Pete Ray Biggin is one of the most renowned session players in the UK today. He’s played with artists like Amy Winehouse, Chaka Khan, Incognito, The Specials, Whitney Houston and is currently drumming for his all time favourite band Level 42. He is also a multi talent with his own project PB Underground where he takes the role, not only as the artist but also as the songwriter, producer, video editor, manager and so on. He’s got exciting plans lined up for the band with a new album coming out in April. Biggin is a true inspiration for any drummer and you are soon about to find out why.
What got you into drumming?
My dad is a drummer and he was one of the top South Yorkshire rock’n’roll drummers of the 70’s. When all the other drummers moved to London and started playing with big acts, my dad stayed in Yorkshire to raise me. I always used to go and watch him play and as a kid and that’s how I got into drumming, cause you always want to be like your dad, right?! I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a full time musician, for me there was no other option.
I was never too interested in school, but I was a pretty good drummer already at 11 years old. At that time I was taking lessons with Tony Cannelli and he put on a drum competition called ‘The Beat’ with different heats around the country. I participated in ‘Beat 93’ when I was twelve and the finals were held in Sheffield. I won the ‘under 16’s’ category and as a prize I got a full set of Sabian cymbals. The deal was that if I ever broke any they would replace them for me, so it was kind of a junior endorsement. A few years ago I was a judge at the competition when Josh Devine participated and won and look at him now, having 19 million twitter followers or something. So these kinds of competitions can really help your career and for me it was great to get an endorsement with Sabian at such a young age.
When I was younger my main inspirations were Dave Weckl, Vinnie, Dennis Chambers, Jeff Porcaro and Steve Gadd. The older I got the more I started to look back in time on drummers like Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, Lenny White and Billy Cobham. I think the older you get the more you look back. You can kind of say that these guys were my teacher cause I’m mainly self taught. My dad was a rock’n’roll drummer so he taught me up to a certain point and after that I was just watching these videos trying to copy what I saw until I started taking lessons with Tony. He sort of calmed me down and taught me that if I want to get some gigs I have to learn to groove. So when I hit about 13 I started gigging locally with guys that were double or three times my age, which I think really helped.
Gigging was my schooling and that’s where I learnt to groove. I think in a way it’s good to have a music degree behind you, cause you can go anywhere in the world to teach and work with other academically related parts of the industry. But if you want to go on the road then gigging is definitely your best school. The college stuff should teach you more about the business side because as musicians we don’t just get into music, we get into music business and you need to know about all these other things you have to do except from playing your instrument.
I think confidence is extremely important and the key of being a great musician. If you’re worried about your playing it will show. I always tell my students, if your head is not right, then your hands will never be right. You should turn up to a gig thinking that you’re going to play good and have a positive attitude towards your playing. You get the confidence from gigging and believing in yourself and if you don’t believe in yourself no one else will. But it’s such a fine line between arrogance and confidence and we can’t be arrogant people in this business, it’s too small and people talk. There’s great musicians that I’m not working with because of their arrogance.
The best way to get good is to go out there and learn what not to do on gigs from a young age. The key for a drummer is to hold it down for everybody else to play on top of. A good drummer is someone who plays exactly what they need to for that gig. If it’s an acoustic gig, just turn up with some brushes, snare and a ride cymbal. If it’s a heavy metal gig take two bass drums. You’ve got to do what’s right for the gig and don’t let your ego get in the way. The gospel chops are nice but it’s all ego by the end of it.
You can’t teach someone how to have time or feel, they’ve either got it or they don’t. You can advice them on how to get better at it, but everybody’s got their own fingerprint and personality and you’ve got to find your own thing. This means that everybody will sound different on their instrument. Also never be afraid of making mistakes, because to make mistakes you’re pushing yourself into a different place than you would normally play in. I also think image is important to a certain degree, depending on what you want to do. If you just want to be in the studio making music your image doesn’t really matter, but if you want to get out there I think it does. For me being a professional musician is not just your kit looking good, is you looking presentable as well.
