John Marshall is one of the most important and influential of British drummers, having been a mainstay of the English jazz and rock scene for almost two decades. Moving back to London after leaving Reading University, John cut his musical teeth with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. He then be came one of those musicians associated with an incredible breeding ground for young musicians: Ronnie Scott’s “Old Place.” Here, probably more than anywhere, his style became formed, playing with musicians of the calibre of John McLaughlin, John Surman and Dave Holland. From here he went to Ronnie Scott’s new club, backing such American artists as Gary Burton, “Groove” Holmes, Leon Thomas, Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams.
However, it was probably as a founding member of Nucleus in 1970 that John started to reach a wider audience, further enhanced by his work with Mike Gibbs’ Orchestra. The latter was a marvelously innovative big band; a testing time for John’s original musicianship.
The year 1972 saw him taking over the drum chair with Soft Machine, thus exposing him to a wider European and American audience. John’s original approach to drums as a “sound source,” rather than an orthodox approach, combined with his inventive use of percussion, led to his work with Eberhard Weber’s Colours.
I visited John, a very affable and literate man, in his South London home. After a warm welcome from John and his charming German wife, we retired to his studio. Surrounded by numerous snare drums, cymbals, hi-fi equipment and practice kits, we began to discuss John’s early inspirations and his very personal approach to playing drums.
HL: What attracted you to the drums?
JM: I don’t know exactly. When I was at school, my father used to take me to the variety theatre a lot. It makes me sound awfully old, but it didn’t die out as long ago as they say it did! I used to watch the drummer in the pit, and I suddenly thought I’d like to do that. It seems to have been a totally fortuitous decision! A friend of mine’s father used to play in a dance band and we’d go along and listen. We both used to mess around with a snare drum and I started to have lessons. It was just a sort of serious hobby. I had lessons with Jimmy Marshall (no relation) before he became a successful amplification tycoon. Then I went to university and it was a time when there were an awful lot of good players at universities. It was possible to play with some good people, and I spent a lot more time playing than doing anything else! I was also having lessons from Alan Ganley in London at this time. We used to run a sort of jazz club at Reading and one of the guys who came down as a soloist was a vibes-player called Dave Morse who said, “When you finish, if you want a gig, okay.” So I got my degree and joined this band, which turned out to have a gig every two weeks. And gradually it went on from there. I was doing gigs on what you’d call the “normal” London jazz scene then, where really the only respectable way to play was like Miles Davis. To be accepted, drummers had to play like Jimmy Cobb! I was involved with that awhile and gradually there was a movement of younger musicians making itself known. Westbrook’s band was around, and I’d started working with Graham Collier’s band. We hardly did any gigs, but we used to rehearse all the time! Then Ronnie Scott had moved his club and re-opened his old premises and gave the run of the older place to the younger musicians. The effect of that was absolutely incredible, because it meant that suddenly all those people came together and were aware of one another. I’m talking about people like John Surman, Dave Holland, Westbrook, Graham Collier, John McLaughlin, Chris McGregor, all of them. We’d do gigs down there and there used to be an all-nighter on a Saturday—other nights the guy used to lock us in all night and come back in the morning. A lot of playing was done there. That was responsible for bringing that scene together, and what doesn’t exist in London now is a place like that, where it’s not only a matter of being able to play, it’s a matter of being a part of a scene and to hear other people play, and they hear you play, and somehow you sort everything out. Your playing becomes that much more well-defined.
HL: And through that, listening to other musicians, did you find that you got more from that than, say, going to lessons with other drummers?
JM: Well, I think that’s the main thing, yes. They’re different parts of the same process. Having lessons is what you might call the analytical, theoretical side of it, in the sense that you have a chance to sort out the mechanics of playing. Whereas in the actual process of playing, you’ve just got to get on with it; you can’t sit there working out how to do something. You can either do it or not. But the experience of making that decision is what playing music’s all about. And it’s reacting to other people and finding out what you can and can’t do and also what you want and don’t want to do.
HL: At that time, did you have to do any other type of work to support yourself?
