Nigel shares his journey of being a drummer, the perils of being self taught, and how learning proper posture early on helped him with his playing.
Leigh Lim: Hi Nigel, thanks for taking the time to do a Q&A! On your YouTube page, you use an alias, and from what I can notice, you don’t put your name in your videos. Is that something you just wanted to have a bit of play with?
Nigel Powell: Most of that is historical. My alias everywhere is sadsongco, which comes from The Sad Song Co., the ‘band name’ that I’ve so far released two solo albums under – my third is in the recording process right now.
I opted for that when I started working on solo stuff because I can’t see the name ‘Nigel’ as very rock and roll or credible! Probably a contextual thing. In my work with other people, especially Frank Turner, I go under my given name, but all of the social media accounts I set up used the project name.
LL: Can you give a quick summary in terms of how you got to where you are with your playing?
NP: The bulk of my learning was copying records I liked. I tried teaching for a little while, but it didn’t feel right to me. I just wanted to say to students “go and play along with your favourite album until it sounds right”, because the way you do things wrong is what makes drumming develop and be exciting, and creates original and new drummers with identifiable personalities.
When I was first out and gigging there was a famous drum school in London called Drumtech, and whenever you came across a player who’d learned there you could instantly tell – they were like little drumming clones. They could always play the arse off everyone around them technically, but it always seemed to be lacking soul.
I do practice though. I used to do it much more, working on rudiments (which some drumming friends had showed me), working things out at home. We play so much with Frank now that I don’t practice in quite the same way any more, I much prefer playing with people in front of an audience. It develops different skills – my technical level has perhaps declined a little, but in terms of vibe and making a band sound good (which is the top of my priorities anyway) I’m as good as I’ve ever been right now.
LL: Do you have specific books that you keep within reach that you regularly refer to?
NP: I worked through the first half of Advanced Techniques For The Modern Drummer by Jim Chapin a few times, and will still occasionally revisit to see if I can break through to the second half.
From time to time I work on pages from Stick Control by George Lawrence Stone, sometimes hands and sometimes feet. But as I say, I’m on the road so much that that ‘woodshed’ kind of approach to my playing has taken a back seat to actually playing shows.
LL: If you were to put together a ‘learning plan’ or practice pack for someone who has never played before, so they could have the capacity to play at your level and skill. What would it look like?
NP: Definitely wouldn’t want someone to go through the same journey that I did. If I had to give advice it would be to get into a band with your mates at school (or even more than one band), and learn your instrument in the context of how it makes music with other people, rather than from a technical perspective.
Take some advice from knowledgeable people about simple technical things – how to hold the sticks, letting them rebound, that kind of thing – otherwise you will find yourself hitting a wall later on and having to unlearn things. This is a problem I still come up against because of my self-taught approach.
But as to drumming as a philosophy, find your own, and invent yourself.
LL: Are there any challenges that come to mind during your learning process?
NP: Motivation is harder now than it was. But the biggest challenge is always working through something that you can’t do, starting it slowly and patiently making it work. Do what I say, not what I do – I get frustrated and I’m bad at being patient!
LL: Would you say it was discipline that got you to where you are as a drummer? (That you were able to build up the knowledge and skill — and able to apply it)
NP: In terms of career success, I can only really put it down to always keeping going and staying positive, even when things were bad and I really should have given up pursuing it full time if I had any sense. It’s a boring answer, but I was very careful to plan myself financially and be careful with money so I could afford to ride out the bad times and keep going.
I had other jobs, responsible jobs, and things I was good at, but I always considered myself a drummer who was doing something else. You want to be in for the long haul as a drummer? Stop smoking and drinking, you’ll save yourself a rent’s worth of money every month so you’ll never be cornered into having to give it up!
LL: Were there times when you didn’t want to practice?
NP: There have been times when I didn’t practice. Depression and negativity visit most people at some time, and I would sit on a sofa and play video games rather than improving myself. I think anyone who says that never happens is probably not telling all of the truth. I’m sure even Gavin Harrison has occasional days when he thinks “bugger this, I’m going to the cinema”.
But luckily there’s always been a gig on the horizon, so eventually I need to get myself back in shape or risk making bad music, or not giving someone their money’s worth. That’s the thing that truly drives me – live, someone has chosen to take a percentage of the money that they earn, possibly doing something crappy that they hate, and they’re spending it on coming to see the show you’re contributing to. If you have any respect for that, you always do your best.
LL: How important was it to have someone help you learn a specific technique?
NP: The advice I picked up was all in bits and pieces. I never had a specific mentor, but gleaned little bits of information here and there. No-one was really invested in my learning except me.
If anyone deserves props it was my mum – my drums were in my bedroom above the kitchen, and I used to play for hours while she’d be cooking or something. If it was me I would have gone insane within a month!
LL: Description of your playing style?
NP: Ummm… hard to say. I try to think about whatever music I’m playing first.
