In addition to this he has also been involved in projects including the Doug Scharin led group HiM, as well as Enablers and Damo Suzuki, on more than one occasion.
He has recently returned from playing his first solo drum performance in Madrid as one of eight artists (alongside Seb Rochford and Chris Corsano) asked to compose and perform music written entirely for drums.
SIGHT/SOUND/RHYTHM spoke to Neil about his involvement in DIY music, his recent performance in Madrid and the many projects he’s been involved in over the last twenty or so years.
How did you come to end up in Leeds?
I moved here in 1993 from Preston, initially for university, but it was really just an excuse for me to move to a more exciting city with more opportunities to play music and with good skateboarding. Those two things were pretty much at the top of the totem pole for me when I was 19.
Are they still pretty high up now?
Music yes, skateboarding less so. That interest morphed into surfing. That need is still there except I’ve traded riding on concrete for waves. I tend to surf now on the north east coast, near to Saltburn where I lived for three years, which is where I learned to surf. There’s a great scene there.
Did it take you a while to learn?
Yeah, it takes ages. I’m still learning! It’s an obvious transition really, if you’re fed up of landing on hard road surfaces and breaking bones, cutting yourself up… it’s much mellower if you’re landing in the sea. [laughs]
I bet it is! Did you start playing in bands more or less straight away when you first moved here?
Yeah. I came here on my own and moved into a house with a cellar. I lived with a guy who was cool with me turning it into a practice room, so I covered it in carpets and mattresses that I found in a skip and just moved my drums down there. I was at that age where I was meeting people all the time without really trying, sort of just after the upsurge of underground music beginning to become accessible. You might see someone who was wearing Vans and you’d know they were a skater, so you knew you could relate to them, or if someone was wearing a t-shirt of a band you were into. For people who were into similar things, it was easier for them to find immediate connections.
As a result of that I immediately started playing in two bands.
Which bands would they have been at that time?
Polaris and Baby Harp Seal.
How soon after that did Bilge Pump start?
Well, Emlyn (Jones) and Joe (O’ Sullivan) were active for a couple of years before I joined but they were playing with a drum machine and had released two full length cassette albums. I went to see them a few times and thought they were amazing. A little while later, Joe was looking for somewhere to move into and he ended up living in a room in my house. From there it was a slow, natural progression that I ended up playing with them.
What year was this?
Probably around ‘96/’97, though I’m not too sure. It didn’t sound anything like it does now. It was more industrial, maybe like the Butthole Surfers or Ministry, with a very heavy pounding drum machine and dirge sounding guitar tones.
That is pretty different!
You’ve recently just got back from being in Madrid after being invited there to do a solo drum performance. How did that come about?
It was just out of the blue really and came through Alex Nielson, who played in Trembling Bells. He’s a drummer who used to live in Leeds but he’s now up in Glasgow. He’d played with Bonnie “Prince” Billy for a while.
One of the drummers they had lined up had to pull out and so Alex had put them in touch with me, so it was pretty unexpected. When they called and asked me about doing it, my initial thoughts were ‘oh fuck!’, because they wanted a forty minute drum solo, which isn’t something that I do, but I thought it would be a good challenge. I agreed to do it and had about a month or so to figure something out.
They immediately got back to me and said, “OK, what will your set entail? We need a description”. So I had to just come up with an idea really fast and just kind of tailor what I was going to play to it. The biggest challenge was coming up with something that would be interesting for the audience to hear but also interesting for me to play.
Were these ideas you’d already had in mind before?
I just had one idea, which was a beat that I figured I’d do something with. It wasn’t really until I went to the practice studio and started playing and tossing ideas around that it started to take shape.
It ended up being a very slow developing, simple, poly-rhythmic idea that introduced each limb one at a time, after a span of minutes. The piece lasted for forty minutes in total. Fifteen minutes into it I was getting tripped out and going into a sort of meditative space, so I was really enjoying playing it, and it felt great. I ended up getting rid of drums, too, and played with just snare, bass drum, hi-hats, a ride cymbal and a cowbell.
