In 2017, I photographed an event at HOME Mcr called Stories From The Seat. Devised by Pete Marshall (drummer with Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott, among others), it was a discussion and demonstration by and for drummers. Mark Radcliffe (himself no slouch behind a kit) chaired, and Pete, Mike Joyce (The Smiths) and Stephen Morris (Joy Division, New Order) took us on a percussive journey through their careers. A kit was assembled, and they each took turns to talk and play us through some of their iconic hits. Hearing Stephen Morris play along to Love Will Tear Us Apart was a personal highlight.
During the interviews, Mike described how he used to play on his mum’s sofa using her knitting needles. Cannily, he had suggested to his mum that it might be a cheaper option for her to buy him a drum-kit rather than having to buy a new sofa. There was my lightbulb moment.
I had been looking for a personal portrait project for several months, and one of the ideas was to photograph lead singers from bands. I’d snapped quite a few, mostly from Britpop bands, but there was no real story behind the shots. There were some nice portraits in there, but absolutely nothing linked them apart from their profession, and where they stood on stage. Now, Mike’s memory had inspired a project. And an exhibition.
I’m a sax player. I have a saxophone. In order to play the saxophone I need a saxophone. Same goes for pianists, guitarists and most other instrumentalists you care to mention. Drummers? Yes, they need some kit eventually, but you can make a pretty satisfying sound from hitting or kicking most things. It’s the musical equivalent of “jumpers for goalposts”.
I would interview drummers and percussionists and find out about their earliest memories of drumming - what did they hit first? Pots and pans? The sofa? The bed? A sibling? Each interview would inform a portrait of each drummer, and give a unique insight into the early years, inspirations and memories of some inspiring (and some iconic) drummers, male and female, young and, well, not so young…
Looking through my archive of gig photography, I was struck by how few images I had of drummers. This was partly due to time restraints - if you only have the standard maximum of 3 songs at the start of a gig in which you have to get your shots, you’re probably going to concentrate more on the show-off standing at the front with the great lighting, instead of the grafter at the back sitting in the dark. Lighting is often a major factor. Most gig images I have of drummers are taken either at outdoor festivals in daylight or in massive arenas, but I get the impression (especially now having spoken to loads of them) that this is the way most of them like it. The powerhouse in the shadows, driving the band on - if the drums screw up then the whole song is ruined, whereas an occasional duff note by the singer is forgiven.
I wanted to find out what makes these musicians tick. And now, as it stands, I have twenty five drummers and percussionists already confirmed as portrait subjects. Some are well known, some are trailblazers in their chosen genre. There are jazzers, folkies, dancers and indie kids - a hipster in his late seventies and an eight year old smasher (who happens to be my son). Some have well-know faces and most are un-sung heroes. There’s even a Dame - no prizes for guessing who THAT is. All are articulate, interesting and funny - and quite unlike the lazy stereotype propagated in countless tiresome drummer jokes. Incidentally, each musical style has an equivalent. In an orchestra, the trombones get it in the neck. Folk music? Bagpipes.
In almost all other genres it’s the banjo player.
The final number of portraits will total over thirty. To date, I’ve conducted fifteen interviews and taken my first couple of portraits. Needless to say, the final image for each drummer will remain secret until the exhibition itself but I’ll be posting teasers (the banner image above is a quick edit from my first shoot) and further blogs with snippets from shoots, the odd video and other bits and bobs.
It was my birthday earlier this month and I received a drum lesson from my wife. You never know, there might be room on the exhibition wall for a cheeky wee selfie…
Commissioned by HOME Mcr, and supported by Arts Council England, my exhibition Flash Bang Wallop! will display in the Granada Foundation Galleries at HOME Mcr from September 2019.