Interview With Liam Bradley
I met Liam Bradley at 11 oíclock at the Sherlock Holmes Hotel in Londonís Baker Street. He was playing with Boyzone at Wembley the day after the Everton v Chelsea cup-final and Baker Street and Marylebone Road were awash with people dressed in blue, over-fortifying themselves before the event.
Ok, so to get to the point from the beginning, how did Liam Bradley get into drumming in Ireland?
Itís a good question. I really wanted to ask Thomas Lang this same question last week [at the MD.com clinic in Ireland which Liam went to], how did it start, what was it about drums? For me itís simple and slightly tacky, itís not any sort of grandiose thing - it was being 3 years of age and hearing the music for ĎSting Rayí the Gerry Anderson puppet show. Thatís what it was - it was the unbelievably exciting sound of those drums and, not that I knew it then but I know it now, when the back-beat kicked in on the chorus as a kid I was ďWow, what is making that sound?!Ē. I didnít know what it was, whether it was drums or anything else, but that is what actually what it was and Iíve been trying to find out ever since who the drummer was.
It might have been Clem Catini but Iím sure the knowledgeable Dolberians will let us know.
Was it? Because the thing is the keyboard player in the Boyzone tour, his dad is the guy who recorded all that music for Barry Grey, it was recorded in his studio. Theyíve been trying to find out who it was, it might have been Harold Fisher
It could have been. Thereís a lot of guys who it could have been and thereís a lot of guys who may not even want to own up to it.
To this day even when I hear that music, itís hard to believe itís from a kiddieís programme. Nearly every TV programme now is done on a work station, this was a full orchestra! Talk about proper days for musicians, people getting paid and just astonishing that kind of 50s/60s sensibility brought to a kids programme. So that was the first moment but I didnít really know what it was. The next thing would have been ĎA Hard Days Nightí, it was that chord, and then all of a sudden in it kicks. I think my uncle brought me a Beatles guitar with the four heads in the corner, so it would have been Ringo who was the next thing. Then the Dave Clark Five because he fronted the band and heís out there with his big giant white drum kit. So these were just magpie moments, flashing things in the dust, but the moment that is the final one is Sunday Night at the Palladium: Jack Parnell and Ronnie Verrell doing a drum battle. Iím assuming it must have been when it was a slow week and some guest dropped out so they gave the orchestra a moment to themselves. Maybe once in the series they would have this battle and that was it, from then on it was about drums.
How old were you then?
Everything Iíve done has been entirely accidental. Right place, right time, as much as anything else. I didnít ever imagine growing up in Derry in the middle of the Troubles that I would ever have enough money to buy a drum kit
They are the earliest recollections of a drummer Iíve ever heard.
Those are the moments I remember. That doesnít mean I sat there then and set out to be a drummer, I didnít at all. What that did was just an endless fascination with the noise that that instrument made. I didnít imagine you could ever do it. I didnít imagine you could make a living out of it and in fact I didnít ever set out to make a living out of it.
Everything Iíve done has been entirely accidental. Right place, right time, as much as anything else. I didnít ever imagine growing up in Derry in the middle of the Troubles that I would ever have enough money to buy a drum kit. £500 which is kind of what it would have cost then - prices havenít gone up much. I just never imagined for a moment that I would have enough money to buy a drum kit. But, I did have enough money to buy a guitar! So, for £50 I brought a guitar and for the first few years, when I was 15/16, I played the guitar. I didnít play drums at all, I still loved them but I couldnít afford them.
Then the next moment of ďHmm hang on a minute, maybe I could do thisĒ I went along to see this local covers band, circa 1976. The word on the street was there was something majorly exciting happening in St. Bridgetís Parish Hall. There was this band doing a cover of Thin Lizzyís ĎJail Breakí and their lighting engineer (Martin Mac Donald) had somehow managed to put a blue police light in the middle of Jail Break. He blacked out the Parish Hall and this single blue lamp would flash around the hall. Well, in the dark days of 1976 this might as well have been a gigantic light show for all we cared, coming from the local council estates it was jaw dropping. That night, the very first support band on stage were this bunch of kids, they were nearly booed off as people threw stuff at them, but as I watched the stage I realised that one of the guys sat beside me in English class and he was wearing shades, a leather jacket and had an electric guitar. It was November people didnít even wear shades in the summer in those days. It was The Undertones, it was their debut gig, their first ever gig!
Up until that moment I thought to be in a band you had to either be really old, or come from London or New York (these guys were probably in their late 20s). I didnít imagine anybody from Derry could be in a band. I think that was the one thing that punk kind of did. Whilst I was never particularly a big fan of punk, what it did do was made things accessible in the same way the skiffle did in the Ď50s. To be in a band before then you had to be a sight reader and you had to go to college and it was a big band thing, skiffle completely blew that away, you could just join a band. In a way New Wave and Punk was my skiffle. So thatís when I thought ĎWow, maybe I could do thisí.
This was on the guitar?
