We sat down with trance and progressive house icon Nicholas Bracegirdle aka Chicane for an in depth chat about production styles, gigging and the general electronic music scene as it stands today.
So Nick, you just got in from Geneva?
Yeah I have studios in the French Alps and Scotland now fortunately.
You grew up in a small civil parish in the Chiltern district of Buckinghamshire?
Not far from here really. Just have to jump on the Metropolitan line to get into London.
Did you incorporate Chiltern into your DJ name Chicane?
Nah the name Chicane came from having a predisposition to driving fast cars. I had this moniker Disco Citizen to start with. Chicane just came out of the hat along with some other really fucked up stuff. Could have been called The Funky Jawas. You know the little characters with hoods from Star Wars haha. Doesn’t really fit the music though does it haha. That’s the only one I can remember but there was a whole lot of other really bad ones.
I’ve got a list on Evernote. About 40 names. Ask people at random sometimes to get their opinions.
You getting into music?
Yeah but haven’t really had the time or funds due to university. It’s not as expensive as it used to be but still…
Oh man. I wouldn’t even like to think how much money I’ve spent on equipment. Used to have machines that spanned from one side of the room to the other. Rooms full of synths and stuff. It’s brilliant that it’s all in the box now.
How important was your background with regards to propelling you into music? Read that you played the piano and guitar? Was it self-motivated or did you parents push you into it to begin with? And on the topic of parents, were they musically orienteered?
Mum was a ballet dancer and dad was a pianist. Tchaikovsky type stuff. I did violin, cello and guitar way before I was into music. I was dyslexic and couldn’t read music. From that grew a way of playing the piano. I’ve been told I play like Les Dawson. I play in an unusual way because everything I learnt was self-taught. I had to teach myself.
I think that’s the way with music. If you’re really into it you’ve got to give it everything. Like tunnel-vision.
It is and what people forget in this era of Kentucky fried chicken music is that a lot of stuff is extremely today, gone tomorrow. That’s the thing that’s wrong with The X Factor and those type of shows. You don’t become that person by winning the show. You don’t become a brain surgeon overnight you know. I spent a decade in my bedroom mucking about. Never went out. Didn’t have a girlfriend. Bit of a recluse. Bit sad really haha. You’ve got to learn it. Absorb it. And understand, like when people send in demos. Why are these records good? Why do they make you feel good? What is it about that chord, or that melody that makes you feel a certain way? What’s going on there? You’ve just got to understand that. But I don’t know if you can teach someone to write music. I’m a terrible player. A lot of music writers are awful players. But you write music. It’s a different thing.
I honestly don’t think you can. Creativity is an innate ability. They say that in the first few years of life your brain is most plastic and this is the best period for developing creative abilities. Maybe at that stage it could be potentiated and there are schools now that do just that.
Strange thing I often get asked is when you were writing those records did you know they were going to be hits. It’s not an arrogant thing but you feel music and I knew something good was happening. If you don’t you’re doing something wrong.
Nobody can walk your path for you. As much as you can try and tell someone to do this and that, at the end of the day they don’t have your background, your musical sound history, your instrumental abilities, your brain. You can’t teach that. Every musician I know sat in their room, bought music theory books, had their set-ups, a window where they pretended they were superstar DJs and they just did that for years. It’s a long journey and you better be prepared for the long haul.
Music is the only global language. But we don’t know why. I don’t know whether it’s to do with your background, or your up-bringing. Why does that chord and melody make you feel sad? Evoked emotion. No-one really understands it, I don’t understand it, yet we all understand it.
There are a few different theories. I’d say it’s an evolutionary survival mechanism. Mother-offspring bonding, hunting for food in nature, mating calls. Could go on about this but need to crack on with the questions. So your first moniker was Disco Citizens and you released ‘Footprint’ in 1996. How have you developed as an artist since then?
I’m a better writer, have a better understanding of what I’m doing, but also like you said earlier you follow your own path. It’s a very self-absorbing thing. You do your own take on it. In the 18 years I’ve been doing this the reason I’m still doing it is that I’ve got quite a commercial ear and that sparks me off and keeps me happy. The Chicane core values were always an approach to melody, an atmospheric widescreen approach to music and then you dip your toe into what’s going on during the ages to keep relevant which is really important.
How would you relate your advice to up and coming producers?
