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Satnam Ramgotra

Satnam Ramgotra is a great example of how big the drumming world is. You probably haven't heard of him - he doesn't get any coverage in our drum magazines - but I am sure most of you have heard him play. He has a studio at Hans Zimmer''s studio "Remote Control Productions" where he writes and plays on many block buster movie scores. Inception, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Man Of Steel, Kick Ass, Rush, Captain Phillips and The Dark Knight Rises are just a few of the films he's worked on recently, and they also happen to be some of the biggest movies of the past few years. His most recently wrote and played on the score to the new movie “The Last Knight"

He has also toured playing kit and tabla with artists such as Sting, Beck, Seal and of course, Hans Zimmer amongst others. I had the honour to work with, and get to know, Satnam on the 2014 Hans Zimmer live shows in London.

So how did an Indian classically trained tabla player find his way to play drum kit and percussion? I recently managed to tear Satnam away from his busy schedule in LA for a catch up and coffee.

I know you come from Canada, but can you tell me about your upbringing and how you got into drums?

Well I’ve always wanted to play drums ever since I can remember. I was one of those kids who would take boxes and play them with those tent pole sticks that would collapse, so I couldn’t wait to get a drum kit!

I’m the youngest of five kids so my parents wanted to wait until I started band in school, which in Canada was grade 5. I started on snare drum and about three months after that I got my first drum kit.

So you never started with tabla?

Well my dad said if I wanted to play drumset I had to play the tabla as well, so he taught me that. He played the tabla in the temple growing up.

Music was always in my family, my parents are huge fans of Indian classical, film(Bollywood),and light-classical music. My siblings were huge music fans too so I was around it all the time. 

At what stage did you decide to make that move out of Canada?

I was 21 when I left, I wanted to go earlier but I was nervous that my dad would say no. Being Indian, everyone has got to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer or whatever but when I finally got the courage to apply and I got accepted and I told him, he was so supportive.

So you came to LA...?

Yes, and I went to PIT.

Photo by David Phillips, Author A Drummer's Perspective

How long were you there for?

Just a year.

What was the reason you chose that college?

Well my drum teacher in my late teens is a guy by the name of John Fisher, incredible musician, and technique guy. He’s won Scottish drum corp champion things and he went to PIT, also used to teach at PIT for a while.

So he was one that actually really pushed me towards PIT and then I had met the
Late Steve Ettleson, who was artist relations for Yamaha at the time, and he was also really pushing me and telling me I should come to LA.

You did a year there, but what was next?

Well I fell in love with LA, especially the weather, coming from Canada.

When I went to PIT I had great teachers that I’d met guys who to this day I still sort of look up to as my mentors; Efrain Toro, Toss Panos and Casey Sheuerell, who’s now at Berkley, but when I finished PIT, Toss lived in the Valley and he said someone was moving out and asked, would I like the room, and I said “Hell yeah, that’d be awesome”!

Eventually with Toss and I became his drum tech, starting out in LA and he got a gig pto tour with Steve Vai. We went to do rehearsals at Steve’s place and Toss told Steve I played the tabla and he said “I love Indian tabla, why not bring them to rehearsal tomorrow”.

We did this duet thing and he thought it was really cool and said “Let’s try it when we go to Japan and if it goes over well, we’ll do it every night”. So we did this duet together, a question/answer thing, and it was a hit so we got to do it every night.

It was cool I was going out as a tech but I ended up getting to play too! That was my first proper touring gig.

that's the funny thing about the Indian tabla, it’s really the drum set of India; you’re the drummer, the percussionist primary purpose is to be the time keeper which is obviously the same thing in a pop setting in the drum world

Well it’s not bad to start there!

It was really fun and afterwards I decided I really wanted to further my tabla schooling so I went up to the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael and studied there for a few months until I couldn’t take not being in LA any more. Then I moved back to LA and tried to make it happen.

A lot of kids now, they go to music college and get the bit of paper but they don’t know what to do with it. Was it luck, networking? How do you think it worked for you?

