Rich "Doc Spoons" SpoonerInterview by Sean Mitchell // October 02 2009
It’s invaluable to have a second pair of ears, someone you can run ideas past, and preferably someone who is absolutely, brutally honest with you. Oh, and always carry a pair of drumsticks in your bag or the car. You never know!
Often people ask musicians why do we do it? Why the hours of dedication to practice? Why the sleepless nights of travel? Why the struggle to perform at our best when there is never any guarantee that there will be room for us at the top? Why the need to play even when the dollar figures can be less than desirable at the end of the night? Of course we smile and call it paying our dues.
In reality you only need to look to players like Rich Spooner to truly grasp the love of music that exists in the soul of a human being. For Rich the need to express oneself is simple; to leave something behind, to leave a mark on history, to tell the world we were here.
It is fitting then that Rich has recently become a father for the first time. The man with Europe’s biggest groove now takes on the role of dad, as he forges a place in music history for himself in a new country.
As a busy session player, educator and all around talented bloke, Rich and family have much to be grateful for. Switzerland’s newest resident will no doubt begin to change the landscape of the Swiss music scene for good. And when young Jack Spooner has children of his own, he will one day be able to look back on his past and know that the integrity and determination of his father has left a legacy that a son can truly be proud of. Is there any better reason than that?
Let’s start with a bit of your background, Doc. Where did you spend your formative learning years as a drummer?
At age 14, I got my first kit, an old 1960s Olympic, and spent my time at home listening to the music I grew up with, trying to work out what they were playing and how I could copy it. I couldn’t get lessons at school as music was quite elitist, and I wasn’t exactly the best behaved of students. I joined a band of schoolmates as soon as I could hold down a beat and learned most of my early skills by jamming with the bassist and guitarist. I am by my own admission a terrible student and would always try and master something on my own through trial and error and lots of swearing.
I was out earning money working with bands before I could drive. I played lots of covers with pub bands, did blues gigs, celidh gigs (Irish/Celtic folk music for dancing), pop gigs, original stuff, musicals, pantomimes—absolutely anything I could turn my hand to I had a go at. So I learned a lot from just getting out there. With that in mind I guess you could say I am predominantly self taught but had my first drum lesson after five years of gigging with the very patient Martin Herne (The Drifters) to help me with music theory, sight reading and to explore Latin rhythms. I liked working with Martin very much and I continued lessons where possible until I moved to London in my early 20s. More recently in the last couple of years I visited a fantastic tutor in London, Neil Martin (Jimmy Barnes Band). He helped me with fine tuning my technique, The Moeller Method and loads of other stuff when I was feeling a bit down on my playing. He totally re-inspired me. Cheers, Neil.
Who were your influences?
The players I had listened to from an early age were all in my mom and dad’s music collection: Ringo, John Bonham, Mick Fleetwood, Nick Mason, Mitch Mitchell, Stewart Copeland and Keith Moon. I love listening to all those guys, but the biggest influences on my playing I guess were Bonham for his power and Moon for his showmanship.
You are a heavy groove player. When you listen back to the tracks of the old masters of groove like Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks, what resonates most about their playing for you?
I love the fact that I could listen to those guys play all day with no accompaniment. The grooves have such gravity and are so heavy you can’t help but move. Seriously, if they don’t make you nod your head or tap your feet then you must be dead! They are both great to watch too. There are plenty of videos floating around on YouTube that have this heavy, heavy drumming, and the guys are just relaxed, smiling and grooving like a train. It’s just superb playing and natural feel. I’m not really one for analyzing drummers unless it’s for a student or a magazine article, but Clyde, Jabo and Steve Jordan just compel me to take a closer look.
Tell me about the production team Groove Criminals.
I’m just a very small percussive cog in the creative soup that is The Groove Criminals. They are a secretive sample production team based in underground beat-bunker buried in wilds of deepest Suffolk (UK). Led by my best mate, godfather to my son, programmer, producer and occasional deejay, Hoodee. The Groove Criminals provide copyright free sample material in a huge variety of styles including regular monthly sample contributions for the cover-mounted DVDs of various music magazines, as well as sample CDs and music software, apps for iPhones etc. In fact, you name it, The Groove Criminals have probably sampled it or made a sample for it. I just do the live acoustic drum kit and Latin percussion loops when needed. (www.groovecriminals.co.uk)
What is your philosophy on educating a student?
