Although he didn’t begin playing the drums until he was sixteen and never took lessons, Martin Chambers has been playing what he calls the ideal gig since 1978, with the Pretenders.
When friends in his hometown of Hereford, England, mentioned they were starting a group, Martin told them he could play the drums. In reality, he had never touched a drum kit, but after borrowing his cousin’s kit consisting of two snare drums, a hi-hat, bass drum and cymbal, instinctively he could play. Up to that point, he had actually preferred the guitar and had even taken a couple of lessons, but he pursued the drums when everybody encouraged his raw talent and told him how good he was.
“I’ve never believed them yet,” Martin laughs. “All I do is go out and knock them around a bit. It’s literally like boxing for me. It’s probably that love-hate relationship that makes it work for me, personally. In the studio it’s a little bit different because you put a little more thought into it though.”
Now, in retrospect, he says he would have liked to play the bass, but it never occurred to him. The first band he was in didn’t have a bass, so the bass player/ drummer relationship did not exist for him.
“As far as that relationship, I’ve never really thought about that sort of thing. To me, either it works or it doesn’t. I was in a trio once where I think it first came on to me what it should be with the bass and drums, but it’s never really stared me in the face. It’s always seemed to have just worked. Actually, I think Buffin (drummer, Dale Griffin) and Pete (bassist, Watts) in Mott the Hoople were a great drummer/bass player relationship. They worked together for seventeen years. There aren’t that many combinations that are great; maybe a dozen in history. So it’s never really concerned me that much. To me, it just either works or it doesn’t and if it doesn’t, it usually stands out like a sore thumb.
“When we were recording the first album, there were several suspect bass drum patterns that I was playing and I changed a few with the help of Chris Thomas, our producer. Sometimes I do a little bit more than I should. When you’re recording, it’s far better to play a part simpler than it is to do too much, and particularly a single as opposed to an album track. In singles, the thing to do is keep it very simple and put in little bits, because drums, of course, can be as much of a hook line as any guitar part or melody. So the thing is to keep it simple, play the right patterns and develop the pattern you’re playing so it gets a little bit more complicated towards the end and it’s a build; the climax. That sort of thing really interests me; the little subtle things.”
Prior to playing drums, Chambers was busy being an athlete, excelling in soccer, rugby, cross-country, and most successful in javelin throwing. Growing up in a musical household where his dad played trumpet in a big band semi-professionally, however, gave him a wide appreciation for music from Glenn Miller to opera. Music became a priority which challenged his participation as an athlete.
“It must have been around ’56 or ’57 when I first tuned into the radio in the kitchen and my dad’s car and things like that. I heard the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and then the Ventures and instrumental bands. Then the Shadows came along at the end of ’58 and they started having hits. It was either ’59 or’60 when they brought out ‘Apache,’ which was their first number one hit. I didn’t have the money to get it and by the time I had the money together, they had come out with their follow-up, ‘Wonderful Land.’ It was the biggest headache of the day deciding whether to buy ‘Apache’ or ‘Wonderful Land.’ Then the Beatles came out, and even though I was enjoying sports, music was getting stronger.
“I played along with records, but never on a drum kit. This was before I had ever seen a drum kit. I would sit on the arm of a chair and I would pile up cushions, which were the tom-toms, and play with knitting needles. I would slow the albums down to sixteen RPM so I could pick up on how they were playing it. I never really could work it out because
I didn’t know anything about rudiments or anything, but I had a great deal of fun. In fact, I could say I’ve played with some of the best musicians in the world and did drum battles with Ringo Starr,” he laughs.
“As far as practicing on the drum kit, I could never practice. I remember one occasion and one occasion only, where I tried to rehearse. First of all, my parents would never allow a drum kit anywhere near the house, which, in my opinion, was extremely sensible. But one day, I had a friend who lived out in the country and he told me his parents were gone and I could bring my drum kit out. So 1 got out there and set the whole bloody shooting match up in the barn. 1 must have been playing for three minutes at the most and I got so bored that I had to take a walk. I came back, packed them up and went home, and that’s the only time I’ve practiced. I feel that when the moment comes that you want to play what you hear in your head, you can either play it or you can’t and 1 don’t think it’s a question of practice.”
