The Song Worker
by Robin Tolleson
Soan’s persistence was rewarded a year later when Palladino recommended him to the band Del Amitri (“Roll to Me,” “Always the Last to Know”). Ash wound up touring and recording with that group for three years, making connections that have served him to this day on studio and live dates with the likes of Nelly Furtado, Seal, and Billy Idol, as well as on soundtrack work and in the house band of The Voice U.K. We begin our chat by asking Soan about his first true professional drumming experiences.
Ash: The band Del Amitri gave me a proper start. Justin [Currie], the singer, is a fantastic songwriter. I’ve played all sorts of music and still do, but songs have always been at my heart. In Manchester I got into jazz and fusion—Omar Hakim, Vinnie Colaiuta, and all those guys. Justin didn’t know any of those drummers and didn’t really want to know any of those drummers. He wanted Ringo Starr, he wanted Charlie Watts, he wanted Keith Moon. So he made me a cassette of tracks [featuring drummers he liked], and we talked about what it was that those drummers brought to their bands, and what he wanted for Del Amitri. And of course it was much more about songs, not the individual—serving the song and playing things that were right for the song.
MD:When you were learning to play, were you thinking about becoming a session drummer?
Ash: No, I just wanted to play drums. I guess I always knew that I would be playing different genres of music. I never really thought that it would turn into one day doing a session for Jeff Lorber and the next day recording Billy Idol’s album. Del Amitri’s producer called me to do a session, and that’s when it started to change for me. I realized that I was well suited to working for other people in a short time frame and I could facilitate what a producer wanted me to do.
Being a session musician is not just about technique and your knowledge of drums. Other things come into play. There’s a sociable aspect. You have to be like an amateur psychologist sometimes to figure out what’s going on with the dynamic in the room. It’s a constant monitoring of the situation, and that’s got nothing to do with the playing. Just trying to make it cool. I realized that I seemed to be able to do that. People were happy when I played on their stuff. It’s just snowballed beyond belief, really, and it’s still going.
MD: You mentioned some of the fusion guys that influenced you, but you are such a groove player too.
Ash: Yeah, you know, I discovered Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro, and I learned that those guys…there’s something properly going on there, you know. People talk about groove and about pocket, but when it comes to it, most drummers’ default is to chop out, and again it gets back to songs.
There’s a drummer in this country called Ian Thomas, and I used to watch him play with Hamish Stuart from the Average White Band, one of the greatest groovers I think this country has ever seen, at the 606 Club in London. It’s like you can’t go off pace straightaway; you’ve got to lay it down. I’ve worked with Hamish for about twenty years myself. I’m so blessed that I’ve played with people like that, because they’re carrying a torch that you don’t see that often in modern set players, where the groove is at their heart and the songs are at their heart, and technique and stuff has to be there but is slightly less of the focus.
My technique over the past three or four years has come on leaps and bounds because I’ve got my own studio. It’s quite interesting—I basically built a little studio here in Milford, where I live, and I just put a video up one day. I got an incredible response from it, and I’ve just carried on. Lots of drummers follow me on Instagram. It’s grown to about 60,000 followers or something. For a little English drummer it’s not bad.
MD: As much as we rely on engineers in the studio, are you also mixing it in your own head as you’re playing?
Ash: Absolutely. You know, every time I’ve played, people have said to me, “Wow, when you play it sounds like a recording.” And that’s very flattering, but what I think they mean is that the kit’s balanced. I’ve always focused on that, to try to get a sound from the drumkit so it’s balanced rather than a collection of instruments being played. You get a sound from the thing, and the balance is already there—you don’t have to mess around with mixing too much. It should be a pretty simple process.
MD: I hear great conviction in your playing—you never waste a measure.
Ash: I play very simply, actually. A fill should obviously never interrupt the time feel—it should flow—and everything should dynamically kick along as nicely as you can make it happen. And one of the ways of making that happen is to be conscious of what you’re playing. Don’t fluff anything. You have to get to a point where you’re conscious of what you’re doing but respond to the music subconsciously. It’s a difficult place to be; I’m still working on it.
MD: Is there a formula to a drum part when you’re thinking of a hit record?
Ash: Every song has got its own life. But I guess the formula that I work from is just trying to honor the song, and trying to do an honest and emotional performance. It gets harder and harder, because you’ll do a performance and it’ll be chopped. People will edit some of the stuff that you put there purposely to try to make the track become something. It’s almost like sometimes people don’t want any emotion on their track, and that’s cool too—I totally get why people do that in certain circumstances. But I just try to play something that might pop out to the listener, like Gadd and Jeff and all those amazing guys do.
