Simon Phillips

This interview was conducted at the NEC, Birmingham, where Simon was playing for Toto. Simon was one of my absolute favourite drummers whose work I’d been a fan of since the 1970s, and my only disappointment was that as he’s done so many amazing sessions over the years he couldn’t remember the specifics about some of my favourite recordings, such as the sessions for Mick Jagger’s Primitive Cool album, which has some of the greatest rock fill-ins you’ll ever hear! But we had a great couple of hours together…

Simon Phillips Interview – 1999

The first time I saw Simon Phillips was in the early eighties at the Venue, Victoria, in what must have been one of the biggest clinic shows of its type at the time. I realised I was in for a bit of a treat when I saw Ian Paice and Cozy Powell in the pub next door, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer joy that is Simon Phillips at full tilt. Fast forward ten years to Zilldjian Day, by which time my mind presumed my memory had played tricks on me, but if anything the chops and feel were even more incredible than I remembered. Fast forward to October 1999, and I’m pressing flesh with the man and interviewing him for the World’s Greatest Magazine with Drums in! And this time I’m getting an almost private viewing as he soundchecks, and I’m still dragging my chin on the floor.
Simon’s start in drums is fairly well documented by now, but for the uninitiated here’s a quick recap. He started playing at the age of three, joined his dad’s Dixieland band at twelve, played in Jesus Christ Superstar at sixteen, became a miracle worker on the drums and rose to prominence as one of the world’s most celebrated session players shortly after. Following Jeff Porcaro’s untimely and tragic death, Simon was asked to take over the drum throne in Toto, who recently played a one off show at Birmingham’s NEC. Rhythm caught up with him prior to the gig and found him in trademark buoyant mood.

How’s it going, having fun?

Yeah, I’m having a lot of fun. Busy year, pretty much a Toto year, we’ve been touring quite a lot of this year, we were in Europe February through to the beginning of April, and then we went to Japan, and then we’ve been doing a few States shows.

And you’re all enjoying it?

Oh yeah. We’ve done basically two albums this year, we finished Minefields in January, and then in the summer we went straight into Livefields, the live album, sorting all that out, mixing, editing, picking which songs, it turned out to be quite a lot of work..

You’ve been with Toto some time now, but how did you feel when they first asked you to take up the drum throne after Jeff’s tragic death?

Actually I was surprised more than anything, it’s the last thing you sort of think about really. I’d only met Jeff a couple of times, we didn’t really have a lot of chance to hang out together, but when I did meet him he was always very warm, we chatted a little bit and that was it, on to the next gig, so I didn’t really know him that well. But to be honest, I did have to think a little bit about it because of the whole connotation of it, and what I was doing at the time. But the more I thought about it and the more other people’s reaction to it was, it sort of helped me come to my decision I suppose.

And did you try to emulate Jeff?

No, the way I approached it, well, first of all the way they approached it, they didn’t want somebody to play like Jeff, that was very very important, because, well, they could have picked one of a hundred session guys in Los Angeles to do that. But they didn’t want that, they were a rock band, and that would be the worst thing to do, somebody to just go up there and copy everything. And that’s one of the reasons they asked me to play because obviously I have a pretty distinctive style, and wouldn’t consider doing that, to me it would be a bit weird to do that.

What about the songs where the drum part is a ‘classic,’ like the Rosanna shuffle, which came in at No.9 in Rhythm’s Top 100 Beats Of All Time.

Well, it’s part of the song, so you play it like that, you don’t play Rosanna straight eights, that’s not the groove. Obviously that’s just common sense, Rosanna remains a shuffle. But it’s different from the way Jeff plays it, nobody plays anything the same really, I play it my way, and it’s still the essence of the song, but certain things are just a little different.

With so much Toto work this year, have you had much time for your own projects?

Well, I mixed a live album at the very beginning of the year before we came out on tour, Out Of The Blue, and I’ve also just done a new album that’s going to surprise a lot of people, it’s a straight ahead acoustic album. The keyboard player that plays in my band, Jeff Babko, he is primarily a pianist, that’s his first love, and he sort of knows that music really well. I have always loved that music, and actually have got to love it a lot more as I’ve got older, and I wanted to try something out, so we sat down and wrote some music in that vein.

