Simon Phillips, while not yet a household name, is rapidly emerging as one of the finest drummers of our time. Standing somewhere between five and five-and-a-half feet tall, Simon’s size belies the immense stamina and power he brings to the drums. His awesome technique, flexibility and innate taste have lead him to keep such diverse and impressive company as Brian Eno, Dave Coverdale, Gary Boyle, Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice, Phil Manzanera, Shakti’s L. Shankar, Pete Townshend, Stanley Clarke and, most recently, Jeff Beck.
No less an expert than Jim Chapin, the man who literally “wrote the book” on drum set playing, acknowledges Phillips’ prowess. At a college drum clinic held last year, Chapin singled out Simon Phillips and Steve Gadd by name as the two best contemporary drummers. The audience was puzzled; only one person besides Chapin knew who Simon Phillips was, but that one person had nothing but high praise for Phillips.That typifies the current Simon Phillips phenomenon: a drummer held in high professional esteem but little known to the general public, a man in the ear of cognoscenti but out of the public eye. America’s exposure to the sight as well as the sound of Simon Phillips has been mostly limited to his brief tours with Jack Bruce and Stanley Clarke and to the video clips of Pete Townshend’s solo tunes, Let My Love Open the Door and A Little Is Enough, occasionally aired on late night rock shows and Home Box Office television.
While on tour with Jeff Beck, the 23-year-old drummer took some time to dispel the enigma surrounding him in this country.
SH: What is your background, how and when did you start?
SP: I started when I was about three, I suppose. My father was a band leader and I used to watch them rehearse. They had a new drummer, and he was really good. That was the first time I got into any musical instrument. From there I just sort of started hitting things; dustbins, sofas, whatever.
When I was between the ages of 12 and 14 I was well into the jazz scene. My old man played Dixieland and older jazz, so I was into figures like Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Louis Bellson. I love those guys. Then I started getting into rock, and I started listening to people like Danny Seraphine of Chicago and Bobby Colomby. a few drummers like that. And then when Cobham came out with Mahavishnu, obviously I listened! I also listened to cats like Lenny White, Steve Gadd, and Harvey Mason. All those cats are really good.
SH: Did you take any lessons or are you completely self-taught?
SP: For a while I just taught myself, worked on technique and played along with records. Then I got some lessons just to read. They were spaced out a few years apart when I was 10 and 12. When I was about 12 I started playing a number here and there with my father’s band.
SH: You were with your father’s band until you were 16?
SP: Yes. When I was 16 he died. The band was still going but I folded it, and decided to do my own thing. I wanted to make my own way in the business so I joined Jesus Christ Superstar. That was in 1973. I stayed there for a year.
While I was doing that I started getting into sessions. I then joined Dana Gillespie. I did her album during the summer of ’74. I also did some tracks on Robert Palmer’s first album, Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley. It was a great album. It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it. I also did a few other little albums.
SH: What happened after that?
SP: Dana’s band did an English tour, just the usual places around England. Then we came over to the States for a month. We played Reno Sweeney’s in New York and the Bijoux Cafe in Philadelphia. I was 17 at the time. I did a couple of sessions in New York and then went back to England to join another band called Chopyn. I don’t know whether the album was released in American or not. Ann Odell who has done work with Roxy Music, played keyboards, and Ray Russell was the guitarist. That lasted about six months. I then went back into sessions and started getting into the London session scene seriously, doing what guys do in New York: jingles, advertisements, everything. At one time between the end of 1975 and 1976 I was doing three sessions a day.
SH: Did you enjoy that?
SP: I did at the time. I was 18 and it was really good experience. I read a lot. I was getting new dots to read every day.
SH: Did you ever work with click tracks?
SP: Oh yes, sometimes. It’s okay if the click track stays in time. I’ve done some crazy sessions where they’ve used metronomes for click tracks. Once they set up a clockwork metronome in the middle of the studio, and the thing slowed down. I tend to follow it, so it went slower and I went slower, and it slowed down and stopped. So I stopped. People tend to get the wrong idea; click tracks and metronomes aren’t as reliable as you might think, but they are fun.
