Pete Lockett: Crossing The Great Divide

The view from Pete Lockett’s North London top-floor flat is as cinematic and epic as his musical biography. Climbing up the curving flight of stairs to his residence bears testimony to his hectic schedule. Like ancient wall paintings, the many scuffmarks along the walls tally his numerous trips up and down carting a vast array of percussion instruments, and demonstrate the constant demand for his musical expertise.

At the age of 45, Lockett boasts a résumé that stretches to many, many pages, and involves a cross section of artists that reads like a who’s who of popular music. Whether he is at Ronnie Scott’s with Steve Smith’s Vital Information, performing with Shakti’s U Shrinivas, or producing and recording with Zawinul’s Amit Chatterjee, Lockett is a musical chameleon of enormous proportions. Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, and Jeff Beck have all called upon Lockett’s unique percussive ways, as has The Verve, Amy Winehouse, and even the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – and we’re just scratching the surface of the broad array of artists expressing a desire to have Lockett’s percussive imprint grace their work.

Drums and percussion came quite late in life for the former Portsmouth dockworker, who at the age of 19 took a walk along the streets of Fratton on his lunch break only to notice an ad in the window of the local drum store – “Drum Lessons” is all it said. Lockett ventured inside, had a chat with drum teacher John Hammond, and the following week his life changed – dramatically. “It turned out to be the first thing that made sense to me,” says the philosophical Lockett in his quiet, friendly tone. “Everything that he showed to me, I could do instantly. It was the first time that anything like that had happened to me.”

Immersed In Study

Lockett had never shown any interest in music before that moment, and his family household was virtually devoid of music. “We did have a radio, but there were no records or musical instruments in the house,” he says. “But as soon as I discovered drum lessons, that was it – big time! Two weeks later I joined a punk band. I went from a couple of £5 drum lessons to playing local pubs and clubs overnight.”

Lockett’s first gig was a suitably unusual start for what would prove to be a uniformly unusual musical career. “I replaced a drummer who would get tired halfway through a song and just stop playing. He’d never learned to use the bass drum pedal and only ever played with his hands, so it was an easy gig to step into.” Lockett smiles at the memory. “I used to smash my drums up at the end of every gig. I even ended up in hospital once to get stitches. I was inspired by Keith Moon, and I loved the drums, the excitement, and the energy. It also taught me a lot about drum building as I couldn’t afford to repair mine and had to rebuild them myself.” Lockett’s diverse instrument collection contains a broad assortment of percussive items, some homemade, with many resembling nothing you would have seen before.

As his facility improved, Lockett immersed himself in studying. “At that time everything stopped for me and I practiced constantly.” After two years of continual practice, Lockett made the decision to move to London, despite not knowing a soul there. Times were bleak. “I rented an old concrete store in Finsbury Park in North London that doubled as a bed-sit,” he says. “The place was just full of dust and was very cold. It was very depressing.”

In Search Of The Music

In 1985, a friend invited Lockett to his apartment near Alexander Palace, which was hosting the Festival Of India, where the venue took on the look and sounds of that country. “I could hear this incredible music and wondered, ’What is that?’” The two took off in search of the music that filtered through the window. “It was a free concert that featured Zakir Hussain, and I’d never seen or heard anything like it!

“I was deeply analytical about drummers and would sit and watch their every move and watch what they’d do. Even though I couldn’t see what they were doing, I could conceptualize what was going on. One might not be able to do it, but you could imagine a practice regime that would take you towards developing that kind of playing. Whereas with tablas there is this massive sound coming out of these tiny little drums and I had no idea how they were played. Listening to a conga or djembe player, you get an idea as to what they are doing. With tabla you can’t even see what is happening, yet they have this massive sound, this whole tonal spectrum coming from these small drums. Again, it was this and the lyricism that attracted me to them.”

Lockett then noticed an advertisement for tabla lessons, and once again, that was it. “Yousuf Ali Khan was teaching the course, and he gave me free lessons. That was the start of my interest in Indian music. Originally, I thought that it would complement my drum set playing, but I got totally obsessed by it. I stopped playing in bands and just studied solidly for six years, firstly with Yousuf and then South Indian music with Karakudi Krishnamurthy.”

University Of Life

Lockett was determined to make a career in music and wasn’t going to work a daytime gig. “I didn’t go to university, so studying with these great Indian players was my university.”

