Technophobes look away now - it's gadget city in the studio
As a non-musician, it was fascinating to hear Nick talk so openly about how the music industry works from someone who’s seen it from so many angles as a writer, producer, label owner and artist on a big label. What I was most interested to see all day from a musical stand point though was his studio set up to get a feel for where music that is sold around the world is born from.
Walking from outside into the house I find myself in Modena Record’s French air-cooled studio, with a whole sea of gadgets and other electronic wizardry set out before me. It’s also a room that would make Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs very proud as two large Mac monitors dominate the centre of the studio, flanked on both sides by a couple of Macbooks.
A webcam sits slightly to the left of the centre chair where Chicane co-producer James Hockley can work remotely with Nick on projects via video – a very modern set up all round. Elsewhere there’s what you’d expect in a musical room – keyboards left, right and centre in both full length and short configurations, electric guitars and of course, samplers and synthesisers to help produce those trademark Chicane sounds.
What strikes me about the studio though was how small it was against my expectations. I’m not quite sure what I expected, certainly not a room fit to house the full Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, but it was interesting to see how technology has allowed even world famous artists to condense everything into what is effectively a small room. Having said that, the room has been designed especially for studio use with no expense spared, with Nick pointing out the back wall is subtly curved and all the walls are floating, so it’s full of little crucial touches that are invisible to the untrained eye.
If you’ve watched the trailer for this interview you will have seen that speaking with Nick isn’t like a normal interview, we seemed to spend half of the day laughing and then saying, “Okay, seriously now.” Hopefully that fun, relaxed and crazy nature comes through in this section as we delve into life in the studio.
In the interests of kicking off with a good tempo and laughter, I asked Nick to recall the most crazy memory in his journey as the man behind Chicane.
Haha! Probably in Manila doing a show back in 2005 or something. I played practically in a chicken shed, it was a cockfighting arena, it held like 3,000 people, so they crammed in 6,000. It was just an unbelievable place and I walked in there for a sound check and there was a sign on the door that said ‘Please leave your handguns in your car.’ So that gave you an idea of the sort of gig that we were doing. That was a bit of a worry!
I remember very little of the show actually. I can remember myself and my percussionist getting to our dressing room and there was nothing to drink, so we decided to sort of break into a room upstairs and we kind of stole one of those big water canister things you see in offices. Except it wasn’t water, it was this sort of blue stuff which we can only describe later on as being possibly absinthe. So I’d probably had half a pint of absinthe before I went on stage, which is not a good thing! I was apparently running around the stage throwing things at people and generally making a nuisance of myself.
Anyway, the show came to the end and I’d grabbed the microphone off the singer, told everyone we’re off for a beer then we’re going to do it all again and that is not the thing to say. Very, very bad. So I went back to the dressing room and there’s this full scale party going on and I started to feel a bit peculiar, went into the toilets and was very ill. I had all this blue puke coming down my face and all over my clothes. I then dislocated my left shoulder, but if you can imagine there’s a party going on, I’ve got blue puke on me and my arm’s hanging out of my socket, anyway! I got put back together and sent back to bed, so that’s the last I remember of that.
So yes kids, don’t go breaking into rooms drinking drinks okay?! Learn by your mistakes. There have been worse things that have happened but that’s probably the worst one I can talk about!
To try and show that Nick isn’t always about getting paralytic at gigs and that there’s a serious artist in there and has been since a very young age, I asked Nick if he could tell us how he first got into music.
I was about 9 or 10 when I was doing the whole school thing of being put through guitar and piano lessons with my brothers, we all did that kind of thing. I wasn’t into music per se, it was a chore. I remember having violin lessons at my middle school and just being shocking, it wasn’t my thing. Then I discovered things like Jean Michel Jarre and music became something incredible, particularly electronic music and one thing led to another.
I did my first record under the name Disco Citizens and that went into the top 40 and it was my single most defining point in music because it signalled my ability to go from bedroom composer to actually being a commercial success, so that was the turning point in my life.
Simply stepping outside can be a source of inspiration
Who were your biggest musical influences growing up?
Well I grew up on a diet of all sorts of things, like big West End Andrew Lloyd Webber sort of things to classical stuff, just a real broad sweep of music. But I guess I’m influenced by a few different people, I still waffle on about soundtrack composers like Eric Serra. I wasn’t ever really sort of confined to one artist, I liked pieces of music that moved me for one reason or another, be it because of nice melody or fantastic synth stuff, could be a Vince Clarke record, Depeche Mode, U2. I don’t have one artist, I just think ‘That’s a great song.’ I love this and that so as you go on you’re like a musical sponge and you soak anything and everything up.
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So what has Nick’s sponge absorbed to define the eventual Chicane sound?
