Alex Cooper

People think of Katrina & The Waves, and in their minds, no doubt, they see a future star in Katrina Leskanich, and a young, exciting band whose best work is yet to be heard. The band has already proven itself worthy of critical praise and attention—”Walking On Sunshine” is destined to become a classic—and the album from which it came, Katrina And The Waves, deserves almost as much acclaim. You can listen to the record, and you can like it very much, but you can’t help feeling that the band’s potential is greater than its present accomplishments. And that is precisely what Katrina and the boys in the band hope will happen. “No point in peaking too quick in this business,” laughs Katrina backstage at a concert when approached with this very idea.

Katrina is 25 years old. Drummer Alex Cooper, however, is 34. That’s a big enough difference in rock ‘n’ roll to assume that Cooper has some very different ideas about rock from what Katrina feels. And he does. He’s got some ten years’ worth of serious playing under his belt and remembers the ’60s quite vividly. It’s that blend of youth and experience that is one of Katrina & The Waves’ keys to success.

“I think it’s a perfect mixture,” says Cooper. “I’m a bit older than she is, but I’m certainly not over the hill. I grew up in a different period than she did. That’s particularly valuable, because I, as well as Kimberley Rew [guitar], bring into the group different rock ‘n’ roll influences and experiences, which, when coupled with hers, makes for a fairly interesting musical situation.”

Alex Cooper, as it turns out, is one interesting drummer to speak with, not because his track record is a mile long. It isn’t. But because he’s wonderfully articulate, quite certain of his likes and dislikes when it comes to music and drums in particular, isn’t afraid to admit and discuss his weaknesses and wishes, and doesn’t hesitate to voice an opinion when one is requested of him. Spending an afternoon and evening with Cooper proved quite rewarding. He is a vivacious, energetic, eager drummer; he likes to think drums, talk drums, and play drums. On stage, his personality traits are accurately reflected in his drumming.

“I think that’s the way it ought to be. Don’t you think so? If nothing else, it proves that I’m being true to my artistic and creative self,” he says.

Despite the fact Cooper has yet to become a “name” drummer or one instantly recognizable by a particular sound or style, what he had to say in our chat sounds like it came from someone far more used to this interviewing business than he actually is. In short, Alex Cooper is a drummer to keep an eye and ear out for. He’s only begun to make his mark, and if my hunch is correct, by the time he’s finished, it will be a big mark indeed.

RS: Why don’t we begin by talking about how you came to meet Katrina?

AC: The story really starts when Kimberley Rew and I were at Cambridge University together. In the beginning, we each played in a different band. But in 1975, he and I hooked up in a band that we called The Waves. That lasted a few years before he went off and joined the Soft Boys. After that, I did some free-lance studio work in the Cambridge area. Then in 1979, I made the decision to get a permanent band together again. I heard that there was a great girl singer at one of the U.S. Air Force bases near Cambridge. It turned out to be Katrina. She brought her friend, Vinny De La Cruz, along when we met. He played guitar in those days. The three of us hit it off. We found a bass player and played around for about 18 months, mostly doing cover material for G.I.’s. Suddenly, in 1981, Kimberley phoned me up out of the blue and said, “What are you doing?” So I informed him that he was going to come back and play with me again, which he did. We parted ways with the old bass player, and Vinny switched over to bass. Kimberley, of course, played guitar. And that’s pretty much how we got together.

RS: What were you studying at Cambridge? Was it music?

AC: I studied history with the intention of doing absolutely nothing with it. It was just a way that one finished one’s education. I wanted to be a professional cricket player for most of my life. But a back injury and a realization that my ability to play the game was limited convinced me that I really had no future in the game. I actually took my drums to Cambridge to sell them. I hadn’t played drums for quite a long time at that point. I got my first kit when I was 16. I always liked music, but I never took it very seriously. There were always instruments around the house.

RS: Why did you settle on the drums?

