West End Drummers - Tony Bourke - We Will Rock You
Part 1 - Tony Bourke – We Will Rock You
Tony Bourke has been the drummer for ‘We Will Rock You’ since it’s opening at The Dominion Theatre in May 2002, notching up more than 3,500 performances on the show, which is based upon the many hit songs of Queen.
When did you start drumming and how did it lead you to playing in ‘We Will Rock You’?
I’m 55 and I started playing in ‘73. I’m self taught; I didn’t go to music college so everything I’ve learnt has been off the gutter. I didn’t get my first pro gig until ’77, which was a Mecca band, a dance hall band. Through that I taught myself to read, I just got my arse kicked basically! After that I got involved with a lot of pop stuff and I joined Bucks Fizz, the Eurovision group, then after that I had a couple of tours with The Drifters and the Three Degrees. Then I went back into theatre; I did a show called ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ on Drury Lane, which was very orchestral, just snare drum. After that in ‘84 I did another show called ‘Blondel’ with Paul Nicholas, the actor. That lasted for 2 or 3 years and then I went back to doing the Empire again with a much bigger band; a 16 piece band and loads of brass. I stayed there for about 3 years and then I went freelance doing everything – functions, weddings, sessions, duos, everything just to work.
In the late 80’s I started getting involved in theatre again. I did a show at the Half Moon in Stepney and I was depping for a drummer there. It was one of those gigs where I didn’t really want to do it and I initially said no but I thought about it and had I not phoned him back I wouldn’t be here today. It was one of those life changing career things because through that I met this fantastic MD called Mike Dixon who was doing ‘Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ 2 or 3 years later. He asked me to go and dep on it in 1991 when Jason Donovan was on it.
I must have done OK and when the show ‘Grease’ came up in ‘93 I was asked to do it. I did that for 6 and a half years and in the mean time I was doing loads of TV and stuff, like the Royal Variety Show in ‘93, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life! I did a lot of TV series; house bands for the Jerry Springer series, The Shane Richie Experience, Jimmy Tarbuck. That was as well as Grease but once that finished I was out on my ear again going back to functions. Then I got asked to go and dep on Mama Mia for Frosty Beedle, which I did for a couple of years and that was really good fun.
I got very frustrated at not earning much money and going ‘Shall I give it up or not?’. Then in November 2001 I got a phone call, ‘Would you mind auditioning for We Will Rock You?’. I remember it was the last day in November and I went down to Metropolis Studios in Chiswick, which is where Queen recorded their last ever album together. I had to play ‘One Vision’, a blues song and ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’. There were about 20 drummers and 20 bass players and Brian May was there, so we played through the tracks with different rhythm sections.
At the end of the day they asked me to come back the next day, where I did the same numbers again but Roger Taylor was there. I could see him in the box so I was a little bit nervous! I thought, ‘I’ve got to just go for it’ and I can remember taking my biggest pair of sticks and my DW pedal. There was a beautiful Yamaha Stage Custom that they’d hired. It wasn’t top of the range but it had the most amazing drum sounds. I went in and played my arse off and then that evening I had to do a function at The Dorchester. I had my phone on all night long in the hope I’d get a phone call. There was no call so I guessed I hadn’t got it. The next day, the Sunday, I was climbing up the walls. I just wanted to know, yes or no. I got really stressed out about it and on the Monday morning I got a call at 11am saying they wanted me to do it. Then I heard the gig wasn’t starting for 4 months so I just did a load of listening and transcribing; listening to how Roger Taylor approached the drum sounds on each song so that when I got to rehearsals I was half prepared. Out of this I’ve done Party in the Park, Party at the Palace and Children in Need. That was a great experience; playing live with Brian May and Roger Taylor on Children in Need in 2002 was very special.
As you were involved from the beginning were you able to have your say in the part or was it all set out for you?
A little bit. I very much approached it as ‘keep your head down and play your arse off’. When we started rehearsals Brian May and Roger Taylor were there and we did 3 weeks rehearsal at The Dominion, which was fantastic. They were really hands on and professional and they made everyone feel really easy about it. With ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, they never ever played the middle section when they did it live and we had to play it through. I’m sitting there and it’s the first time I’ve heard it since I was 19 and I now have to play the damn thing in front of the guys who wrote it with the rest of the band! The part is all in 4 but it feels like it’s an odd time because of it’s the accents. I got through it OK but it was a surreal experience.
