Terry Williams is the drummer in Dire Straits. This may sound like a simplistic statement, but it’s surprising how many people need prodding to identify the person behind the distinctive, powerful rhythms driving one of the most successful bands in the world right now. Probably only an un-rock-star-like character trait—he’s unpretentious and prefers to use his talent to enhance the music rather than himself—and a geographical accident of birth—he’s from rural Wales rather than an urban center—have kept Terry from being mentioned with the usual list of rock ‘n’ roll drum greats; his skill goes without question. Williams, 38, has been playing professionally for more than 20 years. He is a self-described instinctive drummer who plays for the joy of the beat, and his crisp, incisive, and dynamic style has developed through years of playing everything from basic rock ‘n’ roll to jazz-fusion to lounge music.
A member of Dire Straits for just over three and a half years, Williams joined up with Mark Knopfler and crew almost immediately after a year-long stint touring with Meat Loaf for the 1981 LP Dead Ringer. Most cognoscenti of post-punk New Wave rock ‘n’ roll, however, probably first heard Williams’ name and his drums with Rockpile, the quasi-legendary aggregation that started as separate-but-identical bands backing equally quasi-legendary musicians Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe. The band evolved into a short-lived and usually brilliant unit that lasted for roughly six months before breaking up. Lowe has called the outfit “the band most likely to, who never did.” Indeed, the importance of Rockpile—in all its incarnations—can’t be measured in dollars, but in spirit: The band’s strong influence was, and still is, purely musical rather than commercial.
Williams was recruited for the fledgling Rockpile by fellow Welshman Edmunds, with whom he had worked and toured previously. Williams had been drumming with Man, a free-form Welsh musical institution, for roughly five years and ten albums. Man finally broke up, and Williams left the Welsh rock scene he had been a part of for ten years. (He still lives in Wales, however, with his wife and two children.)
In addition to regular band work, Williams has done a wide variety of sessions for musicians ranging from the Everly Brothers to Tracey Ullman, including post-Rockpile efforts from both Edmunds and Lowe and, of course, the Private Dancer sessions Dire Straits did with Tina Turner. Through it all, Williams has kept true to his instincts, keeping his style as simple as possible, the better to provide a solid foundation for the band. “I don’t sing, and I don’t do drum solos,” he has said. That’s his philosophy in a nutshell.
KS: When did you start playing?
TW: When I was 14, I got an Ajax drumkit for Christmas. I had never played the drums before. My father tried: I had piano lessons—useless—and guitar lessons—useless.
KS: He really wanted you to play something?
TW: He didn’t really want me to. I was just interested in music. Rock ‘n’ roll was the thing. I wanted to be involved in it, but I didn’t know whether I could play an instrument. I tried, and nothing happened. Piano—forget it. Bass—forget it. Trumpet—that was pathetic; I couldn’t even blow a note on it.
On Christmas Day, my dad said, “If you’re not in a group in six months, the drums go back.” It was as easy as that. So I had to dig out Dad’s records and play along. The first one I ever pulled out was Fats Domino’s “My Girl Josephine.” It was all just snare drum, which was good and dead easy. I got into rock ‘n’ roll through my father’s records of Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Presley, and stuff like that. And I had to get a group; I saw these guys playing guitar in school, and I said, “Let’s try a band.” It was a great incentive.
KS: Did you have any drum lessons at all?
TW: No. My dad sort of said, “This is a cymbal, this is a snare drum, that’s the bass drum, and they all go together.” I had a rough idea, because I was brought up in a musical family. My father’s a professional musician, so I’d seen how drummers play. I used to go to watch his band all the time. And at that time—when I was 14 or 15—there were also lots of youth clubs with a couple of bands. I’d always watch the drummer.
KS: So it was a natural thing for you, then.
TW: I think kids enjoy watching the drummer. I mean, now it’s a bit different, because you get singers or guitarists that leap around. But in those days, everyone was in suits and ties and no one moved. Maybe the singer used to kind of shake a hip or something, so if you actually wanted to watch something, you used to watch the drummer. And I think kids still do like to watch the drummer.
KS: Then, it wasn’t a huge shock when you decided that you wanted to do this?
TW: No, not really.
KS: What was your first school band called?
TW: The Comancheros.
KS: What kind of music did you play—early rock ‘n’ roll covers?