For new players I try to make it fun first. It’s important that the student enjoys playing and doesn’t get too bogged down in technique too early. Of course it has its place, but I feel its more important to get a feel for music and the role the drummer plays in a band before it all gets too serious. I have heard players with insane chops that just can’t play good time or play simple without showing off the latest lick or trick. With students that have been playing a while or have reached a brick wall in their development I will try to look at their technique, style, kit set up etc. and correct any bad habits that may have formed, then we can move on to developing areas they are interested in. Most of my students will probably agree they have heard me at some point say, “Without solid foundations a building gets out of shape and collapses. It’s exactly the same with music. Drums are a foundation; keep it simple, solid and sounding slick and when you’ve got that sorted you can look at the flashy stuff.” If you’ve got the chops, that’s great but use it where appropriate, and, hey, sometimes you don’t have to use it at all. I know it’s been said before but I’ll say it again anyway: If you want to earn money as a drummer you will earn more by playing good time than you will throwing your bag of tricks into the audience every two seconds.
As you entered the music industry, who were the teachers that made the biggest impact on your career choice?
I think the best teachers throughout my career have been the musicians I have had the opportunity of working with; people who have been pro for years and had some real experience to share. I’ve been lucky to work with and alongside some great guitarists like Aynsley Lister, Tony McGill, Robin Trower and Walter Trout, bassists like Paul Francis, Midus and Paul Downing, producers and engineers like Pete Smith, Phil Harding and Ian Curnow. And thankfully they liked my playing, offered tips and I listened and took on board advice and tried to put it into practice where possible. I can safely say the best tuition and most valuable lessons came from other musicians who were not drummers but were able to communicate what they wanted to hear from a drummer.
Tell me about the artists you are currently working with.
I worked with British guitarist Aynsley Lister from the beginning of 2006 after a chance meeting in an Indian restaurant in Milton Keynes (UK), and I did my last gig with Aynsley just before I moved to Switzerland. He is a fantastic player. We did a lot of touring all over the world, drank a lot of wine and had a tremendous amount of fun on the road. Classic Rock magazine had us up amongst the top 10 blues rock bands for the new millennium along with John Mayer and Derek Trucks. We are firm friends and I look forward to working with him again sometime in the future. His new album Equilibrium is out now. (www.aynsleylister.co.uk)
Oli Brown is another blues rock artist who I met through touring with Aynsley, Oli is a ferocious player and at 19 has so much talent its scary. His regular drummer Simon Dring is a good mate of mine and asked me to dep for some of the tour last October. It was a pleasure to play with Oli and his bassist Freddy Hollis. Their debut album is out now and they are touring the UK and Europe in the autumn (www.oliselectricblues.co.uk)
Dun The Veil is an Irish Country Music project that came about as a spin off from a variety of other bands I had been working with in London. The main songwriter Paul Murray is such good fun to work with. His recording sessions are madcap fun and absolutely exhausting. The band had a hit with “The Tractor Song” in Ireland in 2001, I think, and have now followed it up with some new singles. The clever video for “Tears on The Window Pane” on YouTube had over 350,000 plays and the singles are having airplay all over the USA and Europe. It’s cool as long as I don’t have to wear a cowboy hat at a gig! (www.duntheveil.co.uk)
My first project since moving to Switzerland is with Austin, a Swiss songwriter who has just put his first band together. He has had a single and album release on a Swiss label over the last couple of years as a solo artist and wanted his own band behind him. I answered an add on a Swiss music site and auditioned for the gig. It’s good fun and relaxed, and we did our first gig as a band at the top of a mountain in Zug at an open-air festival on August 1st--1750 metres above sea level. A great view and a good laugh! (www.austinplanet.com)
You are from the UK originally and now drumming finds you in a new homeland. Why the move to Switzerland?
My wife is Swiss, and when we discovered we were to have a child I decided that I would have a break from touring to be around for her pregnancy and help out whilst my boy Jack was young. We also wanted him to be brought up somewhere safe and where as a family we can make the most of an outdoor lifestyle. Switzerland offers us all that and a better standard of living than in the UK. Plus being right in the middle of Europe, it’s perfect for me. As a drummer I am not tied to being anywhere in particular to do the job I do.
How does a guy move to a new country (never mind a new city) and go about getting gigs?