AC: I really don’t know. My parents tell me that, when I was still in a pram [carriage] , I used to insist on banging a wooden spoon on a metal tray vaguely in time with the marching band outside my window. My father, you see, was in the Royal Navy. So I guess I had an urge to hit things from an early age.

RS: Is it fair to say that music was always secondary to cricket and sports as a youth, despite your interest in wooden spoons and metal trays?

AC: When I was 16, I had a strange experience. I went to the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, where I was examined in many different ways. In the end, they asked me what I wanted to be, even though they were going to tell me what I was going to be. I remember writing down professional cricketer or drummer. The gentleman there thought that was totally impracticable, so he advised me to go into advertising. But I think music was always something I considered. It has always been somewhat of a passion. I mean, I can remember Bill Haley vividly; my sister is 11 years older than me, and she was very much into Bill Haley. I can remember singing “See You Later, Alligator” and “Rock Around The Clock” to people when I was four years old. So I was aware of music, particularly rock ‘n’ roll, even back then.

RS: You obviously did much of your growing up in the ’60s since, I believe, you’re 34 years old. Do you recall any early drumming influences from that decade?

AC: My first favorite group was The Shadows. I wasn’t conscious of their drummer until a few years later. It was then that I heard a long drum solo by Brian Bennett, who was The Shadows’ second drummer, and I thought, “My God, that’s incredible!” And then, from reading one or two interviews with Bennett, I learned about Buddy Rich. So, to try to answer your question, I wasn’t initially conscious of wanting to be a drummer just before I got my first drumkit.

RS: Did you get your drumset as a gift?

AC: No, actually I had saved up some money by doing various little jobs on my father’s farm. I saved around 35 pounds, and then my father and I went to the music shop. I can kill myself now every time I think of it. There was an old Radio King Slingerland kit for 20 pounds sitting in that shop. But I thought the bass drum, which was 26″, was a bit big. I didn’t go for that. So I bought an Ajax kit, which was fine. But when I think back! I could have had a whole white Radio King kit. I wonder who got it.

RS: Let’s jump to the present for a bit. What is your role in Katrina & The Waves, apart from that of drummer? What I’m interested in is how much musical say you have in terms of what goes onto the records you make.

AC: I’m the one who, as of yet, has not written a song that the band performs. I’m really the producer as much as anything else. We produce our own stuff; at least we have up to now. We’ve always worked with the same engineer—Pat Collier—who is sort of co-producer as well. If anything, I suppose I’m the guy who is the rudest about someone else’s song. I’m the one usually to say if it’s not working out, or I’m the one who is the most dogmatic about whether a song is good or not. I think that’s really my greatest contribution to the band, apart, of course, from playing the drums.

RS: Has your outlook on the band changed any since your success here in the States?

AC: No, it hasn’t changed at all. I’ve always had a very clear image in my mind of the band: the way we sound and the way things should develop. I’ve always also had a very clear understanding of the band’s capabilities and qualities. When we first started, I was the only one in the band who had a house. So I was the one who put that at risk with a second mortgage to keep the band afloat. The Waves is a group that I’ve believed in from the beginning. It doesn’t surprise me that we’ve experienced success. But what does surprise me—even astonishes me—is that we’re having it so quickly. At the same time, I’m intensely realistic: We are right at the bottom of the ladder. I mean, we have but one foot on the bottom rung. We’ve got an awful long way to go to be established in any way. I sometimes think, “Well, if it’s happening with the first album, what’s it going to be like in three or four albums’ time?” If there’s one thing we have a huge abundance of, it’s original material.

RS: There’s a blend of English and American in The Waves. Does that have any influence on the type of music you record?

AC: I suppose it must have. Kimberley and I, both being about the same age and both being brought up on original American rock ‘n’ roll, relate very much to that form of music, whereas Vince and Katrina are a bit younger than us by about eight years or so. What they were able to bring to us was music from a period that Kimberley and I were almost totally unaware of.

RS: And which was that?

