WOODY WOODMANSEY INTERVIEW
Yorkshire-born Woody Woodmansey might be best remembered as being the drummer for The Spiders From Mars, the legendary band that played with David Bowie during the early seventies.
However, since The Spiders went their separate ways in the mid-seventies, Woody has forged a fantastic career in his own right, having performed with plenty of fantastic musicians, and played on a whole host of great albums.
His very own ‘Future Primitive’ project is extraordinary in many respects, with a smattering of amazing drum-beats raging at the forefront of each track.
What’s more, the recording of the album in LA was a family affair, as Woody’s two sons – Nick and Danny – also got involved.
Here, in an exclusive interview, former Driffield lad Woody chats candidly to ‘Pulse’ author Steve Rudd about his fascinating career in music…
Hi Woody, how are things?
Things are very good thanks!
So tell us about ‘Future Primitive’…
Two of my sons, Nick and Danny, are both great drummers and percussionists. Since they were younger, they have both been doing their own thing. They have both been in various indie bands and, over the years, have been developing their skills as producers.
A couple of years ago we were asked to put a piece of music together as a finale for an Arts Festival in Sussex. The piece involved twelve drummers playing snares and various tom-toms with me on a kit.
Halfway through the piece, we turned all the stage lights off except one ultraviolet light. Each drummer was wearing white gloves, and the sticks were painted white. The audience went crazy!
This response led to us doing a few more shows using only drums and percussion. We did a few nights playing along with DJs at a club on Regent Street in London. Part of the night was us doing our own thing with no other music accompanying us.
The audience response was always brilliant. We then started to put some ideas together at Danny’s home studio. We all wanted to create music that really ‘featured’ the drums rather than how they are traditionally used as a backing instrument.
As we are all into many genres of music, we decided to use all our influences and make it work. Nick’s area is the jazz, funk, soul thing, and Danny’s into break-beat and hip-hop. I kind of lean towards tribal rhythms, funk, and Latin.
So, in November 2006, we got the opportunity to go into Mad Hatter Studios in LA for a month. At that time, we only had a few basic ideas together, mainly drum grooves, so it was a case of ‘hold your nose and jump in’! It was an exciting way to work, actually creating it in the studio.
One thing that makes ‘Future Primitive’ so extraordinary is the way in which drumbeats and elements of percussion are at the album’s heart. Other than the beats, what other instruments are featured?
First, we created the drum and percussion tracks so that we had a rhythmic feel. Then we added whatever each track suggested. We used upright bass on some tracks, and we also created bass parts using samples. There are also keyboards and strings on quite a few of the tracks; some of these were ‘flown’ in by e-mail from the UK! A friend had put down parts in his studio, and they ‘magically’ arrived in LA! We also have sax on some tracks. We wanted a real mix of live and electronic sounds. ‘Future Primitive’ was the perfect title!
Is this the first time that you’ve worked together as a family ensemble?
No, not really. All I did was answer their questions, like ‘What’s the name of that drum?’ or ‘How do you make the bass-drum pedal work?’ They were little at the time! A good friend of mine, from Hull actually, told me a story about his son and daughter.
He told me he’d always wanted his son to be a guitarist. He bought him an electric guitar for Christmas and showed him a couple of things. He said every time he heard his son playing something wrongly, or out of tune, he would take the guitar off him, tune it up, and then give it back, or show him how to play something correctly.
One day, his son took off the guitar and threw it on the floor; he stopped playing that day. Then my friend’s wife asked him if he could make it to his daughter’s performance at her school. He didn’t know, hadn’t really noticed how into music she was! She had finished all her grades on piano and was really talented!
I vowed I’d never do anything like that, and that I’d let them do it on their own – if they wanted to do it! I guess being around drums and music had some effect, but it was their choice.
Did the quality of the finished album in any way exceed the expectations you had of it when you started recording?
It’s always a consideration when you go into a new studio with unfamiliar engineers. You hope they can get you the sounds you want. At Mad Hatter Studios, they really know their stuff, so we could relax and get on with it. The sound they helped us achieve is amazing. In fact, it’s the best sounding album I’ve ever done – especially the drum sounds.
How did the actual recording go?
Doing the album in LA was fantastic. It was November, so we flew out on a cold, wet day, and arrived to sunshine and heat! We didn’t take our kits with us, so we hired them out there. We spent the first day trying out drums and cymbals ‘til we had what we needed.
