Pick with­ers

Dire Straits

Rhythm - - CON­TENTS - Words: Chris Burke pho­tos: olly cur­tis

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

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