I’ve always liked rhythm – my first musical memory was from the wireless in the early 60’s – the urgent harmonica of Mick Jagger and the driving pace of Charlie Watts playing Come On. I was sort of hooked from then on.
Prefab Sprout was one band that clicked with me in the 80’s. For the clever lyrics, the luscious production values of the music, and for the drumming, by Neil Conti. Listening to just one example of their work, the 1990 album Jordan: The Comeback, you can really hear the breadth and depth of Neil’s sound. The playing on the ethereal ballad Wild Horses is sparingly minimal (just a kick drum, hi hat, bell ride and snare), but perfectly in harmony with the delicate, quirky, jerky mood of the song. In contrast Machine Gun Ibiza, is moody and hypnotic, with the crack of a Ludwig snare and sweeping rolls across a set of Gretsch toms. This is a drummer who not only has tremendous technical skill, but also emotional intelligence in spades.
So I do feel genuinely privileged to talk to Neil about why and how he became a drummer; his ten years as a band member of Prefab Sprout; his work as a first call session player, (he backed David Bowie at Live Aid, and was present at the only recording session featuring both Bowie and Jagger under the same roof) and his current status as a successful owner/producer at Minimoon Studios in Montepellier, in the South of France.
Neil, tell me about your first memory of that feeling or desire to play drums.
It wasn’t a musical desire to play drums actually, or at least not that I was aware of. It was simply being impressed by seeing a great drummer live when I was young. I was already totally immersed in music and wasn’t any more obsessed with rhythm than I was melody. I was doing very well at classical piano… and my father (who played piano in a jazz band at weekends) had taught me how to play blues/boogie which I loved because I could improvise.
What or who nudged you from thinking about playing to starting to take up drums?
Basically my cousin’s rock band became huge. He was called Morgan Fisher, they were called Mott the Hoople and the drummer, Dale Griffin, aka Buffin, was a fabulous powerful, majestic rock drummer. I stood at the side of the stage when I was 13 and was totally seduced by the energy of the show. Dale had a huge shiny Ludwig kit and he was right in front of me, I was transfixed. Then I went backstage and he had all the groupies around him, so I thought ”ahh..this is how you get girls interested” Just an adolescent being impressed, that was enough to kick off the interest in drums. There’s another thing – the music room of my school had plenty of instruments but they were always taken, so I often ended up messing around on the drums because no-one else was using them. I think that was quite an important moment.
So sounds like you’re self-taught, with a musical theory background? Do you have a firm view about the need for beginners to have drum tuition to hone basic skills – and being able to read music to become successful in the industry?
I did learn to read music, then promptly forgot all about it when I took up drums. When I moved to London people started saying ”Oh, you better get up to speed on your reading if you want to do sessions”. But it was never an issue because I was quick at picking up drum patterns and arrangements, and as backup I had a simple little system of noting down a quick map if I need it for reference. It was basically just bar numbers, just V1 8, C1 16, V2 16, C2 16, Bridge 8 and stuff like that. So then I could add to it if someone has a suggestion, like ”no snare in verse” etc
I do think it’s important for any drummer to at least understand some basic music theory like major/minor, how the key can affect the singer, little things like that. So then you don’t feel left out when there”s a technical discussion going on, and you can be more sympathetic to the other musicians; you feel part of the gang. That’s especially true when it comes to arrangements. Too many drummers just bludgeon their way through the song, not thinking about what fits the song best. Like why not stop at the beginning of the second verse and then come back in on the chorus? Or maybe the song just doesn’t NEED any drums until the first chorus. Less really is more. If it’s not working try playing LESS. Always.
And picking up your point about “less is more”, it’s an interesting one . A very different drummer from you, Dave Mattacks, I think does exactly the same thing. Like you, he has a real feel for what I call, in my non-musical way, absences. You need a degree of emotional intelligence to be able to detect and know when not to play – a bit like a psychotherapist who knows when to let a silence hang there in a conversation with a client – and feel comfortable about doing it . Do you think you can learn the “less is more” style, or is it just instinctive?
It’s about being into music, not just drumming. You can bet that drummers like Dave Mattacks listen to a whole lot of music without drums on it! One of my favourite quotes ever was when Joe Zawinal once got asked if jazz was the highest form of musicianship. He replied ”no, the ability to compose while you play is the highest form of musicianship”. That’s it in a nutshell right there, he explained it so perfectly.
Regarding the silence thing. I think it is more difficult to leave space because it means you are, in effect, naked. You often meet people who feel the need to talk because they are uncomfortable with silence. It’s exactly the same thing with musicians. They often feel the need to hide behind the noise – head down, keep playing until the end.
