CHRIS WHITTEN (World Party, Paul McCartney)
September 10, 2007 | Author: Greg Phillips
A perfectly executed guitar solo can render a song immortal. As for famous keyboard lines, there are thousands that are instantly recognisable. Even a classic bass line can seep into our subconscious and remain there for an eternity. But for a drummer, it has to be some pretty special stick work to stand out so much from the song that it is tagged memorable. If you know Edie Brickell and The New Bohemians’ hit “What I Am”, then you know that the song wouldn’t have worked half as well without that intricate percussion. As for the thumping drums behind The Waterboys’ “Whole of The Moon”… there’s much of the character of the song right there in those beats. Unless you are specifically a connoisseur of fine drumming, chances are you have not heard of Chris Whitten, the man responsible for drums on both of those tracks. You may however have seen Chris behind the drums during Dire Straits triumphant ’91-’92 tour. Most Australians did! But Chris will tell you that his crowning glory came when he worked alongside Paul McCartney. Firstly on the ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ album and later on McCartney’s famous 1990 world tour and consequent live recording ‘Tripping The Live Fantastic’. After touring the world for years Chris took time off the drum stool and dabbled in film and television soundtracks. More recently he’s found work in the creation of drum software. Since 2005, the UK born Whitten has become an Australian resident and is not only about to build his own drum recording facility, but is also preparing to get back on the tour bus, this time with World Party as they support Steely Dan on their first ever Australian tour. Greg Phillips called Chris at his Hunter Valley home for a chat.
Chris Whitten started out learning drums at a young age and like any enthusiastic kid was enjoying the aesthetic feel of sticks upon drumheads and the crashing of cymbals. The epiphany which lead to his pursuit of percussive excellence however, came at the age of 12 when his brother took him to see the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which at the time featured the legendary Billy Cobham behind an enormous see through drum kit. “It blew my mind and I pretty much decided at that point what I wanted to do,” recalls Whitten. That night opened Chris’s eyes to a new world of possibilities and steered his tastes in the direction of fusion, idolising the styles of Narada Michael Walden and Steve Gadd. But for a kid in London, fusion wasn’t a great economic choice and Whitten decided to pursue work in disco and dance hall bands, playing pop and funk, material with a solid beat. It’s that trusted solid beat that gained the admiration of Paul McCartney and Mark Knopfler. Working with superstars seemed be as good a place as any to start a chat with Chris Whitten.
When you’re working with guys like McCartney or Mark Knopfler, what sort of brief do they give you?
Funnily enough with McCartney, he didn’t give me any direction whatsoever. He’s a really charming bloke, quite easy going and he just decided that I was going to be the drummer in this band. He never viewed it as a Paul McCartney project, it was always a band. He has always loved bands. So he decided I was going to be the drummer and that I should take care of that department. Even when we were covering Beatles tunes, he never said I think you should play it this way or that way. I didn’t really take it in at the time, but looking back I think that was pretty amazing.
So when you were playing those classic Beatles tunes, was there room to incorporate Chris Whitten’s style?
There was. I probably should have done more of that, but it was all a bit too reverential. That old thing in trying to copy or recreate the old vibe too much. Now I hear the latest band with Abe Laboriel Jnr and I wish I had of been more like him in doing more of my own thing. At the time we did that tour in 1990, McCartney hadn’t played a lot of those Beatles songs and hadn’t toured for a long time so we all went into it wanting it to sound as good as possible, and making it more of a recreation than doing our own thing.
Were you a Beatles fans prior?
Yeah, before the lessons when I was really young I was constantly listening to the Beatles and tapping on a biscuit tin. I was programmed from that point to want to be a drummer.
So was there a particular moment playing with McCartney where you stepped outside of yourself thought ‘I’m playing with a Beatle’?
