Nick Magnus: The Dig Magazine Interview

Nick Magnus

The Dig Magazine Interview
with Paul Kitchen

“Hi – is anyone out there?”

“Hope I’m not transmitting into the ether yet again!”

These were the first rumblings of Nick Magnus. He contacted me in November 1996, shortly after the debut of the Duncan Browne Tribute website, wondering whether I might be interested in his ‘Making of Songs of Love & War’ article which had run in ‘Sound on Sound’ magazine in England. Of course I was interested, and thus began a dialogue between us which shows no sign of slowing down (though the email delivery system of the UK-AOL has done it’s best to halt our conversation altogether).

The interview that follows was culled from Nick’s response to actual interview questions, as well as random email musings that took place over several months. For those of us around the world who happened upon ‘Songs of Love & War’, only to have the liner notes leave us bewildered (I personally had not seen or read a thing about Duncan in the U.S. since the release of ‘Streets of Fire’ in 1979), this interview definitely clears a lot of things up. …….PK 5/97

PK: Hi Nick. Due to the fact that we are indeed transmitting into the ether, how do you think Duncan would have felt about the net, and more specifically, this website.

NICK: I’m delighted Dunc has his own website, and I only wish he was still around to enjoy and take advantage of this great technology. He’d have loved to contribute and generally take part, and everyone could have also had the benefit of his totally offbeat sense of humour. Dunc’s humour always figured prominently, often leaving us finding it impossible to get down to any serious work because we’d be playing ridiculous improvised Kurt Weil-esque duets on the piano, usually in tears of laughter, or spending hours thinking up nonsensical names for groups (my favourite was Rotweillers Eat My Lipstick!). It was an indication of Dunc’s courage that this sense of humour was with him constantly, in full force, right up to his last days.

PK: By the way, how did you meet Duncan? and when did you start working together.

NICK: We might have met sooner – it was kind of a long process. In 1982 I was sharing a flat with a singer and friend of mine, Debi Doss. She was good friends with Colin Blunstone, so I knew Colin then and we had subsequently done some musical bits and pieces together. Debi was also friends with Lin (who was yet to meet Duncan) so the “mutual friend” network existed that far back. In 1984 we moved to another house, and I had a basic studio in the front room there. One day in 1986, Lin came round with her new man – Duncan. Colin and Dunc had known each other for years, and had also shared a flat together for a while, and they were currently working on demos for a band project called Camino. Dunc and I started discussing music, and within 30 seconds we were firm friends – one of those instant kindred spirit friendships that happens occasionally. We immediately decided we must work together, and the rest is history.

PK: What was the nature of Duncan’s illness? And how long was he sick?

NICK: Duncan was diagnosed with cancer of the colon in 1989. After a partial colonectomy, things seemed OK until a further test some months later showed the cancer had moved to his liver. Despite an operation attempting to remove the offending bit, and subsequent chemotherapy treatment, he died from cancer of the liver on 28th May, 1993.

PK: Duncan’s illness was apparently a big secret for everyone involved.

NICK: This was true – one of the major reasons being that he felt that it was a private thing, and he also felt it might compromise his work if it were commonly known.

PK: Can you tell us a little about your ‘Labour of Love’ article, which details the making of ‘Songs of Love & War’.

NICK: It originally went out in Sound on Sound magazine (hence the technical content) but hopefully readers will be interested in that side of the making of the album too… It was not an easy project to complete, trying to cope with integrating old and new technologies seamlessly, while simultaneously dealing with the emotional side of things *and* making sure that everything musically followed the original course we’d had planned for it. At every stage, you could feel Dunc’s presence in the room, giving his seal of approval (and sometimes disapproval as you’ll see in the article!).

PK: What were Duncan’s plans for ‘Songs of Love & War’. Did he intend to include the instrumental tracks. Were there plans for any band tracks, or was a sequenced album your goal from the outset?

NICK: Quite simply, the idea was to have written a whole lot more new songs, and to do fresh recordings of some of Dunc’s existing backlog of material. Some of the tracks had their beginnings as TV music – themes or quite often bits of incidental music that lent themselves to expansion into a song or instrumental. For example, Scull Twins was to have been the theme for a crime drama series. The job ultimately went to someone else, but we liked the tune so much it became a song. Sarabande was another example. Basically, anything we did was up for consideration, including instrumentals.

As far as I recall, the intention was always to have made the album a two-man, MIDI based job (like Scull, Windows, Suddenly, etc), with no plans for band tracks as such. Budget (or lack of it) was a major consideration in this decision!

PK: When did you become involved with the album. Were you producing from the start?

