“I’ve managed to play the ‘Concerto For Group and Orchestra.’ I’ve played the drum fill in ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ I’ve played ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger.’ I’ve played ‘Sunflower.’ I’ve played ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down.’ I got to play with Ian Dury. You know, if you don’t rise up and say, ‘I’m gonna have a go at this,’ then you’re just sitting back, looking at other people and going, ‘Oh that’s easy, that is, mate.’ No. It isn’t.”
Drumming legend Steve White talks in depth about his career, from being a teenage Style Councillor to diversifying his resume as a drum teacher and music manager. Oh, and he manages to fill in the gaps with more than a few nifty stories about Paul Weller, Ian Dury, Ginger Baker, Oasis and some withered old puffin with a pointy finger.
Editor’s note: Before we get started, you probably need to watch this. The whole thing’s pretty spectacular, but you really want to pay attention to the bit from 4:05 through 5:30 …
All good? OK, then let’s begin …
PS: Well there are a lot of things I want to ask you about, but I guess first off, I’ve been following you on Twitter for a long time and I know the theme of the last few months has been celebrating 30 years in music. You’re doing a few gigs, so tell me a little bit about that.
Steve: Well I was asked by a promoter friend of mine if I would be interested in marking the occasion. I’d not really worked it out, but there are so many great people like Iain Munn, who runs Mr. Cool’s Dream, that keep a record of the careers of myself and Paul [Weller]. They do it out of such affection that, you know, Iain reminded me that it was 30 years since the Style Council and 30 years since I’d actually started working. I was kind of thinking about how quickly that that time had gone. I wanted to mark it, because I wanted to not only celebrate what I’ve actually done, but try to look at it as underlining a phase of my career. I also wanted to use it as a little bit of an example to a lot of the younger drummers that I teach. To just really encourage them to see how quickly a career can come and go. It’s so fast. You know, 30 years has gone unbelievably fast. That was kind of why I wanted to do it, and it’s been really nice to look back at some of the memories. That’s the wonderful thing about YouTube, you know, it’s all kind of there now within reach. On another level, it’s another example of continuing to market yourself as somebody that’s working in the music business. There’s very few people that, with all humility, can actually say, “Well, look. This is what I was doing 30 years ago and I’m still managing to get on the radio now.” There’s a message to that, and it’s hard work. I’ve never really been someone that’s looked back or had cause to look back, but I thought there’s not many musicians that get to do what I’ve done and still be relatively young.
PS: Absolutely. It’s funny that you mention that, because I was talking to my friend yesterday and telling her that we were going to be talking. I was looking at your resume and, especially for a drummer, I would imagine you could look at that and go, “Yeah, I’ve done alright!”
Steve: Yeah. Yeah.
PS: I mean not only the whole Style Council and Weller career, but you got to, I believe play alongside Ginger Baker, correct?
Steve: Yeah, Ginger Baker and Vinnie Colaiuta and Peter Askim …
PS: Charlie Watts on that Jools Holland performance …
Steve: Yeah, Charlie, which I posted up today on Twitter. That was a lovely experience and I’m hoping to do something with Charlie a bit later in the year. Yeah, you know, I’ve been incredibly lucky and I’ve never lost sight of the wonder of the position that I was in. I don’t have a lot of time for musicians that are lazy in their approach and end up moaning about it. Going down a coal mine and digging coal for 40 years is a hard job. We have a wonderful job. I was talking to my son about it and talking to his friends about careers and life, and you know, my basic sort of advice to them is if you can do something for a living that you can enjoy, then you’ve kind of cracked it, you know? The majority do not have that gift. They really don’t.
PS: Something that’s on your website, looking at your biography, that I’d never known before was that you were actually accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston …
Steve: I was. Berklee in Boston and PIT in L.A. I was the first British student to be accepted to PIT and I got a scholarship to Berklee. My teacher at the time said, “Look, you’ve got to go to America.” But the problem was that at the time, the drums were not taken seriously in terms of bursaries and grants to allow you to go and have education. Unlike today. At the time, you had to have a certain amount of money in an account that you had to show the authorities to prove that you were gonna be able to support yourself. And it was just figures that were way beyond a working-class family from South London, you know? I was very angry at the snobbism, and that was my first encounter with the kind of elitism that education had at the time and—I’m glad to say—doesn’t have anymore. Because I went before a grant board in London to get a bursary and some withered old puffin sort of looked at me with a pointed finger and said, “If you think we’re going to give you money to go and play the drums …” You know, as if it was not a valid art or valid instrument to play. But you know, you pick yourself up, you dust yourself down, you get on with it. I went back home and left school. Pretty much walked out of school. The minute that I walked out of school, my parents were literally, “Well, what are you gonna do for a job?” And I thought, “Oooh. Hang on. Let’s have a think about this.” Luckily, I spoke to my friend Gary Wallace and, cutting a long story short, I got the job with Glen Tilbrook and Chris Difford, worked with them for 3 months, and then the job with the Style Council came up pretty much a week after.
