It’s been almost 12 years since the release of Newton Faulkner’s double-platinum debut album Hand Built By Robots, and in that time he’s had one heck of a journey. Supporting John Mayer, starring as Johnny in the American Idiot stage show, another UK Number 1 album, and appearing on stage with a 30 foot, 3 tonne Martian fire-breathing fighting machine in the musical adaption of War of the Worlds are just some of the amazing events on that journey.
Before the release of The Very Best of Newton Faulkner… So Far – an album of greatest-hits, three new tracks, and all the covers he plays live (including his extraordinary cover of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ he performed at T in the Park) – I caught up with Newton to talk about the journey since his debut all the way back in 2007.
Your new ‘Best Of… So Far’ record contains some brilliant covers. Have you got any big covers in the works?
“Nothing at the moment actually, I kind of exhausted everything I could even think of doing for a little while. Some of them go all the way back to the beginning, embarrassingly.”
A few years ago, I went to go watch you play at the Colston Hall in Bristol, where you had I See Rivers supporting you who were fantastic. How do you normally go about choosing the artists that support you on tour?
“They were amazing. It’s usually who’s the nicest to have around, to be honest. Obviously, you have to consider how good they are musically, as an act, which is really important. I tend to have them on the tour bus with me, so if they’re not nice to have around I’m generally not going to consider it. The other thing that’s really fun is when you can have them on first and they can join you later and do more stuff and sometimes it takes a while to work out the right thing to do; when you saw me at Colston Hall they came back, which is always fun because you get the chance to build a band, which is great.”
another UK Number 1 album, and appearing on stage with a 30 foot, 3 tonne Martian fire-breathing fighting machine are just some of the amazing events on that journey.
So would you tend to choose artists that are quite similar to you musically? Or do you tend to go away from that, so they can come back and do something very different?
“I tend to look at it as a whole evening, so if it’s going to be a guy with a guitar it needs to be someone that does something very different to what I do and has a different writing style. I’ve had loads of girls on tour with me which means you’re not just listening to the male voice for four hours, which is quite a lot to ask of anyone! So I’m always on the lookout for girls – with pianos is the best bet, because then it sounds completely different.”
One of my fondest memories is when you did a private pop up gig at my school Hardenhuish in Wiltshire. Where do you think is the most unique and different place you’ve played a gig is?
“I’ve done toilets, hot air balloons – I’ve covered a lot of ground, it’s quite hard to pick a strangest place. I’ve done caves, I’ve done the top of mountains. I haven’t played in any deserts, I was going to talk to my management about that.”
Was there a certain event, or kick, that made you realise that you could take your music professionally?
“I guess it was that first wave of proper big gigs that really did it, everything else is really intangible. Being on radio is just odd, and then seeing yourself on TV is a bit strange and surreal – I can’t really make sense of it. But when you’re playing a gig and loads of people are singing along it’s something else – my first Glastonbury is probably the big one to say things are going quite well.”
When were you the most nervous before you played a gig?
“I’ve been completely terrified on countless occasions, but I kind of quite enjoy it – if I didn’t enjoy it, it would be a terrible job to have. Loads of gigs are important for one reason or another, there could be radio executives there or you know there’s important people coming. The gig that got me signed was a gig at Coco supporting Rooster, I think, and I kind of knew what was at stake, what was going on, and I knew they were there, and I knew why they were there and what could happen if they didn’t like it. So obviously stuff like that is totally terrifying. And then there’s venues that strike fear into your heart, like the Royal Albert Hall is just so vast – you’re like “Oh god this is terrifying!”.”
Do you feel like you’ve got any better when it comes to big gigs?
“Nah I’m still the same, it still means as much as it’s ever meant to me. And that’s the same with all gigs, you never know who’s going to be there, even if it’s five people at a small bar in Chicago, you never know what that could lead to.”
you never know who’s going to be there, even if it’s five people at a small bar in Chicago, you never know what that could lead to
What do you do to relax after a gig?
“Relax?! You don’t relax!! What the hell are you talking about?! Haha! Although I generally, have a couple of drinks and get on with stuff – just going back to sorting out other things.
