INTERVIEW: ROBERT NICHOLS & STEVE SPITHRAY | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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In terms of degrees of separation, whatever you are involved in on Teesside you are never very far away from Robert Nichols. He’s like a kind of social web that connects the whole region; whether it’s music, football, local history or running. A uniquely positive influence.”

Chances are, if you’re from Teesside or have even a passing connection to the area’s music scene, this statement from Steve Spithray will ring very true, and he should know; he’s spent the last 18 months writing a biography of the Shrug frontman, Middlesbrough FC fanzine editor and local history expert.

Having first interviewed Robert about Shrug’s 2018 album Island Complex, and noticing that their paths continually intersected – whether as music and football fans, or as writers (they’re both longstanding members of the NARC. team) – his interest was piqued. “Rob is one of the few people I’ve met in life who I can just sit and listen to talk for hours on end, so our quick 30-minute interview turned into an hour and a half of wildly off-topic musings about music, football and life that became the genesis of the idea for the book.” Steve explains.

Steve discovered after a number of Sunday morning meetings over hot chocolate – handily conducted pre-pandemic – that Robert’s story was one of grassroots glory. Coming of age in Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s, amid times of punk, anarchy and squat culture, it was perhaps no surprise that Robert’s commanding DIY spirit would see him become an avant-garde performer, forward-thinking promoter and one of the founding fathers of the Teesside scene in the mid-late 80s. That DIY spirit extended into his love of Middlesbrough FC, as he went from committed contributor to owner of fanzine Fly Me To The Moon, which he proudly mentions is now on issue 620, making it the most prolific fanzine still in print.

The correlation between music and football is, for Robert, what makes both things irresistible. “The crowd, the atmosphere, building up in anticipation for the performance. There are big similarities. It is an emotional experience watching football or music. A real release. You can lose yourself in the moment. A goal or a great song. A top performer’s artistry is going to stay with you. And that moment can stir a thousand memories afterwards.”

On the subject of FMTTM, he talks of the early days of typing up hand-written articles and cutting and pasting images from magazines and programmes. “It was very DIY. In those days there was very little opportunity for supporters to comment and express themselves. The fanzine movement turned that on its head and became a platform to be creative, challenging and be humorous.”

Whether that DIY aesthetic started with music or football is debatable; Robert’s post-punk band Shrug began in the mid-eighties, and were an eccentric bunch variously described as unleashing “torrents of noise” and “ramshackle melodic greatness” (local filmmaker Jay-Tee, who was interviewed for the book, even described them as making “the Fall look like Take That”).

Rob’s real passion is for the people he meets doing the things he loves, and that is why the book is as much about you, me and them

I was brought up in DIY times of post-post-punk or whatever it is that John Robb labelled it. The late 80s were truly horrible times outside of football and alternative music. Yet there was scope for cottage industries in both. At Shrug we made hand drawn cassette covers. Some of our instruments were even hand made. We were all mates, mucking in and enjoying entertaining people.”

Currently the band is made up of Robert, Oli Heffernan (guitar), Richie O’Brien (drums), Kev Wall (bass), Sarah O’Brien (keyboards) and Richard Pink (guitar) and, while they’ve gone through a seemingly rolling cast of drummers over the years, the core group has largely remained the same (“we do keep adding younger guitarists – Oli went to school with the daughter of Sarah the keyboardist!” Robert interjects). “We play punky, hopefully uplifting stuff. Very simple when I write the music with one finger keyboards and more musical when written by Oli or one of the Richards. But we hope the songs strike a chord immediately. That is what we strive for.”

Some of the most engaging parts of Steve’s book revolve around amusing and amazing anecdotes of Shrug performances; from crossing Checkpoint Charlie to perform a gig in East Berlin, touring with Sebadoh and being played by John Peel, to being rowed across an ornamental lake dressed as Captain Cook in an inflatable dinghy which kept going in circles and then being “beaten to death” at the foot of Middlesbrough’s Bottle of Notes sculpture. “Rob has witnessed and been involved in so much just within the music scene that I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface,” Steve comments, “particularly relating to the Shrug European tours that must have been so exciting and some of the bands Rob put on locally like No Means No and The Ex.”

An engaging and unpredictable performer, Robert’s stage costumes are as legendary as his performances.I like the idea of entertaining and being very visual as well musical. When we started getting gigs in Europe I thought no one will understand me so I started making cardboard props and friends chipped in making me more elaborate monster heads. I also had this concept – it was based on a half remembered vision of an old black and white silent film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari that I saw when I was a kid – I tried to look like a scary man running across the rooftops with wild eyes, dark coat and white face. Then I spotted a latex horse’s head in Camden Market in about 1998 and have never taken it off since. The horse leads me into running across and beyond the stage. Mixed with the stirring music I hope this makes for an interesting performance.”

Robert’s love of archaeology and local history (he’s a respected figure in the community, and the organiser of local history festival Discover Middlesbrough) also bleeds into his songs. “Excavating something from the soil puts you in touch with real people from the past. I have always poured history and archaeology tidbits into songs. If you dig deep into the songs hopefully you will come up with nuggets that you can enjoy. People really connect with Whitby Kipper, it is like a guide book pulled apart and put back together in random fashion. Yet there is a mystery within it. I like a good mystery. Back to the archaeology again I suppose.”

Steve’s book does much the same; unearthing the myriad threads in a web of a life well lived. “Robert’s story is simply one of making the most of life.” Steve concludes.I came to realise very early on that although his story may be about football, history and music on the surface, Rob’s real passion is for the people he meets doing the things he loves, and that is why the book is as much about you, me and them.”

From Shrug To The Moon – The Robert Nichols Story by Steve Spithray is published on 4th December. A book signing will take place at Base Camp, Middlesbrough before Middlesbrough FC’s home game against Swansea City, followed by a launch event with Robert and the author, hosted by writer and broadcaster Bob Fischer on Thursday 9th December, also at Base Camp

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