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An In-depth Interview with Nigel Olsson






Daily Herald: I just want to say what a pleasure this is for me — the very first concert I ever went to was Elton John at Dodger Stadium …

Nigel Olsson: Oh my word!

DH: … and my biggest — and probably only — disappointment was that you and Dee weren’t in the band then.

Olsson: That’s right. That was the Roger Pope, Caleb Quaye days. Yep.

DH: And having grown up following all your albums and everything, that was something I’d always wanted to see, but then I was pleasantly surprised on the “Jump Up” tour, I hadn’t actually heard that you guys were back in the band, but there was the original band again. It was great.

Olsson: Perfect.

DH: First of all, I know there have been several dates postponed, so I just wanted to get the latest on Elton’s health and see if things are still looking good for you to start up again next week.

Olsson: Yes. Well, Elton is doing really well. He had a really bad bout with the flu, it wasn’t the swine flu or the bird flu or whatever flu that’s going around now. As it is now, we’re all set to leave here on, I think, Monday. So we’re packing our bags so to speak.

DH: Zero hour?

Olsson: Zero hour. (laughs)

[Editor’s Note: During the week following this interview the remainder of the Face 2 Face tour dates for 2009 were postponed — this time, due to an undisclosed medical issue with Billy Joel. The rescheduled run of tour dates kick off Saturday in Oakland and include the Feb. 19 show at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City.]

DH: Of course, the band faced an even bigger challenge recently with the death of Guy Babylon — can you just talk briefly about him and what he brought to the band for such a long time?

Olsson: Well, obviously, we’re still all devastated about it. Out of all of us, I feel that Guy was the healthiest amongst us all. He went swimming every single day. Actually when he was young, he could have been an Olympic swimmer. And he was the quiet one, always renewing the musical samples for stage and for recording. He always, as soon as we got to a gig, he would be up there on stage with his headphones on, re-programming stuff. When he’d get back to his room, he’d work on the music. For our new guy, pun not intended, who is Kim Bullard, he left files and files and files of stuff that Kim could just go into and figure out exactly what he was going to be doing. But Guy was a dear, dear friend, and as I say, he was very, very quiet, but he was … once he was in the studio or onstage, he was so inspirational to play with because, you know, I wear headphones onstage, I have my own mixer and everything, so I got him in full stereo and I used to have him a little bit louder than the other guys, because other than the low end of Elton’s piano, the strings that Guy had programmed into his keyboard were kind of exactly the same as what you hear, especially on the earlier records that Gus Dudgeon did with us, you know, you could really hear the guts of the strings. So that was very inspirational to me and obviously he will be missed. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about him or Dee Murray, in fact, but it was very, very, and still is, just devastating when we heard the news. But he would want us to go on, which we are, and we’ll get the job done as usual.

DH: How is Kim Bullard fitting in to the live lineup?

Olsson: Kim is fitting in very well. He obviously has a lot of homework to do. But before we went to Europe a couple of months back to do the Red Piano tour, we had three days of rehearsal here in L.A. And we only had to run the songs, like, a couple times and he had it down, totally. He’s very, very professional. He’s been around a long time. He’s worked with many, many big acts.

DH: Did he work with Poco?

Olsson: Poco, Kelly Clarkson, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and various other people. So he knows what he’s doing basically. (laughs)

DH: Now, I caught one of the earlier Face 2 Face tours several years ago, and I just really love the format of it, you know, with Elton and Billy opening with some tunes and trading off vocal lines and everything, and then the two full bands come out for the different sets — it just makes for a great night of music. But, for you guys, does it present any unique challenges when you do a show like this or is it just as fun as it looks?

Olsson: It’s total fun from start to finish. The only drag for me, I can’t speak for the other guys, but I’m sure they’d agree, is we go on and do our set and then go off while Billy does his set, and then we all go on at the end. So that hour and a half or whatever in between when we’re waiting to go back on at the end for the big jam session, for me it’s a nightmare because you’ve got the adrenaline pumping and then you have to go off and wait an hour and a half and try to keep that energy up. So that’s quite annoying for me (laughs), cause I just want to get up there and keep on that huge high level of giving it some hell, you know?

