West End Drummers - Part 11 - Jim Fleeman - Matilda The Musical
West End Drummers Part 11 - Jim Fleeman – Matilda The Musical
Jim Fleeman is the drummer and percussionist for Matilda The Musical, which is a Royal Shakespeare Company production that enjoyed a sold out season in Stratford Upon Avon before moving to the Cambridge Theatre in London. The musical is based upon Roald Dahl’s book and the music is written by comedian Tim Minchin. It has recently won seven Olivier Awards, including best new musical, and in this month’s West End Drummers Jim tells us about his own playing on the show from its beginnings to it’s current commercial success, which has included creating a part for dessert spoons!
How did you start drumming?
Our family was very musical. I have two older brothers and we all learned instruments. My eldest brother took up the guitar, my middle brother played piano, viola and trumpet and was a chorister and I started on piano and cello. In fact, I initially wanted to be a cellist. Then when I was eight or nine, my parents bought us a little toy drum set. We''d play out our pop group fantasies - often miming to the Sunday night top 40 program on Radio 1 - and because my brothers had the guitar and keyboard covered I tended to end up with the drum set.
I guess I took to it because my parents eventually bought a ''proper'' kit; an old sparkling red Broadway kit with a snare, kick and mounted concert tom and a mounted ride. It probably sounded awful but I was very proud of it and they got me some lessons.
My brothers eventually started writing their own material and we''d get together and record it. I also started forming bands with school friends. My best friend was a sax player and we had a trio for a good few years that was great fun and a good learning experience. It was all instrumental but influenced by the rock and heavy metal stuff we were listening to so it was an interesting mix. We weren''t quite sophisticated enough to be aware of people like Jeff Beck, but it meant that there wasn''t really a template we trying to fit into and all we had to sound like was ourselves. We did local gigs and gigs at school and got into the final of one of the early TSB Rockschool competitions.
Because my friend was a sax player it wasn''t long before he started listening to jazz and I started picking up on that. When I was 16 we both went on the Wavendon Jazz Course and I met Trevor Tomkins. He was a fantastic inspiration and that was when I really got serious about playing the instrument.
I''d travel down to London every month or so for lessons with him, got onto the Leeds College of Music jazz course (the only graduate jazz course that existed then) and then onto the Post Grad Jazz Course at the Guildhall School of Music.
I did my first ‘professional’ gig when I was 14, depping for my teacher on a New Years Eve gig in Barbarellas nightclub in Birmingham. The doorman wouldn''t let me in because I was under age. It was the first time I''d been put on the spot in a gig situation, having to come up with appropriate parts for music that was mostly unfamiliar to me stylistically. That''s a useful learning experience and really means you have to use your ears and musicality to have the drums sit there in the right place and not be exposed as the heavy-handed wannabe rock drummer I probably was.
I obviously did OK as I started getting booked to play other gigs around the Midlands, which my parents had to ferry me to. At the same time, an English teacher at school asked me to play with his Victorian Music Hall group. Again, there was no music for me so it was a matter of coming up with parts for music that was new to me, make sure I started and finished in the right places, played what was appropriate and could roll with the punches when things went awry. I remember the old Music Hall great Tommy Trinder handing me a carrot from the stage and announcing to the audience that I had messed up his entrance. That''s a good learning experience too!
I suppose all that gave me a good grounding for playing on shows. Musical Theatre, probably more than other musical disciplines, requires a multiplicity of skills. You have to be able to adapt yourself to a variety of different styles and idioms, some of which you have no affinity for and most of which will be miles away from the music that inspired you and that you dreamt of being involved in. You have to be able to approach it with the same integrity and desire to derive some musical satisfaction from what you’re playing as you would anything else. Music might be an integral part of the piece but it’s there to serve the drama and the theatrical aspect will always take precedence.
One of the more enjoyable theatre jobs I''ve had was depping for Mike Gregory on a production of Jumpers at the National Theatre. There wasn''t much music in it but it was a great production and an interesting piece of theatre and so it was a really nice gig. The last few big theatre jobs I''ve done have been similarly interesting. Before Matilda there was Damon Albarn''s ''Monkey: Journey to the West'', and the only full scale production of the Stiles & Drewe musical ''Just So''. In the meantime I was workshopping a musical play with the singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel. That’s what I find rewarding about theatre work; the chance to be involved in something interesting or different or unique, even if it’s light from a playing point of view.
For a musician I really think Matilda is about as good as Musical Theatre gets; it''s a fantastic piece of theatre with a great score that''s challenging, demanding and satisfying to play. It would have been a perfect gig even if it had only been for those few months in Stratford. The fact that we''re now part of this enormous critical and commercial success is icing on the cake.
How did you get into musicals?
I guess like most people, I got into musicals by accident. I could read music so when I was still at school I was playing in school productions and for local am-dram groups. I just took any opportunity to pick up my sticks so theatre work was always a part of what I did and that continued when I started playing professionally.
