Friday, August 17th, 2018

Rob Palladino interviews Matt Thomas of The Joy Formidable

By Rob PalladinoApril 5, 2013

ARTIST INTERVIEW

rob_bio2Rob Palladino
Rob Palladino is a drummer, editor and writer.  He’s been playing drums for 30-odd years, has been part of bands that no one has ever heard of but he is really proud of, has recorded, toured and has no intention of stopping anytime soon.

He is currently listening to Rush, Bruce Hornsby and Cardiacs , but not necessarily in that order or at the same time.

Rob has lived in many wonderful places.  Most recently in Austin, TX, the self-styled “Live Music Capital of the World” and home to SXSW and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and the much more relaxing and enjoyable “Austin Kite Fest.”

He is living in a small, pleasant, non descript town in Essex… at least for now

Interviews are strange creatures. They’re great to do (after all, you get to meet people most people would give their right nut/tit – delete as appropriate –  to hang with), but there’s something strangely stilted and forced about them sometimes. I’ve done loads of them over the years and most times have come away thinking about how there wasn’t quite a connection between the subject and yours truly.

Now maybe that’s down to me. I’ve been a drummer for most of my 49 years on this planet, much longer than I’ve been a writer, so maybe I approach it all from that perspective rather than a writer’s perspective. But, that’s the way I am. I’ve interviewed quite a few of my heroes in music, and maybe one day I’ll tell you the super-embarrassing story of when I conducted a “phoner” with Geddy Lee from Rush. Or maybe not.

When I asked to interview Matt Thomas of the increasingly wonderful Welsh alternative power trio The Joy Formidable, I had the same doubts about myself. I wanted to talk to him about all the usual stuff; y’know “how did you start drumming?”, influences, equipment, the whole bit. But when the band’s wonderful PR person Harriet at Atlantic Records confirmed the interview “on” it just increased my own self consciousness.

So, after all this schvitzin I needn’t have worried. Matt is a great interviewee. Not only professional, but a total sweetheart. Thoroughly genuine, with a ready wit, a huge laugh and a willingness to give you whatever you need to get the job done (not to mention an excellent drummer). Because of my love of the band’s music and overall attitude, I may have come across as a bit of a “fan boy”, but whatever, I am a fan and didn’t really care.

Sometimes, like any good conversation, the subjects got mixed up and, if you read this, and it seems confusing, please accept my apologies. Matt is such an interesting character, and such a lively conversationalist, I couldn’t help but join in and sometimes “take the wheel” at some points. But, this is what you get when two drummers are in the same room talking “shop.”

Matt Thomas
Matt Thomas

AT – So, let’s begin with the obvious question. What got you started as a drummer?

MT – Well, I suppose I started drumming just because my dad started drumming. He was involved in a lot of church activities down in Essex, in a place called Hockley, where I grew up. Then I got interested in it and they bought me a kit at the age of about four years old I think, but I never really got serious until I was about 12 at school.

 AT – Was that the little kit that’s pictured on your website?

MT – Yeah (laughs), the Solid Gold! And shortly after the photo was taken my sticks were up my nose (laughs). There’s video of me sitting there playing that kit with my dad on the keyboards playing along with each other.

AT – What sort of music do you remember listening to when you were a kid?

MT – Erm, by then I had a really varied music taste. There was a lot of indie and stuff going, like Radiohead had just released their “OK Computer” album and I was listening to that a lot and a lot of The Verve and stuff like that. I was just going through that stage. At school I started listening to “Nu-Metal”(laughs), random things like that!

AT – I remember going to Slipknot show once at the old London Arena, and I’ve never felt so old in my life!

MT – (laughs). Joey Jordison on the drums is crazy!(laughs).

AT – He’s influenced a lot of drummers in recent years too. Although I go back a little further in my influences with people like Neil Peart and others.

MT – Yeah, he’s the reason I bought my double pedal really.

AT – Yeah, I noticed the resemblance in the use of it too. Sometimes really out front in songs like “Whirring” and “Spectrum.” Although on the new album, “Wolf’s Law,” it’s a lot more subtle in the way you use it.

MT – Yeah, there’s little things here and there. But it’s like anything, if you overkill it it’s just stupid really. I actually started playing it in this band as a joke, but the others quite liked it, so I just continued! (laughs).

AT – So, as you progressed and got older who were your other influences drumming-wise?

MT – Well, after I left school I kind of ended up going to a place called Drumtech, have you ever heard of that?

AT – Yes I have, near the Westway?

