Interview about the process writing the Nellcote book. Watch out for the part about "...we meet in hotels, in pubs and before concerts and it's a lot of fun. Of course, the band and the songs are the most important aspect, but the little community that moves along with each gig is super important to me." INTERVIEW: “The Curious Chronicles of Villa Nellcote”.
Translated from Swedish (...and slightly edited for clarity)By Fredrik Brolin
THE CURIOUS CHRONICLES OF VILLA NELLCOTE is a book about a villa in the south of France that was once part of the Rolling Stones' history. I contacted the sympathetic Norwegian author GEIR HØRNES and talked about how an exiled Rolling Stones became part of European history without even realizing it.
The story began in 1971, when the Rolling Stones were on the run from the taxman in England. Keith Richards found Villa Nellcote located in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French Riviera. The villa would become the Rolling Stones' main location for the recording of “Exile on Main Street”. I love nerdiness in music, and I couldn't help but be fascinated about this book, that takes nerdiness to a whole new level. Geir doesn't just write about the Rolling Stones, but he covers the entire history of the house, from its construction up through the 20th century.Why don’t we start by talking about your own musical history? First album, gateway drugs, etc.
My gateway drug was the album “Hotter Than Hell” (1974) by KISS. That got me into playing guitar and when I got older, I studied musicology at the University of Oslo. Music is my whole backbone. When I outgrew KISS, the Stones came along and took over. The Stones became the band that I still follow whenever they are on tour. It's like a travelling circus, a society, me together with other fans who do the same thing. We meet in hotels, in pubs and before concerts and it's a lot of fun. Of course, the band and the songs are the most important aspect, but the little community that moves along with each gig is super important to me.I totally agree with you and I feel the same way about Metallica. How did you get into the Stones?
I was 15 years old when Steel Wheels (1989) was released. It was seen as their comeback and there was a lot of Stones-talk everywhere during that period. I got into the Stones by listening to the Love you Live (1977) record, a record that is not their best but I felt that a magical universe opened up for me, you know when you discover a new band where you find one record after another that just gets better and better. Exile on Main Street (1972) became my thing because it reflected the person I wanted to be; a bit rough and carefree. I wasn't, but that record kind of showed me the way. Sometime there I got hold of a book that had 4-5 pictures from Villa Nellcote. They really intrigued me. Had the Stones at some point lived in a castle? Why were the pictures black and white? Why were the band half-naked? There were women, rabbits and guitars everywhere. How strange. So, on my first interrail, as it was called in those days, I went to the South of France looking for that villa. That's how the love story began, the one that eventually became this book.As I understand it, you are nerdy about travelling and visiting different places that have had some kind of significance in music. Can you name some places around the world that you have visited for that reason?
Well, there are certain places that are really important to me. Like, the intersection in New York that is on the KISS album Dressed to Kill (1975). There is also a loft where KISS rehearsed. And close to the house depicted on the Led Zeppelin album Physical Graffiti (1975) is a famous Stones bar. There are naturally lots of places in New York, but also in Paris, for example, with Jim Morrison's grave. It's a bit of a musical pilgrimage.Was Nellcote one of these tours?
Nellcote was exactly such a place. Then it just became so much more. It is incredibly difficult to explain this type of travelling to other people who are not on the same wavelength. They just think you're weird. But I think it's fun.It started with a book about the Rolling Stones and their time in the villa. What was the basic project and when did you realize that the book had to be about more than the Rolling Stones?
Initially, I wanted to create a Nellcote 101, a crash course about Nellcote, a short but informative story of how the house came to be. Everything would focus on Exile on Main Street and the basement where the album was recorded. My theory was that the sound of Exile was somehow the sound of Nellcote. But what began as a music angle quickly took an architectural turn. My floor plans for the basement were inadequate and the search for the original 1899 architectural drawings took me back 120 years. To the story of the man who had built the villa.How long has this project taken?
It is now seven years since I presented the floor plans of Nellcote to the French photographer Dominique Tarlé in Paris. I had made the plans myself, based on around 500 photos he had taken of the Rolling Stones at Nellcote in 1971. He lived at Nellcote and photographed the band for almost six months. When I met Tarlé and gave him the floor plans of the villa, and he realized how much time I had spent reviewing his photos, he started laughing uncontrollably. He pointed at me while saying to the others in the gallery: "Look at this! Look at this! He has..." Tarlé interrupted himself and turned to me: "You know you're crazy, right?" That was the best thing Tarlé could have ever said. Soon after, I started sketching the book.Do you understand French? I'm thinking that you've done a lot of research in France and they don't exactly have a black belt in English.