In an acoustic vein?

Absolutely, like the real sort of Herbie Hancock, early Miles, Freddy Hubbard kind of sphere, those kind of compositions, and it actually worked out great. It’s all straight ahead, I’ve recorded it in a way that’s very old fashioned really, no reverb, just room ambience, acoustic piano, Bob Fowler on trumpet, Brandon Fields on tenor soprano, Dave Carpenter on upright bass. It’s called Vantage Point, and it’ll be released in March, first of all in Germany, on the Jazz Line label, part of Lipstick Records.

If we can delve into your past a bit, in the seventies, how did you make the transition from being in Jesus Christ Superstar to this first call session cat?

Well, for a start there was an awful lot of music going on in London then, a lot of sessions, there wasn’t a drum machine around. And there weren’t sequencers, so if a songwriter wanted to do a demo he needed some modules, he needed a drum module, a keyboard that played bass and guitar, and basically they weren’t around, so he used to use people, you know, it’s quite a concept, ha!! And from there, by doing that show and being onstage with actors, some of whom were more musicians than actors and they wanted to do demos, that’s sort of how it started. I remember doing a demo for Paul Nicholas, and obviously he had a bass player and a guitar player, and I think the bass player, we swapped telephone numbers. And then he’d be doing something else and he’d recommend me, and you know, this would sort of continue, and you’d start doing those little sessions, and in those days there was so much work going around that you’d start getting calls.

I detect a certain enmity towards machines in relation to reducing the amount of session work around. What are your feelings in general towards technology in music?

Well, you know, I think really what happens is people make records in their bedroom. I mean I do, I make records in my house, but it really makes it very hard for musicians to get experience, playing with other musicians and playing music. You know I really don’t know how a young musician today would get anywhere, because there aren’t the opportunities anymore. A songwriter doesn’t need musicians to record a song, he can go out to a main dealer, and you buy your Mac, software, and some sort of Roland synthesiser or Korg, and you can get a pretty damn good demo. You may not have much production skills or much experience as to how to make records, but you’ll get something out, and you won’t need to even see another musician, and that’s a shame I think. It’s a shame for the writers, for singers, and for musicians.

But as a composer and producer yourself there must be advantages to that as well?

Yeah, but I always use other musicians. Because you know, I’m a drummer, I use keyboards, but I would never say I play keyboards, I own them! You know, I can get around software, use quite a lot of sampling and stuff like that to make a pretty good demo, but that’s a demo as far as I’m concerned, nobody will ever get to hear that except the musicians, because the way that they interpret voicings of certain chords, they play that instrument, they know what’s hip.

So what do you think of developments in the last few years where they use the machines for Dance, Drum’n’Bass and Jungle?

Well, I actually love Drum’n’Bass and Jungle, but it’s pretty much impossible for drummers to play. I’ve actually been working a little bit with it. That whole sound, with the 16” bass drum and 10” snare, I’ve sort of being venturing into a little bit, I mean on the Minefields album, one of the tracks Melanie is very much a sort of hip hop groove, I did it with a drum loop, and I played a little 10” snare drum on that, and it sounds wonderful. So I love that stuff, but it’s real difficult to play. I did a record with Jimmy Earle actually, he’s really into it, and the way we did it, we recorded everything at half speed! You have to think a little differently, you can’t do stuff that’s going to sound stupid once it’s sped up, and that was actually a lot of fun, I think it turned out pretty good. But I enjoy listening to that, I enjoy listening to certain Techno, I actually love Madonna’s new album.

In the eighties, a lot of the sessions you did involved replacing the drum machine, recording a live drum track after everything else was down to bring some feel to the song. How did you approach that?

