Nearly 14 months ago, drummer Nigel Olsson gave me the pleasure of his first, extended interview for Hercules. He was living on the fast-track with his beloved BMW and Ferrari racing cars, and was in a reflective mood about his musical past in The Elton John Band.
Little did either of us know, that the year ahead would be back in the fast lane, passing a green light on the road to El Dorado, and a few milestones en route. In March 2000 Nigel was backing vocalist for Elton’s soundtrack to The Road to El Dorado. In October, he was with Elton at the historic Madison Square Gardens Greatest Hits Live recording One Night Only. And now, packing his bags to join Elton’s US tour, with the first of two nights in Hawaii, on January 10.
And then there are Nigel’s other projects, such as a solo album out in February.
George Matlock: Let’s start with the obvious. So how are you?
Nigel Olsson: I’m nuts! The (solo) album was mastered yesterday, artwork was done today, and I’m leaving next week for the (Elton) tour, and I’m also moving house.
GM: What again? [Nigel already moved once in early 2000!]
NO: I have to keep out of the way of all these people who come looking for me ha, ha! I’m staying in the area, just moving down the street, better area.
GM: It’s been an amazing year for you Nigel. Let’s start with the official recognition you bestowed upon your own fan club run by Noreen and Brooke.
NO: They did great work putting it all together. I didn’t know anything about it until two years ago when a friend of mine said "You know, you have a fan site." My friend got in touch, and it grew from there. We are looking to launch a merchandise section on the website soon.
GM: We have enjoyed cross-promoting the two fan clubs in the past year! And now you are back in the Elton John Band. How does it feel to be back?
NO: Fantastic. It hasn’t sunk in yet. Davey Johnstone contacted me in the summer and asked whether I would like to work with Elton’s new drummer Curt Bisquera, on the recording for the Madison (MSG) gig. I said yes. I thought it would be a one-off. Then Davey told me: "Elton wants you back!" So here I am.
GM: Let’s go back to February, when we detected the first thaw in the air. You were assigned to the El Dorado project. How did that happen?
NO: Davey called me and said that the producer, Pat Leonard, wanted to recreate some of the old sound which we made for Elton in the 1970s, and would I come in? Although I was not back as drummer, I really liked that album.
GM: When you came back for El Dorado, did you sense things had changed, or was this just a session?
NO: I thought it was just a one-off thing. Especially, since Elton was touring only solo. I thought the band was finished. Once I got to MSG, I realised from the audience that they were hungry for the band sound to be back.
GM: But El Dorado wasn’t the commercial success we all wanted. Why was that?
NO: Not sure. There was at MSG the cult following of youngsters with their Lion King items, and it was surprising that El Dorado didn’t do the same.
GM: Elton seemed to put the best into the album artistically, but perhaps it was another example of record company marketing.
NO: Somebody dropped the ball somewhere, for sure. But while artistically it is great, what I would really like is for the band to take a month off, and go to a studio away from the crowds and grow up with the songs, like we used to do on the early albums.
GM: But is that practical in modern times? Wouldn’t it be impossible to get everyone to make the time commitment?
NO: You could do it if there was enough advance warning. And Davey would like to do that too.
GM: Well as band manager Davey carries a lot of authority here. So will Davey put this concept to Elton?
NO: It’s been put to him a couple of times. I think when we go on the tour it will be mentioned again. I’m hoping. Since we’re all on the road, it would be a good way to return to those ways. What’s more (producer) Gus Dudgeon has said he’d be happy to come back on those terms and to record using real instruments rather than the synch drums of today.
GM: Has it been thought about for the album in the spring?
NO: That I don’t know.
GM: What were your thoughts about the MSG gig? Most of the songs were recreated similarly to the 1970s sound, which probably endeared you as you could recreate your special style of drumming. But fans wanted more experimentation with those classic old songs, rather than a studio that had been opened up to an audience.
NO: I thought it was a great set. And having Kiki there was brilliant. The venue was trembling from the crowds. And I had not performed at MSG since the John Lennon show in 1974.
GM: Kiki was an old pal of yours. But how was it to perform with newer talent? Ronan Keating, when he came on stage, received only the mild reception you might expect of an artist who frankly isn’t known in the US. That’s clear on the CD sound too! How did it feel to work with artists that your son had grown up with?
NO: Ronan did very well. He was very nervous.