You need to try and get to a place in the music where you really do let go, let it all hang out, and feel that you are giving every ounce for the emotion in the music, including stopping if necessary.
You’re probably most well known for your time in Prefab Sprout during the 80’s. Could you give me four or five highlights about your time with the band that were especially meaningful for you?
i. RAK Studios
Shortly after my first tour with the band we went into the legendary RAK studios in St John’s Wood to record a few new songs with Phil Thornally, who was an up and coming producer. He was absolutely brilliant and remains one of the best that I have had the pleasure to work with to this day.
The drum room has such a warm sound – wood everywhere – and Phil got such a unique and vibrant drum sound. I was blown away.
I got a great snare recording tip off him. He put the snare mic about a foot away from the drum, underneath the hi-hat, facing the side of the shell. And there was the Motown snare sound right there. I’ve used that trick ever since if I’ve needed more of a crack from the snare. You can tune it really high and still get a lot of body. That’s why the snare on ‘When Love Breaks Down’ sounds the way it does. I also used that technique on ‘Machine Gun Ibiza’ many years later.
ii. Hammersmith Odeon, 1990
We sold out two nights and were on fire at the end of a European tour. I was MDing the band by this point and had the pleasure of inviting personal friends Jess Bailey (keyboards), Paul Harvey (guitar) and Carlos Edwards (percussion) to flesh out the songs live. They played their socks off and each made a very valuable contribution to the sound.
I rehearsed the band before Paddy (McAloon, singer/songwriter for the band) came in so as to make it less of a chore for him, having to sing the songs over and over. It all just fell together so nicely, as did the set list that I spent hours poring over. There was even talk of a live album which would have been great – Paddy’s songs really blossomed onstage with that band – but it wasn’t to be. Still, a great tour, and a special moment for me to use all the live experience I had gained in those early years gigging in London.
iii. Jamming at Marcus Studios
When we went in to record the Steve McQueen album there was a very relaxed vibe which I think you can hear in the music. After a rather tense start, when Thomas Dolby, who was used to drum machines, basically tried to get me to play like a machine, things loosened up and we had some hilarious late night jams after coming back from the pub. The track Horsin’ Around was recorded after one such rather inebriated sojourn to the boozer and you can hear Martin laughing while I’m counting it off. That track is all over the place, but it was just what the song needed. We couldn’t get it at all before we went to the pub to ”horse around” a bit.
I think the relaxed vibe really is one of the keys to why that album sounds good. No clicks, three takes max of each song, very loose and natural. Plus I had just taken delivery of my new Gretsch kit so I was having a great time.
iv. Protest Songs
This album was recorded during some time off the road in a local studio in Newcastle. It was never going to be as glossy or commercial as the other albums, but that was never the idea. We produced it ourselves and just basically had fun messing around with Paddy’s wonderful songs. Old school. Of course I’m biased but I will stand by that record for as long as I live. I would also probably put it up there near the top if someone asked which drumming performances I have been happiest with. It’s one of the few records I have done where I can bear to listen without flinching from hearing ”that bit that I could’ve done better/messed up and would love to fix”.
v.. Paddy”s Golden Tubes
It was a highlight every time Paddy opened his mouth and sung. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great singers, but I would put Paddy McAloon up there with any of them.
What was it like working with Bowie and Jagger on Dancing in the Streets?
I think the first thing to say is, let’s face it, the 1985 Dancing In The Streets is obviously not the greatest record of all time. How can you better the original Martha and the Vandellas version? But let’s not forget that it was thrown together at very short notice for the Live Aid concert (which I also did with Bowie) and if I had a choice between that and bloody Feed the World, well, no contest.
I was actually in Westside studios with Bowie to record two songs for the film Absolute Beginners (the title track and That’s Motivation). We had already demoed the songs, so David asked the legendary Gil Evans to come in for the final recordings with his ideas about the drums fitting his horn arrangements. Gil was politeness personified, always walking around in his socks for some reason. Bowie was also, as always, very polite, a real gentleman. Mick doesn’t bother with politeness, he’s more the like the mad leader of the gang, shouting out ideas to the troops. Great energy though.
I’ve told this story so many times so I’ll keep it short, for my own sanity if nothing else. We ran the song structure down, Jagger came in, threw his jacket in the corner, and started strutting around like he does onstage. They had to shoot off soon to do the video, so we literally just had to go for it – whack it down live. I remember wondering how and what to play. Then suddenly there was Clive Langer’s voice in the headphones ”Let’s have a go shall we?… tape rolling”. So I counted it off, thinking ”this is either going to sound great…or….”
