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James Hester

Interview by Rich "Doc Spoons" Spooner // April 14 2012
James Hester

I began by playing trumpet and realized that the guy behind me in the wind bands and orchestras were having a lot more fun than me.

People say the music business is a small circle, and with experience I can confirm that this is defiantly the case. At a certain level the same players’ names crop up and it’s always great to put a face to that name when your paths eventually cross. This was the case with the fine gentleman I am chatting to this month, James Hester. I had heard about his playing from a number of people on my travels and was pleased to finally catch up with him when he was in the audience for a concert I did at one of his very successful summer schools in the UK. After the show he introduced himself and said something like, “I like the way you hit; when it’s hit it stays hit!” James has a refreshing outlook on life and the music business and has a great way of cutting out all the BS and just saying, or focusing on what is important. In an industry so full of fragile egos and people pussy-footing around to please each other, it really is great to be friendly with someone who just says it the way they see it.


James, we first met a number of years ago when I was performing with my band at the IGF/Rhythm Week in Bath, a superb residential drumming education event which you organized for a number of years. Can you tell us a little more about it?

(laughs) Ok – the start of the Hester blags here!! I’ve been to every one of these courses since 2000. I had seen an ad in the back of Rhythm Mag for lessons with Pete Riley and my teacher (then as now). Steve White was really busy with Paul Weller, so I was looking for a student of Bob Armstrong’s to continue with. I saw Pete’s ad, went for lessons, then heard about the Rhythm Course. Initially I went as a student but then offered to help Pete sort the kits out the following year, as he was pretty much doing it all single handedly. He offered for me to have a free place on the course for doing that. As Pete got busier I ended up sorting out gear for the main clinicians, dealing with companies, rental people– all people I deal with now for myself–it’s how I met them, got to know them and became friends. As time went by I started to pick and organize the artists and eventually one year I stuck my name on the poster as a tutor. It’s a great course. I believe in it passionately and it’s one of the most fun weeks of the year for everyone involved. We’ve worked very hard to make it what it is and if you want to learn enough to keep you going for another year and be massively inspired, this is it!

Who or what inspired you to start playing and did you take lessons?

I began by playing trumpet and realized that the guy behind me in the wind bands and orchestras were having a lot more fun than me. My brother played keyboards in a band and told me I had no sense of rhythm and could never be a drummer, so when I heard that a local punk band had a gig coming up but no drummer, I said I’d do it. It gave me three weeks to get a kit, learn to play and gig. I’ve never been without a gig in the diary since that day. Did I have lessons? Yep, and still do sometimes. I’ve picked the brains of the best in the biz thanks to the Rhythm Course, but the main guys I learned most from are Pete Riley, Steve White and Stanton Moore, with honorable mentions to Craig Blundell, Mark Whitlam and Tim Brown. My students at BIMM teach me loads too! Basically I love listening to music – I love the feeling of listening to it as much when I’m part of making it as when I’m not, but when you’re part of the ensemble, that’s powerful. I love that now as I did when I was eight years old playing forth trumpet in some crappy school band; that’s why I started!

You are an extremely well respected educator, yourself. What do you think budding drummers should consider as part of their skill set aside from technical ability?

These three things:

I) Don't underestimate the benefits of psychology. Every aspect of this industry involves you dealing with a vast array of other people—songwriters, producers, other band members, agents, label bosses, venue owners, local crew, truck drivers, techs. The better you can communicate with them, the better you can do your job, do it how you want to do it (or get to the bottom of how they want it done), get them around to your way of thinking, etc. It can help you network properly (something people get very wrong), want people to be around you and work with you, keep you happy and generally deal with the day to day life and most importantly get you work and keep it (and enjoy it, because you're working probably getting your own way). Check out some NLP books and get Professor Robert Wiseman’s 59 Seconds.

2a) Be the best musician you can. This involves learning and developing the skills that the people employing you require. You want to be a session musician, get a recording set up, work to your own briefs, learn about mics, pre amps, all the facets of the job. Get your foot in a studio, make the tea, ask questions, tech for a session guy, drive him around, set his gear up, and ask him questions. Do free recordings for people to learn the ropes. Ask for feedback from the people around you. Learn to be a team player. It's all the things that you do on the drums that aren't drumming. The best people to ask about this are not drummers, anyone but drummers! This is the mental part of playing music.

