When you search the internet for drummer John Blease, his website’s tagline, “professionally hitting things,” serves as a rather humble summation of his well-established career. In speaking with him, you’ll find that his sense of humor, kindness, and humility are likely as important a factor as his incredible ability on the kit to play exactly what the gig requires.
Whether he’s recording, performing, or touring, Blease’s chameon-like technique is matched by his capacity to maintain his voice on all the projects he’s been a part of. He’s played with likes of Seal, Paolo Nutini, Goldfrapp, Goldie, Ghostpoet, Jamie Cullum, Tim Minchin, Ben Folds, Olly Murs, Heritage Orchestra, BBC Big Band, Sheryl Crow, Bette Midler, Corine Bailey Rae, and Ellie Goulding. Clearly his CV is impressive. But landing a gig with rock ’n’ roll legend Robert Plant nearly says it all.
MD: When and how did the gig with Robert Plant come about?
Blease: I’ve been playing with Robert since May of 2018, and already it’s been a real journey. The band, the Sensational Space Shifters, has been with Robert for six or seven years, and some of them have been playing with him for far longer, like eighteen years, so there’s a lot of history there. Dave Smith, who had been playing drums, took time off, and my name got put into the mix along with a lot of other people.
MD: How did you prepare for the audition?
Blease: It’s not every day you get a call from Robert Plant. So I learned every song. I didn’t just learn the eighteen to twenty songs for the tour; I learned everything! I also learned every version of every song since the original. I learned about who wrote the song, when it was originally done, who produced it…because if you know all that detail about the song, when you sit down to play it, you have a deeper connection to it. Even though people only hear what I’m playing, what’s informing what I play is this deep history and understanding of the song, and I believe that connects with people and translates through your playing.
I watched YouTube videos of the band’s previous tours, and I watched as many shows as I could from the tour chronologically, to see how the versions evolved throughout the tour. I had to figure out what version I had to learn, so for this gig I had to work harder than ever before because there’s such a huge catalog of music to learn. And so I knew the music inside and out. And the reason I prepared that way for this gig was because I love Led Zeppelin. It’s an honor to have this gig.
MD: Did you chart the songs, or did you memorize everything?
Blease: I did write everything down, and I charted out all the originals. I’m still learning tunes because there’s so much music to absorb.
MD: Do you feel that your approach of connecting with the history of each song set you apart from the rest of the candidates?
Blease: I suppose Robert thought that he could enjoy my company. What Robert doesn’t want is a Bonham impersonator because, although we do play a lot of Zeppelin songs, we don’t play them like they were then. They’ve evolved. Robert’s not interested in recreating the past. He’s all about being inspired in the now, and wants to be surrounded by musicians that he feels will inspire him and offer up new ideas, so it’s a very rich musical environment.
Rather than be some pastiche tribute show, all the songs in the set are done in new ways. For example, on “Whole Lotta Love,” we don’t do the heavy jam session in the middle; we put an old folk song in there. I remember when we played the O2 in London, on the way to the gig Robert said, “I don’t want to end ‘Whole Lotta Love’ like we’ve been doing it.” We had this great ending, and generally, it’s the last song in the set, so the show ended with this climax. But Robert wanted to change that on a whim, and so we ended up just doing this jam, like you might do in a pub or something, and I remember looking up at all those people and thinking, how amazing it is that a musician like Robert still loves to take these chances, because it’s a gamble.
MD: How’d it go?
Blease: I think it really paid off, because the audience went with us and saw that we were on this journey. You wind up using all the skills you’ve acquired playing in wedding bands and such, where you’re looking around at everyone on stage for cues. I think perhaps that’s what’s so important about bands like Zeppelin—they were absolutely fearless in their choices.
MD: Is there a predetermined setlist every night?
Blease: Our setlist is never the same, but it does have to get decided upon before we play, for the sake of our crew doing the sound and lights and whatnot. But if it weren’t for that, there probably wouldn’t be a setlist.
MD: Is it difficult, or was it initially difficult, to give Robert feedback about something?
Blease: You’d be surprised at how open and generous Robert is with his time and talent. It is intimidating, because I grew up listening to this stuff. It’s not that you’re just playing with some rock star. Robert’s music with Zeppelin changed the world, so for me to be up on stage with him is intimidating. But at the same time it’s not, because he’s just like a kid, and he sees that we’re all in this together and makes you feel part of what we’re doing.
MD: Have you recorded with Robert yet?
Blease: Not yet, but one little insight is that when I first started playing with him, I brought my Gretsch drums that are smaller in size than what I suppose other drummers auditioning may have been using, and what’s interesting was finding out just how much Robert knew about drums. He was checking out my kit, and he asked me to hit my kick drum so he could hear how the toms resonated with the kick and how much it made my snare buzz. Fortunately he liked how I had everything tuned.
MD: Was there anything that you didn’t expect?
Blease: I don’t think he’s a big fan of cymbals, or the hi-hat keeping time when the drums aren’t playing. He’d prefer to hear the space that’s supposed to be there instead of my foot keeping time on the hi-hat. Also, if there’s a tune like “Going to California,” where I don’t play until the end, he doesn’t want to hear my snare drum buzzing, so I make sure to turn the snares off. He doesn’t like the superfluous noise taking away from the song. We started playing “Ramble On” recently, and that was a song they struggled with over the years because of Bonham’s pitter-patter drum part during the first section. In the past when he’s done it, it’s been a different arrangement, but now it’s almost identical to the album version, as far as the feel, tempo, and arrangement. And so I threw a towel over my side snare to play that pitter-patter part, but it’s important that I turn the snares off on my main snare, because it has to be a very pure sound. I have to put one stick in my mouth so I can engage the snares right before I come in with the full kit on the chorus, and then do the same to get the snares off again before the next verse.
