Simon Phillips

The first thing that comes to mind when setting out to write an introduction about Simon Phillips is that, to readers of Modern Drummer, he needs no introduction. He was first featured in the magazine in June 1981. Since then, his name has appeared regularly in the news and information sections, as well as among the poll winners. There is also the fact that many members of the international drumming community have seen Simon’s brilliant clinics. There are many superb English drummers around, but if you had to choose one who is indisputably accepted among his peers as being one of a special handful of players who are currently the finest and most influential in the world, it would definitely be Simon Phillips. This “drummers’ drummer” status could easily imply that an artist’s work is appreciated and lauded by the cognoscente, but is inaccessible to the public at large. However, this isn’t the case here. It is often said of successful players that their credits read like a “who’s who” of rock, or a “who’s who” of fusion, etc. With Simon, it is more like a “who’s who” of what has been happening over the last ten years. The brilliant 19-year-old drummer who amazed everybody when he first appeared in an arena-level band with Jack Bruce ten years ago had, for some time, already been a successful theater and studio musician. His subsequent career has thrown up the interesting contrasts of Stanley Clarke’s American fusion music to the very English music of Mike Oldfield, and the sophistication of Al Di Meola to the raw, punkish, brashness of Toyah’s band.

But just when you start imagining that Simon Phillips is some sort of human drum machine—someone who can play anything perfectly, with a human touch as well—and he must, therefore, have a one-track mind, it transpires that he is now breaking into producing and already has at least one hit album to his credit. He is at pains to point out that there is more to music than just playing your instrument and more to life than just music. He recently dabbled in motor racing. The attraction for him wasn’t the speed or the danger, but the precision. Simon is a man who likes to achieve precision and perfection in all he does. Now the motor racing has been relegated to the background, because he has been investing his money instead in a top-quality recording studio in his home.

Not a man to do things by halves, if he is going to be a producer, Simon is going to have the best possible tools of the trade and have them at his fingertips. He has always worked, and continues to work, very hard for his success. The infinite care that he describes himself as taking with his instrument is indicative of the pains he takes over every aspect of what he does. There is none of the “I just hit ’em ” attitude with Simon. He is a drummer we could all learn something from: that is drummers, motor mechanics, presidents of multi-nationals

SG: When you were first featured in Modern Drummer in 1981, you said that you were about to embark on a series of clinics, for the first time. Since then, you have become a well-established clinician. What are your own thoughts about the way this side of your career has developed over the last five years?

SP: At first, it was a terrifying experience. One of the hardest things for a drummer to do is to pick up a microphone and start talking to people, clearly, without mumbling. Also, there is a great difference between playing in a band, on stage, in front of thousands of people, and going into a little room and playing in front of, maybe, two hundred people, with no other instruments there—just you. Recently, I’ve met various drummers who are about to do a clinic for the first time. They come up to me and say, “I haven’t really got anything planned for this.” All I can say is [shrugs], “Well, you just go out there and play.” I can obviously understand what they are going through, because it’s exactly what I went through. At first, it’s absolutely terrifying. You have an audience of drummers, they are watching every single move you make, and you have nothing to hide behind.

For me, things fell into place during the first British tour I did. I was able to get firsthand experience of different types of audiences: Manchester was one type of audience, Newcastle was another, and Glasgow was another. It is usually up to the audience to make it a good clinic. You can do just so much, but if the audience isn’t going to get involved, it makes your job twice as hard. If they are with you all the time and keep asking questions, it makes for a much better clinic. If they don’t ask questions, you think, “Why am I here? If I just sit down and play for another hour, it’s going to get intensely boring!”

SG: Do you find that there is a different attitude in the States?

SP: There is a difference in every place you go. For instance, I went to Salt Lake City. The audience was so quiet that I really felt that 1 had to be careful of what I said. When I do a clinic, I usually like to tell a few stories about things that happen on record dates or on tour. It’s all good, lighthearted fun; it gives them an idea of what it’s really like. But at Salt Lake, it was hard; 1 couldn’t talk easily. They are very conservative. And then you go to Los Angeles, and someone in the audience puts his hand up and says, “Listen, we’ve got a party later down at Sunset. Do you want to come?” [laughs] They get very personal. In New York, they are great—very enthusiastic. Down in Texas, they’re great, too. People travel around to different places. I do one clinic in Austin, and then I find that some of the same people are there in Houston, which is great. That’s real enthusiasm.

SG: What do you expect to achieve at a clinic?