Well it was just being in a band and whilst I had a guitar I still just wanted to be a drummer. Anyway, my first ever audition when I was 17, these guys had fallen out with their mate and had a gig the following week and heard that I could play the drums. (I could play the drums on sofas and tabletops, I didnít have a drum kit, but I could play in my head, I was always a drummer inside.) So they came along, and because the only music Iíd properly been exposed to at that point was whatever happened to be in the radiogram in my fatherís record collection (which was Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, blah, blah, blah,) that was the only music I really knew. But this was rock music. So I played all this rock music with a swing, it was a catastrophe. Iím 17, did my first ever audition, and was also so nervous that I whacked my knuckles on the drums and spattered them with my own blood. I had borrowed this drum kit off a friend of mine and when he saw the blood spots he assumed Iíd been beaten up by the band. I was so devastated by this that it was another two years before Iíd even attempt to go for another audition, I was crushed.
Two years later and after Iíve recovered my shattered confidence I tried again. Three guys from school good guitar players. I fell in with them because I played guitar and then ,as we were sitting around one night having toast, I realised these guys can really play guitar and I canít really play guitar. They said, ďWeíve just fired our drummerĒ and I said ďIím a drummer reallyĒ and I got that audition and thatís where it started.
And what were they called?
Crazy Legs Crane. It was a cartoon character at the time, they were a blues band. It was at that moment that I fell in love with blues, slow blues in particular and then ballads because slow blues is a ballad in a sense. I think Red House was the first slow blues I played, although I didnít know it was a slow blues.
You didnít recognise the fact that it was in 12/8 or any of those things?
No I didnít know any of that. I havenít had a lesson my entire life. I tell a lie, I had 3 in 1982 with a great hero of mine from Dublin: Paul Mc Ateer who is still the best drummer in Ireland for my money. I had intended to get more but then I started work and that was the end of my formal training. The rest has been trial and error.
Iíve always figured that you have to have had lessons, to have done what you have. Do you read music?
So itís all in your head?
What I do is I use Nashville Charts, itís just my own version of a Nashville Chart. A Nashville Chart will have numbers for chords on it; obviously we donít need the numbers so I just replace the numbers with a little stroke and then put a notation above then. I put the groove notation in the top right corner as they would, it never fails. Itís fantastic. Iíve done gigs with people who are sight readers and theyíre doing their repeat this, blah, blah, and theyíre jumping all over the page, I just start here and keep going forward and finish there. Itís a fool proof system. For some music, it wouldnít work for classical.
You know it came from Beethoven, because it was done in Roman numerals originally? Allegedly it came from Beethoven but how Beethoven could write his music in 1,2,3,4 and 5 I donít know. Thatís the story that comes out of Nashville.
I learned how to do it years later, I did a whole bunch of years in show bands which is great training, itís the equivalent of a covers band over here. I went to University College Dublin to do Sociology and Politics and like most students I did nothing. I went to the pictures, walked on the beach, went to the pub and read the paper and didnít really do very much. So by the end of the three years I needed to find a job so I went looking for bar work which was paying £7 a night and thought well Iíve got a drum kit, I could sing, so I opened the evening press and in those days there were literally hundreds of ads for musicians, literally. At one point there was 700 travelling bands on the road in Ireland, this is March 1983. First ad, professional drummer required, must have vocals. I made the call, a guy called Mick Swan at the other end asked who Iíd played with, I made up a whole bunch of fictitious names, went and did an audition at a piano, singing, not a drum audition at all. They actually wanted a singer. Thatís been a very big part of my story/career is that Iíve always sung. The reason Iím doing this Boyzone tour is because I sing.
Youíre singing in it.
Iím singing as well. The reason Iíve done stuff with Van Morrison over the years is because I can sing as well as play percussion and drums.
I ended up in that band for 3Ĺ years playing huge ballrooms with a bunch of older guys, maybe in their 30s which to me seemed ancient. The band was Memories, they were one of the great show bands in Ireland at the time. I was in Dublin at this point.
What kids have now are drum tutorials and videos and stuff you can just immediately put on Steve Gadd and see exactly what heís doing. What we had, and I think you would have been the same, was gigs. I had no clue what I was doing, I didnít know what 12/8 was, I didnít know what 6/8 was, I didnít know what 3/4 was. The first 8-10 years in my career everything was in 4, even when it was in 12 as far as I was concerned in was in 4. I didnít recognise the groups of 3 it was just something you innately played. But what it was, was working 5, 6 sometimes 7 nights a week for years and years on end. So I did about 6 or 7 years of that, funnily enough working for Louis Walsh. He managed all of the bands that I worked in, he was a Show-Band manager, promoter really.
Did he start out as a musician?
Do you still see him?
I saw him the other night, Iíve know him since 1983. The funny thing about Louis is in 1983 he came up to me in the National Ballroom when Iíd been in the band for about 2 months and said ďYouíre the new drummer, youíre great, youíll go a long way, amazingĒ and I thought ďWow, he thinks Iím really goodĒ, then he went over to get some tea at the bar and he went ďThatís the best cup of tea Iíve ever had, fantastic, youíll go along wayĒ, he just does the same thing to everybody. So in the first 5 minutes I spotted what he was like and he does exactly the same thing now on the X Factor, he just tells everyone theyíre great. Thatís him.
