Can You Make It More Green?
All the secrets from Andy Duncan.
You've heard of session drummers... they're the ones with suits made out of fivers and a Mercedes to carry the cymbals. 'Course, you only get to this illustrious level after, say, two or three weeks worth of experience. What's it like on your first session? Andy Duncan sent in this report on his luncheon vouchers.
So there you are relaxing at home, minding your own business, hanging upside down from the chandelier in tropical kit when the 'phone rings.
To your utter amazement a stranger informs you that if you turn up at the recording studio where he is presently involved in the process of producing the first single for the newly signed group Repair That Chair (which is actually a duo comprising a one-fingered keyboard player with an exploding hair do and his mate Darren who can't play anything but whose cab driving uncle once took Frank Ifield's mum to Bexley railway station), he is willing to part with a negotiable amount of the old green folding PR if you then bash about on your drum kit in the vicinity of some microphones and, perhaps, the tune in question.
Already picturing yourself by the pool in Acapulco making last minute adjustments to the racy angle of your braces you hear yourself saying "No, no, it's alright. I'll just have to tell Cliff to get someone else. I'll be there as soon as I can.
Here we pause to observe two important elements in the telephone manner of the canny drummer — a vivid imagination and a big mouth. No matter when your last studio session was, no matter if you've never even seen the inside of such a place, convince the caller that you are up to the proverbial armpits in work, all of which involves dazzling chart names. Although this may really mean that you have to do Working Mens' Club gigs playing Boney M numbers with a tone deaf organist. But with the right degree of encouragement, people in the music business will always assume the best, hoping that your past associations with the rich and groovy will somehow rub off favourably on their spotty Herbert with an 'O' level in woodwork.
Note, also, the self-sacrificing tone. Not only will you put off other work in order to help these people out, you will also drop everything to get there as soon as possible, thus saving on their studio bill and creating the impression of yet more important commitments — the whirring of computers, the hubbub of the stock exchange, the bubble of the punctured inner tube in the old bowl of water.
Having created these exciting images in the mind of your now enthused caller, you have to recall a) what a drum kit looks like, b) whether or not you still own one and, c) where it can be located if the answer is yes. Feverishly you grope among the contents of the cupboard under the stairs. Over the shoulder goes a moth eaten Davy Crockett hat, a pair of orange loon pants, an Elephant's Memory album (forgot about that), and an unused sheet of I'm Backing Britain Stickers.
Come on, come on, it must be in there somewhere. You distinctly remember having to shove the entire pile hastily into hiding when your mates called round unexpectedly one day and nearly caught you playing along with your Dad's copy of James Last's Disco Party (volume two).
Sure enough, right at the back, next to the gas meter and the football programmes showing Chelsea in the first division (long shorts, big boots), there it is, resplendent in a faded blue sparkle finish and enough cobwebs to keep Spiderman in business for a week.
Fully aware that such antiquarian chic scores well in the old street-credibility department, it's out of the door and into the back of the motor without further ado. Pausing only to scribble a swift note (more about which later), you leap in to action and spend five minutes reassembling your ancient A to Z into some kind of readable order. Having clocked the location of the studio which invariably features every available parking restriction, six flights of stairs and the aroma of the nearby lino factory, you're off. Should take about 25 minutes to get there, you think, tuning to Radio 1 on the off chance of hearing that George Formby rapping record you played on a while back.
An hour later you arrive at the studio, and as you open the car door we note another valuable tip. You were careful to avoid giving the producer any specific time of arrival, thus allowing yourself generous time in which to, a) get lost or, b) go to the caff should you actually turn up early which is always to be avoided since it might create a dangerous precedent and is of course, extremely uncool for the hip drummer.
Next, you carefully select a couple of bulky looking cases which are actually light and easily managed, and making sure that you bash into as many doors, chairs and other fixtures and fittings within reach, you barge noisily into the studio, wheezing, coughing and otherwise making a great show of breathlessness. This cunning ploy has two motives.
Firstly, it may fool the more gullible onlooker into giving you a hand in with the really heavy stuff which saves wear and tear on both the ego and the ex-Wimpy donkey jacket (minus letters of course). Secondly, it informs you that anyone mug enough to do so is also worth touching for the odd couple of quid when they send out a runner to the chip shop later on.
There is also the cynical amusement to be derived from the host of feeble excuses which the more determined shirkers will offer, all accompanied by elaborate hand gestures as the mythical war wound or shark bite is indicated.
At this point you meet everyone and the right etiquette is guaranteed to reap dividends. First, greet whoever 'phoned you with a warm handshake. Express concern for the welfare of the session with a "how's it going then?" This will have the dual effect of making the producer feel big and the band feel important.
When they inquire as to what you've been up to, make light of it. A simple "I've been very busy" will suffice. Remember that they are just being polite. They couldn't really give a monkey's what you've been up to, but this brief reply fulfills your part in the ritual, hints at modesty and activity, and neatly conceals the fact that all you have been really busy with is a spot of painting and decorating.