SP: I treat it as a performance—as a gig. 1 think that a drum clinic should be entertaining, as well as instructive and as near as I can get it to being like watching a concert. That’s why I have a full rig: the drums, the cymbals, the P.A. system. No matter how small the room is, I mike up the drums. I also try to get lights. This is all to make it look like a show. There’s nothing quite like it when you can get a small convention room in a hotel and turn it into a theater. They back the lights off, and you get some nice onstage lighting and a bit of echo and reverb on the sound. It makes the drums sound the way they do on a record or at a concert. To me, that’s part of the show. After that, when we bring up the house lights so that I can see the audience and they can ask questions, we might go into more detail about what the drums do acoustically. I ask the sound people to turn the P.A. down, so we just get the acoustic sound of the drums. Then we can bring it in again very slowly, so that everybody can hear the change in the sound. To me, that’s all part of doing a clinic.

SG: What about the aspect of promoting the equipment?

SP: I’m never very good at getting up there and saying, “I am using a new . . . ” because I usually forget, [laughs] I’m not keen on talking a lot about equipment. Generally, you are asked what you are using anyway, so I wait for that question to come up. If I want to give a little preamble and it is a new drumkit, I might say, “This is the first clinic tour with the new Tama Artstar,” or whatever it happens to be, but I don’t go into how the shells are made. I create the interest without going into too much detail.

The thing about promoting a product is that I am there playing it. I am trying to make it sound as good as I can make it sound, so that, hopefully, it will speak for itself. This is why we take two hours before each clinic to tune the drumkit. There are new drumkits in each place; we only travel with a set of cymbals and a snare drum. Imagine getting a guitar off the shelf in a shop; you could tune it, but it still wouldn’t be quite right. You would need to set the action, check out the neck, and perhaps file the frets. It takes a long time. It’s the same with a drumkit, and you’ve got to do it yourself. Nobody can do it for you. It doesn’t matter who they are; different people will get different sounds.

SG: What is your approach to tuning? There are so many variables and so many different musical situations.

SP: I use one type of tuning for my kit. This is because it’s a large kit and the tom-toms cover quite a wide range. I tune them fairly tight so they project, and I tune the top and bottom heads exactly the same. This is so that the pitch of the drum remains constant and the note doesn’t change. I do it because, if you have seven tom toms and you play all the way around them with the note of each one changing as the drum rings, it sounds as if you have only played four because of the lack of separation. In a large kit like mine, tuning for a constant pitch on each drum helps to alleviate the problem of one drum setting off another drum and that one setting off the snares. The fewer drums you have, the easier it is to cope with sympathetic vibrations, but when you use 11 drums miked up and coming very loudly through monitors . . . .On the last concert tour I did, I was using a pair of 2′ x 15″ cabinets and a Martin bin underneath the riser. Extra care is needed in this situation. The drums can sound great acoustically. Then you can put all the faders up, and one drum will be causing feedback. Then you have to decide whether the problem is electronic—that is, a frequency that can be gotten rid of by using a graphic—or you have to decide, “It is the drum. I must raise or lower the tuning of that drum.” Then you have to change the tuning on that one and that one and that one! [laughs] These are the problems you get, and I think that, if I started using different heads with different tensions, it would be murder.

SG: A lot of people reading this probably play acoustically. Would you advise them to follow your approach?

SP: If something sounds good acoustically, you are certainly on the right track to getting a good sound when it is miked up. In order for a drumkit to project naturally, it has to ring a lot from where you are sitting. This goes back to the days when drums weren’t miked. You would hit a rimshot on the snare drum, and it would go “diiing!” That would always infuriate me, yet, you could ask people out front, and they wouldn’t hear it. It’s just something to do with acoustics. If the drum rings a bit too much, or sounds a bit high or a bit harsh from where you are, the chances are that, from out front, it will sound great. Likewise, sometimes when it sounds really good from where you are, it sounds horrible from out front. It all has to do with projection. Now when you put a mic’ on something, there is the idea that you should get rid of all that ring, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s not true. I don’t change the tuning when I go into a studio or when I sit on stage, with or without mic’s. The drumkit as a kit remains the same. It is an acoustic instrument that is built to project. Therefore, that’s the way I tune it.

SG: You must have had some problems with recording engineers, in the days before a “live” drum sound was acceptable.

