In Time - Player Profiles

Martin Johnston – Unbreakable

As part of a new interview series ëIn Time’, Drummers Only caught up with Martin Johnston. Martin is a great up and coming young player who spends his time with Pronto Mama and Emma Pollock. A former member of Scottish band, The Delgados who founded the Chemikal Underground label, Emma’s third solo album In Search of Harperfield was released in January of 2016. He also fronts his own project on guitar and vocals under the banner of American Clay. We met for lunch in Glasgow’s Ad Lib and chatted all thing music and drums.

So Martin. How are you?

Fine thanks. What about you?

I’m great thanks. Let’s get stuck right in. What are you doing right now?

Musically, I’m playing drums with Emma Pollock and Pronto Mama. Pronto Mama have just recorded their first album, so just done that. And I’m playing in a variety of function bands.

What’s your favourite thing about the projects you’re working on – I don’t think those gigs (Emma Pollock and Pronto Mama) could be further apart as far as drumming goes?

Well in Pronto Mama I have free reign with my parts and it always has been like that. It’s much more likeÖwhat’s the wordÖ? It’s like a democracy. And everyone has an opinion on everyone else as well. On top of that, we’re really close pals. We hang out all the time. It’s like a family band.

Emma Pollock on the other hand, I have been brought into that band because Jonny (Scott – The Kills) is away. I’ve had to learn her whole back catalogue just in case. On each record is either Jonny Scott or Paul Savage playing drums. Paul’s drumming is completely different from Jonny’s so between each record the parts change quite a bit. And Emma really prefers having what’s on the record played live so I need to emulate that, which is a totally different challenge.

So how do you approach it then? Do you write out or transcribe the parts?

See it’s weird. Some of the most simple parts I’ve had to transcribe – just on a notepad, just to be sure that is what I’m playing. My brain is totally fine sometimes with picking up really complex things because there is so much going on that it really comes together, and you don’t think about it.

See the simplest parts? Sometimes I’ve had to say to myself ëwait, hold on, this is the pattern’
There’s a part on one her new record on a SPD-SX that’s so easy that I’ve had to transcribe it (laughs). I kept on playing it wrong for no reason. But then there’s others that Jonny has recorded, one in particular, that he said he was just mucking about and Paul (Savage – producer, Chem19) thought it was a perfect and it sounds like the drums have fallen down stairs. That one is easy as it’s so mad.

I guess with Pronto you’ve always been like that? Linear parts and frantic fills etc?

There’s never been a conscious effort with my drumming though where I’ve sat down and said ëI want the part to sound likeÖ’ we’ve just gone in and jammed and the band will say they like something or they don’t like something or can you try this or that and I’ll say cool and it grows naturally.

But I grew up with that band as well – my drumming has changed over the course – 5 or 6 years.

It’s pretty awesome to see that band grow into that and evolve. I saw you support Fatherson at the QMU. It’s quite a show – amazing to see rock band with horns. Not something you see regularly. And the band has a lot of power. It must be quite a challenge to keep that up for an hour?

All the guys studied (music) as well so everyone thinks they’re right all the time (laughs). It’s strange. Because it’s a democracy, it’s really, really tiring but I think it works out for the best. Live – compared to playing with Carnivores, which was a mad work out – there’s more emphasis to play for the song. Especially as I’ve grown with the songs. It makes it easier – I don’t have to do as much. Or at least as much as I thought I used to. I need to warm up now as I get sore if I don’t.

It’s no secret that you also write and play guitar and sing – doing the whole Dave Grohl bit. Does that change your relationship with the drums? And/or does it change the way you think about drums when you write songs?

Em. So the weird thing with the American Clay project is that I’ve always written wee songs in my bedroom. But when I got GarageBand and a Mac, I realised I could record them. I always found that the drum parts I wrote for those songs were a lot simpler than what I’d usually play – because I’d actually developed the song myself. I record all the parts myself which was my choice.

So you simplify?

