Irish Drummers: The big news surrounding you at the moment is that Picturehouse has gotten back together after 21 years.
Johnny: Yeah, 21 years. It’s funny because it takes you back and reminds you of the person you once were and the experience you had playing with those musicians and the place you were at, that time of your life. It’s a great time in your life to be young and not have any responsibilities and just be free to roam the planet, go on tour and play lots of concerts. It’s a very privileged kind of life. I feel very lucky to have been able to do it and sadly with bands in a lot of situations you have to leave for a variety of different reasons and for me when I left in 2001 I’d fulfilled everything I’d wanted to do with the band and I wanted to do other things with my life. It was time to move on.
Irish Drummers: You go back to those songs after a certain period, are you tempted to play them differently now compared to how they were recorded?
Johnny: Absolutely, I have to give credit to Aidan Pierce. He played drums on the first album ‘Shinebox’ and I played drums on the second album. He was in the band at that time and he did a great job with those songs. I would have toured those songs for many years and put my own spin on them so definitely coming back to those songs was a different experience.
I grew up in the grunge era and I wouldn't have taken things like dynamics into account because when you’re playing bigger stages you can play a lot louder and give it a lot more, whereas now I have to consider that’s it’s the Concert Hall and I have to play to the room and consider how we gel sonically.
Irish Drummers: Any problems gelling together?
Johnny: We were very much on the same page, regarding tempos, dynamics and really laying back on the songs and being a bit more relaxed. It was such a pleasure to play with those guys and a lot of memories came flooding back at that first rehearsal. It was certainly emotional.
Irish Drummers: Any tears?
Johnny: Thankfully I didn't cry in front of the lads..HA!!!
Irish Drummers: Have you adopted a different approach to playing now as opposed to years ago?
Johnny: When you’re a bit younger, you’re full of all this nervous energy where as when you’re a bit older you start to take many more things into consideration such as dynamics and how you sound in relation to everyone around you. Not that I didn't do that in the past but we've all developed as players over the years.
So I guess I’d have a more mature approach and the rehearsal process for the Picturehouse gig was a very pleasurable experience in itself from start to finish.
Everyone was very professional, in good form and showed up on time. Everyone had done their homework but there were some songs I don’t recall ever playing so that was like starting from scratch.
Irish Drummers: How has your technique developed over the years?
Johnny; I've tried to work hard on my technique over the years and BIMM has really helped open my eyes as I'm very much self taught. It’s a constant learning process and I am always keen to learn new things.
Irish Drummers: Are there any plans to go back in and record another album?
Johnny: I don’t know. I think there’s a certain point in your life when you’re creatively in tune with one another and I think when you get a bit older your time is limited. For example, Aongus, the bass player, he’s out with The Waterboys now. I have my commitments to BIMM and I'm doing various things. I’ll be doing gigs with Andrew Strong over the summer.
We've always got a lot of other things going on and what’s great is that we are very musically active which is brilliant to see.
I am going into the studio to put drums on a potential single called ‘Riptide’ which we may release in 2018. I've heard the basic tracks and it’s got great potential, so let’s see what happens.
Irish Drummers: You mentioned BIMM; you’re heavily and actively involved in that. What stage is BIMM at now in Dublin? How has it progressed over the years?
I'm very, very happy with the progress we've made and take a lot of pride in being involved with such great people.
Irish Drummers: Johnny you mentioned another couple of bands that you worked with recently. Apart from Andrew Strong, you've played with Pugwash and Neil Hannon. What’s it like putting yourself into that space and really soaking up and trying to work with their ideas? Are you still able to bring your own style to the table?
Johnny: When people hire you in the studio it’s usually because they know you can help realise their vision or at least bring something to their songs. If you’re trying to force an idea, that’s not a good thing. I've played on many Pugwash records and Thomas Walsh is an excellent writer. Neil Hannon is easily one of Ireland’s greatest ever songwriters. We did The Duckworth Lewis Method album which was nominated for the Ivor Novello.
During the recording process I was just there with Keith Farrell who was producing. We put a few drum tracks down when the guys weren't even there but there was one time I had to come back and redo the track but that’s just part of the process. Neil was a little unsure of my style as a drummer for his songs which is understandable but we did a track called ‘The Nighwatchman’ and I'm very proud of that one as I know he liked what I did on it.
I'm a firm believer that if a song is really well written, it practically plays itself. If it’s well arranged and all the parts are there, generally you’re talking 2 or 3 takes and it’s done. In a lot of cases drummers are very much under pressure because of budgets, to lay down their drum takes quickly. I don't mind as I really enjoy the process. Being creative with people you like, playing music you like is wonderful. It doesn't get much better than that.
Irish Drummers: What other projects have you recently been involved in?