I also try to provide the right sound for the song. That’s a big thing. The feel, approach, attitude, and sound are the things that are most important to me, and they’re certainly important to singers and producers. And if you get it right, everybody’s happy.
MD: You work with a lot of singers.
Ash: Well, yeah, I play drums on The Voice U.K., so there’s about a hundred every year on that show that I’m working with. Pop music in this country is the best way to earn a living as a musician, if you’re fortunate enough to get involved in it. I’ve played on a lot of songs, with the odd dalliance with other types of music. I love instrumental music too—it’s kind of a guilty pleasure.
MD: It’s one thing to play a simple part but another to make it sound great.
Ash: I think I’ve been blessed because of the amount of time I’ve spent in the studio. You know, hearing yourself back continually is quite…well, to start with, it’s quite a horrible thing. [laughs] But eventually, working in the studio environment, you can work on that consistency and on your sound, and eventually you get to that point where it’s sort of automatic. That’s the way you play…that thing that we were talking about earlier with balance and stuff. In the end you just end up playing like that because at some point you become very conscious of it, and then you’re not—it’s just what you are.
MD: Do you leave more space in your playing in the studio? Do you play any differently from the way you would in a live setting?
Ash: I try to approach studio and live exactly the same way. And even if I’m playing in front of 10,000 people, I try to play with the same kind of dynamic. People kind of think that’s impossible—and if you’re playing with a rock band, that might be the case. But most of the time when I’m playing songs on stage, I’m using the same dynamic, and the guy out front just turns me up.
So yeah, that again is something I’ve sort of figured out later in life, that just because you’re playing in front of 80,000 people it doesn’t mean you have to play super-hard so they can hear it acoustically in the back of the room. It’s not that. I would watch Gadd—I’ve seen him play at the Albert Hall quite a few times—and I remember watching him one night and it was just like he was playing in a club, but it was in front of 6,000 people. That was fascinating. Everything about his playing was fantastic—the dynamics, the consistency, and the sound of the kit was cool.
MD: You and Gadd both play a great shuffle, which isn’t as easy as some people think.
Ash: Yeah, it’s a groove that I’ve always absolutely loved. For me, as a drummer, it ticks and tocks. If you can play one and make it sound convincing and consistent…you’ve got to be at a certain technical ability to pull it off, and your kit’s got to sound a certain way.
Yes, I love it. It’s a groove that I think all drummers should be able to play. If you ask a drummer to play time, he’ll usually play something straight. It’s very rare that you get a guy who will just come out of the audience and play a groove that’s swung, or triplet-ized. And one of my things is, your straight playing is always going to be okay, because that’s what you do most. But if you can get your swing playing, and your shuffle playing, feeling as comfortable as the other end of the spectrum, then you’re on to something. Because all of the really cool feels operate somewhere in the middle ground, you know.
Think about all the grooves that are slightly swung, all that really cool stuff—that’s what I think feel is all about. And if you can play a half-time shuffle to a good degree, then your time feel is going to be better. And that’s a feel that I’m quite comfortable with now. People have been slightly sort of freaking out that I’ve been playing it so fast. I’m not meaning to freak people out. It’s a feel that can work at faster tempos as well, and yeah, it’s a dead-cool feel.
MD: I love the grace note you play after the backbeat.
Ash: I realized that Jeff Porcaro was doing that. Years ago, back when I lived near Pino Palladino, I didn’t realize that was what was happening to create the rolling motion you need to play that. That’s really important, that one after the backbeat. To master it properly you’ve got to get that down. That’s the key to it, I think—in the left hand, for sure.
MD: On the Adele track “Set Fire to the Rain,” I like that simple hesitation, almost a little dancehall vibe you give it.
Ash: We chatted about the drum part on that track with Adele. She actually came up with the part. She said, “This is it.” She’s the real deal, the gal. I love her. There’s no question in her mind. She said, “I can hear this snare pattern in the verse,” and she sort of sang this thing to me. And I went in and played around on the snare as an overdub. The little rolling snare pattern that comes in, I facilitated it, but that was Adele’s idea. So that part was sort of a collaboration between me and Adele and [producer] Fraser T. Smith, who cowrote the track with her.
