John Keeble is in two minds about drumming for Spandau - an acoustic one and an electric one. Read about his treatment.
So what are the TRUE life confessions? Spandau's drummer John Keeble owns up to percussion schizophrenia. One Two's Tony Bacon sits next to the couch.
"I've been leading a double life really," John Keeble tells me as we lounge in the hardware-strewn Nomis rehearsal studio in west London. A Spandau Ballet session has just wound down this early spring afternoon — roadies toy with a noisy keyboard, assignations for pub meetings are swapped, Spandaus, crew and friends drift in and mostly out.
Hard work has evidently ensued, just prior to their 1983 tour, and in a few days' time the full rig will be hoisted into the Fair Deal in Brixton for a total soundcheck and programme run-through.
Come to think of it, how else could Keeble describe his predilection for Simmons on the road and Pearl in the studio? "I have to have a couple of months getting used to each kit," he admits, attempting to colour in the detail of the Percussive Schizophrenia outlined in his opening remark. This is a rare disease brought about by exposure to revolutionary technology and an almost unhealthy desire for studio realism.
John was introduced to The Revolution in the shape of Simmons drums in late 1980 when Spandau's producer at the time, Richard Burgess (himself practically involved in the birth of the Simmons kit), took Keeble up to see inventor Dave Simmons in St Albans.
Keeble fell in love with the idea almost immediately: "What they did was to take the sound of drums in its various stages — stick click, drum sound, air movement and so on — and combine it electronically."
And the result seemed like such a perfect live instrument to John. "It was a bit of a problem swapping around," he remembers, "because we'd done all the albums using acoustic kits. In fact, the only song we've recorded with Simmons is 'Chant No 1'. That sounded good, but it's hard to get a good sound in the studio with the Simmons because they're very peaky, whereas real drums are much warmer in the studio, more versatile."
So it was that Keeble's double life developed: Simmons live. Pearl for studio work. Playing hexagonal table tops after dealing with organic objects like real drums comes as a bit of a shock to the system — not least the system of bones and allied softer bits.
"You have to play very openly," says John, "it's no use holding the sticks hard and whacking it, that sends a jolt through your whole body. It's much easier to play doubles and stuff on this than it is on a conventional kit — to get a decent sound out of a lot of tom toms you have to tune them way down, so the snare drum's normally the only thing on which you can play doubles, paradiddles and god knows what else.
"Not that I use those techniques all that much, but it is much easier. And the Simmons is very, very quick — there's no drag at all. You can go round the toms as easy as anything. And of course they're so compact."
John started off by using a single Simmons bass drum, three toms, and snare — he's always used real cymbals, modifying the Simmons cymbal module for effects purposes (more of which later). But gradually he came to realise that the snare sound wasn't quite what he wanted. It just didn't crack it.
"I decided to start using a real snare drum again, which is nice because 90 per cent of the stuff is playing the snare drum anyway. So it feels good... I've since moved on to Ludwig, a 6½in 402. We hired one in for the tour last year, and it's the best. Simple as that."
The other problem which began to manifest itself in John's early Simmons exploits was the bass pedal's habit of self-immolation. Well, actually John's foot did help things on their way — but we'll let him explain. Years of giving bass pedals plenty of action suddenly found destructive results when applied to the Simmons.
"On most pedals the bit that holds the beater is cast," explains The Destroyer, "but with the Sonor it's solid stainless steel, inherently strong. I finally got on to those and they seem fine, and obviously your technique adjusts.
"And I decided to get another bass drum in — this was before last year's tour, we were using a big stage set, and the double bass drum kit looked good too. I also added another hi-hat, the theory being that should I break the right bass pedal, I switched over to the left foot, and the hi-hat's tied down too. That's the theory. It's only happened once — the BBC 'In Concert', of course. I played a number with me left foot, which was all right."
Keeble now tends to use the left bass drum for effects, like the big booming sounds on "Communication", but still finds that double bass drums can be used to play things that a single bass couldn't manage. Sometimes he's even found duality in the bass department will aid a mechanised feel — and guess what's the main influence here?
