One might assume that Gary Wallis, at the age of 22, is just past the beginning stages of his drum and percussion session career. However, he passed that point long ago. Ever since he received his first drumkit (a Broadway) when he was three, Gary has been hitting those beats—and hard.
Gary is from London. “Everything about me is. I was born in London, and I’ve lived in London all my life. I guess I always will.” His early influences included Billy Cobham and, especially, Jo Jones. But it was not until he was about 13 that Gary began to take lessons. “I went to The London School of Symphony Orchestra. I was classically trained there. Steve White [from The Style Council] and I both trained together for three or four years—strictly classical.”
It was at the start of these lessons that Gary also began to play in little clubs with various bands around the pro circuit. He left school at the age of 16 and joined The Truth, playing drums. For the next two years, he played the small rock ‘n’ roll club circuit, while picking up an odd session here and there. It was through one of these sessions that his percussion career was born. “By accident, I happened to play some percussion for a session one day, and it developed from there. Then I quit The Truth, and through the contacts I had made over the years with the band, I started to do a lot of sessions.”
Gary then met up with The Style Council’s Paul Weller. “Paul came around one day and said, ‘Look, your percussion is not bad. Would you like to come down and play on a track?’ I went down to Paul’s place and did some percussion for him. He said, ‘Would you like to do the tour?’ So I went on tour with The Style Council for six months.”
That 1984 tour also provided the path to Gary’s next project. “It was a complete coincidence. At one of The Style Council’s shows, one of the lads from Nik Kershaw’s band came down, basically because his wife was taking care of the press. Nik had said that he was looking for a percussionist. So he auditioned me for two days, and then I did that tour. I think we toured for 11 months in all.”
Gary recently played on Nik’s album Radio Musicola and began an intensive 12- month tour late in the fall of 1986. To date, Nik Kershaw’s band is his favorite gig. He enjoys the challenge. “I think Nik is by far the most outstanding artist I’ve worked with, just for musical content and requirement. The role he asks you to play in his band is very demanding. He expects you not to drop below the level he sets for the whole time you are on tour or in the studio. He keeps you really on your toes, and he demands really interesting parts. That makes you innovative. He makes you approach each situation in a fresh way. Whereas you may be inclined to approach a particular tune a certain way, he will say, Well, alright, everybody does that. Why don’t you approach it this way?’ Nik’s whole show is done to a click track, because he is such a perfectionist. You have to play with a click track going all night and have to be spot on that click, because if you are on either side of it or you miss a beat, the show is finished.”
While on tour with Nik Kershaw, Gary again met up with someone who would lead him on to his next job.” I was in Australia, and I bumped into Julian Lennon’s band. The bass player, Carmen Rojas, who had played with Bowie, said that he really enjoyed the show. After chatting, I said to him, ‘Well, look, if you ever get any work, here’s my number—just in case.’ So we both finished our respective tours. Then Tony Thompson, who knew Carmen from touring with Bowie, told him that he needed a percussionist for the Power Station tour. Carmen said, ‘I’ve seen this kid in Australia. You have to ring him up.’ The next thing I knew, Tony rang me up and said, ‘Your ticket is on the way. You have a place in New York. Get out here now!'”
It was during The Power Station’s tour that Gary played for Live Aid—not once, but twice. “Live Aid was quite interesting. The Power Station had a four-day break in the tour to go to Philly, and I was supposed to play with Nik in London. Anyway, I was on The Power Station’s tour, and Andy Taylor said to me, ‘Look, would you play with Duran Duran?’ I said okay and rehearsed with Duran Duran while in Philly. It was really good, but it was also really strange. I remember going out on Live Aid about six o’clock at night for The Power Station set, which was great. Two hours later, Duran Duran went on, and I got a chance to go out again. That was really the best thing.”
Since the 1985 Power Station tour, Gary has been very busy with various projects, including Bucks Fizz’s hit single in the U.K., “New Beginning.” He also has three albums in the pipeline to work on and has been doing many one-off sessions. He has also taken on another role. Gary dabbles at playing keyboards and program ming their sequences (besides playing the bass guitar), which has taken him into producing, arranging, and programming keyboards for other people’s songs. One song, “A Stab In The Back,” by Logan, did very well in Europe and other areas. “Producing has been taking up a lot of my time. I’ve had to learn all the tricks that go with putting a record together, including how to get the most out of people when you are in the studio.”
With all this, one might wonder why Gary is not working on a solo project of his own. “Maybe in years to come,” says Gary. “So many drummers who were in band situations or who are known as session players do albums and become very self-indulgent. I wouldn’t want to do an album like that. If the occasion did arise where I found myself capable of a commercial project, then I would do a solo album. I can’t really justify that until a few years down the road, when I have seen a bit more, done a bit more, and heard a few more things.”
In regard to his session playing, Gary is allowed free rein. “Nobody governs what I do at all; only my musical tastes govern that. I can’t do sessions just for the sake of earning money. The music has got to be fulfilling or demanding in some way. I can’t just go and play what I term ‘nothing’ music: music by people who haven’t bothered to study music or the ins and outs of how to play it properly. There are a lot of people who turn up at a session not really knowing what they want. They just say, ‘Look, could you make me a hit record? I need this there and this there. . . .’ I can’t stand that. Apart from that, I’ll do anything, as long as it is nice to play and it’s something I haven’t done.”
