Interview with Craig Blundell
Craig Blundell certainly is one of the busiest and hardest working drummers in the UK.
Not only will you have heard his drumming on countless records, YouTube videos and clinics, he also also composes and drums for TV and radio. Besides that, his work as a sound designer and developer for Roland gives us a all a little bit of Blundell in our Roland E-drum modules.
Behind the drum kit Craig became one of the top Prog drummers in the business, blasting through time signatures some of us didnít even know existed.†
Craig is currently out on tour with Steve Wilson but took some time out of his busy schedule to catch up and have a chat about his work, his forthcoming book and mental health amongst musicians.
Has Prog always been your genre?
Yes, Iíve always been really into Prog since I saw Bruford, and Crimson in the 80ís. Back then Weather Report and King Crimson just blew my mind. I never really had the opportunity to play it up until 2008 when I went for an audition for a pop gig. I got the gig and it was quite a big commitment with a world tour, which Iíd never done before. I got told I got the gig, was ready to give up work and then they changed their mind and went for an all female band. Thatís cool, I accepted it, it happens, thatís showbiz, but there is no amount of Gaffa tape thatís gonna change that!
I had a bit of a rebellious stage after that and went anti-pop! Taking nothing away from the guys that do it day in, day out, I just never felt happy in that environment and always thought I was just doing a few miming gigs to pay the bills, which I was, but I hated it, it was pretty fickle and there was a lot of hiring and firing going on for a certain image, that just wasn''t me. Iíd lost quite a few gigs because of a change of Ďimageí that was needed and I just didnít want to be that person. I know I was cutting my nose off to spite my face but in my head I wanted to play music I like, not what I donít, Iíd spent 20 years doing that! If it meant going back to a day job and having the odd gig then great, I was prepared for an empty diary, and it was for a long time but eventually I got a little break, I went for an audition with David Cross from King Crimson and that kind of started the whole prog thing. I like the freedom; I like the fact that I can finally be me.
Prog is all about the odd time signatures. How did you get your head around that?
I was very lucky because Iíve always been obsessed with time, so to hear odd time signatures now for me is very natural. I actually hate the word Ďoddí time signature, whether itís four, five or six, its just another time signature. For me, taking the theory to one side,† itís only odd because someone isnít familiar with how it feels or it feels un-natural to groove in a number that isnít four.†
Growing up in the 80s I was listening to these bands that made it all sound natural, bands like Genesis, Brand X, Toto and Yes, I just used to just tap along in whatever the time signature. I was young, I was naÔve but I think thatís a good thing, so many people over think this stuff. Thereís a lot to be said for just picking up your sticks, sing the melody line and just play. I did this for years, not knowing what number I was playing in so I actually find it quite natural. If Steven or Frost come up with a different time signature or phrasing I find it really easy because Iíve been doing it for so long. I think there is this big thing about prog being very difficult, but I think its just unfamiliarity.†
Your main gig at the moment is Steve Wilson. Tell me more about that?
Yes, its coming up to a year now and we have the best part of another year to go. It was only supposed to be two months, so thatís amazing. Itís changed my life. At the start of last year I was faced with not a lot of work in the diary, so to have a stable weekly wage hardly ever happens anymore in the music industry. Itís been incredible and heís brought me on musically more than anybody I know. Heís had Gavin Harrison, Marco Minnemann, Chad Wackerman - he had THE guys. I got the gig as a relatively unknown guy, so the fans were a bit brutal and some of them were not so kind, but theyíre on side now, which is amazing.† Its been a very steep learning curve
Itís a very physical gig. Do you do a lot of warming up before a show?
Yeah I really have to. It got around to this year and after having quite a heavy Christmas with family and friends and BBQís and stuff, I went to rehearsals and really struggled. I have to look after myself a little bit more. I have to really warm up before a gig, itís a three hour show! We were playing in Chile for example 7000 feet above sea level where the air is really thin, it can be really tough. I knew very quickly that I had to get myself in better shape and I have to warm up, otherwise I get cramps badly.
Itís a prog gig but it has quite a few drumíníbass influences too, doesnít it?
Yes, it does more now I think. Iíve had a healthy grounding in that scene. I played with Rebel MC back in the day, that taught me a lot about drumíníbass and the complex patterns I had to replicate. Everyone always thinks Iím a drumíníbass drummer because of the Roland demo stuff I do but I never really was, I was just fascinated by the programming side of things, trying to replicate the drum machines and all that. Ironically doing Stevenís album now, he wrote a song which is based around some drumíníbass breaks which I got to write, program and play. Right up my street.
Is that what pushed you in the electronics side of things or was that just something youíve always been into?
No, Iíve always been into that. Once again, from seeing Bruford playing his Simmons kits with Earthworks around í85 Iíve always been fascinated by electronics and always had them in my arsenal. I love using electronics.
I think at this day in age you kind of have to if you want to expand your creativity further. You have to move with the times. If youíre content playing a certain type of music which doesnít use electronics thatís fine, but what I do relies on a lot of technology, so I feel quite fortunate that I went down that route. Itís really helped the phone ring as well.