SP: Oh yes. This is one of the reasons why I got very, very interested in recording and engineering. Back in the ’70s, I knew how a drumkit should sound, but I used to go into the studios and the engineer would say, “The tom-toms are very ringy!” I’d say, “Yeah. Good aren’t they?” Some of the musicians loved it. They’d say, “Great, it sounds like a real drumkit.” It wasn’t anything like the dead studio sound of the time; my drums went “doy-ing—boy-ing—boo-oom.” Some engineers couldn’t handle it, but there were others who would just put up the mic’s, put up the faders, and say great! Those were obviously the engineers I liked, and I decided to learn how they got the sounds of my drums accurately. First, I thought, “Right, microphones,” and I learned about every single microphone, all their numbers—everything. I would go up to the engineer on a session and say, “You’ve got a such-and-such on the snare drum; I think you should put an AKG 224 on it.” People used to go on about this rotten drum sound in the ’70s—this cardboard-box sound that I just hated. I had a thing against it, and now I know that I was right.

I did try using the dead sound on a couple of albums. It sounded fine in the studio, but take it out and it sounds rotten. There’s no ambience to it. I like to take a live drum sound and EQ it to make it as punchy as possible. Whether you are recording or playing live, you have got to have a good sound source. The idea of using a P.A. when you are playing live is to make the sound louder, not to alter it.

I hardly have any damping in the drums. The bass drum has two heads, a little towel inside, and a small hole in the front head for the microphone. Some engineers just cannot handle that. Other engineers have to work hard, but when they’ve got the sound, there’s nothing quite like it. The snare drum sometimes has a little bit of tape or elastoplast, but basically there is no damping.

SG: In the ’81 feature, you were talking about power-size drums, but I notice that the studio kit you have here is standard sizes. Do you favor shallower drums for recording?

SP: That is a kit I did use in the studio for a while, but now I just keep it at home. All my other kits have the deeper tom-toms. I’ve been using them since Tama first approached me in 1978. That was when I was in Japan with Jeff Beck and Stanley Clarke. I was using a Ludwig Octoplus kit at the time, and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of changing to Japanese equipment because everybody seemed to be doing it. But Tama showed me some of the fiberglass drums, and these really impressed me. I said, “Great, if you can make some special sizes, then we can do business.” I designed a system in which the depth of each drum was two inches less than the width. I felt that a floor tom was deep, a rack tom was shallow, and there was much too much sound difference. So I used the idea of a 16×18 floor tom—two inches less depth—and applied that all the way around. That’s how that came about, but the following year, every kit I saw had power sizes, although most of them were only one inch less in depth than in diameter.

I started using Tama’s Fibrestar drums, then I switched to Superstar, and then Artstar. Now we have a new drumkit coming; I used it in Japan when I was out there recently. Basically it is like the Artstar, but the Artstar is a thin birch shell with Cordia wood veneer inside and out. The new one is solid “birds-eye” maple. I’ve had mine done in white lacquer—Steinway piano style white—inside and out. The sound is great. There’s a bit more bottom end with the maple shells than you get with the harder wood in the Artstars. The sizes I use are: two 16 x 24 kick drums; the rack toms are 9×10, 11×12, 12×13, 13×14, and 14×15; the floor toms are 16 x 16 and 16 x 18; and I also have a gong drum that is 16 x 20, although it takes a timpani head that is about 21″. I have two snare drums set up with the kit: One is an 8 x 14 wood, and the other is a 5 x 14 metal.

My cymbals are all Zildjians. The main hi-hat cymbals, on my left, are 14″ Platinum New Beats, and I also have a pair of 13″ Zs that are mounted over the right, either on an X-Hat or on a Cable-Hat. The others, going from left to right, are: a 12″ Platinum Splash, a 24″ Swish Knocker without rivets, a 22″ Z light power ride, a 19″ Platinum Thin Crash, an 18″ Platinum thin crash, a 24″ Swish Knocker with rivets, and a 19″ Platinum medium thin crash.

I’ve used Zildjians for years. I think I got my first K when I was 12. Later I bought Frank King’s old set, and they were lovely! The thing with Zildjians is that they are very personal cymbals. For a beginner, it is very difficult to choose a cymbal. Paiste cymbals are easier to choose because there isn’t much difference, but with Zildjian cymbals, there really is a difference. You have to know what you are after or be able to make correct decisions. Choosing cymbals is a personal thing, and you do go through a lot of changes. I used to use extremely heavy Rock/Crash cymbals. You used to hurt your hand hitting them [he mimes hitting something solid] and the stick would break. Now I use incredibly thin crashes, because I like to be able to hit them quietly and hear them. I used to use Quick- Beat hi-hats—the ones with the holes—and now I use the normal New Beats. I’ve just gone onto these Platinum ones. They are interesting. The hi-hats are gorgeous. The crash cymbals are a little more contained because there’s something on the cymbal that constricts it a bit; it makes them mellower. It’s often nice to have a change. You put something up and think, “It would be nice to play this for a bit.” Then a bit later you say to yourself, “No, I’ve been through this one. Let’s go back to the old one.” You often need a change. In the same way, you need a change of drumkit; you have just had enough of this particular drumkit.

