Lee Nicolson: A mutant space bat of ingenuity
Lightning Bear interview
Lee Nicolson has been a familiar face in the Dunedin music scene for the last 8 years; playing guitar for the original music acts of Thundercub and more recently Space Bats, Attack!. In recent times Lee has been working on some exciting new innovations with guitar effects pedals. Here, Lee gives us the inside scoop on his music, pedal projects, and background.
First of all, please tell me about yourself; where are you from originally?
I grew up in Invercargill. My dad is an electrician, so I guess that might have been where the interest began. At an early age I was into his workshop whenever he was out of the house, which is possibly when I first began dismantling anything held together by screws. Reassembly didn't come so naturally.
Haha, I know that experience well myself! Seems that you had quite the creative childhood, did you do a lot of creative subjects at school?
It would probably be fair to say that my experience in the education system was less than ideal. I seemed to spend a lot of time jumping through hoops and ticking boxes, without really feeling capable of joining the dots, or even being aware of the dots for that matter.
Because of this, I spend a lot of time playing catchup, consumed by thoughts of what I need to figure out next. This generally results in a great deal of time staring at a computer screen and terrible sleeping habits.
I think it’s fair to say you’re not the only one who might feel that way. What drew you towards playing and studying music?
I used to listen religiously to Metallica. I dubbed the "Black Album" off my cousin when everyone in my class was rocking the Backstreet Boys. It got me into guitar music in a big way. I found a Diplomat bass under a bed in my grandparent's sleep-out a few years later. Despite the neck being shaped like a banana, I thought it sounded awesome. A friend was kind enough to lend me her spare electric guitar and she was probably the first instance of having someone else’s playing as a comparison to my own feeble noodling, which got me practicing like crazy. Eventually my perception of guitar playing was blown wide open by my guitar teacher Ross Ogilvy, who introduced me to Django and Wes Montgomery in the seventh form.
What is your history in Dunedin and your involvement with music?
I came to do the rock degree in 2006, mostly because I was keen on the idea of being in a band, and that universities have a knack for recruitment in high schools with the lure of prestige.
It was probably the most expensive and worst band I have ever been in.
Your rock course band?
Yep. Samdrub Dawa was on the drums at the time, and we continued to play for a few years after. We met DJ Champion through a mutual friend and eventually formed Thundercub.
Learning to jam with other musicians is something that really didn't come naturally. I'm mostly a bedroom-loop-pedal-jammer.
There are a ridiculous number of factors that you might not think of in terms of jam chemistry. In hindsight, making a simulated band, where jamming is supposed to be learned within a timeframe then put through a process of inherently biased assessment seems more than a little absurd.
So what do you prefer? Jamming with Thundercub or loop pedals?
Jamming with others is always preferable to a loop pedal due to the spontaneity of it, but there is a time where looping is preferable to bandmates politely waiting for you to figure something out. Loopers are also handy if you need to try record and layer an idea before it’s gone from your head.
Did you find the Rock degree useful? What were some of the pros and cons of the experience?
I stopped taking performance papers by the end of second year because I'd gotten a bit bummed out. Attempting to meet other people's ideas of musicianship with my own version wasn't a helpful thing for me.
It was a good way to meet other musicians though, but you're more likely to find them at a gig where everyone digs a similar genre.
How did music continue after your degree?
A few years after [finishing my degree] I started another band with Josh from A Distant City. Bugs from Alizarin joined us for a few shows, then we were a two-piece, which completely blew my mind and gave me a great deal of respect for bands like Operation Rolling Thunder. Richard Ley-Hamilton joined Space Bats, Attack! after about 6 months and it really changed my perception of guitar playing. I'd always spent a fair bit of time worrying about a formulated set of guitar riffs, which would then lend itself to a complete loss of dynamics, as louder seemed like the only way to go. What I've learned from Richard is that it's more appropriate to view the two guitar parts like the right and left hand of a piano... it's a straightforward way to put things in perspective.
That’s a fantastic way of looking at it. Do you have any particular groups/artists you would consider inspirational? Or at least influential to your music?
That’s a hard one. Everything I’ve ever enjoyed listening to has probably influenced me in some way. Some of the long standing influences would be Deerhunter, Holy Fuck, Melvins, Slint and Boris but some I have enjoyed over the past few years include MF Doom, My Disco and Nicolas Jaar and Run The Jewels.
