Robert Brian is probably best known for his work with British punk artist Siouxsie Sioux, but the fact he plays traditional grip in a punk band is a certain give away that there is much more behind his drumming than just a fat backbeat.
Rob is also proof that to be a successful UK session musician, you don’t have to be based in London, having a diverse CV which covers artists like Miles Kane, Simple Minds, Jason Rebello, Hugh Cornwell, Modern English, Laura Pausini, BlackBox and many, many more.
I caught up with Rob via Skype to chat about his session work, his clinics and his new signature cymbal range.
I know your dad was a drummer too. Was that what sparked it all?
Yes, he was a jazz drummer in the Bath/Bristol area but it wasn’t him who made me wanna learn drums really. I was eight or nine years old and was watching Top Of The Pops on TV every Thursday night. Firstly I thought I wanted to sing, then play guitar, then keyboards. All this time my dad had a big double bass drum Premier kit sat in the garage, but I had no interest in them at all.
Finally my dad sold the kit and literally a month later I said: “Dad, guess what? I wanna play the drums.” He wasn’t happy at all, but that’s how it started. He bought me a practise pad, a pair of sticks and it all built up from there.
What was your route from the practise pad to your first pro gig?
Dad took me as far as he could go and from there I was going through his record collection, listening and learning from tutor books etc.
I then met up with friends to play music in my parents garage and at school. Then when I was 20, a friend of mine who was writing songs with Hugh Cornwell, the lead singer in The Stranglers, asked me to come along to jam with them. I ended up working/ touring with Hugh for a year and made one album with him. From working with Hugh I made contact with Kid Creole and the Coconuts and toured with Coati Mundi, and from there one connection led to another. Between all that I was doing lots of jazz gigs, cutting my teeth around the Bath/Bristol area, working with local jazzers as well as visiting artists such as Tommy Whittle, John Critchenson, Alan Barnes, Art Themen and Julian Arguelles. There is a huge jazz scene in this area and amongst all the rock and pop stuff I was doing I still loved to play jazz, so I kept stepping in and out of both worlds.
You said you played a lot of jazz gigs to earn a living. Was that sort of the function scene back then?
Yes, it definitely was. There is a club in Bath called Moles – The Smiths, Blur, they all played there – and that was the place all us rock musicians would hang out. Before I’d go there at around 11:30pm I’d be doing a little jazz gig somewhere, but I didn’t dare tell anyone at the club that I was a jazzer. I was pretty much leading a double life! You have to make money to live and in original music (just like today) there isn’t a lot of money knocking around. The pub jazz gigs back in the 90s were around 30-40 quid a gig, which isn’t/wasn’t a lot of money, but if it was a local gig then it was alright and worked towards paying my rent.
Working with some of those jazz musicians, especially the older ones was awesome, they had so much knowledge to share. A lot of them would take me under their wing and say: “Don’t do that young ‘un, do this!”. When you’re 21/22 though you just think “Shut up! I know what I’m doing.” Although I discarded most of it back then thinking I was too cool, but a lot of the things they told me about dynamics, timing/feel really did sink in. It did me a lot of good doing those gigs and I still do a few of them now, it’s great playing with musicians who are really into what they do, not necessarily doing it for the money.
Is your jazz background the reason for you playing traditional grip?
Definitely! After finding pop music and Gary Numan, my other big influence was Buddy Rich. I could see Buddy using the traditional grip and I just loved it. Then I found The Beatles and fell in love with Ringo and their music, but he of course uses matched grip – so I was torn between the two for a little while.
My dad – he was quite old school – said traditional was the best for me and he encouraged me to keep going with it and I’m glad that I did. All my friends at school were playing matched grip so they all took the mickey out of me for it. But I kept at it and it’s something I have always used.
There is only one tour where I didn’t use it. It was a six month American tour in 1996 with a band called Modern English. The MD asked me to play matched grip because traditional grip looked too jazzy to him. When I came back from that tour though it took me ages to get my chops back in my left hand and I swore to myself I would never do it again!
