Ash Soan has been a fixture on the British session and recording scene, following his huge success with Del Amitri in the 1990’s, and time served with Faithless and Squeeze. Since then, Ash has carved out a hugely varied career as an in-demand session player and clinician, working with artists as diverse as Marianne Faithful, Boyzone, Cee Lo Green, Adele, and Dua Lipa.
Drummers Review’s Andy Hughes enjoyed a lengthy chat with Ash as he prepared to rehearse with Tori Amos, before going out on the road with her band on an international tour.
Ash, fantastic news about the Tori Amos tour, you must be really excited about it.
I am, but obviously we are hoping that we don’t get caught up in the travel restrictions, which are still changing all the time of course. But yes, it is a great opportunity. Tori Amos is a legendary musician, this is her sixteenth album, and I am really happy to be invited to go out on tour with her.
The other piece of great news, is the release of your Signature Snare Drum from Gretsch.
Yes, it’s turning out to be quite a year, and it’s only January! The story of this drum starts right back in the early 1990’s, when I had just moved to London and was starting to get some gigs and I was looking to get a new snare drum. I really wanted one of the Jarrah Wood snares made by Brady, they were absolutely fabulous, but so was the price. They cost about fifteen hundred pounds back then, and there was absolutely no way I could dream of affording one of those. I was living in South East London in my early twenties, so a drum like that was simply not an option. Then I heard about Noonan, and their Purpleheart snare that sounded very similar in tone to the Jarrah Wood, but it was more affordable, and within my budget. It had a similar tone to it, and I used it a lot, and I became known for the mid-range ‘pop’ sound of that drum.
When I got my endorsement deal with Gretsch, they made me a similar snare so that I could play the drum with their badge on it. It seems that a lot of new young drummers don’t actually understand how the endorsement system works, so I think I sometimes need to explain it a little. When a company signs you as an endorsee, it’s part of the deal that you are seen playing their kits, and in return they supply kits, and you get support when you are out on the road on tour.
So, I had this unique snare that Gretsch made for me, and I played it in sessions and on social media, and questions were coming in about whether or not it was available to buy, which of course, it wasn’t. Then Gretsch in California made the decision to put the drum out in production, and it has become my Signature snare.
It’s unusual, because the standard way is, the company make a snare for a specific player, and then the history builds around it, but I had been playing the drum for about four or five years already.
Does it feel like a ‘badge of honour’ to get a Signature snare drum?
It absolutely does, and especially with a company with the reputation and history that Gretsch has around the world.
It’s the right time though, I think. I was listening to Timbaland talking about Quincy Jones, and how Quincy had been recording and producing musicians since he was about sixteen, he’d worked with Elvis, and with Frank Sinatra, but the only time his name really came to the fore was when he produced Thriller, and he was fifty by then.
So he put in the time, and I feel like I have done the same thing, I’m fifty-two. It should take time, you should have to put the work in, I’m absolutely happy with that.
I was going to ask if you had any input into the design, I guess not since the drum has already been with you for so long.
There was a discussion about whether I wanted to change anything, but to be honest, I had lived with the drum for so long that I was fine with it. The only things that changed were the throw-off, they improved that, and the grain direction for the wood. The prototype I had, had the grain running horizontally, around the drum, and now its vertical, from top to bottom. Now someone may say that it’s changed the tone and the sound of the drum, or there is more projection, but I am very happy with the sound, and that’s what matters.
I notice that the cut-through with the drum is really strong, do you change your heads for different situations?
Not really, no. I normally use a Coated Ambassador or a Coated Vintage Ambassador head. I like a thin head because, as you say, the cut-through is very sharp, and I wouldn’t want to mute that or dampen it with a thicker head, that would defeat the object. The sustain is really good as well, and that’s important for me because I do play in so many different situations, it’s good to know I have enough power in the sound to get it heard in whatever recording or live situation I am working.
Have you tried any varied tunings?
That’s interesting you should ask that. Just before we started talking tonight, I did de-tune the snare loser than I have ever de-tuned before, to see what sort of sound it would produce.
A lot of players think that a 12” x 7” snare is an auxiliary snare, rather than a main snare. I thought I would de-tune it to see if I could get a deeper tone out of it, more like a 14” x 5”., and it did sound even deeper than that, which I was surprised to find. When I go into rehearsals with Tori and her band, I am going to try some different tuning ideas to see what else I can get, because for a show like hers, the more tones you have to call on, the better it’s going to be.
You’re back with Del Amitri now, have you missed being in a band?
Well, I’ve always loved touring and recording with Del Amitri, we had such a wonderful time. I was twenty-four when I joined them, and we had such a fabulous series of tours, we went on the road with Bon Jovi, and The Rolling Stones, and REM, it was a great time.
But for me, touring was never my first love, it was always recording, which is the way my career has gone since the band stopped. We were apart from 1997 to 2014, and now, I am really ready to go back out on tour again because it has been so long since I’ve had a chance to do it.
