Kaprekar’s Constant on Nick Drake

Kaprekar’s Constant released one of the finest albums of 2019 earlier this year. Depth Of Field has been on constant rotation amongst the team at At The Barrier. Here, Al Nicholson discusses his and their love of the legendary Nick Drake, and how he has influenced the band.

Why I love Nick Drake…my cousin and I had decided to buy blind. In order to widen our musical horizons, we made a pledge to buy an artist’s music that we had never heard before. Egged on by my slightly older relative, I would invariably part with my hard earned cash when we went music shopping. We both had already plundered known artists like Tull, Zeppelin, Genesis, Van Der Graf Generator and so on.

We were flicking through the racks of vinyl in Ajax Records, Welling when I came across Bryter Layter by Nick Drake. The photograph on the cover immediately caught my attention. A long-haired, rather tortured looking character was sitting on a chair, holding my dream guitar-a wonderfully tiny, brown mahogany, Guild M20.

At that moment, I knew that I had to have the album. The shop owner, seeing that I was entranced but wavering, gave me the nudge that I needed. ​“He’s brilliant. Not very well known though. (this was 1974). Only recorded three albums. He accidentally overdosed a few months ago in relative obscurity.”

I was intrigued, and I had to find out more. He had died before I had even heard a note played. But how could an artist make bad music with a guitar like that? I bought the record and carried it home like an unopened school report.

I loved ‘underground’ music in all its guises – be it heavy, progressive, psychedelic, space or folk rock. However, I was also drawn to the quieter side of things. In the search for those reflective moments, Nick Drake’s music was the perfect conduit. Creek amplifier set, headphones on, bedroom lights low and… lower the stylus: perfect.

In truth, Bryter Layter, his second album, is a strange mix. However, ‘Northern Sky’ gives the listener a glimpse of Drake’s immense talent and fragility. Described, thirty years after his death, as ‘the greatest English love song of modern times’, it is, indeed, a must listen.

The haunting voice over the DADGDG tuned M20 accompanied by John Cale, Dave Pegg and Mike Kowalski is captivating. From that one song’s beautiful melody and the deft ‘Fly’ that earwigs for days after you played it, I knew that I had to close down on the back catalogue.

I bought the remaining two albums, Five Leaves Left and Pink Moon, in quick succession; I was hooked. This was no starry eyed odyssey. Make no mistake; Nick Drake was a flawed gem. It’s just that the highs affected you so deeply whilst the lows could be forgiven as work in progress. Trevor Dann, in his excellent biography of Drake, ‘Darker than the Deep Blue Sea’, explores the turmoil. At the end of the introduction he notes, ‘Nick is so elusive, so mysterious, he’s anything you want him to be.’

Nick Drake.
Photo: Bryter Music

The debut album, Five Leaves Left contains essential offerings, but it is the last LP, Pink Moon, that is my favourite. If you do nothing else, then check out the title track and ‘Place To Be’. Other songs like ‘Road’ and ‘Things Behind the Sun,’ will have you diving for your acoustic, trying to imitate. Crazy guitar tunings, complex finger picking and doom-laden lyrics abound in this pared back but powerful swansong. I can’t improve upon Robyn Hitchcock’s assessment, ‘His songs are like butterflies attached to anchors.’ At times though, it’s rather unsettling, but, then again, who wants music to be easy?

The sound left me chasing after a similar guitar. A few years later, I tracked down a beautiful 1976 Guild F20 and began songwriting in earnest. For me, I guess that is Nick Drake’s lasting influence. If I am in need for inspiration, I will research his treasure trove of tunings. DADGAD and dropped D were standard fare in the 1970s, but Drake used DADGDF*, CGCFCF and the very strange AADAAC* amongst many others. Apparently he would spend hours experimenting. I have used a few on our two albums, Fate Outsmarts Desire and Depth of Field. It certainly makes playing live quite a challenge. On a tight stage, I have to surround myself with many instruments, and I am constantly changing-even mid song.

I select the appropriate app on my phone and type ‘Clothes of Sand’. I untangle the earplugs, plunge in the connector and… press play. I lie back and drown myself in the song as it brushes my ear. Perfect.

Who has dressed you in strange clothes of sand?

Who has taken you far from my land?

Who has said that my sayings were wrong?

And who will say that I stayed much too long?

Clothes of sand have covered your face.

Given you meaning, taken my place.

Some make your way on down to the sea.

Something has taken you so far from me.

Nick Drake – Clothes Of Sand

You can read our review of Depth Of Field, here. Check out the trailer for the album below; it contains excerpts of many of the songs contained on the album and is a lovely round up of a wonderful album.

Kaprekar’s Constant online:

Website / Facebook / Twitter, Instagram / Bandcamp

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