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British Drum Icon - Steve White
Steve White Ė looking ahead and moving forward
Steve White is one of the most respected drummers in the U.K. and is renowned worldwide for having held the position of drummer for Paul Weller for over 25 years until; they parted ways in 2007.
Repeatedly featured in drum polls, festivals and magazines, Steve White has an unmoveable passion, dedication and love for the art which drives him to explore the possibilities both of different genres of music and different areas of the music business.
I caught up with Steve at the ĎWorldís Greatest Drummerí where with many other drummers he paid his tribute to his drumming heroes with the Peter Cater Big Band - a superb performance. His past history has been so well documented so this interview concentrates on his current projects as he talks about life after Paul Weller.
There is an obvious new chapter thatís opened since Paul Weller, where has this taken you?
Itís taken me on a series of diverse journeys to be honest. A journey that has made me accept the fact that Iíve got a lot of years of experience under my belt and made me feel that I wanted to give something back in many ways. Iíve been involved in the education side over the past two to three years but Iíve also diversified to the behind the scenes aspect of the music business. In particular, Iíve got involved in a music management company that been developing new talent and looking to discover new talent in Manchester.
Weíve got two young artists signed to various deals; one is signed to ZTT and another, Sam Gray, an incredible singer/songwriter whoís been signed to Notting Hill Records by a guy called Andy McQueen who was the chap who originally signed Dizzee Rascal. For me, thatís really exciting; to sit back and be able to impart my experience, good or bad, to some of these younger upcoming artists - Iím very comfortable in that position.
Iím not coming out of my twenties and thirties kicking and screaming about leaving my youth, Iím quite happy to be where I am and feel that Iíve achieved an amazing amount and still feel that I have loads more to achieve.
Coming off stage at Glastonbury in 2007, I knew as I was walking down the stairs that chapter was over. I felt that it was a very, very hard decision because Iíve got a tremendous love and respect for Paul as a person and as a friend. To walk away from it was really hard but I felt it was something I had to do and just felt that it had gone as far as it was going to go. On my part it was a massive decision on many levels and I still think it was the right decision.
Youíve accumulated a wealth of knowledge in drumming and drumming history. What drives you now?
To be honest and I donít want this to sound pretentious about this, but in the forty odd years on this planet, I think that drumming in my world is the closest thing to a religion that Iíve touched upon.
The concept of putting your belief in something and leaving it to fate and think that everythingís going to be alright which at the end of the day is what religion is all about Ė Iíve never been able to buy into that. But as Iíve got older, I truly feel that drumming brings a positivity to my life that I kind of understand where music and drumming in Africa actually comes from - drummers!. The concept of drummers becoming professional musicians is a fairly unusual concept outside the west but drummers are such an integral part of the fabric of the culture in all parts of Africa, as diverse is the culture out there.
I feel that during my time here I get that, I really do. The fact that drummers love coming together to drum events, some are good and some are not so good but drummers love coming together because we are touched by something thatís quite spiritual and itís the love of being part of that Ė I absolutely love it.
I donít think Iíve ever become cynical or jaded by music, I do however have different views on the music business but music and business are two very, very different things. I still get that thrill whenever I listen to Buddy Rich, Al Jackson, John Coltrane, David Bowie, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones and when I listen to Kraftwerk or Stevie Wonder I still that buzz as I did as a nine year old kid. As long as thatís there, Iím gonna be driven on.
Those names are obviously influences in your life. You recently performed at the ĎWorldís Greatest Drummerí event which is a celebration of big band end of your influences. Whatís it feel like paying tribute in performance to those greats?
Itís was such an honour. To try and understand and emulate in a small way the kind of drumming, especially someone like Buddy Rich who was required to play every single night, you get an even deeper respect of his legacy.