PS: Looking at that and how quickly things took off for you, I would imagine that you would’ve loved the experience of being able to go to Berklee and have that tutelage there, but do you look back and go, “Nah, I think it worked out OK”?
Steve: I have that about my life in general—I don’t really have regrets. I think that you should make the most of any opportunity and everything happens for a reason. I try not to look for any kind of negativity in life until a doctor comes around to me and says, “You know what? You’ve got 3 months.” That’s the only thing I’m not going to take a positive slant on, and that’s my advice to all my students. Everything that slaps you in the face or kicks you in the balls, you’ve got to turn it into a positive. That’s what I did. I just thought, “Well if I can’t go to Berklee, then I’m going to be a great drummer in my own right.” Essentially, with the whole Berklee situation, most of the drummers that really end up making it don’t last the course. They’re in, they get their contracts, and then somebody comes along and says, “Come along and play.” Very few of them last the course. And I got to play at Berklee. I got to visit PIT. So I got to go in there and see what it was all about. At the end of the day, going to college is a wonderful thing. But you go to college to get a job. And if I got a job, I thought, “Well, I might as well keep the job.”
PS: Right. Now if we can talk a little bit about the Style Council, and coming into that situation, you’re in a unique position in terms of Paul Weller’s career. Not only with the Style Council, but also his solo years, where he was completely—I know he doesn’t like the term “reinventing”—but completely shifting gears. “I’m going in a completely different direction,” and some of the fans are just going, “What the heck?” Coming in with the Style Council first, was that a situation where you’re just happy to have a job, or did that create any more pressure or onus on you as a drummer, considering the Jam’s fans?
Steve: No, it didn’t. The thing that we have to remember is the perspective of the amount of channels that you had for communication. Whereas nowadays, there would be 4,000 websites set up about a band like the Jam splitting and it would be on rolling news and things like that—there was a big splash when the Jam actually split up, but it’s something like where if a band like the Jam were not on your radar, you didn’t really notice it, because it wasn’t rammed down your throat. And not being someone where the Jam were particularly on my radar, I went into it with completely fresh ears and eyes. I just thought, “This is great. I love these songs, they’re fantastic.” Obviously I knew who Paul was and knew how big the band were, but as I say, because it wasn’t 24-hour access to information, if you were not seeking out a band like the Jam—and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people did—but if you weren’t seeking it out, it was kind of easy to get on with your own thing. Whereas now, everything that happens is microscopically analyzed. So the pressure wasn’t so great, and all the pressure was just on me to do a really good job and keep the gig. As I say, a lot of the perception for the entertainment industry and a lot of the problems that are caused are caused by the pressure of that constant analysis from the media and from the press. The gigs are usually the easiest thing. Most musicians are kind of happiest when they’re in their dressing room at Manchester Apollo and someone says, “You’re on in half an hour.” That’s kind of the easy part. So back in the day, that was all we really had to worry about, unless we did an NME or went on the Wogan show or Top of the Pops and then you’re on the telly. It just wasn’t overanalyzed. We just went and did it.
PS: Did the fact that Paul’s music was moving away from that punk/Mod/Motown fours rhythm into more jazzy, soulful territory help you flourish too?
Steve: I think there was a little bit of a degree of a happy accident there. The fact that in the choice of the drummer to do the record, Paul and Mick [Talbot] picked me because I had a background in jazz and Latin music and been taught how to play things like bossa novas and sambas. So whereas 50 other drummers would’ve played something like “The Piccadilly Trail” in a completely different way, I chose to play it with a bossa nova feel. I think that when they picked me, they had an idea—I’m pretty sure Paul had an idea—of what he wanted on these tracks. So when I came in, it wasn’t like trying to put any kind of square peg in a round hole. No disrespect to someone like Rick [Buckler], who was a fantastic rock drummer, but probably not the right guy to play a bossa nova. I think it was partly that Paul wanted a bit more of an understated thing with the kind of music that was being produced and played, so I think there was a great deal of a happy accident in meeting me, having the background that I think Paul was hearing and getting in the studio and playing and me just trying things that I was familiar with. So I’d try the bossa novas and I’d try the samba beats, and it might not have worked, but we were lucky, because on those first two albums, it did.
