INTERVIEW

No Harm No Fowl: Terror Bird turns her personal turmoil into beautiful retro goth-pop.

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For those who are yet to be thrust into the stark, enchanting world of Terror Bird, it is the moniker under which the already wonderfully named, Vancouver native Nikki Nevver produces her brand of sultry post-punk. Don’t be fooled by her own self-deprecatingly glib description of her work on her Bandcamp profile (“Terror Bird is the synth project of Canadian artist, Nikki Nevver. Nikki and her two bandmates will be touring Europe in the spring of 2013”), this is music that comes from that same wonderfully austere, futuristic space as Siouxsie, Suicide and Joy Division. Her latest LP, ‘All This Time’, has just been released via Night School Records and her star is well and truly in the ascendancy. While the record has been born out of a period of personal flux and emotional upheaval, Nevver is captivatingly enthusiastic and disarmingly open about her own biography, the art she produces and the music that inspires it.

First of all, however, I want to get to the bottom of that name. One theme that seems to bind a lot of the bands that I speak to is a shared sheepishness about their choice of nom de plume. It’s often dreamt up during long, hazy teen days, etched onto imaginary album sleeves long before the possibility of the real thing rears its commercial head. By then, of course, it’s too late to change, however much they may want to select something a bit more grown up. I’m pleased to find out, though, that Terror Bird isn’t just some throwaway term.

“It came from three different ideas,” says Nevver. “First, I saw these giant, flightless birds in a movie when I was eighteen. I thought it was interesting that at the time they were around, they were a top predator, but that currently, birds seem pretty harmless. I must have related to the terror bird back then, because at the time I thought of myself as a bit of a villain. I also thought the word ‘terror’ was a good word to describe the intense anxiety I was feeling.” Nevver is candid when it comes to her emotions and mental well-being. “I would say I had generalised anxiety disorder, if I was to self-diagnose. Lastly, I was really into Neil Young at the time, and especially loved the song, ‘Dangerbird’.”

Nikki’s views on the issue of gender in music are similarly refreshing, as she chooses to concentrate on its positives rather than dwelling on any perceived drawbacks. It curtails our discussion on the standing of women in music, as Nevver clearly sees both genders as existing on a level playing field. “I find being female is a benefit for me, rather than a problem. I’m confident in my band, which is all female, and my songwriting. For me, it’s not a big problem right now.” When I ask which other female artists currently excite her, it results in a list. “Sally Dige, Animal Bodies, //Zoo, Brit from Koban, the singer from Light Asylum, Vapid, Austra, Zola Jesus, and Molly Nillson.” She pauses. “A lot of the artists I mentioned are from Vancouver! I might like some of today’s pop stars a bit too.”

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Collaborators have come and gone since Terror Bird was first coined, and Nikki has worked with a host of other musicians as she works towards perfecting her signature sound. The most notable departure, however, was that of her ex-husband, Jeremiah, and it’s clear that much of her recent work deals with the schism, directly addressing the fall-out in various states of pain, anger and fondness. “Terror Bird has always included myself, because I write all the songs. But my ex-husband drummed in the band for years, and sometimes played synth. Other than Jeremiah and myself, there’s been nine other members over the years.”

Regardless of the mood that she’s employing at any given time, the one thing that jumps out from Terror Bird’s oeuvre is just how starkly confessional her lyrics are, and the latest LP finds her at her most direct. “It’s normal for me to write about personal things,” she says. “I’ve done this for years. But I guess it’s the least metaphorical record I’ve done. I suppose I was influenced heavily by personal events in my life, so it came naturally. Lately, I usually just write lyrics by writing keyboard parts and then writing down the first things that come to mind. But I used to write in a more poetic, creative way when I was younger. Now I write more literally.” That’s not to say that there isn’t poetry still, and Nevver’s knack for a rhyme remains wonderfully beguiling: Back in the old days, we had our old days, she sings on ‘Lust  & Violence,’ capturing the lost intimacy of a relationship in a heartbeat.