When setting up, keep the cases nearby to ensure a swift getaway, and keep your wits about you. Don't suddenly decide to lay into the bass drum while the engineer is engrossed in making fine adjustments to its mike positioning. As well as irritating the majority of this noble, if eccentric breed, it may well prove to be very dangerous to those of a nervous disposition or dicky ticker. Though you might avoid a manslaughter charge on the grounds of diminished responsibility (easily proven in the case of the drummer) the consequent publicity will do the image no good at all, and, as we are learning, image is ALL in the music business.
At this point you are ready to play. The engineer needs to prepare an acceptable recording sound, and as you raise the sticks we again hold everything. This is a most crucial stage. If you have played your cards right thus far, everyone is under the impression that you are a pretty hip, somewhat fab and generally all-round nice chap — and you haven't played a beat yet. Now is not the time to blow it.
When the engineer says "can we have a bit of snare drum", single beats will do perfectly well. Resist the temptation to show off all the finer points of your Scottish Pipe Band drummer's technique, the advanced Ratamaque or press roll like the beginning of Blue Peter. Likewise the toms. At this stage no one is remotely concerned with your ability to simulate the sound of the massed drummers of Burundi all on your lonesome.
And another thing. Find out what kind of role the producer expects the drums to play before you actually set up, and then make sure that you use the absolute minimum necessary to do the job. Wasting time setting up a sound on pieces of hardware that won't end up on the record, helps no one least of all you if you then go and play them (think about it).
Having sorted out a reasonable sound on the remaining parts of the kit, you cruise into the control room to listen to the track and sort out your part. Once again the reactions must be well controlled. No laughing if Repair That Chair's first single turns out to be a cover of the much loved Gene Pitney classic here re-titled as '24 Hours From Tulse Hill'. We've all got to make a living. No smugness if it turns out that the only reason you got a call was because their rhythm machine had thrown a wobbler and sent a morse code SOS to the Beachy Head coastguard, whose lifeboat is now speeding to the rescue. We all have our off days.
Listen carefully to the song. Clock the arrangement. Ask lots of questions. Even if they are irrelevant, all present will be impressed by your interest and concern, readily assuming that you know something that they don't. Consult both band and producer. Look as though you are taking notice of their opinions (difficult, I know, but vital nonetheless). Now you are ready to do your stuff.
March purposefully into the studio, sit down behind the kit, grab the sticks and ask them to roll the tape, but make sure you are wearing your headphones. They may not be doing your shoebrush-bristled hair do much good, but without them, you stand very little chance of coinciding with the music when you burst into action. By the way, turning the cushion part of the cans upside down is always a quick way to raise a laugh, but not with Scandinavian artists, I would have thought.
As you hear the song, busk along as best you can, but look as though you mean business and hit the drums as hard as is reasonably possible. Above all else, don't get it right first time. The producer and the artist must feel creatively involved and duly consulted. Make sure you play something which they can later suggest that you might try in the rest of the verse, chorus etc, but hint at it. Give them something to latch on to while simultaneously retaining enough of their demo or machine part to make them feel suitably accomplished as rhythm makers.
Back in the control room at the end of take one, you confer. The artist will probably make useful suggestions like "I want this part to sound more green." Nod sagely and say "yes, I think I can see what you're getting at."
Offer a similar reaction to the producer when he says that he wants the fill into the chorus to be out of time, "like 'There's A Ghost In My House' by R. Dean Taylor".
Though the only R. Taylor you might be able to recall made the semi-finals of the mens' singles at Wimbledon in 1969, act as if you know the record intimately, possibly throwing in a "great idea!" for good measure.
When attempting take two, be careful to ignore everything you have been told to do during all the important parts of the song. Play exactly what you think sounds best and only resort to your instructed part during moments of insignificance (ie four minutes into the fade).
Before you can all listen to a playback there's a 'phone call for you. Remember that note we left at home? It asked the reader to check in at exactly this time. As everyone listens you grab the receiver. "Hello... yes operator, this is he... Hello. Yes. Hi Stevie, how are you... sorry... yes I'm fine thanks. Listen mate, I'm going to have to call you back, I'm a bit tied up right now... Yes. You too. Ta ta." Mentioning no names you hang up and apologise for the delay. This is your master stroke.
While they think "Stevie who? Wonder? He called Stevie Wonder mate?" you are most definitely not letting on that your Mum's just called to let you know that it's fish fingers for tea.
Swiftly you ask for a listen to the song. Everyone now thinks that they've got Stevie Wonder's drummer on their session, so anything he's doing must be good and sure enough, three and a half minutes later it's thumbs up, what's your number, I must use you on my next session, and cheque's in the post.
As you are unloading outside your humble gaff in the moonlight, you pause for a moment. Putting down that cymbal case, your gaze drifts upward into the dazzling infinity of the night sky. Insects flirt with the orange glow of the streetlight as Barry Palmer's immortal words, every syllable a nugget of wisdom to the would be rock star, play again through the mental tape recorder: "Never forget, if you want to get on in the music business: Bullshit Baffles Brains." Amen.
Feature by Andy Duncan
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
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!