I have been aware of Geoff’s name for 25 years now but we had never met. The first drum clinic I ever went to in London was 25 years ago to see Gerry Brown (the USA drummer not the UK one) and there was this young lad supporting him called Geoff Dunn. I sat next to Geoff’s parents at the show and they told me all about him. When I finally moved to London everybody that I worked with all talked about Geoff so when I finally got to meet him there was much I wanted to talk about, such as his time with artists like Incognito, Jimmy Page, The Blessing, Van Morrison and Tom Jones (Check out www.geoffdunn.com for a full list).
You played in your granddads show band at a young age, tell us about that experience and your musical upbringing.
My mum played sax as well, she used to play in the Ivy Benson Big Band when she was younger and my grandfather played sax, so when I was 10 it just came to my turn and he asked me what I wanted to play and I said drums. I had the Premier Book of Drum Technique, a practice pad and a pair of sticks so he made me sit down and play the exercises for three or four months to show that I was committed. Then I had my first kit, an old Olympic kit with a yellowing pearl finish, and started playing quick steps and waltzes, beguines cha chas etc. I started going out playing with him doing Working Men’s Clubs and Social Clubs, it was ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and a few Carpenters songs etc but it was good experience.
At that age was that what you wanted or did you want to be in a band with your mates playing rock’n’roll?
No, from my earliest memories I liked to listen to Motown music and songs, I loved the Jacksons, I thought the Burt Bacharach songs were fantastic and Jimmy Webb songs too. I had an ear for melody and gravitated towards that. So, yeah, doing the quick step and everything else, but that was just a way of me being out playing and that was good enough at the time.
How long did that last?
Probably two or three years and then he fell ill and stopped working but by then I was at high school and started playing with lots of different bands, the jazz/funk thing was happening, everyone was playing Brecker Brothers, Grover Washington and Ronnie Laws tunes. So I was doing that. My school teacher used to back all the cabaret artists so I used to go out and gig with him as well two or three nights a week. In fact Mel Gaynor was in the year above me at school so we both used to play, and Mick Talbot of the Style Council was in the year above him, so there were a few people in the school who all played. It was a mix, jazz, funk, cabaret backing, hen parties, strip shows, all sorts of things, when I was 14/15.
At what stage did you realise this is what I want to do?
I don’t think there was ever any question, I didn’t really think of anything else to be honest, I was a good golfer when I was young, I had the opportunity to do the assistant-pro golf thing, but it was the drums, nothing else ever entered my mind.
What do you think was your first major break?
I was about 17 and working with a guy called George Lee who was a sax player from Ghana, an American piano player from New York (the late Errol Clarke) who was fantastic and a South African bass player (the late Ernest Motlé). I used to do that a couple of times a week at a bar in South Kensington playing jazz funk. One night Tubbs from ‘Light of The World’ came down and watched the show and he said “I’ve got a band together with Bluey (Incognito) and we’re doing an album and I’d like you to come down and play on it” and that’s when it changed really. I went down and did the album and got involved with Incognito, did the Warriors album, started playing with Central Line, all the kinds of funk things that were happening at the time. I think that’s when it all started becoming more of a career.
You worked with Van Morrison for nine years and played on 4 albums, how did the gig come about?
The late Dave Early was doing the gig at the time and basically he had a bit of a fall out with Van. I think there was a bit of personal stuff involved. They were doing Glastonbury on the Sunday and I got a call about 4 a.m. on the Monday and Ronnie Johnson (Vans musical director) said ‘Dave’s been fired, can you come out to Spain on Wednesday? We’re going to send over the tapes for you so you can learn 40 odd songs’ and that was basically it. I was sitting through all these cassettes on the Tuesday and then I was on the plane on the Wednesday.
Did you chart them out?
If you’ve got charts you haven’t even got time to turn them over anyway – one song finishes and you get one word or a syllable from Van and Ronnie turns round and shouts out the next song and off you go. I just made shorthand notes of the feels to the songs and Ronnie just said to me the gig is this… “you just have to follow him”. He knew I could do that, it was doing the James Brown stuff, bring it down, bring it up, all the dynamics hits etc, and he knew I was used to that kind of mentality. As I said, once on the gig there was no chance to look at the notes that I made anyway. The first gig was really good, but the second gig, which was in a huge basketball stadium had an awful sound. I think Van said I was alright after the first night, but I think what sealed it on the second gig was because the sound was so awful and I didn’t buckle under the pressure, I just kept it together and feeling good. I did the gig for about three weeks, Paul Robinson came back in for a couple of dates, then he went and I carried on. That was it really. At the end of it, I knew about 400 songs.
I know you are very particular about making sure everything is correct so how did working with Van, who has a different way of working, work out?
Yes, I know what you are saying, you always had to watch him, always try and be as much in tune with what he was doing all the time. You just had to read his mood, how he wanted to express it, just being present and awake on the gig, listening and concentrating on him. He would never stick to the same song format so that’s the case of following him. If you come to the end of a verse and you hear him, or you get a few signs, you just follow him, it was very much like that. It was applying the same attitude with a slightly different focus, wherever he went, if you were with him then that was correct.
I think also I wasn’t afraid to contribute creatively and throw things into the mix, you had to be reactive and give support to him but also change the music around so he could also bounce off fresh things too. He would never stick to a set list he would just throw in numbers from a pool of songs as and when he felt like it.
What signs would you be getting?
Just the inflections in his vocal, the way he was singing a song, body or hand movements, I guess a lot of musical instinct came into it as well. One of my favourite recording that I did was with Van “Live in San Francisco” that was pretty much 99% all one night, just straight through.
