James Nicholls is the creative force behind the English band ISF. We met for a talk about the noise he delivers on the debut IFS release, Feel. Kill. Conceal. Reveal.
Dave Hawkins: You’re a busy guy James, thanks for taking time for me.
James Nicholls: No, it’s all good. My pleasure.
Dave: I wonder if you might actually be the invisible man James. On the Facebook page for ISF you’re nameless and there’s not even a picture. Do you like the anonymity?
James: Yeah, I don’t mind. I’m not too fussed about being this unknown person behind the music. It’s kind of nice not being someone different, but to be myself when I’m doing music. So I get to express myself, no matter who’s watching. That’s kind of the idea of it being less focused on me. Yeah, it’s cool.
Dave: What about being an artist, can you exist without social media?
James: …Probably not nowadays. No. I mean when it comes to social media, I suck. I’m total rubbish at it. I don’t use Twitter. I use Facebook pretty much just for music. I’m not one for being constantly on social media. I just cross my fingers and hope people hear about it.
James: Dave and the guys at ZAP (Records) they really help with that. I’d be pretty screwed without them.
Dave: (laughs), OK, If that isn’t important, then let’s talk about something that is. ISF has brought out its debut release, Feel. Kill. Conceal. Reveal. through Zap Records. The title is accurate, but maybe it’s too accurate since its aimed at the human condition.
James: Yes totally. Like with the titles themselves. Here’s another thing. Whenever I’ve been in bands, I’ve been rubbish with coming up with names. I’ll think something is cool, then the next day I’ll be sick of it. So it’s not a massively creative name for the EP, it’s the track titles. It actually came from an Eminem song. Weirdly, I just happened to be listening to it and I thought I would just use that for four tracks. I had the names before I had the lyrics. In a way I based the song lyrics around the song titles and what I wanted to get across.
Dave: We need to talk about the music style. Feel. Kill. Conceal. Reveal. is straight noise from front to back. Let me ask a harsh question. Is noise a legitimate music medium?
James: Uhmm, is it music? I guess it depends on what your definition of music is. I think, when it comes to personal preference and taste, I’d say yes, because you could argue that anything could form music. I’m using musical instruments on the tracks. On the other hand, this is very, very niche. So I’m not too upset if people don’t consider this “real music”. Believe or not, within there, where are riffs, it’s not just kind of dumping it on the table and calling it “music”. But, I guess at times it’s not far off from that. I’m not claiming to be an amazing musician, I’m just wanting to throw this stuff out there and make bit of noise.
Dave: I guess that’s sort of encompassed on the ISF band bio which shares a quote from Daron Malakian from System Of A Down. “We don’t care what anyone says. If we like it, we like it. Thats the way free form of art should be. You should be free to express yourself. There is no such thing as a bad idea.” Is it the art of System Of A Down that’s made such an impression on you or is it just that statement from Daron?
James: I think it’s the statement. I do like System Of A Down. I’ve liked them since I was much younger. A lot of their music is quite random and just a bit weird. Mainly it was that statement that really stood out. I think that exactly sums up what I think about music, when he finishes it with, “There is no such thing as a bad idea.” I’m not saying that I like all kinds of music. There’s a lot of music in todays pop culture that I think is awful, but I don’t want to say too much. I don’t want to tell people not to listen to it. If you want to listen and enjoy it, fine, but I still think it sucks. And it’s the same with my music, where a lot of people are going to think that it’s awful, which is absolutely fine.
Dave: (laughs) And you’ll be OK if you hear yourself being described as “weird”? (laughs)
James: Oh yeah. Totally. The weirder the better. (laughs)
Dave: An interesting thing about your release is that it will take us longer to talk about the EP than it would be to play it…. Man, this thing is brief! Four tracks and the entire EP comes in at less than seven minutes long. Why keep it short?
James: I guess you could say that’s from my lack of talent. As I said before, I’m not claiming to be a musician who can play all of these things. That’s how long my attention span is, I need to keep it short. (laughs) If I start to get bored then I’m sure others will too. You know I don’t want to repeat things. Obviously it doesn’t have the structure of verse, chorus, verse type of thing. So the last thing I want to do is keep repeating myself. It makes it fun and it flows when I’m making it. I want to keep it as spontaneous as possible. I wrote out lyrics, and then when I went to record them, what came out was quite different from what I’d written down. Then I thought, yeah that’s what the song is about. Rather than trying to hit what I had prepared, I decided to record what was on my mind at the moment, rather than trying to force something out.
Dave: You enjoy having a lack of structure in what you’re putting out?
James: Totally! Yeah, I mean don’t get me wrong, there may be a lack of structure, but there’s not a lack of form that goes into it. Even though there’s not a lot on the EP, there’s a lot I didn’t use. I do like the lack of structure. It’s just one more thing that makes it different. I could choose to have an intro that builds up into a verse and then a chorus, then a bridge and a chorus. But if the point is to be different. Why follow a structure that already exists?
Dave: You haven’t needed to give it longer length, because the EP does have a lot of content. For example, “Feel It”, the opening track of the EP, gets into our lack of awareness. It brings in the line: “This precious time, of which we, need to survive. This time we, can’t see what, seems to be in, front of us all this time “ Why are people so unaware?
James: That song was particularly about us being conditioned by things. Whether it’s media or religion. I’m a Christian and I’m always challenging myself to make sure that I’m not doing things just out of habit and a religious cycle. That I’m doing this out of choice and because I believe that it’s right. It’s the same with music and media, which we refer to as “popular”. When actually How many of us have chosen to have that on the radio? We’re not really controlling what is considered popular.