The band called me up and asked if I wanted to go back out on tour with them, and I was delighted to say yes, and I said we should make another album. It took a bit to convince them how much times have changed. You don’t need the backing of a major record company any more, you don’t need an eighty-grand budget to make an album. It’s great if you have one, but you don’t need one. If you have a good solid fan base, they will pick up your new material, and come and see you when you play live. So, we did a tour in 2018, made the album, and I got all my drum parts done and left the studio literally days before the first lockdown. UI was supposed to go back and some overdubs, but it just never happened. The album was eventually released, and it went Top Five, which was just wonderful. As I said, if you have a fan base, they will stick with you, and its’ the same with Tori Amos. This is her sixteenth album, and the fans will come and watch her play.
You have a huge range of styles and techniques, is there anything that you would still like to develop in your playing?
Oh yes, there is lots I can’t do. I did start out as a jazz drummer before I got into pop. I think about Charlie Watts and how he always loved to play at Ronnie’s with his big band, and I think, maybe when it all slows down, I’ll get a jazz trio together and play jazz clubs. My dad was a massive jazz fan and he took me to see Buddy Rich and Art Blakey when I was fourteen, and took me backstage to meet them. I was a weird teenager, all my friends were listening to people like Madonna, and I was listening to Woody Herman and that kind of stuff, working out how drummers play with brushes, all of that.
You are very much in demand by producers, do you know what it is they are looking for when they call you in?
I think it’s really down to the career I have had, being known as a studio musician. There are some drummers like that, but not really many if you look around. I think producers know that I understand songs, I have worked with Robbie Williams, I have done hip hop and contemporary records, so I am around, and they think of me.
I do a lot of work in Italy and Spain, the producers there know me very well, and call me in. I have played on half-a-dozen Number One hits in both of those countries. In fact, I was down for a stadium tour in Italy with a massively popular Italian star. Someone no-one over here would have heard of, but I had to turn it down because the Tori Amos tour is something I really wanted to do.
It’s weird, I have done those hit songs, I am going out on tour with an amazing artist, I have been working remotely with the Chemical Brothers, I was in Abbey Road last week working, my Signature snare has come out, it’s something that you dream about in your early twenties, and if you hang around long enough and persevere, it can happen.
Do you like a free hand when you work on a session, or with a new touring set up?
I am really happy to go with whatever is happening, experience has taught me that. For something like The Voice, it’s all rigidly charted, no deviations at all, no bright ideas required, just go in, play what is required, thank you very much, and I am absolutely fine with that.
Now with Tori Amos, we have already discussed some preliminary ideas, and she has told me to bring what I want to the rehearsals, and we’ll see what works. I have the parts that Matt Chamberlain has put down on the album, but she has told me to regard them as blueprints, nothing set in stone, see what works for us together, which is amazing.
With studio sessions, it varies, some producers or artists know what they want, some give you a rough idea and let you work around that, some ask you to play it how you think it should go. The art of being a good session player is reading what the atmosphere is, and going along with it. Fit in, and you get asked back.
Do have a bucket list of people to work with?
I do, I think everyone does. I’d love to record with Kate Bush. I am sure she is making music somewhere, but not releasing anything right now, but that would be fantastic. Paul McCartney, Sting, I’m not sure I’m good enough for Sting but his songs are fabulous. So, recording or playing live with any of those would be a dream.
I have done some soundtrack work, I played on the soundtracks for Terminator Genisys, Kung Fu Panda 3 and Boss Baby 2. I do love soundtrack work, so maybe a car chase in the next Bond film? That would be amazing.
We are really excited to have you at the UK Drum Show in April – have you worked out what you are going to be doing?
Well, in the Mike Dolbear Room, that will be a clinic set-up and I am also playing the main stage on Sunday morning, so that will probably be song-based.
The thing with clinics is, everyone has to do a few before they find out what actually works for them. I am not a thirty-minute solo player, that’s not me at all. Sometimes, just playing songs is what people want. If there are people who are just playing at a hobby level, for fun, then seeing a monstrously talented player giving them blinding examples of techniques they are never ever going to have, or ever need, it can actually put people off their playing. If it’s continual bombardment, it will engage people for a while, but then they will simply turn off it.
And you have to remember, with events like The UK Drum Show, families come along, mums and dads and brothers and sisters, so they don’t want a mass of technical stuff they don’t understand.
I never have an exact plan. I come along with a set of songs ready, but sometimes we may just get into conversation, people ask about this sound, or that on a song they know, and we will explore it. Other times, I play right through my song selection, and people want more of that. In the same way as doing sessions, you have to read the room, and see what’s working and go with that.
Will you be doing any shopping at the UK Drum Show?
Well, I always love a look around and the variety of stands this year is going to be amazing, so I will be exploring and seeing what’s new. I’ve probably got about fifty different snare drums, but there is always room for more in my collection.
At the last Drum Show in Manchester, I bought a Max Roach Signature snare which was absolutely fabulous, and I used it in the studio. It was so good, I bought another one! So yes, when I have some free time, I will be browsing the stands.
I’m so excited that The UK Drum Show is back, I’m really looking forward to it, I’ll see you there!
Tickets for The UK Drum Show are available now from: www.theukdrumshow.com