DH: So what do you do during that hour and a half?

Olsson: Well we just sit around in the dressing room and eat popcorn or whatever they have, or M&Ms; — only red ones. No! (laughs)

DH: The brown ones are OK?

Olsson: That’s right. (laughs) So we do have a lot of fun and we’re looking forward to getting out there again and hopefully making people smile.

DH: With the amount of coordination that must be necessary between the two bands to pull off a show like this, I imagine, are you pretty locked into a similar setlist on most nights?

Olsson: This particular show, we do the same songs every night. Because a show of this immensity, for the lighting and rigging people, and the sound people, it has to be kind of on. If we change something it’s really a domino effect once it goes down the line.

DH: You don’t even change things in your own particular set?

Olsson: No.

DH: You know, as a longtime fan of the band, one of my favorite moments of any Elton show is when he pulls out a deep album cut. Of course, we all love the hits and everything, but I especially look forward to the surprises — I know you can’t really do it on this tour, but I’m thinking back to the “Jump Up” tour, you did “Ticking” and “All the Young Girls Love Alice,” you know, songs like “Grey Seal” and “Roy Rogers.” My question for you is, if you had the choice, is there any one or two songs from the back catalog that you personally would love to see dusted off?

Olsson: Wow, that’s a good question. “High Flying Bird.” “We All Fall in Love Sometimes,” “Curtains.”

DH: You have great drum parts in that [latter] song.

Olsson: Oh, I think every drum fill that I ever played is in that whole song. And the beauty, actually, of that song is when we recorded it, we did it in, I think, two takes, but we couldn’t edit it, you know, between the two songs that flow into each other and we did not want to edit it, so we had to play it the whole way through and get it right.

DH: I bet that was quite a workout.

Olsson: It was a workout — and it worked out. So that’s one of my favorite songs. And, you know, all the songs with big huge backgrounds, that is my forte. I love backgrounds. “Ticking” has been mentioned a couple of times, actually.

DH: That’s a great tune.

Olsson: Yeah. But that would be probably when we go out again just the Elton John tour, not the Red Piano or the Billy Joel thing. Then we have the beauty of being able to slip a couple of off-the-wall favorites that people ask us through my Web site and through Elton’s. I always get asked, “Could you please play “Harmony”? Please play “Harmony”! And a few years back actually, “Harmony” was one of the most requested songs that people would call into radio stations to play.

DH: That’s amazing because it was never actually released as a single was it?

Olsson: No, no it wasn’t. And it’s huge with the fans. And in the years of, well, way, way, way back, when there was real FM radio where they played off-the-wall stuff, they didn’t have to go to a playlist or whatever, they could play those kind of tracks that, you know, were buried in albums that needed to come out. So, it’s not like that these days.

DH: Boy, you read my mind because one of my questions I was going to ask later, I wanted to get your thoughts on the current state of radio. Because it seems to me bands that have been around a long time, even artists like you guys and Elton who have had such great success on the charts over the years, they can release a new album and maybe the single gets played for a week or two, but they don’t stick with it.

Olsson: No, they bury it.

DH: Yeah. I guess I can semi-understand how that happens, but I can’t get a grasp of why they would do that. Where do you see radio going? Do you see a time again when bands like you guys can release a new song and keep it on radio?

Olsson: Well, that’s a great question that I don’t think I can answer because since the Internet, God bless it, I finally broke down a couple years ago and bought a computer. Now, it’s like what did we do without this? (laughs)

DH: Exactly.

Olsson: I’d love to turn the radio on and hear stuff like we just talked about, but anytime soon I cannot see that happening. And there’s very few artists now that are putting out albums, you know, of the old school, because they’re not getting played on the radio and people are downloading off the Internet. It’s a sorry state of affairs for songwriters. So I don’t know what’s happening. We just have to go on and stay on tour and give them what they want.

DH: I guess that one positive that’s come out of it, especially for fans, though, is YouTube. I’ve had great fun going back and finding clips of you guys from the early days. Those are shows I was too young to go to.