JM: Oh sure. I’ve always taken a very broad-minded approach to playing. I didn’t at any time say to myself, “Well, I’m only interested in playing in this way and so I won’t do anything else.” I knew the sort of musical area that I wanted to pursue but I found that I learned, for example, much more from doing a good commercial gig than from doing a not very-good “jazz” gig. A commercial gig is in some ways more creative, because you have to solve problems. But a lot of the time on those appalling “routine” jazz gigs the restrictions are so great that, well, it’s pointless turning up really. It’d be better to send along a rhythm box.
HL: Which seems paradoxical really, doesn’t it?
JM: Well, it is, because there’s a sort of myth about jazz being, by definition, creative. One of the things that irritates me beyond words is the inherent arrogance of some types of music—just because they’re in a certain category they’re supposed to be “better.” I found I enjoyed playing commercial rock music more. I was using my brain as much as on these bebop gigs. In fact, I still think that the possibilities are just as good—maybe better. And at that time, this idea was occurring to other people too, and we started Nucleus with that in mind. And also with an appreciation that not only was jazz in a rut musically, it was also in a rut in terms of presentation. And I could see people doing things in the other scene, and getting paid for it. They were doing things in a much better way. They were concerned about how the thing sounded. That was revolutionary! That was never thought about on the jazz scene; you just got up there and played—never hear the bass player, the drummer’s always louder than the piano player, and it’s just hopeless. How can people say they’re interested in music and put up with that? So the idea was to organize the presentation of the music differently, that is, concern ourselves with the sound in the same way that rock groups were doing, and also to try and organize it from a business point of view, in a more professional way, if you like. We had a certain amount of success.
HL: Did you have any management?
JM: Well, the management was Ronnie Scott’s. For a while it all went very well. We did the Montreux Festival (and won that—there was a competition there), got a couple of albums done, and we were working a lot. Then the bloom went off a bit and we did a slightly disastrous tour of Germany. Then Chris Spedding was getting very busy in the studios. During that period, I was also working with the Mike Gibbs Orchestra—he started that at about the same time. That was where I met Jack Bruce, the bass-player. He was working then on his solo album, “Songs for a Tailor,” which Jon Hiseman was doing. Jack asked me to do a couple of tracks and then we used to see each other occasionally with Mike Gibbs’ band. Eventually he asked me to join a new band he was forming and I left Nucleus to do so.
HL: How demanding was the Mike Gibbs Band?
JM: It was an incredible band. After the very first gig, John Surman said, “Well, that was like being in a road accident.” It was very demanding music. You listen to these things now and some of them seem quite ordinary—Mike’s music always sounds beautiful, but it’s hard to believe now that conceptually we had nothing to go on. Everybody in the band was dealing with problems they hadn’t had dealings with before. For instance, the writing was not conventional big band writing. A lot of us had played in big bands, and yet the way I was playing with Mike had nothing to do with that. Also, we had the problem immediately of an electric rhythm section—and a loud one. Jack and Chris and I—and sometimes two pianos and percussion— that was a heavy rhythm section. Putting the electric rock rhythm section with a big band was uncharted territory then. There are plenty of bands doing it now. The actual scoring was very adventurous too, so people were really cast adrift and that was the excitement of it. The music was hard to play and yet the end result was glorious. Sometimes you can have hard music to play and you can think, “Well, yes it was hard but we’ve done it,” and you’re proud of yourself and of all the guys, but the end result is slightly less than magic because the actual music itself is not so wonderful. It was a time when there was a lot of energy here and a lot of enthusiasm—it was a magic time.
HL: Did Mike write particular drum charts for you or did he give you a lot of freedom?
JM: No, they were pretty loose. He’d just sometimes say, “I want…” and just move his hands around. It just kind of took care of itself.
HL: Did you have to adjust in any way to deal with the loud rhythm section?
JM: I found it a very easy adjustment. Maybe people have a comfortable level of playing—I found that no problem. I don’t know what it sounded like from the front; it’s quite possible that I wasn’t audible!
HL: Did you use a PA?
JM: Not on the drums. No, everyone just worried that you couldn’t hear the saxophones or the trumpets.
HL: Do you find that practice is an ongoing process?
JM: Well, it’s an ongoing problem—I don’t do enough!
