Derrick Wright - Drumming Big Gigs
By Team HC |
Derrick Wright - Drumming Big Gigs
Hello from the other side ...
by Atom Willard (adapted by Team HC)
From the outside looking in, it would seem like playing drums with Adele would be the ideal gig, right? Well, you’d be absolutely right. In fact, you’d be Derrick Wright. After almost a decade of backing the much-acclaimed UK songstress on her rise to megastardom, the Brooklyn-based road warrior has nothing but positive things to say about his tenure with arguably the top-selling artist of this century. Our man about town, and road dog himself, Atom Willard, did a phoner with Derrick to get a glimpse inside his hectic schedule and gain some insight into touring life on a grand scale.
Atom Willard: Dude, first of all I have to say congratulations on getting, and keeping, what has to be one the world’s most coveted gigs.
Derrick Wright: It’s a blessing, really, to be a part of the organization and the movement that is Adele. To have been here from the beginning, playing 300 seat venues to where we are now, in like 30,000 seaters, it’s amazing! She’s kept her loyalty to us players, no matter how big she’s become. Creating a sound from the beginning, it’s just incredible!
AW: Yeah, it must be a great fit. When and where did you start up with her?
DW: I started right when the 19 album came out. She had only done a few shows before going to the US and her drummer didn’t come along. I got the call after being referred by her keyboard player, and that was that. I jumped on really early.
AW: People probably don’t realize that when you did sign on with her, she wasn’t the big star she is today. There was a lot of growing to do, so it was really a leap of faith for you. You had a solid gig with Toni Braxton and Talia, so it was almost a step down at the time. What did you hear in her music that really struck you and got you take that leap?
DW: It was just real, you know? It was her really singing and using actual drums. Not a bunch of Pro Tools, or whatever.
AW: Was there ever a point where you were questioning whether or not it was the right thing to be doing?
DW: I always try to stay true to the music, and if I enjoy the music I’m happy. When I’m happy, I’m glad to be there playing. That’s when it’s the right thing for me.
AW: You’re locked in with your percussion player, Aaron Draper. You guys play off of each other really well. Did that happen quickly or did it take a while to click?
DW: Well, he’s family right there. We’ve played together in church and all kinds of stuff growing up. He could have come in yesterday and we’d be just as locked in.
AW: Is there any particular part of the show that you’re excited to play each night?
DW: There are songs that I love so much. I mean, even the ones I don’t play on too much are just great songs, you know?
AW: At one point, you have to travel from your main stage kit to another backstage kit during the show, right?
DW: Yeah, whenever she moves over to the B stage out in the audience, I gotta go to my B kit somewhere backstage. I’ll run off the stage, and sometimes it’s close by and sometimes it’s not; it all depends on the building and where we have room to set up and run the audio.
AW: Is it a duplicate drum set-up?
DW: Yeah, it’s exactly the same. We had to isolate the drums when she’s out there because when she walks on the long runway the audio follows her. The only thing messing it up was the drums, so the band stays on stage and I have to play the drum parts where there’s no bleed.
AW: I noticed that your rack tom has migrated to the right over time. What made you decide to do that?
DW: I started doing that about two years ago. Adele’s music is really simple, so when I’m doing that stuff and not playing a lot of chops or anything, it’s just easier having it there.
AW: I read somewhere that you reached a point where you felt you were playing too much, being too busy and, ultimately, decided to rein it in. How did that sort of maturity develop in your playing style?
DW: I got there by realizing that the fans want to hear the songs the way they are familiar with them on the records. Sometimes, when you’re playing the same thing night after night, a lot of people will try to do something to stock it up, but with Adele, her singing, and those songs, that’s enough right there. So, again, you have to stay true to the music. After years of playing with her, it’s just about keeping it simple and playing exactly what’s on the record. Those fills were put in that spot by a producer; these great producers chose that specific fill to uplift the song in that particular spot, so I was like, “Why would I try to go in and change something that’s already working?”
AW: Yeah, I think that’s lost on a lot of people, not just drummers, but anyone who’s trying to put their own stamp on something. A lot of times it does a disservice to the song. I think one of the hardest, and also most important, things to do is play the same thing every night, but make it sound and feel like it’s the first time you’re playing it.
DW: Yeah, make it feel good! And that comes from playing in church! When you’re playing your parts and you make it feel like, “Wow! That just uplifted the song right there.”
AW: And it’s everyone doing it together, not just because you landed some insane fill.
DW: And for a lot of people that are at the concert, I could play something really choppy or over-the-top and more than 80% of them wouldn’t get it or appreciate it. It’s not why they’re there.
