Interview with Nigel Olsson

The Wow & Flutter Radio Show with Mark Lane
99.1 VYV Victoria, Australia

Interview conducted by phone July 10, 2001
Aired July 26, 2001
Interview coordination and transcription by Noreen Romano

© 2001 Mark Lane/The Nigel Olsson Fan Club
All Rights Reserved

Nigel Olsson, welcome to the Wow & Flutter Radio Show.

Thank you Mark, it's very enjoyable to talk to you all that way out in [puts on Aussie accent] Australia!

It's great to talk to you too Nigel. Now we've caught you at a very exciting time because you've just come off the Face 2 Face tour with Elton John and Billy Joel, you've also just released a new solo album called Move the Universe.

Right. Now the album is—well it's a CD now isn't it. It was released on July 4th in Japan. It's for a small label which is called 81 Records out of Tokyo, and it's a subsidiary of Sony Domestic. As of now, it's only going to be released in Japan but hopefully you guys and anybody else can get it through import. Actually as we speak, we're trying to work out a distribution deal for the United States and the rest of the world, so—we'll keep our fingers crossed on that, but I'm really really really happy with the way it sounds, it was produced by my old cohort in crime, Davey Johnstone, and Guy Babylon also from the Elton Band, and most of the guys in the band are on the record.

Right. Tell me a bit about the album Nigel, because I've read that you only did the vocals on about five of the tracks, is that right?

Yes, that's right. Actually, I had a record out in the I think the early '70s called Nigel Olsson's Drum Orchestra and Chorus

1971, yep.

Oh there you go! Know your stuff don't you!—which was Caleb Quaye, Mick Grabham, and Claudia Linnear, Kathi McDonald, and you know I like doing songs obviously that I've written or songs that have inspired me that other people have written, and you know, I'm not—I don't class myself as a really great lead singer—

Uh-huh, boy [laughs] we do!—

I love doing backgrounds, as a background singer—and so on this one I've got all sorts of people singing—in fact, Kiki Dee does one track for us, called "Naked Without You," which she does a fantastic job on—

Now that's the version from Roachford, the album Feel

Yes, that's the one.

That's a great song, and that album just did absolutely nothing, too—

And I was very very surprised, that was a great great record, and Roachford is fantastic, so you never know, but the songs on this album Move the Universe, the title song actually was written by Davey, we were halfway through the record and we were still looking for songs, and he sent over a very rough guitar and vocal demo of this song "Move the Universe" and he said "Tell me what you think, call me back" and within the first eight, sixteen bars of it I called him back and said "Let's slow it down and make it sound very Lennonish" and he said "We're on the same wavelength" and we went in and cut it the next day, and we did all this at Guy Babylon's studio, he's got a beautiful studio in his house—which obviously brought the price down, because we were running on kind of a low budget—brought the price down and we could basically name our own times and stuff; and my brother Kai, from Longdancer from the early days, he sings on one track, which is "When I'm Dead An' Gone" which is another ancient ancient song; we've got a young lady from Japan, her name is i—

Yeah, I read that, yeah?

Just the letter i, and she's 14 years old, she sings on two songs, and she's just unbelievable, she came over—we pulled her out of school where she's an A student, she's really doing well in school, we took her out, we brought her over to L.A., and she can't speak a word of English, but she sang everything like word for word, you can hardly tell there's an accent there.

How did you discover her, Nigel?

Well actually the lady that put this whole project together for us from 81 Records, her name is Yoko Yamabe—she said that, y'know, "If we put this record together, you tell me how much of a budget you need, obviously with us being a small label we can't afford these million-dollar budgets, but would you be interested in maybe working with this young lady?" And I said "Well send me something that she's done," you know obviously I didn't want to do anything that I wasn't into, y'know? And she sent a rough demo CD that she'd done maybe a year or so ago, and Davey and Guy and I looked at each other and said "Wow this is something else, let's get a couple of songs together, send them to her and see what she thinks," which we did, and one of them which Kathy Babylon, who is Guy's wife, wrote, which is called "Take a Chance," I think that's actually going to be the single in Japan, she came over and she cut the vocals, we did the tracks obviously without her, and she came over and did the vocals and within the first couple of takes we had it, it was just amazing, I mean our mouths droppped, so we had a lot of fun doing that; and then there's a duet with Ken Stacey who's a background singer here in L.A., and his girlfriend Windy Wagner who sings backup with k.d. lang, so that was fun to do. And then we did "Goin' Down" which is an old traditional blues, kinda rock-blues song, which has been covered by everybody and their brother—

Yeah it has hasn't it. [both laugh]

Yeah. But we did the version with Christina Vierra who's a singer around town here, so we basically used close friends that we've known and heard around here and then we discovered this little girl from Japan.

Well I'm looking forward to hearing it and any of the listeners who have any trouble tracking down the album, you can always go through the website, Nigel has a fan club website as well, it's just very simply and that will lead you into an area where you can actually track down the album if you are having any trouble.