Dave: So much of mainstream radio is specifically geared to women from 25 to 45 years old. That often lays out what will be heard on radio, because that’s the market their delivering to.
James: Right. That’s true, but perhaps the market would be different if what they were putting out were more broad. I don’t listen to radio. I’d much rather listen to my CD’s. If my CD’s were on the radio, I’d probably listen. It’s kind of a catch-22. They’re obviously providing that style because there is a demand for it. At the same time there is this demand because its been shaped by the provider.
Dave: On the following song “Kill It”, you don’t have any of your own vocals, but you bring in that famous sound bite from “Network” where Howard Beale yells “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”. Are you really that mad?
James: Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t got this massive chip on my shoulder. I didn’t really have any more words to put to that song. That’s where it started with me wanting to do my own music. IFS is the first time that I’ve really done any solo work. I thought, screw it, I’m not going to wait until I join a band again. I’m just going to do it. In a way, I’m just not going to take it anymore. Let’s just get it out and see what happens. That stand alone statement was enough on its own.
Dave: Well, in that movie, Beale had half the country shouting about how mad they were. Will the song get the same kind of reaction?
James: I don’t know. I have no idea what kind of reaction I’ll get for any of the music. (laughs) It’s really hard to say. Possibly. (laughs)
Dave: (laughs) I like the concept behind the song “Conceal It”. You say: “we are made different, we’re not all the same, so do your own thing, stop following”. That’s certainly not what marketing companies, schools, or the government wants. They all like people to have that cookie cutter mentality.
James: Totally. I mean it sort of follows the same lines as doing your own thing and stop following and being afraid of pushing the boundaries. Stop being afraid of what people think. Stop trying to look like each other. There’s no way of being completely individual anymore. I’m taking about doing your own thing and expressing yourself. This has been said for years and years and years. It’s not like I’m someone trying to start a revolution or anything. It’s asking why are we trying to be like each other? It doesn’t work. You’re not me and I’m not you. There’s only one of me, so I might as well be me.
Dave: Often it’s people in general or society that dictates that. People are afraid to break out of the box.
James: Yeah. Well, it’s partly people being afraid to do it and partly people needing to realize that they can. I’ve already said that I’m a Christian, and my parents are Christian. I grew up in a household where that was normal. It wasn’t until much later in my life where I made my own decision about it and to have the opportunity to say yes or no. There have been times where I have said yes or no. The point is that it took quite a long time for me to realize that it wasn’t about what my parents wanted for me. It’s that I have this option, this opportunity, to opt into something. I can either do what I feel and think or I can go along with the trend. In my case it was I can either go along with how I was brought up or I could follow my mates with what they were doing. It’s quite simple when it comes down to it. I just think we’re not as aware as we could be.
Dave: What about filling us in on the closer of Feel. Kill. Conceal. Reveal. The song “Reveal It”?
James: “Reveal It”. That was, in a way, one happy mistake. Something messed up when I recorded the song and it sounded better than if I had gone back to record it again properly. (laughs) Yeah, it kind of rounds off the EP quite nicely.
Dave: It does round it off, but the song doesn’t give any form of resolution to the issues that you raise on the release. Should there be a resolution?
James: No, I don’t think there needs to be a resolution. The resolution really comes from what people do next. All I’ve really done is talk about the kind of things that are on my mind. I’m not out to kind of change anyone. I’m not going to challenge people on it. I just want to put it out there and see what people will do with it. One person might think that it’s great and do something. Then other people might think “oh yeah, cool”, and it doesn’t resonate. I don’t think the message needs to conclude on the EP. The conclusion happens after, with the listener making a decision what to do. That’s the conclusion.
Dave: Before we close up I have to ask the obvious question about ISF. What do the letters stand for?
James: Yeah, the letters stand for I Still Fall. It’s the idea that those people who are on pedestals, whether it’s a celebrity or someone into music, movies, someone in church, a pastor, or whatever. The point is that they still fall, they still suck, they all do things wrong. The reason I’ve named this project that is whether you’re a celebrity or an artist as small as me, we’re all still the same. We all mess up, we do things wrong, we let our friends down. We all need to realize that. We put so much trust in people that when they let us down, sometimes we can’t handle that. Particularly when they’re Christians. We expect them to be perfect. The point is that no one is perfect. I’m not saying that you can’t trust people or that everyone is rubbish. I’m saying that everyone is normal, whether you’re on a pedestal or not.
Dave: At the beginning of our talk I brought up that quote from Daron from System Of A Down. Something else Malakian said was “I’m not very happy. I’m frustrated with human beings. I’m the guy who just wants to smack people in the face and say, ‘Wake up!’”. Could that same comment also come from James Nicholls?
James: Uhmm. Yeah, I guess it could. The mentality of that, yes I could. But at the same time, there’s so many people before me, like Daron, who have said that. Who have enough of a stance to punch someone in the face and say, “What are you doing?”. I’m not claiming to be the next whoever, but In terms of that mentality, I’d say yeah.
Dave: I really appreciate our talk and your music. Thanks for meeting with me.
James: Thanks for having me. It’s been great!
The ISF debut EP Feel.Kill.Conceal.Reveal. is available through the ZAP Records Bandcamp page. https://zaprecords.bandcamp.com/album/zap-030-feel-kill-conseal-reveal-ep
ISF Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ISFNOISE/
About the interviewer: Dave Hawkins is host of The Antidote, a syndicated weekly radio broadcast featuring interviews with innovative artists who share a Christian worldview. http://www.theantidoteradio.com/