In previous blogs, I have taken a look at the way in which my musical education took shape, from day one to the present. Within these posts, I have made mention of a number of decisions that have shaped the way in which I’ve discovered the music that I have. I have also, to a greater or lesser extent, mentioned the people who, along the way, have helped in my musical journey. Over the next couple of blog posts, I want to specifically pay tribute to those people and explain in more detail a bit more about how they have inspired me, helped me and joined me on this most amazing of journeys. So, here goes…
Nicholas James Spall. This dude deserves a whole blog post to himself, so that’s exactly what he’s going to get.
My little brother, Nicholas, passed away in 2008 from one of the most aggressive forms of cancer that stalks the earth, malignant melanoma. He was 26 when he was cruelly taken from us but, in his short life, he had the most massive impact on me. Not just musically, but in every conceivable way. However, as this is a music-based blog, I will maintain my focus on this aspect.
From a very early age, both my brother and I were interested in music. With a similar upbringing that exposed us to the likes of Queen, Dire Straits and E.L.O., it was unsurprising that we’d begin on a similar musical path I suppose. We’d go to record shops together and trawl the shelves looking for the next discovery. In the early days, he was responsible for the discovery of Sepultura, Strapping Young Lad and Cradle Of Filth to name but a few. He would always bemoan the fact that I seemed to choose the gems like Paradise Lost or Metallica. However, as it turns out, it was more often or not, the other way around.
At the time I returned from my first year at University, by brother went off to Music College. It was at this time that my nickname, The Man Of Much Metal, was coined. I was asked to help with a talk that he was writing, and together, we came up with a pretty good discussion around the birth and growth of death metal over the years. Between us, we threw bands into the discussion that many others had apparently never heard of, and, as my collection was responsible for the vast majority of these artists, I became ‘Matt, The Man Of Much Metal’. To say I’m proud of this moniker is a gross understatement.
In his early teenage years, Nick began to play the drums. You can imagine the initial fear and consternation of our parents at this decision but they supported him wholeheartedly. In a typical three bedroom semi-detatched house, noise was an issue but the complaints were few and far between. Part of the reason was that, very quickly, Nick got the hang of the instrument and began to bash out some ever-more impressive material. He never had a lesson in his life and seemed born to it.
This obsession to drumming led to some changes to Nick’s music tastes. More and more, his radar would focus on the percussion leading to his discovery and love for bands like Pain Of Salvation and Tool, anyone with an impressive rhythm section. He set a very high quality control level for his listening and so, whilst I was often guilty of buying up as much as I could, he would have to be really impressed before shelling out on an album for his collection. Unlike me too, his tastes were broader than just rock and metal.
In many ways, he became my musical conscience. Every time I bought a new CD, I’d immediately consider whether Nick would like it. He had a habit of raising a quizzical eyebrow when he thought his big Bro had dropped a clanger, so I began to really raise my standards too, in the hope I’d discover something to get us both excited. I wasn’t necessarily seeking his approval, but I began to consider the music more deeply and got a thrill from discovering a band that we could listen to and enjoy together.
I remember receiving a text from him shortly after ripping my collection to his new PC. It read something like: ‘Ho Bro. Going through your collection alphabetically, but I’m stuck on Agalloch.’ As it turned out, he was stuck on Agalloch for a long time, but sadly never got to see them live. When I did, a couple of years ago, it was an emotional experience to say the least.
The biggest influence, band-wise, concerned Katatonia. I discovered them but was never 100% sold on their music. Nick took the Swedes to his heart and spent many a long evening trying to get me to see the light. He persevered even when I wished that he wouldn’t but eventually it worked. The ‘eureka’ moment was on the drive from Ipswich to London for a gig. He put on ‘The Last Fair Deal Gone Down’ for the hundredth time and, for some reason, it clicked. He gave a knowing smile and the rest as they say is history. I love Katatonia now, more than most bands to be honest.
Gig-wise, we shared a lot of lovely experiences together. Linked arm in arm at an Iron Maiden concert at Earls Court singing ‘Blood Brothers’ shortly after he saved me from the crowds as an Asthma attack loomed large. Attending the ULU in London to watch Katatonia for the very first time, Lacuna Coil, Dimmu Borgir, Pain Of Salvation, the list goes on. And of course, who could forget Tool at Brixton Academy? He had a blast whilst I suffered one of the longest nights of my life. I’d spent a fortune on tickets for us as a birthday present and his face throughout was worth every penny, even though I couldn’t wait to get out of there!
The talented drummer soon found himself in a band and so I spent many a night following him around the country to support him and occasionally act as a roadie when required. The band, Jack’s Family, were a highly talented bunch and so their unique brand of female-fronted Gothic prog metal with a classically trained violinist was a pleasure to listen to, making the travelling worthwhile. Unfortunately the band are no more, but they left their mark in an all-too-brief career.
One of the biggest ways in which Nick supported me was with my first attempts at writing for Powerplay. He encouraged me to get involved and was as proud as punch. His support of my writing continued to the very end and stands at the centre of one of my most heart breaking memories. On the very day that he was told he only had months to live, we went into Colchester town centre to buy him a hat that he had wanted. On the way, he marched into the branch of WHSmith and scoured the shelves for Powerplay Magazine. Unable to find it, he wandered up to the nearest assistant and enquired most politely why the best metal magazine in publication was not on the shelf. Even at what must have been the lowest point in his life, he felt compelled to support me and not think of himself.
Even now, when I listen to an album, I’ll fleetingly wonder what my brother would have thought of it. Sometimes the thought makes me smile. Other times, it makes me cry. But at least I have these thoughts and I know what a huge impact he had and still has on me and my music. If you read Powerplay, ThisIsNotAScene, Ghost Cult or this blog and have enjoyed even one thing that I have written, you have one person to thank: Nicholas James Spall.