“That is what I would put it down to; it’s never been about the money to get back together as Loose Ends, it’s about the same mind-sets and the personalities; it’s about the soul and the way people are feeling.” – Steve Nichol
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
Producer, Writer, multi-instrumentalist, former model and founder of influential eighties Brit Soul flag bearers Loose Ends, Steve Nichol is back in the spotlight with a brand new album project and live performances forth-coming in 2016. An affable and engaging Mr Nichol agreed to give his first UK magazine interview in ten years to UK Vibe’s Michael J Edwards. As one would expect with such an impressive back catalogue of hit singles and albums there was plenty to discuss re: the past, present and future. Fortunately the UK Brit Soul legend was in a very talkative mood…
Michael J Edwards: Greetings Mr Steve Nichol, let’s get it on! What prompted your resurgence on the music scene now in 2015/2016?
Steve Nichol: I decided on my resurgence in 2010 really. I decided that I’ve got to get my body into shape… I’d been teaching and I thought to myself one day, “Let me see if the public would like something that I’m doing now.” So I decided to hook myself up with a proper system and get back into the zone when I could write again. So I started to write more instead of teaching, because teaching music takes up a lot of your time. So I started to write again and cut my teaching hours down to a couple of hours a week, so I could spend more hours on this project, Capirinha.
Michael J Edwards: Where were you born and raised and was music always a constant around the Nichol household?
Steve Nichol: I was born in Clapham in South London, but brought up in Peckham… And music wasn’t around the household, but my grandfather played French Horn for the Queen in Jamaica, when they used to have these State visits. He was part of the band … So that’s probably the only musical connection with family. But I did start music at secondary school, which was called St Thomas Apostle in Peckham. It’s now St Thomas Apostle Academy. I started music under a Professor named Franz Bussitil; who was Maltese. He went to the Royal Academy of music, and he was the one who said that I had an ear for music; so I started playing piano and trumpet at that school. I got my first trumpet there at that school. Forty-Five pounds actually, my parents had to pay, which in those days was quite a lot of money; but it was in instalments. So I took home my first trumpet.
Michael J Edwards: How old were you at this time?
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
Steve Nichol: I was ten or eleven. After I started to get good and could play a few tunes the neighbours wanted me to play more. I used to do about two to three hours practice a day; so I was quite dedicated. But I was also dedicated to school and used to play a lot of football. Six months after this my parents had an old piano shipped into the house from our local church, and that’s when I started to learn to play piano. So I would practice two hours a day on the piano and three hours a day on the trumpet, Monday to Friday.
Michael J Edwards: Out of those two, which is your preferred instrument?
Steve Nichol: Well, with piano, you can write, if you’re sad, happy or lonely; you can express all your emotion on the piano. With the trumpet you’ve only got one melody to play… It’s more intimate, more personal. But with piano, you can be more diverse and creative.
Michael J Edwards: Where are your parents from?
Steve Nichol: My dad is Jamaican/Arawak Indian, and my mother is black Jamaican/white Scottish – so
I’m completely mixed up! (Laughs)
Michael J Edwards: Are you classically trained?
Steve Nichol: I’ve been classically trained from the age of eleven. At sixteen I actually got down to the last eight in the country for Young Musician of the Year playing trumpet, which was quite an achievement.
Michael J Edwards: How old were you when you attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama?
Steve Nichol: When I was eighteen; and that’s when I had to make a choice between music and football. I could easily have been a professional football player, but I stayed on at the Guildhall School of Music – I was there for three years, from 1978 through to 1981.
Michael J Edwards: So how did you start making inroads into the music business proper?
Steve Nichol: When I left the Guildhall I met up with Keith Thomas in Peckham. He was a saxophone player in Second Image. So we went over to studios in Earls Court in played of Paul Weller that day! He liked what we did and took us on their Trans-Global E Express tour. I was twenty-one.
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
Michael J Edwards: Does travel broaden the mind?
Steve Nichol: Yes, I look at life and travel as knowledge; also power, beauty, music all come into the same category. Once you start travelling your mind broadens. It’s healthy, you see different cultures and how people look at life and you’re not narrow-minded anymore.
Michael J Edwards: So did touring with Paul Weller/The Jam enhance your outlook on life?
