Gary O’Toole is a multi instrumentalist who has for the last 30 years been better known as a Drummer. He has worked with China Crisis, S Club 7, Manuka as well as Steve Hackett as well as working on films like Moulon Rouge and the West End production of Cats. Since Gary has been working with Steve Hackett he has graced the stage with Nick Beggs of Kajagoogoo and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and recently with John Wetton and Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree along with many others. Gary has many friends in the business of music including Steve White, Terry Gregory amongst many others.
We got the chance to talk to Gary at his home in Buckinghamshire first on a cold night on the 5th Feb and the again on a rather warm and sunny day in April 2011.
Part 1 – Gary O’Toole interview Feb 5th 2011
TEJ: When did you decide to learn to play the drums Gary?
G: I didn’t!
TEJ: …you didn’t?
TEJ: What happened?
G: It goes back a bit. I come from a musical family my dad plays bass and my mum plays piano. Actually, if I go back further than that, Dad plays piano as well but learnt bass to meet my mum and then jumping forwards Mum actually found an agent in England in London that wanted to bring her over.
G: So, they did this whole, which in the 50s was very forward thinking for the time but they basically had my mum getting out of a crate like she had been discovered in Ireland and taken over in this crate and they had the photo shots and the publicity for that. Mum and Dad started working in London doing all sorts of things. They were working at a club in the West End owned by the boxer Freddy Mills, Mum and Dad started working there as part of a trio then along comes Hughie Green and there’s an idea that he might do a talent show and so we went down to Rhyl and spent seven weeks there, when I was about 7 years old, because that’s when my youngest sister was born so that would have been ’64 or ’65 . My sisters Sue and Jai and I soon found that our mum and dad were working in an environment where we could join in, so, if we were in the car we would be singing all sorts of songs, so I started out as a singer.
G: Whenever they were doing pubs and clubs at the age of four I would be on stage sort of singing and that’s where it started and so I started music as a singer.
TEJ: When did you become interested in drums?
G: I got interested in a beautiful blue sparkle drum kit when I was about eight, which my sister, after I had been presented with this at Christmas, picked up the sticks and stuck them straight through it (the skins) because I was making such a bloody racket.
– Laughter –
G: She didn’t appreciate it! Sue, two years younger than me but very feisty, decided enough is enough. So, then when I was 10, I started playing bass. Dad turned up one day, he had always played a Double bass, but he turned up with this yellow Fender Precision bass – which was wonderful, absolutely gorgeous! I played it for about three or four years and I still didn’t know what I was doing with it. I was using it and just playing by ear, but I was crap, I really was crap and eventually Dad said look (when I was 14) ‘…we don’t need another bass player in this band we need a drummer…’ I went ‘Um, all right’ because I’d been earning a couple of quid!
TEJ: Sort of lucrative playing the bass?
G: Yeah. So I thought it was best that I went and learned a little bit about playing the drums, then I found out how flippin’ hard it was and then I started practicing.
TEJ: Well, we’ve noticed that you seem to favour traditional grip, which is very hard to learn and master as opposed to match grip. Is that because of this practicing?
G: Traditional grip… well, I do both. It’s funny, when you look through the history of it through the 60s and 70s, most drummers were starting to understand a bit about Pop and Rock ‘n’ Roll. What happened is a lot of people started to have an attitude about which way was best, do you play Match grip or do you play traditional grip like the Jazzers? The thing about that was you would find people were really quite passionate about it with the consequence of, if you played one way somebody else would look at you and go, ah he’s useless, he only plays match grip.
TEJ: Being Shunned?
G: Yes, so you then found that people would categorise you by just how you held the stick. Consequently I had lessons and I was taught how to play both ways without real technical expertise. If I jump forward to the set up I have today it would be virtually impossible to play it with traditional jazz type grip because it’s so hard to lift up the left hand. I have got a set of Octobans on the left to play those I have to offset my left hand by a few inches just to be able to get the tip to hit it were as it’s much easier with match grip. So, in terms of playing the big kit I opt for ease of accessibility with match grip.