The Chicane sound is pretty much a widescreen approach to house or electronic based music. I like to think of it as genre leaping because for me it’s an approach to melody and atmosphere, it’s where the mood goes and sonically how it grabs you which is more important than it being a dance record. Hence Chicane’s known for doing quite a few things as I was originally known for doing those down-tempo, chilled out things, but also the fun, grand and epic house numbers. You can always tell a Chicane song, it has a certain sound and an atmosphere.
We did an album recently called Somersault which was still very much me, but I got bored with dance music and I was wanting to go back to my song writing roots but I guess it didn’t connect with certain people because they couldn’t understand me leaping genres. For me though it’s obvious and you don’t want to do the same thing all the time, it’s nice to do something different. So anyway I’ve come back, refreshed and I’m excited about the new stuff which is very dance based.
Nick at work in his studio
What have been the defining moments in the history of Chicane?
There’s been a lot I guess in what you would call ‘The Chicane Calendar.’ I’ve been doing it for fifteen years so of course the Saltwaters and Don’t Give Ups are exciting, having #1 records that’s quite something but you have to understand your career is nice when you’re up and kind of cack you’re down. But that’s how it goes, you do an album and have a hit record, hopefully do well and then you’ll do some touring and then come back down and think about it, and think you’ll have to dream it all up again. You get used to that but I’ve really enjoyed recently doing the Best Of, the Poppihollas and just had a lot of fun with music lately. I’m really excited about what’s to come!
My favourite Chicane song? As a producer you always think your latest one is the best! It’s very hard, I don’t spend a lot of time listening to my own stuff. I find the Don’t Give Ups difficult to play live and you have to understand I’ve heard it so many times, more than you can possibly imagine. I’m probably more of a fan of the intro pieces, tracks like Early, some with the very washy feel. Obviously the Offshores hold a special place in my heart, but I can’t particularly pick one from having had too much beer in my head from last night!
With the Best Of album recently put out featuring a whole range of songs, I asked Nick how he came to the decision of what was and wasn’t included in the final cut.
Oh, very difficult. Very, very difficult. One minute it was a double CD with all the full length tracks on it, then it was a single CD where we had to edit everything to fit on it. Even now I umm and ah about it, so I like to think of it as a Best Of Part 1. It’s nice because it kind of draws a line under everything we’ve done so far and now we can plough on and do the next lot.
In the last year it’s been fun, we did Poppiholla which was huge, I’ve been working on the new album, have been building the new studio here, building a new one in Scotland and spent a lot of last year touring, so a lot of stuff.
Nick admits to being very hands on with the general image and feel of Chicane
Having confessed earlier to being a bit of a control freak, I’m interested to know given Nick’s graphic design background if he is also controlling of Chicane’s general artwork. Continuing this trend of being hands on, I also ask Nick to follow up why exactly he founded and runs Modena Records over being with a label.
I’m a pain in the arse basically! Every piece of artwork I get involved with and design with various people. It’s terribly important that I’m hands on with all the videos, it’s all part and parcel of the process, it’s not just me, it’s a multimedia environment that the music sits in.
As for Modena Records, it originally started in 1996 as a vehicle to get myself noticed, I didn’t use it specifically as a record company as you would know it today. So it was a record company, press 1,000 records, put them out on Modena Records and from then leaped onto a record company. Since then, I’ve been signed to every record company I could think of and decided it was best to do it on my own now. I have much more control and freedoms, but with that come restrictions. You know, finding the money to pay for videos, promotions and so forth are difficult but as I am the artist and the record company, when I get it right, it’s great for me. Things can happen to you in a record company, you’re one fish in a very big pool! So I control everything now and control my own destiny.
Nick's worked some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Sir Tom Jones on the hit 'Stoned in Love'
Having worked with some of the world’s biggest names from Sir Tom Jones and Bryan Adams to younger artists like Lemar and Keane, I ask Nick if he could tell me the best and worst things about working with heavy hitters in the industry.
Well, working with Tom Jones was great, he was so much fun. I can remember doing The Jonathan Ross Show, warming up with my band and Tom comes out and says “Let’s play something.” And we started doing a lot of James Brown stuff and it was so funny because you’ve got the crowd there watching while you do it, mucking about, jamming with Tom and it was really cool.
There haven’t really been too many low points to be honest. I did fly out to LA to spend three days recording some songs at Cher’s house … which was interesting, I won’t say anymore on that! Working with big names is like working with anyone else really, your pre-conceptions go out of the window pretty quickly and you find out they’re a pretty run of the mill person just like yourself. It’s just perception, like most things.
I want to follow this up with a more technical yet open question that’s bugged me before about song writing and production in general. I’d read before that Nick’s said that once your music’s out there, that’s it and you can’t take it back, so does this apply to any of Chicane’s songs where he’d wanted to fiddle with something, even after it’s been released?
Yeah, there is always a kind of want to pull it back. To be honest, I don’t ever really finish a piece of music, it just gets taken away from me! These things, I’m always fiddling and muddling about with it. So yes I’ll always listen to stuff and think “Ah, I wish every 3rd high-hat was X,” etc. not in an anal way, but yes, always.