Don’t worry it gets easier!
So I read that you were a graphic designer before DJn?
Yeah I still do a huge amount of my own stuff with a friend of mine.
What project are you most proud of?
At the end of my degree I had to do a dissertation on anti-establishment design. Instead of doing it on paper I stuck it on 35 rubber ducks. Each duck was numbered and had their own baby ducks which correlated with a paragraph. Put the whole lot in a box. We had a dictaphone and spent a day recording quacks which came with the box. Handed the whole lot over to my supervisor. He nearly failed me as the poor bastard had to pick up all these ducks individually to understand it haha. A design company called Tattersfield made me design student of the year for that irritating piece of work haha. So yeah I was most proud of that project. I also had to design a business card for my crazy local butcher. I think it was at that stage that I realised I should go into music haha.
You said your approach to music is widescreen. What you been watching in HD recently?
Quite like CHVRCHES and London Grammar at the moment.
In an era of McDonalds pop we do have some people writing decent stuff. The worry is, and what I’m quite concerned about, is that it’s getting increasingly difficult for something serious, of good quality, to make it through the soup of twaddle and shit. And that’s not a good thing. It’s always been difficult to get yourself heard, but everyone’s manipulating everything terribly now. Everyone’s buying YouTube views, Facebook page likes etc.
There’s no originality anymore. You could say everything is a remix nowadays but I know what you mean. Everything is so generic sounding. Commercial music, in every sense, is moving towards bland.
Yeah this fella last year made a famous YouTube video of the top 20 tracks out of the Beatport top 100, sewed them together and there was no difference between any of them. They all sounded exactly the same! That happens when someone has a successful idea and it gets latched on to and followed by a slurry of crap. There’s been a lot of crap lately.
What do you hate at the moment?
Anything to do with Pitbull or Showtek.
You hear that #SELFIE song?
Oh yeah that is cataclysmically bad.
I reckon Keyshia Cole should burn. They’re not even there for the music. It’s just like the company decides we’re going to dress this person up, make her look pretty, people will like her because she looks pretty and then we’re get some producers to ghost produce her tracks. The whole industry is just so whack at times.
It is a problem. There is also this thing. The elephant in the room. Nobody wants to stand up and go that is shite. Why are you playing this bollocks? I have to be one to call out our dear, Swedish Avicii.
I read this article yesterday. The EDM industry ie shite is worth $6.2billion now!
I can imagine but don’t get me wrong. Avicii has written a couple of very good records. I’ve got a lot of time for some of them. This, I don’t know what you want to call it, very conceited attempt to win over the entire American public by melding deep South banjos with Dutch drums. BAD!
I think they’re just taking advantage of the situation. They’re just laughing and thinking we’re selling this rubbish and they’re eating it. They’re making a fuck load of cash out of it so why shouldn’t they keep producing rubbish.
I don’t know a single producer or DJ worth his salt who has anything good to say about that last Avicii output. I’ve made some shit records. We all do but nobody wants to say it!
That’s why I like music blogs. You get some true honesty. You know the little small ones. The WordPress/Tumblr/Blogger family! You get some real opinion. None of this ‘sponsored’ opinion.
Sponsored opinion haha. Good phrase that. There’s a lot of good music but there’s also a whole lot of bad. The problem with the whole lot of bad is that we have generation of young producers looking at that. Seeing pound signs etc and thinking that’s what we should be chasing and needing to sound like. We/I need to be like Calvin Harris earning £2million/show. No I don’t think so! You should be concentrating on writing music and understanding how it works. Maybe those pieces of music were written for them. Personally, I find that I write music for myself, and hope that others enjoy it.
You’ve said in the past that when it comes to creating music everything has to be as simple as possible. What does simple incorporate at the moment?
Everything is as complicated as possible is the realism of that phrase actually haha. I mean my productions are horrendous. They’re vast. The screen just goes on forever. My computer is super powerful but even that is like ‘you know what, can you fuck off please, we’re finished now’. That’s the brilliant thing about how technology has changed and it’s all now in a box. I can remember when I started with things like ‘Saltwater’. We stated it and we finished it. It was up on the desk and that was it. There was no recall back in 1996 really unless you had a lot of money. So now I’m able to do stuff, leave it alone, come back to it etc.
What % do you actually use out of your loops/samples?
80:20. It depends. You go back sometimes and are like what was I thinking!
