Nazareth’s Darrell Sweet

by Rick Mattingly
Being a member of a group affords a musician a certain amount of security, but it also demands a sacrifice. The security comes from the fact that the individual does not have to face the world alone. When times are had, the members can support and encourage each other, and when times are good, they can share in the success. In return for this security, each member has to sacrifice part of his own identity. The individual does not have the freedom to do whatever he wishes, hut must consider the common good of the group. Many people join groups for the security, but are unwilling to make the sacrifice and so, many groups do not last very long.
Nazareth has been together for over 15 years, and the attitude of drummer Darrell Sweet is part of the reason they have endured. Rather than try to build up a reputation for himself, Darrell has concentrated on fulfilling the percussive needs of Nazareth. While this may have kept him from becoming as well-known as some of his flashier contemporaries, the fact remains that he has helped make Nazareth one of the top international bands for the past 10 years. He has done this by taking care of business. His timekeeping is solid and his fills indicate that he pays attention to the structure of the tunes. In addition to his drumming, Darrell does a share of the singing with Nazareth and has recently become more active as a songwriter.
Many good rock drummers have had experiences with other types of music, and it is their ability to draw on these experiences that often enables them to give their rock drumming a fresh twist. Darrell Sweet has certainly had other musical experiences, but it was possibly his first introduction to music that is the most unique:
DS: Being Scottish, my first introduction was in a marching pipe band. I started learning basic rudiments and patterns when I was 7 years old. Eventually, when I was 9 or 10, I came off practice pads and was given the great honor and distinction of trying an actual marching drum. At first, of course, I could only manage to play bits and pieces. I couldn’t march with the damn thing at the same time because it was really awkward and I was a small fellow. I kept my pipe band interest for many years. When I was 14 I first started playing in what you would call a group. It was sort of a skiffle group type of thing. The drum set was a snare drum and a cymbal. That was it. Eventually I linked up with a couple of other groups and built my kit from there. I came to grips with an actual kick drum, tom-tom, and another cymbal. It was quite a revelation for me, having all these things to hit.
From the ages of 14 to 23 I kept the pipe band thing going and played in various groups, and that’s really where it all started. I’m jumping a lot of years now, but today, when I’m home and when it’s possible, I still teach the drummers in a local marching band. Again, just rudimentary basics, nothing too clever, but I get a kick out of doing that. It works out quite well.
RM: I take it then that you were not self taught. You had teachers and took lessons.
DS: Oh yeah, I did all that, and enjoyed it. Playing drums always has been a big thing in my life. I didn’t let it interfere with any academic work or anything like that, but where some guys have sports, I concentrated on the drumming.
RM: Were good drums available where you lived in Scotland?
DS: Yes. Premier, of course, is the happening set in England, so it wasn’t so much a case of availability as whether you could afford them. I picked up several second-hand kits before I actually got my first bright, brand-new red-sparklefinish Premiers, which seemed to cost a fortune at the time, but in retrospect, it probably wasn’t a lot of money. That was very exciting.
We always had other drums available. Gretsch were available, but at a much more inflated price because of the import duty. When the Beatles took off and Ringo was seen to be playing these Ludwig things, it was like, “We’ve got to get these. They must be great.” So I play Ludwig now. I have for several years.
RM: What did you listen to as a teen?
DS: A lot of things like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. I’ve been involved with Nazareth for 15 years, and that was the music we were doing. For money purposes we had to play top-40 hits of the day, but we always interspersed that with Americanized type music, a thing we’ve always been keen on. We played anything of the day that was happening, from Beatles and Stones up through Zeppelin and Purple. For about a 3-year period we did practically nothing but soul and Stax music, which was great, but I never could quite get that meaty snare drum sound playing live. During the emergence of Black Sabbath, Spooky Tooth, Jeff Beck, the Yardbirds, and people like that, we were very keen on playing their tunes, too. That was all sort of what was happening at the time. We were the only band in Scotland actually playing the American things, like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Moby Grape, and all of that. There was a 2-hour radio show once a week of American music that we tuned-in to, but there was nothing really major in Scotland that influenced us. London is really where it’s at in the U.K. You have to go there to hear it, see it, and be a part of it. I suppose it’s like someone coming from Kansas to New York or L.A.
