David Bowie phones him up personally, Brian Eno loves his sample CD and he’s been in Prefab Sprout for ages. But he doesn’t practise! And he hates soundchecks! Neil Conti takes the opportunity to explain himself to a disapproval-suspending Rhythm.
Neil Conti, it would seem, is not a man given to nerves. Less than an hour before he’s due to take to the stage with Prefab Sprout at London’s Fleadh festival. he’s sitting backstage shooting the breeze with Rhythm and enjoying the finest cheeseburger and fries that backstage catering can muster. As showtime nears, he casually fends off the attempts of a long-suffering tour manager to coax him into the dressing room, quite happy to continue chatting until he’s all but man-handled out into the arena.
In Neil’s case, however, such confidence isn’t born of arrogance – he’s simply one of those unflappable, everything-in-his-stride types. Which is something of a surprise given his status as one of the UK’s most exciting – if criminally underrated – drummers of the last 20 years. Best known for his lengthy tenure with Paddy MacAloon’s Prefab outfit, Neil can also namecheck Mick Jagger and Level 42 as previous employers, and mentions casually that David Bowie “gets in touch when he’s in London and fancies making music. He always calls me personally, which I think is nice”.
Following a hiatus in Sprout activity in the early ’90s, this year has seen Neil reunited with the purveyors of exquisite pop for their first tour in a good while. Having filled the intervening seven years with continent-hopping exploits as part of trancey hybrid world music outfit Deep Forest, among much else, Neil’s obviously kept himself busy. But there’s a definite sense that he’s more than happy to be playing Paddy’s songs again.
Rhythm: So how does it feel to be sat behind Paddy MacAloon after what’s been quite an extended break?
Neil Conti: “I’m loving it. I have to admit, I’m his biggest fan. That’s the reason I joined the band, because I loved the stuff. In fact it was me who phoned them back in the early ’80s and said, ‘Look, I know you haven’t got a permanent drummer – give us the job’. I’ve had the luck to work with some pretty good songwriters over the years but, for me, Paddy’s the man. Lennox, Bowie – he pisses all over them. I find that a lot of people can write really well in a certain style, but they have a fairly limited scope. With Paddy, he can turn his hand to so many kinds of music, it’s amazing. I think it was John Lennon who said that most people spend their whole lives rewriting the same song, but Paddy can write songs that are completely unrelated to anything he’s done before.”
What led to everything going quiet on the Prefab front anyway?
“Paddy was very disillusioned with what Sony did with the band about seven years ago. They were pushing Prefab to become a chart band, and spending an awful lot of money on videos, which would have been better spent on tour support, in my opinion. We were meant to go to America but we didn’t because there were problems with money, and yet they were spending countless tens of thousands on videos that got shown once on The Chart Show. it was crazy. So Paddy kind of had enough and disappeared underground for a bit.
“We should really have been seen as a Steely Dan-type albums band. Those kind of acts never have hit singles, but they still sell albums. Okay, so it’s a different vibe, but it can still work, and that’s what we should have done.
“The ‘King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll‘ single was the f***ing kiss of death for this band because it pushed everything in a poppy direction and the record company just wanted more of that. And that song was a joke! it’s a song about a guy who dreams about being a rock ‘n’ roll star and ends up a one hit wonder – although Prefab were never a one hit wonder, it’s still f***ing ironic in a weird sort of way. It wasn’t even supposed to go on an album, it was just a silly demo we put together that the record company liked and wanted to use, and then it ended up being our biggest hit.”
This year has seen the band back on the road in quite a big way, though. So what changed?
“Well I never left the band, and we didn’t really split up as such. So I just went off and worked with other people and kept in touch with them very loosely. Paddy did a few things, including the Andromeda Heights album, and then from out of nowhere earlier this year he decided that he wanted to do a tour. That’s the weirdest thing of all; he actually wanted to go out and do gigs. He never used to be into it at all, he was always very begrudging about playing live. The time that we were doing the most touring, he was enjoying it the least, partly because he used to hate the fact that he couldn’t write on the road. But now he’s well into the idea and it’s been great.”
Was it easy to get back into the swing of things? A case of picking up where you left off?
