England has a long held reputation for bringing out some of the worlds finest indie bands; and Stockport based ‘Blossoms’ are out to prove this once again.
Formed in 2013, with the first album in 2016, and a Mercury Price nomination in 2017, is quite a journey for a first band project for five guys. Behind the drums you’ll find Joe Donovan.
I caught up with Joe at the UK Drum Show to chat about his upbringing, his drumming influences and his band’s journey from the scaffolding yard to a gold album.
How did you get into drums in the first place?
I think I’m quite a stressed guy and it was always a good release. My uncle is a drummer as well and he got me all into it. He gave me my first kit, a Premier Olympic kit. I didn’t play for years though because when he dropped it off I was only 12 and I didn’t know how to put it together. Give a 12 year-old a hi hat stand in bits… I still struggle with that! [laughs]. It was just sitting there for ages – I could play some time but I didn’t do much due to the noise. I live in a small house and it was a nightmare with the neighbours.
Fast forward to to when I was 19, my mates wanted to start a band. They were struggling to find a drummer and I could play that one thing. So I didn’t start off as “I’m gonna be the drummer”, I started by helping out my mates. I think they liked my simplicity because that’s how I would describe my playing. Especially when you walk around the Drum Show here there are some amazingly talented people, but I feel like a drummer who is in a band, not from a session side of things. All the best songs in the world for me have really simple drums and I love R’n’B, that’s all just loops. I think a lot of drummers today just do too much sometimes. It’s great and they have amazing skills but sometimes you just have to sit back and listen to the song as a song.
So you didn’t have any lessons?
No, never. I just sort of played and loved playing. We all loved playing together and it just happened. I would just watched other drummers. You know how it is: as soon as you start playing drums and you go to a gig, you stop looking at the front man but you stare at the drummer to see what he’s doing and pick up all the details.
I did take some lessons when we started touring. My manager put me in touch with Pete Salisbury (he’s the drummer for The Verve) and I went to see him four or five times to sort out some bad habits, learning about setting up the kit and work on some basics. I always recommend people go for some lessons because if you get bad habits it’s so hard to get rid off them.
Who were your influences growing up? More bands rather than drummers?
Yeah definitely. I mean there were the obvious ones like John Bonham and Keith Moon but the weird thing was that I wasn’t really listening to them as drummers but it was more about them as people. I just loved them because they were such characters. Later on I was looking a lot at Ian Matthews because I love Kasabian or the Stone Roses. I say I love simple stuff but I’ve picked two drummers who definitely aren’t [laughs].
Let’s talk about Blossoms. Is that the ‘mates band’ you mentioned earlier?
Yes. Tom the lead singer and I have been mates for 13 years and grew up together. We were two groups of mates from two different schools in the area but we all knew each other. When you’re 17 there is nothing to do in Stockport after school. I think it’s the same all over the country if you’re not from a major city. You’re 17 so you can’t go into a pub but you feel you’re old enough to take on a pint. You can’t go clubbing so what do you do? So we just did music. We had a little room but at that time we actually never went in together. Tom was in a band and I just went in to watch them because I was always really interested in bands and what people were doing. There are still embarrassing videos of me with a tambourine. I always liked the idea of people breaking out and just doing music and I think that’s why inevitably I just had to learn drums.
How did it happen to get from the practise room to a record deal?
I was in a band before Blossoms with the bass player, about a year before we started. I worked in a restaurant in Stockport and my supervisor had a band who’s drummer had quit. I offered to help them out in rehearsals and he agreed. As soon as he did I thought: Oh god, I literally can just play time. It was alright and I went there for about a year, but at the same time we started off things with Blossoms because Tom was writing these great songs. We had this rehearsal room through Charlie (our bass player) that we didn’t have to pay for. That made things easier. I remember the first Blossoms rehearsal. We played some covers and some songs Tom wrote and it just came together instantly. One of them was Blow; a song that opens the album and we still play now.
I think it went all really quick for us because we were in other bands previously and sort of know what not to do. For example we wouldn’t sell tickets for promoters, that’s a promoters job! That’s a problem still. So many young bands get caught with promoters who just want to make a quick bit of money and thereby ruin the music industry.