I’ve got an interesting story about Amy actually since she was one of my first big gigs in London. When I first moved here I was in an originals band for about seven years called ‘Raiyn’. I knew Amy way before she got famous, because she used to come to one of our shows at the Sugar Hut in Fulham that we did every Sunday for five years. We lived quite close to each other, so we started hanging out every now and then. At some point I asked her what she’s doing and she told me that she’s a singer songwriter and we talked about music, but that was it.
Literally a week later I’m watching Jools Holland live and I see this girl that I recognize and it’s Amy performing ‘Stronger Than Me’. This was when she still had some weight to her and looked healthy and sexy. Next week when I saw her I told her ‘Hey, what’s this shit then, just a singer songwriter .What you’re doing is amazin’ (laughs).
A few years later I was doing a few gigs around town and played with a bass player, Dale Davis, that turned out to be Amy’s MD. We started talking about Amy when we realize that we both know her and a week later he called me up asking me if I can play on a TV show for her, cause her drummer couldn’t make it. The gig was good fun, she gave me a big hug and we had a talk about the good old days when she used to come down and watch my band. After that the drummer left and they gave me the gig, which I did for about six months. After that I moved on to do a world tour with Mark Ronson.
When I got these gigs it felt like a quite natural transition and I wasn’t really nervous at all. The thing is that today people go straight on to do a big pop gig after they come out of a music college and they are shitting themselves. Take your time! If you take on a gig and you’re not ready for it you might screw up your reputation. I did years and years of function work, driving to the gigs setting my kit up etc. So when it got to the point of my first big gig and someone was setting up my drums for me it felt brilliant, I offered to give him a hand and everything.
I guess I was just ready and that’s how it used to be in the 80’s. Musicians would spend 10 years trying to get into the scene, cause you had to build your way up until you got to that top place. Today the record companies have the young kids by their balls, because they come straight out of college and they accept gigs for very low fares, not really caring about the money. That’s why I said earlier that the music business side is so important. If everybody would go in and say that they want £500 per show it could be a healthy normal business. With inflation the prices go up every year, but musicians prices don’t, they go down. It’s because the musicians have fucked it up and the young kids want to go straight to the top when they should really have gone through the rank. This puts all the older guys out of the work and you don’t really get any value for doing the pop tours anymore.
I think one solution could be if all these musicians started to do their own projects. The whole infrastructure of the music business is changing and producers today are bigger than singers. Today you can write a song, make a video for it, put it on Youtube and get a million hits in a week with no backing, it all just depends on who shares it.
You constantly need to evaluate your own career. After having played a few years of pop gigs you might want to ask yourself what to do next. That might lead you onto starting your own project. And by doing that leads you on to doing a lot more than just playing your instrument. For me doing the PB Underground stuff has been a case of being the artist, the songwriter, the producer, the drummer, the video editor, the mixer, the engineer, the photographer, so everything basically. You’ve got the technology to do everything yourself, so you might as well. I’m self taught in all areas, cause today you can learn literally everything from youtube. I’ve got my own label and I’m just setting up my own publishing company. I’ve got to take control.
Tell me more about your career and PB Underground
My history is that I did Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson and then when that got quieter I got the call to do Incognito. I thought it was great to get the call since it was music that I had been growing up listening to. I’ve always loved funk and I stayed with Incognito for a couple of years until I got a call from Mark King to do the Level 42 gig. I couldn’t believe it was him calling me, since Level 42 is my all time favourite band. I met them as a kid and even got to play Gary Husband’s drum kit at one of their sound checks that my parents took me to in 1991. I think there a video on Youtube of that. I used to practice along to their cassette tapes every single day as a kid, that was basically all I used to do. I hated to practice along to click tracks cause it was just boring. Level 42 was my schooling and collage for drumming.
It’s funny cause Phil had actually come down to on of the gigs at the ‘Sugar Hut’ in Fulham when I was doing the residency there at the start of my career. I remember being so amazed that the drummer from Level 42 came to watch me play. He told me to enjoy the time with my band and remember those days before everything takes off. I never want anyone to feel second best that I’m working with and that’s why I had to give up the Incognito gig when I got the call from Mark. I also wanted to focus on PB Underground that I had started by then and my motto has always been as one door shuts, two doors open. I had a discussion with Bluey and he was cool with my decision and straight after the call I went to the studio and wrote three songs that are all on the album now. Before that I had been struggling to find the right head space to be creative and in a way it all opened up from quitting Incognito so I could focus on my own project properly.