However, while the album’s overarching theme is the protagonist’s grappling with loss, it is by no means a hopeless affair, and self-pity is something Nevver avoids with strength and integrity throughout. On ‘The Wrong Way’, one of the album’s angriest songs, a glimmer of hope shines through in the forceful assertion that she has used the experiences to move onwards and upwards from a personal standpoint, declaring, That was the old me, thats not me now. Again, she is open about her emotional and mental outlook. “I used to have a lot more psychological problems and be a lot more angry, hurtful, careless, and selfish. I’m still obviously not perfect, but I think I’ve become more rational, stable, and happy.”

When I suggest that some of the album also sounds quite sweet, even leaning towards coquettishness in its vocals and wordplay, Nikki is at first surprised before conceding that there’s room for each and every inch of the kaleidoscope of human experience, both good and bad. Indeed, it seems that this is a product of an approach that is unashamedly pluralistic. She never rules anything out. “I never intended to do that, but I tend to see many sides of things, all at once, most of the time,” she says. “I can always see what I’ve done right and wrong at the same time.” She jokes, “I would make the worst politician.”

As I attempt to convey my thoughts on the dichotomies at work within her music, I use the words ‘haunting’ and ‘sinister’ interchangeably, and Nikki brings me up on the casualness of my descriptions in a flash. “I find haunting and sinister to be two different things. But I do like the idea of music being ‘haunting’ and evoking emotion. I also have a ‘bad’ side, which I tend to over-exaggerate and make sexier in songs.” It seems, then, that she plays characters in her songs, teasing out the various psyches that exist within her at any given time. “I guess, for me, badness is really just socially unacceptable behaviour seen through a lens of Catholic guilt and Disney-style morals.”

In terms of sound, ‘All This Time’ feels like it stands on the cusp of post-punk, baroque, gothic and 80s pop. Nevver’s voice soars, tumbles and cracks over menacing synths and shuffling, tinny drum machines, creating an intoxicating mix that simultaneously foregrounds pathos and yet oozes sexuality. “Not many people catch that I like post-punk,” she say. “It’s strange because I would never think normally about these things; they just do attract me. I guess the simplicity of the music, the imagery of the artists, and the fact that a lot of post-punk and 80s music was poppy but still rebellious and weird in some way attract me. I like the dance beats and great sound quality of ’80s music, and the sadness, and the beautiful synth parts and tones.”

I tell Nikki that the delivery on her songs reminds me of Kate Bush in parts, but while it’s received as the compliment it’s intended to be (“Thanks! I love her.”), Nevver is keen to align herself with vocalists of both genders, drawing attention to the shortcomings of my description, and the temptation to pigeonhole her as a female artist. “I’ve also been influenced by David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Morrissey, Elliot Smith, Brian Eno, Brian Ferry, Laura Branigan (just the song ‘Gloria’!), Neil Young, Brian Molko – when I was younger – and Leonard Cohen.”

While Terror Bird’s previous work has seen her voice filtered through a digital labyrinth of computers and effects pedals, this new record (her third) is rawer, much truer to Nevver’s vocals and more up front than anything she has done before. Nikki, however, is characteristically self-effacing about any perceived leap in quality. She says: “The raw sound is really just me failing at trying to sound hi fi. I wanted to use less effects on my voice on this record. My voice still has a lot of reverb, though. As for the instruments, I wish they could sound even more polished to be honest!”

The production has been improved immeasurably on ‘All This Time’, though, and clearly Nevver’s DIY ethic is proving increasingly fruitful. “I just recorded everything myself on Garageband. I wrote the songs quickly. But the mixing took ages!” The Press release for the record suggests that it was shorn of live instruments, but I’m incredulous at the idea that this collection of ten beautifully crafted and intensely layered tracks was untouched by analogue, but it was, and Nikki confirms that each and every sound on Terror Bird’s luscious palette is manmade. She laughs. “It’s all synth!”

See Terror Bird perform live when Nevver and her band visit the UK for a tour in late August.

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