Interview with Richard Niles of Bandzilla from 2016
Can you catch the readers up on the history of your involvement in music – both individually and as a band?
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.
Although composing and songwriting were my focus, I returned to London and almost immediately started working as an arranger for artists such as Leo Sayer, Cat Stevens and David Essex. I eventually started producing and writing songs for artists I produced. My credits through the years include such icons as Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, James Brown, Tears For Fears, Michael McDonald, Cher, Tina Turner and the Pet Shop Boys. I’ve contributed to over 40 hits and worked in TV, Film and stage productions.
I arranged “Slave To The Rhythm” for Grace Jones. I used a full jazz big band in a funky context. During the sessions, the musicians urged me to form my own big band. I called it "BANDZILLA" because it was a huge band of "monster" players. BANDZILLA started doing some gigs and recorded our first album. Then we were asked to be the house band on a 10-week TV series for American comedienne Ruby Wax. We have recorded and performed with Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, the Pet Shop Boys and Kylie Minogue.
Eventually the big band format was just too expensive as the music world changed. But recently (2012), after years of making other people sound great, I moved back to California to concentrate on my own music. I’d done two jazz guitar albums but nothing in the jazz-orchestra format.
My friend John Thirkell was trumpet player in the original BANDZILLA. He called up and asked, “When are we going to do another Bandzilla album?” I answered. “Right away, if you’ll co-produce!”
I was amazed at all the great players who offered to play. To have one of my heroes, Randy Brecker, on the album is a dream, singing and playing trumpet. And my old boss Leo Sayer offered to sing. He’s touring all the time and is still a dynamic performer. We have acclaimed jazz soloists like Nigel Hitchcock (currently touring with Mark Knopfler) and Mark Nightingale. We have amazing singers such as Lamont Dozier Jr. (son of the Motown hitmaker) Paola Vera, Julia Sokolowska and Kim Chandler. I’m singing a couple of things and, of course, I have whipped out my guitar!
MSJ: If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?
I would be a writer. My mother and stepfather wrote many books and screenplays. I have always written lyrics and am fascinated by the art of songwriting. I teach my own method of songwriting called “The 11-Point Plan." I have written four 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. Art is the art of communication, and I always enjoy communicating.
Who would you see as your musical influences?
Many! Apart from my father and my Uncle who was a beautiful pianist, my influences are in jazz and popular music. In jazz, a short list would include Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Jim Hall and Bill Evans. In pop: The Beatles, Beach Boys, Yes, Mose Allison, Frank Zappa, Motown, Steely Dan. I loved the fusion of Weather Report, Pat Metheny, Michael Gibbs, Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Jaco Pastorius.
MSJ: What's ahead for you?
I will keep writing and working on the BANDZILLA project. Large ensembles are difficult today, but when I see the reaction of audiences, I know it’s worth the effort.
I know many artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?
It has been called a “jazz fusion orchestra." That’s okay. I am a songwriter. I tell stories. I express thoughts and emotions. When I write or play, I am saying, “Hey, here’s what I think about this subject,” or “Here’s how I feel” or “Here’s a musical concept I think is fun. What do you think?”
MSJ: Are there musicians with whom you would like to play with in the future?
So many, but I’d like to do Bandzilla albums featuring Harry Connick Jr., Michael McDonald, Jane Monheit and Bruno Mars,
Do you think that illegal downloading or streaming of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?
Anything illegal is a problem. But even worse is that streaming in its current form is legal. This is destroying the chances of all newer artists who can not make a living touring.
With approximately 90% of all revenue going to the record label and the streaming company, the artist, writer and publisher splits what’s left – with the artist getting the smallest share.
We have already seen a music world where there is less originality, less chance-taking and less music. New artists have an almost impossible task unless they have an unearned income.
First, we have to make all streaming subscription based so there is no free legal streaming. Next we need to have a fair royalty split of the revenue.
However, I can’t see that happening because in order for the current system to change, those taking the 90% have no incentive to give it up.
In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them or posting them online?
Fans are the life-blood of music. I don’t feel this is anywhere near as harmful as streaming, and it may well be helpful in spreading the word for a new artist.
If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
The guys who invented free streaming.
If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?
Since we are fantasizing, how about John Patitucci on bass, Chick Corea on piano, Steve Gadd on drums, Nigel Hitchcock on alto sax.
If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?
BANDZILLA. (Well, you said from my point of view!)
MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?
Here Comes The Night by Joel Selvin is a fascinating and well researched book about songwriter/producer Bert Berns and East Coast the 60s music scene. Also Old Friends Are The Best Friends by Mike Metheny. This is a kind of jazz version of My Dinner With André. You feel like you’re hanging out with two old buddies.
What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
I don’t get out much! But I do have a Tuesday night jazz jam with my friends in Laguna Canyon Road and it is "a beautiful hang."
Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”
This indicates that one should be ashamed of enjoying music. So it is, as Spock said, illogical.
What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
When I was 19, I did a gig where we hired a van that was leaking carbon monoxide. We were all sick by the time we got to the gig and our bass player, while still playing, actually stuck his head behind the curtain and threw up!
MSJ: If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?
Edward DeVere (William Shakespeare), Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly.
What would be on the menu?
Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
Music is important. Nietzsche said “We have Art so that we should not die of Reality.” We must realize that cultures where art is encouraged are successful economically. Now, more than ever, we have to become a society that values creativity and fairness. And BANDZILLA needs to get out on the road!