From Dave Grohl to Ringo Starr: the secrets of star drummers

You get none of the credit and do a lot of the work: whod be a drummer? Deirdre OCallaghan asks some of the best in the world. Introduction by Stella Mozgawa of Warpaint

Im not sure what kind of person makes a drummer, because they are so wildly different. The star of Whiplash and a 14-year-old kid in a punk band have a different set of goals, even though they are expressing themselves through the same instrument. You have to be a certain kind of person to want to play music seriously. There is a type that sees the value in sticking to it.

When I was at primary school, boys never let me near a drum kit, because girls cant play drums. But while other kids learned instruments and became disillusioned, I always had this little fire in my belly. Even now, when I play drums, I still feel like an excited teen.

A lot of drummers are studious and read percussion notation, but I started off hitting pillows to video clips of Hanson songs in the living room. The bands drummer, Zac, was 11, tiny and on TV. Everyone needs that moment of realisation I can do that! and seeing a kid my age and stature in a successful band was mine.

My mum was a singer and my dad played bass; he bought me my first drum kit for my 12th birthday. I took lessons with a local jazz teacher, but after a couple of months he told my dad he wanted to let me follow my own path. I thought it was really cool of him to say, let her teach herself all these songs, she has a good ear. I found the best learning process was sitting at my drum kit, headphones on, listening to songs by Tool and Led Zeppelin, music that had intense drumming.

Performing well has a lot to do with feeling relaxed and confident, as opposed to warm-ups before a show. Its important to do the best work you can, to honour the composition and nail the parts youre playing, but its difficult to have an achievement that is separate from everyone else. As a band, you are a package: its a very emotional experience, with the same three people every night over an extended period of time.

Outside Warpaint, Ive played with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kurt Vile and Regina Spektor. When I play more aggressive stuff, I can snap two pairs of sticks a gig. Its a different game now: Warpaint dont go that hard.

I dont get nervous before shows, but sometimes, on TV, I get a cramp in my hand muscles. Something just hits me and I grip the sticks differently like a monkey, rather than a human who has practised this for a decade.

Drumming suits my personality more than being a singer in the spotlight. I dont want to be famous. As a child playing Steely Dan in my bedroom, I would close my eyes and fantasise about playing a massive festival; I never wondered what it would be like to hook up with Leo DiCaprio.

(Top picture: Deap Vallys Julie Edwards, photographed by Deirdre OCallaghan at the bands rehearsal space, Los Angeles)

Stephen Morris, New Order and Joy Division

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Stephen Morris, photographed in his home studio, UK. Photograph: Deirdre O’Callaghan

In Manchester, in the early 1970s, there was very little to do; it was all grey. If you wanted to hear music, you had to go to concerts at the Free Trade Hall and the Stoneground to see bands like Genesis. Phil Collins was an interesting drummer, and probably still is. When punk came along, you pushed all those records under your bed and pretended you never liked them at all.

Joy Division were called Warsaw then. I saw two ads in a magazine. One was Drummer wanted: Warsaw and the other was Drummer wanted: the Fall. I thought, hmm, I could probably do both. But I phoned up [Joy Division frontman] Ian Curtis and got the job.

It was really difficult getting a gig because there werent that many venues. Nobody liked punk bands. It was us versus the establishment; we quite liked being on the outside of it all. There was the bloody Manchester mafia, where the Drones would get gigs, and the Buzzcocks, and everybody else but we couldnt get a gig. So when you did, youd really go for it.

We knew Tony Wilson, who became our manager; he saw us, and everyone thought we were fantastic, even though it was probably more anger that set us apart. And then people started getting interested.

Working with our producer Martin Hannett on the album Unknown Pleasures was interesting and infuriating. Youd listen to it and wonder how it had got from what you imagined, which was very raw and live and raucous, to the way it sounded. It was like, whats he done? I had to record all the drums separately. Martin wanted the bass drum in the ballroom, and the snare drum in a tin can, and the hi-hat in a little cardboard box which is dead easy to do now, but not then.

The worst was Love Will Tear Us Apart. We had recorded it, and I had done the drums over and over again. We were staying in a flat in Baker Street in London, and I had just got my head down when the phone went. Its bloody Martin: he wants us to come back and do the snare drum. Every time I hear Love Will Tear Us Apart, all I can hear is the anger of being dragged out of bed.

Jim Sclavunos (Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Grinderman, Sonic Youth and the Cramps)

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Jim Sclavunos, photographed at home, New York. Photograph: Deirdre O’Callaghan

Im mostly self-taught, but for a few weeks I took lessons from Jim Payne, an esteemed drummer and teacher. He taught me many things, one of which has stuck with me the admonition that in order to be properly balanced on ones throne so that all limbs can move freely and independently, one must have a relaxed asshole. Thats very important wisdom for any student of the instrument.

The key moment of my recording career happened very early on: I was listening to a playback of a song I had just recorded, and was dismayed by the loud clicking sound that was meant to be the sonic representation of my kick drum. I resolved to understand more about the sound of drums, and about producing. I had my own particular sound that I felt was unique, if raw, and much better.

Leroy Horsemouth Wallace (Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs, Studio One session drummer)

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Leroy Horsemouth Wallace, photographed at home in Jamaica. Photograph: Deirdre O’Callaghan

I still play music because, like my friend Bob Marley, I have a dream. I still hear him in my ears. He says: Horsemouth, go there and do it. You are there. Maybe you are the only one left.