GM: Elton introduced an unknown quantity when Anastacia came on stage. I had never heard of her, and if I’m critical her voice sounds like a fire siren! How did she end up on stage?
NO: I had never heard of her, unlike my son! It was actually only a few days before the shows that the band learnt who the guests were going to be. The only one whom we knew for sure would be there was Kiki.
GM: There was you and Curt Bisquera on stage. Who was the lead drummer?
NO: We both were! We’d met on the El Dorado recording, and got on really well. We didn’t want to get in each other’s way, and we decided among us how we’d split the repertoire of songs.
GM: You’re off to Hawaii on tour with Elton. How many gigs are you doing?
NO: Two nights in Hawaii, and then we move to San Diego to team up with Billy Joel and his band. We are supporting Elton only, although we will jam for some four songs at the end with Elton and Billy. And no, I won’t know the song list until hours before the first show so don’t ask!
GM: Last year, you told me that you’d like bigger typeset in The Mag fanzine and colour inside. We still haven’t achieved these aspirations, but what do you think about the fanzine?
NO: I think it’s very well put together, and very informative. I always read it.
GM: On Elton’s next studio album I know you haven’t any details, but let’s finally talk about your own solo album.
NO: We started recording on November 6, we recorded it down the road at (Guy Babylon’s studios) and the artwork was done today. Everybody in Elton’s current band line-up is on the album! It’s reminiscent of my 1970s Drum Orchestra and Chorus album where I’m not singing on everything. My brother Kai sings on one song, Ken Stacey and his girlfriend Windy Wagner sing a duet, Kiki Dee, Gigi Worth, and a Japanese 14-year-old girl with a great voice called "i". Then there is also from Elton’s band John Mahon, Bob Birch, Curt and I play on one song, Jimmy Z, and Guy Babylon and Davey Johnstone produced it. Kathy Babylon and Guy co-wrote a song called Take A Chance. And there are a lot more to be announced! There are four or five songs I sing.
GM: So what’s the album called?
NO: It will be called Nigel Olsson Moves the Universe and the artist will be called Nigel Olsson’s Drum Orchestra and Chorus. It is being released only in Japan by a local label called 81 Records in February 2001, although we are looking for a distributor in the US and Europe as we feel it is a great album. I’m very, very happy with it. There are 11 songs on, and we started by looking at 12 songs. We didn’t want to get through 20 songs as it is hard to choose.
GM: So, the song that didn’t make it?
NO: I Need You by The Beatles. There are several other cover versions on the album, but I won’t tell you them as I don’t want anyone else cutting them ha! There is a cover of Goin’ Down, the R&B song, Naked Without You, from Roachford, which Kiki sings, Would I Lie to You Baby?, and then there are a couple of Davey songs. The song I wrote was Say You Feel The Same. And Elton’s former keyboard player Fred Mandell plays on Goin’ Down.
GM: And what’s the artwork like?
NO: I wanted it to look like a band record, as I’m terrified of making it look solo. So it looks like a Crosby, Stills and Nash album artwork, with Guy, Davey, Bob Birch and me on the front cover. There is a collage inside of the whole band.
GM: And Elton’s contribution?
NO: Elton and Bernie contributed a song which never made it to the Made In England album, Building A Bird. I’m not sure what Bernie was thinking when he wrote those lyrics!
GM: So it is like Solar Prestige A Gammon?
NO: Lyrically, yes! It was really funny how the song came to be chosen. We were being dined by Elton at a hotel in New York after October’s MSG show. Davey said he remembered a song called Building A Bird. Elton said he "had no clue" of the song and asked Davey "when did I do that?" Davey explained the song was never recorded, and then asked whether we can use it. Elton replied: "If you can remember it, go for it!" Davey had remembered the song from the sessions, and Davey made the call to Elton’s archivist Adrian Collee. It’s a great song, a big ballad.
GM: How would you describe the theme and influences of the album?
NO: It’s uptempo, mid-tempo, and ballads. It is Beatlesque, rock and roll, and R&B. On a couple of the songs I ripped off every Ringo Starr fill I could remember! There’s also the spirit of Dee Murray on the album, and indeed the album is dedicated to his memory. As a big Beatles fan, I wanted Clive Franks to be involved, but he was on the solo tour with Elton. Hence Guy Babylon came in.
GM: So, will you be looking to record another album?
NO: Oh yes!
GM: And what does the year ahead hold in store?
NO: I have no idea! One day at a time!
GM: Nigel, thanks again for your time!