PS: That’s something I wanted to ask you about too, because not only with the Style Council, but with so many bands in the 1980s in general, as the decade progressed, the sound of drums turned more to that electronic side. If you listen to Café Bleu or you listen to Our Favorite Shop, that’s great drumming that’s very much an acoustic sound. Whereas, once you start moving into The Cost of Loving and Confessions of a Pop Group—I know you only played on a few tracks on Confessions—but you can hear that 1980s influence start to take over. Now as a drummer, what was that like for you?
Steve: It was something that I was really aware was coming into the music scene. Not just for the Style Council, it was everywhere, as you say. And it wasn’t my thing. You know, there’s drummers that I know that embrace technology and embrace it absolutely magnificently. Ironically, I’ve embraced technology far more now and enjoy working with technology far more than I ever did, because I always found it so unbelievably confusing. To work something like a Linn Drum or to get a Simmons kit sounding OK. And I did use them, but I just found them really user-unfriendly. And obviously, if Paul was listening to a lot of dance music—he’s always kind of checking out what’s new, and he got onto the whole kind of Chicago house thing really early on when the thing first started coming over—then he started to want to use it. And I didn’t mind on things like “It Didn’t Matter,” which was kind of part programmed and part real drums. But as it got to sort of be more and more part of the way the sound actually went, I just got bored with it, to be honest. There was no big mystery, no big falling out. It was just like, “Mmm, I’m not really up for this. It’s not really me.” That kind of conversation was pretty much the same conversation I had when Paul asked me to do the 22 Dreams tour. I just sort of heard where his head was at with the music, and just thought, “This is not really me.” So there’s nothing new there, I’ve had that conversation back in 1988 with Paul. When he was doing all the programmed stuff and he asked me to go to Japan and do the last Style Council show at the Albert Hall. I listen to it and everybody thinks because I wasn’t doing it, I must hate it. I don’t. I think Modernism: A New Decade is a really, really brave record. I think Polydor were fools not to put it out, and I think it was a really ahead of its time, as were the live shows that Paul was doing. All these kind of stoic, or supposed to be people with open minds, threw their programs down … that’s not open minded. That’s not Mod. That’s disrespectful and that’s rude, and I don’t identify with those people at all. Just because I wasn’t doing the gig doesn’t mean that I stand at the back tapping me toes with me arms crossed going, “See, it was better when I did it.” Don’t believe that at all. It just didn’t really suit me. It didn’t really fit me. I was asked to do it, but I didn’t feel that I was the right person for the job. I had that conversation in 1988 with Paul, and I had that conversation in 2007 with Paul.
PS: That’s really interesting because it’s something I’d wondered about too. Especially with the Confessions album, which is one of my favorite Style Council albums …
Steve: And mine! And mine too.
PS: Just the breadth of music that’s on it. You can tell even without looking at the credits which songs you drum on, but it’s still so full.
Steve: Some of my favorite stuff is on that record. “Why I Went Missing,” “It’s a Very Deep Sea.” They were really kind of the best stuff that I played on and some of the proudest stuff that I played on. But the other thing about it is, when people that aren’t in the music business look at bands, they kind of have this feeling and thought that we all live in a house like the Monkees. And we don’t. We all live in different parts of the world, or different parts of town. London is like a world—if you try to get across it, it takes forever. At that time, Paul and Mick both had young children, and obviously, being younger, I didn’t have any children. And around the time of the Confessions record, the diary was a lot barer than it was in 1985. So, you know, the simple fact is when you get your diary or you get a call from John [Weller, Paul’s father/manager], or I’d call John and say, “So what’s happening?” And he’d say, “Well, there’s not much happening this year, Whitey. We might be doing this, we might be doing that.” And at a certain point, you have to kinda go, “Well, I’m gonna need to work, really.” I wanted to keep working. So that happened a couple of times. There were breaks in touring that became extended breaks, and I just thought, “Well, shit, I’ll get a jazz group together … I’ll get the Jazz Renegades together …” And what happened in ’88 and ’89 is the whole kind of Acid Jazz thing exploded in London, and I was playing in five different bands. So, when I got the call from Paul to say, “Well listen, there’s work here,” I was on tour in Italy with the James Taylor Quartet. I just kind of had to say, “I can’t get back.” There was no disrespect and Paul completely understood, and the fact that he asked me back to the very last thing that the Style Council ever did explains the whole thing, really. I’m a working musician, and even though I was perceived as one member of the Style Council—which I’m really, really proud of—it was Paul that was signed as “The Style Council.” So, myself, Mick, Dee [C. Lee], we worked for Paul. On a creative level, he treated us as equals, but he was the band, so if he decided he didn’t want to work, then you had to kind of think, “Well, somebody’s just offered me a tour. Three months in Italy. Somebody wants me to play on a record. Somebody wants me to go to Japan. I’ve gotta work.” As I say, there was no great mystery. If you look at the diary at the time, it wasn’t very busy.