Why would you try to get a promoter to get a gig? Just speak to the venue directly. You might have to pay £60 to hire the venue or to pay a sound guy but most venues are happy to just keep what they make at the bar. Charge your mates a few quid at the door and do it that way. I’d rather pay a sound guy who does a good job than a promoter double because he still needs to pay a sound guy too. The venues don’t care. I think this helped us a lot.
Also we were well into doing quite mysterious teaser videos. Just to create a bit of a buzz because in Manchester everyone was doing the same thing. It’s so easy to get caught up in those circles of playing the same venues. There are some gigs that are good to do but sometimes it’s good to sit back, try to save up for a van and go on tour. We did toilet-tours for ages. It would be me and Charlie driving the van; all of us living in one Travelodge room trying to sneak everyone in. It was fun. That’s what it’s about.
If I wasn’t in Blossoms I would think they all of a sudden came out of nowhere but it was a long time coming. Even now it’s a lot of work. We’ve done 152 gigs last year and 80-odd flights in that time. It’s amazing but it’s hard work.
Getting from the practise room to a record deal is hard work and you just have to be a bit smart. We think about every single move. Especially in the early days we even thought about what we wore together as a band; how we looked; how our logo looked; how we presented ourselves on social media and so on. Social media especially is such a big thing nowadays, you got to be on it.
We just cared about everything and were really hands on. That was actually the one thing we were worried about when signing a record deal – we still wanted to stay in charge.
On the note of ‘staying in charge’: I read that you did your first music video all by yourself with a budget of £60.
Yes, that was for a camera and a smoke machine. We even filmed our latest video ‘Honey Sweet’ ourselves. After that we got too busy. But yeah, we used to film all the videos ourselves at the scaffolding yard where our rehearsal space was. We had to get there early morning and Charlie would be on the fork lift clearing out all the scaffolding out of the warehouse. It was hard work.
A lot of people ask what is the secret ingredient to making it as a band and I don’t think there is one answer, but the one thing you can be pretty clear on is hard work. All the hours that people put into practising and all that. Before we got a record deal we were just a band – all of a sudden you become professional, you have to step it up and play to a click. [laughs]
How long did it take you from that first band rehearsal to the record deal?
About two years. Not long at all. The hard thing was to give up everything else. We all had jobs that we quit. The important thing is that everyone is 100% in it. There are five of us and if one of us didn’t want to tour, that could have been the time our manager or our booking agent first saw us. You never know who’s at the gig.
I would describe the music as Brit-Pop with an electronic influence.
Yes, it’s very ‘poppy’. We’ve been massively influenced by Oasis and all them but we’re also influenced by Abba and stuff like that.
Was the electronic side maybe a bit of an ‘updating’ of the genre?
Yeah. When we first started we always wanted that but at the beginning you don’t have the spare money to get a MIDI keyboard or an iMac, but we did have an organ and Miles our keys player is amazing at picking out weird sounds. We knew what we wanted but had to save up the money so we went with the organ vibe for a bit. As soon as we could, when it was coming to the album, we could treat ourselves to a nice synth. It wasn’t really because it was modern but because we like Blondie, New Order and that sort of thing. But in the same aspect it is very modern and we’re all in our 20s now and that’s what we were influenced by growing up. Look at Kasabian: they’re a big influence and they are very ‘electronicy’. It just felt natural to go down that route.
The first album ‘Blossoms’ in 2016 went to number one straight away. Was that a bit of a shock?
Yes, definitely. It was number one for two weeks and got gold as well. We were on stage at Boardmasters festival when we found out, it was mad. We sold 20-odd-thousand in the first week which is a big deal for a new like us and we were like: wow, people actually want to listen to us. It was a mad week. We did lots of signings and promotion up and down the country and it paid off.
With so much success the venues grow very quickly. Did that change your drumming at all?
I just got scared. When we first started I didn’t really know what a soundcheck was. I thought it was more for the sound guy rather than your monitors – I didn’t know anything about it. We always laugh when we look back at it now. When we started out as a band we would go there, play some for the sound guy and then go off. Now it’s like: “Oh, can I have a bit more snare, less snare bottom…” – we’re dead fussy. Coming back to the professional stuff: you get to the big venues for a reason and you have to keep that up. If you do one bad gig playing to 2000 people, they all could turn around and think it was rubbish. And those things spread quickly. Especially as a drummer: if you mess up big time, it could throw everyone else off.