NICK: With the exception of the original Camino demos (a band project with Colin Blunstone), I was involved right from the start. When we started working together it was on TV stuff, and the first complete song we did was Windows. The plan for an album kind of started from there. We’d originally thought about the possibility of doing it in a “grown-up-long-trousers” studio, and drew up several budgets, but as my studio gradually improved, we dropped that idea – especially when we looked at the cost of even a cheap studio!

PK: SOLAW has a lot of great material on it. My favorites are Scull Twins, Suddenly Last Summer, Rainer, and High Windows. I especially like the bass lines and string washes in ‘Twins’, it’s a very sultry groove you concocted.

NICK: So glad you like those, they’re my favourites too. The string wash in Twins is a D50, and the patch is the result of a fortuitous accident with the randomizer on the Steinberg D50 editor when I was at a friend’s studio one day. You didn’t used to get many usable sounds that way, but that particular pad has been a favourite ever since!

PK: Are there Duncan vocal versions of the songs that Blunstone performed?

NICK: Of the songs on SOLAW? Not to my knowledge, but I could be wrong. Various copies of demos exist – I have some, Nic Potter has some and I’m sure Lin and Seb have some. I copied mine from Eaton Music’s Duncan portfolio (which may not have been the whole story), and of those only two have Dunc singing. They are tracks called “No Name Girl” and “The Toys”. The reason for that is that most of the tracks were demos for Camino, of which Colin was the featured vocalist.

PK: Why were there 2 versions of songs like ‘High Windows’, with Duncan singing the lead vocal, as well as a version with Blunstone handling the vocal. Did Duncan plan on this? Was Blunstone brought in while Duncan was still alive?

NICK: As above, many of the earlier versions were “stage one” demos for Camino. There are actually four (!) versions of High Windows. They were all done at different times for different reasons. There may even be more. Of the ones I’m acquainted with, the first version was the one Nic liked — that was a Camino demo; possibly done before I knew Dunc. The next version was created as an entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. It had a guy called Ian Linn on keys, and featured a singer by the name of Neil Lockwood (recently of the Electric Light Orchestra). Don’t know who did drums and bass. The third version was the Eurovision backing track with Neil removed and Colin singing in his place (as another Camino demo). Version four was the final one that Dunc & I did together. It was to be part of the putative D.B. solo album; at that time we were just beginning to stockpile material.

PK: Were DB’s vocals recorded at your place?

NICK: All of Dunc’s vocals (excepting Wild Places) were done at my place using only a Radio Shack PZM “bathroom tile” mic. At 26 pounds, one of the best value for money mics going!

PK: Where did the basic track demos come from. Did Duncan have a home studio?

NICK: It varied, but it wasn’t at Dunc’s. No-one can remember clearly (and I wasn’t around when those first demos were done). Opinions vary between Lillie Yard (Hans Zimmer’s place), The Factory (Dave Mackay’s place), The Chapel (Florian Pilkington-Miksah’s place) and various other locations.

PK: Were many songs started that did not make the cut, or ones that you did not attempt to complete?

NICK: As mentioned above, TV music had been the starting point for a lot of things, so the answer could be a theoretical yes. It has been suggested that if this stuff is around, it should be made into an album. However, I think most people would appreciate that because the work is mostly incomplete, expanding upon it would make it no longer the original artist’s work, and maybe not even his intention. The idea would require very careful consideration, for many reasons.

PK: How did Duncan keep busy in the ’80’s and early ’90’s. Was he something of a house composer for Granada and the BBC, or was it all piece/contract work?

NICK: Mainly through the TV work. That whole area of the music industry tends to be on a who-you-know basis, and Dunc was in the good position of having a number of producers/directors (of which Seb was one) that regularly came to him for music.

PK: Nic Potter has been quoted as saying that Duncan played his last notes ever on Nic’s solo record ‘New Europe/Rainbow Colours’.

NICK: Nic told me he’d said that too, but in actual fact, the last stuff Dunc did (three weeks before he died) was to record (at my place) a very difficult solo acoustic tune. The various out-takes are still here on a DAT. Now I have a hard disk recorder, I thought I might attempt at some point to edit it all together. He was very ill at that point, and got tired very quickly, so couldn’t complete it to his satisfaction. I may still be able to compile what there is – I must look into it soon.

PK: What is the BBC record you list in your Duncan Browne discography?

NICK: It’s a CD compilation of BBC TV themes, called “The World Of BBC TV Themes” surprisingly enough. The catalogue number is BBC CD 705. The track Duncan wrote is an absolutely beautiful piece called “Salva Me” (pronounced Salver May) which we recorded for a BBC 2 TV drama series called “Shadow of the Noose”. While the rest of the CD may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s worth having just for that one track!

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