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Robert Brian

Interview by Sean Mitchell // January 24 2013
Robert Brian

I am passionate about drummers playing and being able to play music. By that I mean a drummer can be technically advanced but have no idea how to play music. When I say this at clinics some of the guys look a little confused—but it makes sense. 

Robert, you are among a unique bunch who learned drums from their fathers. What was that dynamic like for you—the father-son/teacher-student relationship? 

That is a very good question. It was great having Dad onsite as my teacher, but I think he sometimes was a little hard on me. Being family, I think he felt that he could be heavier on me and sometimes it was a real drag, to be honest. I kept at it though and followed his lessons and his approach. I am glad as within the first two years of watching the drummers at my school, I noticed their handling was terrible compared to what dad had shown me. It was the start of realising that even though he was a little harsh at times, he helped me gain great stick control which has been key in my drumming career. 

Would you describe your style as heavily influenced by your dad? Or have you worked hard at defining your own path?

To start with, I guess there was a lot of my dad in my playing style, but as time went on I developed my own voice. He didn’t really take to the music I was listening to, and I had to develop some skills in certain styles on my own. He did buy me lots of drumming books though, which really helped and I still have them today. I have always worked extremely hard in defining my own path, but my dad is definitely in there with everything else—be impossible not to have him there, really.

How did your dad get his start in drumming?

He went to school in the nearby Georgian city of Bath. A local drummer there, a man called Roy Harrup, was a big band drummer and a local celebrity, and my dad went to him for drum lessons. Roy’s son, Guy, is a jazz guitarist, and we have played together in local bands throughout the years. It is a really nice family connection to keep up.

The dinner table must have been interesting in your home with two drummers tapping away!

It is never quite like you think; we weren’t the drumming Waltons! (laughs) Dad was always busy working and sometimes was a little tired and didn’t want to talk or teach drums. But to be fair, he always gave me quality time. He would sit and listen to records that I liked and tell me that the drumming on them was too easy—he then played me Buddy Rich and Miles Davis, but I just didn’t get it at the age of 10! My mum and sister were great and gave me the space and didn’t mind the noise at all. We had a really big triple-bay garage where I kept my drums, and I think my neighbours deserve a medal more than my family; they heard everything!

My mum encouraged me so much too, and I cannot leave her influence out of the equation. She would drive me to band rehearsals in local towns, and most Saturdays she would take me down to Bath to the drum shop and let me go in and drool over the kits. Man, the excitement of going to that shop is still with me. It was called Assembly Music and I can still remember the smell of the place—and all those drums and cymbals on display.

Mum also gave me pocket money to buy records and she spent many an hour going to record fairs with me; an amazingly supportive mum and I love her for her ongoing support. You never forget that kind of thing. It makes it all a very special memory, and it all has shaped the drummer that I have become today.

How did you evolve into a session player? Did you go to school or did you just begin playing for a living—what were some of your earliest steps?

I think I always wanted to make it with a band but it never quite worked out that way, so becoming freelance was the next step. I always enjoyed listening and playing many different styles; it was a challenge that I revelled in. So, getting the chance to do it professionally was a real buzz for me. I went to college and studied something else that wasn’t music and I always dreamt of being a pro drummer—that was all I really wanted!

Playing in local bands and being on the scene, people get to hear you play or hear about you, and the phone just starts to ring. I made myself available to many musicians (and sometimes for no money) just to get a new or cool contact; you have to be ready in the early days to do such things to get on. Also, on those first important sessions try to make a good impression. The word soon spreads if you do a great job!

Looking back on those growing years for you, what would you say were some of your best decisions?

Getting drum lessons and seeing them through, getting the rudiments under my belt, and spending time listening to lots of different musical styles. Being open to new things and enjoying practicing.

Tell me about your session with Peter Gabriel at his Real World studios. What lessons in studio work did you take away from that experience? He must have incredible ears (as well as engineers).

