The original drummer with Dire Straits and the man who put the time bell into ‘Sultans Of Swing’, Pick Withers’ feel and skill behind the kit resulted in four fantastic Dire Straits albums and a concurrent recording date with Bob Dylan on his SlowTrainComing album. Prior to joining Mark and David Knopfler and John Illsley in the Straits, Pick’s CV already included sessions with Gerry Rafferty, cult proggers Spring, folksters Magna Carta and as house drummer for the nascent Rockfield Studios in Monmouth. His dates with Mike Chapman, Foghat, Brewer’s Droop, Del Shannon and more – all informed his dynamic range, versatility and emotive feel on classic Dire Straits albums, including their self-titled 1978 debut, Communique (1979), MakingMovies (1980) and LoveOverGold (1982).
The Leicester native parted ways somewhat acrimoniously with Mark Knopfler and co after LoveOverGold, since keeping a much lower profile with teaching gigs and smaller musical dates. He’s now endorsing Soo Drums – beautiful looking instruments made by Thailand-based drum-maker Sanchai Kusolpisarnsut (Soo), whose product Pick is hoping will soon find a distributor here in the UK.
Pick, let’s talk about your new kit by Thai drum company, Soo Drums – how did that come about?
“I played at my friend’s daughter’s wedding function, and she was marrying a Thai
“I like to think I’ve got emotion when I play rather than just time. And I’m prepared to step out on the highwire and if it doesn’t come off, I’ve tried. I respond to the moment and I want to be part of the conversation, you know?”
drummer, because they’d been living in Thailand. He told me about Soo Drums because he’s an endorsee of them, and I ended up some time later going over to Thailand to try them out. I was knocked out by them – I was really impressed with the quality, all the hardware, and I just thought it would be a good time to endorse something like that, because he only has a profile in Asia and he’s looking to get involved in Europe and America. I thought it would be best to go out and try them out, and Thai people are so welcoming, so even at worst it would be a week’s jamboree – really good fun, which it proved to be.”
What is it about Soo Drums that are unique and that you like?
“At the beginning of the cycle, the build quality is very good. I remember getting some Yamaha drums, the 9000 series, when they were first on the market, and as soon as they’re out of the bag you get this sense of attention to detail, which might not always apply when a company becomes successful and demand is greater, but you know you’re getting a product that is at the top of its game in terms of the thought that’s gone into the build. Soo’s a drummer, so he’s got a unique angle on it; he’s thought about it. The colours are vibrant and the whole range of prices can appeal to all and sundry, and I just think they’re really well made.”
You got your start in drumming with the Boy’s Brigade, didn’t you?
“I remember sitting there messing around with sweet tins and knitting needles, but I became very aware of this marching band from the Boy’s Brigade – they marched around the street. But it took a while because you had to march behind for a year and then you had to play bugle for a year, then you got the drum. I was fortunate as the band master was very enthusiastic and he gave me the basic grounding, 5-beat, 7-beat rolls, and you could fumble your way along in the drum corps.
“The only thing that irked me was that because I didn’t have any stripes – it was an army kind of hierarchy, and I didn’t do enough extra-curricular things, they wouldn’t let me be the guy who fell in when the band had to get into marching formation. This other guy did it, who couldn’t play for squat, and I had to bolster his feeble attempts at playing the drums…
“Within a short space of time I had a drum kit for Christmas. I wish I still had it, it was an Ajax Boosey & Hawkes, one hanging tom, no floor tom, cheap Zyn cymbals… but to me it was just magic. I say to all drummers that are setting out on the road, ‘Always keep your first kit!’ But within about a year I was doing gigs, doing a paper round, so I just traded it in for an Olympic kit and then climbed the ladder. You know, Rogers, Ludwig…”
Who were your influences as you started out?
“The Shadows. They were the ideal little combo. They always had a good drummer – Tony Meehan, Brian Bennett – there was always a drum solo on the LP and it gave you a good grounding. Then later on as your eyes and your ears open up a little bit, you just gravitate towards the same place as everybody else. I like Gadd and Keltner, I like Art Blakey’s drive, and I like Mitch Mitchell for cutting ‘Hey Joe’. That broke down a lot of walls – everything was a bit straight-laced in drums. When I first started recording in a studio the engineers and assistants all had white coats on! And they would come and mess around with your drums whether you liked it or not!”
So how did you come by the name Pick?
“I joined this band called The Primitives, and we were renting this house in Northampton, which was the first house I shared with other guys in a band.There was this other guy called Dave in there, which is my given name, and girls were on the horizon… and so they said I had to change my name. They all had long hair, and I had short hair because I was signing on and they made you go to job interviews, so I was covering myself with cravats and things, and they used to say I looked like a character out of Pickwick
Papers. So it was ‘Pickwick’ initially, but it got shortened to Pick. And I don’t think there’s many people left that call me Dave!”
