Pushing The Beat
Once he prayed to the beat behind Re-flex, he's since become versed in high technology and worked with artists as diverse as Kate Bush and Mory Kante. Ollie Crooke talks to a rhythm programmer extraordinaire.
With so much technical innovation centred on drums and rhythms, it's surprising so few drummers are conversant with high technology. Meet one who is: Roland Kerridge.
DRUMMERS: THE BRUNT OF MUSICIANS' jokes the world over. But why, in this age of hi-tech innovation, shouldn't a drummer be as conversant with the details of MIDI, sampling, sequencing, and so on, as any keyboard player or producer? The answer, if you were to ask drummer Roland Kerridge, would certainly be "no reason".
Over the past ten years or so, Kerridge has managed to establish himself as one of the rarest of drummers - an electronic percussionist - and one who is at the forefront of today's percussion technology. His lengthy credits include two Mory Kante albums (one of them forthcoming), two Gary Moore albums, Sam Brown, the Adventures, Men without Hats, various world music projects with French record label, Barclay - and a Rick Astley world tour.
Appropriately enough for MT, Kerridge's first professional gig was with the Kate Bush band. His main claim to pop faim, however, came with Re-flex, and the '84 hit, 'The Politics of Dancing'.
"We enjoyed reasonable success in England, but even more in America and on the continent", he recalls. "In fact, it's a shame the band folded, because we had a second album recorded for EMI, which was canned - I feel it would have been a really good record had it come out."
But fold they did. After the demise of Re-flex, Kerridge embarked on a freelance career which involved him in Mory Kante's Akwaba Beach album - one of the most commercially successful African records made to date. Let's begin with Akwaba Beach, and '88's charting single 'Yeke Yeke'.
"We did all the programming in four or five days", says Kerridge, "myself, producer Nick Patrick and keyboard player Mick Parker. It was pretty' chaotic to say the least because my French isn't good and Mory doesn't speak English, so we were having to translate his ideas onto our instruments.
"At the time I was using an Octapad and a Linn 9000, which to my mind was one of the first user-friendly drum machines, and an S900. We played most of the parts in - I played some, Mory played others. Mory's drummer came down and was very excited about the whole thing but then didn't show up after that, so it was just between the four of us.
"It was based on a traditional rhythm called the Mandinka: a cowbell or sidestick part. We started programming the thing up and Mory was trying to tell us how the rhythm went. We were really having difficulties, especially myself, in finding 'beat one', which is a problem Europeans often have with African music. I programmed up the first two or three hours not actually understanding the rhythm at all and just going along with the flow. Suddenly the thing just turned around in my head and I had it. I'll always remember that - it was fantastic.
"All the rhythm parts of 'Yeke Yeke' were arranged and recorded in one day - in fact we only spent three and a half days recording the rhythm tracks for the whole album, so that gives you an idea of what the budget was like."
Regardless of the fact that it was recorded on a budget, both album and single earned critical approval and chart status.
"All of us were stunned by the success of 'Yeke Yeke'", confirms Kerridge. "It's a great mix between the traditional and technology. We brought something into African music which had been hinted at before with stuff by Bill Laswell. All that stuff was done with the DMX drum machine - which is a wonderful machine but once you've used it on a couple of tracks it tends to sound a bit sameish. What we did was to put contemporary sounds to music which hadn't really had them before. And I think the mix really worked. The problem that we had was that Mory wanted the music to be more Western, more rock, and we struggled because we thought the African side of it was more interesting, so somewhere in between the two was where we fell."
After the success of the fairly low-budget Akwaba Beach, work on a new album was begun in October 1989, and concluded in March of this year. But while the music is complete, other aspects are still unsettled.