Johnny: I was working recently on a record for a band called SlumberJet with Duncan Maitland producing. He was in Picturehouse for the 1st 2 albums and we got 5 songs done in a day so on many recording sessions you are expected to come in, get a good take down and work effectively and quickly. I actually really enjoy the challenge. I also did 4 songs on Duncan’s album as a result of doing the Slumberjet album which was nice.
Irish Drummers: There’s so much technology now, is it easier to come up with the drum parts or are you still working with an acoustic kit? Are you involved with sampling and electronic pads?
Johnny: No, I really just love the acoustic drums; I do play electronic drums with 80's cover band, Springbreak. I wouldn't be a huge fan but I absolutely understand the necessity and I understand the validity of them. If you’re doing a wedding you need to be able to control the volume and some rooms aren't suitable for acoustic drums. Obviously, if you're playing in an 80's band, you need to be able to create those sounds to add to the authenticity.
I much prefer acoustic drums because you don't get the dynamic effects with the electronic drums.
I think it's important for bands in studio to go for a vibey performance because nowadays they're editing drums and manipulating everything . There's no life to it, everything's quantised and I like imperfection to some degree. I like it if a song speeds up and I like if it slows down. Some songs need to do this but I play to a click a lot these days and that’s important too.
I got a Roland SPS sampler recently so I’ve been trying to see if I can incorporate it into my set up. Session drummers now are required to be able to mix electronic and acoustic sounds and that’s very much the way things are going now, so you gotta move with the times.
Irish Drummers: How has your drum gear evolved over the years?
Johnny: For the last 20 years I've been using Sabian cymbals. They are a great company and through Musicmaker they support a huge amount of Irish drummers.
I use Vater sticks, 5Bs. I find them great. At the moment I've been using 14” AAX accelerator Hi-Hats which are great and a mix of 20” crashes. I have an Artisan 22 inch ride which is great and use a Yamaha Mable Custom kit or Ludwig Classic Maple. I pretty much like the 20 inch kick drum, 12” rack and the 14” floor. My snares are generally 14" by 6.5".
In terms of a snare I really like the Ludwig Supraphonic 402. It’s really versatile. It’s the most recorded snare in the world and I know a lot of drummers favour the Black Beauty but having used the Black Beauty snare a few times I much prefer the Supraphonic, there’s a lovely response off it. Listen to all those Zeppelin albums. That snare sings.
When you actually look at some of these Ludwig snares, they don’t look like they’re made up of expensive components even though they can be quite expensive to buy but they just do what a drum is supposed to do. The Yamaha gear is excellent too. It’s made in China now but I managed to get 2 kits that were made in Japan. The Japanese kits are regarded as being superior and I really like them.
If it’s good enough for Matt Cameron from Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, then it’s good enough for me. I think the toms on the Yamaha kit are just fantastic, really well made drums. So I think between those 2 kits and my Sabians I'm very happy.
Irish Drummers: Who are you listening to at the moment, I know you mentioned Matt Cameron. Who else is coming up on your radar from a drumming point of view?
Johnny: There’s actually a cross over jazz band that I went to see in New York called KneeBody and their drummer is a guy called Nate Wood. He’s just insane. He’s a huge influence on guys like Mark Guiliana. Guiliana just played on Matt Cameron’s latest record and on Bowie’s last record and he’s known as this jazz wonder kid and he is an incredible talent.
I find Kneebody really interesting because they’re actually quite melodic but can go off on these mad jazz jams but always come back to a strong sense of melody. The drummer can go off and do something unbelievably technical and balance it with something really simple. I just think that they're a really exciting band and they've been around a really long time. I would recommend any drummer or other musicians to listen to these guys. The line up is drums, bass, saxophone, and trumpet. They are awesome.
The new Beck and Foo Fighters records are great, as well as Robert Plant and I went to see Living Colour recently in Glasgow. They were fantastic. I've tried to get them to play in Dublin on 2 occasions but sadly couldn't make it happen. I'll keep on trying though.
Irish Drummers: Thanks Johnny, anyone else?
Johnny; Another drummer I saw this year was Nate Smith, the only way I can describe him is that he is like a turbo charged Steve Jordan. He’s just a phenomenal jazz player and a phenomenal funk player. He’s very unique and he’s got amazing feel. His right handed 16th note playing is just outrageous. My wife and I went to see him in New York and I was lucky enough to be able to sit behind him for the whole gig.
I just enjoyed watching him play and I’d recommend any drummer to go and watch him or buy anything he’s played on. He strikes that balance between being incredibly musical and also doing mind blowing things on the kit.
Other drummers I really like are Ash Soan, David Garibaldi, Jimmy Chamberlin and Chad Smith but my taste in music is very diverse. I’ve been listening to a lot of David Crosby lately but can go from listening to a John Carpenter, Lalo Schiffrin or John Williams soundtrack to blasting out some Metallica or The Beatles of course. My taste is very diverse. I think that goes for most musicians. You have to soak it all up and be open minded.