PS: Gotcha. And in 1989, I know you just said you played in a number of bands, and one of the other things you did that I wanted to ask you about was playing on Ian Dury’s Apples album.
Steve: Yeah, Ian, bless him. Just one of the best people I ever worked with. I loved him. I kind of spent quite a bit of ’89 in Ian’s company, recording the Apples album and then we did the Apples stage show at the Royal Court Theatre with Max Stafford-Clark directing and Frances Ruffelle and Pam Ferris and all these lovely thespians. I really, really enjoyed it. And at that time I got to meet Charley Charles, one of my favorite drummers, from the Blockheads. He came down and I really wanted to go and talk drums and I could see that the vibe wasn’t good. There was something in the air. And from what I can gather, that’s when Charley told Ian that he’d been diagnosed with cancer, and he was gone pretty soon after that. I know that hit Ian really, really hard. And then, then last time I saw Ian was when we did the Victoria Park shows, where Ian was special guest. We knew that he had cancer at that point. We knew that he was poorly. And he gave me a lovely mention when he did his set, which was really nice. Because he was a massive influence for a lot of reasons. That time in London, there was a lot of work and I was doing a lot of bits and pieces, sessions, stuff like that. But I felt a little bit adrift, because there was so much technology and the programming was going on. And when I got to work with Ian, I was talking to him one day in his flat about this whole thing with technology. He had a beautiful old drum kit, that belonged to Nigel Olsson. Ian had a ride cymbal on it and we used to rehearse, and he took the ride cymbal off and he said, “I really want you to have it, because you make it sound good.” And that was lovely. I still got that cymbal. He said to me at the time, [goes into Ian Dury impersonation] “Just do your own thing. Do you think anyone’s gonna tell Bernard fucking Purdie how to play the drums?”
Steve: And that was it, and I just thought, “You know what? Thank you. I needed this.” He gave me an album, which I can see on the shelf right now. It was a copy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s double album called, The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color. Ian said, “This is the coolest jazz album you’ll ever have, and you’ll find out why.” I played the first 2 sides, and it’s brilliant experimental jazz using sound effects and everything like that. And then on the fourth side, there’s nothing. There’s nothing at all. And about 27 minutes in, Roland Kirk says, “So you’re the dude that’s cool enough to listen to the fourth side of my record?” And it was only because I sat there one night and put the fourth side on. That was a little in-joke that I share with Ian, bless him.
PS: That is very cool. So obviously the other gigs carry into the early 1990s and Paul calls and says he wants you back because he’s doing a few solo gigs …
PS: And I understand it was tough going at first. I think I saw one of the documentaries and what was it, Newport, where the crowd got a little rough?
Steve: Oh God, yeah. He sort of walked onstage and he said, “It’s like a fucking morgue in ‘ere.” And they started chanting, “IT’S LIKE A FUCKING MORGUE IN ‘ERE! IT’S LIKE A FUCKING MORGUE IN ‘ERE!” But the love was there. I mean, he was on his arse on a business level. The amount we got to record the album was tens of thousands of pounds from Japan. From Pony Canyon. They were the first guys to really show some faith in Paul. And at the time, I remember Paul doing an interview where somebody said, “So, why’d you spend so much time in Japan?” And he said, “Well, ‘cos they’re paying me.” [Laughter] Fair enough. We went over four or five times and then got signed to Go! Discs, and that was it, really. The whole thing from 1990 to 1996 was almost like an endless—we just toured and recorded and toured and Paul was writing and we were playing songs from Stanley Road 2 years before we recorded them.
