What BANDZILLA Means to Me
Dr. Richard Niles (09.01.2016)
It’s GOING to happen. As Mose Allison sang, “If you live – your time will come”. Few of us look forward to getting older. The disadvantages are pretty obvious: mental (disillusionment, cynicism), biological (ill-health, death). But there are also some advantages. Wisdom is one. A lot of youth is wasted with focusing on the wrong things. Age can show people what’s really important. Another thing is, people become better at what they do. I started my professional life in the studios at 24 and I’ve had 40 years to learn how to do it.
What I do, maybe the best thing I’ve done with my life, is to write compositions for fantastic musicians and to write lyrics for amazing singers. And I’ve gotten better at it, according to my own, admittedly quirky criteria. The proximity of the inevitable ‘final curtain’ makes it obvious that every moment I have is precious. Time management is a useful skill. I see that literally every moment I have a choice to make. Maximum productivity is the goal.
I care passionately about the artistic value of what I create. Art matters because it stands as an alternative to the heartlessness of society and the politics of greed. It offers a utopia where the ideal can be defined and attained. Without this, I know I would go mad. As Nietzche said, “We have art so that we shall not die of reality.”
Of course some people think I’m already crazy. But those notes you hear and those wiley words are part of a crusade. A crusade to make the world a better place – a crusade to enrich culture – a crusade to inspire others to think and feel and giggle uncontrollably. Life is about learning and yearning, not passing exams or developing the principles of acquisitive pragmatism.
People describe my music as “bonkers”, but I think there is an artistic imperative to do create something original, to speak with your own voice. As Pat Metheny said when I interviewed him for my book The Pat Metheny Interviews (Hal Leonard Publications),
“The thing we see a lot of now is younger players who are very capable, even exceptional musicians. But they get to a high point of fluency without having much of a story of their own to tell… being original has become less of a goal. Politically we live in an era of Fundamentalism versus Modernism… And that movement makes a case to say that its OK to sound like [someone else], and if you do it great, that’s enough.
But that’s a break form the jazz tradition.”
Just looking at one instrument, Louis Armstrong did not sound like Bix Beiderbecke and Clifford Brown did not sound like Miles Davis and Harry James did not sound like Clark Terry. And the Beatles did not Sound like The Stones who did not sound like The Who and Jimi Hendrix did not sound like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck. They were all advancing the possibilities in their own way. There was lots of variety and it was all accepted by the public.
I hold the guitar amusingly but BANDZILLA is my instrument. And I think one of the reasons the band made such an impression on our first record was that I was deliberately working on a different way to view the big band format, deliberately blending the bright shiny catchiness of pop with the harmonic textures of Gil Evans and humorous adventurousness of Frank Zappa.
Art is created by asking, “What if…?” Shakespeare must have asked, ‘What if I take the height of academic learning from the greatest minds of Europe and blend it with a new focus on humanity and my own new concepts of using the English language?’ Bach must have asked, ‘What if I just push this counterpoint thing a little farther?’ Brian Wilson must have asked, ‘What if I take the harmonies of the Hi Los and mix it with Chuck Berry?’
With BANDZILLA I have a number of ‘What ifs’ only limited by the time it takes to try them. From my very first job as an arranger in London, I have felt absolutely free to ask the question and answer it by saying, ‘How will I ever know if I don’t give it a try?’ As science fiction writer Ray Bradbury said, “Life is trying things to see if they work.” I’ve never been edited by fear.
As a composer the creative imperative was even more intense. Being afraid to fail always seemed particularly silly because I was passing up a chance for a miracle. Playing it safe has never been an option for me, even on commercial gigs. Of course I was as apprehensive as any tightrope walker must be. But my love of what I do gave me the same unreasonable confidence they must have. As author Roald Dhal said, “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
My lyrics? I love Lorenz Hart and Groucho Marx and Bob Dylan and Steely Dan and Frank Zappa and Woody Allen. Am I a noble philosopher trying to shed light on the human condition or a clown taking pratfalls for cheap laughs? Whatever it is, I love words as much as I love music and I’ve written songs since I was 15. The lyrics on this record are stories, fantasies, different perspectives and implicit challenges.
Another thing BANDZILLA means to me is friendship. Everyone who performed on the new album did so for the love of the music and, lucky me, as a gift of friendship to ‘Uncle Richard’. I’ve known most of these dedicated artists since the 1980s. I met Nigel Hitchcock in 1991 when he was just a 19-year old breathtaking force of nature and have watched him grow into a mature and consistently brilliant composer and innovator on the saxophone.
I’ve worked with Kim Chandler since the 90s and I am so glad the world will get a chance to hear the range of this unique and phenomenal singer. She’s ALL OVER the record, manifesting the impossible every few bars! In fact, I trust her opinion so much that I threw out my original introduction to Tip For A Toreador and wrote a completely new one.
I’ve known Leo Sayer the longest as I was his Musical Director in 1978. We had a lot of fun back then, and we had some fun with This World Is Mine. I’d met Randy Brecker a couple of times and interviewed him for my BBC Radio 2 series Inside Improvisation. I contacted him recently for this album because I loved his records Hangin’ In The City and 34th N Lex where he sings as his alter-ego RANDROID. I told him I wrote You Can’t Get There From Here with his voice in mind and he kindly said ‘yes’ because he could see it would fit him like his old Bach 3C mouthpiece.
John Thirkell was in the first incarnation of BANDZILLA back in ’86 and played on most of my commercial work throughout my career. His good humor and superlative musicianship has always made making music a pleasure, even when under commercial pressure. He understands me and is one of the few people (apart from my Mother) who gives ME advice. Without his help, this record would still be a ‘gleam in the inventor’s eye’.
The hip thing is, whatever I write is made so much better filtered through the imagination and creativity of my colleagues. I’m cute but they make me look handsome. So to me, BANDZILLA means friendship, the freedom to explore any musical alleyway or volcano and unlimited fun, fun, fun. How can I not do this?