With a dark new alter ego, Trembling Bells’ Alex Neilson pushes himself into uncomfortable places for his bold and brilliant debut as a solo artist
Opposite Rimbaud and Verlaine’s Victorian love-nest in London’s King’s Cross, in a bedsit up four flights of stairs, sits a folk music veteran wearing aran and corduroy. Pictures of Norma Waterson and Shirley Collins beam from the walls. On the bedside table are the two magazines: Viz and experimental music monthly Wire. “I’ve got a mind like an open sewer,” says Alex Neilson, half-embarrassed, half-proud.
With his riot of red hair, and a talent that hops genres and drops jaws, Neilson has long been folk and psychedelic music’s go-to drummer, a modern Ginger Baker, yelping and skittering on stage. He’s toured the world with Will Oldham, collaborated with avant-garde artists Jandek and Baby Dee, and now drums for folk stalwarts Shirley Collins and Alasdair Roberts, while also being chief songwriter and vocalist for critically acclaimed folk-rock revivalists Trembling Bells.
His debut solo album Vermilion presents him as a provocative, poetic lothario with the alter ego Alex Rex. On record, rose thorns grow in Rex’s throat and he sleeps with girls for their minds as well as their bodies. In person, Neilsen is gentler, and funny, and a considerate shaper of sentences. “It felt too hubristic to release something under my own name,” he says of his recording alter ego. “And in some ways I never liked the name Alex Neilson, but don’t tell my dad.”
Born in Leeds in 1982, Neilson grew up in a council house with his dad, a builder, and his mum, a nursery nurse. “If I have any heroes, it’s them. They were unbendingly tolerant and supportive, buying me a drum kit, piling everything in the back of the car to take me to rehearsals.” He originally only took drum lessons because it meant he could skip physics class. “I’d take 15 minutes walking there, and 15 minutes back to make sure,” he says.
He “discovered pot” in his early teens and the weird records his older brother would play while burning incense in the bath. “Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground ruined normal music for me. At 14, I was straight into the darker end of psych, while my friends were into paler stuff like Grandaddy, which I just didn’t get.”
He then got into jazz and early music, and went to study English literature at Glasgow University chiefly for its music scene, before dropping out, not once but twice. There he formed experimental bands Scatter and Directing Hand after getting into folk, particularly the work of English folk singer Shirley Collins, much to the annoyance of his housemates. “I was living inside her records for months at a time, having this slow love affair … they would be banging the door, begging me to turn her off, then for me to move out.” Collins’s stark, uncompromising approach to music captivated Neilson, something he has always kept with him.
His obsession culminated in a 450-mile trip from Glasgow to Lewes to see the singer giving a talk in a pub. He’s still thrilled they’re now friends, let alone that he drummed on her comeback album, Lodestar. “She has an openness and steely determination that is a constant inspiration. And she always had a pot of soup on when we were recording.”
He’s a well-known name on today’s modern folk circuit, but Neilson has never felt he fitted in with the Radio 2 Folk awards crowd. “I’m not interested in the orthodoxy of an institution … but that world does need a clean broom. It’s very conservative, which is strange when the idea of folk goes against the very nature of conservatism. [Folk] passes through people, doesn’t it? It morphs and mutates.” He shrugs. “The concept of authenticity is a red herring, anyway. It’s better to try something new.”
Neilson’s solo project was driven by this desire for new challenges, he promises, rather than ego. “This was about pushing myself into uncomfortable places.” As well he did. Written during a “particularly self-destructive” period in his life in late 2015, Vermilion begins with the Gregorian chant-inspired blues of The Screaming Cathedral, with a chorus telling of “horror heaped on horror”. Please God Make Me Good (But Not Yet) features a girl sticking pins into a voodoo sex doll of him, before he has a “hit on myself”. Getting the worst bits of himself out there was therapeutic and necessary for Neilson. “I wanted songs that spilt out of themselves. The records I cherish most are asymmetrical things, full of blemishes,” he says.
But there’s plenty of perky, almost poppy moments too. Neilson wrote the skronky psych-blues of Song for Dora while reading “lots of Ovid and taking MDMA”, while Postcards from a dream has a remarkably radio-friendly, west coast-brightened Hammond organ intro before it kills its A-list potential with lyrics about “a necklace of bungee cord” and Adam “cup[ping] his nuts behind the tree”. Sex is everywhere, but this shouldn’t surprising for a folk musician, Neilson laughs. “The oldest folk songs are lusty and carnal. And I like having sex! People do!”
Neilson moved to London four months ago because he fell in love, but he’s already fallen hard for the city too. He relishes the romantic folk history in Rimbaud and Verlaine’s old den of iniquity across the road, and even up the road in Camden, where yesterday he made his third video for the LP. It features him hitting himself with an ancient pilgrim’s bell as he walks up the “crazy, energetic” high street, finishing at the The World’s End pub, which is still making him smile. “My whole life is a diversion tactic to forget that what I am actually is a 34-year-old teenager. At least I finally feel like I’ve found somewhere where I fit in.”