Making his drumming debut on the stages of drum shows, Simon Tellier had to work hard to get rid of the “clinician” image. Propelled to prove to the critics that the ‘young guy with the many notes’ was capable of playing for the big artists, he moved to London at the age of 17. There he kickstarted a career that brought him onto some of the biggest stages in the world playing for artists such as Birdy, Jason Derulo, Gloria Gaynor, Christophe Willem, Tinchy Stryder, Taio Cruz and many, many more.
Tellier just finished a 2 year stint as a multi-instrumentalist touring the planet with the iconic synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys and now gears up for the next challenge of his young career.
I sat down with Simon to chat about his journey to London, his way into the Pop world and his second career as a composer.
You started playing the drums when you were very young.
Yes, I was two. It wasn’t a real drum kit though, it was a Fisher Price one. I’m not really sure why drums though, it was so long ago. Both my parents are hobby musicians. My dad paints, he writes songs, plays classical guitar, lute and all that stuff. He’s a very talented guy. He had a band in which my mum played bass. They gigged a lot before I was born and even recorded some tapes. I still have them.
My godfather played keys in the band but he also played Banjo in a New Orleans jazz band. My first memories are going to see them play and I remember the drummer having such a good vibe and being so happy playing. My godfather put me on his knees and let me play with the band, that’s what hooked me.
My mum bought me the little drum kit and I used it so much that she decided to buy me a proper drum kit and get me lessons. I was only five years old so nobody wanted to take me on. One guy, Gerard Munoz, agreed to teaching me and started coming to my house for private lessons. When I was six I started gigging with my dads band which taught me a lot. It was great to do that with my parents. I remember the first time I got paid for a gig. I was about seven and got 300 Francs (maybe about £40). I was so happy. I never had that much money and just couldn’t believe that he paid me money for playing drums. Result!
Your first break through was opening the Tam Tam percussion festival at the age of 14.
Yes. At the time I had lessons with Jean Francois Miguel who founded the festival. He lived about an hour away from my home town and my mum used to drive me there every two weeks. He was very ‘flashy’, ‘showbiz’ and all about playing fast – pretty much the polar opposite to my first drum teacher. A couple of months before the festival I cheekily said: “Maybe one day I can play at your festival”. Obviously I wasn’t expecting to play there because it was a really big deal and he had some of the biggest drummers on the bill. But he just said: “Why don’t you play this year?”. He gave me ‘Dave’s Gone Skiing’ by Toto and said: “If you want to play my festival, you’ll have to play this!” That was the deal. I only had a couple of months to get it down but I was so pumped and practised the song so hard that he let me open the festival.
That was really my big break because all the French drumming magazines were there, Thomas Lang and Cindy Blackman were playing that year. Thomas Lang was my absolute hero, so I was mega nervous. He was so nice though and watched my whole performance from the side of the stage.
Being so young I got a lot of coverage in the magazines and later that year signed with Mapex and Meinl who were really supportive.
It all just went from there: I supported Gregg Bissonette on a clinic close to my hometown; I played the festival every year making my way up the line up and playing a little crazier things every year; I played the Bag show in Paris, Musikmesse in Frankfurt and some more drum festivals in France.
Yes. I didn’t really know what to do after my A-levels. I thought about becoming a teacher and just play drums on the side; or I could have opened a drum school. But I really just wanted to play drums.
At that time Veronique from ‘Batteur’ magazine told me they were doing a scholarship competition for DrumTech in London and I should apply. That was in July and the course started in September – so it was all very last minute. I did the audition, was lucky enough to get it and then moved to London. I was only 17 at the time, didn’t really speak the language and didn’t know anyone. It was difficult but I was so excited that the worries just didn’t reach me. And after all stuff like this is what makes you grow as a person. I had such a good time at Tech and met loads of people. I basically practised drums all day and really focused on getting better. I wasn’t really a ‘going-out’ type back then. It’s funny how things change…
Your big break in the UK was the audition for Xenomania?
Yes. The girl working at the front desk at Tech told me about the open audition and suggested I should go.
Xenomania is this songwriting team that had lots of songs in the charts back then and was looking to start developing their own artists. For that they wanted a house band of young musicians so they held open auditions.
They asked me to play 4-on-the-floor, 16th on the hihats and a back beat – that was it. It was my first audition ever so I was really nervous and there were so many people auditioning that I didn’t get my hopes up. A few days later they asked me to come back for a second round with less people where we played to a track and with other musicians and singers. Again, it was all just groove. I guess they were looking for attitude and image as well. At the time I had a funny hair cut, I think they liked that.
They invited us to their mansion in the countryside where every single room was a studio and lots of writers worked on music. It was basically a hit-factory. They kept inviting us to play there and one day just said: Oh yeah, send your invoice here. We basically started working before we knew it.
That all happened before Tech even ended so I was incredibly lucky not to fall into this post-uni limbo.
Was this all more touring or recording?