Steve Nichol: I think if you are classically trained, creativity comes to the fore. So doing brass arrangements for anybody whether it is Paul Weller or Elton John, the level is there. You choose the notes that you want; it’s a broad spectrum. So it does help.
Michael J Edwards: How long did you remain with the Jam?
Steve Nichol: We were on tour with The Jam for a year; it was a very intense tour. We finished up in Japan, which was quite amazing!
Michael J Edwards: How did UK Soul band Loose Ends come to fruition?
Steve Nichol: Jane (Eugene), and myself met at a fashion show, which I was modelling in with Ruby James and many others…It was a black designer’s fashion show. We actually got the recognition on the Six O’clock Show on TV; they showed us modelling. At the after party I approached Jane and asked her if she could sing. But she said, “Yeah, but you want to look at that beautiful girl over there who was modelling with you, Bambi (another black girl), she’s the one you want in your band.” I said, “No, I don’t want looks, I want the singer!” So that’s how we got together.
Michael J Edwards: Hello, Jane has definitely got the looks!
Steve Nichol: Exactly! But she was saying she was too dark to the in the pop business… So that’s how we met; and Carl (Macintosh) was not even in the equation at this point – we auditioned Carl. Carl was auditioned for Loose Ends; we auditioned three bass players.
Michael J Edwards: What year was this?
Steve Nichol: This was in 1982. So as I said we auditioned three bass players, one was George Bromfield a.k.a. Georgie Bromfield, formerly of Second Image. He’s got his own stuff out now with The Groove Association. However, he wasn’t in Second Image at the time, because they were just being formed as well. Then there was another guy whose name I can’t remember; and then Carl came along. And because Carl could also play guitar, we decided to choose him to make the group more versatile i.e. having a guitarist and bass player. So that’s how we got Carl involved in the Loose Ends. So he was literally the third choice bass player…That is exactly how it happened!
Michael J Edwards: So you were intent on establishing Loose Ends as a trio from the outset?
Steve Nichol: Well, we had X amount of people outside as well who were doing sessions with us. We went to Matthew Fisher’s studio in South Croydon – Matthew Fisher from the band Procol Harum… Initially there were nine people involved, including Vivian McKone and the record company said you need to cut it down to a minimum. So when we were going to do the first single ‘In the Sky’, Virgin said, “Let’s get Chris and Eddie Amoo from The Real Thing in as writing collaborators,” because we had the same management i.e Tony Hall. The upshot was we had to strip the band back to three members.
Michael J Edwards: I believe the band was initially called Loose End; why the name Loose End and why the subsequent name change?
Steve Nichol: We took the name from hairdressers in Thornton Heath. It was called Loose End and Jane just said, “Oh, Loose End sounds like a good name, would you guys like to go with it?” So we went with the name ‘Loose End’. But it became ‘Loose Ends’ because a certain DJ called Mike Reid wanted to sue us, because he had a company called Loose End. So we had a discussion about it and Tony Hall said, “Why don’t you just put a’s’ on the end, and that way you won’t get sued.” So we put a ‘s’ on and re-registered the name. So that’s how we resolved the problem. Now Mike Reid is walking around now thinking, “Oh, I could have had all that money!”
Michael J Edwards: To clarify, who wrote the first single ‘In the Sky’?
Steve Nichol: I wrote the single ‘In The Sky’. By the way we only had a singles deal to start with, so that track wasn’t on any of our albums. The next track ‘Emergency Dial 999’ was on the first album ‘A little Spice’.
Michael J Edwards: How did that first album ‘A Little Spice’ come about?
Steve Nichol: Rick Clarke introduced us to producer, Nick Martinelli in a hotel in Ladbrook Grove, and he really liked the concept and liked what we were about. He said, “Yeah, there’s some potential here, let’s take them to Philadelphia. We originally wanted to record the album in London, but Nick Martinelli said, “No! You’ve got to come to my territory! Philadelphia’s nice and you’ll meet a lot of people like Grover Washington, McFadden & Whitehead etc.” So basically it was a no brainer. My first session was playing keyboards for Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes. Harold Melvin walked into the studio and said to me, “Hi I’m Harold, do whatever you want!” The song was called ‘Don’t Give Me Up’.
