Nick Huggins: ‘Discord And Distortion’
Nick Huggins’ easygoing modesty belies his skills as a producer, songwriter and instrumentalist. Words and photos by JON TJHIA.
On the ground, the air is chilled and dry. If it's warm anywhere else, the sun is only half-heartedly trying to warm Point Lonsdale, its weak beams searching the faded weatherboard facade of A Pocket Full Of Stones.
A Pocket Full Of Stones is Nick's grandfather's old home in Point Lonsdale. But this pocket is also his parents' inner-Melbourne garage, and ultimately wherever else Nick sets down. "I don't particularly want any more gear," he muses, as my gaze rests on an orphaned Dynaudio monitor speaker on its stand. (The other blew up.) He's dressed very tidily, torso in the cosy grip of a duffel coat, which seems somewhat incongruous with the fact that he's been surfing. He's hard to get on the phone, seemingly either in the water or working, and admits that after the latter he's often too tired to return calls. "Being out of town is bliss for record making, not so good for the emailing," he writes in an email. He guiltily tells me of a tearful emoticon that arrived in his inbox after a Perth musician’s numerous failed attempts to contact him, taking his elusiveness for a sign that he "hated" her. It's the one thing he says he wishes he could change about the way people regard him.
We're sitting among several rickety drums and old organs and microphones and stands and a handful of guitars and signal processors and two old Macs and a faceless piano, in a room glowing with tungsten light at one end and dim daylight at the other. A huge reverberation plate leans against one wall and occasionally a car peels off the Bellarine Highway and sighs past the end of the street. Homemade wooden assemblies of switches, LEDs and potentiometers lay eviscerated between strips of solder and containers of transistors and diodes, atop what was probably once used as a dining table.
But let's not get too attached to the setting. In the past year, Nick has also temporarily adopted a sweaty bungalow in Geraldton to work on an “Aussie hip hop” project, and enjoyed a "luxurious stint at Sing Sing". Our conversation has been nomadic too: in the stairwell of Melbourne's RAOBGAB Buffalo Club, in car trips, and over noisy phone lines.
In any case, the sprawl of mics, Macs and instruments is but one gateway into the considered world of Nick Huggins. Aged 29 and carefully spoken, freckled and bespectacled, his patient, easygoing modesty belies his skills as a producer, songwriter and instrumentalist, as well as the impressive work he's undertaken in the past couple of years. I first encountered Nick at Melbourne's North Bazaar (now Willow Bar) as a member of the ambitious, spacey avant-rock band Touch Typist, and later through his 2007 album Shipwreck. Others will be familiar with music from his growing body of production work spanning most of Two Bright Lakes' releases (Oscar+Martin, Otouto, Kid Sam, Hello Satellites, Seagull) as well as records by Mick Turner, Whitley, Laura Imbruglia and Love Connection. I Am Eleven, the feature-length documentary soundtracked by Nick's original compositions, premiered at July’s Melbourne International Film Festival to two sold-out sessions, scoring an encore screening and third place in the festival's Audience Choice Awards.
He’s just released Five Lights, his second album, an abstract "multi format work" comprising a booklet of prose and a cassette of extended guitar instrumentals alongside the traditional compact disc. As though that were insufficient, Nick has made a series of videos based on each song for the project's website. So, where do we begin?
Nick began recording freeform guitar pieces on a Tascam 424 four-track, a boy in his mid-teens on the NSW Central Coast. A shy and self-conscious adolescent, his relationship to music was, at first, removed from the idea of a performance, an audience, an exposure. “I just really liked to record. The idea of listening to something that became a kind of external thing, like a musical object, an artefact. I was obsessed with photography before then, and when I got into music I thought of it like photography. So I’d be wanting to envisage something and have it there, like an artefact — one thing.” The young guitarist’s photographic, representational preoccupations would, another lifetime later, be thoroughly explored in Five Lights.
Following his early private explorations on tape and in Windows 95’s Sound Recorder program, Nick joined folk pop group Ruby's Grace as a guitar player. It was when the band entered the studio to record an album that he recommenced his own recording at home, partly as a response to the heft and pressure of the fully loaded studio-for-hire. These home recordings became Nick's first self-released EP called A Pocket Full of Stones, tallying only 80 copies. Ruby's Grace disbanded, leaving him to focus on his own songwriting and his steadily growing interest in recording.
