Former Fat Lady Sings frontman’s first film draws on mental health issues

Nick Kelly: from plectrum to spectrum, between rock and a hard place

A scene from ‘The Drummer and the Keeper’

A scene from ‘The Drummer and the Keeper’

 

“I suppose I have been a serial monogamist in terms of career,” Nick Kelly laughs. “I have been a mono-careerist. Is that it?”

That makes sense. Kelly has plugged away successfully at an array of professions.

We are talking now because his first feature, the moving, odd The Drummer and the Keeper, is about to make its way into cinemas. Nick has already directed a body of fine shorts. In 2010, Shoe made it on to the 10-strong long list for the Academy Awards. Those films were worked around a career in advertising that took in the famous Michael Fassbender Guinness spot and a bucket of awards.

Music enthusiasts will remember him as the driving force behind the much-missed The Fat Lady Sings. There’s more. It says here that he qualified as a solicitor.

“I was always interested in music,” he laughs. “But I felt like an incredibly uncool child. I always felt I had my nose pressed up against the window of that world. I did law because I could think of nothing else to do. I qualified and then gave it up that day. Nobody has ever said: ‘It’s a shame you gave up the law.’ Ha ha!”

Nick Kelly: “In rock and roll, because the bandwith of behaviour is so broad, you see people who have mental illness and often they can ‘pass’.” Photograph: Muiris Moynihan
Nick Kelly: “In rock and roll, because the bandwith of behaviour is so broad, you see people who have mental illness and often they can ‘pass’.” Photograph: Muiris Moynihan

Son of the late Fine Gael TD and attorney-general John Kelly, Nick threw himself at rock music with enthusiasm. The Fat Lady Sings, based in London during the first years of the 1990s, released two fine albums and gathered much strong press. They seemed to teeter on the cusp of full-blown stardom until he left the band in 1994.

“Yeah. It was tantalising,” he says. “The pressure of being ‘nearly there’ was very high. We got to a certain level. We did have a huge following. We got good reviews in the NME and Hot Press. We sold out venues. But getting to the next level was hard. I couldn’t make it work. We toured America and we felt they would get us. But at the end I split the band. I felt it was driving me literally mad.”

It was a strange time in the music business. Everything seemed in flux.

“Well, everything was Mudhoney and Seattle or it was acid house. We were just this song-based rock band. We had terrible timing. We were maybe unlucky not to have had a hit. But that thing of reinventing yourself for 20 years is probably not a talent I had anyway.”

We must assume that he drew on those experiences when writing The Drummer and the Keeper. The picture follows the friendship between a drummer, who has a bipolar condition, and a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome. There is much here about the insecurity of the rock life.

“I am still quite well positioned to say what the unsuccessful rock life is like,” he says. “I still make records. I had a record out in 2014 as Alien Envoy. I have a good sense of what it is like to play small venues.”

An articulate, sober sort of individual – today bearing a bicycle helmet – Kelly has another, more emotionally delicate connection with the material. At the film’s recent premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh (where it won best first Irish feature), he mentioned that his son has Asperger’s syndrome. The Drummer and the Keeper is no sort of campaigning film. But he has worked hard at keeping the depictions authentic.

 “Yes, my son Finn, who is 12, has Asperger’s,” he says. “I say ‘autism’ because it really is on the spectrum. An awful lot of people have a hang-up about it. They think if you have Asperger’s you’re like David Byrne or Steve Jobs. If you’re autistic you’re Rainman: non-verbally in the corner. That sort of thing. I was cautious about that. But it was inspired by something a little different. I have noticed at moments of deep personal trauma all the people who are supposed to be helpful are useless and the weirdest people are helpful.”

That does nicely describe the unlikely friendship formed by Dermot Murphy’s tormented musician and Jacob McCarthy’s intense Lego enthusiast. The actors catch their characters’ traumas with great sincerity. But there is something else going on. There is a sense that this environment can cloak and encourage mental illness.

“From my experience, I know the world of autism quite well. But also, in rock and roll, because the bandwith of behaviour is so broad, you see people who have mental illness and often they can ‘pass’. I am conscious of meeting musicians who had mental health issues and who sometimes didn’t even realise that because the world was so tolerant of that behaviour.”

Kelly is moving through a very different environment to the one in which The Fat Lady Sings were formed. There are simply more successful Irish artists about the place. More musicians. More actors. More film directors.

Dermot Murphy as Gabriel and Jacob McCarthy as Christopher in ‘The Drummer and the Keeper’
Dermot Murphy as Gabriel and Jacob McCarthy as Christopher in The Drummer and the Keeper.

“I love Ireland, but there has often been that sense of ‘What do you think of us?’” he laughs. “If you’re obsessed with what other people are thinking, you can get into a rabbit hole. You should be thinking about making a great film or great album rather than a great Irish film or a great Irish album. I don’t think younger Irish bands have that same pressure. They’re not that constrained.”

It’s always a struggle.

“Ah, all art is a battle between finding a way of doing your work and not going mad or bankrupt.”

FIVE VERY DIFFERENT FILMS DIRECTED BY MUSICIANS

Renaldo and Clara (1978)
The recently deceased Sam Shepard was a co-writer on Bob Dylan’s sprawling anarchic drama. Nobody has yet made sense of it. Few have lasted the 232 minutes.

True Stories (1986)
Generally well-liked, off-centre piece from David Byrne that meanders about the eccentric citizens of a Texan town.

The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
Though unlikely ever to win the Palme d’Or, Rob Zombie has made a very decent career for himself as a horror director. Best of a strange bunch.

We (2011)
Madonna’s biopic of Wallace Simpson, wife to Edward VIII, did not deserve its bad rep. It’s confused, but Andrea Riseborough is great in the lead role.

200 Motels (1971)
Frank Zappa’s near-documentary makes about as much sense as his films. The endless visual effects are famously exhausting.

Under the Cherry Moon (1986)
Who directed Kristin Scott Thomas’s feature debut? Prince. That’s who. Odd monochrome period piece.

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