He’s a pop hitmaker with a rock ‘n’ roll heart. But a song is a song, and this is one drummer who knows what to do with a song.
Don’t call U.K. drummer Karl Brazil on his home landline—chances are he’s not around to answer. Once he’s done laying down an unwavering pocket on tour with popster James Blunt (“You’re Beautiful”), Brazil shoots off to do dates here and there with Brit icon Robbie Williams and then convenes with his Feeder bandmates to bring the heavy for festival appearances and club gigs. And, oh yeah, the drummer is in and out of the studio with the aforementioned artists and countless others as he busies himself on the session scene during his downtime.
The real question: What downtime? And how does one juggle all these gigs without overlap issues, à la June 2011 MD cover artist Josh Freese? “I’ve always been careful not to take too much on,” Brazil says. “No matter what you do on the drums, you don’t want the reputation of being unreliable.”
The philosophical challenges of such disparate gigs also yield unexpected musical approaches. “James Blunt asked me to try not playing the hi-hat for a certain tune,” Brazil recalls. “Drummers automatically go for the normality of kick/snare/hats. But I tried it and it worked well, so I always think of throwing weird things like that into the mix, because sometimes that can make the track. It’s also good to be open to the suggestions of others.”
Whether reflecting on playing with house bands, doing TV, or fitting in studio work after lengthy absences, Brazil is refreshingly down to earth. MD caught up with the drummer after he took a long flight from Australia back to his home base of Birmingham, England. He wouldn’t be home for long.
MD: What was it like to play in Ronnie Scott’s House band?
Karl: I was always a natural and self-taught, so I never relied on reading or writing stuff down. I had an opportunity to take over for a drummer who was going to sit out, and my dad told me that if I wasn’t confident reading the dots, we would record the gigs for a week and just learn every track. So that’s what I did. It was all jazz. And after a year, it was one of the best things I ever did, for self-confidence and dynamics and not being heavy on the kick. I was about eighteen. Out of that came Bitty McLean, a reggae gig, and it was my first taste of TV and arena tours.
MD: And the Darius gig?
Karl: One night at Ronnie’s, I met a guy who was auditioning drummers for Darius, who had won U.K.’s Pop Idol [England’s equivalent to American Idol]. There were about sixty drummers there, and I thought, Oh no, what a waste of time, but someone was keeping an eye on me because they asked if I could start the next day. Darius rose to fame so quickly, and he put his arm around me and we enjoyed the experience together. We hit it off personality- wise too. From that I met lots of producers and haven’t looked back since. Kids ask me how to get into the scene and maintain an existence, and I always stress how important it is to get on with people.
MD: Robbie Williams’ material includes a lot of different kit sounds. How do you make choices that cover the middle ground?
Karl: I worked with the guy who did the programming and loops, and he wanted me to keep it pretty rock ’n’ roll and real, without a lot of pads. We decided to have two bass drums—one small 20″ with dampening that’s a punchy, disco-y sound, and one open 24″ that’s a kick-ass rock machine. And then I’d have two snares and two hi-hats as well, which works wonders.
MD: How does it feel to play a remote kick where your beater isn’t actually going into the head?
Karl: There was a resistance at first. It felt like, “Where’s the kick?” It’s like you’re hitting something underwater. But I have a sub speaker now and have gotten used to it. It would have been strange if the main kick was [a remote], though.
MD: How do you approach playing Robbie’s more famous material, where you weren’t on the original recordings? Do you throw in some Brazil spices, or do you try to stay as reverent as possible?
Karl: You can really grit your teeth and have fun with Robbie’s songs. There are definitely arrangements with his tracks, and I stick to what’s on the records. But sometimes we’ll have a breakdown or a tail-out. We even go into the Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away,” and I do let rip with my own thing.
Robbie is excitable and fun to watch, so when he goes for it, I like to do the same and be expressive on the kit—without overplaying, of course. When I was a kid, I’d do too much. So now I try to play what’s right, and if you get your moments, have a blast, as long as it’s tasteful and within the parameters of the gigs.