We had just over three weeks to do everything, and we only had one track together! We had to schedule the time well so we could pull it off. We did ten days on basic tracks, about the same on production and other instruments, plus a week on mixing. Mick Guzauski mixed the album for us. He’s mixed for so many people, from Clapton to Prince to Chick Corea!
We’d start each day about 10 a.m. and finish about midnight; sometimes, it went longer! We actually wanted to do the whole thing under pressure. I think it pulls the best out of everyone. I learnt about that doing Bowie albums.
For instance, we recorded the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album in about four days, then had about two weeks mixing, and we never did more than two or three takes of a song; often, it was the first take! ‘Jean Genie’ was a first take. ‘Starman’ was a second or third take. Under pressure, you find out quickly if something’s going to work or not!
Given that you were the drummer in The Spiders From Mars, do people still harp on about ‘the Bowie years’, or do you find that most folk are more interested in the vast body of work that you’ve produced since then?
I think the albums I did with Bowie, Mick and Trev as a Spider are sort of timeless. For some reason, some of the songs sound like they have just been recorded! Because of that and the whole Bowie phenomena, people always want to know more about it from every aspect.
I don’t think I’ve read many Bowie interviews since then that don’t mention those years and albums, even when he has something new out! I’m really proud of those albums, so I never mind talking about them or answering questions.
Have you always had such an eclectic taste in music?
Yes, I’ve always had an eclectic taste as far as music goes. If I like a song, it doesn’t matter what style of music it is. When I started drumming, all the bands did covers of whatever was new at the time, so you would play Zeppelin songs, Cream, Hendrix, the blues, along with Small Faces, Stones, and The Hollies – a real mix!
I then got more into rock, but I’ve always listened to other stuff. The last few years, I’ve listened to a lot of World Music, Latin, African, and Cuban… mainly for the rhythms!
Do you, Nick and Dan ever play live together, or would that be too difficult a feat to pull off in terms of logistics?
Yes, we’ve rehearsed a whole set including the tracks on the album. The logistics are difficult: when three drummers play the same beat for a section of the song, it has to be so tight, or it doesn’t work.
Plus, we play to sequenced parts that we have to stay in time with, so on some tracks we have to wear earphones. I guess, sometimes, getting the effect you want takes that little bit more, and you have to be willing to do it!
You have also worked with Joe Elliott and Phil Collen from Def Leppard over the years. Are you still in touch with those guys?
Yeah, I’m regularly in touch with them both; they’ve become good friends. The Yorkshire sense of humour is a big part of it! We’ve been asked to do another album, but because of schedules, I’m not sure when that’ll be.
Back in 1999, you featured in ‘The Driffield Times’ newspaper in relation to your involvement with an anti-drugs campaign. What provoked you to step forward?
A friend of mine, keyboard player Nicky Hopkins, who played with everyone from The Stones, The Beatles, The Who, and The Grateful Dead to name but a few, had drug problems from way before I met him. He told me how he had gone to Narconon in the USA, and told me about its system of handling the problem without using drugs or other substances, to get people drug-free and back to how they were prior to taking drugs. It really impressed me. Then, a few years ago, I met somebody who wanted to set up a Narconon here in the UK. They asked if I would help and be a trustee, so I did. For anyone interested, we have one in Hastings, and one in Scotland. They also do drug education seminars in schools and clubs.
The seminars deal with the truth about drugs and the effects, without scare tactics. The true facts have a way of communicating to a person, and then the person can make up their own mind about whether he or she should or shouldn’t go down the drug road!
Finally, if anybody reading this has always wanted to take up drumming, what words of advice – if any – would you give?
I’d say go for it – it’s fun and it’s worthwhile! Do your own research and figure out how to get to be the kind of drummer you want to be. Stay true to how you want to play and what you want to create with it.
I’m not a big fan of the ‘college’ route. I don’t think anyone has the right to tell someone what’s right or wrong or good or bad about their art. You can’t tell somebody what music they have to like. It’s your choice. Above all, my advice would be just ‘start’!
(Questions by Steve Rudd; Answers by Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey)
For more information about Woody Woodmansey’s career, past and present, please visit www.woodywoodmansey.co.uk
For more information about Steve Rudd’s first book, please visit www.valleypressuk.com/books/pulse