Ben Hillier

When Nadine Shah had to leave London to look after an ailing family member while recording Kitchen Sink, she entrusted her frequent collaborator and co-writer Ben Hillier with helming the sessions on his own. Hillier is a distinguished producer and mixer who’s worked with Depeche Mode, Blur, the Doves, and many others, in addition to being an inventive drummer, percussionist, and loop-maker. Modern Drummer spoke with Hillier about his work on Kitchen Sink.

MD: You were left to your own devices to do a lot of the work on Kitchen Sink when Nadine had to tend to an ailing family member. Do you think the album would have been radically different had you both been working together throughout?

Ben: I don’t think so. I always have a very free reign on Nadine’s albums, as we write them together rather than it being a more traditional producer-artist relationship. That said, Nadine wasn’t able to attend much, so I was definitely left to my own devices. We spoke quite a lot about the direction of the record, we both wanted a more upbeat, groove-led record. We were referencing a real mixture of influences from North African funk to New Orleans drum lines, and from later Talking Heads to Dave Brubeck, each of which have real signature rhythmic elements.

MD: The percussion loop that opens “Walk” doesn’t telegraph the very bouncy double-handed snare pattern that follows. Was it obvious to you that that’s where the song needed to go, or was it also a bit of a surprise that you ended up there?

Ben: “Walk” evolved quite slowly. The groove was originally straight, and I wanted a really bright brassy sound for the riff. I’d seen some of the marching bands that play at halftime in NFL games and wanted to research that sort of sound. So I was searching YouTube videos of NFL marching bands, and I came across some of the bands from around New Orleans, especially the Human Jukebox, the marching band from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They were brilliant, the brightest and loudest I’d seen, but they also had this great swing to the drums, bouncing off the downbeat almost like Bhangra music or the Punjabi singer A.S. Kang. So I recorded that loop that starts the song and switched to a swing feel on the kit that really gave the track a strut.

MD: You have a knack for creating percussion loops that sound very human—slightly rickety but still perfectly placed. How conscious are you of fashioning parts that don’t sound like something that’s been cut and pasted throughout a track?

Ben: I have a very strict “no quantize” rule. I spent years as an engineer when ProTools first emerged, quantizing perfectly good performances by great drummers because they weren’t bang on the grid, and I thought they always lost more than they gained. So yes, it’s a conscious decision. I love looping, but I try to avoid any quantizing within the loop. The wonkier the loop, the better.

Interview by Patrick Berkery
Photos by Anthony Harrison