Tom Watt – Wolf People

Tom Watt of Wolf People. Photo by Aaron Sharpsteen

Here it is, my last interview from Pickathon 2015. Saving one of the best for last, I spoke with Tom Watt of Wolf People, who went through some trials and tribulations to get to the festival from England. Once they showed up, however, they took the festival by storm on Friday night and once again on Sunday. Multiple people recommended checking them out over the weekend, and when I did, I was not disappointed. Enjoy the interview. 

So I’m here with…

Tom from Wolf People

And we’re going to talk about drums.

Excellent.

So, first question, how long have you been playing drums?

I started about 1994 I think. I never intended to start playing drums but my sister, who’s 2 years older than me, left her kit set up in the garage, and I would just start hitting away at it occasionally. I never really took it seriously, but I remember the morning when it clicked, how simple drumming can be, when I played Queen. I love Queen, and “We Will Rock You.” Kick kick snare. Suddenly you realize you don’t need hundreds of cymbals and toms, that’s not always relevant to the rhythm. It clicked, and from then on I started playing a little bit. I never took it seriously until a couple of guys from the village I lived in, a small village in Bedforshire, they were getting a band together. We roughly knew each other but we went to different schools and didn’t really talk to each other. But they knocked on the door one night and said “Is Tom in? Tom would you play drums in our band, we’re getting a band together.” I said yeah, why not? I didn’t mention it was my sister who was the good drummer. So I turned up for rehearsal in the village hall, and luckily nobody was that good, so we all kind of learned together. Jack from Wolf People, our singer and guitarist, was one of those guys, so we’ve played together on and off in different projects ever since 94.

Wow, that’s over 20 years.

It was great to learn playing with a band. I’m self-taught, I’ve never had a drum lesson in my life, except maybe once my sister said “Hit that like this.” I’ve got loads of bad habits, and I’m left handed and I learned to play right handed.

I could tell you were left handed. There were some moves that you were doing that showed that you were playing reverse.

I like to think as I’ve grown up drumming I’ve listened more to the songs than the technicality of the drummer. It’s not about doing anything too complicated. Like Ringo. He always knew what to play at the right time, and I think it’s really important to do that as a drummer.

You mentioned Ringo Starr, do you have any other favorite drummers?

Without a doubt, Mitch Mitchell is the greatest drummer. To me he’s a level above anyone else.

He played with Jimi Hendrix.

Exactly. He’s got the grooves, he’s got everything. He does play extremely complicated stuff sometimes, but it always works, and I actually love the way he’s recorded as well. To me drum recording is very important. I’m a sound engineer, mainly live but I do track people’s drums as well. To me it’s always about trying to do something interesting to get a bit of that character, that 60’s and 70’s drum sound.

How do you do that?

All sorts of ways. I’m really into those eras, the 60’s and 70’s and I’ve researched many things, but in the end it comes down to getting the source sound right, and using minimal mic’ing in the right room. Obviously tape helps…

Do you find that you have to use vintage drums to get that sound?

I love this, I can geek out about gear right?

Yes, of course.

I’m so sad not to have my drum kit with me at Pickathon, it’s a 1967 Ludwig Hollywood in psychedelic red. It’s coming up on its 50th birthday in a couple years. Think I might have a party, I love my drum kit. It sounds bright, looks beautiful.

Do you tour with that, or just record on it?

I tour it. In my mind, it’s too good a kit to leave home.

I’m sorry you couldn’t bring it here.

Yeah, we flew in. We had some problems with the visa process. Luckily…are you familiar with the band Black Mountain?

Yeah!

Josh, excellent drummer, he was going to lend me a whole drum kit, but when we had to pull the gigs, and when we had trouble with the flights getting canceled, and then the vans got canceled, so we ended up in a car, so I had to borrow just a snare. I have my cymbals. As it is, the stage kits have been good too.

Have you been to Revival, the drum shop that is lending all this gear to the festival?

No, we were in Portland for all of 2 hours. We might drop by on Monday. I’ve heard very good things.

You probably should.

Trouble is, what am I going to do if I see anything I want? It’s going to be impossible, I’m already at my limit with luggage, 65 quid an item to bring anything back, my wife would kill me. I have two drum kits, the other one is a Premier, and for me those are the best value vintage kits out there.

Premier?

In the UK at least, they are really well built. I’m talking the 60’s ones. You can pick them up for about 200 pounds, for a nice kit, so what’s that, like 300 bucks? Really good sounding kits. A Ludwig for a similar design and build quality would go for over 1000, I think.

Yeah, everybody wants them.

They’re great, don’t get me wrong, but value is important as well.

They do have that 60’s sound that you want…As the drummer in this band, where do you fit in as far as writing riffs or writing songs? Do you bring musical ideas to the table?

