Interview: Jeb Loy Nichols on keeping it simple

Although he is now happily ensconced in the rural delights of mid Wales, Jeb Loy Nichols has a chequered past. Born in Wyoming, raised in Missouri and Texas, he grew up steeped in music and aged 17,  stepped out into the world, working in New York record stores before coming to the UK in the early 80’s and falling in with the burgeoning post punk reggae scene. He first recorded as the Fellow Travellers in 1990 with an intriguing mix of country, folk, soul and reggae, and that questing spirit has informed his subsequent solo and collaborative efforts.

Nichols’ latest album, ‘June Is Short,  July Is Long’, is a wonderful collection of blue-eyed soul songs recorded in his local studio in Wales with a bunch of mates, The Westwood All-Stars. There’s little of his previous sonic experimentation in the grooves as the emphasis is on the groove, the songs slipping down like Neil Young’s famed honey slides, slightly intoxicating and ultimately relaxing. On the eve of the album’s release Jeb took some time out to talk to Americana UK.

Hi there, first off, can I ask you about the title of the album, ‘June Is Short, July Is Long’. What’s that all about?
It’s just one of the lines from a song on the record. You know, there’s always a feeling of when you come up to summer, it’s like it’s June and it’s great and then suddenly, it’s July, the dog days, and it kind of drags out. We all thought it was a good line and then, Josh, our drummer, he just insisted we call the album that and I bowed to the pressure.

Your last album, ‘Country Hustle’, had a slinky New Orleans feel to it and on this one you are really delving into what they used to call “blue-eyed soul.” What drew you into the world of soul music?
Well, I grew up in Missouri and all though the late sixties and early seventies, even though there was country music all around me, I listened to the radio a lot and on the radio it was mostly soul music. Memphis, Muscle Shoals and that, real southern soul music, and I always loved that music. Then, when I was 17 I went to New York and I caught the beginnings of hip hop and I loved that also so I reckon I’ve always been a soul boy. However the country music stayed with me so it’s kind of a combination of that.

The album is described in the publicity blurb as kind of closing a circle from your upbringing in Missouri to your current lifestyle in rural Wales.
Well, I don’t know if the circle is ever completed. You know, maybe I’ll meet someone next week or next year who will play me some music from Columbia or Bogota and I’ll become obsessed with that and go off on another tangent. I never know what’s going to happen so I wouldn’t say I’ve come full circle, but there is an element of that in this record. It’s the first one I’ve made in Wales, in my home, with my friends, and in that sense it feels like a very grounded record. It was a very easy album to make, in fact, we didn’t know it was going to be a record, we just thought we were making some demos but then it sounded so good we decided to just put it out. We recorded the whole thing in just three days and because it initially was just a bunch of demos we had a really loose sound going on, kind of like a Ry Cooder or Little Feat type of thing. But then it all sounded so good so I got a couple of friends to overdub some horns just to fill up the sound a bit.

The band sound great, setting down some funky grooves as if they grew up south of the Mason Dixon line but apparently they’re all from your neck of the woods in Wales.
They all are. They’re the next generation, all in their late twenties and all great players and great to be around. For them, a lot of the stuff that I’m bringing to the table is new, they didn’t know who Tony Joe White was so it’s great for them to hear the likes of that and it’s great for me to get this new energy.

The album opens with a short instrumental before you come in, urging the band to keep it simple. Is that a kind of credo for you?
Absolutely, and with all things. If you can keep it simple then there’s less to go wrong and that’s what I’ve always felt about making music and actually living my life. That’s why I live in Wales and not in London. I live on 10 acres of land and we grow vegetables and it’s a good, simple life. That’s the thing, if you can get away from London where it’s expensive to live and move up here then you can maintain your poverty much more easily, selling some artworks, books, records, occasionally going out on the road. You don’t always have to be chasing the big bucks.

Going back to your love of soul music, I’m a big fan of your occasional series, Jeb’s Jukebox, on the website, Caught By The River. You select an obscure soul single and write about it, often mentioning where and when you bought it. I presume they are all from your own collection but how do you go about choosing which single to write about each month?
Well I was very clear from the beginning of that with Jeff, who runs the website, that I was not going to pre programme it or over think it. When it comes time for a new one, I’ll just write about whatever’s on the turntable at that moment. So it’s really not thought out too much, it’s just, “here’s what I’m listening to.” I’ve got literally thousands of records and it’s either just what I’ve been playing or something I’ve left on the turntable so I’ll just write a few words about it.

Speaking of records, I see you recently played a concert in Lewes hosted by Union Music, the record shop owned by Danny Wilson and our very own Del Day. Did you get a chance to delve into their browsers?
Indeed, I’ve known Danny for a long time and I managed to have a look through his record shop. I can’t walk past a record shop without going in, it’s like my natural habitat so of course I went in. I ended up talking to Danny about the new Dylan Rolling Thunder recordings that have come out as it’s my favourite period of Dylan. I loved the movie that’s come out, I could watch that stuff for hours as I just love it, all of it. Dylan’s white face, the song arrangements, I love how messy it is, how completely outside any logical capitalism it is. It just doesn’t make any sense and that’s what’s great about it.

‘June Is Short, July Is Long’ is pretty much a full-blown soul album but you’ve also had a long-standing affiliation with reggae and I see you have a single coming out soon featuring you with Warrior Charge. When did you get into reggae?
Well again, I was able to hear some reggae on the radio as a kid, coming in from the gulf and when I lived in Texas, when I was about 15 or 16 I saw Bob Marley live and that was great. And then, when I moved to London, the first person I met, on the first day I got here actually, was Adrian Sherwood who was sharing a flat with someone I knew and we became great friends. And Adrian of course ran a reggae label and still does; in fact, I’m seeing him next week to do some recordings. To me, reggae has always sounded like roots music with the same feel as American southern music. The Wailers when they started off had a very soulful sound and one of my favourites is a band called Culture. Joseph Hill is one of my favourite singers of all time and I met him once and he told me that when he was growing up he listened to country music, it was the only music in the house so he grew up listening to Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves. And Culture did songs like ‘This Train Is Bound For Glory‘ which is an old country song and they did it in a reggae style.

OK. One final question. The album has a great picture of a younger version of you holding a mandolin in a room festooned with vinyl lying on the floor and even nailed to the wall. Where was this taken?
That was way back when I’d gone back to visit my dad in Austin, Texas, many years ago, and I had just bought that mandolin in a yard sale for 10 dollars. I stayed for the summer and the albums on the wall, well, back then, you couldn’t keep out of thrift stores and junk shops and buying old records.

June Is Short July Is Long is released on Friday 5th July.

Author: Paul Kerr

Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.

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