You grew up playing in the Royal Marines Drum Corps. Is that where your traditional grip comes from?
Absolutely. I learned traditional grip with no fingers, so my stick was just bouncing with my thumb on the top. So basically I learned it wrong, which actually in a bizarre twist benefitted me long term. The Royal Marines are something Iím tremendously proud about. I didnít do it for too long - I joined when I was 16 and came out when I was 20 - but it gave me such a great grounding for practice routines and getting my chops up to speed. It also made me realise I wasnít actually that good and needed to work harder. I still go back and work with them from time to time. They will always be such a massive part of the person I am today†
I have seen you change to matched grip quite a bit though, especially on the Steve Wilson gig.
Itís a bit of both really. Having played drums for the best part of 40 years now I still switch and I still donít have a grip Iím 100% happy with. If thereís a quiet section with lots of grace notes I switch to trad., for other songs I play matched. Iím hitting a lot harder now than Iíve ever hit. Not that thatís a brag, but Steven likes a really vibey stage sound, so Iím hitting harder. Iíve broken cymbals which I was truly horrified about. I had never ever broken any cymbals in my life and breaking my dream cymbal set up was heart breaking. I had to change my complete cymbal set up as they were just the wrong ones for this gig. Iím even using grip tape which Iíve never done before. So yeah, itís changed a lot over the past year.
Talking about electronics, you do quite a lot of work for Roland, right?
Yes, I work for Roland Japan with research and development. I do a lot of sound design for them which is an absolute dream gig. You see people on YouTube doing demos or covers and you go: Oh, I made that sound! That feels really nice.
Itís more the day-job side of things. I go to Japan quite a bit and work on new modules. They have three or four artists who do that and Iím very privileged to be the English guy. I can literally just get up in the morning, go down to my studio and do sound design all day. Roland have been great to me, they gave me a bit of an internet presence and in the early 2000ís they help put me on the map, Iíve been with them a long time. They''ve stood by me through the leaner times too when I needed them the most, Iíll always be grateful to them
Do you see hybrid kits as the future?
Is it the future? Iíve been playing hybrid for the best part of 25 years - as some other drummers have as well. I just think with marketing and social media itís a bit more in the foreground now. Itís like Ďhybridí is the cool word now, for example on a Toyota car. Itís been around for years, itís just with modern music now a lot of pop guys use hybrids or sample pads. Iíve just always been using that sort of thing but social media has brought it to the fore. What it can do is shape your sound and expand your creativity, there are no limits to what you can achieve with an open mind. I understand people donít get it or feel a bit out of their depth, but if you delve in and get involved, the rewards can be extremely rewarding
You produce your own music as ĎDr. oKtopUsí. Any more albums with that?
I put my own album out maybe five years ago and it did really well in the drumíníbass underground circuit, but that chapter is probably done. I wonít be doing another album based around that genre again. If I do another album under Dr. oKtopUs, which I might do, itíll be based around what Iím doing now which is a little bit more out there, a little bit more crazy. I called it prog-step in one video because itís like dubstep and drumíníbass but fused with more progressive thinking and a lot more crazy weird time signatures. Very self-indulgent but it seems to have a little market, people seem to dig it. Maybe I get some time to work on another album but there wonít be anything out till 2017.
I know you also write jingles and music for TV.
I do. I did the theme tune for the Gadget Show, the recent Jaguar commercial and I write a lot of jingles for radio, which challenges me a great deal. Since touring started and the diary is full with Steven itís quite difficult. I have a little mini studio I take on the road with me on which I wrote a few little commercials with. Itís great that thatís all so easy nowadays where you can just write some music with a Mac and a midi keyboard. It just keeps me from getting bored on tour and keeps the creativity levels high
Ď365 - a year in studyí. Tell me more about that.
Yes, thatís something Iím very passionate about. Iíve never read a drum book, I havenít got the patience. I find turning the page just looking at ink after ink just really uninspiring. So Iíve been writing a book for the last five years and I thought of a concept looking at the people who play drums and some of my students who are busy professionals. I conducted some polls at clinics to find out how much time people have a day to practise.†
This whole book is based on giving you just 20 minutes little challenges a day. On Saturday and Sunday you get 30 minutes with challenges on everything you learned that week. So you get one drum lesson for every day of the year and it will be something completely new but itís all themed. Week one it might be just feet, week two might be time signatures, week three might be chops and youíre gradually building towards a monthly test of the stuff you learned. Itís like a proper year in study and itís heavy going. Itís taken me five years so far to collect the material but I have an amazing publishing company who are really behind it. Iím really chuffed about it. If everything is going to plan I hope to have it ready by the end of the year.
Letís talk about mental health. I read your ĎTake Your Stageí blog on this topic - great stuff. I think itís a big topic amongst musicians which is hardly talked about.
