Working The Studies
While vacationing in England, I decided to interview Dave Mattacks, one of Britain’s finest session musicians, whose name appears on a score of pop album liners, and yet is virtually unknown.
Mattacks kindly took some time out from his busy schedule of recording sessions to join me for a discussion of his work. Though not as well known here as in Europe, the ten or so albums which Mattacks recorded with Fairport Convention succeeded in attracting a large following. Fairport was a band that blazed trails in the early ’70s, when it succeeded in uniting the energy and punch of a rock rhythm section with the romantic themes and melodies inherent in traditional British folk music. Probably for the first time, the drums became an aggressive force in what had formerly been considered ‘light’ music.
Since leaving Fairport in 1974, Dave has been mixing his time between recording and touring, although the former has emerged dominant. To sample the Mattacks approach, try Joan Armatrading’s album Love and Affection which features Dave on half the cuts. Listen to the finale, “Tall in the Saddle.” In that tune, which graduates from a lumbering swing to a powerful rock exit, you can hear the essential Mattacks treatment: Spartan economy of playing and good time. And although he doesn’t like to admit it, there are a couple of murderous and inventive fills—his signature.At age 30, Dave Mattacks has had a varied career including intercontinental tours with Fairport and Joan Armatrading. He has also served a few of his earlier years playing the rough bars of Glasgow and Belfast which is where you learn chops of all sorts. His studio experience is vast and includes credits with many of England’s top rock and folk art ists, such as Rick Wakeman, Greg Lake, Gary Brooker, Kikki Dee, Richard Thompson, and the late Sandy Denny. He is called upon to do entire albums, to set a tune right, or sometimes just when tasteful percussion overdubs are required. In any case, he takes an active interest in his performance, in the mixing (when possible), and in the development of the song itself.
The interview began with my query on Dave’s 1973 recording kit as was detailed in Melody Maker of that year. It was a small Gretsch set with 18″ x 12″ bass drum. Dave admitted, “it’s changed a lot.”
BW: What are you using now in the studio?
DM: I’ve got two basic studio sets, and they’re both amalgamated with extra cymbals which I carry in a separate case. One is an old Gretsch, with round badges, a 20″ bass drum, 12″ x 8″, 14″ x 14″, 16″ x 16″, and a metal shell Gretsch snare drum, with Ludwig hoops on it.
BW: I was going to ask you about that, because the Gretsch rims are so heavy?
DM: Yeah, well it’s a great snare drum, but I put Ludwig hoops top and bottom, just on the snare drum. My cymbals include a 13″ thin Zildjian on top of a heavy 14″ for hi-hats and a 14″ extra thin Zildjian crash on the left which I picked up when I was at the Zildjian factory recently. It’s 25 years old. One of those paper thin cymbals that you can actually bend in half. It’s bullshit when they say that they make them that thin these days, because they don’t. I’ve always wanted really thin crash cymbals ever since Kenny Clare told me about them. A heavy 19″ on the bass drum, a 16″ crash on the right. That’s the basic set-up, and I combine that with a 20″ pang, and an 18″ Trio.
BW: What is a Trio?
DM: It’s just like a medium thin crash ride with three rivets close together. I think they brought it out for about five minutes and then discontinued it. I don’t know why. It’s got a great bell sound. You have to be careful which way you hit it. You have to hit it with the shoulder of the stick. If you hit it on the edge it sounds awful. You have to be careful how you play it, but it’s a great cymbal. It sizzles for 20 seconds! That’s one set. The extra cymbals that I carry are two flat rides, a Tosco 18″ and a Paiste 18″. Also, an 18″ Paiste extra-thin crash and a 16″ Paiste extra-thin crash, both 602’s. I don’t like 2002’s. There’s a thing I got in Canada which is outrageous, it’s an 11″ something. It’s just like a splash. It’s made in Japan and sounds like a cross between a dinner gong and a Chinese cymbal. It’s like a miniature version of that pang. And then a 2002 China cymbal. It’s really neat, but I don’t like the other 2002’s.
BW: Not the crashes?
DM: No, I had some, but I just didn’t like them.
BW: You came out in the Paiste Cymbal Profiles with a Paiste set-up which they claimed you used exclusively. But, I’m finding now that you use mostly Zildjian cymbals in the studio.