Olsson: Well, my son, actually, and my grandson in England, now and again will say, “Check this out on YouTube.” This one my grandson sent me, he said, “This is so cool!” It was me when I was doing my solo stuff, on “American Bandstand” with Dick Clark. You know, I used to have this long, long, long hair and the camera went behind me and shot from the back, and my hair — I looked like I should be doing a Clairol advert, you know?

DH: Well, you did have great hair!

Olsson: Yes, and I still brush it every day!

DH: Well, I read recently that you just played your 1,500th gig with Elton …

Olsson: Yes.

DH: Who keeps track of those?

Olsson: Well, you know, [the editor] over at, she runs that whole thing and she keeps track with everything. And they have people that research and go back and back and back. In fact, in London we have a huge warehouse run by a guy called Adrian Collee who has all the archives — everything that we’ve ever recorded, everything, instruments and wardrobe pieces, he has it all stashed in that warehouse. And he gets on his forklift truck if we need to research something and has to go to the top of the rack to get a box down or whatever …

DH: Like the “Indiana Jones” scene at the end?

Olsson: Yes, yes, exactly. So we have a lot of people doing research and all sorts of weird and wonderful things. We have a great crew that’s been with us, almost forever. Clive Franks, our sound man, has been there probably the longest of anybody.

DH: Yes, I remember seeing his name way back on the early albums.

Olsson: Yeah and he’s still with us. Still with us. When we do the Red Piano tour, we just got back, as I said, from Europe, we had maybe 150 people, just the crew and rigging people, 27 trucks and 10 buses, and I think, I’m sure one of the guys snapped a picture of all the trucks and buses together in the parking lot — it’s insane. And I would dread to think how much it costs just to put our show on. And then the Billy Joel, Elton thing, my … so we’ve got a lot of people who have been with us a long time, so that’s how it comes off so smooth. We’re having a lot of fun. Because everybody trusts each other, and they know the show, they know each other’s jobs, so if somebody gets sick or whatever, there’s always someone to cover, you know, the hanging stuff from the roof or if we have an effect that happens, there’s always somebody to cover and that’s the beauty of having people there for such a long time. It’s like a big family gathering to go out on tour. It’s like going camping.

DH: How many buses did you say you had?

Olsson: We had 10 buses, 27 trucks.

DH: That’s probably nine buses and 26 more trucks than what you had when you showed up at the Troubadour [in Los Angeles for Elton’s first U.S. concert on Aug. 25, 1970].

Olsson: This is true. I think we had an Econoline van. (laughs)

DH: I was going to ask because those [Troubadour] shows were where the press really got wind that something new was coming …

Olsson: Yes.

DH: What do you remember most about those shows — performing them?

Olsson: The early, early ones?

DH: The Troubadour ones.

Olsson: The Troubadour ones … there was Elton, Dee Murray and myself. And at that time, what we call the black album, which is the one with “Your Song” …

DH: Yeah, the first one — for the U.S. anyway.

Olsson: Yeah, the first one. It was full of orchestration and big background vocal parts. When we came over here, we thought, “How on earth are we going to pull this off?” — because of all the strings and this, that and the other. And we pulled it off — just the three of us. It was just so amazing. And we didn’t really have time, because things were happening so fast for us, we didn’t have time to look back and think, “Well, wow, this is really cool.” And then it became the stage where we’d record, then we’d tour. Then we’d go back in the studio, and tour. So we were always kind of touring the album before and putting a couple of things from the new record out — which was really exciting for the fans, but for three or four years there, when we first came over here, it was just insane. We didn’t realize how big we were, you know? So, there’s been a lot of times where I’ve thought back and said, “How on earth did we pull that off?”

DH: Well, as a fan, that’s the same thought I have because unless you lived through that time period between 1970 and 1975, I’m not sure it’s possible for someone today to realize what a phenomenon that was then. It has to be the most productive five-year stretch of any artist I can ever imagine.