HL: Do you practice the same things now that you used to?
JM: Yes, and I get the same things wrong. Charlie Mariano once said to me that, in a sense, you always have the same problems. Round about the age of twenty, I think things crystallize a bit. In one sense, that’s as good as it’s going to get. Your style is set then and what you do later is to fill in the details. You don’t necessarily improve it. Just sometimes maybe the original statement was better. You can hear people’s recordings and think, “Well I really like that,” but ten years later you can think, “Well, what he’s doing now doesn’t really have that thing about it,” and yet it’s the same person and he’s been developing, playing with different people. Some people can get it together when they’re 16 and then maybe nothing much else happens. Other people get it together at 16 and then carry on forever. There are just some amazing people around. I don’t know what other people do for practice; I can’t remember ever discussing it with anyone else. There are two sorts of practice, aren’t there? There’s one which is muscular—if you play the drums you need some kind of flexibility in your muscles—which, as you get older, you have to do more of because you lose the prime quicker, and also the more developed your technique the quicker it decays. I find my pattern of work tends to be in blocks. I go on tour and then have nothing very strenuous in between. So my chops are best when I come back from tour, when I’ve got nothing to play. But that’ll decay quite quickly, so when I’ve got some work, I have to do some very basic practice just to revive the muscles, as it were. The other type of practice would be the musical side of it; I tend to leave that to playing. Playing drums in abstract on your own seems to be a totally different experience from even playing solos when there are other people on the stage and when there’s an audience. It seems to bear no relation to sitting alone in a room and playing a solo. For me, no amount of practice in abstract seems to do the job as much as playing. For instance, when I was doing the clinics, those clinics used to go on for a couple of hours, and the first two were murder because although I used to practice, you don’t sit in front of a load of drummers without doing some work on it beforehand, unless you have a level of sensitivity which I envy. My hands didn’t get loose until the third or fourth clinic. Funny enough, the clinics were just like gigs—the first one you actually get through because it’s just adrenalin. It’s the second one that’s hard because you’ve relaxed and you find you haven’t quite got the momentum to take you over your purely muscular inadequacies. But by the third or fourth everything is running smoothly and not in the same way as if I’d done practice at home or in a studio or something.
HL: Do you think that’s because you had a specific goal?
JM: Yes. You play harder. You don’t get the concentration or feedback without an audience.
HL: How did you approach those clinics? Did you have a format in mind?
JM: Yes. The way I like to work generally is that I like a framework, but I like details left for the night. I don’t like the frame work left completely open because—maybe it’s the reason I like to work with composers a lot—I like to work within an overall shape. Some people like to work totally open-ended and they do it fantasti cally well, but I find I can’t do it. I feel uncomfortable. I don’t know whether it’s got to be this high a level or this low—I need to know that, so that the level of intensity of any one passage has the right relationship to the whole thing. Clinics are strange things anyway. Most importantly you’re faced with the problem of what a clinic is for. The main purpose is to demonstrate the drums, but also they have some sort of educational value, and you have to work at a level which involves people of all sorts of ages, abilities and interests. What you say has to be at the same time very basic and yet not boring. That’s an interesting problem to solve, and on a few clinics I’ve been to, quite frankly, they don’t solve it. This is no criticism because it’s quite a difficult number to do. What I decided to do was to talk about this problem of rudiments, or whether you should ignore them totally, and a brief resume of how I approach technique. Then the second part would be a practical demonstration of what I get into—a little bit on how to handle time signatures—and for me the most interesting part, which was treating the drums not necessarily just as a supplier of standard rhythms but as a sound source, using gongs, etc. It seemed to work out all right.
HL: How do you approach technique?
JM: From a totally practical point of view—i.e., what’s the problem? In defin ing the problem you usually find the answer suggests itself. So much nonsense has been talked about technique that just asking a few questions clears the way an awful lot. This whole business about rudiments is a sort of a non-problem.
HL: Would you advise the young drummer to get, say, singles and doubles together?
