One From The Archives - Interview with Steve Alexander
Over the years Steve has seen it all. Born in Wales, One of the UK’s top drummers. Steve started making a name for himself at a young age before landing the pop star role with “Brother Beyond” he has gone onto record, write, programme and tour with Jeff Beck, Duran Duran, Tommy Shaw, Papa Wemba, Boy George, Jeff Lorber and John Taylor to name but a few. Has performed at 100’s of clinics around the world including the Zildjian day in the UK in 98.
We catch over a cup of coffee to find out about his new project “Flashman” and a honest chat about the highs and lows of working with Brother Beyond, Duran Duran and Jeff Beck.
Mike Dolbear: What are you currently up to?
S.A: The main thing taking up most of my time at the moment is a project called Flashman. A few years ago I was signed to an influential underground label called Reinforced Records, set up by 4 Hero amongst others. They had heard me in a rehearsal studio working on some material I had written when Drum'n'Bass first started emerging. I had decided to teach myself to play drums in the style and had written some tracks to help me develop my skills . They heard me rehearsing by chance and they liked what they heard. I took some of my music in to their offices played it to them and we hit it off right away. I released some 12" singles and a cd ep, all called 'Isometric' that were recieved very well in the music press. This led to more and more writing and remixing work and eventually to Sony in Japan asking me to record an album for them. I started working on the project but then I got very busy touring and recording with Jeff Beck and by the time I came back home , the A+R people at Sony had changed, my contacts had left, so in effect I had all this material ready but with nowhere to go.
Then, by chance, I met Jamiroqui’s manager, who listened to what I'd done and liked it. He introduced me to this great singer called Renn who’d worked with several artists in the past (e.g. Basement Jax and Anastasia ), and suggested that we worked together. We developed a really good chemistry from the off and started writing and recording material together for the next 18 months as 'Flashman'. Now the album is finished, and other than one or two guest musicians, such as Jeff Beck, I played all the instruments and produced the record which was time consuming but very enjoyable . Although we have talked to several record labels, we are going initially for an internet-based release and build from there. The web address for the project is www.flash-man.tv You’ll be able to listen to or, download tracks (available on i-tunes, mycokemusic etc.), watch videos , buy the CD and we are planning various other cool features. (You can see a review of the album here)
And when’s this due?
It is available now. There will be a message board there and I would be very interested in people's reactions to the whole thing.
I’ve put a lot of effort into the whole project along with a talented team of people I've co-opted along the way . I’ve overseen web design, artwork, photography and the videos we’re making for a couple of the tracks. I've learnt a lot and really enjoyed the whole thing. One of the things that frustrated me in the past was even though I’ve enjoyed working as a drummer, being hired by a variety of artists, one of the drawbacks of being freelance was being at the beck and call of people who would change their mind about working or not at the last minute, calling off tours or whatever. One minute you would have months of work the next, nothing at all . The music business is tough and I realised that rather than waiting for others to call me for work, I would try and generate it for myself. The more music I wrote, the more independence I had in terms of relying on other people and the greater the likelyhood of having an income when the inevitable dead patches would come along.
Of course, it doesn’t guarantee your income, but on those days when you’re at home thinking “I wonder if anyone’s going to call me ever again” you can actually do something about it instead. I think it pays to be versatile in today's music business, and over the years I have supplemented my playing work with programming drums for various people. Recently, there’s been a transition in my life which used to consist of 90% drumming and 10% writing and programming. Now I’m spending 80% of my time writing and programming and 20% drumming, not because I’m not interested in playing drums but because that's where I'm getting more work at the moment. I’ve already succeded in writing or co-writing some media-related music such as the official theme for the FA Cup and a whole series of pieces for Motorola's TV ads and sponsorship slots as well as scoring several TV documentaries on Ch 4 and ITV. As a drummer I’ve been doing some Master Classes here and in Germany. I had a very interesting experience recently when I went to a thing called The Modern Music School in Germany where I did a little bit as a drummer but mainly I was there to work with bands as a producer. Each day I had to walk into a room with a band that existed in their own right, listen to them rehearse and then help them with their arrangements and performance. That was a big challenge because I would be thinking, '' Right, here’s some sort of No Doubt type SKA band- what on earth am I going to do to help them?''. The next day was some full on thrash metal band with female operatic vocalist, the next day a three piece rock band. Somehow, I think I learnt as much as they did. All the experience I've had in writing and arranging and being an MD as opposed to simply being a drummer all came to the fore in this context. At the end of the 10 days, all the bands had to do a gig in a club in the city and I must say, I felt really proud of them, seeing how they'd developed. It was really rewarding.