Sometimes you can make your own click track, and then play over that. It all depends upon what you want to do. I’ve also worked with drum machines quite a bit. For example, with 801 we did one of Eno’s things. Somber Reptiles. When we did that live, I had a drum machine behind me. I just set it up and played along with it.
I also did a couple of films, including The Odessa File, and then we did Evita. We were in the studio for about four or five weeks. It took three or four months to complete. It was quite a long time.
SH: The record was done with a basic rock band and the London Symphony Orchestra. Did they do that in separate sessions?
SP: Yes. If you had heard the basic tracks, you would never have recognzied it. Some of the things were written out and some of them were just sketches. Although the stuff was written out, we had to rewrite it. It was a bit of a mess, really. But it was a lot of fun. Andrew had a lot of ideas which he jotted down or had someone jot down for him. By the time it all came to the session it was in pieces. You compare the differ ent parts and they were really different. Once we got it sorted out it was great.
SH: And after that, what?
SP: I was sort of dabbling in bands then, around the summer of ’76. I was in and out of bands, mainly doing a lot of sessions.
SH: The first thing that you are really known for in America is the 801 Live album with Phil Manzanera. How did that come about?
SP: I met Phil at a session at the beginning of ’76. I just turned up at the session and there he was. We played together and it was really nice. Some of those tracks actually went onto the album after the live one, the one called Listen Now. So, some of the tracks on Listen Now were actually done in ’76. They just kept them and released them later. So Phil and I met then and a few times later. He approached me and said he wanted to get together, rehearse a few numbers do a few live gigs, and record an album. And I said, “Yeah, sure.”
I was doing a lot of record dates and I was itching to get out on the road. I had a year’s worth of cabin fever. Playing live allows you more opportunity to really play than record dates do.
SH: What is your primary concern when you record?
SP: To me, the sound is important. On Jeff’s album my favorite song for sound is “The Pump.” I think Ken did a beautiful job there. It’s lovely just to hit one thing and hear all the drums resonate. That’s the beauty about using a large kit but not playing a lot of notes all of the time. Obviously “Space Boogie” is cause for a bit of busier drumming. But I listen to what Ken did to “The Pump” sound-wise, and I really like it.
SH: Speaking of Ken Scott, Bob Graham, your roadie, said something about the Electro-Voice RE 20’s that are in the bass drums. He said that’s one of Ken’s pet ideas, suspending the mikes inside the bass drum.
SP: I didn’t know Ken had done this. The first time I heard of it was from Dennis MacKay. He’s done albums with Stomu Yamashta, Stanley Clarke and Jack (Bruce). He did it on the last album I did with Jack, which was never released. Jack left RSO and got another record deal, so RSO has no reason to release the album. I first heard of it from Dennis. I didn’t know how it was done. I tried a few different ways. I liked the sound sometimes but it wasn’t really happening. Then Ken came on the scene and I saw how he did it. I’ve talked to Ken about it and taken it a step further to make it possible to use on the road.
SH: How exactly is it mounted?
SP: Basically on cables. The way Ken did it in the studio, the bass drum is not going to move. You take the front head off and tune the back head and dampen it like you would normally. Never use too much dampening, just a little towel to take the ring off of it so you get a nice smack. Keep it pretty loose. With an EV, you have to have the skin loose; it doesn’t like a tight head.
With an AKG D-12 which is used in the States, and which we’ve used in England for a long while, you can have a tighter head. That’s why when people put up an RE20 in England they don’t like the sound because they don’t realize that you need a slacker head. It needs to breathe.
So then you get the mike and strap it in and cable it to the inside of the lugs. It’s quite scientific actually, the way it is done. The mike has to be suspended but rigid. Then you have to solder a cannon plug onto the cable, which comes out the air hole in the drum.
SH: Did it take you a while to figure out how close to put the microphone to the batter head?
SP: No. You see, in miking I always go right for the beater, two inches away. You can never get too much transience. I find that people are spending hours in the studio trying to get transience, that clarity, that instantaneous sound which is the hardest thing to do sometimes. People have weird ideas about miking bass drums off to the side somewhere because they think that gives less ring or more tone or whatever.