The Peter Gabriel session was a long day but was such an incredible experience. I was booked for the session by my friend Mat Sibley, a sax player, and he was told to get a jazz quartet together for a session. I arrived not knowing quite what to expect and was shown to the studio, and someone carried my kit in for me. I set up and then Peter arrived. He talked about how he liked Sonor drums and that the studio had a Sonor kit in storage somewhere on site. He then began to sort his vocal mic out and that was it—we were about to record with Peter Gabriel! (laughs)

We recorded three or four jazz standards that he has never released, but they sounded great! Hearing his voice in my headphones and then looking up to see him singing these tunes with us, man, it was too much! On playbacks we would listen and talk through the arrangements and we would click our fingers and step to the side mimicking soul group dancing.  He was really good fun to be with and really supportive too, asking my opinion on the feel and tempo of the tunes, etc. It was great to work with one of my real heroes; I was not disappointed at all. A very memorable day!



Do you work at Real World often? How incredible is it to record there?

Yes, I get a fair few sessions at the studio. A lot of my musician friends when they get sessions always book Real World if they can, so I get to record throughout the year with many different artists. The studio is totally amazing. You literally step into another world when you arrive there. The staff are all really friendly and the engineers are top class.

What is your favorite studio to work in?

I think Real World gets the top vote, though in the area I live in there are two other studios that are fantastic. That’s Riverside Studios and NAM Studios, both run so well and have excellent drum rooms.

What makes for a good studio, in your opinion?

Having a good ‘live’ room and drum booth is so very important. I don’t like playing in confined spaces and some studios can have very small booths for the drummer to play in; that’s never cool for me. I like to work with engineers that know their room and get the drum sound that you want very quickly, and yet are open to ideas and experimentation with both sound and room placement, etc.

If you could record your kit anywhere in the world in any location (studio or not), what places would top your list and why?

That is a great question. I think it depends on the project and the budget, but for sheer fantasy I would say Paisley Park. Prince is a real inspiration to me and to visit those studios would be a real kick! Though the studios in sunnier climbs are always very tempting too! The project for me comes first. If the artist and songs are great, then I will happily record them in a garage with two mics if it sounds great, you know? Playing drums in an aeroplane would be a kick; I don’t know why, I just always fancied that. (laughs) Also, I would have loved to have my kit recorded at the old Shea Stadium, memories of The Beatles playing there.

With all the technology a session musician has to learn and perfect in this day and age, what advice can you give other drummers about the realities of modern recording gigs?

I think there are a many things. Here a few that spring to mind:

  • Having your kit in full working order with good heads and spare snares and cymbals. (You never know if you may need other sounds, etc.)
  • Be on time and always bring everything that you need—double check before leaving home! Talk to the engineer/musicians and ask what kind of drum sound they are going for so you can be ready with the correct equipment.
  • Get recordings/charts or MP3s before the session so you can prep in readiness.
  • Make sure you practice working with click tracks.
  • Be open to ideas and songs/arrangements changing throughout the day.
  • Stay fresh and keen by taking breaks and getting fresh air, water, and eating sensibly.
  • Be creative and responsive to the artists’ wants and needs. Be patient and keep a positive spin no matter what happens.
  • Relax and enjoy playing the parts. If you have any issues, raise them and get them sorted      asap so the session can continue.

Let’s get geeky about gear for a bit. You are currently a Sonor guy, who started on a Premier kit. What are your favorite pieces that you use with Sonor?

The 13”x5” SQ2 snare drum is just amazing—the most versatile snare drum that I have ever owned. My SQ2 kit in general is just amazing; it is a real musical instrument in every way!

How many snares should a session drummer have? And, in your opinion, what are the best snare sizes/depths to keep in the arsenal? Keeping up with our “drum geekiness” – what heads would you choose for your each of your snare picks?

Oh man, how long is a piece of string?! I think a drummer should own a good quality wood and steel shell snare drum, 5” or 6” in depth. Also, having a piccolo and a deep 8” snare is extremely useful, then if you think about it you have all the possible sounds and depths catered for. I own all those sizes I have mentioned and I don’t think I have ever had to get the guys to hire a snare in on a session that I have done. The heads on my 13”x 5” and 14”x 6” are the Aquarian white coated texture snare drumheads. The piccolo has the same but the 14”x 8” drum has a response two clear head for a big fat 80s snare sound. That has now been named my Simple Minds snare drum, since I used it to record with the band.

