Will Dower

THERE’S no denying that in recent months a very significant amount of the world’s innovative music and musicians have been coming from Australia. One has only to look at the hit songs and top acts to see names like Men at Work, AC/DC, Air Supply, Little River Band, and of course, artists like Olivia Newton-John, the Cibb Brothers, and Rick Springfield. It’s not that Australia hasn’t had fine artists all along, but it seems that they have come into focus more in the last few years. We had the “British Invasion” of the early ’60s; now it seems that the ’80s will be the generation of the “Aussie Invasion.”

One of the important drumming figures in contemporary Australian music is Will Dower, who might be described as an Australian combination of Ed Shaughnessy and Hal Blaine. Will is one of Australia’s top studio drummers, and performs regularly as the drummer in the stage bands of two major network TV shows. He also tours the country as a backup drummer for one of Australia’s biggest singing stars.

Along with his son Mark, who is himself a fine drummer (and at the tender age of 17, is also backing one of Australia’s top touring acts), Will recently came to the U.S. to investigate the American music scene by hearing as many top players and touring as many of the studios, clubs and drum schools as possible. He and Mark took a break from their frantic traveling schedule to visit MD‘s offices, and give their views on the Australian music industry.


RVH: Let’s start by getting a little background on Will.

WD: I work with TCN-9, one of the major networks in the country, and certainly the major network for music. I do a show called The Mike Walsh Show, a five-day show that goes out live Monday through Thursday, and then Friday’s show is taped on Thursday. Seven years ago I was offered the job of full-time drummer, to do the entire thing. I suggested to the music director at the time that I didn’t think it would be a good idea, because you get locked into those shows, and with any television show you don’t know if you’ll be on for a year, five years, or whatever. I had seen situations in the past where people had been working on shows that folded, and there was nothing for the drummers to do—no jingles available or records, because other drummers were doing them. I suggested that we do a week on, and a week off, in the initial stages. He had to think about it, and came back with, “Why don’t we make it one week on, and two weeks off, which would be even better, and not only different drummers, but three entirely different bands.” So we have three, ten-piece bands that rotate; it’s quite unique. The beauty is, of course, that we can take time off to do tours, and if it happens to cross over my week, I just swap with someone else.

RVH: Is there only one musical director?

WD: Right—his name is Jeff Harvey, and he coordinates the whole lot.

RVH: Is this similar to the Johnny Carson show?

WD: Yes—it’s a talk show. We’ll generally have an opening number—a bright, uptempo tune—and then some sort of production number during the show with a musical guest, and then another closing number, so it’s usually at least three tunes per show. We get to back artists from all over the world. I also play drums for The Michael Parkinson Show. Michael is an interviewer, much like David Frost. Parkinson is huge in England, and he comes out now and does six months in Australia. That show uses about a 15-piece orchestra.

Apart from that, I do lots and lots of jingles. For seven years straight I did the Coke ads that are done in Australia, and of those seven years, three or four times those ads won the worldwide award for the best ads of the year. I’ve done a lot of records; I have about 65 albums to my credit, backing country artists, big bands—a bit of everything. You have to do that in Australia; it’s very hard to specialize. You’ll go broke if you specialize. I also tour and back cabaret artists. I work with a guy called Barry Crocker, and his backing singer used to be Olivia Newton-John. A female singer we had in the act back in ’65 for a few months turned out to be Helen Reddy. I backed the Bee Gees when they first started—all these Australian acts that have made it big. And me—I’m still working in Australia!

RVH: Herein the U.S., we have just a few drummers who have dominated the studio scene for many years. Is it the same type of closed-shop situation in Australia, where it might not be what you know but who you know that gets you a break in the recording business?