RM: I’ve heard that in the early days, the Stones were considered a hip, London group, whereas the Beatles were just a local band from Liverpool.
DS: Absolutely. It was a very local thing that they heavily played on. They didn’t in any way disguise their Liverpudlian accents, in fact, they went the other way and really exaggerated them to a remarkable degree of success.
RM: Were there any particular drummers that you listened to?
DS: A few at the time were pretty good. Shortly after Jeff Beck left the Yardbirds, he had a fabulous band which was Jeff on guitar; Nicky Hopkins on piano; Ron Wood on bass (God knows why he ever stopped playing bass, because he’s a hell of a bass player); Rod Stewart on vocals; and on drums, Aynsley Dunbar did some of the sessions and Tony Newman did the others. Both Dunbar and Newman were major factors in my listening at the time. On the more pop side of things, Bobby Elliott of the Hollies was a good drummer. I really like some of the things he did.
RM: I remember when Aynsley was in the Mothers. He kicked that group like a big-band drummer.
DS: Yeah, he really gets into that sort of situation. He has a great feel and his own kind of technique. I’ve known Aynsley for a number of years and we still correspond from time to time, or bang into each other in some hotel. It’s a nice relationship.
RM: Did you ever listen to any jazz drummers?
DS: There was a drum clinic in Scotland given by Joe Morello, which impressed me to an unbelievable degree. I was absolutely flabbergasted by this guy. I was aware of him from “Take Five” by the Brubeck band, which I thought was amazing. Actually seeing him doing a drum clinic on his own in a small hall was quite something. I think even yet, for as good as Buddy Rich is at what he does, I prefer Morello.
RM: For the most part, the drummers you admire seem to be those who are known for their work within groups, rather than those who have built up personal reputations.
DS: Yes, I think so, probably governed by the fact that it’s not really a tremen dously big deal for Nazareth to have a recognized sensational drummer. I’ve always gone along the lines that I want to be the right drummer for the band, because the band is the vehicle I’m interested in, more than in establishing myself as a recognized drummer who would go out on various projects and do clinics or whatever.
RM: Did you work with anyone else before joining Nazareth?
DS: It always has been Nazareth. It’s a very tight situation. We’ve grown up together. It’s one of those schoolboy dreams. Two of the band members started school together at 5 years of age. We’ve always lived very close to each other and we still live within a four mile radius of each other.
RM: I understand that the group has had some bad luck with managers.
DS: We had two managers at first, but one was killed in a plane crash. We continued with the other manager, but now he is no longer with us. The management company folded and a lot of things went wrong. Thankfully, we were able to pull ourselves together, ride through the storm, and produce the Fool Circle album.
RM: The group had been doing so well for so long, it must have been a shock when things started looking as though they were falling apart.
DS: It was a shocking experience for us: a frightening experience; an unbelievable experience. It’s a sore lesson learned, but we’re out of i t . We’re working, we’re happy, the band is still tight and close together. Really, that is the only way to come through that type of situation. It’s the sort of thing you always see happening in the business but think, “It will never happen to us.” When it does, it’s really kind of hard. We’re over it and pushing on. It dented us, but it hasn’t daunted us.
RM: The closeness of the group must have helped.
DS: It was a lovely experience, because I didn’t believe it could become any tighter personally, but it became evident then that it could, and it just pulled us more tightly together.
RM: Having been on the road with Nazareth for so many years, do you find that today’s audiences want anything different than the audiences of 10 years ago?
DS: It’s a hard thing to judge that. By virtue of the fact that we’re still touring and still pulling people in, I suppose we must be doing something right. First of all, I think you must give them what they want to hear. You can only assume that from the response you get on tours. We’ve changed our style slightly over the last two albums, inasmuch as it’s not quite so many riffs. We’re becoming a lot more melodic and more thoughtful about what we’re doing. It’s a hard question to answer because we’ve just started on this particular tour. We’ve augmented the band from four to six with a keyboard player and another guitar player. If this works, I guess we’ll know a little more about what they want to hear.