You know all about the boy band situation because you were with Brother Beyond, what was that whole situation like?
It was a mixture of experiences, pluses and minuses. I suppose one point to make is, at the time there was no such thing as a 'boy band' Admittedly we had the same type of audience, but the band wrote songs and played instruments and I suppose this put us apart what these days is normally understood as a 'boy band' But putting that aside , I had some memorable experiences that, no matter how many musically credible things I did afterwards, were unrepeatable. There’s nothing as intense as 10,000 15 year old girls screaming at once (apart from 20.000).I think that’s the most intense energy I’ve ever encountered, its overwhelming . Being that I never imagined myself to be in that kind of situation ever,as it was never an ambition of mine to be a 'pop star', it was all a bit of a surprise when it happened. All I had wanted to do was to be successful and respected as a musician by my peers and suddenly I had to adjust to doing Tv interviews and the like.
Before I joined the band, I was playing in the BBC Radio Orchestra doing sessions for film and TV, playing with different bands and I was beginning to get a good reputation .Then BB's manager and singer came along, overhearing me in a rehearsal studio. They had just signed to EMI and asked me to play with them on tour on the university circuit, awhich led to opening for Womack and Womack and Boy George on theatre tours. We were well recieved at the time, and I remember Melody Maker gave us 'gig of the week' once. However, as soon as we had a hit and appeared on the cover of 'Smash Hits', we became seen as a bunch of useless clothes horses who obviously couldn't play. ( including the same journalists at MM who'd earlier given us good reviews !)That was a bit frustrating I must say. I’m not trying to say that what we did was anything to change the face of music or anything because it was just a pop band after all, we did try to be good at being a pop band, write good pop songs and put on a good live show. However, the band did take me around the world for the first time, touring, playing large venues and doing literally hundreds of interviews , photo sessions etc. I had the experience of being in a band and being the artist as it were, which is completely different from being a hired hand and would stand me in good stead later in my career. A lot of responsibility would come your way, lots of decisions in areas I never imagined I would have to be involved in, so it was an interesting and challenging process.It could also make you feel very self conscious because of the increased emphasis on one's physical appearence. It was also the first time I worked as the MD of a band because I was, even at that time, the most experienced musician in the band.
That was when I first got into programming, running rehearsals, realising that all the other musicians were relying on me to hold things together when we were on stage. So overall, playing in the band was a pretty rich experience. I suppose on the downside was something related to what my drum teacher ( whose name is Martin Webber), told me once-''be careful of the first thing you become known for because it will stick with you for a long time''. Unfortunately, because of the popular conception or misconception of what the band represented , when it came to an end I didn’t bounce out of it with a fantastic CV that results in the type of conversation that goes, “oh yeah we must get him for the tour/record because he was in this super cool band who we really respect as musicians”. My first clinic tour for Zildjian, for example, was about maybe a year after the band split up. Zildjian had seen me live and knew I could play , but certain people at the end of almost every show on that clinic tour would come up and say ''we came to take the piss out of you because of the band you were in but we’ve got to say, well done mate, that was good!'' I managed to win them over despite their pre-conceptions and that gave me some satisfaction.
You made a nice comment earlier about just your general neighbours when they first moved in, just repeat that story.
When I first moved into my house I was with the band, and you know, I’d be flying off to the States or Japan to do a something or other and there would be a limo to pick me up and take me to the airport. Of course, the neighbours' curtains twitched quite a lot and apart from one or two, most of them didn’t want to speak to me because they all thought '' he must fancy himself something rotten'', Some of them didn’t speak to me for about 6 years but now they’re really friendly because they realise I was just just a 'normal' person after all! I used to get followed around by girls in the street if I was spotted by them. One time I was being followed by a bunch of girls in Covent Garden, there were about 15 or 20 girls giggling , trailing me around the shops. I started to feel really self-conscious, so I stopped to talk to the girls and made a deal to talk for 10 minutes, if then they would leave me alone. After the 10 minutes, one of the girls said “it’s amazing, you’re just like a real person”. Which goes to show how odd other people's perceptions of you can be,especially when they've only ever seen you on T.V or magazines. I had a lot of rich experiences with the band and I don’t regret it at all, but after it all came to an end it took me a little while to get to the stage where I would get a professional recommendation for a good gig- '' I know, let's get the guy from Brother Beyond'', that’s like saying these days ''get the drummer from Busted''.