JM: All you have to remember is what the rudiments are. If you know what they are, you can work as much as you like on them. All they are is a formulation of the basic ways of hitting a drum, and formulated in a certain way in certain patterns which were useful to certain people at a certain time, i.e. military drummers. Now, what you have to decide is whether the qualities which have been exhibited in each rudiment are what you need. It sounds simple, but it’s not always quite so simple to sort out. But you should remember that the rudiments were originally designed for playing on one surface—snare drum—and also they have the aim of looking good and having to be balanced, so they always tend towards the hand-to-hand. Now, that’s not always what you want if you’re playing a set of drums. You don’t always want to play hand-to-hand, so you either choose one of the rudimental patterns or adapt it so that it does what you want.
HL: So that’s one way of saying that the rudiments are to the drummer what scales are to the pianist, and you wouldn’t expect to hear a pianist playing scales all night?
JM: You do on some jazz gigs, [laughs] Saxophone players more than pianists!
HL: Do you think it’s taste that defines a great drummer, or that it’s knowing where to use the rudiments that counts?
JM: Really, that’s intruding rudiments into the question. You don’t have to do that. The rudiments are there just to give you facility. The idea is that you play and react to other people, and there are fantastic drummers around who don’t even know what a paradiddle is. There’s no reason why they should. It just so happens that for a lot of people, having things put out in a systematic way helps to sort out the wood from the trees. As in all things, if you have a system, the system starts to get in the way if you’re not careful. I have a feeling that the sort of people who are good players are not bothered by that. They just get on with it. But I must say it took me a long time to sort that out. I was taught in a non-rudimental way, at a time when the god was independence, like “ding-ding-a-ding” with variations on the left hand. Although it’s independence, in a certain way, it’s not! You only had to find that out by switching your hands and you found you couldn’t immediately do it! I was aware of rudiments as things in books—okay, if you’re a drummer you’re supposed to do a paradiddle, I often used to think—but I never play paradiddles. The person who gave me an insight into it was Philly Joe Jones. When he was living in London he was teaching and I went along for lessons. He was a drummer who I only knew from records and who I never associated with rudimental playing at all, but he hardly moved without a rudiment. I was just amazed. Things fell into place. Not all at once, but I realized that the rudiments were relevant to playing and I worked out my own way of seeing how that was. What they allow you to do is to play accents against a background of beats and they allow you to change your lead stick. If you think about it, that’s really all you need to be able to do. It’s still hard, but, in principle, that’s it. You need to be able to play off with either hand in any way. It’s not just rudiments, it’s a development of the rudiments.
HL: You use matched grip, don’t you?
JM: Yes, I always have. There has been a tradition of matched grip playing in England for a long time. Quite a lot of the established players were already using it when I was first learning. Of all those players, two who most influenced me in this matter, as well as many others, were Phil Seamen and Ronnie Stephenson. When I think how unfashionable it was in those days—especially as all the name American drummers used traditional grip—I can only admire their individuality all the more.
HL: Do you think it’s easier to lead off with either hand using matched grip than with traditional grip?
JM: Yes. I think that argument’s over now, isn’t it? In the end, it doesn’t matter. There are players around who are playing both styles, so there’s no way of saying that one is necessarily better than the other. In certain practical things, the matched grip is better, and it’s also logically better. I had to hold on to that, because in the early days there were an awful lot of people using matched grip who were thinking maybe they were wrong, because all the leading names were playing traditional. And now it’s very strange, because I get people coming up to me and saying, “I’ve got this terrible problem: I play traditional grip.”
HL: As a musician now, do you consider yourself attached to any particular “label”?
JM: Musically? No, I don’t feel connected to anything. Put it this way: I’m equally skeptical about either side, I don’t like being too much in the mainstream of either.
HL: Who were your early influences?
JM: The very first ones were Ted Heath’s Band, Ronnie Verrell, I think the only British drummer I’ve never met. I was absolutely enthralled by him as a player. I still listen to some of those old 78’s—excellent. Then I moved on to small group stuff. I was lucky to have the chance of listening to a lot of very good drummers working in London, but if I had to pick one it would be Phil—a wonderful player, and a great wit. I was, of course, listening to a lot of American music on record and in particular Miles Davis’ various groups. No one has ever matched his ability to assemble such innovative, dynamic groups, always featuring the best drummers. My taste went through small groups and got up to Miles Davis. And I was overwhelmed on hearing Charlie Mingus’ band on the radio, taped from Antibes.