SH: Do you enjoy the drum more now with two heads on it?
SP: Yes. I love it! I used that disco sound a long time with all that studio work, and even live.
SH: But now you seem to have the best of both worlds, because you’ve got a nice round tone, a natural sound, and yet you’ve got it amplified and you’ve got a contained sound.
SP: It also produces much lower frequencies like that and yet you feel the drum a lot more, in the studio or on stage. It’s quite different. A lot of people don’t like it because they are not used to it. That’s the trouble I come up against in studios. I usually mike them up and get the sound at the drum kit and the engineers bring up the faders and just can’t get to grips with it. They are used to hearing the flat cardboard sound.
SH: Do you have problems with engineers when you go into the studio? Do you find them wanting to cover all your drums with blankets and stuff pillows in the tom-toms, that sort of thing?
SP: No, I don’t let them touch it at all.
SH: Do you use the same kit in the studio as you do for live work?
SP: Yes, same tuning, same drums. The only thing I do is to make alterations to the snare drum. The alterations are made because people have different ideas as to snare drum sounds. So I just use a different snare drum, tune it differently or use different heads.
SH: Are those all your microphones?
SP: The two EV’s in the bass drums are. I don’t own any others. I don’t bother. Electronics go wrong. Every time I buy a piece of electronic equipment, it breaks down. I own the bass drum mikes because they have to stay inside the drum; it’s too much trouble to have to get mikes in and out. My other drums don’t have mikes in them because I only own those two.
SH: Your other set is a Ludwig Octoplus with a couple of Staccato drums?
SP: Yes, that’s my original set. I had 8, 10 and 12 inch Staccato drums with them. I have since added a 6 inch Staccato. Actually, I made a little kit up of the four Staccato drums and a custom bass drum, all single head. I use those when I do a record date in London, which is just a casual date. I fancy that because it is a change for me. I love playing a single kit. All I have to do is put mikes up the Staccatos and bring the faders up, and the sound is automatic. With the Octoplus I used to use Black Dots, but with these and my Tamas I use clear Ambassadors.
SH: How long has it been since you switched from the single-headed Octoplus to the doubleheaded Tamas?
SP: I still use the Octoplus occasionally. I used it on Pete Townshend’s album but I used the Tamas on Michael Rutherford’s album. It sounded incredible in the studio but I don’t know what they did on the record. There are no tom-toms there at all. The kick, the snare and the cymbals are fine. I used the same Tamas that I used on stage, and in the studio it was huge. I was even using Black Dots and I don’t know what they did. This is the thing, every time I do an album, I can only do so much. I usually have a say in the types of mikes I want to use, whether or not I want to use kepexes; sometimes I even mike them up myself.
SH: What is a kepex?
SP: It’s a piece of studio equipment like a sound gate, which opens the signal when you hit the drum. It’s made by Allison Research. If you’ve got 20 mikes on the kit and they are all open and you hit the snare drum, you’re not just hearing the snare via the snare mike and the overheads, you’re also picking it up on the tom mikes, which can be nice sometimes. It depends what the studio environment is. But sometimes you just want to get rid of that because it causes phasing problems. So if you kepex the tom mike, kick mike and the snare, it cleans it up a bit. Ken does that all the time and so does Ennis MacKay. You can do so much but ultimately you are in the hands of the producer or the engineer. When I get albums, I am often appalled by the difference.
SH: Have you liked the final product of anything you’ve done so far?
SP: The two albums that I think came out pretty good were Jeff’s album, There and Back, and Stanley’s (Clarke) Rocks, Pebbles & Sand. I really like the sound on Jeff’s album, although I think it can be improved upon. I always think sounds can be improved. I think Dennis did a great job on Stanley’s album. I also liked the sound on Peter Townshend’s album. We went for a different sound on that one. I used the Octoplus. We just finished a tour with Jeff, and the Tamas were still in Europe. I got back and there were frantic calls, so I had to grab the Octoplus, which hadn’t been used for ages. But it turned out alright; we got a nice sound. What I use depends upon the project. This is why I am looking forward to getting a walnut kit from Tama, because I have been using the fiberglass for a year and a half now.
