Dave baker

From build­ing site to stage with Ward Thomas

Rhythm - - CONTENTS - Words: Chris Barnes photos: Joby Ses­sions


T he life of a work­ing drum­mer can be a schiz­o­phrenic one, dart­ing from one gig to an­other. This is par­tic­u­larly true for Peters­field sticks­man Dave Baker. On any given day you might find Dave play­ing Glas­ton­bury with smash hit coun­try pop duo Ward Thomas, or you could track him down to a build­ing site some­where in Hamp­shire. You see, as much as Dave as­pired to drum pro­fes­sion­ally – he put out two al­bums in the early noughties with groove metal band Val­len­brosa and built a re­spectable fol­low­ing – he also knew that, re­al­is­ti­cally, he needed a plan B. So, from the age of 19 he was a builder by trade and a drum­mer by pas­sion.

That all changed around six years ago via a chance pub meet­ing with An­thony Ward Thomas, the father of Ward Thomas song­birds Lizzy and Cather­ine. The sis­ters were en­sconced in writ­ing for their de­but al­bum, From Where We Stand and on the look­out for band mem­bers. With lit­tle warn­ing Dave was thrust in front of the cam­eras for an im­promptu video shoot, be­fore head­ing out on tour as their live drum­mer. He’s been play­ing with them ever since.

The girls’ star has risen ex­po­nen­tially since the re­lease of 2016 Num­ber One al­bum Cart­wheels but, with lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence of the pop world, Dave ad­mits the learn­ing curve was steep. Nonethe­less, he’s risen to the chal­lenge like a pro and con­tin­ues to evolve as each tour passes. No slacker, Dave still heads back to the build­ing site be­tween tours too.

We first meet Dave at the Lon­don HQ of An­thony Ward Thomas’ premium re­movals com­pany. As he plays for Rhythm’ s pho­tog­ra­pher in­side ac rat­es­tacked, Raiders Of The Lost Ark-style ware­house, we’re struck by his tight groove, in­spired by nu-metal he­roes Abe Cun­ning­ham and David Sil­ve­ria, and the syrupy, warm sound of his Sonor SQ2s – both es­sen­tial el­e­ments of the Ward Thomas gig. Af­ter the shoot, Dave fills us in on his in­spir­ing jour­ney, the par­al­lels be­tween build­ing and drum­ming and why it’s im­por­tant to lis­ten...

Can you tell us when and how your drum­ming jour­ney be­gan?

“It ac­tu­ally hap­pened be­cause I was ter­ri­ble on the key­board! I was hav­ing mu­sic lessons at school, but I didn’t pay much at­ten­tion. At a par­ent’s even­ing the teacher said [to my par­ents], ‘Dave’s use­less, he’s not com­mit­ting to the les­son, but we’ve no­ticed he’s got quite good co­or­di­na­tion. There’s a slot with our peri­patetic at the school, what would you say to him try­ing drum lessons?’ They asked me if I wanted to learn and I said ‘yes’ straight away. I’d never thought of play­ing drums, but when they men­tioned it to me it was im­me­di­ately some­thing I wanted to do.

“I re­ally en­joyed lessons. I learned rudi­ments first and it was clear early on that I was quite se­ri­ous about it. I wanted to learn drums more than any­thing else at school like English or Maths. My par­ents picked up on that en­thu­si­asm and I got a drum kit pretty soon.”

What mu­sic were you lis­ten­ing to when you first started drum­ming?

“My first tape was The Spaghetti In­ci­dent? by Guns N’ Roses, and I had an­other al­bum called EarthVsThe

Wild­hearts. I lit­er­ally played them to death. Then I got into nu-metal and bands like Korn and Deftones. That was be­fore I went back to more old school bands like Me­tal­lica, Faith No More and Pan­tera. Nu-metal was a new gen­er­a­tion of drum­ming. Abe Cun­ning­ham [Deftones] and David Sil­ve­ria [Korn] had a more hip-hop, funky style to their play­ing. It was more mu­si­cal and there was a lot more groove and feel go­ing on. That’s al­ways been very at­trac­tive to me: not nec­es­sar­ily throw­ing fills around ev­ery­where, but find­ing the right groove in a song.”

Did you al­ways as­pire to make a ca­reer from drum­ming?

“I had as­pi­ra­tions from the very be­gin­ning. I’d been bed­room jam­ming un­til the age of 17, then I put a hard rock and metal band to­gether called Val­len­brosa. We recorded al­bums and toured. I also did some cov­ers, acous­tic stuff... tak­ing a few dif­fer­ent op­por­tu­ni­ties. I wanted that dream, I wanted to be on a big stage, writ­ing mu­sic and be­ing known as a drum­mer. I had my feet firmly on the ground though. I knew [a mu­sic ca­reer] was a hard achievement and some­times you can put in all the ef­fort in the world and it still doesn’t hap­pen. I loved play­ing in front of peo­ple and I re­alised that, no mat­ter what, I needed to do this for the rest of my life; whether I’m do­ing it at Wem­b­ley Sta­dium, or in front of three peo­ple in a pub. That kept the drive go­ing for me.”

