Nick Frater – Aerodrome Motel (Q&A)

Finding the right words and providing them with an appropriate and beautiful melody seems easy for Nick Frater lately. Earworms came out last year, and now Aerodrome Motel is again filled with many Power Pop crown jewels. How does he do that?

No Hard Feeling is a somber song. Are sad songs harder to write than happy ones?

No Hard Feelings is one of the ‘character songs’ I’ve been exploring. It’s a sad song, but written from the perspective of the couple within the song; There’s so much potential to write through the eyes of others, but more than that, I think it sometimes makes a song more accessible.

The mood of songs I write can sometimes be deceptive and contradictory. Sad melodies tend to come easier, but it’s writing the darker side into my more upbeat sounding songs that is more of a challenge. I seem to get a bit of credit for writing upbeat catchy songs, which kind of surprises me, as the lyrics are often much darker than they first seem.

There’s some quite bold arrangement ideas in No Hard Feelings, with a tape-loop of a single note of strings playing unchanged throughout the song. Most of the time it is in harmony, but when the chords shift it adds a slightly menacing film-soundtrack tension. When combined with the baritone guitar, it gives me goosebumps! A sonic experiment that turned out pretty well!

Aerodrome Hotel is your second release in a short time. Wonderful, such an abundance of inspiration?

I seem to have stumbled into a very productive songwriting period so am just running with it while the songs keep coming…and they still keep coming!

At the moment I quite like the thrill of the empty page, starting from nothing and just seeing what arrives from the ether.

My ear and mind are quite tuned in to picking up ideas at the moment, and I have tried not to labour too long over them once they arrive. I have quite a disciplined work schedule, with family life and a day job, have limited time each week for music….so I make it count. Any music making time I’ve normally thought through in advance what needs to be done, and I just do it.

I’ve got next year’s album pretty much written, and we’ve started recording sessions. That is looking like a double concept album, because, well, somebody needs to being doing that sort of nonsense, and it may as well be me.

But fear not, there are several other side-projects I have either finished, mastered and pressed or well under way. So there are likely to be a few treats over the rest of the year.

I think your albums have changed. It all sounds a bit looser and less thought-out. That’s meant as a compliment. Is it for you too?

Don’t worry, I know what you mean. Having completed ten albums my approach has hopefully evolved a bit with each one. My very early ones were arranged in minute detail, with a lot of the parts scored out on paper before anything was ever recorded. That allowed for some pretty ambitious material like The Sombrero Fallout Suite – a nine movement song-cycle.

However I think the songs I’ve been writing more recently, especially the last three or four records, have been different as most started from a vocal hook, rather than an incredibly complicated chord sequence. I still like to keep songs interesting for the listener, and deceptively tricky to learn for my band, but there must be something inherently catchy if a song can arrive just by whistling it around the house.

I’ve also tried to be a bit more disciplined in the arrangements. Most of my favourite records don’t have millions of guitar parts or overdubs. Even the stuff we think of as complicated was recorded on 16 track or 24 track. It’s a learning process but having bravery to mute parts that seemed essential when writing such as the piano, seems to have really helped to open up some space in the song.

Maybe less is more after all!?

Stuck in My Ways and Dancing with a Gertrude are both Power Pop Crown Jewels. You probably already knew that while recording, or does it not work that way?

Lyrically I’m very proud of the way both those songs turned out. Very different songs, with Stuck In My Ways about adult male mental health challenges, and Dancing With A Gertrude being about extinct baby names. But both of them surprised me when the lyrics popped into my head.

I think every songwriter has a few moments in songs where the lyrics might be a challenge, and we’re forced into the occasional dubious rhyming couplet. But oddly, the words to both arrived fairly quickly and fully formed….and having typed up everything for the album notes, I think they stand up to scrutiny pretty well.

A recent conversation with a friend led to the conclusion that a lot of songs these days are very focused on the self. Whereas so much of the songs of the 60/70s were outward looking, as both Such In My ways (despite the title) and Dancing With A Gertrude are. Maybe that’s what helps those songs to be catchy?

When you wrote the lyrics for White Courtesy Telephone, did you know it had to be a country ballad?

Probably from being so immersed in the production side of things as well as writing, I tend to hear the final arrangement as I’m writing. From the moment the piano part and melody arrived under my fingers I heard it as a country-waltz. It ended up being very low in the final mix but there’s also an ancient Welson analogue drum machine in there too. I love songs that aren’t to a rigid click track, so was playing the song and manually turning up and down the speed on the drum machine.

The way the song builds does end up moving very far away from a typical country song and becomes almost Queen meets Beach Boys but with a wash of echoed drums and sonic mayhem. I’m not really selling that am I!? Maybe changing analogies, it starts in the desert, builds to a musical storm on the beach, then ebbs away as the tide goes out.

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