Interview with Nick Beggs (The Mute Gods, Steven Wilson)
Although he’s been a noteworthy musician for several decades, vocalist/bassist Nick Beggs truly became a household name with progressive rock fans this decade due to his involvement with Steven Wilson, his own trio—The Mute Gods—and various other collaborations. On March 22, 2019, The Mute Gods (which also includes drummer Marco Minnemann and keyboardist/guitarist Roger King) will release their third studio LP, Atheists and Believers, via InsideOut Records. I recently spoke with Beggs about the album, mankind’s increasing preference for anti-intellectualism, Wilson’s recently concluded To the Bone tour, and much more.
In the recently released video interview series you did with Roger, you discuss how Atheists and Believers connects thematically to the last two albums. I wonder, though, if any specific developments in the world inspired it?
The growth of populism has been a big contributor to the lyrical content of this one, probably culminating in “Iridium Heart.” It certainly fed into the reservoir of thinking on tracks like “Knucklehead,” too. I wanted all three albums to have their own footprint; I wanted to have a staple sound but also have variance within it. The first record [2016’s Do Nothing till You Hear from Me] has an alternative/progressive rock blueprint to it, whereas the second one [2017’s Tardigrades Will Inherit the Earth] has more of a metal subcurrent. This one is more poppy.
I noticed that, too. This one is definitely more poppy and warm and almost psychedelic. I guess that was intentional.
Yes, it was. I’ve written all three albums at least twice each, and this one took maybe three times to write. I discarded most of it and then started again and again. It naturally moved in that direction from where it was because it was sounding more like Tardigrades at first.
I wonder if anything will be done with those leftovers, then.
I think so. There’s a lot of material there, like a really good song called “Pavlov’s Dog Killed Schrodinger’s Cat.” It’s got a great title.
It does. I’m quite interested in how you approach mankind's current leaning toward anti-intellectualism. Outside of this, I teach writing and argumentation at a few colleges, so I’m always interested in examining things like false consensus bias, confirmation bias, group polarization, etc. You know, just because you don’t like what the news is saying, that doesn’t make it fake.
Oh, yes. That’s great stuff [laughs]. That’s exactly it; that’s my point on this record. We’re not interested in the truth anymore. We’d rather put people in power who are stupid and who tell us what we want to hear. There are people working on theorems about the likelihood of mankind being exterminated over the next hundred years. They use these models to feed into the data because we’re listening to stupid people and we’re doing stupid stuff. They’ll destroy themselves. That’s the concept of “Knucklehead” in a nutshell, really.
I can’t help thinking of a certain world leader while listening to that one.
You see, though, that—okay, he’s the king right now of that particular type of person, but there are plenty of others. Look at the other right-wing fascist parties that are springing up in Austria and other countries. It’s terrifying and it’s because of a number of things that feed into the paradigm that if you fuel that fire—the diminishing resources, the fear of the outsider—it gets scary. It’s a terrifying situation here in Britain because we have culminated policies that are based on xenophobia.
That’s awful. In America, it’s a lot of ignorance. A lot of people think that being a “true American” means being a white person. They’re just blindly proud of what they are.
Well, there’s a lot I could say about that, but I’d alienate a lot of listeners if I did [laughs].
Yeah, probably. Hopefully, I don’t make any readers upset. That does make me wonder if you ever worry about isolating fans since these collections do present such pointed and critical statements about controversial and polarizing subjects. It’s similar to how someone like Neal Morse may engage listeners musically but then push them away due to his religious subject matter.
I think I’ve gone way too far down this path to worry about that. I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t pull any punches. To be fifty-seven and several years into this project, I promised myself to say things that I’m really passionate about.
It’s good that you’re staying true to what you want to say. If people go with it, great, but if not, I guess that sort of proves your point since they’re not open to hearing the other side if they disagree.
Belief is based on a number of things, such as information and misinformation. It’s based on fear and love, but really, understanding and knowledge should be what we really strive for. The truth is central to that. We’ve got to be open, even in a religious position. We have to be open to being proven wrong. In the same way that I can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, I can’t prove that he does, either.
That reminds me of Last Thursdayism, which basically asserts that the world could’ve been created only a few days ago yet our memories and the physical evidence around us convince us that it’s actually billions of years old. It’s not meant as a serious philosophy as much as it’s used rhetorically to say that the absence of empirical proof isn’t enough to say something is or isn’t true.
We can prove that that’s not true, though, unless we want to get into quantum theory [laughs].
Oh, no. I just appreciate you pushing people to think about the world. A lot of us seem to be against that these days.
