Nick Swannell – A Life in Music
Nick Swannell is something of an alchemist. At his recording studio in the heart of Narberth, he can take a good musical performance and turn it into something that sounds remarkable.
Not that he would make too much fuss about his own talents, since an outstanding aspect of this master sound technician and creative musician is his modesty.
While busy getting ready to reopen Studio 49 for business post-lockdown, Nick found time to talk to Pembrokeshire.Online about the musical path that led him to Wales.
Nick, 52, was born in Cricklewood, north London, and grew up in Croxley Green in Hertfordshire.
“I became interested in music from the age of ten,” he said. “I started listening to bands like Cream, Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. I had an acoustic guitar for a start, and I got my first electric guitar when I was 17.”
A major early influence on him was the singer/songwriter John Miles who had a massive hit with the single Music in 1976.
Nick went to college in St Albans to study model-making (a skill that was to provide him with a long-term day job). But in what seems to have been a tradition among British rock musicians (such as Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and Ronnie Wood), creative academia meant extracurricular involvement with music and musicians.
“We formed a band,” said Nick, whose influences by this time included XTC, Paul Weller and Elvis Costello. “I rented a four-track cassette recorder and got into recording quite quickly. And at the age of 22 I had an eight-track reel-to-reel.”
Nick seized on the possibilities of multi-tracking and layering recordings of himself, and began dividing his musical time between playing in bands and recording. (“Playing and recording use two different parts of the brain,” he explained.) “By the time I was 25, I had some commercial work recording people.”
After college he used his model-making skills in the field of architecture – work that he continued to do right up until three years ago.
In his late twenties he formed his own band, Czyxadorus (think about it, but maybe not too much in this age of MeToo etc), playing and recording original material.
Czyxadorus’s drummer was also involved in another band, Spy 51, whose guitarist couldn’t make an important gig in 1997 – and that’s how Nick ended up stepping in for him and playing at the Reading Festval that year.
Nick was also involved when Spy 51 had a recording session with producer David M. Allen (best known for his work with the Cure, Depeche Mode and the Human League). “It was my first time in a professional studio,” Nick explained. “We were mixing this track and there was something that was not working. I said to David: ‘Do you mind if I have a go?'” Allen was impressed with the result. “He said to me: ‘I don’t know what you’ve done, but you’ve made it better!”
Around 2001, Nick moved to Bedford. “Suddenly I had a house with a garage at the bottom of the garden – which pretty quickly got converted into a recording studio for my own use.” Commercial work followed – not only recording music but also radio ads.
One job led to another. The excellent duo Cicero Buck (Joseph Hughes, ex-The Lover Speaks, and Nashville singer/songwriter Kris Wilkinson) got in touch with him to do some demo work and liked the results. “They said: ‘This is fantastic. We were thinking of doing an album – maybe we could come and record it with you.'”
Nick adds typically modestly: “When you’re recording a good band, it’s not hard work to make them sound good.”
He and his wife moved from Bedford to Pembrokeshire in 2007. “My sister lived here so we knew Pembrokeshire and I wanted to get away from London.” They made the move in “a quite cavalier way”, said Nick, and, sadly, they split up not long after.
In 2015 Nick and bassist Mark Vincent formed the band Tough Love, featuring Jess Dando on vocals and what Nick referred to as “a long list of Pembrokeshire’s finest drummers – mainly Terry Beecham, Charlie Scarr, Bob Thomas and Dan Mayhew”. He said: “We do a variety of stuff but a fair bit of classic soul – Amy Winehouse, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, James Brown etc – and like to keep it upbeat and danceable. I think it’ll be a few years before the live music scene recovers, though, so some reinvention may be in order!”
Nick believes that an important part of being creative is listening to “other stuff”. So which music artists does he rate at the top for production? “Steely Dan are the touchstone for producers,” he said. “Their last album, Everything Must Go, was as good as any of their classics.” He also rates Prince’s recorded output very highly.
Studio 49 has been closed because of the pandemic but Nick is now ready to get back to work and be busy again. Not that he has been idle during the lockdown. “I’m just finishing up an instrumental album of mine,” he said. “I had a lot of half-finished electronica ideas from years ago. When the lockdown came, I thought: ‘Now is the time to do this. If there are three months when I can’t go out, I’d better complete something that I can point to in the future and say this is what I did then.’ It uses synths and drum machines – it’s all instrumental because I’m not much of a singer.”
But having heard some of his work, I would say he can get by pretty well on vocals – as well as playing guitar, keyboards, bass and drums.
If his customers need extra instrumentation, he has a list of violinists, sax players, drummers and keyboard players he can call on.
Just before the lockdown Nick was working on tracks for Pembrokeshire-based metal band In Which It Burns. Most of the musicians who record at Studio 49 come from West Wales and, in particular, Pembrokeshire.
Nick reckons there is a huge amount of local talent. His studio has been used by everyone from singer/songwriters and heavy rock to the Carmarthen Ukuleles: “And I’ve never recorded anybody here whose music I didn’t like.”
Studio 49 is now open again at 49 St James Street, Narberth SA67 7DA; 01834 869488, 07941 791286; firstname.lastname@example.org;
Nick Swannell’s “lockdown” album has now been released as A Brief Guide To Civil Disobedience, by Kid Clean