Thursday 7 August 2014

The Undertones are without doubt one of the greatest bands this island has ever produced. The man occupying the drum throne is one of my drumming heroes, the brilliant Billy Doherty

Tom; Billy how did you get started in drumming?

Billy; I was about maybe 7 or 8 years old. My sister and I went to a Christmas party and there was a folk group consisting of a guitar player and another guy with a snare drum. The drummer placed a handkerchief on the snare drum to dampen the sound and I was intrigued by that. So, from that time on all I wanted to be was a drummer. But I had no drum kit so I just used my hands and tapped of the sofa and table. I was anything but a technical drummer and I was never able to do rudiments.

Tom: What was your first drum kit?

Billy: My first drum kit was a mixture of drums maybe a Dixon bass drum, an Olympic tom-tom and a hyman snare drum. A real hotch potch of drums and we got them second hand from a shop in Raphoe called Reynolds. I probably bought them in 1976. John and Damien from The Undertones, their father, took out a loan of providence cheques and he gave me the money so I bought the drum kit second hand.

Tom: Did you get a drum endorsement after that and when did you update your kit?

Billy: Well, I was always in to Premier drums. Probably through television you would see all these guys. Premier was a British kit. I’m a big fan of Charlie Watts and he uses a Gretch kit and probably through Top of the Pops because there was always a Premier kit on the programme, so I always wanted to have one. They were common in the local music shops so when the band got success I was very lucky to get an endorsement with Premier and I have been with them since 1979.

Tom: And cymbals wise Billy, what do you use?

Billy: Back then I preferred Zildjian to Paiste but I have an endorsement now with Sabian and I really do like Sabian cymbals.

Tom: Billy, you mentioned that you didn’t get any formal drum teaching. How do you feel your style has progressed over the years?

 Billy: My style Tom is very basic, very much 1,2,3,4 and Go. My style really hasn’t changed but I did play with other bands, just messing about. I went to play with a Country and Western band. I think if you can do the basic patterns, nail them and make it groove, I think that puts you in good standing as regards progression. Obviously I’m not a technical drummer so I couldn’t jump in to say, a big band and you wanted swing drumming I would find that difficult you know reading music and playing chops, but I would give it a try. If I had time to sit down and work it out I would be able to work it out by ear. One of my big influences is Charlie Watts from The Rolling Stones. He was one of the guys I thought was an amazing drummer. There was a guy called Tony Leonard and Suzi Quatro’s drummer, Dave Neal. Paul Thompson from Roxy Music, Woody (Mick Woodmansey) who played with David Bowie. They were all big influences on me when I was growing up.

 Tom: Excellent Billy. Were there any Irish drummers at the time that you would have been listening to? 

Billy: There would have been drummers locally. There was a guy called Mickey Feeney, also Jim Whiteside and a guy called Mickey Sheridan. They were loud guys playing in bands who would have been slightly older than me. I couldn’t get in to the pubs where they were playing so it would have been a case of poking in through the window from outside. I would have tried to copy what they were playing and I think it’s important for any young drummer starting out that they get good training. You could agonise for years in order to figure out just how to do a beat and then if you see someone show you and explain to you how it’s done it can demystify the whole thing.  In Ireland for me at the time would have been Eamon Carr out of Horslips. That would have been the big Irish band for us. I thought he was too good, his band and his drumming was too good for me. I suppose Brian Downey, of Thin Lizzy. These would have been the most serious Irish drummers when I was growing up. Also the drummer out of the Royal Waterford Show band, he was an amazing drummer.

Tom: Billy, what advice would you give young drummers starting out?

Billy: I think the important thing is to have the enthusiasm for it. You just have to love it, which I do. I still get enthusiastic about drumming. It’s also important to get a tutor, whether it’s Country & Western, Rock and Roll, if you can get someone who does that style of drumming and speak to them and figure out how they do it. Break the beat down in to small sections. The thing is to try and learn some very basic beats and just study the bass drum, start to finish, then focus on the snare drum, same thing and then move to the hi-hats, then the cymbals. Try to nail all those sections and bring it together. Definitely you should learn rudiments because the rudiments give you very good independence and very good co-ordination which is a thing I never did and I’m sorry I don’t play them. Also there is so much stuff now as to when I was growing up I think the only magazine was Modern Drummer. There is so much stuff now on the Internet, on YouTube and then there are so many DVDs. So try and collect as much information as you can. Try and copy as many styles, that’s the thing about drumming, knowing what angle to come at it. For me drummers are like that, they just want to hear what’s going on. They can emulate the beat. It certainly works for me.  

Tom:   Billy, when you’re drumming with The Undertones do you have 100% control over what you play?

Billy: Well it depends who writes the song. They might want it to sound like a Creedance Clearwater Revival song or a Beatles song and so the drummer in those bands I try and emulate their style. Yeah but it’s kind of more or less left up to me. So nowadays with John being the main songwriter he would do a lot of programming so he would do a beat and the song more or less can be done drumming wise. It’s just up to me to copy the beat and throw in what I think works but I tend to be fairly straight and just keep the beat and lock it down. You see Tom it’s easy for us because we all like the same thing and we tune in to each other. We all know what works, what doesn’t and what we can or can’t fit in.

