Thursday 30 July 2015

So much for the summer. It’s the 9th of August 2014, I’m driving through Limerick City and I can honestly say I haven’t seen a downpour like it in years. It’s that bad that the wipers on my car can barely handle the torrent of water cascading from the heavens. Normally, I wouldn’t be out in weather like this, but I’m on my way to interview a certain Irish drummer that is playing with the legendary Irish band, Horslips. As I’m sitting in my car, outside Dolan’s, waiting for the rain to subside I’m really looking forward to interviewing one of the most respected and talented drummers that this small island of ours has produced and that is Mr. Ray Fean.

Tom; How did you get started?
Ray; I always had a deep passion for music. I got started for a number of reasons, traditional Irish music. I love music. My brother John played in Horslips. I had in effect music around me all the time. Musical household, I naturally equated towards rhythm very easily. As a child I had no doubt of what I was going to do, I was going to be a drummer.

Tom; Who were your influences starting off?
Ray; First of all, I was very influenced by traditional Irish music and its rhythm because the rhythm is in the melody. I was listening to everybody but I mainly grew up listening to Frank Zappa, fairly wild stuff, which I thought all the kids were listening to, but of course they weren’t. It was a very diverse musical household in that respect. So it was Coltrane, it was Jazz, it was everything.

Tom; Did your influences change as your career progressed?
Ray; I managed to do with the stuff I started with, which was an uphill challenge with the idea of listening to, I don’t know, maybe “Apostrophe” by Frank Zappa and the odd time signatures and stuff like that. First thing I learned was probably time signature.

Tom; Were you self taught or did you take drum lessons?
Ray; I taught myself for the most part but I had the great pleasure of going to Johnny Wadham. Now I was fourteen, I was smoking, drinking exotic tea. We were listening to the latest Buddy Rich album. I was taking notation and I just felt like a rock star, it was fantastic.

Tom; What advice would you give to drummers starting off?
Ray; I’d say it’s hard work, and you better buckle up. The one thing you’ve got to do is you’ve got to get good at what you do. I knew I’d have to practise and practise. It’s not easy. You don’t know exactly where the next gig is. Once again, practise, practise, practise and you’ll get really good and you should have that to fall back on like when you go out playing, and you’re sitting there, looking at this, hearing this, you don’t know when by chance you’ll be asked to do a session. There’s only one reason that happened and that’s because you’ve practised for it. 

Tom; How much natural talent does someone need?
Ray; I played the bodhrán, I picked up sticks for the first time, I played it straight away, drums straight away, it was no problem, I’m a drummer. I was born a drummer and everyone in the household knew that, but you’ve still got to practise because when you’re a born drummer and you play, you have to be yourself. You develop something to push yourself out, lots of things that you need to learn, playing with click tracks and all that kind of stuff. These are all vital when it comes down to it. I knew what the road was ahead but I was lucky because I had people around me and that’s why I’d be glad to bestow any information. It doesn’t matter how natural you are. To keep your natural stuff you’ve got to work on it. Plus, practice is great enjoyment, and every professional would recommend it.

Tom; You’re playing with Horslips now, it’s certainly a great gig, a great band, when you approach a gig like this, do you go into it and say, I’m going to listen and replicate what was done before”, or do you say,” well I’m going to put my own Ray Fean stamp on this sound”?
Ray; That’s a good question because you do have to listen to what has gone on before because the players that are around that situation are used to something so consequently when you arrive in and start adding in all these other things or playing completely differently it kind of upsets the position of the music. There are reasons for that, the accents that are in place, the very way it was played, there’s a reason for that as well. So all these reasons are in place and you have to come to terms with doing that. If you’re in a situation where you add your own flare, then so be it. Bringing in to Horslips, that’s one mask or hat, so to speak, and Riverdance, that’s another hat, and Celtic Woman, that’s another hat and these all react entirely to what you have to do. Do you play parts so you can style a gig the way you play? You have to be careful how you style the parts and if you want to try something out and the musician says, “Ya, give me that”, then great. Coming in with all these big ideas, it doesn’t work.