AC: Well, it was music by The Eagles, Heart, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and ZZ Top. These bands and artists didn’t cross over very strongly in England in the mid-’70s. A lot of the music by these groups is what we played on the air force bases when we first started out. What Kimberley and I brought to the soldiers who came to hear us play was an American rock ‘n’ roll that many of them were not aware of, because they were much younger than us, too. But they really got into it.

RS: Was your drumming style influenced by, say, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and that whole L.A. rock scene?

AC: I think it was for a time, but I very rapidly resorted back to what my drumming style had always been.

RS: And how would you describe that style?

AC: I consider myself out of the Keith Moon-Ringo Starr, thrash-it-hard-and-keep-it-simple school of drumming. Now Keith Moon, of course, wasn’t that simple, but he certainly played hard. Funny enough, a friend was asking the other day how the band arrived at the style of playing that’s found on our debut album. Well, it’s the only way we can sound, given our backgrounds.

RS: How long did the group play air force bases in England?

AC: We did two and a half years of touring both American and English bases. We played with tiny amplifiers, no mic’s for the drums—nothing. Actually, there was no mic’ amplification for anything except the vocals, which, interestingly enough, is exactly the way the bands in the ’50s and ’60s played. So we all devised a way of playing to audiences of up to one thousand people—without amplification in terms of anything more than our amps. My style of drumming ended up being almost a carbon copy of what was going on in the ’60s. I realized that afterwards, though. In the recording studio, I realized one day that I was filling up the whole bottom end with lots of bass drum. I’d play straight fours and eights on the bass drum. On a lot of the early pop records, that’s how the bass drum was played. There was also like a wash of cymbals, too.

RS: When you went into the studio for the very first time, how did you adjust your bass drum style to fit the band’s needs, now that there was amplification for your drumset?

AC: It was a matter of becoming very disciplined. It was very difficult. There’s an album that we recorded with our own money that ended up only being released in Canada. Well, that album has me playing bass drum in the ’60s manner. I couldn’t control it. It really took me a long time to get it under control.

RS: Do you enjoy studio work more than playing live?

AC: I don’t really enjoy studio work; I’m one of those musicians who, when put in an artificial, controlled environment, which is what you find in a recording studio, has problems relaxing and really doing it. Now, if I could relax, I think the results could be much better. I do really prefer playing drums live. When we, as a band, have problems in the studio—and I think every band does at some point—it’s because we’re trying to get what we do and the way we sound live on the tape. That’s always a challenge, and it’s a problem that a lot of the old bands used to have. I think it’s this problem that led to the development of session players. Live pop bands in the ’60s couldn’t play well in the studio, because they could only play live.

RS: Are there any particular songs that the group does in which you feel your drumming is quite representative of your style?

AC: I like my drumming on “Machine Gun Smith.” Actually, there’s a track I like even more that isn’t even on the first album. It’s on the record that was only released in Canada called, by the way, Walking On Sunshine. The song from it is called “Spiderman.” I’m personally rather proud of the drum pattern that I devised for that tune. I haven’t heard anyone else play that pattern, so it’s sort of special to me.

RS: Could you describe what you do on the song?

AC: Well, instead of playing standard 8ths on the hi-hat and offbeats on the snare drum, I played 8ths on the snare and tom-tom the whole time and just rode the whole thing through on that. I don’t think that’s a very common technique. I’m also quite happy with the drum pattern heard on “Going Down To Liverpool.” It’s very sparse, and I like that sort of thing.

RS: Being, as you say, a drummer who’s not easily relaxed in the recording studio, do you find it difficult to listen back to what you record?

AC: Oh, absolutely. To be quite honest, I’m actually very embarrassed about listening to myself back in the control room. I’m very critical of myself, and I have a difficult time accepting myself as a professional drummer.

RS: Why is that?

AC: Well, in my time of learning how to play the instrument, there were fabulous, incredible players around who were such natural players. And there’s no way I can ever consider approaching them.

RS: But don’t you think there are technically competent drummers as well as drummers who simply drum?