No, it has never been a problem for me as I can play very loud using traditional grip. Working with Siouxsie and using it was a bit radical though I guess for some people. The amount of interest and weird messages I got about it: “Why do you use that grip in a punk band man?”. But it freaks them out when they see the power that I get from it, because they say it’s supposed to be a light jazz grip… not true!.. just check Buddy, Stewart Copeland, Vinnie… ME!
There are so many names on your CV but I’ve read one of your most memorable moments was your work with Peter Gabriel?
It was a great experience for me. It seems like this is one name people like to talk about on my CV. Peter wanted to record some jazz tunes, so a friend of mine rang me on the Sunday and told me to be at Real World Studios on Monday at 11am to do a jazz recording. At that time I had no idea who I would be recording with. I got there and started setting up, the door opens and Peter Gabriel walks in – looking a bit like a Jedi Knight, he had this big robe on, wearing sandals and it was the first time he started growing his beard. He shook my hand and we started talking about my drum kit and other drummers and so on, he used to play the drums back in the day.
We were recording for two days and it’s yet to be released – and probably never will. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes because it might disappoint you, but this meeting really didn’t. It was a dream come true!
Any other artist that stuck out over the years?
Yes, working with Simple Minds was awesome, from seeing them on TOTP and iconic performances like ‘Live Aid’ and so on. To then be sat behind the kit recording with them was a pretty big buzz.
Recording with Miles Kane was good fun too as he was up for any ideas in the studio, and let me try lots of things out. Last summer working with Michel Polnareff was good for me as he let me play big fat fills and grooves all over his tracks, he just loves the drums! Siouxsie Sioux is probably the name artist that I’ve worked with the longest. The last live shows we did were 2013 as part of Yoko Ono’s Meltdown Festival in London at The Royal Festival Hall. The gig with Sioux started in 2006 and has been an ongoing thing, so every interview I do is usually based around that gig but I’m trying to work away from that a little now. As you said my CV is so eclectic, there are so many different names on there, I think that’s a positive point to be honest.
When I had my first interview for Rhythm magazine the editor said I would be difficult to pinpoint for some readers because I’m seen with Siouxsie, but in the article we talked about my jazz playing and other drumming interests. I have always personally thought though that that’s a good thing, I am a session musician and therefore play many different styles. The calls I get are from many different artists, genres and decades of music. I’m a studio musician, that’s what I do.
A few years ago your brought out the DVD “Technique and Musicality”. Tell me a bit more about that.
The idea of that DVD was to show that technique isn’t everything. Technique is not gonna win you a gig on it’s own, but a mix of that and musicality probably will. What I’ve learned is the middle ground is the best place to be. When I get a session I always try to give the artists what they want regarding musicality first, then if they want a more developed drum part/phrase then I can bring in my technique for that.
The DVD also shows that you don’t have to be choppy in the practise room and dull when you play with the band. You can bring these things into the band if the music permits. So I do show some technical exercises whist also putting them into a musical context as well. At the time I was watching the videos of all these incredible technical drummers and was blown away – but I just didn’t see where I could use it. So I was trying to size it down and dilute it to something the drummer on the street could easily use. That’s not to say that all of the information on the DVD is easy, but it is hands on useful stuff.
I always tell my students to listen to musical drummers, we need more musical players I think….The world is full of fast ones.
You’re doing clinics on that subject as well, right?
Yes, I’ll be doing some clinic’s with Bosphorus to promote my new XT Cymbal range through this year, which has elements and studies from the DVD included. We have one planned for Drumshack in London and one at Drum Bank in Bristol on April the 7th – and more to come. There will be a few in Italy and I’ll also be playing the main stage at Musikmesse in Frankfurt on Friday the 8th of April at 5pm.
I did a clinic at BIMM in Bristol the other day and I’ll be at the Institute in London on the 24th of Feb, and there is an ACM one coming up as well, so I am getting to the music uni’s as well as the shops.