Itís good to hear that, even if itís not true.
Especially if itís not true!
To be honest my musical education continues every time I see someone do something I canít do. I learn as the gigs come. You get a track you have to physically sit down and figure out how it works. So Iím always playing catch-up and I think Iíve been lucky enough to play with people who are better than me. Thatís the best place you can be.
Do you play with click tracks.
Thereís no problems with it?
I think early on, again I think itís a generation thing, because I spent years and years not playing with click tracks. I then had a great education and this is where Nashville Charts come in. In Ireland the main recording scene is Country and Irish. Music I knew nothing about, but because I could play and at that point I had a reasonable reputation, I could play percussion, sing and bring all these things to a studio session. I ended up doing hundred and hundreds of country music albums. All very small albums, but nevertheless two days a week recording, an album in a day, with click tracks, with Nashville charts The first time someone put these numbers in front of me and asked if I could follow it, I said ĎOkí. (I had no clue how to follow it; I didnít want to let on, as you do). But a bit of common sense, ok thereís just four bars and that seems to be a stop because everybody else stopped when I didnít. So thatís where I started to become a proper player, being exposed to this sort of music.
The next real moment for me is after 7 or 8 years in covers bands, I packed it all in! I thought ďI need to get a proper jobĒ, at this stage I was 29, I was getting on a bit. My career doesnít really start until I was 29, thatís a fact. I had the great fortune to meet a London drummer called Dave Early. God rest him he was killed in a car crash 10/12 years ago, he married a girl from Lurgan and one of the gigs that we used to do regularly with the show bands was a place called The Ashburn Hotel in Lurgan. He came up to me, because we both used Sonor, and he said: ďYou do a couple of things really well, you sing and you play drumsĒ and I went ďThanks very muchĒ. ďDo a third one and youíll never be out of workĒ and he gave me a tape ĎHow To Play Congasí. I got the tape and put it on, I thought well I canít even play the drums yet Iím not going to bother with this. So two or three years go by, Iíd see Dave a few times, introduce him to as many people as I could at the time. He rang me up and asked if I ever bothered to learn how to play congas, I said ďWell I could lie to you and say I didĒ, he said ďWell youíve got two weeksĒ.
At this point he was working with Van Morrison and a girl called Mary Black whoís a big artist in Ireland. He wanted to dep a TV show playing congas and a bit of kit, a one-off, it just involved keeping some subtle musical time on these two hand drums. He said ďYouíve got two week to learn that track and get your act together you lazy ****Ē, so I did and I got the gig with her. He said ďRight from now on if anybody asks if you can you play percussion you say yesĒ. And thatís really what happened and Iíve given that same advice to lots of people. What he explained to me was, weíre not playing Latin music here, itís not complex rhythms, itís rock, folk; country, itís more or less the same stuff, youíre basically augmenting the drum groove, youíre being as musical as you possibly can.
He explained that to me and suddenly it didnít seem so scary, it didnít seem like this whole other genre that I knew nothing about. As a result and because Iíve come at the whole percussion thing from a BIG ears point of view, (listening and feeling the intent in the music rather than seeing structures), I havenít really brought anything too contrived to it. So I think I have an individual colour in an accidental way. When Iíve played percussion with my kit parts they tend to be really tight, because I know where Iím going to lay a back beat if itís slightly behind, thatís where Iím going to lay a shaker.
So for about 10 years, from that very first gig with Mary, I then became an apologist for the drum kit. I started doing lots of Irish folk stuff. People who didnít like drummers and didnít like drum kits because they associated them with noise and dictating the pace and telling a singer where he or she was going to sing.
Irish folk singers, first of all, theyíre not concerned where ĎOneí is for a start, so you have to support them rather than dictate where the groove is. I learned how to play, what I like to call rubber time from working with some of those people. Orchestral guys do it everyday in classical world the music breathes the tempo is fluid, moves up and down. Because a lot of female singers, you will know this the old adage: ĎHow would you like it tonight madam? Too fast or too slow?í usually in the same song. They want all the verses too slow and all the choruses too fast, so I learned how to play a tempo wave, yes, thatís how I would describe it. By keeping the singer happy by keeping the tempo fluid, sometimes playing tricks by doubling up the hi-hat pattern, but ALWAYS supporting the singer.
This is the Ďbig earí syndrome again isnít it?
It is the big ear syndrome for sure. Itís all about this; itís walking into a gig youíve never played before, what you need is two eyes and two big ears then, donít take your eyes off that front man or the guitar player or whoever it is.
I spoke to a whole bunch of drummers last week who were slack jawed with what Thomas Lang was doing. I said, look donít be too depressed about this, what we do, or what I do is, wellÖ I am an accompanist - I play and support singers and other instrumentalists, thatís what Iím interested in. Iím interested in playing songs. Thomas Lang, on the other hand, is like a concert pianist as well as being an accompanist (he once dept the Ronan Keating gig for me and was fantastic). Heís the exception, Iím the guy who plays the grooves in the band, heís the guy whoís up on stage by himself.
