Jerry Speiser comes from a land down under—Australia, to be exact. And he’s in the group that helped make the land down under a desirable place to be and to be from. The group is Men At Work, and when they burst on the scene in 1982, Australia got a reputation for having much more than koala bears and kangaroos to offer.
Their first single, “Who Can It Be Now?” hit number one on October 30, 1982, a month before their debut album, Business As Usual, hit platinum status, eventually going triple platinum. It’s been uphill from there. Their second LP, Cargo, went triple platinum in the U.S., reaching number three on the charts, as well as spawning three top-30 singles (two in the top ten): “It’s A Mistake,” “Overkill” and “Dr. Heckyll And Mr. Jive. “
The band’s infectious rhythms and almost discordant vocals make Men At Work’s sound very identifiable, the signature for which Jerry Speiser is greatly responsible. With his eye on the future, Jerry has also ventured into the business domain, as well as developing production skills. But his first love remains playing drums.
We sat in his hotel suite for a couple of hours during the last U. S. tour discussing just that. Soft-spoken and polite, Jerry asked his friend and drum roadie, P.C., to be present, stressing the teamwork between the two of them, both making I he afternoon a pleasant one indeed.
RF: Growing up in Australia, did you think that the kind of success Men At Work is experiencing was possible?
JS: I always thought there was the possibility of a band making it. Whether I was in it or not is another question. You can make it living in Australia, playing in the pubs. There’s a guy by the name of Mike Rudd who’s been in bands for the last 10 or 15 years. He’s had albums out and he’s making a living. The shame of it is that he didn’t quite crack it, because he didn’t have that hit single. Making it in this world is having a hit single. That’s all it takes. The music scene in Australia is only just catching up with the rest of the world, but the talent has always been there. There’s no shortage of talent, but the problem is organization over there.
RF: You were a science major in college.
JS: I studied science and majored in physics.
RF: That’s a long way away from drumming.
JS: Yes and no. You understand the no, obviously, but I’ll explain the yes part. Physics is more involved with conceptual science than mathematical science. There is a lot of mathematics in it, but physics employs mathematics merely as a tool to get from one point to the other. Then it is reinterpreted into things a layperson can understand. There is a lot of mathematics involved in playing the drums. We’re talking about time and intervals, so it’s very mathematical. Then you have things like tuning drums, which I spend a lot of time on, and you have the physics of acoustics, harmonics and all the tensions have to be right, which is one area where physics and music blend. There is a course in the university called “The Physics Of Music.” Some people put it into one word and call it acoustics, although that’s a bit more than music, because that’s sound and reaction to other materials.
RF: But that’s a long way away from your career as a drummer. What changed?
JS: Nothing changed. I’ve been playing drums since I was five years old.
RF: Were you ever planning a career in physics?
JS: I wasn’t planning anything. I always had a dream to play in the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. I’m not saying Men At Work is, but maybe the next band I’m in will be. I’m really interested in lots and lots of things, though. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a professional basketball player, but there was pressure on me from the family to study. Physics really intrigued me. I loved physics and I could rave about it for hours. The knowledge I gained from studying physics and its conceptual ideas helps me through my whole life. It gives me an approach, a way of thinking, a way of analyzing, and logic. When you go into particle physics and atoms, that introduces vibration. As soon as you’re talking about vibration, you’re talking about signals flying between people—”vibes.” I’m sensitive to vibes, and I consider that consistent within the physics framework. It really helps me in all those things. I like physics, but I always liked playing drums too.
RF: What made you make the commitment to music?
JS: I played in bands all the time when I was a teenager, and I played with a certain group of guys for about eight years. That’s where I developed my musical knowledge, mostly. The four of us grew together and helped each other learn. While I was still studying in 1974, I did an album with these guys. That was the first time I ever saw a recording studio, and it just blew my mind.
RF: Can you expound on that first recording experience, what it was like, and why it blew your mind?
JS: The first time you see a control room in a recording studio, it’s like a little kid seeing the cockpit of a plane for the first time. There is just this mess of gauges, dials, buttons, knobs, wires and pretty colored lights. It’s completely new, but you expect it to sort of come up with the goods. Hearing the result was just amazing.
RF: What were some of the difficulties you found during your first recording experiences?