HL: That was Dannie Richmond?
JM: Yes. That was a big turn-around, because that was a time when it was only respectable to be playing like Miles, and the version of it in England was a very “cool” version. It wasn’t quite as fiery as the real thing. And I was totally turned around by that. Then I was also knocked out with Ornette.
HL: Was that with Eddie Blackwell?
JM: No, even before that. The first record with Shelly Manne and Red Mitchell. That was while I was at the university. Immediately after that was with Billy Higgins.
HL: Did you ever get into Elvin Jones/John Coltrane?
JM: Oh yes, sure. They did a concert here in Hammersmith and I didn’t know what was going on, all I knew was I liked it. I sat right at the back where the sound was awful— very indistinct—but the experience somehow got through.
HL: And the modern drummers? Jack DeJohnette?
JM: Well, that was the same period. He was with Charles Lloyd’s band, with Keith Jarrett and Cecil McBee. The first record of Charles Lloyd I heard was with Tony Williams, who is one of my absolute favorites. There’s something deeply radical about his playing which I love. And I heard Jack DeJohnette on a tape and thought, wow! Then you get to the point where you’re kind of just liking everybody. I don’t like saying names any more, because you leave people out. Like we’ve somehow missed Roy Haynes! Yes, and Max and Blakey. People say they have favorites, but in the end, really anybody who plays good, you like. Especially at that stage, you’re trying to soak up things and there are all these people coming up playing interesting things.
HL: It was sort of melting-pot time, wasn’t it? Really opening up.
JM: Yes. Well, it was opening up because the bebop way of playing suddenly wasn’t enough. They’d done it all, these amazingly talented people. They’d been doing it, so people were looking round for some thing else to do, you know, “We can’t match what they’re doing, so let’s look for something else.” So that’s when it all started to go into the free thing and the rock thing. They were the two main areas.
HL: So how important was Nucleus then? It must have been a fairly new thing.
JM: Well it was. We got a lot of flak from other musicians, saying it was commercial and all that. Laughable, if they knew what we were earning! I don’t know how important it was. I suppose as a group, Nucleus perhaps didn’t have much influence, but the group that did have influence was Soft Machine, in Europe. We in Nucleus were hardly aware of them; we’d heard the name and we’d met some of them with Keith Tippett’s Centipede, the big band thing, in Bordeaux. Nucleus opened, and Chris Spedding and I were the only two from Nucleus not involved in Centipede. But Robert Wyatt and Elton Dean were there. Round about the same time Soft Machine were at Ronnie’s and I remember seeing them and thinking they were in the same sort of area as we were but from the other side, if you like.
HL: With Soft Machine you were using a PA. How much control did you have over that?
JM: Well, actually, you don’t have any control over the PA, do you? You’re totally in the hands of the sound engineer. For a long period with Softs we were lucky—we had a very good guy, Mike Heanley. I still don’t know what the band sounded like, to this day. How would I know, sitting behind the sound? One thing you do learn with experience though: some places you can never sound good; they’d defeat anybody.
HL: Do you think it changes the sound of the drums, coming through a PA?
JM: Well, I don’t know whether I was right, but I used to insist that I kept the drums much ringier than they ever liked, and I am now quite prepared to believe that it sounded terrible! I have this habit of learning things a bit too late. I react against orthodoxies; sometimes the orthodoxy can be right, but I react against it. At that time, if you had miked-up drums in a studio it always had that horrible, dull, flat sound and I just didn’t want that, so I insisted that the drums stayed as if there were no mic’s.
HL: Is this because of your jazz background?
JM: Yes, I think so. It’s funny, maybe when I’m in a rock context I accentuate my jazz elements a bit, and when I’m in a jazz context I accentuate the rock elements.
HL: Do you think it’s easier to come from the jazz side into rock than the other way around?