RM: Has your audience remained the same, or do the young gradually replace the old?
DS: I think a certain part of our audience has certainly grown with us, and yes, there are younger kids there too. I don’t know if that’s just our concerts or if it’s a general thing with other bands that younger people are coming.
RM: Nazareth tours all over the world. Do you try to hang out with drummers wherever you go?
DS: If it’s possible, if there’s time, and if there’s someone who wants to relate and talk about it.
RM: Do you find that drummers in different countries have recognizable differences in style?
DS: I think the differences come from the differences in the music more than the differences in the territorial places. France and Switzerland have got some very good jazz drummers. Of course, in Central America you’ve got some phenomenal percussion players and Latin American drummers who, it seems to me, have it in their blood to feel rhythm. So, geographically, I think drummers change with the music that is local to them. It sounds a bit silly for a Scotsman out of a pipe band who’s playing Americanized rock and roll to be saying that.
RM: In your own case then, how has your pipe band background affected your style?
DS: Possibly quite a lot, in the sense that I know basic rudiments and an awful lot more besides, through the pipe band stuff I’ve done. Not all of it is utilized in Nazareth, but the knowledge is there to adapt and steal from. A lot of it has had to go out the window because of a certain direct approach in the music that we’re doing, which calls on me to be just a bit more fundamental. But it definitely has helped me in a way, no question.
RM: It must have affected the way you use your hands.
DS: Yes, I think so. That’s probably a factor that’s still there.
RM: Do you use traditional grip for everything?
DS: No, I don’t actually. I use traditional grip for a few things, but when I’m with the band I use reversed left hand grip for most things. It’s something I got into very early when I got my first drum set.
RM: Do you feel that it gives you more power than traditional grip?
DS: It certainly gives me more power. I mean, that was the whole reason for doing it at that particular time. I really don’t think it holds me back any, it’s just a different type of application. I certainly do have a bit more drive by doing it that way.
RM: Of all the recording you’ve done with Nazareth, is there any one album which you feel shows off your drumming to its best advantage?
DS: I think Malice in Wonderland. I tried a few new things that seemed to work. Also, Jeff Baxter was the producer of that album. It was the first time that the band actually got together with him to do an album. He’s a very rhythmic person who thinks about percussion and drums as well as the other aspects of making the album, and he certainly helped me with a few things that perhaps I wouldn’t have thought about playing. Basically, I involve myself with the writing of songs, backing vocals, and stuff like that. I’m always aware of what the structure of the song is and I play more for that than to show off my own prowess as a drummer. It’s not a thing I mind at all, it’s a thing I like very much indeed. I like writing songs and doing gigs and, I’ll say it again, being the right drummer for Nazareth.
RM: Do you think you might like to do studio work at some point?
DS: I think so, in the future possibly, if the situation arose whereby I could. It would be good to play with other people doing different things. I’d love to do that.
RM: Would you be willing to do commercials and sound tracks?
DS: It would interest me to a degree. It wouldn’t bother me if it was the corniest thing ever written, if a guy could do it well and properly. I’d like to have a go at anything like that.
RM: Can you read drum music?
DS: Yeah, I can do it. I did it with the pipe band. I’m probably a bit slow these days, but I’ve acquired that knowledge.
RM: Your philosophy about being the right drummer for the band suggests that you have the right attitude for a potential studio musician.
DS: Being the right drummer for the group is precisely my ideal. I think the secret is to know when not to play. Play along as the lyric dictates or the track dictates. I don’t like show-offs. I don’t like guys that try to prove a point.
RM: Especially when they don’t have much of a point to prove.
DS: Yeah. There’s not too many who do.
RM: What other percussion instruments do you play?
DS: I fool around with congas, timbales, tambourines, maracas, and the small stuff.
RM: Have you ever seriously studied congas?