SG: With drums you have the variables of different heads, different tunings, and so on.

SP: Yes, but I’ve tried every conceivable kind of head and always ended up going back to clear Ambassadors.  Everything else seemed to do something to the drum—restrict it in some way. Occasionally I will go into a different head, but it is very rare. For me a different drum is a new shell with the same type of heads on it, so I get the change by using different drums. So it’s clear Ambassadors on both sides of the bass drums and tom-toms, and a reverse dot CS batter on the snare drum.

SG: You use a lot of left-hand lead. How did that develop?

SP: It started with using a large drumkit. If you play right-handed, you set the hi-hat a bit higher because you are crossing your hands, and then all the tom-toms are higher. I didn’t really like the look of the drumkit like that; I wanted to make it a lot more compact. I had seen a drummer play with his left hand on the hi-hat years before, so I had the idea in my mind. So 1 started trying to do it—swapping everything over that I did with the hands—and it felt very strange at first. Then I went to see Billy Cobham at the Rainbow. He came on, sat down at the kit, and started playing left hand on the hi-hat. That gave me the inspiration for saying, “Yes, it can be done.” Loads of other drummers play like that—Lenny White, for instance. I was living in a flat in Kensington at the time, and I couldn’t have a drumkit there because of the noise it would make. So I literally taught myself to do that with just a pair of sticks—swapping everything around. I suppose it took about a year until it all became natural. Then I reached a point where I played so much left-hand lead that I couldn’t play right-hand lead anymore. So I had to put a cymbal up on the right to force myself to play the other way again sometimes. That felt really strange as well. But now I am able to swap over between the two, which is very useful.

When we do Pete Townsend’s “Face The Face” live, I do it with two snare drums and two hi-hats. In the intro, I play the metal snare drum, which is to the left of the left-hand hi-hat, with my left hand while playing that hi-hat with my right. Then I switch to the snare drum that is in the usual position between my legs, still with the left hand, and my right hand plays the cymbals on the Cable Hat on my right. Later during the solos, I play the central snare drum with my right hand, and the hi-hat to the left of it with my left hand. So I can move around between the three positions; having that variety is great. Also, while you are playing, you can hit the odd tom-tom without having to cross over or do anything awkward. It makes you so much freer. I only have the hi-hat a touch higher than the snare drum, which means that the tom toms on the left can come in much closer. People look at the drumkit and think that it’s enormous because they can only see my hair, but actually from behind, it is quite compact. I have spent a long time trying to get it that way, which was hard in the ’70s, because you didn’t have the holders you do now.

SG: You mentioned “Face The Face” [White City—Pete Townsend]. Being fairly straight and simple, it isn’t the sort of thing that people might look on as classic Simon Phillips, but it’s got a great drum sound and a magnificent driving beat.

SP: Some people think that that’s a drum machine. Pete had this idea for a dance/bop tune, and he played a demo of it for me with a drum machine playing that part. I thought, “Oh yeah, because it’s one of these rhythms on which drum machines sound fantastic and real drummers sound rotten. It’s so easy. The bass and snare just do that. [He mimes alternate quarter notes.] But it has got to sound easy. If you are playing 8ths on a cymbal, the rest of your body can tense up, and the bass and snare beats will sounds like 8th notes with 8th-note rests between them, instead of sounding like quarters.

SG: While we’re on the subject of the White City album, what about “Give Blood”? That featured in the Modern Drummer Best Recorded Performance chart for 1986. How does a more complex part like that suggest itself?

SP: On that track there is a guitar riff that is all 16th notes with an echo unit, which gives it a steam-train effect. There was no bass on the basic track of that. Given that guitar riff to play to, it is just a matter of coming up with something that will enhance it. It needed to be something that wasn’t too complicated where the backbeat would cut through, but there were some other things happening that would chug it along. I’m always looking for something a little different to do. Perhaps that sort of 16th-note rhythm is a bit of a trademark with me; it’s something that I enjoy hearing. At clinics, I’m often asked about that: the little notes that you sort of hear, but they are not very loud. I like that sort of playing, as well as keeping a good old “crack” going.

SG: Please excuse the expression, but during the ’70s, you were something of a teenage session king. How did you manage to break into that so early?