The drums? Kinda. I just don’t think the music needs that much. If you listen to Nevermind (Nirvana) the drumming on that is totally for the tune. There’s nothing flash.

So are you aware that you have to take those parts and give them to someone else to play live? And is that a thing you think about when you record them?

WellÖit’s been a new thing recently. What happened with the first wave of songs is I already had them recorded. And Chris McKeown who’s playing drums, turned up and had either heard the songs or we just sat down and I showed him what I had in mind. But the more we’ve been in the studio recently, rather than me giving them the whole song, I turn up just with a guitar part. I’ve still got an idea of the drums in my head roughly but then Chris might play something better. So when it comes to recording them, I have all that in mind.

Cool. So who inspires you?
Drumming?

Anything.

Well the easiest one is Dave Grohl. It’s pretty obvious. Clay just got asked yesterday to do a tribute night in Tuts for the 25th Anniversary of Nevermind in September. Which we have to do.

But..you won’t be playing drums..?

Nope. But I’ve done one before with Carnivores. And we headlined it and played Teen Spirit etc. Was great.

EmÖdrumming wise it’s always been closer to home. Getting brought up in Coatbridge and going to St. Ambrose and then coming to Rhythm Base to get lessons from Ryan (Ross). Ryan was a huge influence. After that it was yourself and then Gary (Montgomery – Drummers Only). And through that as well, Alyn Cosker (Tommy Smith, SNJO, Wolfstone). Even seeing Chris (McKeown) playing with his bands, when I was younger, he was an influence too.
I remember seeing Rodney Holmes doing a clinic and he played something that I right away wanted to learn. It’s the thing he does on the Modern Drummer DVD. It’s a mad cowbell groove he plays (plays pattern on the table).

Outside of drumming, who else?
Well I say this to everyone. I always remember going to King Tuts and seeing Bombay Bicycle Club in 2009. And you know that way you see something and it’s not even like they’re going to be huge or whatever, it just pure changed me. I went home that night and I was like ëI wanna play guitar and write my own songs’. It made me really want to do that. They’re incredible.
And he’s (Suren De Saram B.B.C drummer) not necessarily an incredible drummer but he’s a multi instrumentalist and plays a lot of tuned percussion. He plays interesting parts that totally work for the songs.

What do you think about music and/or drumming education?

I’ve been lucky. If you had to talk about it in sporting terms – grass roots etc, I think there’s a brilliant platform in Glasgow for it. Em. I can only speak for the west of Scotland cause I don’t know anywhere else but think it’s been completely essential for my development as a musician and a person. Having the community you get within it – everyone you meet, how you end up swapping gigs with these people, going to shows, hanging out etc. It’s essential. Things like you guys are doing in Drummers Only – the pad nights sorta emphasise that again. It’s a community.

How did you find your time at Napier and going through that kind of system – did it help or hinder you?
My music ëeducation’ started before that obviously. Doing the big band stuff in High school, the North Lanarkshire Rock band and Jazz Orchestras all led me into University and making a career out of it. And it wasn’t even that I wanted to make it a career, I just didn’t want to study something I hated.

But Napier certainly gave me time to work out what I want to do with my life. Education wise, I dunno it’s weird.

You were already a fairly evolved player before you got there.
It let me grow up. Gave me a chance to meet people n all that. What was hard was I struggled with motivation to practise sometimes. And still do. Going to uni can take the thing you love the most and it can suck the fun out of it a bit. And that was always a bit of a struggle at Napier. It was a mad feeling – not wanting to play drums or not enjoying playing drums.
I’ve never had the facility – you know how some people can have a kit in their house? I couldn’t do that, which made it a bit of an effort play drums and it was getting a bit weird with wanting to play.

