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By Dave Lisik  |  SkyDeck Music

Published September 15, 2023

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Nick Granville is one of New Zealand’s most versatile, capable, and hard-working guitar players. He’s a first call session player across multiple styles of jazz, blues, and commercial music, including any work for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra that involves guitar, banjo, mandolin, or anything with strings that doesn’t have a typical place to sit within the orchestra. Nick was a founding member of the Wellington Jazz Orchestra directed by Rodger Fox, and he is almost certainly to be found in the pit orchestra of any high profile Broadway musical that is being staged in New Zealand’s capital. He’s performed with many high profile international artists: Dave Weckl, Tony Lindsay, David K. Mathews, Mike Stern, Joey DeFrancesco, Eric Marienthal, Kurt Elling, Steve Smith, and Chris de Burgh. Nick is also a tireless educator, prominent YouTube contributor on all things guitar-related, and a skilled photographer and video editor.

Before COVID, Nick released an album of original tunes for jazz trio, recorded in Los Angeles, in collaboration with two of New Zealand’s most prominent expat jazz musicians: bassist Benjamin J. Shepherd and drummer Dylan Elise. The trio came together in Los Angeles, and wrote and recorded the album in two days. I sat down with Nick at a café in Island Bay, Wellington, close to his home, to talk about the pre-COVID project that is one of the highlights of his outstanding musical career.

SkyDeck: It’s good to get the chance to get together with you, Nick! I know you were playing in the show Wicked! for the better part of a month, until just recently. Let's talk about your project, ReAmped. It seems like there was a clear intention behind this project, to get three Kiwis in a room together in Los Angeles and come up with something in a short period of time that was creative and spontaneous. Where did the idea for the recording come from and what was your prior relationship with Ben and Dylan?

Nick: I was going to be in LA with Rodger's Fox’s big band, playing at the Monterey Jazz Festival. This was summer of 2017. I thought that being in Southern California opened up a great opportunity to do a really fun project with these great New Zealand musicians who were both living there. We got together in a rehearsal space and we wrote some tunes together. It was a real collaboration in that sense. And the next day we recorded them all.


I met Ben when he was about twelve or thirteen years old and I was teaching at the New Zealand High School Jazz Workshops. I remember him playing a solo on upright bass of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” playing all the parts together. I just went, “Holy heck! This kid can really play.”


And the same with Dylan. I've known Dylan since he was fourteen when he was out doing drum workshops as a bit of a teen phenom. He used to come out with a full drum set up, put a glass screen around it and just shred on the drums for all these other school kids to see. And it was amazing. Eventually, on different paths, both of them moved to Los Angeles.


Over the years I’ve kept in touch with both of them and played off and on with them. I played a duo gig with Dylan when he did a workshop and he needed someone to accompany him. That was really fun. And I’ve played a bunch of gigs with Ben.

SkyDeck: Ben had become a pretty high profile jazz musician in Los Angeles and was playing in some of the best groups. But beyond just his abilities, were there particular characteristics of him as a musician and bass player, or elements in his playing, that made you interested in working with him on a recording?

Nick: One of the things with guitar trios, or the so-called “power trio,” bass, drums, and guitar, is that sometimes, there's too much space in the sound. You can have a bass note and if the guitarist plays a single note, there can be a bit of a gap. Any combination can be cool in the right balance but it takes good players to make it sound great. One of many things that I love about Ben's playing, and a reason I thought he'd be really good on this project, is that he plays a lot of bass chords. He also uses a phaser pedal and this sort of swirly type sound, and it sounds a lot like a Fender Rhodes. I knew that he would make a trio sound like it’s more than just a trio. But he's also got a great groove, he's got chops to burn, and he can basically play anything.

And he's a dedicated electric bass player in the jazz realm. He plays amazing upright, too, but a lot of bass players, when they get serious about jazz, become exclusively upright players and the electric gets pushed to the background. He's more the other way. He's decided that electric bass is a big part of his thing. It's his voice.

He's been out in LA doing a ton of gigs and playing with some amazing musicians, which had elevated his playing to another level. People like Peter Erskine, Steve Smith, and Dave Weckl were playing with him and he was in the MONK'estra, John Beasley’s big band thing. And not just that band, but all kinds of groups of John’s.


Ben’s a great musician and just a good guy, someone I get along with really well. So I knew that the hang would also be good. And that's part of what creates good music, I think, is if you like the people you work with.

SkyDeck: Where was he from?

Nick: He's from Tawa in Wellington, originally. So before COVID, he’d lived in LA for about twenty years.

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SkyDeck: A big part of the motivation and inspiration for ReAmped was that these two guys, both living in Los Angeles, were also both from New Zealand, originally?  It wasn't just like, “I'm going to pick a couple of random guys in LA.” The three of you were all New Zealanders.