Steve: I remember we played in Bristol at Colston Hall, which is a lovely, lovely venue. And Paul had said, “Right, I’ve got this song, I’ve been working on it. Just keep it simple.” And we jammed it. It was “Time Passes …” which would end up on Stanley Road. And Paul said, “Let’s do it tonight. Let’s just do it.” I mean, what artist does that? Finishes a song at soundcheck and says, “Let’s put it in the set.” And I remember talking to Paul about it. It’s why I think Stanley Road was such a tight record, because we played so much of the stuff. And I remember talking to him about sets and saying, “Some of the tunes the audience don’t know …” And I remember him saying to me, “If they’re into it, they’ll get it.” Yeah. “You’re right, mate. As always, pretty much.” [Laughter]
PS: Well and to be in that position during the Britpop explosion. I kind of wanted to ask you what the family Christmas was like in 1995 when you come home with Stanley Road and your brother [Alan White] comes home with [Oasis’] (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
Steve: Yeah, I know, it was incredible. Just looking back at that, the fun had kind of started earlier that summer when we did The White Room, which I think is on YouTube. It was kind of the seminal meeting. And Noel and Paul did a version of “Talk Tonight.” We were all in the canteen and I got to meet Bonehead, and I got to meet Guigsy and I got to meet Tony [McCarroll]. It was just obvious that there was a real atmosphere with Tony and Noel, and I’m really glad, because Tony has become an acquaintance of mine. I wouldn’t say a friend, but an acquaintance that I’ve got a lot of respect for because of my Manchester connections. And a friend of mine, Richard Dolan, co-wrote his autobiography, which I think is an absolutely fantastic book. It’s one of the best books about that era that’s been written. And I’m really glad that I was able to put something to bed about that time, which is that when we did The White Room and we got friendly with the Oasis guys, we did not know that it was going to end up being my brother replacing Tony in Oasis. That was a misconception that came about that it was a done deal, but it wasn’t. What actually happened was that we did The White Room, and Noel had told Paul basically that he was gonna get rid of Tony. He had made his mind up on that. Paul had sort of mentioned, “Oh, well you know his brother’s a good drummer.” Because Alan was playing with Dr. Robert at the time, and Galliano as well.
PS: He’d done some work with Idha too on Creation, right?
Steve: Yeah, that’s where it all happened. He was playing with Idha in Maison Rouge Studios, and Noel was doing something in another studio. And he stopped outside the door and was listening to the drumming, and basically asked—because I think Idha was managed by Creation—he said to [Oasis manager] Marcus Russell, “Who’s playing with Idha at the moment?” And Marcus said, “I’ll check it.” And he came back and said, “You’re never gonna believe it. It’s Alan White. It’s Steve’s brother.” Then we got the call at home, and me mum thought it was a wind-up—some Manc on the phone. And it was Noel. And basically, Alan phoned me and said, “I’ve gotta go and play with Oasis. I’ve got a tour to do. What should I do?” So I said, “Well, get the album. Learn the album. That’s all you can do. But you know your shit.” Because Alan likes the Beatles, he likes Ringo. He likes the James Brown drummers. So when he went to the audition, Liam was just reeling off Beatles tunes. He didn’t play an Oasis tune in the audition, he just played Beatles tunes. Then at the end of it, it was, “Well, you’re in.” So he went off to record Morning Glory, and there was a massive row. And he phoned me up and said, “I think it’s all over before it’s started, to be honest.” Luckily, it wasn’t. And then he pretty much disappeared. The second gig he did was Glastonbury in 1995. He disappeared for the summer, and we met up at a festival called Out in the Green where Oasis and Paul were on the same bill, with R.E.M., Sheryl Crow and Bo Diddley amongst others. It was the most amazing weekend. The weather was beautiful and I remember going onto Oasis’ coach. One of their security had put some beers and some wine and just said that Noel wanted to play us the album. So there was me, Liam, Noel, Paul, Steve Cradock, Damon [Minchella], all of us sitting in the lounge of this coach. And they put on (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and played it to us. It was fantastic. And when they were playing “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” Liam was kind of, “Listen to that, listen to that!” His enthusiasm and innocence about it was brilliant, you know, that he’d kind of got a bit of John Lennon into “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” It was lovely. It was absolutely fine until they decided to move on and get a different drummer. Chalk and cheese, basically.
PS: Well and before that happened, you had the chance on that Tour of Brotherly Love to play with them.
Steve: I did. And I spent a wonderful afternoon with two of me favorite people last week, with Steve Gorman and Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes. I went to meet them when they were in Manchester. I love Chris, he’s one of the most intelligent and heart-on-his-sleeve musicians you’re ever likely to meet. I’ve always got on incredibly well with him, because they actually asked me to go and do some stuff with them some years ago when Steve couldn’t do it. So I’ve got a real affinity with the Robinson brothers and I love Steve, he’s one of my favorite drummers. That tour was a delight, an absolute delight. We had Liv Tyler, Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson knocking around, and we toured America for the best part of the summer of 2001 and it just was fantastic. I had a brilliant time on that tour, one of the highlights of my career.
