Nic Hillman (Ephemerals): “In concerts I go to where it stops being about the notes or the groove or whatever and transcends into some kind of one-ness”
Just a few days before Ephemerals visit Greece, Nic Hillman answered SawBiz.gr questions regading the band’s music, goals and more…
The word ephemeral is used to describe things that are short-lived. Ephemerals though seem to have lots of life and things to give in time. How you ended up with that name?
Hi Giorgos! Yeah it’s funny, I made the band name because I split with my previous band that I thought I would be with forever. So with a lot of my art, it is me trying to tell myself something. With the name I was saying, “don’t be sad if it doesn’t last, nothing lasts. Enjoy it now.” I think there’s a great strength in that. It is a positive and definitely was not supposed to be like, everything dies, life is shit etc!
Your third album is called “Egg Tooth”. So far, in your previous works you have managed to stay loyal to the spirit of old school soul, giving to it though, a breath of fresh air. Is that the case in the new album too?
Nothin Is Easy was a textbook soul record. I wanted to pay respect to the genre. Then with Chasin Ghosts I took away elements, particularly funk and groove and gospel backing vocals which I do not want to take into the future. And then for Egg Tooth, which is an album about rebirth, I put in new ideas in the space that I had made. This is a process as much for my listeners to understand how the art is progressing as much as to help the band journey with me. This is leadership.
Why Egg Tooth?
My downstairs neighbour Alan died and my other neighbour, who had been friends with him since the 1970’s said to me, “he’s up there in the multiverse.” They were cosmic dudes. Anyway, I knew where Alan had died in his flat and I didn’t walk over that area in my flat for a while because I wanted to respect his spiritual journey upwards. The album was a conversation about where Alan is now. Where are all the people we lose now? So I discuss reincarnation mostly in this record. Also, it was interesting because Chasin Ghosts was all about depression and I felt that we killed the character in that album. So how can we continue this character? He can be reborn! And now he is free of the troubles he had in the previous album. Again, I’m trying to teach myself things by writing them down. I survived my depression and now I am asking who do I want to be? This will be answered in the fourth album J
What is the typical process of creating an Ephemerals album?
Oh man. To tell you about the writing process is very complicated because all of my albums are conceptual on a theme and this informs most/all of my musical choices. But forget this because it’s more interesting to talk about the band because they are the guys that make everything work. I write the songs then I play them to the guys and then we press record. We did Nothin Is Easy from start to finish including rehearsals in four days. The whole thing. For Chasin Ghosts I had a few days with our singer Wolf and then we all did it live again in a few days. Then Egg Tooth we had three rehearsal days and then went to record in four days. We have a little more luxury every time. We started doing this hit-and-run approach because of financial and time economics. I financed our first album and everyone was busy with their projects so didn’t have endless time to give to my random idea. But I like this way. You get an honest performance. It’s human, with all its passion and imperfections. BUTTTT the fourth album I’m making it very differently and this is crazy terrifying but we will make something brilliant because we have a great and unique group of people.
What kind of music do you listen to these days?
Great question. I can finally give you a simple answer. Every month we curate a spotify playlist with lots of music we’ve been listening to. It’s not an “album inspirations” or “best songs ever” or anything, it’s just pieces from all over the place. Some of it is old, some new, various styles. It’s very honest, very democratic. Everyone can find that at www.tinyurl.com/ephemsmonthly . We all listen to it too. It allows us to hear what everybody else is into and then we talk about it when we are on tour.
What are the things that give you the sparkle for Ephemerals’ songs?
Literally, I try to put bells or tambourines on everything ahahahhaha. But of course it is the mistakes that are the sparkle. Music can be very airbrushed now. Our failures make us stand out.
The modern wave of soul music has to this day, many interesting bands and artists. Ephemerals manage to sound like good old days without imitating anyone. Is this something you work on or that flows naturally from you?
Like I said before, I wanted to start with the very obvious soul with Nothin Is Easy, and then move away and continue to move away. The next album will be another step. We are in totally new territory and I go only on instinct now. The topic of my next album has been the inspiration for all of my musical choices. I actually stopped myself from listening to any classic soul stuff a few years ago so that I keep looking forwards only. I miss it but everyone has to do things they don’t like for their job.
As I read when the band started you immediately starting playing and recording together, but a release of an album took you some time. Have you added new ideas on this first impulse so to be more “presentable” to a broader audience?
