Gary Husband is one of the UK’s premier drummers and educators. His CV crosses a wide spectrum of styles, having worked, recorded and toured with artists as diverse as John McLaughlin and Soft Machine on the jazz front, as well as rock musicians such as Gary Moore and Andy Summers.
Drummers Review’s Andy Hughes enjoyed an extensive conversation with Gary, discussing his diverse playing styles, and his choices of drum kits, and starting at the beginning – a new music project.
How do you start finding out the styles and techniques you are going to need to bring to the table for a new musical collaboration?
It comes down to one word – research. That’s a vital aspect of what someone like me has to do in advance of starting work, you need to know the music you will be creating, and something about the people you are going to be creating it with.
I always like to go as far back as I can in terms of exploring a particular musical style. If I am asked for something like a New Orleans Beat, that’s a combination of bass and snare drum, I like to find out where that style started out, who built on the original sound. It’s a march timing, but it has a feeling of swing about it. Find how loud the accents are played, you need to drill into those intricacies, not to copy them, but to understand them.
Have you had occasions where an artist is simply not able to explain what they want from you in a way that you can understand?
It can happen. Obviously, everyone is keen to get ideas moving, and everyone is keen that everyone else knows what is going on, but even with the best will, it sometimes doesn’t quite work out like that.
I worked on a project with Andy Summers, something that was outside the sphere of music he is known for, because back in the day, Andy was a well-known blues guitarist on the scene.
I actually asked Andy to explain to me what he was after, and what he wanted from me, and told me it was ‘art rock’ which didn’t really move the project forward a whole lot!
Some people prefer not to discuss things too deeply, and that gives individual players a chance to explore different ideas and try things, and see what works. I like to look into the music and challenge myself to look outside my usual areas.
When you start working with new musicians, is the social side of things important?
I think it’s very important. The social interaction between players can affect the working relationship, and it’s important to establish an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable. It’s sometimes something that people overlook.
Quite often I work with singer-songwriters, and I make a point of listening to their back catalogue, and look at the drummers they have worked with, especially the ones they have asked back for more than one album.
Then I work out what the drummer is bringing to the music, what is it that the main artist wants, and then you have that information to take into the session and use it if you need to.
I think that gives you confidence going in to the studio, and confidence is hugely important. If you turn up with the atmosphere that you know what you are doing, it inspires confidence in the other players you are working with, and that’s a huge help in the early parts of the process when everyone is settling in and getting to know each other, and how we are going to work together.
If you can say that you liked a specific album, or a track, the artist is always pleased that you have clearly taken the trouble to look into what they do, and again that fosters a good relationship.
It comes back to that word again – research, I cannot emphasise enough how important that is to a player.
You started your drumming career playing with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra when you were only sixteen – how did you land a gig like that at such a young age?
It does sound too fantastic to be real doesn’t it. My father worked for the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra, he was Principal Flautist, and Syd Lawrence was Third Trumpet in the Orchestra.
When Syd was playing in the area, he would stay with us, so I knew him, and when Syd said he was looking for a drummer for his Syd Lawrence Orchestra, my dad suggested that I audition for Syd.
Rather than an audition, when Syd heard I could read a chart, he put me straight in for a gig at Mansfield Town Hall, and that was my way in.
There were no proper PA systems back then, and you had to learn how the different tempos worked. The trumpet section was next to me, and they were always forward in the sound, and the brass section sound would bounce back from the far wall, and come back to me a beat behind. You learn to pick up these different timings, and make sure that your own timing is rock solid, so everyone can pick it up from the drums.
Experiences like that shape you as a musician, you learn the different atmospheres from places you play, you learn to listen and adapt and it’s those nights of playing that have been invaluable experience in grounding me as a player.
What was your first kit?
Like most people, I started off with bits and pieces. I had a snare with calf-skin heads, which would probably be worth some money now. I remember it was a devil to tune the heads, in winter they would go all saggy and wet-sounding, and in the summer, they would tighten up and sound like biscuit tins, like they were ready to explode if you hit them too hard!
My first proper kit was a Premier, my dad knew Rex Webb at the Premier factory, and he arranged a good deal for me. The kit was gorgeous, it had an aquamarine shimmer, very nineteen-seventies!
How do you choose kit combinations for your different projects?
When I was working back in the studio heyday when people had massive budgets, some session drummers would arrive with fifteen snares and I’d be deeply impressed at how they could offer some middle sound with a high top to it, and lower mid sound with varying depths, and they could spend a couple of hours just to get the snare sound right, and then move on to the rest of the kit.
Now, I just bring a couple of snares with me, one that will give me a bright and poppy top-end sound, and something with some more weight, and the rest of the sound combinations can be achieved with tuning.
What are your favourite tunings?
Because I listened to a lot of fusion players when I was learning, people like Billy Cobham, I always liked the sound of open sounding highly tuned drums. People like Elvin Jones and Art Blakey always had a nice impact and substance to their drum sound, so I used high tunings quite a lot.
