Simon Phillips Interview Continuation from Sick Drummer Magazine Issue 7
By: Craig Sternberg & Noel Smart
SDM: Let's talk about your signature snares and how they came about. Why did you build them the way you did? What kind of drummer would be interested in purchasing them?
Simon: Obviously, the concept of a signature snare is kind of a sales pitch from the companies to introduce something that's a little bit more personal. It's kind of nice as a drummer to be able to make something that's kind of like your baby, something a little more special. I started working on a signature drum in the mid-'90s for Tama. It was totally different from the drum that eventually came out. I wanted to use a very retro old-fashioned six and a half sonic maple snare. I still have some of the prototypes, which are pretty nice. But they had a manufacturing problem; to be able to make a lot of those would be very difficult. All of a sudden, I was using wood shell six and a half diecast tube, and for some reason, I just fell out of love with that sound, and I grabbed a regular 355 bronze Tama five and a half inch drum, and I fell in love with the sound. I don't know why, I just thought it was great. So I did a complete one-eighty, and that became the signature drum. It was called Gladiator. It's bronze shell, but it has a different coating on it, and a few different little modifications here and there. It's not very far from the standard bronze shell that they make. It was really nice, and the thing about that drum is you can use it for pretty much anything. I used it for most of the sessions I do, and even now, if I'm having a problem I'll probably grab one of those drums and put it up. It's been the most versatile drum I've ever had, actually. So that was the concept for that.
With the piccolo drum, a 12", I wanted to continue that concept. Wooden shell, die-cast tube. So that's what we did with the Pageant. Then when it came to the new one, the Monarch, they approached me again and said, would you like to do another signature drum, and I said, "yeah!". I said, well, let's try to go back to the original concept, except I know you can't really make this one piece maple shell. I thought, well, what about mixing the shells? Have you ever done that? Like bubinga and maple? And they said no. And I said, "give it a go!". So they made one, but it didn't have separate lugs, it had one lug with two tension knobs going in, and it was just magic. It was a bit of luck really. So that was the Monarch, and it was a bit more retro and sounded great. However they didn't sound like the prototype, and I started using the prototype on everything. All the recordings I was doing. So when it came to the most recent one, which is the 30th anniversary one, I said "let's make the whole drum kit sound like that". They took it literally and delivered some shells with reinforcing hoops, which I didn't want. But I tuned it up, and it sounded beautiful. I was like, "wow, this sounds pretty good". But I said I still want to hear it without the reinforcing hoop. They sent me a shell and it didn't sound good at all. I thought, "wow, that sounds really different, let's keep it as it is". So again, it was a bit of luck, a mistake, actually. So I said, "let's have the snare drum like the original prototype with a single tension lug". I don't know why it changes the sound. It's a more old-fashioned sound, I don't know why, but it changes the sound. So instead of four screws through the shell at each lug, there are only two. Maybe that does it? Lets the shell move and breathe a bit more? It's not rocket science, it's just hit or miss. It's done purely from thought and concept, it's not anything much deeper than that. It works beautifully.
SDM: I was at the thirty year anniversary party for Tama this year at the NAMM convention. It baffles me that someone can stay with the same companies for that long. So tell us about the event, but also tell us about your loyalties to these companies.
Simon: I think it just comes from the time. I spent a lot of money on drums when I was a kid. I lived in an apartment in Kensington in London, could barely afford the rent. When I was doing a lot of sessions, I was making a lot of money, but I was spending a lot on drums. I was always spending it on equipment. One thing I used to do was I bought new heads; every session I did, I put new heads on the drum. That was the only way I could really get the sound that I wanted. I also knew that that recording was going to be around the rest of my life! I didn't want to go back and listen to something and think, "Damn, it cost what, ten or fifteen pounds to change heads? And I couldn't be bothered because I didn't want to change heads?". My concept was always to try to get the best sound. It wasn't always in my hands, because I worked with engineers, and some were better than others. I wasn't the mix engineer, and sometimes when we recorded it, it was a great sound, then I'd hear the record and think, "Well, what happened? It sounded great in the control room when we were doing the record!". You learn that these are all decisions producers and engineers have to make.
When I first got my first endorsement, it was like, "Wow!". When we grew up in the '60s, we didn't have much, we were just getting over the second world war. It was still that mentality, we had just got out of rationing. Rationing had just finished in '56-'57, and I was born in '57. We still had that mentality, you didn't waste things. My mother would make wartime recipes, and they were really good, too. She would make the best coffee muse with not one egg in it, and no milk in it. It was incredible. She made it out of Carnation condensed evaporated milk. That was the mentality, so we used to buy everything second-hand. I never bought anything new, you couldn't afford it. My first Ludwig Supraphonic was second-hand, my first Zildjian was second-hand, you see what I mean?
So when the concept of endorsements came in, I was like, "Wow!". We just thought it was one free kit. As the '80s came along and everyone got more money and spending power and more drums and free drums, it's just a different concept. The first drum endorsement I had was an English drum kit which was very different in concept. I spent a ton of money on cases for it, and I used it in a gig with Gary Moore. It was the most horrific night I've ever had, and I hated the drum kit. I couldn't tell until I played a gig on it. So I gave it back and said, "you can keep it", and I kept my cases. I went, "Wow, that was great, that was stupid wasn't it?". So I went back to using my Ludwig Octoplus, and then I was on tour in Japan with Jeff Beck in 1978. That's when I met the Tama people. I was not interested in playing Japanese drums at all. I wanted to get a new Ludwig kit, I was really into Ludwig at the time. They showed me some of the new stuff they were making and I thought, "Wow, these drums are really cool". Ludwig had just come up with Power toms, so I came back and said, "can you make me a fiberglass kit with power toms?". They went, "yeah, I think so". I said, "okay, we'll do the deal", and that was it!
