West End Drummers Part 8 Tim Weller - Billy Elliot
West End Drummers Part 8 - Tim Weller (Billy Elliot)
Tim Weller took over the drum chair on Billy Elliot in 2005 at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London, where the show won an Olivier Award for ĎBest New Musicalí. The music is by Elton John and it features some staggeringly talented youngsters. With a show so heavily based on dance the relationship with rhythm is especially important.
Outside the show Tim keeps busy with sessions and pop gigs, including The Divine Comedy, Beverley Craven, and Will Youngís latest album ĎEchoesí, which entered the UK charts at number one at the end of 2011.
In the following interview Tim talks about the use of vintage drums in recording, the importance of a good relationship with your deps and playing drum kit on computer game music with the London PhilharmonicÖ
What first got you into playing drums?
My junior school had a very forward thinking music teacher, so as well as there being a school orchestra, they had a pop band that played coversÖ quite an eclectic mix - a lot of heavy metal, a bit of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and some John Denver. This band used to do concerts at local schools and play in assembly. On Saturday mornings, while all the staff had meetings, there was an extended hymn practice and they would play a few tunes. When I was seven the guy that was in the band was called Steven Bachelor and everyone thought he was really good. He had a big yellow Tama kit which was always up on the stage and he was very, very cool. Everyone used to sit in assembly and look up at him so I guess I got interested in it then. He was the first person who made me think, ĎI want to do thatí.
I was about 11 when I took over the gig, sharing it with one or two other people. One Summer we went on a tour, which was essentially a school trip, to France in these two minibuses stuffed with gear. They drove us all the way to the South of France playing in youth hostels on the way and then a couple of years later we made an album (which I will never play to anyone). We also did a tour to America and Canada, which was great. It was this music teacher who promoted it all and it was quite unusual for the time.
Back then there were no grades for drum kit, you couldnít even study drums in school except classical percussion. I did a little bit of that but drum kit didnít really exist as an instrument in the education system at all. It was only later when Iíd left school that I really started studying anything. I went to Drummerís Collective for a bit and then to Bob Armstrong who Iíve been with on and off ever since; he is fabulous.
I was really into heavy metal as an 11 year old; Rainbow, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Whitesnake and Deep Purple. From obsessively reading the backs of record sleeves I saw drummers like Ian Paice and Cozy Powell shift through different bands. Like any teenager, I liked the idea of what you imagine that lifestyle would be like. Then I noticed Simon Phillips who started cropping up in credits and I followed his career. He was the first person who I became aware of as a session rather than a band player and I thought that that would be even better.
A local drummer from Tunbridge Wells, where Iím from, took me under his wing and he used to make me compilation tapes of Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd, Lenny White, Simon Phillips, all those sorts of people. I used to hang around in the local music shop and joined as many local bands as I could. I also hooked up with Pete Thomas from Elvis Costelloís band and he used to let me watch him rehearse. He was always really helpful.
How did you join the show ĎBilly Elliotí?
I knew the trumpet player who was on it and he introduced me to Dave Adams who had the drum chair and let me sit in. Heís a fantastic drummer. They had had quite a long exclusive, and he was probably desperate to have a night off, so one night he said, ĎHereís a pad, you can learn it if you likeí. I learnt it and depped on it and then, when he left to do The Lion King, I got lucky and got the gig.
What were the gigs that you were doing before Billy Elliot?
I moved to London when I was about 19 and did a lot of funk bands and jam nights, bit by bit meeting people and getting more gigs - the same process that everyone goes through. Gradually I started doing a few more things and got some sessions, and as well as pop things, I ended up doing quite a lot of electronic stuff. Through this producer, Spacer, I got hooked up with this classical / electronic crossover thing called The Orchestra. They were a little bit ahead of their time, in retrospect, but it was a really cool thing to do. It was all young players playing electronic or dance music from the rhythm side with strings and brass from the classical side. Apart from getting to know a few people from a more classical background, I really enjoyed it and it was exciting playing with that many people in such a large band. Obviously on any gig you have to make sure that what you are playing fits in with the wider sound, and the more people there are playing, the more you have to think about that.
Off the back of that, an American composer, David Axelrod, came over to London to do a one off gig. He did a lot of New-Agey, groovy, jazzy, classical albums in the 70ís and got sampled a lot by Lauryn Hill and DJ Shadow. It seemed to be quite a big deal and the orchestra backed him. It was a real roast; he had these huge, 15 page long scores and you could not take your eye off the page for a second.
