Session star on Bragg, Strummer, Ferry and more
“I’ve never aspired to be a drummer’s drummer. That’s never been my goal,” says Luke Bullen, sitting backstage at the London Palladium before a sold-out show with Bryan Ferry.
“What I’ve always enjoyed from the moment I’ve had a musical experience was the gang mentality, the group aspect, being a team player, playing your part.”
Originally from Norwich, Bullen was a student at Drum Tech music school when his band Addict landed a deal with V2 Records, which led to two albums. When Addict split, Bullen landed the drum spot with Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros, appearing on their superb final studio album, Streetcore, and staying with the Mescaleros until Strummer’s death in 2002.
Since then, he has established a successful session career that has seen him work with Paul Heaton, Cerys Matthews, Heather Nova, and KT Tunstall – to whom he was married for several years – on all her studio albums from Eye To The Telescope in 2004 through to 2013’s Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon. In 2013 and 2014 he toured the world with Billy Bragg in support of Bragg’s album Tooth And Nail, then when that wrapped up he got the call to audition for Bryan Ferry.
For Bullen, whatever the gig might be, his approach always springs from the desire to contribute to something greater than the sum of its parts.
I think if I could sing I might have done that, but I can’t sing so I’m at the back in the dark playing drums.
“You play on a great song and if it grooves, you can play the simplest thing and that will beat any fancy fill or technical time signature,” he says. “Those moments of magic that I have come from sharing with other people, so it’s always been about the song. I can’t sing. I think if I could sing I might have done that, but I can’t sing so I’m at the back in the dark playing drums.”
The opportunity to play with Bryan Ferry came through Musical Director Paul Beard. “I’ve known Paul Beard for about 15 years. I met him through a mutual friend in the Mescaleros. There was this really incestuous network of musicians in North West London around 2000,” says Bullen.
“I saw Paul a few years ago, I was playing with Billy Bragg at the time and he mentioned that there might be a change of personnel which Bryan does quite regularly to mix things up a little bit. I said, yeah, give us a call if it happens. The Billy Bragg gig came to the end of the run in October and then in November Paul called.”
For the audition Bullen learned six songs and went into Ferry’s studio with two different bassists, Beard on keys and guitarist Jacob Quistgaard. “Bryan came into the control room at one point, listening through the speakers and then he came into the room and stood by the door while we were playing,” says Bullen. “When we were playing ‘Avalon’ he sat at the grand piano and jammed along. After that I was like, if that’s all that happens, I got to jam Avalon with Bryan Ferry, I’ll be well happy with that. Box ticked.”
From Roxy Music’s art glam rock with Paul Thompson and later Andy Newmark behind the kit, through albums of Bob Dylan’s songs and 1930s jazz standards, Bryan Ferry is one of music’s most chameleonic performers.
“I’m loving the gig and that is part of what was particularly exciting. He’s done so many different things with so many amazing drummers,” says Bullen. “Because they’ve got all of the master tapes, when a new song comes up I’ll get sent the drum parts. I heard Paul Thompson playing Love Is The Drug in isolation and it’s amazing.
“He’s got such a great groove, such a great touch. It’s huge, he’s this train, so that was a buzz in itself. To reference these amazing iconic drummers and to emulate what they did, you’ve just got to up your game. It has pushed me in different directions. You go from really heavy, nailing-it-down Paul Thompson stuff, like Virginia Plain, to early ’80s covers that Bryan has made famous himself that are quite delicate in places. As a drummer it’s a really challenging gig in the best possible way.”
Order Versus Chaos
Going from Billy Bragg to Bryan Ferry meant adjusting to their very different working methods.
“Doing Billy Bragg before this, it wasn’t over-analysed: here’s the tune, here’s the vibe we’re going for,” says Bullen. “Billy would play half the song, ‘Great, we’ll put it in the set tonight, work out the rest when we’re up there,’ which is really exciting. After doing that for 18 months, I was ready for the next challenge, and I got that because one of the amazing things about Bryan is his encyclopedic knowledge of his own material.
“Part of it is natural talent but part of it is coming from an era when you could spend years making a record, so every single note is there for a reason. You have 10 people making quite a big noise on stage and he’ll be able to pick out the finest detail and get people to adjust what they’re doing. It’s astonishing to watch.”
Halfway through a tour last year, the band was working on Roxy Music’s Editions Of You. “It starts with keys and guitar, the bass comes in and there is a big drum fill,” says Bullen. “We started and he immediately stopped it and said, ‘I think you’re missing a note on the snare.’
