I felt like I was cheating the public,” admits Stevie Nimmo. “I felt I was going through the motions as a player. I even remember standing on a stage, thinking, ‘I’m going through the motions and none of you are noticing.’ That’s a horrible thing.” The Scottish bluesman does not pull his punches. When you’ve been on the scene for 20 years, first as one half of the Nimmo Brothers and then as a solo artist in your own right, you can tell it like it is. Chuck in that he’s survived cancer, and added to his Scottish roots you can see why Stevie has a “no holds barred” attitude to everything, including his music. But that wasn’t always the case.
“It was one night and we were over in Belgium,” he recalls. “There were about 10,000 people in the audience. I remember saying to my brother: ‘Are there any sports channels at the hotel? Is there any football on tonight?’ All of a sudden, we were having this conversation on stage, in front of 10,000 people about something that wasn’t music.
“I remember coming off stage and thinking, ‘This is not right. We should not be doing this. I’ve had enough.’ I just gave up for two whole years. I moved to France and put my guitars in a cupboard. I couldn’t even be bothered looking at them.
“When I came back, one of my good friends said to me: ‘What you have to remember is what you do, going through the motions, is something I can’t ever get close to. I can’t even do what you do on autopilot and I’ve been trying for 30 years, so don’t think you are cheating punters.’ I’ve never thought like that before. It opened my eyes a wee bit and it made me start playing again.”
Fortunately, for lovers of blues-rock everywhere, Stevie Nimmo is well and truly back in the game. As he chats on the phone, he has the air of a man reborn, determined to take a chance on whatever life throws at him. It might be more than 20 years since he and his younger brother Alan took the pre-Bonamassa British blues scene by storm as the Nimmo Brothers, but if his new album, Sky Won’t Fall is anything to go by he’s only just getting started.
“The last album (The Wynds Of Life) was born directly out of me being ill,” he says. “I don’t like playing that fact up. I’m British, we don’t play up illness. But I was ill. I had to come off the road for a while and it was life threatening. I had worries in my head.
“It was a more melancholic album, but with this one, I’m not dead. I’m going to enjoy my life. I’m not going to change because the music industry thinks I’m too fat or I don’t look right. I couldn’t give a shit to be honest. This album is who I am. I tried to change in the past, but I’m not doing it any more. I went in with that philosophy.”
Interestingly, Sky Won’t Fall is only Nimmo’s second solo album and also sees him team up with producer Wayne Proctor, who is perhaps better known as the drummer in King King, which, in case you hadn’t joined the dots, is fronted by none other than Stevie’s younger brother, Alan.
“I’ve worked with Wayne as a drummer for years, but I’d never worked with him as a producer,” Nimmo explains. “I went to Alan and asked if Wayne was the man do to this album. Straight away he said yes! Wayne gave everything and more. I told him to slow down a bit, because he’s so focused on his work. He’s very passionate about what he does.
“A couple of times Wayne said: ‘This is a bit eclectic. Each song is a bit different.’ But I don’t see that. If you dig through the Nimmo Brothers back catalogue, you’ll find a song in every one of those styles. To me, it’s me. It’s what I do and how I feel. I never really felt like it should be cut or shaped to one pigeonhole. You have to take it as it is.”
The new album was recorded at breakneck speed in just 10 days, but Nimmo is justifiably proud of the results, which also feature his new road band of Mat Beable on bass and Craig Bacon on drums.
“Lyrically, the theme kept coming back ‘do what you do, as long you’re not hurting anyone in the process’. I’ve always been a big believer in not faking it. When you see me playing a live show, I’ve always given everything I’ve got. No one can ask for more.
“I learned something when I went to the States to record my first album,” he adds. “It was in Austin, Texas, and it was the first time I had been in a recording studio where there was no big TV, no wi-fi connection or pool table. You just walked into the studio and that was it. The guys said: ‘You’re here to cut a record, not play pool.’ Good point!
“My whole philosophy about the recording process changed. I walked into the studio and the producer had handpicked the band for me. I went in with an acoustic guitar and these guys listened to the songs once, maybe a second time and then cut the songs. There was no fuss or, ‘I had a heavy night, can we go easy?’ They gave me everything they had. It was a refreshing attitude. We were all professionals. There was no room for ego.”
The funny thing is you can’t imagine Nimmo getting precious about anything. He might look like a tough guy, but he’s actually one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet.
“We grew up in a little town to the west of Glasgow, called Dumbarton,” says Stevie. “It’s a funny place, because it’s really split in two. There are some really rough parts and there are nice places too. We grew up in one of the not-so-nice parts, but we didn’t know that at the time. It was just where we grew up.