AC: Absolutely. And that’s what I learned over the years. Some of my favorite drum sounds on record are the most primitive. The drum sound, for instance, in “Let There Be Drums” by Sandy Nelson is fabulous. And why, oh why can’t we get that drum sound today? It’s a fabulous drum sound, and it’s great playing. I love Ringo Starr’s playing. I think he’s such an original player. I don’t have any idea of how he thought of the drum patterns for some of The Beatles’ songs. On some of them, he just really sounds great. And yet, Ringo has had a bad rap, hasn’t he?

RS: For years, when people wanted to say something negative about Ringo, they’d inevitably point towards his drum playing. But I think the revisionist theory is one like yours, and I certainly ascribe to it, namely, that he was an excellent drummer and deserves much more respect than he’s gotten in the past.

AC: Everyone loved The Beatles’ songs, and it’s a fact that you can’t enjoy a song—truly enjoy a song—if the drumming on it is bad. It’s the same with Charlie Watts. I mean, he’s an incredibly versatile player. He’s had to deal with all sorts of styles with The Stones, and it’s always been there. Keith Moon’s playing on the album Live At Leeds is just unbelievable. I know I tried numerous times to figure out what it is he’s playing on that record, but I don’t have any idea. I just know that it sounds great. And then I’m quite capable of being blown away at a Buddy Rich concert.

RS: You’ve been trying out a drumset made by Tryan, a West German company. What are your feelings about them?

AC: Well, it’s a small factory outside Munich, where the drums are made. And they’re small enough to come up to me and say, “Come and have a look at our drums and how they’re made. If you like them, we’ll make up a kit for you to take on the road and see how you get on with them.” So I did just that. I went to the factory and had a look. They make their drums not out of plywood, but out of solid wood—strips of wood from top to bottom that are batted together in the round. They then glue them and lathe the drum. They use different sorts of woods—largely maple, but they also use cherry. They tried oak but weren’t happy with the results. Mine is a maple kit. I’ve always used small drums; the biggest kit I ever had was a Ludwig Super Classic, which I’ve still got. That has a 22″ bass drum, and 12″, 13″, 14″, and 16″ tom-toms. This kit from Tryan has 10″ and 13″ toms. I love 13×9 toms! I don’t know why, but it’s the one tom-tom I really love. I also have a 14″ floor tom and a 20″ bass drum. Tryan gave me a 14″ wood snare drum that has a classic, modern-day, LinnDrum-type, sound. I also use an old brass-shell Ludwig, too. I love that snare drum. It’s bent and bashed, but it sounds great.

Cymbals are a bit of a mixture. I use Zildjian, Paiste, and Profile cymbals. Essentially, I try to keep my kit small, because I never understood why you needed big drums and all sorts of cymbals around you. Small drums sound big and meaty in the recording studio, and I’ve always used them live. No one has ever complained that the drums weren’t loud enough. Finally, it’s an awful lot easier and cheaper to carry around a small kit. At least, that’s always been my thinking.

RS: Do you ever incorporate any electronic drums into your playing?

AC: I’ve tried using a box that fired off a chip which had a bass drum sound on it. I had it taped on my bass drum head to reinforce the bass drum sound I got. I found that it gave a great sound, but it wasn’t dynamic enough. So I wound up with a very monotonous bass drum sound that drove Vince, the bass player, and me absolutely up a wall. We eventually chucked it. In the studio, though, I’ve tried Simmons and triggering LinnDrums with Simmons. I certainly have no objections to that at all. But I was brought up with acoustic drums, and I find myself always going back to them. For live playing, if I found a device that would successfully trigger off chips dynamically, then I’d be very happy to use them. It does expand the range, and it does introduce an extra-high level of consistency and power to the sound of the band. When it was the right song and that chip was being fired off reasonably satisfactorily, it made for a really great bass drum sound.

RS: A drum sound is so important to a group’s ability to communicate its music from the stage to the audience. Often we get wrapped up in the intricacies of the way one plays the drums, rather than the end product—the sound.