Through the same MD I started doing the Divine Comedy, who I love. I think Neil is a fantastic songwriter. Iíve done a few albums now and some tours. The first tour had a 20 piece line up and it was great to be involved in something where the drumkit had a few different roles, sometimes normal rhythm section, other times light classical accompaniment and so on. He is really good at writing for the whole band and itís a good discipline to sit back on a tune just playing one cymbal mallet roll or a sleighbell, locking in with an oboe line or a glockenspiel part rather than just hammering through it with a groove - much more musical. It is always a good lesson in being appropriate, in terms of sound, part and role. The percussionist, Rob Farrer, is superb and itís nice being part of a section with him on some tunes, rather than just a stand alone drummer.
How much time do you spend on sessions compared to the show?
I''m not a ridiculously busy session player. I don''t get three calls a day or anything, like the big guys do. I get a few things and I''m lucky that it''s quite a mixed bag - some pop, TV or library stuff and some stuff that I can do in my own studio. On a good week I''ll have a couple of sessions outside of the show.
Also, I try to balance working with spending time with my family. I''ve got a son who''s just started school and I like to make sure that I''ve got a bit of time in the week to build something dangerous out of Lego with him.
Can you talk about any of the sessions youíve been doing lately?
Last week I was with a singer songwriter from Switzerland for a few days and we did five tracks that were cut live with a really good little band up in Willesden. The week before I did a couple of tracks with Richard X, for a new singer songwriter whoís just been signed. Next Iíve got a few library sessions to do at my studio and a couple of songwriter tracks and Iíve got a handful of TV sessions for the new series of Dirk Gently. Quite a mixture.
How long have you been working with Richard X and is that how the Will Young album came up for you?
Iíve known Richard for years and done bits for him on and off. On the Will album, even though itís quite a dancey record, they wanted to record it with a small core band to give the tracks a more organic feel. We didnít track it as a band, it was done separately, but they were right and it does have a nice vibe to it. They had most of the tracks demo-ed up with the arrangements already there, but some were still sketches that were being edited over the course of the sessions. We spent a lot of time on sounds and parts. Heís got this great engineer, Pete Hoffman, and they work as a really good team. Itís always fun being around them and they really know their stuff.
We recorded it in a big room with lots of ambient mics and we tried a few different drum kits; we set up two kits and, although we kept trying to change things to make each track a bit different, we kept on coming back to the same one. We ended up using three snare drums and the same kick, toms and pair of hi hats for the whole record. Sonically they just sat with the tracks and the programming the best. Iím really pleased with the way it turned out, it sounds contemporary but itís got a nod to an 80ís vibe. Very cool.
Whatís your set up at home?
Iíve got a little studio that originally I got to practice in but, bit by bit over the years as the technology has changed and become more accessible, Iíve adapted it into a space where I can record drums for people and do sessions, either online or with them coming round. It seems to work well and, for some types of sessions, it is really useful, especially if youíre working for people that you already know. In this day and age with the way a lot of recording is done, I think having your own facility is a useful thing.
Drum wise it varies. Iíve got a load of old drums that I really like for recording. I normally use an old 1965 Ludwig, 20 inch bass drum, 13, 16 toms that I got on Ebay just before doing a Divine Comedy album. Jeremy Stacey has got one at his studio and Iíd done something there and used it. It sounded and looked so fantastic that when I saw one exactly the same I had to have it. Luckily, no one else bid on it so it was really cheap! Iíve used that on more or less everything ever since. It records really well. I have a load of old snares as well; Radiokings, Rogers, old LudwigsÖ
Thereís something about old drums. They donít seem to generate as much noise around them as modern drums. They sit nicely in the mix of a track and have a great frequency where theyíre not in your face but sound groovy and warm. I think they make you play differently too; they have a vibe about them. Iíve got a big 24Ē Ludwig bass drum, which I bought on a whim and thought Iíd hardly ever use, but it records brilliantly and isnít overpowering, in fact itís often less overpowering than a 22Ē. I did an album earlier in the year down at Real World, which was a country rocky sort of thing with quite a lot of brushes and I set it up largely because Iíd only just got it and wanted to try it, thinking that itíd get changed instantly. In the end we used it on the whole record and they loved it. Iíve got a couple of Yamahas too, which I use if I need a few more toms. They always work well; Yamahas are so consistent you know exactly what youíre going to get.
Whatís your set up on the show?
Itís a DW jazz series, 22 inch bass drum, 10, 12, 14 and 16 toms, snare, hi hat, ride and two crashes which are all Sabian. Iím in a perspex booth so I try to use quite dark sounding cymbals so theyíre not too abrasive. Sabian have been great and very helpful and Iíve just started trying out their new Artisans which are tremendous. There are no other bells or whistles in there, just drums.
What styles are involved in the show?