“I used to play football a lot and I remember one time playing in one of the rougher parts of Glasgow. All the boys were asking: ‘Where are you from?’ and when I said Dumbarton, they were like: ‘We better not mess with you then. That’s cowboy country.’ That’s when it hit home.
“We both knew everyone and everyone knew who we were,” he adds. “We found if you knew everyone, you never had any bother. We had friends in every part of the town. There was always someone who could vouch for us, no matter where we were. We never had any problems, but a lot of people we went to school with did! You look at old friends on Facebook and you think, ‘He’s dead, he’s in jail, he’s a chronic alcoholic.’ We escaped relatively unscathed!”
These days, Nimmo has swapped the hallowed streets of Glasgow for a more sedate lifestyle in France, which he says suits him just fine. “It’s a small village with 60 people in it,” he says. “It’s as far removed from city life as you could get, without going to an island somewhere. I’ve never been a drinker or a party person.
“I come off tour and I go home and I put my guitars down and chill out, and spend time with my family. I ride a motorbike. If the weather turns nice, I get out my bike and head off for half a day. Where I live is perfect for that and it helps me reflect on the madness of the UK. My brother likes to ride his bike, but he’s always complaining, because he can’t do it. There’s no space, and traffic is everywhere in the UK. But it definitely helps me. It gives me time to recharge.”
A Scottish blues-rocker motorbiking through the French countryside might sound a wee bit unconventional, but Nimmo has a degree in French and has also taught English in local schools and colleges. In other words, he fits right in. But he still misses a few home comforts.
“The French are very refined, but the thought of ringing someone up and saying, ‘Do you fancy going out tonight for a meal?’ is beyond them,” he says, laughing.
“They need at least a week or two in advance. Everything is pre-planned. Nothing is off the cuff. Things like that I miss, but other things I don’t miss. I don’t miss the binge drinking culture of the UK. I can sit and drink coffee all night here, without anyone asking: ‘Why are you not having a pint?’ I wish I could have both worlds, but at the moment, my home life is in France and I spent half the year in the UK, so I can’t complain.
“I live a simple life. I don’t need to earn tons of money,” he adds. “I have a bit of both worlds.” And Stevie Nimmo is hitting the road this spring in the UK on a double-header tour with young whippersnapper and Manhaton Records labelmate, Ben Poole. For the time being, the Nimmo Brothers remain on hiatus, to allow both siblings a chance to concentrate on their individual projects.
“We’ll definitely do something again,” says Stevie. “But we don’t know exactly when yet. We’re not over. We both like working with each other. But at the moment, there are other projects that take priority.”
And it stops poor promoters getting confused about what brother is playing with what band at any given time, apparently. “For us, it was plain and simple,” explains Nimmo. “King King has a guy in a kilt and a keyboard player. The Stevie Nimmo Trio are three people. The Nimmo Brothers are two brothers, called Nimmo. We couldn’t make it any clearer.”
Got that? Good. And in case, you’ve been living in the North Pole for the last 12 months, you will have noticed that King King are doing very well indeed. Their last album Reaching For The Light has been widely hailed as one of the best albums of the year and they have just been out on the road with heavy rockers Thunder.
So, do the two brothers ever get competitive about things?
“Only on the football pitch,” he protests. “We used to play five-a-side all the time and that was the only time we went, ‘I’m better than you.’ ‘No I’m better than you.’”
“I encouraged Alan from day one, when he was 13 and he asked to borrow my Les Paul,” he adds. “When I started working with him 20 years ago, he wouldn’t sing. He said he had a shit voice, and what’s the point of singing when I’m in the band. We had to make him sing. He used to make every excuse in the book not to sing, like he had a sore throat or had been up too late.
“He’s got a wonderful voice, but he honestly didn’t believe he was a good singer. He comes across as this big cocky guy on stage, but he needed a kick up the arse to believe in himself. King King was the best thing for him, because he didn’t have the shelter of me being there. He had to stand up to the plate – and he has done!
“He’s getting support from some of my idols. Thunder is one of my favourite bands in the world, and he’s off next week, supporting them. He did a John Mayall tour a couple of years ago. That’s the only time I get annoyed with him,” he adds laughing.
And what about the trademark kilt that his brother, Alan, wears?
“I’ve never worn a kilt and I never will. I can’t pull it off. It’s all in the calves…”
Sky Won’t Fall is out now on Manhaton Records.