SP: [winces and smiles] When I was 16, I started playing in the pit for Jesus Christ Superstar, and it all came from that. The first thing was that I just did a four-track demo session for one of the people in the cast. I met some new musicians, the word got around, the other theater musicians heard of me . . . . I even got a session from somebody who just came to see the show one day. That’s literally how it all happened. It didn’t happen incredibly slowly, but it was gradual. It didn’t all suddenly happen “bang.” People hear of you, and you start to get a name. So within two and-a-half years of doing the Superstar thing, it had built up fairly well for me. I went to New York in ’74 with a band, and I did a couple of record dates there as well. That was just through meeting musicians out there. And even though it was fairly small, it was handy to have had that experience of the New York studio scene. So by ’75, it had grown so that it was just crazy. Every day I was going into town and doing two or three sessions—two drumkits—one here, one there: moving about. That was an era when there really were a lot of sessions going on. It was before machines, and for everything you did, you had to have a rhythm section.

SG: Were you being called to do a particular style of playing or all sorts?

SP: It was lots of different things. If you were playing with a particular group of people, that crowd would all be called to do things together. But you used to have to do all sorts of things. I even did some jingles for a while, which I hated because I would go along and set my drumkit up, get everything just right, then play one number, and they’d say, “That’s it.” I would say, “That’s it? You mean I’ve got to take this lot down again?” So eventually, I decided not to do any more jingles. I always had a rock ‘n’ roll approach to sessions— denims, long hair, an angry young man attitude—and I used to find that a lot of the studio musicians at the time were fairly straight. But they used to ask me to play, and that was fine.

SG: Were you uncompromising right from the start about your “live” drum sound?

SP: Oh yes. From the earliest times, even when I was a kid playing with my dad, things that I believed in were very hard to shake. I’d been in recording studios from a very early age—just being in that atmosphere—so a mic’ and a piece of tape were nothing new. I used to do it at home: editing and bouncing sound between two tape recorders.

SG: Did you ever get the feeling that people, perhaps, thought you were a bit precocious?

SP: No. Although I’m sure that some people did, I never actually got the feedback from it. I was always brought up to be polite to people, so I think that everything I said and did would have been done very diplomatically. Sometimes I had to back down, and then I’d end up hating the rest of the date. Consequently, I wouldn’t want to work for those people again. Sometimes, though, you can make it as plain as you can that you don’t enjoy  working for people, and they still keep calling you. You think,’ ‘What do I have to do?”

But generally, the whole session thing was very enjoyable. My attitude would be that I was going to play the best track I could. They might have an idea of what they wanted, and I would aim to give them that, plus add something a little different of my own. The experience that I gained from other musicians, as well as just learn ing about studios, was great.

When I started to enlarge the kit, that was talked about a lot in the studios. When I could afford to have a chap to carry my drums around, it all became double kits. I would turn up with a double kit for some ridiculous sessions, because for me, a double kit is much more comfortable to play. I’ve used one since 1974. I was laughed at sometimes, but the engineers used to love it. They’d get all the mic’s out and really get down to work. Then you would get the producer who would say, “Well, which ones do you use?” I’d say, “All of them, or perhaps none of them. It depends on the song.”

SG: Weren’t there instances when it was clear that all you needed was a bass drum, snare drum, and hi-hat?

SP: That happens now, sometimes, but my kit is just delivered and set up, so it is all there anyway. And although they might feel that all the track calls for is a kick, snare, and hi-hat, I usually say, “Well, hang on. You’ve asked me to do this track, so you are probably open to any ideas that I can bring to it.” Quite often I’ll arrive at the studio and my chap will have brought the kit in, but he won’t have set it up completely and positioned it because I like to decide where to put it to get the best sound. Sometimes I’ll even listen to the track before deciding where the kit should go. I’ll either use the kick and snare without the toms, or I’ll find a use for the toms that the producer hasn’t thought of. But either way, I like to set up the toms on top of the kick drum. Even if you switch off all the other mic’s, these two instruments sound fuller, because the kit is resonating as a whole instrument. You can put up a kick and snare on their own, and they’ll sound okay—perhaps a bit thin, but very clean. Then you put the whole lot up, and it will make them sound so much more powerful. I suppose it’s like a piano string; play one note and all the rest will resonate, but take all the other strings out and play the same note, and it will sound very different.

SG: Can we backtrack again? How did you reach the standard to be able to join Jesus Christ Superstar when you were only 16?