I was lucky as I wasn’t under pressure to immediately find work, as I had made a conscious decision to take some time out from drumming to focus on settling in, learning the language and preparing for the arrival of my son. Nevertheless before we moved I started trawling the internet looking for web-sites, musicians, shops, agents anything that would give me an insight into what was going on in Switzerland. My wife phoned a lot of people on my behalf and set up meetings with various drummers, store owners etc, so when we finally moved it was a case of getting out and meeting people, networking, getting your face about and trying to communicate. It’s hard work but when you finally get the chance to play, then the drums can talk for you. So it’s jam nights, loads of auditions and informal gigs that are the order of the day for me.
What advice can you give drummers who are considering a move to a new center?
Be proactive. New gigs and contacts is not going to happen if you don’t make it happen. But don’t be too pushy. Ease your way into the scene, find out who is who, check out local venues, studios, music shops, websites (social networking sites are great for this) go to some jam nights as a spectator before you make your entrance. And when you do decide to show your face as a player, don’t blaze in with all your best look-at-me chops! Take as many auditions as you can even if you don’t want the gig. You can always say no, but you never know whom you may meet and where that may lead.
What have been your challenges in being the new guy in town?
Mostly the language. Here in Switzerland there are four national languages: German, Swiss-German, French and Italian. I live in the German bit and although everyone can speak and understand German (Hochdeutsch) they all speak Swiss-German (Schwiizerdeutsch), which is not the same! I’m learning Hochdeutsch, which can be used throughout Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Also the Swiss accent varies wildly from city to city. Just as you get used to the Bernese dialect you go to Zurich and it’s totally different. Then you go to Fribourg (25 kms away from Bern) and it’s like being in France… It keeps you on your toes!
I have been deliberately low key in not pushing my website or MySpace too much, rather waiting until people asked for details or letting them find out by themselves. It can sometimes be the usual story when you go to a jam night and people know you have toured and have some endorsements etc; they’ll try and start a chopfest on the drums but that is not my scene at all. In the vast majority, the drummers and musicians I have met here have been so welcoming and friendly and are just happy to have another player to jam with or chat to, even if I do call them names by mistake on occasion.
What was the hardest part of learning a new language?
All of it is hard, but particularly the bloody grammar! In German its utterly endless. I still can’t see the point of a bus being male, a cat being female and a cup being neutral, and then there’s having the confidence to use what you have learnt and not feeling like a twit when people look at you if you ask for a cup of jam by mistake instead of coffee… and don’t even get me started on ordering coffee. You have no idea how long it took me to perfect an accent authentic enough to get a coffee I could actually stomach to drink. God only knows what I was ordering before!
What is the music scene like in Switzerland?
It is very vibrant. There are some really terrific players, some great amateur and semi-pro bands and some really great Swiss language bands/songwriters like The Lovebugs and Zuri West.
I’ve played and visited some superb music venues in Switzerland throughout my career, so I knew that there was a healthy live scene going on. Every small village seems to have at least one venue that has live music. There is a lot of jazz, blues, rock and metal, and in the summer there are literally hundreds of amazing open-air festivals. I’ve seen Steve Gadd, The Kings of Leon, Oasis, Travis, Bruce Springsteen, to name but a few, so it’s all there waiting for me. (laughs)
Who would be your dream gig and why?
I would love to play drums for BLUR, but then I also love Dave Rowntree as part of the band so I’ll have to say The Foo Fighters…. but then the same goes for Taylor Hawkins so I’m going to have to go for John Mayer, Graham Coxon (The Blur guitarist) Led Zep or The Who. Any of those. I’m not fussy!
You have had the pleasure of working with a great drum magazine, the UK’s Drummer magazine. How has the experience of being able to break tracks down and analyze them for an audience helped you as a player?
It has helped my listening skills and improved my transcription ability. It’s something I do a lot for my students with obscure stuff they bring me to check out or a particular fill or groove they want to learn, but, personally with players or songs I’m into it can be fun to pick apart the bones of a groove and see how it all fits together.
How did it come about that you would work with Drummer magazine?
Around the time I had finished my teaching qualification at Greenwich University I was working with a songwriter in the UK who also happens to be an amazing music photographer. When the magazine was launched he was asked to be the resident photographer and I found out through him they were looking for educational columnists. I happened to call on the day he had mentioned my name to the editor and was thrilled when they asked me to contribute and then very, very nervous when I realized that loads of drummers would be reading the stuff that came out of my head every month. But it was great, I really enjoyed it and got great correspondence from drummers as far a field as Australia and South Africa.