Tom; So when you’re in a session and you’re approaching a song, what’s the thought process behind deciding what to play?
Ray; The thought process for the actual song itself, fundamental elements are important and are entirely up to you. It’s something that you need to listen to. You know what your job of work is, you know the time signatures. You need to come in to the studio. If you’re fortunate enough you get a set of ideas of how you would approach this. If the singer or the producer doesn’t have an idea, then you start giving out the ideas and this is how you do that. You get inspired by the song, through its feeling, inspired by the song through its rhythm, even if it’s not anything other than, let’s say, two up, two down, country. You’ve got to put your heart into the lyric of it, put your heart into its soul. If you can get far with it, brilliant. What it comes down to is your feel and understanding, your time signature, understanding the actual dynamic of what’s needed, like you’re not driving a thumb tack with a sledge hammer. Do you know what I mean? You don’t go in to a jazz gig with massive sticks. You feel that and you suss it out. The way to do that is to listen to what the track is, so you practise your routine again, like your routine jazz, your routine country, all these different things. You understand the vernacular and when you get in to the studio you understand that it’s a country beat and how to play that and you listen to Larry Londin and you pick up the pieces.

Tom; Thanks Ray that’s really fascinating. As a matter of interest how many drum kits do you have?
Ray; I’ve got kits here, kits in the States, My own personal amount? about six kits.

Tom; If you were asked to choose songs from your career thus far, that best represent your style and that you're most proud of, what would they be?
Ray; Let’s go from the first album, so “Cut and Dry”, from Shibumi. There’s a great album I did in Bulgaria, “Rest in Peace” and we did mad stuff out in Bulgaria but that won’t be heard, unfortunately, it’ll never get out of Bulgaria. Another one was any of the Coolfin tracks really. I think after that then playing with Ray Lynam was brilliant. We did a great album that never got released so that won’t be heard either. “Twisting and Turning” was a track we did, written by Kieran Goss and that turned out fantastic and that was my introduction to Donal Lunny, through Ray Lynam. We all know he was phenomenal. And then I suppose another choice would have to be from the “Dan Ar Braz” era. That was great. The technicality, I love. I love its challenge. Being able to make certain progress, to pull it off, so to speak, but a good song does it for me. I play a really good song. It does it for me more than anything else. You can listen to crazy drummers who are fantastic and brilliant, but I find, with me, a good song to listen to is important.

Tom; When you listen back to tracks you recorded years ago, do you look on it now and say, “I wish I had done that differently”? Is there always that kind of self-analysis that goes on?
Ray; I suppose. First coming out of the studio after doing takes, breaking down the higher beats and all that kind of stuff, “Ray, it’s fine, go away”. While I’m in there I’m a terror, it’s awful. Generally speaking, there have only been a few things that I wish could have been better but the self-analysis or the analysis, per say, in the studio on the ground, I have to do that and that’s the time to do it. You can, you know, if people are happy with the take and it actually is fine, walk away. Don’t overdo it, because I went through a phase of self-analysis in the studio and it went on too long. Actually freeing yourself from playing the part, listening to it, “do we need to fix that?” fixing it, just walk away. It’s an obsession because that stuff sort of slows you down as a way of life. Sometimes I listen back to things and say, “oh, that could have been better”, ya absolutely but I wouldn’t harp on about it, I wouldn’t focus on it because you would drive yourself crazy.

