Saturday 28 March 2015

Tom: Cormac, how did you get started on drums?
Cormac: My aunt was a music teacher in Ballybofey. I played on piano, did some of the music grades so I had a background in that and I started drumming in my teens. For the Leaving Certificate, piano was my main interest but at that stage I was a drumming fanatic.  Yeah, drumming wise, I was about 14 or 15 so I was relatively late starting drums

Tom: What was your first kit?
Cormac: There was a guy called Harry Mc Gee who was drumming in the States. He would come over now and again and I bought a kit of him. I bought a Premier Olympic and that was about 1977 / 1978. Around that time, Jimmy Higgins of The Stunning, who drummed as well, he liked that kit and bought it off me. After that I got a Pearl Maxin. Funny enough, there was a drummer at home who was left handed and I just copied him and set up left handed.

Tom; When did you decide to change?
Cormac: I initially played that way and it was only when I went to my first gig and there was a drum kit set up at a small gig in Letterkenny. My life flashed before my eyes and I panicked. It was set up the normal right handed way and they weren’t going to change for a young 15 / 16 year old drummer. I then realised that most drummers played right handed, so I switched around. I just didn’t know, as there wasn’t any drum resources, no drumming magazines.

Tom: Did you find that playing left handed initially would have been an advantage?
Cormac:  Yeah, although I probably didn’t realise it at the time. It was a useful exercise, although like driving a car, I may have picked up a few bad habits. I was slightly unorthodox in that way. I didn’t have lessons. I didn’t have a guide as such. I was kind of figuring it out myself.

Tom: So, in the early days what drummers influenced your playing?
Cormac: Definitely, the whole punk, new wave movement would have been around then. Stewart Copeland of The Police, a massive drummer. Also Topper Headon from The Clash, a super drummer as well.  I liked that kind of tight, snappy playing with Copeland and I kind of gravitated towards that. I would have been religiously in the bedroom playing along with the first Police album and really just trying to figure out what he was doing, just playing along.  There was a band called The Rezillos. They were Scottish and they only did one album, super playing, kind of like power pop but the drumming on it is fantastic.

Tom:  Live who would have influenced you?
Cormac: It would have been Horslips, Eamonn Carr on drums, they would have been the first real rock band that I would have gone to see. I would have seen them quite often as they played around Donegal a lot. I was very much into Horslips and I really liked what Eamonn Carr was doing live. The other album that I would have been playing along to was The Cars first album funnily enough. I just liked some of the stuff on it. As a drumming influence Copeland is No 1 and I would have said Topper Headon would have been there as well.    

Tom: In the beginning how often would you have practiced?
Cormac:  I came to Galway in 1979, doing an Arts degree in Archaeology. I was into a couple of bands then, so it was definitely happening. I was still pursuing an education but I was certainly getting involved in bands. During those years was the first band I was involved in with Steve Wall and Eamonn Dowd. That was around 1982 / 1983 and the name of the band was New Testament

Tom: Did New Testament garner much publicity?
Cormac: It had a couple of little reviews. John Waters reviewed us at a small gig in Roscommon. There was a big buzz. The funny thing about that there was a photo of the band and I was smoking a cigarette and I was completing my teaching practice for the HDip with a secondary school in Galway and the lads didn’t know anything about my interest in music. Then the photo appeared and the teacher from the school said to me” I didn’t know you were in to that kind of thing”. So the interest was there and I knew Steve and Derek Murray, the guitarist with The Stunning, who did PA with that band.

Tom: What happened after New Testament?
Cormac: After New Testament I was working in archaeology for a few years and I was down in Cork. I received a letter from Steve Wall who had relocated to Galway. He had been in Dublin a couple of years and he wanted to start a band and I said yeah I’d be up for that. We got together during the summer of 1986. I had just finished my contract job and I said I would move to Galway. So we got together, along with his brother Joe and Derek Murray. I love the music so much. Then we had our first single on solid records, “Got To Get Away”. Some of the band happened to be on holidays for the summer. We didn’t expect anything to happen, but it was unbelievable, it was in the charts.