2b) Be the best drummer you can. The key to longevity is versatility. Over the years I've met so many guys that have landed good gigs (myself included), thought 'this is it' only for it to inevitably come to an end; nothing lasts forever (unless you're Mick Jagger et al), so we have to dust ourselves off and re-evaluate. The thing that has kept me working is that I can teach, I can write for a magazine, I can play 1920s blues, I can play commercial music with a hip hop ethic, I can play post-hardcore insane music, and I can write books about crazy co-ordination and make it sound musical and unique. I try to do it all because I need to be able to do it all. You can specialize for sure, I know I have. There are things that I get booked to do because I do that particular thing very well, but you can be a master of all trades; it just takes bastard hard work. (Point 2a must always trump part 2b. Always strive to be a better musician than drummer).This is the physical part of playing music.

3) Don't procrastinate. Get on and do it. Don't say “I'm going to,” say “I am” or “I have.” Just get on with it. Sure you have to plan and network and do this and do that, but get on with it, and whilst you're doing that, plan the next thing. Always forward, always onwards and upwards. Every year you’re not on main stage at Reading is a year lost. There are gigs out there; someone has to play them, it might as well be you. Work out how you're going to get the gig, get on with it, get the gig, do the gig, plan the next one…next!

How did you land yourself the position of Head of Drums at BIMM Bristol, and can you tell us a bit about the course and what your role entails?

Ah well, I came back from touring with Malakai and Groove Armada and didn’t have any work. I’d worked at another college in the area, but I had to quit as they wouldn’t let me go on tour (yet they wanted me to teach students to be working musicians?!). So I had no work for a while. I’d heard a rumor that BIMM was starting up at Bristol and I had considered doing a course there as a student to get a qualification and fill the time, but before that Mark Clayden (college manager) called and offered to meet up. The position of Head of Drums was offered and so on we went. There are various courses and, to be honest, we cover the things in the above question. What do you need to do to work in the industry? What kind of player do you want to be? How will you get there? I work closely with the guys who work with the songwriters too, getting the right drummers in the right bands. They’ve all done incredibly well and deals are being made (and have been made) and I’m very proud of all of them. Myself, Jason Bowld, Mark Whitlam, Kieron Pepper and John Harper, we have incredibly high standards and the students work hard; they know what it takes to keep your head above water out there. It’s not a myth that you need to be lucky in the music business but luck is a combination of preparation and opportunity—you can create opportunities and when they come along you need to be prepared.

Why is teaching such a passion of yours?

I work with inspiring musicians so I strive to be an inspiring musician. By the same token, I was (and am) taught by motivating, forward thinking, inspiring teachers and I strive to be the same. I have a problem with most teachers actually. Most are in it for the wrong reasons and don’t have the skills to do their job to be very frank—you’ve caught me in a frank mood! People are unaware of both words involved in their job titles and that you have to be incredible at both of them. Music Business: you have to be an awesome musician and business person. Drum Teacher: you need to be incredible at drums and teaching. I really enjoyed doing my PG Cert (Ed) at BIMM (so I technically did do a course at BIMM!) and learned that teaching is a specialism, as is drums. Don’t short change the students as you may be letting down the next Benny Greb.

You have recently released your first book, Mind over Meter, which has become a personal favourite in my teaching studio. Where did you find the inspiration to put together such a work and where can people get a copy?