When I left college, I did a few productions for the Young Vic Youth Theatre. My musical career mostly consisted of playing with various bands, trying to get a record deal in the days when you still could, schlepping up and down the M1 in clapped out transit vans or hiking my gear around London venues, and doing the odd jazz gig if I was lucky. But the theatre work actually paid money!
In those days there was still a reasonably healthy Rep theatre scene and the Young Vic MD booked me to do a production of Grease at the Derby Playhouse, which was a great theatre. We ended up doing about 10 shows there over the next few years and I started depping in town a bit and on the big tours.
It might sound cynical but really the motivation for most musicians to be involved in musicals in the first instance is financial. I don''t think many players really dream of being involved in theatre and, even though it seems a contradiction, that really makes you good at it.
Now that Musical Theatre is one of the few areas of the music industry that''s actually thriving, people are starting out with ambitions towards it. I get contacted by people who are starting out and really want to play on shows and I find that odd. You''re not going to get good on your instrument by transcribing the drum parts from Miss Saigon or if you''re driven by the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Being a good and versatile musician comes from being inspired by people who play music that doesn''t primarily have to serve a dramatic end but is played for its own sake. That''s not to deride Musical Theatre, either. I sat in with Andy Newmark when he did the Lion King and it was fantastic. And I''d loved to have seen Neal Wilkinson or Bernard Purdie play Hair.
From a drummer’s point of view, pretty well everything you''re going to play in the theatre (with the possible exception of a ''show 2 feel'') is going to have been derived from an existing musical genre. You''re going to want to try and play those feels as they are played in their, dare I say it, ''pure'' form, not how they are appropriated for theatrical purposes. So I think if you''re going to be an asset to a musical production your inspiration and ambition is going to lie elsewhere.
What is your set up on the show?
The gear mostly belongs to the RSC. I''m using a Yamaha Oak Custom 10/12/16/22 with one of my own DW snares. It''s a nice kit and does the job well.
Sabian provided the cymbals and I''ve really been enjoying them. I''m using Evolution hats, crashes and the O-zone crashes, which I love. I have an HHX splash and an AAX Raw Bell Dry ride.
At the kit I also have a Roland SPD-S sampling pad, which is triggering a variety of sounds from an Akai sampler. There''s a piatti sample that features quite heavily, a couple of crescendo cymbal rolls, orchestral bass drum rolls, blocks, cowbells, vibraslaps, some Burmese gongs, hand claps and the odd silly noise. Basically, anything I don''t have time to pick up or enough space to accommodate.
There''s also three timps, an orchestral bass drum, a tam tam, mark tree, glock, one mounted and one regular tambourine, a pair of bongos, triangle, shaker. Oh, and a duck call! Without which no show would be complete.
What are the musical styles involved in Matilda?
If you''re familiar with Tim Minchin''s act then you''ll know his influences are diverse and his compositions stylistically eclectic. The score for Matilda is much like that, with all sorts of stylistic influences woven together beautifully to make something that is musically cohesive and thematically strong - kind of familiar without being derivative. The music fits the story beautifully but it still sounds like him; it doesn''t sound incongruous to hear him sing Naughty, despite the fact that it''s a song that''s supposed to be sung by a little girl. I think the whole thing is a work of genius, especially when you factor in his extraordinary way with lyrics.
I remember first hearing Naughty, Matilda''s first big number, on Tim''s demos and thinking what a great song it was. I was driving down to London and I listened to it over and over. A couple of days later I sang the opening to my daughter who was just four. She asked to hear it so I put it on and she wanted to hear it over and over too; she''d pretty well learned the whole song by the next day. To be able to write something for theatre or film that has that kind of immediate cross appeal and doesn''t compromise itself as a piece of music is a very special talent. Randy Newman does it for the Pixar films but I can''t think of many other people.
As the initial drummer on a new show, what processes were you involved in creatively?
It was a drummer’s dream in theatre terms because the parts were by no means set in stone. By and large the drum parts, when I saw them, had just been taken down straight from Tim''s demos, which were all programmed.
I got a CD of the demos before I had any charts, and with the kit numbers I just sat at my drums with the recordings and worked out how I would want them to sound, like you would with any demos. There is one Latin number that I had a couple of versions of with slightly different feels and with loads of programmed drums and percussion. I spent a good while with that, trying to come up with a part that had the right feel, captured the arc of the song and was playable by someone who is restricted by the usual number of limbs.
The first rehearsals were just rhythm section (which included the marvellous Tim Harries on bass) and with Tim and Chris Nightingale (the orchestrator) so we had time to go through stuff and see what worked. That was fantastic and I’ve never had that luxury on a show before. To be able to bring something of yourself to a show as a musician, to have the rehearsals be a creative process and to have the trust and confidence of the composer and orchestrator to allow you to do your own thing to a degree is rare in theatre.