Tom: That must have felt fantastic
Cormac: To be honest it was such a buzz. You know even if nothing else had happened after that, it was such a high.

Tom: How did you feel your own drumming was progressing?
Cormac: The thing about The Stunning and it was good for a drummer was that there was a lot of variety in those early songs. The first few singles were all different. You had, Half Past Two, which was the Frank Sinatra thing, you had Romeo’s On Fire which was more energy driven and Brewing Up A Storm which was a full on rock song. So even in those first few singles there was such a wide diversity, so in a way, it was the best thing for me. Even with a track like Half Past Two I had no experience of playing anything with a swing, so basically as the songs where coming out I was trying to put parts to them. The other thing in the early days, the band performed covers but they were unusual covers. We loved soul, we loved funk and I love that kind of style, especially Prince. We all loved that kind of thing so there were a lot of influences there. As a drummer, things were thrown at me, so I had to decide what do I play here.

Tom: As a musician did you have full control over what you played?
Cormac:  It was pretty much quite open, generally parts would instinctively come to us. In The Stunning, the parts that I came up with, where the ones used on the record. Other studio work I’ve done can be different, where you can be asked to come up with a beat or the singer / songwriter might have their own idea, but for The Stunning it was quite open. Steve Wall was writing all the material, but he was leaving it to us all to come up with our own individual parts. It just seemed to work, as there was a chemistry in the band.

Tom: Did you find any adjustment playing live as opposed to studio recording, for example, did you use a click track?  
Cormac: No, a lot of The Stunning recordings I didn’t use a click track. I think Heads would have been clicked, if I remember. I did find I suppose like a lot of other drummers studios quite intimidating. Generally we went for live tracks and you might have a little bit of push and pull. For the second album, Mike Hedges who produced, said he really liked the way the band played live, so we recorded similar to the way we played live. We had arranged the song and the parts and we did takes. The studio is such an unforgiving place, because if you make a mistake there is nowhere to hide.

Tom: Cormac, as a drummer, do you look back at recorded tracks and wish you had played the part differently?
Cormac:  Definitely not major ones but when you revisit the songs, say 20 years later, because of all the music that you would have listened to in the intervening period the drum parts can be played differently. That is because you are bringing more to the table. When the band split, I went out working as an educational drummer. I played as many styles as I could, but to be honest a lot of songs listening back, I was not really interested in complex parts. I was more concerned with the groove.  I wouldn’t have been a technical player as such. Not over complicate the song, just make the groove sit.

Tom: What drum kits were you using at that stage?
Cormac: Yeah funny enough I wasn’t using a top end kit, a Pearl Export that had really good heads on it. I actually used it for a lot of live stuff at the time. I had different snares and cymbals but the kit I had, I was using live.

Tom: Did you have a drum endorsement at any stage?
Cormac: I didn’t have sponsorship or anything. If I had pursued it, I might have been able to get something, with a drum company. But since then, I love Sonor.

Tom: What cymbals do you use?
Cormac: Definitely Zildjian, Zildjian As’ and Ks’. I have a set of 13inch Zildjian K hi-hats. They sound great and I still use them.  I did pick up a Sabian hand hammered ride cymbal in London when we were playing in the Mean Fiddler. I still have that cymbal and it’s just that you find something you really like. There will always be a place for it, but maybe not for every situation.

Tom: What drumsticks do you use?
Cormac: To be honest Tom as regards stick progression, I’ve gone through stages where I’ve played light sticks and then as I started playing bigger gigs, I moved to medium and then really heavy. Now I carry at least three or four different weights in my kit bag. During a gig I will switch, normally a 5A, for heavy rock. I will use the Buddy Rich signature stick and although they are associated with a jazz background, they are quite heavy sticks. Carmine Appice, he has a signature stick so I try and use different sticks. For lighter stuff, I like the Steve Gadd stick.