Around 2006-7, the path forks. Nick had started recording friends' bands and, with his brother and a group of close associates, began organising events to showcase their respective projects. Unexpectedly large turnouts sparked the idea of experimenting with the creation of a record label. “Part of the idea was just that by starting a label, we’d figure out a bit more about what labels were and how to do what we were doing in the context of the wider music thing, which we didn’t know much about,” he admits. Two Bright Lakes began life in 2007 with Nick, younger brother Simon (“Tig”), Hazel Brown, Blake Byron-Smith, Chris Bolton, Mark Gretton and Adrian Simons splitting responsibilities.
Four years on, the resulting label Two Bright Lakes' initial aspirations have already been thoroughly exceeded, leaving three of its founders with unexpected, self-made careers in the music industry. The imprint's catalogue has swelled with artists toting adventurous sonics and pop appeal, and a majority of them have worked with Nick. Collectively, they've attracted the attention of community radio, triple j and the arts community including profiles on The Vine and ABC Art Nation. Nick is conspicuously absent.
After the success of Kid Sam’s Australian Music Prize-nominated first album things became more serious, prompting a structural rethink. “Now, there are two arms. One is the label side and one is the collective,” Nick explains. “Some of the decision-making as a group was kind of holding things back. We’re all still involved in ideas and decisions, and creating things, but the day to day running of it is Tig, Hazel and Blake.”
Meanwhile, Shipwreck had been the label's inaugural release. After his teenage tape stylings, it was the first thing he’d done on his own with an audience in mind. Through those 10 songs, he sculpted his various sonic fascinations — folky acoustic figures, found sounds, double-tracked vocals and some light electronic sequencing — into a colourfully low-key indie pop shape. “Looking back, some of the things that I can least relate to about Shipwreck are more about trying to connect with a listener."
Shipwreck would not be followed by any further solo releases until Five Lights, four years later. Instead, Nick concentrated his attention on other projects. Touch Typist, his trio with Tig and drummer Gretton, released a mini-album. A full-length record has proven difficult to finish, he confesses, with the band falling victim to its members’ other interests.
Instead, Nick has again paired up with his brother in Speed Painters — a dance music project building atop its techno, house, disco and motor soul influences. "The thing that I'm kind of excited about is that some of my favourite things about Touch Typist are morphing into Speed Painters," Nick says. "I really love the music Tig's writing for that. I think it's going to be fun, and it's nice to see Tig doing that because it's the first stuff he's really driven from the beginning. It's a big step for anyone, to play on your own."
"I didn't grow up listening to electronic music or dance music. I was a bit of a guitarist about it," he continues. In search of that music's internal truths — and reflecting his typical approach — Nick embarked upon building his own analogue synths and sequencers, the bare brown, switch- and LED-lined plywood cases of which are strewn around his studio, guts exposed. He explains: "If I could build a synth, maybe then I'd be able to use it in a way that was, I suppose, more authentic to where I was coming from. One of the reasons I didn't like electronic music as a teenager was that I just couldn't get which instruments made those sounds. My love of music grew immediately with my love of guitar.” Nick's description of a sequencer he's building for Tig renders it fairly chaotic, prone to hiccups in timing and tone and geared for compositional volatility.
If it seems like a reasonably bold way to approach music-making, it has its cautious elements too: his hand-hewn devices are thus far powered by nine-volt batteries only. "I think because my theory about electronics and electricity is so cobbled together, to plug something into the wall is a big step for me. I'm a bit worried about that.” Anyway, wouldn't it be just as easy to construct circuits virtually, in software? "Everything I hope to do with this, you could do with a $5 software thing easily, but I just don't find that a process that's enjoyable. This gives me a stronger base to explore it. Also, when you have knobs and physical things, there's more chance for stuff to go wrong. And when stuff goes wrong that's always the best bit." You mean fire? "As long as it doesn't involve fire." Electrocution? He pauses. "Yes, or electrocution."
Alongside a couple of mentors — Kevin Garant, Anthony "ToK" Norris, Michael Pollard and Jonathan Burnside — friends have been central to Nick's trajectory as a producer and engineer. As their demand for his help with their recordings grew, he began to devote more of himself to the craft. He's now in his sixth year as a full-time engineer. Even today, a significant portion of it continues to pivot on that social axis, and those circles are always growing. His gently collaborative approach bucks the cliche of the been-there, done-that engineer. Though he is young, it's not a template that's easy to imagine him growing into. His belief is too deep.
"Every person who comes in is just a wealth of completely different knowledge. At the best of times, it's a full exchange on both sides. Because you have access to such a large period of time with people when you're recording them, and that time is spent doing something really in-depth, so you get access to their way of thinking about music at a really high level. That's what keeps kind of rejuvenating me, I reckon.”
