Debbie Knox Hewson
Having honed her playing at first Tech Music School and then BIMM, Debbie Knox-Hewson was well equipped for the demands of the gig backing pop superstar in-the-making Charli XCX.
Joining Charli’s newly-assembled all-girl band meant that Debbie had to ramp up her stage presence without adding too much flash to the chart-ascending pop of hits like ’Boom Clap’ and ’Doing It’.
Debbie gives us the lowdown on this and more with her guide to life as a successful pop drummer…
Playing the show
“I’ve got a hybrid set-up with a Roland pad on the left of my hats. It would be easy to play on that but a lot of what I play has been moved to the pad on my right so that people can see it. It’s about big arm movements and having cymbals five inches higher than I would usually. It’s cool, the look is a strong thing for Charli.
“With the arena shows you have rehearsals with a creative director and they want bigger movements and you have big screens and you’re only playing for half an hour, there’s no time to warm into it. The arenas are fun in their own way though, looking out and seeing a sea of phone lights.
“You’ve just got to go for it. Think what someone wants from you, think why you’ve been hired and go for it. No one will ever say it was really lame when you stood up and clapped while you were playing. It’s no one else’s job to tell you what to do. If it feels cheesy, it might not be, it might look really cool. Expanding your movements doesn’t always look as lame as you think it does.”
Being on TV
“With a live show if you miss a snare or break a stick, that’s punk, it’s fine. As long as you’re playing well and you’re sweaty, that’s fine. With the TV shows, it is what it is. It’s three minutes and you’ll get there at 7am, do a rehearsal, do a dry run of the whole show, everyone is running around. It’s really intense.
"Management and label people are there. Once it’s there, it’s there, if you mess up everyone will see. You often don’t do those shows twice, that is your SNL gig. They’ve all gone really well though.”
Grappling with electronics
“I had never done [electronics] before this gig. It was scary, especially when this was smaller and if something went out it was on me because it was my gear. At that point I’d think, ’I don’t even know what that is, but it’s mine!’
"I’ve been really lucky that the crew is really good, everyone knew I didn’t know about the electronics so I’ve had time to troubleshoot and now I’ve got more of a grasp of it. I did a lot of reading up. I’ve had all of this new gear but I don’t get chance to use it unless it’s on stage. For rehearsals I’ve got a piece of cardboard with the pads written on so I can practise. I’ve got the manual at home that I read through and label everything.”
It's not as easy as it looks
“I did an Instagram takeover a few weeks ago while we were on the Katy Perry tour. I posted a picture of her drummer [Adam Marcello] and someone commented that they could play his grooves, so why aren’t they playing with Katy Perry? I don’t think people get it until they do it – Adam has been Katy’s MD for eight years, he’s fully trained, he does all of the tracks, he’s the live MD, there is so much to what he does.
"Learning the grooves is a good place to start, though. It’s difficult because there is a gap between the gear you need and the gear you can afford so you can’t practise with all of the electronics, but just learn the grooves to start with.”
Become a pop drummer!
“Just get as good as you can. I’ve known auditions where they’ve had a clear idea of what they wanted and then someone came in and changed the game. At school I noticed that the guys were a lot more hesitant than the girls when it came to the performance element, but if that is needed then it’s needed. Simple is best. I’m yet to meet a singer that knows what a quintuplet is. Obviously some will, but you don’t need that in the majority of gigs.
“Just play pop well. It’s all about playing things well and having a good ability to improvise. Someone might say they want something rockier and you need to know what that means to them and be ready to try something. If you try a fill and mess it up you probably won’t get the chance to put it forward again. You need to remember that you’re being paid to do a job. At home I love to practise my chops and play along to Mahavishnu Orchestra, but that’s not what I’m being paid to do here. If you don’t do what you’re being paid to do then someone else will.”
You can read the full interview with Charli XCX’s drummer Debbie Knox Hewson in the May 2015 issue of Rhythm, which is available here.