Nic Dalton Invites You To His Home Of Big Regret

Nic Dalton set himself a mandate to make his second solo album before his fortieth birthday and he just scraped through with Home Of The Big Regret, a coming of another age album expressing a new level of maturity with a swag of regrets riding high on the saddle. Inspired by a move to the country, it takes a new turn for him musically with a bluegrass band, featuring banjos, mandolins and strings he’s balefully named the Gloomchasers. It was recorded between July and November in 2004 after he and ex-girlfriend Lucy Lehmann broke up and moved out of their country retreat in April 2003. “I turned forty in November and I think I’ve grown up in lots of ways. I’ve got Lucy to thank for that I think. Moving out to the country and straightening up a bit.”

The boy with a fixation on a wonky star to the point of having it emblazened on his skin and a once bigtime collector of all things banana, grew up to be a man who shot a hole through a corrugated iron sculpture of the wonky star and has left a neglected banana collection sitting in a shed in the country. He’s been a player in the slacker pop scene, painted as a joker and possibly lazily by critics as a slacker. ”I get pissed off. I read things, you know, people think I’m a slacker and I take the piss and I go, I must be the most unslack person I know! I work really hard at my music and I don’t think I’ve ever taken the piss… I mean with Sneeze, people pay five bucks and you entertain them. I wouldn’t call that taking the piss.”

But when Nic Dalton moved to the country with his then girlfriend Lucy Lehmann he slowed down, straightened out and by his account really did drop out for a while, side-stepping from the ratrace. “I left Sydney to get away from drugs and alcohol primarily, anyway.” And he did forget about the bottle after “a couple of false starts,” according to Lucy’s account in the liner notes she wrote for the album. Despite kicking the drink, and working on his music, he feels that he “basically dropped out for five years.”

The couple moved out to central-west NSW to a house on 120 acres owned by Lucy’s mother which had been left empty for many years. It was to be the realisation of the alternative lifestyle dream. Living off rainwater from the roof, a vegetable patch, the drumkit set up in the horseshed, packs of kangaroos hopping across the property, filling corrupted lungs with deep heaves of clean air… Both being artists, it was an idyll retreat to focus on their work. Dalton tried out running his label, Half A Cow Records from the country and worked on music, while Lucy worked on her recently published novel The Showgirl and the Brumby.

Their backdrop for inspiration was Morongla, a country town that’s not even really a town with a population of just 40. The speed limit doesn’t drop below 80km per hour as you drive through. As Dalton says, “there’s no phone, there’s no shops. It’s basically just a group of houses.”

And of course, in a town that small, even being on a vast expanse of land, the community was aware of the new presence in town. “Everyone knew that that Sydney couple had moved in and we got a little bit involved with the local people.” The C.W.A. and Red Cross used to invite them down to meetings and treat them to tea and cake. And Dalton illustrated the cover for the annual Easter Show booklet, a big event on the Morongla calendar and one of the biggest rural shows in NSW according to him.

The usually hyperactive Dalton has characteristically always had a number of projects on the boil at any given time. He’s been in The Hummingbirds, Ratcat, The Lemonheads; Sneeze is still going and of course, the record label has been chewing the cud all the while, and that’s just a taste of what he’s worked on over the years. During one little promotion at the front desk of Half A Cow, he and Tom Morgan rattled off countless songs all day, and couldn’t resist starting a band. But after settling into the country way of life, Dalton felt less pressure to knock out the numbers than in former times. “I’ve written like four hundred songs, I don’t have to sit down and say I have to write one… I’d find the last few years I was happy with the three or four I write per year rather than like years ago when I’d write twenty.”

The country air breathed a new pace and feel into Dalton’s repetoire inspiring the country and bluegrass feel of the album. “That sort of space created this album, you know and I probably wouldn’t have done an entirely acoustic album if I’d been living in the city. The fact that we listened to a lot of country and bluegrass, and singer, song-writer records also influenced that. We could’ve listened to them in the city, but I think just also being out in the country made me not want to put on The Damned or the Dead Kennedy’s and put on something a bit more laidback.”

The seeds of the album were being sown in the country as they concocted song ideas together and shared ideas with each other. But despite the idyllic setting and the charms of the simple life, the isolation placed a burden on the two. “It was a strain on our relationship because we both lived and worked at home together and as much as we loved that, we didn’t really socialise much, ‘cause I also stopped drinking the entire time I was there, so we never went down to the local pub… Yeh, I think, the isolation I didn’t mind because I’d go into Cowra to go to the post office or the bank, but Lucy would sort of stay at home and I think the isolation got to her a lot more and she just – well I mean, apart from falling out of love with me – she just felt she really had to move on.”

Lucy did move on, to the other side of the world and lived in Ireland for a while. Nic and her fell out of contact – the tyranny of distance and all that – and Nic began working towards the second solo album deadline he’d set for himself. As he was choosing the material, he realised there was a strong theme emerging in the subject matter of the songs. ”… and then I rung her up – she was in Ireland – and said ‘Look, this record, there’s your couple of songs I wanna do and the three we wrote together. And I said, I really want to make this album all about you and me. Do you want to write some more songs together? And she was really excited… I think writing songs for her I think is a lot easier, ‘cause a novel, you know is like three hundred pages and song’s one page.” He chuckles at this.

The process of making the album aided the breaking up process, but also meant revisiting some painful territory. “The main song on the album All My Love, I said, you know, I really wanna make it totally what happened, about when you leaned over [when we were in bed] and said you’d fallen in love with someone else. You know I really want that in the song. I think that’s like horrible and upsetting and I said I really want that to be in the song and she felt a bit uneasy about that, but then she said ‘oh, stuff it, what have we got to lose from it? It’ll make good lyrics and it’ll make a good record.’”