Yet a tightly knit community generates other problems. "Sometimes I feel like nobody would ever tell me if I was terrible at my job," he concedes. He's earnest in his openness to criticism, and is receptive to the alternative perspective that reviews of his production work can offer. He's self-critical, often cringing at the thought of his past work, uncomfortable with the thought of listening to it. And he's vague about the sonic qualities that define a Nick Huggins recording, toying with the question of whether it's essentially a failure to try doing things completely different each time only to end up with similarities and consistencies.
"I know the things I really like, so I suppose they end up in it," he says. "I know I really like room sounds. Spatial things in recordings really get me excited, and things having their own space and mic’ing techniques that capture that properly. There's things I really don't like, which is anything that sounds like commercial radio, anything that's hyper-compressed or larger than life. I love distortion but I love distortion on everything mildly … I like discord and distortion and things that rub against each other, but I like it all in moderation, I guess."
The "light, humble and spacious sound that works a broad stereo field", mentioned in M+N's review of Seagull's Council Tree is partly attributable to Nick's favoured recording tool, an AEA R88 stereo ribbon microphone. It's also evident in the mild, reflective and deeply polite manner of the son of an Anglican Bishop and psychologist. "There must be some constriction I put on myself or that always happens in the process."
He pauses, then elaborates. "What's exciting about distortion or something that's extreme in any way is when you put it next to something that's not extreme. You see the difference more, but it moderates both of them, so it kind of subdues the influence of both. The vocals of ‘Autumn’ [from Otouto’s Pip] are quite pop sounding, and Hazel's voice is very … it's a beautiful thing. Putting the pot [favoured by percussionist Kishore Ryan] next to it, there's a friction there that's complimentary to both, I think … Those contrasts, to me they're exciting.”
Otouto - Autumn by Mess+Noise
Aside from a few essential tools, Nick's recording ethos is deliberately oriented away from equipment. "I don't have a desperate need for any more gear, and I'm happy to work in pretty much any space. Like anybody, more money would make the world easier," he says, "but that's a pretty small thing."
The drive to acquire more impressive devices has been accelerated by the burgeoning home recording industry, pressuring studio owners to really justify the expense of hiring a studio and an engineer. "Everybody can make records on their own, and they're also told that you don't need anybody else's opinion or skills, which I think is partly completely true and in other ways is misleading. If you can't get your record done because recording yourself is troublesome, that's not a good end result.”
A sense of duty ties him to the lower economic tiers of the recording industry. He insists he should always be affordable for "a bunch of 17 year olds"; something he decided on while working at Eastern Bloc studios in Melbourne under the American-born Burnside.
Nick graduated from the University of Melbourne's Creative Arts course, and partially completed study in audio engineering at RMIT. He describes his initial encounters with the university arts set as somewhat wide-eyed. "Everybody knew who Freud was," he gasps. It was a far cry from the art class he'd left behind in Grafton, NSW. He remembers the cage his art teacher installed at the back of the room for the bad kids. Was that cage some sort of tongue in cheek construct? "No, no — a serious cage. Her husband built a cage."
In what could only be described as irony, the most potent influence Nick discovered in his Creative Arts studies was American composer John Cage. “Some of the things that he says specifically about letting sounds be sounds … that single idea probably works in a lot of areas in music production, because if you're talking about the sound specifically, it leaves you open to all sorts of possibilities. That's why I enjoy working in different rooms and having equipment that's peculiar in some way … letting things happen as they are. But also you can talk about the band replacing sound in that idea. If you let the band be as it is, that's the best possible way of producing something. To present what the essence of a band is in its clearest form.”
The idea of sound as music has played a crucial role in the conception and execution of Five Lights. Given the chronology, it's tempting to perceive the album as an arty deviation from the pop sensibilities of Shipwreck. It’s actually the opposite. If anything, the whole experience of writing a pop record merely imbued in him a stronger urge to dismantle the form and examine its basis.
"I think, in terms of writing music, a process I went through to push me further back into searching for — this is going to sound pretentious, but — ‘pure sound’, was seeing all these really exciting, interesting things happen that then get constrained into a song.”
Although not necessarily a complaint, he cites his production work on other people's songs "all day every day" as a factor in diminishing his ability to enjoy writing his own. "I just got really sick of, really frustrated with chords. Even just singing for a while seemed like the most ridiculous thing to do in the world. And writing a song that has a meaning seemed ridiculous."