JS: Tape is so sensitive to variation. You have to be incredibly consistent. Recording technique is something I’m not even sure about these days. Most engineers like you to play the same level from start to finish, and if there is any sort of dynamics involved, they do that in the mix. If you play inconsistently, it’s very, very difficult to fix in the mix. That was one thing I had to learn. If you’re going to hit the snare drum in a certain spot, you have to hit in that same place from the start of the song right to the end of the song. You can’t hit it in the middle for a few bars and then hit it on the edge. You have to play with incredible consistency and be really tight. When we did rhythm tracks, we usually tried to put down as much as we could in the initial track. We wouldn’t have keyboards, because that’s really an overdub thing. We tried to get the bass, drums and at least one guitar, if not both, happening. That’s how we did most of the tracks. The only thing that was kept from the initial rhythm tracks was the drums. Everything else was wiped and done as overdubs. What all this means is that the pressure is on the drummer in a sense. With everyone playing together, that’s what is creating the feel of the song. You’ve got to have the other players in there to make that happen.
That band was a funny situation because the keyboard player had a recording contract. He was sort of Australia’s answer to Mike Oldfield. I happened to run into him and he said, “Well, I’ve got this contract. Do you want to play on my album?” Of course we said yes. So we were transformed into a recording band. The band sort of formed out of the recording and then we toured, which lasted about eight months. Then I got a day job. That was at the end of ’75. In ’76 I had different day jobs. I was still playing. I was always prepared to do anything—play jazz in clubs or anything. Towards the end of ’76, I decided to go overseas. Then I came back to Melbourne in ’77, went back to the university, finished there and I was beginning to take music more seriously. I started to take a music course at Melbourne State College, which is where I met Greg Ham, the sax player.
RF: You said before that you didn’t care about recording contracts and I wondered if you just never considered musical success? Was it just a desire to play without any real goal?
JS: I always felt—and still do—that success comes from skill. As far as I was concerned, I still had a really long way to go to develop my skills enough to be worthy of that. All my life, I’ve never tried to overstep myself. I have to stay within the realms of my ability and I am guilty of doing that in a very modest way. I’ll be very sure before I do things. These days I’m not as much that way. I like to involve a little bit of risk, because without it, there is no development. If you play it safe all the time, you’re not going to get anywhere. I like to be risky, but it’s usually a calculated risk. If I’ve got a reputation, then I’ve got to be careful, so I can’t afford to go out on a ledge. But I like things to be edgy. What I consider edgy, other people might think is really safe. It comes down to how critical you are. I might think I blew it and other people might think it was great or okay. That’s the subjective outlook.
RF: You said you started playing drums at five years old.
JS: I started playing drums without even thinking about it. Our house is about a mile from the local primary school where my sister went. At that school, there was a group of drummers—about half-a-dozen snare drummers and one bass drummer. Every morning, as the kids were marching into school, they would play. We could hear them from our house. In the mornings I would be outside. I would pick up twigs or sticks out of the garden, and just sit on the concrete back porch and play along with them. I wanted drum lessons. When I started at school, every Wednesday after lunch they had drum practice in a little shed next to the football oval. There would be about 20 drummers in the shelter shed and one teacher. All the kids would stand up and play with their sticks on the wall. It was an amazing sound—20 or 30 kids playing marching tunes on the wooden walls. That was drum practice. Kids were only allowed to go to drum practice in about fourth grade. When I was in second grade, my mum went to the headmaster of the school and asked if I could participate in drum practice. I got in and that was when I first learned. Then I became the leader of the band in fifth grade and sixth grade.
I kept playing. I wanted a drum for my birthday and I was really looking forward to getting one. When birthdays came around, aunts and uncles always asked my parents what I would like. Obviously, mum said that I wanted a drum. From one of my aunts I got a toy drum, which was a tin can with six-inch drumsticks. I was devastated. Usually with birthdays and presents, I appreciate everything I get, but I was so disappointed.
RF: How old were you when you got your first real drum?
JS: Eight or nine. It was one drum with one little cymbal which came with a little record. I didn’t have a real drumkit until I was a teenager. My mother bought it for me and supported me right from the start.
RF: Did they have a fit when you chose a career in drumming?