Tom: Cormac, when you finished with The Stunning you started doing studio / session work. Was that difficult moving from a band situation to now operating as a solo artist?
Cormac: To be honest, there would have been a transition period after the band split up. It would have started by being called in to do the odd local band studio session and then it kind of evolved slowly. I had a lot to learn and I went out playing with country bands, blues bands, all sorts of bands in order to learn. I just wanted to learn anything that I hadn’t done with The Stunning. I suppose being in a band there is always a comfort blanket, particularly a long time band that play together and once you’re out of that situation it is a big decision as to whether you want to continue as a drummer and how are you going to approach it. Some drummers might have a network built up or perhaps they have been in quite a few bands, but for me I was with a band that had been together for seven to eight years, so it was quite a shock to the system. I barely played for the first two years after that and then I started doing studio work with musicians. I wouldn’t be a busy studio person. I just kind of see what comes in and see where things take me.

Tom: What would you say has been the highlight of your career to date?     
 Cormac: Well definitely with The Stunning we were playing some of the bigger gigs like Feile. The atmosphere at those gigs. The four nights in Vicar Street, after we reformed was a serious buzz. Other highlights would have been supporting the B52’s, because I love them. So it was kind of rubbing shoulders with those people.

Tom: You worked with singer songwriter Rosey.
Cormac: Working with Rosey, we did that album , Colour Me Colourful. We did the Late Late Show with that. For me, I really enjoy working with singer songwriters and I really like his stuff. He is a very talented man. Working on that album for me, it was a really nice project. Since then, I think the work I did with Sean Keane. I did an album with his brother, the Citizen Keane. So I did a bit of playing on that. There was a guitarist called Pete O Hanlon from the North, he lived in Galway for a while, a superb musician. I did an album with him commercially, but it didn’t do much business. I really liked that album.

Tom: Can you tell me your top three songs that best represent your style?
Cormac: That’s a good question. I’ll have to think about it. I think Brewing Up A Storm would have to be there because of the verse breakdowns, slightly Stewart Copelandish. You need space and then play hard on the chorus. Just the fact that the song still gets played is fantastic. Other tracks, good question, very good question. There are a couple of great things on Rosey’s album as well that I really like. There’s a song I do with the brushes, a beautiful song and the drum part simple as it is works perfectly. And the other one I will mention, is the John Martyn one that’s on the John Martyn tribute album, his version of Back To Stay. Graham Hopkins is on that and he’s playing with Glen Hansard on that album.

Tom: You are also now teaching drums
Cormac: Yes, I’m doing the Access  Music School here in Galway. The basic introduction to percussion as a group, from Cuban styles. We’re working on the end of year concert at the moment, the Finale. We have three kind of diverse things happening, the Samba, a New Orleans Jazz piece and then a Sympathy For The Devil type piece. I really enjoy that kind of work. 

Tom: What advice would you give someone taking up the drums?
Cormac: That’s a good question. Usually I first ask them who do you like? I then take it from there. I try and get them to tell me what is getting them excited about playing drums. I always think back to my own early days. Also you have to explain to them that it may not be fun all the time, that there will be challenges, but it’s definitely a worthwhile journey. I just try and get them to give it a go and see how far it takes them. Anytime that’s spent playing an instrument isn’t going to be wasted. Timekeeping is the thing, it’s the job. I’d be one hundred per cent that timekeeping is critical. There is a phrase from an American jazz drummer who said “That time is not negotiable”

Tom; As regards Irish drummers, who are you impressed by?
Cormac: Well, Binzer would be one. I really like his playing. Graham Hopkins as well, he’s good, but I love Binzer’s style. Graham is probably the busiest rock session drummer. Who else now? I know Ray Feans, super player. I love Brian Downey, that’s a given.

Tom: Regarding future projects, what’s next?
Cormac: For myself, the most rewarding thing is playing live, but when you’re gone, it’s the recordings you leave behind that will be remembered.   I really, no matter what the session is, I think it’s always special when a chance to play on something comes up. I would hope to do as much recording as I can and you’re learning all the time. The one thing about the studio, any studio, you’re going to learn something. You might find a flaw on your playing, you’re sound, and so you’re going to learn something. I would hope that I would get to do more work with The Stunning and the likes of Ultan Conlon. There are some very talented musicians out there. I always say it’s great to get playing on something that’s really good. It’s still the buzz.

