Thursday 14 July 2016

Interview with Binzer Brennan.

Binzer Brennan is one of Ireland’s most respected and accomplished drummers. On the night I interviewed him, at McGettigan’s in Galway City, the Germany / Italy Euro 2016 match was in full flow and it was going to penalties. Game On. 

Tom: Who are your drumming  influences?
Binzer:   I was obsessed with drummers like Ian Paice from Deep Purple and John Bonham. Then as I got further into things like trash metal, I saw bands like Slayer and Metallica. I hate to say it but Lars Ulrich influenced me at one stage but definitely Ian Paice and John Bonham. Then as I kinda got into the singer songwriter scene I started playing with The Frames and venturing away from the rock scene.  In 1993 Steve White and Paul Weller became a huge influence on me.

Tom: What did you learn from Ian Paice?
Binzer: Ian Paice is well known for his rudiments and I’m brutal at rudiments. I kinda skipped that you know, with a brutal left hand, but yeah things like the one stroke roll, Space Truckin and stuff like that is just mind blowing, so I suppose even before I had a drum-kit, I used to air-drum along to songs like Burn.

Tom: When did the drumming bug hit you?
Binzer: It hit me pretty immediately actually. It was about the summer of 86 or 87 and a neighbour  I didn’t know very well, was locked out of his house but he was living in his garage and he had a drum-kit in the garage and I would call up to him every day and after that I was just obsessed with it. I got a job in a petrol garage for about a pound an hour and I saved every cent I had and then I got a striker drum-kit for about 300 pounds and that was it, everything else was just school at the back of the corner and hitting the drums.

Tom: Was playing drums and being involved in music your preferred option?
Binzer: I never had a career plan to be honest with you. I suppose I definitely knew coming up to the leaving cert that I was only interested in music and being in bands and that kinda thing and when I finished school I ended up going to the Ballyfermot rock school. It was the only post graduate leaving cert course and that lead on to just meeting other people from various parts of Dublin you know some musicians who were in Kila at the time but they were just saying that they were joining this new band with this fella Glen Hansard and that they were looking for a drummer, so that was the beginning of me really starting in Dublin City because up until then I was just practicing with some bands who were pals at Temple Bar, rehearsing all day.

Tom: So the Frames were your first professional band really. How did you approach going into the studio for the first time because it’s different to playing live?
Binzer: Well we were very well rehearsed. You spend all your time putting it all in the rehearsal room and not in the studio room. You know it was like 15 quid for the day. I would have been trying to get things right in the first take. It was more trying to prove myself. There was something precious about getting it right, in the first take and at the time as well playing with a click track was very much in mode. I was always trying to get things done in the first go.

Tom: The album I suppose that really shot you to prominence was Fitzcarraldo . That’s a really a ballsy album from a drumming point of view. There’s a lot of work there, was that a conscious thing, did you go into it and say, I’m going to make a statement here?
Binzer: No, what happened was that John Carney, the bass player, of Sing Street fame left the band and the rest of the lads left it up to me to find a new bass player. So I found someone through friends who knew him, it was Brian Downey’s son from Thin Lizzy – Graham Downey. So I got Graham involved and he played a fantastic bass and he was very much into groove, whereas John was into slap bass and stuff like that, so he was very much into bands like Massive Attack and we would play loads of Massive Attack grooves. So Graham and I noticed the chemistry that we had and the songs would always come together very quickly and we certainly noticed there was a lot more room for the groove section but I think we as a band as well were so young, filling every bar with music and we kind of matured after our first album. So a lot of the things were influenced by the Pixies. We kind of took that template, a lot of the verses were the drums and bass and then the whole band was grooving.

Tom: Was Stewart Copeland an influence?
Binzer: I certainly liked what Copeland did and went through a phase of his music but I never wanted to emulate him but I may have been influenced by him. There were an awful lot of Dublin drummers and one of those was Craig Hutchinson from Lir and he was a big influence on me. He used to do a lot of hi-hat work and I used to go to every Lir gig possible. The Frames and Lir were great friends but he was very much influenced by Reggae. His favourite thing I suppose was Bob Marley. So I could have easily picked it up.