“The last thing we did as this band was around ’92 or ’93, but even on the first day of rehearsals after all those years, we were bang on it again. And it proved something that I’ve always maintained about this band, that we’ve got our own sound. People used to point to Tom Dolby (who produced Prefabs Steve McQueen album in 1985) or Paddy and say that’s where it came from, but there’s much more to it than that. There’s something that happens between us when Paddy plays guitar, Martin plays bass and l play drums; it’s a very distinctive thing, l think. You can hear it on Steve McQueen, because that was all recorded live, Rhythm guitar, bass and drums all went down together, no click and rough as hell, but it works. And it’s the same with Protest Songs.
“It’s wonderful to be playing the songs in front of an audience again. To this day I’m disappointed that we didn’t do more live stuff, because it would have been great. There are so many bands who put out great records and are disappointing live, and l don’t think we ever were. For the last tour we did, in 1992, we had a slightly bigger band and it was more of a production. If we’d taken that to America they would have loved it, absolutely loved it, because we had that little English angle, but the band was still about really well-crafted pop songs that were also played really well. But in the end it was all pulled because of money. I could have cried…
But you managed to pick yourself up and keep busy, didn’t you?
“I did loads of sessions. I did the Medusa album with Annie Lennox and a few things with David Bowie again. He’s so charming, and he really connects with musicians – there’s none of the crap of having a manager call you up or anything. As far as he’s concerned, musicians are artists and he’s an artist, so why is there the need for any bullshit? He’s great to work with, enormously polite. He never assumes that you’ll be free, it’s always a case of ‘Hi Neil, this is David Bowie – I don’t suppose you’d be available tomorrow, would you?’. And there’s me on the other end, trying to be cool – I’m hardly going to say, ‘Well actually Dave, I’m going to be a bit tied up washing my socks‘.
“But the big commitment has been with Deep Forest in the last few years. We’ve done an album and lots of touring – everywhere except the UK, ironically. But everywhere else it’s been massive festivals. I love it, they’re a very interesting band. The outfit is made up of 13 people from nine countries and it really is proper world music in that sense. There are two French guys who write, then Senegalese, Cuban, Cameroonian players. And then there’s me, I’m the only Brit.”
How did the gig come up? Was it because you live in France some of the time?
“No, it was quite funny actually. I was asked to do MTV Unplugged with Youssou N’Dour, and at the time Deep Forest were remixing one of his singles. He asked them to come along as special guests and play keyboards, and when I met them, I mentioned that I’d love to work with them, because I’d loved their stuff. And they said, ‘Cool, we’ve been using Funky Drums From Hell’ (Neil’s seminal sample CD), so that was it. And it’s been such a great gig, a brilliant gig for a drummer because it’s just grooves all night; all you need is a bass drum, a snare and a hi-hat really. And the musicians in the band are all just fantastic – they really keep me on my toes. They’ve got percussionists from Cuba and Mexico, and they’re both just out of this world.”
But despite all that, there’s a special place in your heart for Prefab, isn’t there? Getting together for the rehearsals recently must have been a big thrill, given that you’d got a tour to look forward to?
“Nah, I hate rehearsing, actually. It takes the spontaneity away from the music for me. If you ask musicians when their best gigs were, a lot of them will tell you that it was when they were late and they arrived, set their gear up and just started playing. No soundcheck, no arseing around for ages, just get in and off you go. And suddenly it hits you, the adrenalin starts flowing and you play great. If I had my way I’d never do another soundcheck in my life. And I’m always the one in rehearsals going, ‘Let’s just leave that section a bit open and see what happens on the night’. That’s really important on tour, because it keeps everything exciting. And if you make mistakes on stage and manage to get through it, the audience love you; immediately they’re on your side and it’s a great gig. I remember hearing stories of Bob Dylan touring with The Band and calling out tunes that they didn’t know, just to keep them on their toes. And to annoy them, probably. But I’d love to tour with someone like that, it would be such an exciting way to work.”
How much scope do you have to play around with things onstage today? Isn’t Paddy quite keen to replicate his songs as they appear on record?
