Nail­ing UK rock’s most de­mand­ing beats with Jamie Len­man

Rhythm - - CON­TENTS -

When ex-Reuben front­man Jamie Len­man found him­self with a bunch of songs but no drum­mer, it was ex-Reuben roadie and God­sized sticks­man Dan Ka­vanagh who sug­gested they jam. De­spite some of the tough­est drumming chal­lenges he’d ever faced, Ka­vanagh proved him­self one of Len­man’s great­est mu­si­cal al­lies, help­ing him com­plete a wealth of songs, record­ing the bru­tal drum parts for two al­bums – Mus­cle­Me­mory and 2017’s ex­cel­lent De­volver – and han­dling drum du­ties on the road (where he also sings back­ing vo­cals, as if his job wasn’t hard enough).

How­ever this is no or­di­nary mu­si­cal pair­ing. You see, even back in his Reuben days Len­man was the head hon­cho, con­trol­ling ev­ery­thing – in­clud­ing the drums – in or­der to re­alise the mu­si­cal pic­tures he painted in his brain. While most drum­mers would never let the gui­tarist call the shots, Len­man, a long-term Dave Grohl fan, earned his rhyth­mic stripes play­ing drums in a num­ber of bands and de­vel­oped an im­pres­sive knack for writ­ing com­plex, in­tri­cate and left­field beats. Al­though short-lived, Reuben were leg­endary in Bri­tish rock cir­cles – Len­man’s pup­pet-mas­ter ap­proach clearly worked.

When it came to cre­at­ing the beats for his solo ma­te­rial, it was only go­ing to hap­pen one way – Len­man would con­jure drum parts in his head and to­gether he and Ka­vanagh would bring them to life, how­ever im­pos­si­ble they seemed at first. Ap­pro­pri­ately, Len­man’s new­est al­bum De­volver is a drum­mer’s dream, chock-full of unique polyrhythms, ex­tended drum breaks and slabs of groove un­der­pin­ning ev­ery tune. The al­bum not only show­cases Len­man’s drum-writ­ing gift, but also Ka­vanagh’s po­tent abil­ity be­hind the kit and com­mit­ment to re­al­is­ing the front­man’s ec­cen­tric and some­times per­plex­ing vi­sion. The duo is cur­rently touring the UK, with a Ge­n­e­sis-in­spired dou­ble drumming spec­tac­u­lar form­ing part of the set. Just be­fore Christ­mas we grilled them about mak­ing De­volver a re­al­ity, the ap­peal of rhythm and drumming, and their most un­con­ven­tional of work­ing re­la­tion­ships.

Dan, how did you first get to know Jamie?

Dan Ka­vanagh: “It was at The Rooms re­hearsal stu­dios where I used to work and where Reuben re­hearsed. The first time I met them they were writ­ing InNoth­ingWeTrust, around 2006. One week­end they were play­ing three shows and Jamie asked me to gui­tar tech for them. I didn’t know any­thing about guitars, but he said, Just‘ carry a few guitars about!’”

Jamie Len­man: “We worked his way up to tun­ing guitars. You were a gui­tar tech first of all, then Guy [Davis, Reuben drum­mer] was like, ‘Do you want to tech my drums?’ Then you’d drive the van and do what­ever needed do­ing.”

How did the re­la­tion­ship de­velop to play­ing mu­sic to­gether?

DK: “Af­ter Reuben split up Jimbo had loads of ideas and I ca­su­ally said, ‘If you want to hook up and go down The Rooms and muck about, it’d be a laugh’. Years later and I’m try­ing to play ‘The Six Fin­gered Hand’ un­der hot lights. Ob­vi­ously I was a big fan of Reuben and I knew that what­ever Jim’s got in his head is prob­a­bly pretty f**king de­cent. Let’s get it out of his sys­tem, and I wanted to hear it if noth­ing else.

“I was never think­ing I would record these songs. It was be­yond my abil­ity. I called him up and said, ‘Look, you’re go­ing to have to start think­ing about who’s go­ing to do [the record­ing].’ As much as I wanted to do it I was aware that it was go­ing to be ter­ri­ble on the day. The red light goes on, this is how much it costs per day and I phys­i­cally couldn’t play some of those beats.”