Initially I’d considered putting everything out there, rhythmically speaking, but in the end I striped it all back and kept it simple. The foot pattern came from some west African rhythms that I’d been playing around with, but that hadn’t made their way into any of the bands I play in. The hi-hats and bass drum would imply different feels in the piece at times, so there are these tiny shifts in there which can make you hear it in a few different ways. When I recorded it during practise and then listened back, the beginning of the bar tended to shift depending where you tuned in, so it kept offering up different perspectives every time I listened to it.
How was the performance received? Were the audience patient enough with the speed at which it unfolded?
It went really well. I was dead nervous before playing.. actually that’s an understatement: I was freaking out! [laughs] But I’d rehearsed the crap out of it for about a month, so I wasn’t nervous that I was going to fuck it up, I think it was just a kind of stage fright; of being up on a stage by myself without having a band to back me up, but it went really well.
The event ran over three days and the promoters had really thought through what they were doing. It was in a room with no bar, no distractions. Just a pile of cushions and a drum kit. It was done under the right circumstances, in a really relaxed atmosphere and where people were willing to listen. I’d hate to have done it in a bar.
It sounds like some of the approaches to the piece were pretty complex. Had you spent a lot of time studying drumming formally?
I had lessons between the ages of ten and twelve for simple rudiments with a tutor. From then on I’d learned from playing in bands and teaching myself.
When I moved to Leeds and started taking drums more seriously, I taught myself to read music by just going to the library and getting all of the drum books they had and just trying to figure it out. From there I started to write out ideas that I came up with so I wouldn’t forget them.
I went through a period of probably three or four years where I was practicing everyday, to the point where if I missed a couple of hours practise it felt as though something was missing. That’s when I started to become more focused and began learning different styles like jazz, which is a totally different approach and vocabulary to what I was playing at the time, but it spurred me on to want to figure it out.
In terms of jazz, what were you listening to?
All of the more progressive and far out stuff… John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy.
It’s a bold move to listen to somebody like Coltrane, and specifically Elvin Jones, and think, ‘yeah, I’m going to give this a go’…
Well he’s still up there as one of my all time favourite drummers. I saw him play in Birmingham, at Ronny Scott’s Jazz Club, probably around the mid 2000s, so just a while before he died. He was just like a force of nature and completely on fire.
With figuring out jazz stuff, it helped me to see it written down, because when you’re just listening to it it’s hard to figure out what’s happening. It’s almost as though the one is being hidden from you. Once it’s written down, then you see that the pulse is on the two and the four, instead of being on the one and the three, which is what I was used to. You’re also leading with the ride and not the feet and snare, so it’s a totally different approach.
You did some work with Doug Scharin on one of the HiM records. Which one was it?
How did that come about?
It was a result of one of my old bands, Polaris, having played with a group Doug was in called June of 44. That was when I first met Doug. I’d also met Fred Erskine, their bass player, before when I’d played on the same bill as another of his bands called The Boom, so I sort of already knew them in some respect through that connection. Sometime after that gig I got a phone call from Carlo, who plays sax in The Boom, asking me if I had anything going on. He had already been on tour with HiM in the U.S. and they needed a drummer for the European dates that they already had booked, which was for five weeks in total.
They sent me some recordings and I had a month or so to familiarise myself with them before we had rehearsals, which lasted for five days in London. After that I did another tour with them in the U.S. and then we ended up touring in Japan as well. When we got back we recorded the New Features album.
Were you playing alongside Jon Theodore on that record?
No. Jon had already been in the band but they always had rapid line up changes so the stuff he’d done that’s on the album was already recorded, so he wasn’t at that session.
Had you already been aware of his playing in bands like Golden?
I hadn’t heard Golden at that point but the stuff that they’d sent me to learn were basically Jon’s parts. The recording they sent to me had drums in either channel, so I could pan left and right to hear the different drum parts, so I learnt what I had to from his parts.
You did some dates with Jon when he was in The Mars Volta in 2003, was that as a result of that connection?
That came about through Rob Kito, who I’ve known for years just from playing in bands around Leeds. He was friends with their tour manager at the time and they were doing a couple of gigs as a warm up for some dates with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, so Bilge Pump played with them at The Cockpit in Leeds and The Fleece & Firkin in Bristol. So the first time I met Jon was at those gigs.
