Mel Gaynor may be a modest, unassuming guy off stage, but behind his intimidating black drumkit, he speaks with a loud, dominant voice. Gaynor’s percussive contributions have helped Scotland’s Simple Minds develop their distinctively rich, but nevertheless, visceral, sound. Before joining the band in 1982 during the recording of their international breakthrough album, New Gold Dream, he plied his trade as a journeyman drummer, traveling from band to band and studio to studio in London. It was this variety of experiences (from funk to disco to heavy metal) that lead to Simple Minds’ asking him to join the band. His blend of the various styles unique to each musical genre gave Simple Minds the power they needed to propel their swirling new wave soundtracks, plus the subtlety and expressive touch to add even more depth and detail to their complex sound.
Gaynor is the only Englishman in the Scottish band, whose last album, Sparkle In The Rain, and semi-hits “Waterfront,” “Speed Your Love To Me,” and “Up On The Catwalk” brought them widespread acclaim in 1984. The album was produced by Steve Lillywhite, famous drum-conscious producer of such acts as U2, Big Country and Peter Gabriel. From Gaynor’s opening snare crack on “Catwalk” through his aggressive pounding as “The Kick Inside Of Me” fades into the distance, he dominates the sound, pushing, pulling, and weaving in and out of the sonic tapestry. In only two albums and two years, Mel Gaynor has distinguished himself as one of the finest drummers on the contemporary British scene. I spoke to Gaynor backstage after a performance in Los Angeles. Simple Minds had been touring around the world, and he was tired but friendly and very optimistic about the future.
BW: How do you feel after being on the road for so many months?
MG: I feel like I don’t have an anchor at the moment—a musical anchor. I have to get back to London, and start getting back into playing the clubs and just jamming. I’ve met a lot of different drummers and a lot of people from different drum companies, so it’s been quite good; it’s been quite a fruitful tour.
BW: What drum companies have you been working with?
MG: Premier just put out a new poster in Britain, and it’s going to be shipped over here when they start the publicity campaign. I’ve done a Zildjian ad, which I believe Bill Gibson, Vinnie Colaiuta, Omar Hakim, and Jonathan Moffett have also done.
BW: Simple Minds is so richly melodic and yet, at the same time, so intensely rhythmic and propulsive. You’re very responsible for the group’s sound. How would you describe your role in the band?
MG: I think my role in the band is to provide light, shade, and dynamics in the music. I put it down to timekeeping first, because that is a drummer’s role. If you can’t keep time, forget it. If your time’s not good, the whole band is going to fluctuate. I use a lot more light and shade as far as different sizes of drums or different variations are concerned. For instance, I’m using a gong drum; it’s an actual bass drum, but it’s a development on the gong drum from Tama. That adds a lot more depth to a kit. And I find the light and shade come from the 10″ right down to the 20″ bass drum. I think a lot of drummers miss out on a lot of light and shade in their approaches.
BW: Do you feel it’s crucial for you to have a big drumkit with that much choice of drums and cymbals?
MG: Yeah. I don’t think it has to be flash. I use it for different tones and different sounds.
BW: The sound on Sparkle In The Rain is crisp and rock oriented. It is also dominated by the rhythm section, especially the metallic-sounding drums. Would you credit Steve Lillywhite for that?
MG: A lot of it is due to Steve Lillywhite. His way of actually recording drums is totally different from any other producer. And on that album, we went for a bigger sound than on New Gold Dream. We went for the live sound in order to try to capture the live sound on tape, which the band had never done. I think Steve is famous for that sound. He has a special technique in mixing drums and getting that ambient sound.
BW: What exactly does he do that’s so special?
MG: What he actually does is have stereo ambience. He takes a stereo picture from the room, and he basically uses eight ambient mic’s: two that act as normal ambient mic’s for cymbals, two mic’s that are split on either side of the room, two mic’s for the other side of the room, and two for the stereo picture in the middle. So you get that big sound. He compresses one set of the ambients, so you get a kind of gated, compressed ambient sound, and you get the full ambient sound. Then he mikes the whole kit individually. I believe that’s the same thing used for Big Country, and it’s the same technique used for Phil Collins, only not quite so big.
BW: The album was recorded in Town House Studios. Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil told me that he and producer Nick Launay used Studio #2 because it had a great drum sound, but that it was horrible for cymbal clarity, so they used another room for recording cymbals. Did you record the whole drumkit in one room?
MG: There’s a trick in doing that, actually. What we did on a few of the tracks was to speed the track up, and we got the heavier cymbal sound. What we actually did was gate out the drums from the cymbals, so we still had the ambience of the actual drums, but we gated out the cymbals. So when I went to play a cymbal, it didn’t affect the gate on the drums, but it opened up for the actual cymbal sound. That’s the reason for using ambience.
BW: Were there any other differences concerning the drums between New Gold Dream and Sparkle In The Rain?
