As a youth, Alan Nimmo used to run into the woods and burn things. It’s the first memory he mentions when asked about his Glasgow childhood.
But before we conjure up some pretty dark images, the broad, beaming Scot half-spits out a Muttley chuckle and gives an explanation: “I was a tearaway pyromaniac looking for mischief, which included trying to set fire to anything that wasn’t nailed down; or was, for that matter,”
These days the fire goes into King King, the blues rock group Nimmo founded with Lindsay Coulson in 2010, following years in other bands, including blues favourites the Nimmo Brothers with elder sibling Stevie. On stage Alan cuts a robust figure in desert boots and tartan kilt; a look that says ‘jovial pub landlord’, although his voice screams ‘soul man’ and packs the power of his heroes Paul Rodgers and Frankie Miller.
“People say: ‘You’ve this soulful voice.’ And I think: ‘Really?!’” he says, laughing. “I’m not a purist soul fan, I like guys like Bobby Bland who made the crossover from blues into that funk-soul vibe, but I think that’s because of the passion in their performance.”
Today, sitting in a sun-bathed cafe in Highgate Wood, North London, he’s dropped the kilt in favour of jeans and a new leather jacket. He has a no-nonsense streak, but bubbles with exuberance. If Tigger were a biker, and Scottish, he’d be like this. His bandmates – Englishmen Coulson on bass and Wayne Proctor on drums, and Dutch organist Bob Fridzema – are in similarly high spirits following the launch of their third album at London’s Jazz Café. That record, Reaching For The Light, is a slick fiesta of rock’n’soul (think Thin Lizzy jamming with Free and The Commitments), and recently reached No.1 on iTunes.
“Anyone in this game knows you’ll struggle and have no money for a long time,” Nimmo says. “Then I look up last night and think: ‘We’re actually doing okay here.’”
Pyromania aside, Nimmo’s late-80s/90s childhood was infused with music. At home he fell in love with his mother’s Peter Green and Free records, while his college teacher father sang in clubs. “But it was all function stuff and pop,” he says. “They went out for that and I’d be with my gran for the night.”
Days were filled with football on the field behind their street, with Stevie there to crack him on the head when he got “too sweary”. At school he was a popular ‘jock’, captain of the football team and a keen sprinter, “until I discovered music, and everything went pear-shaped – including me!” At 14 he started playing guitar in local bands. He was uninterested in music academically, but people noticed his knack for picking it up by ear. “My art teacher saw me play and the next day brought his guitar into class. We had a bit of a jam.”
Nevertheless, a “caged animal” in the classroom, Nimmo couldn’t wait to leave school. Then on his last day, his music teacher told him he had a place at the Royal Scottish Academy Of Music. He turned it down. “I didn’t want to go down that road,” he says. “I didn’t want to take away what I felt for music.”
That day, on the way home he stopped off at the haulage firm he always passed. “I walked in and said: “Do you need an apprentice mechanic?’ And he said: ‘Okay, start Monday.’”
Day job secured, Nimmo teamed up with Stevie and dived into Glasgow’s bar gig circuit. The pair flourished as musicians, but poor behaviour from other band members made life tumultuous. The turnover rate was high. “There were people coming in and out of the bands after two days,” he recalls. “Usually drummers. Sometimes people just don’t know how to behave and you have to step in as if you’re looking after a child – though in my younger days I’d hit first and ask questions later.”
Despite the aggro, the Nimmo name thrived steadily in bluesy circles. Then suddenly things took a darker turn when, in 2009, Stevie was diagnosed with cancer. “It was a rough time. We were about to go on stage, and my brother said casually something like: ‘This month that’s coming up, make sure we don’t book anything there.’ I said: ‘Why?’ And he says: ‘Oh, I’ve just got to go into hospital. I’ve got cancer.’”
Though shaken, the family retained a tough stance. “It doesn’t mean you can stop paying your bills or anything,” Nimmo says quickly. “Might as well make the best of it.”
So they did, leaving Glasgow for the blistering sun of Texas to record an album, Brother To Brother, as the Nimmo Brothers. Flanked by Eric Clapton’s drummer and Robert Plant’s keyboard player, it was an eye-opening time for the Nimmos. “The American guys have this laid-back, ‘youthful’ love for playing music. There’s… [sighs] there’s too many fucking producers in Britain, who think the back legs off everything.”
Meanwhile in the UK, experience struggled to translate into a decent living. King King was in its infancy (the Nimmo Brothers taking a backseat) and times were hard. Did Nimmo seriously contemplate giving up? “Oh, absolutely,” he says, without hesitation. “But we kept going because every other month we could see the tiniest progression.”
It was their 2013 album Standing In The Shadow that gave King King a blues hit. Life became more secure, but Nimmo longed to cross over into the rock spectrum, concluding that another blues-friendly Standing would be “the end of King King”. Reaching For The Light, therefore, needed to be their shot at proving credentials beyond the niche they’d conquered. Thus far, the reception suggests it’s paying off: “Suddenly every door’s opened.”
In terms of hopes, millionaire dreams are far from Nimmo’s mind. “I grew up with no money; nothing but family, and that was all that mattered,” he says emphatically. “I love playing, writing and performing. What drives me is wanting to take this band as far as I can. To see if I can write a song that you’ll still listen to in thirty years.”
And if that doesn’t happen, he’ll just sing and play at whatever level he can. “Until someone chops my hands off.” He thinks… “But if I’m still able, I’ll keep playing then. Maybe gaffa-tape a slide to my stump.”