There’s a lot of chops guys out there posting stuff online but many of the guys that do that are in a room for hours every day and they’re playing and practising lots of stuff but I doubt if they are making records. Drum solos are really impressive but playing with other musicians is a totally different mindset. A songwriter is not going to be impressed by some guy blasting out a load of chops and in most cases he or she won’t get you hired. Playing for the music is what gets people hired so it’s important to be creative and play with people that can help you showcase that.
Irish Drummers: Who influenced you earlier on in your career?
Johnny: I got into drums when I was 12 and was listening to things like The Beatles' ‘Abbey Road’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ so I’ve always wanted to be Ringo Starr or Nick Mason. I wanted to be that guy at the back who plays for the music and makes the other guys in the band look and sound good.
At the same time I’ll go and watch a drummer do a 20 minute drum solo and it will absolutely blow my mind. I love all aspects of music and I love all aspects of drumming but my area of specialism and my goal was always just to play on the best songs with the best musicians I could find and that’s still what I try to do today.
I’m lucky at BIMM because I get to hang out with a lot of world class drummers when they visit the college and myself and the students get some excellent advice. With all their skill they always reiterate the importance of playing for the music.
Irish Drummers: Has the music industry changed much over the years?
Johnny: The drumming world is such a vast universe these days with so many diverse areas drummers can move into. Some guys make great teachers, others move into the YouTube channel drum cover vibe and then there’s band players or just great session guys. It’s very broad.
Benny Greb said a great thing that really resonated with me. When he started out he said he wanted to be the best drummer in the world and as a result he was miserable. So he decided he was going to be the best version of Benny Greb he could be and he’s much happier doing that, so if you strive to be the best version of yourself then you’ll be satisfied.
Part of being a drummer is that you’re never really fully satisfied with the level you’re at. You are always looking for the next challenge and once you stop thinking about those things, you plateau a little bit. I’m 43 years old now and I still have a curious nature about drums and I still strive to get better.
I went through a period in my 30s where I lost my motivation for a couple of years but BIMM was the kick up the ass I needed and that job needs to be earned. I’m very grateful to be there and it has been a great opportunity.
Irish Drummers: Johnny, being so busy, how do you manage to get time to practice?
Johnny: With regards to practising drums, time management is a huge factor. As you get older and if you’re raising a family you don’t have much free time.
Young people need to tell themselves, “You’ve got the time now so practise as much as you can because when you’re older you won’t have that freedom”.
Social media is a huge distraction. Thomas Lang said a lot of drummers get distracted easily when they’re practising, when they should be focusing on what they’re doing. It’s important to focus and set out a practice planner with short term achievable goals. I spend so much time gigging, teaching and raising my kids that a practice session is a luxury. However, if I have to learn a new set I will put as much time as possible into preparation.
This summer I did some festivals with Andrew Strong, the concert hall with Picturehouse and the annual Led Zeppelin gig with Whole Lotta Zep in the Sugar Club. That meant learning about 50 songs and getting a few solos together for the Zep gig. I practised my butt off this summer and spent at least 3 days a week practising on my own. And I loved every minute of it as it was a luxury to have the time.
I took time at the end of every session to just jam random ideas and work on my improvisational skills. That was my little reward at the end of each session. I can use the drum room at BIMM over the summer when there are no classes which is brilliant. I had a drum room I could use recently but it’s gone now so I’m on the lookout for a new one. If I can do 2 practice sessions in a week, I’m a happy man.
Irish Drummers: We have so much access to social media that I think some people spend more time watching as oppose to actually practising and playing. Would you agree with that?
Johnny: Yeah, especially with YouTube. You can get bogged down with too much watching and not enough practising. It’s all baby steps but you need a plan and specific things to practice.
Irish Drummers: Do you find that students, not just drummers, are struggling with that concept?
Johnny: It’s important to focus. Time is limited and time management is important. Get a diary and write in the days and times that you are going to practise. By doing this you are committing to it. Focus on addressing any weaknesses and listen to how you sound. The iPhone is great for doing videos so you can check your posture and how you sound.
I spent a lot of time on backbeat exercises over the summer which is just playing a variety of hi-hat ostinatos and incorporating my left foot, playing quarter notes, eighth notes and off beats. Really useful material.
They’re just back beats but it’s stuff I use every day and I enjoy playing it but you have to play it well.
Sight reading is really important. A lot of people don’t learn this skill and don’t think it’s important. It’s just like rudiments, the more time you put into it the more efficient you will become in this area.
Irish Drummers: Drummers like Clem Burke have always emphasised the importance to physical fitness in relation to drumming etc. Is that really important?
Johnny: Well when you’re 20 years of age, you’ve got a lot of energy. I quit smoking a year ago. Best thing I ever did.
