Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Man At The Back, Part 1 - Blues Enthused chats with King King drummer Wayne Proctor

Stevie Nimmo once posted on Facebook to say that King King drummer Wayne Proctor is a lovely bloke, but you should never, ever discuss drums or microphones with him.  So when the opportunity arose to have a chat with the said Mr Proctor, what might be safe topics of conversation?
Well, the KK boys forthcoming tour supporting Europe seems like a reasonable bet.  Suggesting that Europe might draw an audience of more casual rock fans, I ask if Proctor thinks it might given King King a profile with audiences they haven’t encountered on previous support slots.
“It’s funny,” he reflects, “everyone has a take on this.  I think all of us in the band have had
Wayne Proctor feels the groove from his drum stool (see below)
varying views on how good a fit this is. You know, ‘This might work, this might not work.’  But then I know Alan just recently watched a DVD of their last tour from a couple of years ago, and he came back with a beaming face, going ‘It’s gonna be fine. It’s all gonna be good.’  So I think it’s more of a fit recently, it’s just people get a bit stuck in a place and time when it comes to Europe, where all they can think of is the big hair and the spandex.  Obviously we don’t do that – as good as Alan would look in spandex, I’m sure!"  Cue laughter at both ends of the phone line.  Anyone for tartan spandex?
"I was talking to Europe’s manager Adam Parsons the other night, and he said the same thing. He said they get stuck in a certain place, although pretty much everything they’ve done since then has not been that thing. And from what Adam was telling me, Joey Tempest absolutely loves us.  So I don’t think we would be on it if they didn’t think it was going to be a good fit, and a good package.”
And of course King King, with a fanbase originating in blues and blues rock, might bring a different audience for Europe’s benefit.
“Yeah, exactly.  So I think it’s going to be cool.  Obviously any time you’re playing to more people than you would at your own shows, you're going to win a percentage over.  We were just very lucky with supporting Thunder and John Mayall, that we took pretty much everyone with us, so if we can do that again then that would be amazing.”
The support slot extends to European dates as well, including Italy and Spain.  Was that an extra bonus factor from this tour?
“Yeah, I think so,” he agrees.  “I think Italy and Spain are newer territories.  We do quite well
in Germany, Switzerland and Holland and that. But any time you’re playing to those kind of numbers an opportunity like that’s great.  Because when you do these support tours you always get the English leg, you know, and you never get the European leg.” 
Things have moved on a bit since King King opened for Thunder though, I observe.  They’ve got another studio album under their belt, as well as a highly acclaimed live album that featured extended versions of some favourite tracks.  So is it a challenge to come up with a shorter set again?
"Well it’s funny, I’ve just had a text message from the boss today,” he says, referring to main man Alan Nimmo, “saying ‘Learn this one, learn this one, and learn this one’, all from Exile & Grace.  Because we haven’t played as many of those songs, because we had such a great set together, it was such a strong show, that you don’t want to interrupt it – though obviously we have peppered the set with two or three of the new ones. But I think we are going to be seeing a few more things from Exile & Grace on this tour – judging by the text message anyway!  And I think we’ve got 50 minutes, so we’ve got a pretty good slot to put over what
Auditioning for a catalogue modelling gig
Pic by Rob Blackham
we do – with Thunder I think we only had 35 minutes. That 15 minutes makes a big difference for us, it allows us to do maybe a few more of our drawn out, epic numbers.
And it will also mean that they don’t have to dilute some of the big climactic moments that come up on songs like ‘You’ll Stop The Rain’, hopefully.
“Absolutely, and it’s got the singalong bit now at the front end,” says Proctor.  “And obviously ‘Rush Hour’ is a big one.  So I think our big songs will be there.  When you write an album, like we did with Reaching For The Light, you don’t know that that’s what’s going to happen to those songs.  It just happens to be a collection of songs that we did, you know?  Although I remember when we did ‘Rush Hour’, we rehearsed it at a place in Germany, and I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s alright’.  I never thought it was going to turn into what it’s turned into, like our signature tune.”
Now, I may not be prepared to get all nerdy and get into a conversation about drumming gear. Frankly I wouldn’t know where to start. But some chat about drummers and drumming seems reasonable, I reckon.  So I refer to the fact that Proctor is pretty much on record as having been inspired by Phil Collins and Jeff Porcaro, of Toto fame and innumerable sessions.  So what was it about their drumming that particularly grabbed his attention?  He takes his time answering.