I think it’s a bit of luck, but it’s always networking; networking is the key to any business right? For me the lucky part was having Toss say “Come rent the room” you know.

But it’s also talent, if you could do the gig…

I suppose yeah, but also he introduced me to a lot of people. One of the other guys he introduced me to was the late Kevin Gilbert, who was brilliant and that opened up a lot of doors for me as well, to meet a few other artists here & there, then my name started getting out there.

The thing I really struggled with back then was that I was getting gigs based on tabla and I wanted to play drums too but that was a mixed blessing. Obviously it allowed me to work but at the same time it was this  “I wanna play drums too”, but ultimately it worked in my favour.

Do you find there are any advantages or disadvantages playing tabla to the kit? Do you have to come in with a different thought process when you’re playing them?

Not really, that's the funny thing about the Indian tabla, it’s really the drum set of India; you’re the drummer, the percussionist primary purpose is to be the time keeper which is obviously the same thing in a pop setting in the drum world right.

The difference would be if I was playing tabla along with another drummer, then obviously I would follow him/her as they would be the primary time-keeper, and LOUD!!!

Photo by David Phillips, Author A Drummer's Perspective

How did you get into the world of the songwriting and the movie world?

Well it’s a bit of both, but that sort of fell into my lap to be honest. The first project working with Hans (Zimmer) was Black Hawk Down and that was through the recommendation of cellist Martin Tillman, who is a dear friend of mine.

Hans wanted someone to vocalise percussion sounds and what-not, and Martin said. ”I know the guy” so they called me up and that’s when my relationship started with Hans.

When was this?

That was about 2001 or 2002. 14 years ago. At the time I was touring with a girl Nikka Costa who’s an amazing singer, daughter of Don Costa who was Frank Sinatra’s arranger.

I was playing drum set on that gig and I really loved doing that gig for about eight years but once I started with Hans word got around and I was getting more calls to do sessions, and what I realised was I was doing a lot of stuff where I was the sideman and playing someone else parts and stuff.

I looked at it and what really made me happy was when I got to do these film sessions and there would be music but no notes on it, just bars and a clean slate.
It’s like “Ok, here’s your music, it’s just a road map” and they hit record, let’s go, ya know?

It’s totally creative freedom, which eventually dawned on me is that’s the same as “composing”. Drummers and musicians often think they don’t write, the minute you play a solo you are infact composing.

Eventually people would come to me and say “I have this cue and it’s really percussion driven, why don’t you just do the cue?”

That was where the writing started but the challenge there was that I was always so used to playing with some sort of melodic tune, that when I would sit down and just play percussion, like a thirty second piece or whatever, I didn’t know where to begin!

On my dulcimer, which I never formally trained on, but you hear things and it’s got sticks and it doesn’t take rocket science to tune it. I’d play a little tune, just some little ostinato thing I thought was cool so I could play to that.

One of the movies I did that for was Clash of the Titans, the remake. The composer Ramin Djawadi came in with the music supervisor and they loved it, they thought it was perfect for the whole scene, they didn’t need to change it so it ended up going into the film and I got my first additional music writing credit and it gave me the confidence to want to get into it more.

Things started falling in my lap more and more, I didn’t have to really go out and seek it.

when we did Man of Steel, he was aware that it’s Superman and he has the power of a 1000 people... although obviously we couldn’t get 1000 drummers in the studio

When you get a movie score, are you told “Right this is what’s going to happen…” it’s a fighting scene or whatever; what guidelines are you getting?

It depends, if I’m working with, say, Hans on something he might have clear picture of what he wants the whole general scope of the score to be.

For example when we did Man of Steel, he was aware that it’s Superman and he has the power of a 1000 people which is where he got inspired by your 1000 drummers at the London Olympics, although obviously we couldn’t get 1000 drummers in the studio!

We started with 10 and ended up going with 12 because he realised the surround image needed to be three drummers on each side of the image.

Anyway, we started with 10 and the idea was 10 drummers was eventually going to become the sound of 1000 drummers. That’s where he definitely has a clear concept.