Itís actually as simple as this; I think itís why drummers are sociable because have to be with other people in bands, in groups to get to do what they do. Itís all about moving people by doing what you do and to do that you have to do it with other people. Iím only interested in playing with other people, Iím not interested, if youíll excuse the pun, in playing with myself. Thatís not to say that Iím not always aghast when I see the kind of facility that a Cobham or Lang has - itís jaw-dropping and inspirational and spurs me on to do what I do better.
A couple of years ago I went to see Terry Bozzio, I really thought Iíd be bored rigid, however, what came across was the manís passion in this music. It was very complicated. I thought yeah great I get that, I saw it once, I donít need to see it again, but I was enthralled by the manís passion and inspired by that.
I got distracted there, the really big moment for me, when I properly turned the corner, I had left the show band thing, I hadnít played for about a year. I thought is this is all there is to music, doing ballrooms and playing covers every night?
Did you have horns in the band?
No, by the end of the 80s the whole show band scene was dying anyway so the bands were contracting and I ended up working with Linda Martin who was another Louis Walsh act, ended up doing the Eurovision Song Contest. If thereís one thing I ever promised myself itís that I would never ever appear or get involved with anything to do with the Eurovision Song Contest. So I left Lindaís band because she very excitedly said ďWeíre in the national Song Contest, weíre going to win it, weíre going to go on and represent Ireland in the EurovisionĒ, and I resigned that night. She went on to win it a couple of years later. Weíre still firm friends to this day, but she did me a great favour - because of that one thing, I left the covers band and what Iíd realised over the years is that itís very difficult to move from one scene to another if youíre embroiled in that scene. So if youíre in a function-band scene youíre kind of stuck there. You get caught in the pittance of a money trap, it doesnít even have to be a lot of money youíre making, itís just [some] money youíre making, and you get caught. I think the trick to it and the only advice I would give to kids is donít figure out what you want to do, figure out what you donít want to do.
If you find yourself in a position that youíre unhappy because youíre in a grind, which I was at that point in a covers band, just stop doing it. I did. I stopped, I worked in an antiques shop for a year and put the drums in a cupboard and didnít look at them. I thought, if thatís all there is to music I donít want to do it. So in that year off, Dave Early again comes to my rescue if you like. I went to see him play with a fairly big name at the time, Maura OíConnell. The musicians in her band were session freelancers, they werenít in covers-bands, this was real music - the girl had a record deal, it was original music.
I went to see them in the local theatre, they were all playing their own thing, expressing themselves and I sat in the audience, I wasnít really interested in Maura, I was interested in the guys in the band, itís always been like that for me. Iím more thrilled to be with the anonymous players in the band than the big name on the poster, or the big event. I want to play with the guys in the band. The person fronting the band can sometimes be the anonymous one to me. I want to play with that bass player or that guitar player.
So, that night, I sat in the audience and thought if I could do that then I would start again, but thatís never going to happen. Two weeks later I got a phone call that went, ďDave Early gave us your number; Iíve got a couple of bandsĒ. I said, ďLook before you go any further Iím not interested, I donít join bands, Iíve had years of bandsĒ. ďHe said youíd say that, let me tell you whoís in the bandsĒ. So this guy was running three different bands, Andy White, The Lonesome Husbands and, to my own dying shame, The Henry McCullough Band. I didnít know who Henry McCullough was, probably just as well to be honest. Also in the band was James Blennerhassett the bass player Iíd seen with Maura, Rod McVey the keyboard player, Johnny Scott the guitar player and Peter OíHanlon the other guitar player. I said ďIíll do itĒ!
The main names meant nothing to me, it was the guys in the band, the side men. So I went and met the great Henry McCullough, I went in on day one, did what I always had done, get a tape of the latest hit record, you cover what the guy did. I said ďMr. McCullough do you have any hit records I could listen to?Ē his momentous words were ďSon, it doesnít work like that here, it works like thisÖĒ and he switched on his amp and started playing this groove, and then he just stared at me, expressionless. I was sat behind the kit thinking I should either probably leave now, or get involved and start to play. I picked up the sticks and started to play. I learnt more in the first six weeks with Henry McCullough than I had learnt in the previous 8 years in covers bands. Henry was a wild card, heíd had great nights, heíd have awful nights. He was stoned on all sorts of stuff at the time, heís clean now, heís great, and weíre the best of friends. But if I hadnít played with Henry at that moment I wouldnít have been capable of playing with Van Morrison three years later. Theyíre the same, Henryís whole thing is donít listen to anything just react to this, if I like what youíre doing youíve got the gig, if I donít like what youíre doing, youíre out the door. There were no rules, it was either youíre going to move me now or youíre not, itís nothing to do with technique. I donít care if you can do 5 stroke rolls or paradiddles. Will you move me when you play?
Did any of them actually say that? Did Van Morrison?