More touring. Basically we were working with them developing the artists which meant we were rehearsing five days a week all day. It was basically a 9-5 – well more a 11-8.
We also rehearsed with different bands and artists pretty much every day which is why it was so busy. I learned a lot about playing professional shows, playing to a click and working with labels during that time; and we even were on a retainer. Because I didn’t know any better I was blown away by how much money I would earn playing drums and thought that if this was the starting point, I would be rich. Turns out that’s not the case… [laughs]
I ended up leaving Xenomania because they offered me to go out on tour with one of their artists, Alex Gardner. I was 18 at the time so of course I wanted to get on the road. It was my first proper tour with backline tech, big venues and again we were on a comfortable retainer. We did that for about a year supporting The Script, One Republic, Paolo Nutini, Whitney Houston and Scouting For Girls. It was amazing.
Then one day we got a phone call saying Alex is not gonna have a band anymore. That’s when the real life hit me and things got interesting. I was on retainers since I was 18, always had regular money coming in and then it just stopped. Luckily I had the contact to Kojo Samuel who I had worked with on that project and he started calling me to dep on Tinchy Stryder, Taio Cruz and the likes. That’s were I really learned the job: learning new songs, being around new touring crews all the time and all that stuff.
It all started from there. Things got a bit more serious because I played for established artists in bigger venues but I also had to start dealing with the ups and downs and look after my money. That transition was the hardest.
So being retained so early on was a blessing and curse really because it gave me a false vision of what the industry actually is.
Yes, it was all very acoustic and I think we even only had click track on two songs – which was brilliant but it can be good and bad. Some nights you get a bit excited and some songs might get a bit fast. It was great to just vibe it out though and have that freedom.
What was crazy was that on her album back then (Fire Within) she had Omar Hakim, Ash Soan, Matt Chamberlain – all those heavy dudes; and I had to play their parts. It was a “I really hope they don’t see this”.. [laughs]
It was a great experience: We got to record at Abbey Roads, toured a good part of the world and brought me to America for the first time. The whole thing lasted about a year and a half and kept me really busy.
After that I went on to Blonde which again was completely electronic.
Has the electronic side always been a passion or was it more born out of necessity?
Necessity, absolutely. The first time I really had to buy electronic equipment was for Christophe Willem because it required a fully hybrid kit. It was a pretty big set up and I even needed multiple kick pedals because there were two or three kicks per song. Sarah, the MD, is very particular which was amazing because I learned a lot from working with her. Also everything after working with her now is easy. Blonde after that was very electronic and hard to program; same with the Pet Shop Boys.
But yeah, up till then I was never especially into it. I started using it because I needed to and now I love it. Now I know how to program a DTX and I can pretty much cover all parts with hardware.
Let’s talk about Christophe Willem. He’s a French artist but you actually got the gig here in London?
Yes, that was funny. Christophe is a big Kylie Minogue fan and wanted that sound for his shows. My friend Sarah (who I didn’t know at the time) was band-leading Kylie alongside Steve Anderson at the time. When Christophe’s management approached him he got Sarah to MD the gig. A friend of mine was depping bass on the gig and put my name forward. I had seen Christophe on TV when I was younger so I was really keen. I met with Sarah before the audition to talk about it. She told me she wanted a hybrid set up and that’s when I went out and bought all my electronics.
I did the audition and then got called in again the next day to play while they were auditioning guitarists. After we finished the songs Sarah just went: Congrats! That was it.
We rehearsed in London for a while and then did production rehearsals in the Royal Theatre in Monaco. It was nuts.
It was great because my parents didn’t know any of the artists I played with up till then but because Willem was French it was the first time they could relate and even came to a couple of shows in France. It was an amazing tour and I had a really fun set up. I only have great memories from it.
Yes, it’s all quite full on: all electronic, all standing up, a lot of singing, a lot of moving and some keys. There are a lot of backing vocals and even a song where I’m away from the drums at the front of the stage singing a duet with Neil. That was really scary because I don’t consider myself a singer. Luckily at that point in the show I’m wearing a helmet so I can’t really see the crowd.
Yes, creative decisions. There are two helmets in the show. They have little holes where the eyes are but with all the lights on stage you can’t actually see anything through them so you look underneath. That took some getting used to. Playing the parts and singing while wearing a helmet where you can’t see in front of you was quite a challenge.
Any other particular challenges?
Getting the whole thing working was quite a challenge. There was two of us playing drum parts so we had to split it all up. I was in charge of programming the drum samples which took forever. Luckily we had about a month and a half to prep before the first show so we made it work.
The first real challenge was the audition. That was quite crazy. They told us it was gonna be all electronic drums and wanted us to learn percussion parts. They gave us a few songs to learn but didn’t actually tell us what parts we should learn or what sounds we would have available, so we had to kind of guess what we would have to play. I spent days and days prepping pretty much every possible combination: playing the main drums here; then re-learn the song playing the percussion part with the backbeat and so on. It was only four or five songs but when you don’t know what’s expected to you it’s a lot of work.