Nick: Yeah that was the spirit of the album. I applied for a Creative New Zealand grant to get a little money to pay for the studio time and to give the guys a fee – knowing that we were going to sell tens of albums, being a jazz album (laughs), and I wanted to at least get them something respectable. Part of the pitch was that we were three New Zealanders creating a New Zealand type of  jazz.

The first day of recording, Ben's wife came by the studio and she said to me, “It's funny how whenever Ben's around you, he starts talking like a Kiwi again. It's all “bro” and “chur” and all that.” Because most of the time when he's in the States, he talks like an American.

SkyDeck: Because he left New Zealand when he was young, right?

Nick: Right. He left straight out of college, at eighteen years old. Alfonso Johnson and Charlie Haden were his main two teachers at Cal Arts. And Darek Oles is another one of his teachers who's a great LA jazz upright player. Derek, a lot of people talk about him as knowing every single tune ever written. It's crazy. And of course, Alfonso Johnson from Weather Report and all those sort of fusiony things, and just a legend. And Charlie Haden… nothing needs to be said. 

SkyDeck: Right.

Nick: And Dylan, I first met him when he was fourteen. Like I said, he was out doing clinics as a kid, and he used to record these videos with his shirt off down at a Courtney Place [Downtown Wellington] busking, when he was just a teenager. And those videos blew up, like some of them were over ten million views, type of thing.

And by coincidence, the drummer from Blood, Sweat, and Tears [probably Joel Rosenblatt] saw him doing one of these videos and was really impressed with his playing. By this time, Dylan had moved to Auckland and he was playing in a reggae band, some function bands, and he was doing the occasional jazz gig. And then [Joel] from Blood, Sweat and Tears was ready to step down from the gig and wanted to do other things. So, based on these YouTube videos, they contacted Dylan and he went over and played a couple of shows with BS&T, and the guys in the band loved him. So he got the gig, and that's how he moved there.

I know a few of the bass players in BS&T. Ric Fierabracci, a great player, was with Billy Cobham for a long time. So Dylan, getting to play with someone like him… and Jaco Pastorius was the bass player in that band at one point, and Mike Stern played guitar. It's a legacy band in a lot of ways, and it's legendary. So he took that, and that got him into the States.

Dylan moved to Boston initially, but now he lives in LA. His house actually burned down in Boston. And all his drums and cymbals melted. They were completely gone. That was pretty heartbreaking. And I think that was the impetus to go, “Well, do I really need to be in Boston anymore? I'm flying everywhere. I often have to get to LAX to fly out internationally. I might as well live in LA.” So he made the move and he's been getting some good gigs out in California, getting around the clubs and the jazz scene and doing gigs in addition to the Blood, Sweat, and Tears gig, which is still his main one. 

SkyDeck: So what specifically were you envisioning with these two musicians and their abilities that made you think that they would actually be good together, and with you as the third member of the trio? 

Nick: Ben and Dylan used to play together a little bit when they were in New Zealand. And they were actually Kimbra, the pop singer’s rhythm section before she blew up and moved to LA. So they had played with her a little bit and they were doing different things together. But I think I've always been of the belief that if you get good musicians in a room, something good is going to happen. So I knew that we'd make it work somehow and that it's going to be what it's going to be, because they're both really great. So if you get two great players together, they're going to make it work. 

SkyDeck: That's particularly true of jazz musicians. Because playing great is one thing, but great jazz musicians all respond appropriately. 

Nick: And adapt to one another.

SkyDeck: Right. Jazz musicians adapt to the situation and we're all used to playing in lots of different styles and different formats. And they're usually generous and know that their job is to not let a musical ego take over whatever situation they’re in. Hopefully. 

Nick: Yeah, totally. 

SkyDeck: So what studio did you record at? 

Nick: We did it at Kronos Studios in Burbank, in California. And that was the studio owned by Gary Novak, who was the drummer for the Chick Corea Electric Band, George Benson, and Alanis Morissette, just a legendary drummer. So I knew that he would be someone who would be able to make the drums at least sound good, if nothing else. I've always believed you have a good drum sound, everything else stands a chance. And he did. It was amazing.

SkyDeck: What did he do in the recording studio, either from a "mood" standpoint or camaraderie standpoint that contributed to it being successful? 

Nick: I hadn't met Gary before that, but I knew who he was. But he and Ben had a long relationship, having played together a lot in various different things, and he's just a great guy. I left it to Ben to organize the studio. I said to him, “Which studio do you think would be best?” And we discussed a few and then he went, “Look, let's just do it at Novak's studio,” because we knew that the relationship they had working together would be good. He's a fantastic musician with great ears, even more so than a technical kind of guy, although he does know that side of it as well, especially with his studio co-owner who's a very technical guy. They create an environment. And it's Southern California, the sun's shining, everyone's happy, and it's relaxed and you're chill.