I guess my personal preference is I don’t care it it’s simple or complex, but I’m looking for something original, even if it’s just a subtle twist that you wouldn’t necessarily consciously notice. Take the new Frank song ‘Get Better’. When we were arranging it straight away I wanted that relentless ‘four crotchets of snare drum’ feel. After shifting things around a little bit, it became that with the Sabian Chopper as well, which gives it the slightly unusual sound.
Then on the left foot for the second half of the first verse I’m playing hi hat tambourine, but it’s a three bar phrase, so it shifts across the pattern as the verse goes past. I don’t think anyone would notice unless you pointed it out, but it gives a subconscious texture. Then in the second verse the hi hat tambourine switches to the backbeat to give an injection of urgency, but the kick takes over on the shifting three bar phrase.
Something like that sums up how I think of my drumming style – trying to find ways to make it different, without it being obvious or self-consciously different, and it still rocking hard.
LL: What are some misconceptions you find about you as a drummer?
NP: I’m a fan of some prog rock, so a few people who’ve known that have assumed I’m going to be playing massive fills all over the place. But that’s not really me. I do, unequivocally, love Phil Collins, but I equally love the work of Rob Ellis on early PJ Harvey, and in my work I tend to take that approach – slightly weird patterns, generally repetitive to create an original groove – more than the prog.
LL: Do you have a mental (or written) checklist that you go through, before each work is finished? (Idea, mental picture of how the end would look like, then chart it out? or are there people that note some input, then you go about finalising your work?)
NP: My concepts for things are all instinct, which I then use my right brain to realise. If it feels right when it’s done, it is right. I’ve never charted anything, except for occasionally in rehearsal where I’ve needed to remember something.
LL: What’s next for your playing?
NP: I’ve been practicing a bit more lately, trying to get my feet a bit more solid when playing double kick and getting through the glass ceiling of speed on my left hand. But that’s technique, not music. And everything that is ‘next’ for my playing is musical, not technical.
So it depends on what songs need their emotions refining and focusing as to what I need to do on the drums next.
LL: Have you been always mindful of ergonomics when you play?
NP: I’ve always sat up straight. I saw a Dennis Chambers video ages ago where someone described his posture as “like he’s welded to a lamppost”, and I took that on board.
Thank goodness my idolisation of Phil Collins didn’t extend to mimicking his posture; now that his back problems have come to light, watching old videos of him just hurt to look at.
LL: Heel-up / Heel Down? (both feet?)
NP: Heel up for loud, heel down for quiet. Although my right foot has a weird thing it does on double, which is kind of a heel-toe thing, but not like I’ve seen anyone else do. The perils of being self-taught!
LL: What is your warm-up / practice routine like?
NP: I do half an hour of rudiments on a practice pad before we go on, to get the blood flowing through my hands.
LL: Favourite Shoes for Drumming?
NP: I’ve got a pair of Macbeth sneakers which seem to make playing easier. Totally psychosomatic I’m sure.
LL: Favourite time of the day to play?
NP: When there’s other people to play with. Other than that, no preference.
LL: What’s your default gear set-up? (You did a walk through on your kit in this video — do the details still hold true currently? or have there been minor changes in your set-up since filming that?)
NP: That video is pretty much up to date. Little bits and pieces change from time to time, but that’s the basis.
LL: Do you keep track of your kit bits?
NP: I’m a bit of a hoarder, and I know where it all is.
I run a backline hire company with the bassist of The Sleeping Souls, so I own a few more kits that we hire out, but I love them all dearly. I still use my older drums for various things depending on what I’m doing. I recorded my third solo album recently and used my old Premier Genista concert tom kit and loved it.
The Dive Dive album we recorded recently used one of the hire kits with a 24” kick.
LL: Are you a bit of ‘gear-head’?
NP: Not really a gear head. If it works and sounds good then I’m happy and I’ll hang onto things forever.
LL: Has any of your equipment undergone customisation?
NP: I’ve changed hoops from time to time, but no, not really.
LL: Do you vary your kit tuning?
NP: More once it’s right, I stick with it. Snares go up and down a bit in the studio, and there was one song on the new Frank Turner record where I tuned the floor tom to a note for a specific purpose.
LL: Drum Maintenance and Storage?
NP: I look after all my stuff, clean it regularly (I polish most cymbals as well, except for hi hats). My Frank Turner kits are in big flight cases, and they live there between tours. I have an identical kit in the states, which also sits all quiet and lonely in it’s road cases when we’re not there.
LL: Do you have a certain process when you get ready for gigs?
NP: Not really. I try and look after myself the whole time.
LL: When recording, are you pretty much hands on when mixing your kit?
NP: Depends on the project, but usually I make my drums sound the best they possibly can, and then trust producers and engineers to do their thing with it. I’ll throw my opinion in, but the best results usually come out of collaboration.
LL: Do you have a regular schedule of posting videos on your YouTube channel?
NP: No schedule. If something interesting comes up then I’ll share it.
