Having played and recorded with some of the biggest names in the industry including Christina Aguilera, Jason Mraz, Paloma Faith, Mika, Elton John, Take That. James Morrison, Westlife, Girls Aloud, Starsailor, One Direction, Gary Barlow, Olly Murs, Leona Lewis, Joss Stone, Alison Moyet, and Charlotte Church – just to name a few – Karl has repeatedly proved to be one of the UK’s most versatile drummers.
And his work with Feeder and James Blunt means he is now better known in the drum community as well.
For over seven years now Karl has been touring the world, holding down the groove for Robbie Williams, while still remaining to be a very in-demand session drummer.
I caught up with Karl at the London Drum Show to chat about his upbringing, his work behind and in front of the drum kit, and the struggles between tour life and family.
You grew up in a very musical household. How did that contribute to you being such a versatile drummer today?
My dad used to have a great set of speakers in the house, a good record player and a good record collection. To get inspired he played music around the house and in the car. He’d often convert stuff from vinyl to cassette tape and play it in the car. So I was listening to anything from Huey Lewis and the News, to the Eagles, Toto, The Little River Band, Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson, Dire Straights – all sorts of stuff. That was a massive influence on me. Music makes me feel good, chord progressions make me feel good (if they’re the right ones) and songs always drew different emotions from me and made me quite reflective at times as a kid. I think music is just in me in many ways, but I would definitely say the stuff mum and dad played me had a massive influence. Discovering drummers drummers like Richie Hayward (Little Feat), Jeff Porcaro (Toto), Steve Smith (Journey) was so exciting… I mean, there are three fabulous players. Yeah, it definitely had an effect.
From early on I just knew what it was, I knew what felt good drum wise. Not necessarily “chopsy” stuff but just great grooves and good parts.
I don’t think he did it on purpose, but my dad definitely drove me to wanna do what I’m doing now.
Yes, I’m left handed and left footed. I can actually play left handed but I didn’t because I started so young. I guess my dad (he’s a guitarist) just put the kit up right handed and I just learned to play like that. So when I play now, I lead with my left. Recently on the Robbie tour I injured my calf muscle so I just rigged up my left pedal and played some of the set with my left just to get through.
It has its advantages at times because it definitely makes me approach things in a different way. It gets difficult sometimes when I’m teaching because I have to do things the other way to show somebody.
I do sometimes open up and play open handed as well. All in all it’s just something I got used to and use it more as an asset now.
How did the Robbie Williams gig come about?
I met Robbie about eight years ago at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. He came to see a James Blunt gig I was on drums for, so we met. I was making James’ record over there for a month, where we got to know each other and played some football together. A while later he sent me an email telling me he was in need of a drummer. I was obviously delighted and well up for the gig. Sure enough a year later his manager got in touch and we started the campaign of ‘Reality Killed The Video Star’. That was Trevor Horn’s record so I got to play with him too and got to do the Brits with him and his band. It was a great start and I’ve been with him ever since. He is a diamond of a bloke!
How did the gig develop over the years? Robbie has such a big back catalogue, it must be tricky to do each song justice.
Yes, it’s about 20 years of music he’s got. You can play anything from a ska/reggae tune to ‘Rude Box’ which is electronic, to a very acoustic strong rock tune. That’s why I’ve got quite a complex set up of sounds. Two kicks – disco kick and big rock kick; two snares, one rack, two floors and another floor on the left; pads, triggers – I’m equipped for twenty years of music really.
He’s got so many good songs to choose from he can’t possibly do all of them. That’s exciting. I’m always constantly nagging about “Can we do this one? Can we do that one?”, he just goes: “Shut up Braz!”.
That was my favourite gig. It was amazing! Probably my favourite gig to date. The way we started that gig was quite incredible and it was in the round as well. I’ve got a little tingle just thinking about it. I remember after the first night I went back to my hotel room and just couldn’t believe what just happened.
The recent swing album was a bit of new territory for you, wasn’t it?
I didn’t actually play on the album but I did the live tour and that was a major challenge for me. Definitely one out of my comfort zone and I had to put extra effort in and dig deep. I was actually having second thoughts of whether I was equipped enough to do it because it had been a long time since I played any kind of swing. I threw myself in the deep end and came out the other side feeling a real sense of achievement, and I think I did the right thing. It definitely improved my drumming (if I can say that myself) and I love playing that style of music now.
I’m not a massive reader so I had to learn everything by ear, but I’m pretty quick at picking things up now.
Anyway, it was definitely a huge challenge, but I got the vote of confidence from a good few people. Mike (Dolbear) came to a show and said he thought I’d done a great job, that was nice to hear. It’s the only compliment he’s ever paid me actually [laughs].