He took the most logical step and began to teach drums. “The first thing that teaching taught me was that if someone showed me something, it was embedded for life, but I noticed with some of my students, they’d either forget what I’d shown them, or they weren’t interested. I found this strange, as I was always so hungry to learn. I realized that not everybody wants to learn and there are very few people that have the commitment to get it down. I was shocked.”

Lockett remembers showing one student a straight-eighth groove, then the same groove as a shuffle. “He’d come back and would have learned the shuffle, but had forgotten the straight-eighth version. In the end I told him that he might have to think that this wasn’t going to work out,” Lockett chuckles. “I’d save him from quintuplets!”

A Taste For Diversity

By now, Lockett was listening to all styles of music and took an interest in drummers like Stewart Copeland, Mark Brzezicki, and Steve Gadd. “Chick Corea’s Leprechaun’s Dream was a big influence for me and I’d go and buy a Leo Sayer album just because it had Gadd on it! I also liked Joni Mitchell and her drummers. I’d listen to The Who, or Ravi Shankar, and to some extent that has reflected in the player that I am now, as I don’t put barriers between things. My iPod is highly eclectic.”

Since educational resources for hand drums were practically nonexistent, Lockett relied on his ears and instincts to develop drumming technique. “Now you can get five-camera angle DVDs,” he says. “But back then, starting out playing bongos, I’d never seen anyone play bongos, nor could you find a video that showed you how to do it, so I sat at home and listened to tracks that featured bongos to try and work out what they were doing. I knew a basic martillo pattern and I was lucky in a way, as now I have this weird hybrid bongo style due to trying to discover how it was done.”

Lockett threw himself into studying, and developed unorthodox regimens that depended on patience as much as coordination. “Even when I first started, I always – and still do – have this practice routine where I’ll have a 30-minute or one-hour session of just playing one thing continually on whatever instrument I’m working on, and every five minutes I move it up by 5 bpm. I found that concentrating upon one thing for that space of time to begin a longer practice session really brings results.

“One problem is that I’ll tour playing tablas for a month and then when I get back I have a session that requires I play another instrument, and I have to quickly re-establish those techniques on that instrument. But playing something really slowly without putting any strain upon yourself for 30 minutes will bring results.”

As much a form of meditation as woodshedding, Lockett’s personal practice time led him into a pursuit of cross-fertilization. “Everything has become hybrid and influenced by everything else, so a lot of the techniques have become interspersed onto different drums. So I might use some of the Indian techniques on the cajon, or darabuka.”

A Musical Flow

Lockett grew consumed by his study of eclectic percussion, burning through hours of practice and piles of money to buy new instruments. “I was fascinated with the technique of how it was done and how the drums produced such an amazing array of sounds,” he says. “I got deeply into the South Indian musical culture and learned the mridangam. I was about to learn the thavil and thought, ’Actually, I can either learn that drum or get a career.’”

And with that epiphany, he began casting around for work, and finally got a nibble from a rock band called Thunder, who asked him to record on their 1995 release, Behind Closed Doors. “I played tabla, bongos, and lots of various percussion,” he says. “I went into the studio and it was all rigged out with skull and crossbones and all other manner of rock trappings – but as I had long hair, I think I fitted in all right.” Considering that this was the late ’80s, it was fairly adventurous for a rock band to consider adding such unusual instruments as tablas. “I was shocked, as I got paid decent money to do the things that I really wanted to do!”

This early recording experience taught Lockett a valuable lesson. “I always try to approach everything with an open mind and make everything musical rather than trying to impress with a dazzling solo. I make music so that it has some flow to it, rather than a barrage of noise or sounds that are inappropriate.”

Organic Beats

The Thunder sessions brought further visibility to Lockett’s adventurous talents, and led to the opportunity to play on Björk’s 1995 album, Post. “I always say that if you send out a hundred things, expect one phone call back, or two at most,” he says. “Even with a big CV it can be two years before you hear anything. Although I mostly get calls to play percussion, my first instrument was the drum set, so I do have to remind people that I can cover that area too.”

And these days producers also call on Lockett to punch buttons. “I’m currently programming all the percussion for the new Bond movie and I do what I call organic beat programming. It’s not total hardcore electronics, but there’s a lot of electronics and sound design going on. Craig Armstrong asked me to do the programming for the Incredible Hulk movie, and he’s known for a couple of years that I can program.