SP: My father had a Dixieland band [The Sid Phillips Orchestra], and I grew up listening to his band and playing along to his music by putting a record or a tape on and playing to it. The music I used to be interested in was modern jazz, soul, Tamla / Motown—a mixture really. Then there came a time when I was 12, and my father came home one night in despair about the drummer he had just had. My mother said, “Well, you’ve got a perfectly good drummer here. Why not take him out on gigs?” Dad wasn’t keen on the idea at first. He said that I was going to have to finish my schooling. They wanted me to have a good education, but it was already failing, [laughs] My mother said, “Look, however many schools you send him to, he’s still going to be a drummer.” So he agreed to try me on a couple of the smaller dates. I joined the band for the first date, and stayed with them from that time. I started doing the broadcasts, the records, and everything. I had four years of experience in a band in which the youngest person apart from myself was 30. They put up with a hell of a lot really, because at 12, I could play along but there were a lot of things missing: dynamics, all sorts of things. But I learned from the whole band. After about seven gigs when they couldn’t stand any more, one of them turned around to me and said, “Look, the bass drum—um, you don’t have to play it at triple forte every single beat. It can be nice if you play it quietly sometimes.” [laughs] Then they would play a record to illustrate what they meant. They had had enough of sitting in front of my bass drum and having it go “bang, bang, bang” through every number, but I think my dad liked it actually, because it was really old-fashioned and primitive. He liked that sort of thing; he hated modern jazz. He wanted things chugging along.

It was a wonderful training ground for me, but I ended up by the last year hating that sort of music. I wanted to play rock music or modern jazz. I went through a year of playing along to records in every time signature except 4/4. I wanted to get away from anything regular, so I practiced to Don Ellis records and Stan Kenton records, and learned how to play in 7/4, 13/8, and all that sort of stuff. The only time I played in 4/4 was on gigs with the band.

SG: What about more formal training? You had lessons with Max Abrams, didn’t you?

SP: Yes. Max was very strict. He basically only really taught me to read music. He never actually sat down and taught me anything about drums. He would give you a chart, put a tape on, and you’d have to play it and play it correctly. He’d come in and say, “It’s wrong,” and you’d wonder why. Then eventually, he’d sing it to you the way it should be and go away again. It was a very funny way of teaching. He never said anything good. That might have been a good thing because it made me try harder.

There were lots of little factors that seemed to work together for me: the experience of playing with my dad and the tremendous encouragement from my mum. But a lot of it was finding things out for myself—listening to what a drummer did on a record and copying it. I actually used to copy the drum sound on the record with my kit, so that I could really get into the feel of the way the drummer was playing. If you’ve got a drumkit tuned differently, it gives a completely different feel. The drumkit should sound right for the type of playing needed. Sound has become more important. In the old days, you would just play your music regardless, but these days, you also try to make it sound really good.

Anyway, going back to my early experience: My dad died very suddenly, and I was left with a Dixieland band that looked as if it could continue. But by that time I hated the music, and also being a little bit of a purist, I felt that, without my father’s clarinet, anything else would have been second best. So I disbanded the band, to the disappointment of a lot of people. I decided that I would just have to do it on my own. I did a few rotten old gigs with a couple of bands, but I wasn’t on the scene and nobody really wanted to know. I was 16 years old, and people only knew me for playing with my father. My mother was great at this time. I had left school, and she told me to go out and get a job. As musicians will, I said, “I’m a musician. I must play my music.” She said, “That’s fine, but you must earn some money. I don’t care how you do it. Be a doctor if you like.” So as 16-year-olds do, I felt very hard done by, but I got a job in an electrical shop. I was able to support myself and pay my mum some rent. The house we had wasn’t huge, but it was a good size. Mum got some lodgers in. She managed to scrape through; I don’t know how she did it really. I had other things on my mind. I was thinking, “Am I ever going ‘to play professionally again?”

The Superstar gig was a life saver when it came along. I suddenly got a call from the fixer [contractor], asking if I would be interested in coming along for an audition. I said yeah, and I thought to myself, “How did this happen?” A pianist named Dave Cullin, who did broadcasts and a few of the gigs with my father, was playing keyboards in Superstar. The other drummer was leaving, and Dave, bless him, mentioned me. He said, “He’s very young, but he’s great. He should be able to handle this; I know he wants to get into this type of music.” So I went out and bought the album. They dropped the parts over so that I could have a look at them. At that time, I had bought a car because I had to have transport for the drumkit. I was only 16, so I couldn’t drive it; I had to get other people to drive me. I organized a driver—my mother—did the audition, and later that same afternoon, I heard that I had the job.

SG: Had you had any previous pit experience, before landing what must have been one of the top jobs?

