Adelaide’s Ben Todd has just wrapped up a role in Cirque du Soleil’s Australian tour of its show Kooza. He tells digitalDrummer editor Allan Leibowitz how he scored the coveted musical role and how electronics help him in the pit.
Allan Leibowitz: So how did you end up playing drums with Cirque?
Ben Todd: I’m from Adelaide and I started playing drums when I was three years old. My dad was a drummer, his dad was a drummer as well, so it was definitely a family thing. I saw my first Cirque du Soleil show when I was about 10 or 11 and it was a real game-changer in terms of where I thought was going to go musically. I originally thought I was going to follow the path of freelancing, just doing what came through Adelaide and playing in a bunch of bands, but when I saw the show (I think it was Saltimbanco that was the first show in Adelaide), it triggered something inside me. It was like, ‘I want to do that!’, seeing all the elements of acrobatics, theatre and, obviously, music.
From then onwards, everything I did musically I tried to approach from the view of helping me get a job with the company one day. So, I learned some more instruments, I learned about composing and arranging, I went to a special-interest music high school, I studied orchestral percussion, played in drumline and Latin percussion and obviously studied electronic percussion including programming and all that kind of thing.
I sent my first audition video into the company when I was 15 years old – that showed pretty much everything I could do: playing a bunch of styles, playing different instruments, and I was fortunate that they liked what they saw. They then sent me some music from their shows and I performed it and sent it back – and that went back and forth over about three years and then eventually, when I was 19, I got my first contract with a show called Corteo for a tour in Japan. And I did that show for about a year and a half and then transferred over to this show, Kooza, and I have been with it since then – with the exception of a two-year break before rejoining in Sydney.
AL: So how many times have you played this particular show?
BT: Wow! I’ve been playing this show all up probably for four years and we do about 360 shows a year, so it’s well over a thousand.
AL: So, the obvious question: are you bored with it yet?
BT: No, I’m not. The thing about the music in Cirque and how the band is utilised, I mean it’s a circus and we’re reacting to live action on stage. So, although there is a score and set music, there are a lot of things that are on call and accents that I have to catch, being a drummer, so all of that stuff changes from night to night. So, there’s no room to get bored with it because it does change so much and as soon as you get into that mindset of just playing it the same way, you’re inevitably going to miss something. So, no, it’s really fresh. And also, the acts change around a little bit. Different people do different acts in the show and that also keeps it fresh. And the score itself allows you to play it differently because a lot of it is kind of ‘70s funk/groove-based stuff, so, as a drummer, you can have real fun with that –within reason.
AL: And do you guys have to practise between performances, or do you all know it now?
BT: We all know it, but we have a sound check an hour and a half before the show every day – just a quick line check to make sure everything still works and also, if anything is going to be different in the show that night, any different transitions or a different version of a different act (like someone doing the act for the first time) or, if we need to modify anything, we’ll run over that. But as it stands, the show musically is set and the band just knows the things that can change.
AL: Let’s talk about gear. From the audience perspective, there’s a huge array of sounds – drums and percussion, but just two of you playing that. So, are there lots of samples and triggering?
BT: There are not a lot of loops – there are some in the show because everything runs off Ableton Live. There are some drum/percussion loops, but most of it is played live either by myself or the percussionist. A lot of the drum sounds change from act to act – every act has a different patch (on the module) and the percussionist has a Roland Handsonic to trigger a lot of stuff that changes from act to act as well.
AL: So, you’re using an electronic kit?
BT: Yes, I’m using a Roland TD-30, with some inbuilt sounds, but also running Kontakt through a Mac Mini. The sounds were specifically chosen by the composer at the time the music was written. Apart from that, I use an acoustic hi-hat and an acoustic snare for some of the more exposed rolls. Originally, the show was built on a TD-20, but when the original gear was replaced, they just did a copy over to the TD-30.
AL: What does the electronic set-up allow you to do that you couldn’t do with an acoustic kit?
BT: I think the thing the composer liked the most was being able to build different-sounding drum kits for each act. I would say maybe 50% of the show is played on the same patch, but the rest is different kits for each act. So, that is obviously a big benefit.
Also, the nature of the band set-up – everyone is really, really close together. I’ve got a guy playing clarinet and tin whistle right there, and trumpet right in front of me, next to the vocalist. I can play a drum kit and still be able to be close with the band and interact with them and not have to be in a booth (which) is great. Visually, it’s good because the audience can see a full band and see a drummer actually playing. And obviously, the big top itself is not the greatest acoustic environment to mix a drum kit in. Electronics give the sound team a lot more control over the mix than they would with an acoustic kit. You know, an acoustic kit wouldn’t fit; it would be too loud in that space and you wouldn’t be able to change the sounds as dramatically. Without electronic drums, there’s just no way the drums would work in this show.
AL: Just to pick up on one thing – your use of acoustic hats and snare. What’s the reason for that?
BT: It’s like when you hear a recording of MIDI strings and one solo violin in the mix. Just that one acoustic element really helps the overall sound of the kit come to life. I chose an acoustic hi-hat because (I didn’t really like) the sound and response of the V-hats. And also, consistency. I found it really hard to keep it the same every day, whereas with the acoustic hi-hat, it’s great. And also, just by having that one element makes it feel more like playing an acoustic kit. We’ve actually put a custom shield around the hats so they’re acoustically contained – it’s really cool.
AL: You do actually use an acoustic kit in this show, in a very prominent role …
BT: Yes, the drum solo! That’s a miced acoustic kit, built for the show, obviously for the visual aspect. It’s a (clear Perspex) Vistalite design that looks really cool. It’s all individually miced, with a cable snake that runs back from the platform.
AL: And it’s just used for one solo?
BT: Yes, that came about because the guy who wrote the show, David Shiner, is a drummer and has a soft spot for drums and when they were trying to come up with ideas for a feature that was a bit different in the show, he thought why not give the drummer a bit of a spotlight and use that as a transition when they’re striking the Wheel of Death into the next act. It’s great for me. It’s a lot of fun, you know. And in terms of keeping the show fresh and interesting, it’s definitely a point in the show where I can do whatever I want, so if nothing else, I can at least look forward to that.
AL: And what’s next for you?
BT: After Brisbane, this show moves to Melbourne in January and then on to Perth and then to Asia. But I’m joining a new show and beginning in January I leave the tour and start work on the new show.
AL: So, someone else takes over your role for Melbourne and beyond.
BT: Yes, and that’s another beauty of the electronic kit. They’ll use the exact same set-up and there’s no adjustment sound-wise – no tuning, or anything. All he’ll have to get used to is the ‘feel’ of the pads.
Cirque du Soleil will be in Mebourne at Flemington Racecourse from Jan 20 2017 – Mar 12 2017 and then goes on to Belmont Park Racecourse in Perth from Apr 13 2017 – May 7 2017.
Allan Leibowitz is editor of digitalDrummer, a free global magazine for electronic percussion, available online at www.digitaldrummermag.com