It’s funny how things turn out. One minute you’re hero worshipping a famous drummer in your late-teens; fast-forward 30 years and you’re meeting up with them in person in a professional capacity. If you’ve seen my other post about Mark Brzezicki, it reveals that between the ages of 17-22 my drumming world pretty much revolved around his work in and outside of Big Country. Of course, all musicians (should) evolve and move on as creative people – though not forgetting or missing any opportunity to pay homage to our former influences. At the time of writing this, I have not long had a piece about Mark accepted for (my second) publication in Modern Drummer magazine. The article also needed something photographic to accompany it so I set about hunting down up to date pics of Mark that may not be under copyright. To cut a long story short, thanks to Yard Gavrilovic putting me in touch with Mark, the opportunity to provide my own photographs for the piece arose due to Mark being ensconced in a studio, not too far from me, working on the new Big Country album…
Aerial Studios sits in a converted RAF nuclear bunker (seriously!) in the Borras area of Wrexham, no doubt a favoured studio of Mike Peters who has given Big Country a new lease of life, installed as new torch bearer to carry their music forward from where Stuart Adamson prematurely left it on hold. My visit would not only allow my to take photographs of Mark, but also let me in on the work-in-progress album, making me the only person outside of the Big Country circle to hear what was unfolding.
The last time I met Mark in the flesh was post-gig ‘Steeltown’ tour, Liverpool, 1984. Still as tall and lithe as I remember, here stood a man who has continued to devote himself to musical pursuits when others like myself had long ejected their dreams of emulating similar success. But here I was, in a different capacity, many years later and better equipped to deal with the surreal situation I found myself in.
After the spectacle of two drummers grappling unsuccessfully with a complicated coffee machine and resorting to easy, the words began to flow as I delved into Mark’s history and how I remembered things on the other side of the fan-fence. His love of Phil Collins’ work in Brand X was something we discussed, along with what an underrated drummer Collins is, often overlooked for the sickly 80’s love songs. Mark described a time when he was playing a Prince’s Trust gig with Eric Clapton and doing double drums with Phil Collins on ‘Crossroads’ and how Collins’ feel and sound was outstanding, giving him “goose bumps”. Even our heroes have heroes.
One thing I delved into was the song writing aspect of Big Country, how everything was split between the band – a recipe for longevity and fairness (see U2 and the unremarkable Coldplay as examples). Stuart Adamson was an absolutely blinding lyricist of his generation, which Mark of course duly acknowledged. But the jaw-dropping information he shared with me, which drum magazines never highlighted, was the fact that Mark actually plays piano and composed a lot of Big Country music or came up with initial ideas. For instance, ‘Chance’ started off as an idea between Mark and Stuart before the rest of the band contributed. I was literally, gobsmacked.
Incidentally, all this chat was going on in the control room in between Mike Peters putting down vocals for the new songs – which are very, very strong. One particular song has daytime airplay and ‘hit’ written all over it, if only the media will pick it up on it. I suggested that the likes of the Ken Bruce show on Radio 2 would be an ideal launch-pad for the band to do a live session and debut the new stuff. But as we know, it’s all down to influencing the show’s producer which is where the old record industry used to spring into action with Pluggers. Do they even exist these days in a fragmented industry? I somehow doubt it. Mike Peters is confident that their new management and label will get them beyond the confines of the UK, destination USA by the sounds of things. I certainly hope so as the new songs are crying out to be heard.
Funnily enough, I discussed with Mike how he has actually bridged the gap between Stuart’s vocal style on ‘Driving To Damascus’ and what they are doing now. On that particular album, Stuart had moved his vocal delivery to a more West-Coast Rock’n’Roll lilt – perfect territory for Peters. Certainly, there was nothing half-baked about anything I heard on playback – and this is material that has yet to be finished, mixed and mastered.
With Mike taking a rest from vocal takes, we moved into the live room to take some photos which was opportunity for Mark to show me around his kit. Now, unlike 20+ years ago, I don’t really get over-excited on gear these days unless there is something vintage or unique about the set-up. As we’re talking Mark Brzezicki’s kit here, this makes for a definite exception to the rule.
Discussing today’s minimalist drum set-ups favoured by younger artists (and older guys like me!), Mark commented on how everything had gone 1 x Rack on Snare stand, 2 x Floors and a huge Bass drum, all tuned low and flappy, with cymbals set-up completely flat. This was apparently evident on the festivals Big Country did in 2012 to which Mark noted that none of the drums would cut through the backline on stage because the tuning choices made for minimal projection.
Mark on the other hand, tunes the old school Bonham way which means taking things up high for projection and cut. His kit has changed a bit since the 80’s, but it’s still pretty large, though there are less cymbals in play these days.
The irony was, bar the tuning and cymbal set-ups, Mark had pretty much described the kind of drum kit set-up that closely represented my playing choice today! To think, I once replicated his kit set up as a teenager and now I’m on an (almost) Indie-Rock-band-festival set-up! Though he did say there was nothing wrong with a small set-up – and he does use a much smaller kit with Thunderclap Newman – his general playing style dictates the need for a drum set of larger proportions.