But something very special happened during the intro; it sounded awesome. It just did. What a vibe, electric, everyone grinning stupidly, the music had wings and just played itself as it always seems to on such occasions.
I had Bowie and Jagger five metres from me singing together for the first time in history. The band was rocking. I had the massive pumping drum sound that Alan Winstanley had cooked up coming through my cans. It was the first take, we were already halfway though and, by golly, we were nailing it. Life felt pretty good at that moment.
Then, as so often happens, something had to go wrong and bring me crashing back down to reality…sod’s bloody law etc…
The snare cord broke. My gorgeous crispy, snappy 1957 Ludwig 400 suddenly sounded like a dull cheap timbale. I stopped, leant down towards the snare mic and said ”Sorry everyone – snare’s gone… take five”. I didn’t show it but I felt like climbing into a dark hole at that moment. I mean, jaysus, I’ve had snare cords go on me about once a year at the most. Why now?!
And, yes, ok, it got fixed and yes, ok, we did get it on the second take, we had to, but I would dearly love to have heard how that first take would have sounded. I mean, think about it again, Bowie? Jagger? History? One take? Wow…
And you backed Bowie at Live Aid in 1985 along with Matthew Seligman on bass, Kevin Armstrong on guitar and Thomas Dolby on keyboards. I just watched it on You Tube, and it still sounds fantastic. You were clearly having a great time during Heroes, but that last break you did just before the end of the song must have been bloody terrifying!
Yes we were having a good time – it was a great little band – but the heat was something else. It was a hot day and the lights onstage were very strong. You can’t see on the video but I was drenched by the time we got to Heroes. I usually get my drum guy to shave the varnish off new sticks for stadium gigs but we forgot this time and they kept slipping out of my hands. Imagine if I had dropped a stick on live worldwide TV… there would’ve been 2 billion people going ‘wanker!’.
So yes, you are right – that last break to introduce the outro was actually very difficult because I had to hold the sticks very tight and couldn’t do anything fancy – which is why it sounds a bit… erm… unsubtle.
There was a rather surreal moment when we came offstage, pumped up with adrenalin and euphoria. David had kindly cut his set short so the BBC could screen that harrowing film of children starving to death, backed by the emotive Cars song ”Drive”. There was a TV set in our dressing room showing the live broadcast feed when we walked in. The high fives and whoops of ”rock and roll!” didn’t last long. Phew.
You still play drums but have also become a very successful producer. Tell me a bit about that transition.
I can’t honestly say it’s drumming that set me up to produce. It was simply because I got to the point where I felt like I’d outgrown just playing in a band, or doing session work. In both cases I was basically paid to play and keep my mouth shut, but I started to realise that I had solutions and answers to problems in the studio. I’ve had the luck to watch and learn how to make records from some amazing artists and producers, so it seemed logical to put that experience and learning into action. Test myself I suppose. In the same way a footballer might become a manager late in his career.
But I’d say it was my piano background that really helped me move into producing. Being able to sit down with singer/songwriters, play along and throw ideas around has really helped. I can find new chord progressions if the song is a bit one-dimensional, or throw down quick guides for strings and horns, or add a simple Rhodes part to a track for instance. Just feel ‘in’ the music… it’s so important.
Producing does wonders for your drumming though – you suddenly stop fretting about the technical excellence of your fills and just want to get the right part for the song… fast!
Finally Neil, I guess I should also ask about your preferred drum kit and all that techie malarkey. I suspect the word Gretsch might come up?
Ok, here we go:
Three Ludwig snares that get swapped around depending on the music. No other make even comes close for me. 30 years of perfect crispyness and ”zbapp!”
Ludwig 400 chrome 5 1/2″ 1957 (officially the most recorded model in soul music!)
Ludwig Black Beauty 5 1/2″
Ludwig WFL (pre-ludwig) Maple 5″
The ”Classic Phat Sound” studio kit
Zildjian K 20 Heavy Ride
Zildjian K 14 HiHats
Zildjian K 16+18 crashes
The ”Touring With Anyone Other Than Prefab” kit
Yamaha 9000 Recording Custom 22,10,12,15,16
Zildjian K custom 13 HHats
Zildjian A custom 20 ride
Zildjian A custom 16,18 crashes
The Jazzy Funky ”See You Up The Pub” kit
Eddie Ryan custom, beech, birch, mahogany composite 20×16,10×9,12×10,15×13
Zildjian K 13 HiHats
Zildjian K 20 crash/ride
Zildjian A Zildjian 16 Thin crash