May/June 2021

by Jana Te Nahu Owen

Get Yer Kit Off: Fiona Campbell

by Jana Te Nahu Owen

Get Yer Kit Off: Fiona Campbell

Fiona Campbell – (Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairoa, Takatãpui, She/They) first established her drumming chops in the late ’90s with South Auckland grrrl punk band The Coolies. Living in the US since then she has played drums in an impressive line-up of bands, such as Coasting, Vivian Girls, Chain & The Gang and was also enlisted as the touring drummer for some other hot faves like Downtown Boys and Shamir.

When she wasn’t behind a kit, Campbell worked as a highly sought after tour manager and more recently she managed the U.S. arm of Flying Nun records. After 15 years abroad she has come home to Tamaki Makaurau, where she is currently blowing away audiences as the whirlwind force behind energetic post-punkers Guardian Singles. Jana Te Nahu Owen has been a fan of Fiona Campbell’s drumming for years and offered to the honours for NZM.

fiona campbell

What got you interested in drums?

It was the only instrument no one else was playing at my all-girls high school! I’m not very competitive and was very shy at the time, but still really enjoyed making loud noises. Self-conscious I guess? Basically an average teen.

You played in The Coolies, who are such a great band. How did you link up with them?

I honestly don’t remember, I saw them play live before I joined. I was simultaneously thrilled and inspired and terrified of them, I’m always drawn to people that make me feel like that. It was awesome to play with other Māori women who grew up in South Auckland too, I hope they get their dues one day, they are still an amazing band 25 years later. I saw them play just before Covid hit, there’s no one like them. I was just around at a particularly prolific time in their history. I do that a lot. Like how people think I’m always partying hard, but really I just show up for the best bit of the party and then leave…

You’ve lived in the States for years. What took you over there in the first place?

A partner at the time was American. I ended up living there for 15 years, and had just become a full citizen and was visiting home when Covid hit, so here I stay for now.

How did you wind up meeting and playing with bands like Vivian Girls or Ian Svenonius’ Chain and the Gang?

I used to work at about 50 different DIY spaces in Brooklyn, anything from working the door, the bar, stage managing to literally building stages. There was a really cool community from 2005-2012 when I was there, and Vivian Girls were part of that scene. Right timing I guess. They asked me to play with them after their drummer Allie left, and as it turns out they were Coolies’ fans and saw us play in a basement in New Jersey one time! Allie came back into the band after I got super busy and left and they released a fourth album with her too.

I joined Chain and the Gang after I had moved to Portland in 2012, and was in both bands as well as Coasting all at the same time. It was hectic sometimes, but I like that.

Chain and the Gang was a revolving cast of characters. My partner at the time had started the band with him years before in DC, so when we moved to Portland, where bass player Chris Sutton (The Gossip/Dirt Bombs/Hornet Leg) lived, we sat down and wrote a record in the basement. I’d never done that before. We wrote the music for Ian before he came out, before I’d properly met him, he trusted us completely to. The same week we first met we recorded ‘In Cool Blood’ at K Records with Calvin Johnson, it all happened so quickly and smoothly and naturally. It was a new experience to work with such ego-less people, it altered my perceptions of how the production of music could be achieved.

Being a touring drummer you have to be able to wear a lot of different musical hats. How was it adapting your playing style to suit each band?

Drumming in Downtown Boys was the hardest, hands down. I never grew up playing any sort of hardcore style, and D-beats felt so unnatural at first. I messed up terribly the first show which was on tour in Europe. They were so kind and supportive, I told them I’d do better the next show, but I reckon it took me two full weeks to get to where I felt good about it. Norlan’s shoes were hard to fill, he’s such an insane powerhouse and his choices on how to arrange things were so interesting. I was certainly schooled.

I love getting to play people’s music that I’m a fan of. A privilege of the drums is as long as it’s in time, you can get away with a lot more experimentation and shifting ‘feels’ if the songwriters are open to that. Playing for Shamir was certainly interesting in that regard because most of the drums at that time were recorded digitally and there were sounds that without an SPD I couldn’t replicate. But live they wanted a more punk sound, and that’s when I realised they asked me specifically to add my flavour, not so I could replicate what they already had.

Is there a most fun show you have ever played? Who was it with?

You have no idea how hard this question is to answer… I’ve been so lucky to play so many kinds of shows, the big ones in front of thousands are thrilling, but also so disconnected. Probably the most fun times were playing shows at the Dead Herring in Brooklyn, a punk house I lived at, or playing one of the last shows at Death By Audio in Williamsburg, with tears of joy and sadness streaming down peoples faces because it was being shut down.

