It’s a balmy January evening, and at the back of an Italian restaurant nestled in a southern California strip mall, Mark Sheppard is telling the story of how he came to be the drummer with the psychedelic pop institution the Television Personalities, a band that became famous in the late ’70s for their quaint yet cutting mini-dramas dappled with British pop-culture references. The settings of TVP’s songs—the bustling streets and teen hangouts of London that Sheppard came up in—seem a world away from sunny suburban Anaheim and the corporate convention known as NAMM that’s brought him and Modern Drummer together. Yet the scene is somehow fitting for an interview with a man who’s experienced the emotional and financial extremes that a lifetime in entertainment can lay on you.
Like most of his stories—and he’s got a lot of stories—the names of people and places fly by fast, the details are conveyed with color and ample italics, the fast-forward and rewind buttons are regularly depressed, and the tale ends with either a punch line, a lesson learned, or both.
“My dad rented a room in Annie Ogden’s house,” Sheppard begins. “She was the floor manager of [the TV music-chart show] Top of the Pops. I was like ten, twelve years old. There were two brothers, Danny and Nick Woodgate. Nick played guitar and Danny played drums. Danny had an Ajax kit with a Beverley snare, and I wanted to be just like him. He was a couple years older than me, and went off and started a band called Madness. I bought that kit off him.
“I ended up living in a place near the London Drum Center on Portobello Road, near the railway arches where the Sex Pistols played. A very multicultural area. I started hanging out in the drum shop and working there on Saturdays. I eventually saved up 415 pounds—a lot of money in 1976—and bought a ’76 Gretsch kit, 20/12/14, with a brass Gretsch snare. It had the drum key that went into the octagonal badge. Weighed a ton.
“This was the era of singles,” Mark goes on. “We used to hang outside record shops to try to get access to bands. We were outside Chrysalis Records once and Debbie Harry of Blondie threw 8x10s and badges and buttons out the window to us. And Stiff Records was in Camden, and that’s when you saw Madness and Elvis Costello. And this is what I wanted to do. But I never played drums in the shop, never touched a practice pad, because people like Billy Cobham would come in. So I was this drummer who never played drums very much. It was this weird thing where I wanted to learn but didn’t know how to ask.
“But I’d met a kid at school and moved my drumkit into his attic. We started our first real band there. His brother was older and played keyboards, and he had a friend who knew Dan Treacy of TV Personalities, and I ended up in the band. I was fifteen and suddenly I was with Dan, [keyboardist] Ed Ball, and [guitarist] Joe Foster, who were older than me. Dan lived in the tower block on the S bend of the Thames, and he’d recorded the single ‘14th Floor’—because there was no 14th floor— ‘Part Time Punks,’ and ’Where’s Bill Grundy Now?’ which were topical and everybody loved.
“I don’t think we rehearsed that much,” Mark says. “We just made records like ‘I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives,’ me singing out-of-tune background vocals, speeded up and bounced to four-track. Then we did a John Peel session, which was one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced in my life. [Peel was a BBC radio deejay and the most important tastemaker in British pop music.] The session was produced by Buffin, the drummer in Mott the Hoople. I remember reading an article in a magazine years later, and he couldn’t remember what band it was. But he remembered that the bass player had leapt over the drumkit to try to kill the drummer. That was Joe Foster having an argument with me!”
Peel’s support of TV Personalities enabled them to play important venues like the Hope and Anchor in Islington and the Greyhound on Palace Road. “It was like what the New York Dolls did in New York,” says Sheppard, referring to the legendary band that many credit with inspiring the entire American punk scene. “We owned it. And everybody you knew made a record.”
In addition to TVP’s first full-length, …AndDon’t the Kids Just Love It, Sheppard recorded the debut solo albums by Nikki Sudden and Jowe Head of the legendary art-punk group Swell Maps. These were sterling credits to have on your punk-rock résumé, no doubt, but not the type that made you rich. “It was always living on the dole and never thinking you’d get a real record deal, something big,” says Sheppard, who was known to most at the time simply as Empire.
Among the more popular bands on the nascent London punk scene was the Soft Boys, featuring the gifted guitarist and songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. “I’d seen the Soft Boys live and thought they were incredible,” Sheppard recalls, “and then I bumped into Robyn at the bar at one of his post–Soft Boys shows. I was sixteen and a half. I said, ‘I want to play in your band.’ Six months later I was playing with him.
“Robyn’s an extraordinary person,” Mark continues. “He was about twenty-eight but seemed so much older. He had a wonderful mono player, and I played him the first TV Personalities album. He always found me very high energy.”