What struck me about the show, watching it from the band’s perspective, was how many of the musicians were involved with Queen and how much of a tribute it is for Freddie Mercury as a band mate. It made me feel quite emotional!
It makes me feel quite emotional. We get to reproduce this historic music and that’s why you can’t muck it up. You have to be 800% every night and even if you’re not feeling good you have to do a good job because people have paid money to come and see it. Also the rest of the players are top players, so you’ve got to come up for them all the time. From a drummer’s point of view you have to nail it every night. Sometimes it’s hard. Working it out, I’ve done over 3,500 performances! I have deps so I can have holidays because there’s no way I could do it all the time. I have to go off and do other things to keep the brain going. You have to professionally step back from it sometimes. Yesterday I had a day off in Sussex just to cleanse my mind. I’m really proud to still be doing it and it’s the best job I’ve ever done. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done as well but it’s bloody good fun.
What’s your set up?
The set up is a Premier Genista, which I think was one of the last sets they ever made. George Frederick at Premier, who I’ve known for a long time, contacted us and I said, ‘We need these size drums’ and he said they could do them for us. It’s a black finish with 10 by 9, 12 by 11, 13 by 12 rack toms on rim systems and 16 by 16, 18 by 16 floor toms and 24 by 18 bass drum and 14 by 7 snare drum, which I absolutely love. Pearl Eliminator pedals, Paiste cymbals 19 inch crash, 20 inch crash, 22 inch inch ride, 19 inch crash, 22 inch china and a Zil-Bell Ice Bell, which is just used in ‘Killer Queen’. There’s a Roland TD10, which I’ve got a kick pad on for 2 orchestral bass drum beats. The pad on my right under the cymbal is for shaker and the pad to my left is for ‘Radio Gaga’. I use a snare trigger, which triggers the original sample off of ‘Radio Gaga’. I use Remo heads and I’ve just tried on these new S hoops. I’m trying to get hold of them for the 16 and the 18 because they are lovely. They’re pressed hoops that feel like die cast hoops and are about £20 each, which isn’t bad. They really fatten the drums up.
What’s your favourite moment of the show?
I’ve got two. The ones I really like to play are ‘Under Pressure’, because there are so many different sections to it. That nice drum fill in the middle… the arranger, Steve Sidwell, arranged it for drums and percussion; we’ve got the tom lines in unison so it has to be the same every night. That’s a challenge. I also love playing ‘I want it all’ cos you can really dig in and play. The hardest number is ‘Only the Good Die Young’, that slow 6/8, because it has to work and lock in with the piano. You have to work with the MD on that one.
Do you do any warm ups or any preparation before the show?
No. Most people will probably shout me down on this but I do practice a lot, mentally and reading. I love listening to everything, which goes onto my hard drive. I just like to go and play because we’re performers. If I’ve had a two week holiday I will physically not do any warm up; just go back and play the show. Music is about passion and speaking straight away. It’s a personal thing and it works for me.
What is the band and stage set up?
It’s a very difficult set up to be involved in because we’ve got the musical director and the keyboards and percussion about 80 feet away. We have little TV monitors to see the MD on but we have the rhythm section, which is drums, 2 guitars and bass, on the other side. We each have a 16 channel mixer. The Achilles heel is our monitor mix – if it’s not good then the rest of the band can’t hear each other and it’s so difficult to play, even with fantastic in-ear monitors. Stuff with a click track is quite helpful sometimes cos if you can’t hear the rest of the band at least you’ve got something to work with.
I find a good mix is difficult to achieve with drums. I’m all for close mic-ing and individual mics but at the end of the day if you’ve got somebody who’s not really sure how to mix those things… you need the foundation of bass drum, the snare drum is the voice, the hi hat is the reference and the toms are the melody. I’ve done a lot of studio stuff where they’ve just used two overheads and a bass drum mic about 4 feet from the bass drum so you control your dynamics naturally. But once you have an engineer that’s fiddling with it… I like drums to be organic and not mixed for me. I detune the snare quite a lot during the show to give it a different vibe.