Every other day really. I was playing with an indie rock band at the time with Julian Cope. I always had ambitions to do bigger things. We’d been on tour for a couple of weeks and I just got home, it was a Friday night and there was a message on my answer machine saying it’s so and so from the Paul McCartney office, can you please call back. Then I thought bloody hell I have to wait until Monday now. It was a bit of a desperate weekend. I called and they said Paul is doing some jam sessions over the course of summer and your name was given to us and would you like to come down and have a jam. So that was a weird day. I turned up with my drums in a warehouse in East London and set up my drums. There was a bunch of people I had never met before. We were all quite nervous. Then Paul and Linda drifted in and he strapped on a bass and started playing this old rock n’ roll, which is not something I had done before. I’d heard it though and knew what was required. So we jammed for a couple of hours and he said thanks guys. I went off and I thought, gosh that could be the last time I ever meet him and I didn’t really get to say anything and I had been so nervous, just concentrating so much. I didn’t really even enjoy it. Luckily enough I got another call to come down. This carried on throughout that summer of 1987. I did about 3 jam sessions with different line ups and it dawned on me he was trying people out. People who weren’t well known. He wanted to find unknown people, Then we went down to his studio to record some material. He said he was really enjoying himself and wanted to record something and that became the Russian rock album. So it was all hard work and nerve-wracking. I didn’t really step outside of myself through any of that. Then soon after, his manager called and said he wanted me in his band and we are going to be recording a studio album (Flowers in the Dirt) and going to do a world tour.
But to answer your question … I got another call to go down to his studio to do one of his animation projects. That was the first time I had one of those moments you are talking about, because there was me on drums, Paul on bass and a couple of brass players with Geoff Emerick recording and George Martin doing the arrangements. I thought ‘I can’t believe I am sitting here’. So that was an amazing moment. But when we started to tour, that was something else. Daily there were moments where I thought I can’t believe I am doing this. We were playing such incredible material. Especially in America, the audiences were phenomenal. You could see the first 2 or 3 rows and people were practically in tears for the whole show. You had all of these baby boomers who had grown up with the music, got married to the music, divorced or had children to the music, and they were just having this amazing emotional roller coaster and I was on stage performing. Just walking out at the beginning of one of those shows, the audience reaction was absolutely deafening like your ears were distorting with the volume of the audience. The thing about the Dire Straits tour, we were playing on the same level, in enormous stadiums but there were nine people on stage and it felt like this enormous truck. But with the Paul thing, there were 5 or 6 of us and felt more like a band.
You’ve got the World Party gigs coming up supporting Steely Dan, I’m interested to know how that works. At what point do you catch up with the band and rehearse?
It’s kind of a sore topic, because Karl, who really… it’s his band, and he hates rehearsing. I hate rehearsing as well, but something I hate more than rehearsing is sounding rubbish in the shows, so I’m prepared to put in the work to get the sound right. And just going back for a minute, with McCartney we rehearsed off and on for six months before the tour and Dire Straits for at least 2 months and it was very hard work, just constantly playing tracks over and over. So going into World Party is a different mind set. Karl is more into moments of inspiration and improvisation which is all very well but I find it a bit difficult when you have a near car crash on stage because people are going in different directions musically. But he finds that all the more exciting. I’ve known Karl for years because we did The Waterboys together and some sessions for the Goodbye Jumbo album. Then I hadn’t heard from him and called and found out he’d been quite ill, had a brain aneurysm. He was on his come back trail and last summer in US he phoned up and said we’ll be touring, do you want to do it. We rehearsed for a couple of weeks in the UK, but while we were trying to rehearse the material Karl would be making a cup of tea or on a phone call. At the end of the day we got a couple of months under our belt playing the material. So for this tour he’s booked a week of rehearsals in Perth which suits me as I’m based in Australia now. So we’ll just refresh ourselves.
Does your kit differ from McCartney to Dire Straits to World Party?
It’s kind of the same. I know other people tailor equipment to various projects and even change drums depending on the size of the venue they are playing but I’ve always played the same thing. It’s really up to me what I feel like playing. I am aware that Karl really likes Ringo and that sound so there is no point using a jazz kit or a fusion set up or lots of China cymbals and splashes. I’m using a rock kit, but that’s what I’d be wanting to use anyway. For years, I’ve used 4 toms, and either a 22″ bass drum or 24″ bass drum and two or three crashes and a ride and that’s about it. I haven’t absolutely made up my mind on what I’ll be using on this tour but on the American tour I used a Noble & Cooley kit. That’s 7″ x 14″ snare drum and some Zildjian cymbals. I’m actually going to try out some new 1960’s inspired Zildjian A’s that have just come out so I’m hoping to use those on this tour.
Why is it that with everything we know about drums today, that the vintage gear still sounds the best?