AC: That is very, very true. The meat, body, and woodiness are really what it’s all about. I have an image in my mind of the way a drum should sound, which is sort of a round, woody, punchy sound. In my experiences, I’ve found you can get that from any drum with the right head. I honestly think, however, that the most important ingredient in a great drum sound—one that does what you said—is the drummer. Billy Cobham, Buddy Rich, or any of the other great drummers in the world can play the cheapest kit around, and they’ll still sound great. It’s the way they hit them. On the other hand, if you put me on Buddy Rich’s kit, it wouldn’t sound the same; it would sound completely different, if not incompetent, [laughs] Tuning is another thing that always pops up when talking about the intricacies of drumming, doesn’t it?

RS: It usually does, yes.

AC: Well, you really learn how to tune drums one way—by tuning them yourself. You’re told so many different things about tuning. You read so many different things about it. Eventually, it has to come down to your own personal preference. I like my heads to be pretty tight. I hate heads with dimples. I can’t play with a head like that. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t get on with deep snare drums. My first snare was 2 1⁄2″ deep. Drums such as these are easier to play; there’s more response from the bottom head. Whether you put the top head tighter than the bottom, or the bottom tighter than the top, or keep them both the same, it’s almost totally a personal thing. For me, I have the heads fairly tight, and I try to, more or less, tune them with the same tension, especially for the toms. On the snare, the bottom head would be slightly tighter than the top. It’s whatever achieves that sort of sound, which, to you, sounds like it’s right and satisfying. What I can’t do is play a kit that the engineer is satisfied with and I’m not. It’s much more important that I’m hearing something right.

RS: You said before that Pat Collier is an engineer you’ve worked with quite a bit and has even assumed a co-producer’s role. How much do you work with him in determining an acceptable drum sound?

AC: I listen to Pat, because we can usually arrive at a fairly satisfactory drum sound quite quickly. In the past, however, I’ve had many a battle with engineers because I don’t like cooperating the way some engineers want you to. I try to have as much say in drum-related decisions in the studio as I possibly can. In other words, I want to play the drums in the studio the way I play them on stage; I want to get away with as much as I can concerning this. Now, of course, you have to make compromises, and I do. You have to dampen the bass drum more. You have to take the front head off the bass drum. And I love having the front head on the bass drum because it sends the sound back to me, and that way I don’t have to have so much coming through the monitors. I don’t like hearing my drums through the monitors. But, yes, you have to make compromises and worry about things like the snare rattling. The bottom line is that, in the studio environment, drummers aren’t in as free a situation as they would be up on a stage somewhere playing live.

RS: Do your feelings about studio work, then, prevent any notions of doing session work somewhere down the road from coming into your head?

AC: I honestly don’t know. If a friend of mine or an artist whom I was personally interested in came up to me and asked me to work on a project, why sure, I’d do it. But generally, I have no interest at all in being a studio drummer or doing regular session work. I certainly would not find that rewarding or satisfying. I simply don’t like being involved in something I don’t have a lot of say in. I find that, when I’m in a position where I have at least an equal say with the next person as to what’s going down, I work much better, and I’m much happier. I couldn’t even fathom being a session player, to tell you the truth. But having said that, it’s great fun playing with anyone at any time.

RS: I heard, and please correct me if it isn’t true, that the drums you used on the first LP, Katrina And The Waves, are homemade.

AC: That’s right; they are. The whole kit was made by me. See, I have this Super Classic kit and I love it, but I’ve been playing it for 12 years now. So I thought, “I ought to find out about drum sizes and things.” I found a shop in London where I believe they make their own drums, because they had stacks of drum parts, shells, and different woods all over the place. So I bought all these parts one day and started to put them together. I made single-headed and double-headed tom-toms. I made a whole range of drums and ended up with a kit that I found to sound quite acceptable.

RS: What kind of wood did you use?

AC: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me that question, because I don’t know! [laughs]

RS: Why didn’t you take this homemade kit on the road with you?

AC: Because being homemade, it really wasn’t road worthy. I mean, it sounded fine, but I really had problems taking it to the States for four months. Deep down inside, I knew the kit wouldn’t really stand up to the wear and tear and last the tour.