Tom; Which do you prefer, playing live or studio?
Ray; I love the wildness of the live thing. I love the expression of wild but I love the discipline of the studio. I love its challenge, its achievement. I love its result and the fact that it’s going to be there forever. Live has its advantages over recorded but a good recording is a great thing to have achieved and to be part of a team. I love the whole ethos and everything about it. I love the studio behaviour. It is quite academic but there’s nothing like nailing it down with a team of people back into the control room. Big studio rooms when you’re in with everybody, it’s not daunting at all but I can understand that you’re going in to these halls for the first time. For any new drummer it can be quite nerve wracking. What I would say before you go in to that room is that you have that click track with your body, with your sync, with your motion with everything. You are the click track when it comes to playing so playing in time is really important, you know. That’s the one thing that’s going to earn any drummer when you get in to a studio situation is a click track. If you can’t keep within a click then everyone else is doing it in line with the click track, so that’s what you have to practise, that’s where the practise comes in. I know I keep harping back to practice but it is fundamentally important.

Tom; How important is it to practise the rudiments?
Ray; Rudimentary for me, I do find it awful boring. I mean for me, I understand what the importance of it is and I think it is very important if you don’t have the discipline I think. But with the rudiments I practise and I still keep practising. It is the flow of how your body moves, your conversation between your hands and your feet so rudimentary stuff applies to paradiddles and all that sort of thing. When you’re playing along and you have a flow to a song and that’s something that you really have to kind of think about because rudiments give you a certain amount of square aspects to it. There’s no curve in it, you know, there’s no kind of like if you’re playing rock or you’re playing jazz or whatever with all the parts going on, the feeling you get when everything is moving along and you have this kind of chug in your system. Even when you stop playing you still feel the rhythm. You know, it’s like dancing. It’s like river dance. It’s like Latin. It’s the flow of the whole thing. That’s my rudiments. That’s what I think is the most important part of it, as a flow.

Tom; Being on the road with a band, how do you keep yourself fit and how do you keep your body in check?
Ray; Discipline. The thing of it is, it’s not a party, it’s a gig. You know why you’re there and don’t forget it. There are great times on the road. We love our gig years coming up with Celtic Woman, a night out and we would have a conversation and we would have a nice bottle of wine, a meal and we’re all sitting around and we’re talking about everything and we’re talking about the old days. That’s my love of the outside world but the gig is the most important thing and you’ve got to keep that bit in mind at all times. You’re walking out in front of people so there’s no messing with that. Unless you’re doing your own thing, unless you’re actually making your own music, you’re out there in the world, employing other people but when you’re employed as a bass session player or whatever, it’s about discipline absolutely. Be on time, get out of the hotel on time, you know. It’s not just about the drums, it’s how you communicate with everybody, like you say what the teamwork is. The teamwork is down to how you get on with the crew, how you get on with everybody, you know. You don’t want to be Mr. Nice Guy but Mr. Respect, to have respect for other people. That’s what lasts, especially where you’re on a bus, like the last one we did was four and a half months so you better get on with each other, you know. Generally speaking, it’s been great so far. This place is great.

Tom;  What I’m focusing on with these series of interviews with Irish drummers is what makes them unique as opposed to other drummers?
Ray: That’s a good question and you’re absolutely right. I think it’s to do with our folklore. We’re innately, as a nation, rhythmic. We have massive background in our tradition including everything from our arts to our literature. Our music, in particular, it’s very rhythm based and I think before you even pick up a stick you’re in the Irish style. You know, once you start drumming, although you might be a rock and roll drummer at the start as much as I was a rock and roll drummer, the cost of it, the thing of Irish traditional music around me was rhythm for that. It equates effectively to what it would be, like Latin America. We have our own Latin America. We have our own style here and I think we have that fundamental thing. Some countries don’t do it. We’ve got it in our blood. We have it in our system. Drumming is, whether you’re singing or you’re dancing, you know, it’s all rhythm; it’s all about the rhythm all the time. So like I said, once again, traditional Irish music, the rhythm is in the melody so you hear that syncopation and you know, you play along to it. So it’s all there, that’s the melody as well. So I think we have an innate understanding which is great. The next place we’re going to is Sapporo, so in Brazil. Ya, that’s where Celtic Woman is off to next, so it will be interesting to see what the Latin Quarter has to offer.

