Behind the kit with the Brit drumming star
With a career under his belt spanning several decades as one of the UK’s top sticks-men, Steve White has more drumming knowledge than most of us will ever manage to amass in a lifetime. So, who better than Steve to subject to a light grilling in our Behind The Drums feature?
What was your first drum kit?
“It was a £35 combination of a John Grey Drum with a British-made Rogers snare drum. The bass drum was blue, the toms were red and the snare drum was a steel shell. The bass drum had a spur missing so every time I hit the tom it fell over. I had no cymbal stands.”
Who was your first drum hero?
“The very first drum hero that I had before I discovered Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Louie Bellson was Sandy Nelson. When I was young and I first showed some interest in the drums my dad gave me a 7" vinyl of ‘Let There Be Drums’ by Sandy Nelson. That sound, which was very Gene Krupa-esque, was so deep and had so much reverb around it and I thought it sounded amazing. For the first few months of my playing, Sandy Nelson was my hero. Then I got given a compilation record called Kings Of Percussion, which featured
Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Louie Bellson and that was it for me!”
What is the one piece of gear you couldn’t live without?
“Joshua Henry produced the Bill Fay record that I’ve recently done and he said he thought I had a snare drum sound that was completely of my own. He was showcasing different records I had played on and had me listening to the snare sound. So, I would say my snare drum. The snare is central to everything. I have kept it consistent on all of the records I’ve played on, I’ve had that consistent backbeat, I don’t rim shot, it’s either grace notes or a strong backbeat. So it would be a snare, but I have far too many of them to pick one!”
What’s the biggest onstage nightmare you’ve ever had?
“I have a memory of being onstage at the Barrowlands in Glasgow and my double pedal broke – and then the power went onstage and we didn’t know whether to keep playing or not. We stopped, even though Paul [Weller] didn’t want us to and he was shouting at us. It was like one of those horrible dreams where you have nothing on in front of 10,000 people! It was awful. It was a bunch of things that happened within about two minutes. The audience probably didn’t even notice but it felt like a lifetime. You just feel so helpless and it is not the kind of situation that I am very good at. I get panicky quite quickly.”
Who would you most like to take a drum lesson from?
“That’s an interesting one. I think if I could have a lesson with anyone at all I’d love to have had a lesson with Gene Krupa. He was clearly a learned drummer and he was an educator as well. He studied with some great percussion teachers in his early days. I think Gene Krupa would have been a really good teacher.”
What’s the proudest moment of your career?
“There was a coming together when myself, Paul Weller and my brother went down to see David Garibaldi, Chad Smith, Bernard Purdie and Ginger Baker at an event called Drums In The Bush, around 1995. When we were on our way to this gig we met up with Paul and found out that Stanley Road had gone to No 1.I got to meet four of my absolute drum heroes and I was there as a drummer on a No 1 album at the same time.We smuggled a few beers in to drink while we watched the gig and I remember thinking, ‘It doesn’t get much better than this.’ Being in a rehearsal room with Paul Weller and Amy Winehouse was special as well. As was being onstage with Jon Lord playing to 40,000 people in São Paulo, Brazil.”
What is your biggest strength as a drummer?
“My ability to listen. It’s as simple as that. My greatest strength is that I am actually quite a good musician. That transcends technique, speed and all of the fireworks. It’s your ability to listen and interpret what a songwriter or composer wants. That’s why I get work.”
And your biggest weakness?
“That I still have to practise quite a lot to keep what I’ve got. I’m not in any way a natural player, I work hard at it. I love playing but it is something that I have to constantly work at. I work at it on a day-to-basis. These days it is lots of rudimental patterns, single stokes, double strokes – things that keep my technique in good shape. Then, a lot of stuff with a metronome: consistency and stamina. I’ll take a groove like the Amen Break and I’ll put a metronome on and play it for 10 minutes and then I’ll take the metronome up to 120bpm for 10 minutes.”
What is the track you wish you’d played on?
“The track that I am deadly jealous of is Wuthering‘ Heights’ by Kate Bush. I love Kate Bush. Seeing her was one of my favourite ever concerts, Omar Hakim was playing drums. The album this song is from, The Kick Inside, was on endless rotation at home, I think my dad was a bit in love with Kate Bush when it came out in 1978. I love the pace of that song, it is an absolutely amazing pop track. It reminds me of my childhood and getting into music.”
Self-taught or schooled?
“I was self-taught to start with. I joined a Boy’s Brigade band and I was shown what was then called a mummy-daddy roll and a single-stroke roll. I preserved on my own for a year or so before I started lessons with a drummer called George Scott who was very strict about rudiments and got me playing from the Gene Krupa book, and the Buddy Rich book. He showed me the importance of practice and education.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“A musician from Rhodesia – which has, of course, since became Zimbabwe – named Louis Malanga said to me once that when you play the drums you should think about what it would be like to have to listen to you playing the drums and could you dance to it? That, to me, as a musician, really stuck. In a lot of the work I have done over the years, all of which I am proud of, you are there to supply the beat for a lot of people who have paid money to come and have a great time. When you hear a drummer playing with a lot of technique but no emotion it might as well be the sound of a jar of bees being shaken.”
Hats, kick and snare or Terry Bozzio-esque set-up?
“I really feel that I have become the kind of drummer that plays a stripped-back kit. On the recent recording I did for Bill Fay, every tempo was around 80bpm – playing quarter notes on the ride, single or a brush, or a very low 12/8 blues – and I absolutely loved it. I know the more drum-tastic readers of this magazine might think that there’s nothing really going on, but there’s actually a lot happening there. It’s more about how the drums are tuned and then geting the most out of the kit.”
“Your ability to listen to what a songwriter wants transcends technique, speed and all of the fireworks”
“I’ve become the kind of drummer who plays a stripped-back kit”
Steve White: “The snare is central to everything”