Career in the Spotlight: Matt Nolan (41), Creative Noise Maker Maker!

This week I interviewed Matt, silicon chip engineer turned cymbal and gong maker. Here he tells us how he made this unusual transition, what he has learned along the way, and how he ended up having dinner with Björk.

Matt Nolan

Photo credit – Andy McCreeth

What did you want to be when you grew up?

At junior school we were asked what we wanted to do, and I remember my best friend at the time said he wanted to be a bank robber, and I said I’d like to be the person that made his getaway vehicles!

What has been your career path to date?

So, after my degree in electronic engineering, I was 10 years in the electronic and silicon chip industry. Then, naturally I became a cymbal and gong maker!

How did you get from electronic engineering to making musical instruments?

It started as a hobby, I sort of came back to acoustic drums after using electronic drum pads, and it was coming back to real cymbals that was the wow moment – they are so expressive, and so many different sounds, it was brilliant.

I was looking for one cymbal that you could work with in a really minimal gig situation. I [bought various cymbals] and ended up with these knackered things, and thought, ‘I could do something with these’. I started buying broken ones and trying to make them into something useful.

And then that turned to taking raw metal and turning it into a cymbal or a gong, or a funny sort of metal sonic sculpture thing. That was a hobby, although people were starting to buy bits of it.

Then another sculptural gong maker, and a mutual drummer friend of ours, had this idea of putting on a concert that was played on our instruments. I got a workshop and was making lots of things for the concert, and that was another tipping point where it turned into a bigger thing.

And what helped you move from hobby to career?

In 2008 when there were possibilities of redundancies and big pay offs, my first thought was ‘oh – I could set up a cymbal company, or try and start something and see if it works’!

There was about enough money to buy equipment and materials, and pay for a musical instrument exhibition in Frankfurt in April. It was enough money to get me to that point and then it would either fail and I’d go back to a normal type job, or it would carry on. And I guess it did carry on!

Was there anything else that helped that transition?

Mainly just mad determination!

[When I took redundancy] I was on a retainer, so I did do some work for them in the first 2 years, so that all helped.

Also, I got friendly with one of the guys who filmed the concert, [whose] day job is as a music tech video journalist. I got the press eyes view on the music trade show in Frankfurt – so I kind of hit the ground running.

What does your work life look like now?

Since [my daughter] was born, I thought I needed security and stability, so I am doing 4 days a week for an Australian company in a design centre in Bristol, and I do my cymbal and gong bits the rest of the time. Officially it is 3 days a fortnight, but it often ends up being the evenings as well. Last week I took a week off the Bristol work so I could spend a whole week in the workshop!

What have been some of the highlights of your new career so far?

[Dinner with Björk] was an unexpected treat. That was kind of a moment of some reflection as well, when I was on the way there on the New York underground thinking, hang on, how did this happen?

I like doing the trade shows where you get players right there playing the instruments and giving you feedback, that nice closed loop. You maybe don’t get so much in a less hands on creative type job.

Some instruments I can make in less than a day so you get a result, you get something you can be pleased with or disappointed with, whereas sometimes I have worked in jobs where it is 18 months to see results, which weren’t even very tangible results.

Matt Nolan-1What would your career look like as a picture?

It is a bit of a circle in a way in that it has kind of come back to the earlier things, you know, building things with your hands, musical things. It went off in a creative but different direction, but now all seems to be coming back full circle in a way.

How would you like to see your career when you look back at it when you are retired?

Having been successful and solving loads of problems. Having improved the world of percussion instruments for people to make better quality, more interesting music – I guess to have been an enabler of such things.

Generally, what lessons have you learned along the way that you would share with other people?

Look for patterns, look for connections. Lots of things I have done before have led into what I do. Bring ideas from other disciplines into what you are doing, you know, try and see if they could maybe fit.

Look at what other people are doing in similar endeavours, you know, see where they are doing it well, where they are doing it badly, try and learn things from their example.

What does work mean for you?

Satisfaction, enjoyment, challenge, occasionally it’s a pain, but only occasionally.

You can find out more about Matt at Matt Nolan Custom Cymbals

WHAT ABOUT YOU?  Perhaps this article has got you thinking about something you are passionate about outside of work and you’d like to explore ways to make this your career?  Visit my website to find out more about the career coaching that I offer and how I could help you. 


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