DM: No. I really mix it. I would like to be offered an endorsement by one or the other but, if it meant that I couldn’t play the others at all, I don’t think I could do that. I pick cymbals for how they sound.
BW: Like your Tosco.
DM: Umm. Good cymbal. I wanted another flat ride, and something a bit harder. The Paiste is a little softish. They didn’t have any Paistes at the time and they said, try these out. I tried it and bought it.
BW: What about your other set?
DM: Okay. The other studio set is all Eddie Ryan (of England) drums, but it looks like a Rogers kit because I’ve got Rogers lugs all over it. The set is virtually custom-built and all single-headed. No double heads, including the 20″ x 14″ bass drum, 8″, 10″, 12″, 13″. 14″, and 16″. The 16 is only 14″ deep, the 14 is only 12″ deep, the 13 is 9″ deep, the 12’s, 8″, and there’s an inch off the ten and eight. They all add an inch as you go down. I found that with single-headed drums, like the floor toms, you don’t need the extra inch. I’ve got the 12″ and 13″ on the bass drum, and the 8″ and 10″ are in front. They’re not off the sides. I play with everything really close. I wanted to have one set with extra toms, so I put them up in front.
BW: What kind of snare drum do you use? I guess it varies.
DM: Yes, but it’s mainly an old Rogers, a 14″ x 5″ Powertone, from the mid-sixties. I carry three extra snare drums. One’s an old Ludwig with stretched steel hoops and a wood shell. It’s got parallel action too.
BW: I thought that you didn’t like parallel action drums.
DM: Well, it works on this drum. It’s got two sets of snares, a set underneath the top head and a set underneath the bottom. I go for my Levon Helm snare drum sound with that one. I’ve got a calf head on the top and it sounds really great. It drives the engineers insane. I’ve used it on a couple of tracks but it sounds great.
There’s a brass shell Ludwig 400, a 14″ x 5″, from I guess the mid-fifties. It’s incredibly loud.
BW: Is that the kind they used to lacquer with a copper finish?
DM: That’s right, it looks copperish. The third one’s a 14″ x 6″ custom made stainless steel drum. A friend down my way made it up. It’s very thin, but very fat. It’s got Rogers lugs on it.
BW: I’d like to ask you about damping drums, of doing things with them, as opposed to getting a natural sound.
DM: Well, I’m not quite as dogmatic about it as I was four or five years ago. When I was being very dogmatic, I was going through a thing where I wanted the drums to be recorded live. This was the way we did it, on most things, around 1971-72. A couple of mikes over the top, bass drum mike and maybe a snare drum mike. Within about four years suddenly the world went crazy and everyone decided to make drums sound as live as they possibly could and I’d been doing it, and occasionally succeeding, since 1971. It had obviously been done years before with the big band drummers but not generally in a rock context.
BW: Do you agree with the premise that you don’t need big drums for a big sound, at least in the studio?
DM: Yes. It’s down to how you tune it, and how you hit it. Tuning it properly and hitting it properly. It doesn’t have to be a 24″ bass drum.
BW: That snare drum sound! There’s a consistency, for example, in the tracks on the Joan Armatrading album.
DM: That’s another three mike job. That’s Glynn Johns (producer).
BW: Three mikes on the snare drum?
DM: No. For the drum set. One for bass drum and two mikes over the top— 87’s.
DM: Yeah. One right over the snare between the tom and snare drum. It’s crucial how you place it. One over to the side by the floor tom, about 18″ up from the floor tom, pointing towards the snare drum. And he pushes one to the left and one to the right and the snare drum ends up somewhere in the middle of the stereo panning.
BW: That’s why you get the “fat” and not the “crack”!
DM: Yeah. Precisely.
BW: You say you like to play your back-beats with a rim shot.
DM: I do—all of them.
BW: How can you close-mike a snare drum, like they do so much these days, and not get that crack if you play rim shots. I mean, you don’t get a Bill Bruford sound.
DM: Well, alot of it’s down to slackening- off the rods a little bit near you. That does help, and using Ludwig or similar triple-flanged hoops, as opposed to cast hoops. With cast hoops you’re going to get that incredibly boxy noise.
BW: You do a lot of sessions . . .