I was talking to Karl Brazil, Ian Palmer and Pete Cater as well about this and you just get a deeper understanding of how good the man actually was. Itís absolutely amazing to sit there with that big band and having them powering up behind you and itís a different sort of dynamic that you have to use and take a different feel and approach to the drums. I do think that playing jazz drums is the purist form of drumming really.
There a so many genres of drumming, especially in the dance area. Have you now explored any of these areas?
Absolutely. Thereís been an absolute explosion in our industry over the past decade or so. The amount of information thatís available via DVD, via YouTube, via the internet that if I was a young player now, on one level to be able to go onto YouTube and watch Billy Cobham playing with Horace Silver in 1968, I wouldnít have dreamed to be able to have done that when I was twelve or thirteen.
On another level, thereís almost the argument that it can be too much of a good thing and although Iím so very appreciative and impressed by the sub genres and innovations that are coming into the drumming world, what Iíd advised everybody to be careful of is to never lose sight of the fact of whatever kind of music youíre playing, you still need a good tune and you need a good song. To technically exert yourself on an instrument with music that has no musicality is not great drumming, itís an exercise in technical development and I donít really get that. When you hear something thatís in a genre thatís heartfelt and means something to the musicians involved, ultimately thatís when a drummer of any description is going to shine whether they are the fastest drummer in the world or the funkiest or just playing slow blues, it doesnít matter the drums are an accompanying instrument and we shouldnít ever forget that.
I recently, through my good friend Craig Blundell, got introduced to the Roland TD-20 and heís been a massive influence in terms of saying, "listen, this a really great opportunity for you to grasp something thatís a little bit different".
I challenged him and said "Come and show me how to do it" and bless him, and you know he did. He came round and I got the sandwiches in and he sat there and talked me through the workings of the gear and I have to say that itís been and absolute revelation. It not only opens you up to play different styles in your demonstrations and your education but it pushes you and thatís got to be a good thing as a musician. So Iím really excited and keen as ever to listen to new music and check out the new guys and having a great time doing it.
There are some drummerís out there that take the view that Ďchopsí is where itís at, whatís your view?
I actually think to lock yourself away in a room for eight hours a day to pursue technical excellence is a life choice then God bless you but itís actually far harder to sit down with a band and interpret a song and understand the lyrical intent of a songwriter and get it right. Thatís why time and time again itís the same drummers that get mentioned in dispatches when we do these polls or the Ďgreatest ofí, itís always the same drummers. They have the ability to make a piece of music sound great and that may involve a great technical feat such as Buddy Rich doing ĎChannel One Suiteí or it may involve something as wonderful as Al Jackson playing on Otis Reddingís ĎTry A Little Tendernessí, an absolute tour de force in simplicity and thatís absolutely as valid as Buddyís work. The whole intention was to make the music sound good.
I know education is a great love of yours, have you taken a different approach?
In the last couple of years it has been an organic process of development. Iíve been asked to do some education seminars and lessons and theyíve come back again. What I try to do is form a structure that supports what I learnt from Bob Armstrong, there are some great teachers out there - Dave Hassle, Stuie Ellerton, Rich Wilson. Theyíre out there doing a great job day in and day out and what I do is take all the elements of what Iíve learnt from these guys and take a student on a bit of a journey that will support that theyíre going to a drum teacher on a regular basis. Iím focusing on issues in practice, relaxation, even a bit of psychology and Iím open to give the careerís advice for young drummers. Quite often a young guy thatís just about to break into the business or a guy whoís broken into the business will come along and we wonít even pick up a pair of sticks and we would start talking on issues like royalties and writing and that would be their time with me.
Itís not; sit down hereís a paradiddle, play this. Itís a bit more of a holistic approach to drumming and focusing on certain areas that drummers have trouble with. I do find that drummers have trouble with creativity. The technical excellence is always there but itís the application, how to incorporate that with the music and thatís the one thing that I can share with them. As time has gone on Iíve got more material and to be quite honest Iíve got enough material for a big book if I ever get around to doing it. Iím really confident that in this sort of roll as not a full time educator but an educator that sees a guy once or a couple of times or on a regular basis, and they are the ones whoíve started on a practice pad and donít touch a drum kit for a year. I just work on issues that drummers have a problem with.