Was it on the HiM tour that you ended up breaking your wrist whilst skateboarding?
No, that happened when I was on tour in Germany with a band called Diesel Vs Steam. It happened about a week into a two week tour. I ended up going to the hospital and having my left hand put into plaster, so I had to figure out a way of playing the rest of the tour by just using my right hand so that we didn’t miss any of the gigs. I just filled in more of the hi-hat parts with my left foot and played a little busier with the right. It became quite a novelty on the tour. The cast was pretty solid so I was able to count songs in on it. It was quite percussive! [laughs] When I got home I was practising with just the one hand still and just saw it as an obstacle to be worked around. I’d gotten so used to playing with the one hand that when I got my left arm back it was almost like having an extra limb.
You must have developed a lot of skill with just being limited to using the one arm.
Yeah, but it was kind of like when you’re just practising on developing one limb at a time. When I got fed up of practising what I’d been doing for a while, I just set the whole kit up as it would be for a left handed drummer and would try playing things I could already play but left handed. I wasn’t intensive with it but just wanted something that would break up my regular practice routine.
The last time I saw you you mentioned doing some playing with Blake Fleming a while back. How did that come about?
Laddio Bolocko played at The Packhorse in Leeds and they were staying at our house for a few days leading up to that gig. I had two kits set up in the cellar and we started having trade off jams, with just me and him exchanging ideas. I had been really interested in what I’d seen him playing at the gig, so I was just asking about what he’d been playing. He was really kind and showed me how to play some of the stuff that I’d seen him doing. I was already getting into some of those poly-rhythmic ideas, and they were very African influenced, but he was just way, way ahead from where I was at at that time. I ended up making some massive progress from some of the things he explained to me and it just opened it up for me.
What kind of stuff were you going over, if you can remember?
It was a lot of Ghanaian rhythms for drum set, where the bass drum played a continuous pulse but the hands and the hi-hat were almost disguising where the one is. A lot of over the bar line playing, with no emphasis on the one, really. More of a flow, but a very controlled and precise flow.
What else are you involved in at the minute? I’m mostly familiar with Bilge Pump, Quack Quack and Polaris, but I know you’re involved in a bunch of different projects. Can you tell me a little about them?
I play in a group called Felix, which often gets referred to as a chamber pop trio. Basically, Lucinda is the songwriter and she composes everything on piano, as well as singing. In terms of drumming it’s really striped back and minimal, very quiet, so a lot of the time I play with brushes.
The other project I play in is with Yann Tiersen. There are six people in the band. It’s kind of hard to describe. There is such a massive amount of equipment involved in it; banks of vintage synthesisers as well as drums, bass, guitar, violin and melodica. Quite often, if we play in a certain set up, there’s a grand piano as well. The music I’m playing with Yann goes through a lot of different shifts in terms of what it sounds like.
Did you become involved with Yann through recommendation?
Yeah, his guitarist Rob had seen a Bilge Pump gig in Bristol, where he lives. That was another out of the blue email invitation. They weren’t asking me to play: they were asking if I’d be interested in auditioning. I said yes and then had to fly to Rennes, Brittany, and stay there for three days to meet them all and audition. So again, it was stepping out of the comfortable world of DIY where I was playing with friends, into something much bigger.
How has that transition been?
I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now and the first year it felt like I was in some weird dual reality. That whole big rock band world operates one way and Bilge Pump operates in another. I’m just happy being in both worlds and being able to swap between the two of them.
The challenges are just totally different. The most I’d probably played to up until that point was about two hundred people, and it went from that to going straight in at the deep end and playing to ten thousand people, which is what happened at my first gig with Yann at La Route Du Rock Festival. The challenge was just getting your nerve to hold and not freak out.
Since then I’ve just been touring loads. There have been breaks, but at this point I’ve been on the road for long enough to have to move out of my flat and not have to pay rent anywhere, and I only just pretty much got back at the end of last year. So it’s been interesting.
Photograph by Ólavur Jákupsson, interview by Dave Jones.