Starting from (seated) left, he now uses only two Octobans as opposed to four, followed by an 6” vintage North drum (made by Slingerland) after which the, the Pearl Reference kit starts. His 8” Rack tom has a cut-out Pinstripe on the bottom (circa his 1983 set-up) effectively making it single-headed to sit with the tuning of the Octobans and North drum. His other 10″/12” Rack toms and 14”/16” Floor toms remain bottom headed. This all makes sense when he rolls around the kit and you hear it take on an almost tuned-percussion/orchestral vibe. The deliberately pitched highs to lows are extremely evident and very musical, which fits in perfectly with Mark’s approach as a musical drummer. Being a songwriter and playing a melodic instrument, he appreciates how, why and where individual sound sources are used to complement songs. It was never about playing everything all at once, rather, using what was in the artillery at appropriate moments.
Instead of a double-pedal, Mark has the luxury of having two 22” Bass drums as “it’s nice to have the feel of a second Bass drum”. There are two Snare drums on the kit, including an auxiliary on the left, something which he pioneered way before it became a fashion statement in the late 80’s. He also has a Remo ‘Spoxe’ above his Octobans for bell effects as used on the track ‘Steeltown’ (which he tells me was actually an ash-tray in Polar Studios!)
Cymbals are still Zildjian, though in less proliferation than one might expect. There were not one, but three sets of Hi-Hats, two being of the remote variety above the Floor toms. The jewels in the Hi-Hat crown were definitely the 19” hybrids, made of a China bottom and Medium Crash (with a crack) on the top. This made for a very unusual, trashy, Steve Jordan effect, most pleasing to my ear. 1 x Crash, 1 x Ride, 1 x China and 2 x tiny Splashes completed the modest set-up.
As Mark played the kit whilst I shot photographs, talking through what he was doing and why, it was evident that the old Mark was still there, leaving no doubt he could still nail any song-based or Prog-Rock session thrown at him, if there was still an industry to offer the opportunities. Despite the gargantuan kit, Mark is still primarily a song drummer, but with that extra finesse that allows him to percussively orchestrate via the different voices within his set-up. His feel is truly old school 70’s when it comes to grooves, with the Gadd/Mason/Collins influences, flowing smoothly like melted chocolate falling off a spoon.
Sitting in the control room listening to Mike putting down more vocals, I could hear in playback how the drum fills literally ‘floated’ subtly across the top of the music, rather than stamping all over it like a pair of size 12 Doc Martens. We both agreed that some things he shouldn’t be able to get away with, but because it’s his feel executing the notation, the fills blend into the background, whereas if it was me attempting it, there would be hell to pay. I guess that only a handful of drummers can be successful at that style of playing whilst the likes of myself will always be sitting in the Charlie Watts corner; not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s taken me the best part of 25 years to discover where I sit in the scheme of drumming; which leads me onto the next surprise of the day, when the tables were turned on me…
“Have you got any stuff with you on?”
I didn’t see that one coming…
It just so happened that I’d been listening to the freshly mastered CD of my band’s new album – which happens to be produced by a producer Mark’s worked with before (small world or what?) – on my way to the studio. We went outside and got into his 1991 Cadillac (Mark collects American cars) to play my CD which I did warn him contained very simple drumming! This was where it all got a bit surreal as Mark listened through the tracks with comments coming back at me like “great feel!”, “that’s really nice drumming!”, “that’s a really hard shuffle feel you’ve nailed there!”. He even went on to say that he’d “already stolen a bit!” from one particular track to which I humbly replied, “well I stole it from Steve Jordan!” But like he says, that’s what we all do as drummers, steal from each other and make something our own. To earn the respect of your heroes is a mind-blowing scenario to deal with, when you don’t really consider yourself to be particularly gifted at what you do.
Mark did make a very important statement about my band, forcing me to rethink my current place in the scheme of being a musician. He observed that it was very admirable for bands like mine to try and stick things out in what is after all, a niche genre, “it’s almost like being a Jazz musician” was his analogy; and this is where the influence of Mark Brzezicki came back to hit me again, nearly three decades later.
That one observation, plus his praise of my drumming, was an overdue wake-up call alerting me to the fact that there is more to my musical palette than the narrow field I currently inhabit. Watching Mark play drums close up also reminded me that in the right musical setting, being a bit more adventurous can be extremely refreshing and liberating – not that I’m suddenly about to form a Rush tribute band or anything! No, there’s definitely more in my history of playing influences (Mark being one of them) to restrict me to a singular musical project. Maybe it is time to seek out that Led Zeppelin tribute band or even knock out a set of Grunge covers, just to freshen the bed clothes?
Before I left the studio, Mark posed for a few more pics and then, of all things, offered me a chance to “have a bash” on his kit! Despite not having played a drum set of this size for well over 20 years, I decided to take up the offer and fulfil a dream that would have been beyond my comprehension 30 years ago! After sharing some Stanton Moore New Orleans beats – that Mark assures me he will be making use of – I made my farewells and thanked him for spending the time with me, before embarking on an almost trancelike drive home. Without a doubt, this was one of the most bizarre turn of events I have experienced since spending some pre-show dressing room time with Ian Paice in 2007.
Overall, I left feeling inspired, testament to Mark’s continuing ability to influence drummers in thinking outside the box when your gut instincts tell you the music will benefit from that approach.
As for Big Country, I am convinced from what I’ve heard on playback that there’s a killer album in the offing, creating the missing link between ‘Driving To Damascus’ and the present tense. It is a new start for them and they retain all the credentials and substance to make a credible artistic come-back. It just needs somebody somewhere, with media influence to yell out that “Big Country are back!” – Not like they were, but more evolved and ready for what we deem as ‘now’.