Yes, it absolutely is. Iím coming from this in a very good place. They followed me on Twitter, I read their little synopsis on their profile and thought itís very interesting so I contacted them and said Iíd like to contribute. I think that itís quite a taboo subject in the industry. I see it with myself, I still have a lot of self-doubting - which I think is ok if itís manageable. I still get a lot of nerves but the depression side and dark times are thankfully behind me. I just thought Iíd come out and speak about it because I donít think enough people talk and I think in the music industry we could do more to help people.† You see students who get nervous to the point where they canít hold their drum sticks and they canít play in front of other drummers - I was that guy! People see the guys on stage as invincible and they forget that theyíre all just humans with emotions.†
Someone has to come out and say something about mental health, itís a real taboo subject. Iím not planning to be some kind of prince that goes away with a shining light but I spoke about it on the blog, it already got people talking and Iíd like to do it more.†
I came from a really, really dark place about 10 years ago. My drums were going on eBay, everything was done, the phone wouldnít ring, I was scared to answer the door - it can get you in a whole heap of trouble. I really wished back then I had someone to talk too, someone to give me some perspective, but I was too scared, the slightest issue was magnified by huge proportion. It was an extremely difficult time in my life but I was too scared to ask for help.
Everyone is under so much pressure in the arts to perform, to give 100%. Some days you gonna go to the office and not be great at it as well. Itís ok to not play great sometimes; donít beat yourself up about it. Itís ok to see a three year old in Japan playing some ridiculous chops. Some guys can be like: ďIím never gonna be good enoughĒ. I know some guys in their 30s and 40s who really get down because of a YouTube videos. This stuff has always been there, we just have the platforms now to share it. Just concentrate on yourself, donít look around you because it can be really intimidating and off-putting and drive you into a hole. The pressure is unbelievable. Iíve given up watching YouTube clips of drummers playing covers a long time ago rinsing over tracks, I have very little interest. You just think ďIím never gonna be good enoughĒ and you start questioning your ability.
Mental health - I could talk for hours about this. I really hope other people come out and join that conversation.
On the note of working as a professional musician: You made the transition from day job to professional drummer not too long ago. I think thatís a big topic for drummers out there.
Yes. 2008 was the last time I gave it a go. I turned pro three times in my career. The hardest thing as a pro sometimes is that there are drummers out there who are not working and they will have to go back to earn some kind of income. Itís not a golden ticket just because you get one gig. We live in an age of hire and fire, nothing is certain in the arts and nothing is forever, I try to keep myself with other things constantly incase an† something comes to an end. Its always important to have a plan B,C and D. I first turned pro in the early 90s and just couldnít pay the bills so you then go do whatever it takes to pay the bills. Iíve done some ridiculous things (deliver fruit and veg for example).†
My father fell ill end of 2007 and I was going through quite a low stage of my life: there was no phone ringing, I couldnít get a gig, I was afraid - but my dad said: You have to do something, you have more to give. So I wrote out a list of things I could do as a musician: I can play, teach, I couldnít write jingles at that time but I could this, do that and so on. I explored every single avenue and I realised very quickly that education would be a thing - I really love teaching.†
So I became a hermit for a year: didnít go out, didnít drink, and didnít do hardly anything that involved spending if I didn''t have to. I just tried to save up as much money as I could to set myself up for three months, thatís what I gave myself to give it a try. In that time I advertised myself as a tutor and put myself out there and slowly but surely things started coming in still while I had a day job. So the transition was not so hard. Then when I handed my notice in at my job I had money in my account to cover my bills for three months. This was it, I gave it everything I had.
I did check my bank balance every day but generally I was more relaxed. There was no pressure of hand to mouth. No pressure of: ďIf I donít earn £20 today, I canít pay that billĒ - just because of that little buffer. Common sense really but you donít see it when youíre a young musician.
I had faith in what I did, I didnít blag it - and it kind of worked out, the gigs started coming in. I was lucky too because I was playing progressive music and there werenít too many people going for the jobs. Thinking about it now, I went to a pop audition in 2008 and there were about 100 drummers there whereas I was the only drummer who came up in the David Cross audition. The Frost gig came through word of mouth. It was all very much how you play and thatís great, thatís all I ever wanted. Iím not gonna go on TV and mime to some track by an overnight sensation, Iíd rather go back to delivering fruit and veg.
So yes, saving up and having that buffer really helped me to relax through that time and it was the teaching thing that really kicked off my career, and I still love doing it when I have time.
Next is a lot of Steven Wilson stuff and some dates with Frost; Iím also working with Roland to work on some sounds for the next generation drum modules and also piecing together my book; I have a few drum clinics around the world - taking a bit of a sabbatical from the UK clinics; I also have quite a few magazine interviews which is great - and then Iím back out with Steven in the autumn.
So yeah, my year is pretty much packed at the moment. Iíve just had a little unexpected operation so its forced a few weeks of relaxing and rest which I wasn''t expecting so Iím going to try, Iím a terrible patient, but Iím seeing it all as a positive. The touring schedule is pretty tough so every time I get a week off instead of working on other things, I actually take it off. Saying this, I probably wonít because Iím really hyper active. The two priorities would be finishing the book and working on the album.
Iím busy till December which is really rare. Iím one of the lucky ones.
Thanks a lot for your time Craig! Best of luck for the year.
Interview by Tobias Miorin
Great interview Craig, wonderful points about time signatures and mental health issues, both have affected me! As ever an inspiration nice one
Huw Rees, 1 June 2016
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