MG: Well, for a start, it’s a bigger kit on Sparkle In The Rain. It’s a double-bass kit, and I didn’t use double bass for New Gold Dream. And to help get that “live” sound, we didn’t put any gaffer’s tape on the heads or anything; we left the kit sounding as it was and just miked it. As for technique, we played the song as a song, as opposed to overdubbing a lot; we all played at once. I had a lot more freedom in this album, because I actually co-wrote it. I think a lot of the arrangements are a lot freer. I was able to incorporate a little more technique into my playing.
BW: When you recorded a track, did you record the rhythm track live and then overdub percussion?
MG: Basically, the whole track was live. Occasionally, we added a few tom-toms or a few cymbals, but mostly it was just live playing straight through on most of this album.
BW: Simple Minds compositions are credited to the whole band. How do you participate in the songwriting? Do you work on melodies and lyrics, or just the rhythm section with Derek Forbes?
MG: No, I work on the melodies, and I get involved with the structure of the songs and arranging. On the demos for the album, I actually mixed them and arranged the whole lot, so I got pretty involved. I also play bass as well, so occasionally I come up with a few lines that might help Derek out.
BW: Does Derek originate a bass line to which you match a drum pattern, or is it collaborative?
MG: I think we gel. He might chuck an idea at me and I might develop that idea, or I might chuck one at him. We try to figure out which is the best way to suit everybody.
BW: How did you come to join Simple Minds?
MG: I’m from London originally; I was born there. I was doing a lot of sessions at the time with Peter Walsh, and this was one of the sessions that was put forward to me.
BW: So when you were recording New Gold Dream, you weren’t a full member of the band?
MG: No, I wasn’t. I was just a session drummer on that.
BW: Why did they offer you the position permanently?
MG: The writing thing. I wasn’t just a drummer; I was a writer as well. They wanted to get me involved in the situation, and we all got on well, so it seemed to be a good opportunity to join and become a full member.
BW: Tell me a little about your background. Who else have you worked with?
MG: I went professional the day I left school, and I’ve done a lot of work for a lot of different artists. Elkie Brooks is one; I’ve also done a David Bowie video called “Wild Is The Wind.” With Peter Walsh, I was working with Heaven 17, Heat Wave, a disco band called Central Line, and another disco band called Imagination. I also worked with Gary Moore, and I played with a heavy metal band called Samson for one album and five months of touring.
BW: How long have you been playing drums?
MG: I’ve been playing since I was about 11. I started off playing trumpet first, and then I just found that drums were loud and powerful. I just really got into drums. I didn’t take it up seriously until I was 14 or 15; that’s when I got my first kit.
BW: Did you take lessons or are you self-taught?
MG: Self-taught, basically. I took lessons for about six months from Brian Spring, who was a jazz drummer in London. Apart from that, I’ve had no training.
BW: Do you practice a lot between shows, or do you get your practice in during soundchecks and performances?
MG: I do warm up before a gig, but as for practicing, I don’t actually practice because there isn’t time. I get to practice on the gigs.
BW: What are your feelings about natural drummers versus people who study and are fully trained?
MG: I prefer a natural drummer, but I like to get into the technical aspect. People like Billy Cobham, Simon Phillips—who I’ve done a clinic with for Zildjian in London, and who is a great technician—and Tony Williams blow me away. I’m probably going to see Vinnie Colaiuta tonight down at Hop Singh’s; he’s playing with a band called Dog Cheese. To me, Steve Gadd is probably the best example of combining the natural feel and the technical feel, because his chops are ridiculous, and his feel and timing are pretty good as well. A lot of drummers can’t combine the power thing and the technique thing. Billy Cobham is a great technician and a very powerful drummer, but I think he went a bit overboard on certain things he’s done. There are many drummers who play with a lot of aggression: Terry Bozzio is another favorite of mine, along with Michael Walden. Both of those guys have a lot of feel and a lot of technique. I think that there are quite a few drummers now combining the two, but it used to be that either you were technical or you had feel.
BW: What do you listen to in your spare time, both for pleasure and for inspiration as a drummer?
MG: I listen to quite a varied selection of music, from jazz to classical to rock to funk. I’ve been listening to bands like Missing Persons; they’re a good band.
BW: Because you like Terry Bozzio.
MG: Yeah, right. I mean, I listen to a lot of bands because of their drummers: Rush and Neil Peart, some of the Gadd stuff, and Gerry Brown. I basically listen to everybody, really, as long as it’s good music. Stevie Wonder is one of my favorite artists; Return To Forever is as well. I saw them last year at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles; that was a good concert.
BW: Tell me about your equipment and setup.