SH: Did they give you that kit or did you specify those particular drums?
SP: I took the Octoplus kit to Japan with Stanley and Jeff. I didn’t want to use Japanese equipment because everybody at that time was starting to use it. I was really into American equipment. I went over there and all these little Japanese in Nagoya came up bringing all these drum catalogues and I was going, “yah, yah, yah, big deal.” I didn’t really think much of it, but they said they’d like to bring me some drums. They brought down these shells and I thought, “God, they’re real. They’re beautiful.” They brought wood shells, fiberglass shells, octobans, the gong drum and some other bits and pieces. I was just knocked out by the quality and the materials.
SH: So you selected your drum set from what they had?
SP: No. I said I wanted to get some fiberglass happening for volume’s sake because I had been using wood for so long. The rack toms are slightly customized, they are slightly deeper. They run 9 x 10, 10 x 12, 11 x 13 and 12 x 14. They are just a little deeper because I figure it’s nice to have them in the same proportion as floor toms. It gives you that extra depth.
SH: And you prefer a double headed drum to a single headed one?
SP: Yes, I always have. I just went into a phase where I got into the Octoplus and really liked it. At the time it was really hard to get lots of different sizes of double headed drums. Not many manufacturers were making them. They used to start at 12″; it was almost impossible to get a 10″ double headed drum, and the Octoplus went all the way down to 6″ which I loved. So I used that for a while because that’s what was available.
SH: But you actually prefer the double headed drum?
SP: I do. They are all double headed except for the gong bass. Everything is fiberglass and they had to make it up special since they don’t normally make the gong bass in fiberglass.
SH: But now you want to go back to a wood shell drum kit?
SP: I’d like to have the difference in sound. It would be nice to have a Tama wooden shell kit because they make lovely wood drums.
SH: What do you find is the difference in sound between wood and fiberglass?
SP: When I went to Japan earlier in the year with Stanley. I had Tama supply me with a wood shell kit rather than fly all my drums out there. We were only playing three dates. They supplied me with an aqua kit. It was exactly the same kit except that the rack toms were standard size. Instantly there was more tone. Same tuning, same heads, but a more mellow tone. And the kick drums, especially with the mikes inside, weren’t so metallic. If I used wood all the time. I’d be wanting that metallicness back.
I think everybody goes through changes. You’re never happy with what you’ve got. You like something for three nights and on the fourth night you think. “This stuff is junk, let’s get something else in.” I think musicians are always like that, they like to change.
SH: One of the things I noticed about your kit is that you’re using an old Leedy snare.
SP: Yeah, Paul Jameson set it up. It’s got a Rogers strainer with Hinger Touch- Tone cables on it. It’s an old ’39 Leedy.
SH: How’d you run into him?
SP: He got in touch with our roadie, Bob Graham, and Bob called me. He told me to check out this guy who had some old snare drums. I was using an old Slingerland Radio King which I got from Pro Percussion. It was a beautiful 7″ Radio King. That was the only old drum that I had.
Jameson deals in Radio Kings, but it just so happened that he had the Leedy. I looked at the shell and it looked wonderful, so he set it up, I tried it out and I bought it. He’s in Los Angeles and he also goes out with Toto as Jeff Porcaro’s roadie. He has a house full of old drums. He also has a rental department.
A lot of cats in L.A. want to use a Paul Jameson snare drum. He’ll bring the drum down to the session and people use them. He just has this thing going.
SH: How did you start working with Stanley Clarke?
SP: Through Jeff Beck actually. I was working with Stanley through Jeff.
SH: Let’s get the chronology straight.
SP: In ’77 I toured with Jack Bruce. It was fun at the time and Jack and I get along very well. We still play together occasionally. We even do record dates together. It was just weird with RSO so we moved on. I started doing other things again; albums, sessions, and then I met Jeff towards the end of ’78.