DS: No, but I certainly want to do that because I think it’s very important that I do. Given the time, whenever that may be, I want to go to somebody who is willing to take time out, and sit down and really go to it. Paulinho DaCosta was on our last album doing bits and pieces of percussion on a couple of tracks, and I learned a bit from him just in the few days we were in the studio. He said he was willing to help me, but of course, he’s so busy on sessions, and I’m so busy writing and touring and recording, that it’s a pipe dream. I certainly hope it comes true, and the sooner the better because I really would like to get more involved in it.
RM: What does your current set-up consist of?
DS: I have a Ludwig natural-maple finish set comprised of 2 bass drums, which are 24 x 16, 2 concert toms, 6 ½ x 8 and 6 ½ x 10, 2 rack toms, 13 x 14 and 15 x 16, and 2 floor toms, 16 x 16 and 18 x 16. My favorite snare drum is the Black Beauty, with the brass-cast shell. It records well and sounds good on stage. The pedals for the kick drums are the chaindrives. I use Gon-Bop congas for a couple of tracks we do acoustically in the set.
I use Brilliant finish Zildjian cymbals, except for my Chinese cymbal which is a Paiste. I have two 20″ medium crash cymbals, a straightforward crash which is an 18, a 22″ rock ride, and the Chinese. I also have a 50″ Paiste gong which I hit from time to time for effect. I use two sets of hi-hats, so when I use two kick drums I can use the secondary hi-hat, which is on my right, to ride on, and still have the hi-hat sound. I have them not quite closed so I get a sort of sizzle. If I’m doing straight 8ths or 16ths on them, then I’ll close them tighter. So I’ve got a few alternatives.
For miking the past year I’ve been using Ciducer contact mic’s. They come in the form of a three-quarter by eightinch strip which is taped to the topmost part of the shell of the drum, immediately under the strike head. A very fine cable comes out of a mini-jack, into a box, and goes straight into the mixing console. The sound quality is phenomenal. The reproduction of the drum sound is far greater than with conventional mic’s. There is nothing lost because there’s no dispersal of sound before it hits the mic. It also eliminates the guitar sounds and all sorts of other monitor noises that are crossfired across the stage. It’s a big help for the guy at the mixing console. I’m very, very pleased with them. There are not too many people using them as far as I know, but they certainly are good. I’ve used them on three tours with no breakages or problems.
RM: Do you use them in the studio?
DS: I didn’t record Fool Circle with them but I’ve laid down a few things just for my own ears to hear them back. I’m not going to go into a studio and say to an eminent engineer like Geoff Emerick, “I want to use these,” because that’s his gig. He knows what he wants and he’s gotten a great drum sound. I’m pleased with it. But we sat for a few hours one night and did a few things just to hear the potential of them, and they sound very good.
RM: Do you have to use regular mic’s for the cymbals?
DS: Yes, I have mic’s on both sets of hi-hats, and two overheads to catch the cymbals.
RM: What kind of heads do you use?
DS: I use Ludwig Rockers with the silver center-spot. I only use one head on the toms, but on the bass I have a front head with about a 14-inch hole in it, which I find quite good.
RM: Do you ever use any electronic percussion?
DS: I have Syndrums but I don’t use them on stage. I fool around with them. I’ve never actually gotten myself too much involved with them.
RM: Do you tune your drums differently on stage than you do in the studio?
DS: Basically, I just tighten the heads slightly. For recording I use fairly slack top and bottom heads on the snare, and the snares fairly rolled off. I don’t really use too much padding on the tom-toms, just a bit so they don’t ring too much. It’s fairly straight-forward tuning. Usually for stage, to get an extra edge to combat the difference in level that the other instruments are playing at, I need to just put more tension on the heads.
RM: What are your thoughts on drum solos?
DS: I don’t do them myself. I’m not a big fan of seeing them at any live show I go to. I’ve seen a few that I like a lot. Once I saw Bonham do one that impressed me. The only other one I remember well, because it was so good, was Phil Collins and Chester Thompson with Genesis. They did a whole thing which was very good. Apart from that, I think the drum solo that impresses me most, and can never be beaten, can only be done by a world famous pipe band in Scotland called Shotts and Dykehead, who are led by a man named Alex Duthart. They have six marching drums, two tenors, and a bass drum, and they do a drum salute which is phenomenally tricky and fast. Incredible! It’s so tight, it sounds like one guy. I’m not knocking American marching bands, but no matter how good your top marching band is, the technical involvement of this particular pipe and drum corps is so many degrees above, it’s unbelievable. A lot of drummers would do themselves proud to see that. I’m rooting for Scotland, that’s a fact.
