Name: Phil Gould
Occupation: Drummer, singer, songwriter
Current Release: Beautiful Wounds on Abby Records. Phil's former band Level 42 also have a new, major retrospective out on March 26 on Cherry Red. Pre-order here.
Recommendations: Anything by my favourite painter Gustav Klimt, and the Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett, which is a beautiful solo piano recording and an entry point to the work of one of the finest musicians of our time.
If you enjoyed this interview with Phil Gould, visit his personal website for more information, music and videos.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
As a kid I was always banging biscuit tins with knitting needles in time to music, long before I had my first drum kit aged 15. My oldest brother John played in an Air Force band called ‘The Why’ so there were pictures of him around the house with his Hofner bass, which seemed intriguing to me, and was probably the reason I always tried to win (unsuccessfully) the shiny red electric guitar at the travelling funfair every year.
John, and my second oldest brother Paul, were DJs so there was a constant stream of new music being played around the house. Once my brother Boon picked up a guitar it was always going to be the drums for me, and I essentially got a kit in order to join his band, a folk rock outfit called Greyflood (who ‘famously’ debuted the Woods & Waters suite, a folk-rock extravaganza, to a somewhat stunned disco crowd one night at the Eastcliff Club in Shanklin where brother John was the DJ).
I started playing at the height of the singer-songwriter era so there was also a lot of reflective acoustic music in the house, which my mum & sister Gill particularly loved, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash & Fairport Convention, along with everything from James Brown, Stevie Wonder through to Genesis, Yes, Deep Purple & Led Zeppelin.
Within six months of starting to play drums I first heard Billy Cobham, first in the Mahavishnu Orchestra and then solo, and this opened the door through jazz rock into jazz and also into the rudimental side of drumming, on which my technique is largely based.
When my brother Boon and I formed a band when I was 17, I was immediately singing riffs for him to play and writing lyrics a full two years before I started learning piano (in order to get to music college, which I did two years later).
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
As described above, I was fortunate in that the music around the house was incredibly diverse. My mum was also a huge classical music fan so I’d go into her room and listen to Stravinsky & Chopin, and she would buy me classical records, or soundtrack albums like Fantasia and 2001.
I eventually rocked up at the Royal Academy of Music to study classical percussion & piano so there was this mentality that no area of music was off limits, and I wasn’t just looking to join a rock band or get on TV. It was all about being a ‘real’ musician. Everyone copies to start with, it’s how you begin to build the matrix for your own playing.
As a drummer, you could say I was self taught as I had no drum teacher on the Isle Of Wight in my teens, but I had some of the greatest musicians in history showing me the way, during the 1970’s, which was one of the most revolutionary periods in musical history, so I tried to copy every groove or fill I heard my heroes play.
Your personality is your filter and, if it’s strong enough, eventually you begin to sound like yourself, and you start to develop your own language on your chosen instrument. It was not lost on me that in all the bands I loved, each instrumentalist seemed to have a unique sound, so it was clear from very early on that this was also part of the learning curve; to find a way to play and tune the drums where I would have my own sound and, hopefully, be instantly recognisable like they were.
This became even more important when I started recording with Level 42. In fact, I saw this as part of my job; to develop a distinctive drum sound within the context of that group.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Although I’d been writing poetry and lyrics in my teens, and had written a couple of songs with my brother in our early bands, I didn’t start writing songs seriously until Level 42 had their first recording contract, so it was most definitely ‘on the job training’ and we all had to learn fast. Luckily we were given a five album deal so we had a number of opportunities to try and get it right and by the third album we were getting it together. You grow up hearing all these amazing players on record and you think that you could do that if given the chance, but it’s only once you get in the studio that you realise just how hard it actually is to nail a take and get a sound.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first set up was a cassette porta-studio vibe, along with a Juno 60 and a Roland 626, then a Fostex 16 track reel to reel, followed by ADATS and an Atari ST with early Cubase, followed by a Mac with Cubase, Logic and now Pro-Tools. I now use an IMac and still bounce between Pro-Tools, which everyone seems to be using, and Cubase, which I still prefer and on which I’m much faster at editing. I have an Avalon VT-737sp and a Focusrite ISA 428 for my home set up, along with a couple of valve DI’s which were built for me.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I went through a programming phase in the 90’s and early 2000’s where there was a lot of sampling and midi but I tend to play everything now and only use midi occasionally, mainly for writing. It’s great to have access to sound banks but once a tune is underway I always want to use my own sounds and keyboard palette, which includes a Prophet 600, Korg Polyphonic 1000, Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Roland SH101 and a Yamaha upright which is favourite piano to record with. I also have a drum & percussion bank with my own sounds for demos and start ups.
Occasionally you might need to use technology to straighten something out but nowadays this just means a little auto-tune (on my vocals, not the singers I work with) or replacing the odd bar in a take with one from somewhere else.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I’ve arrived at a place where cut and paste is no longer a thing for me. I may find myself doing a project where that comes into play again but right now what I do is performance based. Everything is played. I might loop a section or drop in a bar from earlier in the take when something doesn’t feel right but I’m fortunate to work with musicians who can all do it without the need to fix and they can do it fast.
The new album might actually sound programmed in parts, due to the stripped out nature of the drum tracks or other parts, but it isn’t.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
In Level 42 the writing would almost always be collaborative. Two or three people, occasionally the whole band. Now I write mainly alone but would like to collaborate more as I like it and feel I’m quite good at it.
For recording, I would always prefer to be in a room with other musicians when recording but it’s just not always viable now, especially when many of the musicians I like to interact with are spread across the globe. On my new opus I’ve recorded mainly in London or at Chale Abbey Studios on the Isle of Wight, but I’ve had guitar tracks recorded in LA, Austin & Rome, keyboard parts recorded in Paris, string parts in Vienna, etc. This only works through file sharing, but one upside of that is that the musicians are recording with their own set ups, which they’re comfortable with and can produce great results in fast.
I’m not keen on being sent multiple takes to sort through, encouraging my friends to make ‘executive decisions’ early on. I don’t want to dictate, I love it when people come in and take the track in a surprising direction, one I hadn’t anticipated. In fact, I live for that. It’s the fun part of recording; the surprise of a different way of looking at it. When there are things that I really feel need to be a certain way, drum, percussion, keyboard or production wise, then I’ll do that myself.