This movie we did this past summer, Last Knights , I co-composed with Martin Tillman. The film was already done, edited to the actual temp. (A temp is when the film is done and they put in a temporary score, usually from other movies).

The funny thing was Martin and I had collectively played on every piece of temp so it was kind of funny! The whole mission was to replace the temp music, keeping that vibe but we were told the director hated the temp so we had to make it really our own.

Is this, if you like, your first full song writing/composing gig?

Yes, it’s my first time composing the whole score, well…co-composing. 

And Last Knight, that’s due out now?

Yes! It’s an independent movie but it’s got a great cast, it stars Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen. The director was really smart with how he casted the film.  The actors that he chose were from all over the world and recognised as award winning actors in their particular countries, so it’s really really done well!

Obviously you tour with international artists as well. How much time do you spend here in LA as opposed to on tour?

It depends. I don’t really tour that much any more really, we did the Hans thing but 2009 is when I officially moved into Remote Control [Satnam''s studio]. I was still playing with Nikka at the time and she had called and said “We’ve got this tour coming up and we wanted to check on your availability” and that was really the moment where I actually said “You know, I have this other opportunity where I can get a studio and I really want to explore that side of it” so I turned the tour down.

So I don’t really do that much live stuff, there are a couple of artists that I play with here and there, that are really not for money, just a good way to sort of keep that side of things.

Do you miss that side of it? No disrespect, but as you get older it’s not a fun as it used to be is it?

Yes & No, especially when the touring starts to stay the same level you know, if there is a gradual progression and you start getting better and better gigs. It’s a funny industry we’re in.

In Nikka’s particular case for me, No disrespect to her, I love her and think she’s one of the most amazing artists ever, but for me I needed to start broadening my horizons.

Let’s talk about Remote, the studio you’ve got here. It’s an amazing studio, is it normally just you here?

Usually yeah… 98% of the time.

So you’re working on a score, Hans or other composers send you stuff and you work on it here, sending files back and forth, is that how it’s working?

Yep.

OK, so you’ve got an idea for the movie score but how do you get inspired if you’re not working with any musicians or in a band format?

Well if it’s percussion sessions the composer has already probably written the cue itself and there’s a demo or whatever and there’s a few guys here who’ll put like a bed in and sort of just want me to add to it and bring life to it, so the inspiration is already there, they’ve already written it you know.

If it’s a blank slate then usually I’ll have a picture to look at and just get a general vibe of what’s happening in the scene and sort of get a general place of where in the world we’re going to be and start from there, just very simple.

One guy I wanted to get on it but couldn't make it happen because he could only make one date was Peter Erskine. But it ended up being fantastic, I called Abe Jr. too, but he wasn’t available.

So is it an open palette, in here I look around and there are so many musical instruments? Is it a case of “Right, I can hear a dustbin there” or whatever it might be?

Sure! I was recording this little guy today, it’s like an Indian water pot [plays pot with hand].

What I liked about working with you and to be honest it took a few days for me to get used to it, but you came from a different angle, much wider spectrum. You weren’t just thinking drums all the time, it was always music. I liked that because obviously we had all those drummers on the London show and the hardest thing about it was trying to make them sound like one, which is always difficult.

I guess; I think I’ve always been that way, I remember when I used to play Indian classical gigs and whatever and when it came time to do the tabla solo, I would always sing the tune of the rhythmic-cycle. I didn’t know I was singing it, it was kind of like Keith Jarrett, but not quite as animated or as loud.

I was humming it and a couple of times the artist would say “Why are you doing that?”. I didn’t even know I was doing it, but that was the melody and that’s what I was recreating via rhythm !

Let’s change direction slightly. What are some of your favourite film scores that you’ve played on?

Black Hawk Down is definitely one of them, The Dark Knight for sure, Angels and Demons, Hancock-with John Powell(huge honour, as I am still such a fan of his Bourne franchise scores!)  Charlie Wilson''s War was a really fun one to do, Captain Phillips was a really fun one to do as well. Boy, there are a few! Inception was amazing!

