Dan Nichols is the singer and washboard player in Cardiff's long-running skiffle group Railroad Bill. He also programs events for Cardiff Council and is a regular contributer to Made in Roath.

Can you tell us what you do?

I do all sorts of stuff. I’m part time Events Development Officer for Cardiff Council Events Team which means I program and schedule performers at events like the International Food Festival and Step Into Christmas. Everything from street performers to bands to BMX trick cyclists. I also put on freelance events, most notably vintage ones. 

I’ve been a singer and washboard player for Railroad Bill, Cardiff’s long-running skiffle group, for 31 years and once led the notorious middle-aged punk band Punk’s Not Dad.

Once a year in October at Made in Roath Festival, I bear a marked likeness to Sir Alfred Street, the mysterious curator of Actual History Museum of Roath who uncovers remarkable facts about Roath’s History alongside his learned colleagues Dr Glen Roy and Dame Shirley Road. 

My new collaborative music project The Naked Citizens, featuring dozens of musicians and singers of all kinds from Cardiff, will be properly launched in 2018.   

Why have you chosen to work in Cardiff?

I grew up in North London and Railroad Bill formed in Aberystwyth while we were students in 1986. I came here in 1988 because my girlfriend Louise had a place on a teacher training course (we’re now married so it all ended happily!). The band followed cos they had nothing else to do as did, for various reasons, about ten other Aberystwyth contemporaries who have all lived in Cardiff ever since and remained close friends. The first creative business I had was running a comedy club on the old 'Enterprise Allowance' with Railroad Bill tea chest bass player Chris Walker. It was in the upstairs room in The Claude and was going well despite us having no idea how to run a business and booking people via the payphone outside Roath Funeral Home. It fell apart suddenly because one night when we had a well(ish)-known circuit comedian from London and there were queues round the block, but the landlord hadn’t bothered to tell us that he had booked a wedding party in the same night. We had to pay all the artists off and our very hand-to-mouth business was ruined. Railroad Bill then had to busk on the Hayes to get us out of debt but this was the making of us as all our opportunities came from there. It started a cycle of me getting involved in DIY ventures on the tiny scene of the day and I guess I just became an adopted Cardiffian during those years. I’ve not seriously thought about moving so it must be ok.     

What inspires you about being here?

The friendly belligerence of the people! They’ll come to anything, often bringing deckchairs, but don't ask them to pay or book in advance. They are not snobs culturally nor are they over reverent of artists, you’ll get an honest answer to the question: 'Is it any good?' The warm spirit that saved Womanby Street is the positive and says great things about the hope and heart of our our city. I’m still a busker at heart (indeed the band still goes out at Christmas) and my day job is mostly about booking and scheduling entertainments for outdoor public spaces so I’m hugely inspired by the geography of Cardiff.

As a songwriter I’m inspired by the milling throng of people in the city centre; by the terraced streets and slate grey rooftops of the Victorian suburbs; by the parks that take you to the countryside through woodlands and motorway flyovers; by the Coast Road with its mix of countryside and fly-tipped edgeland and by City Road with its enormous kebab houses and rule-free traffic system. New things keep happening in Cardiff which is fantastic, but it is important to me personally that whatever comes out of that preserves its odd, friendly, fierce, contrary spirit as a city.  

What challenges have you found in working in Cardiff?

There have been times when Cardiff has valued sport above the arts and international chains above independents. I think this is beginning to change.

It’s small scale for a capital city so its advantages are also its weaknesses. On the one hand you can do something easily, everyone will help and your project will happen (see the Naked Citizens project I’m involved in below) but on the other it’s likely to stop there - it’s not easy to run a recurring gig or theatre night because the audience, from ballet to hip hop, is too probably too small and requires development.

We have always lacked connection in the wider creative world and while this is part of our charm, it definitely stunts our development. It took me a long time to realise properly that the population of Cardiff is not that different to that of a single London Borough and that this brings its own challenges.

It’s also been a bit too respectable in my opinion, South Wales loves its committees and wants you to wear a tie to a gala dinner and prove yourself in the image of the establishment. I therefore sometimes feel that it doesn’t recognize DIY endeavours as much as it should.  

How successful do you think Cardiff has been at making itself a creative capital, particularly in your area of work?