Itís very diverse; there are some classical bits with military snare stuff but, as itís set in a minersí town, itís got more of a colliery band feel. Thereís some swing, some shuffles, a rocky number, some groovier numbers; itís a good mix. The beginning of the show is all conducted and then the click creeps in during bits of the fourth number. From there on in, all of the big numbers are on a click. In places it speeds up and slows down, which you get used to, but probably 50 or 60 percent of it is on a click.
What are your favourite moments?
I like it all. I enjoy playing it. It''s a fabulous show, and it''s a good band; great players and nice people to work with. All you could ask for really!
Obviously, on a show the aim is to try to play the same part every night (more or less) because the audience is different. They''ve come to see the whole show and the drums are but a small cog of that. The goal is to play it with the same passion, energy and precision night in, night out without falling into the trap of changing things for the sake of it. That presents its own challenges and it isn''t either easy or boring to do.
I have a theory that things are easy and challenging in equal measure and itís all about the way in which you approach them. On the one hand, it can be straightforward to play a simple groove, but if you really hone in on getting the placement and the consistency of your backbeat really right and focus on all the details then you can make it as challenging as you want to.
What do you do about deps?
Obviously you need a few deps to be able to cover if you are away or ill. There isnít really a magic number of deps to have but I think you have to strike a balance between having enough people so that there is usually someone available, but not so many that theyíre hardly ever in. Itís a lot of work to learn a show, and depping is a tough job to do. When someone comes in theyíre inevitably going to play a few things slightly differently here and there, and, as people are used to hearing the same approach every night, these little differences are quite under the microscope. It can be pretty tough. Also, deps need to be in regularly to stay up to date as shows do mutate a little over time. I try to be fair and split the work evenly; itís a two way street and you have to look after your deps. I currently have four very good deps who are in regularly and a few others (also very good) who are off doing other things.
What qualities do you look for in them?
These days nearly everyone is very good, I think, but obviously that is crucial. Theyíre all good players. Some are guys I knew from before and some of them the fixer recommended or other people in the band suggested. You can move through deps; some of them get their own show and go off to do that so theyíre unavailable and you get someone new. Itís a fluid thing and Iíve probably had eight or nine people through the years. Overall, I like to like them, really. I get on with them and thatís important to me. Theyíre helping me out by doing the show so I like to have a good relationship with them. I need them to be reliable; Iím terribly neurotic about that and Iíll send them a text on the day checking theyíre OK for that night, but they all reply and humour my neuroses!
What else have you been working on?
Iíve ended up doing more things with orchestras lately. Thereís an Irish artist called Duke Special who occasionally does these big gigs with an Orchestra and I go out and play drums on those.
Itís always interesting fitting drum kit into an established orchestra. They are all so used to working with each other and their conductor that you kind of have to squeeze in - sometimes quite hard to do when youíre playing an instrument that is very rhythmic and also very loud (even when youíre playing it quietly!). It can be quite petrifying playing with that many people who all know each other and the bigger the orchestra, the more frightening it is.
I did something with the London Philharmonic recently, by far the most terrifying thing Iíve ever done. It was a few sessions for an album of music from famous computer games that they were doing and then a one off gig at the Festival Hall. We did three or four studio sessions. The first theyíd recorded the orchestra in sections and then we did the rhythm section in the evening; that was great as it was all to click. A couple of the other tracks they decided to add drums on later so I did them in my studio on my own without any pressure.
The final session was at Watford Town Hall, where they recorded the entire shebang live. It has an amazing acoustic there for an orchestra, but not really for drums. I was deafening. Three bars in they came over and asked me to play quieter and I was only using brushes! And the orchestra was enormous; there were about 80 of them, all world class players; you should check out the percussionists, they are incredible.
I was set up by the double basses and the percussion section was diagonally across on the other side of the room, a short drive away. Thereís no monitoring in those situations, itís just acoustic in a room that is micíed up and the conductor is in the middle. You have to get used to where a conductorís beat is anyway, because the natural tendency as a drummer is to hit the drum at the time that their hand comes down but the beat is actually when they come back up again. Different instruments play at different stages of that upbeat, depending on how long it takes for their note to sound and how far away they are, so first off you get used to where the beat is in relation to the conductorís movement. Then you have to work out where the beat is in relation to what youíre hearing. If youíre sitting next to the double basses then youíll hear their notes as they happen but the percussion, which is about 150 feet away, has to get to the conductor and then all the way over to you so by the time you hear it itís already happened! So if you play your beat when you hear the woodblock then youíre too late, but if you play before the woodblock, as you should, you donít know if youíre early or in time. Itís really, really hard. Great fun once youíve done it, though!
Interview by Gemma Hill
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