I think it was going to be his last single for Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes. I did these keyboard riffs and they loved it! I was literally shitting my pants thinking, “I got to play on a Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes song!” My first session in America was with Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes! So while I was working on our album, I got paid a session fee as well (Smiles). So that was the start of bigger things.
Michael J Edwards: The following year in 1985 you released your second album ‘So Where Are You?’ which was chock-full of classic hit singles – ‘Hanging On A String’, ‘Golden Years’ and ‘Magic Touch’ to name just three. You guys were at the height of your creative powers.
Steve Nichol: We literally worked our arses off! Yes, it had a lot of hits, including the title track ‘So Where Are You?’ which is a brilliant track! It also contained ‘The Sweetest Pain’ – So that’s a strong album, a very very strong album. Loads of artists struggle to find a second album. I thought the first album was a good taster, and I knew there was so much more material within the three of us to do a strong second album. But we did push that one out really quick.
Michael J Edwards: Why the album title ‘So Where Are You?”
Steve Nichol: I always advise people to take a step back in their lives and say, “Where are you going?” What have you achieved?” “Where’d you want to go?”. Hence the title ‘So Where Are You?’ That’s why it’s my favourite Loose Ends song. Because I always step back, I always look in the mirror, and say, “What am I looking like this morning? Am I feeling good? Am I under the weather?” You always have to take a look in the mirror and see where you’re at. Because it keeps you focused, it keeps you grounded.
Michael J Edwards: Please give us a little background on some of these hit singles, starting with ‘Hanging On A String’ (Contemplating) which got to N0.13 in the UK Charts and No.1 in US Billboard R’N’B Charts?
Steve Nichol: ‘Hanging On A String’ was originally called ‘Contemplating’, and it had a bit more of a dance groove to it. Then Nick (Martinelli) said, “No let’s just slow this shit down and let’s listen to a bit of Jimmy jam and Terry Lewis.” So we listened to a bit of Sounds of Blackness, a bit of Janet Jackson, and whatever Jimmy jam and Terry Lewis were doing at the time. So we decided to get the 808 drum machine out, and I started programming the same beat that Jimmy jam and Terry Lewis had on ‘No One’s Gonna to Love You’ by the SOS band. If you listen to the drum pattern on that, it’s a complete rip-off. It doesn’t matter, it’s all done and dusted; Jimmy jam and Terry Lewis have had words with me about it. They dissed us for a little while because of it, but we’re all good friends now. So we didn’t lift the drum pattern, but I did lift the same bass sound from ‘No One’s Gonna Love You’ for ‘Hanging On A String’. But the rest of it is all original; all the keyboards you hear were me.
With ‘The Sweetest Pain’ we were in the studio one day and Nicky (Martinelli) says, “Have you met Dexter Wansel?” I said, “No”. Then when Dexter Wansel walked in Jane said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to do a version of ‘The Sweetest t Pain’. So we decided to do a cover of ‘The Sweetest Pain’ by The Jones Girls, who actually did the backing vocals on our version. Dexter, complete with his ten gallon hat agreed. So we did the arrangements, I did the keyboards and drums and stuff, and Dexter came in and did his extra stuff on it. At the same time we recorded another track called ‘Silent Talking’ because we’ve always used to do a Jazz track at the end of each album. So, ‘A Little Spice’ was the Jazz track on the first one, and ‘Silent Talking’ was the Jazz track on ‘So Where Are You?’ So the extra keyboards on ‘Silent Talking’ were Dexter Wansel playing his bit.
Michael J Edwards: Eventually, off the back of the success of those two albums you had to start touring no doubt?
Steve Nichol: Naturally, we had to go out and do shows, so we decided to get a band together, it was painstaking and quite hard. We ended up doing forty-five tour dates around America.
Michael J Edwards: If you excuse the pun, you guys definitely had the ‘magic touch’ in the mid-eighties. Can you please expand on the tracks ‘Magic Touch’ and David Bowie cover song Golden Years’?