RS: What was your motivation behind making your own drums? It’s not every day that a drummer who is tired of his old drumset decides to build a new one. Most drummers will simply go out and buy a new kit.

AC: I’ve always enjoyed doing things with my hands. I always believed, despite all we’ve talked about already, that a drum is a drum is a drum. I used to fantasize about a Super Classic kit when I had my original Ajax kit. But one grows tired of drums, just like one grows tired of other things. I’ve played other people’s drums, and I thought, as I said before, a drum is a drum. And perhaps to prove that to myself, I decided to go ahead and make my own. It’s a fascinating experience. It was also a way to learn about drums, plus a way to save some money in the process. It’s cheaper to build your own drums than to buy them from a music store or a drum company.

RS: So, tell me what you’ve learned.

AC: Well, I worked for some time with single-headed tom-toms to see what that was like and ended up not liking them too much. The response with one head wasn’t as good as the response with two heads.

RS: What do you plan to do with this kit? Will you keep it solely for studio work?

AC: Presently, it’s sitting at home where I’ve got piles of homemade drums all over the place. I must possess at least 20 drums, 15 of which are homemade. I have about four homemade snare drums. One snare drum, which is made out of really thick wood, looks great with a fabulous finish, but it sounds awful! I don’t know why. And then I have this really messy-looking snare drum that I ruined the finish on, and it sounds great. That’s the one I used on the album. But I must say that I’m in love with the old Ludwig set, so I’ll probably continue to use that one.

RS: You played a number of outdoor gigs last summer. Did that present any particular problems for you?

AC: No, on the contrary, I loved them. The sound wasn’t interfered with by anything. At some of the indoor arenas we played, the sound during soundcheck would be booming all around. And then during the show, when the place was filled up with people, it was like playing in your front living room. It’s really strange. You bang the hell out of your bass drum, and nothing happens. Out of doors, the sound is consistent, and that’s what I like. I think an outdoor environment is actually my favorite environment in which to play.

RS: Don’t you notice perhaps the loss of a little bit of depth, though?

AC: Yes, I do, but it doesn’t really bother me that much. It’s only very recently that I’ve been on stage with a decent PA and a decent monitor system. All my life, I’ve played in various club situations with no miking, as I’ve already said. It’s like singing. I sing a fair amount of harmonies in The Waves. I can only sing harmonies, believe it or not, if I can’t quite hear myself in the monitor. If I hear myself, I can’t sing. I don’t know why. I assume it’s because I learned to sing with the sound coming out of the speakers up front, and that was it.

RS: Is there anything that you wish to incorporate into your style or playing that we might hear from you in the near future? Do you hear things played by other drummers that you would like to hear in your own drumming?

AC: I would really like to be consistent in getting the feel of the songs we do just right. The greatest problem I have is every night playing the song at the right tempo. According to my mood, I’ll suddenly find that I’ve launched into a song with a tempo ten times quicker than it should be. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but you know what I mean.

RS: What do you do to compensate for that, if anything?

AC: I grit my teeth and play the song to its end. I refuse to slow down, because there’s nothing worse than slowing down in the middle of the song. If you start fast, what can I say? You end fast. That’s the way it is. Whenever I sing, however, there’s a tendency for me to slow down. But I’d really like to become consistent in capturing the proper feel of any song each and every time the band plays it. That’s something to strive for and work at, isn’t it? In the studio, I’ve noticed that, if it doesn’t happen in the first two takes or maybe the third take, then forget it. Go on to another song. It gets too mechanical if you do it over and over again. The whole thing suddenly turns from a musical exercise to a technical exercise. I don’t like being put in that situation.

Come to think of it, there’s another aspect of my drumming I hope to improve on, and that’s my ability to think of a different drum pattern for a song when it’s necessary to do that. That’s what I think was so great about Ringo. I could have never thought up the drum pattern for “Ticket To Ride.” If I could get to the point where I could come up with something similar and do it on a fairly consistent basis, that would give me immense satisfaction.