Though she’s traveled down the academic path, at heart she’s a do-it-yourself drummer who does not let challenges frighten her off . Today she’s put lessons learned toward educating and inspiring up-and-comers around the world, as well as to the betterment of her latest endeavor, the band Nasty Cherry.
The times, they-are-a-changin’. Just as most millennials don’t remember a world before iPhones, today’s younger crop of drummers need to have their “hybrid kit” and electronics together before they get the drum seat with the majority of current artists. That goes for all genres, including country and even much heavy metal.
U.K.–based Debbie Knox-Hewson might have gone the traditional music school route early on, but she knew that landing a gig like pop singer Charli XCX would require her to command a certain level of technique, as well as knowing how to cue a synth bass patch from her electronic pads. “Charli is very involved with the production of her music,” says Knox-Hewson. “And she doesn’t like the idea of having to sacrifice anything because it’s live. So she doesn’t like the idea of a live sound. She’d very much want us to be playing the exact parts that were on the album.” And playing those exact parts requires restraint and conviction without resorting to showing off or inserting too much of yourself. Right up Knox-Hewson’s alley.
In addition to Charli XCX, Knox-Hewson’s economical style has graced records and tours by the band James, singer-songwriter Stina Tweeddale’s indie-rock band Honeyblood, and her new project, Nasty Cherry, Debbie’s first personal project and medium for songwriting and production. “It’s a new pop band masterminded by Charli XCX,” says the drummer. “We co-wrote our first single, ‘Win,’ with Charli, and we’ve been busy writing and recording our first LP in Los Angeles.
“It’s been really exciting writing as part of a band,” Knox-Hewson adds, “as well as utilizing the things I’ve seen over the years as a session drummer and putting them into practice with my own music— creating backing tracks and musically directing, for example. I’ve also begun to produce some of our music, and that’s been really fulfilling.”
MD: What did the Charli XCX gig require from you? How much input did you have in the parts that you had to execute?
Debbie: When I first got the Charli gig, it was the most high-end gig I’d taken. So we had a music director, we had management or the label that would come to rehearsals just to see how everything was going. I didn’t really have much input at all about the parts that I was playing, which allowed me to build up a discipline of playing exactly what someone wants you to play. It taught me that if you have suggestions, that’s great—as long as you’ve got what’s been asked of you down perfectly first. And then you can kind of say, “Oh, I thought this might be cool as well.”
But to start with those incredibly disciplined parts…with me, [the challenge] was the ghost notes. In drumming school, you’re told the more ghosts notes you can do, the better you are. With that gig, if you’ve got a snare that sounds like a bag of coins being thrown at the wall, you can’t really ghost note it without it being absolute cacophony. Charli wants it to sound like an electronic Ramones on the drums. No splashy crashes. Anything like that is really not her thing. So you’ve got to keep that in mind.
Tools of the Trade
Debbie Knox-Hewson plays Tama drums and Zildjian cymbals, and uses products by Cympad, GoPro, Vic Firth, Roland, Tuner Fish, Porter & Davies, and Protection Racket.
MD: How did that gig come your way?
Debbie: I was studying at music school in Brighton, and I’d get in touch with session players in London on Facebook, and I’d say, “If there’s anything that you’ve been offered that isn’t quite right for you or you think might be a good opportunity for me to cut my teeth auditioning, please put me forward.” And if you’re not considered a threat yet, people are often really happy to help up-and-comers out. I got told about the Charli gig, and I got in touch with the tour manager, and he said they didn’t need any more drummers auditioning. But I begged, and I got hold of the songs and learned them anyway. I knew a few people going and sort of just turned up, tried my luck, and I got it. I quit music school, and we didn’t really stop for two years. It was a really long campaign.
MD: Was there a musical director guiding you about what to play?
Debbie: Charli’s tour manager was her old drummer, so we’d geek out, and he’d suggest things like, “You know, if you hit that as a double-stroke with your right hand, that crash will look more aesthetically exciting.” He really got into it with me and helped me work out what looks best for performance.
MD: What were you checking out at school?
Debbie: I bought Benny Greb’s The Language of Drumming, which just blew my mind. And I got Stick Control: that blew my mind. And those are my two books. And then I got into the typical student YouTube wormhole of watching Steve Gadd for hours. I went to a music school in London for a year. I found that really overwhelming, and I thought, “I’ve really got to work hard to keep up with the rest of the students at school.” I got a practice log I’d read about— the smartest, most efficient ways to use your time, what you should be practicing. I’d separate practice time between playing different styles, practicing technique, endurance, and reading. And then I went to Brighton music school for a year, and worked very hard and tried to make a name for myself as the person that would just take on anything. I really wanted to be a professional musician.
