The Rhythm Section
No doubting the Thomases from Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
Ralph Denyer continues his rhythmic investigation with a look at the power play behind Elvis Costello: Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas of the Attractions.
The first thing I found out about Elvis Costello and the Attractions was that they are a hard working band. When I spoke to them they had done six tours back to back, including visits to the States and Europe. Within the last year that has meant more than three hundred and twenty live appearances, plus the recording of This Year's Model.
The album, the second for Elvis but the first with his own permanent band, went high into the album charts making it a best seller within the first week of release. When I saw the band half way through a British tour, the hall was packed with over two thousand people and many more were outside attempting a siege. A year ago Elvis (nee Declan) was a semi-pro singer/guitarist doubling on computer engineering. The Attractions keyboard player Steve Naive was a student at The Royal College of Music with hardly any interest in rock music and absolutely no experience of playing it. Bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas were experienced professional musicians yet to distinguish themselves and with no particular place to go. On paper an unlikely combination, to say the very least.
Costello, writer of the new wave's most substantial and accessible songs, has an incredible catalytic effect on the band, most evident on the heroes of our tale, Bruce and Pete. The combination of their musical experience and the obvious inspiration they get from Elvis results in an exciting powerhouse of a rhythm section.
Pete cites Charlie Watts, Mitch Mitchell, Simon Kirke, Kenny Jones and most of the good Sixties British rock drummers as influences on his playing, along with the occasional American percussion master such as Bernard Purdie. He started playing around the age of nine and had his first organised band at 14, continuing through a progression of semi-pro outfits until, as a member of Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, he gained two-and-a-half years valuable professional experience on the road. With the band he had his first real taste of studio work and enjoyed working with the group, regarding them as good musicians. Then American singer/guitarist John Stewart asked him to join his touring band. Stewart, veteran of the American folk scene and founder member of the Kingston Trio, enjoys a small but intensely dedicated following through more recent solo albums like Candles In The Rain. Pete worked with Stewart for two years.
'He's never succeeded in making a really good album,' Pete reckons. 'Despite the impression that a lot of people have, that was a good little rocking band. The line-up of the band I was in was young and very rocking, sounded a bit like the Stones. The gig gave me a couple of years in the States and a chance to see a lot of drummers that I really wanted to check out, people like Russ Kunkel and Jim Gordon. That was half the reason I went really, sort of educational reasons rather than thinking it was my final vocation.'
He left Stewart to return to England where Wilko Johnson had left Dr Feelgood and was stringing together his own band. Shortly after the initial manoeuvres Pete decided to break formation (or rather the lack of formation) and give Wilko a 'Roger and out,' leaving himself at a bit of a loose end. But not for long.
Meanwhile back in computerland our erstwhile bespectacled engineer was having to take the occasional afternoon off work for the odd TV interview and little things like that. During his spare time he'd recorded an album and titled it My Aim Is True. It didn't exactly make waves, more a force nine gale of positive reactions from the media. Elvis was certainly not any kind of virtuoso, but his work oozed with originality and bore the indelible Costello stamp. He needed a band to do gigs to promote the album and to allow him to develop artistically.
When thoughts turned to finding a drummer the fickle finger of fate (and the slightly more fickle finger of Elvis' manager, Jake Riviera) pointed towards Pete. That was just over a year ago. With all those gigs and This Year's Model behind him Pete is a happy man, particularly with the album. 'It's something that I've always felt I could do and I'm just grateful that I've got into a band where I've got a chance to prove myself.'
Bruce Thomas was next to join the team. A large slice of his life as a musician to date was taken up playing in Quiver and the latter-day amalgamation Sutherland Brothers and Quiver. How long was he in the band? 'Four years and that was that.'
Any chance of filling in just a little more detail? 'I used to find that band frustrating because I knew it was never going to realise its full potential. It was a bit like Ace and bands like that, so low-key: We're so tasteful, sort of thing. It was in the days when if you were to sell yourself, you were selling out. Performing is not just being a performer. Showmanship, image and everything else is important just to communicate with people if nothing else. I find that a completely natural situation, some people don't.