Talking about drums. What gear do you use and why?
I’m terrible at gear chat. The gear that I have just now is the stuff that hasn’t broken (laughs). And that’s why I like and use it. But to get into specifics, I use a Tama Starclassic Maple (12,16,22). I used to have a Yamaha Oak X. Starclassic Maple I bought because Chris McKeown used to have a Starclassic Performer and the toms, in particular, sounded amazing. And I always thought the toms on my Yamaha didn’t sound as strong. And one was sitting in Rhythm Base that was a totally neutral colour that I could use on any gig. Great sizes that I could use on any gig. So I sold the Yamaha, got that and it sounds great!

Snare drum – depends on the gig. I’ve got a Tama SLP Steel guy. The finish though is coming off – I think it’s cause I’ve sweated on it so much. It looks mental but it sounds great.

I’ve got an Iron Cobra.

Cause you’ve not broken it? (laughs) You’re the only guy I know who’s broken a foot board.

Ha! Aye. That’s definitely a thing that happened. That was silly. Still don’t know how it happened.
I actually had to used a Sonor Perfect Balance pedal recently but it’s not for me. Really love my Iron Cobra.

Cymbals?

Zildjian. A Custom 22″ Medium Ride. It’s stood up to everything so far. If I had unlimited gear then I’d get all the really cool dry stuff that everyone is using. But realistically I’d break it. I have toned down my drumming though in the past year – how hard I hit etc. Because I’m learning all about playing for the song etc – it’s not all about me.
Hi hats are the Zildjian 14″ New Beats. So great for recording and versatile too – playing in so many bands, they help.

I’ve got an Avedis 20″ Medium Crash – it’s totally fine. Sounds great.

Really I’d love to get some cool drier sounds but I don’t know much a Meinl dry crash would work for Emma.

For the Pronto recording I borrowed some darker gear from friends and it was great. I loved it. Was smashing. But I’d definitely break them.

Cool. Ok. So top 5 records and why?

Hmm. Right.

1.) Oasis – What’s The Story Morning Glory.

No way! I’d never have pegged you as an Oasis fan.

All the tunes on that are absolutely banging. Totally reminds me of being three with a toy drum kit just lovin’ it. Now this is total changed days. But I remember seeing Oasis on Sky Box Office – playing the Barrowlands. Now me and my Dad watched it and I remember that start of Morning Glory – watching it on surround sound. Now the start of that tune has the huge tom intro thing and I remember it being the greatest thing and wanting to play the Barras. So that record made want to play drums and appreciate good tunes.

No.2)

Led Zeppelin – II. My Dad telling me Bonham was playing those Moby Dick fills with one foot. So I was like pure gimme drums now!!

No.3) Nirvana – Nevermind. And we’re not even getting into that. Deal wae it. (both laugh). Just a really important record.

No. 4)?
Bombay Bicycle Club – I Had The Blues, But I Shook Them Loose. Totally reminds me of growing up and being a teenager and going to buy records. And hearing different things on it as I got older. Em..just made me want to write my own music, do my own thing. Play live.

No. 5 is a hard one. I’d have to give it to My Bloody Valentine’s first album ëLoveless’. I heard that when I was at uni. It arrived at the perfect time for me. Totally spaced out and it just sounds phenomenal. The drums are completely buried in that record actually!

We’ll come back to it. Um. Give me one piece of advice for students to younger players.
Em. I’ll pass on advice that was given to me. If you do the leg work and practice then great. If you have all that together, then think on top of that and just be a cool person. Be sound. Be a nice guy. Don’t get weird or heavy or acting like the big man because you’re playingÖ.T In The Park say. It’s cool. So are 300 other people. Music is a community so just be cool.

Do we really need more cowbell?
I got a text today for This Town Needs Guns tech looking for a cowbell. So yeah. Very much so.

If you didn’t play drums, what do you think you would do?

Study art.

Aw cool. Any particular period?

Not really. I don’t actually know to much about it – I just had a knack for it when I was younger.

Great. What’s your favourite venue to play? You’ve played a few in your time, including the QMU. Have you played the Barrowlands?
No and it’s the only one I really wanna play. After we’re done today, I’m meeting a guy who’s doing a photography portfolio with musicians. He asking me to go down and show him a venue that means a lot to me etc. I really had to think and I remembered the Barfly that was on Clyde street.

