ZILLA Interview with LONDONJAZZ
Dr RICHARD NILES has been described by Pat Metheny as "a great orchestrator and musician and a pleasure to work with.” and by Sir Paul McCartney as “one of the best composer/arrangers around and an exciting musical force.” Richard was on the scene in London, but moved to California in 2012. He has made a new album, "BANDZILLA RISES!!!" with guest artists inclusing Leo Sayer, Randy Brecker and Nigel Hitchcock. The album is released today. Interview by Sebastian:
LondonJazz News: You have recently moved (back?) to the US what's the story?
Richard Niles: I first came from Los Angeles to London in 1962 with my parents and after studying at Berklee in Boston with Herb Pomeroy, Michael Gibbs, Gary Burton & Pat Metheny, I came back to London to begin my career as an arranger/composer, songwriter and producer. I had a dual identity.
In Jazz I had my small groups (with Chris Hunter, Guy Barker, Nigel Hitchcock) and Bandzilla, born on the sessions for Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm in 1985. We had 10 weeks on TV (Ruby Wax’s show on C4, Don’t Miss Wax) and we released our first album, Blue Movies in 1991. We had recorded & performed with Ray Charles and James Brown and Pet Shop Boys and Pat Kane (Hue & Cry) and deniece Williams and Kid Creole.
In Pop I worked on a lot of hits for British bands like Swing Out Sister, Tears For Fears and Pet Shop Boys as well as working with icons like Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Dusty Springfield, Tina Turner and Cher. London gave me the opportunity to be very creative at a time when creativity was valued. I also had the creative outlet of my music documentaries for BBC Radio 2 such as my series “New Jazz Standards” and my extensive work with the BBC Big Band.
But in the 90s the music biz began to change. I was making a decent living but i was working on endless, clone-like records of boy bands such as Boyzone, Westlife, O-Town, East 17. It became very boring by the Millennium! I felt a little bit like Marvin The Paranoid Android (in The Hitchhiker’s Guide): “Briain the size of Jupiter and they’ve got me parking cars!”
At the same time I started wanting to get back to jazz, especially the big band format of BANDZILLA. But it was financial suicide to do gigs or record. So in 2012 I took my wife Aylin and son Alexander to live in Southern California. I had a lot of free time so I started writing Bandzilla charts and playing the guitar.
My friend John Thirkell who had played on all my commercial work and BANDZILLA called me up one day and said, “Hey Rich, when are we going to do another album?” I said, “Well, it’s just too expensive!” John is the kind of guy who makes things happen and makes things feel good, which is why he’s still playing on hits like Uptown Funk and touring constantly. He said, “Oh, don’t worry about that! Musicians will practically pay YOU to do it!” I said, “OK, but I’ll only do it if you agree to be my co-producer.” He also played all the killer trumpet parts.
LJN: Bandzilla - can you explain why you chose that name for the band?
RN: When we did Slave, producer Trevor Horn called the band I used “The Big Beat Colossus”. When I put the band together I was forbidden from using that name by his company ZTT, so I thought: In jazz, if you talk about a great player you say, ‘That guy’s a monster!’ Then I thought, ‘A band of monsters = BANDZILLA.'
LJN: You seem something of a musical polymath how do you describe yourself?
RN: My father Tony Romano was a jazz guitarist, singer/songwriter who worked with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Cole Porter & Frank Sinatra. So I grew up with that influence and then was taken to London in 1962 where I grew up as a teen in ‘swinging London’, going out every night to see Hendrix, the Who, Stones, John Mayall, Clapton etc. And I loved Dylan & James Brown & Motown & Miles & Gil etc. My stepfather and mother were screenwriters and instilled a love of poetry and Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot - especially the art of storytelling. So it was a great mix of influences.
Then I was lucky to study at Berklee with Herb Pomeroy, Michael Gibbs, Pat Metheny & Gary Burton.And I continue to study music every day, analyzing, transcribing, teaching. I got my PhD in 2008 for my book "The Invisible Artist”.
Sound On Sound mag said I had “helped define the sound of the 80s” and the reason was twofold. On the one hand, when I started arranging, I didn’t know any better than to just write what I loved. I wrote with absolutely no restrictions to be 'commercial'. Equally, not one of the producers I worked with restricted me. As a result, it was commercial because people thought it was fun to listen to. Today most pop music is ultra conformist. And I'd apply that statement to a lot of jazz (especially but not exclusively ’Smooth Jazz’). In those days it was expected that Swing Out should not sound like Tears For Fears and Pet Shop Boys should not sound like Frankie. In fact, this current conformity in music is against the tradition of pop and jazz. And we as artists have an obligation to fight it.
My job as a professional musician is to make exciting records that the public likes. After about 40 Top 10 records, I know how to do that. But my artistic imperative to express myself in an undiluted way - to use the talent I’ve developed. I find music endlessly fascinating and I guess this is why I’ve been able to work successfully in diverse styles from gay disco to James Brown, from Bob James to Metheny.
LJN: And which parts of this activity do we witness on the album
RN: BANDZILLA RISES!!! is the best work I’ve ever done. This is not a traditional jazz album in any sense. The writing ranges musically from Brecker Brothers funk to louche 50s jazz to countrified ballads to Spanish toreador music played by Chick Corea! But this is not a collection of disparate tracks. The effect is, I hope, that the listener is hearing one identity because of my specific techniques of writing and arranging. The soloists include the phenomenal Nigel Hitchcock (alto sax), trombone virtuoso Mark Nightingale and young Scottish keyboard whiz Steve Hamilton.
I am lucky to have an impressive collection of singers. Leo Sayer (a pop icon with 16 Tp 10 hits) sings “This World Is Mine”. This is about a rejection of the corrupt and unjust world and the creation of a personal world where everything can be perfect - in art.
Jazz trumpet star Randy Brecker sings You Can’t Get There From Here as his alter-ego ‘Randroid’. I have loved his music since his first solo album ‘Score’ through Dreams and The Brecker Brothers. The song is a rant against "the 1%”, bankers, politicians.
Daisy Chute (of the vocal group All Angels) sings Tip For A Toreador, a story of a Toreador who secretly desires to run a restaurant.
At the beginning of the song you hear a choir of the incredible Kim Chandler. She has done both backing and lead vocals on this album and I would state that her work here is a masterclass in vocal perfection. Michael Parlett who mixed the album so brilliantly kept saying, “Come on, I can’t believe you didn’t do any digital processing on these multi-tracked vocals. The intonation and phrasing is perfect!”
The improvised vocal solo on “Tip For A Toreador’ was done by the acclaimed Brazilian orchestral composer/pianist/singer Clarice Assad. She is one of the most fascinating and accomplished artists of our time. If you think that sounds over-the-top, listen to her!
Lamont Dozier Jr. is the son of the Motown legend who wrote and produced hundreds of hits. Lamont, who grew up with Uncle Marvin and Uncle Smokey, sings the anti-lovel ballad Love Don’t Mean A Thing. He is not just soulful. He IS soul.
Baskerville Jones is an explosive singer who has an L.A. group called The Rebirth. She sings Stone Jungle the one song on the album I co-wrote with Deniece Williams. The song is about the pressures of inner-city life, as is the song L.A. Existential sung by Kim Chandler.
I discovered young Polish chanteuse Julia Suzanna Sokolowska in L.A. She is a great film composer, arranger and pianist. She brings an emotional intensity to the ballad Talkin’ In Whispers and is brave enough to do a duet with me on The Alligator From West 15th, a story of an old jazz musician form the 1950s.
Paola Vera is a superb British singer/songwriter/pianist who brings a sultry cynicism to Welcome To My World a song about how negative people want to bring everyone else down with them.
LJN: Is it one continuous experience or a series of tracks songs - how should the listener approach it?
RN: Today, music is listened to as a kind of background to our hectic lives. You can’t listen to this like that. From the first moment, you know you’re “not in Kansas anymore”. I would recommend listening to it on headphones in your living room or on a long car journey, if you’re alone. You’ll be taken on a journey through music by incredibly talented musicians who are laughing and smiling with joy as they play every demanding note. You’ll be listening to my lyrics full of social commentary and humour, everything from ranting rage to slick slapstick. I guarantee a ‘bumpy ride’, but it won’t be boring!
LJN: Will it be heard live or is it strictly a studio creation?
RN: BANDZILLA will definitely be performing. This record has been done totally independently so we are currently looking for a manager/agent who can get this incredible project on the road. We’re also working on a new technological setup that will allow us to create something like a mix of Cirque De Soliel with Frank Zappa and Alfred Hitchcock.
I believe in music as an important and effective means of communication. Now, more than ever, the public needs to see music live. But the downside of technology is that we even have the term “live music”. Even though Michael Parlett has mixed this in his state-od-the-art studio, we have made sure you are listening to supremely talented human beings, bringing their absolute best to the performance of this demanding music. I can’t wait to let BANDZILLA roar in front of an audience. >
LJN: What other projects have you been involved with since arriving in the US?
RN: I arranged an Overture for the Pet Shop Boys Proms concert last year. I was asked to arrange the last two album projects for Paul Carrack, one of my favourite singers. He is a superb artist and it was a joy to do. It was also great to work with producer Peter Van Hooke who played drums in my band Hi Tek in 1980 with Chris Hunter!
LJN: Your son is a critic who doesn’t tend to hold back - what does he think of it ?
RN: My 14-year old son Alexander is an actor who did a film this summer with Francis Ford Coppola. He’s also a great piano player with a band called Quartet 5 playing jazz, funk and soul. He played piano on Love Don’t Mean A Thing and did the voice over on the Bandzilla Rises!!! intro. I’ve taught him music since he was 3, so he’s fairly blasé about my music. But I know he loves it, especially if he gets paid to play it!