JM: Yes, I think so, because that’s what happened. If you want to talk about well known
drummers, I can’t at the moment think of a rock drummer who’s gone on to become a big name on the jazz scene—assuming there’s a jazz scene to be a big name on! When you think of some of the big names in rock drumming—Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd—I think they started as jazz drummers. But I can’t think of any that went the other way. Most jazz drummers can play in a way that’s recognizably rock, like Jack DeJohnette or Tony Williams. They’re not pure rock ‘n’ roll drum mers, but the way they play has obviously been influenced by rock. Whereas I can’t think of any rock drummers who can play a genuinely jazz style. In fact, when I hear them I think they’re playing more in a swing style. It’s strange for me, after I’ve been trying to get away from playing that sort of thing, to find younger people playing a style I consider to be very old-fashioned.
HL: Would you agree then that when you were playing with Soft Machine the public became more aware of you as a musician?
HL: That being so, did it change your attitude towards playing?
JM: I found it very liberating. It was nice to find that what you were playing was appreciated more. I didn’t change particularly. I was playing the same sort of style and suddenly people were enjoying it. In that situation you’re given a lot of confidence, and playing in that sort of context there is a much wider scope. The things you can do in concerts and bigger places, the range of music you play, is bigger—you have longer to play and you’re not stuck to a particular type of music. That’s one of the nice things about the so-called “rock” circuit. The public is open to a much wider spectrum of music; they’re not worried about whether it’s “pure.” There are people who sit in a jazz club and say, “But is this really real jazz?” Awful!
HL: How did you approach the music of Soft Machine?
JM: Well, the problem was that the band was at a very low ebb. There had been a lot of internal bickering and a lot of disagreement over the way the music should go, and in a sense the band could have finished there. This is what they told me afterwards. I was with Jack Bruce’s band, which was Chris Spedding, Graham Bond and Art Themen, and I learned a lot from that. It was quite a short-lived band. Jack, Chris and I worked with Larry Coryell and Graham and various people. The beginning of that year, I forget the exact date, we made “Harmony Row” and during that year we did some festivals on the continent with the group with Larry Coryell, which was great, and we played at Ronnie’s. Then Jack formed the band and we did some tours and then it folded. The day it folded I was asked to play with Softs, which was very nice. I didn’t know what to think about Soft Machine. I didn’t know much about them in a sense, so I just decided that the only way I could do it was to approach it the way I would any band: “It starts today.” I wasn’t interested in the history of the band, and in fact I never listened to any of their earlier records or any thing. And, depending who you were, that was either Soft Machine picking up again, or finally being ruined forever! Both opinions exist, but never in the same person!
HL: Who did the writing?
JM: At that time it was Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean. When Karl Jenkins joined it was split pretty equally between him and Mike. When Alan Holdsworth joined we jettisoned all the old music and played only new material. When Alan left we kept guitar (John Elleridge) but Karl stopped playing saxes and oboe and concentrated on keyboards and writing. After Mike left we got a violin. We didn’t want to go back to two keyboards you know. The band had a lot of financial problems, which had actually been inherited—it’s a long, boring story. So that took us in terms of albums up to Live in Paris. Then we decided not to go on the road for a while, and then we got a chance of another album. Soft Machine at the moment is Karl and me! The idea is that we put things together as they come up. We’ve abandoned, for a while, the idea of a regular touring band, because it’s just not practical. For the last album, Land of Cockayne, we had Jack Bruce, Alan Holdsworth, Ray Warleigh, Dick Morrissey and John Taylor.
HL: Were you using a lot of percussion at that time?
JM: Yes. In a sense, that’s what I miss, because just practical considerations mean that working with a big band you haven’t got a limit on what you can take on the road. From that point of view, percussion’s very inefficient—if you want a new sound, you have to carry round a great lump of iron or something. I’ve got quite a lot of gongs and things. It wasn’t only a practical thing, of course; there has to be a context in which to use it. The range of mu sic played by a band like Softs gives you the opportunity to experiment with different textures and sounds. Subsequently, playing with Colours, it’s not been a practical thing to do. The gongs would have been nice with that band but it’s a question of budget. I miss that a lot.
HL: From your point of view, drums are a “sound source” too?
JM: Yes. In the sense of using them as a way of texturizing and shading as well as a rhythmic source.
HL: Can you explain how you approach playing percussion?