LL: Are you currently mentoring someone?
NP: I’m not mentoring anyone in the drumming sense of the word, but I have two children of my own so maybe there’s a bit of mentoring involved in that.
LL: What do you do when you come across something that annoys you?
NP: Not that much annoys me, but unless it’s directly affecting me or someone I care about I try to let it go. There’s quite enough conflict in the world without trying to kick off because someone posted a YouTube comment you don’t like.
LL: Are there certain things you ‘geek out’ about?
NP: I geek out about movies a lot. I love watching films for enjoyment, and then again looking at screenplay structure, editing, shot choice and other stuff. I’m totally an amateur about it, but they are excitingly complex things to analyse.
LL: Are you a big listener of music?
NP: I’m sadly not that big a listener. I’m going to blame that on age – I think at a certain point everything begins to sound like something else that you’ve heard, and it’s harder to just go “that sounds COOOL!!!” at things. I’m too analytical.
Occasionally though things do have an impact. A few years back the first two The Streets albums blew me away; recently Mew and Honningbarna (a Norwegian punk band) have really been exciting me. I tend to fall back on familiar things too much though. It’s not healthy, but it is what it is.
LL: What are you reading at the moment?
NP: ‘The Hydrogen Sonata’ by Iain M Banks. One of the Culture novels. Only ever feel like I understand about 50% of what happens, but I really enjoy them anyway. Planning on re-reading ‘God Bless The NHS’ afterwards.
LL: Do you go out of your way to discover new things?
NP: As above, not really. It’s got better recently, because my girlfriend is a music journalist, so there’s a constant flow of new releases knocking around.
LL: In what way do you approach motivation and inspiration? (Are they both intertwined for you?)
NP: They are definitely intertwined. I find inspiration usually comes from doing something, and once you’ve got a kernel of inspiration it motivates me to chase it down and finish it.
LL: What makes you smile?
NP: Obvious answer, but comedy. I’ve had the pleasure of introducing my Norwegian girlfriend to loads of UK comedy she hadn’t seen, and getting to revisit it. The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge, Father Ted. All awesome!
LL: What’s your view about social media?
NP: I have a very private personal Facebook which I really enjoy as a way of keeping up with friends, and I’m very selective about who I’m in contact with on there. Otherwise it’s excellent being able to have communication with people who appreciate your music through my more public FB, Twitter and Instagram accounts. I think it’s fabulous – face to face can be a bit threatening sometimes, but the technology allows a non-threatening way of having good two-way communication.
LL: What are your favourite sites at the moment?
NP: I visit Ain’t It Cool News most days. I used to visit Global Warming News daily, but it reading the comments was bad for my blood pressure, so not any more. Other than that, BBC News keeps me in touch from the road, and I click on The Hunger Site religiously.
LL: Do you currently post on other sites?
NP: I don’t, no. It’s not really my personality to be trying to foist my opinions on others.
LL: What would you do when you need cheering up?
NP: Kids. Comedy. Cooking.
LL: Do you enjoy collaborating with other artists online?
NP: I haven’t done it, but I would love to. I don’t know if people assume I’m too busy with Frank, but I don’t get many offers. I’m always up for anything!
LL: Are you interested in technology?
NP: I’m competent at it, and I’ve programmed the back end to a few quite complex websites using PHP / MySQL. And from a professional point of view I keep up with what’s happening and where things are going, definitely.
LL: With your videos, are you looking to upload the same kind in the future? Or are you looking to do different things?
NP: I upload things I think will interest people. So if the stuff I’m interested in shifts, then I guess my uploads will change too.
LL: Are you the type of person that finds it easy to start something?
NP: I think I am. But I’m always cautious about making any pronouncements about what kind of person I may or may not be. That’s a question for someone who knows me!
LL: For someone watching a video of yours for the first time (or attending one of your gigs), what is the message you’re hoping they’ll take with them?
NP: It depends on the video. A bit of entertainment, some info they might be interested in, something to briefly raise a smile. Whatever it happens to be.
LL: What makes your soul sing?
NP: My kids.
LL: What do you find is the best way to connect with people who admire your work?
NP: Twitter and my public Facebook. Or just chatting after a show.
LL: Have you found your tribe yet?
NP: I’ve always felt like a sole agent. I bounce around and am happy in a lot of people’s company (although usually I vastly prefer one-to-one over big group interaction), but I don’t really feel like I belong in a particular ‘tribe’, as you put it.
LL: What kind of opportunities are you looking forward to?
NP: I’m looking forward to getting the Dive Dive and Sad Song Co. albums out this year. Otherwise, I like to be surprised. Opportunities present themselves, I just have to be open to go “yeah, ok!”
LL: In what way do you enjoy helping others?
NP: I taught on a BND Music for a long while, and I enjoyed trying to inspire kids through that kind of course. Other than that I try to make my default position to be ‘generous’, but again that’s something to ask a third party, rather than me pompously talk about how great I am.
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