From building site to stage with Ward Thomas
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.”
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