Tom: The Fitzcarraldo album was really your calling card. What happened after the 3rd album?
Binzer: Fitzcarraldo was a long period.  We were rehearsing every day trying to put things together but it was more about what we were creating in the room. It was more of a healthy environment and so then what we did was beg, borrow and steal to make money for the album and get it signed. We kind of toured it twice, recorded twice but by the time we got to do that we were kind of sick and tired of it and had kind of moved on. By the time we were with ZTT records, the album was ready to be pushed out and that ship had already sailed.  We wanted to do something different. As I said before we were always very well rehearsed going into the studio whereas this time round we had some half baked ideas, a bit of a tune here, a bit of a riff there and try and create in the studio and it just became really tiresome and I think as well that traditionally recording it was always bass and drums first and we laid the foundation there and then.  The top line was put down on top of that because we were so undecided as to what we were doing with the songs. Okay so that’s the arrangement and nobody was willing to commit because once you committed to that, that was it, that was the way it was meant to go. We weren’t used to doing it in a different way so to be honest I kind of got a bit bored and it just wasn’t happening and it wasn’t quick enough for me.

Tom: Did you feel it was time to move on?
 Binzer: I was beginning to feel like I don’t fit in here anymore because I was always a good player and I could play but it would take a load of takes to get it right but I found when I’d do a take they would say “will you try it a different way” I was beginning to feel conscious about my playing as well so I decided to get out and just gave up drumming for a year and I became a landscape gardener. I didn’t pick up a pair of sticks for ages and then I got a call from Mundy and he was having difficulty in his band.  I went to London and did some production and recording. I just totally spread my wings and went everywhere and anywhere while playing with Mundy, BellX1 and also with the Classic Beatles. I was playing with lots of bands and I wondered why I didn’t  do this years ago. I got to learn so much at this time.  I was rehearsing with Mundy and he is quite rock and roll. Then I played with BellX1 but they had a totally different approach, they would be using monochords and weird instruments and looking for me to recreate drum machine type things. One of my favourite drummers is Paul Noonan, the singer from BellX1. He doesn’t approach songs from a drummer’s point of view. Another favourite drummer of mine is Conor from the Villagers, he’s a fantastic drummer. The drums are mighty and I think it’s because of the different approach and point of view because he didn’t grow up listening to Ian Paice and John Bonham like I had. They just approached it from a very unorthodox kind of angle and I love that because I constantly learn from it.

Tom: What would you say are the differences in your own music now compared to earlier in your career?
Binzer:  In the early 90’s I was very conscious of playing too simply and it’s such a stupid attitude to have because it’s almost like I had to prove myself in every song, prove how good I was. It would be great to come up with something that really suits the music. “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”. That drum beat totally suits the song. It’s a lovely moving pattern and to the average drummer they would think it’s too easy but I suppose the biggest difference was just maturity, that classic phrase. It’s funny, how even watching Graham (Hopkins) play Fitzcarraldo. Graham plays a much more simplified version of what I did and I think that’s just because how he as a drummer, has matured.

Tom:  In the studio, everything is captured in the moment, is that a torture for you, to come back to tracks thinking I should’ve played this or I should’ve played that?
Binzer: No I don’t think there is any point torturing yourself over stuff. I would have years ago, again trying to prove stuff to myself. I would have been thinking I could’ve done it so much better but then there’s just the certain amount of acceptance that comes with it. It’s the difference between being comfortable and laying it down with confidence as opposed to trying to shoe horn for the sake of it. You can dance with a drum beat but you can’t dance with a drum fill. You just have to look at the bigger picture and get the groove right

Tom: What’s the best advice you could give someone that is starting out in music now?
Binzer: My advice would be play, play and play and say yes to everything, I mean I’ve been in so many positions where I was in a band that would ask me to play with them and I wasn’t mad about the stuff and I remember thinking, will I, won’t I and things like that. But I just did that and we ended up doing one gig and after that gig as I was pulling my gear down the stairs I met someone who I grew up with. He was telling me that he was very much involved in music and that he taught music in college. He said that he wrote a book about theme influence of modern music and that he was looking for a drummer . I started doing a session with him and I ended up working with his brother who was a producer. All of this happened just because I said yes to that one gig. But of course you shouldn’t do something that you can’t stand but I said yes for the most part.

Tom: Do you play drums by ear or by reading?
Binzer: Yeah I was never really a reader. I tried the reading thing. I could really put the head down and knuckle down but I think maybe if I was in a jazz circle or orchestral circle I could read but for the most part I play by ear and I make my own notes so no one else understands them except for me. The odd thing I might write out like the beat but sight reading is the kind of thing you would have to practice every day but I would much rather playing the drums rather that reading a book.