At some point I realized that I had done all of my dream gigs having played with the guys I mentioned before as well as artists like Tinchy Stryder, Taio Cruz, Adele and Chaka Khan. What do you do when you have already gigged with all of your heroes? My solution was to start my own project. My dream is to take PB Underground around the world since I’m a touring musician who’ve always loved gigging.
It’s taken its time to finally get to a point where the album is about to be released. The album launch will be at Under the Bridge in Chelsea 10th April. We will be selling lots of merchandise including T-shirts, albums, vinyls, signed and used with PB Underground and Level 42 drum heads and so on. I strongly believe that’s going to be the gig of the year, cause I know everything that’s going on right now. There isn’t really anything similar around, it’s like a youthful Earth, Wind and Fire, very funky and commercial. It’s got its own sound and has all the number one guys to call in England on it, all whom are good friends I’ve met along the way. You’ve got players like Ben Jones, who’s one of the biggest pop session dudes around on both drums and guitar, an absolutely fantastic player. Ben Epstein, the bass player, has done every name you could even think of. I just think everything about the project is great, with such good songs.
It was with Mark Ronson at the Proms. Mark told me we got a gig with some of the BBC Orchestra and I thought it was cool cause I had never played with a string orchestra before. In my head I thought it was going to be a 6-8 piece orchestra and was told to come to Abbey Road the following day for a rehearsal. When I got there I realized we were rehearsing in the biggest room with the BBC 61 piece orchestra, which was just phenomenal. The gig was at the Roundhouse in Camden and I had a butterflies in me, cause I had a little monitor screen overviewing the orchestra behind me and they were all waiting for my count in. So that one stands out for me, but there’s definitely been some gigs I’ve done with Chaka, Lalah Hathaway and Leon Ware, basically Marvin Gaye, which have been amazing as well.
Do you ever get nervous?
You probably get more nervous playing in front of a couple of your family members than 20,000 people to be honest. I’ve done quite a few master classes which I like, cause I like talking. Often drummers sit behind the kit and that’s their security and it’s the singers who are communicating with the audience. I often used to get frustrated in my own project when they didn’t do it that well and it got to a point where I was so fed up with it so I moved my kit to the side of the stage facing downwards and I decided that I was going to talk to the audience myself. The first time I tried it I was shitting myself, cause it’s such an alien thing for a drummer to stand up from his kit and talk. But I got over fear after a while and I’m really good at it now, which has really helped me in master classes as well.
What experience have you learnt the most from in your career?
All the experiences I can think of now are bad ones, where you think ‘Shit, I can’t let that happen again’, like when you screw up the song up and it’s obvious to both the band and the audience. I haven’t really been told off too many times, but when I was younger maybe I used to get told to groove more and show off less. As I said the main thing why we get hired as a drummer is to keep time and groove and that will pay our bills. I used to overplay a lot and that’s how I’ve learnt. For example when I was playing with Chaka Khan I took my ego out completely and just played what was needed. The repertoire we did was more from the Rufus days with Steve Ferrone on drums and there was no gospel chops there, just pure groove.
Everything! Everything needs constant work and we never stop learning. Our brains doesn’t have an end capacity when it comes to learning and I always want to progress and evolve. I still find it hard sometimes to listen back to my drumming, but that’s just me. To be honest I haven’t really practiced since I was thirteen, I’ve just got better by constantly playing gigs. Of course it’s great to be told that you are one of the 60 best drummers in the world today, but I don’t feel like that cause I haven’t put as much work in as other guys have. I definitely did when I was younger though, but I also have ADHD and the only thing I could concentrate on was drumming cause that’s where my mind wanted to be. Today playing drums is only about 30 percent of what I do since I also want to focus on production.
I wanna get the PB Underground stuff out there now, cause it’s time, and I want to tour the world with my band. I want to continue to develop as a drummer, work as a musical director as well as produce different artists and write for different people. We’re always progressing and getting better, so we’ll see what happens. The world is a big place and I’ve got time!