TW: Yes, and a lot of Shadows and instrumental-type stuff. We didn’t have a singer, so it was all instrumental. We played parties, weddings, and things like that. If someone paid us, we’d come.
KS: Did you leave school soon after that?
TW: Yes. My term was up, as they say. I had various jobs, playing at night, while working during the day. It was killing me. And then one day this group called the Jets, who were Swansea’s top group—they’d been to Hamburg and had just come back—came up to the house and asked me to join, which meant packing in my job and going professional. My dad said, “Take it.” Four days later, I was in Hamburg with this group. I learned more in four months in Hamburg than I would have in about four years anywhere else. We played the Top Ten club and the Star club. This was ’65 to ’66.
After Hamburg, we came back and broke up. I didn’t do much for a while; I went up to London for a couple of months and didn’t like it. Then the remnants of the Jets formed a band called the Dream—this was ’67 to ’68—which was a sort of flower-power-type group. We had frilly shirts and harmonies, and played Mamas & Papas stuff. The band never got anywhere; there were 50 many groups around in Britain at the time.
When that broke up, I moved up to London for about six months, trying to find work. Then, my father phoned me and said, “Dave Edmunds wants to speak to you.” I’d known Dave because he was in a rival group in Wales. He asked if I wanted to come to America. This was ’69. We came over and had a terrible tour. They stuck us in a car in New York and said, “You’re playing in Detroit tomorrow night. Here’s a map.” The next night would be Buffalo. Then the following night would be back to Detroit. People got ill. We didn’t get any sleep—nothing. It was a non-tour—two months, December and January.
KS: The best time to be in the Northeast.
TW: [laughs] Yeah, it was horrendous—snow and everything. We managed to make all the gigs, though. But then I got involved with Edmunds. We came back from America, and we decided that we didn’t want to go on the road, so we lived in Rockfield studio, where Dave lived, and we just messed around there for months and months.
KS: This was before his first album, Rockpile, was released?
TW: Yes. The cover of that album shows my drumkit on the steps of his house. We had some good times up there. Anytime we wanted to go in the studio, we did. But I got bored with that, and I wanted to get back out on the road. Again, the remnants of the Jets and the Dream—this time they were in a band called Man—wanted to do something different, so I joined them. We went to live in Germany.
KS: They had already been together for a couple of albums?
TW: Yes, they’d already done two albums. But the drummer and the bass player they had were really straight, cabaret kind of players. The group was going places, in Germany especially, because there were lots of hippies and you could play for hours—those times, [laughs] But the bass player and the drummer just didn’t see it. So I joined them and we went over to Germany. We just lived there from day to day. We’d play for communes, and they’d feed us; money was nothing then. Nobody had homes. It was just a road band. But I learned a hell of a lot there about music.
Man was totally free. Some nights we’d just go out without a set list Someone would start playing something, and we’d all jump in. We got into a lot of free playing; during that time, there were a lot of jazz musicians joining rock musicians, and rock with jazz.
KS: Did you find that listening to the old records helped?
TW: Yes, because those old records keep you in strict time, and when you improvise on strict time, you can go anywhere. As long as you can keep that strict time ticking in your head, you can improvise and always fall back on it.
KS: How did you learn to keep such strict time?
TW: A drummer I knew told me to start a rhythm and then read a comic book or something, so that, in the end, I’d be into the comic and keeping the strict time. It becomes automatic. So I always have that in my head.
KS: What kind of setup did you have in Man?
TW: Pretty basic—just three tom-toms, two rack toms, floor, snare, bass, and four cymbals. I had a few silly things as well, like bells—anything that made a noise or a weird sound. I had two milk churns for a while.
KS: Is that the oddest piece of percussion you’ve ever used?
TW: I think it is, actually. In studios, I’ve done things like played the wall; I played a bass guitar wrapped in a cloth with a stick. That was with Dave Edmunds when we were experimenting.
KS: Back to Germany with Man.
TW: We’d done a total of 12 albums, and we started making it in Britain. In Britain, they thought we were American, because they’d never heard of us, plus our accents were strange to English people, [laughs] We started getting the label “the British Grateful Dead.” But it was a very loose outfit. We changed musicians often, but not for musical reasons. If someone didn’t feel like doing a tour, there was a backlog of Welsh musicians ready to join.
KS: This was in ’75 and ’76?