“I think it’s so . . . direct.”  He pauses before going on.  “I was a guitarist before I was a drummer, and I always wanted a drummer that just kept it together, and kept it solid.  And I think when I became a drummer I gravitated towards the guys that had really great time, you know time-keeping, and really great sound.  The sound was always so important to me.  I remember buying this one record that had Jeff Porcaro on, and a guy called Mike Baird that used to be in Journey – and John Robinson who did Off The Wall for Michael Jackson.  But their sound wasn’t like Jeff’s.  There were these four tracks, and I remember not even knowing who was on it, and who played on what, and thinking, ‘Those four songs are just ridiculous – who is it? Oh, Jeff Porcaro.’  Then you look somewhere else at another album, and the best sounding song is with him on.
“And then I think certainly with Phil Collins, I first saw him playing on the Eric Clapton & Friends thing from ‘86, where there’s him, Eric Clapton, Greg Phillinganes and Nathan East, and once again it was just so strong, with so much intent – like there was no question what the guy was going to play. And every fill made sense, and every hit had value – there was nothing superfluous.  There was nothing in there that was unnecessary, but it wasn’t like it was boring, or weak.
“It’s the same with Steve Jordan who plays with Clapton,” he goes on.  “All these guys had this directness, but this great, great feel. It wasn’t like it was clinical, but it always had this big, meaningful thing.  Even Bonham – Bonham was a massive part of growing up as well.  But I never found him busy, I just always found him groovy, and all the fills and stuff just added to the song.  He never took away from the song.
The late lamented Jeff Porcaro
“I liked the directness, and the discipline, that you’re not over-playing.  Yeah be powerful, but not to the point where it just sounds lairy. I want it to be powerful, and it’s got to be emotional, and it’s got to be energetic when it needs to be energetic – it’s not about just playing simple.  But it’s about playing pure, and full of intent, and those guys – for me they’re the best in the world at it.  I can think of so many songs where I just love the touch, and the sound, and it’s just a massive loss that Jeff died when he did in ’92.”
I may know diddly squat about drumming, but I share a story from Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, where he talks about Max Weinberg’s son Jay depping for the Mighty Max on drums in the E Street Band.  Bruce says Jay’s technique was fine, but to begin with he was playing “on top” of the band, riding the surface of the arrangements.  So he had to take him aside and explain that “the drums are the soul engine, buried down and breathing inside the band.  You play not on top but immersed in the band.  You power everything from within.”  Is that something Proctor can identify with, I ask?
“Absolutely, yeah!” he enthuses.  “That’s the thing that drew me to the guys we’ve just talked about.  If you can immerse yourself in the song it makes everything better - when it feels right, when it feels really good, your body’s moving, you’re more open to the intent of a melody, the intent of a lyric, the intent of an arrangement.”
Even down a phone line, Proctor conveys the sheer physicality of the experience.  “You get the drums right and the whole thing works better.  Sometime that takes a while to figure out, to figure where things are going to sit, and how far you want to push, or sit back.  But when you get it right and the whole band’s in that place, it’s just awesome, it’s just amazing.”
Now to my ears, and I’ve commented on this before, Proctor’s drumming style is quite distinctive – more substance than flash.  So how would he describe it?
“You know what, I think it splits people’s opinion.  I think some people don’t notice it, and I think some people really, really dig it. Like anything it could polarise people I guess.  I like to think I just play what the song needs.  I always try to find things that are idiosyncratic to the song we’re playing, so you don’t hear the same vocabulary repeated across loads of different songs. When I was younger I misunderstood playing for the song to mean purely playing simply, and it took me working with a couple of producers to kick me up the ass a little bit, to make me realise that it’s great you can do that, but you need to create energy at times.  It’s not down to the rest of the band to create this, you’ve got to move it sometimes.  And I guess as I got older I understood that more, and having become a producer and worked with a lot of artists now, I get it now.
“I’ve obviously got something, but I couldn’t honestly tell you what that is.  I just know I like it strong, I like it defined. I always visualise the Classic Albums series, you know where they break down an album, and they bring the drums up, and you go, ‘Man, those drums just sound great,’ and they bring in the guitars, and it’s like ‘Aaah!’  You can just hear the track sounding amazing.  And when I’m doing drums I always think I want it to sound like that.  If anything I ever played on was lucky enough to be dissected like that and they brought my
drums up, you just want ‘em to go, ‘These are great drums.  They sound great, they feel great.  You know, listen to the choice of fills, and listen to those ghost notes that are going on.’  You want the detail to be recognised.  So I just try to play with that intent, whatever that requires me to be, whether it’s super busy, or really straight.
And all of that, I suggest, is about reflecting the identity of the song.
Backing up the boss
“Yeah, and you can hear the song in the drums. You’re just trying to support it all the time, and emphasise it, and hopefully bring the emotion out.  And I’d like to think that’s one of the reasons why King King does well.  I like to think I understand what Alan wants, and what the band needs - and hopefully I can emphasise his solos, you know, like the ‘You Stopped The Rain’ one, or ‘Stranger To Love’.