'Also I used to do a lot of folk sessions. Well, not folk, people like Al Stewart and Ian Matthews: very laid back low-key stuff, and I wasn't into that at all. At the same time it was very handy because now if Elvis comes to me with a song and just plays it to me a couple of times, I've got it down. So all that sort of thing was valuable experience, plus the fact that I used to do a lot of jamming which allowed me to explore up and down the neck quite a lot. I can see now all that I've done before is exactly the right experience for what I'm doing now.
'So all I'm doing is concentrating all that into three minute bursts, performing short songs. It's a case of distilling and condensing rather than ramblin' off.'
And what players influenced him in his formative years; is he currently influenced by any particular bass players?
'I learned to play by listening to records, fortunately I got hold of the right things to start with. My first main influence was Duck Dunn who was the bass player with Booker T and the MGs... on the old Stax and Atlantic things with people like Otis Redding. I used to play that sort of stuff when I was semi-pro and still at school. That R'n'B stuff, it's pretty simple but you learn a lot of riffs and along the way you see patterns emerging and you sort of work out the bits in the middle for yourself. At first I practised nine hours a day for a year and I've never practised or anything since. Now it's just a case of hearing something in my head and knowing where the notes are, arranging them in an order to fit the song or part as required. Once you know the theory of how to get from C to A minor, you pass by such-and-such a note — it's pretty logical to me and I never found it difficult. I used to practise to Booker T and the first Stones album.
'I've tried to get an amalgamation of the black and the white styles of bass playing so that you get the rhythm, punch or funkiness of black music and the melody of white pop-based music, as epitomised by Paul McCartney — I can't think of anyone who does it better than him. I think Gerald Jemmot is my favourite black bass player. I've not got an apartheid thing, but there are two different distinct styles. I'd like to be a cross between Gerry Jemmot and Paul McCartney, that's what I'm going for.'
Bruce is headed in the right direction to do just that, particularly on stage. He does combine punch and an adventurous approach to melody. After Stanley Clarke's superb work I found virtually all the emerging bassists unexciting. Even Stanley himself was starting to sound a little passe, having boxed himself into a bit of a tight corner. Bruce's playing I found refreshing and if he continues in his present positive direction he'll be an extremely highly-rated player before long. I mentioned having noticed what sounded like some McCartney influence on This Year's Model.
'I don't try to copy any particular thing of his, it's just that he has a very symbolic way of playing, it's almost like a cello part or something. The black playing is almost like musical drums, tuned congas. There's not anyone influencing me now in bass playing. I think I'm more influenced by Elvis' songs and the playing of the other Attractions. I pick up on all these things and if everyone settles down instead of trying to do their own thing over the top ... I might pick up a rhythm from Pete, a chord from Elvis, a keyboard part from Steve and the whole thing works itself out. All I have to do is slide in with the logical thing to do, which is exactly what bass playing is supposed to be.'
For most of the time we were talking together, Pete and Bruce answered questions in much the same way as they play their instruments — together. Also their attitudes seem so attuned. Elvis' high-octane objectivity makes an ideal fuel for this pair of finely-tuned twin-carburettors. Elvis also has a certain tendency towards using the odd abrasive comment, a penchant for over-the-top verbals. Bruce received a free sample of this when he phoned up for the gig and spoke to the man himself. Elvis asked the drummer what kind of things he was listening to currently. When Bruce's reply included mentions of Steely Dan and Graham Parker, Elvis blanked the drummer with a curt 'Forget it'. I asked Bruce about the phone call, suggesting at the same time that Elvis' attitude sounded dictatorial to say the least.
'Oh yeah, that's just Elvis throwing shapes. I think that was just Elvis being really new and he had to assert himself a bit. I think he's always been really objective about his career. I think he asserts himself... you know 'cos I've got more experience on the road than him but at the same time he knows just about as much as I do. He doesn't know any more than I do and vice versa because he writes the songs. He's the sort of persona of the band, the front-man and songwriter. We do the arrangements and we've got a lot to do with how it sounds on stage.
