Musical Dashes of the Cinematic and the Literary: A Look at Nick Coward and the Last Battle

by | Sep 18, 2009 | MUSIC

My first encounter with Nick Coward’s music was during a show we played together. I was a last minute addition to a bill that included Billy Wallace of the Wading Girl as well as the two of us. Coward carried a level of intrigue lyrically and musically that immediately had the slim audience filled with allure for each song in his short set. The potential was there, but unbeknownst to anyone in attendance was the amount of ambition Coward would set forth in the coming year.

After spending a few months recording with long-time musical collaborator Adam Tsai, an EP entitled Ghosts emerged. What initially started as a solo endeavor had soon transformed into a concise, inventive musical canvas. This canvas had dashes of the cinematic and the literary that cooed with Coward’s hushed vocal approach as well as an orchestral backing band.

The selection of music heard on the Ghosts EP has now grown to exist as something far greater. A sound full of instrumental complexities and subtle lyrical minutiae is what defines Nick Coward and the Last Battle.

I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down and discuss the evolution of the group as well as the settings for their first recording with band members Coward and Tsai. Along the way, we conversed about the positives and negatives of being in a band with so many members and how to break the mold in regards to the traditional stereotypes commonly associated with singer-songwriters.

Shannon Cleary: Before you got here Nick, Adam had mentioned to me that the majority of the band is from Lynchburg. How does that play into your passion for music and your eventual relocation to Richmond?

Nick Coward: We’ve all known each other for so long and Lynchburg was a very tight-knit community. As far as if you played in a band, you knew everybody else that played in a band. I guess it brought that sense of community to it at all. That sounded kind of pretentious (laughs). After a while though, I just wanted to get out of there.

Adam Tsai: Lynchburg was such a terrible place in the sense that there was no real culture there. It’s a really small town. Looking back at it music was the one thing we all had that was cool.

When did you end up moving to Richmond?

Coward: I’ve been here for three years. I was living in Tennessee near Nashville. I moved here then moved there and then moved back here. I finally decided Richmond was the spot.

Adam, were you here around the same time period?

Adam: Yes, I moved here a couple years ago.

Was it merely a result of school or was there something else that encouraged you to move here?

Coward: Originally school, but then I immediately dropped out. I just decided that I loved Richmond and decided to stay.

Another thing Adam mentioned was that you two were in a band together about a year ago. What’s the story behind that and how does that lead into the Last Battle?

Coward: I’ve always been doing the solo stuff, but it has taken a backseat to whatever band I was trying to be in. It was sort of a pet project, just for fun. I’ll write some songs just for me. And we were doing Bells and it ended up being a five piece. We did a couple recordings and we just never really got started. We didn’t play enough shows. It sort of petered out. Then we didn’t really do anything until we all decided that we had to do something. We were getting a little impatient and we wanted to play any music of any kind. With the solo stuff, I’ve always enjoyed and loved doing it. It just sort of fell altogether. It all came together. We put out a Craigslist ad to hire a string section and the only two people that responded fit right in. That was pretty sweet.

With the Ghosts EP, the band at that point was just a five or six piece, right?

Coward: Well, on the recording it was just Adam and me. We had a couple of friends do back-up vocals. That was about it really. We did all the instruments. We did everything else. It wasn’t really until we were done with the recording that we put the band together.

Tsai: The recording was my idea kind of. Bells had already broken up at that point. I have always loved Nick’s solo stuff. I was like let’s record something and I’ve always really enjoyed everything he has written. We weren’t really doing anything at the time. We didn’t really mean for it to turn into anything at that point. But then we really enjoyed the result.

Coward: That was interesting, because we had all of the songs set up. We knew them backwards and forwards. Now, we had to get five other people to learn all of the songs. It was such a different process as opposed to writing together. We already had expectations in what this was supposed to sound like. It was kind of a struggle, because what we sound like now is really not indicative of how we sound on that EP. It was interesting working with the band dynamic as far as acoustic music goes. I’ve never done that before.

All day today, I attempted to think of some way to compare the sound of your band to other artists. The only two things I could come up with were the vocal style reminds me of Rocky Votolato and the instrumentation reminds me of Okkervil River. Beyond that, what influences play a role in your mind when you approach songwriting?

Coward: Growing up, I listened to a lot of folk stuff. Those were my roots. I had a cassette tape of Disney Folk Songs for Kids. I wore that fucker out. I grew up listening to the Beatles and that exposed me to catchy songwriting. Finding stuff that I listened to and loved was the real turning point. In high school, I remember hearing the first Iron and Wine stuff and loving that. I was thinking how someone was taking the regular singer-songwriter thing which can be really boring and making it really interesting. It was just going beyond the traditional “I love you,” “where is my heart,” and that kind of ridiculous stuff. He wrote more stories. Then it sort of evolved from there. I always felt like with whatever band I have been in, I’ve always struggled with which topics to write about and in what way to express myself. With the solo stuff, it felt more like an extension of what I’m trying to say.

On the EP there are a couple biblical references, but beyond that what type of literary approach do you take with your lyrics? Are there any particular things that you have read that you pick lines and ideas up from?

