What Do You Know About…?

Dave Mattacks

by Patrick Berkery

Dave MattacksWhen you’ve had a career like his, even the biggest session can seem like another day at the office. But what a day…

Discovering a shared love of the veteran rock and folk drummer Dave Mattacks is the kind of thing that bonds hardcore music fans. Strangers who meet while pawing through Fairport Convention vinyl in a record shop turn into fast friends; musicians who geek out over Mattacks’ work on XTC’s Nonsuch are prompted to form a band. When you encounter someone who’s familiar with Mattacks’ credits, you’ve met someone who knows his or her drummers.

Over the course of his forty-six-year-and-counting career, Mattacks has compiled an impressive résumé (available for your perusal at dmattacks.co.uk). He’s worked with legends such as Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Elton John, and Roger Daltrey. And he’s played with artists of great influence, like the aforementioned English folk-rock institution Fairport Convention and pop perfectionists XTC, along with the mythical folkie Nick Drake, musical visionary Brian Eno, and prog-rock progenitors Jethro Tull.

There have also been more obscure labors of love, like Feast of Fiddles, a twelve-piece band featuring six electric violins that’s an ongoing project for Mattacks. And living in singer-songwriter-rich New England (the London native relocated to the Boston area in 2000) keeps Mattacks busy backing many regional artists that call upon his ace song-supporting skills. The suburban-Boston home base has also helped Mattacks expand his role as an educator, as he teaches a regular summer course at Berklee in addition to giving private lessons.

Mattacks says his profile isn’t something he’s ever gotten too caught up in pondering; instead he simply considers everything he does part of a continuing and fulfilling body of work. “When you’re in the vacuum of working, you’re not necessarily stopping to reflect, ‘Oh, this is good’ or ‘This is important,’” he says. “Because tomorrow there’s a jingle, and next week there’s this other thing. You’re a working drummer. You’re not really sitting back as it’s happening and taking stock. The back of your hand isn’t against your forehead, going, ‘I’m not sure whether this is sufficiently artistic or high merit enough for me to be involved,’ or any bullshit like that. You just get on with it and make the best music you can. It’s what I’ve always done.”

As a teen, prior to becoming a professional drummer, Mattacks worked in the London store Drum City. Under the influence of jazz drummers like Buddy Rich and Kenny Clare, and rockers like Ringo Starr and Levon Helm, Mattacks learned to lap calfskin heads on the job, while having his mind blown whenever stars like Ringo, Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, or Keith Moon would visit the shop. His on-the-kit training was enhanced by the store’s manager, Johnnie Richardson, whom Mattacks recalls as “a great mentor.”

“I sat in with his jazz quintet once,” Mattacks recalls. “I’d bugged him—‘Let me sit in!’ This is me in my teens. I was looking at him at the end of the gig for some kind of approval. And he said something along the lines of, ‘Dave, you play really well, but stop trying to play everybody else’s instrument.’ That’s a phrase that really resonated with me. What he was saying was, just because you can hear what the bass player is doing or the line the singer has sung in a certain rhythmic way, you don’t have to play it back at them. And that took a couple of years to sink in. When I listen to some of the early things I did, like [Fairport Convention’s] Liege & Lief, there are parts where I can hear that it hasn’t dawned on me yet.”

Maybe it represents work in progress to his ears, but Mattacks plays like a seasoned pro on his 1969 Fairport debut. Having taken over for the band’s original drummer, Martin Lamble, who died in a tour bus crash, Mattacks carefully picks his spots to emphasize the rock in the band’s folk-rock alchemy. The swinging shuffle he puts to “Come All Ye” whips unbridled joy into the album-opening call to arms. And his work on the traditional “Matty Groves” is a powerful showcase; Mattacks drives the song in the first half, and in the second plays off Richard Thompson’s guitar fireworks as the time toggles between 4/4, 6/4, and 3/4.

Liege and Lief simultaneously established Fairport as the defining group of the British folk-rock movement and Mattacks as an in-demand drummer on the scene. As the group splintered during the early ’70s, Dave worked with bassist Ashley Hutchings’ subsequent band, Steeleye Span, played on several solo albums from lead vocalist Sandy Denny, and began a longstanding association with Thompson, recording and touring with the guitar legend into the 2000s. His work on Thompson’s classic 1982 album with the guitarist’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Linda, Shoot Out the Lights, features some of the drummer’s most powerful playing, though sonically the LP doesn’t sit particularly well with Mattacks. “I think that’s a great, great record, but it just sounds too ’80s to me,” he shares. “I can hear the gates working on the drums. But that’s something that as a musician for hire you learn to step away from, because it’s something that’s not really important. ‘Big deal, the drummer isn’t crazy about the drum sounds—get over it.’ [laughs]”

In the early ’70s Mattacks also worked with two of the most influential artists to emerge from that folk-rock scene, Nick Drake and John Martyn. You don’t necessarily think “drums” at the mention of those acoustic-based musicians, but the spare rhythmic touches and full-fledged kit playing Mattacks adds to Drake’s delicate Bryter Layter album and Martyn’s esoteric Solid Air fit perfectly. Years later, both records remain excellent examples of Mattacks’ taste and creativity.