What’s the shortest and longest time you’ve taken to produce a track?
I’m playing a track at Ministry of Sound tonight which I made very quickly called ‘Fibre Glasses’.
Is this an exclusive reveal?
Oh yeah 100%. That took me about a week. That’s a long time for some people. I tend to take a terribly long time to make records. Saying that the last album only took me 8/9 months.
You’ve been a producer since you were 12. First big release was when you were 25 and now you’re 42 so you’ve been in the game for 30 years. You moved into live performances and then DJn at the very end. I thought that was an interesting progression. These days a lot of artists start DJn, then produce, then do live shows once they’ve made a name for themselves. You’ve almost done the reverse. What do you think are the pros and cons of doing it the way you have?
That’s my life. Backwards haha. I guess if I’d done the DJn thing right from the beginning we would have been doing shows like Armin van Buuren in front of millions of people. Then again I don’t know if that’s what I’m really about tbh. I was more interested in the ergonomics of playing in the band and doing dance music live which is bloody difficult and still is. I had a bit of a hard on about DJs playing and getting the glory and credit. There was a moment back in the day, around the turn of the millennium, where the big DJs were getting paid £50-100,000 for a gig. The DJs were getting way more than the producer would ever get selling records. That’s known as ‘the tail wagging the dog’. I didn’t like that. We have a much healthier situation now where most top DJs are writers and trying to do their own thing. I’m not saying it’s all great. But it’s better than just being some monkey and being paid huge amounts.
There are too many DJs. Everyone’s a bloody DJ!
Mate, my mum’s a fucking DJ. I don’t even know what it means any more. Serato and Traktor enables anyone to mix records together now. But that’s not what being a DJ is about. A great DJ is someone who is able to read the crowd, play the right record at the right time, bring you up, bring you down and take you on a journey. Sasha and Digweed used to do that back in the day but to an extreme level over a 4 hour period.
I have a hard time with that. It’s up there. Constant nosebleed. It’s not going anywhere. I don’t know what that is.
In comparison to other modern music genres trance is definitely the underdog in my opinion. Someone once told me that music runs in 15 year cycles and if so trance is having a comeback. Especially with people like Mike Paradinas (μ-Ziq), who runs Planet Mu, merging trance with other musical styles like Detroit/Chicago footwork. What’s your view on music recycling and maintaining consistency throughout the years?
Music itself is vesicular. We just get fed up with it. That’s what happened with dubstep. It was good then it blew itself out. That’s how it’s meant to be though. We’re not meant to live forever. Things all have a beginning, middle and an end.
I sort of think of music as the universe. Constantly expanding and retracting. It’s just so vast like the sea. Like waves on a beach, constantly appearing and disappearing.
I think of music as a hamster on a wheel. It just comes back on itself eventually haha.
From other interviews I’ve carried out people have been saying that band culture is coming back. What are your views on that?
Of course it is. There’s only so many times you can pay a man to play your records and stand in front of you pretending to be your God. DJs do play records haha. Oasis or whoever will return and that’ll be fantastic for the band culture renaissance. Then we’ll get bored of that etc. I’ve always had this thing about Chicane being slightly genreless because it’s an attitude to melody and atmosphere which has widescreen sensibility. I’ve worked on pop records but you can still hear it’s me.
You’ve had your pure trance stuff like ‘Saltwater’, hip hop influenced stuff like ‘Going Deep’, progressive house stuff under Disco Citizens.
I’ve produced records for Cher! Music is how that note sounds on top of that one, we’ll dress it up, put it in the box, add a beat to this n that, put some spin on the release, I dunno like I’m shagging Madonna or whatever. It’s that simple. Good music will always be around. Just to clarify I haven’t shagged Madonna.
Just in case you’re reading/watching this Madonna haha. So how do you stay true to yourself whilst catering to the masses and record labels?
That is very difficult. You have to walk a fine line between club credibility and commercial sound. Honest to God that’s what I’m into. Somewhere inbetween. That’s the science for me.
You’re constantly on tour. You recently played at ‘Mambo on the Piste!’ in Chamonix. How do you balance the touring with producing and a family?
