Serving the singer onstage requires all of this multithreat’s many skills.
Lana Del Rey currently ranks among the top pop singers in the world. Steadily releasing albums since 2012, her classic torch-song voice graces moody material with a modern sensibility. Emotionally driven songs, a focus on ballads, and cool noir and hip-hop influences have led her to see chart-topping songs, an album debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200, and several Grammy nominations. Along with both chart success and critical acclaim have come shows at festivals around the world, and supporting her for eight years has been the drumming of Tom Marsh.
Marsh began working with Del Rey not long after Born to Die and Paradise were released in 2012. “Lana’s tour manager, Pete Abbott, knew me as a drummer and producer based in London, and the musical director at the time, Jonny Pilcher, was also a fan of my former projects,” says Marsh. At that time Marsh’s projects involved material “where I would sing lead vocals while drumming kind of heavy hip-hop beats at the same time. I was a huge fan of Levon Helm [the Band], and I tried to emulate [his approach] but in a weird, electronic, British way. So when the vacancy came up, they knew me as someone with a style that would fit, but I also had a production and beat programming background.”
Indeed, beyond Marsh’s drumming style, he brought a wealth of experience. “I’d been playing in many bands for years in the U.K. and touring Europe as a session guy,” he says, “as well as doing my own acts as a multi-instrumentalist. I’d toured and played arenas, festivals, and big venues with lots of people. Plus I’d just produced a couple of hit records with U.K. artist Bo Bruce, on which I played all the instruments and sang harmonies.” Having put those projects together, and understanding arrangements and sonic dynamics from a production perspective helped lead to working with Del Rey, insists the drummer.
Marsh’s stage setup is a unique mix of percussion arranged for both standing and seated playing. “My pitch when I first joined,” says Marsh, “was to have two kits: one standing, which is predominantly electronic with a few acoustic bits to flail at like a Viking, and one main sit-down kit with a few triggers and pads. I have maintained that idea, although with this latest album cycle I find myself sitting more. The Norman F**king Rockwell record has more of a classic vibe sonically, so I’m leaning more that way.”
Marsh adds that he has two identical setups, an “A” rig and a “B” rig. “So, for example, we can ship one to South America while I’m finishing up a leg in Europe,” he explains, adding that his touring setup is more expansive than what he uses in New York, where he’s based. “For recording,” he explains. “I’ll use a smaller combination of what I use in Lana world. There’s always an SPD nearby, and the KT-10 pedal has become a constant also. My trusty droids. And my C&C drums with wood hoops are delicious sounding; classic yet current.”
Marsh says that playing Lana Del Rey’s set live has plenty of rewards. “Well, Lana’s music is so goddamn beautiful, it’s a euphoric journey playing the set,” he says. “There’s lots of dynamics and heavy melancholic ballads that I adore.” Getting from song to stage is a process, though, he suggests. “When new material drops I always take time to learn it as it is on the record before heading to rehearsal. The two longest serving people in the band are Blake Stranathan and Byron Thomas [guitar and keys, respectively], who are the musical directors now and are both great with arrangement. We stay close to Lana’s production but will slightly resculpt it to fit arena/festival land. Lana will also come with her input for live beats. There’s always lots of cool ideas floating around.”
Onstage, Marsh goes on, “I’m playing both samples and acoustic on many of the songs. Her music has many electronic hip-hop layers, so we honor that, but I like to play out and make it more bombastic. It’s a run it and run it again situation [to achieve a live feel], but Lana’s music always feels good, so that’s your starting point.”
Among Del Rey’s songs are numerous slower numbers. “Most of what we do is to click,” says Marsh, “which obviously is important because of the video walls that are in sync with our performance. So in recent years I’ve played around with slightly less conventional click tracks, which work great with slower tunes. This is something I learned while recording drums with Rik Simpson [Grammy-winning Coldplay producer] and Guy Berryman [Coldplay’s bassist] for the Pierces’ hit album a couple of years ago in London. Coldplay are very good at doing massive ballads to massive crowds, so I borrowed that idea for Lana.”
Though Del Rey’s song arrangements are rock-solid onstage, Marsh says there’s always room for being “organic” onstage. “We have a set closer called ‘Venice Bitch,’” he explains, “and we can play that for five minutes or twenty minutes if required. It’s often where Lana goes and sings in the crowd. There are multiple options and grooves that work within that closing section of the song. It’s really fun and it’s never the same twice, floating from dark doom hip-hop into trap and huge slices of psychedelic grooves—really fun!”
At press time, Del Rey’s summer international concert dates, including Coachella and Lollapalooza, were tentatively moved to the fall. In the meantime, Marsh says he’s producing a couple of records and composing the music for a film in New York. Yet the festivals will eventually come, and as Marsh says, “The crowd really brings the euphoria. They are so devoted to Lana and the music that it’s hard to not feel the emotion in the moment. That’s the good stuff.”
Written by Martin Patmos, photography by Katrin Albert and Will Whitney.