The Rhythm Section
Charlie Tumahai & Simon Fox | Be Bop Deluxe
Be Bop Deluxe's drummer and bassist under the magnifying glass.
The art of the rhythm section has to be heard to be believed, of course. In the meantime we shall investigate the inner workings and machinations of a selection of bass players and drummers who work regularly together — be it in a band, or as session players. Ralph Denyer kicks off with a look at Charlie Tumahai and Simon Fox of Be Bop Deluxe.
Bass guitarist Charlie Tumahai and drummer Simon Fox have been with Be Bop Deluxe for some four years, during that time contributing to the band's last five albums. With the recent release of their Drastic Plastic LP and subsequent tour the band have made some music which sounds quite complex, yet a careful listen reveals the fact that both the songs and the arrangements are not as complicated as they sound. This shift towards simplicity was a conscious aim on the part of Bill Nelson, the band's singer, guitarist, writer and concept man. That train of thought was confluent with the thinking of his rhythm section and is illustrated by their enthusiasm for the simple yet effective playing of Talking Heads drummer, Chris Frantz.
Bill, though obviously the band's helmsman, could well find himself up that famous creek without a paddle were it not for the fluid yet tight playing of Charlie and Simon. Bill's approach to all his creative work (he initiates all Be Bop concepts from the music down to the album sleeves) results in Sci-Fi futuristic-cum-techno-machine impressions abounding. A drummer and bassist of the same frame of mind could result in Be Bop sounding rather clinical or rigid.
They've reached a point that only the best rhythm sections do. Individual technique is not their prime concern. They work towards providing a single element, a solid and musical rhythmic basis sympathetic to Bill and keyboards man Andy Clark. It works, and a musical fusion takes place. When I met them just prior to an American tour, I started by asking if they were aware of this fusion occurring.
Simon: "Yes, but it's taken us a while. There's still a long way to go, to get it even more simple. The essence of good rock'n'roll and the essence of good swing is simplicity. It's what you don't play, what you leave out, that's what makes it flow. We've been playing together four years now and when we first started out it was all over the place. Charlie and I have done every album since Futurama — five albums. We reached a peak of complication, now we're going the opposite way. The Modern Music album was the turning point. On the new album Bill's songs lend themselves to being played very metronomically and straight."
Did they feel that if they duplicated Bill's almost rigid approach the band would not work as well as it does? "It's hard to see it from an outsider's point of view, as band members we can't look at it so objectively, but I suppose you're right," Simon replied.
Taking, say, New Mysteries on their new album, which has a recurrent bass and guitar riff, does Bill state more or less exactly what is going to be played? "Well, at times it's like that but sometimes it's a lot looser," said Charlie. "He gets basic ideas, whether it's lyrics or music first we don't know. Once he's found the actual chord sequence or idea he has us in mind as he writes, our style of playing as well. Then he puts the basic instruments down on tape, playing guitar, maybe electric piano, drums and a basic bass line and finally a rough vocal track. He has a Teac reel-to-reel which enables him to overdub. He then sends us a cassette which is really a complete demo of the whole album. It doesn't mean we have to play exactly as he does. We have to listen and when we come together to rehearse it's open to suggestions. Maybe Simon might have a couple of ideas for lyric changes. So we get together and it's like breaking the whole thing down into sections. With this last album we've put down basic things that everyone felt comfortable with, avoiding complication. Ideas came from everyone but we don't get that far away from the original demo; I might suggest an ending for a song to Bill but when we try it somehow it doesn't work. There again, one of the others might get an idea from that attempt.
"The only strict thing is that once everything is sorted out we go back and listen to Bill's demo to make sure we have not moved too far away from the original ideas. In fact if the sound quality on the demos had been better we would have put a couple of the tracks of Bill all on his own on the album. Bill didn't want tb go through the whole thing again on the studio machines, anyway the feel would have been different again. As soon as we all play there's a lot more confidence in the music, I mean Bill can't play every instrument as well as he can play guitar. With his drumming it's not messiness but because his style sounds sloppy it seems to fit a lot of the songs."
In fact it transpires that all efforts by the band to record Surreal Estate failed to capture the exact feel of Bill's solo demo. Eventually Charlie suggested Bill should play drums and Simon assorted improvised percussion. It worked and they got it down on the tape in one take.
Two of the new album tracks, Electrical Language and New Mysteries, use drum tape-loops of around eight bars. New Mysteries was eventually singled out as their current opening number on tour, using the tape loop through the PA system to great effect.