In between takes whilst recording the new Cars on Fire album actually. Seriously! I was finding myself using the same stickings and ideas all of the time for everything—just stickings that equate to groupings. So, a sticking that is three notes or five notes long, the book works with seven stickings. Then you can apply them to the seven main subdivisions. After you’ve mastered that, the sky is the limit. It really is. There’s nothing you can’t do—odd times, Indian patterns, linear grooves, creative off-the-cuff fills, any polyrhythm, crazy co-ordination patterns that enable you to play uniquely and imaginatively – there are so many sides to it and so many things I found that come out of using the book. Jason Wilcocks, who produced the Cars On Fire album, was constantly making me change these crazy fills and phrases to make it work for a solid left/right stereo image and this involved me having to just play it. I didn’t have time to think of the sticking or work on the co-ordination. Working on this stuff meant I had the neural pathways in place to just do it. I think we used to use the term “muscle memory” back in the days when we used to say “brain storming.” The feedback I’ve had from Pete Riley, Steve White, Craig Blundell, Jason Bowld, Pete Locket, Stanton Moore–You! All very positive. We’ll see where it goes but I’m very proud of it! I started writing it on the January 2, 2011, and finished Feb 2, 2011. I had copies in my hand by Feb 28 (see point 3 above). Just get on with it. I’m writing ideas for Part 2 now and their going out in Drummer Magazine every month to make me learn to play them. If you go to my website there’s more info on there and you can order the book from it too.

How important is an understanding of musical theory as a professional?

Not at all. But if you want to be versatile, you want to be employable, then it’s got to be of benefit. Jerry Brown said he doesn’t understand people who play music but can’t read it. You wouldn’t find an actor who can’t read the words they’re saying. It’s a little subjective but I understand the sentiment. I love theory—the math especially. I love to see things resolving. I don’t do it on gigs or sessions. Don’t get that mixed up, for God’s sake, but developing my physical playing development so it’s just there when I play. 

As a player your reputation has grown a great deal over the last couple of years. To what do you attribute the success?

Bastard hard work, an unremitting work ethic, the absolute fear of not playing music, my mortgage, my family, my high standards and hopefully the fact that people can stand me long enough to have me play on their records, tour, and be in the studio or on the tour bus with me long enough! I am very lucky to play the music I do, teach at BIMM, and write for Drummer Magazine, to have a book out, run my own studio – I know I’ve made that luck happen, and I know how quickly it goes away. Dude, I am grabbing it as much as I can right now as I’m loving every single minute. If I can do it, anyone can and there are younger, cheaper, better looking players coming out who are gonna sweep me up (BIMM students…).

You have been playing a number of festivals and shows with a multitude of other musicians of late. Any particular highlights?

All of them have highlights. It’s not a dodge at all! Sonisphere leaps to mind – it was hilarious for so many reasons. When I joined Cars On Fire in May 2010 I started to speak to my friend Charlie who booked for Strongbow at Sonisphere and got us a slot there as a thanks to the lads in the band. We turned up, destroyed it, played really well, great crowd, then hung out with some of my best mates—Dean from Protection Racket was there with his family, Pottsy from Korg (Mapex, Paiste, Vic Firth) including Joe Testa from Vic Firth. I hung out with Jerry Cantrell, Till Lindemann, had a riot. The drives to and from were hilarious too. We were on the back of the official T-shirt too. A lot of the last year has been that good, but the sun was shining and there’s photographic evidence of what happened (there’s things I can’t say!) so I’m picking Soniphere!

Your band Cars on Fire are about to release their new album. Having followed some of your tweets in the studio, it seems that you have really enjoyed the recording process and are excited about the results. So tell us a bit about the band, the music and the new album.

Ok, well, I grew up with the guys; they’re from Portishead (the place where the band come from) and I live in the next town down the coast, Clevedon. We played in various different bands and crossed paths, hung out, gigged, etc., since we were all about 15. When the Malakai live band was put on ice I was playing various sessions and then Ali Ross (COF –Vocals/guitar) called to say their drummer couldn’t do an album launch for a Kerbdog tribute album they played on in Dublin, and could I learn 8 of the most complex pieces of music I’d ever tried to play in 10 days and fly out and do the show, of course, yes! The drummer left shortly after and they asked me to join. We then did all the festivals last summer and then started to write in Oct 2010, began recording in November and here we are, done. For one reason or another, which for my own sanity I won’t go into, it’s taken until now to get promo copies out to people, but the heat is on. I’m extremely proud of the music on that album.