Actually, I did forget this was happening I’m not going to try and cover that up today! I’m currently getting a nail fixed and I just need to go get some cash out, I’ve got a broken nail – I have acrylic nails and I had to go get it fixed! I thought I should probably get that sorted before I go and pick up my son later. But I just forgot to check the diary to see what was going on!”
This is a new dimension of interviewing! I’m following a Day in the Life of Newton Faulkner! Are you fine to carry on?
“Yes of course! Always happy to talk.”
What’s your favourite song to play at the moment?
“I’m really looking forward to doing ‘Up Up and Away’. And there’s another song that hasn’t come out yet, which when it does I think is going to go down really well.”
Is it one of the ones in your new album?
“Yes, it’s a track called ‘Take What You Want’ – some journalists have heard it but no one else has. It’s on the listing, but I don’t think anyone’s heard it yet.”
Yes! I heard it yesterday, it’s brilliant!
“I’ve got as really good feeling about that one. I feel like everything else is, sort of, open doors and put me back in a good space. One of the ones, ‘Wish I Could Wake Up’, is actually doing really well in Germany and has opened loads of doors – which I didn’t really know what to expect, and that’s great! But for a number of radio stations, I think ‘Take What You Want’ may just tap into something, because I’m not usually that traditional – I’m usually trying to do something weird. So it’s quite interesting to just not try it, to write a really normal song, which is a strange exercise in itself!”
I’ve been to a few of your gigs and heckles, and the way you respond to them, are always a brilliant part of it. What’s been your favourite heckle recently?
“You know what, I kind of just roll with the punches so much at gigs that I don’t really notice them anymore. I’ve had some totally insane ones. The weirdest one, which was quite a long time ago but I think it still is, was in Leeds, I think. This incredibly drunk Northern Irish girl, judging by the accent. I think I played a ukulele on a track, and after a really quiet moment in that strange bit of silence after a song before people clap, which is normally quite a weird moment – it’s quite a special thing that happens at that point. That is, unless, someone shouts out “Can you put a ukulele up my…” at the top of their voice. So that one, was obviously pretty extreme. Although she topped it later: the same girl, she didn’t get kicked out for that – I think some people said “shush” so that was was good, but then the set picks up again, getting into loads of upbeat stuff – I don’t hear a peep out of her then. Then, it get’s to another quiet bit at the end of a song again – and she’s even drunker by this point – and she shouts out: “I’ve found a ukulele! Can you find my a**e?”. Which was brilliant, it was a two part heckle, which is quite hard to beat. But yeah, very interesting…
But yeah, I’ve had very casual conversations with up to 60,000 people. I remember, because I was kind of experimenting with it when I was first doing support tours, and they were quite big gigs. I thought: right, what I’ve been doing at little gigs has really worked in terms of bringing people in, making it personal, getting people onside and singing along in ways that they probably wouldn’t do at most gigs – I give them genuine challenges to complete.
So there was that side of things. But then I tried to take on this persona of someone that does big gigs when I first started doing them. It was like: “HELLO! ARE YOU GUYS READY TO DO THE THING?! LET’S DO THE THING!” And it was very loud, and it was a bit Brian Blessed, which is what people do at gigs. And it felt a bit weird, it felt like an act, and nothing I’d done before that really felt like an act. And after a few of them, I was like “right, not enjoying that, feels weird. Let’s try the polar opposite.” And I stepped out in front of a s**t ton of people, and I was like “you alright guys, how are you doing? Imma gonna do a song now.” It was just really chilled, and I really like the way people instantly relaxed, you could feel it in the room – quite a tangible feeling shift.