MD: Talk about incorporating electronics into your setup.
Debbie: When I first got the Charli gig, it was two pads, kick trigger, snare trigger, and a Roland SPD-SX. Then it went more rock for a while, and we lost some of the electronics. And then it went full, standing-up electronics. So that was two SPD-SXs and a rack of pads. Then after that I got other work, because I really wanted to stay predominantly a kit drummer. So I worked with some other artists, Rae Morris, BETSY, and CuckooLander. I got into the swing of a hybrid setup. So I would run everything out from my SPD-SX, and I would then use whatever pads or sidebars for the snare, or triggers I’d like.
Now it mainly will be a bass drum trigger, a snare trigger, and an SPD-SX. I feel like you can do so much with that, because you’ve got nine pads in front of you on the SPD-SX, and then you’ve got the outputs as well. And then I moved on to a tour with the band James. They were looking for a backing vocalist who played a little bit of percussion. I was quite a nervous singer. [laughs] But every rehearsal, I’d come with a new drum and add it. So by the end of my time working with them, we had basically a standing-up kit, two floor toms, snare, rack tom, a ride, some crashes, and then an SPDSX and an Octapad and some more pads coming out of those. So quite a big unit.
MD: And today you demo new Roland gear, correct?
Debbie: I’m lucky to go around the world and demo new equipment from Roland. Most of the time I meet drummers who are as new to it as I was. And that’s where I bring out the Holy Grail, the SPD-SX, which I think is superb to start with, if you can invest in anything. If you want to, you can trigger a backing track or synth sounds and take the place of the keys player or bassist. I’ve played bass sounds with one hand, and played the kit with the other. You can do so much. One of my favorite drummers [does that], Andy Stack from Wye Oak. It’s incredible what he does. Every time I see him live, I find myself frowning, my arms crossed, concentrating. I don’t look like I’m enjoying the show. How the hell is he doing that? It’s incredible.
MD: What kind of things are you hearing from pop producers?
Debbie: I worked with Stina Tweeddale from the band Honeyblood, and she needed a drummer. The producer, John Congleton, had worked on the early St. Vincent stuff and Wye Oak and a load of artists that I really respect. He was very much of the mindset of, “The less you bring, in terms of what you want the song to sound like, the better it is for me.” He said, “When artists come in with a fully polished demo, I wonder if they just want me to pat them on the back and say, ‘Good job.’ It feels a bit like,
‘Well, what do you need me for?’” We were really ready for the songs to go in any way. At points he would say, “If you’ve got just the melody for that song, can I just hear that?” It’s petrifying, to be honest, because it just means you can sit there and be asked to do anything. And it probably will be very different to what you think you’ve prepared for that song. You sit there for hours, and then you’ll get the drums done. And you’re expected to deliver it within a few takes. So you really have to be ready for that. And Stina was really open to everything John suggested. The sounds and things we used, it was a drummer’s dream, basically. You’ve got woodblocks, things on the snare, and then under the snare—and maybe put another snare on the snare. We were playing xylophones with cello bows and all sorts of madness, so it was really good fun.
MD: What’s the best advice to drummers about their online presence?
Debbie: Well, I only really speak about this to people who haven’t got gigs yet. I go to music schools, universities around the world, and discuss how to get that first gig. So with that in mind, I think it’s absolutely crucial. And my internet presence somewhat chilled out now that I’m in the right circles, and hopefully I’m lucky enough that if anyone thinks I’d be suited for something, they’ll get in touch with me and ask me if I’m available. But when you’re first starting out, I think it’s incredibly important to have something on the internet to say, “Here’s a video of me playing—this is who I am; this is what I do.”
MD: So it’s not just about meeting people and networking, and because you can’t always sit in, you’ve got to be able to send someone something.
Debbie: Completely. And even if you do meet someone, and they speak to their friend who’s looking for someone—“I met this great guy, you know, he’s really good, up-and-coming.” “Well send me something of his.” “Oh, I don’t think he’s got anything on there.” That’s dead in the water then. If someone else is recommending you for something, you’ve got to have something to show the person that hasn’t met you. So have all of that stuff on your website. If you’ve only been in your school band or whatever, well, just don’t word it like that. Don’t lie, but get everything you’ve got online. You can rent a really good camera, and even on an iPhone you’re going to be able to tell if someone’s in time and if it sounds good. If you haven’t already done so, get something of yourself up online.