PS: I remember that documentary that I think was eventually put on “The Hindu Times” DVD single where it’s a summation of that tour. And I remember at one point, you’re actually teaching Noel why certain drummers hold the sticks with the left hand in different ways. But yeah, I got to see you on that tour in Chicago and one of the things I wanted to ask you was how you took to Oasis songs. One of the conceptions that’s out there about Oasis is that for drummers, it should be pretty easy. I remember an interview with Zak Starkey a couple years ago after he’d left Oasis and he said his mates were giving him shit about it and saying “I could do that with one hand tied behind my back.” And he’s like, “Well, yeah, you could, but it’d sound awful.”
Steve: Yeah. Go try, then. Any gig where a band get that big is not easy. That’s sort of bedroom drummers talk, basically. The songs are deceptively easy because they’re really well-crafted songs, but you’ve gotta play them properly. You’ve gotta play them with class, you’ve gotta play them with style, you’ve gotta hit the drums pretty hard. If it was all that easy to play, there’s no way that a band would have a career of 20-odd years. Just because something is technically not challenging is not to say that it’s easy. Sometimes less is more.
PS: Right. And you sat in with Ocean Colour Scene a couple times too …
Steve: I sat in with OCS. I mean the thing is that at that time, I was kind of a bit of a supersub, to use a footballing term. Someone gets the call when someone’s gone down injured. But I went and played with Ocean Colour Scene. I did their 10th anniversary tour. We went to Ireland and did some dates, and I had no rehearsal for that. I just literally had to learn the tunes in the car driving up to Birmingham. It was a case of, “If it doesn’t work out, we’ll have to blow the shows.” And they said, “Well we don’t wanna blow the shows, so just come and do it.” So I sort of just locked eyes with Damon and watched him all gig. But yeah. I had one day of rehearsal with Oasis and learned most of the tunes on the way over. And that’s like you say, you listen to the tunes on the radio, and you’re like, “Ah yeah, that’s great,” and then when you actually start to write a cheat sheet out, it’s, “Oooh, shit. Hang on, that’s 7 bars. That’s not 8 bars. Oh, that changes it. Oh, I’ll have to think about that.” And all of the sudden, you’re really getting in there. I did something with a DJ called Mark Radcliffe a few years ago, where I had to teach him how to play in a live situation with Rufus Wainwright. And we did the song “Going To a Town.” And the first time we did it, Mark just banged through it, and he went, “Well, that’s pretty easy, innit?” And I said, “Yeah, but you’ve missed this, you’ve missed that, you’ve missed that bar that’s 2 bars …” And by the end of it, he’s going, “I’m shocked. I’m just shocked. I’m such a terrible drummer.” You know, it is easy to do these things kind of pubwise, but it’s hard to do them properly.
PS: How about with the Who at Live8?
(Ed. note: THE fills start at 7:38)
Steve: Oh, mate, see that’s another one! It was like so little preparation. You know, running the song once and then doing it. But you know, you’re almost in a position where you’re just thinking about the next beat you’re gonna play, because you’ve got such big expectation and such pressure. You’re in Keith Moon’s shoes and it’s rock and roll royalty. But you’re getting up there and thinking, “Do I know this song? Do I actually really know?” Because all of those bars and breaks with the synths and things—they’re like 13 bars and 17 bars. But you just kind of gotta go and do it. Same with Jon Lord. I mean going to play with Jon and doing the “Concerto For Group and Orchestra,” which, there’s probably no more than 4 bars that were in 4/4. But, when you stop challenging yourself, it’s time to go and give up, really. You kind of do it. I’ve managed to play the “Concerto For Group and Orchestra.” I’ve played the drum fill in “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” I’ve played “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” I’ve played “Sunflower.” I’ve played “Walls Come Tumbling Down.” I got to play with Ian Dury. You know, if you don’t rise up and say, “I’m gonna have a go at this,” then you’re just sitting back, looking at other people and going, “Oh that’s easy, that is, mate.” No. It isn’t.
