Today is Thanksgiving, which means we gather around the table, argue about politics, drink too much, eat to excess, then wonder where it all went so terribly wrong.
Or, we just give thanks.
So, in that secondary spirit, I’m going to offer genuine appreciation to today’s Quaz Q&A—the great Roger Alan Nichols. The two of us first met 23 years ago, when I was a crap writer for The Tennessean and Roger was the lead guitarist of Dreaming in English, a Nashville rock n roll band with dreams of fame, fortune and musical glory.
I pitched the group’s saga as an idea for a long feature (struggling outfit trying to make it), and my editors bit. So I spent myriad days following Roger and his cohorts around, from rehearsals to gigs to windy nights hanging flyers on telephone poles. The resulting piece, headlined DREAMING OF BETTER DAYS, was simultaneously glorious (it was probably 2,500 words, and ran on the section front) and nightmarish (I got the lead singer’s last name wrong), and while the band ultimately came and went, Roger and I have maintained casual contact through the years. Nowadays he’s the president, CEO, owner and head guru of Bell Tone Recording, a Nashville recording studio, and he’s worked with some of the biggest (and most talented) artists in music.
Hence, I’ve brought Roger here to chat band dreams dying, music dreams soaring, unorthodox wedding locations and what it’s like working with Aerosmith’s iconic lead singer and Kermit the Frog.
Roger Alan Nichols, you are the 381st Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, so Roger, I’m insanely psyched to have you here—mainly because there’s a question I’ve long wanted to ask. Back in the mid-1990s, when I was a writer at The Tennessean, I spent a bunch of days following around your band, “Dreaming in English,” for a lengthy profile. And I was truly convinced you guys were going to make it big. And you did not. So I ask, 25 years later—why not?
ROGER ALAN NICHOLS: Making it big and being successful can be viewed as two completely different things. On a regional scale Dreaming In English was quite successful and I think that we along with numerous other rock bands during the mid nineties laid the ground work for many bands that followed. At that time (1989 thru the early 90s) referring to Nashville as our home base was viewed as a liability and not an asset. I remember we had this west coast attorney who would bring A&R guys into town to see us and he would always instruct us to say, “We are in Nashville on business, and not from Nashville.” He was afraid that any association with the city would equal an automatic “no.” Remember this was on the heels of the Seattle explosion and everyone was looking for the next hotbed for rock n roll.
There were numerous bands (Bedlam, Jane His Wife, Human Radio) that had critical success and moderate sales, but being a rock band from Nashville at the height of the country music boom was often doomed with “The Nashville Curse”. It wasn’t until 2009 that people nationally adopted the idea that not everything musical in Davidson County wore a cowboy hat. I think what we were trying to do in Nashville was too early, timing-wise.
Being in D.I.E., though, provided me the opportunity to refine my writing, engineering and production skills and ultimately it exposed me to some life lessons that I still reflect on today. As you can imagine for a band to “make it big” there are numerous events that have to happen, all of which ultimately cannot be ordained without an enormous amount of luck. In full disclosure, when our band finally imploded in 2001 I was completely lost for the next several years. For the first time in my life (since grade school, actually) I wasn’t in a band and it took me a while to figure out my next step. Those were dark years indeed but ultimately it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
J.P.: That story stands out to me for myriad reasons, but one in particular. Namely, throughout the entire piece (which was really long) I misidentified your lead singer, Ty Banks, as Ty Brooks. And I vividly recall you calling, saying, “No big deal, but …” And I have to think, looking back, y’all were pissed. No? At least that he was …
R.N.: If my memory serves me right I don’t remember Ty or anyone being especially pissed. As you may recall, Ty was absent quite a bit so his connection with you was not the same as everyone else in the band. I will never forget how big the article was. We were coming back into town from a show on that Saturday night so we stopped at a gas station to buy a copy of the Tennessean. I’ll never forget walking out of the Mapco at 5:30 in the morning and opening that paper up—“Holy shit! Look at the size of this article!” I think the misidentified name was more of parallel to what we were facing as a band at that time, struggling for recognition and acceptance. My fondest memories from those interviews were the conversations you and I would have, Bongo Java on Belmont comes to mind. Our conversations would start with the subject at hand but often drift to things we were dealing with on a personal level, as young adults trying to figure it all out.
J.P.: You own a Nashville recording studio, Bell Tone Recording. I have no idea what such a job entails. So, Roger, what does it entail?
R.N.: HA! It’s a daily adventure. I opened the room eight years ago mostly because I worked 24 hours a day when my studio was located in my house. I sensed the business was starting to change and I knew that if I had a commercial location to work out of, I could flourish. Before moving I had already worked on quite a few records and was starting to suffer from burnout due to proximity. I also started noticing that as I would bring artists into the house there was always this weird obligation for them to ask me about my dog, my wife, why we painted a wall that color, etc. I’m in a great space now and it’s primary use is for writing, mixing, recording guitars, vocals etc. For tracking dates I normally move to Electric Thunder Studios which is located downstairs from my room. It’s run by Geoff Piller. Side note regarding the studio name: When a electric guitar possesses a bright but punchy sound it’s sometimes referred to as having a nice “bell tone.” My father was a photographer in West Virginia (Bridgeport/Clarksburg area) and had a studio called Bell Studio for 45 years before retiring. I chose the name as a nod to both
J.P.: I was recently in Nashville, and it hit me—hard—how much the city has grown, changed. From the traffic to the “trendy” restaurants and bars to the … traffic. It feels like an altogether different place from the one I left. Is that a good thing? And how has it impacted the music produced?