More recently you have begun creating effects pedals. What are some of your recent projects?
I've got a few on the go. Some aren't technically effects or pedals. My main priority is to submit a provisional patent before a Kickstarter campaign, sometime before the end of the year. Luckily there is a lot of downtime between waiting for firmware development and parts/PCBs in the post.
The effects projects I have been focussing on are the Mutant Space Bat Of Doom and the Thundercub. Both are in the region of fuzz but have additions to the circuitry that equalize or oscillate. It's sort of like a concept of band-themed stomp-boxes I'm planning to continue on with. I'm also collaborating with a friend from work to make a slick and refined jam recorder called the "Jam Jar". A fair bit of stuff needs learned in the digital realm before a physical prototype will appear though.
I've also been working on some projects with another friend who hangs out on the ilovefuzz.com forum as "mysteriousj". His designs are unreal. He was designing unique SMD analog delays back when I was etching one-sided through-hole stuff.
Do you feel that these projects have been successful? What problems or bumps in the road have you encountered?
There's a pretty decent pile of discarded prototypes in my workshop. I cringe at how ugly some of them are, but they were successes by what I learned from them. I'm very fortunate to now be working at a local electronics company, with the majority of Dunedin's electronic knowledge in one place. So trying to solve design problems has become easier over time as I learn through either observation or pestering others. Implementing a fix, on the other hand, can take some time depending on how inundated I usually find myself.
What are your main problems at this stage?
I guess my main goal is to refine my manufacturing methods, design and assembly to the point where I won't lose sleep knowing they are out in the world somewhere.
My first proper pedal was called the Omega Red, and I learned a crapload about what I needed to school myself on. There were something like 30 wires in that thing. I was stoked with how it sounded, but I dreaded the idea of hand-building another. I hate wires.
I'm really looking forward to the (hopefully) final version of the Thundercub PCB arriving. It's gone through 4 prototypes, but now only has 2 wires. The satisfaction of attaching the enclosure to the entirely built circuit and only having to solder two wires will be awesome.
I think we’re all looking forward to that! Where do you base yourself? Do you have a space dedicated to your crafts?
I have a fairly sizable workshop in The Attic on George, but mostly use my desk at work to build things in the evening, and head up to the Attic to give any new gadget a blast through a loud amp.
Why the scale down?
I began with through-hole components but have moved towards SMD (tiny) parts, which is a lot faster and tidier with no difference to the sound, despite what some tone purists might think.
I don’t know if I would get away with assembling circuits with the lighting in the Attic, plus it’s commonly less than 10°C indoors throughout the winter time. I’m not that keen on the idea of going back to working in a sleeping bag.
What are your plans for the future? Do you see yourself moving from, or expanding beyond Dunedin?
The main advantage of refining my build style is that I can solder and assemble anywhere with a postal service.
I quite like living in Dunedin for its sense of musical community and, compared with starting a business in a larger city, it's super affordable. My main intention was always to operate through the internet, as aiming to sustain electronic manufacturing in the Dunedin, or even New Zealand market alone is quite unrealistic. It's a bit hard at times trying to network to raise seed capital or even get advice on my niche area of product design. Seeing as the products I'm planning to manufacture don't fit the mold in most ways, I get the feeling sometimes that it would be beneficial to find a bigger scene.
Do you consider this something you’d like to make a career of, or a hobby that earns you a bit on the side?
I don’t see it as a hobby. It might have started off that way, but if I’m lucky enough to be around in 50 years I’ll still be putting all my time into improving old designs and coming up with new ones, purely because I can’t the stop thinking about making stuff. It’s a bit broader for me than stamp collecting or flying model planes. I’ll probably do that stuff too. Financial sustainability is something I plan to achieve in the short term for making and designing effects, and as time goes on the same will happen for my other projects, and eventually they will develop into their own entities.
Finally, what is the main thing you would require to really kickstart your plans and why or how would you use it?
A 30 hour day. A few more hours of product development and sleep would be great.
How can we contact you about your crafts and purchase them?
I've got a website at lightningbear.co.nz, which also links to email, Twitter and Facebook.
By Brendan Christie More articles