TW: Yes, when Man was at its peak. We had to play the numbers that were popular, and we just got really fed up with it. It was a free band, musically, and we hated doing all these hits. We became bored with it and we decided to split. I was really fed up with doing the same old numbers with Man, and I was involved with arranging, writing, and singing. I was a singer, believe it or not. That is a funny sight; I can’t sing to save my life. I was also involved with the business side of it. I just wanted to go back to where I started. The reason I started playing the drums was for fun and the simplicity of just playing rock ‘n’ roll. So I decided to go back to that, and scrap the singing, the writing, the arranging, and the getting involved in any kind of group. It took so long for Rockpile to become Rockpile, because I didn’t want to be in a group anymore. I just wanted to be on my own to pick and choose what I wanted to be doing.
So I started getting into a session scene, which is really weird because I’d always been in groups. One minute, I’d be doing this stuff [referring to Muzak in the background], and the next, I’d go in and there’d be an orchestra. And I really can’t read music. Meanwhile, Rockpile was forming. Originally we got together to do Dave Edmunds’ album [Get It], and then Nick Lowe had an album to do. That was ’77.
KS: So you became more involved with this non-band, touring behind either Edmunds or Lowe, depending on whose album needed promoting, and playing to different styles within a very loose configuration of a band.
TW: Yes, which was great, because Dave and Nick were total opposites. Dave was the straight rock ‘n’ roller, and Nick was the one who wanted to do new things—experimental new sounds and new attitudes. Those were great days, and we really had good fun at that time, because it’d been so boring so many years in Britain. Then came the start of the New Wave thing, with Stiff Records and Elvis Costello and all that; that was great.
KS: Before Rockpile’s first and only tour as a formal group, you recorded two albums: Edmunds’ Twangin . . . [not released until 1981] and the Rockpile LP Seconds OfPleasure.
TW: Twangin . . . was recorded before the Rockpile album. We all had studio time, so we’d go in and Dave would say, “I fancy doing this,” or Billy [Bremner, guitarist] or Nick would say, “I’ve got a song.” There were no albums planned—they’ve still got backlogs of unreleased stuff—and if it was time for Dave or Nick to release an album, it would be like, “Let’s see. What have we got?” We tried keeping all the good songs for a Rockpile album—some songs on Seconds Of Pleasure were recorded two years before the release—because we wanted to be in Rockpile. I didn’t actually. I didn’t really want to get involved with the workings of a group again.
KS: The whole situation was strange, because everyone already thought you were a group.
TW: Yeah, but we weren’t. It was separate things, but then Dave’s contract [with Swan Song] ran out, Nick’s contact [with Columbia] ran out, and the obvious thing was to form Rockpile. And finally, someone made us an offer we couldn’t understand—it was a lot of money—so we said, “Okay, we’ll do an album.”
KS: Then you did that last tour in 1980.
TW: We were getting bored by it all then, and Dave and Nick were . . . not arguing, but there were different musical ideas. Dave wanted to be more straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, and Nick wanted to experiment a bit more and do different kinds of numbers. After six months, we split up.
KS: Were you happy with the album?
TW: Well, not really. There were a few things on it I didn’t like, because we had no direction. Like “Teacher, Teacher”—that was really poppy. If we had been good-looking 17-year-old boys in frilly shirts, that would’ve been a smash hit. [laughs] There’s no flow in the album; it’s different styles.
KS: What did you do after the breakup?
TW: I went home and thought, “Well, right, I’ll find work and do sessions again.” The phone rang one day and it was my manager, who said, “Meat Loaf wants you.”
KS: With Meat Loaf, your style became more complex; there were more intricate arrangements. Did you enjoy that?
TW: Yes. It was really quite hard, because it was stuff I wasn’t used to—lots of arrangements and time changes. I was dreading that, but it was a challenge and that’s why I took the job. I could’ve played safe and done Dave’s album, or I could’ve gone on tour with Nick’s ex-wife Carlene Carter. I could have done those things and played the same straight rock, but this was something different.
KS: When did your stint with Meat Loaf end?
TW: It ended about August, 1982. I’d had enough. I’d only signed to do the tour, and there were problems—not musical problems, but his management had financial problems, and basically we weren’t getting paid. I just wasn’t enjoying myself, so I decided to quit.