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SkyDeck: So the process of creating the tunes, you didn't come in with them prewritten. It was like a workshop and you let them evolve together, albeit in a short amount of time. It was basically 100% blank slate at first? 

Nick: Right.

SkyDeck: And you had a pretty limited amount of time to do that. How did that process play out? What were the contributions of the other guys and how did you work together to eventually having some good tunes? 

Nick: The night before we were going to rehearse, which was the day before hitting the studio, I was in my Airbnb and I came up with a couple of little riffs and ideas, knowing that we were going to be getting together. The next day, we got into Dylan's rehearsal room in Studio City and I would kind of play my idea and someone would go, “What if we did this?” and, “What if we did that?” And we came up with rough sketches for a few things.

And then Ben said, “Oh, I had this idea last week.” And he played a little motive and then that became something else. And then Dylan would say, “I've really been working on this groove a bit lately. What if we do this?” And it developed over the course of a two or three hour session and we had a bunch of scribbled out notes. There were just these little sketches that we'd made. And even then the ideas weren't really well formed. A lot of times when we were in the studio, we’d play something and then we go, “What about if we change the bridge and go to this key?” And then do that. We’d do another take, and then that would be it. I don't think we did anything more than two or three times because that was kind of the whole vibe.

The only thing we did differently was one drum solo that Dylan wanted to have. He wanted to have another go at it, and it was really challenging. It was like a ten eight little thing, this weird riff that kind of goes across the bar lines and stuff. So Ben and I recorded our parts to a click, and then we went to lunch and left Dylan to do it. And I think he did 100 takes.


And even Gary Novak said, “Oh, man. We can just cut and paste your best ideas together. It's fine. I do it all the time. Don't worry.” But Dylan was like, “No, I want to do it in one take. I want it to flow and just be natural, and that's what we're going to do.”

So he did a hundred takes and he chose the one he wanted, and that's the one on the record. I think it's the last song on the record and that outro is a drum solo. It was amazing what he played, and I think for him, he wanted to get inside it and not be thinking his way through it. Once you get comfortable with a weird rhythmic figure rhythm like that, you start to play over bar lines and you begin to get inside it. You feel it rather than having to count the beats the whole time and all of that. That was really the only time. Everything else, we just did it live as it happened.

It was a good setup though. The drums were in one room. The guitar amp was an ISO booth, and I think the bass was DI. So we had complete isolation on everything.

SkyDeck: It was 100% electric bass? 

Nick: Yeah, and then Ben overdubbed a couple of electric bass chords on a couple of tracks, mostly because when he soloed, he wanted to have his bass line, have some chords from his bass, and have his solo as well. So it was like this big textural thing. So we did a couple of those. I overdubbed a couple of things. Like, there was one I wanted wahwah for like a street chase, ‘70s type vibe, but that was about it.

And I actually wish we'd just bounced out those mixes from the studio and been done with it. But instead I mixed it back in my studio in Wellington and it came out okay. But to me, I think I liked the rough mix that Gary did in the studio better. But it is what it is. 

SkyDeck: Well, some of those guys who have been doing it for so long, it's like they'll send you their reference tracks. And because everything, their board is just set up so perfectly, because it's their place and it's the same instruments all the time, whatever. And they know they're doing the 10,000th  recording session with the drums in that configuration, they know exactly what it is. So then their rough mix is like 90% done. 

Nick: Yeah, exactly. 

SkyDeck: And then it takes you a week of mixing just to get back to their 90%.

Nick: I think if I did it again, that would be one thing I would change. I would actually just book a whole other day to mix it there, and then walk away with a finished product. That's what I'd want to do. Although, on the other hand, I do like mixing my own albums. Mixing can be a very personal thing. And I think too many mixers formulate things. Like, for example, they just automatically roll off all the bottom end on the guitar to make room for the bass. They just default certain elements rather than actually use their ears.

But that was the thing with Novak, is he had those drums dialed in in that room. And that's why I think the mix really worked. He just knows that equipment and that room and that sound and that drum kit.

SkyDeck: And the raw sounds are going to be as good as they could possibly be because he just understands the whole setup.

Nick: It was funny. At one point, Dylan asked, “Can I swap out one of the toms?” And Gary was, “No, no, I've spent a week getting that drum kit just right. And all the mics are fully phase aligned in every position. So you can swap the snare, but the toms stay.” And you noticed it. He could pull up any mic and everything was perfectly phase aligned at every point. And that makes such a difference to the drum sound.

SkyDeck: Let’s talk about the individual tracks. I'm sure, given the way the tunes were created, there are some inside jokes and references in the tune titles. And it seems like, some Kiwi-specific nods.

Nick: The first track, “Pablito's Chicken,” was actually the chicken place across the road from the studio where we had lunch. As I mentioned, with Dylan’s drum solo on that one track, that's where we went to give him some time to himself. It was Peruvian food and was absolutely delicious.