The drumsticks I played with in Rockers [the 1978 reggae film] werent real. I couldnt find mine, so I took two posts out of some old chairs in the back of a hotel. Its not about the drumsticks, its you. A lot of drummers dont master the beat; you can see it in their faces, theyre dying for the song to be done.

You make your own space. Reggae represents a lot of things. Its several beats in one. Its hip-hop, Tchaikovsky in everything you play, there is a reggae beat.

Larry Mullen Jr (U2)

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Larry Mullen Jr, photographed in Ireland. Photograph: Deirdre O’Callaghan

I formed the band in Dublin in 1975, around the time of the punk explosion: it seemed anything was possible. Being able to play your instrument proficiently was the least important part; attitude was essential, which was really great news for us we were not accomplished musically, but had a singer with attitude. At school, we rehearsed on Wednesday afternoons in Mr McKenzies music room the first song we wrote was called Wednesday Afternoon. We argued endlessly over musical indiscretions we still do.

I was a huge glam rock fan. In 1973, Cozy Powell released Dance With The Devil, which reached No 3 in the UK charts. Its a rare and beautiful thing for a drummer to have a chart hit. But if glam, pop and rock, along with Dance With The Devil, were my wake-up call, then Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane would become my most important benchmarks, with one of the all-time great rock drummers, Woody Woodmansey, playing on all three. I had no clue what Bowie was singing about.

Carla Azar (Autolux)

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Carla Azar, photographed in her studio, California. Photograph: Deirdre O’Callaghan

When I was four, I went to a football game with my parents in Huntsville, Alabama. There was a drum line playing right behind us. In retrospect, they were probably not very good, but I remember turning around and being mesmerised.

The most addictive thing to me in music is spontaneity, chaos and honesty especially when playing live. I feel the most satisfaction when I finish and I dont understand how I played some of the things I played.

Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Them Crooked Vultures)

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Dave Grohl, photographed at home in Los Angeles. Photograph: Deirdre O’Callaghan

In Nirvana, I never got recognised. I lived this perfect existence: I was in one of the biggest bands ever, but I could walk in the front door of a gig and no one would know. I could get up and play those great songs with my friends and watch people go bananas.

Some of my favourite drummers would be considered some of the worst of all time because their tempo fluctuates so much, or there is inconsistency but its the passion that interests me. I cant do a solo. I never practise by myself. Its like, Id never really dance alone.

As a drummer, its your responsibility to make sure this thing gets off the ground, but you dont expect any thanks. Youre there to serve the song; youre there to get people to move. They might not really know why theyre dancing, but its you.

Ive always been fascinated by the Ringo Starr debate. Was he a great drummer? Of course he was a great drummer: you hear three and a half seconds of his playing and you immediately know its him.

Bobbye Hall (Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Stevie Nicks, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen)

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Bobbye Hall, photographed in the desert, California. Photograph: Deirdre O’Callaghan
I would be lulled to sleep by listening to the blues. I knew that instead of using words I wanted to play and, being an only child, I had a chance to do that. My parents needed to work things out and, for me, beating on pots and pans was a way of not involving myself with what the adults were doing.

I came to Hollywood on 15 January 1970. I had a 30-day ticket: either I make it or Im gone. And Im still here. I stayed at a residence for women in the industry. I had a friend, and I would come home and she would ask: How was your session? And I would say: Well, I was working for this group, they call em the Doors, I think. And shed go: Oh my God, youre kidding me. I had not a clue.

When you play, there is a place you go. Its not something you do: it happens to you. Its almost like abduction: you came back and you looked at your watch and it was a different time.

Ringo Starr (The Beatles)

Ringo

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Ringo Starr, photographed in his home studio, California. Photograph: Deirdre O’Callaghan

In 1952, I was in hospital with TB for 10 months. To keep us busy, they brought us instruments. They gave me a drum, and from that moment on I wanted to be a drummer. I loved the blues and tried to emigrate to Houston, Texas, when I was 19, to live near Lightnin Hopkins, but there were too many forms to fill out. Then Elvis came in.

I think rhythm comes with the body, and my timing comes with my heartbeat. I try to teach this to kids; some get the idea, some dont. But you cant hurt the kids feelings, so I say: Maybe you should play piano or guitar. You can put a lot of time in and play good piano, but I dont think that happens with drums.

On Sgt Peppers, I had this new kit, the maple kit. It had actual skin heads, calf heads, which I had never had before: from the 60s onwards, it was all plastic. Theyre so deep, and I was always looking for depth. You see pictures of me where I have towels over the drums and cigarette packs anything to give it more body.

Pauli The PSM (Gorillaz, Damon Albarn)

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Pauli The PSM, photographed at home in New York. Photograph: Deirdre O’Callaghan

The drum machine has a spirit in the same way a human drummer has. Its an instrument, and you are programming it the way you programme your body. When I play a drum machine, I go to town on the fact its an instrument that needs to be pushed to its limits. Look at what Skrillex is doing with dance music. You cant keep up with that stuff.

Lars Ulrich (Metallica)

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/sep/17/dave-grohl-ringo-starr-secrets-star-drummers-stella-mozgawa-warpaint

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