“You have to be patient. I never hassle people for work because people don’t like being hassled. You make your case, say, ’This is what I can do. You can listen to it on my site or on the disc that I sent to you,’ and that’s it. Leave it to lie and see what comes back.”

Cowbell Anyone? Success has happened for Lockett organically, and he has worked hard to get where he is. But he believes that his ability to be flexible is equally as important as his finesse as a drummer and programmer. “Sometimes I get asked for something that I think might not suit the tabla, but you have to get to their ideas,” he explains. “I always remain open to what the producer might be asking for, as they obviously want something a little different that can’t be found on a drum sample CD.

“I got a call from Roxy Music’s Phil Manzarena and most of the session was standard stuff and it was going well. And then he wanted me to build another percussion track on junk sounds. We took the light down from the ceiling, the bin from the street came in, the grill from the fire got used, and it was great. Originally, I was thinking that I wasn’t so sure, but it turned out brilliantly. It certainly makes you think how you can use different sounds. Think about instruments such as congas and bongos, they are commonplace in popular music now, whereas 30 years ago they were considered exotic – and it’s the same with tabla. Though that is a harder instrument to learn, you do hear it incorporated more into popular music.”

Going Solo

It seemed as if Lockett had achieved every possible goal that a percussionist could dream of until a promoter asked if he was interested in performing at the Rhythm Sticks Festival of percussion in London. The normally garrulous Lockett found himself at a loss.

“I genuinely did not know what to say and said I’d think about it,” he remembers. “I had not performed solo before so it was a big deal at the time. Right before that call I had been working with Joji Hirota and I thought that we could do a project together that incorporated tabla and taiko drums. I called Joji, we got together, and that was my first sold-out show. The promoter loved it and suddenly we were doing 30-, 40-date tours around Europe. Bill Bruford had come to one of our gigs and I got talking to him and it began the Network Of Sparks project with him.”

During these duo tours Lockett suddenly had to please someone other than a record producer (even worse – his peers!), which once again found him plumbing his inner musicality. “I know that sitting respectfully through a drum clinic can become a little boring if people aren’t playing musically. Whether the audience is all drummers, or simply Bob from up the road, you have to give them something musical to latch onto.”

Tours and sessions continue to introduce the uninitiated to Lockett’s various projects. “I’ve been working with beatboxer Shlomo and we played the Glastonbury festival – it was great. There are great talents in all genres and I try not to pre-conceptualize or be snobbish or judgmental about different styles and players. It helps keep my ears open to different influences, which helps develop my broader eclectic approach, and in turn makes it difficult to categorize what I do. I like that.”

Lockett is excited about his most recent project, which finds the percussionist expanding into an entirely different type of media – print. Hudson Music has just released his long awaited method book, Indian Rhythms For The Drumset. “The book came about over a long period of time,” he says. “I was teaching the South Indian rhythmic system and that became the core of the book. Once I had my approach to the system in place I was able to approach the system in a slightly more abstract way, so that the building blocks could be utilized by all musicians.

“I believe it is a book that will last a long time and is not a moment of fashion that won’t be of interest in five years. I like to give things back. It would be nice if more players did that.”

Pete Lockett Selected Discography

Mainhorse Mainhorse; 1977: Rendezvous. Sandy Denny; 1995 Behind Closed Doors. Thunder; 1997 Storm. Vanessa-Mae; 1998: Tigers Of The Raj. James Asher; 1999: Hot Pants Idol. David Toop; 1999: Nightlife. Pet Shop Boys; 2000: One. Pete Lockett’s Network Of Sparks; 2001: Encounter. John Palmer; 2002: Bring It Back. McAlmont & Butler; 2002: From Around The World. Pete Lockett; 2002: Sean-Nós Nua. Sinead O'Connor; 2003: Body Music – Nite:Life 015. Chicken Lips; 2003: Seed. Afro Celt Sound System; 2003: Sixty-Six To Timbuktu. Robert Plant; 2004: Taiko To Tabla. Pete Locket & Joji Hirota; 2004: Trouble In Paradise . B.J. Cole; 2005: Dakshina. Deva Premal; 2006: Autek. Parallax Beat Brothers – Pete Lockett & Scanner; 2007: Twisted Artifacts. Parallax Beat Brothers – Pete Lockett & Scanner; 2007: Live In Istanbul. Pete Lockett; 2007: Vitalization. Steve Smith And Vital Information; 2008: Cinema Sonics. Doug Wimbish; 2008: Acoustic Revenge. Antonio Forcione.