"I've been trying some double bass drum stuff where I'm almost imitating the Linn. A lot of disco records now have 'dukkadukkaduk-dukkaduk' bass drum stuff, impossible to play with one bass drum. It's quite a turnaround really, humans imitating machines. It's quite interesting messing around with that sort of stuff..."
Having experimented with a tuneable Remo practice pad with a pickup inside it on the bass drum (to disappointing effect), John and his roadies have now settled on a small rubber pad with a steel plate in it attached to the beating area of the bass drum, in an attempt to get a bit more feel out of the Simmons.
"It cuts down the response slightly," he reckons, "but it's a better feel. It cuts down the crack a little too, but I actually like the sound better cos there's not quite so much 'kkshh' noise on top of it. And I haven't destroyed any bass pedals in these rehearsals."
But naturally there's still a degree of settling-in when switching between live and studio work with the two kits — the big double-bass Simmons set-up and the smaller Pearl studio kit (22in bass; 10in, 12in, 13in, 14in and 16in toms; choice of Pearl maple snare or Ludwig 402).
"It's getting easier," says John of the switchover. "I think the styles are getting closer together: I've made those changes on the Simmons — the pads and pedals for the bass, and the real snare — and my general style has got a lot better. But it is getting easier to swap. At first it was a pig, 'cos on the Simmons I was really pussyfooting, and getting back to the acoustic kit I was spraining ankles and stuff, literally-whacking it too hard.
"I'm playing harder on this," he nods to the Simmons kit, "and maybe slightly softer on the acoustic kit now, so they're coming together. It's also feel around the kit — obviously for live the Simmons kit is a lot bigger than the Pearl in the studio. For a lot of the studio things I'm just doing bass drum, snare drum and hi-hat, and overdubbing toms if we need them. But it's nice to get out with a big kit and spread yourself out — spread your legs, if you'll excuse the expression."
To get out and about with a Simmons it is of course necessary to delve into that most undrummerly of sciences — amplification. Percussionists traditionally head towards the nearest bar at the merest hint of the topic, but the new age electronic basher is just going to have to come to grips with power amps, bins, horns, and all the other nasty paraphernalia. With typical thoroughness and the regulation accompanying grin, John seems to have this side of the action well sorted out.
Two men are chiefly responsible for Keeble's on-stage racket: Pete Cornish, technical whizz to The Stars, got the Keeble rack all wired up and ready to go; while Spands' sound-person John Tinline saw to the actual amp-and-speaker combinations. A satisfied Mr Keeble takes up the story.
"Pete Cornish put my rack together, he made Gary's mammoth guitar board too. In the rack I've got two Simmons control units, identical: two bass drum modules, four tom toms and a cymbal module in each. One of them's just a back-up which can be plugged through in 15 seconds in case one decided to pack up on me. That goes through an MXR Flanger, which I can kick in with a footswitch so I can play flanged rolls and then go back to normal.
"Then there's an MXR 31-band graphic, an MM two-way crossover, an H/H power amp which drives a JBL horn, and an RSD stereo power amp driving my two Martin 2x15 cabs — about 800 watts in all, and plenty loud enough.
"After some bad experiences with 4x12 cabs it was obvious we needed to invest in something a bit better, a mini-PA, which is what it is. John (Tinline) had some friends at Martin Audio, we went down there and got it together. I think that and the rack came to about three grand, which is a lot of money.
"But number one it's been very reliable, and number two it sounds brilliant. Plus you're cutting down on monitor stuff onstage, you don't need to hire drum monitors and fills. It's a good investment, let's face it, and nothing's gone wrong with it yet," he laughs.
Once you get used to 800 watts behind you, it's difficult to remember flapping 4x12s and straining instrument amps, and as John points out: "When you're playing with not very much amplification the Simmons does sound a bit weak, all you can hear is the clicks and stuff. You need something behind you to give you a bit of impetus. Those four speakers move as much air as a couple of bass drums, so it's a nice feeling."