No, again, this was the whole point about Henry just staring at me, it is unspoken. The thing is, if they have to explain that to you, then you shouldnít be in the room. That is the point! They want people who just intuitively react. I think, because Iíd always been playing catch-up and reacting to situations that I wasnít ready for, or hadnít got the technique, or musical background for Iíve always grown those big ears. To react to situations like that, the radarís out, Iím trying to figure out what it is this guy wants me to do.
Iíve gotten very good at finding that fundamental moment of what it is a particular artist wants in any given situation and not just applying this groove that Iíve learned or copied. Iím reading faces the whole time and trying to respond on an emotional level, which sounds like bullshit but it actually is that. To me thereís no such thing as good or bad music; thereís music that either moves you or it doesnít. Now for a lot of people Mozart would move them, it doesnít move me. Tommy Dorsey would move me, it would leave someone else cold, itís just what moves you.
I think Iíve spent my entire life trying to figure out from artists that Iíve worked for what it is thatís going to move them, and thatís been my trade if you like. Thatís what interests me. So meeting Henry McCullough that was the [defining] moment musically for me - fullstop. That, ďit doesnít work like that son, it works like thisĒ. Not that I got it, I started to get it, I started to understand what being a real musician was about - it wasnít about learning how Ringo or Jeff Porcaro played Ė [it was] trying to figure out how that groove works. Itís actually about being in a room with human beings, some of whom have come through the Royal Academy, some have come from the local brass-band, someone else (like me) has come up through covers-bands, and all of a sudden you get different individuals from completely different disciplines making a unique sound. The magic of finding disparate individuals in the room and then let Ďem at it, see what comes out, even if it doesnít work itís always compelling.
But Irish music is like that isnít it?
It is, because of the living tradition of Irish folk music and what used to be the independence of Irish radio we were exposed to a real breadth of styles with no real barriers between music or musicians. Twenty years ago you would have had U2, Mary Black, Christy Moore, Frank Sinatra, ACDC, Dolly Parton and then Frank Zappa (depending on the time of day) on the same station. Ireland is so small, obviously for our music, we look to England and the US, but, because thereís such a hugely strong tradition in the folk music you have all that thrown together.
Iíve spent years and years playing with tradfolk players as, as a percussionist. They see nothing unusual about playing jigs and reels with them at a festival in Brittany this week, a Blues festival with Henry or Van the next, a TV series of country music the next and a tour of arenas with a boy band after that. Itís all music isnít it? ďSure arenít you making a crust and fair play to youĒ. Music is music is music, Iíve never been into one type and bugger the rest, Iím into it all. Iím lucky I was where I was Ďcos Iíve made that unique experience work for me. Always bring yourself to the music. If youíre from Birmingham and you play Jazz, bring Birmingham to it, thatís what will give it a new slant. Unfortunately, thatís changing like everywhere else. The small stations have been brought over by conglomerates and our radio uses play lists now, the same 40 songs over and over. Shame.
So when you say tradfolk percussionist you donít necessarily mean traditional snare drum?
No, Iím talking djembes, congas, low drums, all that sort of stuff. In a sense because of Dave Early, Iím the luckiest drummer on the planet. OK today, Iím on a tour with Boyzone and itís a big shiny pop boy-band thing. Now I never imagined at 48 years of age I would be playing this kind of music. But, itís actually the closest thing to being in that original cover band, because its big, obvious, a lot of the songs are covers, itís entertainment, itís as close to being in a ballroom as you can get just an arena sized one.
In terms of the style of playing itís actually what I did way back in the 80ís, the big drum stuff. In the interim everything Iíve done between these two periods has been Henry McCulloch, Van Morrison, the whole blues thing, working with Irish traditional musicians like Liam OíFlynn singer song writers like Black, Christie Hennessey, bands like The Blue Nile and heritage artists like Gilbert O Sullivan. I play for a living; Iím a lucky, lucky bastard!
Iím hoping youíve got some Van Morrison stories.
Yeah, ones I can talk about I suppose. I was doing stuff with Van as recently as a month ago.
My first meeting with Van Morrison was about 1992, Dave was on holiday. I got a call from Sticky Torrence; didnít tell me what it was about, but asked what I was doing the following Wednesday. He told me to be at such and such a bar in Bangor Co Down and thereís £50 in it. So I went along and I set up my gear. A great bass player, Nicky Scott, turned up (Nicky went on to play with Van for years and years and did 4 or 5 albums including the Live in San Francisco album with Geoff Dunn). Nicky is one of the great bass players, but it was his first day as well and a keyboard player called Rod McVey. I was like ďWhat are we doing here, why are we here?Ē, and Rod said ďNobody told you? Weíre going to do some stuff with Van MorrisonĒ.
