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Mike Dawes on synth-pop project Nik Mystery: “It's as far removed from Periphery and solo acoustic music as anything could possibly be!”

Mike Dawes may have just landed himself the title of best acoustic guitarist in the world in this year’s mammoth MusicRadar poll, but he’s heading into 2019 with something quite, quite different.

New project Nik Mystery - formed with Periphery frontman Spencer Sotelo and producer Jukka Backlund - is an ’80s-inspired extravaganza of soaring synths, big hooks and classic ’80s guitar leads, complete with legato runs and whammy gargles.

It’s the last thing we’d have expected from Dawes, who’s best known for otherworldly one-man acoustic shows, and touring stints with The Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward.

With that in mind, we set out to quiz him on just how this unexpected melding of musical worlds came about, and what lies next for the band...

How did this band get together?

We all have our 'main gigs', and I think if that wasn't the case, the vibe would be different

“Funnily enough, it's not really a 'guitar geek' project; it came from the NAMM show in California. Jukka Backlund is an old Finnish friend living in Las Vegas who came up for the convention. He also happens to be a musical genius, with some ludicrous accolades through his production work and old band in Europe.

“Anyway, the soundtrack to that trip was very ’80s-inspired, culminating in an accidental session down in Vegas. We had such a blast just writing pop music with no clear goal or underlying pressure, and that just so happened to be exactly what Spencer Sotelo was looking for creatively.

“Spencer and I go way back and he decided to fly in and hang with us. The three of us just get on so well and this project is so much fun. We all have our 'main gigs', and I think if that wasn't the case, the vibe would be different.”

What inspired the name?

“Haha, I'm not sure we're ready to tell that story, but it involves Guns N’ Roses, the Rainbow Bar & Grill in LA, my good friend Wilson and a man with the most immaculate shoes.”

There’s quite a strong synth-wave element to the music - is that a shared love in the band?

“Totally. We were listening to a lot of The Midnight, as well as Toto, Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson, INXS and things like that. We all grew up surrounded by that kind of music (the older bands, anyway), so although none of us had ever really produced it, we are all fans.

“It's really bizarre; this project is about as far removed from Periphery and solo acoustic music as anything could possibly be! We are expecting to surprise the majority of our collective fanbases with this.”

People might think if you were ever going to play in an electric band, it would be metal; are you looking forward to surprising people?

Honestly, one of the reasons I wanted to pursue a project like this was to force me to get back into electric guitar

“The hair and beard give that away, right? I was actually in a metal band at school and I am a big fan of the genre. There is a bit of grit on this EP in So... and Drive but it's definitely not metal, more like Eddie Van Halen playing on Beat It - except EVH is the king and I'm just a bum; there’s no comparison there.”

Have you always played electric in your spare time or did you have to readjust to it again?

“Honestly, one of the reasons I wanted to pursue a project like this was to force me to get back into it. Electric guitar brings me such joy, but there is so little time for it on the road, apart from my work with Justin Hayward where I get to tickle a Tele for a bit.

“I guess I thrive on taking risks, and people can hear that in my weird solo acoustic music, so I'm not afraid to publicly try something out as long as it's fun - and this project with my friends is nothing if not a heap of fun.”

There’s a real funk approach here - did you find your acoustic chops have given you a good handle on that kind of rhythm work? Were you playing with a pick for much of it?

“My last acoustic video Reverie is actually the only tune I ever performed with a guitar pick until this project. All of the Nik Mystery stuff is picked. There are funky Nile Rodgers Strat parts and, of course, a bit of shredding. The full album we’re working on has a few fingerpicked electric bits, but the EP is more traditional electric.”

What was the writing approach like?

“Jukka and Spencer are both incredible writers and producers. Some core songs on the EP were brought by Spencer, others by Jukka, Jukka and I, or the three of us messing around in the studio. It was all a bit transatlantic with Jukka in Vegas, Spencer in DC and myself in the UK: lots of Dropbox and time around our various touring commitments.

“Taylor Larson, Ernie Slenkovich and George Lever were a great help in additional production and tracking. Ernie is the drummer on the EP - he's unbelievable.”

There are some great ’80s-flavoured guitar breaks - especially on the song So, but this isn’t necessarily music just driven by the guitar; how did it feel to change the dynamic for you as a player?

It's been a really fun process to add subtle parts into these pieces that serve the vocal

“I think this will be a very alienating release for anyone looking for 'guitar music'. This isn't that. It's a pop record. It's been a really fun process to add subtle parts into these pieces that serve the vocal. The vocal is by far the most important thing in this project, unlike an instrumental acoustic record.”

We're hearing Strat-esque single-coil tones - what gear did you use for the EP?

“I picked up an Xotic California Classic with D’Addario strings for the cleans, whereas the leads were played on the neck pickup of my DiMarzio-loaded Ernie Ball Axis. I wanted that classic EVH sound but with a bit of a tube-y growl. You can hear that at the end of Drive. The clean parts were typically fired over to Taylor and Spencer raw. The Jason Richardson JST plugin was used for the dirty tones as well.”

There’s a full album coming, but do you have plans for a tour?

“Once we have enough tracks out, that's the plan. Probably around the full-length, which should be out in 2019. We have big plans for a live show, but it's about finding time between my tours with Justin Hayward/The Moody Blues, solo stuff, and Spencer's cycle with Periphery for their fourth album (which will be a huge record). As soon as we have a fanbase to play for, we'll be out. Our little baby band is just warming up.”

Nik Mystery's debut EP When is available now via Bandcamp.

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