It was a demanding time for the senior musician, who was trying to establish his solo career and find his own voice outside of the Soft Boys, and the seventeen-year-old drummer didn’t take well to the pressure of playing on a higher level. “I was nervous as hell. It wasn’t fun, and I thought it was because I wasn’t very good. I felt like the bass player didn’t want to play with me, and that I was out of my depth. To get rid of some of that I started drinking quite heavily and dabbling in things.” Compounding Mark’s anxiety, he auditioned for a film and didn’t get the role. “I never wanted to go through that again,” says Sheppard, who was asked by a casting director to do another audition but said no, opting instead to tour with the established band the Barracudas when Hitchcock decided to focus on his solo release, I Often Dream of Trains.
Sheppard lived the life of a journeyman drummer for the next several years, joining the Finnish glam-metal band Hanoi Rocks and the promising Irish group Light a Big Fire, who opened some shows on U2’s Joshua Tree tour. Despite the occasional triumphs, though, Mark says that this phase of his career was hardly the days of wine and roses. “Let’s put it this way,” he offers. “The first time I watched This Is Spinal Tap, I didn’t laugh. Everything in that movie had happened to me. Light a Big Fire was right on the edge of cult and art, but instead of being on Irish television, I was drinking myself to death at twenty-two years old.”
Around this time, Mark’s father, the actor W. Morgan Sheppard, moved to the States to join the cast of the ground-breaking TV show Max Headroom. Mark followed him out to Los Angeles and co-founded the group School of Fish, played on the single “Need You (Like a Drug)” by the buzz band They Eat Their Own, and developed friendships with some music-industry heavyweights like Chic/Power Station drummer Tony Thompson and Guitar Center A&R director Dave Weiderman. But booze and drugs still had a hold on him—and it was starting to show in his playing. “People tried to get me auditions,” Sheppard recalls. “[Sex Pistols guitarist] Steve Jones auditioned me. I couldn’t play. I was not in good shape.
“Eventually I got sober,” says Mark, “thanks to some…interesting help. I produced a couple minor things for people, but I didn’t play drums again. I gave my cymbals to the original drummer of Hole, Caroline Rue. I just wasn’t a drummer anymore.
“But now fast forward to 1992. I do this play Cock and Bull Story, which gets a huge amount of attention. Then I go back to England to make amends, the stuff you do when you’re sober, and I go and see the casting director who tried to put me in a film years earlier, and I end up in a forty-five-minute improv session with Daniel Day Lewis and get cast in my first film.”
That movie, In the Name of the Father, received several Academy Award nominations, and soon the former drummer was appearing in the popular television series Silk Stalkings and The X Files. “Then I started killing people on American television,” laughs Sheppard, who, in addition to prominent roles in Battlestar Galactica, Soldier of Fortune, and Doctor Who, played a demon on Charmed, a crime boss on Firefly, and on the long-running fantasy horror series Supernatural, the King of Hell himself.
You could say the devil led Sheppard back to rock ’n’ roll. Or, maybe it was God. We’ll let Mark explain.
“The guy who plays God on Supernatural, Rob Benedict, is in a band called Louden Swain. It’s a really good band. The drummer’s a North Texas boy—Blair Sinta’s roommate, Stephen Norton—and Billy Moran, one of my favorite guitarists, is also in it. And they were the backing band for these conventions that we do. But they were being treated at these things like a wedding band. They’d say, ‘You wanna play?’ and I’d be, ‘Nope—I did the Joshua Tree tour, I don’t need to come out through a vocal P.A.’ One day I get cornered, though, and somebody on mic says, ‘Come up and play one song with us!’ So I play ‘Back in Black.’ And they’re all like, ‘Oh, you do play drums.’ I hadn’t picked up a pair of sticks in however long, but there’s 3,000 people watching, going nuts. I can’t do any wrong! [laughs]
“So, I’m playing drums again. Fast forward a bit, and now I’m putting myself out there. Robyn calls me: ‘You want to go out in May? I want to play the Troubadour.’ ‘Yeah!’ I’d been doing eight years of the TV show, and I’d buried music. Billy and the rest of these guys made me play and got me excited again. And people like Kirsten Matt from Zildjian, Chris Hart at Remo, and the guys from Audix jumped in and said, ‘This is fun for us, you make this easy.’ I have a big fan following, so it was wonderful to be able to say thank you to people for providing me with gear that I can do my job with. And I can be proud of the companies that support me. DW drums, nobody makes better drums. Zildjian—nobody makes better cymbals. They make different cymbals, but not better. Vic Firth—watch the process of how their sticks are made, why would you buy anything else.”
