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Image: Gregory Nolan, GregoryNolan.com
Bastille is one of the hottest bands in the world these days – with their debut studio album Bad Blood near the top of the charts, their hit song Pompeii frequenting the radio waves around the world, and sold-out performances across Europe and North America.
And Chris Wood, better known as Woody, is the energetic drummer in the middle of it all. He was kind enough to take time out of his busy tour schedule to discuss how he learned the drums, how the band was started, and share the many insights he’s gained on his way to stardom.
“When did you start playing the drums? And how did you learn to play?”
“I started in my last of primary (elementary) school, so I would have been about 10 years old. My Dad is a singer and guitarist, so I grew up watching him play in bands since I was very small and always found myself drawn to the drums. I’d often have a quick bash around on my Dad’s drummer’s kit at gigs until they told me off! I always wanted to play music from watching him and drums always seemed like the most fun thing to go for. Turns out I was right!”
“No doubt! Did you take any sort of formal training, or mostly learn on your own?”
“I started out with lessons in school, but I spent more time playing along to records than I did working on my rudiments, much to the dismay of my teacher Colin Bacon. I’d say I’m half and half, Colin gave me grounding in technique, reading and different styles, where as I also taught myself a lot from listening to records and trying to imitate drummers that I idolised.”
“So who were some of your favourite bands to play-along to?”
“I was a massive Red Hot Chili Peppers fan; I remember Californication having a massive affect on me when it first came out. Also Muse’s Origin Of Symmetry is probably the reason I wanted to play in bands. But a quick list of bands and influences would be: RHCP, Muse, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Smashing Pumpkins, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin (obviously). Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters is the guy I look up to most of all – his musicality and power are unmatched, and all his drum parts are riffs in themselves. And Queens Of The Stone Age are for my money the best band in the world right now.
I also really enjoyed playing to pop songs off the radio and trying to make up my own parts to go over songs that didn’t necessarily have any stand-out drum parts.”
“So when you transitioned to actually playing in a band, was there any end goal in mind?”
“I’ve always been in bands since I was 14, whether it be school bands, school orchestras, and everything that leads on from there. I went to music college when I finished school and I’ve always had this drive. I’ve always defined myself as a drummer and playing music was just what I felt compelled to do. Looking back on it now it seems insane the lengths that I went to – travelling hundreds of miles to play to a pub with 15 people in it, losing money in the process and having to sleep on people’s floors. I guess the more I got into it, the more the goals changed.
First it was just to be in a cool band I liked, then it was to try and play bigger and bigger venues, and then obviously the dream for most bands of getting signed. I feel so fortunate to have smashed through all my earlier goals. I always thought if I could get to a stage where I’m playing in a band that could headline Brixton Academy in London, then that would be the ultimate. It turns out as far as Bastille is concerned, that has been a stepping stone so I’m just enjoying the ride now.”
“So how did Bastille come together?”
“After music college, I was broke and had to move back home to Plymouth (South West England) and get some money saved up. Once I moved back up to London, I was working all manner of temporary jobs in the day and then going to rehearsals and gigs at night. It got to a point where I wasn’t able to sleep much and these awful jobs were interfering with gigs. So after encouragement from my folks, I had to find a way to do this music thing full time. That’s when I started dropping of flyers at houses near to where I lived offering drum lessons. I think from about 3000 flyers I got about 2 students – very cost effective! The one upside to all of this was that Dan (singer and songwriter in Bastille) lived about three streets away and one of my flyers came through his front door. At the time he was looking for a drummer, as he was a solo artist playing much more left-field than we do in Bastille. He called me up asking if I had any drum students I could recommend. He thought I was some 80 year old bloke with a bank of students, but I was just 22 so I told him ‘I’m your guy’. And we got started from there, we toured around as Dan Smith for a couple of years, picking up Will (bass player) along the way. We then went away for a few months and added Kyle (keyboard) to the lineup, and came back as a fully fledged band with a new batch of songs towards the end of 2010.”
Video: Bastille, Becoming The Band
“When did you guys realize Bastille was going to be hugely successful?”
“Haha, we’ve been largely pessimistic. When Pompeii suddenly took off and became this monster hit, no one, not even our label saw that coming. And then for the album to go in at No.1 in the UK, we were genuinely stunned. We kind of feel like we’ve been chasing Pompeii and the album all over the globe ever since. It’s been quite literally a dream come true, but I’m not sure how you judge success. We’re still really hungry and we’re excited about making our second album later this year. I think if you ever started patting yourself on the back for a job well done, you would lose that drive that got you going in the first place.”
“Your music is fantastic. What does your songwriting process look like, and how involved are you in creating the drum parts?”
“It varies from song to song. Dan is the songwriter in the band and is a self-confessed control freak. Sometimes he’ll have an exact idea of what he wants from the drum part. Other times, and more recently while working on the next album in sound-checks, we’ll play around with ideas. The process is really healthy. I can have as much say over Will’s bass parts as Kyle would over my drum parts. Everyone contributes were we can. It’s not a case of ‘I’m the drummer, I do the drums, mind your own business’.”
“Has your approach to drumming changed since starting the band, and playing sold-out shows around the world?”
“Absolutely. Well my approach changed drastically thanks to another teacher I saw since I moved back to London. He’s called Bob Armstrong, and to put it bluntly, he’s the Daddy of all teachers in the UK. You won’t find a better instructor. He broke my playing down back to square one and rebuilt me from there, looking at how to get the best sound out of the instrument in all situations and drawing me into much more detailed aspects of technique and musicianship. I’m a totally different (and hopefully better) player from when I first met Bob.”