RM: You mentioned earlier that you teach the drummers in a pipe band where you live. How did that come about?
DS: I live in a very small place, and there is a local band affiliated to the church organization. They advertised for a drum instructor but had trouble getting one, so I went by one week to say that I’d help out for a month or two. I’ve been there for two years. Not the whole time, of course, but when I’m home. Some of the guys are real keen. Some of them practice, some of them don’t, and some of them will come out good. I’m a stickler for parity of both hands. I have them lead off with the right hand and then do the same exercise with the left, and some of them can do it quite well. I might not be around to take them much further, so if I can give them that, at least, then I think it’s a fairly good start.
RM: Do you think you will continue teaching in the future?
DS: I don’t know. Too many other things to do at the moment. I think I’ll keep teaching somebody somewhere sometimes, but I don’t think I’ll be into it several nights a week or anything like that. It’s just something I like doing for that one night a week when I’m home.
RM: Do you play any melodic instruments?
DS: I play a few guitar chords.
RM: Do you write your songs with the guitar?
DS: Either that or sometimes I record a basic rhythm pattern and then sing the melody over it. I don’t feel professional enough to stick a guitar on another track, so I get one of the guys to do it. It’s all in my dreams that I’m going to learn to be a better guitar player, and do a bit of piano. I don’t want to become a one-man band or anything like that, I just want to be able to put it down myself instead of saying, “What do you think this chord should be?” Fortunately, with Nazareth having been together for so long, so much telepathy goes on that if I say, “You know, that thing like so and so,” everybody goes, “Oh yeah, this one,” and starts playing exactly what I had in my mind. It’s really a fabulous thing.
RM: Some of the songs on the Fool Circle were rather grim.
DS: These are only musical observations of the world situations at the moment. I don’t think it’s a precedent we’re setting for our future writing. There is also a fair degree of humor and tongue-in-cheek in these fatal words of content. It’s sort of a Dr. Strangelove set to music.
RM: Your two songs were much more optimistic.
DS: I don’t know if I’m any more optimistic than the rest of the guys, but let’s say I think I write in a lighter vein. We all agreed that the album needed it, too. It’s my first serious solo attempt at songs. It’s not the first time I’ve done it, but it’s the first time I’ve ever actually got two songs onto an album. Maybe I am more optimistic, but hell, I don’t want the world to blow up. I want to keep writing songs, playing drums, touring, and making albums.
RM: I presume the Beach Boys were an influence on you, judging by the tribute you paid them in “Victoria.”
DS: Oh yeah, absolutely. We actually did a cover version of “Wild Honey” on our Playing the Game album. There’s an album by Dennis Wilson called Pacific Ocean Blue, which is one of my favorite albums. He’s another guy who is coming down from the drums, writing songs and singing them.
RM: You also had some luck with Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight.”
DS: I don’t know if she was overly delighted with what we did with her song, but it was certainly very successful for us. Any time that we take on another person’s song, that is a testimony to that song that it is basically and essentially a damn good song, because we take it to pieces and then build it in a totally different fashion that, to us, still sounds good. There are too few songs that are so good that you can actually break them down and then rebuild them in a different manner. The ones we’ve done have always shocked people who can’t imagine Nazareth doing a Joni Mitchell song, or a Beach Boys song, and that’s part of the fun.
RM: I understand that when she performs the song now, she introduces it as a Nazareth tune.
DS: Yes, she certainly did that in London. We actually met her in L.A. when she was finishing the mix-down of Court and Spark. We went into a room and played back our version of “This Flight Tonight,” and I still don’t know to this day if she genuinely was pleased with it or if she was just too shocked by the fact that someone had done that to her song.
