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Phil Nicolo: The Butcher Goes to China?

November 13, 2014

PhilNicoloOnline02Text by Kyle Bagenstose. Images by Rachel Del Sordo.

Phil Nicolo‘s doing what he does best. He’s tinkering.

Hunched over a small desk, his eyes are excitedly scanning a computer screen. He seems to be almost trembling with anticipation. Surrounding him is a control room filled with all kinds of boards and buttons, dials and wires, faders and switches.

On screen is The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” laid out neatly in tracks. It’s the original studio recordings, all in a row – Paul McCartney’s bass, Ringo Starr’s drums and studio musician Billy Preston’s keyboards among them. But Phil has one particular track in mind.

“Let’s listen to John Lennon and Paul McCartney sing by themselves and get goosebumps,” he says.
He selects the track and hits play. A hush falls over the room for several seconds, with only a slight white static noise emanating from the speakers. And then…

“Don’t let me down!” Lennon screams passionately from out of the silence.

The hush is back for several seconds. Phil closes his eyes and bobs his head to a nonexistent beat, his brow furrowed emotionally.

“Don’t let me down!” he mouths, perfectly timed with a second scream from Lennon. The goosebumps come.

“Then you get Paul coming in on the harmony,” Phil says.

Now two voices are screaming in unison, punctuating the eerie silence in between. Phil begins to shuffle his feet and move around. He’s in the groove.

“Don’t let me down!” they bellow.

“And they’re just looking at each other while they’re doing this, man,” Phil exclaims. “Come on!”

Nobody ever loved me like she do me
Ooh she do me
Yeah, she does

Then Phil moves back to the mouse and begins clicking away. Lennon and McCartney’s vocals grow quieter, like they’ve gone underwater. He highlights a few other tracks — the bass and drums — and hits play.

The bass line rumbles the floor. It starts and stops, almost bumbling.

“Fucking Paul McCartney’s bass playing,” Phil says with admiration, as his eyes close again and he plucks an invisible bass. “I mean, one of the greatest melody makers on the fucking planet, right?”

Phil would know. At 58, he’s been around a lot of melody makers. As an award-winning engineer, producer and mixer who has worked with countless stars, it almost seems unreal that he’s working out of a basement space, dubbed Studio 4, below a bar on Conshohocken’s main strip.

All over the walls are proof of his storied career in music. Framed gold and silver records from artists like Phil Collins, Billy Joel and Aerosmith. There are autographs and thank you notes from legends like Jon Bon Jovi and Sting. A picture of a smiling Phil on a couch with George Clinton, neither looking particularly sober. Another picture with Phil and three others at the Grammy’s, smiling from ear-to-ear with their freshly won award.

“Do we look happy?” he asks, jokingly.

PhilNicoloOnline03The journey to the basement studio is full of stories but as Phil tells it, it began just 15 minutes away in Wayne, Pennsylvania, where he grew up.

“My earliest memory of music was that on Sunday, my dad would always play opera records,” Phil says, adding that among his father’s favorites were “The Barber of Seville,” “Carmen” and the works of Giuseppe Verdi.

“That music is so amazing. As a little kid I used to listen to all this great music and was like, ‘Wow, this is floating my boat.’ ”

By age nine, The Beatles had hit and Phil, along with brother Joe, were hooked. On a trip to the Wildwood boardwalk, they bought their first mini tape recorder and began recording anything that would make a sound.

“It was this crappy little thing, but we loved recording. I was kind of a geek; ‘Ooh, listen to this,’ ‘Ooh, what’s this knob do?’” Phil says. “I’m a knob twister, you know? I’m a music-loving knob twister.”

By high school, the knob twisting had expanded to recording friends’ bands with a “shitty little” four-channel mixer. The recordings were far from professional quality but Phil says it gave his friends a chance to hear what they sounded like in an era when expensive recording studios were the only other options.