Despite having sold hundreds of thousands of records and worked with so many huge artists, “Nick Bracegirdle” is pretty much unknown in the public eye both in name and recognisability. Is this Nick’s decision by design, or just the nature of not being a front man who sings the songs?
Isn’t that a shame?! Haha, no I’ve never had any aspirations to be the front line singer, whatever, the highlight of the thing and I guess to a certain extent maybe sometimes we’ve suffered in terms of people have always known the music but been unable to put a face to the name. For example if you think of Faithless you think of Maxi Jazz who’s a very iconic looking guy and you know what that means. With Chicane, it’s different. I guess, quite deliberate in my own way because it’s just not my thing. I remember starting out and being very nervous even playing live, being uncomfortable with that whole thing. I’ve gradually got mildly better at that thing … I think!
Chicane is one of the few dance artists to play with a full live band
Unlike most dance musicians, Chicane plays using a live band rather than on playback. What’s the motivation behind this?
I guess it’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction to the whole DJ sort of thing, there’s a huge amount of people that still think I’m a DJ. I don’t DJ, obviously it’s a big backbone of what I do, but it’s never how Chicane’s been, I’ve always been a band as such. But then again I chop and change the players regularly, so it is quite faceless, nobody really gets to know the whole thing. But that’s part and parcel of the whole Chicane thing, it’s a very nomadic outfit. I work with such and such, do a track with them and then change it up … I’m an amoeba!
Having recently spoke with David Arnold of James Bond composition fame and often thinking many of Chicane’s songs would go well to film scenes, I asked Nick if he’d ever considered going into film scoring.
Yeah, I can’t really talk about it right now but hopefully something’s about to happen there. It’s very much where I want to be in the not too distant future. I’m hoping some projects will come my way, it’s one of those things where you’ve got to get involved with something to get the ball rolling, your name about it. Just because I write stuff that sounds like it could be in a movie, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be in a movie or that I’ll be perfect at doing it.
There’s a whole art form to scoring which I really want to get our teeth into, so the new studio in Scotland will be pretty much dedicated towards that. It’s quite a difficult thing to start because a score is almost the equivalent of doing an album, it’s a big chunk of your year if not more. So moving forward it has to reflect things like financially that time spent, so it’s not easy, I’m not sure how or where but I’m hoping something of it will appear soon.
Looking to close up the music questions for the day, I asked Nick what advice he’d impart on anyone who wants to get into the music industry with a view to making a success of themselves in it.
Wow, well. I don’t know really, all I know is for me there was quite a lot of personal sacrifice. There’s nothing easy about it, although saying that it’s punctuated with wonderful moments and you can get the opportunity to make a great living out of something you enjoy and that’s tremendous. But to make a proper and decent living out of it is very difficult and you’ve got to have all your senses about you really.
These days getting into the industry is all about making as much noise about yourself as possible. We’ve all seen the kind of successes of the Sandi Thoms and the Lilly Allens who’ve made a success out of MySpace/Facebook, they’ve manipulated those internet sites to the tenth degree and done well out of it. So for me back in the day it was all about pressing records, sending them out and getting onto the right mailing lists, to the DJs that counted.
Now the goalposts have moved, so it’s important to get your music online and get people to notice you and I’d say it’s still just as hard to get noticed. But it’s easier now I’d say to do it than say back when I started, you have more marketing tools available to you.
We finished our chat with Nick by hearing some of the new tracks from 'Giants'
Where will Chicane be in 10 years time?
I’ll probably be in some studio in LA doing a film soundtrack, tearing my f***ing hair out, wondering why am I here?! Why?! How did I get here?!
No, no, seriously. Ten years, who knows, such a long time. I’d like to think the music will evolve but I really do want to make inwards into the film area because in ten years I’ll be pushing 50 and that’s really scary! There are only so many times you can tour around the world. I’ve got responsibilities now, I’m a father, so I have to be sensible and get rid of those sports cars, buy a Skoda or something … that is of course it not what’s going to happen, we’re going to buy a Lambo and we’re going to rip it up!
Once we’ve all calmed down from that last answer, in my final question I want to tie everything up into one neat summary. I put it to Nick that he’s got the money, the fame (at which point Nick laughs and says ‘Had the money, had the fame!’), you’ve made and done what you’ve always wanted to do. What else is there out there that Nick Bracegirdle wants in life?
What else do I want in life? I’m very happy if honest, lots of things I still want to do, I’m content but not to the point of having no enthusiasm for what I do. So many cars to drive and I’m still desperate to do a certain song that’s so not the right time for it at the minute – of course it’d be such a huge hit! You know, I’m reminded of the guy who recorded an album of silence, then another guy came along who did another album of silence and the original guy sued him for it, mad! So I’d say I’d like to not go mad!