Veteran debutante

English postpunk survivor Nikki Sudden, who now calls Berlin home, is laughing about making the rounds in America for the first time in his more than two decades of playing music.

"It's a bit frustrating," he says from a Chicago rehearsal space. "It's almost like 'Do I have to die to be popular?'"

One hopes not. But despite the likes of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck citing Sudden's influence on their respective bands, commercial success has always eluded him -- with both his late-'70s four-piece, the Swell Maps, and later with the Jacobites. It's a cult status reserved for only the most unknown musicians, such as Scott Walker or P.J. Proby, and, while he acknowledges the clout which comes with such critical respect, obscurity has never been one of Sudden's objectives.

"I think I've made albums that were better than 99 percent of the bands during that time period," he says. "You don't make records for 10,000 people to hear. You make records for the whole world to hear."

Backed on this tour by the Chicago band the Chamber Strings, Sudden hopes his underground status will change with his latest album Seven Lives Later, but don't hold your breath. A mixture of unsteady raucousness a la '70s- era Rolling Stones, Seven Lives Later is a departure from the Jacobites' dreamy narcoleptic subtleness. But according to Sudden, each of the 20 albums he's made is different in one way or another.

"This is my Blood on the Tracks album," he says jokingly. "It's about heartbreak, but I don't think it sounds too depressing. Some of it, like 'Stained,' sounds like the Stooges with congas. Every album you make, you go into it with the mind-set of 'This is going to be the best album I've ever made,' and sometimes you realize you were wrong in thinking that."

Not unlike the obscurity the Velvet Underground or Television experienced during their day, it's taken 20 years for the Swell Maps' fever-pitch explosion of bash 'n' pop British garage rock to come into any sort of vogue. With the band's mishmash of muddy vocals, crazed drumming and distorted, out-of-tune guitars, the Swell Maps were low-fi before the term became a cliché to describe unfocused bands with little talent and money. Noticing the writing on the popular wall, Sudden re-formed three-fourths of the band earlier this year as a tribute to his late brother and former Swell Maps-Crime & the City Solution-Immortal Souls drummer and songwriter Epic Soundtracks. Indeed, the circumstances behind his brother's death (natural death vs. suicide) still mystify him to this day.

Sudden went on to form the Jacobites with partner in crime Dave Kusworth after the Swell Maps dissolved in the early '80s. The polished and focused Jacobites were a 180-degree contrast to the Swell Maps' penchant for capturing the moment no matter how ragged the conditions.

The albums Sudden recorded under the Jacobites name have been criticized as generic, almost lifeless in nature. Indeed, it's been pointed out that Sudden's furious songwriting pace (roughly an album a year) may have been more a hindrance than a help to consistent quality.

"I've been lucky in that I've never had a dry patch in terms of songwriting," he says of his detractors. "I always try never to repeat myself. I've read things where people say it's pretty easy to write a Nikki Sudden song by numbers. But it's not that simple. To be creative, you have to retain the naïvete you had as a child. If you keep that innocence, you'll never have a problem being creative." Colin McDonald writes about music and film for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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