WD: I think it’s a bit more open. It’s not so much who you know, although that of course helps, but I think it’s more of “the right person for the right job.” There are two guys who have literally done most of the sessions in Sydney for the last ten years. One is Doug Gallacher, and I am the other. Doug and I have done just about all the major albums, jingles, TV shows and so on. But there are a number of very good up-and-coming young players, and a lot of other good players in different areas. For instance, I don’t consider myself really good in all areas, so if a producer rings me for a job, I always ask, “What is the brief? What’s it all about?” And if the producer says, “Well, it’s sort of a new wave-type song” then . . . I’m 41 years of age, and I’d be the first one to say, “I’m not the right drummer. You should get those drummers who are playing with the new wave-type bands, and they’ll do better for you.” A lot of that does go on in Australia, I believe. There are a lot of recommendations for the younger musicians, so I think they do have a good chance of breaking in. If that’s “who you know,” then there is some of that going on. But, for instance, in the case of Mark being my son, that’s not enough for him to necessarily make it. On any production, be it a jingle, a record or anything else, money is the operative thing, and time is money—especially in Australia, where we’re on such low budgets. You can’t afford to have turkeys playing drums; if they don’t cover it, out they go.

RVH: How much actual studio work is going on within Australia, in terms of major artist recordings?

WD: Well, there are several Australian labels, though they have to come to the U.S. for major, worldwide distribution. But we do have facilities for recording in Australia that I believe are as good as any in the world. For instance, Duran Duran have just spent six months in Australia recording their new album. We have studios going digital; we have everything that Mark and I have seen so far at any of the studios we’ve been to on the West Coast. The microphones, and every kind of equipment we’ve looked at are identical to what is used in Australia. Certainly in the drum department we are totally up-to-date. We’ve only found one piece of equipment over here—Tama’s extension hi-hat—that we can’t get yet in Australia. I think the number of foreign artists coming to record in Australia would be indicative of how good our equipment is.

RVH: What about recording for advertising?

WD: Advertising is a huge area of employment for Australian musicians, because we are not allowed to use any U.S. ads, or any other overseas advertising at all. Everything has to be done in Australia. So I’ve had to copy a lot of American drummers, and hear a lot of American tracks which are being brought in. An advertiser will come in with something and say, “We have found this campaign successful in the U.S., and we want to duplicate it here.”

RVH: So they walk in to Will Dower and say, “We want you to sound just like Hal Blaine, or Jim Keltner,” or so on?

WD: Right, and we go in and listen to their tracks. Then we go out and get the required drumkit. It might need a RotoTom effect, or they might want power toms. I have any number of snare drums available, because of my association with the Billy Hyde Music Stores. I can just walk in and borrow anything I need. From there it’s up to the engineer and myself to come up with the exact sound that was done in 1983 on Paramount stage number whatever it was, with Hal Blaine. That happens a lot.

RVH: Talking about engineers, one of the major differences of opinion among studio players here involves working with engineers. Many of the veterans feel that you should cooperate completely with an engineer, and make any changes the engineer deems necessary. However, some of the younger players feel that they were hired because they play the way they do, and sound the way they do, and they shouldn’t have to change any of that to suit an engineer. What is your philosophy about that?

WD: That’s a really good question. My re action initially when I started was to go with the engineer. I was young, just starting to do sessions, and I thought these people knew everything. Besides, my kit didn’t sound that good, and they were able to make it sound better than I could make it sound. So I said fine to whatever they told me. Then what happened was, I started to do a lot of sessions, and I made it my point to become as friendly as possible with the engineers. They are the ones who are going to make the sound good or bad. So I do try to create a rapport. And since Sydney is not a huge town with a lot of studios—there are only about ten recording studios and four TV studios—there are only about 14 or 15 people who I have to get to know. I try to get to know them as people and I try to get an idea of where their ears are at—what sort of records they listen to; what sort of sounds. I even bring in tapes on my Walkman and say, “Have a listen to this new album by whomever, and see what you think of it.” It could be a Steve Gadd sound or a Jeff Porcaro sound. I use a sort of subliminal advertising to get under their guard. The bottom line for me is that finally I have a kit that I think sounds right, and I really want it to sound like that on the recording. That producer has hired Will Dower because that’s the sound I get.

RVH: And by now you’ve established your credibility to the point where others are trying to get the “Will Dower sound.”

WD: Right. And I do believe that we are producing what I would consider an Australian drum sound, which is different from an American drum sound.

RVH: How so?