Steve Nichol: They were very quick. I used to sit down and I used to think, “I like this baseline”. So ‘Magic Touch’ with its #bom, bom ,bom, bom, bom, bom, bom. So ‘Magic Touch’ with its #bom, bom ,bom, bom, bom, bom, bom# I’m thinking about an animal walking – bom, bom, bom, bom, bom, bom… Most of the songs came about from a baseline at that time. Like with ‘Golden Years’, Nick Martinelli, would freak out and say, “Wow! Build on this!” So we would sit in a room, baseline would come out, Carl (Macintosh) would get his guitar out and Jane would start singing. David Bowie was supposed to attend at the video shoot, but it was a day out of his schedule; but he approved everything and he loved it.
Michael J Edwards: How do you write when you an initial idea for a tune?
Steve Nichol: It could be an emotion, it could be a mood. I have a blank canvas, then when something comes into my head I dictate it. It’s just something that’s instinctive with all musicians… Something will come into your head and you have to get it out and express it straightaway. I always have a blank canvas; I always see something white and paint a picture.
Michael J Edwards: Your third album ‘Zagora’ spawned another handful of singles, including the often overlooked lead off track ‘Stay A Little While Child’. Some background please?
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
Steve Nichol: Oh! ‘Stay Little While Child’. There’s a great story behind that as well. In those years Virgin were really marketing us very, very well. Being a black band we had set up the stage already very well for Soul II Soul and all the other bands that were coming out. We were the first UK British Soul band to go to and break America. We knocked Prince off the number one spot. He phoned us in the limousine and said, “Congratulations you’ve just knocked me off number one. When you come to LA we have to go and party.” So we did! (Laughs) Anyway, back to Stay ‘A Little While Child’, I had a phone call one night at two o’clock in the morning, and it was Jermaine Dupree and Mariah Carey. He said, “Take a listen to this and tell me what you think?” It was Mariah Carey singing ‘Stay A Little While Child’ over her ballad ‘My All’! To clarify, she was singing ‘My All’ over the backing track ‘Stay a Little While Child’ and then segued into the song proper. It freaked me out completely, then at the end Mariah said, “If Jermaine likes it then i like it!” So you’ll find that on the 12inch remix of ‘My All’.
Michael J Edwards: ‘Slow Down’ also lifted from the ‘Zagora’ album received extensive radio and club airplay as well. What can you tell us about that track?
Steve Nichol: ‘Slow Down’ was the follow-up to ‘Hanging On A String (Contemplating)’. We shot the video for Slow Down in the place where my father used to work, in Green Street in London, by Marble Arch. It was a really eerie situation, because I used to go and meet and my father for lunch there. It’s a civil service building, because he was a civil servant. So during the time we were shooting the video in this empty building, my father came back to me physically. So it was a strange thing seeing Jane pull up in a black cab at the beginning of the video right outside the building… I don’t know who chose the location for the video, but it was a deep one.
Michael J Edwards: In 1988 you released The Real Chuckeeboo album. Why the title?
Steve Nichol: Chuckeeboo is just a throwaway thing – it’s the real deal, the real this, the real that. It has no meaning to it whatsoever. We shot the pictures in the Virgin Islands, on Necker, Richard Branson’s island, which was a nice touch. He gave us that treat as a thank you for making him so much money on so many songs. We were probably the first black people to step on the island who weren’t work on the island. A lot of that album was about life and about being grateful for what you have and what you’ve achieved. Half the album was recorded in London and the other half was recorded in Philadelphia. There are loads of different tracks on the album that weren’t released as singles. But it was an album project, not a singles project.
Michael J Edwards: But one track you did release as a single was Mr Batchelor?
Steve Nichol: Mr Batchelor was part of a trilogy – ‘Tomorrow’, ‘The Bachelor’ ‘Just Got to Have It All’. It’s the same song, its eleven minutes long. When Queen released ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, we decided to do something similar. So we had a talk in the studio and said, “Let’s do a track which is about eleven minutes, then we can go into a Segway.” All the three songs have got the same drumbeat. So we decided to do one song after another… So the three songs do link together like a mix. It turned out beautiful, I loved it. I still think they chose the wrong song for a single; I think they should have chosen ‘Tomorrow’, instead they chose ‘Mr Batchelor’.
Michael J Edwards: Why did Loose Ends dissolve shortly after The Real Chuckeeboo?