KS: You seemed to go straight into Dire Straits. How’d that happen?
TW: It was a week later. The phone rang, and it was Ed Bicknell, the manager, asking, “Do you want to join Dire Straits?” And I said yes. It’s really as simple as that. I’d known Ed for years before, because he used to work in Man’s office. I had a few days to buy a couple of Dire Straits records and listen to them, but when I got there, they wanted me to play totally different than what they’d been doing before. I went in and started doing part of the Local Hero movie soundtrack, which had a kind of country & western feel. That’s not Dire Straits, [laughs] And then the next thing we did was the EP with “Two Young Lovers” and “Twisting By The Pool,” which was basically rock ‘n’ roll. I’d been listening to all these Dire Straits records with Pick Withers doing rudiments. He was a very technical drummer, as opposed to my kind, which is more like the feel kind of drumming. So I went in, and all of a sudden, I was doing rock ‘n’ roll again.
KS: What do you think you’ve added to or changed in the band’s sound?
TW: I just filled it out a bit more. My style of drumming is a lot heavier, obviously, than Pick’s, and it’s a lot more straightforward—just keeping the beat. I don’t think I add as much as Pick did. Mark [Knopfler], Pick, John [Illsley], and David [Knopfler, ex-guitarist] were friends. That’s what the original Dire Straits were, and Pick offered a lot. Whereas now, it’s more Mark’s thing. I just do what is needed of me. I mean, I get the freedom to do what I like, as in drum fills or whatever; it’s not as if I have to play exactly the same thing every night. What I’ve added is just a fuller sound, I think.
KS: As you’ve changed bands, has your philosophy as to the drummer’s role in the rhythm section of the band changed?
TW: No. I’m basically there to keep the beat. A drummer’s job is to be the foundation—just to keep the time and move each section of music into the next. The bass and drums, like they say, are just the rhythm section.
KS: You’re very modest.
TW: That’s how drummers are; that’s how they’re supposed to be. But for a drummer, being in Dire Straits is perfect, because there are so many variations in the set. You get to play fast; you get to play slow; you get to play loud; you get to play quiet; you get to play jazzy; you get to play reggae-ish; you get to play heavy rock like “Money For Nothing.” It’s just about everything a drummer could want to play, and I like to play all different styles.
KS: When Mark comes in with a song, like “Money For Nothing,” does he come in with a demo, or does he just sing it with a guitar or a piano?
TW: He just comes in with a guitar and says, “This is how it goes. Play a straight beat through it.” We went through different permutations of “Money For Nothing,” actually; we had a few different versions before it actually got onto the album. By the time we got to doing the album, it was very straight. When we first started, we sounded like Led Zeppelin or something.
KS: On Brothers In Arms, both you and Omar Hakim are credited with the drumming. It wasn’t as simple as you played one song and he another, was it?
TW: No. We were doing the album digitally, and there were things added and overdubbed. Half the time I can’t really tell which is me and which is Omar. I think on “Money For Nothing,” it’s Omar playing the straight beat and all the drum fills are me. Tracks I definitely didn’t play on are “So Far Away,” “Your Latest Trick,” and “Ride Across The River.” “Why Worry” has just a click—no drummer—and there are no drums on “Man’s Too Strong.” “Walk Of Life” was done straight off. There are bits of me, and a bit later there’s Omar.
KS: How difficult was it to recreate live?
TW: Not difficult, really, because when we do songs live, we go at them with a different attitude. “Money For Nothing,” for instance, is very different on stage than it is on record. It’s a lot fuller and the tempos are different. “One World” is very different; the ending on “Brothers In Arms” is different. But it wasn’t difficult. You work the songs for the stage. You’re not playing for a couple of people who are sitting in their front room listening to the stereo; you’re playing to 20,000 people who want to dance.
KS: What do you look for in a drumkit?
TW: I just want it to be solid and reliable. I like to keep it basic. But I’ve always used Ludwigs.
KS: Right after that first Ajax kit, did you get Ludwigs?
