We could stick to Elvis Costello and the Attractions/Imposters stuff and still fill half this issue with reasons to love Pete Thomas. But we’re digging deeper, because there’s much to love about the work Thomas has done apart from Costello as well.
As highlight-heavy as Thomas’s forty-year-plus tenure with Costello has been—filled with frantic pub rock, classic pop and soul, an album with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, and one covering country royalty—it’s scratching the surface. Thomas’s session discography includes adventurous work with roots legends Los Lobos and Bonnie Raitt; singer-songwriters Randy Newman, Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, and the late Elliott Smith; Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones; and dozens of records with Latin pop and rock artists that have been successful in Spanish-speaking countries.
Whittling down the list of worthy tracks to just the ten covered here was a difficult task. Getting to pick Pete’s brain about these tracks felt like a reward.
“(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” Elvis Costello and the Attractions (This Year’s Model, 1978) If there’s a better four-bar drum intro than this, feel free to let us know. The pop-pop of Thomas’s tightly tuned Supraphonic snare sets up that intro, where he delivers a half-time variation of his idol Mitch Mitchell’s groove on Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” He continues that motif throughout, anchoring the dub-influenced bass line of Bruce Thomas (no relation), while occasionally slipping into double time and firing off slashing fills and accents.
“The precedent of some fancy drumming had been set,” says Thomas. “‘Watching the Detectives’ [from Costello’s debut album, with Steve Goulding on drums] had that drum intro. ‘Chelsea’ is me saying, ‘If Elvis Costello is going to have fancy drum intros, I’m doing one.’ It was one of the first few takes. If you really listen to it, I’m trying out stuff all the way through.”
“Lipstick Vogue” (This Year’s Model) Another killer intro here, this one a frenzied snare-and-tom combination that slides neatly into tightly coiled double time. That intro pattern returns between verses slightly faster, before a spooky breakdown gives way to a twelve-bar Thomas solo that sounds like a punk drummer interpreting “Sing, Sing, Sing.” It’s so totally over the top, but totally together.
“The intro bit just came out of the air,”Thomas shares,“and Elvis probably jumped on it—‘That’s great, do that!’ That’s the thing with Elvis: If there’s drumming all over it—if it’s good—he’ll be on it. He’s not just going to say, ‘Shut up, I need more room to sing.’ There’s probably been times where he’s said something like that. But he wouldn’t ever stifle creativity.”
“(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” Elvis Costello and the Attractions (Armed Forces, 1979) A beautiful thing happens on this song, common to many early Attractions songs. It’s that feeling that the track could derail, when in reality Thomas has everything locked down. He does a lot of playing here without overplaying, carefully tucking extended snare licks, ’round-the-kit fills, and syncopated turnarounds into just the right spots. Like most Attractions songs from that era, this was cut live, full-band and lead vocal. That’s probably why so many years later, it still sounds so energized and inspired. “All I had to do was rock it out,” says Thomas. “It was one of those takes where we just hit it. You know how rarely that happens. You have to be thankful for the rest of your life that at that one moment, everybody nailed it, including the vocal.”
“New Lace Sleeves” Elvis Costello and the Attractions (Trust, 1981) Another kind of mesmerizing drum intro here: a jazzy hi-hat pattern bookended by a kick on the 1 and a snare hit on the “&” of 4; a relatively fancy beat for Thomas that dances around Costello’s curvy melody. It’s also a different kind of Attractions sound overall, featuring lots of space for Thomas to sink into with a groove he says is a nod to Stevie Wonder’s“Superstition.”The inspiration to the intro/verse groove is less obvious. “[Producer] Nick Lowe was standing by the drums while we were trying things out and said, ‘What about something like [a cover of the Rolling Stones’] “Satisfaction”’—that Devo thing. And I probably did something, and Nick said, ‘Do the snare there, the hi-hat there…,’ and then I had to make sense of it. It’s ‘Satisfaction’ by Devo into ‘Superstition,’ and it doesn’t sound anything like either.”
