On Thursday 9th of April, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nikki Smash, front man of The Rocket Dolls, over Skype. What I wasn’t expecting was this huge smile, happily chatting away even though he has Corona (he’s ok by the way, so don’t worry and he did tell me it was ok to tell readers). This tells you about the kind of committed person he is, because even though he was sick as a parrot, he still took the time to chat with me. And boy, did we talk! It was an incredibly candid interview and Nikki talked about their new album, mental health and there may be one or two exclusive reveals here too, so do read on to find out more.
Much love to Nikki and thanks so much! Fiona
Your new album, The Art of Disconnect’ is due for release on the 1st of May and you were due to go on a world tour. Given the situation with Corona, is it being rescheduled?
Everything has moved back to February 2021, which is cool but we have to re-apply for visas etc and a lot of stuff that people don’t think about. I’m not trying to play the violin by any stretch of the imagination because everybody is in the same boat – whether you’re a small singer songwriter; country music to death metal; playing small venues or 50,000 seater arenas. But bigger bands may have insurance whereas we don’t.
We all knew the tour was going to get cancelled even though it was cancelled quite late on publicly, we knew we knew the moment we started seeing what was being cancelled early on.
How is it affecting your family – are you all safe and well?
I’ve gone into lockdown anyway because my wife is working in a hospital and I’m showing symptoms now (I’m ok, just knackered and a bit sweaty!) My son is 15 in his GCSE year and it’s impacting on him as well. Our lives are switched around (mine and his) because he sleeps most of the day and that limits contact with each other somewhat, which is quite clever really.
Our main priority is to make sure everyone is safe. Of course it is, that would be stupid not to be like that you know but when you have the most ambitious record of your career and you go on a world tour which is also funded you can’t help but just go for f**k sake! We went through the pledge thing as well so we had to fight off the pledge thing. Then we had a financial issue last year which we managed to solve; then the album got pushed back from November to May; then we had a world tour starting May 1st, which is the day the record is coming out; and then this happened. It just felt like fight after fight and although it doesn’t feel like we’ve lost – it just feels very testing. Especially as we have been very proactive behind the scenes more than 95% of bands that I know, because album number four is half done already.
Hang on a sec it took two years to finish your new album which isn’t even formally released yet and you are half-way though album number four?
Yeah. It’s more than half way actually. Obviously these songs were written in the last 2 years. I don’t stop just because an album is finished, I just keep writing and writing and I have about 50 songs done, but not recorded yet of course. We whittled them down and so far we have about 14 that could be released. We get asked how we manage to do this and the simple answer is that we don’t sit around all day doing nothing, watching Netflix all day. We keep working – this is our job! This room is my workstation – where I write, where I practice, and it’s also my bedroom!
Speaking of bedrooms – you suffer from insomnia, is that correct?
Yeah. It’s like your brain never sleeps, even though your body might. You keep going over and over things from your past like remembering what a person said to you in school when you were 12 years old. Stupid stuff. But the thoughts won’t go away and it keeps you awake night after night. My wife thinks I’m asleep because my eyes are closed, but my brain is whirring around and around! Eyes are tired, body is tired, ruminations and dwelling on rubbish and it’s hard to explain it to people because they tell me I’ve so much energy and I tell them it’s ADD, not energy! Everybody experiences a day when they wake up and say oh God I do not want to do that today, and that’s quite normal but when it is your entire life it is a very different story. Music is a huge release for me because when I am on stage I can get it out.
You have been quite open about your mental health and it features quite a bit in this album.
The ‘Art of Disconnect’ was written about my mental health and my diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder. I don’t mind talking about it as people need to know what it is. It’s mild, it’s not like I need to medicate with it. To try and put it into a few words, it just feels like you are completely disconnected from the world in everything. You never feel a part of anything. For example – you are at a party, talking with friends. Then you leave, wondering if it was real or did it happen. Almost like not being able to put a stamp on reality.
It must feel good to have a diagnosis though?