TW: Yes. I was in the group for a while, and my father could see I was serious about it. The Ajax set was not a toy set, but it wouldn’t last a regular gig. This is funny: The guy who sold me my first Ludwig drumkit was Dave Edmunds; he was working in the shop. We got to the store and I just said, “That one.” It was in the window—a Grey Ripple, the same as Ringo had. At the time, everyone wanted this Grey Ripple Ringo Starr kit. Ludwig was really churning them out, and there were faults in it. The pedals were always breaking, and threads were going on the parts. But I still liked them; they had a great sound. I sent them back to be repaired, and in the meantime, I tried about eight different drumkits in two months. They were all awful. I had to get back to Ludwig, and we’ve been married ever since.
KS: You had four cymbals when I saw you with Meat Loaf.
TW: Yes. I’ve now got 14. [laughs] I use Paiste because they have such a large range, and with Dire Straits, there’s more of a musical range, so I need different cymbals. With Meat Loaf, I only needed four, as long as they were loud. And with Rockpile, I only needed two: a crash cymbal and a ride cymbal. I used to use an 18″ crash and a 20″ ride with Rockpile. With Meat Loaf, it was two 18″ crashes, a 20″ ride, and a 16″ crash. But now I’ve got my really small 16″ 505 crash, an 18″ 505 crash, 18″, 19″ and 20″ 2002 crashes, and a 20″ 505 medium. For ride cymbals, I’ve got a 20″ Sound Creation bell ride, a 24″ Rude, a 20″ Sound Creation flat-ride, and a 22″ Sound Creation thin ride. I’ve also got a 9″ 606 heavy bell, a 13″ Rude China type, and 15″ 2002 hi-hats.
KS: When did you decide more cymbals were needed?
TW: I was getting them while we were rehearsing. It wasn’t Mark or anyone saying, “That cymbal’s too heavy for this piece.” I knew personally that it was too heavy, so I’d send out to the shop. I’ve been to the Paiste factory in Switzerland, and they just make millions; they can make anything you want. When I went there, I wanted to meet the man who actually says, “This is the cymbal.” He only comes in for three hours a day. He has a master cymbal; he hits that and then he’ll hit the new cymbal. He’ll hit it just once; it’s what his ears tell him.
KS: What did you say to him when you met him?
TW: Not a lot, because I don’t speak German, [laughs] But Joop DeKorte, my drum technician, speaks German—he speaks about five languages—and he was with me. I wanted to know what he looks for in a cymbal and how to hit the cymbal properly, because a lot of drummers hit them wrong. That’s why they split. Mine split a lot as well. He told me where to hit the cymbal—where to get different sounds out of it. And now I can tell the second a cymbal splits or even dulls, because my cymbals get dull from the smoke on stage.
KS: How many do you go through?
TW: I don’t go through that many. We’ve done something like 120 concerts, plus soundchecks, plus a couple of nights of rehearsal, so they do take a good bashing. I’ve only gone through two or three.
KS: What about the two gongs?
TW: I use them three times: On “Ride Across The River,” I use the E gong because it ends on E; “Espresso Love” ends on the F gong; and I also use the F gong as a buildup in “Tunnel Of Love.” There’s a swell into the “Carousel” theme, and it’s an F chord.
KS: What kind of sticks do you use?
TW: I had my own custom-made; they’re very light and small, made of hickory because it doesn’t splinter. Over the last couple of years, all the heavy rock drummers have started to use heavier sticks. I find that, with heavier sticks, I can’t do things so fast.
KS: Have you always used light sticks?
TW: Yes, roughly. You go through a period when you’re young, trying to find the right kind of stick, and as you get older, you need something different. I see kids now using sticks I can’t even pick up. And there are some kids, or even older drummers, who can’t use mine; they say it’s like playing with pencils. It’s just what you get used to. I prefer a light stick, because I think you can do a lot more with it. There’s no way you can do feathery-type rolls with heavy sticks.
KS: Do you think a lot of drummers are taking shortcuts with heavier sticks?
TW: Yes, and using the heavier heads and the bigger cymbals. A lot of the—I hate to sound old [laughs]—younger drummers, especially in the heavy rock groups, do use these enormous sticks, like telegraph poles. Plus, they dent the heads. With lighter sticks you can do so much more. If you hit the drum properly—if you hit it in the middle where you’re supposed to hit it—you get that crack— that sound.
KS: You use basically a matched grip.
TW: I change. I don’t usually use traditional for snare work; I use it for cymbal work—the tinkling stuff. Sometimes I’ll use it if it’s a light passage. But matched grip is best if you really want to lay it down.
KS: How do you tune?