Nick's sensibilities about his music — his most intuitive ties to song, form, melody, pattern, structure — were cut adrift by meandering and persistent inquiries into their truest, purest nature. He reached a point where songs became irrelevant, falling out of favour with the grand contrivances of structure and melody. At one point he reconnected with Indian music, an early influence, about which he says "harmony is kind of irrelevant. It's just all this floating line of melody and rhythm”.
“Most of the time, pretentious things are the most interesting things.”
Diverting his attention from the realm of narrative and form meant that his interest in free-ranging sonics had plenty of room to stretch out. Plus, over the three years before he started making the album, he'd accumulated a lot of ideas he wanted to explore. This ultimately resulted in a series of experiments with automatic composition. From the writing desk in the corner of his grandfather's lounge, he produces some examples. He points out a grid filled with numbers; it's a data set compiled while watching a Geelong v Hawthorn AFL match from Kardinia Park in 1996. (Nick and his family are ardent Cats supporters.)
In composing the piece, he'd assigned different numbers and positions to various events during the game, beginning with then aging superstar Paul Couch: number seven. Once he had annotated the chart, he periodically altered the scales attached to it. Then, he translated the obscure document into more legible musical notation that he could then play and record. Was it evidence of going crazy having spent too much time alone in Point Lonsdale?
"Possibly," he laughs. "I know that there's nothing new or unique about it, but I just find it really exciting and fun to do. It's a start of something. The more spontaneous and random it is the better, I think. It's more fascinating to the ear. Everything I try and think through and then execute becomes perverted … this is a kind of letting go of that."
Five Lights explores themes that have preoccupied its creator for several years. The album's full original title, Five Lights on Port Philip Bay, now belongs to the limited run booklet and cassette package that accompanies the album proper. Together, they are his attempt to convey ideas with broader ambitions than just the one suite or format.
"At the time, some of the guitar music was written from external input to composition, and one of those things was the shipping lane lights off Point Lonsdale," he says of the title. "But more systematically, it's about being outside of things and observing them as closely as you can — being really hyper-observant of things. A lot of the bigger ideas are about spaces changing, light changes, things changing constantly," he reveals. "Change is an inspiring and amazing thing to observe.”
The booklet features one short piece of prose per page, with no accompanying imagery. Instead, Nick's words are arranged into concise stanzas beneath their titles: 'Coin', 'Room', 'Airport', 'Paddock', and so on. Mere vignettes, they are an exercise in economy but clearly reference his fascination with poetic detail.
After naming his project, he says, the concept simply made more and more sense. "All these other resonances came out which were much more subconscious. Things that mean a lot to me that — I hadn't considered at all at the time — fed into the title. Like there's [Iranian arthouse director] Abbas Kiarostami's film called Five Dedicated to Ozu, which is these long shots of not much happening at all. And almost bizarrely without even realising, a lot of the films that I've been making were heaps like that. [Then] there's, of course, number five as in Gary Ablett senior's football jumper number.”
Oddly, Five Lights has a lead single, ‘Iceberg’; a humming, droning piece held in shape by a knocking metallic chord. The song is like a distant, druggy complement to 'Chariots of Fire', while its accompanying video tracks a passenger jet steadily traversing a faint blue sky. One long shot, apparently from a car; a series of grainy, stuttering slides.
Nick is making all of the project's videos save for one. 'Golden Hour' instead pairs off with friend Lucy Fahey's hand-drawn animation, following a child's adventures with a toy boat. Completed over 18 months by Fahey, it's immeasurably more weighted toward narrative than any of Nick's nine other videos.
The rest of the songs on Five Lights unfold incrementally, or through careful repetition. Aurally it's a much darker work than Shipwreck, painted in ghostly tones, and there is something analogue about it –whether that's the disembodied piano and round, muted drums, the dirgy smear of hazily tracked guitars or the rudimentary synthetic hum and yawn of sculpted voltage. 'Diamond' positively glimmers like the "thousand new cars" its lyrics describe; a glowing, expansive piece. 'Hoddle Street', on the other hand, offers the kind of rudimentary, dryly ominous electronics and exposed vocal that would be at home on Laurie Anderson’s Big Science.
Given the gaping metaphysics of Nick's journey from Shipwreck to this record, it's often surprisingly familiar. Clear, articulate melodies have survived remarkably well; likewise the bassy hull-like knocks of percussion and of course, the singer's bare voice — candidly high in the mix and always slightly more than half spoken.