The only things that need to be miked-up on stage for John are the snare drum, the hi-hat, and two cymbals — all of which makes for an easy get-in. But John has found that the Simmons and its associated amplification can suffer as a result of voltage drops, primarily outside the UK.
The Simmons rig seems rather sensitive to such fluctuations, in John's experience, tending to lose the 'noise' element of the sound. And power supplies seem never to be reliable or stable in some countries — Keeble recalls one occasion in Oporto on last year's tour when real drums and acoustic guitars could have been a simpler choice.
"We arrived and the PA was rigged up," he says, "got a power source, and then went to rig up the lights. And they said okay, but you'll have to switch the PA off. We said no, actually we want them both on at the same time. So they said you'll have to wait until 5 o'clock when the factory next door shuts, and we'll run a line from there. I suppose it serves us right for playing in Portugal."
If you've investigated the Simmons method at all, you'll know that the control unit — often referred to as the 'brain' — comes complete with a factory preset sound for each module, along with space on each to add three more switchable sound settings of your own making. I wonder if John sticks to presets or prefers his own sounds on the seven modules he uses?
"I use my own sounds, I get more attack and noise — they're bigger sounds. The factory presets are quite small, concise tom tom sounds, whereas my toms sound very expensive, very 'boooomm', you know? Actually I do use one factory preset, for a conventional sound on the top tom. I couldn't get it much better. But on the whole I tend to use quite big tom sounds."
John uses the cymbal module, which is apparently based on an 18in Zildjian, exclusively for effects. "I love real cymbals," he says, indicating his Paiste arrangement, "so there was never any question of using the cymbal module as a cymbal."
In one instance, John has managed to use the cymbal module for an instant effect which took hours to set up in the studio — a dramatic rising sound on 'Code of Love' from 'True' that took a slowed-down and then speeded-up 22in tam tam to coax into recorded life. "Messing about with the cymbal module I got a better sound — the tam ta, thing took us about half an afternoon. So I can recreate it live to sound better than the album."
And while we're on the subject of cymbals — at least in theory — why Paiste? Bear in mind that we are conversing with An Endorsee. "I've always preferred Paiste to Zildjian because they're cleaner, I could never get on with Zildjians very much, they're a bit dirtier. And Sound Edge are the best hi-hats by a long way. The only things I'm not too keen on are the Chinese cymbals which are a bit too clean, you actually need some dirt with that type of cymbal. Paiste have just got a cheaper range out in Chinese, the 505, and maybe they're dirtier. I'll have to check them out."
Since John first saw and heard that electronic drum kit in St Albans, inventor Dave Simmons has oscillated between near obscurity and, at last, what seems a solid success. John highlights the extremes of Dave's business activities.
"He's doing very well for himself now, selling 200 kits a month evidently, opening a new factory, and he's broken in Japan. Good luck to him! This time last year we couldn't even track him down — it was before the last tour. We were panicking, didn't have any spares. No-one had heard of him for three months — he'd absolutely gone to ground!"
That all seems to have sorted itself out, and Britain is in the unfamiliar situation of having an instrument manufacturing success on its hands.
John actually has a very early Simmons control unit — serial number 3, in fact — and an original wooden kit of Simmons drums hidden away somewhere. "It's made out of about three-hundredweight of wood, before he went on to polycarbonate," explains John.
That kit must have been a roadies' delight? "Oh god, did they moan! Heavier than a Ludwig kit! That's one of the other advantages of the Simmons kits now, transport. They all go in one flight case, whereas you'd be talking about six flight cases for a comparable conventional kit."
Of course that's balanced in the truck by John's rack and speaker cabinets, but we get the general drift of his argument. In a nutshell, shell-less electronic drums are beating a deafening percussive present and future, with the Simmons kit an undoubtedly major participator.
"I'm glad to see it's caught on," John says. "I always knew it would, because it's such a good idea. So obvious. At first some people were a bit unsure. But it must have been the same with electric guitar, people must've said oh, it'll never catch on..."