Coward: Exactly what I do! I work in a parking booth and all I do is sit and read. I’ll sit and read and make notes of things. Like if some set of three or four words pops out at me, I’ll write it down. If I can use that as a jumping off point and go from there with whatever imagery is established. I was reading a book of poetry by Lorca, which was really fantastic stuff. He had this line about King David cutting the strings of his harp and that image was so provocative. From that line, the song practically wrote itself. The literary aspect is probably one of my bigger influences. Also, in the last few years listening to artists like Joanna Newsom and how she writes a song that reads like a book. That’s definitely inspiring. There is at least an audience now, if not a forum for that now. At least an audience for stuff that is a cut above what I was talking about with traditions with singer-songwriters.

Especially these days it seems a bit more accommodating for a band to write a song that escapes the traditional forms of songwriting and structure. It’s almost as if the music can tell a story just as easily as the lyrical content.

Coward: I love that it’s moving towards that and that people are appreciating that style more now.


I feel like with a group such as your own with as many members as you have, the only other band that comes to mind in recent memory that has had a similar number was the Mermaid Skeletons. There are obvious benefits from having that many members, especially in the sense of what you can bring to the live performances. But what are some of the downsides that most people might not be aware of, especially if you’ve never been in a band that large before?

Coward: I think the easiest thing for us is that everyone in the band approached this project knowing that these were Nick Coward songs. That made it so much easier. We have a terrific group of musicians, who are willing to add their part to the whole. It never feels like anyone is attempting to go off on his or her own tangent. Everybody, for better or for worse, respects my musical judgment in the sense of what the song should sound like. Which is a dream for me, but might not be fun for anyone else (laughs). But then, the logistics of it of course present themselves. Trying to practice is always a hassle and Adam has a huge van but we still have trouble fitting everyone’s stuff in there. So touring is going to be a problem and has been a bit of a problem. I think the positives outweigh the negatives though.

Adam, the Ghosts EP was recorded at your house. I was wondering what sort of equipment you used for that recording?

Tsai: It was all done in my bedroom with two microphones. We didn’t have to record any drums for it and that simplified the process. Well, we did record drums for it, but we did one piece at a time. We would record one track with a bass drum and so on. It was very pieced together, but I think it turned out okay. Given my limited recording background, I think I did an alright job.

I think it sounds great and it acts as a nice representation for what the band sounded like during that incarnation.

Coward: It definitely had the feel of a bedroom recording. Polished, but definitely bedroom and I think that was what we were going for to some degree. The new stuff for our next EP, we are essentially recording the same way. Except this time we have a friend who works at a studio and who is going to do all of the drums for us. In that case, at least the drums will be professionally recorded and we can do everything else in the bedroom. I think that’s working out pretty well. It sounds like a band compared to what the first release sounded like.

Are any of the songs off of the Ghosts EP going to appear on this new recording?

Coward: One song. Yeah, “Rock” from the Ghosts EP. We’ve kind of retooled that one a little bit.

Do you usually have an idea in your head as to where you want additional instrumentation to be included in your songs?

Coward: Most of the time, not always. I have found that it goes smoother when I do. It’s not always what the song needs but I can go in and suggest things we could try out. We just finished a song and I presented the band with some ideas for parts. We ended up changing a few things along the way, but it definitely helps to come into the practice space with an idea of what I’d like for each part to sound like. It streamlines it a little bit. It’s also a fun feeling to play a song in my living room and dream all of these parts in my head. Then going to practice and having all of these ideas come to life. It always exceeds my expectations.

Beyond the recording of this new EP, what else do you hope to accomplish for the rest of this year?

Coward: We’ve been kicking around this idea. We haven’t really approached anyone about it yet. I’d love to work with some other singer-songwriter types around in Richmond that we know and very much respect. I’d love for our band to back them up. I think that would be something really cool to do. It could be like a three-way split.

I could see a lot of musicians in this city that it would be cool to see participate in a project like that. Off the top of my head, that could be really cool with someone like Liza Kate.

Coward: That’s on the top of our list actually. That would be amazing to just get to work with some of the great singer-songwriters in this area. Other than that, nothing is really planned out. We are just trying to play a few shows here and there while finishing up this EP. We had a battle plan to play a Richmond show every month and an out-of-town show every month. It might be a little more than we can handle at this point with a couple of people in school as well as everybody working full-time.

It’s easier said than done I suppose.

Tsai: Yeah, we’re definitely trying.

Coward: We tried to book a tour in August and it did not come through. Everybody was trying to tour at the same time and the venue contacts got all screwed up. Maybe this winter though.

This is my last question and I was thinking about this while walking up to Elwood’s Coffee today. How often do you get asked about your last name?

Coward: (laughs) Not as much anymore, obviously as a little kid it was more of a thing. Now adays, they will mention how it is a perfect stage name. And I think about it and think about how that sounds about right.

I was just recollecting this event in Richmond that was hosted at Gallery 5. They only did it once, which is a shame. It was called Wood & Steel. It was an acoustic showcase that featured Homemade Knives, Hoots and Hellmouth, David Shultz, Heath Haynes, Prabir Mehta, Jessica Fenton and Josh Small. The reason I remember it was that after Josh Small had finished, he went outside to relax. This guy approached him and started asking him if his name really was Josh Small or if that it was just a play on words. He was polite about it and replied about how his father’s name was Small and his name was Small and so on. He partially didn’t seem to know how to take it but at the same time I imagine it’s something he has encountered on a regular basis. It’s just odd how an audience mentality can play into a disbelief of one’s actual name.

Coward: Continuing on with that, the thing I get most about the last name is suggestions from people regarding the band name. They say how the band name should be Nick Coward and the Brave Ones. That’s a little too obvious.

For more information about Nick Coward and the Last Battle, visit their Myspace page at


RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.

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