And I’ve been kind of playing with it for years, I did some support slots for John Mayer in the Royal Albert Hall – they were some of my favourite gigs I’ve ever done. Did two nights, got two full standing ovations both nights, went as well as you could possibly hope. But one of the bits I loved the most was when I got people to do something complicated, a three part thing, and I said: “If you do that, and you do it really loud and unembarrassedly, I will do something totally ridiculous just for your amusement.” And then I played the Spongebob Squarepants theme in the Royal Albert Hall. And then it was like the whole room changed shape, because everyone relaxed – and [the Royal Albert Hall] is quite serious, it’s quite stuffy, and if you allow it to it can become a very over-serious gig. But if you do something totally ridiculous – and it is totally ridiculous, and I’m not advising people to do it – but it did something, it chilled everyone out, and everyone was like “oh if he’s this relaxed, I can relax” and everyone has a better time.
I’m inclusive, I’m definitely an inclusive guy. I’m like the opposite of Ray LaMontagne.”
little gigs is about making it personal, getting people onside and singing along in ways that they probably wouldn’t do at most gigs – I give them genuine challenges to complete
Are there any current artists (they don’t have to be new) that you’re really enjoying listening to at the moment?
“My go to album is still Anderson Paak’s Malibu, I just think it’s amazing, it’s so musically satisfying. It’s a great one to jam along to as well, I have amps and guitars dotted all about the house so there’s loads of opportunity to do stuff and mess around with it.
I’ve been going over a lot of old 70s funk like The Meters and Average White Band, which I’ve been absolutely loving again. I guess because I’m playing drums with my feet as part of the live set, I’ve been analysing things that have the best groove to try and work out exactly what creates that. Because I’ve got to the point where I can play the drums slightly late and keep the guitar in time – and I can mess with the feel quite subtly with all the independent cogs still in place. I’ve really upped my multitasking game quite considerably. This is next level.
What I was trying to do before was trying to make it quite subtle and adding in little bits which people didn’t even notice I was doing – the odd chord and the bass notes – and what I’ve been trying to do is make that more obvious. And the best way of doing that I’ve found, at the moment, is to spread everything out – playing guitar with one hand and doing something else with the other hand, and then sitting down so you can see what both my feet are doing. And then I think it becomes obvious what’s going on, because I think a lot of people listen to me live and not realise what’s happening, which is why I think a lot of people think I’m a looper, because they don’t understand what it is that I am doing.
I don’t know, some people just don’t care how it’s done, and I’m not expecting everyone to completely understand. It’s like a lot of the guitar stuff, unless you really understand what it is that I’m doing, you’re just going to think “oh he’s playing guitar, that’s nice”. Some people are just there for songs, which is totally cool, but there is a layer of nerdy, hyper-technical stuff going on, which if people are into it does add a layer. But, it’s finding ways of doing it which add to that bit without taking away from the people that just want to hear songs, that just want to hear you really sing – really commit to vocals.”
That must be a very tricky thing to do!
“Oh, yeah it is, but that’s why I like it. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t a challenge. I was working with a bass player recently, writing some top-secret, secret project, and I was talking him through the live set up. He’s played for a lot of people over the years, endless artists, he’s been on the road for as long if not longer than I have. And he was like: “I play with a lot of people, and most people try and make it as easy as they possibly can so they don’t really have to think about it. You tend to make things as complicated as humanly possible”. And he thought it was really cool, he was really into it as a concept.
If I push myself to the limit, I have a really good time.”
You’re going to be in Exeter in April, playing in the Great Hall (Tuesday, 23 April). When you think of Exeter, what immediately springs to mind? Is there something about Exeter that sticks out for you?
“I do the same thing every time I play in Exeter, and I don’t know if anyone really clocks it, but at some point, I always play Exodus and replace it with “Exeter” off mic and see if anyone notices, I don’t know if anyone has.
I’ve spent loads of time down there, that whole quadrant of the UK have been spectacularly good to me over the years. It started my career when people first got behind it, and they’ve really stuck with it which is amazing, I’m incredibly grateful.”
If you could have any job different to your current one, which you were very skilled and qualified to do, what would it be?
“I’m not qualified for anything, I have no qualifications of any kind. If I was to do anything, there’s stuff that looks really fun like voice acting – that looks really fun. Also, I am kind of qualified to do it in terms of knowing how my voice works, because obviously singing follows a lot of similar things. And I think a lot of singers do end up doing it at some point or another, but I’d love to do that. That would be a good side line.”