JS: Dad wasn’t happy about the drums, and I wasn’t allowed to practice when he was home. At that time, he thought everything that wasn’t related to education was a distraction. One time in high school when the guys came to my house to pick me up to go to practice, my dad went outside and said, “Jerry isn’t coming today. He’s got better things to do with his time.” I was inside crying my eyes out. So I didn’t get a great deal of support from dad, although, in a funny way I did. My father is a music fanatic and he has an incredible collection of records, so he listened to music all the time. It really did influence me because my appreciation of music is a fine one. I tune into subtleties and such, and that’s how I gained my initial training.
RF: How do they feel about you and your career now?
JS: They’re as proud as punch of course. In the record shop, dad goes through the bins, and puts our album out in front.
RF: What kinds of music did you identify most with?
JS: When I was young, we played a couple of Beatles songs, of course. I also listened to a lot of the early blues things, like Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton and John Mayall, with a guitarist friend of mine.
RF: Were there particular drummers who influenced you?
JS: Phil Collins was probably my biggest influence. That was ten years ago. Another influence was Richie Hayward from Little Feat, which is one of my all-time favorite bands. One of my biggest ambitions is to be in a band with Bill Payne, who is my favorite keyboard player. Of course, there was Ringo Starr, who was a really imaginative drummer. I never thought he was that great technically, but he had a lot of imagination. I really like the drummer from the Average White Band. I also like Simon Phillips and, of course, Steve Gadd.
RF: What was your function in the rhythm section when Men At Work first formed?
JS: My basic job was to keep time and provide a rhythm that would enhance the feel of the song. The beat has to be there, but it has to gel with what else is going on. It has to be inconspicuous in a sense, but interesting if you want to zero in on it. It has to be inconspicuous, but not insignificant.
The five years before Men At Work was a time when I did the most concentrated listening and learning. What I learned then, I have really used in these last five years. I haven’t put that much energy into developing my drumming in the last five years, and now I’m ready to sort of learn again. I’m in a fortunate situation now because I can learn those things and use them at the same time.
RF: What are you doing to develop those skills?
JS: I’m trying to be a lot more adventurous and more creative in my playing. Rather than doing the same things every night, I try to do a few different things every night, without blowing it or messing it up. I have to play within the framework of the feel and still be a team player, but I’m trying to make what I play a ittle bit more interesting to me and to the people listening. I take my practice kit wherever I go. If we’re in a hotel for more than two or three days, I have it in my room. If we’re doing a couple of weeks of one-night ers, it stays with the band equipment and P.C., my drum roadie, sets it up every night for me. I come in a bit earlier and practice a bit. When we have time off, I’m going to have lessons from as many different people as I can.
RF: Some people would use the success to take it a bit easier.
JS: For me, it’s an opportunity to learn. I’m a babe in the industry. My career is only just starting. Being a musician is only a part of my life. I want to go back to school and study different things. I would like to take an engineering course as well as study philosophy and music. I would like to do what Russ Kunkel does—play on other people’s records and do tours. I have heaps of ideas about what I want to do. I want to produce albums and engineer as well. At the moment, I’m collecting bits and pieces of equipment to set up a studio. I sat through the Cargo album mix from start to finish and learned a lot. I became a part of the mixing team.
RF: Where did the name Men At Work come from?
JS: We saw it as a road sign and it was on the list of names of about half a dozen. That was the name that most people liked on most days.
RF: How did you get involved with the band?
JS: I met Colin at La Trobe University where we were both studying. We were eating lunch on a bench, just chatting. I said I was in a band and we were looking for a singer. He said he was a singer looking for a band. So I suggested that he audition for us and he said okay. We liked him, he liked us, we played a couple of gigs and the band broke up. I knew that I would play with him again in a band, though. He told me about this great guitarist he had met, Ronno [Ron Stryker]. Colin got Ronno to live in Melbourne. They started playing in wine bars and clubs as an acoustic duo. Then they started getting into electrics, doing the same thing. I knew Colin was interested in getting a band together. Meanwhile I was playing with a group who was playing really amazing original music, and then 90% of that band became religious fanatics. The day that band broke up, I went to see Colin and asked if he wanted to try something. That became the nucleus of Men At Work. Greg sort of wandered in. Ron was a guitar player and he decided to play bass, which was fantastic because it enabled the band to start working.
RF: How much free rein do you have creatively? How much is the rhythmic feel implied before you sit down at the drums?