“The thing that was so illuminating about that era,” Mattacks explains, “was working with people like John Martyn and Nick Drake. They weren’t dyed-in-the-wool folkies like many of the other people I’d been working with at the time. I remember thinking, Oh, yeah, they’re pretty good. And you look back now, and those people were so ahead of the game. At the time you’d do a session and it was just a gig. But five or ten years removed from that period, I could step back from it and realize, Wow, these people were really something.”

Growing restless with the folk scene as the ’70s progressed, Mattacks looked to branch out. He cites the sessions for Brian Eno’s 1977 album Before and After Science, which also features drums from Phil Collins of Genesis, Jaki Liebezeit of Can, and Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt, as a welcome change of pace. “He had a different way of dealing with things and what he wanted,” Mattacks says of Eno. “His suggestions were the antithesis of, ‘That’s not the most appropriate place to put that microphone on the snare,’ or ‘Play that fill.’ He just liked to get you out of your comfort zone.”

By the beginning of the ’80s Mattacks had gone from being the guy known as the go-to folk drummer to the guy known for playing with two of the Beatles: Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Both high-profile gigs came up in a very casual way, Mattacks says. Percussionist Ray Cooper, a friend, was co-producing Harrison’s 1981 album, Somewhere in England, and brought Mattacks in on the session—which fatefully began the day after John Lennon was murdered.

“The morning we were due to work, Ray called me up and said, ‘Have you heard the news? John Lennon was shot last night.’ Like everyone else, I was taken aback. Then Ray called back and said the best thing George felt he could do [that day], rather than sitting around thinking about it, would be to try to make some music, so we did. At one point we were having a meal and discussing the gravity of what had happened, and George said so sincerely, ‘All I ever wanted was to be in a band.’ He was so unassuming, just an absolute sweetheart.”

The other Fab Four association began when Mattacks bumped into McCartney at a London music store and Beatle Paul casually asked if the drummer might be interested in doing some recording. Mattacks, who appears on McCartney’s albums Tug of War, Pipes of Peace, Flowers in the Dirt, and Run Devil Run, says that tracking with such a legend wasn’t all that different from much of the work he’d been doing.

“He hardly ever told me anything,” Dave says. “It was, ‘Here’s the song. Let’s have a go.’ Working with him was not dissimilar to working with someone like Richard Thompson. You sit down and they play you the song. They either go, ‘Yup, that’s cool,’ or ‘Actually, it’s a bit more like…’ Most of it was two or three takes. I don’t remember agonizing over anything.”

Though he’s extremely humble when asked to analyze his impressive body of work (“If I have a strength, it’s accompanying people and playing songs” is as boastful as the drummer gets), there’s no escaping the fact that Mattacks has enjoyed a pretty heady career. He acknowledges that it’s beyond anything he could have imagined, but is quick to point out that it’s certainly not something he could have planned.

“There was never a master plan: ‘Yes, I’m going to work with Paul McCartney.’ I’m always suspicious of these folks: ‘I’m going to go to Berklee, and then I’m going to go play with Madonna and Chick Corea by the time I’m thirty.’ I don’t know how you plan this stuff out. A career plan is for the banking world. The only thing I knew I wanted to do was to make music to the best of my ability and learn about it. It’s as simple as that.”

The Mattacks Mix
Unfamiliar with Dave Mattacks’ playing? Start here.

Nick Drake, “Hazey Jane I”
Nick Drake Bryter LayterMattacks employs just the right touch with mallets on this track from Drake’s 1971 album, Bryter Layter, weaving around the string swells and the singer’s fragile voice with accented tom rolls and light cymbal strikes. “I was just trying to paint some colors,” the drummer says. “You didn’t need to state the time. Nick’s time [on guitar] was so good.”

XTC, “My Bird Performs”
XTC NonsuchThis textbook XTC pop gem features a rhythmic variety show on the bottom as Mattacks anchors it with a four-on-the-floor kick while shuffling around the toms, dropping in four-stroke ruffs and sweet ghost strokes on the snare. “This was my idea,” Dave says. “On other things [on Nonsuch], Andy Partridge or Colin Moulding would make suggestions that I’d copy verbatim or put my own spin on.”

George Harrison, “Blood From a Clone”
George Harrison Somewhere in EnglandMattacks drops snares left, right, and center on Harrison’s satirical take on the record biz, flipping the beat partially in the verses while completely turning it on its ear in the solo. It’s choppy, but it’s still a great groove. “I think I was trying to do Jim Keltner,” Mattacks explains. “But if I’m honest, I think the execution is a little sloppy.”

Steeleye Span, “The Blacksmith”
Steeleye Span Hark! The Village WaitThe 1 is open to interpretation on this cut from Steeleye Span’s 1970 debut album, Hark! The Village Wait, as Mattacks alternates where he places the snare hits from measure to measure. The topsy-turvy feel doesn’t disrupt the song’s beautiful melody, though. “I was really being conscious of the melody line—not just plowing through it, but playing something around it.”

Jimmy Page, “City Sirens”
Death Wish IIMattacks holds the distinction of being the first drummer to record with Jimmy Page following the death of John Bonham. This track from the Death Wish II soundtrack finds Mattacks holding it down and nailing the funky breaks like his old friend Bonzo. “Zep would come see Fairport gigs,” he says, “and we’d go see Zep gigs. Had some great times with John.”