Gary’s kit drumming tends to be for sessions, while his percussion work is mainly live (with an occasional session here and there). “I think it’s mainly for the showman aspect—the different angle I approach percussion with. I get a lot of work, because I jump up and down, twirl my sticks, and make it look like fun.”
Gary believes that the increase of work for percussionists over the last couple of years is due mainly to modern recording technology. “Many people are using sequenced percussion on a lot of their tracks—what with the development of the Linn 9000 and other sampling equipment. People are now sequencing and sampling large amounts of percussion. Consequently, more players are required to go out and recreate these sounds live. The percussionist’s job has become more demanding these days. Where it used to be that you just turned up and played your congas or timbales, now they require such things as very elaborate electronic setups. You have to know a lot about programming and sampling, and how they fit into contemporary music.”
Gary plays Tama drums and is now using a nine-foot high Power Tower Cage to support his massive percussion setup. That setup includes a tower built of 18 various colored Simmons pads to look good on stage. These pads trigger racks of Simmons and sampling devices—two SDS7s, an SDS5, an MTM MIDI brain, a Prophet 2002 sampling matrix, a Rev 7 reverb, and ten noise gates.
Gary also has two timbalitos and two timbales by LP, three Gon Bops congas, 14 cowbells, some custom-built, strange sounding percussive instruments by Jopa, two rack-mounted snare drums, a piccolo snare drum, two mounted gong drums, four tom-toms (8″, 10″, 12″, and 14″), and eight Octobans. Behind him is a series of triggered foot pedals that link back to the Simmons equipment. Since his percussion setup is so large, he uses these to gain additional access to the electronic instruments.
Gary’s Zildjian cymbals consist of eight Chinese cymbals ranging from 14″ to 20″, one 13″ and two 14″ crashes, a rack of extra-light splashes ranging from 6″ to 12″, and a set of Z series hi-hats. The cymbals are a mixture of K’s and A’s in Zildjian’s Platinum finish to look good on stage.
Slightly to one side of the percussion setup is Gary’s Tama drumkit, consisting of a 22″ bass drum, 6 1/2″ Bell Brass snare drum, and 8″, 10″, 12″, 14″, and 15″ rack toms. The cymbals are Zildjians again, including three crashes, two Chinese, a couple of splashes, and the hi-hats.
Gary’s setup in the studio consists of a Tama Artstar kit. He also uses synthesizers, as well as a Yamaha 9000 kit, and nine snare drums for different occasions, different songs, and various types of miking. He’ll choose his cymbals depending on what’s required for each track.
Gary enjoys being inventive when it comes to percussion sounds. For an effect, he once smashed a ten-foot sheet of glass with a hammer and recorded the sound into a sampler. Another bizarre sound—which can be heard at the beginning of Nik Kershaw’s song “Bogart”—is Gary hitting an empty fire extinguisher with a stick. He also has cymbals bent inside-out, and an amazing set of saucepans right out of the Kershaw’s kitchen. They have a metallic sound like a cowbell, but their shape, along with actual resonance, is what makes them so “off the wall.” Gary has them mounted, and he uses them on tour. (It is not surprising that Gary likes more outrageous percussionists such as Manolo Badrena and Mingo Lewis.)
Gary Wallis live is something not to be missed. He puts on quite a show. “I enjoy the exhilaration of a live performance; you get so much out of playing in front of people. I’m still quite young, and still have the stamina and the energy. But then again, it’s nice to make records, so that you can turn around in 20 years’ time and say, ‘That’s me.’ No doubt, in years to come, I’ll get far more out of making a record.”
Gary’s general view on music is that everyone should be aware of all the various styles, because there is a lot to be learned. He feels that the older types, like The Beatles, etc., are now being neglected by today’s generation (who are also turning their noses up at classical music), while that standard of musicianship, belief, and years of hard work and dedication should be recognized. Gary was first influenced by The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea, and other fusion artists. Then he went into pop and a Beatles stage. Presently, he favors Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and especially Charlie Parker. He is into the real bebop style, which he feels is nice to incorporate into pop music.
It’s swinging that Gary really likes. “Everyone goes for this complete perfection today, which is great. I think you should play to a fantastic standard. But people forget how to swing. This is why I urge people to listen to some ’50s jazz, just to hear the way the whole band swings and how the drummer pushes the band along to make them swing. No matter what you are playing—pop music, funk, or reggae—it’s all got to swing—to groove.”
Having achieved so much at such a young age, Gary Wallis is still very ambitious. (He has always wanted to learn the saxophone.) But mainly, he’d like to bring his standard of drum and percussion playing to a level that would be unrivaled, not for egotistical reasons, but “for the benefit of up-and-coming kids, so they could have someone to look up to. Unfortunately, as of late, there haven’t been too many people to look up to. There are a lot of good kids out there, but many of them are misled. They think that, because they have an electronic drumkit, they’ve got it knocked. They have to learn that one needs some people to listen to; they need to realize that music is not all gadgets and that not everybody can do it. I think it would be nice for kids to develop a standard where they would say, ‘Oh, I want to learn how to play like that, and I have to spend the next eight to ten years sitting there practicing.'”