Breaking through as a new artist can be tough enough, but making it from the first tour in a small van to the big stages of the world is an experience only a few session drummers will take part in. An exception is Ben Thomas.
Hailing from Brighton, Ben has been the drummer behind Rag’n’Bone Man from the very beginning and helped to shape one of the UK’s most successful pop/soul/hiphop acts but not only from the drum chair.
He can also be found teaching at BIMM Institute Brighton, in the studio or playing with other bands and artists.
I sat down with Ben after his performance at the UK Drum Show in Manchester to talk about his upbringing, his passion for teaching and the challenges an ever-growing gig brings with it.
You actually started off on a different instrument when you were young didn’t you?
Yes. I started piano when I was about 9 or 10. I got on with it but it never really clicked. It’s still useful to do because you get the grounding in notes and music which is important for everything. I then started playing drums age 11 and it just immediately felt like the right thing. Piano is quite percussive of course and it got me into the reading and music theory side of things quite early on which was good. It just made the theory side of drums fit quite quickly.
I believe there is an element of self-teaching throughout every musician and whatever percentage of that is kind of depends on how much further down the rabbit hole you can go with things. I had lessons from quite early on, when I was 12, and still have them every day in stuff you find online or stuff you want to break down. I did have lessons in school and then went to BIMM when I was 18. Following that I had private lessons with an amazing drummer called Pat Garvey. I actually had lessons with him for 8 years and that’s when the penny dropped for me and it got serious.
Growing up you played more rock/metal stuff, right?
Yeah, I started playing pretty heavy stuff: Metallica, Slayer, Pantera and that kind of thing. That then tapered of into more electro and breakbeat stuff and I started working with DJs and producers when I was in my late teens.
After that I got into jazz and Neo Soul.
And jazz has become a big passion of yours?
Yes, it is a big thing. I didn’t like it as much when I was growing up (as most people find) but I realised it wasn’t that pedestal, inaccessible style of music that I thought and it was and after a while it started becoming clearer. I started studying some jazz systems and concepts with my teacher, Pat Garvey and it just opened me up to the whole world of it and how important it is for musicians to get at least some grounding in it. Just look at where the drum kit comes from and how its modern inception has been built around jazz. It’s important to have some understanding or at least appreciation of it.
You then went on to study at BIMM in Brighton?
I did a one year National Higher Diploma there and was gonna do another two years but I got a teaching job with the County music service straight after I had graduated and thought it was a good opportunity. I actually ended up doing that for 8 years. It was an amazing opportunity to start crafting a teaching profession which is something I really care about and want to do for as long as I can. It’s really important to me.
Would you say the music college environment influenced your career a lot?
Yeah. Just from the networking side alone. You’re surrounded by incredible musicians across the board, that helps you persevere with something, bounce ideas and helps you to stay inspired. The teachers were incredible too and gave us a lot to think about. Doing an extensive 1 year course means you get a lot of stuff thrown at you and you then have to take it apart and piece it back together over the rest of your life.
You started teaching straight after the diploma and you’re still teaching today. Has that always been a passion?
Yes absolutely. I’m really fascinated by the delivery of teaching and education. I still remember to this day what it was like when I was in my first drum lesson and how I just wanted to be told stuff. That has always resonated to the point where I will always do it.
Today was my first drum clinic of this scale and I’ve got a drum camp coming up in a few weeks, so this side of the education is building up. I’m currently a tutor at BIMM in Brighton as well so it’s all starting off in that department which is great (alongside touring of course). It works really well. The two worlds can meet and fit around each other. It’s important to be doing stuff as well as teaching because otherwise it becomes a bit of a one-way street.
Is there any special advice you give to your students that you’d like to share here?
I think playing with musicians is very important. I was listening to a podcast with Mark Guiliana and he was talking about the importance of realising that playing with musicians is the best kind of practice you can possibly do. I think that gets forgotten by drummers sometimes. We play drums on our own an awful lot and as soon as we get around musicians we get a bit stuck because we suddenly have all this stuff thrown at us. I used to do that a lot. It’s just so important to go out and play at jam nights or get your mates around to play – just do it as much as you can. That’s a message I would like to get out.
Let’s talk about Rag’n’Bone man. You’ve pretty much been there from the beginning?
Pretty much, yes. He was still doing his own thing as a solo artist back then and also in the hiphop world with ‘Rum Committee’ and was pretty well established on that scene, but the project as it is now was pretty much in its inception when I came on board in 2013. It started out just me, him and another rapper called ‘Stig of the Dump’. I was driving us around in my little Vauxhall Astra and although it was much smaller back then, I was sort of an interim tour manager. It was still a job that needed doing and it was really fun; quite a learning curve. Drums were almost a secondary thing when I was doing that. It was really cool though and I really got to learn the ins and outs of how things work, how festival like to operate and all that stuff.
The gig has grown a lot since those early days. How has it changed for you?
Massively. I really had to get the focus back onto the drums. It links back to the masterclass I was holding today where I was trying to hit a few key topics that really opened my eyes to what being on a gig like this is all about. It’s not “shedding all over the top of a song” and it’s not “chopping” – although some gigs are but in this case it would just muddy the waters. In fact at the beginning of the process I was playing a lot more, probably overplaying, but we got in the process of working with producers and musical directors and they told me to just calm down and play the music. I picked that up quite quickly, which is good because otherwise I probably wouldn’t sit here.