Well yeah, but the flip side of it that the ADD side says ‘you’ve been labelled’! Health is health and I chose not to take medication but the context of the song starts from here. I started writing this song a week after Ramblin Man because that’s when I was diagnosed. I took a few days sabbatical and stayed in Jimmy Owens house. He’s one of my best friends and I brought my guitars so we could mess around with riffs and stuff, just being dudes! I just started playing something, which he said was really cool. I played it back, put some effects on it and Jimmy filmed it from the start. I can’t believe I’ve managed to capture the whole thing because it’s absolutely fascinating.
That could be something cool for your fans to see.
I thought of trying to combine it in a video for the song because I’ve documented the whole process of this record. I’ve had it when I was writing with Georgia, when I was at home or with Jimmy. But you get to see the entire process in a video, which is about six minutes long and put it out there later on.
That will be very inspirational for new bands so they see how a few seconds messing around with a guitar turns into a song.
The weird thing about it as well is that the song and the album are called The Art of Disconnect but it’s really a false title in a way and is quite clever. I had my best friends around me and we wrote this record together. So even though this record says The Art of Disconnect, the actual reality is a lot of connection about it. I’m a firm believer that it’s so different from any sound out there at the moment because of the essence of the song. A lot of songwriters are very possessive about their songs and they don’t want anyone else playing them so I took it back to basics with this song. The first thing you learn when you start playing an instrument is that you really want to play for somebody else. So when you learn to play a couple of chords on a guitar the first thing you do is find out who will play and then you play music together. I tried to drop all the ego out of song writing and got in contact with a friend of mine who is a world famous songwriter – she wrote the Kaiser Chiefs records and worked for all sorts of amazing big artists. I told her I’m trying to work on this project and she said come on over and we sat down and we wrote the top lines and the lyrics.
I started this song at my friend’s Jimmy’s house and he ended up playing the piano on the record. I wrote it with my friend Georgia from college who I haven’t seen for years and now she is now an international song writing genius. Then I got to make it with my band who are my best friends. The guy who got our bass player (Joe) in the band George Donoghue, produced the record. Benji’s best friend from school (Nick Evans) did all the string arrangement on the record. So all of these that the stories came together to help create this record.
I reached out to Chris Sheldon, who produced Foo Fighters, Biffy Clyro, Therapy and so many big bands, and told him I was making this record and asked him would he mix it, not expecting him to know who I was. He said yeah I know who you are, I’ll mix your record! That was really cool because when I was a kid growing up, I always saw mixed by Chris Sheldon on records and now he is working on mine. I get to turn over my record and see his name on it – isn’t that amazing?
So although it’s called The Art of Disconnect, it’s quite the opposite as there were many things that connected it together.
That is so cool – it’s like having something off your bucket list.
That’s why it hurts so much that we can’t tour. Some people have heard it and they started reviewing it and contacted me directly, telling me that this track is amazing and it sounds so different to everything else out at the moment, which I’m really thankful for.
Another of the tracks on this album ‘Comes at a Price. It’s a really down and dirty riff!
Yeah, because it’s about empathy. And the thing is that if you are an empath that comes at a price because you take on other people’s issues, whether they are good or bad. I’ve always been that agony aunt dude to my mates because I don’t want my friends to go through crap on their own. Ultimately you do feel their issues emotionally because you live it for a moment. Why would you not want to help someone you care for? That’s what the song Grin and Bear It is about really.
So maybe the tour being postponed is a good thing so you can mind yourself for a while?
Well, actually, I’m still working and I’m averaging a song a day at the moment. I’m setting myself a task of working 9 till 5 and writing one song a day and demoing it by the end of the day.
So would you describe yourself as a workaholic?
Yeah, that’s one thing about me. I’m terrible for that. I feel as if I am not doing something that I am being lazy. I go on mad song writing sessions where I work constantly and I listen to the song afterwards about 100 times to make sure it’s perfect. The last songs that I wrote over Zoom with Georgia were done in two 8 hour sessions and that’s a crazy amount of work! But I have always said to myself I will only write music that I would like to hear. Before I start a tour or go on a recording session, I am so excited the night before that I can’t sleep and then when it’s over, everybody else is tired and I’m so excited and want to keep working, which drives people crazy!
So how do you manage song writing, recording, rehearsals, touring and family life?
