I walked up the stairs to meet rock and roll’s own veteran Nikki Sudden from the Swells, Jacobites and other array of bands this man stood as the front singer for. After walking through a classic Kreuzberg courtyard; gray and concrete yet very charming and Edwardian to be on time, I was surprised to see a note on his door telling me and everyone else looking for him that he will be back in ten minutes. After waiting for twenty, I decided to write a note telling him I will be back in twenty and just as I signed my ‘fury’ on the note, Nikki appeared rushing to greet me. Rock stars are always late for interviews and social appointments so I couldn’t be that mad.
Nikki invites me in and offers me a cup of tea and some cake his mother brought over from England. “She always brings me things when she comes over to Berlin.” And I immediately felt tenderness in his voice when he mentioned his parents. Who would last in this rock and roll business for this long without their parents’ support? One weak rock star would not have the stamina, yet Nikki has survived techno, electronica, electro clash and other fads only to stick to what he does best, play rock and roll to the most remote parts of Europe and the world. He does it to pay his bills but also because he believes he owes it to his fans.
He recently returned from a three-day tour in Israel where no other Western act has played in two years. They were all too scared. “ They treated me like royalty, I got to meet Israel’s pop’s superstar and my promoters recorded a live album of my stuff in only three days. By the time I paid for my airfare, there wasn’t much money left but hey it was fun doing it. Israeli girls are all so good looking.” Nikki’s role as the sleazy Dandy still makes up his character and charm. Not only is this man well-mannered and very aristocratic in his gestures but also he has a great eye for beautiful things. His furniture is old antique picked up at bric a brac stores around Berlin. A huge working table dominates the middle of his living room. The Bible and a biography of Hank Williams laze around amongst sheets of lyrics, press releases and other notes Nikki scribbled while organising possible tours and gigs on the telephone.
“My dream is to be living in a small town inside a Agatha Christie type of cottage.” A romantic through and through just like the titles of his new album: Treasure Island. He has been working on this album for the last five years and he believes this is the one that will raise him towards greater stardom and financially security for the rest of his dandy years.
“I know all musicians say this about each new album but I am sure about this one…this will be the one. Millie thinks so as well.”
He refers to a good old friend Millie Comfort a producer of independent films who managed to arrange for some of Nikki’s songs to be used in a new Finish film directed by Aki Karismaki’s brother Maki.
“I didn’t know what the fuss was all about when I went to speak to the production team about my songs. They were all so serious and professional and they told me that Aki’s brother is the second most famous film director in Finland. The first one is Aki. Then I understood and decided to work with these guys. I wrote five songs in one night and I will be contributing all together about 10 songs. I never knew anything about Finish filmmakers until then.”
Nikki, that’s because you have had your head buried inside the Rolling Stones records and lives for far too long! Just as those thoughts were traveling between my ears, Nikki was writing the song titles of Treasure Island by hand on a copy he planned to give to someone. At the same time his head was rushing out the door to make it to the premiere of the film’s rushes while his mouth was talking on the phone to his girlfriend on one line and some other fan who wanted exact directions to Nikki’s house on the other. A few days later when I saw Nikki again and asked him how the film was, he mentioned that the moments where his songs were playing were the best, and somehow I believed him. This isn’t his first encounter with the film business; a few years ago Nikki had a part in a Lithuanian film, Unter der Milch Strasse, playing a drunk.
He enjoyed the part immensely because all he had to do was to get ‘drunk during the scene on pastizi’, he tells me as we pull up at the petrol station. We drove for five minutes and then back to his house only so the car wouldn’t go thirsty. “I always spend my last money feeding this car.”
So back to Treasure Island, the album in the making that has songs, which are now over twenty years old. “It is like the Stones making a new album every 5 years.” The album will be like a tribute to himself with songs that were written as far back as 1982. “I am very excited about it and I cannot wait to finish it. I had five giggling girls doing the back up vocals. The recording started in July last year and more was done during last Christmas and January. Lack of finance has delayed the whole process.” Nikki’s American distributor will not release it as they told him “all our bands make their albums in one week.” But Nikki didn’t despair and in his true survival mode he sought out others, Secretly Canadian who reissued all his 1998 albums with a 24 page booklet and bonus tracks. The CD release party was in München in 2002 at around Xmas time and everyone bought Nikki Sudden albums for their grandmothers as presents. That Christmas Nikki was loaded.
Nikki has been living in Berlin for over six years now. Although earlier he was based in London he didn’t spend much time there, only visited twice a year to “do his laundry and check his mail.” Now a resident of Kreuzberg he plans to have his new CD release party at the local pub around the corner, Belman Bar. On various occasions Nikki invites his old musician friends to Berlin to come and play gigs with him. Dave Cusworth one of his long time partners is his favourite musician who played on Treasure Island after many doubts “What’s the point in playing on a T. Rex rip off album?”, he asked Nikki. “Because it is fun and your own music sounds like T.Rex anyway.”
Treasure Island is more like a tribute to all Nikki’s favourite musicians and icons: Johnny Thunders, T.Rex, and The Rolling Stones yet it bears Nikki’s style. One recognises his buzzing droning voice with Keith Richards’ style of guitar strumming. “I want Johnny Cash to sing Liquor, Guns and Ammo.”
Cash or not, the team who worked on Treasure Island is long because Nikki wanted to work with his favourite musicians and collaborators and he even managed to get one of the old Stones Mick Taylor to ‘jam’ with him. Nikki didn’t wipe down the strings of his guitar for a couple of weeks after those session. “I had a short list of around 40 people to choose from and I met them all on various occasions through various coincidences.’ I believe Nikki chooses his musical partners according to how well they are connected to the Rolling Stones; for example when he recruited John Clifford Barry from Norwich got into the band after he mentioned Ronnie Wood in the first five minutes of their conversation. One of the album’s special guests is Ian ‘Mac’ McLagan who was married to Kim Kerrigan, ex Mrs Keith Moon. “As I wrote to a few friends about Ian, he’s played with the Faces, played with the Stones, played with Bob Dylan and how he’s played with me. True enough.”
Although employing people with such immaculate credentials on Treasure Island, Nikki invited his father to play piano even though he had to show his father how to play basic chords. As an old church piano player, his father played chords a rock and roll piano player would never think of. Nikki has further plans to get more musicians to jam “just to get that complete T.Rex sound”. But so far this album has had enough history, stories and musicians who Nikki met in pubs, stars studded parties or at airports. All the songs bear credible resonance and musical craftsmanship to make this album the One for Nikki.
“The muse comes to me whenever I am walking down the street, sometimes it comes and sometimes it goes. I don’t even carry a pen or a tape recorder.” This album then stands up as proof of hard work and hard networking. By my third cup of tea we finished talking and as I got up to leave Nikki noticed his mother’s cake untouched. “Are you going to eat that?” he asked, eagerly. No, I replied. “Then I will have it.”