Simon Phillips: Making Odd Meters Sound Even
With recording and performing credits that span decades, and include (among many others) the likes of Mick Jagger, The Who, Frank Zappa, Al DiMeola, Peter Gabriel and Toto, you’ve no doubt heard Simon Phillips at one time or another. His work behind the drum kit has the raw power of a rocker yet the technical wizardry of the best fusion practitioners. If you’re unsure whether you’ve ever seen this ubiquitous drummer perform, there’s no mistaking his two 24" bass drums, one 18" bass drum, six toms, two snares, gong drum and Octabons adorned with a very full complement of cymbals. It’s not just for show. This experienced stick handler uses his entire rig appropriately and musically.
Phillips has had an illustrious career as a sideman, but he is also a bandleader who has released five solo albums, including his 1997 recording entitled Another Lifetime. Not only does the CD prove that Phillips knows his way around that big drum set, but it is also evidence that the drummer is a complete musician, as all nine compositions are penned by him. Phillips shared his compositional concept with us: “The music is essentially guitar based, in terms of the melody. I also use the sax with the guitar, sometimes in unison and sometimes in harmony, to make more of a voice. I’m trying to make up for the fact that we don’t have a singer. I’m trying to make it melodic and valid as a song and not just a jam, which I think a lot of fusion seems to be. It’s actually very heavily arranged. It’s lovely to play a jazz gig and just be all loose and all that, but the way I see this project is that it is more of a rock and roll project. We are playing to an audience and I don’t really want to lose that audience. I want to give them that tight ensemble that you get when you see a rock band. When you see AC/DC they’re all playing the same riff and it’s tight. I’m sort of trying to do the same, but with a different kind of music.”
Many drummers feel they aren’t equipped with the tools to have a compositional voice, but Phillips’s diligence proves otherwise. “I do all of my composing on a keyboard and Vision software,” he says. “I have no idea about what I’m doing. I was never taught. I never went to school. I have no idea what key we’re in or what chord we’re playing. If I really had a good grounding in harmony, structure and counterpoint it would take me half the time it does to write a song. Harmonically, it’s all quite intricate and I can hear it all, but I have to find the chords.”
The compositions for Another Lifetime started to evolve in 1995 while Phillips was recovering from an illness. “When I left England and came to the States I was suddenly doing an awful lot of playing, which I really enjoyed,” he says. “It was great to not have the responsibility of running a studio and producing records, which I did more of in England. I also joined Toto and the Toto schedule was pretty hectic. Then [Toto guitarist] Steve Lukather and I got together and sort of incorporated a band called Los Lobotomys. We went out and did about 100 shows in 1994. Between all that and studio work and flying all over the world doing whatever, it just got a little out of hand and hit back at me. It was just sheer exhaustion to be honest.”
One of the first pieces Phillips began to work on was “Komi Na Moja.” “That tune started with the acoustic guitar part at the very beginning,” he explains. “It was originally a synth sound and I just started playing around with it like a raga thing.” The resulting composition is in eleven and Phillips navigates the odd-metered grooves with apparent ease. After the opening acoustic guitar and sax intro, Phillips joins in with some flurries on his toms and lands on the first of several grooves in eleven [see Ex. 1, 2, 3 and 4].
“My concept of odd meters is that it should still sound like you’re playing in four,” Phillips says. “Often when people start to play in seven, it stiffens up and the groove goes out the window. To me, there is no point in playing anything unless it’s got a pocket. That’s the first thing. The other thing is to say, ’Okay, how do we relate this time so that it sounds like we’re in four?’ First you’ve got think of how it’s divided up. It’s all subdivisions of two and three. However you look at it that’s all it is. That gives you the key to the puzzle. A lot of Eastern European music is all based on threes and twos. That’s how they count it out. Same with India. Once you’ve figured out the melodic phrases of twos and threes then you bring it into the Western framework. In Western music we like a downbeat and we like a backbeat. That’s how we relate to it. Then the question is: how does it fit so it’s most comfortable? I just take the lowest common denominator of each measure and say, ’Here’s a downbeat and here’s a backbeat, now how do I make this work?’ If that means crossing over a bar line to make it work, then fine.”
On the opening cut, “Jungle Eyes,” Phillips takes the opposite approach. Here he takes a groove that is in four and syncopates it, giving it an interesting rhythmic twist. The result is a less than obvious downbeat-backbeat approach [see Ex. 5]. “That was taken from jungle music,” Phillips says. “When I was on tour in 1997, [bassist] Jimmy Earl had gotten all these CDs of jungle and drum ’n’ bass, which at the time you could really only get in Europe. It hadn’t really worked its way to the States – maybe only a little in New York. There was a particular record I liked called Icon. It’s DJ music using samples and really fast beats, like 160 bpm using that syncopated snare/kick. I sort of modified it a bit just to make it work musically. It uses long adult chords and sparse bass lines. That music is difficult. I mean, it’s great, but you just hit start on a sequencer and you’ve got all these double time grooves – but to play it? Even if you can do it technically, just to make it feel good doesn’t seem to work. So for the record I slowed it down.”
Another track from Another Lifetime displays his compositional prowess at what he does best – play the drums. Check out the beginning of “Euphrates” [see Ex. 6]. Here he sets a rhythmic and melodic vamp using all his toms as well as his snare, bass and gong drum. Phillips then has the band play a sensitive melody and chord structure over the top of it.
Simon Phillips can be an inspiration to us all. We may be tempted to increase the size of our drum rigs (perhaps after we all get roadies), but more importantly, we should be inspired to be the best musicians we can be from behind the drum set as well as with pen in hand, creating our own compositional voices.