We didn’t compromise or contrive the album. Basically we set out to record the best album of our music we could. I found it difficult to get my head into the mindset of writing at first; the previous drummer, Jon Pick, was incredibly creative and clever so I wanted to keep that but do it my way. I’m very proud of the record. It hurt to record it. I busted my hands and shoulder but I wanted every bead of sweat to be heard!

What are you most looking forward to with the band for the rest of this year?

Honestly? Getting the album out. It was quicker to write and record then it has been to mix and get released. We’ve had awesome feedback from all who’ve heard it and Charlie Simpson (Fightstar) who sung on the album is fully behind it. We’ll see what happens – but until it does, we’re kinda in limbo so I’m getting on with other things right now!

You recently played a terrific clinic in aid of the TCT in the UK. How did you feel about sharing the stage with some of the UK’s finest players, and how do you find performing in front of a room full of drummers?

Maybe five years ago I would have been bricking it, but to be honest I just got up there and enjoyed it. The worst thing to do is to try and prove something; that’s incredibly dangerous—to prove why you should be up there. I just got up, played some Malakai and some Cars on Fire tunes and went through some stuff from the book. As I said earlier, I try to reflect the good things I’ve seen. In terms of clinics they should be motivational and educational, end of, not some chops fest of show off to prove you’re amazing! To be honest that’s transparent and shallow. I know from gigs that if I give it 110% then I usually get that back and can go home safe in the knowledge that I have given it everything. The guys in COF saw the pictures from the clinic and were asking which gig they were from. I’m not sure how else I’d play the drums now – no inner game going on that day! (Check out the Tim Gallwey book)

In terms of sharing the stage with the others, I’m glad there was room for me and it was a massive honour. Mike Dolbear, Craig Blundell and Steve White are all good mates of mine so it was fun to hang out. To be honest the praise for that day should go to Kev and his wife, Fiona, who organized it and raised such a huge amount of money for an incredible cause. Hardest thing of the day was that I had to go on after they’d shown a video of these brave kids with cancer being so positive and strong—kinda made me feel a little small compared to them and rightly so. Perhaps that’s why I found it easy on the day. There was some serious perspective going on in that room that day.

What is in your practice routine, and as a young father how do you find time to set a dedicated regime to keep you at the top of your game?

I just do it. You can find the time to do anything if you need to. Sometimes I need to practice, sometimes I need to record something, write, edit the mag, rehearse, teach at BIMM, do the exams. My wife has taught me to be organized much better then I was when I met her—thank God. It means sixteen-hour days sometimes, but you just do it. Up at 6am, edit some videos for Drummer Magazine, off to BIMM (get to Bristol for 7:30am to find parking space, write charts for an audition following day) 9 hours teaching (no break…killer day!) then off to rehearsal with COF (get there an hour early to run audition tracks and have a practice of next month’s Drummer material), back home for midnight/1am and get ready for the same the next day. That’s not uncommon, but it’s not every day either. There’s time off in the summer around festivals and when the college is on a break. The thing I have learned is that when I am home and it’s time to spend it with the family I actually do that. I see a lot of 9 to 5ers (Billy Ward calls them civilians) who somehow spend less time with their family than I do.

What for you are the best and worst parts of playing drums for a living?

Best? I can only think of one bad thing so the rest is positive. I love everything about it. There are downsides, especially in terms of the business. There are some complete a***holes out there out to get you at your expense, but aside from that I love playing music, I love the people I work with, and I am utterly passionate about every aspect of it. It still excites me when I see a drum kit in the way it did when I started—possibly more so. People are cynical in this industry. I hope I never get to that point! Worst? Hurting myself. I am terrified of hurting myself of getting ill. I need to get fitter and healthier.

Modern technology plays such a huge role in music these days. How do you think it affects the role of the drummer, and how important do you think it will be for the next generation of musicians to embrace this technology in order to sustain a career?

