Exclusive Interview: Niko Bolas

“I’ve never felt the need to take a vacation.”

This is how much Niko Bolas loves what he does. His passion is contagious, but you'll also get an insight in this post into how he actually does his work. What does he do? Well, it’s a long answer. Here’s a short version: Niko has produced and/or engineered for artists such as Neil Young, KISS, Barbra Streisand, John Mayer, Johnny Cash, Céline Dion, Warren Zevon, and many more! Since 1995 he has been a pioneer in virtual reality, Internet radio, and podcasting…starting and selling multiple businesses in these fields. 

I got to connect with Niko a few years ago, because he had a special connection with my dad and my grandparents back in the day in Southern California. I recently got to chat with him about how he does his work. He very generously shared with me lots of insights and I would like to share a few nuggets with you.

My #1 question for him was how he handles working in so many areas and can advance in all of them. His response was rather simple, “It’s all the same.” He focuses on one thing at a time, even though the things might vary from one hour to the next. “I might be in the middle of an all day recording session and during lunch I get a call about a virtual reality project. I either tell them I can call them back at night or I take the call and tell the studio and artist that I’ll be back in 20 minutes.” Secondly, he doesn’t work alone; he asks for help when he needs it. He might have great ideas in fields he’s not an expert at, so what does he do? Well, he hires teams of experts: accountants, coders, software developers, etc. This is how he’s been able to create and sell businesses. 

He lives day by day. 

“Somebody had given me a one-time surfing class as a gift and so I went this morning. There were no waves so the instructor postponed the class. Since I had the morning free I checked my email and saw the message about your interview and said ‘sure, let’s meet Daniel’. Now tomorrow I’ll be all day in the hospital accompanying my mom on her routinary visits.”

His mother was in treatment for breast cancer and had other complications. He and I connected a lot and spoke more in-depth on this topic since my mom was in treatment for pancreatic cancer. I asked Niko how he balances these elements of his life with his work. He expressed that “It’s all connected. There is no difference between these two worlds.” The past few months he hasn’t really worked, because he’s been spending most of his time with his mom. He’s been grateful for how flexible his work can be or else he wouldn’t be able to take care of her. 

He can afford a few months of no work because he said he doesn’t have expensive hobbies, doesn’t invest, doesn’t have his own family to look after…he’s comfortable the way he is and living life to the fullest…day by day. Making plans is not really his thing and so he’s never really “planned” on getting married or having children, even though he’s open to the idea.

With such a flexible and open-ended approach to life…how can Niko maintain a steady flow of clients and projects? So I asked him why clients keep coming back to him. “Because I make f***ing good coffee,” he laughed. “Well, I like to think because I’m good.” At the same time he said he always has to check his ego. He calls ego, E.G.O “Edging God Off.” 

He told me he could probably have stronger communication with his clients and as a result he could be more financially stable, but he doesn’t live that way. He prefers to be more spontaneous and take opportunities as they come. 

“I feel blessed for the work I’ve been able to do in my life. I just want to make sure the work I do pleases my Teacher,” Niko shares as he points upward. “I’m not a very religious person, but I am a person of faith.”

ANECDOTE: 

Neil Young wanted to do a studio album with an orchestra and a big band. He told Billboard, "I'd like to make a record with a full-blown orchestra, live -- a mono recording with one mic," he explained. "I want to do something like that where we really record what happened, with one point of view and the musicians moved closer and farther away, the way it was done in the past. To me that's a challenge and it's a sound that's unbelievable, and you can't get it any other way. So I'm into doing that.”

Neil and Niko recording Storytone. Photo by Chris Schmitt

Well in 2014, Neil achieved this and released the album Storytone with the help of Niko Bolas, Al Schmitt and others.

Niko shared with me some stories about the sessions:

Neil told Niko over the phone that he had just gone through a lot with his wife and was writing lots of songs. Niko told him to just show up at Capitol Studios, but without his guitars. Neil was shocked to hear this. Niko told him that since the guitars had been at his house, then they would carry a lot of baggage and negative energy, which would affect Neil’s performance. Niko purchased and gathered tons of instruments and took them to Capitol Studios to have them laid out for Neil to choose from. Niko said this approach allowed Neil to have a fresh look at each song. These songs ended up being the solo versions on the album.

When recording the orchestral versions of the songs—which were fully arranged while Neil was on tour—all Neil had to do was to stand in front of a mic surrounded by a full orchestra he hadn’t met or rehearsed with, and just sing. Neil whispered to Niko and expressed how nervous he was and that he’s never done this. Niko gave him a few words of encouragement and went into the control room with Al Schmitt. Despite Niko’s confidence in what he was doing and the confidence he portrayed to Neil...Niko told Al, “I hope I didn’t screw this up.” Niko came back out into the studio and stood right next to Neil to support him during the performance.

Neil closed his eyes and waited for the orchestra's cue. Despite the initial nervousness, a few seconds into the song, Neil and the orchestra were in intimate unity. At the end of the song, the whole orchestra was in tears! What they had just witnessed was pure, raw emotion expressed in the form of music. 

THE TAKE-AWAYS:

It’s always a pleasure to talk to experienced producers and engineers and learn from them. Here are my take-aways:

  1. Every producer and engineer is different. There is no “one way” to do this type of work. What makes Niko successful is his approach. That attracts certain clients, and maybe repels some. But that’s okay. You don’t have to please everyone. 
  2. Niko likes to take opportunities as they come. I tend to go to the extreme of over-planning so I can definitely benefit and learn from this approach. COMMENT BELOW: To what extent are you a hardcore planner or take opportunities as they come?
  3. Niko doesn’t limit himself to only one career. He has a multi-dimensional career. I definitely resonate with this and it was a relief to hear this. I thought to myself, “If Niko—who has so many years of experience in the industry and has worked with amazing clients—doesn’t have to limit himself to just be a producer or just be an engineer and even handle businesses that are not directly related…then certainly I can strive to do the same!” Because for many years I’ve struggled with the idea of having to define exactly what I do. And when I share with others that I produce music, do communications consulting, engineer, produce and do sound mixes for documentaries, etc…I feel like I’m trying to wear too many hats or haven’t mastered ONE craft. I certainly have a lot of business ideas—I’m even in the process of starting the first co-working space with childcare in Colombia with my wife—and would love to continue exploring different types of businesses. But my passion is always MUSIC & SOUND! This being said, I’m trying to eliminate unnecessary tasks or projects and focus on the ones I truly love and am passionate about. 
  4. Don’t think you can do it ALL BY YOURSELF. Many times we see a person’s success and assume they “did it all by themselves.” Niko genuinely shared with me how much he depends on these teams of experts to handle things that he’s not an expert at. I think that’s a great way to approach life. You may have a great idea, but don’t try to carry it out all by yourself…if possible and if needed, ask for help!

What are YOUR take-aways?

Daniel Badi Rinaldi

Bogota, Colombia