The eccentric charm of a self-confessed funny bugger. By Will Hodgkinson.
"I'VE ALWAYS been a bit of a funny bugger," admits Nic Armstrong. "Before I got a record deal, I was living in my own little world in Nottingham, painting and writing songs, and I really didn"t have a clue about what what was going on around me. I'm only just beginning to find out."
His debut long-player, The Greatest White Liar, is the happy result of such unawareness. On 13 tight, witty originals and a cover of the R&B classic Down Home Girl, Armstrong visits the spirit of The Kinks, early Beatles, Bob Dylan and even such long-derided beat-era softies as Freddie And The Dreamers. His music doesn't sounds retro but it has a provincial charm that harks back to maor innocent days when art school dropouts worked at pop songs over a light ale and a packet of Woodbines. From the blast of opener I Can't Stand It to barbed ode to a lost love, You Made It True, The Greatest White Liar sounds like the work of a man happy left to his own devices.
"I've lost every job I've ever had," adds Armstrong, a quiet Geordie who has lived in Nottingham since attending art college there a few years back. " One winter I had no food and I would go out busking in the cold to make a fiver for some tobacco and a pint. But every day I would be learning from the way Leiber & Stoller told a story through a song, and how Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly would get so much into two and a half minutes. Then I would try and write songs that reflected my mood on the day."
Armstrong would have remained in his own artistic bubble had it not been for the efforts of his girlfriend, who entered his home-recorded demo in a song-writing contest organised by a metropolitan style magazine. "I was at a low ebb," he remembers. "My equipment had been stolen, I had split up with the band I was playing in and I had lost my way, so my girlfriend did it to try and get me going again." He didn't win, but one of the judges was sufficiently impressed to land Armstrong a deal with the One Little Indian label. The demo found its way to producer Liam Watson who, fresh from recording The White Stripes' Elephant, was in the process of having his Toe Rag Studios deluged by every two-bit garage band in the land.
"There was all this stuff that had a lot of attitude and not much else," says Watson. "Then I heard Nic's songs, with their ramshackle arrangements and funny guitar playing, and they were good. But it was obvious he needed a bit of discipline. He's a true artist, and he's also a lazy git. I explained that people like Chuck Berry had to work extremely hard to make simple music sound good because they had nothing to hide behind. I think he understood."
Under Watson's stern guiding hand, Armstrong fashioned an album of well-crafted songs with the deceptive immediacy of '50s rock'n'roll. Now comes the hard bit: making it as a working musician. "This is all I've ever wanted to do," he says, lighting the latest in an unending procession of roll-ups. "Ever since I heard Dylans's Blonde on Blonde I knew that, but now it's actually happening it's like, Jesus, what the hell's going on? I'm never going to get carried away because I'm pretty down to earth, and right now I want to keep it simple. But I might be ready for the orchestra and gospel choir a few albums down the line; I have no idea what to expect."