It must be at least four years since AudioCulture first asked me to put together a list of 10 New Zealand drum tracks. A lot has happened since then.
Sadly, as I sit down to write on this Covid 19, Level 4 lockdown morning, I’ve just learnt of the death of Charlie Watts, drummer with The Rolling Stones. Charlie was my hero.
In an interview for something or other, a journalist once described me, rather too kindly, as New Zealand’s version of Charlie Watts. I don’t even come close but if I’m ever going to accept a compliment, no matter how inaccurate, I’ll gladly take this one!
So, Charlie’s death got me thinking. As a musician, what will you be remembered for? In Charlie’s case, he leaves behind some music that we can all enjoy forever, and second – perhaps most importantly – by all accounts, he was a thoroughly decent human.
Musically, to me, Charlie was the Stones, or at the very least, the most important cog in the machinery. Keith Richards, when asked what the ingredients were that made the Stones the Stones, said, “Sometimes I start the songs and sometimes Charlie starts them.”
Charlie wasn’t flash. He was never going to floor you with lightning-fast gospel fills or beats that would have you questioning your understanding of mathematics. He was just going to make the band feel good, give the song exactly what it needed and be the “roll” in the band’s rock’n’roll.
He was unique – tight but loose, solid but fluid – I’ve never seen anyone cover a Stones song and have it sound anything remotely like Charlie made it sound. He’ll be sadly missed but at least we have the music.
So, in the great washup of life, I guess that’s about it – be a good person and leave behind some good songs. In no particular order, here are a few more New Zealand drummers doing just that.
1. ‘Down In Splendour’ – Straitjacket Fits – John Collie
‘Down In Splendour’ is one of New Zealand’s great songs. Written by Andrew Brough (RIP), it’s a remarkable piece of writing. Andrew and Shayne Carter’s weaving, chiming guitars, Andrew’s beautifully nuanced vocal and John Collie’s inimitable drumming, all glued together by David Wood’s (RIP) bass.
I had the pleasure of making an album with Andrew in his post Straitjacket Fits outfit, Bike. Andrew had a real push and pull in his playing. The music surges and swells and then recedes like the tide. Beautiful to play with but as a drummer, difficult to achieve. You have to surrender to the songs. Click tracks and metronomes don’t really work. It’s a special skill and John Collie has mastered this. The ability to drive a song forward and to pull it back at just the right times without it feeling like it’s slowing down or losing intensity. You hear it all through SJF’s songs and it’s one of the many qualities that made this band so special.
John’s beautiful accenting of the “and” of 3 with the guitar and bass gives ‘Down In Splendour” tension but still such a fluid momentum. I sometimes think John paints songs rather than plays them.
2. ‘Fear Of Falling’ – Shona Laing – Peter Warren (Rooda)
Everyone knows Rooda. Peter Warren’s larger-than-life personality has been a huge part of the New Zealand music scene for decades. He was a big influence on me in my days coming up. We possibly even competed for best mullet-style haircuts at various times in the 80s.
I played and toured with many of the artists Rooda recorded with, such as Sir Dave Dobbyn, so I spent a lot of time pulling apart his drum tracks as I learnt them for various tours and gigs. He’s not easy to copy – his sheer power and ability to drive a band forward with those baseball bats he used as drumsticks was something I never came close to.
However, there was always another side to Rooda’s playing. A subtlety and finesse which, given a lot of 80s recording techniques was sometimes lost with a poorly placed gate or too much compression.
Here’s a track that I was called on many times to replicate in Shona Laing’s band and never could! It’s very much a track of its time sonically – gated reverbs and separated drums – but it’s played with an absolute authority and accuracy and groove, also glued together by Gary Verberne’s sublime guitar tracks. The triplet fill after the bridge still makes me smile – I managed to fluff it night after night!
3. ‘Cactus Cat’– Look Blue Go Purple – Lesley Paris
The first thing you need to ask yourself is why the hell wasn’t this, by Dunedin band Look Blue Go Purple, the biggest song of all time? I defy anyone not to feel happier after listening to this!
Lesley Paris played drums on this one and it’s perfect in its imperfection. It pushes and pulls, and it swings like crazy. It leaves space for the vocals as it breaks down to just kick and ride every time you need to hear the words. God, I wish more drummers would hear that!
Then the bass and drums dance through the instrumental sections, topped off by beautifully executed straight 1/16th fills, the first being out of the bridge and then in the outro to end the song.
This song harks back to what I was saying about Charlie Watts – this is unique – you couldn’t copy it. It’s a one-off performance (thankfully recorded) and it’s perfect!
4. ‘What Do You Really Want’ – Sir Dave Dobbyn – Ross Burge
One time in the studio the poor engineer had to spend an entire afternoon cleaning up my grunting and humming from a drum track. I apologized for causing him extra work. He said,” that’s nothing – you should hear Ross Burge!”
When he plays, it seems he commits himself entirely to the song – hence the vocalisations, I suppose. He seems to be one of the few people on earth who knows exactly where a backbeat on the snare drum should fall. He’s rock solid, inventive, interesting, has his own sound and always plays the song.