It’s really important for everyone else who’s doing this: have your chops but on a gig like this you’re far better off not even bringing them to the table. Keep them in the bag unless somebody asks you to sneak one out.
What were the biggest challenges of the growing gig?
Getting used to live TV shows. I think we played ‘Human’ at the Brits pre-show and that was our first live TV ‘don’t-f**k-it-up’ gig. That was big and very nervy. Once that was out of the way things start to ease into their place. It doesn’t necessarily get any easier but you get used to that feeling of how to cope with the nerves. There are always gonna be nerves because you care about it so much, you don’t want to mess it up. Fortunately it all went well and obviously practice goes into that. It’s all been a learning curve but we had a really good team around us all the time; Rory [Rag’n’Bone Man] is amazing, really loyal, happy and gives good feedback; everybody on the tour helps each other out and we have a good tour manager.
It really filters down from the top, I always say that about good projects. If the artist is a nice person it filters down through the whole project. Luckily he’s absolutely golden, you couldn’t meet a nicer guy.
There are always what I would call ‘checkpoint gigs’ and there seems to be one of those on a tour that just makes you realise it has gone up a notch. You never really know what the notch is until you’ve done it so every gig like this will feel the same. The first festival to a 1000 people feels massive; then a few years down the line you play Glastonbury to 50,000 people – but it still feels the same. But it’s always nice to tick off those moments and check points within a show. It could also be a radio show or a particular place you always wanted to play.
Alexandra Palace was a big one because it’s such a cool venue. And that one was cool to come back to because we played it on our first tour as a support for Bastille. To come back two years later, pretty much on the exact same date, was amazing. That was a nice A/B to see where things have gone and certainly was a little ‘pat on the back’ moment which I don’t allow myself too much of.
You’re working with him in the studio too?
Yeh, we’ve been in doing some demos while new stuff is coming together. That’s really interesting. It gives you a bit of a creative input and its great to work with Rory, and Ben Jackson Cook, (the musical director) in that process as it brings a totally different creative challenge.
The gig is quite ‘raw’ from a musical point but you’re using electronics which adds a bit of a Pop-y edge.
Yes, it does. We do everything live, so everything you hear is triggered or sampled. We don’t use tracks. We did at the beginning because it’s unavoidable when you’re starting off, but now we run everything of the SPDSX and we’ve got Paul Jordanous (our trumpet and synth player) who fills in a lot of the gaps that would have been on the tracks. It makes the whole process incredibly nice because everything is organic and just more dynamic. Rory is an extremely creative person and knows his music inside out; and music is emotion so it’s cool to maybe go off on an extra verse if he’s doing a rap section. He likes to do that every now and then and to not have a track that restrains you is wicked. It just means we can play around with the set some more and make it a creative process rather than just an A to Z. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with a backing track, it’s totally cool, but for this project though it’s nice to have that space to manipulate things a little bit more.
Do you still use click tracks?
Yes, we use the click of the SPDSX for some tracks but not all of them. Some songs just have to breath a little bit. Tracks like ‘Wolves’ for example are quite on the ball so the click just helps me. Some tracks we just let it go. For endings I sometimes cut the click halfway through because it feels nicer or if Rory is doing a rap I turn it off to let him dictate where he wants to take it. It’s just nicer to be a bit freer. It’s music.
Does the raw vibe plays into the hands of your rock/metal background?
There is a heavy aspect to the gig but there is also a very soft side. It’s actually a great gig to be on to develop your styles because it’s “pop” in terms of the umbrella you put over it but once you break down the songs it’s not just pop at all. Even ‘Human’ has a huge rock influence and is a pretty heavy tune when you play that last at a festival – but you could also be tickling drums with mallets for a ballad. It’s a really fun gig and it keeps you on your toes. I had to work really hard for it.
Do you have time for other projects? You mentioned you’re recording some of your own music…
I’m starting to get some ideas together and getting that itch for sure, I love the process and looking forward to exploring it more.
I became a BIMM Institute lecturer last year which is pretty involved and it’s something I really wanted to do for a long time so I’m really happy about. It works well alongside touring so when we’re off it doesn’t leave a lot of time to get bored.
Apart from that I have own projects and do the occasional dep. I went out with Dua Lipa a few months ago which was a lot of fun. A few studio bits here and there. It’s all fun.
I am also getting more involved with the clinic and drum camp side of things which I really love and is a really nice fit between the BIMM and Rag’n’Bone Man gig. The Rag’n’Bone man is the main job – I say job, but it’s not a job. It certainly never feels like it.
Finally, what’s next?
Well I’m in talks to get more clinics and masterclasses set up over the next few months so that’s going to be great especially with today to build on. I have a new website in the works which is going to come from a more educational angle with video content and lessons. I’m well into my second year at BIMM now so loving that and we have great new students to work with. Finally, and without revealing too much, I’m looking forward to getting back on the road with Rag‘n’Bone Man!
Thanks a lot for your time Ben!
Interview by Tobias Miorin