It’s all clever time management really! Because I was ill a few years ago, I remember not being able to do anything while stuck at home. I was recovering from serious pneumonia. I was taken to hospital, I stopped breathing and all of that kind of thing. So I have this kind of fear In my head and I have this thing now that if I could change anything from the last time I would not have sat around doing nothing. I know people are freaking out with the current situation but for me it feels like I have been here before especially with the isolation. When I had pneumonia I was told that I can’t go out because even if I got a cold, I would be in serious trouble. There was a funny story behind this though. I had two knee operations at the time and for several weeks after I wasn’t feeling so good and I thought I had a chest infection. I wound up getting sepsis, which was ok because we sorted it out but I couldn’t shift this pain in my chest. After several weeks going back and forth, wrong diagnosis, trainee nurses not being able to read an x-ray, they finally diagnosed pneumonia and that is actually why the first album ‘Eyes’ got delayed!
Wow you really have been through it between being an empath, your diagnosis, the Insomnia the ADD and the pneumonia…you’re producing some fantastic music but it shouldn’t be at the cost of your health!
I feel I have struck a good balance now. I can acknowledge the signs. I am managing everything ok. I am writing from 9 to 5; I can go downstairs then and hang out with my wife and drink some gin. Even though I am displaying my symptoms of Covid- 19. Today is the first day I’m starting to feel a bit better.
Your new album The Art of Disconnect was due to be released on the 1st of May and the launch party to be held in Brighton at night. Obviously that is not going to happen now so have you any plans to do something different in the future?
We’ve got to be really clever about this. Every year we have had a party on Halloween night in Brighton called ‘The Riff Spooktacular’. Everyone is in fancy dress and it’s all about having a good time, enjoying Halloween and playing rock and roll. I approach the hot bands of the month and ask them to come along and play. A bit like an OzFest! We’ve done this for the past two years and it’s sold out both times. We have pre-booked the venue anyway for this year and two of the artists on my roster, Grace’s Collide and Creature Creature, both Brighton based bands, and actually have singles due out for release in May and July but they are not having a launch party. So I said why don’t we do a triple launch at our Halloween show. We are going to celebrate that night and it’s really cool that all of this has come together.
And that’s only six months away, hopefully post Covid and everybody is looking forward to winter gigs. Your fans really have something to look forward to.
It’s going to be the only home based gig anyway for this tour.
Are you still going to launch your album on the 1st of May?
Yes. So we have a party and release date even though it’s six months apart. But we can play new material then as well – happy songs about being Covid free! I said to a friend of mine that there are a few things that are definite after Covid – there will be songs about isolation, divorce and babies!
What are you going to do on the 1st of May? Are you going to do another watch party or how do you think they go down?
I’m a bit on the fence about them to be honest. In our band we have a high standard of quality and our quality control is quite good. Our records are all world-class production – we have high quality production live and not having the right tools at my disposal now to do a Facebook live with proper sound quality, pisses me off. I get it that people want to have content but if I was to do a video now using my Mac, it doesn’t sound great down the microphone with internet compression and everything. I’m working here in my bedroom, so going live here is far from ideal!
The thing with music and musicians is that you are either at the front of the queue or you’re not. There were a few bands who had cancelled at the start of Covid, and they started playing songs and stuff on Facebook and I thought that was really cool. Then everybody started doing it so I thought it was a bit lame. It sounds shit and it’s less than 720i quality and the ones who have really good production, obviously pre-recorded with fancy cameras and great production -that’s not live is it? To me it’s either live or it’s not.
You have to somehow merge the two together which is very hard. I streamed our album with commentary with it and the sound quality was really good because I had good programs and I could root stuff from the Masters, putting it into logic and other stuff so I can have audio and visual at the same time and then boosted through Facebook. The problem there was that Facebook cut it because they thought I was illegally streaming music even though with my music in the first place! I managed to get them uploaded onto YouTube and the quality is alright but it’s not great because it’s still just me sitting here in my bedroom.
You’ve already said that you’ve been in self isolation now for a while and I was just wondering have you done anything crazy or bananas to try and numb the pain or the boredom?