At that moment I thought alright, Iíve heard all the stories; I know thereíve been some amazing drummers who havenít lasted five minutes with this guy. So, I think OK, Iím not as good as some of the guys who havenít made it, Iím not going to take this personally if it doesnít work out . Therefore just do what you always do. I didnít really know that much about Vanís music, probably a good thing, I just opened my ears and eyes. I didnít take my eyes off the Man. We were there for about 4 hours; he had a bunch of new songs he wanted to routine. In those days, as now, he would just get three guys in a room; the rhythm section. He would have some rough ideas and just bang them down on one of these. [Liam points to my Marantz digital recorder.] In fact it wasnít even his, because technologically heís not interested, it was actually the keyboard playerís Sony Walkman. He hooked it up, put cassette tapes in, Van wouldnít say much, exactly the way Henry had done two years previously, which just wanted us to react. Youíd just fall in, when he acts, youíd react. It was all about creation, trying to read the intent of whereís heís going.
Did that, went well, a year later got another call which was much less successful, a year later got another call that went ok, then 6 months after that got a call from his then right-hand man, John Rogers - heís doing a film soundtrack. This was my break if you like. Iíd been around for years doing small freelance stuff, once you start to have an association with Van Morrison people start to take you slightly more seriously. I think the reasoning being, if you can sit in a room with him he must be ok.
This was the first time I properly got to record with him, actually it was one of the greatest recording sessions of my life, I have to say. We worked Friday afternoon to Monday and on the Sunday I had to do a gig in Glasgow so I had to leave Sunday morning, fly to Glasgow, do the gig Sunday night and come back for the Monday. The project was a soundtrack for a movie called Moondance. The film company wanted to Vans music but at his suggestion all new versions with new artists would be recorded with Van producing.
So the brief was do brand new versions of old songs with Sinead OíConnor, Liam Neeson, Elvis Costello, etc. I got the call to do this. The band was Nicky Scott, Arty McGlynn, a great guitar player whoís an Irish trad legend and had been in Vanís band in the 80s, another great guitar player called Foggy Little, heíd played with Sasha Distell, heíd been in the Top of the Pops orchestra, heíd been in the Morecombe and Wise TV band, (he actually appeared on stage with them in a comedy sketch with banjos). The band-leader was Phil Coulter, you might remember him from ĎPuppet on a Stringí, but in his early days he was a Tin Pan Alley guy. Him and Van go way back, he played on some early Van records. Phil told me himself he used to use Clem Catini as his rhythm section with Jimmy Paige and John Paul Jones. That was his rhythm section of choice back in the 60s. Philís musical pedigree would go right back and Van would be the sort of person who would go ok this is the sort of person I want because he understands me - I donít have to tell him what I want, he knows what to do. So this was the band, it was a very eclectic mix. Disparate individuals from different traditions but a common purpose for the next 4 days. This is what Iíve been banging on about from the start.
The result was that between the Friday and Monday we recorded two tracks for what would become the new Chieftainsí album, which won a Grammy. Then we got into the main body of the album. We recorded the entire soundtrack for Moondance. But we kept going! There was so much excess material left they decided to use it as a tribute album to Van called ĎNo Prima Donnasí and then because it was all going so well on the Monday Van says ďIíve got some new tracks for a new album.Ē So, we recorded the very first tracks for what would become ĎThe Days Like Thisí album including for my money the best studio track Iíve ever played, a tune called ĎRaincheckí, track number 3 on the album. Itís mostly in 6 but he throws in bars of 7 and 9.
What happened was, we were in the studio and VM produced a plastic bag with bits of paper, heís excited because he knows his rhythm section is working really well, working fast, everybodyís on the same wavelength, so heís having a great time. He brings out his guitar and plays this new tune called Raincheck. We chart it as he plays then he decide to routine it. Well within 20 bars it almost immediately falls apart because weíre reading off these charts. So just for a moment and for the first time in the entire session, thereís this moment of: Oh God weíve just burst the bubble! Itís been going so well. But in Van world, itís about THE moment, youíre in it or your not! Just one moment of not working, [then] see you laterÖ youíre left with a swinging door.
So itís at this point, remember we havenít recorded anything, Arty McGlynn, whoís a wise old man, 20 years in show bands, 20 years as a freelance, 7 years with Van, 2 years as his MD, 5 years his guitar player, steps into this painful silence. ďOK roll the tape, throw the charts away, follow the ManĒ, thatís what he said. And we started playing Raincheck, 4Ĺ minutes later there it was. Itís the most beautifully intricate thing. Itís really Arty who makes it work because heís sitting in the middle with his acoustic guitar, everyone else is hedging their bets, Iím hedging my bets, the piano, the lead guitar. The man thatís making it happen is the invisible guitar player in the middle and Vanís hanging on Arty because theyíve had this long relationship. See human beings, emotion, trust, experience music, magic. Thatís what itís all about.
At the end of it, the engineer Brian Masterson said to me ďThatís the first time Iíve ever seen a song being bornĒ. Thatís literally what it was, it was a phenomenal performance. Van, Iím pretty sure, loved that track because he played it for years and years after, and I heard there was a pub in Bristol called the Raincheck. Itís a great track. Iíve done it live on stage with him, it hasnít been bettered, there hasnít been a live version as good as the recorded version and Iíve played on some of the live versions.
That session really catapulted me to where I am now whatever that is, making a living I suppose.
Did you get paid per day?