I try not to do big tours. The shape of my world is during the week I’m in the studio. During the weekend I’m on the road. During the summer that goes a bit out of whack depending on what’s going on. I’ve got studios in the house separate to the main building. That’s a bad thing haha. I have to go right, now it’s time to put the little girl to bed. It can really get out of hand. Touring can be phenomenal, but it can also not be your greatest friend. Like you might find that you haven’t been to bed for days, just done a gig which you were late to due to things out of your control, can’t sleep afterwards because you’ve got to get a flight in a few hours, then you arrive at the airport and your plane’s delayed by 8 hours. You find yourself thinking what am I doing?
That’s the DJ life. Can’t complain.
Yes you fucking can. Haha.
Me and my mates are all Charlie Brookers. Bitch about life all the time.
Only way to be.
One of my mates is going to make one of his monikers Bharlie Crookers haha. Anyway, you’ve mentioned in the past that you’re favourite experiences have been ‘Stereosonic’ in Australia, ‘Full on Ferry’ at Eden and ‘Sunset at Mambo’ with Norman Cook. Are there any other clubs/festivals/countries you’re yet to conquer?
I’ve done a lot of them really. We want to take the ‘Sun:Sets’ radio show around the world. Once we get it really established. That’s a different kind of thing though. Almost like a festival. As the sun goes down we’ll play epic Balearic stuff, ramp it up and off we go. There’s a real naturalness to what we do.
How did ‘Sun:Sets’ begin?
It was me and my manager Louis really. We felt that it was the right thing to do to develop our brand rather than just playing at places. We didn’t want to do a club thing as we couldn’t find anything unique about it. Saying that we play at a lot of great clubs like Ministry of Sound tonight. But to try and develop something synonymous with the Chicane ethos had to be the Sunsets sessions. It only came about after playing a couple of the Mambo sunset parties. I played the sunset set last year and am only the second person to be asked to do that funnily enough. A lot of people play after the sun goes down but to be asked to play the actual sundown was a real honour. Usually it’s Pete Gooding and the Mambo residents who do it. The only other person who was asked was Dave Seaman from Brothers in Rhythm and that was a long time ago. From that experience I saw an opportunity to develop an idea which combined the synergy of my love of dance/chilled out music and ethos. We’ve built the radio show now and are in the process of creating a compilation. Personally I’m really excited about the whole thing as it really represents what I believe in.
How did you get involved with the Mambo crew? Fancy sharing any interesting stories?
I’ve known those terrible boys for some time haha. I remember doing the very first MTV Ibiza thing. Erick Morillo was the host and the pre-party was held at Mambo. I was talking to the Mambo brothers in Chamonix last month and they said they were 12 when I was there. I was like what. You were 12!!! So yeah they’re still quite young haha.
What are your top Sunset/Sunrise songs?
‘No More I Sleep’ your most recent EP is getting released on 26/05/14. Tell us a little bit more about it.
Another club muncher really but it’s got some soul. It’s quite an emotive piece which hopefully people will feel. Once again it’s got the club credibility and commercial crossover. So it’s pretty much typical Chicane. It’s not synonymous with what the album sounds like though.
How does it differ?
It’s probably more commercial. The album is cooler in other ways and more out there.
I look forward to hearing it tonight at Ministry of Sound!
Check out the first track. That’s something new. That will be really interesting. Opening with something nobody has ever heard before. It’s a record that comes out of nowhere and gets bigger and bigger.
So you’re gonna knock em dead. Murder dem!
I shall play some records and hope people enjoy themselves. Death is bad. Haha.
Summer’s finally here. Where you looking forward to playing most aside from Mambo?
The smaller and weirder places are more fun. Every single show is different tbh. I remember playing at this crazy club under a hotel in Delhi, India and that was mental. I’m looking forward to a summer of playing music and I’m very lucky to be able to make a living out of it.
I know what you mean about the smaller festivals. A friend of mine is setting up ‘Surround’ festival in Bristol this summer. It’s in the middle of a forest and there’s going to be an outdoor skate park, 3 massive global domes that you can project stuff on to, buses taking people to and from Bristol. Should be live. The little ones are the best I reckon. I mean look at Gottwood for example.
From small things come great things!
Indeed. So final question. Best and worst artist you’ve worked with. Care to elaborate?
I had a rather interesting session with Daniel Bedingfield in the studio. He took all his clothes off apart from his underpants, ate a whole roast chicken, acted a bit peculiar then went home. I have also worked with his sister. She’s much nicer. Haha.