Steven Wilson’s Craig Blundell
Story by Will Romano
Photos by Carl Glover
During his rise to the top of today’s prog scene, the ever-adaptable electroacoustic drummer handily dealt with every physical and technological challenge thrown at him. The only real roadblock, it turns out, came from within.
It’s your big break. The announcer calls your name and you’re expected on stage. You’re paged and an impromptu search party tries to locate you, but you’re nowhere to be found. Turns out you’re partly hiding, partly struggling to answer the call, because you’re nearly suffocating inside, psychologically paralyzed and nursing your frayed nerves.
Sounds like a nightmarish scenario, doesn’t it? For the British drummer Craig Blundell, a well-traveled recording artist, educator, and clinician, it’s reality. Or, rather, it used to be.
Blundell suffered from debilitating nerves—not uncommon among live performers—but through tough mental discipline, professional insight, and the power of positive thinking, he has overcome his personal obstacles. More to the point: Blundell hasn’t so much steeled himself as learned to improvise and view each live setting as an opportunity. A concert gig not only allows for a free exchange of ideas among the musicians on stage, but offers a chance for the audience to be entertained and, dare we say, inspired and educated. “I have no problem going on record if it will help readers,” Blundell says. “There’s no problem getting nerves. If you have it under control, you can deal with it. Don’t be afraid to seek help.”
Today Blundell has jettisoned most of his fears, and has experienced banner years in 2015 and 2016. Last year he assumed the coveted drum chair in Steven Wilson’s highly touted progressive rock/fusion solo band, a seat formerly held by the well-regarded Marco Minnemann, and he appeared on Wilson’s 4 1/2 EP, released earlier this year. But Wilson’s not the only one who has kept the drummer’s phone ringing. Blundell has recorded and/or toured with Frost*, the progressive rock supergroup led by the British hitmaker and producer Jem Godfrey, as well as the neo-proggers Pendragon, guitar goddess Jennifer Batten, and Lonely Robot, the project spearheaded by musician and producer John Mitchell (It Bites, Frost*).
Beyond his abundant technique, Blundell has fully embraced technology. His blending of acoustic and electronic drums has put him at the forefront of a movement that undeniably represents the future of mainstream drumming. A regular Roland clinician, Blundell has done much to raise the game of amateur and pro drummers the world over. Meanwhile, on stage and in the studio, his creativity and industriousness have allowed him to provide endless sonic and rhythmic textures and sound-design options for top artists and producers.
Ironically, despite this immersive technology backdrop, MD’s originally scheduled interview with Blundell was plagued and ultimately postponed due to technical glitches. When we eventually connected, we discussed a range of topics, some digital, some very much analog.
MD: Can you talk specifically about how you approached covering Marco Minnemann’s parts in Steven Wilson’s band? Did you chart them?
Craig: To be honest, the audition was one of the most embarrassing I’ve ever had. I set up my gear and played through “Hand Cannot Erase.” I’d charted Marco’s parts and learned them verbatim. After I finished, Steven came into the studio and said, “Now, tell me, is that you playing or is that Marco playing?” I said, “That’s me playing the parts I’d heard.” He said, “Right. Scrap all that. I don’t want you to play that. Marco is Marco. Give me what you would do.” I was like, Oh, man. I felt like I was thrown into the deep end, massively. I suffered with nerves anyway, but I played through it. Then Steven said, “Do you want to go to lunch?” I thought I’d blown it, but he said, “Right, okay, do you want the gig?” I canceled all my work for the next two months.
MD: How long did it take you to get up to speed on the Wilson gig?
Craig: I’d given myself three weeks to learn the material. Then I got a phone call to cover for Chad Wackerman on the Jennifer Batten tour, which finished the day before the Steven Wilson rehearsals, so I had about a day or so of playing the material beforehand. Then we did the rehearsals for two days, flew to Chile, and did the first show.
Steven records every show, and he’ll go back to the hotel or bunk [in the tour bus] and listen to the recordings and speak with you the next day. He’ll say, “You know, Craig, there’s a few things here I want to speak with you about….” It was like, Ah, man. You feel like the naughty schoolboy who’s been sent down to the office.
Gradually those chats became less and less frequent, and at the end of the tour he invited me to stay on for festival season, and now I’m his guy. Marco Minnemann is really busy doing Joe Satriani and Aristocrats, and Steven wanted somebody on a bit more of a permanent basis.
MD: How has the gig changed your playing?
Craig: My timekeeping changed irreversibly, because the whole gig is on a click. After we did the Royal Albert Hall for two nights [in September 2015], we had to learn about five hours of material. Steven was going through some old Storm Corrosion and Porcupine Tree songs, which are fairly brutal under the hands anyway, but on a click you can’t waver. I’ve never practiced so much or hit so hard in my life.
Steven likes a certain vibe on stage, and Marco and Gavin [Harrison, Wilson’s longtime bandmate in Porcupine Tree] are fairly heavy hitters. I’m really not. I’m predominately a jazz-fusion player, and I play with these little 7A sticks. But I’ve found myself hitting from over the shoulders, and that has changed my timekeeping. Because I’m playing harder, I found myself rushing. I’ve had to learn to rest behind the click. With adrenaline you’re on [the click]. It’s taken a while—every day is a learning day—but my timekeeping has improved massively.
MD: How much practice do you get on the road, and when and where do you do it?
Craig: Whether it was in the hotel or on the tour bus, I made a point on tour to take an hour a day to go through sections of the songs and work out alternate sticking patterns. There’s a lot in there that can be changed, but I don’t want to improvise on the spot, where it could go wrong. I don’t want to let anybody down.