RM: Judging by her collaborations with Charles Mingus, I would guess that she is the type who could appreciate the fact that Nazareth found a different way to express her ideas.
DS: I really do think so.
RM: Of course, that type of thing always draws criticism from so-called “purists.”
DS: You can’t knock that because it’s a coming together of two persons’ ideas in music. You can like it or dislike it, but that’s what it’s all about. Why stop trying different combinations’?
RM: Have you heard anything lately that you especially like or dislike?
DS: Some of the drumming that goes on in the New Wave and Punk thing in England is abysmal. But then, it’s suited to what that music is. It seems to me that the time signature and the time keeping of the song is completely irrelevant. Basically, a drummer should at least keep time, and some of these guys don’t. It doesn’t bother the fans, it doesn’t bother the record company or the management, it doesn’t bother the band, and evidently it doesn’t bother them. But it really makes me go “ugh!”
RM: Do you hear any young drummers you like?
DS: Oh yeah. There are always good guys about. That’s the nice thing about it. You’ll never stop learning from the things you hear some guys doing.
RM: What do you listen for in a drummer?
DS: First of all, I always listen to the song, and then try to see what his application to that song is. Later, I’ll listen closely to see how he’s going about it.
RM: Of the established drummers, who do you listen to these days?
DS: Phil Collins I like a lot. I’ve been listening to him for several years. He has made a move from being a full-time drummer with Genesis, to being a frontman, being a singer, and being a songwriter. It’s interesting to me to see the jigsaw of the way he’s gone about it. He has written the song, he’s singing the song, and he knows precisely where to do his fills and how he’s going to do them. That’s a very exciting thing for me, maybe not necessarily to emulate, but to go for something like that. What’s basically in my mind at the moment is to involve myself more with songwriting, do a bit more singing and work the drums round about it, rather than do the jigsaw the other way around.
RM: With your constant touring, how do you find time to write and practice?
DS: We tour in a coach now, so we do a lot of writing on the coach. We have a four-track Teac cassette recording studio set up in the back of the bus, some acoustic guitars, and a drum pad set, so when we do an overnight trip we can fool around there for four or five hours laying down some basic demos while driving.
RM: How have you managed to retain your sanity after all your years on the road?
DS: Well, I don’t think we’re a bunch of angels, put it that way, and we still get the road crazies and have a good time, but I think there’s a fair degree of sanity in the band. The road can get to you, but it’s an easy excuse to use. I think our feet are still fairly on the ground. It’s really just common sense. There’s a time where we will say “that’s enough for tonight” or “that’s enough to drink” or whatever. You can’t stay up five nights in a row until five in the morning and then do a show the next day. Thankfully, we didn’t lose all our common sense during the years of growing up with the band.
RM: Do you have any specific guidelines for dealing with the road?
DS: Don’t be overly impressed by the things that impress people who are not in the business. People in the street think that it’s all champagne breakfasts, drugs, groupies, and blah, blah, blah. It’s always there. Use it for how you want it, but don’t be overly impressed by it. Remain serious about your drumming, be serious about your songs, be serious about the guys that are around you. Don’t abuse them and don’t abuse your own body. But have a good time. It’s a question of balance.
RM: Do you think as you get older you might tour less and record more?
DS: Yes, we have been applying the brakes a bit over the past two years. We’ve had the opportunity to schedule things a bit more sensibly and take more time in album preparation and album recording. We’ll never stop trying to get it better. I think we’ll probably maintain this degree of touring that we’re on at the moment, which really isn’t too frantic. Probably in two years or so we’ll slow down again and do one major worldwide tour a year, and spend more time doing albums. But that has to come in its own time.
RM: So you are obviously not planning to leave Nazareth in the near future.
DS: Oh no. We are fairly well committed as a band to make a sizable growth and a step forward. We’re very lucky. A lot of bands sell well in America and that’s it. But before we even had our first hit single over here, we were living very well off the rest of the world. All that being so, we still feel that there’s a greater growth potential. The music we’re doing now is broadening our horizons. We’re at a great stage in our career and we’re becoming more and more interested in furthering that career. There are still a few years left in us yet.