MD: When you’ve built a career working with several artists either in the studio or on tour, do you ever find it hard to discern your voice on the drums versus what you need to sound like for a given project you’re working on? Or do you feel that at this point in your career people know you and your sound and that’s why they reach out to you to play on those projects?
Blease: That’s a good question, and I’ll try to answer it. I think you have to just go with where you’re at in the moment. I’m always trying to get better and change and evolve. It’s a balance, though, I suppose. Hopefully Robert feels I’ve brought who I am to his band, especially because I know I play very differently from Dave.
Robert asked me to stay in the band after I covered for Dave, so I’m kinda in a tricky position because I didn’t record any of the material we’ve been playing. I’m playing other people’s parts, and Bonham happens to be one of those people. Bonham obviously changed drumming, and to be associated in that world of music alone is intimidating. So I guess I’m kinda in a halfway house at the moment because I’m trying to honor the music that I’m playing while also bringing something of my own to it.
In regards to studio sessions for other people, I’m definitely encouraged to bring my own ideas and sounds. On other gigs, it might be recreating what’s already done. Regardless of my role, I always try to find the creativity to bring to the table.
MD: Do you feel there’s also a balance for professional drummers between taking on projects that might feel more like “work” at times, where perhaps creatively the job isn’t inspiring, but at the same time it’s a gig?
Blease: I’ve been lucky to play mostly on projects that I’ve really enjoyed. And, oddly enough, when I’ve said yes to something that I wasn’t mad about, it doesn’t end up happening for some reason. Sometimes that’s scary because now I’ve got an empty diary for two months and I’ve got to get some money together. But it’s always been meant to be. That said, I don’t really say “no” too much. Matt Chamberlain is someone who really inspires me, and he’ll play on a pop record and then some really avant-garde thing, and I can relate to that. What’s most important is trying to be creative in whatever you choose to do. Find something to take away from what you do, and then it’ll be worth it.
When I first got put in the mix for the gig with Robert, what I thought would impress him was seeing all the big names I’ve played with and all the pressures that might come with that. So I sent him stuff like that I’d done, and I got word back that he wasn’t interested. What saved me, though, was that about eight years ago, I’d played with all of the guys that are in the band that makes up the Sensational Space Shifters, in this North African group called JuJu. And since they knew me from that experience, some of them encouraged me to make a compilation of all the wonderful jazz records I made. These are all records I made with my friends and was really proud to be a part of, but they certainly didn’t ship many units. Robert loved them, and the next day I got a call. So those passion projects are actually what got me the gig with Robert, not the big-name gigs. It was more about what I had to offer musically that he was interested in.
MD: Take me back to the beginning and your aspirations as a young drummer.
Blease: My first experience was getting to play the tambourine when I was in my school choir. They gave me a tambourine, and I could play in time, and that was the moment when I thought, “This is it! This is going to be my life!” From there I started by just watching drummers on television and teaching myself off of that. And then I got some drum lessons at school, and that progressed, and later I studied at the Royal Academy in London. So I’m formally trained.
MD: Did you have a career path in mind?
Blease: I knew from the minute I got into it, I was going to be a drummer. I didn’t know whether I was going to be in a band or in an orchestra. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I did know one million percent that I was going to be a professional drummer. I still get the same feeling now from playing as I did when I first played that tambourine with the choir. I suppose initially my goals after school were to be in a band—I was really into Radiohead in the ’90s. And then I got really into jazz, and so I thought I was going to be a jazz musician—and I was for a long time. And then I got into a band and I really liked that, because it was like getting paid to rehearse, and there was an audience that actually wanted to hear this music. Now I’m just trying to do my thing and make music with people I like.
MD: If you were in the position of hiring a drummer, what qualities would you look for?
Blease: If I was in the position of hiring a drummer for a tour, I’d take it for a given that they could play, so it becomes about connecting with the person about things besides music. Can you have a discussion about the news or views on things or connect about music in general? People may put it under the banner of “hanging out,” but that’s the important stuff.
MD: What is something you’ve learned from being on the road with Robert?
Blease: Robert is still constantly searching for things that inspire him. We’re always going to old record shops and hunting down records. When we were in Austin, a guy came along who owns a nightclub there called C-Boy’s, and he gave Robert this record by the Jimmy Vaughn Trio live at C-Boy’s, and I asked Robert about it. He said, “This is great! It’s got Frosty on drums!” Frosty Smith was one of Bonham’s favorite drummers. He was an Austin-based drummer about town, but Bonzo loved him. Listening to the record, it was this trio with a Hammond organ, guitar, and drums. The way he played has that same bravado, and you could hear Frosty’s influence on Bonzo’s touch.
It’s also great when you get to play with other musicians that are all on the same wavelength. When Robert sings, he’s reacting to what you’re playing, and you start this conversation, and that’s such a huge buzz! I think I’m going to push that a bit more on our next tour, because I was a bit nervous at first when he was wailing and I’d be giving it back—he loves that—but in those moments I definitely caught myself starting to wonder if I was going too far. But he loves it when the band stretches out and sometimes goes too far, but then you recover and someone’s got someone else’s back. He’s always longing for that feeling of it almost collapsing rather than just delivering the same performance every night. He’s longing for, “Holy crap, what happened on that!” I remember a couple things I went for and didn’t quite happen, and Robert would tell me after the gig, “You remember that thing you were doing? You had it.” And I’ll remember that, to play this gig, I have to be willing to be fearless—but have absolute intention and commit to what I’m playing in the moment.
Tools of the Trade
Blease endorses Gretsch drums, Istanbul Agop cymbals, Roland electronics, Vic Firth sticks, LP percussion, Remo heads, and Protection Racket products.