TW: I don’t tune the heads to any notes or anything. I like them deep, and I tune them as low as I can without them rippling and flapping. I like a nice, low, full tone.
KS: What kind of pedal do you use?
TW: My pedal is a chain-driven Camco, made by Tama. It’s lovely. The people at Ludwig can’t believe that I don’t like the Speed King. It’s just what you get used to. If someone invites me to go out and jam, the only things I take are a pair of sticks, a snare drum and a pedal, because in a pedal the spring has to be adjusted to your own feeling.
KS: You have some electronic equipment now.
TW: Three Simmons pads.
KS: Do you like them?
TW: They’re an effect.
KS: Just like a milk churn.
TW: [laughs] Yeah, or a wah-wah pedal. That’s just how I see them. Some bands use them all the time. And they can be used, but I’m not technically minded enough to spend hours getting sounds. When I first got the Simmons, I didn’t even know how to put the plug on it.
KS: Why did you get that?
TW: I just thought it would be interesting to use. We were doing the album, and Mark said, “Let’s try something new.” I bought a whole Simmons kit, but I just use three pads as an effect. “Ride Across The River” and the start of “Espresso” and “Solid Rock” are the only times I’m using them—just an effect and then back to the real kit. It’s a totally different style of playing; there’s a totally different response from a Simmons to a live drum—a totally different hand action. I’ve seen drummers who play just Simmons and who can’t play an acoustic set. They don’t know how to hit acoustic drums. Although they call Simmons touch-sensitive, it’s still not the same. It’s like playing a tabletop.
KS: How long did it take to incorporate them into what you were doing?
TW: Not long. I just set them up and messed around with a few sounds.
KS: What do you think of drum machines?
TW: Personally, I don’t like them. They’re great for songwriters and making demos, but I don’t like them on records. Sometimes I can’t spot them, to tell you the truth. You can listen to an album, and if they’ve used the drum machine properly, it can be good. Bryan Ferry does it very well. But it’s just a part of music that doesn’t interest me. I like to hear a few mistakes. I like a bit of feeling in my music, and I find that that stuff is just cold to me—totally feelingless. We used a Linn machine on the album, which I attempted to play along to.
KS: Which songs?
TW: All of them.
KS: How did that finally turn out?
TW: It didn’t.
KS: They took it out?
TW: Yes, it was just as a basic guide. It was very hard to do. Guy Fletcher, who is the keyboard whiz, programmed what Mark wanted, and then I would play along to it. We wasted a lot of time by having me try to play along to a LinnDrum. It’s very, very hard to do; there are very few drummers who can do it.
KS: What are some of your early influences and favorite drummers?
TW: Any drummer, really, because all drummers have their own little things. I loved Ringo Starr. I’ve listened to Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, the guy from Pink Floyd, and the drummer from the Doors. They’ve all got certain styles—either feel or technical. Old rock ‘n’ roll is my favorite, but I appreciate drummers like Omar or Billy Cobham. They’re brilliant. Omar is frightening; he scares me. I can’t watch him.
I’m no technician in drumming at all. I just hit the drums. Technical drummers tend to know when they’re doing a double paradiddle. I might be doing it, but someone will come up later and tell me that I’ve just been doing a double-paradiddle roll. I don’t know, because I don’t read and I don’t know rudiments. I just play what I play.
KS: Have you ever thought of going to a teacher and learning?
TW: No. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, [laughs]
KS: Do you practice?
TW: No, never. If I feel like playing, I’ll go to a local bar and sit in with a band for three or four songs. It’s different for guitarists or keyboard players. They can sit in their front room and make music. A drummer can’t. It’s like, how do you practice being a hockey goalkeeper? You can’t sit in your front room and say, “Okay, I’m going to practice.” You have to have someone firing shots at you. It’s the same with a drummer. A drummer goes in the front room and makes or keeps a beat, or learns rudiments. I don’t want to learn rudiments, because I can’t find space for them. I’m more into just the feel, rather than practicing nine-stroke rolls or seven-stroke rolls or something like that. Plus, my neighbors would complain.
KS: Do you have a favorite beat or riff?
TW: Yes, I do, but we don’t do it in Dire Straits. It’s a shuffle—the old kind of blues shuffle: dum da dum da dum da dum da.
KS: Like on Edmunds’ cover of “Singin’ The Blues.”