DM: It’s interesting. I don’t really consider myself a session musician. I don’t do television shows and variety spectaculars. I can’t do them, and I have no desire to do them. I just do pop music sessions.
BW: Okay. In the realm of the pop music session, what sort of control do you have? Do you have problems with producers telling you what sound they want? I’ve really noticed a definite “Mattacks sound.”
DM: That’s something I partly consciously, and partly subconsciously, work at. I’m fortunate that with the majority of work I get, people ask me because they have a fair idea of what they’re going to end up with. I haven’t got any desire to be part of the list. I’d say 85% are people calling me up because they want me to do it. I’d like to think that. Obviously, if somebody calls you to do a whole album, you can tell.
BW: Do you regret, because you’ve got a sound, being constantly identified and tagged with a label?
DM: No. I’m very anti all that. I’m anti-technique, very stringently. I’m more interested in noises and things then in technique. I met this guy the other day, an older chap, and he asked me, ‘Are you still playing with that country & western group? I could tell you didn’t really like that. Are you getting a chance to play more?’ And it’s that whole equation that I dislike. Everyone is chops, and it just drives me insane. I get really sick of it.
Recently, I did an album by a guy called Mickey Jupp and the guitarist’s name was Chris Spedding. I had the impression that he feels the same way about technique as I do. And I was talking to him about his guitar, and the action is really high you know. Most of the rock guitarists I know have it down to, like, millimeters. I said to him, ‘Are you going to get the bridge adjusted?’ And he said, ‘No, I’ve made it like that. It’s to stop me from going flash.’ And he plays these great solos, all down in the first position. And I want to get into something like that from a drum point of view, that stops me doing that. I don’t want to do that, it bores me. Some of the things that I’m most happy with are when I just play time from beginning to end and do one fill at the front of the thing and one fill at the end. That’s what I really dig. I’ve got no desire to catch one in the middle of a chorus.
BW: What sort of technical things have you been through? Have there been points in your life when you’ve become re-concerned with technique? Matched grip, for example, the big issue.
DM: Yeah. I mainly play matched grip, but I can play better double strokes with the traditional left grip. So I’ll change around.
My first professional job was in a dance band. It’s like your Lawrence Welk sort of thing.
BW: At age?
DM: Seventeen. Then I heard Blood, Sweat and Tears and thought they were the greatest. Everyone goes through that thing, and a few years later you realize that a bunch of old wankers playing Kenton licks don’t make it. That was it. And it was all technique. Nobody paid much attention to such things as construction of the tune, chord sequences.
What mattered is that you could get the latest lick that you copped halfway through the chorus. These things were important. And to make a very long, boring story short, Fairport just changed all that. It took me 18 months and it suddenly began to dawn on me, that the whole thing bored me. Half of it had to do with the guys in the band. Swarbrick and Thompson had monumental technique as musicians but didn’t use it the way I had used it. It just made me look at myself and wonder what it is all about. And all that sort of Blood, Sweat and Tears thing and that jazz thing just left me cold, and it crossed over to that sort of music that I started listening to. I loved Return to Forever when Airto was playing drums, because that’s when they were playing tunes and not riffs in 7/4 at five thousand miles per hour. That’s the bottom line then—they were playing tunes. And some of them have become standards, and there seems to be a stigma about tunes becoming standards. But all those things like “Five Hundred Miles High” and “Spain” are great tunes! And that’s the sort of thing I started listening to. And Weather Re port’s good because they play tunes. That whole jazz-rock thing leaves me completely cold; I find it so boring.
BW: You left Fairport?
DM: Yeah. I think musicians who work in bands that they believe in, and don’t get any positive feedback, I think it gets to them. That’s what got to me.
BW: How do you find your identity now?
DM: What I enjoy most is playing good tunes with good musicians. That little phrase covers a multitude of sins. I’ve no desire to play loads of different styles. I haven’t got the desire anymore to be a great big-band drummer, a great jazz drummer, a great funk drummer. I don’t want to be able to do those things. I’m too busy trying to play what I want to play in the style of the people I’m working with without having to make a drastic adoption of styles. If it happens to be a sort of funk session, which I don’t really get, they come out a little bit how I would play them. That’s more important than trying to cover everything.