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LAist Interview: Newton Faulkner
British musician Newton Faulkner has been compared with everyone from Eddie Vedder to Jack Johnson, but I think Rolling Stone said it best when they declared, “If Prince was an English hippie who was obsessed with Bobby McFerrin-esque percussion and had long cinnamon dreadlocks, you'd have Faulkner.”
His first album, Hand Built by Robots has gone double platinum in the UK and is picking up steam in the United States. Faulkner will play the Troubadour tonight and it should be quite a show. In addition to his soaring vocals and hilarious banter between songs, his guitar skills are captivating. Guitar-based percussion and harmonics mesh so flawlessly with everything else he's doing on the instrument that people often don't believe that all that sound can be coming from one guitar. LAist caught up with Faulkner before yesterday's Tonight Show performance to discuss the album, SpongeBob SquarePants, advice from Roger Daltrey, and how acrylic nails are great for guitar percussion.
LAist: You begin the album with a short instrumental piece and conclude with a brief lullaby. Was that something you had planned from the beginning, or was it something you added later?
Faulkner: I really wanted to make an album that you could listen to from start from finish. My goal was something that felt complete rather than a collection of singles along with some songs that weren’t quite good enough to be singles.
I used to start all of my gigs with that intro. It’s also a way of introducing what I do. When I was supporting other artists, I was really amused by the fact that people would stop talking for a few moments when I stepped out on stage with an acoustic guitar, then they would start talking again once I started playing because they figured “Oh, it’s just another guy with an acoustic guitar.” So I kind of played to that. The first bit of the intro was quite sweet and not beyond what you’d expect, and at that point everyone was still talking. It progressed a little bit, and by that point some people were mildly interested because it wasn’t just strumming. Then when I brought in the percussive stuff, suddenly everyone stopped talking and would shuffle around trying to look behind me to see where all that sound was coming from. It was really fun.
Rather than beginning with lyrics or melody, have you ever started writing a song based on percussion?
Yeah, definitely. You start with a rhythm and you build the melody around it. I think “To the Light” started that way. It was kind of a guitar part, though. It’s very rhythm-based and the vocals came out of that.
What led you to choose “Dream Catch Me” as your first single?
I have no idea. (laughs) Well, it was the obvious single after we recorded it. I don’t know if it’s the same everywhere, but in England you need quite a particular sound to make it work on the radio, because there aren’t that many radio stations in England. So you have to be pretty careful and make sure you get something that works. Radio 1 heard that quite early on and said, “We like that. We’d play that.” So that definitely contributed to the selection of the single.
I just have to know…what’s the story behind the name of your song “Sitar-y Thing”?
It was just what I called it in GarageBand when I made it. Actually, quite a few of those GarageBand names stuck.
On the album you play, among other things, the guitar, bass, organ, sitar and piano. Do you feel that being a multi-instrumentalist has influenced the unique way in which you manipulate the guitar?
Well, I brought people in if the instruments had to be played properly. I can answer to winging other instruments, but I can’t say that I “play” drums. I definitely wouldn’t say that I play sitar, but I do like the challenge of messing around…it’s kind of how I play guitar anyway, because each time you change the tuning it’s like a different instrument. I quite like that and find it liberating.
You really do turn your guitar into an orchestra. Have you ever injured yourself doing any of those finger acrobatics?
Yeah. I have a chunk missing from my little finger at the moment. But I did loads of damage to my nails at one point. I tore off my index nail, and that’s why I started using fake nails. I used plastic nails for a bit and that kind of worked out, but occasionally they’d just fall off. So I got acrylics. Every so often I go in and sit between middle-aged women to get my nails done. The conversations are always entertaining—and the salons usually do my nails for free!
Do you ever use nail polish?
Do the acrylic nails change the way you play?
It doubles the volume! And it also gives more tonal options for the percussive stuff.
You’ve said that your worst nightmare is hand damage of any kind. I’ve heard of musicians and celebrities insuring various body parts for millions of dollars…have you done that?
No, I haven’t yet. I’m not quite sure how worth it it is. I’ve had to think about this a lot because I was going snowboarding and my mom was completely against it. She was like, “You are definitely not going snowboarding,” because I’ve had quite a few accidents in my time. I was into BMXing for a while and I completely smashed my face at one point. I still have scars underneath and on the bridge of my nose…
...and yet you’ve never done the surfing thing even though you’re very popular with the surfing crowd.
Yeah, I’ve never surfed. I live nowhere near the sea. But I have been kind of adopted by the surfing community in Cornwall, which is England’s surfing capital. I’m sure most people probably think that England could not possibly have a surfing capital, but it does.
Getting back to guitars…which guitarist(s) today do you most admire?
I really like Thomas Leeb. He was taught by the same guy who taught me, Eric Roche.