MD: You’ve recently worked with a couple of monster bassists in Nick Beggs from Steven’s band and Nathan King from Frost*.
Craig: I’m very lucky to be working with Nathan. He plays bass in Level 42 and is amazing. And Nick has been like a big brother, on and off the stage. When I had any insecurities, he would sit down and talk to me. Nick’s the king of rational thinking. He’d say, “You played this great. Stop overanalyzing and forget about it.” He’d even record the bass parts with a click and offer commentary to go along with it. He would go that extra mile to make sure his buddy wasn’t lost in the deep end. He’s just an absolute mountain of wisdom. He’s gigging every day of the year and is at the top of his game.
MD: What was it like recording the latest Frost* album, Falling Satellites?
Craig: The first time I played through any of the Frost* album was the day before I went into the studio. I was finishing the Steven tour, got into the studio, listened to the material, and thought, What have I done? I should have given it more ears. But having spent ten months or so with Steven, I felt a better musician. We did the drum tracks in two sessions in the studio. We got it all down. Best thing I’ve ever recorded, by far.
MD: How about the Lonely Robot album, Please Come Home?
Craig: I love John Mitchell—he’s a dear friend—but everything is last minute. I actually kind of thrive on that now. But I got to the studio one Saturday morning, and I hadn’t heard any of the songs. We wrote out all these time signatures on paper as well as words like loud and quiet and softer. John would hold up these pieces of paper as I was playing, cuing me every time something changed. We did the whole album in four hours. [laughs]
I just recorded a second album with them, and it was done the same way. I’ve had so many things in the last year that have been last minute that I’m kind of used to it now. The Wilson gig has helped; I’m fairly confident that I can go in and blast through it.
MD: You do a good amount of layering digital and acoustic drums. Can you talk about this?
Craig: I was really inspired by Bill Bruford and Earthworks in the mid-1980s, which sparked my fascination with electronics. I started my relationship with Roland in 2003, doing a few demonstrations. I’d been involved with launching the TD-30 V-Drums sound module as well. I love acoustic drums, and I’m an avid collector of them. But when John played me the Lonely Robot stuff, I told him that I had some great kits on the TD-30 that we could fire via MIDI to give the drum tracks more intensity. I could also layer some acoustic sounds and samples. John gave me carte blanche. Same with Frost*. Actually, same with Steven.
MD: What’s your method for layering acoustics and electronics?
Craig: I’ve put triggers on all the drums, and I record the audio and MIDI [information] from the TD-30 brain, so if producers want to, in postproduction they can find a different kit to layer under the acoustic sound. They have the MIDI notes, so they can assign a tom [hit], for instance, to a slightly deeper drum. If used correctly, it’s a game changer.
MD: You’ve suffered from pretty debilitating nerves in the past.
Craig: I’ve been playing for thirty-eight years. I’ve always been comfortable playing for family and friends. But in 2004 I was invited to play DrumFest in England. It was a great bill. Will Calhoun and Billy Cobham were on it. I remember when I was being introduced I was still sick with nerves. I knew something wasn’t right from that day. I was the last one to set up, and David Garibaldi sat right in front of me. My hands had morphed into claws, because I couldn’t play in front of one of my heroes. I actually don’t remember the gig.
Then the phone started ringing and I got some gigs, which was good. But then I got this feeling of being sick again. I still get nervous. When most people get nervous it’s from a fear of failing, which is down to preparation. My issue was how the audience perceives me. Will they all sit there with clipboards, thinking they can play something I played faster? The right answer is that the audience has come to this show to be inspired.
MD: So you went to a psychologist?
Craig: Absolutely. I was dreading taking the stage. I nearly gave up the Steven gig in the early days due to all the trolling. I had to get help. So I sat down with a guy for about six sessions and talked through all my fears. They were unjustified, which I’m thrilled about. He said that when I walk onto a clinic stage, I should do it with a smile on my face, because people are there to learn from me. I’m there to learn from them as well.
Now I no longer say to myself that people have come to see me fail, or that I’m Marco’s replacement. I just think, As long as the boss is happy, and I’m happy, and my family is happy… I’m paying the bills and keeping a roof over our heads. And I’m still enjoying the work. And that’s all that matters. It’s all bigger-picture now.
Drums: Mapex Saturn V kit in black satin burl
• Black Panther Velvetone and Cherry Bomb snares
• 8×8, 8×10, and 9×12 toms
• 12×14 and 14×16 floor toms
• 16×18 gong drum
• 20×22 bass drum
Heads: Aquarian Hi-Velocity snare batters, Force Ten coated tom batters and Classic Clear bottoms, and Super-Kick 2 bass drum batter
Electronics: Roland SPD-SX sampling pad and RT-30 triggers
Sticks: Vater Craig Blundell signature series
• 14″ Signature Reflector Heavy Full hi-hats
• 22″ Twenty Custom Collection Metal ride
• 19″ 2002 Wild China
• 18″, 19″, 20″, and 22″ 2002 crashes
• 14″ PSTX Flanger Stack
• 10″ PSTX Swiss Hats
• 18″ or 20″ PSTX Medium Swiss crash
• 10″ 602 Modern Essentials splash
• 10″ Signature splash
• Prototype stack: 8″ Rude splash on top of an 8″ Rude Mini China
• 12″ Signature Flanger Bell
Accessories: Protection Racket AAA cases, SlapKlatz drum dampeners