MG: I’m using a Premier Black Shadow kit. I’m using two 24″ bass drums—these are all power shells—8″, 10″, 12″, 13″, and 14″ rack toms; 16″ and 18″ floor toms; and a 20″ bass drum that I use as a gong drum. And I’m using two snares for two different types of sounds: a 5×14 and an 8″ wooden-shell drum. I’m using all Zildjian cymbals, including a 22″ ping, a Brilliant ping, two 22″ China Boys, a 19″ crash, an 18″ crash, a 13″ splash, 14″ hi-hats, and a 17″, which is over the bass drum. I’m using quite a large setup because of the melodic thing, as I explained before. And I think as far as looks go, it always looks impressive to see a big kit in concert.
BW: I notice you’re using a Collarlock rack for your kit.
MG: I got that rack recently in Vancouver, basically to clean up the stage. It is a lot easier for my drum roadie to position my kit and keep it accurate for every gig. I was having a problem with everything being in the right place; it just wasn’t working. The bar enables me to get rid of many of the floor stands, because it only mounts on three stands. It also enables me to have everything locked into position, so when it comes time to set up, it can just be locked up and that’s it.
BW: Do you use that setup in the studio, or do you have another kit specifically for recording?
MG: I have another drumset that is pretty much identical, which I use for the studio, but it has 22″ bass drums instead of 24″.
BW: I notice that you’re not using any electronic drums or percussion. What are your feelings on the electronic equipment available now, like the Simmons and Linn-Drums?
MG: I think Simmons drums are overused at the moment. Almost every drummer I’ve seen has a Simmons pad or a Simmons module. My emphasis is to get back to natural drums, because you can get a varied sound out of any drum or out of any kit. I was playing Simmons for a while when I toured Europe with a band called Imagination, and the only thing it did for me was give me an arm ache because the drums don’t give at all. It’s like hitting a desk. As for the Linn, it’s good for songwriting, but I don’t think the Linn is going to replace a drummer on stage. I think electronic things can be tasteful when they’re not overused. For example, I think Bill Bruford’s taken Simmons quite a long way.
BW: What are your favorite songs to play live?
MG: I don’t know, really. I suppose the starting number of the set, “East Of Easter”—that’s a pretty aggressive number. It used to be a lot longer than that, but we sectioned it off and edited it down in the studio for the album. That song and the encore, “New Gold Dream,” are when I can really let go a bit.
BW: How do you manage to play as forcefully as you do for 90 minutes every night without becoming exhausted, especially after touring so extensively?
MG: I think it’s a matter of pacing yourself really. I think it’s something you learn just through doing a lot of gigs. A lot of drummers get tired in the middle of a set, and they start to fade off towards the end. If you pace your energy and your stamina all the way through the set at a pretty even level, you can get through the set and you can develop from that.
BW: As a drummer, are you very concerned with your health? Do you lift weights or do anything in particular to stay in shape?
MG: No, I don’t actually lift weights. I do a bit of exercise each morning, but nothing too strenuous. I was talking to Simon Phillips the other day, and he said he lifts weights. To me, lifting weights puts too much pressure on your arms, and I think it stiffens up your joints, so you could suffer from a lot of problems. I prefer to stay just a bit looser.
BW: Where does Simple Minds enjoy playing the most? I would imagine at home in Scotland.
MG: Scotland—they’re nut cases up there. At one gig we did at this place called the Barrowlands in Glasgow, they had to strap the P.A. down, because the crowd vibrated it so much that everything was just wavering.
BW: Sparkle In The Rain entered the U.K. charts as #1, and Simple Minds are huge there now. Is the band aiming for that kind of success here, or do you feel that’s an unreasonable expectation considering the size of the U.S.?
MG: That is what we’re heading for now. We’ve more or less broken Canada and Europe now, and Australia as well, so it’s really only here and Japan that are left.
BW: You mentioned earlier that you’d done some drum clinics recently. Who were they for, and do you have any planned for the near future?
MG: I did quite a few for Paiste in Europe before I went to Zildjian, but I think that the most influential one to date has been the one I did for Zildjian with Simon Phillips in a place called the Venue in London. From that, I aim to do some more for Zildjian all around Europe, and to come here to Los Angeles, and Boston or New York, and just do a few.
BW: Are you going to do any more session work, or will you be working strictly as a member of Simple Minds?
MG: I may do a few sessions, but it depends. I’m really off the session scene now, you know, although I love doing sessions. I love playing with other people. I think it’s important to play with as many different people as you can. It develops your technique and your thinking about music.
BW: What are your goals as a drummer?
MG: Basically, I’m leaning towards production, but also developing new ideas in drumming: new shells or new pieces of equipment like hardware, or developing a few ideas with Zildjian—just developing drums. And obviously, I want to keep listening to other drummers and developing different techniques. There’s still a lot I can learn from just watching other people, in terms of developing different ways of playing and different sounds.
BW: So is there a “Mel Gaynor” trademark drumset in the future?
MG: Yeah, I don’t see why not. I want to get into developing my own kit as well.