'He threw up his shape and I sort of threw up mine. If I'd wimped out I wouldn't have deserved the gig. He said: Forget it, and I said: Well, listen to this. We talked some more and he said to come round and have a play or whatever. Right, that's that.'
RD: How did the recording of This Year's Model go?
PT: There was very little studio work went into it. We worked out all the numbers on the road at sound checks. We banged it all down in about four days, five numbers a day. Nick Lowe had a couple of ideas: You might just slow it down a bit, or: Why don't you try spacing it out a little more? But basically it was just the road arrangements, not a studio album as such.
BT: We worked it all down pretty quick. The whole thing was recorded, mixed and mastered within two weeks of our going into the studio. The first day we just messed about because we were not used to the studio, where to stand; and the drums didn't sound right. Once we'd got that right we did five tracks a day, three days running, mixed it down and that was it. Originally we wanted to do an album in a day, do a Please Please Me, but there's no point in doing that just to prove a point. We knew what we were doing and we knew we could record it quickly. We knew it was going to be good but we didn't know what people were going to say about it in retrospect. We just did something which sounded good to us and if it sounds good to everyone else than that's OK with us.
RD: Was Elvis just playing songs to you and giving you a free hand, or did he have pretty set ideas on what he wanted?
PT: He'd play the song, there'd be certain chords and licks already in there. A certain rhythm and a certain mood. We'd cotton on to the mood.
BT: That's the main thing actually, getting the mood. He'd say he wanted a song a bit soul inclined or a bit up front or whatever.
PT: There were no dramas or anything, he didn't have to dictate because we got it ourselves. If we'd been straight session musicians he might have had to dictate. We'd also been on the road as a band for quite a while, we knew the material well. We had six or seven months touring together before the album.
RD: How much does producer Nick Lowe get involved with the band sound?
PT: He doesn't get involved with it at all. He listens to what you've got and he works with that. He doesn't demand that you play like Russ Kunkel or Ringo or anything like that, he just takes what is there.
BT: He only said things like: Slow this down, or: Play this lick here, he knows we know what we're doing. He steers us here and there, he probably had the same thing when he produced The Rumour, because they're good musicians who know what they're doing so he just gets it down nice and clean on the tape. So he just left us with it, apart from a couple of really good suggestions that he came up with.
RD: How has all the touring helped the band?
PT: I don't know; physically I've never been so healthy. It's very good for the band because it gets the sort of telepathy going.
BT: We've done around 320 gigs in the past year or so. We're working real hard, we've done six tours back to back.
PT: We don't even have to look at each other on stage now.
BT: I go to the back and vibe Pete up every now and again. It is important that I stand out front as well, I have to go and sing and stuff like that every now and again. It's not a case of as soon as we're not looking at each other there is a discrepancy.
PT: We've got a really good telepathic thing going. It's a really good feeling when I play a lick and he's off somewhere and all of a sudden he's right in there. That's what makes it worthwhile really and that's what makes it a good band. It's the same with Elvis and Steve too.
BT: You can't narrow it down to anybody in particular, sometimes we sound like just one note with a lot of frills rather than four different instruments, everybody locks in and that's it. When it happens you could add 300 horns or the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. When it locks in you can't find a chink in the armour.
RD: You vary songs from night to night as well as basic playing order — you might do a song one way tonight and then with a totally different feel tomorrow night. Is this a gradual thing that you started doing as you went along?
PT: We've done that right from the start. It related to the audience. I don't watch them all the time because I watch the guys in the band and what is going on on stage, but the mood is governed by the audience. If you get a good round of applause or you feel that they are with you and they are building to a peak, you can take it down a little, or whip things up a bit as the case may be.
BT: Apart from that it's a question of keeping us interested. Elvis wrote a song called Lip Service which is just about going through the motions and that is one thing we try never to do. We do so many gigs at the moment and we don't just bang it out cabaret style. We have to do something which gives it an edge where you have to think. For a minute there is a challenge and it could go wrong, though it never does. If anyone wants to see what this band is like then they should see five or six gigs. You'll never get an idea from one gig because of the changes from night to night. The running order, the arrangements, the feel of the numbers, the presentation, everything. It keeps everybody interested, otherwise we could just get very mechanical.