JM: You have to be very careful. What you find as a new departure can suddenly become an orthodox thing. There was this whole thing about having Brazilian-style percussion. I’ll run a mile to avoid that now, because it became a cliche—a cliché as a thing and a cliche within itself. You’d go along to hear a band and there’d be a guy whose principle was, “Never hit the same thing twice in an evening.” It’s like all these things become sort of self-perpetuating. And if you start playing gongs, etc., at what point does that become a routine? This is one of the difficult things in the area of anything approaching free playing—when is it spontaneous and when routine? This is the hardest problem of all for the improvising player. If you have a good night and play the “perfect” gig, what do you do the next night? If you’re that concerned with the music, surely you should repeat it? But you can’t. To repeat it, suddenly you’re not improvising. That’s a difficult dilemma. Some people solve it by deliberately not playing something—”That worked well last night; we’re not going to play it tonight”—tough luck on the audience.
HL: What drums are you using now?
JM: I’m using Sonor. For a lot of things I use a small set—18″ bass drum, 12″, 13″, 14″, 16″ tom-toms, double-headed. For anything bigger I’d have a similar set-up except with a 22″ bass drum. And I’d add some tom-toms, a 10″ and 18″ perhaps. I have a 20″ bass drum set up like a tom-tom where the pedal beats the bottom head and you can play the top head with sticks. This drum is to get over the problem of being able to use a bass drum while playing the gongs and percussion which I have behind me. I thought that if I was to have another bass drum behind me, I may as well use it as a tom-tom too. Sonor was making this type of bass drum for Daniel Humair and the Sonor bass drum pedal adapts very easily to an upward action.
HL: What about heads?
JM: I quite like Ambassador CS— that seems to be a nice compromise between a lot of response and not too much ring. Otherwise I might use just straightforward Ambassadors. And sometimes, for studio sound, Pinstripes.
HL: You tune your heads fairly tight. Is that for bounce?
JM: Largely. And the sound is one I’ve grown up with. I like the sticks to be able to move fast. The way I play depends on that. If it’s a “commercial” session, I have them looser, because that’s required. Again, I’m in the middle—I don’t have them as tight as jazz drummers and not as loose as rock drummers. That’s why I use a large range of tom-toms. And the floor tom-toms are much lower than a jazz drummer would normally have them. That big fat tom-tom sound is a really nice sound.
HL: Do you have a particular sound for your snare drum in your head or do you just tune it till it “feels” right?
JM: I like it crisp but with a lot of middle in it. That’s all I can say. What strikes me is that you don’t have much choice. The drum itself determines an awful lot. The difference in sound of one particular model of drum is amazing. It has to be crisp, which means I have a tight bottom head, and that determines what I do with the top head to get that same crisp sound. I go for crispness more than anything else. Why I go for a deeper snare drum is that I can avoid lack of body when the heads are tight.
HL: What depth of snare are you using?
JM: I largely use a Sonor Signature, which is 8 1/2″. I often use a 5 3/4″ wood-shell too. But that is a little bit toppier.
HL: Do you use any particular cymbal setup?
JM: Yes. I change it of course. I have always used Paiste. If I’m working in a jazz context I use a thin 22″ Paiste 602, which does not have a pure clean sound—it’s a much more ambiguous sound, being a thin cymbal. If I’m working with an electric band, then I use a Dark Ride. The others I use are some Sound Creations and some 20025 and I mix them around according to volume and texture. The Dark Ride I find seems to be a bit too strong for some jazz groups; it’s too insistent. Whereas the thinner sound has more spread and overtones—more the sound associated with a K. Zildjian—although that’s another orthodox thing I try to avoid. Sometimes you have to think about how other people feel. You can get what sounds like a great sound on the drums or cymbals, but for the music really to be good, it’s got to match how other people sound as well.
HL: What about hi-hat cymbals?
JM: I use 14″ Sound Creation, Sound Edge. Sometimes I use a pair of 13″ in the studio, sometimes I use a pair of heavy 13″, really loud.
HL: Sonor hardware?
JM: Yes, basically. Their bass drum pedal is marvelous. The standard split-pedal one—it’s very adjustable. I like a strong spring and a long action.