On a formal level, Iíve been getting more and more involved with official colleges and doing work for B.I.M.M. in Brighton and masterclasses at places like Salford University and the Northern School of Contemporary Music and I also talk about drumming history seminar which is a prestigious thing for me.
With the colleges it tends to be a little more structured following more prescribed methods. At B.I.M.M. they have excellent course work and Adam Bushell has written the book and he was a student of Bob Armstrong.
Some of the colleges where youíre brought in not just as a drummer and you have to be up on your facts on history of the instrument, cultural history like the impact of how slavery has had on our instrument Ė youíre not talking to a group of drummers, youíre talking to a group of young musicians. Tailored in with that, Iím happy to talk about the industry because Iím working on the other side of the industry now and how that all works and young musicians are rightly intrigued about how theyíre going to make their way into the business, so hopefully I can help on different levels.
The industry has changed massively and big budget expenditure has kind of become a thing of the past to a greater extent. With the onset of more website use and the fact that recording equipment is also more affordable to the musician, itís obviously changed your outlook on the music and the business too. Has it made an impact on the musician and the business?
Totally!! I was really impressed with Bill Brufordís autobiography and his decision to make a formal retirement. I spoke to him about this and he said, "well, why is that so strange?, Iím suppose to be a short note in The Times saying drummer dies in hotel room or something ". I really understand that and possibly at some point there maybe a time when I might turn and go "you know what, Iíve really had enough of this business". Itís a tough business and itís a business based on rejuvenation. Itís selling youth, itís selling creativity, itís selling things that require a lot of energy and some people get worn out by it in the end for various reasons.
I donít like that expression "it was better in my day!!!" because in some ways it was and in some ways it wasnít. We didnít have the access to all the technology and information that young players have now and at the end of the day there are a couple of factors which are short term.
One thing about the music industry is that it has not caught up with the digital revolution. The music business is pretty much run by middle class white men both in this country and in America and its very conservative. They never caught up with punk when that was happening until the plastic punks came along by which time the Sex Pistols were over. The music business is a great one for reacting late; itís a bit of a ĎJohnny Come Latelyí. I remember sitting down with a guy who is still an important figure in the music business back in 1990 who said Paul Wellerís finished and guitar bands are dead and that was before 2 million copies of ĎStanley Roadí were four years from being sold and Oasis started rehearsing in Manchester. So these guys are notoriously slow to react in a business thatís very reactionary.
There are two major problems, one we are all coming to terms with the digital age, how to create income from downloading. It will happen and eventually, give it a couple of years, YouTube will not be free. Youíll be paying a couple of dollars on your mobile phone to pay for it that would eventually surface because they need to make money. Companies like Google donít pay 28 billion dollars for something theyíre not going to make money.
The other problem is that music business has turned over more money in the last few years, itís one of our highest grossing industries - there is no recession in music. Glastonbury sells out immediately and so does V Festival.
The problem is from the past, companies like Atlantic would have the big money making artists then someone like Ahmet Ertegun as a lover of music would distribute some of that wealth back down to pay for Elvin Jones to make a record. It would be distributed back down the industry to pay for music that was not on the beaten track. Thatís how reggae was given a chance by the success of other forms of music and it was money that was made from the likes of Hermanís Hermit and The Beatles that funded jazz labels. I remember talking to someone from CBS saying that Mariah Carey paid for their jazz label Sony Jazz.
That doesnít happen now because the industry has had a double blow from the impact of the internet and revenue lost through that. What happens is that any money that is made goes back into the company to sustain their business model which quite frankly doesnít work anymore. The money is there but itís not being distributed fairly back through the industry.