A couple of years after beginning to play drums, Chambers became a member of a trio called Karakorum, primarily playing gigs in South Wales. He was attending art college at the time and he would leave school at 4:15, jump into the vehicle, play the gig and get home at 3:00 or 4:00 every morning. After being asleep at college more than he was awake, in 1969 he told the principal that he had secured a job designing album covers, since that seemed to be a more tangible excuse to leave school than playing music. It was with Karakorum that he also had his first studio experience. Right after the studio had its first eight-track machine put in, the trio recorded an album, which, while it was never released, was exciting, nonetheless.
“I was knocked out when 1 heard the first playback. I had a terrible drum kit, but the sound was amazing. The thrill was more than enough to put me in the right attitude to play my best.
“My attitude is completely different in the studio than it is on stage in front of people. With the Pretenders, I enjoy both situations. In the studio, you’re putting down something for the first time and it’s more challenging to me in a way because it’s directly aimed at your ability and it’s going down on vinyl which is going to be there for history. The drummer has got one chance, basically, particularly the way Chris Thomas records because he doesn’t do overdubs very much. So you’ve got the chance to do it on that take. You might do five or six takes, but by then you’ve passed your best anyway. So the thing to do is make sure you do it really well, and that is such a challenge for me that I enjoy it. Sometimes we’ve done it to click tracks, which I don’t like. Some people find it very difficult to play to click tracks. I don’t particularly, but I just don’t like it. Thomas sometimes likes to play to a click or a rhythm box, but I think that tends to make it sound very mechanical. When we recorded ‘I Go To Sleep,’ I actually deliberately put some snare drum beats late, way behind the beat. I did that because I was very angry for the fact that I didn’t want to do that particular track with a click. Songs like that have got to have feel. If the tempo goes up and down slightly, that’s because that’s the way it is and I don’t care if the tempo goes slightly out. Sometimes that’s very exciting if the track speeds up a little bit. It’s like that on the first album, actually. There are places where the tempo surges, and for me, it makes it.”
Aside from recording, Karakorum also exposed him to odd time signatures, an experience he is able to utilize with the Pretenders. “In Karakorum we used to put odd time signatures into things purely for fun and we used to try to baffle our audience, which we did very often. They used to walk out,” he jokes. “Actually, I round it quite easy and it seems just as natural to play 5/4 as it does 4/4. All that sort of thing I just find interesting and not particularly difficult. It’s only when you get into 13/8 and all that sort of Billy
Cobham stuff that you begin to lose me. But when Crissie (Hynde) writes songs, she doesn’t really think about timings or anything and very often she’ll be playing along and then she’ll do something completely out of time. For her, though, that’s the way she wants it to be and it’s an integral part of the way she writes. Like when we first rehearsed ‘Tattoed Love Boys’ she came along with these funny changes and I told her I couldn’t play through that and it wasn’t in time. She said, ‘But that’s the way it is.’ So she played it again and we just stopped there and that was the way it was. There’s always an answer if you think hard enough.”
In 1973, Chambers had another invaluable experience, playing with a big fourteen-piece band for about a year.
“I loved playing Glenn Miller music. We even did ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ and I would play triangles for four bars. But that gig was important as far as leading a band. With that amount of people, the drummer’s job is really to lead and to make sure they’re all swinging together. If the band is not swinging together, it’s the drummer’s fault and it’s the same with groups, really. So it taught me to be in charge.”
After that job, he joined the Cheeks, which included the Pretender’s Jimmy Honeyman Scott, but when the band hardly played any gigs, Chambers became disenchanted.
“I was so fed up that I just wanted to get away from music for a bit and get a job where I could just forget about it. I had been in the music business for about ten years then, professionally, and had gotten nowhere at all, absolutely nowhere. So I decided to take a job where I could channel my energies somewhere else. I enjoy cars and driving, so I applied for a job as a driving instructor. I did that for about nine or ten months, twelve hours a day. It was so boring, but I earned some money.