I remember coming to drum lessons when I was a wee guy, and thinking I want to play there. And then it only took about 2 years. Audrey Tait (Hector Bizerk) actually put on The Deneros – an old band of mine – in there. I think Biffy (Clyro) played there and the X-Certs played there. So after that at 14 it was Barras!! Still not done it. I’ve sound checked it a million times for people but never actually gigged it.

Favourite venue so far was when Pronto played in St. Lukes. We did an end of year thing last year and it was full of hundreds of people and they sang back the chorus of ëStill Swimming (I Love You)’ to us and it was amazing.

Was it better than standing in the street in Ayr, singing it A Cappella and having the whole crowd sing it back?

I mean we’ve been really lucky for the past year or so to do these great things. St. Luke was really special though cause it was total milestone for us all – we’ve never had any money put into promo for this band. It’s always been us working our arse off. And to see that may people turned out to see us made us think we could maybe build it up.

What other instruments do you play? Apart from guitar?

Well on the American Clay stuff it’s bass as well but nothing special. I sing a little bit but I would never call myself a singer. When Pronto went to record I decided I should learn the piano a but to call myself a real muso but I only got as far as the verse of ëTrouble’ by Coldplay which obviously means I’m now a fully fledged piano player (laughs).

Depping on wedding gigs?

Ha! Totally!

Do you use any technology in your set up?
Yes! With Emma I had to get used to a Roland SPD-SX and I was quite wary at first because the last gig we did at Wickerman, I had to use a crazy set up of Ableton and headphone amps etc etc and it was a nightmare – the whole thing blew up on basically the first tune. Basically our 30 minute change over got changed to 5 minutes . I had never played with the band before but I was like ëCool, let’s just do it”. The thing just didn’t work – I had to kill the tracks and we did the gig as just a normal band. So Emma feeling inspired by it all thought there was an easier way to do it. So obviously with Jonny (Scott – The Kills) being on board at that time suggested an SPD-SX and they’re amazing. Really. So great. They’re also really musical. If you have a rough tempo of what you usually start the song at, you can trigger a part and click will usually be round about the same pointÖso it feels as if you’re live triggering..rather than just hitting a space bar and it’s really mechanical.

When I’m writing stuff, I use Logic to loop ideas and Ableton I’ll use to try and live perform new ideas and be able to manipulate samples and stuff.
Dave Hook helped me do that. That’s one thing Napier was great for – learning how to use technology properly and it’s such a great tool for writing music.

What about with any of the Wedding band stuff – do you ever trigger any backing tracks or any of that?

I’ve always depped with Wedding bands – it’s never been ëthis is my gig’ so it’d be too complicated to rock up and do it. If you rehearsed it then maybe, but it’s never usually the case.

Would be an idea though to try it if it was my band. If I can marry up technology with live stuff and make it a better band and show, then why not?

Are you pals with the click?

No. And Yes. I meanÖpracticing when I was younger and when I do nowÖyou should use a clickÖthey’re a good anchor.

I started to think about it as a teacher anywayÖthat when I’m teaching it, to just think about it as you’re playing with a percussionist who has amazing time!
Yeah. The click is good.
Pronto tried to use a click a while ago for a tune that we were demoing and I kept speeding up the end. And it was really annoying as I couldn’t feel it happening. I was really annoyed at myself. But I also love when a tune ramps up at the endÖand of course you can automate a click, of course you can..but I love capturing it as authentically as possible. And for Pronto, it’s not with a click.

All the American Clay stuff is recorded to a click..but that’s because it’s just me and I tried to play drums just winging it but clicking was easier in the end.

I tell you something..Chris McKeown is amazing at recording without any tracks to play to.