"God only knows what the title's going to be", exclaims Kerridge when asked. "We've done, I think at the last count, 12 tracks, all of which are storming with one exception which is a wonderful ballad. The material is a lot stronger than the first album, and because the budget's been increased on account of the success of the first album, Nick's been allowed a lot more time and space. Also, I've used more state-of-the-art gear - I used my SDX and I sequenced everything on an MPC60. We spent a month just arranging all the parts. Basically I set up the SDX pads and we recorded the parts onto the MPC60 through MIDI and then adjusted them. I like to put the basis of a rhythm track down and then do what I call some 'live passes' on the kit, and do four or five different takes. I like that because I can play some pretty off-the-wall fills and quantise and edit them later."
Another description of some of Kerridge's work might be that of "drum consultant" - he comes in for the job with all his gear, but doesn't actually get to play it.
"I've been called in a lot to work with bands who have a drummer, and who want to sequence stuff, but the drummer hasn't any idea as far as programming is concerned. I work in one of two different ways. The better of the two is to set up the SDX kit, and get the drummer to play the pads, but if he hasn't had much experience playing pads, it's a very difficult adaptation to make, it takes time. So what I've done in the past is to get the drummer to play a bugged kit, and use a Simmons Trixer to then supply a MIDI note to the sequencer. It's a great way of working because you've got a drummer's performance which you can quantise or not, depending on how you feel about it. And if you want to change the drum sound as the song progresses, you've always got the facility to do so. I've sequenced some pretty interesting drummers in the past.
"I've also been called in a number of times to do rescue jobs when they've got an acoustic drum track on tape and it's just not happening by the time they get to the mix. Short of feeding sounds into an AMS or whatever, the best way of doing it is to feed triggers off the kit that's on tape, into the sequencer, quantise it and sort it out that way."
One of the things that has so far eluded Kerridge is a sequencing setup which would allow a drummer to record a track in human time, whilst simultaneously creating a "human" sync track. If this were possible, the bar divisions in the sequence would correspond to the feel of those of the track.
"I've been looking for a system that would free you completely, so you wouldn't have to follow a click track - something like a human clock - but it's very complicated. The C-Lab Human Touch is a similar sort of thing, but you can't run the thing in record and clock it at the same time, which is a great shame. In fact, the nice German people who design C-Lab should do something about it, because it would be absolutely amazing to be able to set up a sequencer and to play a performance part. You can do it freestyle and not bother about bar measures, but it becomes very complicated when you try and edit."
"People go on about the S1000 but I've always thought that the SDX has more power; it captures that transience, and the hard edge of a drum."
SINCE HIS DAYS WITH RE-FLEX, ROLAND Kerridge has been almost a walking advertisement for electronic drum pioneers, Simmons. While the company explored the possibilities for electronics in the world of the drummer, they called upon a handful of drummers' services as consultants (Dave Simmons is actually a guitarist). Kerridge's involvement culminated in the development of the mighty Simmons SDX, where he was responsible for compiling much of the sound library.
"I've known Dave Simmons for years and years", explains Kerridge. "He's an old friend of Paul Fishman, who was the keyboard player with Re-flex. Dave used to do all these weird and wonderful modifications to Paul's keyboards.
"I started using an SDS3 in the early '80s, and just went through it from there. The setup I used live with Re-flex was an SDS3, SDS5 and an SDS7 - in total 14 pads, a bit of an overkill, but in those days you had one pad per sound. Now you can just switch sounds on pads, it's very simple to do live. I was using the old bulletproof Simmons pads - you know, you hit them and your arm drops off.
"When the SDX was being developed, I was using an S900, and it was the S900 boom time. Dave was developing this 16-bit sampler/sequencer and drumkit, we went in and saw the SDX prototypes, and he invited me to sort out some of the drum library. Then I became a testing ground, I suppose, which I still am. Whenever they get something new they try it out on me.