HL: Are you an endorsee at the moment?
JM: Yes, for Sonor. I don’t know what the position is at the moment with Sonor. They don’t have a wholesaler here any more and they’re not doing any promotion. The drums I had with Soft Machine I’ve had on the road for about six years. Amazingly well-built.
HL: Who are you working with now?
JM: For the last four years I’ve been working with Colours—Eberhard Weber, Charlie Mariano, Rainer Bruninghaus—plus other things. At the moment the band’s in wraps. The problem is that we’ve run out of new places to play. They want a rest—I’d better say we’re on a sabbatical. One of the hardest things, and this came up a lot with Colours, is not copying someone else. For instance, playing with Colours is playing with three very strong players, who, particularly with Eberhard and Rainer, are not interested in what you might call the “normal” way of playing. Sometimes it gets so busy it’s impossible! Sometimes you think, “Oh what are we doing?” You’d realize that it’s a good way of playing but you don’t get the positive feedback; you’re not always sure that it’s right. If you want to play in an established style, you know whether it’s right or not—you know the problems could be solved. But if it’s not established, then what do you do?
HL: Are you aiming to steer away from orthodoxy?
JM: Yes, but I’m not making any claims to being radical, because I’m not. I’ll go along with the overall style but I reserve the right to play what I like within that style. The problem comes when the style becomes too rigid, too formalized. That’s what happens all the time to music. Someone comes up with a good idea, then everyone thinks it’s a good idea. It becomes an orthodox “by numbers” type of playing. You remember when we first heard funky things? Marvelous! Now it’s a competition— who can be funkiest? If it’s a competition, everyone must be playing the same kind of music. This kind of attitude produces great players but poor music.
HL: Do you structure your solos at all?
JM: No. Just use whatever’s going on as a launching pad, and develop the solo in terms of textures and moods in differing relationships to the overall context. Given the choice—it’s not always appropriate—I prefer this approach to the “orthodox” way of soloing, like for instance elaboration of the rhythmic line. Ideally I would have been doing that kind of playing with the ensemble or soloist. In one sense I think that drumming’s advanced a lot. People are technically better and have a wider range. There’s more music around. And they’re more aware of the sounds. All that is better. But the actual way they’re playing time has, to me, regressed. They seem now to have gone back to the attitude, “You just play this set pattern behind what’s going on out front.” In a lot of cases there doesn’t seem to be a real kind of interaction going on, which at one point seemed to be the object: to emancipate the drums. In a sense I feel that the ground that was made in the late ’60s and ’70s maybe has been passed over; the drums have gone back to an accompanying role. It just so happens that maybe it’s more interesting to play that role than it used to be, but I think essentially what you get in a lot of cases now is a rhythm section playing a series of patterns and a solo going over the top and you could take either away and nothing much would happen.
HL: Do you think that odd time signatures are more easily accepted now?
JM: Yes they are. At one time people were saying, “Look at us, we’re playing in 13/8. Now odd time signatures are used because they are musically appropriate—for their “flavor” if you like.
HL: Do you think that people like Steve Gadd and John Guerin are good barometers for young people to look to?
JM: They are barometers in the sense that they are the people whom young people are following. The barometer shows perhaps how the scene has changed. In the past young drummers would identify with people they saw live. Now it’s the studio drum mers that people emulate. I’m not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing. I think studio playing is very different from live playing.
HL: Would you say, then, that you’ve got a “philosophy” at all?
JM: Well, “philosophy” may be too grand a word. It’s like a lot of activities—you set the ground rules and try to find your own way of shining within them. Whatever I say about the drums being prominent, they’re still an accompanying instrument. It’s easy to totally dominate something and it’s easy to totally efface yourself. I can do either quite easily! The problem is to play with people in a way which allows them to go with the greatest freedom in any direction they want while not compromising your own identity—a strong inter-reaction equal relationship. The musicians required for this situation are of a special kind. I’m lucky to know quite a few of them. The thing that gives me the greatest pleasure is when there’s a kind of groove—of whatever kind—within the band and everyone knows when it’s on, and the people you’re playing with are playing so ridiculously well, and you realize you’re not stopping them doing it!