MT – Yeah. That place was a melting pot of so many different styles and they teach you about every single style that they can possibly teach you. They’re kind of setting you up to be either a session drummer or a, I dunno, a covers band drummer I suppose (laughs). It can go either way! (laughter).

AT – Well, as long as your making a wedge out of it good on you…

MT – …Yeah, exactly and I did that for quite a while. The spectrum of stuff you’d cover at Drumtech was like anything, I dunno, from R&B, like old style R&B like Motown stuff, through to jazz/funk, and fusion, crazy fusion stuff with weird time signatures and odd metric modulations and all that kind of stuff. It covered a lot of kind of like Afro-Cuban, and everything in one really.

AT – Have you brought any of those influences into your playing with the band?

MT – Yeah, definitely…

AT – There’s some nice little touches you add, you’re dancing behind the kit to some extent…

MT – (laughs) Yeah, there’s a lot of the Cuban and Brazilian stuff I learnt like live, I’ve used that a few times, just from the independent side of things because it’s just crazy. Even recording I used a kind of Brazilian influence, kind of Surdo thing. (For those that don’t know a Surdo is a Brazilian drum). What I’ve learned over the years it’s definitely appeared in recordings and live.

“Whirring” is really kind of a mash-up of anything because we can do anything and just jam out, it’s not planned we just jam out…

AT – It’s the freedom of the three piece as you have so much space…

MT – Yeah, exactly…

AT – and sometimes you don’t really need to fill that space because it sounds great without overfilling it…

MT – Absolutely

AT – I took lessons from a guy called John Stevens, an old jazz/swing drummer pal of Charlie Watts, and he instilled in me a way of listening to the space in between the beats rather than the beats themselves. Did Drumtech ever mention anything about that style to you?

MT – Yeah, I actually majored in jazz, you know I rarely get to play it but I love jazz, and the drumming behind it and it gives you a freedom. Once you’ve learned how to keep your limbs independent from each other the sky’s the limit really. There’s a lot of the Brazilian and Afro-Cuban influence in jazz, and it’s all just…really good fun!

AT – There’s quite a few samples in the live show. When I lived in Austin a few years back I was in a band that used tons of samples and back projections and, consequently had to use a click track onstage. I have to admit it made me feel quite restricted and tied up for some reason. Do you guys use a click?

MT – Yeah, a lot of our songs use a click because there are samples that we just can’t reproduce live as there’s only three of us. But equally within that we’ve programmed the click and we’ve got certain songs where there’s no click at all. Then there’s other songs where the click will speed up and slow down to push the chorus, so it feels like it’s a more “live” kind of thing or it slows down in the verse or ramps up throughout the song…

AT – Do you find that sort of restricting sometimes?

MT – Sometimes it’s quite useful, you know. (Pause). It’s like I don’t hear the click anymore, it’s like I just play and it’s there as a reference really. I mean, ‘cos, I play before or after the click anyway depending on the feeling of the song, so it’s just a general sort of time “reference” I suppose. But, within that I’ve got to make sure it doesn’t go too far outside the click…

AT – When you joined the band what was that like? Was it a tough audition, did you already know them?

MT – No. It was just…I answered to an advert on the internet really. It was as simple as that and at the time I had just quit teaching secondary school music…

AT – What was that like!?

MT – Terrible! (laughter). I really…I underestimated how much I dislike kids (more laughter)…

AT – Except the ones that buy the albums…

MT – Yeah, but I was teaching then, so  I wasn’t really selling any albums (laughter). It was funny, at one of the schools I worked at, one of the kids knew me, not personally,  but from a previous artist I’d worked with and he was like “do you play drums on this album”, and I’m like “yeah,” and that was quite funny. Sorry, I’ve forgotten the original question (laughter)…

AT – Just how you came to be in the band and how you see your place in it…

MT – Oh yeah (laughter). Well, it’s pretty bog-standard, y’know, drummer looking for a band situation, and these guys had booked up a European tour and they’ve got loads of gigs booked, qnd their previous drummer had toured with them supporting White Lies, and he just decided that he didn’t like touring. He kind of thought “it’s not really for me.” It wasn’t a bad break-up kind of thing, he was just like “I’m gonna be honest with you, I just don’t want to do this.” So, they were looking for a new drummer, I auditioned for them, and I found out I got the gig on Christmas Eve 2008…

Matt and Rob
Matt and Rob

AT – A nice present…

MT – (laughter). Yeah, then it was straight into rehearsals around the 1st of January 09, and then we were doing a Maida Vale session on about the 12th of January, so that was pretty much straight in…