MD: Your drum sounds for James Blunt’s material are pretty dry. Did that come from your love of the Eagles?
Karl: James’s gig is all about the songs— discipline and groove. It’s not a technical muso gig. No one’s going to hear some drumming and say, “Wow, what is that? I want to learn that!” [laughs] James likes the ’70s thing, so the references are Bread, the Eagles, the Band. When you make your kit sound like that, it makes you play a certain way, and that suits James’s music. You work harder, and there’s less sustain and ringing going on. If I had a 10″ tom and a splash cymbal sticking out in “You’re Beautiful,” I think I’d get in trouble. [laughs]
I’ve also gone bigger with cymbals. I don’t hit them as hard. I let them do their own musical thing. Our front-of-house engineer makes the kit sound like a vinyl record out front. If one of the toms is ringing, he’d rather me dampen it than put a gate on.
MD: Feeder is the other, heavier side. How much of a green light do you have for writing the drum parts?
Karl: On [2010’s] Renegades, I’d try different ideas out, and Grant [Nicholas, singer/guitarist] would pick out what he liked. So creatively he gave me a bit of freedom there. In Feeder, the drums and guitar speak to each other, which is quite easy for me to understand.
MD: Do you have to change your mindset and get more amped up for Feeder songs? Or is it just about being professional and switching to a more aggressive style?
Karl: I have to change my style a bit. It’s just bass, drums, and guitars, so it’s a big wall of sound, and the cymbals do a lot of the work. There are some double kick parts too. The drum parts are based on patterns that will have a slightly more alternative approach for the bridge section than for the chorus—going from the crash to the hats. We have to all be an engine together. I don’t try to be John Bonham all over it either. It’s a bit more full-on than that, with a real urgency and energy. All the drummers before me in Feeder were great players, but it was nice to come in and put my feel on it, and to play a different genre and get my rocks off.
MD: Do you call on any references for each gig—say, the Eagles for Blunt or maybe Dave Grohl for Feeder?
Karl: I’m a rocker at heart. I love Phil Rudd and Jeff Porcaro and Led Zeppelin and Motörhead and the Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam. I played all that stuff in college. With Feeder, it was the first time I was able to sink my teeth into that. With James and Robbie, I understand what the gigs are and what they need. But I wouldn’t say I think of a drummer for each gig. I just think in terms of a certain genre or band.
MD: How’s the session scene different between England and the U.S.?
Karl: A lot of U.K. producers have their own studios, so I go to personal spaces rather than the bigger U.S. complexes. With technology, you’re seeing producers build facilities within their own buildings. But I recently did a session in L.A., and the room was fantastic. The kit was there ready to go, and they’re obviously churning out stuff regularly. It was slick and fast—everyone knew what they wanted, and there was no messing around.
For James’s last album, we recorded at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove Studios in London, and I actually had three kits set up: a Rogers and a Gretsch in the big room, and a smaller Gretsch in a booth. We had everything covered, so if we wanted to try something, we didn’t have to faff around for an hour with mics. It was a luxury, but it definitely paid off.
MD: Is the session scene changing?
Karl: I’m a newcomer. From what I’m told, back in the day sessions were aplenty, with a lot more going on, and the bigger studios were more active. Now there’s a lot more programming, and people have their own studios where they can take their time and record the instruments themselves.
I’ve been fortunate over the past few years to play on some great records— although, because I tour so much, I take myself out of the session scene, so I’m not constantly here to see whether it swells or it goes quiet. And it’s healthy to be able to tour and also do sessions, to mix it up. But even if you take yourself out of the scene, I don’t think anyone can take away what you do. When people know you’re back, they call you. Also, there’s a load of great players in the U.K., but we all go off and tour, so it’s a constant circle—a conveyor belt of good drummers for sessions.
