Thoughts from the cream of Britain's drummers.
Ginger Baker's been drumming for 20 years. The fact that he's just fractionally bored with the business of music doesn't stop him laying down patterns that are breathtaking examples of timing and control. With the Baker-Gurvitz Army he's been more successful at finding a permanent musical base than many of his superstar contemporaries and he's divided his life, more or less, neatly into three compartments. Music (for the money), desert (who knows why?) and polo.
Are you happy with the way the Baker-Gurvitz Army is developing?
Oh yeah, we're playing better than we ever have and I'm playing better than I ever have done in my life. I actually heard a tape of a concert we did a couple of nights ago and the drum solo frightened me to death. I don't think it's about technique, it's time I think, mostly. It's not how you play but where you put them.
What do you think is responsible for making you play better now than ever before?
I don't know, it's working with the band; there are four people in there apart from me and I suppose you get inspired. I think the rest I had in Africa — well I'm still heavily involved there, by the way — that period I had, away from being on the road and everything, it really helped, it was amazing. Now I've come back and I'm fresh again and young at it.
How often do you feel that special spark developing within the band when you're on stage?
Oh, every night. Something happens every time we play. It's an exciting band. There have been bands I've been with where it hasn't happened very often, but not very many.
Are you getting more personal satisfaction out of what you're playing now?
You can't measure it, it's very hard to say. We had this gig at Southampton, and when I came off, I thought it hadn't been a good solo. It wasn't until I heard the tape of it that I realised how good it was.
It's very strange when you're playing an instrument, it often sounds very different out front. This is where recording can be very useful. You can play something that you don't think is very good, where there's not a lot happening — often something quite simple — and you hear it back and it really sounds very good. You say 'Right, I'll remember that'. It actually helps playing in that way.
Did the studio in Lagos teach you very much?
No, the studio didn't help me very much at all. You hear a lot of drums in Nigeria. Time-wise, it opened my eyes in a few directions. It's influenced my playing tremendously, but my playing isn't something I consciously work at.
I don't sit and listen and think 'Yeah, I like that, I'll use that in future.' Sometimes things go into your brain and you don't realise they've gone in and then you hear a tape when you've played one night and you realise 'Christ, the last time I heard that was in so and so' and you realise where you've picked it up.
What's the next step for you now?
Well, we're recording the next album live tomorrow night, we're doing that at the Colston Hall, Bristol. I like live recordings, I always have liked them. You get feedback off an audience and you obviously get things going on stage that you never can in a studio. It's like when you get a crowd behind a football team that can get them playing amazingly well, it's the same for a band. The thing happens, and you feed on the audience.
Do you believe in re-touching live recording tapes?
That's a very leading question isn't it? If it's necessary, a bad vocal or something, that is usually the area you can work on. It's very difficult to dub on drum parts.
Have you been happy with the P.A. sound and general amplification you've been using on this tour?
Oh yeah, we've got a great crew and the sound we get has been really good. We're using Ricki Farr's stuff, Electrosound.
Presumably the live album will take some delicate mixing. Are you long staying in mixing or do you like to do it in fairly short bursts?
Depends how you feel. We usually work pretty quickly. Sometimes it goes on a bit. We've been in the studio mixing for 17 hours and not gone out. After that time, your ears start getting a bit confused. We just mix until we get what we're after.
We'll be using the Stones mobile for this recording and they'll be working with Anton, our sound man. The tapes we've been listening to of the earlier concerts on the tour have been cassettes that Anton takes straight from the desk mix and we listen to them after the gig and criticise what's gone on. Our show is two hours long, so we're going to have to cut things out to get the length right. We've got enough material to do a three hour set on stage. It was originally worked out at a one hour set but there's a lot of improvised passages which, depending on the night, will be either shorter or longer.
Do you set up a full kit and play at home these days?
(Laughs — a long time) I wouldn't know how to set a kit up, that is what my roadie does. I never play at home seriously. I've got a lot of African drums at home, I play them with my kids sometimes.
So you never sit down just to play?
No... for what?
No. If we have a rehearsal, sometimes I'll play for ten minutes just for myself. I don't believe in practice. I used to practice. But it must be ten years since I did any real practice.
Do you ever feel a little tight when you come back to playing after a long layoff?
Only when I've drunk a bottle. I've got a reputation to keep up. Sometimes, if I haven't played for a few weeks or so. Like when we finished the German tour, I shot straight off to Africa, came back in time to start the British tour, and I ached a bit when I started. Any exercise, when you leave it alone for a few weeks, will trouble you when you start again.
Does that mean that the first gig or the first rehearsal isn't so hot?
No, sometimes I feel a bit tired. Occasionally, there's a couple of things that don't work out, some very fast bass drum triplets, for example. Some nights you hit it, some times you don't.
What's all this about an African trucking company you've started?