Oh no, never more presentable! Hahaha. There are a million artists (and politicians) changing their beliefs to fit what they think people are interested in. But we have made what we want and believe in, and people have come to us. This was my belief when I started, and now it is something that is fact. I funded the first album. Then we put it out for free on Bandcamp. I wanted to make my music democratic, and it was before Spotify was really a major thing. People actually donated money to us for this free album. It became so much that I decided to manufacture a vinyl. We sold those. I licensed 7” singles to Colemine Records (USA – shouts to Terry) and Mocambo Records (DE – shouts to Bjorn) for free to help reach an audience. Then I tried to license a third single to Jalapeno Records (UK) but they were like “are you unsigned!? We want to sign you.” So they re-released the album and paid for us to do Chasin Ghosts.
You seem no to prefer long tours. Again you play some days almost in a row and then nothing (maybe?). Is there a particular reason for that?
Hahaha. Yes this is again for financial and time reasons. Everybody has so many bands that I try to block out the diary and say, “ok let’s try for just November” and then we do as much as we can. Then we can all get really into Ephemerals mindset. Then after that they are free again. They all lead other bands in a wider network of musicians. Ephemerals is just the band that I lead. But now I find that touring in an intense thing is really great for my writing because I get months at a time to lose myself in my research and creativity before I have to switch my mind over to Ephemerals Live again.
When looking at your albums’ covers one cannot assume that you are a Soul band. How you decide on your artworks?
Oh man I am so grateful of the photographers who let us use their work. It is a huge part of what makes the albums. I always love great album art. I like to get an album in my hands and look at it all and see who has played what instruments, where it was recorded and all that shit, and wonder what the art means to the band. So I do this for my listeners too, because I believe that they are intelligent and switched-on people. The album artworks are all very special to the concept of the album. So for Nothin Is Easy, a lot of it is about breaking from my old band. So here you have the two powerful horses (me and the singer) pulling in different directions and you have the innocent child (maybe the band or the music) in the middle. For Egg Tooth I talk about reincarnation and new beginnings. An “egg tooth” is the scientific term for a little tooth that some animals are born with to break out of their eggs. So here you have this person making a leap into an unknown and strange new world. The art for our fourth album will be amazing too, I know who the photographer will be but I haven’t hunted them down yet. This is also a process of getting to somebody’s gallery opening or whatever and being like “hey you have to give me this photo because you are great and I need this.” Hahaha. The record label told me the Egg Tooth art looked like a holiday photo when they first saw it. But you always have to fight if you want to be a proper artist. It’s always a struggle, at every stage, even when you’re on a loving label or have a loving band.
Which artists have influenced you the most?
I don’t like to talk about musical inspirations too much. It is not so important because it can become too much of a copy. You have to look outside of music and then feed non-musical ideas back into sound! Here it becomes abstract and beautiful and you begin to stand on your own. But I have learned most from Alice Coltrane I think. She has taught me how to make positive music. From Egg Tooth onwards, all of my music is only positive. There is enough negativity in the world and I choose to tell people about greatness. 99% of the news is negative and yet there is so much to celebrate also. Our twitter page is dedicated 100% to championing positive things, we never post about Trump and we never post about our gigs.
Is there a song you wish you had written? Some songs that you would really like to cover?
Oh fuck. Valerie for the money and because it’s a great song ahahhaa ony joking man. I think that Max Roach “It’s Time” or even something like Murder City Devils “Grace That Saves” or oh man Patti Smith’s “Piss Factory.” But you know what I really think are lovely, Penny & The Quarters “You And Me” and that beautiful song by Slow Club called “Tears Of Joy.” I don’t really do covers. I’ve never learned other people’s songs. The first time I picked up a guitar, I wrote. It’s because I’m a writer first and a musician second, or third, or fourth.
What kind of feelings you strive to bring to your audience during a concert?
I hope to make the music secondary and some other kind of spiritual thing take over. It happens very occasionally. But it is always what I strive for. I am happy to fail. There are a few places in the set where this is most likely to happen and you can feel it when it does, but it’s a yoga thing; if you try to do it then you cannot achieve it. It has to happen by itself. These are my favourite moments in concerts I go to where it stops being about the notes or the groove or whatever and transcends into some kind of one-ness. Alice Coltrane knows this. Fela Kuti knows this. I saw this perhaps with Charles Bradley sometimes. You know when you see a painting or sculpture and it is not the lines or colours that strike you…
Feel free to share whatever you want with the people out there!
The final thing I want to say is that we always like to meet people so if you do come to our concert come and say hello after because it is always nice to speak with everyone for a bit of time and learn new things. We don’t want to play our songs to people and then go home. It’s a bit of a horrible one-way street. We invite people to tell us how they feel also.
Thank you very much for your time and responses!
Author: Giorgos Pardalis