Jeff at that time was talking to Stanley and they wanted to get a band together. Stanley came over and had a play with Jeff and myself, just the three of us. We decided to go on the road and do it. At that time, I mentioned Tony Hymes to Jeff because Tony and I had played a lot together. We got along great so we went to Japan for two weeks. So that’s how I met Stanley. In ’79 I did some sessions and we did a European tour as well, same quartet.
Then I did Michael’s album at Polar Studio and Pete’s album after that. And then I came over to the States and did Stanley’s album and tour.
SH: There’s one album you’ve played on that’s available here that we haven’t mentioned yet which really showcases your playing more than most: the L. Shankar album Touch Me There. What’s the story behind that one?
SP: I met Shankar in New York while playing with Jack. We were playing the Bottom Line and John McLaughlin came down and we went back to his place between shows, playing table tennis and generally mingling. Shankar was there and we chatted a bit. About a year or so later he gave me a call when he wanted to do an album.
Frank Zappa produced it. He’s good, especially on “Darlene”. that track with all the weird timing. I used the Octoplus on that one along with Roto-toms. There was a ton of stuff set up all over the place. I had to play and mind the mikes as well. There were so many microphones.
Frank likes to really get into it. We were miking up the sides of drums at crazy angles. But it turned out good.
SH: There’s much more freedom in your playing on that album than you normally have. It’s more like a blowing album.
SP: That’s due to Frank; he encourages that. The thing about Frank that I found interesting was that we would just be getting a number together, and he’d come in and really screw you up. You’d get something really nice happening and he’d say, “Okay, now I want you to put nine beats between this beat and that beat.” Then he’d go away. The next few run throughs you’d be trying to work all this stuff out and you’d think. “Oh great, got it.” And he would come back again and say, “Right, let’s try this.” By the time you’re finished you’re a mess, but you are doing all this ridiculous stuff.
And that’s what he draws out of musicians. He really gets good results. I really enjoy working with him. Again, when I heard the album I was a bit disappointed in the sound. It wasn’t exactly like I had heard it in the studio, but then it never is.
SH: Maybe you ought to go into production.
SP: I’m working on it. Production is a long process. You have to be a diplomat; you have to know when to be funny, how to get people to perform. I don’t envy a producer’s job, although I’d love to do it.
SH: Is there someone you’ve worked with who you especially admire as a producer?
SP: I enjoy working with Roger Glover. We’ve done several albums together including Judas Priest’s Sin After Sin and Michael Shenker’s album. We had a lot of fun on that and I think Roger was really great. With Jeff, where Tony and I are writing and Jeff has a lot of say, we find we work best with someone like Ken Scott, who has the technical end very together. We find we can concentrate on the music and not have to worry about technical problems with him.
SH: Do you do a lot of writing on your own?
SP: Yes, I do a lot of writing with Tony and I do a lot of writing at home where I have a little four track studio.
SH: Do you play any other instruments?
SP: A snippet of piano. I played a little on “El Camino Real” on Duncan Brown’s Wild Places record.
SH: How did you like working with Duncan Browne?
SP: He’s great.
SH: Duncan seemed to come out of left field. He’s not well known at all in this country.
SP: I know. I really hope he gets it together. He just went through a whole management thing. It’s the usual thing, he wasn’t doing what he wanted. It really slows you down.
I thought the first album was great. Streets of Fire was a bit unfortunate because he didn’t have the material together at the time. He was forced to do the album. He spent a lot of hours in the studio not doing too much because his material wasn’t really there. He was forced to write in the studio which is never very good. When you are paying 60-80 quid an hour to write songs, it’s a bit silly. There are certain people who can do that, but generally it’s not a good idea.
I actually enjoy listening to Wild Places. It’s funny. It is very rare that you listen to albums that you play on. Every time I get a copy of a record I’ve done, I play it once and then usually file it away forever, but that is one of the albums that I take out and play because I like the music.
SH: Are there any other records you’ve done that you like a lot?
SP: I take out Pete’s album from time to time and I also like the Gary Boyles album. I did two records with him. He is a sort of jazzy, fusion guitarist. The names of the albums are The Dancer and Electric Glide. Robin Lumley did the keyboards on The Dancer. We bullied him into it. The bass player was Doni Harvey who later went with Stomu Yamashta.