Back to points 2a and 2b above, yes, if that falls into your goals. It’s hard to get ahead now without it. I’ve had to learn from computers, DAWs, electronics, you name it. It’s meant I’ve had work where I otherwise wouldn’t have and that I have another tool at my disposal to enhance my performance—disregard it at your peril! Of course if you are playing blues and that’s your passion then maybe it’s not so applicable but for a freelancer? Good God, man, totally! I’ve had my studio for 12 years. I’ve literally just upgraded from Pro Tools 6.4 to 10. Quite a leap! I’ve been ploughing money into mics, from high end new mics to various old esoteric ones that I’ve been recommended (that would be telling), high end pre’s (Focusrite 428’s Universal Audio 4710d’s, API 3124’s). I’ve spent ages getting the sound right in the room. Now I’m working with a songwriting team that have sold millions of records between them, so it’s paying off, recording drums for them. All those hours of learning this stuff, I love the creative recording process! Then there’s the stuff I’ve been watching Andy Gangadeen doing with Ableton, triggers etc. That’s next on my radar. I can see serious scope with that.

I’m also writing my own stuff now. It started with some tracks for Jam Track Central, a website that originally did guitar backing tracks (they now do drums too). They asked me, Steve White, Jason Bowld, Michael Schackm Craig Blundell and Mark Whitlam to submit some music. I decided to write some stuff and that has led onto writing some library music. I’m really enjoying that side of things too right now.

In a world with lots of drums and cymbals in a typical set up, you keep it refreshingly simple. So what kit do you use and do you integrate any electronics with your acoustic set up for live gigs?

I play around with gear all the time, but the basics are a four piece. I have a few Mapex Saturn kits and they’re incredible, versatile to the extreme! Paiste cymbals, always changing them for the gig—2002’s, Twenty Series and Signature Dark Energies mostly—so I add to two crashes, hats and ride, maybe the two chinas I use with COF or an X-Hat, whatever. I use an SPDS and sometimes use triggers on the kick and snare to trigger that up – a KD7 kick trigger on the left for cowbells, other snares – my Macbook for anything I need to run on there. It totally depends but it’s all based around the four-piece basics. That said, I’ve just done some drums for a guitarist called Jack Thammerat, a great player! Along the Vai/Satriani lines, I put up an extra tom for that—10, 12, 14 or 16—not done that for a very long time.

You are Technical Editor for the excellent UK publication Drummer Magazine. What inspires your monthly columns and how do you organize all those drummers to get copy in on time?

I use what I’m working on currently, usually something based around the seven stickings/subdivisions, new ideas, things I’ve found that are cool, whatever I find I’m doing at the time keeps it and me fresh. In terms of the drummers’ deadlines, sometimes it’s tight but they’re the same as me; it’s part of their job to get their copy to me on time. I picked them to write for the mag as they have good reputation and profiles in the industry as players and educators. I they repeatedly couldn’t get it to me on time then it probably means they are disorganized and wouldn’t be doing so well, to be honest. There are tricky times of course for all of them, myself included; I’ve out the mag to bed on deadline on many a tour! But we work around it. They are a brilliant and committed team and I take my hat off to them all.

What’s coming next for James Hester?

Get the COF album out, rewrite some of Mind over Meter and start writing vol, II. I’m planning on some lesson DVDs to go with the book too. More mag deadlines, write a new COF album, more teaching at BIMM, start studying for my M.A., improve my video editing skills, continue recording projects at my studio, write more music, lose some weight. Dunno, a holiday would be awesome. My best mate lives in Stockholm. I love the band Refused so maybe I’ll travel up to Umea. I also need to come out to see you, Spooner; you need to take me to the Paiste HQ!



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About the Author
Rich "Doc Spoons" Spooner

Richard “Doc Spoons” Spooner is a British professional drummer and educator, based out of Switzerland. Doc is touring & recording with multi-platinum selling artist Philipp Fankhauser. Doc proudly endorses C&C drums, Paiste cymbals, Agner drumsticks, Baskey Drumruggs & Luggs, Hardcase Cases,Protection Racket Bags & Tour Luggage,Porter & Davies Monitoring, Big Fat Snare Drum, Kelly SHU, Tuner-Fish. Visit Doc online at www.docspoons.com  or follow him on Twitter@DocSpoons

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