I don’t think we want to face up to what we’re doing to the world. Honestly, the truth of the matter is that if you put bacteria in a watch glass, eventually they will proliferate exponentially and die in their own excrement. We don’t like that idea.
(Photo:Hajo Müller / InsideOut Records)
No, not at all. Moving onto something a bit less serious, I guess, you obviously have some big guests on the album (Alex Lifeson, Craig Blundell, and Robert Townsend). How’d they come to be a part of it and were there any guests that you wanted to use but couldn’t?
There were people I thought of using but then I didn’t think it would be a good idea. For all three albums, I elected to work with people that came to me easily and by paths that were already open. I didn’t want to knock on doors that may stay closed. With Alex, it was based on a previous meeting and having worked on a Rush album with Steven Wilson. I knew him and really liked him. Serendipitously, Marco was working with him on a project at the same time he was working on this one, so I just asked him to send “One Day” to Alex and see if he’s interested in contributing. He loved it, so that’s how that happened. It was effortless.
That’s usually the best way for it to work. Since this is the third album between you, Marco, and Roger, I wonder if and how the dynamic between you three has changed over the years. Was the writing and recording process substantially different this time around?
It’s been the same template throughout. There have been a number of tracks that I worked on with people outside of the trio. For instance, “Swimming Horses” from the first album doesn’t feature Roger or Marco; they aren’t on “Strange Relationship,” either. It still worked within the sonic picture because they were only isolated vignettes, and I wanted to keep my options open in terms of working with other people. When it comes down to it, it’s about using my writing as a vehicle; that’s the central thing to it, apart from the subject matter. It’s about my writing.
That makes sense. I also noticed that the cover art is also loosely connected to the previous two in that it once again features a man with a box on his head, except now we can see the eye and he is looking at us. What does that figure symbolize and how does this cover represent Atheists and Believers?
Well, your assessment of that image isn’t quite right. It’s actually a man with a mirror cube on his head, and there are five reflective surfaces there. The reason I chose that image is because it’s a metaphor for religion. You can have five people looking into the cube and they’ll see five different things reflected back at them. On the last album, what you have is the mirror head man with an eye reflected in it from another wall, and that’s reflected back at you. You can tell because on the back cover, he’s standing next to the wall with the eye on it. It’s a piece of graffiti. That is a metaphor for us being watched.
Oh, okay. I see that now. That’s powerful. Any favorite tracks from Atheists and Believers?
“One Day” is probably my favorite track from all three albums combined. I like it because it’s succinct and it sums up my humanist viewpoint. It’s strangely uplifting, too, even though it’s dour and simple in its message. You know, life is basically a chemical reaction; we’re not here by any divine plan. We’re here by chance, as is every other lifeform in the universe. Some of them haven’t made it as far as us and others have gone far beyond us, but it’s all a chemical reaction.
I really like that one as well, and how the opening title track bleeds into it. Going back to that video I mentioned at the start, you and Roger joke that you may tour the album if you two manage to not piss each other off. Anything to add to that?
[Laughs] I’m talking to agents and promoters, but it’s still early. It’s difficult at the moment because we’re going through the Brexit debacle and nobody really knows whether we’re going to need visas to travel in Europe. I’ve had thirty-seven years of borderless travel around Europe and it’s been very productive and great. That could come to standstill. When I go to America now, I have to pay a tax on anything I earn and it could cost anywhere between $5,000 and $7,000 to get a visa. The music industry could die in Europe because of this. It’s becoming harder and harder to be a musician; starting at the grassroots level is downright impossible and you’re going to see a lot of talented people not getting the chance to break through. It’s all because of this fucking stupidity.
I can see why you feel so pressed to write about these things. Is there anyone left on your bucket list of collaborators?
There are a lot of people I’d like to work with, but I’d rather not chase them. As with Alex Lifeson, the best doors are the ones that open naturally. I remember knocking on Van Morrison’s door to ask him for a gig and I couldn’t understand what he was saying, apart from the last sentence: “Give my regards to Herbie.” He was referring to a mutual friend, Herbie Armstrong. It’s best to let things happen naturally.
Of course. Aside from The Mute Gods, you also just concluded the massive To the Bone tour with Steven Wilson. How did that tour differ from his previous ones and how did you keep it fresh along the way?
He mixed up the set quite a lot, and he’d get us to learn a lot of additional material to drop in. We had up to three-and-a-half hours of music that we could alternate between at any given time. The tour was also different in that it was very concentrated. It was 14 months long and I’ve never done so much touring in such a short period. We played 33 countries and around 145 shows, to a total of about three-quarters of a million people. It can really be a lot to deal with and the most difficult part is not going mad along the way. What you tend to do is let yourself go a bit mad, though, so when we have that giant screen come down between us and the audience, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that happens that we’d probably get arrested for if anyone could see us [laughs].