R.N.: The impact on Nashville regarding how music is produced hinges more on technology than a population shift, but that’s a whole separate conversation. As the Internet broke down barriers, Nashville became a more desirable place to live. Property was cheaper than LA and New York City, the ground didn’t move and up until a year and half ago, traffic wasn’t really an issue. The biggest issue was, “Are there any good restaurants?” (no longer an issue). Remember, pre- and early-internet, most genres of music outside of country or Christian were routed through label offices more than likely found in LA or New York. Being a band from Nashville always brought with it an association to country music or Christian music so east and west coast labels weren’t really interested. The mindset being, “You’re from Nashville, so you must be a country band and you have labels there that handle what you do.”
But finally bands started showing up on A&R radars due to activity based on Internet chatter and socials. Bands could also have bigger mass appeal regardless of geographical location. Being a rock band from Nashville finally started making sense to those at labels who typically made decisions based on geography over content. The coup was the migration of artists like Jack White and The Black Keys, along with the success of Paramore and Kings Of Leon. That finally gave the musical lemmings the stamp of approval that was needed to relocate half of Brooklyn to East Nashville. Next thing you know … the New York Times was calling Nashville the new “it city” as was Forbes. Then ABC aired the drama “Nashville” and of course the revenue from the NFL and the success of the Preds NHL team … so on and so on.
J.P.: In 2017 you were a vocal engineer for Steven Tyler’s “We’re All Somebody from Somewhere.” That just strikes me as sorta weird/cool/fascinating. So what was the experience like?
R.N.: Up until two years ago a large portion on my revenue came from working with writers and publishers. The Warren Brothers, who I’ve known since before they moved to Nashville 20 plus years ago, were artists and now very successful writers—“The Lights Come On,” recorded by Jason Aldean, “Little Bit Of Everything,” Keith Urban, and “Highway Don’t Care,” Tim McGraw (with guest Taylor Swift) are just a few of their songs (and by the way, they are two of the nicest and completely batshit craziest and talented guys I’ve ever known).
I had been working with them for several years building and mixing tracks, cutting vocals, and occasionally writing. One afternoon Brett called me and said, “Hey we’ve written three songs for Steven’s new solo record, can we come to your studio to flush out the demos?” Next thing you know, he’s pulling up in a white Rolls with his security guy in tow and we’re going to work. He was completely awesome at every level. Very gracious, on top of it musically, vocally and with an incredible sense of humor. A really great couple of days in the studio.
J.P.: Along those lines—in 2011 you were the vocal engineer and vocal producer for “Muppets: The Green Album.” Um … how? Why? What?
R.N.: HA! Ah, yes! Years ago I worked with the band Paramore. I had written a bunch of songs with the singer Hayley that helped the band get their deal with Atlantic/Fueled By Ramen when they first started. I had produced, engineered and mixed a a body of work for them early on. Fortunately Hayley and I are still friends today and I love every opportunity I get to spend time with her. She’s a remarkable artist and a remarkable young woman. After Paramore launched, I occasionally would work with her on some side projects. This record being one of those. It was a collection of songs featured during the run of the Muppets reinterpreted by artists that were popular at the time. She did a duet with Rivers Cuomo from Weezer. It was the song written by Paul Williams and Ken Asher called “Rainbow Connection.” It’s awesome! I cut Hayley’s vocal in my living room in East Nashville.
J.P.: In 1998 Dreaming in English released an album, “Stuff,” with a song called, “Where’s the Sun?” And, not blowing smoke, I think it’s insanely good and could have been a breakout hit. I mean that. But I’ve never understood the opening few seconds—the hard, metallic-sounding riff. Probably because I’m a music idiot. So what were you thinking? And am I way overrating the song, or do you agree?
R.N.: That song connected with a lot of people. It was a well-balanced combination of testosterone, groove, message and social commentary based on current events. Unfortunately what really makes a hit is about $1 million in promotional muscle and we had zero access to those type of numbers. The intro for that song was a series of loops and keyboard programing produced by Jim Stelluto and Shane Gue. We knew that song was going to be the opening track on the record so our thinking was to create some tension at the top of the song. I can still remember writing that song. It was like Ty and I found north with our creative compass. I have an unreleased version that we demo’d after the record (in 2001 right before we dismantled) that is so badass! It’s on my hit list to remix one day.
J.P.: I’m not asking names, but what’s the story of the biggest asshole you’ve worked with, musically?