What wisdom can you impart on up-and-coming drummers when it comes to practice? What are the most important things to concentrate on to become a successful session player?

I think spending time building your technique is crucial, but also spending equal time listening to music and understanding music is so important. So, playing kit phrases and solo stuff is all great for developing fills, speed and so on. But learn how to use those fills and phrases on the drum set in a song situation: Can you play them in time with a click? What style would they fit into?

Look at how you get the snare drum to sing in different ways: rim shots or no rim shots; playing in the centre of the drum or slightly off centre to create a different sound; learning to bury the beater into the bass drumhead; and also, to feather the drum lightly, getting control on both styles as you will need them in the studio. Listen to recordings and understand how drummers played the kit to get the sound for the song (playing hi-hats on the top of the cymbals or on the side with the shaft of the stick, for example).

All this knowledge becomes so important once mics are placed on a drum kit. You can hear the slightest nuance in a groove or sound. Knowing how to tune/detune your drums for certain effects is very useful too, as well as how to play grooves with more inflection on the bass drum, snare or hats, etc. All this stuff and more becomes crucial in the recording studio and time spent working on it is time very well spent!

What was the most important message you wanted to get across in your DVD, Technique and Musicality?

I am passionate about drummers playing and being able to play music. By that I mean, a drummer can be technically advanced but have no idea how to play music. When I say this at clinics, some of the guys look a little confused—but it makes sense. I know guys who play drums well and I know guys who play music well; I always wanted to do both. So, if I got a session to play Ringo style, a playing-for-the-band type session, I could do it, as well as a jazz/fusion or prog session and be able to cover that with technical ability to match, etc.

I would like to think that I am getting there. My CV is quite varied and I enjoy that fact. I remember being interviewed a few years ago by a Rhythm magazine editor, and he told me that I would be a tough drummer to market, as he said guys like to pigeonhole drummers. I have the jazz, rock, pop, fusion, funk, classical style background, and he said it seems to be easier if you just play one thing, or get known for doing that one thing. I completely understood his point—and he may be right—yet the musicians I respect always keep or kept moving forward and furthering their music and themselves as musicians. I think of people like Miles Davis, Prince, John Coltrane, Buddy Rich, The Beatles, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix; all these guys could have stayed in one place, yet they moved forward. You either go with them or stay where you are. I personally think that you should always move forward.

So, my message in the DVD was to think like a drummer but play the exercises as a musician. Choose the places to play the technical ideas that I was demonstrating in a musical way, or not at all if the music you play doesn’t require it. The musical aspects, like the chapter on recording and dynamics, were for the technique heads who never stop to think about their sound and how to get different sounds out of the drum kit. That is still one of my favourite topics during clinics as well. It is a kind of mission to develop both my musical sensitivity and technique in equal measures.

What was the experience like recording a DVD? It must take some patience?

I had recorded lessons for the UK drum magazine Rhythm, who I have a great working relationship with, and I decided it was high time that I had my own DVD. It was my first but will not be the last. I plan on volume two this year, when I get time to arrange it! (laughs)

It does take time and attention—I love that though. If you want something done well it needs that time and clarity of mind to get it done. I made sure I had the script sorted and storyboard planned and met with James Cumpsty, the director, and made sure we shared the same vision. James is awesome and did a great job. I want to use him on volume two as well.

What do you have coming up in the next few months?

I have some drum clinics in colleges/music universities here in the UK and a few local gigs with my fusion band, The Barefoot Doctors, which is so much fun! I am writing a few articles for Modern Drummer and practicing some new techniques, which I will be demonstrating in the upcoming clinics. I am in the studio mid-Feb recording the piece that got its debut last November. “The Inclosure Acts” was written by Siouxsie Sioux percussionist Ted Benham for tuned percussion, choir and drum kit. It is an amazing piece and demands a lot from me in so many different ways, another interesting musical choice for me to make. Rehearsals start soon for some gigs with UK bass player Charlie Jones, whose new album Love Form comes out late February. I played on a number of tracks on the record and I will be the live drummer for the gigs—and what a gig it is!  The material is totally original and will wig people out, I think. You could describe it as filmic/Arthouse and it is totally up my street! Yet another string to my musical bow, I like to think.



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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.

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