“Then I started to get around some and see people and I ran into an old friend of mine in a pub in Hereford. He told me that Pete (Farndon) and Jimmy had gotten a band together with a girl, I knew Pete and Jimmy because we were all from the same hometown and I had played with Jimmy in the Cheeks, so I went down to see them. They were rehearsing with Crissie and Jerry Mcleduff who was the drummer at the time, and had played on ‘Stop Your Sobbing,’ the single. So I started hanging out with them. Jerry was into playing in boogie bands and stuff and wasn’t 100% committed. I didn’t know that at the time, but sure enough, they invited me down one evening to just have a jam with them and it was obvious. So one day they came over and asked me to join the band. They had auditioned for ages and you just know when it’s right. A big part of it I think was that we were all friends and I knew Pete and Jimmy anyway. That makes it easier because a group is a family. Also, I think a lot of the drummers couldn’t play a certain way, the odd timings and all. So I joined them in November of ’78 and the day they asked me to join, Crissie cut my hair and that was the day the photographs were taken for the cover of ‘Stop Your Sobbing.’ That’s why I look quite bemused, standing there with this leather jacket and wondering why I was there. Immediately I was on fifty quid a week, which is $100, which for me was quite a fortune.”
But joining the Pretenders didn’t end his problems, it simply offered a whole new set of problems with which to contend.
“‘Sobbing’ was released very quickly, we did a few gigs, and then ‘Kid’ came out and we did a British tour. As a band we were very, very young and then our next single came out, ‘Brass in Pocket,’ which was a number one in England. Then our first album came out and it was number one. I was always borrowing money. Here we had an album and a number one single and I was borrowing money from my wife. But as always, as in anything, the attitude must be one of professionalism. Plus, on tour, we don’t come up with that much new material. We’re still doing a lot of the songs we were playing two years ago, so you have that boredom as well when you’re touring with the same old songs. Again, though, it’s professionalism. When you go out on that stage, you can’t feel like that. I never play a set the same way twice. There’s always something crazy going on. I think I’ve played what I feel are two or three bad gigs in my life because I just can’t go out there and not be able to play my ass off. I just can’t do it. It’s literally mentally and physically impossible for me to do.”
Probably the single largest influence in Martin’s on-stage attitude and playing considerations was Keith Moon. “He was a very good player and a very talented free player, much like Mitch Mitchell. But the thing that Keith Moon had was his unbelievable ability to be a showman at the same time, which, to me, is the most important thing. The Pretenders are at the point where we are starting to have to play bigger gigs. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter what size the place is, but when we’re doing the bigger gigs, it’s the people in the back that are the most important to me. The people in the front can see your facial expressions, but you’ve got to play bigger for the people in the back. Keith Moon was the one for that and after him. Mitch Mitchell, Bonham, and it goes on.
“Drummers can be showmen without having to smash sticks into the audience and do all that sort of thing which Keith Moon did. I tend to do that quite a bit. I think part of it is something to do with the frustration of being stuck in one place. I can’t run around on stage, so I have to make up for it by hitting drum sticks off cymbals and catching them in mid air miraculously. I do that purely from frustration because I can’t run around. It’s not a question of copying anybody at all. I’d be doing that whether or not I’d seen any other drummer in the world do it. Showmanship is something that is vastly important because if you go to see a band and they just stand there playing and sound great, you might as well be at home with their album on. You’ve got to go and see something. People pay money to come and see you, so if they’re going to see you, why not give them something to see? Lots of bands don’t, unfortunately, apart from light shows or a few bombs going off, but what can they do themselves, apart from actually play? Especially with drums, because very often I end up playing away on stage and I’ve got nothing in my hands, no drum sticks or anything. I ‘ l l be playing away and there’s suddenly nothing there. One’s flown oft in one direction and the other is broken. They actually fall into pieces. How does a stick fall apart in five pieces all at once as if a shock wave had gone through the drum stick? Sometimes I’ll go through forty pairs of sticks a night.
“I use a very heavy stick and it would probably be easier on me if I used lighter sticks. Keith Moon used a lighter stick. I never have them varnished either, which makes them break easier. If they’re varnished, it actually holds them together better. Wad [David Wadsworth, his drum roadie] will come to me with a new batch of drum sticks. We’ll do a sound check and I’ll break thirty drum sticks and he’ll be apologizing to me. I don’t care, though, I like it when things go wrong and I quite enjoy it. The only time I don’t enjoy it is if either a bass drum head breaks or the snare or the pedal breaks because then I can’t hit anything. But as far as breaking sticks, I don’t care. It just gives me something more to get mad about and I quite enjoy it.