And that sort of rolling tom thing, I’ve done that on quite a few recordings. There’s a pulse, but it’s not 2 and 4. Adele had pretty much finished the album and that track came in, and I was fortunate to get a track in at the end of the record. I actually turned to Fraser that night—Adele had gone—and I said, “Fraser, I’ll see you at the Grammys,” and we were laughing. And six months later he phoned me up and said, “Do you want to come to the Grammys?” I couldn’t believe it.
MD: Do you like knowing what the lyrics are going to be, having a lot of information about the track, and being in the room with the singer?
Ash: Well, to be honest, singers being in the room, now that’s a pretty rare occurrence. When we did the Billy Idol record a couple of years ago, we did track with Billy. I could see him from my drum booth. That was an amazing experience. But nine times out of ten the artist isn’t there. Adele was there. I could see her through the glass. She wasn’t singing, but she was certainly in the session, and her vocal was already down. Knowing lyrics is really important to me as well.
I did an album once with [producer] Trevor Horn for an Italian artist, and the engineer took the vocal out when I was tracking. I said, “Where’s the vocal?” And he went, “It’s in Italian.” It’s like, “I know, but….” I can’t speak Italian, or even understand what he’s actually singing, but I was getting emotional information from the sound of his voice that would help guide me through the song, and also guide me to where I should be dynamically and stuff. We laughed a lot about the fact that I wanted to hear this guy singing even though I couldn’t understand a word. But there’s information in the vocal, and it’s absolutely paramount to the way you react when you’re playing, the way you approach your instrument.
Trevor was talking about how the vocal is the most important thing on a track, and when he said that I remember thinking that’s probably why he likes me, because it is to me as well. We haven’t ever talked about this, to be honest, but I know there are things that we agree on, and that’s one of them. The vocal and the musicians’ response to it is paramount. That, and the content of the song—you should take that on emotionally when you play, and hopefully I do.
MD: If you get an hour to practice, what do you do?
Ash: I just play the drums. I’m trying to approach the kit as an instrument, not as individual instruments, so I just play. And if I ever do work on something specific, it’ll be something like David Garibaldi’s “Oakland Stroke” groove. I’ll try and work that out, try and get that to feel good. It’s always the same thing for me, just trying to make it sound and feel great, as good as when David Garibaldi plays it. And I’m still working on that particular one.
The music and the feel are the most dominant things in my life, and that’s what I focus on. That’s the goal. The second bar of the “Oakland Stroke” groove is particularly naughty, and to make that feel like music, rather than an exercise, is hard. That’s the goal. The second bar of the “Oakland Stroke” groove is particularly naughty, and to make that feel like music, rather than an exercise, is hard. That’s the sort of thing that I love.
Adele “Set Fire to the Rain” from 21 /// Seal 7, Soul 2 /// Jeff Lorber Fusion Step It Up /// Robbie Williams Reality Killed the Video Star /// Del Amitri Some Other Sucker’s Parade /// Producers Made in Basing Street /// Cher Closer to the Truth /// Ronan Keating Time of My Life /// James Morrison Songs for You, Truths for Me
John Scofield Still Warm (Omar Hakim) /// The Beatles Revolver (Ringo Starr) /// Little Feat Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (Richie Hayward) /// The Police Reggatta de Blanc (Stewart Copeland) /// Toto Toto, IV (Jeff Porcaro) /// The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street (Charlie Watts) /// The Who Live at Leeds (Keith Moon) /// Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall (James Gadson) /// Donny Hathaway Live (Fred White) /// D’Angelo Voodoo (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson)
Tools of the Trade
Soan plays one of two Gretsch Broadkaster sets; his Anniversary Sparkle kit features a 12″ tom, a 16″ floor tom, a 22″ bass drum, and a 6×14 snare; his Antique Pearl studio kit has a 10″ (or 13″) tom, a 16″ floor tom, a 22″ bass drum, and a 5.5×14 snare. His Zildjian cymbals include 14″ A hi-hats circa 1969, 14″ K hi-hats circa 1950, new A and Kerope hi-hats of various sizes, a 22″ Constantinople Renaissance ride, various A crashes and rides, and 16″, 18″, and 19″ Kerope crashes and various rides. His Remo heads include Vintage A and Vintage Emperor models and a Coated CS on his snare for a deeper sound. He uses Vic Firth 5A wood-tip sticks, DW pedals and flat-base hardware, a Porter & Davies tactile monitoring system, JH Audio Roxanne in-ear monitors, and Protection Racket cases.