How did the Ward Thomas gig come about?

“I’m a builder by trade so I was here there and ev­ery­where do­ing work around the lo­cal area and the girls [from Ward Thomas], Lizzy and Cather­ine, live lo­cally. I did a lot of work in their vil­lage. You go for a beer af­ter work and you meet peo­ple. I met An­thony [the duo’s father] at their lo­cal pub The Hawk­ley Inn. He men­tioned that his daugh­ters had started writ­ing mu­sic and they were want­ing to put a band to­gether. This would have been about six years ago. At that time I wasn’t that busy mu­si­cally. I was do­ing cover band stuff, but I was al­ways up for any op­por­tu­nity. I didn’t take it too se­ri­ously, but I said, ‘Here’s my num­ber, I’m in­ter­ested in any op­por­tu­nity to play drums.’

“Noth­ing hap­pened im­me­di­ately after­wards, but af­ter a time I got a job work­ing for their mother. She had just bought a prop­erty in their vil­lage and she needed the house ren­o­vated. The girls were liv­ing in a static car­a­van at the house and they were around quite a bit. They were go­ing up to Lon­don, writ­ing stuff and it seemed to be go­ing re­ally well for them. The op­por­tu­nity came up to get in­volved when they needed to put a band to­gether to shoot a mu­sic video for their first sin­gle ‘The Good And The Right’. It was lit­er­ally the next day, so I dropped all my tools off and went up to Lon­don to do this com­pletely op­po­site thing, out of nowhere. We laid this video down and soon af­ter they said they needed a band for th­ese fes­ti­val dates and some big­ger gigs... they had been do­ing tours with just the two of them and a gui­tarist.”

Talk about in at the deep end! Was there a for­mal au­di­tion?

“No, noth­ing. There was a small re­hearsal be­fore this coun­try fes­ti­val we did called Mav­er­ick. Be­fore I knew it I was in a re­hearsal space with the gui­tarist and a bass player who was also on the mu­sic video.

“For­tu­nately, be­cause I’d been do­ing a cover band gig I’d been play­ing pop songs and con­tem­po­rary cov­ers that ev­ery­one knows. I def­i­nitely felt ready as a player. It was ex­cit­ing and we gelled very well. I re­mem­ber when we played to­gether for the first time, it was re­ally ex­cit­ing.”

It was early days for the duo, but could you tell the songs were good?

“I def­i­nitely con­nected with the mu­sic. I was im­me­di­ately aware of how good the songs were, the pro­duc­tion was fan­tas­tic, the song­writ­ing was great and the girl’s vo­cals… I’d ac­tu­ally seen them play in a pub be­fore­hand, and I just thought they had world-class voices. Their har­monies were ab­so­lutely spot on. I was blown away by it.”

What were the first shows like?

“Trial by fire, def­i­nitely. But you’ve got to just do it, haven’t you? I re­mem­ber the first gig, it was a ‘seat of your pants’ sit­u­a­tion, but we to­tally did it. The crowd loved it and I re­mem­ber the feel­ing after­wards. If you do a bad gig it de­stroys you un­til the next gig,

“If you can play re­ally soft and keep the same feel and groove you’ve got way more places to go. You can build to a cho­rus, you can build to the end, you can say a lot more”

which goes well. Af­ter that [first gig] it was like, ‘We did it!’ It just es­tab­lished the fact that it was go­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

Did you do much per­sonal prepa­ra­tion for that gig?

“Dy­nam­ics were a big thing for me; play­ing qui­etly and re­ally rein­ing it back. When we first started play­ing we were slapped on stage with wedges and no sound en­gi­neer. The girls had been play­ing with just a gui­tarist and their voices, then all of a sud­den you’re chuck­ing a drum kit in there and mak­ing a hell of a noise. Early on I re­alised I needed to ad­dress how I’m hit­ting the drums. I needed to work my tech­nique so that I can be softer and qui­eter but still keep good feel and time. I worked on con­sis­tency through a whole song; not rush­ing when you’re go­ing into a cho­rus and play­ing dy­nam­i­cally. If you can play re­ally soft and keep the same feel and groove you’ve got way more places to go. You can build to a cho­rus, you can build to the end, you can say a lot more. I sort of wiped the slate clean and then re­de­vel­oped as a bet­ter drum­mer.

“Now the sec­ond al­bum has come out, their pop­u­lar­ity has grown and the venues are get­ting slightly big­ger, that whole be­ing too loud thing isn’t as much of a fac­tor any­more. I’ve been told on oc­ca­sion to hit harder!”

It’s good to eval­u­ate your play­ing with a big gig like this one.

“Def­i­nitely. The more you do it the more you in­ves­ti­gate what you’re do­ing and you look at stuff un­der a mi­cro­scope. If any­thing, the reve­la­tory stuff has come from peo­ple lis­ten­ing to what I’m do­ing from an out­side per­spec­tive and me tak­ing on board what they’re say­ing. As a drum­mer your bass player is your wing­man so there’s a lot of us two work­ing to­gether as a team. That’s been re­ally key to my de­vel­op­ment, ac­tu­ally.

