Sunday, March 13, 2016

Nigel Interview

We're calling the Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, hoping to get through to Nigel Olsson, drummer to one Mr Elton John.

The Rocket Man and his band are in the middle of a residency there, writes Gemma Peplow, which means a long stay at one of the most famous casino hotels in the world, and it's 10.15am when we call.

We've been told Nigel might be staying under a different name; one of those fake aliases celebs use in order to check in incognito. We won't give it away because it's probably not a good idea to get on the wrong side of Elton, but this is probably the first and last time we'll ever get to use a secret code name in our lifetime, so we had to share. It doesn't happen much in Leicester. Well, not that we know of, anyway.

"Thank you for calling Caesars Las Vegas." The voice on the other end of the phone is chirpiness personified. I've been told to try asking for Nigel first.

"One moment please."

I'm half disappointed as I'm connected to the room, no fake name needed.

Nigel is in good spirits. The sun is shining, last night's show was good and, well, he's woken up in Vegas.

"It's like a different world here," he says. "There's nowhere else like it.

"We love playing Vegas. We do, like, three stints each year for about three weeks at a time with a totally different show, called The Million Dollar Piano.

"It's kind of extravagant, as it has to be in Vegas. Plus, we get to stay at the hotel. It's not like a regular tour when you're hauling your bags around airports. You unpack and it's like being home. My wife comes out, too. It's a great experience."

We're talking to Nigel ahead of Elton's show at Grace Road in June. Yes, the multi-million-selling, glittery-specs-wearing, bouquet-loving star is coming here, to Leicester, for the first time in 40 years.

While we're still, um, in talks with his people to get the man himself on the phone*, Nigel is happy to take our call.

"We're really looking forward to it (playing Leicester)," he says. "We love playing in England. I've not lived there for a long time but I love coming back. It's still home to me.

"The audience is still very welcoming. This part of the tour will include at least four of the new songs from the new album (Wonderful Crazy Night, which charted at number 6 in February). It's great doing all the hits but it's really refreshing to do new songs that people aren't really familiar with and seeing the reaction.

"It's a crazy schedule that we have but to come over there and have people jumping up and down and having a great time; the world as it is nowadays is so crazy, so much strange stuff going on, if we can make people forget about all that devastation and make 'em smile then our job is done."

Elton has been performing for a long time now, and Nigel has been behind him for pretty much the entire time.

"We're blessed to still be going like we are," he says. "Now the audiences consist of grandparents and parents and their kids, and maybe kids' kids. We see little kids singing all the words and that really gets my heart. It's absolutely brilliant. The reaction from the audience rubs off on us."

Will we get the Vegas treatment when they turn up here? "You will get more than the Vegas treatment," says Nigel. "The show for you guys will be a little over two hours; lots of hits, lots of songs that people know and love."

Forty years on from Elton's last Leicester show, at De Montfort Hall, how come they've decided on Grace Road?

"We like playing smaller venues and places that we haven't been to for a long time," says Nigel. "It's about playing to as many people as we can, people who maybe can't get to the big cities. Plus, cricket grounds, football grounds, they have such a great atmosphere.

"You're in the outdoors. Even if it rains, the audiences are so amazing. They stand for hours in the rain and keep jumping up and down."

Fans will probably know the back-story of Reginald Dwight. How did Nigel start?

"I was with a band called Plastic Penny in the late 1960s, managed by Dick James Music. Elton and Bernie (lyricist, Bernie Taupin) were songwriters for that company. I would see them round the office all the time. There were times they'd go in and cut demo records and would need someone to bash away on the drums.

"Elton had an album out – I think it was his second album, with Your Song. I went into the studio, started to rehearse and played the first eight bars of Your Song and realised this was the music I wanted to play.

"It was so inspirational and refreshing. We played the Roundhouse, which went very well. So we sat down and said, 'Maybe we should go out on tour'. Everything went well and here we are, still rocking away." Those early years were a "crazy, crazy time," says Nigel.

"It happened so fast for us we didn't have time to sit down and think 'wow'.

"We would do tours and then as soon as we were finished, back in the studio and cut another record.

"Every time we were back on tour we'd play a couple of songs from an album in the can ready to come out. It was so brilliant we could do that kind of thing. It was totally non-stop.

"I'm working as much now as in the early days, though." He laughs. "That's good for an old bloke just bashing away on the drums."

It's a lot easier now, says Nigel, even though they are "getting on". It's hard to imagine Elton John "packed into a van" but that's how it was, he says, in the early days. Now they have enough lorries to cause a decent traffic jam, should they wish.

"We get very well taken care of now. These kind of tours we have lots of long lorries with all the equipment."

And finally, before he has to go to enjoy that Vegas sunshine, we ask what it's like to work with Elton.

"Oh, he's a lovely man, very kind. He's one of the most decent people in the world. I admire him so much, not just for the music but for everything he does for other people. He's a very decent chap.

"The work he's done with the Aids Foundation is absolutely brilliant. He's an amazing guy."

- Leicester Mercury

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