R.N.: HA! Oh man, I can’t go there! As a producer, engineer and writer, I’m in a unique position to be in the room when the artist is the most vulnerable. This is an opportunity I do not take for granted. It’s truly special to be working on a song and have conversations that are so open, honest, and occasionally so raw yet solely in pursuit of crafting a song that moves an individual regardless of outside endorsements. Now, I will say this. The artists with the least amount of real estate or “ownership” are normally the most protective and insecure. So yes, I’ve worked with some raging assholes, all of whom I made sure were properly invoiced.
J.P.: I’m asking names—what’s the story of the coolest person you’ve worked with, musically?
R.N.: Anyone who spends the majority of his adult life working with artists in numerous stages of their careers will have multiple experiences that are special. One of my personal favorites is a guy named Tyler Dow Bryant. I’ve worked with this guy for the last 10 years and produced an early solo record he did in the late 2000s. Since then he has put together a band called “Tyler Bryant And The Shakedown.” This band is a remarkable group. Each member is a total badass. Tyler and his band continue to write, produce, engineer and basically outwork everyone in the room. To this day, we still write quite a bit and work together whenever our schedule permits. The only thing more impressive than this guys gift as a writer and guitarist is his thoughtfulness, respect and basic decency. After 10 years of creative “prodding” I’ve yet to see his limitations in regards to creativity and talent.
J.P.: I ask this of baseball players a lot, so I’ll ask it of you. What is the different between someone like you—a pro’s pro—and an Eddie Van Halen or Jeff Beck? I mean literally. What’s the difference between all-time legend and really, really excellent?
R.N.: There’s an enormous amount of excellent artistry in the world. Unfortunately “excellence” and “artistry” are completely subjective. If you scour YouTube it’s easy to find amazing musicians and artists. The all-time legends though, are the ones who resonate with the masses. They are the ones who are just far enough ahead of the curve to feel fresh; the ones who absorb outside influences without actually replicating them … the ones who are lucky enough to be tagged as the starting point or influencer of an extended creative wave. These days, people are able to gain a lot of information and instruction via the Internet and they can practice developing skills in replicating what they see and hear. Essentially they are technicians who are able to reproduce performances and sounds. Then you see people who are more thoughtful about their output and content. They absorb and assimilate what they see and hear and create something new from it. This type of person I think of more as an artist than a technician.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ROGER ALAN NICHOLS:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Phil Bredesen, Moe Loughran, Dusty Baker, Archie, Tyrod Taylor, microwaved popcorn, George Foreman Grill, kayaking, Disturbed remake of “The Sound of Silence”: I think these are actually in a really good order now. My only suggestion would be to move the Disturbed cover even lower than last place, move Dusty to the center (after all, his winning percentage was .532) and move Bredesen to the White House.
• Your mayor resigned in shame earlier this year. What was the strangest part of it all?: I’ve met Megan and her husband Bruce many times over the years and my wife Erika knows her personally. We were so excited about her election and how optimistic the future seemed with her in office. She was a rising star within the Democratic party and who knows where she may have ended up. It was a sad day indeed when she resigned but considering the charges, absolutely necessary. I only wish our current POTUS would look at her example (and Al Franken’s too) and follow suit.
• Five all-time favorite guitarists?: Influence wise as a guitar player: 1) Ritchie Blackmore. 2) Steve Lukather. 3) Jimmy Page. 4) Jimi Hendrix. 5) Mick Ralphs; Players who I know personally and think as highly of as people 1) Reeves Gabrels. 2) Dann Huff. 3) Tyler Bryant. 4) Tom Bukovac. 5) Larkin Poe. Oh, and Mike Seal for sure!
• You and your wife got married in a shopping mall. Why?: Actually we got married in an art gallery, the Greater Nashville Arts Foundation Gallery. This gallery just happened to located in the now-defunct Church Street Center Mall (where the library is now located). A funny side note: Robert K. Oermann, Nashville’s unofficial historian of all things music, did a “review” of our wedding in Music Row Magazine the following week.
• Will music save your mortal soul?: It already has and continues to do so, daily.
• How did you learn the news of Demi Lovato’s drug relapse?: Hmm … this is an interesting one. On Twitter of course.
• What do you tell people when they try smoking cigarettes in your studio?: If this were 12 years ago, I’d ask them for a light. Most pros know you don’t smoke in a studio. The smoke is harmful to microphone diaphragms and volume pots. If someone lights up in my room without the common sense to ask permission, I know I’m dealing with a novice …
• Greatest moment of your life?: When my anxiety subsides long enough to realize how lucky I am to be doing something that I truly love and how lucky I am married to someone as amazing as my wife Erika Wollam Nichols for 22 years.
• Lowest moment of your life?: Way to personal to expose on the internet but for the record I have no delusions of grandeur. I’ve proven time and time again that I’m capable of showing my ass at any moment.
• In exactly 12 words, make an argument for Styx: Wow!! What a question! OK, here we go. 45 years, 32 albums, 73 EP’s and Singles, seven labels, 10 members. If that does’t work might I suggest this … Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto Thank you very much Mr Roboto I’m Kilroy.