Tom: There is a song from The Undertones called Really Really that’s credited to you. How did you come up with that song?

Billy: I think it was influenced by a Dave Clarke song. It was a kind of an upbeat, funky, summery very happy song. I just had that idea in my head and I came up with the riff on the guitar. I would tend to look more towards the sixties. For me the whole sixties sound and the sixties drum sound is so good.

Tom: Billy you’ve had a lot of highlights in your life with The Undertones. What are the key ones?

Billy: One of the key highlights for me was when we did the Teenage Kicks song and we gave it to John Peel. He told us that he was going to play it on his radio show. We were all in O’Neill’s with the radio on listening to John Peel. We were so thrilled. You know the radio and TV were very important back then. We could hear music and see bands whenever. The fact of John Peel playing our song on the radio was absolutely unbelievable but no sooner had he played the track he put back the needle and played the song for the second time. We were just speechless and we just looked at each other. We just roared out with laughter. O my God, that’s absolutely amazing. We never heard a record played back to back on Radio One at any stage. I mean I could have died and I would have been happy. The aspiration I had for the band happened very, very quickly. Make a record, have it played by John Peel, have it played on Radio One, and be on Top of the Pops. That happened within a matter of months so I fulfilled all my ambitions really, really quickly so anything after that was a bonus.

Tom: Brilliant Billy and recording wise what would you say was your favourite album? 

Billy: I think for me probably Sin of Pride. People would say our first album which is in the top 100 albums of all time. I think it’s in the top 1001 records to hear before you die as well. But I prefer the last album Sin of Pride probably because I was more confident and I knew more about the recording process. Eh, I knew how to get better drum sounds. When we went in to record the first LP I didn’t know much about studios, I didn’t know different skins give you different sounds. Being in a studio is a unique experience and an art in its own and you have to adapt to that environment so by the time I got to that LP I became more confident, more familiar of the whole recording process and I like the songs better as well.

Tom: Billy, what are your own favourite songs?

Billy: Forgetting The Undertones, there was a guy called Bobby Graham. Bobby Graham played with Van Morrison and Them and he drummed on Gloria. The drumming on Gloria for me is absolutely brilliant. Some drumming, I mean there is so much going on in that, Latin American technique, great snare drum sound. It’s just an absolutely brilliant track and I was very, very lucky to speak to Bobby Graham before he died. He’s dead now probably two years. I was disappointed that a documentary was never made particularly about the British drummers. For me Bobby was one of the best players in the sixties and seventies. I think he played with Petula Clark, Tom Jones and Van Morrison. I love Gloria, I think it’s my favourite track and of course Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones. Eh, anything by Charlie Watts, Jumping Jack Flash is absolutely an amazing track for me. I would have to say The Ramones, Tommy Ramone. Any song from The Ramones. It’s just that we would copy The Ramones so much.

Tom: Billy, you’re best known for your work in The Undertones but you’ve played in other bands as well!

Billy: Well I played in a band called The Carrelines and it had a singer called Paul McLoone. Paul now sings with The Undertones. We won the Hot Press best unsigned act. I think the key to a band is that everybody can get on. It’s important that everybody has the same outlook, the same style in music and if you can get these elements to work then you’re very, very lucky. It’s then very enjoyable and fun.

Tom: Did The Carrelines release anything?

Billy: Yes, we did a single as part of the prize for winning the award. I think it got a couple of airplays and there was a lot of record company interest.  We were about to sing with Virgin records but one of the guys in the band he wanted to do other things so it just didn’t happen.

Tom: Billy, you supposedly came up with the name The Undertones, is that correct?
Billy: I did yes. I always liked names that have some kind of rhythm to them. Names like The Beatles, Roxy Music, and The Rolling Stones. I always liked those kinds of names. So obviously with the punk thing coming out and you had, The Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols and The Damned, all the big names and I said to the lads, what about The Undertones and they said ok, except Feargal. He hated the name. He was on holidays at the time and when he came back we just told him but he didn’t like it at all. But I think bands go through that thinking of all different names until they get something that’s ok. The Undertones, that name just stuck with us.

Tom: You have done a lot of studio recordings and playing live. Which do you prefer?

Billy: I prefer studio work.  I like it a lot because you can go back and decide what works, what doesn’t work and if a beat needs changing. I definitely love the recording process. I think it’s great. I could work in a studio all day. When your drum track is finished and then guitars, vocals go down etc.

Tom: Do you listen back to certain songs and think I wish I had played the beat differently?

Billy: Eh, every one of them I would change, (Billy laughs). I should have done a fill there. I should have left that drum fill out. Yeah, every song I would change absolutely.

Tom: Billy, I love the tuning you get with your drums. What do you do to achieve this?