Nic also had a bit of squirming of his own to do when Lucy sent him her further contribution to the record in the form of very candid liner notes which paint a little history for each of the songs. “She [Lucy] was overseas when the record was made… so, her input was mainly in the songwriting, so when she said she wanted to do the liner notes, I said that’d be great. So, she’s got more input in the finished thing. So, when she sent them to me there were a couple of things I felt uneasy about…”

In one of the song notes, she describes looking through photos of ex-girlfriends, “looking through my stuff, yeah, yeah, I didn’t know she did that. But I remember when I went overseas once and she went through all my photos and found some naked photos of previous girlfriends. I was a bit embarrassed about that. But I kept Lucy’s liner notes as is. I made her change one thing that I didn’t want people to know, but ‘cause I’m not a big fan of lyrics being printed and because she’s part of the subject matter as well as the co-writer, it’s really good to have her explain the songs and she’s such a good writer. She does it in a really good way.”

And now Nic and Lucy are gigging together with a five piece (a new format of the Gloomchasers)that features mandolins and acoustic guitars and, on occasions, just the two of them. She wasn’t a musician beforehand but picked up the guitar after her knitting book got thrown out, and gave up the wool and needles for the nylon and fretboard, discovering her ability to write songs and taking Dalton’s songwriting to different places.

The five piece are doing a modest tour in early October to launch Home Of The Big Regret in Melbourne, Morongla and Cowra (home of the Lynch Mob bluegrass ensemble). “We’re mainly just playing around Melbourne because it’s a bit expensive to tour at the moment.”

The main launch in Sydney has been bumped back to January from the initial November target while Dalton tries to get the night just right. If all goes to plan you can expect to see the five piece – flown up from Melbourne – playing at the Vanguard in Newtown with the Lynch Mob bluegrass crew coming across from Cowra to give it the authentic bluegrass feel. Despite Sydney being a crucial gig that Nic wants to go off well, Morongla has been touted as “the big one.”

“It’s actually a small country show, but for us personally it’s ‘the big one’, because you know, we’re playing where we wrote the songs and where we lived for five years, so, it’s a bit of a joke saying its the big one, but in our hearts… that whole weekend, playing the show in Cowra, on Saturday. It’s like a big homecoming.”

I asked Nick if he’d had any doubts about the “bluegrass orchestra” concept while recording Home of the Big Regret, and he emphatically said it was quite the opposite. “I was really excited. A couple of years ago I thought I’d make it acoustic, ‘cause I produced an album for Bernie Hayes in 1999, and my rule for that was, I said, Bernie we’ll have no electric instruments at all… and it ended up being a really good record, so I thought if I made Bernie have that rule I’ll have to have it for me… but I didn’t know I’d have banjos and mandolins throughout the whole record. I knew it was going to be different to anything I’d ever done, but looking at it now, it’s actually more true to what I listen to since I’ve been twelve… just stuff like Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield, just the sort of folk rock music. It is very different to anything I’ve put out before, but I think it’s closer to my heart than anything else.”

Closer to his heart not only musically, but also personally. “I’d had this record planned for six years… I didn’t realise it would end up being as country as it was. I didn’t think it’d be a break-up album. I thought it might’ve been about having kids ‘cause I thought me and Lucy were going to be together, you know, so the subject might’ve been a little different.”

Although any break-up is hard to do, since ending their romantic partnership, Lucy and Nic have hit a new level of honesty and become firm friends, strengthened by realising their ability to write songs together, and already thinking ahead to new projects. “I’ve noticed that the songs me and Lucy wrote together, I think are some of the best songs I’ve ever written. We’ve actually written about four or five since the album, you know, which I think are even better than those ones. We’ve become really good song-writing partners. I never thought we’d break up and become creative partners. I thought she’d just be another ex-girlfriend I’d email occasionally.”

The new album sounds like it’s a story about a wonky star all grown up, whose gotten a little worn around the edges and been knocked around by life. And much like the song Deepwater, from the current record, named after the town they drove through while concocting the concept, the songs will take on a narrative feel, like chapters or novellas with a central character. “The next album’s going to be about like the – well I s’pose based on me – but about the rocker having to deal with not being a famous rocker anymore. And the character in Play All Night,” (from Home of the Big Regret) “cuz Lucy knows me better than anyone, and so we’re sort of loosely basing it on me, but not really, but trying to make it a bit comical as well, you know like a faded musician having to deal with, you know, friends dying and moving on… So the next album will be another concept album.”

Dalton is conscious that people may be cynical of him being a seeming jick of all pop, trading genres easily. “I get a feeling, because I’ve done a lot of different things, people might think, oh now he’s done a country album, oh yeh, in a month’s time he’ll probably do a scar-punk album… it might take another album for people to twig that this isn’t a joke, you know.”

But with his new found maturity and the significant times that Nic and Lucy shared together in Morongla it seems that this is unlikely to overshadow how Dalton feels about the record. “It was just great to document me and Lucy’s time together in a creative way, because you know, that’s what we are, we’re artists. And even though people might cringe at the honesty of some of the lyrics… and the subject matter’s about us, when I look over and she’s standing there next to me on stage, I’m going, you know, you’re not meant to be here singing all these sad songs and harmonising.” He pauses in contemplation. “It’s good.”

You can immerse yourself in the sounds of Nic Dalton & The Gloomchasers at the launches for Home Of The Big Regret here:

Saturday 1st October at the Lachlan Hotel, Cowra
Monday 3rd October at the Morongla Show (Gloomchasers duo)
Friday 7th October at the Empress, North Fitzroy supported by La Huva (Sydney) and Lucy Lehmann (debut solo show)

and stay tuned to FasterLouder for updates on the Sydney show in January.