Absolutely, and we also have merchandise there with my little logo and we have hats and shirts and all sorts of stuff.

Well millions of people around the world associate you quite understandably with Elton, but there's also been many of us lucky enough to discover your solo work and we've just been talking about the new stuff. If I could take you back to the first solo album that I ever bought of yours Nigel, which was the 1978 Columbia release, just simply called Nigel Olsson


As a lot of fans did in those days, because I was an Elton John fan, there was that correlation with Nigel Olsson, but I can vividly remember the day I bought that album, and I was just totally blown away from the beginning of "Rainy Day" to the very closing track "Au Revoir."

"Au Revoir," yes.

Did you receive a similar reaction from other fans that were just so surprised at the quality and the strength of that album in '78?

Well you know, it was...I had such a blast doing that record, we did that here in town at Crystal Sound which was partly owned by Stevie Wonder. So as we were cutting most of that record Stevie was working on Songs in the Key of Life in the other studio, so we were kinda going back and forth when we were working on the same days, so that sticks out in my mind as a great time and it's an inspiration for me, because of Stevie being there and kind of nipping in and out again and saying "Oh man, I love that song, that track's great" and all the songs on that record were fresh, we had a great time doing it you know, I'm very proud of most everything I've done recording-wise because basically I love to be in the studio—I love the road, but the studio just is where I can create and experiment and stuff like that, I just have a great time in the studio.

Well you had some incredible players on that record too, didn't you, people like even these days we associate him with Dave Letterman, but you had Paul Shaffer and David Foster and Mike Baird and people like Jay Graydon. The backing vocals too Nigel, the song "You Know I'll Always Love You," that just to this day, I still love that song to death, but the backing vocals in particular during the chorus with Brenda Russell and Bruce's more of a gospel chorus sort of backing vocal that you've got on that sort of track too.

Well I've always been inspired by backgrounds and as you know, that's my forte, I love doing backgrounds and when Dee Murray and Davey Johnstone and myself used to do the backgrounds on all the Elton stuff we used to send him away, we'd do all his stuff and then we'd send him away so that we could work on the backgrounds and we had great fun just creating those things, and we've always been, well, I've always been inspired by gospel singers and big, fat-sounding choir type stuff. And we had a great time doing those backgrounds on that record, as well as the new one, you know.

[Mark plays "You Know I'll Always Love You"]

Has Billy Joel actually ever heard—do you know whether he's heard your version of "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" Nigel?

Yes, actually he has, and he likes it, he loves it in fact, when I saw him for the first day of rehearsals for the tour, he saw me walk in and he started playing it, it was fantastic you know to hear him kind of doing one of his songs but kind of doing my version of it! [laughs]

I noticed on that album in particular moreso than say...something like Changing Tides, on that particular album there's this incredible—it's almost like a Phil Spector sound, I don't mean Wall of Sound sort of stuff but more of an open-hall sound that you captured on that '78 album.

Well you know what, at the studio, Crystal Sound was huge, there was a —actually it started off as, there was a television show over here [in America] early early '60s I think or late '60s called "Sea Hunt" with Lloyd Bridges, and all the underwater sequences were filmed...where the control room would be so it was like a huge tank where they'd fill it with water and shoot through the glass. And then it was a post office, and then they put a recording studio in there so the room, actually the control room is the biggest control room I've ever been in, and the recording room is like huge so we got what I call the Nigel Olsson Sound, which is we use close miking on the drums plus what we call ambient mics which are way way way down at the other end of the room to catch that delay. So it's kind of that natural delay; so we didn't really have to use too many reverb units and electronics on that, it was a natural sounding room, and I love recording with orchestra, and stuff like that. There's nothing like being in the studio and playing with the cellos and the basses and the violins, all live, it was amazing. We had a great time doing that record.

[Mark plays "Say Goodbye to Hollywood"]

Your association with David Foster now, David Foster as many would know has been a hugely successful producer and songwriter over the years, an incredibly talented man—the other association I read there somewhere Nigel was with Bill Champlin—now I'm a real Bill Champlin fan before the Chicago days, there was an album he did with David in 1991 called Runaway

Yeah yeah yeah!

It actually featured a couple of players you had on your album, Jay Graydon being one of them—have you ever heard that album, Runaway?

I have, I have, and you know that Bill was very instrumental in I think the resurgence of Chicago—he's a great great singer, he's a very very good writer and in those early days he did a lot of session work, singing and playing, and he was a friend of David's and he brought him along to one of the sessions and I was just blown away by him—I mean he's just a great great inspirational person to be around, y'know? And I'm still actually in touch with him all the time.

Yeah. One of the songs I want to refer to Nigel from your early-days solo career in 1975 a song that to this day is one of my favourite songs ever—"Only One Woman."


Why wasn't that #1? [laughter]

Well you know, if I knew that I'd be a millionaire! It was a song written by the brothers Gibb, way way way way back, and it was recorded, it was a hit in England actually...

With the Marbles!