“Dream in Blue” Los Lobos (Kiko, 1992) Thomas has a way of fitting into other artists’ worlds while still sounding very much like the drummer you know and love from the Costello records: his skittering snare part on this track from 1992’s Kiko album (the first of several he did with Los Lobos) has a funky feel, though you don’t get the feeling he’s trying to make it funky, not even when he downshifts into half-time. It’s just pure Pete. “That was a beat called the ‘ragamuffin beat,’ which is like an English reggae beat. Colin Fairey, who was the engineer on [Costello’s 1986 album] Blood & Chocolate, taught me it. I suggested the beat, and they actually gave me a writing credit. They gave me 10 percent, which is amazing.”
“The Great Nations of Europe” Randy Newman (Bad Love, 1999) Thomas had logged many miles with one great lyricist (Costello) when Randy Newman came calling in 1999 with this theatrical composition. Thomas is in near-constant motion throughout, segueing from a marching pattern to half-time to double-time and back again. With skillful, orchestral touches, he helps to form the score for Newman’s black-comedy history lesson with strings, horns, woodwinds, and bass. “I got a demo of him playing it pretty loose,”Thomas recalls. “I just mapped it all out. Then I went in the studio with him and the bass player and we just laid it down, very sparse. Then he orchestrates it to the things you do on the drums. It’s a fond memory. And I actually learned some stuff as well! It was a good history lesson.”
“Junk Bond Trader” Elliott Smith (Figure 8, 2000) Smith usually operated as a one-man band in the studio, but producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf asked Thomas to bolster a few songs on the Figure 8 album, including this down-tempo groover. Overdubbing to a track already cut with Smith on drums, Thomas keeps everything nice and tight behind the fluctuating cadence of Smith’s melody. His pocket is rock solid, and creative sonic touches like lightly playing the resonant side of the snare in the bridge add dynamics to the track. “I guess they felt that the drums could be better or different or something,” Thomas surmises. “So I got a call and went down to Sunset Sound. I think Elliott showed me roughly what he had in mind. And they just set me up on my own in the room. He was sort of a dark guy; everyone was sort of walking on eggshells around him. But I found him to be really nice.”
“Bedlam” Elvis Costello and the Imposters (The Delivery Man, 2004) Thomas has all limbs working overtime here, as his left foot taps out splashy 8th notes on the hi-hats while his right foot lays down steady 8ths on the kick to anchor a paradiddle-type pattern between the floor tom and snare. It’s a busy bit of drumming that blends perfectly with the chaotic, Arabic-tinged swirls of noise on this track about the Middle East circa the Iraq War. Thomas: “My idea with the drum part was to make it sound like one of those Arab orchestras, with eight drummers doing all that flamming. I would have loved it if we could have gotten some of those guys playing doumbek and tar drums on that track.”
“Vámonos” La Santa Cecilia (Buenaventura, 2016) Some of Thomas’s most fascinating work has taken place in the rock/pop en Español world. He falls right in the pocket on this track with the genre-bending Mexican-American band La Santa Cecilia, toggling between a bright and peppy 4/4, a choppy reggae feel that sounds like something from the early Costello playbook, and solid half-time. Thomas proves here that great “song drumming” is universally applicable. “It’s not so much that I’m really good at Latin drumming,” he insists. “It’s more like, ‘Get this English guy. He’ll put a bit of a twist on it. It’ll sound simpler.’The way I play it might be a slightly different groove, might not be so ahead of the beat; a lot of those [Latin] guys play ahead of the beat.”
“Under Lime” Elvis Costello and the Imposters (Look Now, 2018) Thomas has mastered the art of making Costello’s immaculate pop songs sound a little messy. Listen to the way he bashes the hi-hats over the pristine melody and Burt Bacharach-esque chord changes in “Under Lime.” Those sloshy hats—plus sweet sonic touches like an uncharacteristically dead and fat snare and overdubbed toms for a timpani sound—contrast beautifully with his elegant navigation of the track’s many changes. “It has those different sections, and you think of your parts,” he says. “It’s a bit like scaffolding. There’s vocals here in the verse, okay…this is the bit about a clock ticking— okay, sidestick…this is the bit where there’s going to be all these vocals—alright, sort of military drumming, toms EQ’d to sound like timpani…. There’s a lot there, but it came together pretty quick.”
Pete Thomas plays DW drums and Zildjian cymbals and uses Remo heads and Vic Firth sticks.