Pete Thomas: Give 'Em What They Want

Pete Thomas is renowned for his spirited skinsmanship on such ’70s classics as Elvis Costello And The Attractions’ Armed Forces, Trust, and Get Happy. But that’s just for starters. Recent work with Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Cash, Pearl Jam, John Paul Jones, and his own band, Jack Shit, proves Pete Thomas is one seriously live wire in the music world.

“I just got this weird call to fly to London and play in a Lexus ad,” Thomas says from Silverlake, California. “They’re like, ’Oh, yeah, we need a drum roll for the new Lexus. And we want you to be a cowboy.’ Somebody Googled ’cowboy drummer,’ and it must have been the picture from Jack Shit that came up. ’There’ll be wardrobe,’ they say. ’Are you sure?’ When they see me they might say, ’This bloke looks older than his picture!’”

Fresh from new recordings with Spanish pop stars Fito & Fitipaldis, platinum selling bombshell Merche, and Elvis Costello (National Ransom), Thomas views himself not as an L.A. session master, but as crafty competitor among equals.

“Because I come from England, it’s hard to get over the idea that the first-call L.A. session drummers are the enemy!” Thomas laughs. “’What did they call him for? I could have done that!’ It’s very hard to say ’Those guys are great. ’Oh, yeah. He’s perfect!’ It’s quite competitive. I exist in this little world where I do what I do. But if I try to play that funky jazz-fusion stuff I just get the giggles.”

What Thomas does brilliantly, repeatedly, is create drum parts that add a sense of lift and energy to every track he is asked to record. And he’s never sounded better than on Costello’s latest, National Ransom, plying his weighty groove and snappy sensibilities on a set of 1940s-era Grestch Broadcasters mixed with his trusty DWs. Though Thomas has never displayed signature tricks or drum fills, his strong, steady, and often excitable groove is hard to miss. Beyond exceptional drumming, Thomas cites one key to working in the L.A. session scene: ask questions.

“You have to get over, ’It’s Paul McCartney!’” he laughs. “I remember doing a session with Elliot Smith, he was a bit f__ked up and introverted. I needed to know the length of this particular gap in one of his songs. The producer said, ’Watch Elliot.’ But I am not going to ’watch Elliot.’ I am going to ask Elliot. When I did he dropped the whole persona, and said, ’Yeah, we should figure that out, you’re right.’ The producer freaked out.”

Thomas also uses concrete methods to make every session work, regardless of the artist’s particular sensibility, vibe or attitude.

“I always ask the artist to send me the demos,” he says. “Quite often you get to the studio and people don’t really know what they want. It’s worth asking ’What do you like? What are you listening to? Have you got any demos?’ Do as much work as you can so you can show up ready to go. Make sure all the drums sound good. Then occasionally some kind of magic does happen. That’s when you get a little bit pleased with yourself. ’Oh, where did that come from? I guess my brain isn’t completely gone.’”

Working a meaty rimshot is a Thomas trademark, as is his mighty, middle-of-the-beat groove placement. But he’s always ready to ride an intricate arrangement shift or listen up if an artist suddenly goes all creative on him. Thomas is also a quick study.

“I always write my own chart for the session,” he says. “I have a fast way of writing an arrangement: If someone plays me the song once I write it out as it goes by. ’Intro: four bars, verse: eight bars, pre-chorus: four bars,’ maybe a question mark if they do a longer bit before the chorus. Usually I can get the arrangement in one listen. If I get the demo I will write it out then gradually add to that as I hear it.”

And that extends to his gear choices. “I once went through all the keys of all of Elvis’ songs, and then I broke down all the notes that are in each key and then I figured out which note occurred the most often in his songs, and that note is D. I found cymbals that could play a D and a G. So when I open the hi-hat it plays a musical note. I’ve got a stack of hi-hats in the garage now! I should return some of them. As far as the groove goes, I like to imagine the hi-hat as a train going through the Wild West. If you can get the hi-hats to sound like (mimics a steam train), then it becomes hypnotic, then you’re in the groove.”

Thomas is as attentive in-home as he is in-studio. A dedicated swimmer, he also maintains a daily practice routine (using massive Japanese Kodo sticks). His goal to keep in shape both physically and on the drum set has paid off. A gym membership (and hard work) has its rewards.

“I play eighth-notes with each hand for 20 minutes in unison,” he says, describing his routine. “I like the idea of being balanced and ambidextrous even though I never actually do it. I do eighths counted out to 100. Then I do a shuffle in unison. Then I play double paraddidles, triple paradiddles, then triplets – three on each hand. Then single-stroke rolls, another 100. If I have a demo of the song I am going to record, I set the metronome to the song’s tempo and practice everything at that tempo. Then when it comes to fills in the session I don’t rush. It makes me more confident.

“I also use that as a warm-up exercise, three times a day,” he adds. “When I awake, at lunch, and before the show. I don’t always want to do it, but when I hit the stage I don’t get that awful feeling like ’my arm doesn’t want to play this!’ I hate that worse than anything. With Elvis it’s one song quickly into the next, often five fast ones in a row, so I can’t have any cramping.”

A fan of Ringo, Charlie, and Mitch, and a staple on the L.A. (and Spanish) session scene, Pete Thomas continues to find new answers to the eternal rhythm questions. And his sights are still set on the future.

“It might sound silly,” Thomas says, “but when I am playing I envision a scene. I’m going through a township in Africa. There’s all these kids playing by the side of the railway. I think about Africa a lot because I’ve never been there, and that is where it all came from. It’s not an out-of-body experience, but I imagine I am watching a film and listening to this music and I wonder, What would I want to hear on the drums? What should be happening? It’s concentrating on something and having the music become the soundtrack. But not concentrating on yourself. Concentrate on what effect the music is having. Immerse yourself.”

Vitals

Bands The Imposters, Jack Shit
Current releases National Ransom (Elvis Costello), Ariel Rot, Fito & Fitipaldis, Merche
Age 55
Birthplace Hillsborough, Sheffield
Influences Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Mitch Mitchell “It doesn’t’ get any better than that.”

Gear

Drums & Hardware DW
Cymbals Zildjian
Sticks Vic Firth 5B nylon tip
Heads Remo White Coated Ambassador

Inside Tracks

Elvis Costello
National Ransom
Hear Music/Concord Music Group
(160S)

At the top of the title track, Steve Nieve’s retro organ wheezes, Marc Ribot’s guitar squalls, Nashville aces Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan sprinkle Americana sweetening, and producer T Bone Burnett plays a reversed piano part. All of this would be chaos if not nailed to Pete Thomas’ determined pulse. He plays the same in less cluttered moments, never driving hard but rolling steady on the open highway of “I Lost You” as well as busier arrangements. His sound is muffled; a crisp timbre might mask the subtleties of instrumental texture. His purpose during brief entrances on “Stations Of The Cross” seems mainly to drag the tempo with a behind-the-beat kick. Drums are MIA on a number of tracks, the time-keeping delegated on “A Slow Drag With Josephine” to guitar, banjo for a few seconds, harmonica even more briefly. Thomas may be, as Tom Waits has insisted, one of rock’s best drummers; on National Ransom he is but one of many colors on Costello’s palette.

Quick Licks

“Five Small Words”

“Five Small Words” begins as many of the songs do on National Ransom, with a simple fill, before Thomas is off, locked into a groove so solid and unwavering that nothing could get in its way. In fact, the guy doesn't even have time for fills, unless absolutely required by the song. Instead, Thomas is a “feel” guy, as heard in the subtle variations in volume in his right foot (quieter notes are indicated with small noteheads).