Not mentioning names, [but] on this occasion Van wasnít paying us. Any time Iíve been paid by him itís always been fantastic and youíre well looked after, on this occasion for some reason I think the deal was with whoever put the session together and maybe the movie company, it got a bit complicated to be honest, I was paid an absolute pittance.
There were other guys going this isnít on and I just thought, this is going to be worth more to me in the long run. Itís the best thing Iíve recorded and it [the problem] had nothing to do with him. He wasnít paying us. Like I say, Iíve been paid many times by him and itís always been generous.
I went on to record another 5 albums with Van, Iíve played on tracks on ĎBack on Topí Ď, half of ĎWhatís Wrong With This Pictureí, Magic Timeí, ĎKeep it Simpleí and I did all the percussion on the album ĎAstral Weeks, Live at the Hollywood Bowlí released Feb. 2008, although they didnít actually manage to credit me. They credited John Densmore from the Doors who isnít on the album at all, he played tambourine on Gloria on the night. It was new American management and they didnít really know anyone in the band. Itís a pity because it was a nice piece of work and I was really privileged to be a part of it and for my name not to actually make it to the credits is a bit of a bummer.
Well we can put that right immediately, so thatís you on the new Astral Weeks album, not John Densmore?
Yes, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl. I was in the live band as well with Geoff Dunn and Ralph Salmins on drums and me on percussion. What a joy to be on stage with 2 great drummers like that and get paid to watch Ďem do their stuff. Happy days. Curiously, all my live work with Van has been on percussion, all the studio stuff Iíve done has been on drums (bar Keep it Simple,). I think he likes what I do in the studio on drums but he doesnít like what I do live, fine.
But does he like what anyone does live?
For a while he does, but he wants new angles all the time. Itís fair enough, Iíve heard him say it ďI keep writing the same songs, I need musicians around me to make them sound differentĒ. Heís very straight-up and honest about that, I know he has a reputation for being grumpy and difficult but I think what it is, heís unbelievably focused. Heís only interested in the blues and jazz and soul, his interest begins and ends with music. Heís as close to being a side-man in terms of his passion as I can think of. Everything else bores him to death. I also think heís painfully shy. Iíve seen him in restaurants where heís trying to have his dinner and someone will come up to him and go ďWould you mindĒ and heíll go ďYeah I would actually!Ē.
He was an only child, his dad had this massive blues and jazz collection which is the route of all his music, and he was shy at school. I think heís touched with a genius on some level and the difference between say him and Bob Dylan is you hear early interviews with Bob Dylan and its ďYes maam, No maamĒ, two years later he has become Bob Dylan. He has become the obtuse recluse that you expect him to be, the mystic. (And yet another aside; we did tours with Bob Dylan in the late 90s, like a 3 header tour with Van and Bob alternating, then Joni Mitchell in the middle, amazing!)
However, if you speak to anybody (who really knows him from childhood) about Van, he was exactly the same when he was in the school playground at 12 as he is now; he has never become anything different. He was always this shy, difficult, introspective character. He didnít invent that persona, he was always that way. I actually think thereís something very laudable about that.
I think most of the ugly stories come out of musicians expecting to turn up at a regular orchestral or regular studio session or audition where everyone shakes hands and says: ďOk what would you like me to do now?Ē Then, they come into this [the VM situation] and discover this unique character with whom none of those rules exist or would ever apply.
When he dies, hope to God not too soon, he will leave an enormous hole in the world, very few people have that effect. People donít realise that theyíre dealing with a unique, actual, living legend. So, wise up, grow up, do the job youíre being paid for and treat him with a bit of respect. But this also applies to any gig with anyone: Come into the room, shut the fuck up, try and figure out what he wants and then try and do it!
I remember the story of one American drummer coming into the session saying ďOK Van,Ē would you like me to use sticks or brushes?Ē, Van says ďBrushesĒ. Next day comes in again, ďOk Van would you like me to use sticks or brushes todayĒ, Van says ďBrushesĒ, third day ďOk Van would you like me to use sticks or brushes todayĒ, and Van says ďI need a fucking Olympic medal for this, brushes! - if I could do this myself, I wouldĒ. And thatís his whole thing, if he could do it himself he would. Heís getting you to do it because he canít, but donít ask him what he wants because he doesnít know what he wants, give him something and, if he likes it youíre quids in. If he doesnít heíll get another band!
The whole point is, and this is where people get it wrong, donít take it personally. Heís not dealing on that emotional level, he doesnít want you to be his mate, this is not about weíll do dinner together and all that stuff, itís about making music. All heís interested in is music, all he wants to talk about is music, all he wants to do is music. If you want to do that and Iím assuming, as musicians, these people will want to do that, then it really is just keeping it simple. However, itís astonishing the number of people who donít want to do that. They want the relationship with the celebrity or they want all this other stuff which is nonsense. Then they go and do a good job for him once or twice and then the third time what they do is not what he wants so they donít get a call back, then ĎVan is a ****í, then it becomes personal, but thatís from their point of view.