Ul­ti­mately you did end up record­ing the drums for Mus­cle­Me­mory though. Did you have much record­ing ex­pe­ri­ence up to that point Dan?

DK: “No, that’s the first al­bum I tracked.” JL: “Is it?! Mus­cle­Me­mory? Thirty songs in two days. F**king hell!” DK: “I’d done a cou­ple of sin­gles and band demos. I’d been in nice stu­dios a cou­ple of times, so I un­der­stood the process, but that had been re­ally easy pop mu­sic. I’ve got quite low self es­teem as a drum­mer and I re­mem­ber be­ing quite anx­ious about it all. I re­mem­ber ask­ing Jamie be­fore [the ses­sions], ‘If we f**k up, do we stop?’ And he said, “No, be­cause you might play some­thing bril­liant right af­ter it.’” JL: “We were both un­der a lot of pres­sure, but the Mus­cle­Me­mory ses­sions with Daniel were prob­a­bly the eas­i­est I’ve had with a drum­mer.”

Did you come out of Mus­cle­Me­mory with more con­fi­dence in your abil­ity, Dan?

DK: “It’s prob­a­bly some­thing psy­cho­log­i­cal I’ve got. I don’t look at it like I’m onto the next level, I think I should have prac­tised more and that it should have been eas­ier. Say­ing that, be­ing in a band with him has been, in a drum sense, the best pos­si­ble ed­u­ca­tion.

“Some­one asked me re­cently what be­ing in a band with you was like. I said he’s de­mand­ing but pa­tient. What peo­ple don’t un­der­stand is that he will stand there for three hours quite hap­pily and let me go around a drum beat un­til I can play it. I think we’ve got some sort of weird chip miss­ing in our brains that we’ll both just do that!”

JL: “We just like drums man! I’m in­ter­ested in it. I’m even in­ter­ested in when peo­ple play drums in­cor­rectly. I’m in­ter­ested in that puz­zle. If we’ve got a par­tic­u­larly tough drum beat that I’m try­ing to get through to Daniel, as adept as he is and how­ever strong our work­ing re­la­tion­ship is, some­times it just won’t get through and I’m

in­ter­ested in how I can com­mu­ni­cate it to him, or how we can un­lock things. We’ve gone for hours and we can’t quite get it, and then some­how it clicks. It’s quite ex­cit­ing.”

Jamie, drums and rhythm seem to be a thread that runs through all your mu­sic, from Reuben up to your solo ma­te­rial?

JL: “Def­i­nitely. If I’m not ac­tu­ally phys­i­cally play­ing drums, I’m al­ways play­ing them in my brain, if that makes sense? Even when I’m play­ing the gui­tar on my own. It sounds so stupid to say, but I have drums in my head, I’m play­ing them with my in­vis­i­ble brain-hands when my ac­tual hands are play­ing gui­tar.”

What is it about rhythm that sings to you?

JL: “It’s just the ba­sis of ev­ery­thing. I can’t use any bet­ter word than foun­da­tion. You build ev­ery­thing on top of that. You can’t re­ally start un­til you’ve got the drums. I’ve al­ways been more in­ter­ested in drum licks. I’m con­vinced that Grohl’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ beat is more to do with the suc­cess of the track than Kurt’s riff. When Dave plays that beat it’s just in­cred­i­ble. More than the vo­cals and the riff, it gives it a real rhythm. And that’s why it got to num­ber seven in the UK charts, be­cause peo­ple could feel that dance­abil­ity.”

Dan, what do you think makes a good drum beat?

DK: “I think what makes a good drum beat is it be­ing in a good song. There are bits of drumming that amaze me and there are great beats that I love play­ing, but with­out hav­ing some­thing that it’s a part of… say ‘Song For The Dead’ by Queens Of The Stone Age. Imag­ine if that drum in­tro fin­ished and the guitars didn’t come in, it wouldn’t sound great. I don’t re­ally think much about beats on their own. But ul­ti­mately for me it’s feel, that’s what makes a good drum­mer.”

Jamie, do you write riffs and vo­cal melodies from a per­cus­sive per­spec­tive?