TW: Yes, a swinging shuffle. And I also like the Chuck Berry kind of beat, which I do get to do on songs like “Two Young Lovers.” It’s a mixture of Chuck Berry meets Fats Domino.
KS: Do you have riffs that you find yourself playing often?
TW: I’ve got a few stock phrases.
KS: Triplets—things like that?
TW: Oh, you noticed? [laughs] Most people do. It is a triplet thing, actually.
KS: It’s like a signature sound.
TW: Yes, people do say that. People spot me on records, because I’ve got a stock riff or whatever.
KS: Yes, on the Tracey Ullman album, You Broke My Heart In 17 Places, the song “Breakaway” sounded like you before I knew it was you.
TW: Well, that is one of my stock phrases, and again that was one of the first things I did with Dire Straits; “Two Young Lovers” has that same snare drum thing.
KS: Also, the Motors’ “Love And Loneliness,” from the Tenement Steps LP.
TW: Yes, and “Big Kick, Plain Scrap” [Nick Lowe, Labour Of Lust], which is basically back to the early kind of ’50s drumming. They very rarely used a tom-tom; there might be a cymbal, a snare drum, and a bass drum, and that was it. Those are the things I like. Tom-toms are just little fills.
KS: Any other stock phrases?
TW: I don’t know—just what people say I have. I’ve been told that I’ve got a fast right foot on the bass drum.
KS: It sounds like you have about three hands on the snare-and-cymbal work.
TW: I taught myself to play left-handed. I’m right-handed, and at one point, after I’d been playing a few years, I learned to play the other way around, just in case. If I hurt my right leg or something, I could get up for a jam on a left-handed drumkit. I hate left-handed drummers, because you can’t steal anything off them, [laughs]
KS: Who have you stolen from?
TW: Everyone. It’s not stealing. It’s kind of . . . learning. A guitarist will watch another guitarist do a really nice chord and think, “I must learn that chord.”
KS: Do you have favorite songs—things you would start a jam with?
TW: Ah, they’re always the oldies. “Somethin’ Else,” by Eddie Cochran—I love playing that. It’s Eddie Cochran playing the drums on that, by the way. I love stuff played by non-drummers. I really love to see someone who is not a drummer play the drums.
KS: Like who?
TW: Like Dave Edmunds. People who are non-drummers have a totally different way. Mark is a non-drummer, and the things that guy hears in his head!
KS: They’d have to at least be good musicians in general to translate that vision into sound.
TW: Well, they couldn’t hold down a gig, but they could sit behind the drums and do something, and you think, “Where did that come from?” Drummers have a stock way of playing, but non-drummers are just coming from left field. They’ll just do something that 99% of all drummers would not do because it’s not in the book or it’s not part of drumming.
KS: What do you tell people who ask for advice?
TW: Usually, I tell them to try to play anything, from dance bands to lounge music. Anytime you can play, play, because then you can always incorporate it. Alan and I used to work in clubs a long, long time ago—not together—but we know what to do if Mark has a song with a bossa nova or rumba beat. It’s all knowledge that I can use.
KS: After the tour is over, will you take a vacation?
TW: Definitely. Then after a couple of weeks, I’ll get itchy again. I’ll put a little local band together where I live, or go and jam with a local band, or go down to my manager and say, “Get me some work! I want to do something!” Again, I can’t go into the front room; I have to play with other people.
KS: Do you have to have a certain temperament to be a drummer?
TW: Yeah . . . I don’t know what it is. I think you have to have an extremely good sense of humor.
KS: Have you seen Spinal Tap?
TW: Yes, it’s a great movie. There’s always that joke about the drummer: “All musicians and the drummer to the stage, please.” I love that; I do it all the time. If somebody says, “Are you one of the musicians?” I say, “No, I’m the drummer.”
KS: Do you see yourself continuing this for years and years?
TW: Oh, yes. I could never retire and be one of those people who say, “I used to play the drums; now I’ve got a men’s clothing store.” My ideal would be to run a club where I could play every now and then. I’d have to play. I can’t do anything else. So I’d just have to play, even if it was a workingman’s club in the mining villages where I come from. Mark has been quoted as saying that he can see himself when he’s 60 or 70 with a little amplifier and a guitar going into a club. I can see myself doing the same thing with my pedal and a pair of sticks.