Olsson: I totally agree with you. And you know we weren’t one of them bands that went to the hotels and hurled televisions off the 16th floor and stuff. Back when we started, there wasn’t 16 floors in a hotel. And after the show, you’d go back to the Holiday Inn or wherever we were staying and there was no fast food stuff open 24 hours, nothing. If you didn’t eat at the show, you were out of luck. And now, there’s these chains of McDonald’s and Burger King, whatever, so you never go without something after the show. Although I do not enjoy having pizza on the bus every night because it’s always cold. (laughs) So pizza isn’t on our menu when I come home.

DH: I guess the tightest you get with your tour riders is the red M&Ms;?

Olsson: That’s the truth! No, we don’t have any of that. No cold cuts. They treat us very well, we have great assistants backstage who take care of wardrobe, dressing rooms and what we eat … we’re spoiled to death – which is a good thing.

DH: Well, you deserve it.

Olsson: Life as it should be! (laughs)

DH: Well, during that five-year stretch, you kind of touched on it already, but did you ever have a time to realize what was going on then? Did you have any time to really enjoy it?

Olsson: We enjoyed everything we did, but everything was happening so quickly. You know, we went to Japan and Australia, and it was all so new to us. The surprising thing, looking back now, is that we were huge here in the states. I mean huge. But in England … nothing. Nothing. In fact, I think his first hit record in England was “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” with Kiki Dee.

DH: Really?

Olsson: Yeah. I think “Daniel” made it on the charts somewhere, but we were just nothing in England. We owe all our fame or whatever to being here in the U.S.A.

DH: Well, it was certainly a great time period.

Olsson: Yes it was.

DH: Now one thing that has always intrigued me, and I’m not sure it’s ever gotten its proper due, are the amazing background vocals that you, Davey and Dee did on those albums. I’ve heard stories about how Elton would record his tracks and leave the studio at the end of the day and you three would literally stay there during the night and lay all the backgrounds down before he returned the next day. Is that really how it happened?

Olsson: That’s exactly how it happened.

DH: How did you guys typically come up with those? Did anyone take the lead or did you get ideas from all over?

Olsson: We all put our own ideas in. If Elton came up with an idea, sometimes you’ll hear a harmony with just him and myself because my vocal range was basically in the same range as his. So what he would do, he’d say, “How about you put this little harmony in where I sing such and such?” And we’d do that, and then we’d just come up with ideas as we went along. It was such fun to do that — and there were some things we just sort of broke down laughing and had to stop the session because we couldn’t stop laughing. And we sped up things and we slowed ’em down and had a good laugh. Gus Dudgeon before he died, he did a specialty thing, like Classic Albums or something, and he had mentioned on that that Dee and Davey and myself were the best background vocalists that he’d ever worked with. And we all had separate microphones, which is kind of unheard of in the recording industry, you know, you get one mike and that’s your lot. And we were allowed to do whatever — if anybody had an idea, we’d try it. It wouldn’t be, “Oh, no, that’s crap, we’re not going to do that.” And just sitting there the next day when Elton came back in and had a playback at 15 million decibels — cause Elton really liked to hear it loud — just seeing his face when he heard what we’d done the night before, it was great. It was great. And mostly we didn’t have to change anything.

DH: It sounds like a great creative environment.

Olsson: It was unbelievable. And it still is. I don’t know when we’re going into the studio again, but I look forward to going back to make a record the way we used to make it. With no click tracks or multi-electronic stuff. Just the band with our instruments all set up in the same room and go for it. When the electronics and computers came into it and ProTools and all that stuff, that for me was the end of the heart of songs. Because if you have to play through a click track, there’s no light and shade, it’s just that dump, dump, dump and that’s not me. That’s not the way I play. I play from the heart and if it needs to speed up a little bit, fine. And if it needs to slow down, fine. Actually, my signature is that I kind of play a little bit behind the beat just to hold everything back, which to me makes it more dynamic, especially on the slow ballads. That’s my thing – the big ballads. And leaving out, you know, sometimes on the big, big ballads, you expect me to put a fill in. “Oh, here comes one of Nigel’s fills. … Oh, no, he left one out.” I never like to overplay because I want the lyrics to come out and let people hear what the song is all about instead of putting these huge fills in. I do them at random, basically.

DH: You keep stealing my future questions!

Olsson: (Laughs) I’ve done this before.