SH: What’s your schedule look like now?
SP: After this tour we go back to England. While we are there I’ll be doing a week of drum clinics. After that we go back to Japan. I’m really looking forward to doing clinics since I’ve never done any before.
SH: Do you have your clinics planned out?
SP: No, not really. What I would like to cover though is the use of double bass drums. I don’t think many drummers really deal with double bass drum. A lot of drummers play double bass a little bit, but I don’t think they actually take it seriously. I use them a lot and I see them quite differently. I’ve been using them since ’74.
To me a drum kit with two kick drums is not a show thing. It looks pretty but they have to be used. To me it doesn’t matter. I enjoy listening to people use one kick. I admire Lenny White. He has one kick, and he’s really great. Ian Paice is another great single kick drummer. I really dig it. But if I see a two kick drum setup I want to hear some nice double bass drum work.
SH: Have you heard anyone’s double bass work that you really like?
SP: I haven’t really heard anybody yet. I think Billy (Cobham) is great because he has really been into it. I admire him for that. Apparently he’s using three bass drums now. I’ve never seen him use three, but I’m sure he uses them well because he’s a tasteful musician. I saw a clinic in London that he did and he only used what I call a normal drum kit, one with two bass drums.
SH: How do you hear your bass drums? Some people hear them as two different sounds, like Ed Shaughnessy, for example. Other people, like Louis Bellson, use bass drums of the same size to get a single sound. What is your approach?
SP: To me, the kick drums are like the snare drums. I like to hear them as double sticking. I want to hear the same sound from the bass drum. If you get picky about it you are never going to get two bass drums to sound exactly alike.
SH: Have you ever tried any of the pedals that have two beaters on a single bass drum?
SP: No, I never tried any of those, the beaters look so small. They look like they couldn’t get the sound out. Maybe they could but I bet they couldn’t. I looked at it and I felt it. It just didn’t feel like my kind of pedal.
The pedal I’m using is a Tama. I had a Camco with a chain when I used the Octoplus, but when I got the Tama kit I decided to use all Tama hardware.
On the Octoplus I had a lot of customizing. The hi-hat was a Promark. I had special plates on the bass drums, and chains. Nothing ever went wrong with that kit. And I thought, “Let’s just use all of Tama’s hardware and see what works and what doesn’t.” So I used the big pedals they had. They were alright. But then they brought out the new one, the Flexi-FIyer, which is just like the Gretsch. I’m using that until they can get me some of the new ones they are going to make with chain linkage. They are going to be regular production chain pedals.
SH: I notice that you are using Slingerland clip holders.
SP: I can’t get on with the Tama holders because they make the kit too wide. I even used the new Omni-sphere holder that Tama has, but I still couldn’t come to grips with it. It’s weird.
We just met Ken Hoshino the other day and he said they’ve brought out an even newer one. When I went to Japan with these Slingerland mounts they were taking pictures of them. And I said, “You’ve got to make something like this; this is the concert tom mount.” As yet I haven’t seen them but he says they’ve got them. Until they do that I’ve got to use the Slingerland mounts. I hope they bring out something because I’d love to use stock parts.
I had a brief talk with Billy about this. When you fly your equipment from country to country it gets very expensive. I have a huge drum kit and the English cases that I have for my drums are incredibly heavy. You’re talking about thousands of dollars just to get a drum kit somewhere. Billy has noticed this too.
It’s a gas to be able to go to Japan, pull a load of drums out of a box, set them up and play them. But if you are used to having special little holders it feels really weird. If you get used to using production pieces of hardware, you can pick any Tama kit in any country in the world and it’s going to set up pretty much the same, so I hope they do make these small mounts.
SH: So what is your exact set up?