MD: You show some serious ambidexterity during clinics, riding your left-side crash with your left hand and playing backbeats and ghosting with your right. You’re naturally lefty, but do you work on that stuff?
Karl: I don’t really work on it. When I play, it feels like dancing. I go where the balance is shifted. I’m left-handed at everything I do. I’m even left-footed when I play soccer. My dad bought me a kit at age two and set it up for a righty player. So I lead with my left, and it gives me a bit of an ambidextrous feel. But it’s too late to turn back! I enjoy the creative openness it gives me. And I’ve tried to play a lefty kit, but for the kick drum, my left foot is not as good as my right. On James Blunt’s track “I’ll Take Everything” [from All the Lost Souls] there’s a pattern going on with the hats and the ride that has that ambidextrous thing.
MD: Have your clinics changed with so many different gigs being added to your résumé? You’ve got to have a wealth of ideas and beats in your arsenal at this point.
Karl: I try to focus on a little journey of how I got started. I’ll do a country-shuffle blues track and then I’ll do some things from my Celtic past. Then I’ll talk about discipline and versatility and the reasons I think I get calls for gigs. I’ll play to some Jason Mraz, James Blunt, and Take That and talk about sound and my approach. I’ll change a snare and speak about not crashing going into a chorus or not playing any toms in a song. Then I’ll solo and talk about feel and timing and how to present yourself and look after yourself on tour. I don’t try to be someone I’m not—I’m not Dave Weckl. And I try to make it a bit of fun.
MD: The 2010 Brit Awards performance with Robbie Williams features what has to be the biggest challenge of all—you playing in a tux.
Karl: [laughs] Not only that, but we had to play an eleven minute medley of Robbie’s hits, with an eighteen-piece brass section, live on TV to a click with cues. The pressure was on, but I feed off pressure—it makes me work.
Drums: Gretsch USA Custom
A. 6 1/2×14 snare
B. 5×14 hammered brass snare
C. 10×13 tom
D. 16×16 floor tom
E. 16×18 floor tom
F. 16×24 bass drum
G. 16×20 bass drum
1. 19” HHX Legacy crash
2. 15″ Vault Artisan hi-hats (medium)
3. 20” Vault Artisan crash (medium)
4. 22” Vault Artisan ride (medium)
5. 19″ Vault Artisan crash (medium)
6. 21” HHX Legacy ride with rivets
Sticks: Vic Firth 5BW Karl Brazil signature model
Heads: Remo, including Emperor X snare batters and thin Hazy bottoms, Coated Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and a Coated Powerstroke 3 20” bass drum batter and Clear Powerstroke 3 24” bass drum batter
Hardware: Gibraltar, DW 5000 pedals, Ford Smart Ass throne, TunerFish lug locks
Cases: Protection Racket
For recordings, Karl’s setup varies depending on the gig.
James Blunt “I’ll Take Everything” /// Jason Mraz “Make It Mine” /// Feeder “Renegades” /// Tristan Prettyman “Hello” /// Leona Lewis “Run” /// Take That “SOS” /// Helping Haiti “Everybody Hurts”
AC/DC Back in Black (Phil Rudd) /// Level 42 A Physical Presence (Phil Gould) /// Fool’s Gold Mr. Lucky (Jeff Porcaro) /// Whitesnake Slip of the Tongue (Tommy Aldridge) /// Journey Raised on Radio (Steve Smith) /// Stockton’s Wing Live (Fran Breen) /// Toto IV (Jeff Porcaro) /// It Bites Once Around the World (Bob Dalton) /// Prince The Gold Experience (Michael Bland) /// The Band The Band (Levon Helm) /// Red Hot Chili Peppers Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Chad Smith) /// Queens of the Stone Age Songs for the Deaf (Dave Grohl) /// Tower of Power Soul Vaccination Live (David Garibaldi) /// Everything Everything Man Alive (Michael Spearman) /// plus anything with John “JR” Robinson