We don't run a trucking company, we run a scout car and breakdown service for the trucking companies. We guarantee they get through. There's a great problem about getting goods into Nigeria. I'm a desert freak, I'm always driving across the desert and I liked the idea of the operation. We took a truck down to Nigeria in 1972 quite successfully and it occurred to me that we ought to open up a route for freight and we've been working on it.
We provide special Range Rovers to be lead scout cars. This car goes out a long way in front and then turns round and reports on conditions. We're talking about driving across the biggest desert in the world. Road conditions change daily, so we report ahead. We've also got one ton vehicles carrying aircraft sections — you know, sand tracks — and if we find a bad section we zoom down and get one of the one tonners to come up with us and we lay a road and the trucks all go across it and we pick the road up again. It's bloody hard work.
How personally involved are you?
I get out there and drive the scout cars. It's bloody hard working in temperatures above 130 degrees.
How do you divide your head time between Africa, the band and polo, which I know is another great love of yours?
Actually, it's very confusing. Fortunately, it's not the season for polo now. I just find it all keeps me very busy. I don't find any of them a pressure. The trucking support company's got their Range Rovers, long-wheelbase land rovers, and one tonners and that goes on OK. We all know the desert in fact. I'm the least experienced member, I've only had five years experience, most of them have had ten — I'm probably the quickest out of them though.
Where do the people come from who work with you in Africa?
I don't know, you get people who like the desert, I suppose. We're involved with Quest Four, guys who've been taking people across the desert for a number of years. They're Scottish and English, we're just desert freaks.
What was it that first made you drive across the desert in 1971?
A mad whim I guess. Something I wanted to do.
Any other whims now you're aiming to do?
I want to win the Gold Cup in polo, that's the main thing, to get polo really together. I started playing drums over 20 years ago and for the first ten years it really got hold of me and I really lived and breathed drums. Polo has taken me in the same way. Nothing except drums have ever done that with me before. The desert is something that is there to be done and I want to ensure that it is done, it's not really an obsession.
There's a lot of cowboys trying to do the desert at the moment and then they call on our guys to pull them out. We charge them for it. There's a team that's just arrived there now, it took them nine weeks from the U.K. We guarantee three weeks from the U.K. They end up with us pulling them out and organising their return trip and they got a big thing in the press that said how they'd done it in two weeks and they didn't even mention that we'd pulled them out of the shit.
To come back to playing for a minute, you have your own custom built Ludwig kit, don't you?
Yeah, I went round the Ludwig factory and said I wanted this size and that, and this and that, and they went bananas. But they did it and I've had this kit for six years. It's holding together very well. I wouldn't use anything but Ludwig. I'm getting a new kit when I go to the States, I'm going round there and sorting it out.
Are you going to get the new acrylics?
(Laughs) I invented those, actually. In 1961 I made the very first perspex drum kit with my very own hands. I bent the perspex over the gas stove in a little flat in Highbury where I was living at the time.
What did it sound like?
Fucking great! In fact, Jack Bruce reckons it's the best sounding kit I ever had. I used them for four years and then I gave them to a friend of mine who's now teaching in Africa somewhere. I think they fell apart in the end. I had a Vic O'Brien kit and I took all the fittings off there and bunged them on that. I didn't patent it, which is where I made the mistake.
Did you do any other drum making?
No, there's just enough time to do so much in life. I mean, I haven't got enough time to do what I'm trying to do now, really.
What's "home" for you now?
In Harrow, that's where my family is. I've been living there for eight years. It's not hard to feel roots when you've got a wife and three kids.
What happens after you've made this album? Do you disappear for a while?
Well, there's a herd of us taking a pretty big convoy next month. We're taking six fridges carrying meat down.
Is your band frightened that you're going to vanish again?
No, the band aren't frightened, the office is. It happened on the last trip I was on, I got delayed and messed everything up. I found a policeman in the middle of the Sahara and ran him over. It was his fault, but it took five days to sort the problem out. Communications aren't that good and they were going frantic this end. Just to cover myself, I send a telegram back to the office saying 'I'm in jail, help', whereon they went bananas.
It was a pretty nasty experience, actually. He was riding a moped and he swerved out in front of me and went under the wheels. He was still in a coma when I left. It's the first time it's ever happened to me, it was a very unpleasant experience, really. I thought the guy was dead, but it wasn't until we'd been with the police awhile that we were able to sort it out.
It was because it was another policeman that they were so heavy. We had to sleep in the sand a few days, a few mosquitos and things like that.
So what's after the next convoy?
You've got about as much idea as I have. I hope to go the States and record another album in Florida. It's a dual reason. The polo season isn't on here and it is on there, and I've got a lot of good friends there.
With musicians - you see, they don't ever get up till the afternoons so I get up very early in the morning and play polo in the morning and go to the studio in the afternoon and in the evenings.
You make do with six hours sleep?
Usually less. I only had three and a half last night. I'm very fortunate, I don't need a lot of sleep. Sometimes I don't sleep for a long time and then I'll crash out for hours.
Interview by Ray Hammond
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