When I started the thing, his road manager said ĎHereís how it works, weíre doing a gig next Friday, youíre in our books, youíll be booked on Wednesday, youíll get the fax on Wednesday to say your flight is at Ö, if you donít get the fax, youíre not doing the gig, now itís up to you. Do you want to deal with it, because thatís the way it is?í Now, at the end of it all, what happens, which is what happened with me, one Wednesday the fax doesnít come, you check it, make sure itís working, itís at that point you realise youíre not in the band anymore. Now I think thatís fair enough because I think most bands work that way, they just donít tell you that - you just donít get booked for the next tour. The thing about Van is youíre told that from the get go; itís up to you to decide - is this the way I want to work? Iíve done it over the years and I have to say I have no complaints.
As far as singing and playing at the same time are concerned Liam I presume youíve always managed to do that?
Again itís because Iíve never really thought about it. It was something I just did, no-one suggested it. I do not think that not having any formal training at all is something to be bellowing about, I regret it all the time. Itís taken me 10 times longer to figure out how to play such and such than it would if I had just taken a straight line to it.
But itís given me other advantages, in that I didnít know that you shouldnít do this or shouldnít do that. So, the whole singing thing was really compounded for me when I was in show bands. I got the gig firstly because I could sing, and secondly because I could play. I think what singing has done is to give me an empathy with singers. I understand what theyíre going through. I can sing the song with them, I know where theyíre going to breathe, so I can groove with their intention in mind.
And another asideÖ I had the great fortune to meet Omar Hakim when he was on Stingís Dream of the Blue Turtles Tour. I had a great chat with him and asked his advice and he said, ďThe best advice I can give you is learn to sing, itís the best thing a drummer can do because you understand breathing, you understand the intent of the vocalistĒ. That meeting reinforced everything I was already doing. I hadnít realised what I did was a useful thing but having a great player like this saying,Ē do thisĒ, when Iím already doing it was a real affirmation that I was getting something right. Now Iím aware that having both of these things is a huge advantage.
One of the other main bands I play with are an Irish Instrumental band called Moving Hearts, a big 8 piece seminal force in Irish music in the Ď80ís, again every main name in traditional music is there; Davy Spillain, Donal Lunny, Keith Donald, Eoghain OíNeill. Itís a very unusual line up; pipes, sax, clarinet, bouzouki, perc, electric guitar, keyboards drums. No vocals, however because the instruments that are used are breath instruments, whether its pipes or whatever, its kind of the same as supporting a singer. Youíre still dealing with that breath-control thing. The voice, human or animal or electronic is the loudest thing I have in all of my monitors. In Boyzone, itís Ronanís voice, in Vanís band, Vanís voice, in Moving Hearts, Davy Spillainís chanter, his pipes, because thatís who Iím working for - Iím working for the voice. Iím working for that instrument at that moment, thatís my role. Thatís how I pay the rent.
But itís a lot better than working in the bank or whatever else you might do.
But like I say, entirely accidental, as a summer job, it started in May 1983; Iím waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say: ďSummerís overĒ.
In my career Iíve been very fortunate to wallow in never ending variety. Playing in a boy band I have profile, Iím being paid well and someone else sets my drums up every day and tunes them, whatís not to like? Thereís Van world which is very challenging, musical, scary and organic, thereís the Moving Hearts World which is complex and cerebral, odd times. But combining all these are The Blue Nile.
Theyíre a band who have only had 4 albums in 20 years (check out Walk across the Rooftops, Hats and Peace at last). The grooves on those albums are what I would describe as a pure 20 year old Scottish whiskey, distillation at its zenith, poetry. The grooves are distilled so finely, beginning 2 hat beats to the bar, no bass drum. The climax is 8 notes on a hi-hat and bass drum on 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4. Simple, beautiful, audacious! Thereís so much space in these grooves, they take great concentration and poise to play without loosing ALL the meaning. Undoubtedly, one of the biggest challenges I ever had.
Paul Buchanan, the lead singer and songwriter, has got one of the most plaintive voices you will ever hear on a record. If youíve ever heard them you either love or loathe it, personally I loved it, and when I got the call to do it, I couldnít believe it. I played the gigs on an electronic kit, which I hated when I first played it, because I tried to use it like a drum kit and you just canít. The hi-hatí is a particularly problematic instrument for triggering. Itís amazing how expressive two bits of metal can be. It was at that point that I realised the most expressive part of the kit was the hi-hat because these (expensive) rubber pads couldnít do what I wanted them to do. However, once I stopped trying to play it like a drum kit and started seeing it as something else entirely, a keyboard if you like, it was fine. I was triggering sounds from the album, (no crashes on the albums anywhere), each of the pads would be anything from a ferry sound to a cash register, unusually beautiful sounds. Youíre playing a composition rather than playing a groove, but playing grooves within a texture. Textural grooving, thatís it!
My proudest moments Iíve done have been Raincheck with Van and Blue Nile Live. I did two tours with them. At the end of 20 years Paul Buchanan said to me (I had done 18 gigs with him) ďYou do realise youíve played on over one third of my entire live careerĒ, I said ďItís been my privilege, thank youĒ.
Interview by Bob Henrit
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