SP: They are all Tama. Two 22″ bass drums. Rack toms are 9 x 10, 10 x 12, 11 x 13, and 12 x 14. Floor toms are all standard size: 14 x 14, 16 x 16, and 16 x 18. The Gong Drum is a 22″ shell but I actually use a tympani head on it. What they normally do is put a 24″ bass drum head on it with a steel hoop. I use a thin tympani head. It’s extravagant because we go through them so quickly but the sound is just so different. The tymp head is 23″ so we don’t use the metal hoop. We just put the claws onto the epoxy with the gluing and it sounds great. It cuts down on the buzz as well. On the left, I have a set of Octobans.
SH: Do you tune those to any specific notes?
SP: No, just to whatever sounds good. I use clear Diplomats on the Octobans.
All the toms have clear Ambassadors on the batter heads, Diplomats on the bottom.
SH: Do you like a lot of movement on the heads?
SP: Yes, I’m trying a few things out. Having the different weights is interesting. For example, on the bass drum, the playing head is an Ambassador head but the front head is actually a little bit thinner. I don’t know why. I’ve asked Lloyd at Remo about this and he says they are the ones they make for Tama. I don’t think they’re the Diplomat weight. They’re right in the middle and the sound is so different, it’s amazing.
SH: So you have tried them with different front heads?
SP: Oh yes, I used to use clear spots. We had Remo make up some special clear spots.
SH: On the batter or on the front?
SP: Anywhere. I used them on the toms. I was convinced the black spot changed with the lights because anything black absorbs heat. We were in Barcelona with Jeff and Stan and the sun was beating down on them. After a sound check I was sitting at the drums and I put my elbow on the heads. I suddenly felt that the spot was boiling, but the clear was totally cool. And I realized that’s what happens to the sound during the gigs—it goes dead. It is absorbing heat so it’s softening up. So I had them make the clear spots and the sound just kept clear when the lights were up. But we tried the clear spots on the front of the bass drums and it sounded horrible. It really messed with the mikes inside.
The front heads are incredibly loose. Acoustically the drums rattle. I try to get rid of much of the rattle, but because they’re steel hoops, they won’t blend as well as wood hoops. So they’re sort of rattling a bit.
SH: What if you take the metal hoops off your bass drum and put wooden ones on?
SP: They wouldn’t look as good. I like the chrome.
SH: I notice you have key rods on your bass drums instead of t-rods.
SP: The t-rods get caught in the cases whenever you take them out. It’s a very tight fit. Every time you take them out a t-rod is gone. I find that the other ones stay in. And the tuning does not alter.
SH: Do you keep your heads fairly tight or slack?
SP: The kick drums are really slack. Both heads are wrinkling. The batter head is a bit tighter around the edge. The front head is pretty wrinkly.
SH: Do you find this has any effect on the action of the pedal?
SP: I notice it if it’s too tight. I hate it because the beater doesn’t seem to sink into the bass drum head, it seems to bounce off it. I can’t play a bass drum like that.
It’s all what you get used to. This is the lovely thing about playing somebody else’s kit. It opens your eyes. You think, “How does this guy play this, because it’s all so different?” I really don’t know because I’m used to having the tuning to suit my own playing. If it’s too tight I don’t like it.
SH: Does the same go with the batter heads on all of your toms?
SP: They’re pretty tight actually.
SH: So you get a good bounce off them?
SP: It’s not so much for bounce, it’s for a good sound. If you’re using a lot of tomtoms, they will blend in too much if you treat them too slack. You’re not actually covering a very wide spectrum because an 18″ tom-tom is actually very hard to tune. It’s harder than a 16″ because that skin size is so big. You can only go so deep. You can actually get a 14″ rack tom to sound as low as an 18″ floor, if you are careful. Rack toms are beautiful. I think that’s why with a lot of studio drummers, the biggest size is a 14″. I know Steve Gadd used them. That was his largest size.
SH: He uses 13″ and 14″ toms as floor toms.
SP: That’s right. And that’s what I’m doing with the Staccatos. The biggest size is a 12″ and it sounds the same as a 16″ Tama.
I take the rack toms pretty high to get as wide a spectrum of sound as I can. When I hit this 10″ one it sounds a little bit like a timbale, but when I hit this one (14″) it sounds like a kettle, and the Gong Drum finishes it off.
