Interview: Napoleon IIIrd
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So here I am on the phone on a winter evening with Sir Napoleon before he takes to the stage at St John’s Church in Leeds. A one-man musical maverick (who makes music because it’s the ‘only thing’ he can do) Nap has been a favourite on the UK gig circuit for several years, gaining a growing reputation as ‘one to watch’.
Whether performing as one-man or with a band, those who have caught Napoleon IIIrd live can vouch for the fact that it is a unique and uplifting experience. Backed by a reel-to-reel tape-player, his strangely modern sound is offset with a retro visual feel.
We discuss the reel-to-reel, which is not exactly a staple of the live music set-up these days. Why use such an archaic, and difficult to find, piece of equipment?
“I went out looking for it actually. When I started playing live I wanted to do it with backing tracks and I wanted them to be as obvious as possible and I thought of using a old reel-to-reel tape machine. So I went out and got that beast.”
“Ebay’s a wonderful thing - I managed to find one in Leeds and just went and got it. I’ve bought all sorts of things, bits and bobs - I’m one for bargains, I’m always going round charity shops, markets and car boot sales and pound shops looking for things I can make noise with, just anything that can make a sound.”
This inherent need to play with aural boundaries filled the prospect of his recorded material with promise and in 2007, all the aural promise was fulfilled with the marvellous debut long-player In Debt To (the first national release on the brilliant Brainlove Records label) a unique, and engaging pop record which revived the British tradition of quirky pop, full of observant witticisms and produced with a lo-fi warmth.
Full of every-day protestations the record’s lyrics have seen Napoleon IIIrd described by some as a ‘protest singer’.
“I write about things that I do and don’t like, so in the ‘don’t like’ respect yes I guess I am a protest singer. It’s just personal things that annoy me or things I think are wrong with the world, or society or someone who lives next door to me.”
Case in point is anthemic single ‘This is my call to arms’ with its immortal advice, “Don’t live your life through the TV”, as Nap takes aim at the entertainment medium of the masses, edging us to do more with our lives than sit in front of the goggle-box. But does he see television as the evil his lyrics suggest?
“I’m not saying I don’t watch television. I’ve got a television and I quite enjoy spending the evening watching the television, but there’s a hell of a lot of crap on it and it does wind me up. There’s people that don’t do anything else and just watch TV all the time and don’t do anything else, that annoys me. It’s a good way to relax if you’ve had a hard day - sit down and watch some crap TV or watch BBC4 and learn something - but I wouldn’t like to sit and watch it all the time.”
Like me he likes quality, meaningful programming and anything a bit ‘interesting’ and we bond over a certain confectionary advert involving a drum-playing gorilla.
“I kinda like the way it’s calling Phil Collins a big monkey,” he ascertains.
Signing to mentally eclectic label Brainlove Records, he entered into a relationship with like-minded individuals who love bringing new music to public attention. I enquire about his views on the ever changing record industry - does he see the demise of the record label as more artists endeavour to go it alone on-line?
“I need record labels, I’m completely disorganised so I need people to help me get me music out and those record labels could do with making some cash from what they release - they can’t afford to give the music away really. You can make money out of gigs, but no one really makes that much money from gigs unless you’re big.”
“Intially I hate the idea of just downloading music - I like having the artwork and the booklet, the whole package. That’s because that’s all I know. I think downloads can be good. The thing with Radiohead releasing their album for practically nothing or nothing if that’s what you choose to pay - it’s fine for them but it isn’t great for everyone else who needs to make money. It’s fine for everyone who has already made their millions - for those of us who are working to scrape a living, giving your music away for free isn’t really ideal. It’s good for Radiohead, it’s great for Prince and whoever to give it away free in the Daily Mail. I could do with making some money to pay the rent and whatever.”
So for Napoleon IIIrd his music is his life, an essential livelihood, something he has to do - not just a passion, but a necessity. So what, I ask him, does he want his music to achieve, what does he want to be remembered for?
“Creating interesting music and making the world a better place. Just someone who did something interesting or just to be remembered would be enough.”