Chris McKeown is a human click! Which has become more evident with the tunes I’ve brought in. So I’ll come in with something and we’ll play it and I’ll suggest he comes up on the chorus (in tempo) and it’s just alien to him. Because he’s just always totally in time. And it’s funny cause it messes with him a wee bit to just tempo change a wee bit. But that band is great for that – he can do stuff I just can’t and vice versa. I’ll bring stuff in and he’s like ëwhat even is this?” but also he brings parts I just wouldn’t have thought of. But his time is amazing. And yeah. The click is an anchor.

Serious questionÖcan you play and eat a burrito at the same time?

Em. Yes. I could eat a burrito and play a function at the same time. (laughs). Not with Pronto. But yeah.

What was the last gig you went to?

HmmmÖ.actually – it was 3 Trapped Tigers. There’s a cool answer. And it was amazing. He’s the best guy at hitting the drums one after the other. In time. Pure best guy at that.

Great answer. Do you like jazz music?

Yes. Why not? Well I guess some people don’t. Actually that could’ve been my 5th record. ëLyn’s Une’. Cosker’s record made me go ëoooft’. I saw him in Rhythm Base with Davie Dunsmuir and Ross Hamilton and he was amazing.
He made me realise you make jazz..rockin’. I played ëOh Dear’ at my recital which was great fun.

Are you pals with the bass player and how does it work in your bands? Is your kick and their right hand in the same place?

Me and Michael (Griffin – Pronto Mama) have made a conscious effort on the newer Pronto tunes to lock in more but there’s other tunes like One Trick Pony where he’s playing a constant scale/arpeggio and I’ll play around that. Michael, Tom Dallas (Hector Bizerk bassist) and I were flatmates for a while in Edinburgh so when we play together we have a total understanding of each other. Beyond locking in etcÖjust knowing the person. It’s weird.

What about with Emma?

I’m playing with (Graeme) Smillie who plays in the Vaselines – Kurt Cobain’s favourite band. He’s a total total pro. Amazing. It’s completely effortless because we are both playing what we need to play at the same time. Hopefully. Graeme is so on the ball. Incredible piano player too.

Studio or live? Or Both?

Em.Live. Everyday of the week. But if you have a great studio that sounds great it can be magic. Although some people get red light fever..which I’ve had myself. On a session that Pronto done straight to tape, we all got it. It was really hard, but totally worth it.

What are you thoughts on kit sharing etc?

Well I did a gig recently and we were told to bring breakables (cymbals, snare, pedal) but the kit had no felts, cymbal sleeves or anything which was kind of crazy. The promoter counted those things as breakables. I really don’t mind if people have a legitimate reason to borrow something as long as those people know that if it breaks then I’m snookered too. So please treat it with care. It can get heated really quickly though but if you have a good promoter then it’s easy.

I did a gig recently and we sound checked and I left my drums etc set up. A drummer turned up with a band unannounced – they weren’t supposed to be bringing a drummer. And he used ALL of my stuff without asking. He just assumed it was cool to use my cymbals, sticks, the whole lot. And after it I mentioned it to him and he turned to be the nicest guy who had never actually gigged before. So I had to break it down for him and guide him through what he needs to actually own. Cause he had none of it and no clue that he needed it.
I’m not being overly precious about my gearÖbut it’s how I make my living and I need it to be reliable. It’s part of being professional. There’s an interesting perception about if you turn up with everything flight cased, people think you’re the real deal. So I try and maintain that. I’m in a good band so my gear should be good.
And also, it make you want to play it. And I like that. I like that playing good gear makes me feel good.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Probably in Ad Lib, talking to you about when we were here (both laugh). It seems to be the way of things. You know, I don’t really see too much different. I’ll be in my 30s. What I’m doing now is great and I’m really happy with it – Emma’s gig and Pronto etc. I remember being younger thinking that Emma’s gig was a great gig to get. Hopefully I’ll be playing with more people and still enjoying music. My pals and I have talked about all of this before.. If we can play music at any level and get by, it’s the dream. It’d be better than working in M&S or something. Any day of the week.

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