TEJ: Out of Comfort.
G: But equally some of the things that Steve [Hackett] wants to play, especially like we do in ‘Mechanical Bride’ there is a bit were there is a kind of Jazz free for all in the middle sometimes, very often, I will actually go back to traditional grip just for that because I feel more at home.
TEJ: Is that a natural thing for you, like a natural style?
G: I say it would be. Mum and Dad’s drummers would give me little tips and pointers and they were all Jazz drummers so the logic of it is that I would naturally find an affinity with that, but my technical knowledge these days helps me understand there’s a greater touch, dexterity, and dynamic control when I play that way, where as I don’t feel as though I can go quite so fast or quite so controlled if I am in match grip.
G: Now, that’s just me it doesn’t mean that one way is better than the other.
TEJ: Well it’s a case of what works for you.
G: Yeah, and a lot of people have an attitude of which way works better and to be honest there’s no right or wrongs in any of it which I have spent most of today telling people at one point or another.
– Laughs –
TEJ: Yeah what works for one isn’t always what works for another and it’s also a comfort thing if your playing for a long period of time, say at a gig you may find that your stick positions need to change. Much in the same way that if your kit is set wrong when you got to sit at it and play a gig you will feel it because you’ll pull muscles your not meant to trying to get comfortable with it.
G: Yeah, I know what your saying. What I tend to do as I get on stage, as you can imagine as you know if you actually play, you play through the first song and if the hi hat is a little low or a little too high you feel it and you change it.
I’m really bad at saying to Dave Cobby who looks after the drums for me, I’m real bad at saying Dave ‘Hurry now, now. Fix it! Fix it! You know I need to fix it lets get it done…’ and I have just got so used to that over the years that Dave is always on hand and always there but I’m guilty of not using him as much as I probably should.
– Laughter –
TEJ: It must be difficult when your drum kit is travelling the world. You must have experienced a similar issue in Japan when you played there last year with Steve.
G: No, with that particular gig with Steve we tend to get a different kit. When we got to Japan they gave me a different kit just to do the gigs on. Mapex very graciously loaned me some gear it was fantastic. They loaned me this White Orion Classic, which is the top of the range kit. I don’t use one normally because it’s thicker shells and I prefer the thinner shells of the Saturn Series. So with something like a long journey like Japan or for instance South America we tend to get promoters who locally find people that are able to hire kits.
TEJ: It makes sense when you consider the cost savings involved, but sometimes there is nothing like your own stuff.
G: Oh always! If we do Europe because it tends to go by road then it’s a breeze, and my kit goes on an 8ft square floor space because I got a rack, and I got a rack specifically because of those limitations. But it doesn’t half cut out a lot of nonsense out from the bottom because all those tripod bases take up loads and loads of space then the microphone stands come in and before you know it your stuffed for space.
TEJ: Michael and I have a rack for our Roland kit and we are grateful because if it were on individual stands we wouldn’t of had the room for it at home. As for your set up, the fact you can fit it on a compact drum riser must be a great help because someone like Steve Hackett who plays different sized venues from clubs to theatres and so I can imagine from seeing him in different venues myself that the length and width of the stage changes dramatically.
TEJ: Sometimes you can have everyone in a single line with room to breathe and other times it’s double or triple file just to get equipment on, so with a rack for the drums it would make it much easier, is that right?
G: It’s not just that. It’s also the fact that the band is now six members and so consequently when it was me at the back and five across the front it wasn’t working especially as you describe some of the stages being quite narrow it meant there was a lot of people like this (Gary mimics people being squashed)
TEJ: Basses being titled in an upright fashion due to the lack of room on stage then.