WD: Well, I’ll stick my neck out here. I really believe the English and the American drum sound of today—and I’m talking now on a broad basis—is over-processed. I believe we’re getting away from what drums are about. When we visited with Harvey Mason a week and a half ago, he told us he had done nine sessions that week, and six of them were on Simmons drums.

RVH: They certainly are the hot item in production in this country.

WD: Right. But the drum machines and Simmons drums are mostly dying out in Australia. It’s amazing. I would have thought they were going to go straight up, but instead they’ve dropped off. Before I left, I had three calls. One was for a jingle and a couple were for record albums. I had to go back and re-do the drums—real drums—over the top of drum machines and Simmons drums, because when the artists and clients concerned heard the original tracks, they said, “Oh no, not that sound again!”

RVH: Many American studio players have told us that, if they don’t come to the studio prepared with a live kit, a Simmons kit and in some cases a programmable drum computer, they just can’t get work.

WD: I’m quite sure that’s already passing at home. I consider that I have a fairly good finger on the pulse, and judging by my experience, it really is over the top. We’ve gone through the whole thing, with DMX devices, and Clap Traps, and all the big disco things. We’ve done all that. The hit parade tunes here are exactly the same as in Australia, so it’s interesting that you are still into what I call this over-processed sound. That’s all a lot of fun, but what happened to the instrument itself? Let’s get back to drums. And I do believe that we have a sound. There’s a tune down in Australia called “Made My Day,” with Ricky Fatah on drums, that has the best-sounding acoustic backbeat I have ever heard. No tricks, no LinnDrums, nothing—just beautifully produced. What it has is enough human element to make you say, “Hey, this is something new; we’re back to that!” I think Australia is leading, with an Australian sound. I believe we get a very good live sound on our television shows. We are live to air; there’s no post-production. A lot of care goes into them—a lot of thought. When I go back to Channel Nine in a few weeks, we’ll take a kit in there and we’ll spend a whole day just tuning that kit for the air. We’ll spend six, seven, eight hours or whatever it takes, getting that kit EQ’d and ready for air.

RVH: How do you go about tuning for TV? Do the hot lights make a difference?

WD: Minimal. We have a band shell on the show, which is air-conditioned. It has a series of spotlights for featuring different members of the orchestra if need be, but basically it’s temperature controlled. I’ve gone back to tuning with everything wide open. I use Pearl drums, with power toms, for work of all kinds. We have a kit that’s set up in the studio all the time for taping. Most of the studios in Sydney have a basic kit, and then you just bring in your favorite cymbals or snare, or special toms if you need them. I usually use an 8″ tom, and sometimes a 10″, then a 12″ and a 13″, and a 16″ floor tom. I run clear Diplomats on the bottoms, as thin as possible, and on top I use Pinstripes. My system of tuning is to hit it, and listen to it go “boomp, boomp, BOOOOM.” When it gets to that one point where it really sounds good, that’s it. I don’t tune to any pitch or anything like that. At some stage that drum is going to sound very good, and it takes a lot of tuning, with good ears, to get that final “booom.” Once I get that nice, open, fat sound, then I can adjust; generally I find I drop the top head just marginally to get that little drop-off of pitch—that sinking sound. And then I just go around the whole kit like that. No taping; I tried Deadringers for a while—they were okay—but now I just tune wide open. With the bass drum we prefer the dead, fat sound of a pillow inside, with the front head on with just a little hole to stick a microphone in. The reaction to the drum sound has been astonishing! I get a lot of mail from all over Australia, asking me how I get that sound on TV. I just explain it to them as I’ve done to you, and tell them that it’s the sound that does go out to air. And we’re proud of it! It’s a good sound. Various American groups have been over, played it, heard the playbacks later and just loved it. So I believe that that tuning is ideal. I believe, as I said, it’s an Australian sound, and it’s nothing more than going back to letting the drum do its job.

RVH: A lot of young drummers today have grown up listening to the studiotuned drums, or the re-mixed and re-engineered sound of drums affected by elec tronics. When these young players hear recordings by players who stuck to the older style of tuning, such as John Bonham or Mitch Mitchell, they’re just knocked out.