AW: I know that growing up and playing in church, you were around a lot of incredible players, from Gerald Hayward to Jeff Davis. Are you still influenced by these guys and their playing?
DW: I actually just saw Gerald last night and we were talking. You know, in church we are taught to be aggressive drummers, and that’s a good thing to have, but you have to learn how to harness that aggression and let it come out only when it needs to.
AW: What do you mean by aggressive drumming?
DW: In church, they have a thing called Devotional Service. Anybody can get up and just sing anything. There’s an organist and a bass player and you have to move that singer along, so they will follow your lead.
AW: Ah, so you have to direct them as to the feel and where to go musically.
DW: Exactly! You gotta take control, because anyone can get up, and sometimes they sing on the 1 or maybe the 3 or the 2. (Laughs). So you have to aggressively make them understand where it’s got to be. Everyone there just wants to sing and rejoice, but we have to make sense of it all.
AW: I get that. You could call that assertive drumming, too. Did Gerald or Jeff guide you with that?
DW: No, those are just growing pains. Sometimes, if you’re not doing it right, there’s another drummer right there. They’ll kick you off and put a different drummer up there. (Laughs).
AW: What? Like you get tapped on the shoulder?
DW: That’s the way it is. In church, it’s not your gig.
AW: That’s a lot of pressure, but I guess it’s the school of hard knocks.
DW: Right! And a lot of the time it was my father and my brothers playing up there with me and if I didn’t know, they’d just look at you like, “You don’t know?? Come on!”
AW: That probably helped you, in the long term, to be ready for some of these crazy shows, or live TV, or whatever.
DW: Exactly. My second gig ever with Adele was SNL.
AW: Was that a career goal?
DW: For sure. I’ve met a lot of my goals working with Adele. Like, I had always wanted to play in Verona, in The Roman Theatre, or Madison Square Garden. I had done The Garden before, but never as the headliner, so playing six nights there was amazing. Also, The Grammys, The Hollywood Bowl, Royal Albert Hall, a lot of historic places. Another one was the Glastonbury Festival; headlining that event, with 170 thousand people in the audience, that was really something I had never experienced.
AW: It’s incredible to get to play in those types of situations, but to get to do it with the same artist is really amazing. Have you become de-sensitized to some of these larger-than-life shows?
DW: I still get excited when I see the people getting into it. The things that they get excited about might be really simple, and we might even think they’re corny. For example, playing the beat for “Rumour Has It” is so simple, but they love that! It’s from the record; they hear that and then see it happening live and they are just so happy. It reminds me that people love the records, so I have to honor that.
AW: I think it’s great that you’re in tune with that and you’re aware of what people are reacting to. What do you find yourself playing when you’re just having fun or practicing?
DW: I just love music, so I’ll play anything, but mostly church music. I play a lot of Gospel.
AW: Do you still play in church when you’re off tour?
DW: Yeah, I usually get to play a little bit when I’m home. I get to sit in for a bit.
AW: How are you balancing your busy tour schedule with being a father?
DW: I have three children. Sometimes they come see me, like at The Garden they came down and spent time with me. I’m not saying it’s not hard, it’s hard for sure, and I miss my wife, too. Adele is very family-oriented; she’ll have her son out there with us. My kids can come down and hang out and it’s natural because everyone is like-minded that way.
AW: It seems like Adele is a pretty cool boss. From everything I’ve heard, she’s a ‘no BS’ kind of lady and she’s super personable with the crew and everyone involved with the tour.
DW: That’s true. She’s got to be one of the best bosses I’ve ever had when it comes to being in tune with everybody and making sure we’re all comfortable. It’s amazing to have a boss like that.
AW: Congrats again on all the success. Any tips to pass on to the up-and-coming drummers?
DW: Thank you. Listen to the music, stay true to the music, and sometimes ‘less is better.’ Learn your parts and make it feel good. Make it feel so good that you can play it every night like it’s the first time. Make it undeniable! -HC-
- reprinted with expressed written permission DW's Edge Magazine -
photo credits: David Phillips
Atom Willard got his start at 16 years old recording and touring with Rocket From The Crypt. After he left Rocket, he went on to tour with the Alkaline Trio and Moth. Atom joined ranks with Pat Wilson of Weezer to release the record, "Land Air Sea" from their band, The Special Goodness in 2003, which saw Pat playing guitar and singing. After touring with The Special Goodness, Willard joined the Offspring and hit the road with them from 2003-2007. Atom joined Angels and Airwaves after his touring commitments with the Offspring and briefly toured with Social Distortion in 2010. Atom is currently touring with Against Me!