Not really. I suppose the closest thing was there about a week or so ago on Facebook I was going absolutely crazy bored so I put up a post saying I had a bit of writers block and all I could write was these gnarly riffs. I put the whole lot together in one song, recorded them in one section, just all one after the other and asked people to check this out. I went all out with full production and mastering and everything and now people have been coming back to me telling me that there should be a song! I’ve dug a bit of a hole for myself!
So the only potentially crazy thing you have done in the last few weeks to numb the boredom is actually work?
I suppose it is really. I think it’s the self employed mentality because to me a day not working is a day not earning.
Tell me about the design of the album cover. It’s really cool.
When I came up with the design and concept for the album cover, it was because I actually wrote this album in reverse. I wrote all of the titles first, then I wrote the music and lyrics to each title. When I came up with the title The Art of Disconnect, I decided that is going to be the album cover and title. Joe thought it was a fantastic idea but I couldn’t think what design would go with that and Joe said leave that to him. He’s so artistic and all of our album covers and our merch are all Joe. He came up with an idea and said if we give it to a proper artwork designer, they would be able to do something with it. He came up with an idea playing on music and disconnecting, hence the guitar cable coming out of somebody’s chest. When we sent it to Sam Hales, who did the album cover for our last album Dead Head, he thought it was a really cool concept and went to town on it. The design is clever because it starts in black and white and then goes into all the colours of the spectrum. There are so many subjects behind the design and people think it’s really cool because there are things behind this design and it’s not just cool colours
.What tracks are you looking forward to playing live the most from this album on your tour?
We have already played four singles live so that’s cool but I’m really looking forward to playing now are ‘Comes at a Price’, ‘Who I’ve Become’ and ‘Slow Motion Ruin’ because of how they feel. The chorus in ‘Who I’ve Become’ is my favourite out of all that I’ve ever written because when you dissect it musically with the notes on the harmonies, it’s quite dramatic. It gives me so much satisfaction to play it. It’s hard to explain about the note choices for each chord and every time I play it I get the same feeling as when I wrote it, which is quite rare.
Will the audience be able to pick up on that or is that something that’s going to stay personal with you?
I’d like to think people would pick up on that because I very much wear my heart on my sleeve for all my sins. It’s a very honest song, especially as the title is ‘Who I’ve Become’ It doesn’t leave much to the imagination and that’s ok. You don’t need to have deep metaphoric songs like ‘The Art of Disconnect’. You can have some that are blunt like ‘Grin and Bear It’. You know exactly what you’re going to get.
When you write an album like this that is deeply grounded in your personal experiences, challenges and mental health, is your next album going to be along similar lines or is it going to describe a journey on where you are now?
The new stuff is very aggressive compared to what we have written before. It’s faster and it almost feels like there’s an element of spite to it. One of the working titles is called ‘A Dictionary of Sorrows’. This record is the kind where you can just put your headphones on, sit back and listen to the whole lot in one sitting as one piece of art.
The next one is not like that at all – it’s very fragmented and meant to be because there is a lot going on. The Art of Disconnect was written in a very short space of time but it just took a long time to record because of finance, health and all of those bits and pieces and I lost my voice halfway through tracking the thing as well. This album has been written over a much longer period and it shows that which is pretty cool because it’s very different, bendy riffs and even something that sounds almost country! (Nikkie played some for me which was really cool and I’m privileged!), with lots of different tones and textures.
Most has been written with drums and bass in mind so the guitar is almost secondary and it’s very modern. We were a grunge band from the start but we are trying to drop that and be a rock band. When writing all of these new tracks I tried not to listen to any other kind of music so not to influence it because I want to work on something different and sound different.
Nikki, thank you so much for your time even though you are sick as a parrot. You should actually be resting.
Well, the last song on the record is called ‘Stubborn’! I’m writing about something I know!
And there you have it folks. It was such fun talking with Nikki and I’m already planning my Halloween night!
Check out our review of The Art of Disconnect here! https://metalplanetmusic.com/2020/04/album-review-the-rocket-dolls-the-art-of-disconnect/
Pre-order the album https://therocketdolls.com/pre-order/