How did you break out of that situation?
I had a tough time for a while, but I still had contact with people who knew me from before BB who would call me for sessions. I did an album for a guy called Tommy Shaw who was in Styx and then I did a album and toured with Bonnie Tyler. I played on records for up and coming artists. Eventually people see you doing these different jobs and you get noticed, get called for something else, so I began to build my freelance career for a second time.
I did an album and some live work for Papa Wemba who is a big star in the World music scene, he's from The Congo . That was a great experience, working with a bunch of African musicians in Paris ……. One thing I’ve always felt strongly about is to try and take a musical approach when thinking about what to play as a drummer, i.e. see the whole arrangement as opposed to just the drum part. They were playing me these traditional grooves, and then it was down to me how interpret them on the kit in a more 'western' style, which was really rewarding. Gradually I began building up a diverse CV, I toured with Boy George when he was doing his dance, cross over stuff and various French and German artists . I did clinic tours in Europe, the Far East and South America which were some of the most amazing experiences I've ever had...
In 1993, it came to my attention that Duran Duran were going to give me a call. People had recommended me to them, but in the end, it didn’t happen for about another year. It was odd, I didn’t audition for them, I just had a phone call from Warren Cuccurullo who was the guitarist in band then, and it wasn’t the sort of conversation like “Hi, I’m Warren from Duran and would you like to audition for the band?'' He just told me everything that was coming up for them in the near future, somehow assuming that I already knew that I was to be part of it. I put the phone down and told my girlfriend in a rather bemused manner “I think I’m the drummer in Duran!” I really enjoyed playing in that band. I had to drew on all my experience , including and importantly the Brother Beyond experience to make a success of the early days of the gig. A lot of people underestimate what a gig like this can sometimes involve, other guys think “I can play all these parts and therefore I could do the job”. Duran are intelligent guys, they’ve had successful careers and they’re also really strong characters. I had to work out what my role was within the group , both musically and socially. I would say that 50% of succeeding was down to the fact that I could do the job as a drummer, I got everyone’s respect straight awayon that level. The other 50% was learning how to mesh within this mini society that you suddenly find yourself in ,with interesting guys who tested me in different ways musically and psychologically. I learnt how to deal with certain tricky situations, how to behave when you’re a member of the band and when you’re not a member . Keeping everyone happy after all might have been vital in keeping my job. I would say to anyone who wants to be a pro, these are vital lessons to learn. You can practice and practice and become a great technician, but it doesn’t mean you’ll get work neccesarily. I’ve learnt how important it is to try and forge successful relationships with the people you work with, to understand the personalities of the people who are paying you, what they want and expect from you to know, when to be bold and outspoken if necessary, and also when to shut up!
You recorded, toured and wrote with Jeff Beck, how did that happen ?
Let's just say that I was very disappointed with how my time in the band came to an end. It was nothing to do with Jeff personally, but I felt I was treated very unfairly by others involved and was very angry about events transpired, especially as I loved the gig so much. In the end, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that this sort of thing happens in the music business as it does in all walks of life, but I still was taken aback.
Jeff’s on your new album so your friendship must be fine now
Yes, I’ve recorded with him a few times, been round to his house for dinner and that’s fine. It I'm very proud to have his contribution on the 'Flashman' cd
What’s the most memorable album you’ve played on?
I think for it being the most unique situation, was 'Le Voyageur' for Papa Wemba. I suppose because it was recorded in Paris for a Japanese record label, playing with musicians from the Congo, and that Papa Wemba is such a memorable character It was great playing with the African musicians and being given a chance to put my own input into the music
What’s your most memorable gig?
One would be headlining at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Jeff Beck. John Mclaughlin joined us for the encore, (another favourite of mine), and I got to hang out with Dennis Chambers after the show. Another would be with Duran Duran at the United Arena, Chicago . I will also never forget a clinic I did in Belo Horizonte, Brazil mainly because of the incredible warmth of the audience.
If there was one artist you would like to work with who would it be?
David Bowie or Joe Zawinul
One album that you would have liked to have played on that you haven’t?
Anything by Weather Report
Sonor Designer Series
Nice one Steve!
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