SP: Yes, very briefly. There was another show by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice that was running at the same time. It was called Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.  I had a call to ask if I could come in and play at very short notice, because the drummer had been hurt in a car accident. So I went in and had a little look at the parts, and played the show more or less sight reading. This was virtually the first time I’d ever done anything like this. I’d hardly followed a conductor before. But my reading was good at the time. I’d done a lot with my father, and I suppose all my senses were up. I got through the first show, and I amazed myself. It felt great to be able to read a part, get it right, and still play around a bit. The conductor was very pleased. “You played the whole show beautifully, and you’ve never even heard it before.” I went home feeling fantastic, having achieved something that I’d always wanted to achieve—be able to read anything and make it sound as if I’ve played it before. When I got home, my mum asked how it went, and I said [dusts his hands], “Great! Fine! I can do anything now.” I went back to do the show for the second time, and it was awful! [laughs] I just couldn’t do anything right. It was a good lesson: The first night I was scared and it really worked; the second night, I was really cocky and full of myself, and it was atrocious. I’m glad that it happened to me when it did, because when Superstar came along, I was pre pared. On the second night of that show, I was ever so wary.  It wasn’t until some time later that a major “tilt” happened—which it always does.

SG: You went from being a pit musician to a session musician to playing with many of the biggest names in the world. Could you tell us something about that?

SP: You go through different ambitions. In 1975, I wanted to play with John McLaughlin and all these guys; I was buying their records. I was thinking that I’d love to play with Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, and Jeff Beck; these were the people whose music I really enjoyed. The first big-name musician I played with was Jack Bruce. He was fantastic. I played with him for two years, and he taught me so much— about music, life, and everything. We went on the road for quite a while in the States, which was very good experience for me. Jack is still somebody whom I admire and respect a lot. Whatever his popularity is like at the moment is another thing, but he still remains a great artist.

After Jack, I played with Stanley Clarke and Jeff Beck, and then Stanley, and then Jeff, [laughs] Later on, I played with Al Di Meola. But it got to a stage where it was all getting a little bit repetitive. I wanted to play in something a little younger; I had always played with people who were quite a bit older than I was. I thought that I would really like to play with some musicians my own age, but it was hard because nobody my age was playing the sort of music that I was playing, or if they were, I hadn’t met them. I was watching Top Of The Pops one night, and Toyah was on. I’d seen her a few times before, and I started thinking that I’d quite like to mingle with the new “punk” crowd. I’d never done that; it might be interesting. And then, not long afterwards, Toyah’s producer called me and said, “Look, our drummer has just left, but we’ve booked into a studio and we need to do some tracks. Do you think you could come down and play for us?” I said, “Yeah, I’d love to!”

I went down there with my rig, and they’d never really seen anything like it before—the big drumkit with the big sound. They’d all been through the punk thing. But we actually got on very well. We did a couple of tracks. Then they asked me if I’d go out on tour with them, and I said no because I just didn’t think that it could come off. And then I started thinking that there were a few albums I had been asked to do, but there was nothing exciting. I could really dig going out on the road, and I turned around and said that I would. So we went off and did a European tour, and it was so funny. For the first time, I found myself being the “daddy” of the band—in the teaching seat. They didn’t know the difference between soft and loud. It had never really occurred to them, but they were great chaps. Actually, in the end, it turned into a really good band. It wasn’t technically wonderful, but there was a good onstage presence and feel. It was fun, and I learned from it. Whatever situation you are in, you are going to learn something. It all helps to form your musicianship.

SG: How do jobs with people like Stanley Clarke and Al Di Meola come about?

SP: It’s the same all the way down the line. It basically comes down to being heard, either on a record or live. Meeting somebody while you’re on a tour can often lead to other things. Generally, all the things that I have done have been through word of mouth. Al’s thing happened because Stevie Gadd had done the first part of a tour, but he couldn’t do the second. Al talked to Stanley, who recommended me. He had heard me on record, but he spoke to Stanley to find out what I’d be like to work with, how I’d be on the road, and also what I’d be like playing his type of music.

SG: How did you become involved in producing?

SP: When you are involved in making records, as a drummer, you can often become involved in the semi-producing aspects of getting the backing tracks down. I have found that producers are often quite happy to leave certain things to me, or to accept and discuss suggestions. Ideally, it is that sort of relationship where you are working amongst yourselves. Sometimes I would find that there was no producer on a date—just the artist and the engineer—and that’s where it came out more. They would rely on me, and I would find that it was part of the service I would offer—to help make sure that the rhythm tracks really went down with the right feel.

