Remembering Nick Talbot and the genius of Gravenhurst

Three years after his death, Nick Talbot is missed more than ever.

Three years ago today (December 4, 2014), the awful news broke that Nick Talbot, better known as Gravenhurst, had died at the young age of 37. Nick was not only an incredible musician and songwriter, but also a genuinely good soul. Here is the story of why he was so very important to Sonic Cathedral and why I still miss him.

I admit, I was late to Gravenhurst. I was working in the NME office back in 2007 and I heard a song in the distance that I mistook, weirdly, for The Brian Jonestown Massacre. It was actually ‘Trust’, the first single to be taken from Nick’s fourth album The Western Lands, and it sounded incredible. I was immediately hooked and couldn’t stop playing the record, especially the song ‘Hourglass’; I still think of it every single time I step onto the “black spine, Northern line”.

I got in touch with Nick’s manager, the lovely Michelle Hilborne, and was very pleased to discover that we had mutual friends in Robin and Joe from Truck Festival; I suggested that he should play at Sonic Cathedral one day. I also delved into the back catalogue — first the stunning Fires In Distant Buildings (has there ever been a Kinks cover as good as ‘See My Friends’?), then Black Holes In The Sand, then Flashlight Seasons and finally, a couple years later, Michelle sent me a much treasured copy of the debut, Internal Travels.

Add 2012’s The Ghost In Daylight to this, and what an incredible catalogue that is. Nick once told me he thought his work rate was “paltry”, but I can’t think of any other artists from the last 20 years who have released so many consistently brilliant records. If Nick had had a beard and pretended to live in a remote shack somewhere in Wisconsin instead of Bristol he’d have had acres of magazine coverage and journalists clinging to his every word. Instead, here was an erudite, funny, dark, opinionated, self-effacing and literate British singer-songwriter who struggled to make a living and had to subsist on downpage reviews and occasional snippets of press coverage throughout his career. Shameful. (Ironically, he was actually a better writer than most, too, as his blog and work for The Quietus proved.)

As The Quietus’ John Doran wrote in his obituary, “The songs of Gravenhurst which outlive Nick do so much more than simply ‘be’. He has left us a gift which speaks to us about our times, our people, our memory and our places.” Sadly, during Nick’s lifetime, all too few people realised this. I sometimes wonder if people were confused by the fact he was signed to Warp. I remember suggesting to Neil Halstead a few years back that if Slowdive had released ‘Pygmalion’ on Warp then people would’ve understood it more at the time, and perhaps the opposite is true for Gravenhurst: why is this guy writing dark folk songs trying to get inside the minds of suicide bombers rather than making abstract electronica?

I mention Neil Halstead because it was over him and Slowdive that Nick and I really bonded. I had met him at Truck and at various shows in London; I laughed with him as the noise section of ‘You Made Me Realise’ swallowed up the Roundhouse on the first night of My Bloody Valentine’s comeback shows in 2008; I even released Dead Mellotron’s Glitter after he tipped me off about the band and likened them to his beloved Flying Saucer Attack; but I only – finally! – got Gravenhurst to play that elusive Sonic Cathedral show by offering Nick a support slot with Neil at St Giles-in-the-Fields church on April 24, 2009. It was an incredible night.

Three years later, in April 2012, the tables were turned and Neil supported at St Pancras Old Church, as Nick played an intimate acoustic show to launch The Ghost In Daylight as biblical weather raged outside. (He would play a third Sonic Cathedral show just over a year later, in yet another church – Heath Street Baptist Church in Hampstead.) In the intervening time, I had tried to get them to record covers of each other’s songs to release as a split single. After almost a year of joking that whatever track he chose he would make it sound like ‘Souvlaki Space Station’, Nick turned in a brilliant, buzzing cover of ‘Paint A Face’, originally to be found on Neil’s album ‘Oh! Mighty Engine’.

Nick was rightly proud of this cover and even more pleased that Neil shared his enthusiasm for it. Sadly, Neil’s mooted cover of ‘Hourglass’ never materialised for one reason or another and the single was shelved until ‘Paint A Face’ was paired with Beach Fossils’ version of ‘Alison’ as SCR043, a lovely clear vinyl 7” with artwork appropriated from Jean Cocteau’s Chapelle Saint-Pierre in Villefranche-sur-Mer and released in September 2012 as a tribute to Neil around the release of Palindrome Hunches, which also ended up coming out on Sonic Cathedral.

A couple years earlier, Nick asked for my address as he had something to send me. After a few weeks of nervous anticipation as the mysterious item was left in studios, or got stranded somewhere across Bristol in the snow, it arrived – an original vinyl copy of Slowdive’s ‘Just For A Day’ signed by all five members of the band. An incredibly touching gift, but before I could get too excited, the following post-it note was attached to the front.

We had email conversations where we would discuss the merits of obscure Slowdive demos like ‘Jazz Odeon’ (“I probably own Slowdive songs that Neil doesn’t even remember writing,” he once joked) and Nick said how he felt “so much musical kinship” with Neil. “We tread similar paths,” he explained, “and obviously he’s influenced me so much. And he’s totally undervalued, underrated. Quite a few reviews of my albums have said I’m underrated, but I think I’ve been much luckier with the press than Neil has.”

He was as angry as I was about the ill treatment that was meted out to Slowdive in the press back in the 1990s, or as he described it “fucking class war — self-loathing middle class journalists attacking perceived middle class musicians”. He was fired up enough to write a blog post which ends with a line about young Slowdive fans settling old scores on the band’s behalf “and we will win you know”. In a triumphant social media post after Slowdive’s first show in 20 years at Sonic Cathedral’s 10th birthday party on May 18, 2014, I paraphrased him and concluded with the line “we fucking won”. Nick was there that night; he caught the Megabus up from Bristol and was down the front, tears streaming as they played ‘Souvlaki Space Station’. It was the last time I saw him. I’m so glad we got to share that victory.

Three years on, I think he would’ve loved Neil’s touching dedication of ‘When The Sun Hits’ to him at Slowdive’s sold-out London Forum shows a few weeks after he died, and how his prediction of scores being settled came true, with the band’s total vindication and complete critical reappraisal with their 2017 comeback album. I also wonder what unique perspective Nick would have had on Trump, Brexit, fake news, real news, the deaths of Grant Hart and Ian Brady, Morrissey’s risible new record, 6 Music’s T-shirt day… or just about anything to be honest. What a loss. The past is a strange place, but I want it back.