MD: What else do you go over in your classes?
Debbie: People want to know how to get into their local music community. If you’re in a position where you can, I would say set up a jam night. Nothing draws session players, musical directors, or musicians together quite like a jam night, even if it’s just like a garage band thing. I was speaking to a group of young female drummers in Hong Kong, and they were saying they didn’t have a community there. And I said, “Well, there’s ten of you in the room with me right now, and you’re all from Hong Kong, so….” [laughs] You’re there. You’ve just got to put it together, just make it more peer-to-peer. If you don’t have the opportunity to play live too much, see if you can find a pub or, if you’re too young for a pub, a community center, whatever, just to get out. Because if it’s a problem for you, it’s probably a problem for a few more people. Whatever it is in your area that you feel is lacking music-wise, do it yourself, and it’ll probably be very well received.
MD: What about getting called back for gigs?
Debbie: Keeping good, simple time is one of the main reasons I get called to play gigs. I’d say 30 percent is ability on the instrument, and the rest is just, are you a nice person to be with on a tour bus, you know? Do we like you? Are you punctual? Are you polite? Do you work hard? To be good at your instrument is expected. So I think it’s really important to remember that you’re not going to get it if you turn up late, no matter how good you are. People also ask about making yourself look professional. We’re all in the same boat in between tours. Everyone’s looking for the next job. When you don’t have a job, you’re thinking about it. You’ve just got to really believe in yourself and hustle for it. In between the Charli tours, I set up a drumming camp in France, and that felt a bit premature, a bit scary, but it sold out, and it was really good fun. So you might surprise yourself how much closer you are to where you want to be if you just go for it.
A killer warm-up, plus guidance in the shed.
An Essential Warm-Up
Here’s a simple 16th-note routine that I go through regularly at various tempos before practicing or playing live. Be creative with this exercise—experiment by putting together as many permutations of these patterns as possible on your own.
Tips on Practicing
1. Always keep a notebook for your practice sessions to log your tempos and your comments on how each exercise feels. This helps you scrutinize patterns while learning. It will also encourage you on days when you might not feel motivated, as you’ll be able to look back on your progress to see how much you’ve improved.
2. Practice with the live gig in mind. Whether this means playing with your eyes closed to prepare for dark lighting or going through songs at gig speed to see where you keep making mistakes, having this mindset will enable you to tackle the problems you’ll face while performing onstage and remove any surprises.
3. Practice how you play! A teacher of mine in London once told me that unless you’re isolating specific aspects of your technique, there’s no point in practicing quietly or timidly if, when adrenaline kicks in during a live show, your velocity changes and you haven’t built the stamina to keep up. However, don’t confuse practicing at full volume with utilizing bad technique or shedding excitedly.
I realized when I’d go home in between tours and practice for the next run that I was very reserved when shedding. So it’s about knowing that you can carry over the same technique you utilize in your live show while you’re practicing off the road.
4. Practice improvisation by playing a spontaneous fill, and then afterward, follow it by playing the exact same idea. This is a concept I picked up from a Benny Greb DVD, The Language of Drumming, and it really helps bridge the gap between unconscious and conscious playing. I often keep time with my hi-hat foot and play a part over one or two bars. Then I immediately repeat it. I try to keep the instrumentation, volume, and feel the same between the two versions.
The first time you play something, you’re really expressing yourself freely. In a way it’s almost like coughing, in that you can’t recreate it, and it’s not controlled. So this idea of playing it once—while keeping time, obviously—is really important. And by repeating it, you’re practicing the discipline of playing something the exact same way and remembering how you played it originally. Also notice that you’re probably more likely to only play things within your comfortable realm because you’re going to have to do it twice.
5. Record yourself and listen back. The difference between how something seems to sound while you’re playing and how it actually sounds while you’re listening back can be quite stark. Make sure you scrutinize your playing and learn to critique yourself. Your projected sound is the most important thing to develop.
If you’re playing a groove that you really like, you might be surprised at how it barely sounds together after recording it and playing it back. This might be because you’re happy with yourself that you’ve learned it, or you’re really enjoying playing it—both of which are justifiable feelings. But often I’ve recorded a pattern, played it back, and thought, That’s not grooving.