JL: “I sup­pose I do, es­pe­cially the stuff on this new al­bum. If you lis­ten to some­thing like ‘Mis­sis­sippi’, that riff, and even when it gets go­ing, it’s much more per­cus­sive than it is melodic. That’s al­ways been my way. I play down­tuned with all the strings set to chords so it’s just one fin­ger at a time. I sup­pose the gui­tar parts I write are very rhyth­mic. In the same way that on ‘The End’ where all three gui­tarists in The Bea­tles have that big gui­tar bat­tle and you can hear very dis­tinctly which Bea­tle is which be­cause Paul is very tech­ni­cal, Ge­orge is very flow­ery and Len­non’s parts are on one string and it’s about a rhythm rather than go­ing ev­ery­where. I play per­cus­sively on the gui­tar as well; maybe be­cause I’m not that good, but maybe be­cause of that re­la­tion­ship with the drums. That makes me feel bet­ter about my­self, thanks!”

Jamie, what is it about Dan’s ap­proach to drumming that makes your work­ing re­la­tion­ship click?

JL: “He just never says no. The other drum­mers I’ve worked with, if you’ve got some big pic­ture in your brain and you say ‘let’s play this’, some­times they’d go ‘I don’t know’, or they’d go into it half-hearted. I’m sure Dan would agree with me that since he’s been play­ing with me – and not due to me, he did a long stint in God­sized as well – he’s twice the drum­mer he was.

“I would sug­gest things to Guy [Davis, Reuben drum­mer] that were well within his range and he still might say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t fancy that.’ Be­cause it was an equal part­ner­ship he had that right of veto. Daniel ain’t got no rights, so if I say to him, ‘Let’s do this,’ even if it’s well be­yond his skillset, he’s like, ‘Let’s see what hap­pens,’ and just go for it. We’d spend a lot of in­tense nights jam­ming it out, but we’d get there, to the point where he’s play­ing things that he was pre­vi­ously in­ca­pable of and I couldn’t have achieved with any pre­vi­ous set-up.”

Jamie, what’s your process for com­ing up with drum parts and is Dan in­volved in the writ­ing at all?

JL: “Not re­ally. These days I write it all in my brain first, but then it’s good to come to Daniel. I come to prac­tice and I go, ‘Play this, let’s do that, maybe not that there,’ and we go through it un­til we’ve got what we want. It starts as a full drum beat in my head, but it’s prob­a­bly got a cou­ple of strag­gly bits it doesn’t need. Then I like to hear it on the kit with an ac­tual pro­fes­sional drum­mer play­ing it. Even if you’ve got it on some nice drum pro­gram on your com­puter, that can’t com­pete with the feel of a mu­si­cian. I’ve done demos that I’ve thought are pretty sweet, I’ve taken them to DK and we play it live and it adds a completely dif­fer­ent di­men­sion, even though we’re play­ing ex­actly the same thing.”

DK: “I get a lot of credit for the drums, which he deserves. He writes it, man. Of­ten we’ll be in a re­hearsal room and he’s got a new song and he’s got this apolo­getic look, be­cause he knows the idea can be done, but he knows it’s go­ing to suck for me. It’s made me an in­fin­itely bet­ter mu­si­cian, not just a drum­mer. No one’s ever ques­tioned [my play­ing] in the bands I was in be­fore. To have that dy­namic change was ob­vi­ously good for me. That’s some­thing a lot of mu­si­cians are prob­a­bly too pre­cious about.”

The drum parts on De­volver have a very unique style, clearly metic­u­lously crafted…

JL: “I think I’ve done the most work on drums on

De­volver than I have on any other be­cause I knew it was go­ing to be very rhyth­mi­cally based. You can hear on sev­eral of the tracks, ei­ther at the start of the song or when the song’s fin­ished, all the in­stru­ments cut out and we’ve got 30 sec­onds to a minute of just the beat car­ry­ing on. It’s very beat-led. One of the sin­gles is even called ‘Hard­beat’. The gui­tar parts are the per­cus­sion and it’s the drum beat that is the riff re­ally. I worked hard on it, and dif­fer­ent per­mu­ta­tions of that same beat. I wasn’t sure it was quite pos­si­ble un­til me and Daniel worked it out.”