"I think Bill wanted a kind of machine-like quality to the music because he's writing these nihilistic/futuristic type of songs," suggested Simon. "He wanted that Kraftwerk synthesised machine type of music. Having the drum loop going in the background gives that sort of monotonous feel. The best night was when the fucking tape broke on a gig, our big intro number! The sound crew got it going again but by that time we were totally out of sync, cross beating and everything! It's quite tricky in fact, the loop has to be right up loud in the monitors. I don't know if you listened at the concert but I was playing little tom tom fills and they've got to be perfectly in time with the tape. To play live to a drum tape-loop is quite an experience but good fun."
"Every musician has a tendency to speed up or slow down," Charlie interjected, "unless you're being conducted or something. So if you feel the music is slowing down or getting faster it's not the loop, it's you. So it really helps to put the show over at a steady pace and you don't get so nervous. It's surprising how much it helped us to build the whole set."
Simon agreed: "It's quite good on the first number because that's usually when you're most nervous and your adrenalin's running. You can relax for the first number which puts you in a good frame of mind for the rest of the show."
As we spoke in a quiet room in the band's management offices, the Be Bop road crew were packing the tape-loop, a ton or two of sound equipment, stage lighting and instruments in preparation for shipping out to Heathrow for their USA tour. There are only so many top-rate sound systems in the USA, so if a number of big bands have booked them, it's very easy to arrive there to face endless problems. Be Bop are creeping into the big league in the States, evidenced by the fact that they are headlining more than supporting now.
Charlie enlarged on this point: "For the first two weeks we will be supporting and the last four weeks we headline, which is a nice way to do it. Much better than the last time when we would headline one night and end up supporting the next. Coming back to being 'Special Guests' after headlining the night before does kind of undermine morale. We don't really mind as long as we play to people, but we do like to headline, we're greedy just like everyone else!"
"When we support in the US it's usually with groups like Blue Oyster Cult," Simon said, "and on this tour would you believe Bob Seger? Have you seen Ted Nugent? Instant migraine music, splits your head in half. We always get those loud heavy metal horrible bands to support. But the thing is over there those acts fill 20,000 seater stadiums, so it's worth doing."
The Musicians Union frequently appear to throw a spanner in the works when it comes to rock musicians, but Charlie is quick to point out that they were wrongfully blamed for problems he has until recently faced. He is a Maori, a native New Zealander. He had in fact been in the Australian MU and therefore had no real problems in getting a card to allow him to work in Britain. The problems were with the Home Office, as Charlie explained. "The Home Office said they certainly would not give me a permit. They kept playing silly games but we kept playing the right games, lawyers appealing... all that. Someone was going to break in the end and no way was it going to be us. Eventually they gave in and said that due to a change in the law I could stay. That was in May last year while we were in France recording the album. When I found out I could stay I became a different person, knowing I could walk through Immigration Control without being made to sit in a room for three or four hours. 'Cos that's all I used to get every time we came back from America. We'd get the lawyers down and I'd be let through with a two week stamp on my passport. Then we started another appeal."
Charlie describes himself as "an international traveller who's been on the road since '66." He came to London in 1974 with a band called Mississippi. It's a great city if you don't weaken, but Mississippi did, leaving Charlie behind when they returned to Australia. A couple of months later he auditioned for Be Bop, six weeks or so after Simon. All seemed well so they agreed to a six months' trial period in case of personality clashes. Joining a band of any major status these days is tantamount to an executive post, being legally and financially complicated. It was, however, nearly a year later when they realised the trial period had been totally forgotten!
Simon actually started playing in groups some eight years ago while studying at art college, where he says just about everybody played one instrument or another. He worked with all kinds of bands in and around Birmingham up until the early seventies, coming to London with a band called Hackensack which he describes as being a "sweaty little rock'n'roll band a bit like Status Quo." He also had some enjoyable lessons from avant-garde jazz drummer Tony Oxley, which he found useful in terms of acquiring good rudimentary technique. It wasn't long before a friend who was in Cockney Rebel introduced him to Bill Nelson who was revamping Be Bop.