What are the pros and cons of theatre work?
Would you like me to stay here for 4 days?! You have to get on with people cos you’re playing with the same people 6 or 7 or 8 times a week. That’s a priority, to keep the ship happy. It becomes almost like a family where you get to know somebody so well as a player and sometimes you have an assistant MD on, or the assistant assistant MD and they may feel things differently. That’s a challenge because as the drummer you know where the groove should be but because it’s theatre, not a gig or a concert where you’re in charge, you have to be a bit subordinate and flexible. You have to turn up and play your bum off every night – you’ve got to enjoy it cos you’ve got a job and it’s great music to play. Playing with people every night, you feel their energy and if they’re a bit down you have to lift them.
The drummer is the foundation and energy. You become a diplomat and have to be aware of everyone’s emotions; sometimes it’s 20 percent playing and 80 percent people management.
You said earlier that you don’t drink coffee when you’re playing. Tell me more about that
Occasionally between shows on a Saturday I’ll have a meal and a small glass of red wine and I love to have a quick beer afterwards. You’re there to play and sometimes it’s very stressful and you have to be on top of it all the time. I don’t drink coffee before I play because it makes me too alert. With this musical especially, you need to sit on it and kick it up the arse from underneath rather than being in front of it.
Who have been your biggest influences?
My Dad, Stan, has been a huge influence on me. He’s 81 and still a working drummer. He’s been doing it since he was 15 and he’s never done anything else so he’s a good yardstick for me for longevity in the business. He’s a jazz player, he was a bop player, but earned a living during the 60’s with rock, pop and theatre. In the 70’s he was doing drums on ‘Chorus Line’, which was a big show. Then he did ‘42nd Street’, ‘City of Angels’, loads of TV and he still does about an hour and a half of practice every day. He’s got the left foot cowbell thing off and a double pedal. He’s a top man and big influence.
When I first started he didn’t want me to start playing because he knew the ins and out of the business; that’s why I’m self taught. When I started in ’73 there was no Drum Tech or ACM, no videos or DVD’s; I just had the record player and Jim Chapin’s book on independence. When I left school I took a day job and I used to come home and practice every night. I didn’t go out with girls for a few years because I just wanted to be focused and when all my mates were out I was practising for 7 or 8 hours. My dad wouldn’t give me help but eventually he did, once I proved that I could hold a job down and do all the business side of it. We’re very, very close and he’s razor sharp. A few weeks ago he did a gig with some great jazz players down in the New Forest and I loaned him my DW kit that I bought about a year ago. I’ve not had a chance to use it properly yet but he loved it and had his double pedal set up. His hi hats are ex Buddy Rich hats from ’72. When Buddy was touring here then Dad knew an acquaintance of his called Freddie Adamson, who was Bruce Forsyth’s drummer. Buddy knew him well and gave him two sets of hi hats. Freddie kept one and my Dad’s got a set, which he still uses; they’re New Beats and they’re the dogs danglies!
Also, someone I grew up with, Gavin Harrison. I think he’s the most awesome player that’s around at the moment and I’ve known him since he was 15. His dad, Bobby Harrison, was a great trumpet player and he used to work with my dad. I’m very proud of what Gavin has done. I respect him immensely and he’s the man of the moment worldwide, genuinely from the heart. A couple of years ago I was on tour in Sweden and Porcupine Tree were playing in Stockholm so I had a night off and went to see Gavin, it was absolutely awesome. I feel privileged to have known him over the years and seen how he’s blossomed into a world class player.
Interview by Gemma Hill
One thing the article does not tell you is Tony is one of the nicest person you will EVER meet. Top bloke!
James, 1 August 2011
Fantastic article. This is so interesting to read as back in 2002, when I was 12 and had been drumming for 6 years, I needed something to really push my playing forward, and I learnt the album for WWRY cover to cover. I can sit down and play it now with months, or years without listening to it. It was one of many things that really pushed my playing forward at the time!
Oliver Barker, 19 August 2011
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