– Laughs –
G: Yeah, so getting Roger (King) to drop back so that he and I have a better eye line now and we tend to get the intro to most stuff. It’s either myself or Roger usually…
TEJ: That starts a song, of course. Moving on a little, the first time I saw Steve and the band was on a DVD filmed in South America around 2001 but the first gig I saw was two days later in October 2003 at the Wulfrun Hall and you were playing a really nice Pearl Kit.
G: Yes, it was a lovely kit that one.
TEJ: From that 2003 show, Steve gigs became a pinnacle of interest from all aspects, particularly the drumming. Steve’s large catalogue included various drummers including the likes of Phil Collins on the Genesis and Voyage to the Acolyte material as well as John Shearer amongst others. To be able to encompass all of those past drummers and add your own interpretation whilst remaining faithful to the original is something of greatness on your behalf.
G: First of all, isn’t it amazing that you have just encompassed Phil (Collins) in that and I am thinking I used to sit there and play to the whole Trick Of A Tail album and I would sit there and go is he doing that fill now, yeah he is and I’m thinking I am playing and not realising that my timing was out because I was waiting for him to play it and now…
G: I was a gnats behind, and that’s what most drummers do, but to actually be in a band where I am doing what he did …
TEJ: Is shocking?
G: It’s surprising and then to go one step further and Steve to go “Gary I’ve had Phil (Collins) in this band working with me in studios, I’ve had Chester (Thompson) in this band working with me, I have had John Shearer, I’ve had Ian (Moseley) but now it’s up to you to do what you want with it so take what they have done and do what you like.”
TEJ: That cannot be an easy task, or is it?
G: It is! Let me explain what I mean by that when you have actually practised along with it you kind of know what these guys do anyway.
TEJ: Well, you have understood it and broke it down.
G: Yeah to a degree, I mean some of the stuff I didn’t actually break it down until I got the gig and all of a sudden it’s on you and it’s like: phoar hang a on tick what’s going on here this is real this guy actually is wanting my opinion. Me! How does that work? Being honest, I always got the impression that before I really worked with Steve that I really wasn’t good enough because I wasn’t actually getting to that level. There was always something over the parapet, kind of like the grass is green, and I was looking and every now and again I would get my head above it and I’d just reach up (mimics someone getting slapped in the head) and somebody would knock me down and you get so used to that kind of …
G: Well, yeah bare in mind this is the sort of business where you’re sort of self employed so your kind of looking for somebody to trust you with their stuff and be able to talk to you on terms that would allow you to actually get it.
TEJ: That’s a big responsibility. What did you think about Steve trusting you like that?
G: I thought this is a kind of guy I have always listened to and his drummers I have listened to and now it’s me and it’s kind of like well yeah BIG deal(it IS a big deal) and sometimes I sit there and I think about it and I think shit, I suppose I’ve done it you know, it’s funny when I think that, I did that and I have done recordings over the years, bits and pieces from top ten hits to film scores and bits and pieces and there is nothing really big to write home about.
TEJ: Yet it’s still something that has made up your life and your career.
TEJ: It’s all part of a journey that gets you to where you want to be, along the way you might have to do things that you might not love but you got paid for, but for someone to be quite modest about it I find it a bit confusing.
G: I have always found that hard, bizarrely.
TEJ: What to be almost boastful?
G: Where I come from my family has just been like, go and do it and you have done it and that’s your job that’s what you do and that’s what you practice for! I don’t sort of bathe in it as I don’t see the point, we’ve got to move forward and we have got to move on. I remember talking to Steve about practicing and he actually writes and that’s his practice, so whenever he gets the chance to pick up a guitar that’s what he does, he picks up the guitar and he writes. Me, now that I have got this lovely little surrounding [Out door home studio] I’m in here five days a week or most of the week easy doing two hours a day and because it’s on the electric kit it’s fantastic
TEJ: Very neighbour friendly.