Well, obviously time is very important, but it’s also being able to play around in that very narrow margin that you’ve got timewise to make a groove come, to sit back in the verses, maybe to push a little bit in the choruses, but at the end of the chorus you’ve got to make that transition back to the verse groove, which is real difficult when there’s a machine and it ain’t going to change. The thing which I think people didn’t realise then is that time, when a musician plays an instrument, especially if it uses different elements, it has its own internal time referenced to each part. If you were to record a load of drummers up against a drum machine and then put all those drum tracks up and look at them in Protools or something, you’ll see a load of kick drum flams, a load of snare flams, and the distance between the kick and the snare would be different between each drummer. But if you soloed each one it would probably sound great, it’s just the way everybody places things. And that’s what people didn’t realise with drum machines when they started using samples, what you’re getting is a lot of kick drum beats which don’t really coincide with the snare relatively, which gives you groove. That’s why, you know, James Brown, the grooves were so great, but they weren’t metronomic, no way, it’s the way it is. Listen to Richie Hayward and Little Feat, I mean, need I say more?

Not really, but one final question: a lot of the music you’ve played is far from straight forwards in terms of time signatures. How do you approach the more complicated rhythms you have to play and still keep a feel?

What I do a lot of the time is break it down to the lowest common denominator. What’s the simplest approach to this? And I don’t mean that purely technically, I mean in groove, like say you’ve got two bars of 7/8 going into a 4/4 bar. Are you going to really start playing 7/8, or are you going to try to keep the 4/4 groove through that? You could play it as one bar of 7/4 if it doesn’t present too many problems. How’s the simplest way to play these two bars with what else is going on? And if you just sit and look at it, you figure out there’s actually a really cool way to play this where people won’t even know there’s just two bars of 7/8 went by. And that’s the way I like to approach songs, in the same way I approach odd time signatures, exactly the same. What’s the simplest possible way to play this song, and that will be the basis for the groove.

So what about the flash stuff?

Well there may be some little intricate stuff in there, you know you just sneak in because it works, like all those ghost notes, that you can’t really explain to people, it’s part of the maturity of the instrument. You do get into playing a lot more of that, but the basics are still very simple.

BOX OUT – Simon’s Gear

Tell us a little bit about your kit.

Well, it’s obviously Tama Starclassic, and it’s really just an extension of the first kit I had, made in 1994, (top prize recently in a fabulous Rhythm competition), but pretty much without reinforcing hoops now, except with the bass drums, they make for me 5mm shells with reinforcing hoops. And the sizes of the toms on the new kits are a little bit shallower. The kick drums are still 24”x16”, the six toms are 16”x13”, 15”x12”, 14”x11”, 13”x10”, 12”x9”, 10”x 7”. What I try to do is keep them proportioned. I have a gong drum still, 20”x14”, with one reinforcing hoop, so it’s a 5mm thin shell. Plus the Octobans of course. And the snare drums are now these signature drums.

How involved were you with the design of those?

Oh very involved. What would happen, we’d come up with these ideas, Kenny (Aronoff), me, Bill Bruford, and of course they’d go and talk about it, and come back and say ‘We can’t do that.’ So a lot of it is a bit of a compromise, but you get the idea of how these companies have to work. There’s your ideal instrument but then you realise you can’t get that material, or you can’t do this with it. So then you think ‘Okay, here’s the parameters I have to work with’. So basically it was just down to trying things out, testing a little bit, going back saying this needs to be done or that needs to be done. Things like I got them to change the screws inside, the colour of the screws, washers, real attention to detail like that.

And what about the cymbals?

I’ve used the same set of cymbals for so long. Still Zildjian A customs, 22” ride, but not too heavy, it’s a pretty light ride, not a ping. It’s much nicer to have a bell that doesn’t leap out at you all the time, where you control the volume. 12” splash, 19”, 18” 17” A Custom crashes, a 22” Oriental Classic, 22” Oriental Trash. I’m going through a bit of a hi-hat dilemma at the moment, it’s basically an A custom on the top and an A custom projection on the bottom. Each kit (around the world) has a different set of cymbals, and you have to adapt to them, but that’s the great thing about Zildjian, each cymbal is different, and they all sound fine, they’re all great.