How do you network? What are the most effective ways you have utilized to keep yourself so busy?
By talking to people. Get out there and communicate, meet and greet, converse. It sounds so easy, but it is pretty hard to just walk in and start chatting to people (especially if your grasp of the native language is a bit dodgy, but it breaks the ice if you mistakenly call someone a turd.) Communicating or networking is a skill you have to learn and practice. Some people have it naturally and some of us have to work hard at gaining the confidence to do it. I try to talk to as many people as I can; you never know who you will meet. When you meet someone ask questions, soak up the answers like a sponge and use information that’s given to you wisely. Have a professional presence in everything you do. I try to ensure I always have a great set of current professional promo photos, a good looking website/MySpace and a business card always on hand that all have some kind of consistent branding or image. Also it’s invaluable to have a second pair of ears, someone you can run ideas past, and preferably someone who is absolutely, brutally honest with you. Oh and always carry a pair of drumsticks in your bag or the car. You never know!
What are the biggest mistakes players make in the self-promotion arena?
There are a few I think. Firstly the belief that just being a great player will get them gigs. You can be a maestro on any instrument but if you sit back and wait for the phone to ring and work to come to you, you’ll always be playing to your mum and the cat in your bedroom.
Secondly people who are too pushy/cocky. Once again you may be the next Vinnie Colaiuta but if you are a pain in the ass to hang out with, you won’t be working for long.
Thirdly, having the right promotional tools is key if you want to be noticed. A website/MySpace and press pack are all good tools you can use, but try and make it look as good as possible. Get some pro pictures taken but not by the photographer in the shopping mall. Maybe visit a college photography or web design course and see if a student will use you as a project. When you have a presence on the web try and make sure it’s spelled/translated correctly, up to date and maybe have a bio that’s written by someone else. Try and keep it brief and relevant to it’s purpose. Finally make sure you have the skills, both personal and musical, to back up your shop window!
Tell me about your snare sound. How do you achieve it, and what do you like to hear in a snare sound?
I have an obscene amount of snare drums but always fall back on two trusty classic drums that I seem to use for pretty much everything nowadays; they are my Ludwig 400 and 402 both from the 1970s with Blue & Olive badges. They are pretty much stock apart from the heads which are Aquarian Modern Vintage Medium on top and Classic Clear Snare on the bottom. The snare wires, which are Puresound, are 16 strand vintage on the 400 and Blasters series on the 402. I have packed out the nut boxes with expanding foam to get rid of some small vibrations from the spring mounts inside, and I use the internal dampers but not too cranked, just enough to take a little ring from the heads. I like to have the snares fairly loose and don’t crank the heads too high; a medium tension is good for a nice phat sound that is not too dry but not too zingy, I like the drum to feel good when I hit it, not like a rock hard surface. I use the 400 for most settings, as it’s so crisp and warm, however if a bit more power or depth is required then I break out the 402.
I do have a box fresh Ludwig Black Magic snare that is totally stock and sounds amazing, but I haven’t really had the time to play around with it yet. It has the potential to become my new favorite!
What do you have coming up in the near future?
For the moment I am still working on networking, making new contacts in Switzerland and Germany, jamming and doing auditions. I hope to do some more recording in the UK with The Chapel Brass Band project in December, and The Groove Criminals have a mad idea of producing a double drumming sample CD at some point. I have a single to record and some gigs with Austin in the latter half of the year, a classic rock cover band to jam with here in Bern and I’m working on setting up a small distribution company to get some of the great products I use over to the drummers here in Switzerland. Oh, and I have been asked to do some clinics in some Swiss drum stores in the autumn, as well as some teaching. A bit of mountain biking, hiking and by the beginning of November I hope, some skiing…. Oh yeah and being a dad of course, I like to be busy!
I just wanted the opportunity to say thank-you to all the guys and gals at Ludwig, Paiste, Vater, Hardcase, Protection Racket, Baskey, Bigfoot, Aquarian and my second pair of ears…THANK YOU!
About the Author
Sean has 15 years experience behind the kit, studying under greats like Mitch Dorge and participating in master classes with Dom Famularo and Zoro. It was these life-changing exchanges that prompted the Canadian-born drummer to create a global drumming community, The Black Page, that was easily accessible to drummers of all backgrounds and levels of expertise. In addition to his work with BP, Sean is one-half of the world soul group The Mitchells.
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