Tom: Since your time with The Stunning you seem to have built up a good network, was that through word of mouth?
Cormac: I think word of mouth, but I made a decision to stay in Galway when I could have moved to Dublin. But you know it comes down to being reliable, not being difficult to work with and not being a pain in the arse. Word of mouth, contacts and getting a chance to demo with people. I suppose it does take a long time really. But I’m still getting a buzz playing, whether it’s a small gig in a pub, or a big gig on stage, I love it.

Tom: What do you think is the future for the drumming scene?
Cormac: Well I think not only the standard of drummers, but of music and bands in Ireland are extraordinarily high. I think there’s definitely a healthy future there. I think there’s been a swing back to live music, the DJ end of things, the clubs, but I think there is something in the Irish make up that we really love music, especially the live thing. I think it’s very healthy at the moment. The enthusiasm that’s there with kids getting into music and they now have so much more access than I would have had, like stuff on the internet, books. I think there’s going to be no shortage of really good players coming out of Ireland. It’s the music industry here, that’s the hard thing to sustain. I think working as a drummer now is a lot more difficult than it would have been but touchwood, I’m happy with what I’m doing.

Tom: Regarding Irish drummers, how do you believe their style is different to other nationalities?
Cormac: Yeah, that’s a good question, a really good question. I suppose there has been an influence from traditional music in some way. I think a lot of Irish drummers have that influence, just from growing up around it. They may not be actively tapping into it however. You can hear that, in Brian Downey’s playing, the toms etc. I think that’s one plus, the Irish guys have is their national music. Outside of that, I think there is a lot of musicality in many Irish drummers. I think it’s also in the Irish make-up to just go for it, to do as well as you can. Just enjoy making music, that’s the key thing. If you’re not enjoying it then you’re not going to go too far.

Tom: So Cormac you’re still enjoying playing?
Cormac: Ah definitely. I love going to gigs and listening to live music. It’s still a big hit to be involved, to be playing and physically to be able to do it.

Tom: in relation to the physical aspect what do you do to keep yourself in good shape?
Cormac: I do a bit of gym work and I do Tai Chi. I’ve been doing Tai Chi for a few years now. I find it really good for balance as well. It strengthens my legs and I think it suits the flexibility aspect more than aerobics. A lot of playing, over a lot of years, it’s like long distance running. You’re going to need the stamina to do it. It’s the flexibility that can get you, like muscles get too tight, so I really enjoy the Tai Chi. I think Yoga would be good but I haven’t got around to it yet.

Tom: did you ever suffer any physical ailment due to drumming?
Cormac: No, I was quite lucky there. I always had a good posture when I played. I never really leaned that much forward, I was always upright. I think there is a lot of wear and tear in the bass drum foot you know, but touchwood that should be ok. I had a slight tendon problem in my right hand which I started to get last year. There’s a slight thing there from the grip where I’m stretching too much. That only lasted a short while. There are no major issues with back or tendons.

Tom: Cormac, anytime I’ve seen you live you look as though you’re really enjoying yourself, very relaxed in your playing.
Cormac: it’s my nature, generally I’m just happy on stage. You know I think music has to be a happy thing. You have to really enjoy playing with musicians and then collectively, hopefully you’re sending that message out to people who are listening. It’s me, I love playing.

Tom: Cormac, in terms of a practise regime what is your preference?
Cormac: At the moment I’m playing four or five nights a week. I tend to practise more when I’m doing new material, someone you are filling in for, you have a stack of songs to learn in say two weeks.  Specifically, I just try and work on my independence. I try and involve more world music styles on my kit. A lot of that stuff is quite challenging. If anything, I would be looking at my feet and hands and see if I can change anything. I suppose no drummer is one hundred per cent totally happy. I would practise fairly regularly but not for long. When you’re playing a lot live you’re not going to get that much time anyway. I buy drumming magazines like Modern Drummer and Rhythm and I’d be trying the exercises. Fantastic, just fantastic, if you had time you could spend years on certain things.

Tom: Cormac, any final advice for aspiring drummers?

Cormac: For a drummer, playing in shows, orchestras, is a great way to learn and progress you’re music and it is something I would recommend drummers to do.