It became particularly apparent when I worked with Mike Oldfield on Crisis.  It was just an engineer, Mike, and I. We formed a good relationship while making the backing tracks. A lot was up to me, because I don’t think he had much experience with a drumkit like mine and the sort of sound it had. We did the whole album with just Fairlight and drums, and then I said bye-bye. A little later, Mike called me to discuss the possibility of doing some live gigs and I said, “How’s the album coming on? It was sounding great when I was there.” He was rather doubtful, and said that something needed to be done to it but he wasn’t sure what. I suggested that I could go down and listen to it with him. We ended up working for about a week together, and that’s how it started. I pulled out all my limited resources of what I knew about engineering and producing, and he dropped me in the deep end. It was just a Necam board, a Necam manual, Mike, and I. That was it. [laughs] I was going [he mimes leafing through a book] . . .”Right!” I had to learn. The album did very well. It was Mike Oldfield’s most successful album since Tubular Bells. Unfortunately, it was never released in the States.

SG: It seems to me that musicians who reach the top of the ladder as performers and then go into record production are similar to the Newmans and Redfords in the film world who become directors. Isn’t it enough to be in front of a camera or microphone?

SP: No, that’s not the reason. What tends to happen with players is that they play a bit, and then they form their own bands, or they become fixtures in something regular. It’s never happened for me. I’ve been asked to join bands, but I’ve always known that, for me, I wouldn’t last in that situation. There’s the option of a solo career, but I don’t want to do a drum record, [laughs] I’m not a writer; I can’t turn out anguished songs day after day. But what I can do naturally is work on other people’s songs. They can come to me with just a scrap of a song, and I can usually put it together and make something of it. That’s what I feel comfortable doing, and for me, it’s really creative. It’s just as creative as writing a song, but writing a song doesn’t come naturally to me. Other people just write, and it’s no problem, but when it comes to sorting it out and putting it together, they really don’t want to know. After playing your instrument for a while, you realize that there is a hell of a lot more in music. I love playing my part and playing my drums, but there’s a whole thing out there, you know!

SG: What are your ambitions now?

SP: Well obviously, I want this production thing to take off. I would love to be a known and respected producer. At the moment, it is rather like starting over; I’m known as a drummer, but I still have to prove myself as a producer. I want to keep learning all I can about engineering. I’m starting work soon on a single that I cowrote, which will eventually be part of a solo album. I’ll be doing this album not so much as a drummer, although I hope to have some interesting stuff on it, but more from a production standpoint. I’ll use other people’s material, but I’ll adapt it—doing all the arranging and producing. I want to do something that will be commercially viable, but I would also want people to love it for the musical content. I suppose that’s what everybody wants: a successful album that is also valid musically. A lot more albums these days are. As far as the drumming goes, I hope never to stop learning, and always to keep getting a bit better and keep coming up with ideas. That’s the thing! It’s alright being technically adept and playing really fast on a pair of kick drums, but it is adapting it so that you can come up with something new and saying to yourself, “Wow, I’ve never heard anything like that before.” Then you put it on a record, people hear it, and they say, “Wow, we’ve  never heard anything like that before.”

Phillips On Record

by William F. Miller

Simon Phillips Music KeyThe following examples are a brief sampling of Simon Phillips’ excellent recorded work. To check out more of Simon’s playing, see the “Style & Analysis” on Simon in the June 1984 issue of MD.

The first example is from a Jack Bruce album entitled How’s Tricks (RSO 2394 18, recorded 1976). On this tune, called “Outsiders,” Simon uses ghosted notes to lock in this uptempo piece. This album may be hard to find, but it shows Simon’s early and impressive playing.

Simon Phillips music 1

The following example is from Mike Rutherford’s 1979 solo album, Smallcreep’s Day (Passport Records, PB 9843, check the cutout bins). The example is taken from the tune “Out Into The Daylight,” and Simon shines on this track. The pattern that follows is deceptively simple-looking, but the left-foot hi-hat part really gives the pattern motion. Later in the tune, Simon moves his left foot over to his second bass drum, which dramatically climaxes the song.

Simon Phillips music 2

The next example is the famous “Space Boogie,” from Jeff Beck’s There And Back album (Epic FE 35684, recorded 1980). The head switches from 7/4 to 4/4, with the solo section in 7/4 throughout.


Simon Phillips music 3

Mike Oldfield’s album Crises (Virgin 205 500-620, recorded 1983) had Simon coproducing as well as drumming. On the sidelong title track, Simon plays the following linear pattern near the end of the piece.

Simon Phillips music 4

The last example is from Pete Townsend’s 1985 release White City (Atco 90473-1, recorded 1985).’ ‘Face The Face” is a lesson in simplicity and endurance.

Simon Phillips music 5