JS: There’s a lot, but I also involve myself in the arrangement of the songs as well. We all do. It’s really good like that because everybody throws in his two cents. “Down By The Sea” was created one day just by playing this feel. Everybody was there at the same time and created together. Then Colin went home that night and wrote the words.
RF: Are there any unusual tracks that you would like to talk about?
JS: The recording of “Down By The Sea” was quite amazing. That was the last song we recorded for the album. We started recording that about 11:00 at night and we didn’t get it down until about 8:00 in the morning. No one was really on the planet when that was recorded. We had started at noon that day and it was the last one, so we thought we’d go for it. It’s a six-minute song. In three minutes, when you’re recording, so much can go wrong. When you’ve got to play and not make a mistake for six minutes, it’s difficult.
RF: Is that track void of overdubs?
JS: It has overdubs, but I don’t recall what portion of the original was kept.
RF: If you could suspend your modesty for a moment, can you recall any tracks where your input to the song really helped dictate the way it came out?
JS: Oh yeah. I can pick out bits and pieces of nearly every song on the albums that were my ideas. On “Be Good Johnny,” there’s a little build up which is just one example of one of my ideas. For me, I think one of my best performances on the Cargo album is “High Wire.” When I’m rehearsing for an album, I go through this incredible, supercritical, analytical sort of process. We were working on “High Wire” for quite a while, and we got to the point where we really weren’t sure if we wanted to do it or not. We killed it. We pulled it to bits so much that we lost it. And I said, “Let’s play it like a Who song—just let it rip.” That’s how we did it and it really worked. There are lots of fills on that track. “Blue For You” is the first track I ever did with a click track. People say my tempo is pretty good, although I sometimes feel that it wanders all over the place, depending on who I’m playing with. Some players tend to push ahead and other players tend to pull back. I get caught in the middle somewhere, yet I’m still trying to make the thing sound coherent.
RF: How was it working with a click track?
JS: It was a nice little education. It’s very difficult, but I enjoyed it. I selected different cymbals for just about every track. I spend a lot of time selecting my cymbals. A lot of it’s got to do with the decay time of the cymbals—whether I want it to sort of drift away or just stop. And of course there’s the clarity to consider.
RF: What cymbals do you play?
JS: I endorse Sabian. I also endorse Pearl drums and Calato sticks.
RF: How do you choose your cymbals?
JS: If I want a crash cymbal, I pick out every crash cymbal that’s in the building and I listen to every one of them. Rather than saying that I want a 17″ heavy cymbal, I just look for the cymbal that sounds the best. I don’t care how heavy or thick it is, although there are restrictions. I can’t have a cymbal that’s too thin because I hit them pretty hard and I want them to last. I’m going through a process now where I might end up with 14″ crash cymbals, but at the moment, for the purposes of this band and what I need, I’m using between 16″ and 19″. So I pick out all the cymbals of one category, say the 16″ mediums, and put two on the stands. I hit each of them once and pick the one that sounds the best. Then I take one and hit it quickly two or three times, to make sure that I’m going to get an attack from each successive hit. Some cymbals sound like a mess by the second or third time you hit them. So I look for attack and definition from each successive hit. Then I take the inferior cymbal down, put up a different one, and compare those two.
When I do the one hit, I listen for tonality because some cymbals have overtones going on that I don’t like. I also listen for rise time: Some cymbals are sort of up there from the start, while others come up and then explode. Then I listen to the decay time. I f I’m doing an album, I like to have cymbals that have a long decay, as well as cymbals with a short decay. Depending on the song, I will choose accordingly. If it’s a slow song, I like a slow decay so it hangs in there for a bit. But if I’m doing rock ‘n’ roll fast things, I need something that is going to decay quickly so when I hit it again, it’s new again.
RF: What about your kit?
JS: I’ve got 8″, 10″, 12″, 13″, 14″, and 16″ tom-toms, all standard depths. And I have a 22″ kick.
RF: The snare?
PC: Ludwig Coliseum.
JS: Remo Ambassadors, top and bottom. On the snare drum, I use a Ludwig Rocker on the top and an extra thin on the bottom. I use a wooden bass drum beater.
RF: What about tuning?