“If you don’t create an emotional response, in a positive manner, then it’s game over for me really,” he says.  “I turn off. I’m not really fussed about super-cerebral, clever lyrics.  I like things that are accessible.  I like making things accessible for people, so that they can get an emotional sensation out of the music. I want to get goosebumps. So I try to create that sensation when I’m making music, when I’m drumming, when I’m producing, when I’m mixing.  It all becomes how you feel.  So I’m that kind of musician, long story short!  I’m a feel kind of musician, with hopefully enough technique and flash to do some extra stuff if people need me to.  But at the core of it all I just want to create an emotional response, where people go, ‘Oh man, I really get that, it really communicates.’”
Getting away from all this touchy-feely emotional aspect to drumming, there is one bit of techno-geekery that intrigues me.  Wayne Proctor’s drumstool is literally, to quote Cliff Richard, wired for sound.  So how does that work, for those that don’t know?
Well, inside my bass drum is a thing called a ‘Kelly Shu’,” he explains, “which is just a horseshoe, that’s on some rubber spider webs, and it’s got a microphone clip on it.  On that is a microphone.  That gets plugged into a head unit, from this company called Porter & Davis.  On that is a dial, and on the back of that it goes to my stool, and it’s a tactile monitoring system.  The thing in the bass drum is just to minimise low-end rumble, so I just get the feel of the bass drum, and it goes to my stool, and inside is a transducer.  It’s only on very gentle, it’s not like spleen-rupturing vibrations.”
It sounds to me like in the midst of all the spider webs and transducers, the purpose is once again to help Proctor feel what he’s playing.
Yeah, essentially.  And even though I said it’s only connected to the bass drum, you still get the sensation of the toms, and the snare drum, and you even feel the stage a little.  The whole kit feels more alive, a little bit more reactive.  You can place the notes a little bit more accurately.  And I’m on in-ear monitors as well, so between the two systems it really makes a bit of difference.”
Hearing Proctor describe this immersive experience, I mention that the observation I would make of watchinghim, live, is that he seems to be in his own little world a lot of the time.  Obviously you must be taking everything in, but you seem to be on another plane some of the time.  He laughs.
“Most of the time I’m just listening,” he says, “but I haven’t quite perfected the skill of keeping my eyes open and listening!  And smiling, and doing all the things that showbiz requires of you.  I’m still working on that!  I’m just trying to make it feel good for the band, and that really is the point of it.  But I really do suck on stage in terms of, ‘he looks like he’s unhappy!’  Alan’s brilliant at it, but ultimately I’m a studio rat really.  I love being in the studio, I love being creative.  And I think sometimes I forget that when I go on stage I’ve got perform as well, you know?  I’d like to think people still think I perform, but I get wrapped up in just trying to give it the best I can, from a feel point of view.
Drumming health and safety issues with sharp microphone stands
So are there any King King tracks that he’s particularly proud of, in terms of the drumming? There’s a pause.
“Ooh, that’s hard,” he says. “You know what, I’m not going to say the studio versions.  ‘Stranger To Love’ live – I just adore playing that, I absolutely love it, and I think just because the song developed and grew live, where it turned into this big beast, and it just kicked off a bit more, and it had all those new sections, and it was so organic the way it all came about.  Playing that song is just incredible.  And I’d probably pick something really obscure, like ‘Lay With Me’? It’s a different feel.  Playing a half-time shuffle like that is really hard, to get the feel of it right, and get the right fills, and get the right energy, and I really like the emotion of that one.  And actually ‘I Don’t Wanna Lie’, off Exile.  That song and ‘Lay With Me’, they’re two Jeff Porcaro grooves that are super-difficult to play, in terms of getting the feel right.
“It wasn’t that it was techie,’" he goes on, “it’s just it’s a really difficult thing to get to feel right. You could write it down, and it wouldn’t be that complicated, but there’s a little melody that goes on, on the bell of the ride cymbal, and a ghost note pattern that’s kinda going on, and getting those backbeats to sit in the same place – the bass drum and snare drum pretty much land at the same time throughout the song, so you’ve got to play it really tight, you’ve got to get a great consistent sound.  And it was a hard track to play, but I’m actually really proud of that one.”
So there we have a conversation with Wayne Proctor about drumming, which turned out to be more about the elusive feel than about drums.  Coming soon is Part 2, in which I’ll try to get through a conversation about production – specifically Wayne’s helming of Ben Poole’s new album Anytime You Need Me – without discussing microphones!

Details of King King's dates in Britain and Europe, supporting Europe, can be found here.
Click here for Part 2 of the Wayne Proctor interview, talking about the production of the new album from Ben Poole.

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