The O2 is doing fantastically, V Festival is doing fantastically but 50 grand of that doesnít go to a jazz label in Leeds, it doesnít happen anymore. Because of this seismic change at the top, itís going to take a time to re-balance itself.
Young musicians will always find the way through.
One slight downside is that you can go and study and some of the fantastic colleges at the moment but there is an assumption that everyone that goes to music college is gonna get a job in the music industry and sadly that isnít the case Ė it never has been and it never will.
The young musicians that are creative and the ones who have the talent, providing they have the drive, they have every opportunity the same way that I did. Because itís about your desire to drive forward Ė unfortunately thatís the one thing you canít teach. You canít teach somebody to be that successful or to know their own mind or to be creative.
Being a professional musician is huge undertaking these days. Some of the happiest guys I know are the ones who donít do it professionally.
In times of recession it has been said that people tap into their creativity. They either console themselves by listening to music or in some cases, go back to picking up an instrument to become creative and have a good time with a bunch of other musicians who maybe in the same boat. What advice would you give to someone who is aiming to get back into Ďmatch fitnessí so to speak?
Funnily enough I spoke to a guy last night at the drum clinic who said that he was forty years of age and started playing drums twelve months ago. He said that he couldnít believe how happy drumming makes him. He said that he knew he wasnít going to play Wembley Stadium and I know Iím not going to have a No. 1 record but it gives me so much satisfaction to get in and play the drums.
The enjoyment is all, its all about enjoying yourself.
Simply itís regular practice and it doesnít have to be hours and hours. Just focus in and get yourself a little practice routine that you find the time or make the time without making excuses. Itís easy to sit in front of the computer for four hours or watching every episode of ĎCome Dine With Meí - you can find the time if you want to, itís pretty easy to be time distracted. So you have to put in a minimum level of commitment and if you get yourself under the tutorage of one of the excellent teachers around the country and with a little focus effort every day and youíll be Ďmatch-fití in no time.
Sticks: Vic Firth
Interview: Jerome Marcus
Photography: Jerome Marcus with additional photography: Courtesy of MAPEX
What a superb interview with Steve White. As a tutor with 20 years professional teaching experience I couldn't have agreed more with what Steve has said.
Excellent, all aspiring drummers should read and take note.
Jim Ferris, 3 December 2009
Very interesting interview with plenty of valid points - especially about the music industry. The digital age has definitely had a massive impact on the amount or revenue record companies can retrieve from their investment.
At the end of the day, they are simply banks making gambles in the hope that they will see large returns on their initial outlay. This business model worked well in the past to their favour. However, if the digital download - whether legal or illegal - is king, then it is understandable why record companies are reluctant to make investments into developing artists from scratch. The first question is always going to be, "how am I going to get my money back?".
Receipts from festival ticket sales and merchandise are definitely not going to find their way into the record company balance sheet. Traditionally they've make their cash from the physical sales of media. Unless they find a new business model that will generate cash from their investment, it is unlikely there will be any point to them finding new artists.
Unfortunately, it seems that at this moment in time, the Simon Cowell business model is the only thing that seems to generate revenue, simply because he's found alternative ways to sell entertainment goods, other than relying on physical sales of media.
Sponsors provide the cash, exposure to the public is guaranteed, investment in the 'artists' is minimal, turnaround is extremely quick and big bucks materialise in a matter of months. Actual CD sales have become an afterthought and something that can be cleverly timed for Christmas release. It seems now that artist output is the least of the concern as money has already been made from TV deals. So why invest in a band for 5 albums when you can make all your dough within a year and then say, "next please"?
Think about this: U2 were in the red with Island records until 'The Unforgettable Fire'. That's FOUR ALBUMS in folks! Sadly, it's a business model that can no longer survive in the digital age and it would seem that we have indeed, seen the last of the 'supergroup' with the 20 year career. If investment into longterm gambles are simply not sustainable any more by traditional record companies, where will it come from?
thedrumdoctor, 11 December 2009
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