Thursday 30 July 2015

Interview with Mr Ray Fean

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.

Saturday 28 March 2015

Cormac Dunne, drummer with The Stunning

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.

Thursday 1 January 2015

Interview with Dec Murphy, former drummer with The Blizzards

Tom; How did you get started as regards playing drums?
Dec; Well I started when I was about 13 year of age. I aspired to drum before that but it was difficult as I was living in a housing estate in Mullingar and it was hard to get space. It took me about 3 years to persuade my mother to let me have a drum kit. She agreed, so I worked in Dunnes Stores for a year, saved my money and bought my first kit which was a Premium Drum kit.

Tom; Was there any history of music in the family?
Dec;No, we were a very unmusical family. I have two older brothers. My mother doesn’t play a musical instrument neither does my father, but they enjoy music. There was no major influence from my family but I was always interested in music especially heavy rock, heavy metal. I’m a real fan of that music style since I was 9 or 10 years old.

Tom; How did you progress with the drums from there?
Dec; I was in various bands. I never got drum lessons and I still haven’t to this day, I possibly should. So as I said, I played in about three or four bands with friends, during school and I started playing with Bressie. He was in school at the same time as me and the rest of the lads from the Blizzards were in school at that time as well. We were just like any other band starting out – just coming up with a few tunes.

Tom; How old were you at that stage?
Dec; I was about 19 or 20 at the time.

Tom; Who were your drumming influences back then?
Dec; Well Metallica, would be my all time favourite band and although I listen to all types of music now they were always the band that inspired me. Other bands, in recent years would be Queen of the Stone Age, The Foo Fighters. I always got a huge buzz of energy from that music particularly the drumming and it reflects on my style of playing.

Tom; So when you were listening to drummers like Dave Grohl, what were you learning?
Dec; I suppose it was that energy and he is an unbelievable drummer. I love that whole thing of being loose, beating the shit out of the drums but at the same time coming up with incredible beats. However, I was never in to double bass drum.

Tom; What type of drums did you start off with?
Dec; I started out with a ‘Premier’ kit, then I switched to a Yamaha 9000 and I’ve had that kit for about 15 years. I’ve gone through other drum kits but I always go back to the Yamaha. My cymbals would be Sabian HX5. I always use a washy ride cymbal say 24” and a 22” crash and my hi hats would be 14”.

Tom; Did the other members of the band try to dictate or influence how you played?
Dec; It was probably 50:50. Sometimes a song would be written around a beat that I might not have come up with.  I think Ringo Star came up with a great one when he said ‘the best drummer in the world, shit I wasn’t even the best drummer in my band. Justin the guitar player is technically a brilliant drummer, he wouldn’t have half the balls playing that I’d have but he’d have the rudiments. Bressie knew how to get an idea across and he has probably become a better player of the drums than he was in the beginning. Other times we would play around with an idea. Beats wise, I always try to be different but generally what would always work, would be the simplest thing.

Tom; How did you come up with the beat for the ‘Reason’?
Dec; I just followed the music. I think we started off with a dance beat. Bressie might have had something to do with that beat, I cannot exactly remember. You play a song perhaps twenty different ways before somebody else hears it. I am a very tom heavy drummer. I play a lot on the floor tom and I just like the feel of it and it adds a real deep sound to the music.

Tom; How do you tune your toms?
Dec; I tune them by ear. I try and spend very little time on the bottom skin as it just wrecks your head. You can always dampen it out. I have a 16” floor tom and I tune them as loose as possible without the skins being flappy live wire. We would get the mikes set up so that the sound was booming and it has an impact.

Tom; Did you find that with your style of drumming you need to work on your upper body strength?
Dec; Yes, I go to the gym and do exercises especially for my wrists. I used to struggle not as much now, but when i was in the Blizzards mistakes would happen as I played drums the wrong way – I used to hit them too hard. Our producer Michael Beinhorn wanted me to murder the drums. He would be in your face saying ‘come on, hit them, hit them’ and we would end playing that way live and people couldn’t get over how heavy a drummer I was. My impact on the snare I used to be breaking 3 or 4 sticks a gig and there was no way you could keep that up no matter what kind of a man you are. I’m trying to change it now but I would still be slapping the shit out of them. I am trying to bounce back a bit more as opposed to putting the stick through the snare. I’m not with the Blizzards anymore and I don’t have a budget for my kit. Anyone who used to talk about my drumming spoke about the energy and how hard I hit them.