“What sort of impact has touring had on your drumming?”
“I’ve learned so many things from touring…
-You will get really good at playing your band’s songs on tour but you will have next to no time to practice. So get all your practicing done now before you get too busy. The Xbox can wait until you’re on a tour bus!
-You need to think much more carefully about your parts. That fast, intricate 16th note fill might sound immense in a small club or the studio, but through a big PA in a venue it’ll sound like mush. You need to think of more articulate ways to express yourself, and that’s where I think guys like Dave Grohl really excel. Everyone, drummer or not, wants to air drum along to his parts.
-Think about the gear you need. On bigger stages, you need to have bigger cymbals to move more air, smaller crashes won’t do the job. It’s the same with snares and snare drum tuning. I used to favour a Chad Smith style cracky sound, but now I tune down a little and use deeper snares, which gives me more presence through the PA. A cranked up piccolo will sound so thin and weak unless your audio engineer is a total ninja.
-Think about what you really need to hear in your monitor mix. People often want everything and when something isn’t poking through clearly enough they ask for it to be turned up. So you end up with all of these incredibly loud sound sources competing with each other – it sounds like crap and it’ll make you deaf. Quite often, less is more. The main things I have are the click track and pitch track, as I sing on all the songs as well. You get bleed from the bass amp onstage anyway. Oh and if you can afford one, I can’t recommend a Porter and Davies powered drum stool highly enough. I put my kick and toms through it and makes you feel so much more connected to the kit!
-Not everyone needs to be a wild man like Keith Moon. That being said, your job is to be an entertainer and make the rest of the band feel good. You need to hold the band together and compliment what everyone else is doing. People often slate Ringo for not being a great drummer. Those people are more commonly known as morons. His simpler playing made the Beatles sound the way they do. Less is often more. Your other job is to perform and entertain. I hate seeing drummers who are metronomically and technically perfect, but spend the entire night staring at their hands. I want to see interaction with other band member and a bit of energy! If the crowd can see you’re into it they’ll enjoy it so much more. You need to connect with the person at the back of the room, whether you’re playing a bar or an arena.”
“What’s your favourite song to perform?”
“It always changes. I really like playing Bad Blood as it’s such a challenge. The drums on the record are programmed because we wanted a more hip-hop sort of drum sound. That meant there was no consideration given to how I would play it in real life. It takes on a slightly rockier edge live, the drum part has two different bass drum sounds so I have one of them on a trigger pad to my left – and I end up doing some weird octopus impression as a result with limbs flying all over the place in a way that I would never have conceived if I had tried write the part on a kit in the usual manner. And I never tire of playing Pompeii; the crowd reaction for that is always so special.”
Video: Bastille performs Pompeii in front of 40,000 fans at the Isle Of Wight Festival
“I always find it funny how you guys walk off the stage or pretend it’s over, and the whole crowd just knows Pompeii is next. Do you guys find the encore process silly? Or enjoy it?”
“I find it so cringe worthy. I’d rather not do it, but it’s such an established thing now that if we didn’t do the walk off, people expect us to play more songs even after we’ve done Pompeii and played every song we have. Interestingly, the only place that doesn’t do encores is Italy – we’ve walked off and come back on and the crowd just look genuinely confused!”
“Haha, that’s too good! You’ve already shared a ton of lessons-learned from touring. Do you have any tips specifically for drummers who are planning to tour for the first time?”
“You’ll get a bit over-excited on your first couple of tours. So try not to give it everything you have in the first three songs, because you’ll probably break a snare head and you’ll be knackered and struggle to finish the rest of the show. I made that mistake a few times.
Also try not to smash all the beer before you get onstage as you’ll probably play like crap, plus you can’t go for a piss once the gig starts. Save the big nights for when you have a day off the next day. I don’t play very well hungover.
Also make sure you are as rehearsed as possible. When we played at Isle Of Wight Festival last year, in front of 40 000 people and a live TV audience, half way through the gig someone backstage had mistakenly given our in-ear monitor frequencies to the next band on, so when they tested their gear all of our monitors went dead. It took our engineer 15 seconds to realise the problem and then hurl himself across to the stage to rip all their power cables out. That 15 seconds felt like an eternity as we were essentially flying blind (well, deaf) in front of the world. The fact we held it together was largely due to us having played the songs so many times – so when disaster struck, we didn’t panic and lose the plot. You never when things may go wrong or a monitor blows and you can’t hear anything. It’ll be those times that you’ll be so glad you’re a well drilled unit.
And finally: make sure your gear is in working order before you set out on tour. A broken hi hat stand or kick pedal will scupper a gig pretty quickly. Brings spares where possible. You can get a half decent Premier pedal for 30 quid ($50) that will bail you out if needs be. In fact, if you have a spare snare (no matter how bad, could be your first ever snare), spare hi hat stand and kick pedal, you should be able to limp through any gig, even if your whole kit falls apart!”
“Awesome advice. Last question: what would you say to a drummer who is just starting out?”
“Be yourself. Allow yourself to be influenced by anyone you like, but remember that imitation will only get you so far. The best person to play like John Bonham is John. The best person to play Clyde Stubblefield is Clyde. Ultimately, this is supposed to be the most fun you can have with your clothes on, so make sure you never lose sight of why you started playing or what drives you now.”
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