So I got back to London, and about two days later, the phone rang in the evening; I was sitting down to dinner, and it was Bill Ludwig. He said, "We'd like to have you aboard, be endorsed and use our drums". I met Bill before, so I knew him a little bit, and I said "Look Bill, I'm sorry, I just got back from Japan, and I did a deal with Tama". I was brought up to honor your commitment. I said, "I'm sorry". He said, "if anything were to ever change, give me a call". Since then I have had no reason to switch.
I think a lot of drummers and musicians don't accept this point: nothing is great all the time. It's like a relationship or a marriage. There are going to be times where the drum company goes through different things, tries different things, and you start getting stuff and you think, "what the hell have they done?". I went through that a couple of times with Tama. It never got to the stage where I said, "I think it's time to change", because they were always really good: if I needed a drum kit in Barbados, they got one there. Their commitment was pretty strong. Yes, I expect them to get it right, but when I get there and all the gear is there, I just think, "damn, they did it again! This is fantastic!". There've only been a couple times where, through different distributors, I've had problems. I talked to different people who had similar problems, and it was not necessarily the manufacturer's problem, they weren't at fault. It was the local distributor that maybe just couldn't be bothered to do something. Unfortunately, this is what happens. I had one problem with one country so much that I used a competitor's drum kit, and Tama in Japan went apeshit, you know? I said they are not fit to look after this drum kit. Fast forward a couple years and they made some changes, and it's all solved. They have been incredible. You have to take the rough with the smooth a little bit, it's not great all the time. If you like the product and want to use it, and they are basically doing a good job, then you have to take the rough times, too. I think that's why I stuck with them.
Everyone makes great gear now. They have their little differences in things, but they are still great. The only difference when I play something like a Yamaha or a Pearl kit, the toms are never like the Tamas. They never had the power or the sound that I get out of any Tama shells. If I had to change drum kits, I'd probably miss it so much because the toms are so important to my kit, sound-wise. It's been easy and great.
SDM: There are some rumors going around about a new DVD from you. Can you tell us more about that?
Simon: Well, you see, here's the problem. Let's go back to the old DVD. 1982 in New York City, Steve Gadd was just finishing up the first DCI video. I was asked if I would ever do a video, and I wasn't really excited about it. I thought, what the hell am I going to do? I'm still learning. What do I have to offer? And what if I change everything in a year's time? I might say something now and a year from now, I might regret it, and think, "oh well, that was stupid". But not only that, they showed me the video, and I didn't like the quality of it. Here's kind of an interesting thing, when you live in Europe and you watch television over there, and we used to come over to the States and we used to notice how bad the television was in terms of the production quality. Wow, they can't let the guy say the two more words he was supposed to say, they just cut into another thing. That whole concept of jamming everything in would never happen on European TV. Maybe it does now, things are different. I used to get back from a US tour, I'd be jet lagged, and I'd just watch the adverts because they were like little stories, little plays on their own. I thought, wow, this is cool. But the way that American TV was using advertising, it was just so boring and bland. It was like, "Buy this! This is Shit! Buy this!". You can't do that on European TV. I guess there was a bit of difference in quality; I thought it was crap at the time, and didn't want to do it. For ten years this would go on, I'd get a call asking if I was ready to do a video, and it took ten years before I did my first one. Before I suddenly figured out, "Okay, let's do this with a band, let's concentrate on the music, that I have a lot more to say about". So that's how that came about. To make that video was very difficult, really hard work. I know how much work goes into them, and they are tricky. Also, I have to do something different than what I've done before. Slowly I'm kind of getting a concept for it, I'm having a meeting with Alfred Publishing coming up. I'd like to do one, definitely; I just have to get the concept together. I think it will be playing in a couple of different musical situations. Kind of along the lines of the NAMM shows; I was up there for three hours playing all sorts of different music. Having now done my more straight-ahead kind of project, I will probably do one that goes from straight-ahead acoustic jazz all the way through to maybe some heavy rock. That's the concept, I just have to figure out the right music. The time to do it, it'll be very time consuming.
SDM: How does it feel to know you've influenced guys in the metal genre as well, not just rock'n'roll players?
Simon: It's actually very surprising, I only started to realize that when I moved here. Anytime I met guys like Jason Bittner, Charlie Benante, John Tempesta, it's so funny how you meet them and within a couple of minutes they'll say, "hey man, I love that Judas Priest album!", or, "what did you do on Dissident Aggressor!?". I'll say, "wow, you heard that?", and they'll say, "yeah, we grew up on that". I didn't realize how important those records were, I guess. Even when I was doing the NAMM show, I was working with Charlie and John. When I was rehearsing the parts, they were like, "wow, I love this song". Jason Bittner was there too, actually, and we really wanted to have him involved, too, but we couldn't have everybody involved. He was standing on the side of the stage and watching one of the songs, and he'd go, "This is one of my favorite songs!". I'm blown away by it, I'm honored. It's wonderful, and I'm really pleased because I think Sin After Sin was kind of a turning point in the band's career. I think it was the start of where they eventually ended up. I was playing lots of different types of music and coming more from the jazz and fusion end. I think it's kind of cool how that music got influenced by that background. I started out as a Dixieland drummer; I don't think a lot of people realize that, they think I started as a rock drummer. It's interesting how that's my background. I vowed when I was sixteen years old to never play straight-ahead again. I want to only play rock'n'roll. Then I realized that's stupid, because it's all great music. I think it's kind of cool how that came into making those records. It was just adapting it to the style of music. I always tell people the music comes first. Put your ego aside, put your style aside, just play the song. Play what the song means. It's a great way of playing music, it's great that it has had so much influence.