“I’ve got to give my­self some props too, be­cause I’ve not shunned any out­side di­rec­tion. Play­ing an in­stru­ment is very per­sonal and out­side ad­vice can be seen as tam­per­ing: ‘This is how I play drums, don’t change me’. It’s easy to do that, but that’s not how I roll. I like to take ad­vice and I un­der­stand that peo­ple can have a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive.”

You’ve clearly worked hard on your play­ing. What about your live sound?

“Early on I re­alised that what I was play­ing was fine, but when things kept get­ting big­ger I had to ad­dress my set-up. Our sound en­gi­neer Bry­ony Oc­to­ber was very in­ter­ested in the drum sound. It was so nice to have some­one re­ally fo­cus­ing on that side of things.

“If you want to work as a pro­fes­sional drum­mer and play for dif­fer­ent acts you’re go­ing to have to try out dif­fer­ent stuff and roll with the punches”

“I bought a Sonor SQ2 drum kit. I was re­ally keen to sound the best I can for Ward Thomas. The qual­ity of the kit was a lot bet­ter and tonally it was more ex­pres­sive. My old kit was smaller sizes and sounded quite poppy. I was play­ing a 13" snare too. It was quite barky. Every drum­mer loves a tight snare drum head, rim-shot­ting it and get­ting a mas­sive crack, but the tone of that was pitch­ing in the same sort of field as the vo­cals. I went to a 14" snare with a lot of depth, and wood in­stead of steel. It’s got a re­ally dampened tun­ing so the sound sits some­where else in the mix, be­neath the vo­cal and out of the way.

“I was play­ing a 20" kick drum and went up to a 22", and the toms have more tonal range to them, blend­ing in with that coun­try, swampy, damp sound. Then it was about tun­ing and choos­ing heads. For­tu­nately, I had a sound en­gi­neer who knew what sound she wanted and a tech who worked very well too. The snare drum has this re­ally de­tuned sound. It took a bit of get­ting used to be­cause all the lugs were cranked and then two were com­pletely backed off. You could see the crin­kles in the head. It looked wrong, but I hit it and that was the sound!

“This last tour was the best so far, be­cause all the el­e­ments were so much more re­fined and ev­ery­one worked re­ally hard to get the sound right. You’ve got to be able to change up. If you want to be a pro­fes­sional drum­mer and play for dif­fer­ent acts you’re go­ing to have to try out dif­fer­ent stuff and roll with the punches. The more you do it the eas­ier it be­comes. I’m used to be­ing adap­tive now. It’s like prob­lem solv­ing. That’s some­thing I’ve learned from build­ing. Every day a prob­lem comes up that you have to get around.”

You still split your time be­tween be­ing a builder and a pro­fes­sional drum­mer with Ward Thomas. Is the goal to move away from build­ing and be­come a full-time drum­mer?

“I think hav­ing worked in the build­ing in­dus­try from the age of 19 has ac­tu­ally put me in re­ally good stead for this job. I at­tribute how I’m able to work as a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian to that: the work ethic and the rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing re­li­able and punc­tual. There’s a lot of par­al­lels. Mu­sic has al­ways been a mas­sive pas­sion of mine and to be able to do it orf a liv­ing would be a dream come true. But, where I am at the mo­ment I couldn’t be in a bet­ter po­si­tion. I have a nice con­trast. It’s very re­fresh­ing to go from one to the other. Mu­sic’s very much a head game, more pres­sure, more of an up-and-down thrill ride. Build­ing is al­ways very solid ground for me. It’s def­i­nitely kept my feet on the ground. It’s taught me you need to make a liv­ing in life, you need to be able to sup­port your­self and you have to work re­ally hard to do that.”

A lot of pro mu­si­cians don’t have that fall­back plan...

“I’m very glad that I’ve com­mit­ted to hav­ing a plan B, and not just be­cause I can’t be a mu­si­cian and I’m grumpy be­cause I’ve worked hard and the world owes me a mu­sic ca­reer. When I started build­ing I loved it. I’d be happy be­ing a builder for the rest of my life.

“The truth is that not ev­ery­one can have that dream job of be­ing a mu­si­cian, or an ac­tor, or an artist of any kind. There’s just not enough spa­ces in the world for it, so it’s al­ways good to be re­al­is­tic, other­wise you lose track of re­al­ity. Do­ing this job, you’re still in the real world. It’s hard and it’s frus­trat­ing some­times, it’s the full spec­trum of emo­tions. You do a re­ally amaz­ing show and have a real high from do­ing it, but then you have to deal with, ‘Right, I’m not do­ing that any­more, I’m back to nor­mal­ity’. For some­one who’s just a mu­si­cian it’s got to be quite hard to con­stantly feel th­ese highs, then re­alise that the world is still just a nor­mal place.”

“I needed to work my tech­nique so that I can be softer and qui­eter but still keep good feel and time...”

Dave Barker: a man with a van... as well as a tight groove

Mike says his first gig with the Ward Thomas duo was a ‘seat of the pants’ sit­u­a­tion

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