Steve Nichol: Different musical directions. We all came off the plane one day in London and we had a choice. It was holiday time and we were told that we could have a couple of months off and we had to decide there and then where we wanted to go. This was in 1989. Jane decided she wanted to get back on a plane and go to LA; so she turned around, got on the plane and went back to LA. I had a family, so I decided to stay in London, but went on holiday two weeks later. Then, Carl decided to come back to London as well. We needed the break as we had been working so hard, and it was relentless going back and forth to America. Basically, we were tired of promoting one song in one territory for a whole year and then having to promote a second and third album at the same time in that territory. It became really, really hard work, because America was always six months behind England in terms of promotion. It was in the age when MTV wasn’t playing too much black music, so you had to go out there and physically do the promotion yourself.
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
We actually needed a physical break from each other, because we were living out of each other’s pockets for the best part of eight to nine years. So it’s a long time to be living out of each other’s pockets and knowing each other’s habits i.e what we did and what we got up to. It was like there was no time for you, so we all decided to take stock, take some time off and re-evaluate. That’s when the thought, “We’re not going to make this.” – Carl wanted to go in a different direction, Jane wanted to go in a different direction. I was in the middle, because those two were really close personally, and I was always piggy in the middle. So we all decided to go our separate ways. Ironically, I now spend more time with Jane going back and forth between England and America to do shows…I always wanted to go out of my comfort zone and learn something new. Coming from a classical background, I was always seeking knowledge.
Michael J Edwards: You’ve worked with or alongside numerous high-profile figures within the music industry, including Rakim, Carl Cox and the dearly missed songstress Phyllis Hyman. Please tell us about your relationship with her?
Steve Nichol: Phyllis is a very sad story; she had a lot of personal issues. I can still hear her singing in my head. She used to work with our (Loose Ends) producer Nick Martinelli in Philadelphia. Philly is like a third home for me, because Los Angeles is really now my second home. We met Phyllis at Philadelphia International Studios, Philadelphia. Jane (Eugene) connected with her straight away, because they’re the same sort of height and same build. Because while I was doing the tour with the jam and ’82/’83, I was trying to deal with Virgin Records at the same time; so everything overlapped. I actually signed a deal with Mick Clarke at Virgin the week before I went on tour with The Jam and linked with Phyllis after that.
Michael J Edwards: What was the track you recorded with Phyllis?
Steve Nichol: We did a track called ‘Ain’t You Had Enough Love’. We originally did it with Juliet Roberts, and then Phyllis heard the track we did with Juliet and said, “I want that for my album!” So, we recorded it with Phyllis in Philadelphia. I felt so privileged to have her cover one of my songs, and she did a beautiful job on the vocal. Her vocal was so husky, a magical woman. She was a goddess. For all the songs she recorded she’s in my top ten. Many people don’t know that see used to be in The Blackbyrds. That’s where she got her start at the age of fifteen. So Phyllis was a magical part of Philadelphia for me. Also Jane (Eugene) and Phyllis bonded so well during their period in Philly. They even used to share shoes being the same shoe size.
Michael J Edwards: Was Phyllis a songwriter also?
Steve Nichol: She used to write as well, but she used like strong writers like Cynthia Biggs, a strong black American writer in the vein of Brenda Russell. In fact the two writers I respect the most are Stevie Wonder and Brenda Russell.
Michael J Edwards: Where were you when you heard the news of Phyllis Hyman’s passing?
Steve Nichol: Actually, we had travelled to New York on the same Amtrak train. She was fussing about a lot of things and complaining about feeling really, really tired… That evening we were in the same hotel and she was due to check out the following day, but they found her body. She had overdosed, she took pills, but she did leave a note. But for me I couldn’t understand how circumstances could push her to that extreme. She had the world at her feet, she would have gone clear! If you look at Phyllis’ interviews and the way she commands herself and her posture, she could easily have her own company like Oprah Winfrey long ago.
Michael J Edwards: What impact did meeting two of your musical influences, Stevie Wonder and Leon Ware have on you?