When I got to the audition they had an SPDS and the MD gave me a form of chart which was a drawing of what sample was where on the pad. I was able to make it work only because I prepared so hard.
Oh and they only asked me to sing backing vocals when the manager picked me up from the waiting room. So I played and sang the first song, all shaking from the adrenaline, but it went well.
After that Neil (the singer) looked at my CV and said: “It says here you do a lot of electronics. Does this mean you can play keys as well?”. I was not aware of that at all – I was there to play drums – but I just went: Yeah! So he went: “Would you mind playing the next song on keyboard?”. Luckily they asked me to play the bass line to West End Girls – which everyone knows. The MD showed me the first note and off we went. I don’t quite know but I made it through. I was lucky. Any other song and I couldn’t have done it just like that.
They asked me to come back for a call back and asked me to prepare keyboard parts too. So again I was hiding away, working and working, trying to prepare as much as possible when one day I got the call saying I got the gig. The call back never happened.
That was two and a half years ago. It’s been such a cool gig. So much travelling, so many great venues, my biggest gig today in front of 150.000 people at Rock in Rio. It was amazing.
Was it every weird to play music that was first famous when you weren’t even born yet?
No, I don’t find it weird, it’s very cool. You have to learn how to relate when you don’t know something even if it’s the most famous thing. You might not realise how much it effected people. My manager for example is a huge fan and it makes you realise: wow, this is bigger than me.
They are super legit though. They have an amazing career and it’s great music. It’s 80s and 90s sounding and you either like it or you don’t, but I’m lucky that I like pretty much everything as long as it’s quality music and there is a message behind it. When I learned the set, I learned to really appreciate it, learned to relate, I listened to different bands from that era, listened to their back catalogue, did research and asked Neil questions about the songs. You realise that Pet Shop Boys actually is really deep and has real messages behind the songs.
I hope I’ll be working with them in the future.
Yes. As you know making a proper living out of just drumming is getting more and more difficult; and after all what we do is a business and you’ve got to earn money. I’ve always written music and produced even when I was a kid. My dad had this music room at home where I started to record myself with a tape machine playing drums and guitar.
I never took writing seriously until a few years ago because I thought you’d only write music for an artist. I didn’t really realise there is such a big market. When you think about it there is music everywhere and that music is being paid for.
I talked to my friend Sarah and told her I wanted to be a bit more comfortable financially and not rely on other people giving me work. We all had tours cancelled last minute.
Sarah told me about library music, which I had never heard of before, and encouraged me to give it a try. I already knew how to use Logic, play keys, guitar and sing, so I decided to get into it. That’s when I really started investing in gear getting studio monitors, a keyboard, plugins and all of that. I made lots of different songs in different styles and approached some sync companies. Several companies got back to me but one in particular invited me in for a meeting and asked me to make an album for them. That’s how it all started.
The first album was about five years ago and it still earns me money today. Actually one of my first ever songs is still my best paid track – and it’s the sh**est I think! [laughs]
After that I also started writing for pop artists with my friend Sarah and in 2017 we actually got the track with the most radio plays in South Africa. It’s crazy how this all can go.
It’s just fun, it’s something different and I don’t want to have to rely on just drumming. I want to drum on things that I like to play on and not have to do everything just because I need the money.
I might be a bit young to give advice but I would tell every drummer or musician who reads this to do something else as well – whether it be teaching, writing or whatever. Don’t just rely on playing. It’s pretty tough, especially here in London.
Now you’re looking to relocate to Los Angeles?
Yes. I’ve been here for 10 years and I’m happy with what I’ve done in London. I haven’t quite achieved everything I wanted but I’ve been so lucky playing with so many artists small to big and I don’t have a single bad memory from working with someone.
Now I want to experience a different scene, explore and get out of my comfort zone. As a creative I think being comfortable makes you lazy. Some people like doing the same thing every day to save money and buy a house – fine, do it – but it’s not what makes me a better person or musician. I’m just gonna give it a try and see what happens. It’s always a gamble but I’ve got some contacts over there and I’m just gonna live in the sun for a bit and see what happens.
Finally, what’s next?
I’ve got some music coming out
Also we have the last show of the Pet Shop Boys tour coming up. It’s the end of two years of solid work and touring which is bittersweet. Its amazing that we’ve done it and it has been a lot of fun but it’s coming to an end and you know, you move on and do something else. I’m looking forward to doing something new but I’ve actually never been bored on that tour because we have so much fun on stage and they treat us very well.
I’m looking forward to the future. I don’t have a specific coming up in terms of drumming but I want to get back into the drumming for drummers thing. I did that scene as a young guy and back then nobody believed that I would play for artists because I was this kid who played lots of notes over backing tracks. Now I’ve done it, I played four-on-the-floor long enough, now I want to re-explore that side, make some music and drum on it.
Thanks a lot for your time Simon!
Interview by Tobias Miorin