What about memorable musical moments in your career?
There have been quite a few, but I have never been someone who really documents them. I always tended to be a bit too self-critical so that was always difficult for me to think about them in that way too.
How did you adjust to that?
I think that’s just growing up, being a bit easier on yourself accepting who you are etc. In a lot of way that was a driving force, my personal make-up was a bit like that, for some reason I couldn’t go and play a game of squash, I had to win the game of squash. Not necessarily competitive with other people but with myself, I had to feel I was doing my absolute best. Thankfully I have mellowed.
You are a very in-demand drummer, why do you think that is and what do you bring to a session?
I’ve always felt like I’ve wanted to contribute to the music, whether that be feel, attitude, musicality, ideas etc. I’ve never been afraid to express an idea, you can always be told not to play that… or how do you feel about pushing it this way or that, so my approach has always been that I want to contribute, make the song or music better in some way. So that creative part of me is something I’ve tried to push, rather than just coming in asking what do want me to do and leave. I think that’s always been an important part of how I like to do things; I get personal satisfaction from that. I guess good time and feel, creating a good vibe all contributes to making the music feel good, it’s an organic process.
Have there been any sessions where they don’t want to hear your feedback, they just want you to sit there and play?
Yeah, and if that’s the case, then I’ll do that, if that’s the job, you try and do it with the same kind of attitude. I’ve always tried to keep the same attitude whether I’m playing in a pub with two people in front of you, or a full concert or a studio. That has to be you’re personal integrity, your personal values of how you do what you do, it shouldn’t matter where it is or who’s there. I’ve always tried to maintain that. Certain times when you do go in and they don’t want you to do anything you do and you know you could make it better in some way, but obviously they’re the client then that’s what you do, so you just look at it as a job and tomorrow is another day.
You’re very passionate about the art and you have recently being doing master classes in the music schools. What is your message?
I think there are a lot of areas to cover. You have to be a good musician, I don’t think you can just be a good drummer, you might be technical, you might have a lot of tools in place, but if you’re not a good musician and don’t know how to listen you are going to find it hard to work. If you can’t play a song, mark the bridge, mark the choruses, second verse, first verse, third verse with different dynamics and parts, your not helping to build the song, so the musical part of it is very important. You can’t separate what you do on the drums from contributing to the whole song. I think the same goes for accompanying a vocalist, accompanying a soloist, being able to work in a rhythm section properly, listening to the bass player, rhythm guitar, you pick up on inflections or motifs of what other people are playing. Play around a sequence, you have to hear the whole thing, you have to want to be a part of the whole painting, you can’t just go ‘well that’s my bit in the middle and everything else goes on around me and I’m not really conscious or aware of it, I’m just going to play my part’. If you want to be like all the great drummers; Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcaro, they’re not just drummers, they’re great musicians, I think that’s the most important thing.
Do you think kids are being taught this now?
No, I think they’re taught very much from a technical point of view, and the industry is constantly promoting the technical ‘Wow!’… which will not get you a job apart from doing clinics etc. I don’t think they’re being taught enough about being connected to the instrument, having the right intent behind what they’re doing. What do they want to say with what they’re doing, the emotional content of what they’re doing, sound, dynamics, feel, time etc. A lot of that stuff isn’t taught, you just play this exercise or that. What about dynamics; can you play soft with the same feel, can you play loud with the same feel, where’s your sweet spot where you feel most comfortable, does it have to be expanded? How do you get different sounds out of the kit? Can you develop ideas? Improvise? I think there’s loads of stuff that could really benefit a lot of the kids coming up. Stylistically, can you do a bit of Stuart Copeland or Steve Gadd? A bit of heavy rock? I think you have to have an overall feel of musical styles, e.g. what should it feel like, what it should sound like etc, you have to look into things historically and how they evolved, so background knowledge and appreciation of the musical side of it, rather than just the drum part.
How has modern technology, like ProTools changed the way you work?
I think it’s just another part of it; you have to use it as another tool. I don’t think you can separate it. You work within a medium and obviously now you’ve got a lot more tools available. In some ways ProTools has made it a lot easier for guys who aren’t so good because they can play through a song, put Beat Detective on and correct it all, put it in time and still keep some of that performance and vibe, so in that way I think it’s helped a lot of people. It’s great in that you can do a whole take and maybe one bar might not be quite as you’d like and you can correct or tweak it. Steely Dan were doing drum loops on Gaucho, they were cutting up tape, so the idea’s not new really.
I remember in the ‘70’s the big thing was about click, and it was ‘how can you work with a click?’ It actually made it easier.
I was quite fascinated with that, because I thought you had to be on the click all the time, it’s got to be soooo clinical… but I went and sat in on a few sessions with other drummers and heard what they were doing and it was great when you actually heard the guy play, it was still moving and ebbing and flowing and you think ‘yeah, the click has been the guide and they’re still putting the feel over the top’, so you don’t have to be a drum machine, it is a guide. Obviously they aren’t completely wandering away from it but you get my drift.
Tell us about your solo project, you’ve had that for quite a few years now.
Yeah, we’ve had a long lay off. I think the first album we did was in the early ‘80’s which was very jazz/rock, it got good reviews in the States and in a lot of the drum and guitar mags and we toured the States and Canada. Obviously I’ve known Ronnie (Johnson) since we were young so it’s morphed in and out of different line ups. The latest album, we’re obviously a lot older and mature, is more laid back, it’s a very melodic instrumental project.
And where can people get this?
You can log on to the www.firstlightmusic.net and order it from there, or send an email through my site.
Interview by: Mike Dolbear