Specifically I’m very hopeful that the new music strategy will lead to a much more thriving scene. The Save Womanby Street Campaign involved grass roots activists and musicians as well as professionals and politicians. But of course this is only the beginning and even as a music city we are, in some ways, behind. It is the same for other parts of the creative scene, we started a long way behind somewhere like Bristol and need a lot of work to make up the gap.  

Council-produced events of the type we produced when I first joined the council - such the Children's Festival, the Street Entertainer's Festival, the Food Festival and the Harbour Festival are not as numerous as they once were due to cuts which is a shame because we were renowned throughout the country.

In your opinion, which three things need to happen to make Cardiff a more creative city?

It needs many more performance spaces; especially outside the city centre, we’ve lost a lot of terrific venues above pubs since the turn of the century.

Saying that, there is no point in having more spaces without some focus on audience development, not just in marketing but also in programming and creating the right environment. Cardiff audiences will come out but they have to know stuff is happening, find it and know that the surroundings are appealing. We need to find ways of inspiring and engaging them. We don’t just need good art to be produced for consumption beyond the city, we need to develop interest here.

Finally, I think it’s really important that as we start to move forward and create new opportunities we should act and think more constructively. Because the arts community is small and everyone knows each other, we’ve allowed ourselves to become quite gossipy, perhaps because nothing much was really at stake. I would definitely include myself in this over the years. But it’s probably time to show we can collectively grow and act in a joined up way.

What do you think Creative Cardiff should try to achieve?

I think the very existence of something like Creative Cardiff recognises that the creative industries need support, connections and nurturing in the current environment and that can only be good. 

It probably needs to focus on building more resolute networks and widening access, particularly beyond educated and employed arts professionals so that it can include people who are looking at things in different ways; to the chasing of funding streams and the planning of strategies. Not because it’s not important to plan but because so many very creative people lack skills and inclination in these areas and they get forgotten about. 

Describe your favourite creative place to work in Cardiff.

A couple of years ago I found I was suffering mildly with Seasonally Affected Disorder and I realised that I don’t find offices very creative environments, I suppose that’s why I’m suited to my job and drawn to street performance and busking. 

I’m a committed pedestrian and I write the hooks for songs while walking outside, where I observe people and make up stories about them. For example in my new project, the Naked Citizens the song “Bringing Her Home Today” is about the funeral of a 1940s Hollywood filmstar in the British suburb where she was born, it gained flesh walking through Birchgrove and still reminds me of that area, which is where I kind of imagine it taking place. My son Rob, who is the singer in Junior Bill, does exactly the same thing on a grander scale walking around and raiding the city for images and soul. 

My favourite venue to play in was Dempseys or more specifically the Old Four Bars which is why I put on a farewell gig before it closed. I enjoy playing wherever from the Tramshed, to Gwdihw to the Street.

Can you pick one creative person in Cardiff who we should go and find out more about?

Have you done Peter Finch? He writes so much about Cardiff and is an occasional collaborator with Sir Alfred’s History Museum. I think he is definitely worth talking to if you haven’t. Also Rob Smith from Wonderbrass, Si Kingman formerly of the Toucan Club, Humie Webb who runs the gospel choir and other intiatives or Bud or Joel from Cathays Community Centre. These people would all have interesting insights of long careers working in interesting areas of the Cardiff creative community. Ian Watson, artist and “Noise” musician, is another interesting person. 

What’s next for you? What projects are on the horizon? What new ideas are you working on?

My Naked Citizens project with my long term collaborator from Railroad Bill, Chris Walker and Rob Smith of the Heavy Quartet, Capra Mamei and Wonderbrass. We have written and recorded 12 individual songs each with a different singer; including burlesque jazz singer Fred Snow, Baby Queens rapper Monique Bux and former Ray Davies guitarist Pete Mathison among others. We did not think everyone we asked would say yes but they have and that’s Cardiff for you! Most of the songs are both fun and quite sad at the same time which is how life is. It includes vocalists from the age of 12-60 and covers a lot of genres. We have finished all the recordings now and will be releasing tracks across next year. The first one will be a song called Spacetouring which is a space disco song, sung by funk singer Suzi Chunk about how dull the life of a touring musician can become. I think this project is the best thing I've done creatively, but I suppose one always thinks that when it’s a new thing! I’m also running a new vintage event at the Paget Rooms in Penarth next spring.

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