AT – Talk about being thrown in at the deep end…

MT – Yeah it was good though. We gelled together really well and straight after that Maida Vale session we were straight into touring, just the three of us in a van just trying to make enough money to pay for petrol to get to the next gig…

AT – Oh God, I’ve been there…

MT – Exactly. It was exciting, but it gets to a point where you’re like “I don’t know if I can do this anymore”but luckily we’ve kept growing…

AT – Touring takes it out of your body…

MT – Exactly. We’re all sharing the driving, we’re all our own techs, setting everything up, it’s like “arrrgh” and trying to write as well, but you gotta earn your stripes really and a lot of bands these days get stuff thrown at them and they’ve got no history…

AT – But they’re the sort of bands that don’t last very long as they don’t have that history and they haven’t earned their stripes.

MT – Exactly.

AT – Now, this next question is a bit of a pig (laughter), but I’m going to ask it anyway. Out of everything you’ve done with TJF, which performances recorded or  live are you most happy with and your favourite songs to play? You know, the sort moments where you go “yeah” that’s great…

MT – I dunno…there’s a combination of parts of songs that I’m really pleased with, I suppose the end of “Bats” where it goes into 6/8, I’m really proud of that as it was a one take kind of thing, you know, it just happened, that’s cool. And then from a technical kind of viewpoint, “Maw Maw Song,” erm, like all the songs have three drum kits on them. I did live takes all the way through, but maybe a hi-hat in one room (laughs) and different things in other rooms.

AT – Are you using an electronic kit on the verses of “Maw Maw?”

MT – No! That was actually in a really dry room on a very small drum kit with an 18” kick, a 10” tom and a 14” tom, I think, and them I covered them in t-shirts so they were really dampened down and then I found some hi-hats that sounded really…electronic, and in the dry room it all just kind of came together, and I was using really small cymbals as well…

AT – Yeah, I noticed the cymbal sound. It does sound like electronics with 12” splashes or something…

MT – Well, when I recorded it and listened back to it, I was like “fuck, is that what I just recorded?” cos it didn’t sound real, but those hi-hats sound mental, ‘cos they were 14” Sound Edge hi-hats, although they might have been 12” I can’t remember now. But they were such a pure “chick” sound, and along with the dryness of the room, it sounded like a sample. Obviously, post production, I’ve no idea what they’ve done to it because I wasn’t actually there, but it sounded electronic when I recorded it, and it sounds electronic now…

AT – I like the playing on “Cholla” as well…

MT – Oh yeah, “Cholla” that’s overdubs everywhere! (laughs) With all the tracks I approached it in a way of making them so clean, like toms are recorded different to cymbals, like I’d heard how Queens of the Stone Age had recorded all the toms…so it was quite difficult in some places as it was working out what to separate. Would we have kicks on their own, would we have kicks and snares so we could have more of a performance from that? And when I’d play that (makes a motion as if hitting a drum), so half a fill was recorded and I’ve got to fill in the next half of the fill…

AT – Is that like the fill in the middle of the chorus of “This Ladder is Ours”?

MT – Yep. It’s a complete performance, but only perhaps on a couple of drums on top. It was pretty crazy!(laughs) Some things would be recorded in different rooms so the toms in the stone room would sound better on this track so the rest of the track was recorded in the dry room…

AT – And all these were recorded in Maine?

MT – No, the drums were recorded in London.

AT – How long did that take?

MT – Each track was slightly different, but all of the drums were recorded within a week and a half to two weeks, but I was in the studio from 10AM to 10 PM everyday. Some songs would take a day as there were so many parts. We don’t want to be restricted when recording. Live is different…

AT – Never the ‘twain shall meet kind of thing…

MT – Exactly. So, guitars can have as many overdubs as they want, so I’ll overdub as much I want! (laughter).

 

My thanks to Matt.  Here’s a breakdown of his current kit …

Gretsch Renown Maple Shells

22×10 Bass drum

13×10 Rack tom

16×16 Floor tom

14×6.5 Snare drum

Cymbals (Paiste 2002 Series)

38 inch Paiste Gong

24 inch ride

22 inch medium crash

20 inch medium crash

18 inch china

10 inch splash

15 inch 20 series hi-hats

Hardware

Gibraltar Stealth Rack with Fabled curve bars for cymbal mounting

Gibraltar 9607 ML-DP hi-hat stand

Gibraltar Gong Stand

2 D-Drum Pads

DW 5000 double bass drum pedal

Rob Palladino
March 8th 2013 Roundhouse London

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