You had a good grounding early on, playing in Italy and in Germany…
“I went to Germany with a Leicester band. We went to Hamburg – basically did what The Beatles did. It was quite a baptism really. You’re very green, you go in these establishments and you think you’re going to play for an hour, and you end up playing for six hours! And you don’t have a repertoire! All of a sudden you’re there for two months and you’ve got a repertoire of 60 songs… and you play at talent shows, and you play in the afternoons for the youth, and in the evenings I played in some real dives – which being a provincial lad from Leicester, I really
“They wouldn’t let me be the guy who fell in when the band had to get into marching formation. This other guy did it, who couldn’t play for squat, and I had to bolster his feeble attempts at playing the drums”
didn’t clock what was going on. There were ‘hostess bars’ and things. It was rough.”
That must have been a really good grounding for what came later, though...
“It really galvanises you. You either fall apart very quickly because you can’t compromise with each other’s personality aspects you don’t like… but it’s also timing, when you’re young nothing much matters. The accommodation was very basic – ‘frugal’ would do it a disservice! So you’re there and there’s nothing much to do really but drink, play and play. And also I think it was more eclectic in those days. We did stuff from West Side Story; we just pinched it off other bands that we heard.”
Back in England, you hooked up with cult prog band Spring…
“Which I’m immensely proud of. We did two albums, the second of which laid unreleased for years. And there’s stuff on there – there are elements that date it, but the playing on it, and the broadness of the music… it’s in the progressive era, it became a cult thing. In fact Mark [Knopfler] got a bit p**sed off because we were in America and somebody came into the dressing room after a gig with the Spring album, and Mark thinks it’s something he wants signed by him, like, ‘No, no, no – Pick!’… [laughs], which really put his nose out! Which was a great pyrrhic victory for me that day!”
How did you adapt to the more complex demands of that kind of progressive music?
“It seemed like a natural progression. I mean it’s drums isn’t it? You’re not employing different rhythms. You might be more gainfully employed in the conversation, as opposed to, a lot of guitar players really do want drummers just to play time, and they want drums with big balls, which becomes tedious. [In Spring] you were more gainfully employed and you played all the drums. Not to excess. When I first recorded, back to the white coat era of engineers, I used to put fills in that I thought, ‘Oh this is my best fill,’ and you’d go back and listen to it and think it’s just s**t because it’s completely inappropriate – it’s just you saying something inappropriate. Why do you keep butting in? This is a conversation, not a competition for attention.”
You then played on quite a lot of folk music through your association with Rockfield studio, Magna Carta, Ralph McTell, Rab Noakes, which must have been another gear change again.
“There’s something about playing at the lower levels of a drum’s dynamic range – it’s not easy. When I was teaching, drummers are invariably loud and clumsy, because it’s the only way to start really until you get some sensitivity. You ask pupils to play quietly and they feel like they’re treading on eggshells; it completely intimidates them. So again I found it a really useful new element of playing, and I don’t like to play loud anymore – I like to represent a good dynamic range.”
You joined Dire Straits and the band took off quite quickly, didn’t it?
“It really took off in a very short space of time. We had this perfect storm. John [Illsley] the bass player is really a businessman, and he had access to Charlie Gillett, a well known DJ, who had a radio show on LBC on Sundays, r’n’b. It was a very good show, and people listened to it just because he endorsed a lot of good music. We basically went to see him to get a response to this demo we’d made, but he said, ‘Look, I never listen to it in your company, but I’ll let you know what I feel.’ That same weekend he played one of the cuts from the demo tape on the radio and so we phoned him up and he said, ‘We got a lot of response from the business, we got an A&R guy call up.’ We followed that up and it was like a snowball – it just created this momentum that ended up with a record contract.”
So not much time spent as struggling musicians in Dire Straits, financially, as the name implied?
“They all had day jobs; I was the only one who was doing it professionally. Mark was a teacher – he was uniquely poised because he’d done a stint as a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post, which honed his observational skills, and he had the teaching, then he’d play guitar until he fell asleep. Self-taught, you know. They were good times, because again it was another band that played its own material. It wasn’t really a pop band about image and sexual undercurrent, it was music per se – some people thought it was a bit too precious. But we sold a lot of records so it became a pop band; if you sell records, it’s popular.”
Did you have any idea that you were onto something when you recorded that first album?
“Not really. I was just doing something I enjoyed; a lot of the time I enjoyed recording a lot more than I enjoyed playing live. There’s less turbulence, as I call it. It’s like holding a magnifying glass up to your playing – the microphone doesn’t give you any leniency at all. If you make a mistake, it’s there; if you fluff something, it’s there; if the sound is not particularly good, it’s there. As you go through the maturing process, you tend to not listen correctly, and I’ve been with other people recording later on in my career when they’ve gone, ‘I want to do it again,’ because they’ve heard themselves make a mistake, and I’m saying, ‘No – the mistake stays. Unless you can repair it, the mistake stays because we’ll never get this feel again.’
“That’s why a lot of the stuff in the 60s is so visceral, it doesn’t apologise for what it is, but
Pick has given his endorsement to Soo Drums, crafted by Thai drummaker Sanchai Kusolpisarnsut