of the most unhinged pieces present, the poetic equivalent of a psychedelic freak out.

The onomatopoeic tumble of ‘Christopher Lee’ star of The Wicker Man, a treasured influence of The Coral and a film they helped re-popularise, concerns insomnia, a condition that blighted Nick for months on end. ‘The only time I used to write, I used to do nothing, I’d get up at three in the afternoon and go to bed at six in the morning, when I was in the band between tours. I’d get up late and watch films, I used to write when I couldn’t sleep a lot, that’s some of the subconscious thoughts. There’s loads of rhythmical stuff to insomnia, it’s like a train, it kinda gets in your bones’ Nick explains. ‘It’s kinda like a loop, I always get loops of thoughts and they’re hard to shake, that’s how I used to write.’

Adopting a new modus operandi of writing that didn’t involve being serenaded by the dawn chorus fortunately emerged. ‘I love using my phone, instead of walking round with a pad’ Nick enthuses. ‘Now you’re just on your phone writing, people think you’re on Facebook or you’re texting. It’s the most normal thing you could ever do so you blend in again. I write it into a notepad, the edit it, then put it on to the laptop after that. I don’t know if other people do it, it works for me, it’s a way of blending in.’

Returning to the theme of Nick watching poets reading their work on YouTube, to accompany the book's publication, eleven of the poems were recited by an impressive assortment of actors, musicians and friends which were then uploaded to Soundcloud (check out the readings here)

On the thespian front acclaimed actress Maxine Peake, who made an impact on Nick’s consciousness via her chilling portrayal of Myra Hindley in the award winning 2006 drama See No Evil: The Moors Murders reads the bleary, early hours tale of two nightshift workers ‘Two Angels’. ‘I always wanted Maxine to do it, she’s a great actress. At Manchester Literary Festival she performed the Shelley poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ with loads of candles around, it was amazing.’ Similarly impressive Sam Tyler/The Master himself makes an appearance, as Life on Mars/Dr. Who actor John Simm reads ‘The View from the Back’.

Representing the musicians, luminaries include Liam Fray, Steve Mason, Paul Heaton and former Coral mucker, now venerated solo artist Bill Ryder Jones all appear. The collection’s opening poem ‘New Animal’ read by a fellow psychedelic traveller is cited by Nick as the highlight of the readings. ‘Cian the keyboard player out of the Super Furry Animals was great, that’s probably my favourite one, he did it like Howard Marks!’ the writer laughs.

Liam Fray, lead singer of The Courteeeners recites ‘Ulysses’ which almost acts as an explanation of sorts how the collection came into being. A piece which effectively acts as a ready-made reply to people who might ask the author why Small Town Chase was written and questions over ‘the riddles in the subtext/that only I/know the answers to.’

Published by independent house Erbacce Press, Nick learnt about the Liverpool based company by chance. ‘I saw the publishers on TV and Alan (Corkish, Erbacce editor and co-founder) was doing an interview about Margaret Thatcher Day, slagging her off. They were on the Liverpool Scene (Mersey Poets who included Michael Rosen, Roger McGough et al), the tail end of it. I submitted the book to their competition.’ Along with the Merseyside connection, the company’s set-up appealed to Nick from the outset. ‘It’s a co-operative, they put all the money they make back into it. I can buy the books from them half price then sell them on full price, I don’t make loads off it but it’s good enough. They’ve done a lot of books, they’re worldwide and totally independent’ Nick enthuses. ‘It’s free to enter all the competitions, they give everything back to the art and they make no profit themselves and they allow you to make a profit and you own all the copyright to your own work.’

The edition that made it to the bookshops however could have been markedly different than the final cut the writer explains. ‘There’s four other versions of this and I look back on them and think I’m glad I didn’t put them out. I sent them off to a few people and got a few rejections which was good for me in a way.

The initial version of what became the definitive text proved to be short weight when it was first submitted, meaning more material was needed quickly. ‘Everything I had didn’t fill it, the publishers said I had ‘til the end of the year to do the other half’ Nick recalls. ‘They were pretty hard on me actually, which kicked my arse into shape: ‘We need these doing, get to it’. I had a deadline, which was great for me, ‘cos I’m lazy! I had about six months. Just before it I’d made a concerted effort to push myself so I was kind of on a train. All of the rest of the band had done solo albums, so I thought I’m gonna have to fucking do something here! It was pressure but I enjoyed it in the end.’

Working through the next set of poems for the collection, the new tranche took on a different form than the earlier works in the collection. ‘The second half of the book, there’s some longer stuff in there which I’d never done before’ the writer explains. ‘Alan taught me a lot on how to lay a poem out, which is really more intricate than I ever thought.'

With poetry successfully tackled then, would a move into short story writing be the next step? ‘That’s the aim’ Nick nods. ‘I definitely want to get to there and then to maybe a novel. I think a lot of these are short stories before I know how to write short stories, just snippets, or scenes. Short stories are so different, they’re open-ended, I like that ‘cos you don’t have to wrap anything up. I’m gonna try and do something in prose, try and earn my salt instead of taking the lazy option. It’s not always the lazy option but unless you’re doing really high poetry like Seamus Heaney, one day maybe.’

While the book has been a self-evident success with the warm critical and public reception it has received, Nick is modest about the acclaim it has garnered. 'I think of the book as the start of something' he shrugs. 'Hopefully I’ve got a niche with people who understand what I’m trying to do.’

Small Town Chase is out now, available from Erbacce Press

Readings of the poems can be heard here: