Bandzilla is a very talented 25 piece orchestra led by guitarist/producer Dr. Richard Niles. The band features a variety of funk, jazz, fusion and punk music that produces an unusual signature sound. It is this exciting sound that has caught the attention of major stars, as Niles and Bandzilla has worked with artists such as: Sir Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, Cher, Michael McDonald, Mariah Carey and many others. They have just released a new album titled "Bandzilla Rises" and it features special guests such like Randy Brecker, Leo Sayer and Lamont Dozier Jr. I recently asked Dr. Niles to share his story of Bandzilla and his career.
R.V.B - Congratulations on your latest release "Bandzilla Rises". When the recording process was complete, was the feeling like a monster album has been unleashed?
R.N. - This album is unprecedented in so many ways. We have some of the finest players and singers on earth, including the great Randy Brecker who is singing “You Can’t Get There From Here”. I was Leo Sayer’s Musical Director back in 1976 and he very kindly offered to sing “This World Is Mine”. But everyone on the record is a virtuoso and I’m so grateful that they offered to take part.
More important is the compositions. I’ve written stories and expressed feelings here that are a little ‘to the left of center’. The style ranges from furious funk to dizzy ballads, raunchy reggae to sophisticated rock.
I’ve worked with iconic artists such as Paul McCartney, Ray Charles and James Brown, but it is a dream come true to have now recorded the best and most exciting work of my career.
R.V.B. - It's been a few years since the first Bandzilla album (Blue Movies)... did you basically use the same core musicians that played on the first album on the new album? What was the process of choosing the musicians?
An old colleague, Nigel Hitchcock on alto sax plays with Incognito and Mark Knopfler. Mark Nightingale is considered a god of the trombone. But I met Ian Palmer by accident and found he was one of the best drummers on earth. Garrett Wolfe on bass is a new friend who I play local jazz gigs with.
It was very ‘organic’ and came together relatively quickly.
R.V.B. - When you write a composition for Bandzilla, do you imagine what would be the best soloists to improvise around the melody of the song? With such a big gathering of musicians this must take some thought?
R.N. - Yes, every song is a different musical concept and my lyrics tell very different stories with a lot of humor. I imagined Randy Brecker and Leo Sayer for their songs. I had written a song with Deniece Williams but had been working with Baskerville Jones. I knew her powerful soul would be perfect for “Stone Jungle”. Julia Suzanna Sokolowska is a pianist and composer but I knew she’d be great for “Talking In Whispers”.
As for soloists, these musicians have incredible technique, but more importantly, they have taste and sensitivity.
R.V.B. - The orchestra seems to have a lot of versatility, does the diverse experience of the groups musicians bring this out in the total package Bandzilla offers?
R.N. - All the players are both studio AND jazz players. They have had every musical challenge thrown at them. I need that kind of player because my music has been described as being “often painful”. So I can’t really work with wimps!
R.N. - My father Tony Romano was a singer/guitarist/songwriter who worked with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter. I loved the jazz I’d heard as a child, but then I grew up as a teenager in London in the 60s where I saw artists such as The Who, Hendrix, Cream. I studied at Berklee (1972-1975) with Gary Burton, Michael Gibbs, Herb Pomeroy and Pat Metheny.
My mother and step-father Jesse Lasky Jr. were screen writers and authors. Jesse was a fine poet. I have always been fascinated by the songwriting process and I teach my own method, “The 11-Point Plan”.
So songwriting, playing, jazz and pop are in my blood.
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy your years at Berklee? Was there learning experiences there that worked its way into your music of today?
R.N. - I studied at Berklee with jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton, composers Michael Gibbs and Herb Pomeroy and guitarist Pat Metheny. Those mentors gave me everything I could wish for.
R.V.B. - How did you transition to a professional career in music after finishing school?
R.N. - I had a publishing deal two months after I left Berklee. I then became house arranger for EMI Music a couple of months later. And two months later I became arranger/musical director for Cat Stevens. Within a year I was arranger/musical director on TV series for David Essex and Leo Sayer.
R.V.B. - There is an impressive list of musicians you have worked with. Do you take into account the talent of a Cilla Black, Ronnie Spector, Denny Laine, or Lulu and alter musical ideas to match their styles of creativity?
R.N. - I have something unique to offer, a combination of jazz and rock and funk and soul – all the music I love. Because I love so many styles, I can find a way to work with any style to make it my own. The big rule is: always make the artist sound better than they’ve ever sounded before. So when I worked with Ray Charles he said I wrote as if he was writing it. When I worked with James Brown he said we had “revolutionized music!”
R.V.B. - What was it like working with Paul McCartney?
R.N. - The thing that seems obvious but is never said is that McCartney is a tremendous musician. He plays everything really well. He has written songs in a wide number of styles. He said to me, “Anyone can have a couple of hits. What I’m most proud of is having hits throughout my career.” The best thing about working with him is that he does not “buy a dog and bark himself”. He let me do what I thought best. He wanted my ideas. The tracks I produced and arranged for him were fun from start to finish. Listen to the track “Blue Sway” and you’ll hear what I mean!
R.N. - I have written 4 books about music, “The Pat Metheny Interviews”, “The Invisible Artist”, “Polymetrics” and “From Dreaming To Gigging”. I produced, wrote and hosted many radio series for the BBC for over 20 years. I love to make music, tell stories, discuss ideas and challenge the listener. There is no drama without conflict. Art is the art of communication and I always enjoy communicating.
R.V.B. - Did you ever have any unexpected or interesting touring incidents?
R.N. - I had been introduced to a Norwegian artist Silje Nergaard by Pat Metheny. I was producing a song called “Tell Me Where You’re Going” and we flew to Rio in Brazil to record with Pat. What we didn’t know was that the Brazilian currency was plummeting so in the day it took us to fly from London to Rio, the Brazilian money we had exchanged in London was now worth less than half - not enough to pay for the studio! We had to borrow money from Pat!
R.V.B. - What are you proud about of your accomplishments in the entertainment industry?
R.N. - I am of course proud to have worked with some of the greatest and most talented people in the history of music – Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, Michael McDonald… But BANDZILLA RISES!!! is a dream come true. To have such talent brought to my songs and compositions makes me very happy and I only hope that people get a chance to hear it – and see us live! www.bandzilla.net
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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