The Marbles, yeah! And I always loved that song, because it was in the right range for my voice and I just loved it. And we were up at Caribou Ranch cutting—it must have been Caribou or one of those [editorial note: the album in question was Captain Fantastic] and I was signed to Rocket Records at that time. And we'd have some down time in the studio with the Elton guys so Gus Dudgeon said "Well why don't we cut your song that you've been wanting to do" because he loved that song too. So we just went in there and cranked the sound up, and it turned out great, and it was actually a Top 5 record over here.

It was, was it, in England?



Not in England, here in the States!

Oh in the States!


Oh, I didn't realise that because over here, I mean the album was almost impossible to track down, that album that it came off in 1975—but everybody that I played that song to just said "My God, who is this guy?!" [laughter]

Well, I guaran-dang-tee you that I can't hit them high notes anymore! [laughter]

[Mark plays "Only One Woman"]

1980, Changing Tides album, what exactly do you say in the intro for "Saturday Night"?

Oh my word...

One, two...

Up your flue! [laughter] Good spotting on that one Mark! [laughter] That's funny, yeah.

Does that actually mean anything—"up your flue"—are we talking about flues as in chimneys?

Well, it could mean chimney or it could be very rude. [laughter]

And you even managed to drag Sir Elton out for a royal guest appearance on "Showdown" on that album.

Absolutely, yeah, he played his tushie off as well, he played great on that. It was great.

Speaking of Elton, and I suppose you'll know where I'm coming from when I mention those three golden years, not only for me personally but, for a whole generation of music lovers, 1972 to 1975, we've got Honky Chateau, Don't Shoot Me, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Caribou, and Captain Fantastic. What a period.

It was amazing, I mean, the Yellow Brick Road album, Captain Fantastic, my favourite pieces of work that we ever did, and I wish that we could capture that again. We'll never be able to capture that because of Dee not being with us anymore, and to tell you the truth, there's never a day goes by where I don't miss him to death. He passed away a few years ago, he was battling cancer, and obviously lost that battle and we miss him terribly, and you know we've just been working on this new record with Elton which comes out—I think the single's out already, but the album comes out in October and it's kinda getting back to that type of the early days-sounding records, but there will be nothing ever again as wonderful, as inspirational—I class them as brilliant albums, and I put a lot of that down to Gus Dudgeon and Paul Buckmaster—amazing work—the songs were there, just the whole feeling, everyone was on the same wavelength, it was a wonderful time in our lives.

Well if things had been slightly different you could have been going down a totally different path, you could have ended up really a fully-blown member of either Uriah Heep or Supertramp, couldn't you?

Yup...absolutely...well you know, I think I made the right decision.

For the listeners out there that aren't sure what we're referring to, Nigel, you kicked off with The Fireflies didn't you in the early '60s, and a couple of other bands along with way, one of them being Plastic Penny, and also Spencer Davis Group, you did some time there, but because of the association in the studio that you were hanging around at the time that's where the association with Elton and Bernie came from.

Yes...we actually had a decision to make, because at the time that Elton was releasing the Elton John album, he needed to do a couple of promotion dates in London, and he'd asked Dee Murray and I to help him out and we said "Yeah, that'd be great," and at that time I was with Uriah Heep and I'd done like nine dates with Uriah Heep. And it was kinda too heavy heavy heavy for me you know? But I was making some great money, and as soon as we went into rehearsals with Elton, it was just Dee Murray, myself and Elton, within the first five minutes, I knew then "Oh man, this is it, this is my kind of music." And then I told my manager at that time "Well what shall I do?" and he says "Nige, it's like buying a house, it's your decision, you know you've got to live with it the rest of your life," which I have been doing!

Well you can be proud of it for the rest of your life, can't you...

You know, I'm so glad to be back, '85 was the last time I actually worked on the road with the band and it's so great to be back up there again and be playing the songs again, you know? [Editor's note: unless there was a tour outside of the USA in early 1985, Nigel means 1984].

There's a lot said Nigel, I mean everybody remembers the Rocket Mans and the Daniels and the Saturday Nights...a couple of songs I wanted to talk to you about as far as what I personally saw as just great drum work from you from that period, "Have Mercy on the Criminal"...

Oh wow, yeah...

Explosive drums on that, I mean that is almost an opera, that song—

Yeah, yeah, that was again Davey's guitars, Dee's bass, the piano...that band—we were so, again, as I say we were so on the same wavelength, it was like we couldn't put a foot wrong, it was just amazing—most of that stuff too was cut within the first couple of takes.

Well there are other tracks similar to that, "I've Seen That Movie Too" from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which I think to this day still holds up—

Yeah, I'm trying to persuade him actually to put that in the set for the stage.

It's almost a torch song!

Yeah, yeah!

"Curtains"? Is there any chance that he would do that...onstage?

"Curtains", I'd love to do that because...every fill that Nigel Olsson ever played is in that song [laughter], it's like "The Nigel Olsson Song Book."

[Mark plays "Curtains"]

Part Two to come soon!