When I started to get known, people would contact me and say that they liked my high tuning sound, it reminded them of someone like Lenny White or Carl Palmer. A lot of rock drummers are influenced by jazz players, and when they get a chance to solo, they all turn into Buddy Rich!
Do you like big kits?
I do love big kits. Obviously, it depends on the job I am engaged to do. I did a couple of albums with Jimmy Nail, and for those, it was a small kit and nice subtle playing, nothing flash or loud.
For the videocasts on my website, I usually use my Pearl red double bass drum kit, which I love. It’s not about the appearance, although of course that is very nice, but it is about the combinations of drums and sounds you can use.
Are your studio and live kits very different?
They are pretty similar, which does surprise some people. Most of what I do I can achieve with three rack toms and two floor toms. I do like toms, I like combinations, three up, two down, two up two down, and if it’s for a tour with a big sounding band, I can just double everything up.
I played with the band UK for a while, and I followed both Bill Bruford and Terry Bozzio, and it was a great experience playing with John Wetton.
Eddie Jobson who led the project had very definite ideas of what he wanted, and I found that my cymbals were just not making the level of sound that I needed. I had Zildjian make me a pair of 24-inch Swish Knockers, one with rivets and one without, and they were great. One of the best things about them was I could set them so I could hide and Eddie Jobson couldn’t see me on stage! Eddie is a lovely guy and a fabulous musician, but he is fond of giving lots of eye signals to musician the other musicians on stage, so I managed to interrupt his line of sight to me!
The drum sound was interesting because I had to create the combinations of Bill Bruford which was quite tight, and Terry Bozzio which was more loose it was an enjoyable challenge to do that.
Do you keep up with technical innovation?
I like companies that are experimenting and trying new things. I recently received a snare from the Ebenor company in Quebec, it’s a copper snare with a triple flange, and each one is unique, and sounds different, they are amazing.
I saw Ash Soan playing one on the Net, and I contacted him to ask him about it, and the company saw our conversation, and we negotiated a rate so I could have one. Small companies can’t afford to be giving away drums to musicians, so I am happy to be able to contribute to keep them going.
I have recently made a change with my cymbal company, and I have moved to Paiste, and that has opened up a whole new world of sounds for me, because as any drummer knows, cymbal sounds are really personal.
I like anything that will give me another voice, another aspect to my playing, and keep me progressing as a musician.
What I really want is an eleven-inch rack tom, and no-one seems to be making them. Tama used to do one, but they don’t any more. It’s strange because Remo make a small number of eleven-inch heads so someone must have them. I think a ten, eleven, twelve and thirteen would be a great combination, maybe someone will think about it and let me know if they are making one.
What’s your view on effects?
I am always going to be an acoustic drums guy, but I still love intelligent programming that captures something different.
It doesn’t interest me enough to go down that route personally, but I have always enjoyed the programming done in the 1980’s by people who are not actually drummers. I think not being a drummer, and not knowing how a kit works, gives you a different approach to getting the sounds you want. Thomas Dolby was always very good, and Stock Aitken And Waterman developed a signature sound with their percussion programming, you always know it’s them when a song starts.
I know there was that feeling that electronic samples were going to take over, and acoustic drummers would all be out of work, but that was never going to happen, not really. No matter how clever a machine is, it can never replicate that feel and tension that a live player can create.
Are you big on practice?
I have never been a diligent every-day player as a drummer. I think most of my successful preparation is done away from the kit, imagining the sounds I want to create, and the working to get them when I do get to the kit and start working things out.
Two or three weeks before a big studio session or a live tour, I do start some practice with different surfaces because drums give you different amounts of bounce back when you play them.
Rather than just use a pad, I will use a pillow, a mattress, and a phone book, different surfaces with different reactions to get the feel right.
I have just found a really good pad from ProLogix; I am enjoying working with that because it has eliminated the wrist ache I always used to get from other pads.
Have you got three tips for players?
I have, and the first two are probably the ones everyone gives, but that doesn’t mean they are not valid just because people repeat them, quite the opposite, good advice spreads, and people pass it on.
The first is to listen to everything you can, even if it’s a style outside what you play or enjoy yourself. You should immerse yourself in as many styles as you can, and the internet makes that easier now than ever. There is so much music out there, be open to it and you’d be surprised how it will influence your playing, even if it’s not something you take in consciously.
Play with a bass player as often as you can, even if it’s just you and the bass player. You will find as you go through your playing career that bass players vary so much in their sound and their timing. Some play bang on the beat, some are in front, some are behind, so get as much experience as you can working with different players and get a feel for how to make your two sounds mesh together.
Invest time in research. I know I talk about that a lot, but that’s because it is really important. If you are playing a session or trying out for a band, you want to be asked back, that is your goal every time. And if you’ve worked out what is likely to be happening before you actually start to play, your chances of fitting in and then being asked back are that much higher, and we all want to be asked back.
See Gary Husband at The UK Drum Show 2022 at its new home the ACC Liverpool, taking place the 2nd & 3rd of April. Tickets on sale now at www.theukdrumshow.com