SH: What about the bottom heads? Are they fairly tight?
SP: I try to get them the same, but then I leave the bottom heads and keep tightening the top heads. Because of the impact, the top heads tend to collapse.
SH: Do you break a lot of heads?
SP: I very rarely break a head, but they get so pitted that I don’t like the sound. They get a wrinkle in them and then I have to tighten them up and they lose all the tone.
SH: What sticks are you using?
SP: I use Pro Mark 707. The wood is oak and I use wooden tips, but it’s not the Ed Shaughnessy model with the ball tip. It’s one they send over to Sonor in Germany, and then they send it to Hohner. It is a slightly different shape; the grip is fatter and the bead is slightly bigger.
SH: Have you seen the 808’s, which are a fatter version of the 707?
SP: Yes, but for what I am doing now I find those just a bit heavy. So I stick to the newer 707’s. A few years ago I was using Ludwig 7B’s. They are the straight sticks with no bead. That was my phase of really heavy sticks.
SH: Did you crack a lot of cymbals?
SP: Yeah. Broke a few drums too! I think basically it was because the band I was in was quite loud. There was not an abundance of microphones, so I had to use heavier sticks in order to be heard.
SH: Is that the reason you use matched grip?
SP: No. I went to matched grip because I was very conscious of being ambidextrous. I play hi-hat with my left hand and my ride cymbal is on the left also. I started in the summer of ’75. It took about a year to learn to do it successfully. My toms go in the usual order, but my cymbals are switched. I first started try ing to play the left hand on the hi-hat. When it got too difficult, I’d switch back. But every time I played, I’d try to do it a little more. Sessions are great for practicing because you have to play very simply. It was a question of bluffing through some things, but it worked out. Eventually the ride cymbal went over to the left, and by that time I had completely switched. Now I have one on each side.
SH: What about cymbals’?
SP: I’m endorsed by Avedis Zildjian. I went to Boston last year and they helped me select a beautiful set of cymbals, one of which I just cracked tonight.
SH: What is your basic set up?
SP: It’s a Swish Knocker without rivets, very heavy, 24″. I always call it a pang because it sounds like that. It’s quite heavy. The ride next to that, the left hand ride, is a 21″ standard Rock Ride.
SH: The one you use with the big bell?
SP: Yes, the one on the left. The first crash is a 19″ Rock Crash. The next one was an 18″ Rock Crash. The right hand ride is a 21″ brilliant Earth Ride.
SH: Oh, they make them in brilliant now?
SP: Yes, that is one of the early ones last year. It’s a slightly different sound. At home I have a bigger, real dirty one, a different sound. I like this as well. Then I have two 17″ Rock Crashes, slightly different weights, of course. Basically it just goes from low to high with the four crashes. And then a 12″ splash. Finally, a 28″ Turkish gong which I hit once in the first tune. It looks good! The hi-hats— 14″ Quick Beats.
SH: Do you like those?
SP: I love them!
SH: You were using rock hi-hats before that?
SP: No, I used New Beats before that. I had a couple of sets of New Beats and I just took the bottom cymbals off and put them together. That’s what I had with Jack. I just had two bottoms, so I suppose they were basically rocks. This set of Quick Beats has a very heavy top cymbal. It is heavier than what they normally put on. When I took them up to Zildjian, they were really surprised when they heard them. I got those at Little Joe’s in Houston. That’s where I selected the first set of cymbals. I went up there (Boston) and amalgamated it.
SH: And snare drums, you like swapping around?
SP: Yes. For live I love the Leedy. It has a Diplomat head on the bottom. On the top head, there’s a reverse spot (C.S.). I got through Ambassadors too quickly. In the studio it could be anything.
SH: In the studio do you use yours or do they tell you to use whatever is in the corner?
SP: No, never. I always use my own stuff. In the States, a lot of studios have their own kits, and occasionally they’re really nice kits; they’re cared for, they’re tuned. But in England, they’ve just got pieces of junk. Studios very rarely have their own drums. So I always use my own drums, even in the States. I own them, I might as well play them.