WD: Well, I went right through all of that. I jumped right on the Syndrums when they came out. I was virtually the only drummer using them in Sydney, and I was using them on everything—shows, jingles, albums—but that was because every producer wanted them. I’ve used all the tricks, but they seem to have faded from popularity with us now, and we’re back to a good basic drum sound. I’m not just a purist. I love all the tricks, but really, to me, the drum sounds around the world are very “McDonalds”: They really are just processed. Let’s get back to just playing the drums.

RVH: As an Australian musician, how do you feel about the amount of top-quality music and headline artists that are coming out of Australia in every style—the “Australian Invasion” of the ’80s, as a lot of the music press has put it?

WD: I think that “Down Under” we just have some amazing talent, in all aspects of life, not just music. I think we proved that by taking the America’s Cup from you in yachting, through sheer tenacity. That was a tremendous national pride thing. I think that the talent has always been there, and what is happening now is that our ad people and publicity people are finally getting off their backsides and pushing the Australian product. Look at our movies; our good ones are just superb, and have taken the world by storm. In Southern California you can pick up a paper at any given time and there will be Man From Snowy River, Gallipoli, Breaker Morant. There are half-a-dozen good movies that we’ve seen on bills here in the U.S. just in the time we’ve been here. And that’s half a dozen more than we’ve seen from Britain, or Japan or anywhere else. I think it’s because of our good marketing people, who are pushing our products and artists for worldwide distribution more now than in the past. For instance, Air Supply doesn’t really rate a very big mention at home—they wouldn’t fill a hall—but they’re very popular in America. We’ve always had talented people. For instance, we have, I think, the makings of one of the greatest drummers the world is ever going to see. Get ready for him! His name is David Jones, and he’s with a group called Pyramid.

Mark Dower: They’re into real jazz/rock; they’re the one band ever—and this is true…ever— to be asked to do a second concert at Montreux. They were so popular that the crowd went wild, and asked them to come back and do another show.

WD: David Jones is really a name I want to mention, because he is possibly—here we go—of his kind, the finest drummer I’ve ever heard.

MD: He’s been doing clinics in Japan.

WD: He’s a wonderful clinician, and probably the most innovative new drummer of today.

RVH: What age is he?

MD: Twenty-six. A real Vinnie Colaiuta type.

RVH: Ah—I was wondering who you might compare him to that we might already know here.

WD: Well—he’s David Jones. I wouldn’t put him into any sort of bag at all. He is into that sort of fusion, odd-time thing, but he is the cleanest, nicest thing I’ve ever heard on the drums. I’m really sticking my neck out there, but I don’t think I’m just being parochial, because in our travels here we’ve heard Harvey Mason, Peter Erskine, and we just love them all.

MD: Another guy who ought to get more credit in America is Virgil Donati. He was over here about six years or so ago, and went on the road with the Brecker Brothers.

WD: Melbourne is the drummer’s town in Australia; most of the hot drummers come from there. It’s the second-largest Greek population city in the world, and one of the largest Italian populations. So when you see names like Virgil Donati or Derek Pellici [of the Little River Band], you can bet they’re from Melbourne.

RVH: Is that where the work is?

WD: No, Sydney is where the work is. But my theory is that Melbourne is the drummer’s town because Billy Hyde, of the Billy Hyde Drum Clinic store chain, was a very wonderful teacher who lived in Melbourne and taught a lot of these people. Sydney produces more workmanlike drummers. I’m from the west coast—from Perth—so I don’t really fit into that mold. But we mentioned David Jones, and we should also mention Don Sleishman. There are products that are causing a bit of a stir now [such as double bass pedals and resonance enhancing mounting systems] that he actually did years ago.

MD: And Chris Brody! He makes these in credible snare drums. He’s from Perth, where there’s a kind of tree called the Jarra tree. He takes the whole tree, chops it down, and bores a hole straight up the middle.

Will Dower

RVH: He makes the drum out of the entire tree trunk?

MD: Right. He sticks it in a kiln to dry it out. We were just in L.A., and Tom Brechtlein was jamming on a kit with one of these snare drums. Harvey Mason’s got one. In L.A. they can’t get enough of them. Chris makes lots of sticks too.