Yes it really is, but it’s not a signature product as such as it hasn’t got my name on it. But it’s very certainly my range and I’m extremely proud of it. And yes, it is a dream come true I have to say.
The traditional’s are great and I’ve used them since day one but I could just hear another sound that I wanted to get from them. It was a fun process to sit and design cymbals from your minds eye, I loved it. I emailed Emrah in Turkey and then travelled to the factory and they were all happy to listen to my ideas. I did tell them: “Look, I’m a player and I don’t make cymbals I just play them. So please tell me if I’m wrong or talking nonsense!”
I just noticed that all their Traditional range of cymbals were getting flatter and flatter and the bells were disappearing – but I wanted that bell to be there to make a bigger/fuller sound. So I asked for a bigger bell and more of a sexy curve in the cymbal, gave them an idea of weights and so on. The four cymbal masters just started bouncing around the room excitedly and talking to each other. I thought I had broke some kind of cymbal code or something! Finally they turned and said that it was a great idea and they would make some samples for me to try out.
After a while I went back to the factory and they had designed two sets for me. One of the sets was brighter than the other and that’s exactly the set I wanted. Thanks to the bigger bell and the curvature they had more body and dare I say it… balls! And they were just perfect to my ear and exactly what I was hearing in my minds ear/eye.
It’s so warming to now get messages from drummers from America, New Zealand or Europe saying that they’ve bought an XT cymbal and they’re loving it. That means a lot to me. It’s just an amazing feeling that all these people are getting something out of it as well as me…. a real dream come true… another career box has been ticked.
They only come in a few selected sizes. Was that always the plan?
The idea was to have a cymbal range that I and other guys could add to their set up without them sounding out of place. There are enough ‘kookie’ sounding ranges on the market and I wanted a real ‘players’ cymbal both in sound and size. Also, I wanted something that would marry in perfectly with what I and other drummers already generally own. That’s why I picked only certain sizes which in my experience are proved to sound great for the studio and a live situation. Any sizes in between you can currently get with the Traditional’s or other ranges, and to be honest those guys buying 15” hats will find that they do one thing well, but are not too universal. Mine are a working set for everyday musical use, they have appeared on three albums and a number one single so far, I am pretty pleased with that.
So you had a clear idea of what you wanted before you went in?
Definitely, I didn’t have to go through loads of prototypes and they didn’t have to melt to many back down again. I sat down at home and wrote out ideas and drew diagrams of the contour of the cymbal. I took the weight’s from the Traditional cymbals that I already owned and loved the sound of, to see if they could match that with this new idea with the bigger bells and contour. I really gave them a clear idea and wrote down exactly what I wanted. They just went: “We think we know…”. You can’t ask any better than that.
I was just so happy that you can go to this cymbal company with a sound in your head and they can produce it perfectly. It’s totally amazing! I’m not saying none of the other companies could do that, but I’m not dealing with them, I am dealing with the top cymbalsmiths at Bosphorus, and they truly delivered.
What’s next? What’s happening 2016?
I recorded an album with a French artist called Michel Polnareff who’s like the Cliff Richard of France. That’s about to come out anytime soon. I’m also back in the studio this month with Charlie Jones, the bass player from Goldfrapp, recording his second album. I recorded some tracks before Christmas for Nigel Pulsford’s new album as well, who was the guitarist from the massive 90’s band Bush, so there will be more to do with him too. There’s a few other recording things going on at the moment too but I can’t talk about them just yet… all will be revealed though… watch this space.
Apart from that I am doing the XT Edition cymbal clinics that I mentioned earlier and I will be gigging locally and nationally throughout the year on and off, check my website for more details on that.
I’ve been touring since I was 21, so I’m trying to get away from having to get in the back of a tour bus again. With all the things going on here and being in the first year of marriage with a baby on the way, I’m quite happy to hang the touring boots up for a little while. Saying that, if a nice cosy little arena tour popped up then I would probably give it some serious thought. That’s definitely another career box that I would like to get ticked before too long!
Thanks a lot for your time Rob!
Interview by Tobias Miorin