RD: Could it be that as no-one in the Attractions plays actual solos you improvise in other ways? With a great many bands in the past it's on the solos that things take off on stage.
PT: That never occurred to me but I suppose there could be some truth in that, yeah. You could have something there, as you say we don't play long solos so we just do it with the number which I think is better. It's the numbers that matter, we're not into virtuosity because a lot of people just don't understand past a certain point anyway. There are about 80 million guitarists who sound like fabulous pop musicians. I think it's better for our band to improvise rather than go shooting off into solos. I'm into songs anyway.
RD: I find all the new wave bands a bit on the lightweight side when it comes to keyboards.
PT: I like it actually. Our band is one of the few around that doesn't have a screaming loud lead guitar. The keyboards give another kind of embroidery and are a lot more versatile than the guitar when it comes to embellishments, because there's more tonal variety. I think it's better. A lot of people who come to see us don't really notice that we haven't got a lead guitarist. Elvis' guitar work is good and quite basic. Steve puts the real frills on. I think a lead guitarist would limit us.
RD: I don't think anyone could listen to the album and not agree that the instrumental strength of the band lies in the rhythm section.
PT: I think it is in any good band. There isn't a good band in the world that has not got a good bass player and drummer. In our band it's handy for Bruce because he can cross over a little bit. He's very quick to pick up on things. Bruce and Steve do things on Chelsea playing exactly together. Generally though Steve provides the embroidery and Bruce and I are the foundation of the band.
RD: With some bands their finished product, the music, is very much the sum of the parts. A conglomerate of careful attention to sound, a precise bass sound and all the other factors that makes up a band's own sound. It seems to be more a question of frame of mind and attitude with you.
BT: That is the most important thing man, we do work on sound if you wanna talk about that. I go on stage and do certain things to get the sound how I want it. From then on I think that is giving me the best chance I've got of getting off. It's not a matter of everything being right.
PT: None of that saying: I played really badly tonight because my snare drum was really duff, or something similar.
BT: It's like somebody painting and saying they've got all the tubes of paint, none of them are dirty and the tops are all on. So the paint isn't dried up. Everything's clean and they've got a clean sheet of paper. That's very art and I don't mean to make that kind of comparison. What I'm trying to say is there are ways in which we both approach getting the sound together. From then on though forget it! As long as the actual speakers or amp don't blow.
PT: Even when they do it doesn't matter, it's that old rock'n'roll thing. It's awful seeing bands that just fall apart when something goes wrong. I'll just keep smacking away with the last matchstick piece of a drum stick.
BT: In fact Pete had trouble last night with his snare drum when the skin bust. He got the spare which wasn't tuned up but he still kept whacking it out. I've been to see other bands and they'll tell you it was bad because the monitors weren't right or something.
PT: The Beatles did Shea Stadium with no monitors. All those early rock'n'roll records were done with the shitty old drum kits and two mikes, so there's no excuse.
BT: It's all down to the feel.
PT: It's all down to rock'n'roll and fucking banging it out.
BT: Now Pete'll tell you how he gets his sound if you like. (laughter)
PT: I can't tell you what cymbals I use because I break one just about every week. Last week I had two 16in and a 17in and a 17in medium crash. This week I've got a 20in ride as a crash... you see when you're up in Newcastle you can't always go down to the local music shop and get your definitive Zildjian medium-ride cymbal. I break everything. Sticks, cymbals, it all goes. You have to work with what you can get hold of. If all our gear got nicked tomorrow we could still do just as good a gig with different equipment.
BT: We've done it before, we did it at the Nashville when we had to borrow gear from Graham Parker and three different bands. Loads of people coming along to review it from the papers. You think: Oh, no! But you just have to go on and do it.
PT: Until I left school I never even had a drum kit, yet I'd been playing in bands for about four years, just borrowing things. It's nice to have a good solid kit but it's not the be-all and end-all. We did a gig with Tom Petty. His drummer was surrounded with what looked like the monitor system from the Empire State Building. There wasn't a bead of sweat on his face and his hair was perfect and it all sounded great, just like the record. You might as well get stoned and stay at home listening to the album.