WD: I’m still waiting for some power toms of this type. Talk about Australian drum sounds! It’ll be Australians leading the way back!

RVH: Back to the hollow log.

WD: It virtually is the hollow log. This wood was used on the tops of desks when I was a high school boy. Some of those desks were 80 or 90 years old, and you just couldn’t carve your name in them. It makes very heavy drums, but beautiful!

RVH: Now that we’ve talked about Australian drummers, I’m going to throw you a little curve here. Would Australia, and especially Sydney, be a good place for talented American drummers to go to in order to find work, since the sheer numbers of players here makes job-hunting difficult?

WD: They would have to be very well rounded drummers if they wanted to do a lot of work. Let me tell you quickly about Sydney. At last count, we had about 1,500 clubs in New South Wales, which is the state in which Sydney is located. There’s a lot of work there for musicians, singers, etc. We have a lucrative income from backing people who tour these clubs. These are supper clubs, with capacities from 500 to upwards of 3,000. Our big ones are comparable in size—although not in production—to some of your Vegas showrooms.

MD: We have these clubs where you can go into the bar, or you can go into the auditorium and see the show, and you don’t have to pay to see it.

WD: Or if you do, it’s very cheap—two dollars or so—but most times it’s free. Hearing all this, American drummers might say, “Right, let’s catch the next boat and go!” But what they find is that these acts—the top-of-the-bill ones—require a drummer who can play a lot of styles. Our acts are varied in their approach. They’ll do something with a country feel, then a big band thing—whatever. It’s essential that you can read, and I mean sight read, to do well in the clubs in Sydney, because you won’t necessarily be with that one act all the time. If you get into a club band—a house band—you can have a different act every night. There’s generally no rehearsal. They just give you an hour’s show, talk the charts down and say, ‘Right—go!” Quite a lot of visiting drummers who’ve come out from various countries are very good in one area. They come out to Australia and find that suddenly they’re thrown into a situation where they have to play everything, and perhaps they’re not quite ready for that. So Sydney is quite a specialized town that turns out quite good—I think—workmanlike musicians. I know that, particularly, artists and musical directors from America are always very impressed with how quickly the Australian musicians get through rehearsals. They just sight read straight down usually, unless it’s a very difficult piece, to the point where an artist like Peter Allen—who’s one of our own originally—didn’t even bother to bring his rhythm section on his last tour. He used an Australian rhythm section. Doug Gallacher was the drummer, by the way. Various other acts are being talked into using Australian rhythm sections. Shirley MacLaine came out last time with just her own drummer, because she does such a big dance routine and the drummer is so terribly important, but no one else.

RVH: Assuming an American drummer comes equipped with technical qualifications, would that drummer have trouble finding work in Sydney because of being American?

MD: The thing about Australia, is that it’s such a small-town sort of atmosphere, especially Sydney. There was one—we won’t mention any names—young American who came to fill in with one of our top bands, and everybody said straightaway, “Well, we better hear him.” So what happened was every drummer in town showed up at The Basement that night to hear this guy, expecting him to be great, expecting him to be Harvey Mason or something, and he was simply not up to their expectations. It might not even be that he played badly; maybe nobody could have been up to those expectations. But people were very quick to put him down, and the word got out very quickly.

WD: Small-town gossip, you see. I’m afraid it happens.

MD: And even if you come in and knock everybody out, it might not get around, because they won’t say anything unless they can say it’s bad.

WD: The same guy is quite a good drummer, and in certain bags plays very well. He certainly does have the funk thing right down. But the situation arose where a producer used him for a session, and he was unable to stay with a click track. So straightaway, the whole exercise was negated. He was not trained by the metronome. That’s the sort of thing you’ll find, coming to Sydney as an American drummer, or an English drummer, or any foreign drummer. You’ll really have to be well prepared, well accredited, and be ready to really be very good. Otherwise, you’re going to find that you’re up against some bloody good players there. Now, you won’t get out and hear—like we did last night—a Peter Erskine, where you just sit there with your jaw on the floor, but they will play the situations required very well.