I mean, whatever it takes to keep you focused and relaxed. Similar to my earlier question, has your relationship with Steven changed since you’ve been working with him for so long?
We hit the grand running with synergy; we talk to each other on a certain plane that has stayed consistent. He’ll call on me for specific things but then sometimes he’ll want a wildcard. That’s the basis of our connection, and sometimes I think he keeps me around because I’m his pop talent. Being in close proximity during a tour is one thing but being able to hit the right notes and be consistent is another. Being the right person is more important in some ways. Be the person who doesn’t annoy everyone and is amicable and has a small footprint. Or something as simple as being the person who doesn’t smell! All of those aspects are important when you’re on the road. Steve picked people who fit within that agreement.
I’m sure. Along those lines, I spend a lot of time sort of rolling my eyes at diehard fans who speculate about Steven’s personal life, as well as comparing the band he has now with Porcupine Tree. It’s not about which is better; as you say, it’s just about who is right for the music being made at the time.
Don’t you find that fandom is a strange kingdom? We all occupy it and that makes me think of the music in a certain way and read into things. Once you make a record and put it out there and give it to your audience, they hang all matter of stuff on it or they’ll dress it up in a certain way. When you’ve got a big catalog, as he does, you have a ton of people who see it through their own lens. I’m always amazed at how fans can spiral out into different directions regarding the music. Obsessing over it and talking about how it makes them feel. It’d be an interesting psychological study. That could lead to a doctorate unto itself.
Agreed. I had a student last year who did a research project on how some musicians can develop cult-like followings. When you and I met at the end of November 2018, at the Tour the Bone stint at the Filmore Philly, I’d come from speaking with Steven and we discussed how some people are quite invested in his love life and his hairstyle. It’s a product of celebratory culture overall, I guess. Also, there’s always people complaining about “Permanating,” as if he hadn’t been writing pop songs this whole time. If someone doesn’t like it, fine, don’t listen to it. The artist still needs to stay true to what they want to do.
The bigger you are as an artist, the bigger the target is on your back. You’re going to get obsessives and psychopaths and people who fall in love with you. I remember that one guy actually turned his back on us during “Permanating,” when we were in South America. He wouldn’t look at Steven during that song. You just—you can’t buy into it. You can’t construct a musician’s career and then complain about how fans treat you. You have to prepare for every permutation. If you don’t, you’re being foolhardy.
It’s similar to how fans will react negatively to critics who do their jobs and write reviews, good or bad. If you put your art out there commercially, you need to expect judgment, and if someone’s assessment doesn’t agree with your own as a fan, that’s fine. It’s not a negative reflection on your identity. It goes back to what we were discussing before, about how an argument is supposed to be about sharing ideas and seeing all sides of an opinion.
People should be secure in their own viewpoints and not feel undermined by others. That’s just massive insecurity.
Very much so. So, final question. What music are you listening to these days?
I listen to a lot of classical music and I have a large collection of it. The other day, I put on Pink Moon by Nick Drake and I was astonished at how similar it is to John Martin in terms of vocal style. Also, the execution was quite amateur, yet he became such an icon for so many people. It’s an album I hadn’t heard before but needed to. I see doing that as a study of my industry. I work in music but there’s a lot of it I don’t know, like The White Album. I listened to the 5.1 mix of it with a friend and it was a fascinating experience. Some of the songs I knew, of course, but there were a few that I didn’t. When I told other people that I’d never heard The White Album, they were shocked. I guess there are gaps in my musical vocabulary. There are other Beatles albums I haven’t heard, and some from The Rolling Stones. It depends on where your interests lay, really. I love classical and jazz, like Pat Metheny. I love Joni Mitchell, too; she’s my favorite female artist.
She’s amazing and so influential.
There’s good stuff everywhere, but contemporarily speaking, I listen to what my children are into. My daughter likes Blossoms in a big way, and Catfish and the Bottlemen. My eldest daughter introduced me to Japanese House, who are very interesting. Then there’s an artist like Vomir, whom Steven Wilson introduced me to. He’s a French artist who stands on stage with a bag over his head and plays white noise for over an hour. People just stand there, freaking out. It’s strange and disturbing—it’s a bit like David Lynch, actually—but it’s a captivating approach to making sounds with a deep psychological profile as well.
I imagine so. I’ll have to look him up. Anyway, thanks so much for taking some time to speak with me, Nick. It’s been great and best of luck with Atheists and Believers. It’s definitely my favorite of The Mute Gods’ records.
Oh, thank you. Take care, Jordan.