DH: Because I was going to ask you, there’s a lot of rock drummers that are extremely flashy, but you’re definitely more understated in your approach. Is that naturally your style or is that something you adapted because you’re playing with Elton and he’s the main focus?

Olsson: I never wanted to be a flashy drummer. In fact, I never took any lessons, I’m self taught. I used to put the headphones on and listen to records and just play along with records, but I can’t do a drum roll. I couldn’t tell you what a paradiddle is. In fact, my father-in-law, Larry Butler, who produced the big Kenny Rogers records — I was living in Nashville for a while, where I met my wife. I used to do sessions for Larry, and he would hand the chord sheets out to the guys and the music stuff and he’d come up to me and almost hand me the sheet, then crumple it up. He says, “Well, you won’t be needing this.” (laughs) He knew I couldn’t read. He could put it upside down, I wouldn’t know. Less is more for me.

DH: So you don’t mind flying under the radar?

Olsson: No, no, no, no, no. No.

DH: I remember reading a trivia question once and it said there was one song you wish you could go back and re-record the drum part to, and that was “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).”

Olsson: Oh dear …

DH: You didn’t like that?

Olsson: I don’t really like “Saturday Night” or “Crocodile Rock.” Oh … it’s just like bashing away. I mean, it was fun recording it. In fact, when we recorded “Saturday Night,” we couldn’t get the right groove for the song. So Gus said — this is when Davey had joined the band, I think it was “Honky Chateau” — “How about let’s do it with just Davey, Dee and Nigel, and Elton, you just sing live and we’ll put the piano on later?” And that’s how we did it. And [Elton] was just roaring around the studio with his microphone, saying, “Come on, you bastards, you can get it!” So, you know, there’s strange things like that … Elton wasn’t, like, pissed off when Gus said, “OK, let’s try it without the piano.” He wasn’t like, “What do you mean?” We’d always experiment with different things. But I don’t know where you got that trivia from, but I would love to go back and do the drum track.

DH: So when you play it live now, have you changed it more to how you wished you would have recorded it?

Olsson: Yes, I think so. Basically. And I don’t think, when I’m playing it live, “Oh, I hate this song,” cause it’s not the thing to do, cause I know the crowd loves the song and it’ll be a fixture for life, you know?

DH: No doubt.

Olsson: If you don’t play it, they’ll throw M&Ms; at us. (laughs)

DH: I understand that you were in Uriah Heep …

Olsson: I was — for nine days!

DH: What was it that you saw in Elton or his music that led to — what we can call now — a great career move?

Olsson: Um, well actually he got me the job with Uriah Heep. He called me up … Dee and I had worked the last two tours with the Spencer Davis Group, and I was out of work. And Elton had called me and said, “This band is looking for a drummer, would you be interested?” So I went along for the audition and got the gig. We did nine dates and then Elton called me and said, “I’ve got this record that’s coming out and I need to do, like, a promotional concert or show, and would you and Dee be up for it?” It was just a one-off deal because he basically just wanted to be a songwriter, him and Bernie. And I said, “Yeah, that would be great.” So we went to the Dick James Studio, this tiny little studio of our publishing company in London and within the first, I would say, eight bars of the first thing we played, which was probably “Your Song” at that time, that’s when I knew, “Oh … this is the stuff I want to be doing.” Because with Uriah Heep, they were a great, great headbanger band, or whatever you could call it, but that just wasn’t my forte. I wanted to do something that I could play with the lyrics and play to the low end of the piano. It was so inspiring in those first few bars that I said, “This is great. This is great.” And we did the show — and that was the deciding moment. We said, “We can’t just do this one show, we’ve got to carry on. And here we are, still carrying on. (laughs)

DH: That’s a great story. Now, my friends and I have debated over the years our top five favorite Elton John albums. I’m curious, can you rank a top five for yourself?

Olsson: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Captain Fantastic,” “Madman Across the Water” was a great, great album. And obviously the first album, Dee and I didn’t play on the first one, it was all written out. That was great because that kind of launched us, put us on the map. And, an off-the-wall one, which my wife played it to me late one night, when I’d just come back off tour and jet-lagged out of my brain, and she said, “You’ve got to listen to this.” And it was the “11-17-70” live album from WABC in New York. And it was Dee and Elton and myself, and it was just amazing, amazing, and they’d remastered it or whatever. And that is an outstanding record for me.