Tom: When you’re playing a song do you always have a definite beat in mind?
Binzer: Well I would never put down someone’s idea and say no that’s wrong or say that’s not going to work because there are no rules in music.  I would be open to other ideas. I was fine for the most part  I would play what I had in mind and end up pairing that whole thing back but in relation to going down the road altogether and doing work I suppose maybe there has been a time where you feel it works really well. I would always accept they have a vision, as to how they want it.

Tom: Tell me about your drum gear?
Binzer: I became a big fan of vintage retro drum-kits a long time ago and I’ve got a bit of a collection now. I came into vintage drum gear about 15 years ago and I got very much into reconditioning them. I would do wraps and take them apart and put them back together and all that. It’s funny, the Olympic that I’m using tonight I’m using it all the time. I got a vintage drum-kit from a friend and he was talking about the Rolling Stones and AC/DC and he said look I have a drum-kit I bought when I used to play drums.  The drum-kit just wouldn’t work, it was killing me, I just couldn’t control it and then I had another session the next day in the studio and I said I’ll get this kid sounding good and I had worked with it the night before and it was beginning to sound better and I brought it to be seen the next day and it got a quick tweak and I was just about getting to know it. It’s a piece of crap really. I bought that for 100 quid about 20 years ago. I’ve always used cymbals.  I know I got them a long time ago when I was with a friend. I loved the K range. The hi/hat size is 14. I did use 13’s at one stage. Graham (Hopkins) uses 16’s but they were just a bit too big and breathy.

Tom:  What songs would you recommend as your calling card?
Binzer:  There’s one song and it’s a Gemma Hayes song and she was playing the piano and messing around with this tune and I said to her that’s lovely, have you turned it into a song or anything and I said keep playing it.  I jumped in behind the drums and started playing. It was kind of jazzy and I started playing along and she loved it.  We just recorded it. It’s on the video I have on BinzerOnDrums and there were no words to it. The name of the song should be in the list as well. So I’d recommend that and in relation to my rock roots I would recommend something from Little Matador .

Tom:  Have you noticed a change in the drumming scene in the last few years?
Binzer: I think drums are a lot more accessible. I notice there are more music shops in town  opening up. There doesn’t seem to be any decline in people buying drum kits. My son is playing drums now and he got a kit, which I got him for Christmas. I think the level of drums and choice of drums is just so  different.

Tom: What makes Irish drummers different to other drummers?
Binzer: The American drummers are very well trained in relation to rudiments. I suppose the one thing I would say is the American drummers always have to get the rudiments right.  When I was touring the states before and I remember there would be a local band that would roll up and you would see the drummer sound checking and you would say oh my God he’s amazing and the bass player is going to be fantastic. Then they would play together and they would be absolutely terrible. They would all be out doing each other. It’s like what they’re saying about  Irish sports people just playing with a bit more heart and not trying to be technically perfect just trying to put a bit more heart and soul into it. It does actually mean something when you play something and really mean it. It’s almost like when you’re a singer and you sing something you believe in as opposed to someone who’s just trying to get their notes right or diction or phrase right or they’re concentrating too much on the technical end. Where as you can be bang out of tune but if your delivery is heart felt you can convince so many more people to listen to you as opposed to being pitch perfect.

Tom: What’s the 5 year plan?
Binzer: Well I suppose I want to get this up and off the ground (Brass Tacks) and I just want to keep playing and get better. In relation to having a plan I always panic and think oh God I need to change my career. I have a wife and two children and a house. I need to be doing the exact same thing I was doing in 1991, just drumming but I’ve managed to make a living out of it now. There’s a lot of people I’m beginning to work with like Rob Kirwan who produced the Hozier record. I get a lot of calls from him now and a lot of people would send developing artists over to Ireland to work with him. When he wants to put a band together I’m the first person he calls. So in relation to what’s my 5 year plan I don’t really have one.  I just go with the flow and one thing will lead to another so I just keep saying yes and more opportunities will keep popping up. Even when you’re in a band you can rehearse and rehearse and rehearse or you can go out there and do it in front of people and either fall flat on your face and go back to your rehearsal room or just stay in your room and never get anywhere.