"The SDX is a wonderful machine. It's the ultimate, at the present moment, in digital drumkits. The sound quality is phenomenal, and people go on about the S1000 but I've always thought that somehow the SDX has more power; it captures that transience, and the hard edge of a drum, and really what you put into it is what you get back. I felt with the S1000, when sampling into it, it tends to be a little bit bass-light in a similar way to the S900. It's such a shame that Simmons went down when they did: having said that, they're up and running again, and they've got some really good things coming out. I've seen these Drum Huggers which they've been working on. They look good. They're strap-on pads about the same size as a woodblock, which bolt onto your kit and you hit them and they produce a MIDI note. So it's an instant pad if you like, without taking up the room. They've also got a triggering device called the ADT, which is hopefully coming out towards the end of the year. It's basically the triggering side of the Trixer, only much improved, and the fire-up time is supposed to be very fast indeed."
Triggering is a subject on which Kerridge has become something of an expert over the years...
"I've tried a number of trigger devices, one of them being this new Aphex Impulse, which claims to be the fastest trigger in existence - it's not.
"We actually measured it against the Trixer, and it's some half a millisecond to a millisecond slower. Having said that, we used it on one of the tracks on the Mory Kante album. Jeff Porcaro had recorded a live drum track, and the sound wasn't particularly inspiring, so we triggered some drums from it. We used the Impulse to do that and it was very good indeed. It was reliable, the triggers were always a reliable distance apart; in other words, the delay between hitting and fire-up never varied, which was the problem with the Akai ME35T. There is some nice stuff on the Impulse; there's a 'roll' facility, where it cycles on four different notes, so each hit you make on a pad will send out a different MIDI note, and it just cycles around the four. You can have great fun with that, having four completely unrelated samples and playing a roll on it."
As mentioned earlier, with the quality of electronic percussion and sequencing technology around at the moment, (most of it seemingly having passed through the hands of one Roland Kerridge) the quality of rhythm and rhythm programming on records these days should be at an all-time high.
"Generally speaking, I'm very disappointed that it seems to have regressed in the past few years", comments the percussionist. "It's gone back to making machines sound like machines, which I think is a bit of a shame. People tend to be very lazy in that they try to find rhythm loops from other people's records, and use that as a basis tor their music rather than creating their own. It's a shame, because with the technology now available, you can make fantastic noises. A lot of the stuff I've done has been done almost by accident, or by messing around, where I might have got a conga part in the sequencer, and then I'll assign a completely unrelated sound to it, and reverse the phrase. A while ago I was asked to do a rhythm track with a similar feel to 'Slave to the Rhythm'. After messing around for hours trying to find a swing quantise that worked, I sampled a four-bar loop from the record, looped it around in the sequencer and jammed along. When I felt I was in the pocket with it, I dropped the C-Lab into record and recorded 20 or 30 bars, from which I found a two-bar part that felt good. I then took the part and generated a User quantise from it, which I then applied to the rest of the track. It was a good way to copy the groove of a track without directly stealing any of the part.
"You can come up with some wonderful things, but people don't seem to be doing that so much any more. They're listening to everybody else's records and saying 'well, that's how it goes, let's do that'. Having said that, there's some good things around at the moment. I like a lot of the house stuff and I especially like swingbeat."
Kerridge confesses to having drum heroes of his own, mainly those from the traditional rock school: Bad Company's Simon Kirke and the Beatles' Ringo Starr, for example. But one of his particular favourites is The Yellow Magic Orchestra's Yukihiro Takahashi - not just for his drumming skills, but for his involvement with technology from very early on in the development of drum machines.
In addition to his general session and consultancy work, Kerridge still finds time to work with Paul Fishman ("He's got another thing going with Dave Harris who used to be in Fashion, and I've worked on various projects with them") and he has recently completed another album project with Mory Kante producer, Nick Patrick.
"It's due out this April some time", he reveals. "The artist is a guy called Roe who's Spanish. He's basically a flamenco rock artist - it's flamenco music meets The Rolling Stones. I think that's going to be quite big, bearing in mind that Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world. I imagine the market's going to be pretty huge, but the Gypsy Kings it is not."
Interview by Ollie Crooke
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