JS: I try to tune the bottom heads to the same tone as the top heads. That way I get a really nice, clear tone. If the bottom head is tighter than the top head, it will tend to choke the sound. The drum won’t resonate or it will make the note turn up. If the bottom head is looser than the top, you tend to have the opposite, where the note will go down. Some people like that. The most important thing to me is that the skins are tuned to themselves so that when I go around and tap at each lug, I get the same tone. In between choking it and it being too loose, there is an optimum tension where that drum is just going to explode. I love doing that sometimes. I go through the tuning feeling that the note is in there, sort of trying to get out. I don’t use any damping on the toms. They’re wide open. Because they’re tuned as close to perfect as I can get them, they don’t ring abnormally, they don’t rattle, and they’re nice and clean. I use the white, coated Ambassadors because I find that l can get the most tone out of a drum with those heads. They have a really nice attack—a real crack—and the resonance is good. I tried Pinstripes, and the clear ones with the black or silver dot. I find they’ve got a nice tone, but they don’t have the same attack and they have a plastic sound. When it comes to tuning the drums, I’ve found that there seems to be an optimum tension where the drum will resonate the most. This is where my physics background comes in. I know through nature that everything tends towards a stability, and if you somehow bring tension into it, it’s a waste of energy. So I try to bring things to the point of least stress and the least amount of energy involved. I just let everything work the way it should. I get each drum to that point where it explodes. Then I listen to the intervals between the drums and get them sitting nicely, so I can virtually play my drums like a glockenspiel.
RF: Do you tune to your ears or to a note?
JS: What I found was that my first rack tom, the 13″ tom, seemed to be around an A. Now that I’ve gone through the experimental stage, rather than looking for the sound, I’ll tune that to an A and tune the rest to that drum.
PC: It’s a minor triad from A going up, with the 8″ tom an octave above the rack tom. Going down it’s A, C#, E, A. I don’t know what the two bottom ones are. Whenever I tune them, it’s whatever sounds right.
RF: Is there anything you can tell me about the opening of the song “Down Under”? There are parts that almost sound like timbales.
JS: It is drums with overdubbed bottles. We had a whole box of wine bottles, Coke bottles and beer bottles. We put water in them to tune them and overdubbed it. The start of the video shows me hitting bottles. I wasn’t hitting them on top; I was hitting them on the side when we recorded it. But that’s where the idea for the video came from.
RF: How do you reproduce that live?
JS: I don’t; I just play it. That’s just one of those subtle recording things that I don’t even worry about.
RF: Some of your drums sound like certain tunings of Simmons drums. Each hit sounds very defined and there’s no bleeding of other drums.
JS: I suppose Simmons really are trying electronically to create the sound of an acoustic drum. We’re just going for sounds.
RF: How do you feel about electronic drums?
JS: I think the idea is fantastic. I’m really tempted to completely discard my acoustic drums and go electronic. I’m really glad to see they’ve come a long way from the Syndrum. What I sort of envisage is having a trigger instead of a complete Simmons setup. You see, what makes the Simmons sound is not the actual thing you’re hitting, but the machine that the signal goes into. If you have a pickup that you can attach to an acoustic drum which is going to give you the same signal, you can have the same Simmons sound, but triggered by an acoustic drum. I reckon that would be fantastic. You could have a complete electronic sound, although you would actually be playing the acoustic drums. Then acoustic sounds could be mixed in with the electronic sound. The drummer would still be hearing the acoustic sound of the drums. The Simmons heads are made so that the sound of the stick hitting the pad is minimized and you can just hear the sound of the machine. I like where electronic drums are going, but I like them better when they’re used as electronic drums and not trying to imitate acoustic drums, which was the problem when synthesizers first came on the scene. At first, synthesizers were used to try to synthesize an already known sound rather than to produce sounds and characteristics in their own right.
RF: Is there a kind of music you would like to play at some point?
JS: I want to play in a big band one day. I’m not a great listener of jazz, but I’d love to play it.
RF: People tend to categorize your music as new wave, but it’s not.