Billy: Well for live, I tune the heads very tight and that’s because I’m a big fan of John Bonham from Led Zeppelin. Also I remember Ian Paice of Deep Purple talk about Bonham saying that he tuned the heads very tight, so that’s what I do. I try and get the top skins to tune as tight as I can. I really don’t use any gaffer tape or dampening on the drums. The only bit of dampening I use is a light bit of dampening on the bass drum. I use coated heads which isn’t really good for my style of drumming because I wear them out too quickly. I think they give a very ringy sound which I like and because my toms are quite deep it gives a nice depth to the sound. Live, I try and keep everything very bright and with very little dampening.

Tom: What size bass drum are you using at the moment?

Billy: I use a 22 inch bass drum, a 14 inch rack drum and that’s because I’m a big fan of Charlie Watts. I’m a big fan of the Ludwig Black Beauty snare, I think there excellent.

Tom: So what’s next in the pipeline for Billy Doherty? Is there a 5 year plan?

Billy: (laughs) I wish there was a 5 year plan. With The Undertones we just potter about day to day. If someone says lets go in and record we’ll do that, if someone says let’s practise we will go and do that, we’re basically a lazy bunch. Well at the moment we have dates in Germany and we’re doing a fund raiser for John Peel. Also the band could be going to Australia and South America early next year, there’s talk of us doing that. Also there’s a documentary coming out about the band, I think it’s on September 7th on BBC4. Well I mean six months would be a long time for us to plan for. We just keep it day to day and please God we’ll stay in good health and do more dates and people come to the shows.

Tom: You mentioned playing live and staying in good health. What do you do to keep yourself in good shape for drumming?

Billy: Well for my type of drumming I definitely have to keep myself fit. I need to keep myself fit because our songs are very, very fast. If anything I think we are faster now than we were when we first started out.

Tom; Do you run any drum clinics Billy?

Billy: I don’t Tom because I don’t consider myself in any way a technical drummer. If I teach someone all I can teach them is to play a real steady rock beat, you know bass drum, snare drum and hi hat.  I was thinking about setting up a basic course on rock drumming. It would take a bit of time but I never got around to actually giving lessons.

Tom: You mentioned that you play guitar, anything else?

Billy: Maybe a bit of keyboard, a bit of guitar, a sort of a jack of all trades but master of none as the saying goes but drumming is definitely my preference. I just love drumming. That’s just what I’m in to. I know it’s sad but it’s just what I’m in to.

Tom: What advice would you give to drummers?

Billy:  Go to drum clinics whenever you can. There is so much you can learn. I’ve gone to quite a few. The last one I went to was Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Now I wouldn’t be a big Chilli Peppers fan but he was very, very good.  Also I went to see John Thompson, he drummed with Rory Gallagher and I went to the drummer who plays with Paul Weller. And if you go to these drum clinics, ask questions, even silly questions. I remember someone asking a question and I was thinking that’s exactly what I was going to ask because it’s just priceless information. So get to as many drum clinics as you can and there really good fun as well. It’s a really good day out.

Tom: Billy how do you think Irish drummers differ from their counterparts, say in America or mainland Europe?

Billy: That’s an absolutely brilliant question. Funnily enough I was talking to Liam Bradley, drummer with Van Morrison and Boyzone. Liam was saying when he was growing up, along with me; he was always looking towards American drummers and wondering why they were so good. The reason he thinks that American drummers are so good is that they are given lessons at a very young age at junior school and that nurturing continues through primary and through college. That system doesn’t exist in Ireland; well it didn’t in my day. I think it’s changing now with musical education in schools because music covers everything from guitars, trombones and there’s drumming. It’s great if kids can try that basic rhythm whether it’s a tambourine, a triangle or bongos. It would be great to keep that basic groundwork of rhythm through school from primary to college. So I think that’s the difference between American drummers and Irish drummers. I think also generally American drummers seem to be a lot more relaxed, more self assured when there drumming. From the talent point of view I don’t think there is much difference it’s just individually their prepared to put more work in.

Tom: So, can Irish drummers bridge the gap?

Billy: That’s a good question but I don’t look at it as one drummer being better than another drummer, it’s just the style that they bring. Also in America there is jazz and that’s part of the popular culture too. America’s so big and the opportunities for players so better as well. I think here for me and probably with The Troubles as well there wasn’t many bands to go and see.

Tom: Thanks Billy for your time in doing this interview.

Billy: No bother Tom. I think it’s great what you’re doing. I remember when I was talking to Bobby Graham about his playing on Gloria. Now I love Gloria, it’s one of the reasons I got in to drumming. I was talking to Bobby about his snare drum on that and he said he wanted to get a Latin feel on one part and it was totally spontaneous. I couldn’t believe it. Bobby set up the drums and they went for it. I think they did it in one take. So I think it’s great that somebody can document all this stuff about drummers. 

Interview; Billy Doherty
Location; Tom’s Kitchen
Date; 29th August, 2012