G: It will also be possible to teach from here and still be in touch with the family rather than what I did today which was get up at 7am and be out the door by 8am and there until I got back at 7pm [From Gary’s music school in central London]. So, being able to be here and still be able to integrate with the family and still be able to teach and do what I need to do I need to do other stuff, I have started using the time on the train more efficiently. I have also got Cubase up and running in here and everything’s cool and being able to actually start using it again. It’s been a long time, I actually wrote part of the degree course on percussion programming. I did that unit for Thames Valley University I was also part of the accreditation team that wrote the degree course that Drumtech sold to Thames Valley University.
TEJ: Christ, that is something to be proud of!
G: I am very proud of that because it’s kind of in stark comparison when I was at school the music teacher said to my mum when she asked if I could have drums lessons in school the reply was ‘Frankly these kids have not got an ounce of musicality between them if your son could whistle the National Anthem I would be surprised.’ Now, she went for him.
TEJ: Yeah you can understand why!
G: Yeah, it’s in stark contrast to those days, and I never got a single qualification I never got an O Level. I took TEN but I was not great in School for a variety of reasons.
TEJ: Yeah for some people it’s not always the best learning environment, it’s a shame that we as a society judge people on how well they did at school.
G: It’s a platform isn’t it, realistically I think there are some that do well at it and the ones that do well at it tend to go on to university and then they tend to be whittled down to the best of the best, but the ones that really shine are the ones that do not go to university or the ones that go to university and learn the system and know how to deal with it.
TEJ: So rather than just knowing the theoretical side of it, the ones that don’t always make it are the ones that understand the practical side of it often proving themselves that way.
G: Kind of the street level, if you like, street level being maybe business level or whatever it is.
TEJ: Sort of being more grounded with their feet on the ground rather than those that get stuck when asked to demonstrate the practical side
G: That’s part of the thing with a lot of the kids that I saw go through the university they tended to be shown and given lessons and given lessons in inordinate concepts to actually build a career in music from the technical facility question in drummers cases Hands and Feet to the business site where they were sort of sat in front of a mogul or business executive who had been around the block and he would share his experiences and they would treat it like going to a concert where they were like some funnies they’d relate the funnies but they wouldn’t necessarily remember the stories as cases in point, and that is what was wrong with it, they didn’t actually see the inside of it from what this guy was doing, because 9 times out of 10, it was a side show that took away from the mundane side of actually doing everything that they do in school.
TEJ: We had a similar conversation on the way down. Universities and Colleges appear to be quite interesting in teaching people how to play instruments; such as the piano, the guitar, the drums; but not much in the way of the more serious and real world aspects. For example, how to get your first gig, how to get management that doesn’t rip you off…
G: Or what is management for…
TEJ: If you do not get noticed by a big record label how to set up your own record label for your own music, once you had studied that then maybe understanding PRS and then music publishing. It’s a concern that Colleges and Universities are not so quick to teach that side of things and I think that’s were it falls apart
G: I agree because what your talking about is the practicalities and I agree completely. I actually said to the guys at Drumtech whilst I was there, that it seemed rather stupid that there was no plan to have any kind of agency, I found out that (I left there in 1998) in 2007 they started an agency.
TEJ: So it took a while for the idea to catch on?
G: Whilst I was there they didn’t have Vocaltech but I told them not only to get a Vocal school, but also who to employ and she is now head of the degree for LSM
So Sara has done extremely well and I put her in there and I convinced her to have a go at it and she stuck with it and she has made it her life’s career she has done extremely well she really has, but you know I gave her an idea, and she picked it up and ran with it, and then her talent shone through, this is the thing you give someone an idea and they don’t give it a go, and you go see if you can make this picture what you want of it. Because nine times out of ten when you think about what you want to do you have got this rose tinted picture and it isn’t like that in reality don’t care what you do an extreme example would be people who win the lottery and they think Oh that will be the end of it and I’ll just have the greatest life possible because.
TEJ: The old life ends but the new one begins with issues
G: Well you got the same life but with different issues and it’s how you actually deal with them and initially taking on this whole different mantle you need to be able to keep your feet on the ground to be able to balance out and adjust. Balance is a great word in my vocabulary in life. I regard the idea to first instigate Sara into this whole thing; I am so proud of that as well, she is a mate.