The fact that [Joe Strummer's] presence could elevate everyone around you to a different level, I’ll always remember that.
Fortunately, I had done my homework, ‘Well, on the recording I was given, the very first note is on the tom and then it goes to the snare drum. Obviously I can move that to the snare drum if you want to.’ he said, ‘Yeah, do the whole thing on the snare drum.’ It’s that level of attention to detail, he’ll pick one note out of something and want it in the right place. I love that challenge. It’s great when you’re up there and you see him smile. He knows what he wants and if he’s smiling then he’s hearing what he wants, so you’ve done a good job.”
Where Ferry is the master of the finest details, Joe Strummer worked at the opposite end of the spectrum.
“That was the main thing with Joe – if it got too good, he would change it, change the arrangement, add things in, take things out, as you’re playing it. He thrived on chaos,” says Bullen.
“I remember rehearsing in Camden, I was quite new to the band, we were all very competent musicians and we made a great noise. We’d rehearse up a tune, ‘Yeah, that sounds good,’ and then Joe would be in the backroom with bits of paper everywhere, doodling, drawing, writing lyrics, all of it collected in a Tesco’s carrier bag.
“Every now and then he’d come out and join us and strap on his guitar and what we thought sounded good would suddenly go Bang! through the roof just with him standing there, throwing some shapes on the guitar. The fact that his presence could elevate everyone around you to a different level, I’ll always remember that. He would thrive on the moment. He didn’t want slick. He wanted it to go wrong, he wanted people to struggle and be challenged.”
Time and space
The drummer’s new studio was inspired in part by producer Daniel Lanois, whose credits include peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, and producing U2’s Joshua tree with Brian Eno. The basis of the approach is to have the recording equipment, musicians and instruments all in the same space.
“The studio that KT and I had was everything in one room,” says Bullen. “Daniel Lanois does a similar thing where the recording equipment becomes part of the space, rather than a separate live room and control room.
“It’s all in one room so no one is disconnected and you can feel what’s going on as it’s happening. You’re in the space, you’re aware of the sounds. It has its pros and cons. You can’t monitor as well as it’s happening but what you can feel is the magic of a live performance.”
The location, in Norfolk rather than the cramped environs of a big city, has other benefits too. “Being out so remotely, you can have a lot of natural light which is hard to do in London, so that’s really nice, and hopefully it’s a space that inspires,” says Bullen. “There are lots of instruments lying around, the recording console is there, the drum kit is there, and you’re immediately drawn to different visual images that hopefully will help stimulate you in a musical way.”
Now he’s in the midst of building a website to attract people to the new studio, but that’s not really how he expects to find work.
“I’ve always got gigs through word of mouth,” he says. “I have quite an established network of musicians and I trust that once I get in touch with my friends and say, ‘This place is up and running now, if you know of any projects, get in touch,’ I’m hoping that will move the whole thing forward.
“At the moment while I’ve got a gig that allows me to survive financially, then I can provide that space for people that don’t currently have the facilities or the finances to get into a studio. I’m quite excited about finding some young acts where I can impart a bit of experience and provide them with a recording environment.
As satisfying as it is to create in the studio, nothing tops the thrill of live performance.
“I remember playing T in the Park with Joe Strummer. We were playing in a tent in the afternoon and I was told that the tent holds 10,000 but they were spilling out the sides,” he says. “We got to I Fought the Law, which starts with a big drum intro, and I kicked into it and it just seemed like 10,000 people went mental. Clothing, beer, everything went in the air, people erupted in recognition of the tune. it was this huge rush of adrenaline.
“We did Hammersmith Apollo with Billy Bragg and having 4,000 people sing New England back at you, what a rush! If you could encapsulate it into one feeling, it would be the sense of community that you can create through music, the common experience. When you’ve hit it in the right spot at the right time with the right audience and it all just comes together and the room just buzzes, it’s magical.”
Premier Artist series in maple, red sparkle finish: 22"x16" bass drum, 12"x10" tom-tom, 14"x14" & 16"x14" floor tom; 14"x5" Premier Steel Shell snare; 14"x6" Mapex brass snare
Zildjian: 14" Dark K hi-hats, 17" Dark K Custom crash, 22" Dry Light ride, 19" Dark K Custom crash
Remo heads – Coated Pinstripes on toms, Powerstroke 3 on bass drum, Coated Ambassadors on snares; Premier hardware and pedal; Vic Firth 5B sticks; Roland SPD-SX and Trigger