The tune is a sort of a New Orleans funk inspired thing. It was a weird ten bar blues, which kind of took Dylan by surprise a couple of times. He would play a twelve bar and he'd put the crash in the wrong place and he would go, “That's right, shit!” That happened a few times. But I'd been listening to some [John] Sco[field] stuff where it was this weird disjointed thing. He'd have a four bar phrase and then a drum fill and then a four bar phrase and a drum fill. I remember thinking that was interesting. Instead of everything being grouped in normal ways. But, essentially it's a blues jam tune. 

“Riff.” That was that one bass riff that Ben came up with. We doubled that and then Dylan said, “What if we put some hits on the end of it?” We did two initially and then he went, “Let's make it three because that's more interesting.” And I remember that riff being really quite quick to play cleanly like that. It's something I think Ben had been working on but of course I didn't get that opportunity. We rehearsed that a bit until it got smooth and felt good. So that's how that tune “Riff” came about. 

None of these were done with a click because a lot of times we would just change tempos or move into rubato sections. And I remember Gary Novak going, “We should to do it with a click. We always do stuff with a click. What if we want to edit?” And I'm like, “We can still edit.” There was one tune, we doubled one of the sections and we just cut and pasted it and it lined up perfectly because those guys have great time.

“Gotchu Bro” was one line that Ben used to say all the time. I'd play something and he'd go, “Gotchu bro!” 

SkyDeck: That's a serious Kiwi-ism.

Nick: It's a very Kiwi saying. And a few of them were pretty simple references: “Kronos” was named after Gary Novak’s studio where we did the recording because that seemed appropriate. “D Heavy” was just because they put the guitar into “drop D,” which is an alternate tuning for the guitar, in order to play the riff. I think “Slow Jam” was one of Ben's ideas, a little chord progression or something, but most of the others were mine. And “Chur” because, again, another Kiwi saying and we wanted to have this very New Zealand thing about it because it was three Kiwis in an LA studio doing our thing. “Chur” was the one that had the weird riff with Dylan playing the drum solo over. Dylan contributed a lot of ideas all the whole way through the process.

SkyDeck: You didn't do any live gigs while you were there with that group? And you didn’t get a chance to tour any of the music.

Nick: No. It's quite unusual in that sense, because the plan was to create this music. Even the recording was kind of secondary. Creation of the music was the key thing we wanted to achieve, with the idea that we might be able to start touring and doing stuff. But life got in the way a bit for everyone. I came back home right away and they were still in California, off doing their gigs. Dylan was super busy. Ben had a new baby on the way. And then COVID happened so that extended everyone’s lack of availability for a few more years and we never really got to play that stuff live together. I’ve played several of the tune with various different bands I’ve been working with. “Pablito’s Chicken” seems to be one that gets played on most of my gigs. It's just a fun tune to play with other people.

But that music off that CD ended up in a lot of people's hands. I met Michael O'Neill, George Benson's guitar player, for the first time. He came up to me at the NAM show and he said, “Oh, you're Nick Granville.” And I'm like, “You're Michael O’Neill.” (laughs) And he goes, “I've been listening to your record. Ben Shepard gave me a copy.” So that was pretty cool. And then he introduced me to this guy, Fererico “Freddy” Ramos, who was the guitar player on that Disney/Pixar movie, Coco. The Mexican one. And he said, “I've heard that album too.” And I'm like, “Oh, shit.” So you never know where these things end up or in whose hands or whatever.

That's been the interesting thing with that music, just putting it out there and seeing where it ends up. And that, to me, is the point of recording music, isn't it? To get your music out there into people's ears. And people have liked it, so that's been cool.

SkyDeck: Do you have any plans to do anything again with the same band? 

Nick: I'd like to, yeah. Ben's now living back in Wellington, so there could be something to do there. I also have an organ trio which I work with a lot with Darren Mathiassen and Mike Crawford. We've been playing together for a couple of years now and I think it's time that band was recorded. So I’m looking at applying for a grant for that. And I'd like to write some more guitar ensemble music. That's something I've thought about a lot because there's not a lot of that around. Something I've been talking about for a while is doing a big band album and it’s feeling like it might be the right time to do that. Maybe even a live album might be a fun way to do that. I've been working on a funk record for a couple of years now. That's one I want to finish this summer. Very different from anything else I've ever done. So I've already recorded drums, bass and percussion. I've recorded some guitar parts and just need to get my act together and get that one finished.

Nick: But this album is called called ReAmped. To “revamp” something is to revitalize or remake it. So with guitar, you can record guitar direct and then come out and record it back through an amp and record it back in. And that's “reamping.” So to me it felt like the cyclic kind of thing. I knew those guys when they were young and then they went away and then we came back together to play.


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