TEJ: Yeah you opened the door, but her talent carried her through it
G: Absolutely and she cares about stuff because there was a point were I was actually made overtures to try and buy Drumtech because I knew the guy was selling it for a variety of reasons unfortunately he and his staff choose to ignore those overtures so I thought perhaps it would be best if I just left it alone so I just walked away.
TEJ: Music is a passion and it works best with warmth and love. I know I am never going to be as good as Phil Collins on the drums..
G: None of us are.
TEJ: …But I sit down on my little kit and it’s my piece of heaven and it’s the most enjoyable thing that I do.
G: Yes and I couldn’t agree more.
TEJ: But for some people playing the Guitar or singing
TEJ: As is singing not only does it take the will to do it, but also the will to stand up in front of others, it’s alright when your on a drum kit you can hide
– Laughter –
TEJ: But with a singer you have got to have the balls to be out there and do it. I remember Michael playing in a band now Michael is a guitarist but he ended up on the drums drumming in a band on stage in Leicester and he pulled it off I have so much respect for him.
G: Well if you can! There is a lot of people who can’t if you look at different artists the ones that can cover a multitude of seats/stools are the ones that usually learn more and usually have a longer life span in the industry and it’s the thing to do it’s kind of why I want to know much more about writing music so I have started doing a lot more on guitar I LOVE IT I’m not very good but stick me behind a guitar and plug me into a computer and I can start putting a few things together and make it sound reasonable.
TEJ: That’s the key thing the fact you have the impetus to start that. I think your being overly critical about your guitar playing, if it’s anything like your drumming then I am sure you will have an audience out there for it.
G: In about five to ten years time we might be having a different conversation about this.
– Laughter –
TEJ: Yeah we could be talking about a guitarist and his band.
TEJ: We have talked about you playing in your Mum and Dad’s band and how they were initially working for Hughie Green…
G: Mum and Dad did the first season of ‘Opportunity Knocks’ on TV and because my mum was away from us kids for so long they decided to knock it on the head and call it a day. It was a hard decision because the money was good but I have immense respect for Mum and Dad because they took that decision specifically Mum because Dad was there to make sure everything was fine as well as being a Bass Player and the Musical Director but it gave Vic Hallam who was Hughie’s manager a headache to sort stuff out but he did.
TEJ: From that point onwards you became a drummer and aside from your sister’s efforts to…
G: Destroy the kit
TEJ: Almost pre punk style!
G: Like it!
TEJ: Do you remember what your next drum kit was after that?
G: Yes, I bought a kit from a drummer who decided to give up from Tommy Bruce and Tommy had a blue sparkle kit which was a Premier drum kit and it was beautiful and I absolutely adored it and the snare drum was a Ludwig, an old 400. It was absolutely stunning and I had that and then for a couple of years I was practising like crazy and getting that together. I started using that on gigs with Mum and Dad I then bought a set of those Maxwin Concert toms: four black ones. I then had it set as 8, 10, 12, 14 then I had a 16 and 18 roto tom and I had a 6 inch roto tom, as well.
– Laughter –
G: You see I was going around doing Working Men’s clubs and pubs with all this shit on stage.
– Laughter –
G: And we would be doing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon round an old Oak tree”
Gary does an impression of him hitting each tom and roto tom to this rather simple song causing several minutes of laughter amongst us.
G: So, I would be doing all my Billy Cobham licks and they were all coming out, and the guys would be doing stuff like “Dance in the old fashion way”
Gary again describes a sound of him hitting every tom and roto tom to this rather simple and gentle song.
G: and the guys would still be singing stuff like “Wont you stay in my arms” It was very odd, but it was a good education. I finally realised when I started writing stuff that these songwriters were going “Don’t play that all over our song what’s the matter with you?” It was quite something!