Phil Nicolo’s career has come full circle. After graduating from Temple in 1977, he dove into the field of music production and has since rubbed elbows with some of the most popular names in the industry. But he has not forgotten his roots – Nicolo is now teaching as an adjunct professor of Music and Recording Techniques in the School of Media and Communication. His career started in his parent’s attic and has taken him around the world, working with names such as Bob Dylan and Lauryn Hill.
Nicolo’s work schedule currently has him in Wuhan, China, doing sound design for Chinese rock artist Weng Fang. Shooting emails over the Pacific, Nicolo took the time to chat with The Temple News.
THE TEMPLE NEWS: What were some early influences that pushed you into the field of music production?
PHIL NICOLO: When I was very young, my dad would listen to opera music, and I fell in love with classical music of all kinds. As I got older, like most music lovers of my generation, The Beatles blew me away. I had the same influence later from Frank Zappa, it seemed like way too much fun not to be involved. My twin brother Joe and I built a small studio in my parent’s attic when we were juniors at Temple University, and never looked back.
TTN: Describe the process of what typically is involved when producing an album.
PN: I’m an old-school producer. I like getting and being involved with every aspect of production – choosing songs, working on arrangements, pre-production before going into the studio, and then being hands on when we actually record. I’m very performance oriented. If you’ve seen the film “Sound City,” I think Dave [Grohl] hit it on the head when it comes to the way I like to make records. Every situation is different, so it varies quite a bit.
TTN: After graduating from Temple, you and your brother, as the Butcher Bros., founded the Studio 4 recording studio and have since then been innovators in the music industry. What were some learning experiences that helped develop your craft?
PN: In the late ‘70s I got introduced to Tony Bongiovi – Jon Bon Jovi’s cousin – who owned The Power Station, now Avitar, in NYC. It’s one of the greatest studios on the planet. I got to intern there, and got to sit in on some of the greatest records being made, [including] Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters” and many others. It was there I learned the true meaning of record production. Knowing the technology is a start, but it’s really about emotion, passion, performance, attitude and feeling that makes a great record. I used to sleep on the floor of [Bongiovi’s] apartment with Jon Bon Jovi, and work on his demos when the sessions were finished. It was an amazing education on how real records are made.
TTN: In 2012, the family label Ruffhouse Records was re-launched. What was the history behind the record label and what are some plans for its future?
PN: Ruffhouse was formed in 1988 by Chris Schwartz, my brother Joe and myself. Through Sony, we sold over 110 million records by 2000, and launched the careers of Kirs Kross, Cypress Hill, The Fugees, Lauryn Hill – I’m working with Ms. Hill right now on her follow-up to “Miseducation” – Wyclef [Jean], to name a few. We sold the label to Sony in 2001 but kept the name. Last year [Shwartz] and I had the opportunity to re-launch the label, so we did. Things are just getting started so we’ll see how it goes. Our next release is with Glen Lewis during the summer.
TTN: How would you describe the evolution in music production since you first got involved?
PN: Things are a lot different. With Pro-Tools, computer-based recording, any performance can be made perfect. As a tool, this can be a great thing, but in the wrong hands…Some producers find the need to correct every imperfection. This removes most of what we used to call “feel” in music. It’s the imperfections that give a great performance its character. This same technology gives anyone the ability to make music, not bad for one’s bedroom, but unfortunately, in my opinion, way too much of it gets way beyond that.
Much is still the same as when I started. Music still centers around a great song and a great singer, no matter what style of music it is. Not necessarily getting it perfect, just getting it right. I think the line between music and entertainment has gotten blurred. A lot of what I hear that’s passed off as music, is really simple entertainment produced for mass consumption. It’s not intended, or should be considered “music” in the true sense of the word, in my opinion. Again, check out the Sound City film for what I mean.
TTN: Who have been some artists that you have especially enjoyed working with?
PN: Taj Mahal was amazing. So much passion and talent. Bob Dylan as well. At the end of the day, just regular people with amazing gifts. Yoko Ono and Lauryn Hill are also amazing to work with. Always searching for a new way to express themselves. My old friends The Hooters are still making great music after all these years, it’s something you never get tired of.
TTN: Years after graduating, you are now teaching as an adjunct professor at Temple University. What is it like being on the other side of the podium?
PN: I love it. It’s great to get [reassured] by young people who have goals and dreams. It keeps me honest too. I can’t tell a student to make a small change on a mic placement to get the best sound possible if I don’t do it myself. I really enjoy being back on the Temple campus. It brings me back to when this was all so new to me. I really enjoy it.
TTN: What advice would you give to students pursuing a career in music production?
PN: Just keep doing it. Be sure to do something to move your career forward every day. Have short and long-term goals, and don’t confuse progress with activity. If you’ve been working hard and don’t see any progress, re-evaluate what you’re doing and maybe try a new approach. The main thing is don’t give up. You’ll be missing out on a great way of life.
Jared Whalen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.