“I just changed bass drum pedals. I had been using Ghost pedals, which I get along with quite well, but I got a new one which I really don’t like. It’s not quite as fast as the other, because every now and then I like to stick in something a little bit quick. I go through bass drum pedals like nobody’s business. They just break like drum sticks sometimes, even Ghost pedals, which I thought were really tough.”
Chambers has what he calls “several iron fixtures” on his kit to withstand his beating. “It’s never been done as good as I’d like it, actually. But at the moment,
I’ve got a 26″ bass drum, which, when you’ve got the bass drum pedal set up on it, the reach of the actual beater is long because you’ve got to hit somewhere just off center. That makes for a slower action. So what I’ve done is that the pedal is mounted on the riser a few inches higher than the bottom of the bass drum. That way, I’ve got a slightly smaller reach, which is slightly faster. What I wanted to do was have everything through the floor. You’ve got tripods on the stands and I wanted to do away with that and make it a lot simpler and have a single bar going through the riser so you’ve got everything going through the floor. But it’s proven difficult to do properly. So what I have is pretty standard stuff, actually, with little anchors that hold one drum to the next. There’s not as much as I would like though. Sometimes I will fall onto the tom-toms because I like to lean over the drum kit because some nights I find myself forty or fifty feet away from the front row and I really hate that. But Wad sets them up very well and they’re all screwed into the riser. He’s got most of the things going into the riser with everything screwed down and that just about does it.”
Currently, he is using a mahogany Ludwig set-up with double bass drums, one 22″ and one 26″. The 22″ is on his left foot and the hi-hat is anchored to that bass drum on his left. On top of that are three tom-toms in the sizes of 12″, 13″ and 14″ and his floor toms are 16″ and 18″. He uses the Ludwig Colosseum Snare, and he uses Wad’s chrome Slingerland 5 1/2″ snare tuned very tightly to effect a timbale sound on the tune “Private Lives.”
He uses the Ludwig Silver Dot heads, but says he actually likes them better when the spot comes off. “Those heads are really tough and I don’t go through a lot of them, particularly on tom-toms. They do go out of shape quickly though, with the way I hit them, which is not particularly accurately, right in the center. I’ll be smashing them and get these big lumps and they’ll have to get changed. The heads get changed every three gigs or so. I have broken the snare drum batter heads though, and while I never knew those things to break before. I’ve been breaking those. I can’t imagine how they break. You could put the snare drum on the floor and jump up and down on it and you couldn’t break it so how the hell do you break it with a little bit of wood?”
Wad does the tuning on the road and Chris Thomas does most of it in the studio. “I’ll play around with them and they’ll sound pretty good to me and then Chris will run in there and say they sound like rubbish, so I say, ‘So you do it,’ and he will. So he and Bill Price, who have done our two albums, have done all the tuning of the drums. They’ll spend a couple of days getting a sound and. Of course, I’ll be asleep in the corner. By the time we start recording, I ‘ l l be in a wonderful state of mind to start playing. I hate the technical side of it. I don’t want to know about it if I don’t have to, as long as it sounds good, and it always sounds good. It’s always different, too. Wad does the sound check for me (if we do one), and then Steve Cox, who does the sound, gets him to run through the drum kit. Steve gets a great drum sound for me. So he runs through it for probably a half an hour, and then I’ll get on there and it’s completely different. The way people play the same drum kit—it’s quite phenomenal. Even though a drum kit may not be tuned particularly well, it might sound better with me than with other people because of the way I hit them.”
His cymbals include a 20″ ride, a 22″ crash, an 18″ crash, a tiny splash and a large Chinese cymbal. He says he goes through cymbals quickly also.
With such powerful playing and mas sive doses of exerted energy, how does Chambers, himself, survive a live gig?
“I’ve only learned about pacing recently, mainly because I’ve had to. Some nights I’m literally half asleep in the dressing room and we’re ready to go on and I’ll say to Wad or my wife, Tracy, ‘I’m going to coast through tonight. I’m not going to play very much,’ and then I’ll get out there and the audience is so bloody good that it simply changes. Wad has very often said to me to take it easy because I get quite at the knife’s edge by the end of the set. I’m almost falling over and Wad has had to hold me up sometimes.