Following his graduation from Archbishop Carroll High School, he took his passion to Temple University, where he entered the Radio, Television and Film program. That was in the mid ’70s, when Phil says colleges would only restock with the latest equipment every seven years or so.

“The gear at Temple was archaic,” Phil says. “I was like, ‘I can’t do shit here.’ At that point, Joey and I were like, ‘You know what? Let’s get some of our own shitty gear and we’ll build a little studio in our parents’ attic.’”

Phil remained at Temple but in the meantime established his own recording studio with his brother, appropriately named “The Attic.” While still using a four-track recorder, they started to take the efforts more seriously. Their recordings of local bands actually sounded good, and by the time graduation rolled around, Phil and his brother Joe were ready to take the next step. In 1979, they opened Half Track Studios on Radnor Street in Wayne.

“It’s great when your passion can become your vocation,” says Joe Nicolo. “After getting out of college, job opportunities were slim and none, focusing on none. Basically your guidance counselor was like,  ‘If you can’t find a job doing what you want to do, figure out a way where you can create your own opportunity by starting up your own business.’ And that’s what we did.”

PhilNicoloOnline04Joe and Phil continued to grow their clientele, but it wasn’t until they met a mentor that the door into the higher circles of the recording
world opened.

“We met a guy named Obie O’Brien and originally, he was one of the biggest dicks I ever met,” Phil says. “He came in and was like, ‘What a fucking dump!’ But the reality was he was the first engineer or producer I ever worked with who really knew what the hell he was doing.”

O’Brien was friends with Tony Bongiovi, a cousin of Jon “Bon Jovi” Bongiovi and owner of the infamous New York City recording studio, The Power Station. Phil was the beneficiary of invitations to the studio, where he brushed elbows with big names for the first time.

“It was the place to be and I was sleeping on the fucking floor in Tony’s apartment, right next to Jon Bon Jovi, who was also just an assistant intern there,” Phil says. “I got to watch Bruce Springsteen make The River. I got to watch Talking Heads make their first record. I got to watch David Bowie make Scary Monsters.”

He more than just watched. Phil learned. He credits the experience with teaching him that making music isn’t just about twisting knobs but the interaction between the people on both sides of the studio glass.

“I learned the real deal about how to make records,” Phil says. “It isn’t about how you put the windscreen on the mic. I learned the psychology of it. If you get the drummer to feel great, he’s going to play great.”

With the new knowledge and O’Brien’s help, Phil says he and Joe once again upgraded their digs. In 1981, they opened Studio 4 in Philadelphia at the corner of Fourth and Callowhill streets. The brother’s parents mortgaged their house to help pay for professional-quality gear and the clients began rolling in. Phil gravitated more toward the rock side, working with artists like The Hooters, while Joe handled the hip-hop side, recording rappers like Schoolly D.

Joe says that no matter with which genre the artist they were working with identified, both he and Phil were good at getting into their heads,  figuring out their focus, making them as comfortable as possible and making the creative process fun.

“Everybody really has the same dreams and ambitions of wanting to make it in the music business,” he says. “I think we were good at providing some focus to people, and an outside point of view, that ultimately seemed to be a successful formula.”

By the end of the decade, there was enough talented clientele circling through the studio to warrant the launching of a label, Ruffhouse Records.

While Joe and business partner Chris Schwartz were officially credited as founders, the Nicolos worked the technical side together. The label took off and was eventually picked up by Sony Records.

“All of the sudden in the early ’90s, the fucking shoes got blown off,” Phil says, adding that artists like Kris Kross, Cypress Hill, Lauryn Hill and The Fugees signed to the label. “In a 10-year period, we sold, like, 110 million records. It was one of those things.”

PhilNicoloOnline01In need of more space, the Nicolos began looking outside Philadelphia. They found the Conshohocken location, a former factory that had been foreclosed, and gobbled it up for half the price the bank was asking. Spread out over the building’s 18,000 square feet, they set up eight recording studios and numerous mixing rooms over three floors and also established an office space for Ruffhouse.