My fave show in NZ was with Guardian Singles, at one of the last shows at Golden Dawn in Ponsonby. Everyone was fizzing and carried our singer around on their shoulders while we played. I guess this means I enjoy playing funerals, haha!

You’ve also been a drum teacher at the Rock’N’Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, in fact you were one of the main instigators for Girls Rock Aotearoa getting started in NZ. What was your experience like as a drum teacher there?

When I moved to Portland I was running two record labels, radical feminist label M’Lady’s Records, and ’60s/’70s Psych reissue label Machu Picchu, thru Light in The Attic. My flatmate was drumming legend Lisa Schonberg, author of DIY Guide to Drums. She taught at the Rock Camp for Girls which was at the time still in the building of the very first one that began in 2001 in Portland, they are now all over the world! She talked the camp into letting me rent office space for the labels in there, it was an insanely massive warehouse with tons of rooms, haunted by positive ghosts, and that’s how I got to know everyone and started volunteering there.

It was also Lisa that landed me a job teaching drums at legendary vintage drum store Revival Drums, in Portland. One year at camp I met this awesome lady Chiara from Australia who was travelling around the States volunteering, as part of her academic work back home. We stayed in touch and when I heard she was having the first one in Aus I was like, ‘NZ needs one too!’

I went to the showcase of the most recent one and was just SO blown away. I love the Rock Camp platform, the music is a great structure, but at the end of the day it’s the least interesting thing about it, any kid can have music lessons. What’s special about Girls Rock which is the offshoot name it’s called here, is putting a bunch of young girls in a pressured situation where you have a week to write a song with people you don’t know. It allows them to question what the standard of ‘good’ is, and why/who gets to be on a stage. Taking up space and making noise, working out dynamics and communication, and with the instrument you’ve chosen which comes with its own personality, all with the help and guidance of older girls and women of course.

It’s a real gift for the people running it too, you see the adults bawling their eyes out with joy at the showcase, it really helps validate their choices as adults to be musicians. No matter if you are being recognised within the industry, because non males often aren’t on any large scale, you just changed this kids life forever, it’s the tits.

We are both from the DIY punk scene, so we’re used to playing gigs on any kind of drum kit -– but do you have any specific requirements these days for kits when you are touring?

Nah, to be honest, I tailor everything to the band I’m working with, and what I can get away with budget-wise. I used to have a deal with C&C when I was touring in Europe, I got to borrow their kits which was amazing, not only due to their awesome quality, built by a father and son team in Gladstone Missouri, but they are the prettiest drums you ever saw. They offered to build me a custom kit when they were first developing for $1000 and I didn’t have the cash at the time. I kick myself to this day for not finding the money. The most important thing for me is a decent adjustable chair, I can let the mics do the work if I don’t get the sizes or heads I like, and I can tune most things on the fly if I have to. If I can’t reach the drums properly though it’s not gonna be great, and if I’m not comfortable my memory and judgement of how the show went won’t be the best it can be.

fiona campbellWhat’s included in your current kit and cymbals?

I have 1969 Slingerland from a friend’s studio in Detroit, 20/14/16, and a Ludwig black and white badge Rockers snare. I have a sponsorship with Istanbul AGOP and working with the Traditional Series now, which suits me well being as they are so versatile.

Being a drummer it’s hard to find houses that allow us to make noise. Where do you practise?

I mostly practise with my current band Guardian Singles at Whammy Bar in Auckland city. It’s underground so we can make a lot of noise.

We just finished a full NZ tour, which I think is important practice for the recording we have lined up at Roundhead in April. We record live together mostly and I think bringing the energy that you receive and exchange with the audience into a recording is paramount, for a rock band. If you can’t translate that, it doesn’t matter how good you are technically. I’m hyper-aware of the privilege we have in NZ as literally the only bands able to tour right now, and I’m so curious how that is going to affect the sound of things recorded in 2020/’21 around the world.

What does your practice routine look like, if any? Do you play along to songs? Do you use click tracks?

I’ve never practised consistently and I think that’s because I only had my first drum lessons ever right before I moved home to NZ two years ago. I had lessons with Sara Lund from Unwound which was awesome because she had only had her first lessons five years prior, even though she’d been drumming for 25 years. It really helped validate that because all of my ‘practice’ has been playing live in bands, and she helped connect that ‘natural’ (years of practice!) feeling of rhythm to more theory, to help direct my choices from a different more informed place. It’s a new journey honestly, I still love just learning covers, or playing rudiments over songs.

I remember us talking about how 5A sticks are too thick but 7A too thin, and we were like, ‘Why isn’t there 6A?’ Not a question, but maybe we should seriously consider this as a business venture…?

Haha, good Idea! I got hooked on these SD2 Boleros by Vic Firth for a long time because they were the closest I could find to an in-betweener.