Steve Nichol: I always loved Stevie Wonder, because the way he hears music. After meeting Stevie, It changed my whole persona and outlook on life in terms of the world is a lot smaller than people realise. You can literally get to the other side of the world within several hours and be in a totally different environment… Once you have a blank canvas, you can take that canvas anywhere in the world and write in that moment. So what I learned from Stevie Wonder and Brenda Russell that you write in that zone, you write in that moment, you write in the way you feel. Because once you do that the piece of music will become timeless… If you can capture that moment in time, that is a hit song, then it will be memorable. I’ve met with Stevie a few times and he’s a good friend.
Leon was a good friend as well; he guested on ‘Easier Said Than Done’ from ‘The Real Chuckeebo’ and Dexter Wansel was on there as well. I went to Leon’s house and we decided to write a song, and when we got into the studio he produced this fantastic track with us – a great song. He’s a spiritual guy and his been around forever, all through the Motown years and he’s still writing.
Michael J Edwards: What is the update re: Loose Ends reforming with the original members?
Steve Nichol: There are people out there who want Loose Ends to come back. The movers and shakers in this business like the illuminati want Loose Ends to get back together. They’re offering a ridiculous amount of money which we’re not complaining about; but it’s not about the money, it’s about the personalities, the soul and what’s in your heart. That is what I would put it down to; it’s never been about the money to get back together as Loose Ends, it’s about the same mind-sets and the personalities; it’s about the soul and the way people are feeling.
Michael J Edwards: How would you describe the sound of you new material?
Steve Nichol: People would to refer the Loose Ends sound as cinematic, and that’s where I want to take my new material. I want to take it to a level where it can be popular, or it can be film. As I said at the top of the interview the new project is called Capirihna after the Brazilian cocktail… I’ve been to places like Cuba and Brazil. I like the Latin music; I like the Latin vibe; as you can see on most of our albums we’ve had a Latin track on there. So the new material, Capirihna, I started in 2014 and I did something like thirty-eight backing tracks, then I took some time off and decided to water it down to about twenty-seven. I’ve got five songs that I think are finished for this album, one of them being the title track Capirihna, which is a nice little jazzy number. So the mixture is a bit of Jazz, a bit of Soul; there is a Loose Ends familiarity in there in terms of the way I play anyway. I’m hoping to get this new album out sometime in 2016; but there will be a taster track coming out to the general public in the near future, I just have to decide on which one.
Michael J Edwards: Who have you been in the studio with writing wise and artistic wise?
Steve Nichol: Artistic wise I’ve been doing stuff with loads of unknown people which is very, very good. I like to keep it as unknown and up-and-coming people…They’re new and they just need a good little leg up. There’s a lot of talent around the music scene in London specifically at the moment, hence me attending a lot of networking nights. But I’m also working with a lot of people in America. I’ve just finished a track with a young flautist called Regan Whiteside. She’s very, very good; she’s worked with Patrice Rushen and loads of people on the jazz scene… One of the tracks she’s actually finished is a track called ‘Mellow Hill’. It was written about Primrose Hill in London. When you go up there you can see the whole of London and just chill. So one day I just thought, “Why not just call it ‘Mellow Hill’. Regan is currently working on a track now called ‘She Stays Out Late’.
Michael J Edwards: You’re also working with respected songwriter Winston Sela of Maxi Priest fame?
Steve Nichol: The backing track was originally for Jane of Loose Ends, but because of time constraints she couldn’t do it, so I pushed it on to Winston and Winston came up with this fantastic lyric! The song is called ‘Over’, that much I can say. And the guest vocalists I think I’m going to have on that are Tahirah Asha Memory and Jarrod Lawson. And that is an exclusive! They might also be guesting on the title track, ‘Capirihna’. So look out for that towards the summer of 2016. Everything will be released via my label Son Productions.
Michael J Edwards: What music do you listen when relaxing?
Steve Nichol: I listen to classical music in the car… You can absorb classical music to the point where it stays inside your body. It keeps you tranquil, it keeps you calm. If you’re ever off centre listen to classical music. It’s the frequency and the hertz that brings you right back into the zone. I listen to classical music to keep me sane.
Michael J Edwards: Respect Steve. Thank you for the full and frank lowdown.
Steve Nichol: My pleasure.
Michael J Edwards
Essential Album: Capirihna (2016, Son Productions)
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James