Nick's up front, oft-plaintive vocal delivery, including his conspicuous accent, has come across as confrontingly unaffected or offputtingly direct to some. He probably doesn't care, as I discover when I ask him what he'd like to change about the world of music around him. "I think the only thing that really gets me down is cultural cringe about Australian music," he protests. "That's probably about the only thing that gets me riled up. I hate — I absolutely hate — going to the football and hearing people using the American accent to sing our national anthem, or sing their song in an American accent. It just makes my blood boil.
"I love the sound of people being themselves, and people singing in their speaking voice always captivates me no matter how weird their speaking voice is … The idea that you have to put on something else to be valid really frustrates me.”
Close to the heart of cultural cringe is the ubiquitous criticism of pretentious art. “Most of the time, pretentious things are the most interesting things,” Nick explains. "I suppose it's part of the Aussie way. I played a gig in Geelong and this guy came up to me afterwards and said, 'You think about music too much. You should just bloody write a country song.' Dead serious! I thought that was a good quote."
At least on the “main” disc of Five Lights, it seems feasible enough that Nick has ceded some ground to song form, or at least temporarily suspended those philosophical objections. The intrigue of the record is that it's pop if you want it to be; experimental if you want it to be. He lists resonator guitar composer Lou Harrison, Einsturzende Neubauten, Melbournian art rockers Where Were You At Lunch?, Kraftwerk's Radio-Activity album, a Four Tet secret show at Deep Eleven and the music of the Chinese guzheng as direct influences on the album, as well as writers Adam Zagajewski, Czeslaw Milosz and Charles Simic.
"I'd always listen," he muses, "but I feel like in that year my listening skills became more acute, and what I'm interested in is purely just that little second and then the next little second. At the moment I'm only interested in things that I can just bliss out to and listen to, and I don't need to be pushed here or there."
Let's go back to the studio at Point Lonsdale. Nick's black-and-white cat Rooke rolls around and through our ankles in figures of eight. Doug, a "local character" in a Cats tracksuit, potters down to the back door and calls into the house, interrupting Nick as he's discussing what scares him about working full-time in music. Surveying the room, Doug looks warily over the table of unfinished electronics. After he leaves, Nick guiltily admits that he fabricates errands when busy. "He's lovely, but he's just not doing anything else, so he's happy to hang out here for a few hours if I let him. I remember him when I was five years old, wandering around the streets of Lonnie."
He returns to his earlier thought. "Sometimes the music world can be only about ego, or is perverted by that current. And when you get to about this age, you wonder — are you kind of just pretending to be young forever? It's a big question about what makes doing music worthwhile, and I suppose from that, what kind of music or musical activities are authentic to you and to those questions.
"I think the only thing that really gets me down is cultural cringe about Australian music."
"The thing that prompts me asking those questions is the next 10 years, and thinking, 'In the bigger picture, are you actually doing any good — is there any net gain for the world out of making music?' Ecologically it's a big negative in the power and the gadgets and the focusing on objects and postering. In terms of running a studio, you kind of have to become an uber-consumer. It's all about earning enough money to get the next big shiny thing, and you need the shiny thing to impress the person. That's a really big part of the studio thing, and that's pretty repulsive in any sphere. To find that next to something you love prompts questions."
So, with the weight of those considerations, the ecological burden, the pressure to spend and update, the jostling density of egos – it has to be asked: How and why does one continue? What keeps Nick Huggins working, playing, interested and positive?
"I think what makes that worthwhile is looking past the kind of ego constructions, the self-worth social stuff and image things, and then business things, and then trying to find what's actually fundamental about music: why everyone loves it and why everyone's been doing it forever. Finding that source is part of trying to make it valid as a life pursuit. I think everyone has those questions and everyone tries to find that perfect encapsulation of their interests in sound in really different ways."
When I leave the house, the sun is long gone. The air is much colder than I expect, and a dense, uniform sheet of condensation has coated the windows of my car. My shoulders instinctively pull together, trying to nestle some unfound heat between them, the beam of my headlights searching the faded weatherboard facade of A Pocket Full Of Stones as I turn to face the way I came.
Soon, I'm on the Bellarine Highway, and then the Princes Freeway. Leaving Geelong, the street lamps grow farther apart until finally, the only light is the vehicle. The thin, wavering speedometer needle glowing red amongst green, and brick-sized white lines edging out of the black then swiftly and brightly behind the headlights. This flickering vignette continues for some time, with only the tiniest signs of change or movement.