Hanging out with Sheppard at a place like NAMM is like being with a kid in a drum shop. His enthusiasm for music and drumming is…well…it’s like that of someone who’s been given a new lease on life—the rock ’n’ roll life—but leavened by the wisdom that experience brings. “In an era of electronic music,” says Mark, “the drums are the last great acoustic instrument. Jay-Z…everybody still goes out with a drummer. I grew up in an era of drummers who shaped music. For me, there’s Stan Lynch, Charlie Watts—always Charlie Watts—and now people like Luke Holland. I love Luke’s videos. He’s such a great technical drummer, with such great feel.
“The real heroes aren’t the technicians,” Mark continues, “they’ve always been the musical drummers. Al Jackson was probably more influential on me than anybody. Anybody can sing fifty songs Al Jackson played on, they just never knew he played on them. What I love about playing now…I never played a Purdie shuffle before. When I tried to work it out, I played it backwards, the hardest way possible! So I watched that great Youtube video of him demonstrating it. And then you put on ‘Babylon Sisters’…there’s a feel to that man’s playing that’s mind-blowing. Ash Soan has that in spades. I watch that right hand and go, ‘Oh, you bastard.’ [laughs] And then you hear him play rock stuff and he’s amazing at that too!”
When you meet an individual like Mark Sheppard who’s had success in two distinct professions, it begs the question, are there similarities between approaching the two crafts? “Yes,” he responds. “At its best, it’s art. At its worst, it’s chucking a log to the beat. Art to me is getting prepared to jump off a building and trying to fly. You can put it all together and it works, or you can hit the ground. But it’s the endeavor itself that is the joy. The desire and the passion to do it. That’s why the head bobs up and down, why the hair goes up on the back of your neck. And it transcends all genres of music—listen to John Lydon’s post Sex Pistols band Public Image, the record titled Album. You know who played drums on the hit ‘Rise’? That’s Tony Williams!”
And what about all those past demons—do they still haunt Sheppard? “I still get terrified,” he says, “but I can’t use drugs and alcohol. We all have vices. When I went back to play the Troubadour with Robyn, I hadn’t played under that kind of pressure since the last time I played with him. When I played stadiums in front of a hundred thousand people opening for U2, I was terrified then too. I used to start thinking that one half of my body was out of sync with the other. I know why Ginger shot dope, I know what it’ll do for you. It’ll turn that off. But I just can’t do it. I can’t trade my life. But at the Troubadour…that was probably the best gig I played in my life. You look at pictures of me from that show—I’m smiling my ass off.”
Tools of the Trade
Onstage with Robyn Hitchcock, Sheppard plays a DW Collectors Series kit with a black oil-stain finish and black nickel hardware featuring a 12×14 tom, 16×16 and 16×18 floor toms, and a 20×22 bass drum. His snares are a 6.5×14 DW Blackheart Purple Heart model with black nickel hardware and a 6.5×14 DW Black Iron model. He uses DW hadware, including a 9000 series throne and stands, MCD bass drum pedal, and MDD hi-hat stand. His Zildjian cymbals are 15″ K Fat hats and 14″ K Hybrid remote hats, a 23″ K ride, and 18″ K Dark, 19″ Constantinople, 19″ K Dark, and 18″ K Dry crashes. His Remo heads include a Black Suede Ambassador snare batter, Black Suede Emperor tom batters and Black Suede Ambassador resonants, and a Powerstroke P3 kick batter and custom front head with six “DW holes.” His sticks are Vic Firth HD9s (“picked light”). Accessories include a Remo hi-hat clutch and drum keys, LP Percussion, a Roland SPD-SX multi-pad, Audix D6, D4, i5, and ADX51 mics, JH Audio Roxanne in-ear monitors with a UE Pro Sound Tap AC, and a Randall May bass drum “May Rail.”He also endorses Jerry Harvey Audio products, as well as Anvil and Humes & Berg cases.
Robyn Hitchcock & His L.A. Squires /// Television Personalities …And Don’t the Kids Just Love It /// Nikki Sudden Waiting on Egypt /// The Barracudas Endeavor to Persevere, Two Sides of a Coin /// Light a Big Fire Surveillance /// They Eat Their Own “Need You (Like A Drug)”
Steve Hillage “Unidentified Flying Being” (Joe Blocker) /// Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers “American Girl” (Stan Lynch) /// Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter” (Charlie Watts) /// The Band “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (Levon Helm) /// Bad Co. “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” (Simon Kirke) /// PiL “Rise” (Tony Williams) /// Charles Mingus “II B.S.” (Walter “Baby Sweets” Perkins) /// The Soft Boys “I Wanna Destroy You” (Morris Windsor)