As I say, there are a million songs I could pick, but ‘What Do You Really Want’ is one of my faves. The way it drives in the intro, leaning into the time, then pulls back perfectly in the verse leaving the vocal in its own space. The bridge with the down beats on the snare all perfectly placed. The little fill with the open hi-hat at 2’44” ... I like to think Sir Dave went “whooo!” because the fill was so perfect. National treasure is Ross Burge!
5. ‘Years Gone By’ – Avantdale Bowling Club – Julien Dyne
Influences. Crossing genres. It’s how music grows. This is hip hop, but the ghosts of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams make an early appearance with the rolling toms in the introduction. Shades of Brian Blade as the vocal comes in.
Influences, yes, but this is more than that – much more. Technical skill in abundance but a real sense of space and air – lots of holes. People say leaving space is about not playing – again, it’s so much more than that. Holes and silence, that’s still sound. It’s still being played. It’s hard to explain and so, so much harder to execute. This is groundbreaking music from Tom Scott’s Avantdale Bowling Club, and an amazing drum track played by Julien Dyne, an absolute master musician.
6. ‘Filled Me Up’ – Jan Hellriegel – Nick Gaffaney
Before this song appeared on Jan Hellriegel’s album, All Grown Up, we’d already had a few goes at recording it. I did a sparse 808 drum-machine inspired version … We recorded the song with a producer who insisted on hearing it in 4/4 time ... It kinda worked but, nah.
The song showed up again at the sessions for All Grown Up. The guys playing on the record liked the song, briefly discussed the arrangement, and walked through to the studio and played it.
Essentially a live performance, it breathes, ebbs and flows, and has extremes of dynamics. Brushes seamlessly switching to sticks, syncopated fills, space and mayhem. You need a musical drummer for this shit!
Nick Gaffaney is one of the most musical drummers I know. There’s a reason he is on everybody’s records. He’ll always give you what is right for a song. He’s a producer’s best friend because he always knows what to play and exactly when he has nailed it.
Oh, and he writes great songs, plays bass and keys at the same time he plays drums, and sings like an angel.
7. ‘Dirty Orlean’ – She Loves You – Katie Baya
I first met Kate when she came to work in my office. I knew she was a drummer and naturally, when copyright and licensing became a little dry, our office talk would turn to drums.
One day Kate asked me what I was working on with my drumming. I said, “I’m just trying to have my right hand and right foot land roughly in the same place.”
She said, “I’m messing around with displacing double paradiddles by 32nd notes.”
The first time I saw Kate play I was blown away. She had it all, power, solidity, creativity, and musicality. She also has a whole other side of working successfully in today’s music scene nailed: technology. Click tracks, backing tracks and samples all working seamlessly with rock solid live playing.
‘Dirty Orleans’ is rockin’! The 2/4 feel on toms and snare is filthy and huge but there are so many technically challenging aspects to this song that really speak to Kate’s musical way of approaching drums.
8. ‘So Long For Now’ – Split Enz – Paul Crowther
The night before a gig, Tim Finn happened to mention, very casually, that, “I think we might do ‘So Long For Now’ tomorrow ...” It’s not unusual for Tim to throw a curve ball or two so I wasn’t too concerned. I’ll have a quick listen, shouldn’t be too hard.
Okay, so I don’t need to write a chart very often but this one definitely needed a road map! How Paul Crowther came up with a cohesive drum part for this song is beyond me. Time changes, tempo changes, to hell with it – let’s chuck in a military snare part. This song is nuts and the drums are perfect. If you’re a drummer, give it a go and tell me that Paul Crowther isn’t some sort of genius!
9. ‘French Letter’ – Herbs – Fred Faleauto
Oh, that groove! I was lucky enough to do a few shows with Dilworth Karaka and Charlie Tumahai from Herbs when I was playing in Annie Crummer’s band in the early 90s. Annie had taken a duo version of Herbs as the opening act on a nationwide tour but Charlie and Dil were keen to do a handful of songs with drums added, so I stepped in.
The first thing that struck me was that Dilworth’s guitar was like a metronome – deadly accurate and smack on the money and that everything else finds its place around the guitar. Charlie played bass so far back on the beat it was almost in the previous day’s venue. It’s unsettling at first, but when you find it, the groove is deep and wide and irresistible.
Fred Faleauto (RIP) found that place in the Herbs sound and groove and was a huge part of those first four albums. That deep, deep pocket with everything else floating around it. An unmistakable feel and a huge influence on so many drummers coming through.
10. ‘Change Of Season’ – Lindon Puffin – Wayne Bell
So, I hope you’ll indulge me here as I add one of my own tracks. I’m certainly not including this because it’s one of the best drum tracks ever. I’m including it because it brings me back to the intro: Charlie Watts.
This is nothing like a Charlie Watts track but what I do hear in this is how he has influenced my playing. There’s nothing here that any half-decent drummer couldn’t blow out of the water technically, but for me, what it does have is a sense of satisfaction that it’s a drum track that serves the song. It sounds occasionally like I’ve pushed my drum set down a flight of stairs, but to me, it felt good at the time and still does.
There’s one little fill that sounds a wee bit, just a tiny bit like Charlie. And that’s all I can ask for!