JS: No. See, they call it new wave because they like the word “new.” The word “new” is appropriate to our music because it’s a new music in a way, although I don’t think it’s that new. I think it’s a unique sound merely through the combination of the players in the band. What our music is, really, is melodic rock. Our music has a little bit of melody, and it has rhythm. Our songs can be about silly things, like “Heckyll And Jive,” they can be about “Overkill” and not getting any sleep, or they can be about being paranoid about who’s going to be knocking at your door. They’re little stories, narratives, and not “I love you baby, ooh, yeah, yeah.” They’ve got nice melodies and choruses that you can sing along to. They’ve got all the ingredients that make pop songs. I think the major thing is the melody. New wave, to me, is very, very boring.
RF: The vocals have almost a distinctive rhythmic feel. You seem to really play off the melody as opposed to just keeping time.
JS: I approach music in an improvisational sense where I like to bounce off other players. The feel is created either by the melody, the rhythm, or a combination of the two. Most of my fills are sort of inspired by the rest of the song.
RF: You design your own road cases as well.
PC: They’re amazing. The two large cases sitting side by side are the size of a large couch and there are facilities to hold cymbals also. Everything is so well protected and they’re easy to handle. You open the lid and there is a tray sitting on top that has all the hardware. That comes out and you put the stands together. You pull that out and all the toms are sitting in their own compartments.
JS: It’s important to have a good drum roadie too. I think it’s important for drummers to work with their roadies as a partnership— a sharing situation. P.C. can now tune my drums and get a monitor sound. He used to work as a sound engineer, so he understands sound. He can sit on my kit and get a kick sound, the snare, the toms and everything through the monitors. He does 90% of it and then I come in and fine tune it, but P.C. saves me hours. He changes the heads and tunes the toms. All I have to do is a little bit of fine tuning. It took a while to develop to that stage, but he can now tune drums and get monitor sounds better than most of the drummers. When it comes to monitors, what I have in my monitor is mainly the kick.
PC: That’s the focal point. Sitting there and playing the kit acoustically, the thing you miss from what you’re used to hearing from the drumkit is the kick because it’s a little buried. It’s the lowest part of the tonal spectrum and it’s very difficult to hear some of the notes, so you need that power.
JS: When I’m doing a soundcheck, I’ll get P.C. to turn up the hi-hat and I’ll hit it. We’ll work on the sound a bit, but once I’ve got the sound I want, I get him to turn it down so that I can’t hear it. Then I get him to turn it up slowly, and as I’m hitting it, I get the monitor guy to switch it off. I hit it so I am hearing it acoustically and then I hear it amplified. I have it so the amplified sound is only slightly louder than the acoustic sound. I do the same thing with the snare drum. First he turns it up loud, and then we actually switch it on and off to make sure that the sound being amplified isn’t coloring the overall sound. Then I get him to bring it to a level where I can just tell that it’s on. I get a fantastic balanced sound where I am. I’ve got one monitor on either side. The keyboard player, Greg, is over to my right. I can hear the keyboards coming from him, so what I do is put the keyboards in my left monitor, and I bring it up loud enough so that I’m not hearing it from either the right or the left, but from the middle. I’ve heard some drummers’ monitor systems where it’s just all drums and everything is to the max. I try to get a studio sound within my little spot.
PC: It’s a lot of work, but it pays off.
RF: The group’s success occurred rather quickly. Is it difficult as a person and a musician when suddenly you have notoriety? Does it change your life?
JS: There was an article about Chad Wackerman who has played with Frank Zappa and he’s 22 years old. It blows me right out when I hear about young musicians like that. I’ve been playing drums since I was a kid and I’ve been in lots of bands. This is really the first professional band I’ve been in. I went to the university. I also did heaps of different jobs: I was a postman, I unloaded bricks off trucks, I mixed concrete, I worked drills, I worked in a slaughterhouse, I drove trucks, and I set up marquees and circus tents. In my life, I’ve had a little bit of experience, so nothing has gone to my head. What notoriety means to me is having a career and a reputation, and the only thing that freaks me out is keeping that reputation. There’s a responsibility to the people. Nothing frightens me. I mean, I can handle it and I can handle the publicity. It’s not as intense for me as it is for Colin and Greg, though, who are really the focal points of the band. Colin can’t walk ten yards down the street without being approached. For me, it hasn’t become a problem. My being recognized and people acknowledging me is, in a way, a sign of respect. So it’s my responsibility to appreciate that. They’re the people who put me where I am. How has success affected me? It hasn’t, I don’t think. It’s given me an opportunity to do what I want to do.