I’m always talking to people about that. I don’t know whether it’s because they were built in a certain way. The thing we all agree on is there’s something about the way the wood ages. There is a lot of new stuff that sounds good. With drums they are still using high quality components and still hand building stuff, so a lot of new gear really does sound phenomenal. I’ve always been partial to the smaller makers like Noble & Cooley rather than the mainstream. One of the differences I think is that modern equipment all tends to sound similar, albeit very good, whereas the vintage stuff has more character. Like a Gretsch Round Badge kit sounds completely different to a Ludwig Keystone kit. You don’t really get that with modern kits in my experience. A top of the line Tama kit tends to sound the same to me as a top of the line Pearl kit or top of the line DW.
You’ve been involved in creating some drum software for Toontrack. What’s the process involved in creating the drum software?
It is incredibly boring and had I known what it was going to be like when we started I probably would not have wanted to do it but you learn as you go along. One of the guys from Toontracs came over to tell us how they wanted it done. Basically you do the normal thing as you would do for a studio session. You set up your drums and tune them as well as you can and mike them up and get them sounding good. Then the process from then on is just doing single hits, and the longer the sound, like a floor tom or a cymbal, the longer you have to wait between hits. And you have to do a tremendous amount of hits of all kinds to make it sound realistic. So basically you spend three or four days in the studio hitting a snare drum, waiting a minute, hitting it again. One of the most laborious and painful things I’ve ever done.
Most of the general public would be unaware that a lot of re-recording goes on, whereby a pro drummer will be called into a studio to tidy up drum parts that someone else has originally recorded badly. Which is something that you have done a bit of in the past. Were the drum parts you worked on so bad or were the producers just looking for extra spark?
A bit of both. it depends on the band. Sometimes the drummer just isn’t capable of cutting it. Other times the producer wants someone professional. When you are the session drummer in that situation it can be quite sad. You turn up to the studio and there’s a drummer who is perfectly capable of doing the album, but being bumped off. It varies from project to project. Basically what I’m always trying to ‘drum’ into younger drummers, if you excuse the pun, is that recording is all about playing for the song and all about consistency. You have to know how to tune a drum to sound good in the studio and then you have to play at the same volume throughout the songs and you have to make the timing very consistent. Usually these are the areas where people fall down. That’s when people like me get called in to replace them. They can’t play one take of the song the same one after the other, and each take is different and the chorus is twice as loud as the verse, stuff like that.
Do you have standard way you like to record your drums or do you still experiment a bit?
I’m really open to anything. I was set in my ways when I was doing a lot of drum recording in the late eighties, early nineties but I realised there was a whole new world out there after doing the TV and film thing. Basically when I record it’s the old D112 or RE20 or 41 on the bass drum and (SM) 57 on the snare and the Nuemann mikes for overheads … double headed tom well tuned. I’m really into studio standards and once you’ve got that down you are free to go off and experiment.
Ringo used to place towels on his toms I believe …
Yes, I don’t know if that was Ringo’s idea or a collective thing but certainly Paul was into that kind of thing. He’d want to record 3 or 4 different sized cardboard boxes instead of the drums or rubbing your hands together for another shaker sound. With McCartney we worked with Tchad Blake and he’d always be wanting to try things. He set up quite a few different drainage tubes and put mikes in those but on the end album mix, you couldn’t really tell. I’ve done a couple of sessions where I have set up air conditioning ducts which gives an electronified kind of harmoniser sound, but you can do that sort of thing with plug-ins anyway
Do you get as much of a buzz doing intricate stick work as you did on the famous Edie Brickell hit ‘What I Am’ as you do rockin out on a stadium stage?
I’m basically into simple drumming. I mean you get a sense of achievement with the other stuff. The weird thing about the Edie Brickell thing was that the drummer was quite an unusual player and came up with all these interesting parts. This was the classic case of someone who couldn’t play them consistently enough for the producer. So they brought me in and I just kind of simplified them down and made them sound more poppy. But it was a challenge to do those unusual parts. I’ve never thought of myself as a technical drummer. If the song sounds good I get my high out of the song. I’ve always been into dance music so not so much into blues or rock. More sort of Parliament and Funkadelic, James Brown, Earth, Wind and Fire. My style comes out of that. If I am playing pop music I am playing quite simple back beat driven drumming.