I’m pretty careful about eating. I don’t like to eat later than four hours before a gig. It takes that time to at least get to the bottom of the stomach and there’s less chance of it reemerging. But it doesn’t always work like that on the road. A lot of times you don’t get to the hotel until 6:00 maybe and one thing you’ve got to do is eat. That’s why I’ll get up and have breakfast, even if I get up at 6:00. You’ve got to on the road. Sometimes I’ll eat four meals a day. It was on the first American tour that I really learned that. I got to Denver after Los Angeles and collapsed. I’d had too much sun and I was tired anyway and we were six weeks through the tour. I was just suffering from fatigue and at that little bit of altitude, it was hard. I had a little oxygen on stage and I came off and slumped over like a baby. After that tour, I made sure I had breakfast every day. I’d be up at 10:00 in the morning, eat breakfast and then get on the road and have some sort of lunch at 12:00 or 1:00 and then get to the sound check at 3:30. I’ll eat at the sound check and then if I’m still awake after the gig, I’ll eat again. Eating four meals a day, I still lost about thirteen pounds on the second tour, but I’ve put on so much weight in muscle since the heavy touring.
“I don’t really pace myself on stage, though. Fortunately, the set we have now is a little better. The first two are straight in and then there’s a gap of maybe fifteen seconds at the most and then “Message of Love,” which goes straight into “Louie Louie.” When those four are over, I’ll be panting a bit, but it’s not too bad, and then it slows down a little. The next three songs are all fairly mid-tempo and then there’s “Private Lives,” which is quiet. I can get my wind a little bit there, and then we’re into the last four numbers and that is always uphill. That’s when it goes crazy. It doesn’t matter what happens, I just go mad on those. The manager has said to calm down out there and I’m very aware of it. There are people who enjoy seeing sticks being thrown around but I don’t want people to just come along to see that. I do realize that I want people to enjoy the playing and I don’t want to be known as ‘that clown on the drum kit.’ There’s always a danger of that.”
He tries to warm up before a show, swinging his arms and doing a few exercises to loosen up, stating that it does make him feel better, “But there are times where I’m at the side of the stage, almost asleep just as we’re about to walk on the stage. I’m leaning on something and I haven’t done any warm-ups at all. But actually, the feeling of the roar of the crowd puts so much adrenalin through my system that if I were actually in bed on the side of the stage, asleep, the roar of the crowd would make me get straight up and play my ass off. It’s better to do warm ups, though. Also, sometimes it’s very cold backstage and then you go on stage under very hot lights, and you come off between the sound check and that’s when it’s dangerous. I have a great big robe with a hood to put around me, but I always have a permanent cold. When we were in New York last time, I was either in bed or on stage, I was so ill. It was a real bad flu and I was going on stage with a temperature of 102°. On stage, though, no matter how sick you are, you feel normal, but when you come off, you can catch pneumonia and even in warm climates like L.A., I always have something to put over me.”
Yet, with all the pressures and occupational hazards, Chambers thrives on playing with the Pretenders.
“One of the reasons I love it so much is that we do a great variety of material. You’ve got heavy rock things, you’ve got pop type things, you’ve got ballads and reggae type things like ‘Private Lives,’ so there’s quite a variety which is very entertaining. The variety is an important thing and I really enjoy it with this band. Basically, I think people get out of it what they want. It is basically for fun. I can’t stand bands that try to put political messages across and all that. For me, music is first and foremost entertainment. It should be enjoyable and if people can actually sit down and enjoy a political message, then it’s great, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re nuts. It should be fun. I think what we have here is that we’re all well into our twenties,” he laughs, “And we all came up through the same period of music from the end of the ’50s through the ’60s and it comes out in our music. It’s just worked out that way.
“I’ve often said that if the Pretenders didn’t work out, I wouldn’t want to be in another band. I can’t see myself being in anything else. I’m enjoying myself too much in this band to even think about it. This band fulfills practically everything I’ve wanted to do. There are good songs, a variety and there are times I can go berserk on stage. I’m a happy man.”