Tom; That energy certainly comes across. Who would you credit for that?
Dec; If anyone complimented my drums it would have to go back to Michael Beinhorm.  If I became any way a good drummer and I think I’m average, then credit must go to Michael. I would have been poor to say the least but once he got hold of me he just tore me apart. I remember a week and a half pre-production I couldn’t get over it, I was shitting a brick, over the fact that a big time producer from LA coming in, never says hello, just tells us to play and at the end of it the energy level from the start to the finish is so obviously a million times different just by him going around standing in front of the drumkit and punching his hand in the air, saying ‘hit them, hit them’. Funny thing, the more he is doing it the harder your going and you feel the whole energy of the song picking up. Michael Beinhorn definitely took me out of my comfort zone, he wouldn’t let me record with cymbals, we would record the whole track without cymbals and then the cymbals were overdubbed. That was tough. We would rehearse the song with cymbals and I would say do we have to record them as in and he would say no. He probably is the single most influential person on my drumming. I would look at a lot of drummers and I would say, they lack energy. Definitely for rock music, you need an energetic drummer, he may be technically brilliant and if he just doesn’t look like he is spending energy, it doesn’t do it for me.

Tom; Recording with a click track. Was that a problem?
Dec; It came to a point with a click track where I didn’t have to practice at all. On an eight bar I would come in and after that I wouldn’t hear a click track at all and that was because I was practicing so hard. It got to a point where using the click track, it didn’t bother me at all and I used to learn it off  after a few songs. It was set up on the high hat stand. Using a click track did effect me at the beginning but not now as I have been playing for eight years and you get to the point where your body is moving for the click and my head is keeping the time. You go with the flow then and your body is moving to the click.

Tom; When you were recording, was it you by yourself or were you going down with the bass guitar?
Dec; I didn’t really enjoy recording that much to be honest with you. Some tracks, it was me and the bass, other tracks, it was just me and a click track. When you are rehearsing and playing, with the full band, I always thought that was the way you should record. It’s very hard to pull a good sound out of each individual instrument.  When we were recording the album the producer was never happy even after 20 or 30 takes and we would play with the most unbelievable energy. Beinhorn would never be happy, he was a perfectionist and when he was happy it was amazing and you’d be thinking I can’t believe he enjoyed that, but it was generally drums and bass and a click guide track and the lads wouldn’t be around.  It’s funny really, because recording should be more fun because when bands go in and the energy you have in rehearsing most of that is taken away in the studio. Sometimes you don’t see the person you record with, they lay down one track, go out the door and have a cup of tea and your listening to this and it gets real methodical and it’s hard then to put the same buzz into it, if you know what I mean, your not getting the full blown sound and when you over concentrate, you make mistakes.

Tom; How do you feel your drumming style progressed, from the first album to the second one?
Dec; The first band I was in was a real acoustic band, just brushes and all that. I think my style is still progressing, nothing too radical and I believe I started off as a rock drummer and I’m just a better rock drummer now. I’m just heavier. In the early days I did a lot of reggae and I was doing all these off beats and that was good. I enjoyed that. It was a new element, a new learning curve, but by the time I got to the second album, that cut out of it altogether but I wouldn’t think my style has changed in any great shape.

Tom; Is there any aspect of drumming you would like to focus on now?
Dec; No, not really because any time I go in to practice now, I wouldn’t call it practicing. I would call it beating away and I’m just driven by energetic songs and all I want to do is lose myself when playing songs. I’d listen to a broad range of music but I’d know what my limitations are. Sometimes I’d say, I’d love to be able to do that but this is what I do. I suppose you can try and be good at everything or be really good at one thing and I wouldn’t want to be trying to do jazz drumming or blues, reggae, because it’s just not my style. The main thing is that I enjoy what I do. I never intended to be a professional drummer. It’s just something that happened to me and I’ve enjoyed every minute. It never really appealed to me to do rudiments as I enjoy what I do.