On the current album, Drastic Plastic, Charlie played Fender Precision and Telecaster basses, the latter having been his main instrument for some years. Around a month or so before they were due to leave for France to record he asked for a fretless bass as he had some ideas for using that type of instrument on three of Bill's new songs. Two days before leaving, no fretless bass was to be seen, so down at the mouth Charlie set off with the others for Juan-les-Pins where the Stones Mobile was waiting for them at Chateau Saint-Georges. Ten days later a Fender Precision arrived... with a standard fretted neck. With his spirits sinking lower and lower, Charlie phoned the band's management company. He uttered a few curses and a few days later a fretless neck arrived from America. It was a really nice neck, the only problem being that it didn't fit the guitar body, despite valiant efforts on the part of the road crew. They eventually gave up and went back to using the Precision with the standard neck, which at least gave some tonal variation for a couple of tracks on the album. More recently, Charlie had a body made to suit the fretless neck and hopes to be using the instrument soon. All things considered it wasn't an easy time for him, remembering that the Home Office were doing their best to keep him out of Britain. Just to top things off, one day between sessions he gave some hitchers a ride in his car and they thanked him by breaking his nose! Still, I'm pleased to report that his spirits are once again high, boosted by what looks like the beginning of a long love affair with a new, beautifully crafted bass. "I went into Manny's music store in New York looking for a new bass. A lot of people I know have been buying these Alembic things. I saw Stanley Clarke in LA and the way he uses Alembics is just incredible. Manny's had an Alembic in there so I picked it up but it just didn't feel right for me. I don't know if it was just that particular one, but we managed to set it up to suit my style a little better. I worked with it for a while and found it's possibilities incredible but it still just didn't feel right for me. It came down to the fact that they wanted nearly $2,000 for it. I scratched my head and thought there was no way I was going to pay that kind of money for a bass that I may only use once in a while. If I did it would have to be a bass that would be my main instrument.
"I told them and they said to have a look at a bass they had in made by Stuart Spector. Apparently he's been making about two a year for the last eight years or so, so not many people have them. It was only $800 and as soon as I saw it I said I'd have it, I knew it was right for me. The guy said he thought it would be better if I tried playing it first! The neck is long, with four octaves, and it's just like playing a guitar. The tuning is true, and the neck goes right through the body, one piece of wood. The extra width of the body is made up with two more pieces of wood and the back curves in so it's well suited to pot belly bass players! It does almost as much as the Alembic but it doesn't have the preamp. The pick-up is good and the controls are basic. The sound is warm but can be hard and toppy as well, and the action is definitely as good as an Alembic. I want to try and see the guy while we're in the States because I've got a couple of ideas for slight improvements to suit my personal tastes, maybe I can get him to make me a custom. You've got to get used to the long neck and close fretting. I've had my Telecaster for five years, now I don't even pick it up after playing the Spector."
Simon uses Sonor drums. In the early days these drums were reputed to pose some problems, but Simon's glad that he went along to see them. "Yes, they've really improved the drum shell now. It's a wooden shell, the thickest and the best quality I've ever seen. Whereas guitarists often go for valve amps for the warmer sound instead of transistors, it's the same thing with wooden versus metal drum shells for drummers. I like the warmer sound of wood. The Evans oil-filled drum heads also help to enrichen the sound. I don't use nylon tipped sticks because I smash up too many of the actual shafts. I have a Zildjian 14in. hi-hat, a small smash which was from an old hi-hat that I had cut down, an 18in. crash, 20in. bounce ride, a 16in. crash, then I've got one of those Chinese dustbin lid type things and a Paiste 22in. long crash. I've got lots of little things at the back like cowbells and wooden blocks, which I like because they give the kit a little more character. Oh yes, and I've got sleigh bells." Simon doesn't get involved in the miking up of the drums at gigs or recordings. He is happy to set the acoustic sound of the kit with the usual tuning of the heads and leave the amplification to Murray McMillan, the band's soundman.
The band's monitoring system is well worked out. A feed from the bass goes to an individual cabinet for Simon's benefit. This is angled towards him and has a separate volume control allowing him to adjust his volume alone without affecting Charlie's main stack. No bass goes through the main PA monitors thus avoiding overload on the low frequencies. Bill's guitar is usually loud enough to be heard by all the band without any monitoring. The only sounds going through the main system monitors are vocals, keyboards, bass drum, snare drum and hi-hat.
Finally I asked Charlie how he felt about being in a band in which he did not have any opportunity for writing. Simon quickly managed to parry the question, claiming to be tone deaf, but Charlie said: "I'm quite happy about not writing. I'd like to do some things eventually but at the moment we're both concerned with spending our time concentrating on what we're doing. There are no ups and downs at the moment, so why spoil a good thing? We'll probably get involved in other ventures later on but at the moment playing our instruments with Be Bop Deluxe takes up all our time."
Interview by Ralph Denyer
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