PS: There aren’t a lot of photos or videos of it, that I can find at least, but I’m interested in hearing what playing with Ginger Baker was like. Because I know he has a certain reputation as a person …
Steve: Well, we did this thing, he won an award. It was a Zildjian artist anniversary thing for him. And I go back many, many years with Ginger, because we went to the same school. Not at the same time, but we went to the same school. And when I first met Ginger, one of the elderly teachers that was at the school was still at the school after I left. That was a guy called Bob Lloyd. He’d taught Ginger as a much younger man. And he was elderly by the time I was there, but he was still at the school. So I went up to Ginger at a trade show in Germany and said, “Do you remember Bob Lloyd?” And he sort of looked at me, as if to say, “What?” And he went [adopts perfect Ginger Baker impersonation]: “What? The teacher?” And I went, “Yeah.” He went, “Is he still alive?” I went, “Yeah, he is.” And we literally got chatting, because he was from Lewisham, and he’d lived in New Eltham, which is not far from where I am now. So straightaway, we kind of chatted. And I never saw Ginger for about 10 years, and it was at another trade show, and he was being Ginger and barking at people and everything. He sort of looked at me out of the corner of his eye and he went, “You’ve put on a bit of weight, son.” And that was it.
Steve: And I saw him when he did a show with Chad Smith, Bernard Purdie and David Garibaldi. We took him down a copy of Stanley Road. He was great, he was really gracious. I mean, when I did the tribute show, he wasn’t in the greatest of moods. I was coming down in the lift with him and he was kicking off a bit. I remember saying, “Ginger, come on, mate. This is all for you.” And he sort of looked at me and [imitates a Ginger grumble], and it was really weird because of his autobiography. I mean, there were some fabulous players on that night—Keith Carlock, Simon Phillips and Ginger didn’t take on board how great, I think, all these people were. And in his autobiography, he says something like, “Yeah, there was a bunch of drummers on and the only one I liked was Steve White.” [Laughter] So I must have made an impression on him.
PS: Well you’ve got that in print.
Steve: I’ve got that in print! It’s almost the last chapter of his autobiography, and I got a mention from Ginger.
PS: That’s awesome. And now in addition to the drumming work and your clinics and work as a teacher, you’re also now a music manager with Sam Gray …
Steve: Yeah, Sam’s phenomenal and I actually love Sam. I was really chuffed because it’s been quite a hard slog the last 3 years, you know, because of the state of the industry at the moment. The effect that the amalgamation of television and radio have had on the industry, it’s a very different business now. Probably the same as in America, you know, X Factor and talent shows seem to be the ones where people look to produce new artists. There are artists that get through, but it’s been a funny time. Sam is a fantastic writer, he’s got an amazing work ethic, and when I first met him, I just recognized something in him that I believe is gonna set him on the path to an amazing career in music. He not only has a fantastic voice, but he composes, he’s a great guitarist and he’s doing really, really well with his songwriting, which is a great—without being too mercenary—is a great form of income. To actually write music for other people. It was really nice because just yesterday, I picked up a copy of Mojo and Eric Clapton namechecks Sam as one of the artists he thinks is really good. That was really nice. He said there’s a young guy in England called Sam Gray that sounds like Sam Cooke. And I thought, “Well, that’s pretty cool.” So I’m gonna be there to work with Sam and to guide him. There was a degree of business acumen about it, because obviously, being 47 now, I want to live a reasonably comfortable life as long as I’m healthy. And I thought, “You’ve got to diversify.” I get very dismayed when I hear stories about drummers and musicians. Obviously drummers are sidemen, you know? I get very dismayed that drummers are poorly and they’ve got no money to pay medical bills. Even Ginger, to a certain degree, it’s pretty well documented that he doesn’t have any money. And you know, that’s not for me, Paul. I’m sensible about that. I just thought, the best way for me to do that would be to impart some of my wisdom and values on a younger musician that’s not far off the point when I came into the music business. I really thought that’s what I would’ve wanted—somebody who would say, “You don’t really want to do that,” and “Don’t listen to him, because he’s a prick.” As bluntly as that. Which is the way that I’m able to talk with Sam. And as I say, guys that have the talent that he has to write don’t come along very often. He really will be a major player. I don’t know if being a solo artist and selling out the Albert Hall is gonna be his thing, but the one thing I promised him when I started working with him was a career in music. And that’s happening really, really well.
PS: You talk about the advice and things that you would’ve liked to have someone say to you when you were coming up. Now measuring that against the way the industry has changed so much since you coming up, how is it for you to find that balance? Where you look at something and say, “Well when I was coming up, we did this, but now we can’t do that anymore because it’s not a viable moneymaking option”?