That was amazing how well that one went down in London actually, I was surprised that that was the one everyone went “Oh, this is the one we’ve been waiting for!”. Let’s talk about Man of Steel, that must have been a cool set up for you, nine drummers to start of with and then 12; how did that group of drummers come together?

Well originally the list was a little bit different and when Hans approached me and showed me the list of drummers they we’re going to ask, I asked if he’d mind if I changed some of the drummers on it.

He said “I don’t mind at all…”   If I was going to be part of it, I just really wanted people I was going to look up to you know.

One guy I wanted to get on it but couldn''t make it happen because he could only make one date was Peter Erskine. But it ended up being fantastic, I called Abe Jr. too but he wasn’t available.

Basically Hans said to everyone come up with their favourite rhythms and take them in, record those as patterns and we had Tom Holkenberg, aka “Junkie XL” who’s actually a drummer himself, but he was sort of conducting us, doing the dynamic range and bringing us up and down while we just played a repetitive rhythm.

It was really fun, I had to pinch myself as I was looking over and there was Vinnie right there you know, and it was ok ‘cos sometimes he’d just look over at you and smile and it’s like… well it was pretty awesome!

And Pharell (Williams) was on!

Pharell was on the second half. So on the second date I just assumed we we’re going to have the same lineup for drummers but apparently we couldn’t get everyone, like Vinnie couldn’t do it again, and we added two more.

I think Jason (Bonham) came in on it!

Yeah, Jason was added, Pharell was added and Josh Freese was added as well. Josh was great... Danny Carey was added…. And Ryeland Allison.

The first sessions were a bit more fun because they were more free in terms of what we got to play, the second was equally fun but we were definitely playing parts and if you could read there were actually written parts. But to be around all those amazing  drummers and to be a part of it!!!  Dream hang for sure!!!!

Did you feel on the first day there was anyone stood out or did you all work quite well together?

In the first session everyone was just extremely humble, because I think at some point everybody in there was intimidated by somebody, you know what I mean?

I remember JR said the funniest remark at the beginning before we started and were getting ready to play, maybe 2-3 minutes before we hit record…it was so silent!

JR says “Wait, I gotta say something - when have you ever had 10 drummers in a room, and you can hear pin drop?” and we all busted up laughing, but it was true though, there was an air that day it was something really special going on with that crew.

Session two was a little more loose, and maybe because we had a few more “celebrities” there, I don’t know if anyone was really driving the bus.

Just to finish off, what are you working on, that you can talk about?

Well, I am working on this movie I can’t talk about, although I am working with the composer Ramin Djawadi, I can tell you that; he does the music for Game of Thrones. I have a lot of respect for him and he gives me the freedom; he trusts me so I appreciate that.

I just finished my project for Extreme Music, and it’s called Drum Core, and it’s a project that are sort of drum line-esque, sort of written in how I would interpret drumline but from a drummers perspective, not a drum line drummers perspective. 

We wrote the pieces and then myself, Toss Panos and Curt Bisquera; went into Village Studios last May and recorded all the drums and tom parts for it there and layered them up so it feels as if it’s 30 drummers playing.

I finally finished that project in December and I’m really excited about that as it’s my first sort of full length library album coming out with Extreme Music and it’s pretty different I like to think.

Other than that it’s pretty quite being the start of the year although I do have something coming up next week with Henry Jackman, for a video game. I’m laying out a whole percussion bed for him and then he writes to that, so that’ll be a full day.

Finally, we all know how powerful rhythms are, especially in Hans’ music. How do you feel about Antonio Sanchez not getting a grammy for his score on Bird Man because its just drums!?

I know and Hans would probably be one of the first guys to champion that he should be allowed.

Even the late great Ali Akbar Khan, who was one of the greatest musicians to have ever lived, one of his most famous quotes is “Without rhythm there is no music”. That’s true, whether you want to notice it or not, if you’re holding a note and circular breathing there is still a rhythm there so that to me is absolutely insane to me that that score wouldn’t be considered because it’s drum based/rhythm based you know.

There are 365 and a quarter days a year. That’s rhythm!

Interview by Mike Dolbear

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