The kit element of the orchestrations became a little more involved and I kept on tweaking them and only really stopped once we were well and truly open in London. I''d check out recordings of the show and find little things that didn''t work quite as well in the context of the whole thing as they did from what I could hear on my little patch of ground.
With the best will in the world, theatre sound is always a bit of a compromise for the musicians. We had a monitor engineer on Monkey, which makes all the difference but just isn''t part of the usual theatre sound set-up. So there are things you might miss because you can''t hear just how you fit into the whole picture. Especially if it''s a busy chair and you''re spending the first few weeks with your head stuck in the part.
The percussion side of things was a different matter. The orchestrations are lovely and obviously had to be played as Chris had written them. I''m a fairly competent percussionist, but I''d not done anything that was this involved before. Most of the percussion work I''d done was as a dep so all the logistics had been worked out by someone else. With all the little things like sizes and ranges of timps, working out the pedalling, choosing the best kit/percussion set-up etc I wasn''t playing to my strengths and I was kind of nervous about that. I didn''t want to arrive at the first rehearsal and be exposed as a fraud because I didn''t know how to tune an orchestral bass drum. I have to add a note of thanks to my friend John Rockliffe for patiently putting up with countless phone calls asking for advice on matters that probably seemed quite basic and trivial to him.
When we did the recording they decided they wanted to put some spoons on one track. I''d finished my bits and was on my way out of London when they called and asked me if I could come back in for a session the next day. I''d never played spoons before but I figured, how hard can it be? Turns out it''s not easy. I spent about three hours that night with YouTube and a pair of dessert spoons trying to get a part together. When I woke up the next morning I had a bruise the size and shape of a rugby ball on my thigh and the bone on my middle finger was so painful I could hardly hold a pen. That''s probably the most I''ve suffered for my art, though…with spoons! Not very rock n'' roll, is it!?
What else are you working on outside the show?
This is the first show I''ve done that doesn''t just have a limited run, so I''m trying to keep my hand in with the other regular gigs that usually keep me going and be open where possible to other opportunities, as I would be if I didn''t have a regular show.
Obviously my first obligation is to Matilda but the depping system allows for a certain amount of leeway regarding other work and it''s important to take advantage of that, even if you''re losing out financially.
It''s antithetical to anyone involved in a creative pursuit to simply repeat the same thing endlessly. All musicians are basically motivated by challenge and variety, and if you forego that motivation for an easy life, it can''t be long before your playing starts to suffer generally and your work on the show will suffer along with it.
My main work away from the show at present is with the composer Will Todd, with whom I''ve worked for the last 12 years or so. He has a keen interest in jazz so a lot of his works feature a drum kit in some capacity. I''ve recently
finished recording my parts for a new work and there are performances to support that. We also have a jazz trio and we''re currently recording a new CD and we were featured on the recently released CD by saxophonist Lara James. I''m just off to Norway for a few gigs with a band I work with over there so I''m keeping busy.
My family is incredibly important, of course. I don''t live in London anymore so it''s not always easy balancing work and home but I have no intention of being an absent dad. It can be a bit of a juggling act, but it''s good to be in a position where you have those kinds of problems so I''m not complaining!
What are the pros and cons for you of working in the West End?
I can''t really think of any aspect of the whole experience that''s been negative. It''s still a lovely show to play, even after all this time. It''s a busy chair, so there''s plenty to do (and get right!) and the part is varied without being fragmented. It''s a good endorsement for any show when your deps tell you they enjoy playing it.
The band and MD''s in Stratford and London have been fantastic. The management is lovely and there has been none of the politics that can often dog big productions; it''s just a really nice place to go to work. The RSC in Stratford was a wonderful place to work as well. Like the National, its approach is creative rather than commercial and that makes for a working environment that you only really get in subsidised theatre. It was pretty clear once we started previews in Stratford that we were doing something a bit special. One of the guys in the band described Matilda as ''magical'' and he''s right. I still watch bits on the screen and feel exactly that.
On a personal note, it was my daughter’s first real experience of theatre. I remember taking her into the lovely auditorium in Stratford to see where her Dad worked. They were rehearsing onstage and she just sat there transfixed. She saw the show three times there and when she couldn''t get in to see it she''d sit outside the auditorium and watch it on the TV screens. She could come into the Green Room and meet the actors and writers and be taken backstage to see the props and costumes; she just drank it in.
This beautifully told story of the power of a little girl’s imagination is intertwined with my own little girl''s developing imagination, and that makes it all the more special for me. My booth here is plastered with pictures she''s done for me; it''s a bit like playing in a nursery but it makes me very happy.
If I were to look at a list of the shows that have happened during my professional life then this would really be the one to have been involved in. Someone had to get the gig and I was lucky enough for it to be me.
Interview by Gemma Hill
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