“Rock compares to jazz like killing someone with a baseball bat vs. putting a pillow over their mouth”. Ian Matthews has both ways down like few others.
Coming from a jazz background he swapped the thin sticks for some proper wood and has been the power house behind British Indie Rock band Kasabian for the last 13 years.
2015 has also seen Ian seeking out new adventures joining a team surrounding master drum builder Keith Keough launching the brand new British Drum Company.
I caught up with Ian after his performance at the London Drum Show to chat about his musical upbringing, Kasabian and his new venture into the drum building business.
You started at the age of four after your babysitter taught you your first beats?
Yes, my babysitter (now passed away) was one of my dads mates and a long standing friend of the family. He would come to babysit me and bring me drum sticks when I was about two. I still remember ‘Mama – Dada – Mama – Dada’. His dad had an amazing red sparkle drum kit which I always loved. I think that’s where the seeds were sown.
My dad being a pianist wanted me to play the piano too but he realised that I wasn’t interested. So when I was four he tried to find a teacher who would teach somebody so young. There was a guy who lived just around the corner in Bristol called Mike Holmwood who was playing as a session player at the time for a band called The Brotherhood of Men. He had me come round the house, stick on some Cowboys and Indians or whatever was on the telly on a Saturday morning, gave me some milk and biscuits; take me up to the drum room for ten minutes to teach me some stuff; then back down for some more Cowboys and Indians; then back up for another ten minutes and so on… He did that for several years and taught me how to play brushes, jazz independence, how to read and all that. He got me to a point where when I was seven years old my dad turned around to me as he was packing his organ in the back of the car and went: ”Son, you’re coming with me”. The drummer for his social club gig was ill so I filled in. I went to do the gig with him and got £5. From that point I was hooked.
This guy Mike used to tell me about playing with confidence and feel. It was something I didn’t quite understand then but he sowed those seeds in my head. I’m making music for the sake of how I’m doing it as opposed to what I’m doing and I’ve got on as a drummer from the age of 19/20 as a drummer by going into from that direction.
Was it a conscious decision for you to make drumming your career or did it just happen?
I went through school still doing all these gigs with my dad and then joined a Bristol drum corps called The Troopers when I was ten. I don’t think we were a very good drum corp; we rehearsed twice a week and we also came last in the championships, but it taught me how to play with others and we used to race each other on rudiments trying to become the lead drummer.
I also did some school orchestras and in the band of the Avon and Somerset fire brigade learning to play with a wind band, playing military type stuff and lots of reading. I also did wedding gigs and jazz gigs, so I was always involved with music through school.
Even my drum teacher at the time, Eddy Clayton, used to dep me out for his gigs so I was playing in the pubs of Bristol when I was 13. Props to all these middle aged jazzers letting a 13 year old boy sit in and count them in.
I left school and had some crappy jobs which all weren’t really well paid and I just realised I could make nearly enough doing a couple of function gigs on the weekend. So I decided I would like to just sit at home and have to do nothing else but just play the drums and see if I can live of that. So I did.
You once made this beautiful comparison between rock and jazz being like “killing someone with a baseball bat vs. putting a pillow over their mouth”.
[laughs] Yes, this was kind of a half joke between me and a friend of mine who’s a jazz violinist. I’ve done jazz gigs with him and it’s so different than going on stage for a hundred thousand people driving a drum kit through the stage. That’s why we came up with that. To me, brewing on a ride cymbal at mid- to up- tempo, or even a slow brush thing, the inner me is trying to bring as much intensity to that musical moment of a whisper as I would at a yell.
You’re left-handed but you set up your drum kit right-handed?
I had this question a lot during my time as a teacher. You find people have left/right issues with their bodies. For me, I’m left-handed writing but my natural instinct is to kick a ball with my right foot, so my right foot was always gonna be my kick drum foot. Also, I was just put on a traditional drum set by my first teacher. I can’t even remember if he made me play like this or if I just naturally did it because I as a kid I watched all these drummers on our little black and white TV making their drums shake, guys with massive bangs of hair and huge sideburns. Maybe that’s where it came from. I’m not against playing lefty but it’s just the way it rolled. The right foot thing though was important for me.
Let’s talk about Kasabian.
I had a teacher who indicated to me that if I wanna get on the scene I needed to make sure to make friends and connect to as many engineers as possible. That’s where you meet the musicians who are doing stuff and where you get a call of people who need a drummer. These are the guys who are active, not the getting stoned in a bedsit dreaming about being a rock star.
I had red light fever and every time the recording button got pressed I would jam up. I tried getting as much training as possible, whether it was paid or not.
Mat, a friend of a friend, ran a studio called Big Bonk and I used to go there and record for free on his projects and in return he would throw me some work. Sometimes there was 50 or 100 quid in it. Kasabian from Leicester were coming down. They got some development money from their manager to spend on a drummer and Mat recommended me.
The day before the recording I fell down the stairs, sprained my right ankle badly and was inches from picking up the phone to cancel because I couldn’t walk. I still did it. I limped down to his basement, the boys looked at me and I went: ”I’m your drummer for the day”. That’s when I first met them. I did the session in pain you wouldn’t believe, they were blown away it seems and I did a couple of sessions with them after that.
They got signed the year after in 2002 but I couldn’t really get involved because I was doing enough stuff already. I was working with a guy signed to Virgin, another artist signed to Real World and was going to Paris a lot doing some African crossover stuff replacing Manu Katche in a band.
During that time the guys were sharing a farm up in Leicester working on their record. We lost contact a little through 2003 and later that year they started getting on the road playing the Dog & Duck here, the Dog & Duck there, driving up and down the motorways in a Mini Metro and an Austin Maestro.