DH: I’m going to have to break that one out again. I haven’t listened to that for a while.

Olsson: You know, I don’t listen a lot to our stuff, but when I do, I really appreciate the heartfelt energy of the songs and the way it was recorded. I’ve had a great life, I’m a very lucky man. I was in the right place at the right time.

DH: Yes, and took advantage and carried on.

Olsson: And, you know, people often ask me, “Well, how do I get in the music business?” And I just say, “How I got into the music business was I was in the right place at the right time and was very, very lucky.” Nowadays, your chances are slim and none of getting on because there’s so many people out there. So, again, I’m the luckiest man on earth.

DH: I was wondering if you could describe for me the feeling that you get at the beginning of a concert. For me and others out in the audience, it seems to me, that in that moment when the lights go out, but the band hasn’t started to play yet, that that’s kind of a magical moment. I know what that feeling is like for those of us in the audience, but what’s it like for you up on stage, and for you personally?

Olsson: Well, for me personally, as far back as I can remember doing live performances, is still, I get so nervous, the whole day leading up to the show. And I don’t know why. I haven’t got a clue why. It’s not that I’m worried about dropping my drumsticks or forgetting what song I’m playing — I don’t know what it is. You know, the lads take the piss out of me, “Oh, you’re not nervous, you’ve been doing this for 40 years, what are you like, you idiot?”

DH: Maybe you’re worried about getting your gloves on the wrong hand? (laughs)

Olsson: Well, I have Jin Joo [Maddy], she’s our assistant wardrobe lady, and she actually carries my sticks and my gloves to the stage. And I always put the left one on first — I don’t know why. So she makes sure I put them on the right hand. So, I have people. (laughs) But once I get up there, to see the reaction of the audience is just unbelievable. Especially that we’re now these old geezers rocking out, our audience, it’s insane to look out in the audience, after all these years and see the older people, the real older people, the younger people and little kids. Obviously, the little kids are there maybe because of their parents being fans or they wanted us to play stuff from “The Lion King” or whatever. We have such a huge catalog of stuff that I guess we appeal to all of these different age groups, which is amazing. And we’re still going strong. We’re selling out big arenas still. We did a show a couple years back in Rome, in front of the Colosseum, and there was like over 100,000 people there in that square. Our sound guys had to have what they call delay towers, so I think it’s like every 50 yards they have to put up another tower of speakers, so that the delay wouldn’t be too much for the guys that are standing right at the back — because then it will be out of sync with the big screen, the TV. With that many people, I mean, you’re just looking at a sea of people. It’s just absolutely amazing, and it still amazes me every single night that we pull all these people in and they’re all jumping up and down and screaming. It’s great!

DH: I think you guys might be blessed to have what I feel might very well be the greatest opening song that anyone could have — “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.”

Olsson: Yeah.

DH: I always love seeing that one right at the beginning.

Olsson: Well, we love playing it.

DH: Well, is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?

Olsson: Well, just that it will be great to come out to your part of the world. I’ve played there a couple times. And I’ve also raced there.

DH: I was going to ask if you were still doing racing.

Olsson: Yes. Well, now I can’t because the insurance won’t cover me. But I have raced out there.

DH: The Miller Motorsports Park? The new one?

Olsson: Yeah, it’s an amazing, amazing track. Actually I was with the Ferrari Challenge a few years ago, when I took some time off to go racing. And that was one of my favorite tracks, that and Road Atlanta. It was amazing. I still miss racing, but, you know, being the drummer, if you make one mistake on the racetrack, it could lead to … not being the drummer. (laughs) But I do have my instructor’s license and I can teach people how to do the right things on the track. I miss it, but …

DH: Well, we’d rather have you drumming!

Olsson: OK, you got it. And hopefully we will see you there and have a great time and I hope we play the right stuff.

DH: I’m sure you will. I’m definitely looking forward to the show, it’s always a pleasure and I love watching you play.


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