There are so many good players out there that it’s hard to keep up. And it really seems to be exploding at the moment, which is awesome.
You started out in a Green Day cover band. Which of their songs was your favorite to play?
I’d have to say “Long View.”
I read that Jimmy Page is a fan of yours and that you played at one of his garden parties last summer. Did he give you any advice while you were there?
Nah, we just had a casual chat and it was really great. I did get advice from Roger Daltrey, and it was similar to what others in the music industry have told me: “Enjoy the ride and keep your money.”
Page...Daltrey...it sounds like the last year or so has been quite surreal for you. I’m just going to list a few more experiences and would like to get your reactions.
1. Bumping an Elvis album off the #1 spot on the British music charts
That was slightly ridiculous. The best thing was that a couple week before that happened, I overheard someone say, “Hey, we’re catching up with Elvis!” That was just weird; you don’t hear that very often.
2) Playing a gig in a hot air balloon over the Swiss Alps on your 23rd birthday earlier this year
That was amazing. It was insane but amazing.
3) Fans stealing your shoes off the stage
Actually, overall, my fans still seem to be the most relaxed fans I’ve ever come across. I think it’s because the only people who recognize me are those who have seen me play live. My face isn’t really on the album and I haven’t done too much TV, so it’s fairly minimal in that sense. So the people who recognize me have seen me live, and everyone who has seen me live thinks I’m just like an old friend. For instance, just before I left for America, I was at the airport and some people came up to have me sign some stuff, then they helped me pick DVDs to watch during my trip. That seems to be the way it goes…just really casual.
You’ve said in the past that ever since you were young, you’ve always had to fall asleep to an animated movie or cartoon. Was this part of the inspiration for the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song that you often perform during your shows?
I was kind of forced into that—backed into a corner. I was supporting Paolo Nutini in London and I think England had just won the football [game] and there had been some serious drinking going on. Everyone was completely insane. It was also a full moon, which could have affected it. I was doing a gig and I mentioned the theme in passing—I didn’t even know how to play it—and they started chanting, “Do it! Do it!” And I said, “No, I’m not going to do that. I’m a serious artist.” (laughs) Eventually I gave in and had to work it out onstage. It followed me around for a year and a half and it has only now just dissipated. I replaced it with “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Did you get a chance to watch American Idol this last season? What did you think of Jason Castro?
Sadly, I didn’t see the show. Is Jason Castro the guy with dreads? I hope he’s good, cause if he has dreads, he’s gotta be representing. (laughs) All in all, I haven’t seen much TV lately. Though I did get Lost on DVD.
That’ll come in handy with all the traveling you’re doing around the world. Speaking of your international performances, have you altered your setlist much for the American tour?
Not that much. I mean, there are certain references I can’t use. I normally do a lot of little bits of British TV theme songs—just while I’m talking and stuff—and there are some things that no one’s ever heard of here.
Last year you mentioned that, “LA is fairly strange but entertaining.” Do you have one strange or entertaining memory you can share?
Well, I think one of the strangest things was when we shot a video in downtown Los Angeles at night. It was just scary. There were loads of people walking around and shouting at themselves.
Did you have to stop filming each time someone did that?
No, we kept filming. It was just kind of accepted because that was how it was.
Do you ever have a night off to explore a city during the tour?
Not really. I never have that much time these days. I mean, I’ve seen more of the world in the last six months than I’ve seen in my entire life. Lately I’ve seen the inside of a lot of taxis and airports, and when I’m lucky, I get to see whatever happens to be within walking distance of the venue I’m playing that night.
Have you been able to write music while on the road?
Yeah, I write more on the road than I do anywhere else.
Yep. I have a little USB mic that I plug in. It’ll be a good start for the next album, so the process won’t feel quite as rushed as last time. With Hand Built by Robots there wasn’t even that much studio time. I recorded a lot on the road and some in the studio. Most of the time it was just people with laptops and mics driving out to wherever I was to record guitar parts and vocals.
What advice would you have for up and coming musicians trying to make it in the music industry?
Play as much as possible. Despite the fact that online promotion has come really far, I think that gigs and seeing people live is by far where you’re going to get the strongest connection. Those are the people who stick around. If they see you and like you and think of you as their guy, then they’ll be around for as long as you’re making music that they like.
Radio and TV stuff will give you an explosive kind of thing, but if they don’t see you live after that, then they probably won’t remember you in a few years’ time. At least that’s what I think—cause obviously, I don’t know everything. I’m still learning all this stuff.
Newton Faulkner’s debut album, Hand Built by Robots, is available for sale through Amazon.com, iTunes and other music retailers. He will be performing tonight at the Troubadour, and tickets are available via Ticketmaster. To learn more about his music and upcoming gigs, check out his myspace page.
Photos via Newton Faulkner's myspace page.