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February/March 2017

by Jimmy Mac

Get Yer Kit Off: Ben Barter

by Jimmy Mac

Get Yer Kit Off: Ben Barter

Having previously been behind the kit for the likes of Kingston, No Wyld and Kidz In Space, for the last few years Aucklander Ben Barter has been from keeping time with Lorde. After relocating to LA the 31-year-old can also be seen drumming for Broods, Australian Jarryd James and US band Passion Pit on occasion – be it on major US talk shows or on some of the largest stages in the world. He interviewed fellow drummer Jimmy Mac of Scuba Diva for NZM’s last issue, and here we’ve turned the tables, with Jimmy Mac questioning his some-time band mate.

What have you been listening to lately?

I’ve been enjoying Bongo Rock by The Incredible Bongo Band lately. The new Childish Gambino album is amazing. I really liked the latest Francis And The Lights’ album and can’t wait to see them at a festival this year. UMO’s new 20min song SB-04 is great and also have been enjoying the new Run The Jewels’ album.

Who do you remember seeing as a kid that made you want to be a drummer?

I grew up watching the older guys in a little church my family went to. They were really into Christian heavy metal bands like Mortification and Tourniquet which I enjoyed in primary school but haven’t managed to play Christian metal since. My friend Brent had this ’90s Zildjian day video with Dennis Chambers, Vinnie Colaiuta and Steve Gadd etc. and I remember it being the first time I had seen drumming at that level as the internet was only just really taking off.

I know you practice like a dog. What kind of routine do you have?

I do some basic practice, slow singles or paradiddles to make sure I’m rebounding properly and getting timing between notes even. Benny Greb’s drum alphabet is great, keeping a pattern going and moving a note along the bar with every combination of hand and foot. With trickier patterns it helps to find stuff you find awkward and smooth them out.

I try to not just play them through and be done, but record myself, making sure everything sounds as good as I can get it. I don’t see any point to being able to simply play something without it feeling good as tricky or simple as it may be. Then either track drums for friends’ projects, learn new songs for upcoming shows or play along to different albums.

Who are your favourite drummers and why?

I love the ’60s and ’70s drummers. Clyde Stubblefield, James Gadson, Ernie Isley, Jim Gordan, Steve Gadd, Charlie Watts etc. They had the best feel and were able to self mix the drums as they played so well with limited recording technology. Matt Chamberlain’s recording creativity. Zac Starkey has a great simple feel. Nate Smith who did a record with a Japanese trumpeter Takuya Kuroda and Mark Guiliana who played on Bowie’s last record both have a unique language which I think is one of the most important things for a drummer. Marcus Gilmore is another guy I like for that reason.

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Playing for Lorde, what do you think was the biggest lesson you’ve learnt and what is the most important thing you keep in mind?

The drum parts weren’t written by a drummer, so certain parts don’t feel natural to do and making sure the timing is right is the biggest thing. It can be the most subtle little time tweak of a snare hit etc. but will make such a big difference to the overall sound. You can often gauge how it’s feeling by whether the crowd is dancing or not so it’s a fun challenge to try and make them move around a bit while playing a really simple beat.

I think it’s crucial to integrate technology when playing for a modern pop artist. Can you tell us a bit about your set up for Lorde?

Ella generally wants her live show true to the album, so I use a mix of electronic pads and real drums with triggers on them. Everything I play is what you’d hear on the album, apart from some hi-hat and floor tom which is mixed to match the recording. I load samples into a Roland Spd-sx and the pads and drum triggers come out from that. I try and keep the set up as simple as possible so there’s less chance of something breaking during a stressful live to air TV show etc. It’s a safety thing more than anything.

The hybrid drums work well live for her music because it is a big sound and the acoustic drums get mixed in just under the samples which add an extra depth and punchiness.

When you were on tour what bands/drummers blew you away most and what did you like about them?

I thought Stella Mozgawa from Warpaint is great, she has incredible feel. We played with New Order who are one of my favourite bands, so got to meet the drummer Stephen Morris who had a huge impact on early hybrid drumming. Julien Barbagallo, Tame Impala’s drummer, makes simple stuff sound great and Thomas Hedlund from Phoenix is incredible to watch.

gyko-ben-barter-lordeDo you think it’s important for drummers to learn a DAW?