Are there any spe­cific beats on De­volver that you re­mem­ber tak­ing a while to chisel down?

JL: “The main beat for ‘Mis­sis­sippi’. It drives the song with all the toms go­ing in and out, but you’ve got to keep that hi-hat con­stant. That’s al­ways one of my lit­tle fetishes. I get p**sed off when some­one’s play­ing 16th beats and they miss one out be­cause they’ve got to hit the snare. Imag­ine how awe­some it would be if you could go right through on the hi-hat. There’s al­ways a way you can get round to things. I thought about how it would be pos­si­ble in my brain be­fore I got Dan to do it. He just took it in his stride, like he takes ev­ery­thing in his stride.”

DK: “I agree. The bit that prob­a­bly cre­ated the most grief dur­ing the whole De­volver process was play­ing an off­beat hi-hat.”

JL: “That’s re­ally why I’m not such a good drum­mer, and that’s why I don’t drive a car ei­ther, be­cause drum­mers have got to do four dif­fer­ent things with all their ap­pendages. Some­times con­tra­dic­tory things. And es­pe­cially be­cause I like to write a lot of poly-beats. Very of­ten your left hand and right hand only match ev­ery 12 bars. That’s much more com­plex than a very loaded, straight part. You sort of have to trick your brain.”

Off­beat hi-hats aside, which beats on De­volver are the most sat­is­fy­ing for a drum­mer to play, and why?

DK: “Prob­a­bly ‘Mis­sis­sippi’. I don’t mean the sig­na­ture beat, I mean the bor­ing bit near the end. I think that’s where the song is at its most pow­er­ful. As a fan, that’s the bit of the song I like the most. The bit at the end of ‘De­volver’ that I strug­gled with is just heavy, too. It’s not the quick­est bit, but it’s weighty, slow and loud.”

JL: “Those bits you picked out are both bits where what I’m play­ing on the gui­tar completely locks in. There’s noth­ing that Dan’s do­ing with the kick or snare that I’m not repli­cat­ing.”

Were you breath­ing down Dan’s neck when he was record­ing his parts, Jamie?

JL: “Oddly enough, on this record I played live ev­ery time with Dan. That was part of the con­cep­tion of do­ing it as a two-piece. When we did ‘Mis­sis­sippi’ and maybe even ‘Fast Car’, I’d do one run-through and [pro­ducer] Space would play it through to Kav again, but when we were do­ing the mid­dle tracks I was hav­ing such fun play­ing it through the stu­dio to Kav. You don’t need a good gui­tar sound when you’re just do­ing a guide gui­tar for the drum­mer, but be­cause the gui­tar sound was so good and I could hear the drums through the speak­ers it sounded bril­liant and I wanted to play it again. That’s when I thought that if we could do it with just the two of us it would make for a much more ex­cit­ing live show, sim­pler and more fun. From then we tracked ev­ery­thing live.”

It must be a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge tak­ing this ma­te­rial live?

DK: “It re­ally is. That’s the stuff that I feel more of an ac­com­plish­ment with. I’m proud of the records be­cause that’s what I al­ways wanted to do, make proper al­bums. But the stuff we’ve done live? That’s the stuff I ac­tu­ally look back and go, ‘F**king hell, we’re a dan­ger­ous band.’ I’ve re­ally played my part in that.

“The live stuff is re­ally chal­leng­ing, but re­ally re­ward­ing. There’s so much singing as well. That’s a funny thing be­cause I’ve got no right to sing – there’s no lessons or any­thing there. I had to let go of drumming [to make that hap­pen]. I’m quite sur­prised about a lot of the stuf I can even­tu­ally play and sing, but we’ve dis­cussed be­fore that some­times you’ve got to make a de­ci­sion. You can’t be do­ing that fill and singing that note. Nor­mally we choose the note. That’s such an im­por­tant point. You want to hear har­mony more than the fill.”

“I’ve done demos that I’ve thought are pretty sweet, I’ve taken them to Dan and we play it live and it adds a completely dif­fer­ent di­men­sion”

Dan Ka­vanagh (left) and Jamie Len­man will be do­ing a drum bat­tle at their live shows

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