I have input. Maybe it doesn’t always have the best results, but we’re a bit of a democracy. I have to fully credit Jack for coming up with the basis for most of the songs. Sometimes everything. About half the stuff on the albums has come from us jamming a lot and really getting into it, talking about music a lot, and just playing together. I would never want to be just a session drummer. I don’t have time for that. I work as a live sound engineer. I’ve seen too many session musicians, bad people who are in successful bands, in the 70’s and 80’s, singer-songwriters were loaded, but there were guys who didn’t have any influence on the music got shafted because they were “just the drummer.” And they have to keep touring, as a kind of tribute to themselves. It’s one of the most depressing things I’ve seen. I’ve always told myself I’ll never be in that position.

You want some input into the process.

Yes. We all have input on different songs. We all talk about stuff, we’re all very passionate about what we do.

The followup question to that is, let’s say an idea is brought to the table and someone says, Tom, we only want one cymbal texture for the entire song. You have to pick between your hi-hat or your ride and play it the entire song. Which one would you pick?

Hi-hat. You can close it and open it, you can even almost ride it can’t you? You can get some wash. I’m a big minimalist when it comes to stuff anyways, I’d be quite happy playing a set without a crash. I always play very thin rides, jazzy rides, and I crash them a lot.

I saw that Istanbul you were playing.

I got that one specifically because it is a Mel Lewis one. I like cymbals that bend almost, that feel like when you pick them up you can bend them. I don’t like loud cymbals, that’s probably the sound engineer in me, having to mix bands, even in medium sized venues, if you have Zildjians that ring out…it destroys a mix. You’ll get cymbals washing into the vocals. The drummer might think he’s cool, hammering away, but he could be ruining it for everyone else. That’s one of the reasons I play jazzy stuff.

So you’re going hi-hat for sound engineer reasons. This is all interesting, because my counter-argument for a ride is, what are you going to crash? And you just said you’d be happy on a set with no crashes.

You can crash the hats. It is a difficult question, it depends on the song most likely.

That’s probably the most reasonable answer.

I do like to do a lot of stuff on the hi-hat, it gives you a lot of control. But if you’ve got a good ride, it can also be very versatile. If you’ve got a heavy ride, then definitely the hi-hat. If it’s a lighter ride, with a good bell sound, then it’s closer.

Earlier you mentioned Queen, do you have any other songs or even fills in songs, that you listen to and want to play?

Almost anything that Mitch Mitchell is playing. I should also talk about Swedish drummers a bit. I think some of the best modern drummers are Swedish. My favorite band is Dungen.

I’m seeing them in October, they are coming here.

I’m seeing them later this year in Stockholm.

I saw them 5 years ago in Portland, and it was probably one of the best shows I’ve seen. I’ve been into them since that one album, Ta Det Lugnt.

I was going to say, “Panda,” what a great intro fill.

I’ve been getting into 4 a lot more lately.

If I had to pick one album it would be 4. It’s so hard though, I’ve loved everything they’ve done. I’ve seen them at least 10 times. They’ve had three drummers, and their latest one, Johan, is absolutely incredible. Going back to the 60’s, most of my favorite drummers are probably jazzy. People with the capabilities to do complicated things, but they don’t always overdo it…With Dungen, you can tell Gustav is familiar with drums, he has that swing, he understands the groove. It was fun playing tonight, but the stage kit was set up a bit weird, I think it took me about half the set to feel at home on it.

I thought the ride looked a bit steep.

I like it like that, but there is usually felt on top, that was missing. I like a steep angle, I play it high.

Usually pretty tight too?

Not overly tight, just to have some control of it so it doesn’t go everywhere. With no felt on top, it’s kind of rocking all over. I also managed to drop a stick, which hasn’t happened in about 5 years. (laughing). Using festival sets, I’ve broken a couple sticks but I’ve never fully dropped one.

Have you been at Pickathon long enough this weekend to name some favorite drummers here?

Without a doubt. Josh [Block], who is from White Denim originally, playing with Leon Bridges. He’s got all the skills I like, complete skills, but just groove as well. White Denim are a band with endless riffs. Someone told me they were playing and I completely forgot until I saw them here. It’s been a pleasure. The level of musicianship here is amazing. In England it is frustrating, the musicianship can be there but sometimes it’s a bit of style over skill.

I usually end with the same question. You said were self-taught, more of a feel drummer as opposed to a technical drummer. Do you have a favorite rudiment?

I barely even know what rudiments are to be honest. I’ve only just become familiar with a paradiddle. I really need to practice that, I notice a difference in strength between my hands.

Which one is stronger at this point? Being a left-handed drummer that plays right handed?

I have a lot more stamina with my right, but my fingers are more dexterous on my left. So one hand plays with fingers and the other with wrist, and when I play a fill, it’s all a bit of mess quite honestly.

That’s the opposite with me right now. I play metal so I can blast on the ride at this point with my fingers, but I’m still using my wrist with my left hand. I’m going to blow it out if I try to get much faster.

I think my muscles need to relearn, I need to practice. The one thing I am proud of is my kick drum technique, I like to think I’m pretty fast on that. I play virtually standing up. I like to play very high, and my heel is never anywhere near the floor.

So you’re all toe?

Yeah, that’s a hip-hop influence, being able to get in double strokes on the bass between the snare, and carrying that over to fills. I really should practice those rudiments.

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