Yeah definitely for electronically produced music where samples or backing tracks will be used. I have to use Ableton for most artists I play with so it helps knowing how to set up backing tracks and export samples. Being able to adjust samples or tracks in the moment saves so much time and will give you an upper hand for getting work.

What’s the biggest difference in going from playing club shows to arenas?

Because the space is so much bigger everything needs to be a lot more simple and solid or it won’t come through the speakers. The drums need more volume to be heard so I’ll hit harder and switch to heavier sticks so I don’t break as many. And then I make sure my stamina is up so my arms don’t get tired quickly and feel like they are about to fall off!

I always feel like there’s a bit of a gap between music school kids and real stuff but do you regret at all not going to music school?

Sometimes I’ll hear a jazz drummer shredding and wish I’d gotten into studying that more. But I doubt I would have met the people that helped my where I have got to now if I’d been at jazz school.I think just taking as many opportunities as I could and playing different types of music helped me the most ’cos hopefully now I’m a mix of those experiences have my own sound/skills going.

I think possibly that gap has to do with getting so good at say jazz drumming means that your naturally going to go and play jazz gigs so you can use the skills you’ve learnt at school to their full potential but it’s often a smaller audience. It doesn’t mean it’s not real, it’s just a different way of performing music.

I think generally working as a session musician in pop music is less about a niche style of drumming you might learn at a school, but more about you as a person and the relationships you make along the way. Being able to play well is very important obviously, but often its quite simple and if you can make that simple stuff sound good, and most importantly be a person others want to be around it’ll do the trick… plus some luck.

Got any embarrassing stage moments? I have one in mind – I’ve never seen you look more worried.

Haha, when my battery pack died and I kept trying to play along to the main speakers with the delay? I missed a snare once that threw Ella off, which was the worst feeling in the world. Thankfully she’s very forgiving!

At a Vector Arena show one of the guys from Kidz In Space was spinning his mic stand around which broke so he was left holding a Freddie Mercury style stand and the heavier part flew six metres and hit me in the head during a busy fill. I think I blacked out for a second, came too and bled through the rest of the show and went to hospital for some stitches.

What’s been the biggest difference about being in the LA scene compared to Auckland?

I think there is a lot more opportunity for work here and easier to make a living from it, I couldn’t have survived from just drumming the last couple of years if I was in Auckland. It’s such a big place that it’s pretty competitive but there is a really nice community here, everyone helps each other out recommending each other for work. You’re exposed to some of the best musicians so it’s helped me to be driven and practice as much as I can.

You recently played a show for Passion Pit. How did that come about and what was the process of then preparing for the show?

My friend Ray plays for them and Childish Gambino, and was playing for Jarryd James at the time. Passion Pit’s drummer Chris Hartz also plays for Gambino and they had a clash so they got me to fill in. Chris Hartz is so good so there were a few bits that I had to work at but if I have a one off show like that make sure I have good notes to read whether notated or basic song structure. I often write tricky parts in MIDI and then print out a screen shot of it. We had a quick rehearsal about three weeks before the show with just the band ’cos we were in the middle of Jarryd’s tour, then a quick sound check on the day. I met the singer about 30mins before we played – but it went great thankfully!

If you could travel back in time. What would you tell young Ben?

Ooh, good question. I’d probably tell him to stop listening to so much pop punk and listen to Steve Gadd. I’d tell him that you’re never once going to use those triplet Bonham-type fills you’re trying. Younger me probably could have done a bit more practice and sped up the process a bit. And your dreadlocks look nothing like the kids do in Bomfunk MC’s Freestyler video clip.

What’s your favourite kit and why?

My favourite at the moment is a ’67 Ludwig Burgundy Sparkle. Apparently it belonged to Matt Chamberlain and it sounds amazing in the studio. Nice and warm but with lots of character.

What do you want to do musically in the future?

If our comedy sketch show for some reason doesn’t take off I’d really just love to keep doing what I’m doing at the moment. I love studio work and am getting there with my own recording set up. Being able to record drums for people remotely is something I love doing.

I have a few friends that are doing really well producing or making their own music so it’s exciting getting to drum on different projects around the place they are all working on. Learning more about mixing would be helpful and I’d like to eventually learn more musical theory so I have a greater understanding of what’s going on. I’m so fortunate to be playing for Ella and other artists between her tours so I hope to continue doing more of that.