BT: It sounded just like the record, so what is the point? And I was really looking forward to that gig as well.
PT: They're more worried about how their hair looks than getting the crowd warmed up. Drumming is better than sex for me, drumming is number one and everything else follows on behind. I have a love affair with the whole gig.
BT: It is similar... though I reserve the right to say it's better.
In truth, the attention these two pay to sound does them credit. Bruce in particular is able to articulate precisely his approach to sound, which he has arrived at through years of experience. He plays a 1964 pre-CBS Fender Precision bass, preferring the wider fingerboard to the current model. In Britain he uses a 400-watt Traynor Monoblock amp. He designed his own pair of speaker cabinets which contain two 18in Vega speakers and four 12in ATC long-throw speakers.
'I try to get every note to stand out and not rumbling together,' says Bruce. 'The twelve-inch speakers give the definition and the eighteen-inch the deep bottom. There's a crossover unit in there too. I set the amp at no bass, no treble, nothing apart from low midrange. Not even high midrange 'cos that makes it sound really hollow and horrible. With all low-mid and nothing else you don't get any rumble or whoof or that horrible clicky sound like the Stranglers, (laughs). I use an MXR six-band graphic equaliser as well to roll off all the bass and all the top end. That seems to give the right range, around 300 cycles. I use a Peavey Festival in the States, which has a built-in graphic equaliser which I set in the same way.'
Bruce (who, Pete says, 'likes his bass to sound like fifty cellos' and is well gone on Bach) uses heavy-gauge wire-wound strings because he 'pulls' playing fingerstyle and tends to snap them.
'The bottom end of a bass guitar should sound like a tuba and the top like a French horn,' Bruce continues, 'I like to get above the twelfth fret every now and again, you know; Phil Lesh isn't dead. I abuse my bass terribly. I beat it up every three months or so... when something goes wrong or someone spits on me. I hurl it at the drum-kit. The machine heads get bent but it never lets me down, it's something special to me that bass.'
The history of Pete's Gretsch drum kit goes a long way back. When he was still at school his parents were wary of him taking up drumming and refused to buy him a kit.
'They never bought me any drums. Not that they were rotten or anything, they just didn't want me to go through another fad like train sets or photography.'
He started work at sixteen and soon saved enough to buy his one and only ever kit, a 1950s vintage Gretsch job, previously owned by Alan White, and by John Woods of Vinegar Joe.
'Then I got a job in a drum warehouse,' says Pete, 'and I used to nick fittings to tart it up. The drums are a 22 x 18in bass drum, a 13 x 9in side tom tom, a 16 x 16in floor tom tom, Speed King bass drum pedal and Premier fittings. The only cymbal that I really love is a 22in Paiste that came with the kit. The snare drum is a Ludwig 400. We prefer the snare for its metallic reggae sound as opposed to the old Los Angeles type of snare sound.'
In America Pete uses a larger, new Gretsch set-up which he claims to be gradually hammering some kind of personality into. When working with Nick Lowe in the studio he doesn't plaster the drum heads with Gaffer tape. They set a mike three feet or so away from the drum and play them hard to record the sound of the drums themselves and not just a light tapping on the skin. The bass is recorded direct into the desk, using an amp in the studio as a monitor.
The final point I put to Bruce. I heard that Elvis had bought a pile of old Beatles singles some time ago. I heard strong Beatle influence on Model.
'I think it's not just the Beatles,' Bruce replies. 'A lot of people said that Elvis' first album had a lot of Fifties influences. I think Model has a lot of Sixties influences because I think we were just putting a lot of our favourite things on. There's just as much of the Stones, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Who or any of that era on there.
'It was great fun, I think we just became a beat group for that album. There are lots of beat groups around now so we'll be moving on for the next one, I don't know exactly to what. I think we may spend a bit more time on the production on the next one.'
Interview by Ralph Denyer
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!