Tom: How long has the Celtic Woman series been going for?
Ray: A solid ten years. We’ve done numerous DVDs and videos, great challenges and some great moments, great memories like, you know, live gigs. Sorry, the DVDs, it’s always been a challenge, always a pressure. The pressure is always there but it’s a fantastic gig.

Tom: It’s a great achievement. From your own point of view Ray, what’s the next five year plan, drumming wise, what’s the challenge?
Ray: Well, I’m fifty two in September so what I would like to do is, I need to get into a room and start really beating the shit out of it now because as a cardiovascular workout but I would love if it was like four or five months next after going on a break with Celtic Woman where I could play my guts out when I did when I was like fourteen, just feel that right now. It would all be about flash and prowess, delivering and writing and so but I mean I’m very much a writer now as well. All the Killinaskully stuff, you know that. That was thirty eight episodes. A lot of songs and stuff as well and I’ve gone for a publishing deal with it. So there’s a lot of song stuff going on there but I do want a place when I can just get physically into it. I want to call to the guys in power, get a kit over soon and I’m going to start doing it again. I’ll maybe get some clinics out, ya, something like that. Let’s see how I get on. Ya, that’s next week. Of course it’s the gigs, the tenth anniversary of Celtic Woman and there’s lots of stuff going on.

Tom: What’s the future for Irish drumming? You had the 70s, 80s and 90s where things were progressing. Irish artists are going to find it harder and harder to get out there now.
Ray: Ya, I know what you mean. Drums were a part of something. You look at Lizzy, you look at all the different bands, drums were a very big part of it. You felt part of something. I think in those eras your contribution was all there. I think it’s still there, it’s just going through a phase. We’re not seeing it at the minute but having said that, there’s a technological storm going on here. It’s like a meteorite at the moment. There’s so much technology, there’s so much computers now. It will find a street. It will get back eventually. Drumming will always remain the same as folklore. It will always have its future in that respect. How we react to it is really down to, well ok, I’ll pitch it like this, if you had the modern kit of drums, then that would have been used that way. It’s all about what’s in front of us next. Drums as we know are a fantastic kit. Made, to look at it, they’re beautifully built; great sounds. I wonder what the next thing to hit is, like you know, what is it going to be electronics wise, how will people react to that, but I think it’s very hard to define. It gets remade. Let’s say, like the great Brian Downey, ya everyone is who they want. Ya, I see your point. I wonder if all that stuff is going to come back. I don’t know. It’s still there. I still feel that. It felt like that with Horslips last night. I feel like that about any gig. You have to be open. Like that flow we were talking about. You really got to get into what you feel in it. It’s very computerised. There’s nothing like playing the player, you know, playing the player is it. That’s all flare. So we’ll see what flare is when it comes to that.

Tom: As we’re talking about Irish drummers, is there anyone that’s currently coming up on your radar?
Ray: I’m seeing stuff that I love. I can’t name names right now, I’m sorry about that. I can see a style coming through in ways I hope that remains. I’m seeing players that are playing really particular styles. It’s great, with flash and you know flare and they’re comfortable with what they’re doing. I would never be worried for the future of Irish drummers, ever, ever. I think it’s always going to be there. I’m only a cog in all that system but you know, I believe in it. I believe it’s going to get better in some ways. We’re not seeing it right now but then again it’s not what it used to be. You don’t have as many places to play. I think a lot of it is off the beaten track. Many people are expecting it for free.

Tom; Is it a case that people don’t appreciate music as much now?
Ray; I think people appreciate it usually but they just won’t pay for it. It’s down there with all the other things, you know what I mean? That’s what it has come to. That’s what music has come to. Live around the world, I mean gigs and festivals. Now we’re busy at the moment as well so.

Tom:  How would you describe your own style?
Ray: Freedom. Freedom of expression. That’s why I started.