An Interview with Richard Niles (or, as Tears For Fears call him, “George Martin on acid”)
[Editor:] Years ago when Steely Dan’s “Aja” album came out, I couldn’t get enough of it. The musicianship, the arrangements, the energy, the mix—it all blew me away. I don’t know how many LP’s I wore out, and I’ve been listening to it digitally every since.
Then along comes “Bandzilla Rises!!!” by Richard Niles. Full disclosure: I’ve known Richard for over 40 years. He and I were both students at Berklee College of Music in Boston during those heady days that saw the beginnings of Weather Report, The Pat Metheny Group, Brecker Brothers, and the Keith Jarrett solo performances. We studied improv from Gary Burton and took Herb Pomeroy’s legendary Line Writing, Duke Ellington, and Jazz Composition courses. We lived on and breathed a steady diet of JAZZ.
Richard was and always has been one of the more imaginary and quirky composers I’ve known. If you knew him as a person, you’d understand. If he were a chef, you’d never see or taste anything like his dishes. If he were an author, you’d marvel at the rabbit hole his stories would send you down. Well, the Universe decided he’d become a composer, and… you get my drift.
After graduating from Berklee, Niles moved to London where he worked as an arranger, composer, and producer for such artists as Leo Sayer, David Essex, Sara Brightman (who he discovered), Dusty Springfield, and Grace Jones. For Jones’ “Slave to the Rhythm” album, he assembled an 85-piece orchestra and a big band, dubbed The Strictly Unreasonable Big Beat Colossus, which later became Bandzilla.
Niles went on to work with the Pet Shop Boys, Gloria Gaynor, Tears for Fears, Paul McCartney, Kire Te Kanawa, Kylie Minogue, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Mariah Carey, Jane Monheit, and Michael McDonald, among many others.
So, back to “Aja.” For me, that album set the bar much higher, set a new standard in pop/rock—whatever you want to call it. There are moments when “Bandzilla Rises!!!” evokes those same feelings for me, those moments of pure funk/jazz/R&B/rock that easily sail over that bar, and I would hope that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are sending Richard a wink of approval.
Stuart Vail: Richard, you became well established in London as the go-to arranger/producer for an impressive list of performers. Then in 2012 you uprooted and moved to California. On one hand, you haven’t seemed to slow down, with all you’ve done since, but wasn’t that a rather gutsy thing to do, setting up shop in a new land?
Richard Niles: London was a tremendously creative environment for many years. My background was in jazz and pop and I became known for that tendency to mix genres. I had a different sound and that’s why the phone rang. But by the mid–90s the music business had changed, for many reasons beyond the scope of this interview. The phone calls were now saying, “X was a hit, make it sound like X.” I did that for a while to pay the mortgage but eventually I got very tired of it.
At the same time I had always created jazz projects and created my bigband, BANDZILLA after doing “Slave To The Rhythm.” I realized that was the best of what I had done with my talent, and I wasn’t getting any younger. I needed to do more and stop wasting my time with marginally talented people who wanted me to copy other marginally talented people. I came to California to write and express this cross-genre thing I love.
SV: You have used your core Bandzilla crew on various projects ever since its conception on the Grace Jones album. How much of the personnel has been with you since the beginning?
RN: BANDZILLA began as the house band for a TV series in London that ran for 10 weeks. We had a number in each show and we accompanied some weird guests such as Meat Loaf and Pee Wee Herman! We recorded an album called “Blue Movies,” featuring the hottest studio players in London in the late ‘80s. People such as trumpet players Guy Barker and John Thirkell, keyboard genius Peter John Vetesse and trombonist Pete Beachill.
The personnel for a bigband changes, depending on availability. I recorded the band with the Pet Shop Boys, Ray Charles and others. I got new players such as the phenomenal Nigel Hitchcock on sax, drummer Ian Thomas and bassist Laurence Cottle.
But John Thirkell was a constant throughout. He’s just a charming, positive, reliable guy, a person who makes things happen. After I’d moved to California, he called and said, “When are we gonna do another BANDZILLA album?” I said, “It’s just so expensive…” and he said, “Don’t worry about that. Everyone will do it for nothing. I’ll handle it.” I said, “I’ll do it if you co-produce!” And he did and they did, so I am very indebted to all these amazing talents who so generously allowed me to torture them!
SV: There are many “unsung heroes” in show business. I know plenty of big names who couldn’t function without their formidable teams of talent behind them. Please talk about your book, The Invisible Artist [external link to video].
RN: I was always drawn to the arrangements. My father Tony Romano reharmonized everything on the guitar and had been a vocal arranger for Cole Porter. And I knew the names I saw on records, Billy May, Nelson Riddle. But as a big fan of 60s music I never saw arranger’s names on records. Even as a kid I was saying, “Who wrote those brass on ‘Dancin’ In The Street’? Who wrote those strings on ‘What’s Goin’ On’?” One reason arrangers weren’t credited was, it was considered uncool that anything was written down or that the artist hadn’t created their own sound. Another reason why, for instance, Motown didn’t credit arrangers or players is that Berry Gordy didn’t want anyone to steal his “Motown Sound.” He also didn’t want people to know that some of the players and writers were white, because he was selling ‘The Sound Of Young Black America” to white people.