The swing tour was hard work and at times I felt like a young kit auditioning for something again, but once I got in there and had done my homework I feel proud to say I think I nailed it. I definitely wanna do it again now.
It’s nice that a gig you’ve done for so long can still challenge you though. Keeps it interesting.
Yeah. It was me and the bass player who basically got asked: can you cut it? We said we would give it a go and had a little jam in London. After that I got a phone call off Robbie himself to say he heard I smashed it and that he was really pleased. I was like: Yeeaaayy, let’s go to the pub! [laughs]
Yes, Feeder has been on and off for me because there have been different bits and bobs. Also Grant Nicholas has been doing his solo record which is called Yorktown Heights – a great album! I did the album with him but I haven’t done the live shows.
We have just started a new Feeder record and there is talk of us doing festivals next year, which I’m very excited about. Being in Feeder is great. They had a few different drummers over the years for obvious reasons, but I’m thoroughly excited at prospects of us doing shows and getting a new album out next year. That’s definitely on the cards. We’re back in the studio in two weeks time.
Are you involved in the writing?
Grant brings all his ideas to the plate and we just get in there jamming them. He normally has something thought out to be fair, but the writing side of things is something I definitely want to do more with different people over the next few years. I’ve just started doing it now and I’m actually really enjoying it.
Apart from all that you’re still doing a lot of recording work.
Yes, I’ve just done Mika’s new album and I’ve recorded some new material with Zayn Malik from One Direction. I’ve also just done Ben Haenow’s record from X-factor, Gavin James who is an amazing new artist from Dublin, and most recently Thomas Ward who are a great Country duo from the U.K. Robbie’s new album is now underway too which I’m very excited about! Now I’m back off tour I’m happy to do studio work and get home for my tea at six o’clock.
How does the studio work compare to the live shows for you?
I like both but being on stage with a performer you can be a bit more expressive and can put more in. In the studio you have to be much more disciplined, play for the track and you have to remember that this track will be listened to forever and ever. Whatever you choose to do has to be simplistic and tasty and not get in the way of vocals. It’s just a discipline thing. Drums are under the microscope in the studio, so you’ve got to remember that.
Yes, one little boy and he needs his daddy around. I haven’t seen him enough this year. That’s the hardest part of it.
I lived in a similar environment when I was a kid. My dad played in bands and went to America for quite a long period of time, but me and my dad are closer than ever. I get what it was though, and he gave me a great upbringing. He involved me and that’s what I’m trying to do with my boy. He knows his daddy is down here doing the drum show. I’m doing the Alan Carr Show with Olly Murs next week and he’ll be watching that on TV. The older he gets the more he’ll understand it but that’s why I’m not rushing off on tour now, I’m gonna do studio work, living a bit of a normal life.
Thinking about this, touring with Robbie over the last few years has been pretty broken up. It’s not just disappearing for months on end. He’s got family too. We can fly the family out and all that but it’s still pretty hard at times especially if you’re somewhere as far as Australia.
Anyway I’m home now and really looking forward to Christmas.
You also started MD’ing recently? Tell me more about that.
Yes, I’ve done it a lot before. I MD’d Natalie Imbruglia, Charlotte Church, Bodyrockers, Rita Ora… I’ve done quiet a lot of MD work over the years. I left it alone since I was playing with James Blunt and Robbie because I kind of just wanted to focus on the drums and not have all these extra things to deal with.
I have been taking care of the 5 Seconds Of Summer boys for the last three years. That doesn’t involve playing of course because they’re a band. That’s been a different perspective and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Four great lads on a huge rollercoaster to fame, They’re great players, an absolutely solid band and great performers. I’ve just enjoyed being there as a sort of coach figure or mentor or whatever you want to call it. It’s called musical director, but I think I’m more an uncle figure to rely on and to run opinions past. I give them an idea of the set list, how the show should run, rhythm and syncopation of the whole thing really, we’ve gone through arrangements and intros to the show and so on. I really enjoy it and they make life easy for me.
They’re such a nice bunch and a great live act.
Once Christmas is done I haven’t got anything in the diary for January so I’m gonna take some time there, shovel some snow off the drive hopefully and then I’ll be back in the studio finishing Feeder’s record. Then we’re gonna do some dates early next year.
I have a few one-off shows with Robbie to do. After that we’ll be starting Feeder festivals. I’m very excited about that.
But mainly I’m gonna be doing the school run, get back to doing some hobbies that I love: playing football, squash, watching my local team – just catching up on normal life. I need to do a bit of that because before you know it I’ll be prepping to go back out and start again. Enjoying the time off is my main priority.
Thanks a lot for your time Karl! Enjoy your time off!
Interview by Tobias Miorin