In 2004 the manager called me in a panic saying they needed a drummer next week and they wanted me. It was Easter holidays so I went in and we tore it up for two weeks. After that the manager said: “Do you want to come and work with us? I can hire you and we have enough money to replace your teaching and feed your family. Come with us for 18 months.” I went for it and it was amazing. In fact they made me a band member in 2005 – so it’s kind of a gradient in membership. I wasn’t just parachuted into a famous band. I proved myself, we proved ourselves and together we made it all possible. I met them 15 years ago and it’s all been developing ever since.
There’s a bit of a time off for the band at the moment?
Yes, we last seriously toured in 2014 when we headlined Glastonbury. That was a big gig. That whole year was really dense.
Then 2015 we just did about 15 or 20 festivals mostly in eastern Europe, we also went to Brazil and did the Lollapalooza tour of Latin America taking in Chile, Peru, Colombia and Argentina. Then come the end of August we decided we’re on our sixth album, we need to give us some time off. We also wanted to give the public some time off and not just bring out another album and go back out on tour.
This coincided with Keith inviting me to become partner in the British Drum Company.
2016 was quiet apart from May where Leicester, Kasabians favourite team, won the Premiership in the most dramatic way ever and we played their victory parade in front of 150,000 people in Victoria Park. In my down time I did some jazz gigs, some funk gigs, a little bit of session work here and there, the drum company and my family. I’m not pursuing a project because by the time it gets going Kasabian will be back out.
Let’s talk about the British Drum Company for a bit.
So Keith is a guy I met a few years ago at the Scottish Drum Fare and we got on like a house on fire straight away, it’s like Bro-Love. We stayed in contact every since and every time I was in Manchester we met up for a drink, some food or he came to see a gig – we just became mates and we would trade on each other on our perspectives on drum maker vs. drum player. I always knew I wanted to work with but he was with Premier and I was with DW so we just didn’t have the situation.
It came to that he left Premier and Al Murray convinced him to keep on building drums, so the two of them started collecting partners. Stu Warmington does our marching devision, Alan Kitching is our product designer and there is me, which is flippin’ amazing. Keith literally just turned around to me at V-Fest, the last gig of our tour and went: “You’re up for this then mate?”. And I just went: Wow! Fuck yeah!
It must be something like a little boys dream to be involved in building your own kits. Is there any limit to what you can do or can you just try anything?
Mate, it’s incredible! Keith is the genius and what the rest of us do around Keith is to steer his genius in the right way. We’re like a band. We’re flying very quickly, we’ve only just gone a year and already everybody is going: oh yeah, British Drum Company. People are intrigued still but we all came together because we’re all senior in what we do somehow. We’re not ‘having a go’ or just investing in a business and try go get people in to run it who are not that emotionally into it. We’re five partners who came together to create something magic that we’re proud of and I think it’s working.
I think it has taking people by a bit of a shock that a little Manchester workshop can create a drum kit which sounds f**king unreal.
I had that moment when I left DW, who I was very loyal to, and turned up to London Drum Show last year [the official launch of British Drum Company]. I got up in the lift, got to the booth, drums all over the floor, the boys all red-eyed because they’d been up all night to finish the last drum kit and you could still smell the solvent. Keith gave me a drum key, put me on this 24” kick drum kit and told me to tune it up. I took a deep breath: Right, this is the moment, let’s see what I’ve done. I hit the drum and I tell you now: the adrenaline that went through me when I realised I’d done the right thing was incredible. We set the whole thing up, I played it and my first words when I turned to Keith were: ”I’ll take this kit on a stadium tour tomorrow. I’ll never forget that moment”.
I’m catching you just after your masterclass in the Mike Dolbear room here at the London Drum Show. How does this compare to being on stage with a band?
Well, I’m coming here to a full room of people and I have Ash Soan, Karl Brazil, Mark Richardson, Cherisse Osei and Tina from Zildjian out there who all came to see me. Bloody hell! I’m nervous of those situations but it’s not the playing, it’s the talking. Am I actually gonna manage to entertain these people and give them something?
When it comes to playing music I’ve been doing it long enough. The intense acceleration of Kasabians career happened in the mid noughties – especially when Fire came out. Suddenly we started headlining all these festivals. I remember being at T in the Park and looking at this enormous stage, there was Channel 4, T4 cameras everywhere, celebrities hanging about and 60,000 people out the front and I shit myself! I had my moment of ‘Wow’ and had to talk myself down of it. I told myself: I’m only here because the boys want me here and the way I play. I can’t change the way I play that’s just the way it is. We are only here because the people out there want us there. We can’t change the way we play, that’s the way we do it. So if we only go on stage and play the way we play and not be scared of that, then happy days surely! We spent hours together in dressing rooms and tour buses talking about these issues, Tom just always went: ”You have nothing to prove”.
So I think those other drummers can think what they like, we’re all mates. I could have a bad one today and wouldn’t give a sh*t. I’m only human.
I know that I’ve made 100,000 people jump at the same time in a field so there is something about my humble basic beats that works. That’s me being arrogant of course but if we get into the psychology of it… and maybe there are some readers out there who might have to read that. It’s like sports psychology.
Finally, what’s next?
The company is keeping me busy pretty good. We’re doing most of it via social media so my phone is just going ‘bing’ all the bloody time.
In the meantime, the weather is changing for Kasabian, we’re gonna be brewing up. The new record is in completion I think and for all you Kasabian fan readers, there’s gonna be something special coming your way.
That’s the good thing though: if I do go out back on tour with Kasabian this year, I’ll still be helping to manage the company.
I feel very lucky at the moment.
Thanks a lot for your time Ian!
Interview – Tobias Miorin
Photos – Francesco DesMaele