Drums & more — guaranteed no puns about electrical goods!
Of the few drummers whose influence spreads to players of other types of instruments. Simon Phillips is almost unique. Talk to guitarists, keyboard players, singers — ask them which drummers they actually enjoy listening to and Simon's name keeps cropping-up.
He's done his fair share to make sure that he's listened to by a wide cross-section of people, playing with an astonishing range of bands and artists from Stanley Clarke and Jeff Beck through to Toyah. But there's more to it than the mere spread of his work — Simon plays drums in a style which is both spectacular and, which is perhaps his greater talent, musically.
In a spare number of years his reputation has grown from the days when he was in the orchestra of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR to guesting as a 'name' player. It's been a quite phenomenal period of growth for him and one which has been based entirely on talent - no-one has hyped him, he's just been the drummer that everyone wants to work with.
In case you've not heard about his early years, a brief rundown will tell you that Simon comes from a very musical family. His father, band leader Sid Phillips, was a tremendous influence on him. Moreover it wasn't just the fact that his father was a player that provided him with a musical background. He also grew up surrounded by the music business in its widest possible sense.
"When you're practising an instrument in your childhood" he feels "The only thing that's going to make you stick at it is enjoyment. My parents wanted me to play the piano, but I didn't, I just didn't want to know about it.
"I was very lucky because at a very early age I saw a live band playing. Up until I was about three I'd been taken along to the occasional recording session but it didn't mean that much to me — it doesn't at that age, after all. But then we moved out to Hertfordshire and my father was then able to have all the band come round to our house to play. So I was crawling about or toddling about and the first thing that caught my eye was a drummer and his kit. For some reason the drums were the only thing that caught my eye and they were what I wanted to play."
One might assume that, with such a background, Simon would have almost immediately been whisked off to a drum teacher, but no, that wasn't the way it happened.
"When I was eight I was taught to read music, that was about it. What I did learn, though, was from my father about music generally, about working with a band, timekeeping. He was very strict. If I wanted to play something that I'd heard on a record he wouldn't let me. At the time I thought he was being old fashioned, but now I'm grateful for it."
Still, one might assume that Simon had picked-up a great deal of technical knowledge about drumming which has stood him in good stead till today. Or had he?
"Well, obviously I know what a paradiddle is and a flam and all that stuff and I know about things like five stroke and six stroke — but they're just a natural part of playing. But, honestly, I'm not really that technical. I love sitting down and watching players who can do all that technical stuff but I'm not really that sort of drummer, I'm bad at all that textbook-like approach. A lot of people might think of me as a technical player but I would never think of myself in that way. To me the main thing is that you've got a song to play and you have to play that song the way that you think that song should sound best.
"I actually try to avoid that technical drumming talk. I much prefer to talk to other players about the Dorian scale or some nice chords or something, looking at music overall — that's what's more important to me."
"I'M NOT REALLY THAT TECHNICAL... I'M BAD AT THE TEXTBOOK..."
To that end a growing interest of Simon's is record production and songwriting (some of his material being in evidence on Beck's There And Back album).
Again, a mistaken assumption might be that Simon is itching for the chance to record his own solo album, but no — that's something which he says will have to wait until he's certain that he's got something musically worth saying, a position which he doesn't feel he has reached, at least not as far as a complete solo album is concerned. Currently his absorption is in a new project with Jeff Beck and more material of his will be appearing when that sees the light of day.
Recently Simon co-hosted a Zildjian clinic alongside fellow drummer Pete York. It was an opportunity for Simon's considerable talents to be displayed to other drummers over here and it threw the spotlight onto his choice of equipment.
Like a lot of drummers these days, he actively uses and endorses a Japanese manufactured kit (a Tama), which is surrounded by a wide range of Zildjian cymbals. Neither brand has always been Simon's choice (although he had used Zildjian for many years before experimenting elsewhere and than coming back to them) but, before going into the cymbal side of his kit how did the Tama drums come to be his brand?
"The first time I went to Japan (with Stanley Clarke and Tony Hymas) Stanley and I were in a bar on a day off in Nagoya (which is Tama's home town) and I'd taken a Ludwig Octaplus kit with me which was all I'd been interested in using. In fact I'd always said that I wasn't going to use any Japanese equipment at all.
"Anyway these guys came up to us in this bar, grabbed Stanley and said 'Would be preased if you try Ibanez bass'. And so they sat us down and bought us more drinks. As we got more and more paralytic they were showing us all these fantastic colour magazines with more and more great looking equipment in them. I was trying to be 'unimpressed' but actually they did look nice! So, trying to be ever so cool with them we said, 'Yeh, o.k. bring some along to the gig'.
"They then took us out to a wonderful meal and really looked after us, as they do, of course. At that next gig they brought their gear along, I had a look at it and it was really beautifully made. But I was interested in fibreglass only so they said 'Ah, yes, Tokyo'. So I get to the Budokan for a sound-check and there's this great Tama fibreglass kit that they'd brought along, all set-up and looking really lovely. They wanted me to use it that night but I couldn't, not a strange kit. So I explained to them why I couldn't use it there and then and told them about some special sizes that I'd like to try. That was it. In about 78 or 79 a white Tama kit came along and I've used it ever since, it's been round the World any number of times!