Do you guys use click or backing tracks?
Yes, we’ve got a few very limited tracks. It’s some reversed cymbals, shakers, sub bass and little things like that. Just things we can’t do live with the limited hands we have.
We mainly play to a click because we can send MIDI out to all the lights so our lighting guy can sync it. My performance today is without a click so I’m quite nervous about it. I haven’t played without a click in ages. Not ever single song on our live set is to a click though. Blow, for example, is just us – no click, no track – because it was done like that and that’s the beauty of it. There are a few other B sides that have the same vibe too. I think that’s because we rehearsed them without a click for so long. The other ones are made in the studio so you add all these sounds to it. In the studio it’s very easy to get carried away with that.
That’s one thing we’ve been really careful with this time: making sure we can play everything live and it does sound like a piece of music that a band is playing. I’ve seen bands before who have just so much stuff on the backing track. I hate when people put backing vocals on a track. Of course it sounds bang on every time but there is something a bit lost. We’re very conscious about keeping things off it and keeping things more live.
Are there any other projects you’re working on at the moment or does Blossoms keep you too busy?
I get asked a lot if I do anything else other than playing for Blossoms as a lot of drummers teach or stuff like that. I don’t and I think that comes back to me being a band drummer rather than a session guy. It sounds ridiculous but I would never really call myself a drummer because there are so many other people who actually are drummers. For example Ian Matthews. He’ll do amazing jazz gigs, does lessons and is so technically gifted as a drummer. I’d say he’s a drummer. For me, I’d say I’m in a band.
I wouldn’t be comfortable sitting there doing a clinic or anything like that because I’m looking at stuff in terms of whole songs. All these clinicians out there are doing a all that amazing stuff. If I would do a clinic I’d be like: Well, in the chorus when I’m on the ride, I’ll use my hats as well with my foot because it brings it up a little bit. It would just be boring stuff like that and things that people most probably already know.
Especially coming to a drum show like this I see all these other guys as drummers. I’m just the guy from Blossoms. There’s a difference between “he’s that drummer” and “he’s in that band”. For me that’s not down-playing it, I’m happy to be that guy.
Next is the second album which is pretty much done. We’ve done 12 tunes in 21 days. In our band Tom is the sole songwriter. He sometimes makes a demo of them and every single one just has time on it. He just wants me to play time on it but luckily enough I’m not gonna [laughs]. This time we were so busy that our producers Rich Turvey and James Skelly suggested we’d do things differently: Tom would do a demo and we’d go in without ever having heard it. I’d be sitting there jamming along and making up drum parts on a Linn Drum. It’s just so quick and I love them. I play it all in and then we all have a conversation about it and change it up to fit properly. In a way that worked quicker. We record it on the drum machine and then I’d go into the studio and record live drums over it. I think it works quicker this way because when you create a part in your rehearsal room and a producer then changes it in the studio, you’re sometimes so used to it already that it’s hard to adapt. Especially if you change it completely.
We don’t have a release date for it yet but it’s probably gonna be at some point 2018 because we need some time off at the end of this year.
So yeah, we’re just working on this new album. We don’t even have a tour booked in at the moment which is a weird feeling. I hope it will all flood in soon but it feels nice to have some downtime for now. I say that but after a week I’ll probably just be bored…
You mentioned the Linn Drum. Do you trigger electronic drums live then as well?
Yes I do. That Linn Drum is my brain, I love it. We love 80s tunes and pretty much every 80s tune ever has a Linn Drum on it. You have to sample that. There is no snare like an electronic snare, you need that. Especially that initial attack but then you need the crack and sound of an acoustic snare. But yeah, I like to trigger a lot of things and I’m fascinated when people merge samples and drums together.
Any plans for your time off?
Not really. I have a whole album to learn after all. We’ve moved into a new rehearsal room so there I’ll be enjoying that.
Thanks a lot for your time Joe!
Interview by Tobias Miorin