By then, the Nicolos had been dubbed the “Butcher Bros.,” a nickname that originated in the editing room.

“Back in those days there was no digital editing, so if you wanted to do edits, you had to literally cut the tape,” Phil says. “Joey was working with this guy Ray Monahan and watching Joey cut up the tape, he was like, ‘You cut that tape like a butcher!’”

The name stuck and expanded to cover both brothers when a band called Urge Overkill wanted a catchy credit to put on a record.

“They were all style conscious and cool and they were like, ‘We can’t call you guys Joe and Phil Nicolo,” Phil says, snapping his fingers to act out a  moment of clarity. “The Butcher Bros!”

However, the name was ironically appropriate for the new Conshohocken location.

“My dad was a butcher, and he used to work at a shop right across the street from our building,” Phil says. “He worked there for like 40 years, so it was incredibly ironic that 30-something years later, we bought the building that we did.”

But the arrangement wasn’t made to last. After two decades of successful partnership, Phil and Joey, along with Schwartz, were pulled down separate professional paths. In 2000, they sold Ruffhouse to Sony and as Phil puts it, “broke up.”

“It was kind of like a marriage,” Phil said. “After 12 years [with the label], everyone needed to get away, which was fine.”

Joey and Schwartz gravitated toward producing movies, and Phil stayed on at Studio 4.

“It was almost like The Beatles,” Phil says. “In seven years in Conshohocken, we kicked a lot of ass.”

Fourteen years later, operations at Studio 4 have shrunk significantly. Phil initially leased the ground floor to The Great American Pub, a popular bar in town, and eventually switched roles by selling the building to the bar and moving his studios into the basement.

However, it’s not a story of decline. Phil continued to have success post-Ruffhouse, picking up engineering and mixing credits for big name artists like Aerosmith and Amy Grant. In 2005, he won a Grammy for mixing and mastering on the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s Across 100th Street.
He says he’s also developed a reputation as a sage engineer, a self-described “bottom of the 9th guy.”

“People come in here and I help them finish off their record,” Phil says. “Nowadays a lot of bands make a record themselves. But then, as they round third, they’re like, ‘Holy shit, where’s home plate?’”

He’s brought fresh blood into the studio in the form of Will Yip, a 26-year-old producer who Phil says has a natural genius for the trade.

Yip has worked with bands like Circa Survive, Rusted Root and Title Fight, doing a lot of recording and occasionally looking to Phil for help at the mixing board.

Although Studio 4’s Conshohocken operations aren’t what they once were, Phil still gets adventurous. On a whim, a friend based in Taiwan invited Phil to fly to China last year and help record a band called Black Panther, which he describes as Asia’s answer to Led Zeppelin.

Phil took the offer, and hung around to do sound design at arenas where Black Panther played. He once again did what he does best and started tinkering with knobs.

“The concerts freaking blew people away,” Phil says. “The Chinese look at music very technically. ‘Oh, if [a level] hits red, turn it off.’ So I bring acreative side to it and push the boundaries.”

Phil made an impression on the executives of Rock Forward, which he says is China’s equivalent of LiveNation, but with a government-sanctioned monopoly over music. What started out as theoretical talks about opening a Studio 4 location in Beijing quickly turned serious. Phil says he now plans to spend six months of the next year there working to open a studio.

“The concept is to elevate music and sound quality in China, period,” Phil says.

“This is like beach front property that’s undeveloped,” Joe says of Phil’s work in China. “It’s uncharted territory and he can bring that enthusiasm and that love of the music to a place that really needs it. He really loves the prospect of him doing it. The Chinese love the prospect of his energy. So it’s amazing. It’s awesome. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the whole thing comes to fruition.”

It’s a new adventure for Phil, who says his career is far from the winding down stage. In fact, he says he barely looks past the next day.

“I still get up every day and thank God I get to do what I do,” Phil says. “I love making music. I’ve always been a seat-of-the-pants kind of guy. I’m very, ‘Let’s see where it goes.’”

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