"That white Tama has two 22" kick drums, four rack toms 10x9, 12x10, 13x11, 14x12, a regular 14" floor, regular 16, regular 18, a 22" gong drum and a set of octobans; the stands vary on account of precisely what I'm doing with the kit at any one time but that's basically it."
"YES, CYMBALS GIVE YOU A LOT OF INDIVIDUALISM... YOUR OWN SOUND."
For recording Simon has used the Tama, and feels that it's great in the studio but it's really set up for stage work on account of its size. On record he tends to use a smaller mahogany Tama kit which he finds easier to manage. For heads his choice is Remo. "Ambassador clear but with the live kit I use clear CS spots with Diplomats underneath, just for ruggedness really."
Moving onto cymbals, Simon is now using 100% Avedis Zildjian throughout.
"I've got a 24" very heavy 'Chinese' Zildjian which usually has rivets in it but mine doesn't have them. That's a really heavy cymbal, almost like a gong. I've a 21" brilliant earth-ride, crash cymbals, a 19" medium thin, and 18" medium thin and a 16" medium. Two of the new China Boys that they've just brought out and a little 12" splash cymbal plus 14" Quick beat flat bottom type hi-hats.
There's always a feeling that, especially when a player goes as far as to actively endorse a product, that there's one of those infamous music business 'deals' behind it and that his endorsement can be taken with a pinch (a sack?) of salt. I looked Simon straight in the eye and asked him for his true feelings about the cymbals he's using.
"No, I really do use them because they're the best for me. I went back to Zildjian, don't forget!
"I used Paiste for about a year, year and a half but I went back to Zildjian in the end — I'd always used them before. In fact I can remember the first secondhand Zildjian I ever had — it was actually an old 'K' which cost me £12 or £16 — I couldn't believe it, it was amazing!
"I stopped using them when I was over in Switzerland one time, I think it was around 78 and we got in touch with the Paiste factory so that we could have a look around. I was feeling like a change just then so I got a set. But after a year I just went back to Zildjians, partly, I have to say, because I spent a lot of time over in the States then (mind you, I still do of course) and I wasn't getting quite the help I needed from Paiste over there, they weren't all that together in the States at the time it seemed to me. They're better there now, I gather."
"I COULD PLAY A PREMIER KIT OR A LUDWIG KIT - IT'S STILL GOING TO SOUND LIKE ME."
Buying cymbals is often a problem for drummers (and I don't just mean the price!). I asked Simon whether he found making a choice difficult.
"Yes. Cymbals give you a lot of individualism and you have to find your own sound. I'm still learning about cymbals and how to choose them. I'm very lucky because I've been able to get my last two sets straight from the Zildjian factory in the States, but that's pretty scary in a way.
"I go in there thinking I know what I want so I tell the guy there and he picks out a load of cymbals and he says try these. Halfway through I might have found a ride and a few crashes and then I start to get confused, you just don't know anymore. It's a thing you have to do very quickly. If you don't you can find yourself losing the sound you're after, spoiled for choice really.
"I'm still really just finding out about cymbals. I'm in the middle of a change right now, for example, away from using heavy crashes. I find thinner ones much easier to control, more dynamic maybe more musical. They don't feel like you're hitting a chunk of metal and I'm convinced they last longer than heavier types. I might be wrong but they seem less brittle and I feel that the ones I've tended to break have been the heavier ones."
"When you're choosing cymbals you really do have to think what you want those cymbals to do. You can only find out about cymbals by listening to them and listening to a lot of them which, of course, not many people get the chance to do.
"For young drummers I think it helps if you know anybody who's a bit more experienced to pick their brains and than have an idea what you want that cymbal to do. For example I sit at home before a tour and I think out the songs that we're doing, the type of P.A. we have, the line-up of the band, all those things influence the choice of cymbals I'll be using — and heads too, of course. It's very much a case of knowing what you want something to do.
"With drums, though, a drum is a shell, that's all it is and more depends on what head you put on it and how you hit it — the sound really doesn't change that drastically from make to make. I could play a Premier kit or a Ludwig kit — it's still going to sound like me."
Simon's advice about choosing cymbals also applies to the way he tunes his kit, as he explained.
"It's a similar problem. If you take too long over it you'll start getting confused about the sound you really want to get. With my kit there's something like seven double headed tom toms, two kicks, two snares, a gong drum — there's a lot of tuning there to do and a lot of sympathetic resonances going on that have to be accounted for so I try to do it as quickly as possible and get them sounding the way I want as quickly as I can. I know when I try to put a head on really carefully I can't get the sound I want as quickly as I can, before I get too confused.
"Basically a drum is an instrument and that's what I look for. I don't like too many bits of metal sticking into the drum, huge stands that it takes two people to lift — it's an instrument and it's got to feel right."
Overall Simon's approach towards drumming is that of a musician first and foremost. He refuses to look upon himself as a technical 'wizard' and places his emphasis firmly on what's right for the song and the sound of the music he's playing. Coming from a player who has such a reputation among other drummers it's a refreshing attitude and maybe goes at least part of the way towards explaining why he's so popular with players of other instruments as well.
All that said, however, he remains a phenomenal player with a gift which has carried him a long, long way from SUPERSTAR. Still being capable of playing with a tremendous variety of bands, his future career is impossible even to guess at — but it's going to be one which will be watched by musicians of all kinds, rather than drummers alone. That's probably how Simon himself would rather it was too.
Interview by Gary Cooper
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