Steve: Well, it’s difficult. It really is difficult. Trying to make money as a drummer is something that probably, 15, 20 people do successfully in Britain at the moment. And then everybody else plays the drums and does other stuff. That’s kind of just how it is. It’s been really strange because what’s actually happened, unfortunately, since the demise of Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic is that, a band like Led Zeppelin would bring in a huge amount of money to Atlantic Records. A lot of that money would go to Peter Grant and to pay the band and John Bonham’s hot rods, but a certain amount of that money would go to Atlantic Jazz and would fund an Elvin Jones record for $5,000. Or go to Atlantic Soul and pay for an Aretha Franklin album. As wonderful as those artists are, they were never, ever in the sphere of what white rock and roll made. But the money was redirected. Now that doesn’t happen. So all the money that gets pulled in by all these kind of artists on X Factor and The Voice and all that kind of thing, it’s not going to fund a new wave label that’s part of Sony. It doesn’t work like that anymore. So the gap between your working musician, your guy that doesn’t want to sell out Shea Stadium, but just wants to make a career out of music, it’s harder and harder at the lower levels. You’re either selling the stadiums out or flipping burgers. And that’s what I know from talking to people in the industry who’ve told me, “The trouble is the $1,000-per-night gigs are gone.” The gigs that enabled you to fill the van with petrol, buy everybody a bit of Chinese, a few beers and go on and do the next gig, they’re not there anymore. And unfortunately, that’s the breeding grounds for the next greats. The Jam probably would’ve got dropped after the second album, because it’s like, “Oh. Well it didn’t do as well as the first.” That longevity, that experience, it’s different. Real pure rock and roll and getting out there and being the spokesman for a generation, and all that kind of thing that Hendrix did and Pete Townshend did when they were really at their creative peaks, that’s stuff you do without a safety net. You don’t care, you just go and do it. Unfortunately, it’s just harder and harder to do that. I imagine that lots of younger musicians will have to find their own way to do it. They’ll have to use the Internet. They’ll have to use the platforms, the possibilities of the digital age to be as revolutionary as Townshend and Rotten. It’s just different.
PS: You mentioned in the “Five Questions” that you love that Frank Sinatra big band era, and it’s interesting you say that because I’ve been listening lately to the Sinatra at the Sands album with Quincy Jones Orchestra.
Steve: That one’s incredible.
PS: The drumming on that is just phenomenal, and the sound of a live gig. It’s hard to put out a live album now that’s properly balanced, but in 1966, they’re making it sound like nothing.
Steve: Have you heard Buddy Rich and Sammy Davis Jr.’s [Sounds of ’66]?
Steve: That’s one of the best live albums ever.
PS: They knew how to do it in that era.
Steve: Yeah, and they played dynamically as well. See, when bands are trying to get their records to sound like the ‘60s, what they don’t realize is that drummers had very small drum kits. They had very thin sticks. They had very thin cymbals. And they played with discipline. They played with dynamics. So, to a certain degree, all the needs of technology and pushing the drums and pushing the hi-hats were done by the musicians. So when you’ve got those caliber musicians in a studio, like at Motown, and they did the performance, it’s like those musicians were mixing the record as they played it. And that’s what so many musicians now that are trying to get sounds like the 1960s completely miss. It was all done by the dynamics that the musicians played with.
PS: My final question for you is how satisfying for you was it during Paul Weller’s solo career, when he would go back and do a Style Council song live and you’d get to hear those songs uninhibited by 1980s production, like “Long Hot Summer” or that amazing version of “The Cost of Loving” from Japan …
Steve: Yeah! With just me and Paul playing and the bossa nova thing. I absolutely loved it. To me, we didn’t really do a huge amount. We did the Style Council, more of the greatest hits thing. We did “Long Hot Summer,” we did “Shout to the Top!” We didn’t really delve back into the less known songs. It was actually my partner Sally that said to me, because she was a huge Style Council fan, “You really should sit down and listen to this sometime.” Because as Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers said, “You don’t sit there with your dick in your hand listening to your own records.” Although some rock stars do. But we were listening to Café Bleu. We were listening to “Paris Match” and those kind of songs, and you just think, “Shit, they are fantastic.” I mean, it would be lovely to do something to reflect the fact that it is the Style Council’s 30th anniversary, but it’s not Paul’s style, and I know that and I appreciate that. But, of the body of work that I’ve done, they are the songs that I could probably do them more justice than when I was 17, 18. Because I’m a better drummer. As I say, I’m always looking forward. I’m not one of those people that does a gig and they’re just waiting for one hit that came out in 1996. I don’t really care about that kind of stuff. But there’s a difference between that sort of nostalgia and using nostalgia as the basis of your career. I don’t knock musicians that do that—any way that you can make a living playing music is fine by me. But I think that era—the Style Council era—is one that would never be an issue for me to revisit.
Great interview, cheers!
Steve’s the best. I miss his style on the new Weller records