I wrote and hosted a 7-part BBC radio series called “Pop Arrangers.” I took the mountain of research and interviews I did for that show and turned it into a book. Brunel University asked me to present it as a doctoral thesis.
Phil Spector gets all the credit for creating a revolutionary sound, but I show in the book how arranger Jack Nitzsche actually created that sound. And I was lucky to get in-depth interviews with great artists such as Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler and Jimmie Haskell who are now sadly gone.
The book is still the only work to acknowledge the contribution and analyze the techniques of the arrangers who helped create the sound of pop music from the 1950s through to 2000.
SV: This isn’t your first appearance in TheScreamOnline. We featured your interviews with Pat Metheny. You and I knew Pat when he first appeared on the Boston scene and began playing with Gary Burton. And there were two unforgettable gigs: the Club Zircon with Pat, Mick Goodrick, and Steve Swallow, playing standards all night; and probably the first public appearance of the Pat Metheny Group, at Pooh’s Pub, with Jaco Pastorius and Bob Moses. Talk about your work with Pat over the years.
RN: I was very close to Pat at Berklee, I think because he knew that I knew what he was actually doing. And he saw that I was trying to move in a similar direction with my writing. He also knew that my house in Boston always had home cooked meals and he used to visit around dinner time!
We kept in touch and then years later I was in L.A. and went to a gig at the Santa Monica Civic. Backstage, Pat said, “We’re doing an album and Manfred Eicher (of ECM) is letting me produce it myself. I’ve never produced a record. Would you like to find us a great engineer and co-produce it?”
We recorded “American Garage” at Longview Farm Studio. Stuff had recorded there. My job was to create an atmosphere to capture the fire of that group, Lyle Mays, Danny Gottlieb, and Marc Egan. It was his most successful album to date. I think that was partially because I encouraged his rocky side and let Danny’s explosive drums be recorded a little heavier.
Years later I got a call from a Norwegian singer/songwriter, Silje Nergaard, who said Pat had recommended me as a producer for her. And Pat offered to play on the album. So I signed her to our label and flew to Brazil to record a track, “Tell Me Where You’re Going,” with Pat and Amando Marcal and my synth work. It was #1 in Japan.
I’ve stayed in touch with Pat over the years and he’s been very kind to support my projects along the way. He’s not only an important artist in the history of jazz but one who can really articulate his concepts.
SV: I’ve had a few nightmare gigs in my life, one that I was sure that would end my career. Care to share any “gigs from hell” with us? No names, please.
RN: Very few. The worst ones were gigs where I knew upfront that I was not the guy they wanted and that what I was being asked to do was a waste of my talent. There is a character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe called Marvin The Paranoid Android. He has all the knowledge of the universe in his computer memory. But he complains, “Here I am, with a brain the size of Jupiter – and they’ve got me parking cars!”
SV: What would you consider the highlight of your musical career?
RN: I’ve worked with the greatest – Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, James Brown. But this album BANDZILLA RISES!!! (out November 18 at www.bandzilla.net ) is the best thing I’ve ever done. And this has been proved by the fantastic testimonials that have come in from some of the most acclaimed artists on the planet.
I played more guitar on this record than I have on others and I’m happy with it. But although I’m known as a musician, I’m also really a songwriter and these lyrics are some of my best, ranging from the comic-political (Randy Brecker singing “You Can’t Get There From Here”) to involved story songs such as “Tip For A Toreador” and “The Alligator From West 15th.”
What a thrill to have virtuoso talents such as Randy Brecker and Nigel Hitchcock and John Thirkell and Mark Nightingale and Clarice Assad – to have a stunning variety of singers from popstar Leo Sayer to soul stylists Lamont Dozier Jr. and Baskerville Jones to studio ace Kim Chandler to Daisy Chute from the million-selling All Angels to newcomers like Julia Suzanna Sokolowska and Paola Vera.
And to have been able to take my time and record it really well and mix it with Mike Parlett at his state-of-the-art facility Talented Studio and have it mastered by Dave Donnelley in L.A. – I still can’t believe it.
SV: Any upcoming projects you want to reveal?
RN: We’re working hard to bring BANDZILLA to a stage near you! Not an easy task with just enough money to buy a cup of black coffee. But we’ll get there!
SV: Any advice to young musicians (or should we let them make all the mistakes we made)?
RN: I do a lot of teaching and masterclasses. The main thing I see in young musicians, sadly is conformity. They have technique but they are happy to sound like whatever’s making money. They’ve forgotten music as a means of personal self-expression. So I urge them to find ways to be original. To look at what everyone else is doing and run the other direction. To feel free to try things, see how far you can take it. Failure is to be embraced, not feared.
When I started out, originality was valued. I was lucky because, until the late ‘90s, I was never expected to be like anyone else. When I got hired to do “Sowing The Seeds Of Love” for Tears For Fears, they said they were emulating a Beatles record. I asked, “Why didn’t you just get George Martin?” They said, “Because with you, we knew we’d get George Martin on acid!”