“There’s more and more room to change things around and improvise as Paddy’s becoming more relaxed about playing live. He’s really a record man, though – he’s a vinyl lover and he knows almost everything about every record ever made. So when we were touring a lot, he always felt gigs were just a bad representation of the records. For him, albums are what music is all about. I come from a totally different background, and my approach is more geared to taking what we’ve done and f***ing about with it on stage.
“I like to take something we’ve already done and make something different from it every night. Paddy has always come from another angle. Having said that, though, on this tour he’s really been enjoying himself. He’s more comfortable with being on stage now than he ever was, and that brings an extra freedom with it as far as arrangements of the songs go. Paddy’s dead relaxed on stage now, he’ll actually laugh and crack great one-liners during the show. It’s all been going down very well.”
So you’d rather go on stage under-prepared than over-rehearsed, but what about your own personal skills? Are we to assume that your practice schedule isn’t too demanding either?
“I’m really lazy when it comes to practising. All that bollocks about hammering away for hours – I think it takes something away from your playing. I’ve only ever really practised when I can’t do something, and then I’ll sit down and play until I can. People reading that might think, ‘He’s only saying that because he can’t do it himself’, but I’ve always genuinely loved that raw edge that British drummers often have. There are so many American drummers who try and play something with feel, but it doesn’t quite have it – I put a lot of that down to over-practising. I honestly believe that you can practise too much.
“I think it’s good to play until you’re bored, to play because you’re excited about it. And then go out and have a f***ing life. Then you’ve got something to express when you play. You can tell when someone’s been practising all day because that’s what they sound like – just bashing out a collection of licks. They don’t ‘play the day’, as jazz musicians used to say. There’s something very valid about that, about putting all your day’s experiences into your playing, and if all your day has consisted of is sitting on your own playing the drums, you don’t have a lot to draw on.”
Although that will horrify certain members of the drumming community, it’s a point well-made. Your whole approach to the instrument is quite a thoughtful one, though, isn’t it – even down to your kit set up.
“Drums haven’t changed very much for years, but I found this thing which really did a lot for me a few years back. I’d always had back problems, and when cable hi-hats arrived I thought it might be a solution to being kind of hunched up and crossed over myself when I was playing hi-hats. So I tried it, with the hi-hat pedal in the usual place but the cymbals over to my right, right under the ride cymbal. Then I had the idea of moving one of the floor toms to my left as well, and that meant that I could play grace notes with my left hand on the tom, and backbeats on the snare, and straight away you’ve got this kind of African thing going on. The way I have the kit set up now, the toms run the opposite way from normal, which takes a little bit of getting used to, but it really isn’t as difficult as you might think.”
And did the new set up have much of an impact on your playing and physical well-being?
“It’s been a revelation, an absolute revelation. I get more power, my back problems are gone, I’m sitting straight on stage because my hands are level with each other and I’m playing in a way that’s just so much more ‘open’ than before. And with the hi-hat next to the ride, I don’t need to adjust my balance to change from one to the other. It’s amazing, since changing the set- up in this way, I’ve just found everything much easier.”
“I’ve been using a new Yamaha Birch Custom, which I was really impressed with, although I’m actually using an old 9000 today. It’s funny, because people got very into that Gretsch/DW thing a few years ago, but I think that the 9000 sound is actually making a bit of a resurgence at the moment. People are mixing drums with machines so much now that that cleaner sound is creeping back in. lt’s much easier to mix that tight 9000 sound with loops than it is with a lot of maple kits – they can tend to be a bit boing-y.
“I‘ve been with Zildjian forever. Mel Gaynor brought the guy from Zildjian down to a gig when neither of us were doing anything really, just little London pubs, years ago. They really showed faith in us, and they’ve done so much for me since.
“It makes me laugh thinking back to how me and Mel started out. We were both really frustrated because whenever we’d go into studios, we’d be asked to play like Phil Collins or whoever, never like ourselves, because neither of us were established enough. I remember talking with him about this one day and we both agreed that the only way to become properly established was to join a band and make a name for yourself that way. And then he joined Simple Minds and I joined Prefab, and from then on we both started getting sessions where we were asked to play like ourselves. And fortunately I’ve been lucky enough to be able to play like myself ever since.”