Tom; Regarding the Irish drumming scene, is there anyone who would really influence you?
Dec; Yeah, over the years there were a couple of drummers, Dave Hingerty, I really enjoyed  him, particularly his work with the Frames. He’s a left handed drummer, he’s open, but he can play whatever way he likes , he’s that good. I was into The Frames when I was a young fellow and he was with them at that stage.
Some songs he would play with his hands on the kit, beautiful sounds, and then some songs he would rock the shit out of them. During the first album I met him actually, the only drum lesson I got was from him. He just said ‘stick to what you’re doing as I wasn’t in to putting my head down. Binzer Brennan, he would be another, he’s got an old vintage kit, always playing fairly loose but he is on the button each time.  There are a few others, I wouldn’t know by name but I remember we had The Minutes playing here and they had a really good drummer. He has nearly the exact same set up as myself. Larry Mullen is unbelievably consistent and although I like U2 I never played along with them if you know what I mean. I really enjoy his drumming, but his style isn’t for me as he sits with his shoulders back, really straight and its very clinical looking and I’d be completely all over the place, sticks flying, dropping sticks, breaking sticks. I’ve never seen him breaking a stick. Apart from that, there are a lot of drummers around Mullingar and some really good ones.

Tom; How is the local scene around Mullingar?
Dec; Ah it’s really brilliant, it’s really vibrant and there are some good bands and older bands.  I’ve come across a few of them, as I’m in the pub trade here. A really good drummer is Steve O’Keeffe who used to play with The Pale. He is a fantastic drummer. He lives for drumming even more than I do and drumming is his career, his bread and butter. He’s playing with a cover band now, yeah he’s a really sweet drummer.
I was at Bruce Springsteen last week and all I could do was look past Bruce and the drummer and I could spend my time, non-stop, looking at drummers. I really love looking at the different styles, different set ups, as I’m always intrigued as to how the kit is set.

Tom; If you were giving advice to someone starting out, what would it be?
Dec; When I started drumming, I took the toms out. You need to get the basics right and young drummers in particular can start at doing things that are beyond their grasp. Any song can be played with a snare, high hat, cymbal and bass drum. It doesn’t really matter about the fills, rolls. When young drummers start they move straight from the snare to the toms and you can hear that they haven’t played 3 hours straight, with just a four-four rhythm with just a snare and bass drum.
I used to play a lot of REM tracks and they are good and there was good clarity in them. You could always just play along. Just keep to the basics and take away the toms when you are starting. Just play four-four and do that for months because, that is where it all starts and you can progress from there. Drums, if you kick the shit out of them as I do, can be financially straining.

Tom; If someone came up to you and said ‘I want to do a time capsule and you have to decide on three songs, what would they be?
Dec; Apart from the Blizzards, there is a song I do with the new band called Run and Jump, it’s not been released yet. I would say ‘The Reason from the Domino effect album and finally one of the first songs we ever wrote together called ‘Trouble’, which was on the first Blizzards album. They might not be the best songs, but they are the ones I think my style suits.  On reflection, I might change my mind, but it’s better to say it from the top of your head.

Tom; What are your future drumming projects?
Dec; Sircles is the name of the new band. Since the Blizzards finished, I’m working full time. I’ve taken over the lease of this place and drumming is more of a hobby at the minute and I’m enjoying that part. There is no serious element to it. We get in and rehearse for a couple of hours each week and I’ll always be playing drums. I would like to get back to playing full time again.  I’ve never put myself out there as a session player as I don’t think I ever thought I was up to it. It’s just a matter of trying to find the right thing and just get another couple of years out of it. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I’m still happy playing away. Playing drums with the Blizzards was like a drug and I was delighted to do it and if I get to do it again brilliant and if I don’t, well at least I did it.  

Date;                   28/July/2012
Location;           John Daly’s Public House in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath.