An Interview with Phil Nicolo

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Phil Nicolo | Eventide

What makes a great producer? More importantly, what makes a great engineer? As you will learn, there’s a very real distinction. Phil Nicolo has been in the game a long time. For my money, he is one of those most authentic and important producers/engineers of the last 40 plus years. His unmistakable production quality and pioneering techniques have been nothing short of remarkable. He has worked with the likes of Billy Joel, Sting, John Lennon, James Taylor, and many more. Regardless of whether he is working on an album for acts big or small, you can be absolutely certain that what you get from Phil Nicolo with be authentic and worth hearing. If you would like to learn more about Phil Nicolo, you can head to his site here. Also, Phil also has a pressing plant he’s starting up, and you can check out the link here. After that, check out this interview. It’s a good one. Cheers.

Andrew:
Phil, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. This last year has been rough, right? How are you holding up during this seemingly ever-raging dumpster fire?

Phil:
I’ve been doing very well. The best part of this crazy pandemic is that it gave us time to start a record pressing facility. Something we’ve been wanting to do for two years now. We finally had the time to put the pieces together and get it in action, and our presses have arrived and we’ll be starting production soon. We’re really excited. It’s called Studio 4 Vinyl.

Andrew:
Tell us about your backstory. What was your musical gateway so to speak?

Phil:
My earliest memory as an infant was Opera music. My dad was a big lover of Opera. So, I was exposed at a very early age to some amazing music and creativity. As my twin brother Joe and I grew up, our parents were very much into music of all kinds. Being Italian immigrants, they had a real appreciation for everything that was available here in America. Even the music. And like so many people of my generation, seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show was the beginning of it all. It forever changed my life. I said to myself, “I have to do that.”

Joe and I started recording bands in high school. While in college we built a small recording studio in my parents’ attic, and never looked back. We started Studio 4 in 1980 in Center City Philadelphia with the help of Obie O’Brien and Tony Bongiovi from the power station, in New York City. I used to sleep on the floor of Toni’s apartment at the power station with John Bon Jovi. That’s where I really learned how to make records.

Andrew:
As a a producer, who are some of your earliest and most important influences?

Phil:
I would have to say The Beatles and Frank Zappa were our earliest influences. A lot of our style came out of imitation, and sometimes even ridicule of the styles that were happening.

Phil Nicolo

Andrew:
A few producers I’ve spoken with actually prefer to be called engineers as they feel the artists are producing the work, and the engineer/producer is only helping them harness their sound. What is your take on that?

Phil:
I would say I started out that way as a producer who relied on my engineering and technical production chops, and then the more I worked with artists, I got more into the actual production and feel of the music. I owe a lot of that to my friend Rick Chertoff. He produced The Hooters records and while working together we became good friends. I learned a lot about how to produce a record from Rick.

Andrew:
Tell us about The Butcher Brothers, which for those that don’t know, is a production team made up of yourself and your brother (Joe), which started in 1989. How did The Butcher Brothers begin? Are you still producing as a team with your brother, or are you both gone solo so to speak?

Phil:
As Ruffhouse was beginning to take off, Joe and I worked together more and more. While working with the band Urge Overkill in the early 90’s, they nicknamed us the Butcher Bros.  The rest is history! Even though we are twins, we came about music production from different experiences. Joe was more involved in the early Rap and Hip-Hop world, and I was more involved in the Rock and Pop side, so together, we brought a really interesting perspective to the production and the sound. We still work together on occasion; it really depends when something comes up that we can both get involved with.

Andrew:
As a producer, what sets you apart from the rest. What makes your style of production special?

Phil:
I look at my production style more as the secret ingredient. I find my strength is getting an artist to do what they do best but knowing when to steer, and push them one way or another or get them to look at a particular situation from a different point of view. Most artists say it’s my bedside manner. I seem to know when to be the center of attention, and when it’s best to just shut up and stand in the corner.

Phil Nicolo: The Butcher Goes to China? | JUMP: The Philly Music Project
Image Credit: Jumpphilly.com

Andrew:
You’ve worked with so many incredible artists such as Kriss Kross, Teddy Pendegrass, Taj Mahal, Sting and more. Looking back, what are some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on?

Phil:
Well, you named one of them right there. Taj Mahal was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. Taj is just an incredible performer, artist and genuine person. He gives every moment his all, and it makes you want to do the same. You know you’re at an amazing session when Ringo stops by just to see what’s going on. Urge Overkill was another great experience. It was one of those sessions that was always filled with incredible energy, emotion, fear and excitement! The fact that the train rarely stayed on the track was the reason that their Saturation record was so amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun making a record. And of course, the ability to work with Bob Dylan was truly a once in a lifetime experience. I was reminded, once again, they are all just human, and making music for us is a wonderful bond.

Andrew:
Give us some insight into your production style. How do you go about getting the most out of an artists, as well and harnessing the vibe of any particular record?

Phil:
My production style is quite simple: be ultra sensitive to the artist. Their mood, their intention, and their vision. Know when to push stop, and went to push go. When it’s good to work on a vocal for four hours, or stop after 10 minutes. The most important part? To get them to think it was their idea! Just kidding, but communication and honesty is the key.

Andrew:
Let’s talk about the state of the music industry a bit. What are a few things you would like to see change for the betterment of both the fans and artists alike?

Phil:
That’s a good question. I am an optimistic person, but I feel as time progresses people aren’t being challenged by clever and creative new ideas. There has been a dumbing down of America and unfortunately music is no exception. Entertainment and popular music have gotten so blurred, you really can’t distinguish one from the other. They have both lost their artistry and are catering to the lowest common denominator. 

Things are so controlled by only a few factors like major and social media that it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. People have been fed a poor diet for so long that they now crave junk food. I don’t see how things will change until people stop accepting poor music as the status quo. As an optimist, I believe there are still great things happening in the music world, it just takes a little searching. That’s why I continually strive for the “chicken skin.”

Phil Nicolo: The Butcher Goes to China? | JUMP: The Philly Music Project

Andrew:
In a world dominated by capitalism and social media, can indie artists really, truly get ahead? How do we keep the playing field level so that everyone has a chance to succeed?

Phil:
That’s a really good question. I wish I had a good answer. I would love to see everyone have a chance to succeed. As I said, I am an optimist, and I am really hoping that as more and more people get frustrated with what they’re being fed, they’ll use their passion for music to motivate them to find something truly exciting to listen to. I think true change can only come from within.

Andrew:
Are you into records? Tapes? CDs? Digital? Where do you like to shop for music?

Phil:
I am into anything that plays music! We’re starting a new vinyl pressing facility called Studio 4 Vinyl (www.studio4vinyl.com) It’s going to be records that are made by people who have a true love and passion for music. I’m really excited about it.

I love going into the new crop of consignment and vintage vinyl shops. Back in the day, when I would walk out of a record store, the records I would leave with were all new to me! It’s that cool sense of discovery that seems to be missing.

There are some really cool playlists out there; it’s just a matter of spending the time to find the good stuff.

Andrew:
What are a few albums that mean the most you and why?

Phil:
The Beatles A Hard Days Night

Being a child of the 60s, The Beatles were everything to me. That record still blows me away. Every song written by Lennon and McCartney. John Lennon‘s vocals are so passionate, that they bring me to tears even today.

Miles Davis Kind Of Blue

It was the the first time I experienced true musical emotion, without words. Truly magical. Every time I hear it, it’s like I’m listening to it for the first time.

Steve Reich Music For 18 Musicians

This piece, as well as Steve Reich’s other compositions, and their performance, truly got me to look at music in a whole new way.

Andrew:
Who are some of your favorite artists? Ones that mean the most to you.

Phil:
The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, The Mills Brothers, The Rolling Stones, Pat Metheny, Joe Sample, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Run DMC, Cypress Hill, Lauryn Hill. The list is endless…

Andrew:
Last question. You’ve maintained a strong DIY approach throughout your career, which is awesome. That said, what advice would you have for young artists and producers just starting out? How do artists stay afloat in a world that seems to be so abhorrent to creatives?

Phil:
Don’t pay attention to what everyone else is doing. Be sure to please yourself first. Try to find inspiration in everything around you. Dare to be different. In the long run, it really does pay off.

Phil Nicolo: The Butcher Goes to China? | JUMP: The Philly Music Project

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island and works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night.
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