I try to go swimming at least 3 times a week because I find swimming easier on the body. I’ll go to the gym, jog and lift weights and stuff like that and then I’ll fall out of it for a few months depending on how busy I am.
Because I go to the gym I don’t feel as tired when I’m gigging and I can concentrate more. So I do think it’s good to maintain some level of physical fitness.
I went for a walk around the park this morning and I may go for a swim later on this afternoon and then go to my gig tonight. You don’t have to be doing triathlons or anything like that, just some level of fitness is very beneficial.
This also ties into mental health, and the body and mind need to be in sync. I only realised this as I got older. I drank a lot and smoked a lot of dope when I was younger and well into my 30s and that didn’t help in any way. I didn’t feel comfortable revealing this in the past but I’m happy to speak about it now.
Smoking weed killed my motivation and created a lot of anxiety. It also made me quite introverted and less sociable for a time so I had to make a choice. As musicians, we get exposed to drugs and alcohol so we need to check ourselves. I think kids nowadays are much more clued in and are more aware of all these pitfalls but I do know that if I stayed on the path I was on I could have ended up in a bad way mentally, physically and professionally. That’s a huge confession for me but I think we learn from our good and bad experiences.
It’s all about trying to maintain a sense of balance in life which can be difficult as there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. But you have to make time to clear your head and step back from things.
Irish Drummers: The last time we spoke, you mentioned that you were drumming with Marianne Faithfull. Do you still keep in contact?
Johnny: She played in Dublin a few years ago and I went to see her. I brought my wife and hung out with herself and her manager Francois too. She doesn’t tour that much anymore and she changes her band almost every year but I had an amazing time with her and the guys in the band. We all still keep in touch.
The bassist Garry John has been playing with The Proclaimers for the past few years so I meet all those guys from time to time. You make a lot of friends over time and I’m very grateful for all the experiences I’ve had up to this point.
Irish Drummers: You also mentioned last time we spoke that you don’t like flying. Is that still the case?
Johnny: I don’t mind it so much. I think because I did so much of it over a long period of time that I’d had enough of travelling at that point. My second daughter was born and I just wanted to be at home a little bit more and I was a nervous flyer. I still get nervous but it wouldn’t stop me from going anywhere.
Irish Drummers: How has Irish music changed over the last few years?
Johnny: Live music is thriving but you have to be creative from a business perspective and a lot of bands need to sell merchandise to survive because record sales have plummeted.
Everyone is listening on spotify now which is terrible as it doesn’t help bands from a financial perspective. If you like a band go to their gig and buy a t-shirt, buy a mug, buy a badge or buy something because that goes into their pockets. If you like a band, you want them to make another record so you have to show your support. Listening to them on Spotify is not showing your support, that’s just taking their music at a knock down price so what I would say is go out and support Irish music.
We have a huge live music scene here but we do have a responsibility to support it and it’s the same for incoming bands from America or wherever they’re coming from. Irish promoters have a lot to answer for. The Electric Picnic has a load of Irish bands playing for free. Why????
Pay these kids and give them something. They’re out there working and performing. They deserve it. They have no problem paying a band that comes in from America or England so why not pay Irish bands.
Irish Drummers: Daytime radio stations are really good at playing Irish music but there are other stations out there that could really do a better job at promoting Irish music.
Johnny: Radio stations are all about advertising so what Irish bands can you hear on the radio, The Coronas, Kodaline? There are great people out there that champion Irish bands such as Dan Hegarty and John Creedon who are fantastic. Paul McLoone is great and also Fiachna O Brianain. He’s on RTE radio 1’s Late Date and he’ll play a lot of Irish acts. I really like his show.
When I was in Picturehouse, one of the reasons we had a career was thanks to Irish radio. FM104 and radio stations like Cork FM played all our singles and as a result we were able to play the Olympia and Cork Opera House but it’s increasingly more difficult to gather a following if you don’t get radio plays.
One thing I’ll say about BIMM is that we strive to equip students with the necessary skills to do it all themselves.
You can come out of our college and you’ll know how to put your record out, you’ll have a guy in your band that can record your music and you can do your own artwork and promotional work.
Bands are becoming more self sufficient and need to do so out of necessity.
Irish Drummers: Johnny, I can tell that you’re still passionate about the music
Johnny: I just feel very lucky to still be playing and that I’m still employable. I say to lots of young people that it is a very privileged career but you have to earn it. When you get to your 40s you do start to look back and reflect on your achievements. I’m lucky to have played with the musicians I’ve played with. If you can have a positive impact on younger people, then it’s great and I’m all for that. I’ve certainly experienced the high and lows in the industry and at this stage in my life I’m happy to share.
Being a musician is a lifestyle choice so you have to take the good with the bad but look after yourself while you’re doing it.