I barely know any French, and I've learnt most of it through this project. Navigating the French bureaucracy was particularly challenging. I knew nothing about where the archives were, what types that existed or where to even start. But in the end, I got some help from various French fans and tips on databases and so on. So, I headed down to France and began leafing through ancient books, a bit like in a Harry Potter film. It was amazing. I could really smell the paper from the 19th century. Finally, one day, I found the name of the man who built Nellcote. He wasn´t British or even an admiral, which is the story we´ve always been fed. In the margin of one old document, I discovered his place of birth, plus other houses and hotels he owned. That led me to his ancestors. Even though I didn´t understand it at the time, that old document about the first owner started a Domino effect, one thing led to another and the whole story began to reveal itself to me.You had a give-and-take situation with the Stones camp. Can you tell us a bit about that? What did you get and what did you give?
It might sound strange, but one of the things I never did was interview Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. I thought everything they knew was already out there, in the media, and I did not want to rehash that. But the Stones camp I'm referring to were all the people who were down there with the band …friends, technicians, or administrative people, like Georgia Bergman, the one who found the villa and ran the whole show. Marlon Richards, Jake Weber, Marshall Chess were others. They liked the fact that I came to them with facts and dates and places and so on, so they didn't have to try to remember that themselves and we could focus on getting those atmospheric stories instead.What was the biggest wow-moment you had while working on the book?
The first one was when Georgia Bergman gave access to her diaries from that era. From that, I got the whole chronology. The second big thing was that I also received the diaries of the third owner of Nellcote, writing how she survived the Titanic and how she invited royalty to the villa during World War 1. The Shah of Iran, the Princess of Montenegro and so on. It also was quite emotional when, in an archive in Paris, I found a signature of the second owner of the house who had helped finance the Statue of Liberty. That's when it struck me that this story was much bigger than just the Rolling Stones.The story then becomes the history of Europe centering on a house in the south of France. Is there any part of this history that was off-limits, that people didn't want to talk about it?
Nellcote is owned by a Russian citizen today, and the situation is rather delicate. The villa is a private residence as well as a closed entity. Thus, I wrote the book as a way of visiting the villa, spilling the beans on what was behind the legendary gates. Last summer, however, I was actually allowed into the grounds and that was my first time inside. I hope to update the story of the present era in a future edition. Other than that, most owners thought it was a great idea that someone wanted to portray their parents' lives and were happy to contribute. A fun anecdote: When I was in Paris launching the book, this rather famous French shipping family arrived. They had owned Nellcote for decades. The matriarchate was an 80-year-old women with a huge pearl necklace. She was so beautiful and kind. She lived in some big house in Versailles and told to me that, prior to the event, she had googled me. “Your house in Oslo is beautiful, and just as large as mine!”, she said laughingly to me. I smiled, knowing that what she thought was my house entirely, was my apartment block. I mean, naturally, I only owned one single apartment that complex….but I did not have the heart to clarify that to her.What was it like getting permission to publish all the pictures in the book? Was it hard?I remember from when I released my Metallica book, I had no difficulties but it was still important to get the permissions.
All the families who have owned the villa participated one way or another. It wasn't really that hard getting the permissions, because I got into this give-and-take situation with them, me donning documentation about their family from all sorts of archives, them “repaying” with pictures and objects of interest. So, everything went well. The hardest part was getting the family who rented Nellcote to Keith Richards, onboard. They had no idea about their historical past and were very taken aback by my research. In Switzerland, the fact that many worked both sides during World War 2 - both with the Nazis and Allies - is still a very sensitive matter. In order to access all those pictures of Nellcote just prior to Keith Richards renting it, basically getting the family onboard, I had to tone down the story a bit. Eventually, after 18 months of “negotiations”, I had what I needed to publish the book.When did the idea of writing the book in English come up?
Right from the start. You can probably tell that the book is not written by a native English speaker, not because the language is incorrect, but because it´s uncomplicated and easy to read. On the other hand, the book has been sold to people from 37 different countries, many who is not native English speakers either, so it’s a win-win.Did you get any help with the writing of the book, in terms of staying on track at all times or the fact that you didn't write the book in your native Norwegian?
I had help from two pros in polishing details of the language. I also got a lot of help from my wife, who works as an editor at a publishing house, so she should have some "credit" too.This is the second edition, how does it differ from the first?
I have included a few new bits that I came across, I also added two pictures. The numbered first edition had a different colour on the cover, but it sold out in a month. It took quite a while for the second edition to be released due to the global paper crisis.
I never thought a story about a house would be so fascinating but Geir manages to find just the right house to attract me. A multitude of stories and years of research have created an amazing history that is also illustrated with many never before published pictures. The whole story could easily be made into a film following the history of Europe from the perspective of the villa. The Curious Chronicles of Villa Nellcote is now out in a limited and signed second edition. It can be ordered from www.nellcotechronicles.com or www.tronsmo.no.