Steve Nieve's Fuji~Rama
One of rock’s most celebrated keyboardists, Steve Nieve is launching his own vinyl-only label to showcase the music he creates apart from his longtime employer Elvis Costello.
First up from Nieve’s new Trouville Records label will be Fuji~Rama, which is currently being crowdsourced in conjunction with Qrates—a website that facilitates fan-generated vinyl record production. The album is made up of Nieve’s self-described “no beat, electro-acoustic duets” with special guests Ned Rothenberg, Simon Fisher Turner, David Coulter and Ajuq.
Nieve, who was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Costello and his band The Attractions in 2003 and shared the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammy this year with Costello’s present group The Imposters (for the album Look Now), takes a minimalist electronic approach on Fuji~Rama--“an eight-part ambient suite unlike anything I’ve ever recorded,” employing samplers, synthesizers, organs and prepared pianos in improvising its eight compositions.
As the album title suggests, the music was inspired by Nieve’s memory of a visit to Japan’s sacred Mount Fuji—“the most perfect volcano in the world”--specifically, its sound during an earthquake.
“Believe me, that day I heard a sound like no other!” recalls Nieve, who lives in France, and climbed Fuji with some friends the first time he went to Japan, “a country I adore so much.”
It was during his first trip there, with Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
Steve Nieve, far left, on the day of the earthquake at Mount Fiji (credit: Chris Musto)
“It must have been 1979 or ’80. I was in good shape in those days, but about a third of the way up, after a good solid couple of hours of steep climb, we all needed a breather and sat down on the sharp red rocks, enjoying the amazing view across Lake Fuji. And that’s when this thing occurred, the strangest experience: The ground beneath us turned into a giant slow-moving elastic liquid wave that just traversed the entire panorama. It lasted less than a minute and wasn’t frightening, but it was awesome in the truest sense of the word—an awesome expression of Mother Nature. A once-in-a-lifetime encounter and a magical experience. The act of standing on the earth has never been at all the same since.”
So Nieve took “this unique moment in space and time” and composed Fuji~Rama as a series of electronic soundscapes, initially posting them on his SoundCloud page. He then asked his collaborators, all “masters of improvisation,” to pick a soundscape and add their own distinct musical contribution.
From Brooklyn, Ned Rothenberg, who played multiple instruments on Nieve’s opera Welcome to the Voice (originally released on Deutsche Grammophon in 2007) and song cycle Mumu (Zomba, 2002), plays the Japanese shakuhachi flute, “soloing inside these soundscapes, in such a delicate way, telling a story that evokes the exact feeling of that mysterious meeting with nature, when the rocky surface of Mount Fuji turned into a liquid beneath my hands and feet many many moons ago.”
In San Francisco, Nieve’s prodigiously eclectic longtime collaborator David Coulter, whom he first met playing the Australian didgeridoo and is “a master of the musical saw and drainpipe,” reasserted his “ability to turn any object he finds in a room into a musical instrument.” And in London was Simon Fisher Turner, who has scored movies for Derek Jarman, and “extracts tiny morsels of sound” from field recordings, then inserts them into custom software in a manner, Nieve says, “a bit like alchemy,”
Finally, singer/drummer Ajuq, who has been singing with Nieve on a wide variety of songs performed throughout Nieve’s continuing series of Immobile Tour/Daily Improvisation Facebook broadcasts from his home during the coronavirus lockdown, participated in Paris. Ajuq had been with Nieve in Japan during another earthquake experience—one of five total for Nieve there. He will also record a bonus track for the digital version of Fuji~Rama that accompanies purchase of the vinyl pressing.
As for the vinyl focus of Nieve’s Trouville label, which is named for his current hometown of Trouville-sur-Mer in the Normandy region in northwestern France, “I want to put my music out on vinyl because I am enjoying listening to my record collection and as a musician, I want to be part of that again,” Nieve says. “That’s how I started out--and I miss it. Streaming doesn’t do it for me.”
Regarding Fuji~Rama specifically, “I have always wanted to produce a vinyl of still, ambient instrumental music, something you can put on your turntable when you are working or relaxing or doing yoga or meditating,” he continues.
“So I set about improvising on my Jupiter-8 synthesizer--a wonderful, warm analog synthesizer. I improvised some still, slowly evolving soundscapes, thinking back to this unique encounter with the force of Mother Nature, and while it’s not possible to completely recreate it--even with a Jupiter-8—it is possible to be inspired by it.”
Still, “us independent artists can’t easily produce a vinyl release,” notes Nieve. But when he discovered the Qrate site, the release was suddenly feasible.
He needed a minimum preorder of 300 copies, and after buying 100 copies himself (“for my merch stall when I get back to real gigging”), he’s now over halfway to meeting the required remainder for the anticipated fall release.
“Once we have the 200 preorders in, I’ll be sending the masters, the finalized artwork [the sleeve, Nieve notes, is ‘red as the rock on the volcano’], everything Qrates needs to get the album out to their pressing factory. They’ll then ship the finished article out to those who back the project. Nothing like having a proper record in your hands!”
And as noted, the accompanying digital version will have extra tracks that he couldn’t squeeze onto the heavyweight vinyl.
“Heavyweight vinyl, as you probably know, produces the best sound,” says Nieve. “It’s also the reason to limit the number of tracks to four tunes a side, because this album contains calming, soothing, healing music that needs time to evolve and work it’s magic.”
As Nieve owns the rights to his recordings, he plans to create similar vinyl versions of them via Qrate depending on the success of Fuji~Rama. But he’ll first put out an album of new solo piano versions of songs by his chief collaborator, Steve Nieve Plays Elvis Costello.
Incidentally, Nieve might conclude Fuji~Rama with a recording called “Myūjikarubokkusu,” Japanese for “music box.”
“Just before the lockdown I went to visit my mother, and I was telling her about the record and it coming out on vinyl,” he relates. “And I told her all about the climb up Mount Fuji. She said, ‘Do you remember the music box you gave me when you came back from Japan?’ She went to the other room and returned with this beautiful black lacquered music box. By a strange coincidence, on the lid, in mother of pearl, was an image of Mount Fuji!”
As Nieve happened to have his field recorder handy, he wound up the music box and recorded it until it wound down.
“When I got back to my studio I added synthesizer, and the record seemed to be complete,” he concludes. “I believe the melody is a Japanese folk song, but Shazam doesn’t recognize it...yet!”
The Fuji~Rama track "Ruutsu," featuring Ned Rothenberg